The alarms began
I swung my arm
over Cliona to stab at the buttons. The ringing continued to echo
in my ears. I groaned and rolled over, shoved my head under the
pillow; it was no good. Cliona was awake now, and nudging
"Kevin. Come on,
you have to get up."
I pulled my body
up from the bed and stood there before her, naked and shivering. My
room is perpetually cold. The low attic windows won't close all the
way down, leaving a two inch gap at the top of each, about big
enough for a rat to climb through. The landlady likes to tell me
it's good for the ventilation, that it'll keep the room cool during
the summer. But this is Wales; there is no summer. The rain is as
much a part of the landscape as the sheep or the mountains, which
The street is a
busy one, with two Chinese takeaways and a pub on each side of the
road. Every night around 3am the barman of the Golden Eagle
throws the last of the drunks out onto the streets. Most of them
stumble away on foot or fall into taxis, but a few will linger
outside, shouting, singing; sometimes fighting. Weekends were
always the worst. I'd slept maybe three hours.
shuffled through the drawers; searched, found and pressed out a
single, sky-blue pill. Cliona had caught my cold and kept on
sneezing and sniffling into a tissue. There wasn't any water. I
washed down the pill with a swig of beer from the bottle.
Slowly, slowly, I crept down the three flights of stairs. Each step
was a jolt to the stomach. It was enough to make me want to vomit.
I shivered all the way to the shower, huddled there under the
trickle of warmth while I waited for the Valium to kick in.
Cliona had all my clothes pressed and ready, coffee waiting on the
table. In a week she'd be leaving for Dublin; then off across
Europe; France, Spain. Over the water into Africa; Tunisia, or
maybe Morocco. I could never remember the names. I didn't know
whether I'd see her again.
was running late, with barely time for a beer before breakfast.
Cliona smiled up at me, her eyes half closed from sleep.
"I've never seen
you looking so smart."
I dropped the
empty bottle into her hand and kissed her goodbye. I felt
Frost licked at the lampposts and windows and crackled under my
feet as I walked. The front windows of the house next door had been
smashed in and thick layers of masking tape smothered the hole.
Random vandalism, most likely; no reason why we should be
A half hour later
I was still stood at the bus stop. I paced back and forth to keep
warm. The man in the booth said there was nothing doing, not for an
hour at least. The roads were frozen, some snowbound. I dived into
the nearest taxi.
panted. The driver pretended not to understand. We drove until I
thought I spied a sign. My eyes were switching from the meter to
the mirror. The numbers were rolling and the bastard was grinning
"Just drop me at
the next bus stop."
shrugged and smiled, pulled over and collected his coins. I stood
and watched as he turned the car around and drove off into the
distance. A river ran the ground beside me and, further back along
the road, a steam railway curled over the hills. Not a soul in
I called up the
centre but couldn't get an answer. I ran from house to house,
ringing bells and knocking on doors. A face looked out from the
curtains. Someone switched off a light. No one came to the
With ten minutes to go I caught an old man as he crept around the
side of his house.
The man made a
break for it, perhaps taking me for an escaped patient. I grabbed
him before he could disappear behind the gates.
He told me the home was just across the road, the house
with the balcony, and the railings outside. Third on the left, you
"You'll never see
anyone out on the balcony though."
The man grinned.
He was missing three or four teeth.
They stand in disdain of their neighbours, of the same street, but
separate; shut off from the society that surrounds them. Houses
full of those considered halfway to ok; or halfway to
tall, skinny woman in a green pencil skirt was at the door to greet
me. She wore glasses perched on the end of her sharp nose and
craned her neck to look at me with tiny, birdlike eyes. She showed
me round the house without interest: six bedrooms, a study, kitchen
"As you can see,
we have no uniforms here. Everybody wears their own
"How can you tell
the carers from the clients?"
"Oh, you'll soon
find that out."
Finally, we arrived at the lounge. It was warm in there, real warm.
A man sat calmly in front of the television, rolling himself a
"Hi," I said, offering a hand. He didn't take it.
"That's Charlie. He doesn't talk much."
Charlie looked up
at me, nodded, and turned back to the television. The woman ushered
me into another room. This one looked more like an office.
She was joined by a young man in a suit and tie. His balding head
shone under the lamplight like the lines of a halo. We shook hands.
Welcome. Pleased to meet you.
They seated themselves behind a large desk. I squatted on the tiny
chair in front.
"Why do you want to work here?" They spoke as one.
want to be a useful member of society. I want to help
"Yeah, I guess so.
I eat well; keep myself fit."
"Have you ever
been in prison?"
"Not that I
They laughed. I
coughed into my hand, clearing my throat.
The laughter was
making me nervous. I felt hot, dizzy, like maybe I had a fever. The
pair of them kept making these strange faces at each other. I
couldn't fathom it out. The silence went on and on, and on. I was
thinking how nice it'd be just to sit and rest for a while, maybe
watch some TV with Charlie. I saw myself nestling into the couch,
rolling a smoke, sitting without speaking.
"You will be
hearing from us shortly."
It was time to go.
I forgot to shake hands this time. The lady led me outside.
I walked home
along narrow roads without pavement. As the cars roared past I was
forced to duck into the bushes to avoid them. I followed the line
of the old steam railway as it cut through the country. I wasn't
sure how far I had to go, but it seemed an impossible distance. I
began to dream of turning back.
I knew I was close
when I reached the hospital. At the edge of town I watched an old
man collapse outside a shop window. He lay there on the pavement,
keeled over on one side as the cars criss-crossed in front of me.
By the time I had found a way through, a young woman already knelt
beside him. She had a phone to her ear, and was calling an
"Is he ok?" I
She shrugged. "He
says he's tired."
The man was
eighty-two but couldn't remember his name. With every breath, a
grey fog hissedfrom his throat. We tried to help him sit up.
heard the sirens long before I saw anything. The ambulance crashed
in, blazing blue lights, alerting all to the emergency. Two
paramedics, burly, bald-headed blokes in their mid-thirties jumped
out and began firing questions at us.
"Do you know this
I didn't know
"He's tired," I
said. "He wants to lie down."
the old man.
"Do you know
where you are?"
They shook the old
man by his shoulders, slapped at his face. One of them spoke to him
"We'll take you
for nice long rest, won't we Bill?"
"Sure will. Let's
get you up then."
He wasn't a large
man, but he lay like one dead, and looked heavy. The two of them
struggled to lift him onto a stretcher.
"He'll be ok.
Thanks for your help."
They bundled him
into the van and slammed the doors. Then the sirens were screaming
again and they were driving away down the street. I felt as though
they'd stolen something from me.
The phone rang. I
don't know why I picked up. The news is always bad.
"Hello. It's been
a long time. How are you?"
"Not so good. I
have a lump in my throat. The doctor says it may be cancer."
Lymphona. Highly treatable, they'd said, especially in the
But it's still
cancer - the killer
"You mustn't lie
down. If you lie down they'll take you."
"What are you
talking about? Kevin?"
I hung up the
phone and tried to sleep for a while.
wanted to be alone but Cliona was proud and happy and crawling all
over me. She acted as though I'd already been given the job. She
wanted to know who I'd been talking to. A friend. What friend? I
don't want to talk about it. She began to sulk. I buried my head in
a book and pretended to ignore her. She started to cry. We sat like
that for almost an hour, Cliona crying and I reading the same page,
over and over. Then she got up, grabbed a bottle of whiskey from
the shelf and stormed out of the room.
She was back in a
matter of minutes, the bottle already half empty.
"I'm going for a
I didn't dare
follow. The door slammed shut behind her.
Love had struck us like an accident. I never heard the alarms
ringing, it just happened that way. I was in awe of her. She played
guitar, and promised to teach me. She could sing beautifully. She
was dreamy, philosophical; she wanted to change the world. I
thought I had discovered her; my treasure. We'd get drunk on
whiskey and poetry and make warm sleepy sex with the lights on. We
were forced to meet in secret and our love was all the sweeter for
Neither of us had been home for the holidays, preferring to spend
Christmas together. I'd never been allowed to meet her parents. As
far as they were concerned, their daughter was sleeping with the
enemy. I'd never even crossed the waters to Ireland, but they knew
I was English and it was rumoured I didn't believe in God. The sins
of the fathers and grandfathers; do they become those of the
had placed herself at my mercy. But I never heard the alarms,
never saw the sirens. Now I felt only the dull buzz of static, a
constant ringing in the ears.
returned she was drunk as hell and her dancing, her touch, even her
smile conspired to make me uneasy. She was showing me her new slip.
It was lace, and red as blood. A delicate filigree traced the curve
of her breasts and left just enough to the imagination. She
whispered into my ears, kissed at my neck. She was trying to make
love to me. I stared at my feet. I stared at her breasts. I was
searching for some way to tell her.
I'd been strumming the guitar when she came in, and I reached for
it now. I played a few chords, she sang and for a moment,
everything was ok. She reached to touch my face.
"You can't hide
these things from me. I know you."
thought of the old man, lying there on the pavement. I thought of
Lisa, and her cancer. She too would have to lie down, under the
knife this time. She who had wanted to be a surgeon.
"It's over, I
can't do this anymore."
deliberately, Cliona stood up and took a glass from the table. I
watched in silence as she poured herself a drink. She clasped it
with two hands; the glass shook between her fingers.
She launched the glass, sending it crashing against the wall. Then
she ran out of the room, leaving me alone on the bed.
We had shared our
beds but never our rooms. I always said I needed my own
None of this is
was her fault. I had to go talk to her.
found her tearing the pictures from the walls. The walls had been
covered in careful pencil sketches of everywhere she planned to go;
the whole trip laid out in pictures and diagrams. She'd had it all
worked out. She'd spent time teaching in London, saved a little
money. She didn't need me. She was leaving in a week.
But now she was
"All of it - it's
just shit. Shit, shit, shit!"
"What about your
"My plans? I have
no fucking idea where I'm going! I thought I could stay here, I'd
She stood there holding these scraps of paper, tearing the maps
and pictures into pieces. All I could think of was my sister,
Ciara, throwing a tantrum after I'd smudged nasty red crayon
across her finger paintings.
we really grow up? Cliona is four years older than I, but inside
still only a child, a little girl, wanting to be strong, but
afraid, so afraid of the world.
Cliona fingered a razor blade, stroking the edge along the length
of her arms. She traced a line across her throat. Her eyes were a
blank stare, vacant though full of tears.
She spoke of never
coming back. Anything might happen, she said. She might fall on the
tracks, in front of the train, or jump overboard on the ferry over
to Dublin. It'd be a night crossing, too dark too see, too dark to
find the body. She'd never been a strong swimmer.
I sat still,
silent and dumb.
"I thought you
I write all of
this down, in time it becomes a story.
For a long time
she refused to talk to me. I returned to my room, drunk and slept
for a while, for what seemed like days, staring at the wall that
separated us. Later, when I knocked on her door, she wrapped her
arms around me, and buried her head in my chest.
"You're bored of
me. You want to smother me with your pillow."
My arms tightened
around her. She slipped a hand through the cord of her gown.
"I brought this to
look nice for you. Don't you like it?"
She ran her
fingers across the lace, and over her breasts. Her face was still
flooded with tears.
"Don't do that." I said.
"You don't like
me. I'm too old for you." She covered herself up.
muttered something about being too young to be in love. She begged
tobacco for a cigarette but couldn't roll it. I took the papers
from her hands and rolled one for each of us. We sat in bed
together, smoking, letting the ash fall onto the floor.
"You hate me. Why
did you ask me to stay?"
I skulked back to
my room, swept up the broken glass from the floor and climbed into
bed. Through the wall I could heard her
sobbing into the pillow. I sat awake, watching my breath as
it ebbed like grey smoke from my body.
Cliona left a few hours ago. Everything she owned was packed into
two small suitcases. I walked with her to the station and kissed
her goodbye as she boarded the train. I stood at the gates of the
platform and watched until the last carriage had curled around
the corner. She promised to call when she was safely across the
It's closing time at the bars and outside, a man and a woman are
fighting. I lay in bed listening to the shouting, the smashing of
bottles on the pavement and, distant now but drawing ever nearer,
the sound of sirens rising from the city.