John Higgins is a 23-year-old Irish writer. His work has been featured in The Blue Nib, New Pop Lit, and Honest Ulsterman, among others. He lives in Galway. You can find his work on Twitter: @JohnhigginsW.
A Reluctant Acceptance of the Fundamental Axiom
He couldn’t quite bring himself to look at anything else other than his shoelaces.
Someone came and asked him did he want tea or coffee, pausing for an awkward moment before adding the name of a popular soft drink. He shook his head, no, and smiled a thanks that wasn’t seen.
He was sitting in one of the glass-lined offices reserved especially for guests of MayoRadio, waiting for the producer to call him out. Then he would appear on The Billy McGee Mid-Morning Show, his voice broadcasted into the kitchens and cars of Connaught.
Mark tapped his fingers together. He didn’t want to stand up and walk around the small office, though his cramping legs begged him to, for fear of drawing some undue attention to himself. It was a lot like school, really, where you sit and wait to be told to move.
On the subject of school, he was glad to be missing a day. Ever since the incident, the looks he had been getting from people— fellow students and staff— were shrivelling, to both the physical and the spiritual self. Mark was, like all 17-year-olds, a socially-conscious person, and the thought of someone approaching him in the school corridor, or on the street at breaktime to chastise him filled Mark with pure, blood-chilling dread.
The sun beat down upon them all. No matter how many layers they stripped off— the sportier lads getting down to their jocks, some of the girls treating their bras and knickers as a mismatched two-piece— the area around the lake just seemed to get warmer and warmer.
The lake itself had been still, with only the faintest of wrinkles appearing on its sleek surface, puffs of air received gratefully.
Once the sun got too hot for them to bear, however, the placid surface of the lake was soon disturbed by bodies plummeting into its silty heart.
Faces burst out of the water. Cries went up. Breaking the rustling of the trees, the clacking of lighters, the tssk of cider cans being opened, the murmur of conversation from those not quite brave enough to jump off the rocky precipice and into the water.
Mark leaned against the stone wall of the abandoned church. He lit a cigarette, surreptitiously, looking over both shoulders for signs of his parents before raising the lighter’s flame to the tip. He inhaled, suppressed his spluttering, pulled another cider from the tab of cans at his feet.
He opened it, drank. The sweet taste made him gag a little but he forced it down. His way of dealing with the unfortunate side-effects of smoking and drinking— i.e., constantly needing to piss; the taste making him retch; the urge to spit that smoking brought about— was to pretend that one of the girls was watching him, at all times. This self-surveillance made him feel less inclined to engage in behaviour that might preclude him from getting the shift or even a sneaky handjob later on in the school term.
Not that there was much left of it. It was April, and Mark was nearly done. Ready, or not, to enter the final year of his second-level studies, before college or work or a music career or homelessness or MLM schemes or whatever came calling.
The tension over the next year, and the exams, and college applications, and etc. etc. wasn’t exactly palpable, though, as an eclectic mix of rap, indie and remixed ‘80s club favourites blasted out of a portable speaker set atop a crate of beer.
−You coming in? Darren shouted. With one hand he pushed back his sopping fringe out of his eyes. Mark went to the edge, cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He squatted, took the cigarette out. Smoke escaped from between his lips, dispersing across the lake.
−What’s up? Nathan asked, a sly smile spreading across his face. −Can’t swim?
A ripple of laughter came from all those within earshot. Mark flicked the cigarette at Nathan. It flew past his ear, landed with a hiss in the water, drifted out as the bodies rocked the lake.
−Fuck you, Mark said, hoping his voice wouldn’t crack or tremble as he straightened up, assumed a position of casualness, walked away.
The garda car crept out of the forest. The driver hit the brakes and yellow dust rose from the dirtpath.
The air resounded with splashing as the swimmers raced for the shore, grabbing the rocky edge of the mini-cliff and pulling themselves onto the grass. They crawled for their clothes.
The teens not in the water dropped whatever they were drinking or smoking and ran for the treeline. The whole operation was undertaken in complete silence, as though if the guards couldn’t hear them, then they also couldn’t see them.
Mark emerged from behind the church. He was too busy dusting his hands and zipping up the fly of his denim shorts to see the squad car blocking the road. He noted the absence of music, the sudden lack of a crowd, but by the time he saw what was happening, it was too late.
Tia hated having to go to the front door for the post. The postman refused to put anything through letterboxes, insisted always on knocking and handing everything over.
Tia hated receiving post even more, now, since her son was now Public Enemy No. 1. She took the bundle and disappeared inside, giving Bernie-next-door a tight-lipped smile to convey politeness in a rush, a trick she’d learned back in her bartending days.
She shut the front door, leaned back until she touched cool PVC, and exhaled. The house was quiet. A clock ticked dully in the living-room, and her own pulse echoed in her head, but there was nothing to speak of an Other in the house. If you had told her all life, besides her, had been extinguished in the seconds between taking her post and shutting the front door, she would have believed you.
She opened her eyes. She sorted through the post, putting the electricity bills and correspondence addressed to Babatunde Akindele to one side on the phone table. The envelopes with Mark’s name— or, in some cases, just their address and nothing else, an ominous sign to be sure— she brought with her into the living-room.
She sat on the couch. She slipped off the plastic sandals she had worn to the front door and drew her legs up under her. She ripped open the first envelope. It was one A-4 printer page, folded.
You’re a disgrace to your race, was all it said, a blue biro scrawl. She almost laughed, such was the anticlimactic nature of the message. Almost.
The rest were more of the same, pretty much. Death threats, people demanding Mark be lynched; some were well-worded and almost seemed polite— their use of dear sir, appalled, yours sincerely somewhat of a shock after the poorly-spelled vitriol Tia had read directed towards her son on Twitter and Facebook.
One envelope was bulky and Tia opened it at arm’s length. Scraps of paper tumbled to the carpet. Tia sifted through them: various comment sections lambasting Mark’s actions. She read through them all.
look at this lad he knows nothing about Ireland.
I know this kid actually he’s always been a loudmouth. He lives out in B⸺⸺⸺, Mayo.
What an attention seeking little prick. a good slap is what he needs so he does. hes lucky the guards didnt give it to him.
attention seeking wanker in love with himself knew he was being videod and wanted to make a seen
send him over to the US and give him a taste of real brutality.
priviligied little cunt hasn’t a clue what his ansestors went thru.
just wants to be oppressed so he doesn’t have to work real letdown for the black community in Ireland.
so immature and he doesn’t even have an Irish accent sure what would he know.
Tia didn’t read the rest. She looked to the window. No matter how much she’d tried the evening before, she hadn’t managed to scrub all the egg off the glass. A sticky ring had hardened and now made a hazy shadow of the outside world.
Tia knocked lightly on the bedroom door. Mark groaned, didn’t tell her to come in. She pushed down the handle, wincing as it creaked, and entered.
Mark, in the second before the door opened, slammed his face into the pillow. Tia hovered, uncertainly, and started to pick up the dirty socks, the piled-up clothes, before giving up on this pretence of normality and sitting, as she never did, on the edge of his bed.
−Are you OK? she asked. Mark slowly lifted his head. The entire right side of his face was swollen. His right cheek had ballooned up to make the corresponding eye virtually invisible, hidden beneath a cascade of tender flesh. His lips were split.
−Your dad’s gone to the guards, he’s going to make a complain.
Mark nodded. He wouldn’t look her in the eye, kept his gaze wandering: around the room, at his own fidgeting hands.
−Was there post— today? he asked.
Tia hesitated, then shook her head. −Nothing. Hopefully it’s all died down, eh?
−Maybe. I— I’m—
Tia stood. Left the room.
Maybe that’ll put some manners on him.
Babatunde wouldn’t have heard it if he hadn’t stalled by the automatic doors of the B⸺⸺ Garda station. He had knelt down to tie his shoelaces and he overheard it, the desk sergeant and some garda behind her silently whispering.
Only snatches had come to him, words that allowed him to construct fractured sentences: young lad by the lake; that black ladeen shouting about police brutality?; video on Twitter; dog’s abuse; a beating apparently, and then, finally, clear as day, almost like a challenge to Babatunde’s arched back: Maybe that’ll put some manners on him.
Babatunde had left the station and was across the car park before the rage of it hit him. He climbed into the car and hit the steering-wheel. A blare of the horn sent heads swivelling in his direction. Almost crying with anger, Babatunde manoeuvred his way out of the Garda station car park. The car radio burst into life, a cacophony of jingles, music, talk.
Billy McGee let out an audible sigh as the child entered the studio. He was, after all, the third-most popular radio DJ in the entire Border, Midlands & Western region. He had brought after-hours publicans and question-dodging TDs to their knees with his unique brand of no-nonsense punditry and ‘80s classics.
Why they were bringing this child before him to apologise for acting— shock— selfishly and without a care for the repercussions, he would never know. The boy’s mother had gotten in contact, Elaine the producer had the Friday afternoon slot to fill, and McGee had really no say in the matter.
The child sat.
−You need to put on the headphones, not just look at them, McGee said. The child reached forward for the headphones left on the table and affixed them to his head. He moved with quick, jerky, awkward movements, seeming afraid of touching, stepping, breathing too hard for fear of breaking something.
−I’m going to introduce you, McGee said, −after the commercial break. You say your piece, alright?
The child nodded. Some words would be nice, but McGee knew— from friends, thankfully, and not from personal experience— that children were a sullen lot, talkative only when it behoved them.
−We’re back. Don’t forget we’re hosting the TGIF raffle at lunchtime— that’s 12 ‘o clock— so be sure to buy your ticket online or by calling 09⸺⸺⸺ for your chance to win a fabulous prize: a bottle of prosecco, €250 in Amazon giftcards, and a three-night stay in the Generis Hotel, Co. Galway.
McGee leaned away from the microphone and burped into his fist. His voice crackled into the mic as he spoke.
−Now, those of you on Twitter might be acquainted with a certain viral video, completely blew up, of a young man in Co. Mayo drunkenly accusing Irish Gardaí of police brutality while they attempted to detain a group of teenagers. On the show here today we have Mark Akindele, the boy in the video, who has something to say to the public today.
Never work with children or animals, they say, and McGee was reminded of this trite-but-true statement as he had to, by way of a series of complicated, semaphoric handgestures, coax the child into speaking. The child leaned forward, his sticky lips parting audibly before the microphone, and said:
−Hi, I’d just like to—
−Can you explain to me— to us, as I’m sure we’re all a little confused— why exactly you decided to attack the guards who were just doing their jobs in such a way?
The child paused. His fingers drummed on the tabletop.
−I— uhm. I— I felt that my friend was— was being handled in an— an unfair way. The child’s voice was like a cacophony of bees buzzing, his vowels and consonants merging into each other as he spoke.
−Even if that were so, don’t you think calling a routine series of arrests police brutality— especially in light of what’s currently happening and has happened abroad— is a tad harsh?
−Yes, I— I regret my actions, I do sincerely, and I’d just like to apologise to everyone I may have upset.
−Well that seems— McGee’s eye was caught by Elaine, standing at the window, holding a phone in her hand and imitating explosions.
She mouthed: Keep. Him. On. McGee nodded, imperceptibly enough that the child didn’t notice, not that they ever do, so wrapped up in their superficial lives.
−Don’t you think it was quite insensitive actually?
−Yes. I— I understand now that I hurt quite a lot of people. I didn’t mean to.
The child veered off his personal script, his eyes lighting up as he formulated a dizzying series of improvisations, sure to absolve him in the eyes of the public. −I don’t even understand police brutality as a— as a thing, so— so maybe I was just confused by what was happening. There was a lot of shouting and running and I just got caught up in it all and I don’t even really know what it means.
−I’m sure the fact that you were drunk added to the general sense of confusion?
−I wasn’t really drunk. But yes, it could have impaired— impaired my sense of judgement. I just want people to know that I’m really sorry.
−Even so, McGee continued, new avenues to elongate the conversation spreading through his mind, −do you accept responsibility that what you did, drunk or not, was completely abhorrent? Reprehensible?
−Yes, I do. I’m just here to say that I’m—
−And would you like to apologise, first, to An Garda Siochana, who you’ve no doubt hurt through your actions, and maybe anyone who has suffered at the hands of police brutality who may be listening today?
−Yes. I’m just here to say that I’m very so—
−Because it’s a very serious thing, to accuse someone of something like that. It could ruin their lives. You do understand that, don’t you?
−Yes. I’d like to say that I’m—
−And an apology will at least help mitigate some of the backlash that is inevitably going to come your way, be it from university or future employment. You do take responsibility for how your actions may affect your future prospects?
―Yes, and I’m—
―Because there will— and should be— repercussions for your actions. It’s very damaging stuff, what you said, and it would be a shame if your future ambitions were to suffer because of your thoughtless actions.
The child nodded. McGee looked up at the clock. It was nearly time for another advertisement, then to announce the winner of the raffle. Enough time for one song, if only this child would stop prattling on.
−Yes, I do. That’s why I’d like to say I’m very sorry for everything I’ve done. It was wrong of me, and I’d like to let everyone know I’m very sorry for the hurt I’ve— I’ve caused everyone.
−Well I suppose that goes some way towards helping your case. Hopefully some of the backlash is softened by your apology.
−Yes. I certainly won’t be doing that again.