John Higgins is an Irish writer. His work has been featured in Honest Ulsterman, Crannog, The Blue Nib & more. He has been shortlisted for the Mairtin Crawford Short Story Award and the Scribble Short Fiction Prize.
I ended up at the sea, listening to the hush of the ocean, not a hint of traffic around.
The dark-alley atmosphere which the day hides so well surged to meet me, as I crossed the empty street in front of the squat hotels and walked the promenade.
The sea ate away steadily away at the land. That day’s sandcastles had been washed from the earth.
Mark didn’t speak until I had sat him down on one of the armchairs in the living-room.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
I wasn’t happy about being woken. This felt like one of those cries for help you hear about. Selfishness.
I got the urge for tea and offered him some. He said no. I left him in the living-room and made tea in the kitchen.
My housemates would have something to say about this. I knew that. They didn’t like guests invading the house. They preferred a sealed bubble. Two were master’s students, one worked in a nearby hotel. They kept regular hours.
Even the thought of how they would confront me the next day (a mandatory house-meeting, where they would trot out old favourites: disrespectful, disruptive) made me grind up one of Connell’s herbal teabags until it exploded. Dust bled all over the countertop. I scraped it into my cupped hand and threw it into the bin. Then, afraid Connell would see it, I reached into the bin and pushed the tea down beyond the rest of the rubbish.
Before the kettle came to the boil, I threw a regular teabag into my cup (we all had our own cups here, and God forbid you use someone else’s) and dashed some of Naomi’s milk in, listening for stair creaks.
Mark was a pathetic sight, sitting on the armchair and gazing blankly into space. Whatever ambivalence I’d felt before, I now hated him. Pure hate pulsed through my body whenever I looked at him, so I stared into the depths of my tea as he told me what happened.
I still stole glances at him as he spoke. Some of it was to assure him I was listening (especially important when zoning out), and some of it was to convince myself that I didn’t really hate him as viscerally as I thought I did. But every split-second look at him brought with it more waves of revulsion.
He didn’t move from the chair. He sat with his hands lying limp in his lap.
His story cheered me up. It was worth the grief I’d receive from them upstairs. Mark had been cucked. That was one thing I wasn’t that I was glad I wasn’t. I wasn’t a cuck.
He moved. A kind of regretful nod, acknowledging the situation. Hate transformed, for a moment, into pity.
Then I remembered that I was still a virgin, and I hated him again.
We sat for a while in silence. This suited him, but not me. It was nearing midnight, and I wanted to get to sleep. Jacinta, the head chef, hated tiredness. She could smell it, and she would go out of her way to find extra jobs for me to do, keeping me away from the sink as long as possible so it all built up and I had to stay later just to get it all done. The job was shit. I had nightmares about scraping baked beans into empty mayonnaise buckets.
The cunt wasn’t going anywhere, though. He was just sitting there, staring at the chimney wind swirling the few ashes in the fireplace.
I was just thinking of ways to get rid of him when he broke the silence.
“What should I do?” he asked.
He was like a child for guidance. I tried to put myself in his position. What would I do if I were cucked?
It was a real mental leap, putting myself in his shoes. We were opposites, polar opposites: he was an arrogant little cunt, sucking off mummy and daddy’s teat while he studied History. What kind of job is he getting from that? tell me. You’d need to do a PhD before you’d even start to make a return off it.
On the other hand, I was a hard worker. I never tapped my parents up once since moving to Galway. I didn’t spend nights gallivanting around nightclubs. I was clean and courteous, and yet people like Jacinta, Connell, etc., still insisted on making my life a misery.
I sucked air through my teeth.
“Knock the shit out of the pair of them, that’s what I’d do.”
Mark asked could he stay the night. I pulled a face, hoping he’d get the message, but he just stared at me, Bambi eyes on him. I told him I had an early start tomorrow. He didn’t get the hint.
Eventually, I had to tell him my housemates didn’t like overnight guests.
“I’ll be gone early, before they’re even up.”
“You pay equal rent, don’t you? Jesus, is this Nazi Germany?”
“No, it’s called respect,” I snapped. “Maybe if you knew about it you wouldn’t―”
I didn’t finish my sentence but he seemed to have gotten my drift. He snatched up his hoodie from the armchair. House keys fell out of the pocket. They fell down the side of the armchair, jingling insistently as they went. He didn’t take any notice.
“Right, thanks,” Mark said, and stormed out. He slammed the door behind him.
I stood in the hall. The tea would keep me up. I knew it. I contemplated how best to get to sleep. I heard shuffling. There was the flick of a light switch. A voice came from upstairs.
There was a bit of shore left. It was full of pebbles. Every step I took was wonky. Soft seaweed dampened my shoes. The impatient water had created inlets between the stones, little rivers that spilled over and filled every crevice.
In the day, the shore was lovely, with the sea gently licking at the edges, but at night it was sinister. Every mound of seaweed was like some antediluvian sea monster; every misshapen pebble was a crab ready to scurry up my trousers.
I picked up a stone and hurled it as far as I could. I heard the crack of stone on stone.
Mark tells me he couldn’t think of anywhere else to go which hurts a bit but it wears off when I realise he’s come to me.
I deal him a bit of weed now and again whenever he has the hankering and we get on like but I never expected him to come here gone midnight.
I buzz him in. Down below I hear the gate swing open and swing shut and I hear the lock engaging and I can imagine his footsteps on the stairs.
I’m not one for dolling myself cos I’m happy to present myself as myself and fuck whoever thinks otherwise but after coming back from the buzzer in the hall I look around the room and the place needs a cleaning.
In about thirty seconds Mark will be here.
The living-room I don’t give too much of a shit about but I want to get him into the bedroom so I tip the overflowing ashtrays into the plant pots and I gather up the beer cans and the mini vodka bottles and throw them into a ripped shopping bag and I bundle up clothes and throw them into the wardrobe.
There’s a vibrator on the bedside locker and even though it’s not a menacing thing I still contemplate putting it away then realise that it’s probably not the most unwelcome thing to find in the bedroom.
There’s a window but it’s frosted over with seagull shit and what looks like egg-yolk so I keep the curtains closed over it at all times.
I hear him knock on the door so I look around the room and scan the floor for anything suspect then race to the door in case he decides to leave.
Hi. Mark steps into the apartment.
He hovers unsure of where to sit so I gather up clothes on the couch and make a space for us.
He sits down and I sit beside him and there’s something about the way he moves which tells me that he hasn’t come around to fuck me.
He was moving like a shadow of himself.
Do you want tea or― or anything?
There’s a bag and some tobacco on the coffee table and I point to it.
Normally there’s something unattractive about a man who can’t roll a joint it’s one of those things men should be able to do like how they should be able to open a beer bottle with anything at hand.
But when Mark asks me to skin up it doesn’t turn me off him and I roll up a pinner.
I can feel my pyjama bottoms stretching behind me and I start to worry if he can see my arsecrack.
I sprinkle some weed into a bed of tobacco and roll it up and just before I seal it and roll it over I break off a piece of cardboard and make a roach.
I light it for us and take 2 deep puffs and hand it to him and I hold the smoke in my chest until he’s taken his first drag and then I plump my lips up and blow the smoke out into his face.
He takes another drag and blows some at me. It doesn’t sting but I pretend it does.
Ow, that hurt I say in as childlike a voice as I can manage and he says yeah, see and I take the pinner off him and say want a blowback?
I put the pinner in my mouth and cup my hands around it and gesture for him to put his head by mine and I do most of the manoeuvring which usually puts me right off but in Mark’s case is actually kind of cute putting himself in my hands like this.
I blow into his face and he sucks it all up and our faces are right next to each other and if it wasn’t for the joint in my mouth I’d have leaned in and kissed him and he would have kissed me back.
Good stuff he says. Really mellow.
Even the way he bullshits an opinion is cute cos this weed is tack otherwise I’d be selling it. It bypasses the giggly high and just leaves you wanting to go to bed.
I curl up beside him. I don’t quite want to touch him in case he decides to get up and leave but I don’t really know how to approach the situation cos usually it’s easy because I don’t like them but now when I like the person involved it’s like chess with every movement I make from here on out has to be calculated.
So I curl up with my head a few inches from his arm and I draw my feet up under me in case they smell.
Cos he has a girlfriend too so I’ve to be even more careful though it’s easy to guess they’ve had a fight or something cos why else would he wandering the street at 1 a.m.? so he might be more receptive but at the same time I don’t want to stir shit.
I’m listening to him breathing and trying to breath in tandem but it’s making me dizzy. The sluggishness the weed brings is hitting me now so I stand up.
Do you want to go relax in the room?
I sit up on the bed instead of lying on it with my back against the headboard and he sits next to me not even taking off his shoes.
I pull the duvet up to cover my feet and expose a slice of pizza underneath which I’d fallen asleep before I could eat last night and I’d forgotten to take out of the bed.
There’s a plate too I say and regret it. I just meant to say that I wasn’t lying in bed eating slices of pizza not that my bed was just crammed with random shit.
I search under the duvet and pull out the plate and put the pizza on the plate and leave it down on the floor.
I can’t bring myself to talk anymore I just want to disappear under the duvet and sleep off the embarrassment. We sit there and I think about how the whole illusion of cleanliness is ruined by one pizza slice and I killed those plants with joint ends and rollie butts for nothing and I’ve mixed my clean clothes with dirty clothes now and I’ll have to either empty the wardrobe and sort through them all or just wash the whole fucking lot which will be a timekiller and for the whole thing I’ll have got nothing.
Lads can have dirty rooms but I can’t. I’ve been back to some rooms and let me tell you they’ve been an absolute state with clothes and hangers all over the floor and glasses with white stains on the rim on every surface and the walls eaten away with mould but once I made the mistake of bringing this lad back who hung around all the next day telling me how the sink was filthy and the cooker was filthy and let me tell you when I saw him again I gave him a wide berth.
Mark starts to speak. I don’t know is it the weed keeping him in the bed or does he just really want to be here with me. He’s never talked about stuff with me before. He stills call me Steve even though I hate it but that’s the way it is.
He tells me what happened. He was working on an essay late in the college library and came home to find his housemate and girlfriend riding.
That’s tough. I feel stupid saying it but there’s no other real response you can give. He’s there staring at the wall and not saying anything else and then I’m supposed to say something profound something like in a movie but I feel like such a background feature not able to say a thing a fucking thing except that’s tough.
What is my role to him? Am I the new lover the one he has to have his heart broken to appreciate or am I just a weed dispensary? It feels like it doesn’t matter what I want because my whole life seems now like it’s only in relation to Mark. What I become is up to his next move.
But that’s probably the weed talking. I’ve been around a long time before Mark. I’m 2 years older than him. And I’ll be here when he’s gone.
The weed is making me horny enough I won’t lie. It’s why I try not to smoke at afterseshes. I end up craving the ride.
I can taste pure ash in my mouth like I’ve been licking the bottom of an ashtray. Should I brush my teeth before we kiss? but I don’t want to move I just want to lie here treat the bed like a piece of driftwood that neither of us can leave.
He doesn’t react so I clear my throat and say it again louder this time.
You know. She’s cheated on you, and that’s that. It’s starting to feel like a line from a movie a little now but what kind of movie?
Do you want it to go back to normal?
He nods. He’s not getting teary or anything but it’s close I can tell. It’s the hunched shoulders and the tensed torso and the stillness that gives it away.
It can never go back to normal.
He doesn’t respond.
Our feet are not quite but pretty much side by side but not touching. I move my left foot a little like I’m just trying to angle it better for my own comfort and the side of my foot touches his ankle and there’s such a feeling of warmth off it that goes from my foot up my legs and through my body that even though I know I should move it or the whole purpose of my manoeuvre becomes blatantly obvious I can’t quite bring myself to move it and break the warmth that’s humming through my body tickling my chest sending my stomach fluttering.
We’re sitting there with my foot touching his ankle and I don’t even want to stretch out my cramping toes because it might break the whole spell and we’ve moved past the pizza and now the only thing is to do it because faint heart never won and all that.
You should get even. You should get even.
I risk it by rubbing the exposed bit of his ankle where the skinny trackies have rode up a bit exposing curls of hair and a white band of flesh between trackie cuff and sock elastic and I don’t quite look at him but I move down and across submerging myself beneath him and put my head on his shoulder.
He moves his legs away completely. The spell is broken and the night is over I know that even before he lifts himself out of the bed and when he says he’s gotta get a move on I’m not surprised and I’m too stoned to get up and chase after him.
By the time he’s shut the front door I don’t really care anymore.
After a while I get up because I’m starving and I walk into the kitchen. Some flies are circling the bin like they’re stuck on the event horizon of a black hole fighting to escape but only delaying the inevitable.
I look in the presses for something to eat and there isn’t much but I can’t afford a takeout so I just fish a packet of cookies out from the crumby back of the press and take one out and its soggy when I bite into it but I eat it anyway and swallow it down.
The smell of salt carried on the wind. A light drizzle began to fall but I didn’t care. Why would I anymore? Wet or dry, light or dark, everything was the same, only one state of being was called better than the other. Everything is just consensus that had stuck.
Like a past. Clinging to the skin like peppercorns of sand. How would I get rid of it? How to react? Violence, like Darren said? A spiteful fuck, like Steve recommended? What was expected of me?
Some cunts took my Buckfast.
Id found it un-opened on one of those metal boxes. Some dozy cunt left it. Lucky me though. I took it. Reckoned it would last me the night. Slim pickins these days. Dunno what it is. Usually youd find serious stuff. Sometimes opened but sometimes not. Bottles of vodka. Box of fags.
Galway used to be the best city ever. Never wanted for nothin. Whatever there was Id find it. No hassle.
All I managed today was a Buckfast and now some cunts have gone off with it. Some fuckin students probably. Havin a great laugh at my expense. Then to top it off when Im searchin around the wall some cunt comes sits down on the wall a ways away from me and sits there starin at the water.
Hes makin me uneasy. Just sittin there. At a time like this. Must be gone 4. All the clubs and the pubs have kicked out and most are gone home in taxis with their big kebabs.
And I still cant find my Buckfast. I was lookin forward to it. Would keep me goin until dawn at least. Then Id find some shopfront to kip in. Thats the best time to sleep. When the sun is comin up and the streetcleaners are out sweepin the Supermacs wrappers and broken glass into piles. No one bothers you.
Unless it fell into the water. Better than some college cunt drinkin it though. At least none of us are happy then.
—You OK? the cunt sittin on the wall asks me. What the fuck do I say to that?
—What’re you looking for?
Can smell college off of him. The nice clothes and the white trainers. The accent. Dont even wanna look at the cunt. No point. Cant touch him up for nothin. Wont give me nothin neither except his company. Chat to me for a half hour and fuck off. Well I cant eat your company pal.
—Hey. Hes standin now and walkin over. —You looking for something?
Bottle of Buckfast. Left it here.
He makes a little effort to look for it. Peerin down at the stone an lookin either side of the wall.
—What’s your name? he asks me.
—What’s your real name? he goes. Can you believe it? Like hes gonna ever remember me in 15 minutes time. Doesnt fuckin matter what name I give the cunt.
Rats. Its Rats.
He looks over the big dip into the river. Cunt nearly goes in too. Heart leaps into me mouth. Nearly grab at his neck to stop him topplin in. Dozy cunt.
—You left it here, yeah?
—Maybe it fell in the water.
Just wanna go now. Maybe Ill catch some kip somewhere. Bitin cold out an the Buckfast wouldnt cure that. Itd just make me forget it.
Sure lookit. Its gone now.
—I’d get you another, he says and then leaves it at that. Like fuck hed buy me another one.
Sure lookit. What can you do? Once its gone its gone. No use cryin over it.
Im ready to fuckin flip. Was lookin forward to that Buckfast. Made by monks. What a laugh.
—Yeah, you’re right.
Yeah. Plenty more bottles in the world.
The cunts weirdin me out now. Starin off into the water like hes flipped a switch in his head.
—I’ll see you around, he says and walks off. Hes the only person for miles so I watch him walk under the Spanish arch and across the little square in front of the restaurant and then he turns off and crosses the bridge.
Cunt didnt even throw me a poxy euro.
The tide was battering mercilessly against the shore. I glanced back. The inlets had widened, bleeding into each other. There was no way back without getting my feet wet.
Where would I go anyway?
The waves bubbled around my feet. Normally, I would have jumped back. Emily would have been here. She would have laughed.
I let the water seep into my shoes. I took a step forward and the water came up to my ankles. I sat in the water with my legs crossed. The cold water made me gasp.
The first wave came and splashed against me. The water flooded my nostrils and for a moment I couldn’t breathe. The feeling of helplessness was a feeling, that much I registered, but I couldn’t figure out was it pleasant or unpleasant. I had no one to ask.
The second wave came. This one seemed to glide against my jawline. Some seaweed wrapped itself around my neck and then the third wave, which came to about my chest, pulled the seaweed away.
Eventually, the tide receded. The tail ends of waves came to meet me and fell short. I could see the stones beneath me.
The sea no longer whispered to me. I could hear early-morning traffic, the steady rumble of cars, a bicycle trilling as it weaved through pedestrians.
I took one last look at the sea, water dripping from me, then got up and started the long walk home.