The entrance sign 'Welcome!' was completely obscured with dirt. Not mud, like the splatter from a car. It was the steady layering of dirt and smog, day after day in a town where little changed but the clarity of this sign that was fooling no one.
Fucking shithole. It was shit forty years ago and it’s just as shit now. God, if I could level the whole fucking thing for all the world to see, I’d die a happy man.
Taking one last pull, the man flicked the cigarette butt to the pavement and continued further into the town. Above, the sky glowered, below; the pavement looked back with a broken toothed grin. While mercifully dry, it nonetheless mirrored the iron banked sky, the man’s hair and indeed his mood.
Of the shops that didn’t brood beneath ‘For Let’ signs, the dreary shop front windows were smothered beneath pound shop decorations. These windows seemed to regard the man like lines of prisoners, each sinking but only some aware to it.
‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly! Fa-la-la-la-laa-‘
Oh Jesus, it’s not that time of year…surely not…
‘’Tis the season to be-‘
Ah fuck off will ya?
The man quickened his pace, the cold chains of winter straining at his knees and hips. Shoppers were outnumbered by carol singers, their voices intruding on the weather’s surly contemplation. The four voices drew together harmoniously to create a perfect irritation. Sopranos, not one under sixty, warbled notes not heard outside of a slaughterhouse, altos mumbled an uncertain counterpoint, tenors made themselves heard however possible and basses grunted while providing a cacophonous coin percussion.
‘Feeeeeed the, WOOO-RLD, LET THEM KNOW IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME!’
Oh Jesus, worse again.
The man dearly wished at this point that he could run. It was then he noticed the conductor.
What in the fuck-? He's a black fella so he is.
The man, to his credit, knew of several black men. Phil Lynott. Paul McGrath. Martin Luther King. None, however, were priests.
Jesus but you wouldn’t miss that collar anyway. I didn’t know any of them were Catholics. Sure, I saw Zulu.
Shaking his head, the man turned off the main street towards the suburbs. Buses groaned by, windows encrusted with the road it paced every day, slowly eroded into the air. Despite being a suburban area, the road was quite busy. Stunted trees, bare and vulnerable lined the pavement, branches reaching out to catch and feel. Flowers cowered beneath the temperatures, the occasional pedestrian hurried by, eyes downcast, the generic suburban architecture giving the impression of the man somehow walking in circles despite having stayed on the same road for a half hour. Indeed, the first week he had had to walk this road, he’d missed the house every time. Eventually Carol had just put up a small cluster of bells next to the patio door.
‘They’re calling you home.’ She would say. ‘Like Sunday morning mass!’
The man would listen for that sound all the way home. Soon they all did.
She took them down that day. I’ll never find the shaggin’ place, she was always smart in her own way, Carol.
The houses were an epileptic’s nightmare, a cheap flashing firework enclosing the road in a gauntlet of cheap Hallmark happiness.
All bollocks of course. None of it’s real.
‘Eben! Eben Green!’
Oh Jesus look down on us, if there’s one place I don’t want to be recognised, it’s here.
Turning slowly to his left, Eben braced himself for small talk.
Time passed. Eben grew cold. Then impatient.
Who is this gabhail?
A social situation such as this robbed Eben of most of his weapons. Anecdotes, sympathy and humour were trapped in their holsters, leaving him with ‘hmm’s, ‘uh huh’s and the occasional ‘era yeah’.
The stranger eventually left. Eben continued on.
His feet ached, his ankles and knees popped as he shuffled, his ears were tortured from the now screaming wind and the back of his throat continued to burn as it had for the past year.
A whole year.
Eben Green had seen and done many things in over fifty years. Sport, men, bars, women, fights, streets, police and running, usually in that order until his mid-twenties. It was a life he loathed. What followed, he couldn’t say. Nor was he sure he wanted to.
Where is it? Where the fuck is it?
Eben stopped and turned. Houses blended into one another in an endless melted mass. Night would soon swallow the porridge-like afternoon.
I hate being here, but if you keep this from me God, I will end it all now and find you wherever you fucking are. The devil himself wouldn’t back you.
Eben continued to pace, anxiety slowly strangling his muscles until he sweat broke out on his brow, an old quiver returned to his hands and a lump began to form in his burning throat. The collar of his new shirt became a noose, his shiny belt buckle repeatedly popping open and his polished shoes slowly scuffing. His costume that he had paid for with his social welfare was turning on him.
For my own good.
Halting, Eben leaned unsteadily against a garden wall, chest heaving. The streets were now empty. Eben was lost.
Sagging against the wall, Eben sank to the pavement, the cool night air whispering in agreement to this decision. Eben’s eyes fluttered shut.
Eben’s eyes snapped open.
Only two people have this number. Anthony and…
Pulling himself to his feet with a groan, he rummaged in his pocket for the vibrating phone. Finally locating it, he drew it out with anxious haste.
Eben pressed the ‘answer’ button quickly, but the phone slipped from his sweaty palms to smash on the ground.
‘No, please. No, no, no!’
Eben cut off in a coughing fit, blood flecking on his lips mixing with tears. Spitting on the ground, he clutched the wall for support.
I only wanted to try, for God’s sake that was all!
‘Eben what are you doing here?’
Licking his lips with an uncertain tongue, Eben readied the words he’d crafted and practised for the past week.
Eben turned slowly, eyes cast downwards.
‘Happy Christmas Carol.’
There was a hesitation in the air.
‘Thank you. Now, what do you want?’
‘How dja know where I was?’
‘I saw you stumbling down the street. Looking for here I assumed. I rang you from the sitting room window. I saw you drop your phone and so I came out. You still haven’t answered my question.’
Swallowing, Eben brought up his gaze.
The year hadn’t been kind to Carol. Even under the patio light, he could see more grey among the brown of here hair, more lines around her eyes, a slight gain in weight to her formerly petite features and an inexplicable bone-deep weariness.
She looked better the day she threw me out, even when a sobbing mess. What’d I leave behind?
The guilt which had slowly accumulated over the last year was ignited, like a midden heap doused in petrol.
Eben would never have said for a second, last year or now, that he still loved Carol. If he wasn’t sure of love before he met her, he definitely wasn’t now. But he knew duty. He knew honour, as twisted as it had become.
Carol, he realised, had been staring at him.
‘That different hah?’ he said with a small smile.
Looking behind her, Carol shut the door. Under the light, he saw her eyes had become moist, like polished sapphires.
‘You can’t Eben. You can’t come back in this house.’
Carol’s eyes widened with surprise.
‘So, yes, right, that’s just the wa-‘
‘I want to see the boys Carol. I want to see my sons.’
Carol clenched her jaw.
‘Do you remember what happened last time you saw your sons Eben Green? Do you remember-?’
‘Screamin’ at you? Slappin’ Tomas? Tippin’ over the table of food on Christmas Day? Spending all my wages on alcohol so the only presents they got were from you? Throwin’ the presents on to the road because you’d kept this from me?’
Carol’s face had yellowed, tears tracking down her cheeks.
‘I remember it all Carol. Whatever lies I mighta said, I always remembered everytin’, no matter the drink in me and I’ve begged every god and goddess under the sun for forgiveness for the past year. No one’s called me back yet, but I’m hopin’.’
Eben hadn’t spoken so many words together outside of AA for over a year. Talking had become difficult when he’d finally woken up, but every spare word he’d had, a consonant, a vowel, he put aside for this moment.
The patio light flickered. Eben Green could here his pulse hammering in his ear. His hands trembled. His lip quivered. His throat burned. Carol’s hair stirred in the breeze, her face blinking in and out of visibility.
Eben was momentarily stunned. This didn’t seem possible. He had done everything, said everything, felt everything, all towards this goal. It didn’t add up, he couldn’t fail.
‘But Carol, you can’t, please, I, I…’ he cut off coughing.
‘Get yourself in the hospital Eben. You’re still on our insurance.’
‘Take me off the insurance Carol, just let me see my boys!’
‘No Eben. New clothes, a shave and an apology don’t change what you did and who you are. You’re an alcoholic, an abuser and a stranger in this house.’
Carol began to moved back towards the patio door.
‘Carol please, I’ve changed, I know I have. Look, I’m a year sober, a year sober!’
Carol stared at the chip in Eben’s shaking, sweat palm and then at Eben’s panicked eyes.
‘I’m sorry Eben, I can’t, I just can’t.’
‘Carol the boys need a father, you can’t bring them up alone, this isn’t just your decision. They want to see me, I know they do.’
Turning and striding quickly to the patio, Carol slid in the door, closed it behind her and locked it.
‘No! Carol, please!’
Eben stumbled to the door, hammering on the glass. Carol cracked the window open, hardening her eyes.
‘Eben Green, if you want to show me you’ve changed, leave now. Don’t bring the boys in to this. I’m calling you a taxi. If you want any chance of seeing them again, you’ll take it. Don’t call until after the New Year.’
‘Carol, you can’t…please…I’ve done all I can!’
The window closed. Carol turned and went inside the front door, closed it and then locked it.
Sobbing, Eben sank to the patio step, shoulders heaving as they hadn’t since his first AA meeting.
Nothing’s changed. In a whole year.
Were it any other woman, Eben would have felt hope. The New Year was a week away. A week wasn’t so long after a year.
But Eben also knew this house would be empty in a week.
Anthony had asked him to call him afterwards, to talk about how meeting Carol went. Sponsors were the always the best part of AA.
I can take a hint. A taxi. Yeah, a taxi.
Standing unsteadily, Eben walked back to the street. The road on which cars had scurried home on earlier on was now empty. Soon a taxi would pull up.
Eben had many faults, but he had never been a gambler.
Taxi or not, a car is taking me home. Where ever that is.
Eben Green stood on the pavement, silently watched by on all sides by pairs eyes, some real (one even stained with tears), some not. They all saw as he stepped off the curb.
But no one ever said a word.