by Brian Kirk
There were times when I wished I was an only child. Sometimes I thought that if my parents were to die suddenly, in a freak accident or by some mysterious but swift illness, I would not grieve too sorely for them. I loved them both, of course, but at the same time I yearned for the certain changes, the endless possibilities, their deaths would surely bring.
I come from a big family, but worse, I am the youngest, the baby, the runt of the litter. I can never decide which of these pithy descriptions I like least. In the first case, even now as a young man, I am immediately infantilized, and in the second derided as being physically weak – which I must admit I am relative to many of my peers.
Even before my English teacher, Mr. McIntosh, singled me out for praise, I sensed I was different. My mother had always doted on me, her youngest, and gave me to think I was special, in a way that was always unspecified. But, at the same time, I was equally alive to my limitations, acutely aware of the possibility that I might be just another nobody. For this reason I sought to create the special person that I felt must surely live within me by altering my external appearance, and in so doing I became strange in the eyes of my family, my friends, my peers and the whole town.
The town was part of the problem. It encompasses the geographical site of the houses, shops and streets that make it up, but it also includes the surrounding town lands, the houses and farms, and more particularly all of the people who reside therein. It’s not that I disliked the town, but I savoured each moment I spent away from it. When I finished school I began to make regular trips to Dublin on the train and I relished those journeys.
The train creaks and rattles, slowly escaping the town and the fields, speeding past electricity pylons, houses and factories, before entering the prostrate concrete city. Something flickers in my mind like a struck match, throwing sudden fleeting light all around me. I get a sense of something new, but I can’t say exactly what it is. Each time the train pulls in to Heuston station I catch a glimpse; I have a notion I know something more than other people do, and I’m filled with an unaccountable hope for the future.
My school was fifteen miles away from home; far enough to be another world, so I never minded school too much. It drew boys from many surrounding towns and afforded me some degree of independence from the life I lived at home and in the town. But then school ended and college was way beyond my parents’ means. I would like to get a job, any job at all, in Dublin, but so far I’d had no luck. My mother blamed the way I looked. Not so much my clothes but the way I wear them, so carelessly that even in a suit and tie I can look slovenly. Those dreadful nose rings I’d acquired, and my hair – she begged me to let it grow, let it return to its original light brown shade. How would any employer consider taking on a young lad with shaved peroxide hair and insolent piercings?
So I was reduced to working on a local farm, picking potatoes, paid by the bag, in the company of twenty Latvians. The work was monotonous, but I didn’t mind. I could daydream and I liked my workmates. I loved to listen to them as they talked among themselves, translating in my mind as I went, fabricating fabulous stories set in remote and exotic locations.
I knew my poem was good, very good, and I knew that McIntosh’s praise was merited, but I also sensed that McIntosh had other motives. So when my old teacher paid me a visit and invited me to read my poem at an event in Dublin, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I saw it as the long-awaited and incontrovertible proof of my talent, which pleased me immensely. But there was also McIntosh to consider (or James as he insisted I call him now).
I had sensed McIntosh’s desire for me in my final year, as my gift came to the fore and I was compelled to spend more and more time alone in my English teacher’s company. I could not isolate the exact moment when I decided that McIntosh fancied me, but I was certain nonetheless that it was true. I dared not say it to anyone, not even to my closest friends, and what could I have said anyway because he had not laid a hand on me, had not said one thing that could be construed as sexual in any way.
The room in the Concert Hall was not as big as I’d imagined, but it was full of well-dressed men and women who all seemed to know each other. It was old-fashioned, elaborately styled with a high ornate ceiling from which hung three fabulously enormous chandeliers. I felt lost as I stood by McIntosh’s side, embarrassed as I heard myself introduced time and again as a bright new voice in Irish poetry. At least there was the wine to keep me going. I sipped a glass of red and then another, not really enjoying it but finding that it stopped my heart from racing, my hands from shaking.
Earlier that evening I’d caught the train to Dublin, having told my mother I was staying with a friend. I’d watched the light fade as we pulled into a shabby Heuston station, pierced by that sliver of hope again, and I felt in my jacket pocket for the folded sheet of paper on which my poem was printed. But my heart sank when I descried McIntosh’s smiling face ahead at the barrier.
After what seemed like hours the assembled crowd took their seats and the event was opened by the Lord Mayor. Speakers came and went: politicians, writers, artists, environmentalists, poets. When my moment came I felt McIntosh’s hand gently grip my upper arm. He whispered something inaudible and I rose and teetered towards the lectern as if in a dream. It was over in minutes. I knew my poem so well, I’d read it so many times aloud in front of the mirror at home, I did not need the printed sheet to help me. I recited, and the hand that held the sheet fell by my side. Tears formed in my lower eyelids, but I would not let them escape, my voice quivered once and then again before I finished to rapturous applause. In a moment I was in my seat again, my mind empty yet racing, unable to light on any single thing for any length of time. And McIntosh was in my ear again, pouring more praise, his arm extended around my shoulder. Members of the audience in the rows immediately in front and behind leaned in to shake my hand or pat my back. So this is it, I thought, this will be my life from here on in.
In a posh hotel across the road I gripped a bottle of ice cold lager and, with a blushing smile, accepted praise from a stream of faces. All the time McIntosh was by my side, introducing me to people whose names I would never remember. There was a magazine publisher who expressed an interest in the poem and asked were there others. I heard my attempted reply cut short by my old teacher and found myself alone again, and it occurred to me that McIntosh was using me. Not in the sexual way that I’d first feared, but using my talent and our association as some kind of springboard into the arts and literary life of the city, to make some contacts for himself perhaps. So I dutifully stood beside him, sipping beer, waiting for McIntosh to decide when the night would end, because it was too late now to get a train back home and much too far to get a taxi.
Eventually we took our leave and walked across town to an apartment, which was owned by one of McIntosh’s friends. He was giddy, drunk, and held on to my arm as we walked. I was ashamed of the older man and the way he behaved, but did not move to extricate myself. I lowered my gaze, avoiding the disdainful eyes of passers-by. Although it was quite late, after two o’clock, I was surprised to find the streets still thronged with people. I was really tired now and wished only to lie down, but when we got inside McIntosh immediately opened a bottle of wine. To celebrate, he said. I shrugged, but I was vaguely disturbed to find that we were on our own; the friend was out of town. I drank a glass, which was refilled immediately, before I found the courage to announce that I was exhausted and was going to go to sleep.
It was a one-bedroom apartment and McIntosh insisted I take the bed, as he was going to stay up, drink more wine and listen to some music. When I’d said goodnight and dutifully thanked McIntosh again for the opportunity to read my poem, I carefully closed the bedroom door behind me. I removed my jacket and shoes and climbed into the bed, immediately falling asleep.
I woke early to find my teacher’s naked body by my side. I was not surprised, nor was I excessively repulsed by the proximity of his ageing colourless flesh. I rose quietly and stood over McIntosh’s sleeping bulk and looked into his pallid face. I silently put on my shoes, straightening my shirt and trousers as I stood, remembering the frantic groping I’d endured just hours before, and how I’d cowed the older man so easily, leaving him in tears. I did not have the heart to put him out, allowing him to sob himself to sleep naked on the topside of the quilt. I threw my jacket on and shut the door behind me.
On the early train back home I thought about my family. When I am honest I can admit that I do love my parents. At times in the past I’d compelled myself to judge them backward, rebuked them for their ignorance, their insistence on having such a large family in the context of my father’s poorly paid job. Their simplicity, their belief in their religion, their easy going contentment; all of these things I’d frowned upon when the mood was on me. At other times I envied them their rustic faith that told them God would provide.
As the train shed its grimy skin of city and slithered through incandescent morning fields, I began to feel like a fraud, a cuckoo in their nest. I knew how lucky I was to be who I was, and how blessed I had been in the accident of my birth, how fortunate I was to be loved so much, by my father, my brothers and sisters, and particularly by my mother. But I knew also they had nothing I needed or wanted anymore. I pressed my face close to the glass and peered back, past the squat factories and electricity pylons at the fast receding houses and apartment blocks, and I found myself thinking of that aching moment of silence between the last word of my poem and the eruption of applause. And I vowed then that I would do anything, anything at all, to get away for good, and go and live there in the city.
Brian Kirk is an award winning poet and short story writer from Dublin. He was nominated twice for Hennessy Awards for fiction and shortlisted for The Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2014 and 2015. His first poetry collection After The Fall is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2017. He blogs at www.briankirkwriter.com.