Seated in his local, the Sundowner, Ciaran sculls half a lager and sets the glass down on the table with the rest of his empties. A Sunday evening’s drowsiness lies upon the place, the air heavy, ‘Hotel California’ playing through a speaker on the wall but the volume only one point above mute. The pub’s lamps have been on since midday, their warm light fending off the damp shadows of November lying in wait outside.
Counting the last coins drawn from both pockets of his jeans, Ciaran is pleased to learn he has enough for another drink. At the bar he stands alongside the establishment’s main clientele, aged men slouched on a line of stools facing the lager taps, each of their glasses charged. The chap perched next to him reeks of sweat – Ciaran glances at the drops of perspiration welling on his forehead above a pair of bloodshot eyes and a nose bloated by rosacea. Ciaran knows him to see; he knows every man there to see apart from one, a skinny character parked at the far end of the counter who hasn’t said a word all night.
The lassie behind the bar pours a pint for another customer and Ciaran eyes the white foam seeping over the rim of the glass, running across her fingers like cream. She’s about his age or thereabouts – he enjoys looking at the freckles dusted on her forearms like cocoa powder and the tingling sheen of her lip gloss, bright as sugar. His mind feels lively, all of the booze he’s downed thus far sparking through his thoughts and nerves.
The man beside him leans forward, arms folded on the counter. “Clare,” he says to the barmaid, and Ciaran urges himself to remember her name.
“Yes?” she says, wiping her fingers with a cloth.
“Did I ever tell you about the spider?”
“What’s that?” she says, before acknowledging Ciaran and asking what he’s after. He smirks at the question and orders a pint, winking at her, though she doesn’t react.
“What were you saying, Derek?” she says to the man, reaching for a clean glass.
“Have I ever told you that story about the spider?”
“Don’t think so.”
The man sips from a tumbler of whisky and coughs to clear his throat, catarrh roiling inside his chest. “When I lived in Australia years back,” he says, “I’d got a job at one of the mines out there and the company put me and the family up in this caravan while we looked for somewhere to live. One night the weans were asleep but me and the wife were still up, and she looks across the room and spots this spider scuttling over the floor. And she has to clap her hand over her mouth to stop herself screaming and waking the kids, because this is the biggest fucking spider she’s ever seen. It’s the size of my hand.”
“Christ,” Clare says. “I’d run a mile.”
Ciaran watches her fingers wrap around the lager tap’s lever as she pulls it down.
“Am I going to like this story?” she says.
“Just wait,” the man says. “So Janet tells me to do something, and so I get this big glass jar and manage to put it over the top of the spider and trap it. But it’s unreal, this thing, and I want the kids to be able to have a gander at it in the morning, so I says we’ll just leave the spider there. But Janet tells me there’s no fucking way that you’re leaving it in here – she’s convinced it’s poisonous. So I slip a piece of card underneath the jar, under the spider, and I carry it outside and put it down on the ground. But even then she still isn’t happy. She’s afraid the spider’s going to get out of the jar – she says she won’t be able to sleep knowing it’s out there. So I says alright, alright, give us a minute, and I go into the caravan and come back with some clothes pegs. And I lift up the jar, at one side and then the other, so I can clip the pegs onto a couple of the spider’s legs. And I says right, there’s no way it can move now, you’re safe. And Janet says to me, I won’t feel safe until it’s dead.”
The man pauses for a nip of whisky. “Next morning,” he says, “the weans get up and I says to them, I’ve got something to show you, wait ‘til you see this. So I take them outside but stop short – all that’s there is the jar, toppled over in the dust. There’s no spider.”
“No way,” Clare says.
“Just wait,” the man says. “So I see these scuff marks in the dust, leading around the corner of the caravan. And I walk round there to this bank of dirt, and find a hole in the ground. There’s thousands and thousands of ants crawling in and out of it, and a couple of clothes pegs lying at the entrance.”
“What?” Clare says, passing Ciaran his pint.
“That’s right,” the man says. “All those ants, they must’ve found the spider, and it couldn’t run, it couldn’t move, it had nowhere to go. And all of them managed to lift that jar and tip it over. And then they carried the spider to their hole, dragged it down there, and ate it alive.”
“Christ’s sake,” Clare says. “That’s disgusting.”
The man lifts the tumbler close to his swollen nose, inhaling the whisky’s fumes. “The thing was,” he says, “I went inside and told Janet what had happened and I says to her, well, you can sleep easy now, we can thank the ants for that. But she turns round and says to me that it’s awful, it’s awful what happened to that spider. And I’m lost – only the night before she was saying she wouldn’t feel better until the thing was done away with. But she says to me, it doesn’t matter, nothing deserves to die like that.”
The man swallows more whisky. “Things were never the same between me and her,” he says. “After that.”
Ciaran parts with his change to pay for the pint, releasing the coins into Clare’s palm. “Cheers,” he says. “You’re a star.”
The man finishes his drink and studies the empty glass. “I suppose it depends on your own idea of right and wrong, whose side you’re on,” he says. “The spider or the ants.”
“I don’t want to think about it,” Clare says. “Same again?”
The man nods and she strolls to the end of the bar to fetch the right malt, Ciaran admiring her rear as she does so.
“You need to work on your patter, mate,” he says softly.
The man’s expression sours. “What?”
“No chance anyone’s going home with you if you’re using chat like that.”
“Since when are you an expert?”
“I get results,” Ciaran says. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“Away back to your seat,” the man says. “All your pals are waiting on you.”
Ciaran returns to his chair, self-confidence smarting. He doesn’t appreciate his lack of mates being used against him, given that he himself couldn’t care less about it. He couldn’t care less that he’s never had a knack for making pals, operating as he does far better on his own. Eyes trained on the man supping his second whisky, Ciaran is mindful that he and the other regulars are the same species of sad case – pensioners or the unemployed with no wives or no interests, haunting the premises from noon until last call not just for the sake of the drink but to say at least they’ve done something with their day, at least they’ve got out of the house.
At the sound of someone approaching his corner of the pub, Ciaran turns to see the stranger previously seated at the far side of the bar, who appears to catch his foot on the cuff of his own trouser leg. The guy stumbles rightward, his thigh shunting the edge of Ciaran’s table. The pint standing there decks it – lager gushes over the tabletop and drenches both the old carpet and Ciaran’s shirtfront.
“Fuck’s sake–” he shouts, jolted onto his feet, snatching at the pint glass to recover what remains of his drink.
“Shit,” the man says. “Sorry.”
“Fucking idiot,” Ciaran says, swiping a hand across the lager soaking into his clothes. “Watch where you’re going.”
“Seriously, mate, really sorry.”
Ciaran glares at the bloke over the table – around fifty or so, dressed in a sheepskin jacket and steel-capped boots, he’s an inch or two shorter than Ciaran and much leaner. He sports a dense beard and moustache, carefully trimmed, made up of white and grey hairs like a wolf’s fur. The fat lenses of the man’s specs distort the look of his eyes.
“Forget it,” Ciaran says. “Just forget it. Piss off.”
The man retreats and Ciaran slumps onto his seat, swabbing the dark splashes on his white shirt, wondering if the fabric will stain and if it can be washed out. He lifts his glass to down the thin measure of froth and lager left inside, incensed at the fact that he’s out of money. With his session at the Sundowner ending much sooner than desired and another working week at the supermarket due after his next sleep, he contemplates his walk home, with nothing ahead worth anticipating, and resentment flares in his chest like heartburn.
Just as Ciaran shoves an arm into his jacket’s sleeve, preparing to depart, the stranger returns armed with two pints of cold lager that he plants on the table.
“By way of apology,” the man says. “Mind if I join you?”
Elated by the free alcohol, his night saved, Ciaran offers the gent a seat.
While he’d admit that most people don’t tend to understand where he’s coming from, it makes it all the more satisfying when Ciaran encounters the rare person who does. Peter – who introduced himself earlier – is such a person, talking to whom Ciaran finds easy and gratifying, the older man not once disagreeing with or contradicting him during the conversation they’ve struck up. He’s a quiet soul, preferring to listen rather than speak; but he prods Ciaran with the right questions and nods in agreement with his strong views on the price of drink, the smoking ban and where New Labour went wrong. Although Peter keeps his jacket on he seems in no hurry to leave, knocking back another rum and coke which he’s mentioned as his tipple of choice. Ciaran also notices that Peter’s hand – the one holding his glass – is prone to shaking as if he’s cold or tense, though Ciaran doesn’t mention it for fear of embarrassing the guy over a nervous tic or a symptom of some ailment.
Smiling, he chinks the second pint against Peter’s glass. “To your health,” he says. “Top man.”
“You wanting the same again?”
“I’d buy you one back, pal. But I’ve no more cash on me.”
“No worries. I’ve got this.”
“Aye, don’t worry about it.”
“Good of you,” Ciaran says. He inclines his head, eyes thinning. “You’re not a poofter, are you?”
“No. That a problem?”
“Just checking, just checking,” Ciaran says, hands raised in surrender. “I don’t know you from Adam, mate. D’you live round here?”
“I’m down visiting for the weekend.”
“You not got any better places to be?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Don’t hang about. Mind and get out of here first chance you get.”
“That’s my plan and all,” Ciaran says. “No way I’m staying here for the rest of my life. The town’s a cemetery with lights.” After a swally of lager, he smears his wrist over the white suds on his upper lip. “To be fair though, the scenery isn’t that bad in here.”
Grinning, he nods in Clare’s direction – she flicks a strand of her caramel-coloured hair aside while scooping some ice into someone’s vodka and lemonade, the mixer’s bubbles glinting like her earrings. Peter follows Ciaran’s gaze but turns back to the table straightaway, his cheeks hot.
“Gorgeous, isn’t she,” Ciaran says. “You’re taking a beamer, mate.”
Peter takes a deep draught of his drink. “I’ll get another round in,” he says, leaving the table.
As time gets on, Ciaran reckons that Peter must be in dire need of some decent chat, a rapport with someone of interest who can liven up the dry moments of a Sunday night. It’s the only reason he can think of as to why Peter keeps buying the rounds, either to express his gratitude for Ciaran’s company or as a form of bribery to ensure the younger man keeps talking and doesn’t head for the door. Not that Ciaran is complaining, delight gleaming on his face whenever Peter delivers more lager or a whisky chaser. While their topic of discussion swerves from his love of The Usual Suspects to a debate on his theory that Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance, Ciaran can feel his mind softening as alcohol rushes his system.
“I’m working tomorrow,” he says through a snort of laughter. “No fucking chance I’m getting up in the morning. D’you work yourself?”
“I used to.”
“Lost my job.”
“Sake,” Ciaran says. “What did you do?”
“I stopped caring about it.”
“No, I meant what’d you work as?”
“Think about it this way,” Ciaran says. “It’s a job that wasn’t worth doing.”
“Is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for? Noel Gallagher had it right.”
“It’s worked out for the best,” Peter says. “It’s let me concentrate on other things.”
Ciaran tanks most of another lager, meeting Peter’s eye as he puts the glass down. “I’m no alcoholic,” he says. “Alcoholics go to meetings, I go to parties.” He snickers and mimics a drummer’s sting. Peter’s smile, in response, is slight.
“If you say so,” he says.
“My liver’s going to end up waving a white flag,” Ciaran says.
“You look like you can handle it.”
“Aye, my tolerance is through the roof.”
“Well you’re here often enough, are you not.”
Ciaran shrugs. “Nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do.”
“Does your gran know you’re here?” Peter says.
Ciaran halts his drink between the table and his mouth. “How d’you know about her?”
“You– you mentioned her a while ago.”
“Sake,” Ciaran says. “Don’t even remember.” He swills a mouthful of lager. “She doesn’t like me drinking on Sundays. She keeps saying if you have to sin, do it on another day of the week. So I told her I’m doing overtime.” He grins, tracing a finger through the glaze of moisture on his glass. “She’s sound. Lived with her all my life.”
“You never been away?”
“No. Well, apart from when I was at uni. But that wasn’t for long.”
“What uni did you go to?”
“There’s that pub near there all the freshers go to,” Peter says. “MacAulay’s.”
“I was always at Guthrie’s,” Ciaran says. “They had cheap shots.”
“But you’ve been to MacAulay’s.”
Peter’s brow creases. “You’ll have been there,” he says.
“Don’t reckon so.”
“I think you will have.”
“Never been there in my puff, mate.”
Peter shifts in his chair, eyebrows nudged together in a look of disquiet. “Did you drop out of uni?” he says.
Ciaran straightens his shoulders and tosses a shot of whisky into his mouth – he coughs, his throat singed, and splutters out a laugh.
“Fucking hell,” he says. “That’ll put hair on your chest.”
“How come you dropped out?” Peter says.
Ciaran kneads his watery eyes with a finger and thumb. “Doesn’t matter.”
“You can tell me.”
“Not as if I’d say anything to anybody.”
“Can’t talk about it, mate.”
Peter’s specs have slipped downwards – he pushes them back onto his nose’s bridge. “Fair enough,” he says.
Keen to restore his own contentment, Ciaran taps his fingers on the table – the surface sticky as fly paper – and nods along to the beat of ‘Jive Talkin’’, the latest track murmuring through the pub’s speakers.
“It’s all over, anyway,” he says. “It’s all over and done with.”
Peter rubs and scratches his beard, which he can’t wait to be rid of. He’s looking forward to scraping a razor across the hairs later on to clear his face, smooth the skin. Across the table Ciaran continues to talk, though his words slush together on his tongue and none of his stories seem capable of ending. Peter regards the young man over the rim of his glasses, considering again the heft of the lad’s body – he’s on the cusp of six feet tall and solidly framed, a paunch bulging over his belt but arms and chest built of hard muscle. Peter knows that, in a fight, he wouldn’t be able to take him.
Announcing he has to break the seal, Ciaran heaves out of his seat and lurches to the toilets. Peter makes straight for the bar, resolving to buy enough drink before time is called. He unfolds some tenners, flustered by the juddering of his hands – though he’s done his best to have a word with himself and calm down, it’s proving beyond him. Angry heat rides high on his cheeks and his veins seem to carry more adrenaline than blood. Catching the barmaid’s attention, Peter repeats the order he’s made throughout the night: two pints of lager and a coke.
“Smile,” she says. “It might never happen.”
“Can I get two shots of tequila as well?” he says.
While Peter keeps watch on the door of the gents, the barmaid organises his drinks and blethers to a man hunched on a stool beside him, one of the few patrons left in the place. The man soon turns his flushed eyes on Peter.
“So whose side you on, pal?” he says. “The spider or the ants?”
“Derek, he doesn’t know what you’re on about,” the barmaid says. She deposits the lagers on the counter. “Just say the spider,” she tells Peter. “And don’t ask why.”
The man sniffs and raps the base of his tumbler on the bartop. “I should call her, shouldn’t I, Clare?” he says. “I should give her a bell.”
“Janet. I should speak to her again.”
“Maybe not tonight,” Clare says. “Just let things be. It’s all in the past.”
“Aye,” he says. “But what’s past is prologue, is it not?”
The drinks supplied and paid for, Peter arranges them on the table, abandoning a salt shaker and dods of lime on the bartop. He surveys the room over his shoulders, assuring himself that no-one’s bothered by anything he’s doing, prior to tipping both tequila shots into one of the lagers – the head of the pint seethes.
When Ciaran shambles back to the table Peter has resumed his chair. He scans the lad’s face and notes the warmth of binge drinking showing on his features, pink beneath his acne scars. Ciaran drops into his seat, scrawling his fingers through his gel-encrusted hair.
“Getting panelled,” he says.
“Not surprised,” Peter says.
“How come you’re not?”
“Must have a better tolerance than you.”
Accepting the pint that Peter hands over, Ciaran sluices a quarter of it down his throat. “I’m always last man standing,” he says.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
At a neighbouring table Clare gathers empty bottles on a tray and Ciaran’s blurry eyes veer towards her. “Would you just look at that arse,” he says. “Nobody should be allowed to have an arse that good.” His focus swings onto Peter. “D’you know what? I might be in love. Y’ever been in love?”
“I was married.”
“We’re separated now.”
“Mate,” Ciaran says. “What happened?”
“She didn’t like who I was turning into.”
“Love isn’t good for folk,” Ciaran says. “It messes everybody up.”
Peter grips his glass with both hands. “Bet you’ve broken some hearts.”
Ciaran belches and thunks his glass onto the table. “My gran’s the only lady in my life,” he says. “My special someone.” He sniggers but the humour fades, sombreness edging over his expression. “We don’t have anybody else, either of us,” he says. “She’s got my back. That’s all anybody needs, intit? Someone who’s on your side. Someone who believes what you say.”
“Must make it easier to lie,” Peter says.
Ciaran’s jaw stiffens. “Everybody lies,” he says. “Believe me.”
“You speaking from experience?”
Ciaran laughs, yet the sound lacks any cheer. “Wish I could tell you.”
The lad shakes his head, the movement off-kilter. “Not worth repeating,” he says.
Behind the bar Clare sounds the pub’s bell in the name of last orders. Ciaran seems to have lapsed into his own thoughts, his countenance sullen, and silence lies between he and Peter as he wrestles into his jacket and polishes off the pint. Peter can feel the temperature rising on his face – he takes a couple of measured breaths, trying to soothe his heartrate, and holds up his glass of coke.
“Challenge for you,” he says. “See who’ll be last man standing. First one to get his drink down in a one-er.” He slides the second lager towards Ciaran.
“No chance,” the lad says. “You’ve got less than me.”
“I’ll give you a five second head-start. And I’m drinking rum.”
Ciaran blinks, his frame swaying on the seat. “Alright,” he says. His Adam’s apple throbs as he channels all of the lager into his gullet. Allowing a moment’s pause Peter drinks his coke in one go, finishing just as Ciaran’s glass drains – the young man’s face clenches and he moans upon pulling the glass away from his mouth.
“Fuck,” he says. “That doesn’t taste– doesn’t taste right.”
Colour begins to sap from Ciaran’s face; perspiration breaks out on his temples. He lays his arms on the table, pressing his head on top of them. Seconds later he retches, a cord of saliva hanging from his lip until it snaps and falls.
“Don’t you dare,” Clare shouts from the bar. “Don’t even think about it.”
She marches to their table where Peter has already quit his seat, a hand under Ciaran’s armpit to pull him upright.
“I’ve got him,” he says. “I’ve got him, don’t worry.”
“He pukes in here, he’s cleaning it up,” Clare says.
“I’ll get him out.”
With Ciaran’s left arm slung over his shoulders Peter steers him out of the pub door into a night that smells of frost. From what he can see the street is bare – there’s no-one about at this hour. His and Ciaran’s breaths drift into the air above them like pollution.
Having locked the car Peter doubles back to the Sundowner, cutting through the lane between the pub and the locksmith’s next door. He avoids the blurts of Ciaran’s vomit on the pavement, each splash glistening fresh under the streetlight. Inside the bar – where the lights are lowered and the room’s heat bristles on his face – Peter finds the man named Derek still at his post, drooped over the counter, while Clare hurries from table to table with a can of cleaning fluid and a cloth.
“That’s us closed,” she calls out. “Away home.”
“No, you’re alright, you’re alright,” Peter says. “I just wanted to check if that lad has come back in here? You seen him?”
“We were out there on the corner, I was phoning him a taxi,” Peter says. “And I turned round and he’d gone. Don’t have a clue where he’s disappeared to.”
“He’s a big boy,” Clare says. “He can look after himself.”
Derek hoists his chin off his chest, eyes teary, cheeks scarlet. “Don’t waste your time on a waster,” he declares, then lowers his head.
“Get yourself home,” Clare says to Peter. “No point stressing yourself.”
All too aware of his urgency to leave, to let the door close at his back, he still falters on the pub’s threshold. He observes Clare at the end of her day, sighing to herself as she sprays disinfectant on the table at which he and Ciaran sat – with her cloth she wipes the surface of dribs of lager and whisky, the evening’s residue.
“Will you come on,” she says sharply. “Just get up the road.”
“Sorry,” he says. “I was just thinking you look a bit like my daughter.”
“I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“Well, I’m sure she’d be glad to see you again.”
Peter hesitates, pointing a thumb at the door. “That lad, he had his eye on you.”
“You should never trust men like him.”
“I don’t,” she says. “Nobody has to tell me either.”
“What about you?” she says. “Should I trust men like you?”
He opens his mouth to reply, yet an answer stalls on its way out.
“Aye, you all think you’re different,” Clare says. “Sleep well.”
Truth be told, Peter wishes that he could explain, even ask for her understanding. Nevertheless, he accepts that it’s enough that Clare will remember these moments if she ever needs to. He says goodnight, thrusts both hands in his pockets, and exits the premises.
Ciaran is out for the count, the same state in which Peter left him. He didn’t take much persuading to crumple onto the car’s backseat and Peter was satisfied that, on the off-chance he came to and mustered the compulsion to get out, Ciaran’s sodden brain couldn’t solve the issue of the car’s back doors, the insides of which are missing their handles. Even when Peter starts the engine, the lad doesn’t stir.
Peter drives to the town’s promenade and turns south. Within ten minutes he and Ciaran have sped across the town’s limits and delved into the empty land of the peninsula. The road balances on the fine edge of the coast, portions of its tarmac in ever-present danger of dissolving into the sea. There’s no shred of light visible over the acres of gorse bushes and burns, inlets and spurs of rock, no signs of any other human life. Peter concentrates on the road’s every curve and camber picked out by the car’s high beams, his route memorised after many practice runs by day and night. His hands are tight around the steering wheel, and whenever he feels compelled to stop the car he reminds himself that no-one knows what they’re capable of until after the fact.
At the turn-off he eases the car onto the track to Camas Dubh, the suspension convulsing along the half-mile of hardened mud and black ice until he brakes beside the dunes. He flinches upon stepping out into the winter’s air, mean gusts from the Atlantic tearing through the marram grass and rusted fragments of wire fencing. By torchlight he removes his gloves, the box cutter and cable ties from the car boot, and slips a bottle of mineral water and his glasses into the pockets of his coat. Opening the rear door Peter can smell the car’s interior, a stench of hot vomit pooled in the footwell below Ciaran’s head. The lad is prone on the seat, groaning through his open mouth.
“Ciaran,” Peter says. “Time to get up.”
He hauls him out of the car and, bearing his weight, walks the short distance to the top of the dunes – a nor’westerly scatters sand through his and Ciaran’s hair. The young man’s eyelids flicker and his bulk sags against Peter’s side.
“You’re not sleeping through this.”
He rams his knee into Ciaran’s abdomen and shoves him over the verge of the dunes – with a small cry Ciaran spills down the slope and ends up on his back, jacket hanging off. Dropping the torch Peter tackles him as the young man attempts to stand – on the ground he propels Ciaran onto his front and struggles to tug his arms behind his back, managing to strap one of the cable ties around his wrists and using the other on his ankles. Peter then jabs his side with his foot, rolling him face-upwards. Plucking the plastic bottle from his pocket he unscrews the cap and douses Ciaran’s head with the contents, the lad spitting and hollering under the stream of water.
“Fuck you playing at?” he shouts.
Peter kneels to retrieve the torch, directing its glare onto Ciaran’s face as water slews from his chin. “I’m doing the world a favour,” he replies.
Ciaran’s eyes constrict from the pain of the light, the stink of lager and vomit steaming from his mouth – Peter cuffs him twice on the cheek to ensure his attention.
“Don’t touch me.”
“No, you don’t get to say that. You’ve no right to say that.”
“You’re off your fuckin’ head.”
“Aye? I’m not the one who thought it was all over and done with.”
“You on about?”
“Amy,” Peter says. “Or d’you not remember her name?”
Ciaran misses a breath, his shoulders rigid.
“I’ll tell you something else,” Peter says. “I’m her dad.”
Ciaran’s limbs strain hard against the cable ties. “No.”
“She told us everything.”
Peter stands up – the torchlight picks out Ciaran writhing on the sand, unable to dislodge his arms or legs. Sand clings to his white shirt, along with streaks of grime and sick and a blotch of animal shit that he must’ve ploughed through.
“I never did anything.”
Peter doesn’t respond, dipping a hand into his coat pocket to withdraw the box cutter and press its switch – the blade juts out of the handle and Ciaran’s voice rises.
“Stop,” he says. “Listen to me.”
“You’re not worth listening to.”
Peter doesn’t believe he can cause Ciaran enough pain but he’s willing to try. He stamps on the young man’s chest and Ciaran lists onto his side, coughing between agonised scrapes of breath while Peter aims the box cutter at his face.
“I know what you are.”
“It’s not true,” Ciaran rasps. “None of it’s true.”
Peter kicks him, the boot thudding against ribs – the young man reels onto his stomach, wails muffled by the wet sand.
“Is she the only one?” Peter says. “Or had you done it before?”
Ciaran pitches onto his back, trying to prise his wrists apart. He calls for help, the words hoarse, until another kick cuts him off.
“Did you just sit in MacAuley’s waiting for whoever was next?”
Ciaran’s face turns, his stare frantic. “Never been there.”
“You’re a broken record, son.”
“Told you before I’ve never been there.”
“Nothing else comes out of your mouth.”
“Didn’t know who you were,” Ciaran says. “Why would I lie?”
Peter’s face warps and he steps forward, the box cutter levelled at Ciaran; but he fails to answer. Wind swipes at both men, specks of sand lashing the torch’s ray of light. Ciaran lies flat on the ground, hands trapped beneath his torso. “You’re wrong,” he says.
“Don’t say a word.”
“I wasn’t where she said.”
“Enough,” Peter shouts.
“I want to go home.”
Ciaran’s speech fractures – Peter has to arc the torchlight away, refusing to watch him greet. He keeps glancing at the dark span of beach around them as if hoping someone will appear to reassure him of his intentions. His mouth is drying out and he panics that he’s unable to decide what can be said to defend his sense of purpose. He chucks the box cutter to the ground and crouches to grab Ciaran by a handful of hair, shining the torch against his eyes, the whites of each inflamed.
“I see what you’re up to.”
“It’s the truth.”
“You want strung up,” Peter shouts. “And nobody’ll say a word against it.”
“Gran.” A sob contorts Ciaran’s face. “It’ll kill her.”
Mucus dribbles from his nostrils and to Peter he looks more like a child, too pathetic to do harm, a thought at once sobering and infuriating. His fingers loosen their hold on the lad’s hair.
“Please let me go home.”
“We can leave all this be. I’ll say nothing.”
Peter seizes Ciaran’s collar and yanks him upwards, bringing his face to within centimetres of his own. “If she said you met at MacAulay’s, you met at MacAuley’s.”
“She never,” Peter shouts. “She’s not like you.”
“No, she’s like you. She’s just like you.”
Ciaran’s head flicks backwards and rebounds, forehead belting Peter above the right eye with a thump of bone on bone. Peter keels onto the sand, hands flying to his brow and pain taut at the fore of his skull. Lying there he hears the sound of breakers, the pace of his heart and Ciaran screeching for help.
When his senses re-align Peter fumbles for the torch knocked to the ground – he scrabbles to his feet, sweeping some light to the base of the dunes where Ciaran shuffles fast on his knees, hands pinned to the small of his back and legs gouging the sand. His voice, full-throated and maniacal, tells the air what Peter wants to do and pleads for someone to stop it – the words are caught on every squall and borne inland. He looks behind him and cries out as Peter sprints forward.
“Look her in the eye and ask her. Look her in the eye and ask her.”
The tide is pulling away from the shore, as though the waters are repulsed by the country they’ve touched. Peter traipses to the car and climbs in, flinging the severed cable ties onto the passenger seat. He rests his hands on the steering wheel, gloves removed, bruises forming on his knuckles. It’s vital that he get going, yet he makes no move to fasten his seatbelt or fit the key in the ignition.
Not once has he ever considered that he’d lose composure over his own certainties. Neither were there any circumstances under which Peter believed he’d pray for the strength to forget his better instincts. He’d even imagined that, at some stage, he’d take his daughter’s hand and tell her that he’d done something that she didn’t ask him to do, give her a reason why she could start to feel at peace. But if that were to happen, Peter can’t deny that he’s afraid of what would come next. He’s afraid of her, and of what she might admit. Sleet dabs at the windscreen and he listens to the wind running with the waves, far from the dunes of Camas Dubh. The light in the car dims, and goes out.