Authors: Simon Fay
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Not everybody who writes a book can find an audience so I won’t take it for granted if you count yourself among mine. As always I’ve had a huge amount of support from family and friends throughout the writing process. To my parents and brother, thanks for being there. To the other guys – Matthew Dunne and Michael Plummer – keep up the good work.
Simon Fay @simonfayauthor
First published in 2016 by Simon Fay
Copyright © 2016 Simon Fay
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transported in any form by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher of this book.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
What you need to understand about smiles is that, on the whole, they’re peculiar things. In the flash of a person’s teeth might be love, polite tolerance, friendly greeting, or just as likely, a sharpened knife. When his head is clear Francis Mullen knows as much. He knows people can lie with smiles and more often than not do exactly that. The protection that comes with this awareness is supposed to be comforting. In truth, it numbs him.
He’s observing his landlord, whose tongue rests on a dull canine. The thin curving lips, brown from a lifetime of tobacco and stout, move to say, ‘Watch the cards.’
The landlord’s hands twitch purposefully about a deck and flick suits in turn onto the coffee table. Perched on a wooden chair, he deals cards from the bottom while making a show of taking them from the top. Between two glasses of wine a king appears, a queen, a joker. And the numbers. Francis is sunk helplessly into the couch cushions, his shirt bunched up to his ears and his loose tie, forgotten after a long day of prep work, falls this way across his chest. He shifts his attention to the hands which move independent of any thought. When the deck is done, Francis looks up at the old man’s smiling mouth, now a yawning soggy hole that seems to pull him in. The teeth have disappeared.
‘Amazing,’ Francis laughs. ‘Where did they go?’
Giddy, the landlord smacks his gums together and lisps, ‘You’d know if you were watching my mouth, wouldn’t you? Figure it out and I’ll let you live, rent free.’
‘You told me to watch the cards.’
The chair his landlord sits on, dragged conspicuously from the kitchen, had been in place when Francis arrived, a stage seat which a hand at his back led him around. Francis had planned on a walk to tire himself out but when there was news of a flash riot in the city he decided not to risk the evening amble. Though the road he resides on is miles from most of that, the rash of public disturbances has been plaguing the country long enough to make him cautious. Their damp townhouse on a grey strait by Phoenix Park serves as shelter from any ornery teenagers that might want take advantage of the ongoing panic to look tough and get away with it. Sometimes Francis hates Dublin. Sometimes he hates his landlord. It’s not very convenient when the two feelings converge. Downstairs is his cluttered bedsit where a moth bangs its head against the bare light bulb and a single dish waits dirtied in the sink. Worst of all, his laptop, stuffed to the brim and dripping over the sides with pornography, remains cold. He needs to stop using it to masturbate and has designated one night a week when he’s allowed the privilege. Easier said than done. Sitting in his flat is not an option. Trapped in the couch cushion folds, he decides it isn’t worth the effort moving, and finally, he stops squirming to allow them to swallow him whole.
‘Am I wearing a sheriff badge? You’ve got your own mind, Francis. Now look over there. I can’t put them back in without giving the trick away,’ the landlord says. ‘Yet.’
Francis makes a point of not turning his head before he decides that they don’t need to suffer the old man’s lisp for the rest of the night, and doesn’t face him again until the teeth have clamped together once more.
‘You know how to spot a real magician, Francis?’
‘The tux is usually a give-away.’
‘With an amateur, you can see it in his eyes. He has marks to hit, lines to arrive at, diversions to set up. Like we’re watching him put a jig-saw together on stage. A real one makes you feel like he’s just a particularly charming friend who wants to tell a good story. Fearless–’
‘Then he tricks you.’
The wine tastes bitter as Francis considers the theory. They’ve emptied a bottle together, though he just now realises that he’s drunk most of it himself, and as his banter has become playful, the landlord’s has become more of a lecture. They’re used to the routine. The old man likes to talk, not listen, and if Francis ever begrudges him it, he need only remind himself that enjoying people as television shows, something to be watched through a sheet of glass, isn’t much of a higher ground to stand on. Francis has this habit of criticising himself when thinking ill of somebody else. But anyway, it’s a tidy arrangement, the bartering of entertainment for a patient ear.
‘Stack them,’ the landlord commands. ‘Practice.’
If they didn’t have tricks to talk about they’d have nothing, so, with a great amount of effort, Francis leans forward and gathers the spread of upturned cards. The old man monitors him carefully as they’re dealt and collected and dealt and collected. Francis takes the lack of commentary as encouragement. Eventually the old man bores of just supervising and, smacking his teeth around his mouth, launches into a monologue to accompany his acolyte’s task.
‘I grew up out near Boyle. A small crop of buildings down the road you could barely call a village.’ The old man is from the country, Francis from the city. A pause allows them a moment to picture the foreign land, a huddle of buildings with docile eyes crowded together like cows in rain. ‘There’s a small mountain nearby with an obelisk built in the middle of its woods. The woods, they’re the farmed kind, a barcode forest planted and felled every couple of years, trees stuck in the ground like lines of lampposts. The obelisk, some resident Englishman back in the day had raised it for his young wife. That’s young by his times standards, not ours, right? She’d died giving birth and he’d decided that making a monument to her would create some much needed work for the community of haggard farmers. I suppose he was a philanthropist. Not that it mattered. They all thought of themselves that way back then, didn’t they? That’s neither here nor there. To us, the obelisk was known as Devil’s Cross. Go to Devil’s Cross, walk around it three times backward and the Devil appears to grant your wish. Friendly fella, that Devil. Children we were. Used to camp out by the woods in the summer and every now and again one of us would pluck up the courage to go out by the obelisk and try our luck. Kids would come back with stories – He had hooves, laughed like a Cork hyena, smelled like manure. Nobody believed it of course. Without a wish granted it was just water spilling between our fingers. You can’t believe in Santa unless he brings you presents, can you? We’d try to drink, to believe, but it would only last a few drops.
‘Now,’ the landlord declares as if he’s had to interrupt himself. ‘Who knows where all this came from, or how it grew to what it did, but that’s superstition for you. Eventually the lot of us had the idea that if you met the Devil you’d come back with blood dripping from your eyes. That’s a convenient little catch, isn’t it? The Devil was out there if you wanted to meet him but if you returned in good health we’d know you were lying, and besides, what child in their right mind would want to chance proving it?
‘Danny. We didn’t count on that lad. One way or another, that little runt of the litter, Danny Keane was going to have his wish granted. He had a hard time of it, Danny, pushed around by his older cousin, a dense thug called Badger on account of his sloping forehead and dark hair. We could well imagine what Danny wanted the night he went out there. He’d arrived at the campsite with his arm in a cast and Badger trailing behind him, a smug grin on the bully’s face at that. We pestered Danny about it, but his lips were sealed, and Badger, his smile got smugger the more we went at them. A few knowing glances get passed around. We were kids, but we weren’t stupid. Everyone knew-sure. That Badger.
‘Danny was quiet all day and hadn’t set up his tent with the rest of us. When night was coming he said he’d camp out at the obelisk. At Devil’s Cross. He got his fair share of jeering and cajoling, everyone saying he didn’t have the guts. To be perfectly honest, we all knew he did and didn’t like that a kid almost half our age was happy to skip along where none of us would dare. The boy knew it as well. He took the slags quietly for as long as they lasted and disappeared into the black between the pines when night came, Badger laughing at him louder than any of us. Well, Badger was never popular himself. Why would he be? Just a thick with a strong punch who none of us really liked. That’s why Danny got it all from him, I suppose. When the eegit was left alone with us the only way he got into the group would be by pushing people around. We didn’t like it, and really, neither did he. So the night goes on and he’s getting more and more isolated and bulling to take it out on somebody, but Danny, his target of choice, is away with the fairies. Eventually the clouds break a little and the moon gives us a wee bit of light, which gives Badger the courage he needs to traipse off on his own. That’s when he announces he’s going to find Danny at the obelisk. Knowing looks pass around again, heavier ones this time-mind. What was he going to do? He’d already broken the boy’s arm. None of us could stop him, could we? Maybe if somebody had spoke up the group of us could have held him back, but-sure, nobody wanted to be that first voice, myself included. And anyway, when do children ever get together to stop a bully? Sure if he’d been a little more popular we’d probably have been ganging up with him. Children are savages, truly. He wouldn’t be gone long, Badger said, and he was bringing Danny back with him – one way or another.’
The landlord sucks on his teeth as a means to delay the end of the story. Francis endures the wait by shuffling the deck of cards.
‘We were tucked into our sleeping bags when we heard the scream. Spooked us a bit, in a giddy kind of way, still, we left them out there. Fifteen minutes go by. Badger stumbles back into the campsite with Danny in tow. Danny’s t-shirt red now, blood pouring from his eyes.’
Francis interjects with an astonished, ‘No.’
‘I don’t remember which one of us did it, but someone called Danny’s parents and we sat and waited for them. That boy, Danny, eyes squinted shut, blood all over his face, rocking himself back and forth. Badger, pale as a ghost, not a word to be gotten out of him. We were screaming at them to tell us what happened and screaming at each other to figure it out when the Dad found us, took the two of them away, and said that our parents would be up for us soon. Oh, it was lonely out there, left in the woods with nothing but questions.’
The landlord gives a long practiced shrug that seems to make his joints ache.
‘Badger could do that to his own cousin,’ Francis drops a card. ‘I’ve met a lot of untouched people in my time. Some of them real sickos, you know? The childhood stories still get under my skin.’
‘The thing about being a kid in a bogger-town like that is, no matter what happens, everybody sees each other again at school on Monday. Not this time. Near sight of Badger. Didn’t see the dolt for a week. We didn’t know it but his folks were mulling over sending him to live somewhere else until the buzz died down. He stayed as it happens. The only psychologist in the town was a marriage counsellor. I think she had a course or two in child therapy under her belt. Anyway, it was enough for his parents. He was condemned to her sofa for a few weeks and everything went back to normal. She must have done something right though, because he never bullied Danny again.’
The old man leaves a question hanging in the air for Francis to grab at.
‘What about Danny? What’d he say about it all?’
‘Danny,’ the landlord says. ‘Danny said he met the Devil.’
‘The Devil,’ Francis repeats.
‘Said he got his wish.’
‘His wish?’ Francis fumbles the deck of cards nervously. ‘What did he wish for?’
‘That poor little boy,’ the landlord shakes his head, sympathetic words dipped and presented in aged sarcasm. ‘Bullied his whole life. Who could blame him? Danny Keane, he just wished he could be anything he wanted to be, that he could turn into a monster and gobble up anybody he didn’t like. And he said nobody was going to bully him anymore, nobody, least of all his eegit of a cousin, Badger.’
With that, the old man wipes his hands to signal the end of the story and stares at Francis, waiting to see him light up in shock. It’s like the landlord has his fingers on a dimmer switch. It was dark before, but now the young fellow sees.
‘He did it to himself,’ Francis says. ‘Danny made his own eyes bleed.’
The landlord smacks his knee, delighted at witnessing the realisation.
‘How?’ Francis asks, the cards in his hands forgotten.
‘In the light of day it was obvious to anyone who wanted to know. There were two tiny slits in the brow above his eyes. Scabs first, then white little scars, and eventually gone altogether. A craft blade would be my guess. Must have stung bad, slitting his own skin.’
‘What age was he?’
‘Old enough for long division? Nah. Young enough to get away with it? Just about.’
Outside, a dog growls across their cracked road, another yelp echoes in response, and an owner shouts a command, probably dragging the animal away by the lead, further into the juxtaposed landscape of dustbins and trees.
‘You must be good at your job,’ the landlord compliments Francis. ‘I usually have to spell it out a bit clearer. It took me a few years to cop-on, and even then I thought I was the only one who’d figured it out. The only one who knew Danny could do something like that. But-sure, you’d hear comments. You see the way people acted around him. Some were ignorant, others just kept their heads down. You know what the funny thing is? Once I realised what he’d done – what he was – I thought back on that night, to when Badger pulled him out of the woods, and I think every single one of us, from the youngest to the oldest, knew exactly what had happened, and we stood there gobsmacked and let him fool us anyway.’