A sample of one of three novels I started and failed to complete in the past five years or so. This one was the most recent, and I do think about returning to it, editing and completing it. A lot of the story is lost to me now and also I think differently about characters, their situations and their voices.
I slam the flat sole of my boot against the door, crunching it open, and as soon as I’m in the man leaps on me and I grunt and we fall instantly to the floor but I catch him good with my elbow sending his bottom two teeth out and he loosens his grip and I’m up and I use the my boot again against his head this time. Then the other man bounds over and catches me in the chest but not low enough to do much but rattle and ache so I bung out one with my right and then a low one with my left and then the boot again.
I’m wearing all the clothes I own; one pair of underwear, one pair of socks (one sock missing heel,) one pair of long underwear, one grey t-shirt, one navy blue sweatshirt, one workcoat, a pair of jeans and the boots. Winter is eating in, but right now I am sweating, lumbering around the room as men leap out of nowhere, catching me good, but never good enough for them.
“Joseph!” The only person ever to call me Joseph. “You fucking nut you was supposed to be quiet!” He rants as we clear the room looking. We are looking for signs that these men had something to do with a crime. The kidnapping of my sister. I lean into the bathroom. The ceramic of the bath has been completely shattered, while the sink hangs off of the wall, linked by gurgling copper pipes, and scraps of dusty plaster. The ceramic lid to the toilet cistern is missing. There is piss in the toilet, and underneath that, rust or limescale that has eaten into or attached itself to the rotten ceramic, apart from a clear, undamaged shape, like a bird spreading its wings. Davy pushes past me and starts pissing with me in the room.
“Fucks sake.” Could barely hear him over the urine hitting water. The bath is filled with some sort of chemical, surrounded by glass piping and beakers like in school. Davy reckons it’s to make some drug or other. The motel’s been abandoned for a long time; cats roam around, relaxed and happy, unafraid, collarless, ceaselessly breeding and defecating. Through the doorway in this lighting the world looks grey, and cold.
My sister found employment in the honourable, dreamlike way. She was the eldest of us; me, my second eldest sister Lou, and my eldest sister, Wend. While I was rumbling through the bush and Lou was gathering clay, Wend was always on the field, darting over other players, striking the ugly puff of a ball in between the goalposts time after time and time; it was not a surprise when she was seriously noticed, and less of a surprise when she moved out into the town, still young, to train all day, to hone the blade that is this talent she owns. Davy says this is why she has been kidnapped; she represents a lot of money, a lot of skill.
My father didn’t follow football, but respected sport. Every Tuesday and Thursday, after he got back from work, after all the niggles had been fixed around the house, after all the gardening had been done, after all the mouths had been fed, he’d disappear to the boxing gym. Occasionally, he’d have a match on Saturday. Usually he’d win, but occasionally he’d lose, and be unseen, holed up in his room from shame and unable to move without pain. Then he’d emerge again, making jokes about him and Wendy swapping sports; she could only kick her boxing opponents and he only punch the ball and the referee. Davy would laugh.
Davy would sit at the table in his vest, the tattoo of our home district’s coat of arms on his shoulder, and grumble about my father’s boxing. “With them gloves on, might as well be fighting with numb stumps on the end of your arm. There’s no wrist in it, it’s just shoulder and bicep.” Here he’d flex his own hands, his knuckles worn and scarred. “Can’t kill a man with your bare fists. Hurts too much. You’re taking a share of the hit.” Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night uncle Davy would be at the Red Lion, a damp and flat-roofed pub in town. He wouldn’t drink much, but at the sign of a few knowing glances, would descend into the basement, to face a challenger in a bareknuckle fight. Once he took me with him, when I was about sixteen. If both contenders were still conscious at the end of the fight, they embraced, they smiled, bloody, teeth missing, gristle and bone crunched and misaligned. My mother threw a bowl at Davy’s head when he brought me back. Strangely, that bowl gave him the only scar on his face, just above his left eyebrow.
I would never watch my father fight. Watching Davy fight was flesh on flesh, bone on bone. To me, my father’s strength was used to heave buildings into sway in the villages of the county, to tear the Earth in the garden to feed us, to hold my mother tightly with great bursts of emotion, to lift the children up, to shake hands and pat backs. I didn’t like to think of those dexterous and calloused hands swathed in padded leather, pounding a man’s face, surrounded by nameless spectators, a crowd stitched out of many tuxedoes .
Yet it was the reverse pounding which took effect. In one particular month, my father took shelter in his room for a fortnight altogether, a week each after two separate fights. After he felt rid of shame and pain after the second bout of loss, he returned to work, unbruised, unscarred; healed. He picked up a load of bricks, and headed up the scaffolding, in his usual careful way. He carefully stepped off the ladder, carefully hollered that the ‘Bricks’re up boys,’ then carefully set them down, then carefully stood up. Upon standing, after a series of hurling many punches, and receiving much more, finally something, some nerve or blood vessel, failed in a more basic task. Anywhere else and we’d have been laughing, consoling, smiling. But at the top of the scaffolding, my Father lost consciousness, and tottered over, diving into the brick heap, his solidity, his strength, crumpled against the misshapen piling of stone.
A year later, we’re all working; Wend is rising in the world of football, working part time; Lou is working part time, studying part time, and I am working full time, for the same group my father worked with. Perhaps as a sympathetic gesture, or more likely the assumption that skill could be hereditary. Sons often follow their fathers. We all work on the garden, we all bring the earth to fruit.
Davy came to dinner and visited often anyway, but now he’s here at least every other day. He takes Lou to school and Wend to football practise, he helps out in the garden and around the house. He fixed up the old truck; our Dad walked everywhere anyway, and so when the truck broke down it never crossed his mind to get it fixed. Mam worked part-time in a school in a town in the next county. I’d still find her sat on the bed, looking out the window at the garden, or the fields, frozen in some movement; folding clothes, getting dressed. I knew who was in her thoughts; he’ll live forever in her.