Sometimes you wake and the world is a very different place to the one you fell asleep to. The whispered calm of night has been broken by rain and the metronomic tap of feet and cars, the hum of voices, have filled in those long stretches of quiet. Other times, the change is not as noticeable and you slip unaware into a day that you do not belong to. Your heart might still tick over and your clothes still swipe at your skin as though they were bought for somebody else, but every face you see is a mask and you, a chess piece.
His mother’s face, slapped with the yellow shadow of a night without sleep, opened the door. ‘Out the back’ she said with a slow flick of her neck, smoke hopping from her mouth with each word as her lips wrestled a cigarette.
That was the first day we spent in the shed.
Over three bruised hours we cleared a space inside for garden chairs and a table to play cards around. His Dad was a builder so the concrete box had electricity. We didn’t care much about the aesthetics of the place though; it was a cocoon, our own world. We plugged in a fridge and set up a cd player and, surrounded by rusting golf clubs, toolboxes and hose piping, that was the only connection to any peripheral idea we held of an outside. That world of tactile interaction and raw, clean experience was left behind for now anyway. Arguments and concessions later, posters were hung and screwdrivers were used to carve names into the red plastic of the table top. Had the concrete been wet we would no doubt have fumbled with sticks to leave our mark on the floor and walls too. We had always been close but here, I could almost feel the stifling breath of his movement and with no windows to dilute the air, the clunking weight of the door needed to be shouldered open every hour or earlier if our eyes began to sting from the smoke cloud that never dissipated to anything less than a blanket.
‘What do you want me to do with these?’ I said, kicking a box of magazines. The faces of television personalities that smiled from the yellow, curling covers seemed grotesque, dust and gravel sprinkled over their teeth and eyes. They looked as though they were being buried alive.
‘Throw them out on the grass, my Da will have to get rid of them’ said Ciaran. Affable and as charismatic as it is possible for a sixteen year old to be, being his friend had generally been a good thing. Sometimes though, when he spoke, the comedy of his words seemed to lean uncomfortably towards menace and a fear of being in the crosshairs meant you occasionally had to bite down on your pride and watch on with instinct crumpled and buried hard into your stomach, as some unfortunate stood at the centre of pointed fingers and sneers. Forcing yourself to ignore their discomfort, squashing it down somewhere dark and quiet, hung over you like a shadow but the counter-balancing elements of self-preservation and relief were usually enough to untie any brittle teenage shame. At least it wasn’t you, that time.
The shed became our map, our timetable and our prescription. Over a summer of twelve hours days and musky hormonal tension, various people passed through to play tunes or sometimes drink cans if we could sneak them past the glare of his mother. I didn’t think it at the time, but her skin, withering and puffy, with every hour etched onto her like a tattoo; she wore those days for us, she paid whatever we neglected to.
Girls would come by, possibly to brush against the earthy grip of our grubby world, but really to feel as though they were disobeying something. He would kiss them sometimes and I would make some mumbled excuse to go and smoke in the garden, kicking dew soaked weeds until they had finished. Outside, I would sit on a wall and count the headlights of cars that passed, letting those numbers pile up was a good way of pushing the absurdity of those nights out of my mind but it had a firm grip and when the air was silent like that I couldn’t drown out the creeping pinch of a summer being lost. An hour or a weekend later, the girls would get bored and leave, seeing our real world for the cardboard effigy it was, taking my doubts away with them in their pockets. No matter how many came and went though, we were omnipresent. We were the foundation.
We never spoke about the decision to stay inside that shabby fortress, friendship forced me to accept it without question. My walk to his house, past rows of identikit houses and through a laneway that was constantly flooded with the tang of last night, always meant passing faces that seemed to twist with questions and anger. I could see someone ahead, sitting on an electricity box, a pool forming between his feet from an hour, at a guess, of dedicated spitting.
‘Off up to your mate, are you?’ He squeezed every syllable from the word mate.
I kept my eyes low, concentrated on the sweep of my shoes, pleading silently that I would pass without anything else being said.
‘That prick won’t see it coming you know? You can tell him that, alright?’
I took those hits wordlessly, letting them soak into my skin and sink down to bone where they would take root with the rest.
Playing cards; switch, poker, canasta, they usually tugged the cloud of night from my mind but that morning I couldn’t shake those words, their cadence, the bristle of their threat, it all bounced between my ears.
‘What’s up with you?’ he said, irritated by my distance.
‘Do you ever get bored? Here, I mean. Don’t you ever want to go somewhere, instead of wasting hours in this shed?’ Bluntness spilled from me and, shaken and tired, I was desperate for air. I shuffled the deck, staring at the cards as they tumbled over my fingers, instantly wishing I could scoop those words up and hide them away.
‘If it’s such a waste then what are you doing here, then?’ He pushed the tip of his cap high and out of his eye line, watching me for a reaction; daring me.
‘Look, I didn’t mean anything by it, but, we spend every day in here and…’
‘and what? Not good enough for you, is it?’ A hot, angry glow had replaced my stomach. I wanted to stand up, to be anywhere but this stupid, shabby cage, but I couldn’t trust my legs to keep me upright.
‘You know that I’m here as your friend, from day one that was never an issue, you know that, don’t you? I’ve stuck with you, getting looks and snidey comments and it didn’t bother me’ I said. ‘But…’ I pieced together the angles and curves of sounds, formed the words, hoping they would stick long enough for him to hear them.
I closed my eyes.
‘You stabbed him.’
All his anger, every bubbling drop that had threatened and barked, it disappeared straight away. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.
‘You know I didn’t mean to. You know what they put me through. Months of shit. Hidings on the way home, slashing tyres, a fucking brick through the car window. You know about all of it,’ he said. ‘That night, I don’t know, something broke.’
He spoke with the voice of a child. It quivered, naked and alone, and then he wasn’t trying to explain anything, he was asking, just like he had asked the only other boy in that classroom, while parents and older siblings had crowded around taking photographs and sighing contently, to join him, to be afraid and alone together. I had been the only other boy with no kind of safety net. Even then, not a decade combined, we recognised the need to be less than lonely so we sat together and we weren’t.
A feint, empty blue was painted across the sky the next morning and I wondered if today too, I had woken to a different world. I walked slowly past the identikit houses and, like every other morning, I searched each one for a change, something new that separated them from each other, from yesterday, from themselves. They remained; stoic and beige. The lane was empty so I stopped to smoke, my jacket scratching the wall as I slid down to sit. There was nothing, here, behind me, or in that shed, so after a few minutes spent grabbing fistfuls of grass, sprinkling each wisp over my torn and scuffed shoes, I stood and walked. I walked past his house, my head kept level and straight in case I saw the casually expectant faces of his mother or sister through a window. I was afraid to see him watching for me, to see the confusion he would have felt when I didn’t arrive as usual. I walked for hours that day until my legs burned dry and my back arched. I walked through lunch and almost walked through dinner too. As I ate, my legs danced beneath the table, urging me onto the path again.
The walking stopped after about a week. My muscles, now twisted and angry, had started to keep me awake at night so I called to other friends, tried to gather something communal and stitch together things that were long frayed. Being outside this tribal huddle felt isolating at first, I had to keep knocking, some initiation to test my loyalty but slowly, things grew and I felt the panic of a sprint finish towards the end of the summer. Hours had been wasted and the sun was not hanging over us for as long as it had weeks before, swinging across the sky that little bit quicker, but that didn’t matter all that much now. Whatever light it could give me, I would drink it down.
I passed my mother at the telephone seat; an archaic beast of a thing, lacquered heavily and gaudily dressed with satin and lace placemats, the phone was still in her hand and the whistle of the dial tone buzzed softly, making me stop.
‘Is everything okay?’ I said, pulling my jacket on, my hand on the door handle.
‘He didn’t take enough’ she said, her cheek sucked in on one side, her teeth clamped down hard on the inside of her mouth.
‘Enough what? Who are you talking about?’
‘They think that he didn’t take enough of them. He might be alright, no way of knowing yet though. Too soon,’ she said. ‘Too soon.’
‘Who?’ I said, but I didn’t need an answer. My bones fell away and I was empty. I felt a kick, brutal, pulling the air from my chest and steadied myself against the wall.
‘His brother found him; said that he had his head on the table, his cap was over his eyes and he thought he was asleep, until he saw the mess.’ Trailing off, she dabbed at silent tears and walked to the kitchen where the pot, long boiled, was chugging noisily and turning the window to mist. I followed her, watching her light a cigarette and lean heavily on the back of a chair.