When the branch of the beech tree broke Morris fell down in a heap next to the trunk. He lay there and stared at the sky. “Stupid branch!” he cursed upwards. The tree was unmoved, its leaves shivering in the early autumn afternoon. Morris struck its mottled trunk with a lunging kick. The rugged bark ignored his blow, and the unmoved tree carried on soaking up light, sucking up water, holding up its heavy old girth, and growing fantastically slowly into the azure.
Pasty-faced Dillon appeared above, his dishevelled mop of blond hair blocking the sun. “What happened to you?” “Nothing…” Morris shrugged, hopping up and hurling the broken branch as far as he could into the lake. “You cut your elbow.” “It’s fine. It’s nothing.” Morris rubbed the small smear of blood along his wrist as the two of them ran in fits and bursts up the path back to the house.
They raced each other to the pool room; Morris was first, as usual. The pool room was a converted shed with small square windows, attached to the end of the squat white bungalow, which in turn was perched right at the tip of a narrow peninsula, with water close by on three sides and the torn-up road leading from the other back towards the village.
Morris grabbed a cue and launched it at Dillon while picking out another. They set up the balls, tossed a coin to see who would break, rubbed the tips with a cube of chalk, and for half an hour focused on the crack of ball on ball, the selection of angles, and the gradual potting of solids and stripes. After arguments about rules and the eventual clearing of the table, winner and loser were defined and a new game began.
Halfway through the third game Morris and Dillon abandoned it, and instead brandished their cues as swords, and swung and hacked and parried their way in tangled swoops around the cluttered room, trying to belt each other clean on the arm or leg or back, until Morris broke his cue off the wall, and Dillon fired the white and black balls straight through panes of a window onto the lawn, and they both tipped over the tall bookshelf onto the desk and then legged it out across the grass.
“Who owns that house anyhow?” asked Dillon. “Some old foreign couple. They’re never here. My dad says they’re selling it.” “I’ll buy it! Twenty euro for the lot! I’m sick of home!” “Me, too.”
The bikes were where they had been abandoned in the rushes. The afternoon was moving on and swallows that would soon be going south were arcing over the lake after insects in broad mobile circles punctuated by flicks and spurts and fluid rolls. Morris and Dillon pedalled along the narrow briar-edged road, weaving back and over across the strip of thick grass growing in the centre, almost colliding, cycling with no hands, ploughing into the pot holes, using their shoes as brakes, until they skidded to a stop outside the McLoughlin house.
There was no car outside or sign of life in the windows. Morris looked at his watch. “Bet there’s nobody here.” Dillon was looking up at the tall conifer trees that ringed the garden. “I think there’s a shed out the back,” he said. “O’ Grady cuts the grass here on Saturdays.” They dropped the bikes behind low furze bushes, clambered over the wall and skirted round the house in the shadows of the pines.
The lock on the wooden door was old and rusted and gave away easily to blows from the heaviest rock that Dillon could lift. An acrid smell of petrol fumes soon filled the small shed as they tilted the lawnmower onto its side with the fuel cap open. They found two red life jackets and inflated them after putting them on, roaring with laughter while tipping a tin of thick green paint into the fuel tank. Morris wanted to use his lighter to ignite the mixture but Dillon gave him one of the cigarettes he had loose in his pocket and they puffed and coughed in the paint and petrol fumes with the emergency lights on the swollen life jackets flashing on and off. When they heard a car in the distance they took off again, scrambling back out over the wall and onto the bikes and sprinting down the shore road.
Dillon had taken some screwdrivers and a heavy vice-grip, and they stopped whenever they could to unscrew or dismantle things. They took down one signpost completely and twisted others in wrong directions. “Glann Road” now pointed up a cul-de-sac boreen, and “Lake view B&B” aimed straight into the hedge. They hid when they heard cars and opened gates into the small fields that lined the road. In one of them a dozen or more cows were quietly chewing. With the gate wide open they were easily provoked by energetic shooing; out onto the road, trotting awkwardly on their loud hooves in a confused herd. “Stupid cows!” yelled Morris. “Go on ye good things ye!”
The farmer must have spotted them from the hill that ran up behind the field, since that was where he came running from in his green wellingtons, swearing at the top of his voice and waving a stick above his head. Morris couldn’t help but grin with glee, as happy as he could remember ever being, pedalling and freewheeling down the leafy narrow road on a long bright evening under low dappled sunlight being chased by the angry cursing farmer and his two dappled barking dogs, and swerving between the dozen stupid dappled cows that were now clattering clumsily in all directions. Dillon, close behind, was tossing away tools and trying to get the flashing life jacket off over his head while pedalling furiously. For five minutes or more they tore along breathless towards the lake again, until they pulled up panting and laughing beside an outcrop of old concrete piers.
There were boats tied to the piers and more pulled up onto the shore. The two of them leaned against one until their breathing began to slow back down. Dillon launched the last of the screwdrivers into the jetty. Morris followed it with stones, then larger rocks. They made bigger and bigger splashes in the shallow water until they were half soaked. Morris untied a few of the boats and tried to get them to float away, but the small waves pushed by the light east wind sent them back to bump and nudge the piers and turn sideways and scrape against the rocks. One of them had a dented old Yamaha 15 outboard engine mounted on the stern. There was no petrol tank in the boat but there was one hidden behind floorboards leaning against an alder tree. When Dillon found it Morris dragged it down and hauled it into the boat and set about pulling the cord to start the engine and soon they were thumping through the waves with the choke out and the throttle wide open and the whole lake opening up ahead of them.
The shore shrank away. Dillon lay flat on the wooden decking at the very bow of the fibreglass-hulled boat, letting his hand hang down until it caught the speeding water and split it with a foamy crease that dragged his fingers back. Morris swerved the boat abruptly into the wind and Dillon almost fell out, his arm catching a wave on the full and a sharp slap of cold water jolting up into his face. “Quit it!” he yelled as he scrambled for grip, but it was lost in the engine’s hoarse rumble. Morris threw the boat left and right, easing off then accelerating again with noisy jolts, his yells joining the engine-pitch as they sped erratically across the deep open bay out towards the islands.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Morris and Dillon looked back at the distant houses from the short stony shore that ran around the outside of the densely-wooded island. There were swooping swallows here, too, and a motley medley of other small birds flitting among the branches, and telltale swirls of rising trout puncturing the calm shallows along the sheltered side. The boys threw stones until a group of idling ducks triggered suddenly into scattering flight. Morris stood with a stone in his open palm and watched them whirl overhead. “They’ll really kill us now.” “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter, does it? We were gonna get shafted anyhow.” “Yeah, but… it was all Fitzy’s fault.” “They’ll go nuts when they find out. Maybe they know already.” “Screw it! It’s pointless anyways.” “He was asking for it!” “He’s a moron!” “They’re all a shower of gobshites!” “They think they know everything!”
Dillon pulled more loose cigarettes from his pocket, but they were soaked. He let them fall. “Yeah, we’re really dead this time.” “Can’t go back!” “What will they do?” “Dunno. Your aul fella will throttle me if he catches me.” Morris made glum joke choking sounds. “He’ll do worse to me!” “Why are they always telling us what to do?”
They left the water and wandered into the wood, where their conversation faded among the quiet damp branches and trunks. Further in, past rings of stones that once bounded fires lit by cold fishermen, there were no more signs of people, and the light became dimmer and moody. The island seemed much bigger from the inside: dense and deep. There were no birds and the earthy air was cool and heavy. Aimlessly the two unspeaking teenagers pushed their way into a clearing. There were two men in the clearing. Morris and Dillon froze. It was too late, for one of the men had noticed, and looked up, and gave them a bewildering half-smile. “Well?,” he said.
He had a stubby beard and long unkempt hair and stood askance against a fallen tree. “Well?” The teenagers didn’t budge. They looked at each other and warily back at the strangers, muscles tensed to flee. The ground was strewn with empty beer cans, wrappers, upturned wooden crates and boxes, cloths and papers. “What took ye?”
His companion, shorter and heavier, was sitting on the horizontal trunk swinging his legs. “Messing, I presume,” he said in a high pitched voice. “Stealing Trevelyn’s corn?”
“Who?” asked Dillon. “Who are you?” “Who, indeed?” replied the man. “Which one are you? Dillon or Morris.” “Dillon, of course!” said the bearded man. “Don’t you remember?” “How… how do you know who I am?” asked Dillon incredulously. The two boys were edging backwards. “How does anybody know anybody?” asked the shorter man. “We have a good view from out here.” “But it has been too long,” said the bearded man. “It’s hard to stay in touch.” Morris had retreated into a dark shadow. The bearded man looked worried and lifted his hands. “Don’t go lads, wait here a second,” he entreated. “There’s nothing here to plunder or pillage! Just a grand view! A grand wide view. Anyway, we’ve been waiting for ages…”
“Waiting for what?” asked Morris from the shadows. “For you, waiting for you.” The bearded man looked unsure. “We’re supposed to tell you something. Or show you something. Well, I think the errors of your ways or something,” he said. “But we’ve been waiting for a long time; it’s hard to know now: hard to remember the errors from the… from the other stuff. You know every message has a best before date?”
“Message, what message?” butted in the shorter heavier man. He pushed himself clumsily off the trunk and wiped his hands off his dirty jeans. “Anyway, they’re still only kids.” “True,” said the bearded man. “Just kids. They know not what they do. But… taking a path all the same, going a certain way. Break all before them but unbroken themselves. Not for long now! Finding boundaries by smashing through them will leave you stranded sooner or later! You can only live outside the rules if you don’t break the ones that count… and it’s getting late now, or it’s already too late. What ye did to Fitzy, what we did, that was a big line crossed.”
“How do you know about that?” asked Morris, barely his eyes visible. The bearded man stepped forward and looked intently and indirectly into the patch of shade. His voice became low and slow and forceful. “The world doesn’t care, Morris. The world doesn’t give a shit. Why would it? But you have to care to make it… to make it real. You can run from being a man, but that just makes you a running man, see? One way or another you are just a part of the messy whole. The end is in the beginning, the beginning in the end. There’s still time to turn it around I suppose but…” He stopped and turned to look back, shoulders tense, his voice evaporating into a sigh.
“Does that make sense?” he asked. “I guess,” answered the short man. “It’s hard to say. Man the measure of all things; nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so, and so on and so forth. We’ve had enough time to think about it.” The bearded man nodded. “Gets muddy,” he said, “, when you’re out here waiting. I thought I had it off by heart.” “But we have to say something, “ replied the other. “Should remember something. There was definitely a message. We had a message, no?” The bearded man shrugged. “We’re disconnected now. Maybe they forgot about us. No good to them. Why were we left here so long? What was the point?” “Because we were dossers,” said the short man. “They stopped bothering to ask if we were still around. They measure once and keep cutting forever.” They stopped to face the boys again. Morris and Dillon were gone.
They sprinted back the way they had come through the undergrowth. They could hear the bearded guy yelling after them. “Where are ye going, lads? What about Fitzy?” The other guy too. “Don’t leave it till it’s too fucking late! Get us out of here!”
“What about Fitzy?” he asked again loudly when they walked onto the shore. Dillon and Morris were standing waist deep in the cold water trying to reach the boat with a long branch, but the boat was floating slowly away. “Ye didn’t pull it up. Of course ye didn’t.” The lingering warmth of the evening had ebbed away. Flies hummed in the air as twilight enveloped the water and washed purples and blues into the soft sky. “I think ye have to stop breaking things! Ye’re untied, unscrewed, unmoored, the two of ye!” Morris spun in the water and roared. “Who the hell are you? What do you want? Leave us alone!”
The men said nothing until the boys eventually gave up on the boat, and they all watched it float away, bobbing on the small quick waves. The boys came back onto the shore, shivering and moody. The bearded man was apologetic. “Well, it could be worse.” “Who are you?” asked Morris again. “Well, it’s tough to say exactly,” replied the shorter man. “We think we might be possible future selves of you two, but we’re not sure. We’ve been here a long time and it’s hard to remember exactly.” The bearded man absent-mindedly kicked a stone. “We think what happened with Fitzy was too far,” he said, “if my memory is right”. “And we think we have some, you know, advice: advice from your possible future selves, to set ye straight, maybe.” He kicked another stone and looked down at his foot. “We think we should tell you that you have to give a damn to get any of the good stuff. You two are on the edge between feckless boy and guilty man, and once you go over the edge you can’t go back. It’s hard to change tack after a while. We think ye are making shite life choices, and they’re ones ye’ll have to live with.” He paused then started speaking again. “Might be too late. It was supposed to happen sooner, I think. I guess ye might not grow ears till it’s too late to listen. It all goes round in circles anyway.”
Nobody said anything for a while. They looked at the lights of the houses on the far shore blinking on in the growing gloom. “How will we get back now?” asked Dillon. “We don’t belong there anyway!” snapped Morris. “Well, ye don’t belong here,” said the shorter man. “You have to work to belong, wherever. You have to let them in, and you can’t belong without letting them in. ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’, as the poem goes.” “No? We can go where we like!” said Dillon. “Hah! With only yourselves to bring, where can you really go?” The bearded man butted in. “But how can we open yer eyes? Look at what they see: two feckless idle dossers who wreak the place and think they have it all figured out! Two hooligans on the path to a cautionary tale for the next crop! Are we free, stuck out here? Is this where you want to be, waiting for God knows what for God knows how long until you forget what you were waiting for in the first place?”
He glanced back at the trees and sighed. Ah… well, what would we know? I wish someone could have talked some sense into us before we…” His voice trailed off again. “We were just having fun,” said Morris. “Why the hell should everyone tell us what to do anyway? All they have are stupid rules. They’re too afraid… they didn’t even invent them, just learned them all off. Why should we care?”
It was almost dark. The bearded man began to walk away from the water. “Come on, let’s go. I think we can leave.” His companion straightened up. “Yeah? How do you know?” “Gut feeling. I’m wondering, maybe we were waiting for them to remind us… about something. Maybe we had it mixed up; maybe they came here to tell us… to show us… that we were just dossers… no different from the rest of them…” The short man started to walk away as well. “Maybe there’s no lesson, and this is just another random experience, the devil and his dog in the detail passing by. Never the same river twice. Maybe we can just clear out and they won’t notice.”
The taller man scratched his beard and looked at the two boys. “It’ll get cold but ye’ll be ok. Someone will come sooner or later. Ye just have to wait. Waiting is not that bad… though it’s bad enough. It gets cold. Try to remember… the world owes you less than you think… owes you nothing really. But there are things, that can be worked on… that can be valuable. I guess it’ll take time. Maybe it’s different now, after Fitzy, maybe too late, maybe not up to you or us to decide.” He was almost in the trees.”
They disappeared. Dillon and Morris stood shivering for a long time where they were, as moonless blackness sealed the canopy from end to end, broken only by the lights of distant houses and the ultra-distant stars. The odd unwinking planet. The story of their latest crimes would be moving like a rainshower through the village, their absence would be manned by a hostile welcome party armed with threats and promises. It would be a cold night. A dog was barking somewhere in the dark.
Short story by Donal Kelly
Written in November 2013
This took a while to write, and I have no idea if it is actually finished. I started with the idea of two teenage boys on a rampage of divilment through a rural village, only to meet scary future visions of themselves carrying warnings about their life-paths. But what emerged when I tried to write it down were two very unsure possible future selves with an unclear message, stuck in confusion about what they were supposed to be doing. It seemed inevitable that the cliche of message-wielding future selves would be undermined, and it made weird sense that the two older men had been waiting too long to remember their message properly, if it ever existed in the first place. Maybe the whole episode is in doubt then? Hard to know. I spent a fair bit of time trying to, at the very least, iron out the small mistakes, and I got caught up with the dialogue in the second section. It’s my longest effort in a long time though, so it can serve as a better beginning to the onward-and-upwards of today. I love the idea of capturing little snippets of nature in flowing sentences and interspersing them into a human story to give it a real sense of place and time, but… I can only work on the assumption of failure.