He sits there looking across the river, waiting for her to arrive. In the top pocket of the old army jacket he’s wearing are two joints that he’s just finished rolling. The sun belts down, slapping the back of his neck.
She’s late – they were supposed to meet at half past four, but it’s almost hitting ten to five. He stamps the ground nervously with his worn DC runners. Hearing the hedge rustle behind him, he turns his head and sees Anna making her way into the open, walking down the bank towards him. She stops when she reaches the clearing. They’ve spent so much of their leaving cert year down here that a perimeter of the grass has died out.
‘How’s it going?’ he says, cupping a hand over his eyes to get a good look at her.
Even dressed in her school uniform he thinks she’s dead stunning, has always thought so, and has carried it with him like a chain, not wanting the other lads to know, as they’d only abuse him.
She gazes across the river before sitting down beside him. ‘I’m alright and yourself Joseph?’
‘Grand, sure the usual,’ he says taking a joint out of his pocket. He likes that she calls him Joseph and not Joe, which is what everybody else calls him. ‘How was school today?’ he asks, lighting the spliff.
‘Same old, same old. You?’
‘Myself and Kevin mitched double French, shot a few frames up in Mickey’s.’
‘Nothing new there huh,’ she says. ‘You’d want to start putting in a few hours, the exams aren’t too far away now.’
Joseph’s aware French and Maths are going down the pan. He often visualises the moment his auld pair see his results. The mother will probably bawl and his father will look like he’s got a stick shoved up his arse. More than likely, they’ll plead with him to repeat, but no fuckin’ chance is he doing that craic. He isn’t a dunce: he just hasn’t done a tap all year.
‘I’m thinking of dropping down to pass French anyways,’ he says.
She doesn’t respond. Usually she’d chastise him for having such a defeatist outlook, but today she’s staring off into the distance, preoccupied by something, he reckons. She must be thinking about Paddy’s Day. Fuck that was almost two months ago now. They haven’t been talking properly since.
‘It’s an awful pity about young Brian,’ she says, digging her fingers into the dirt.
He takes a deep inhale and feels the smoke swirl around his chest. Looking at the river, Joseph notices the lazy pull of the water as some reeds drift slowly by. ‘It’s an awful tragedy. My mother hasn’t shut up about it since it happened like.’
Joseph was shocked when his mother told him about it: a seven-year-old boy drowning right across from the spot where he always hangs out.
Young Brian apparently kicked a football over the back-wall of his house, followed it down to where it lay in the water, close to the bank. Stretching for it, on his knees, young Brian lost his balance and fell into the river. Well that’s what the rumours say happened.
Joseph hasn’t slept well since the accident. Things in the social group are slightly strained because of him, and if they weren’t then maybe his gang would’ve been here when Brian kicked the ball over, been here to save his life.
To deal with the guilt he’s smoking more hash than usual.
‘That’s his place over there.’ Joseph points to the back of a semi-detached house, less than a hundred metres away.
‘The family must be heartbroken,’ she says, as he nudges her to take the joint off him.
Anna looks at him hesitantly.
‘Ah go on, you’re not going to let me smoke all this to myself. I’ll be baked as fuck.’
She smiles at him nervously and shakes her head.
‘Really, not like you to say no to a smoke,’ he says, feeling like a bit of an idiot.
A silence hangs over them as they sit side by side, not looking at each other.
Again, he starts patting the ground with his feet. It’s apparent to him that things are still awkward, have been for almost a couple of months now since the night they shagged on the other side of the river, which was pretty close to the spot the boy drowned. Some of the police tape is still wrapped around the bark of one of the trees.
They’d been knacker drinking there, a bunch of them, on Paddy’s Day. It was the first time he’d taken pills and he remembered telling Anna how he loved her, always had. The magic thing was that she started kissing him. They made their way through the trees, sat down close to the water, chatted about everything and everyone. While it was still pitch black out and when the sounds of the rest of the gang had waned, almost to a murmur, they had sex.
The next morning Joseph woke up in his bed feeling like a pig shat in his head, but at the same time, a euphoria swept over him. Everything had led to this. He texted Anna straight away and said to himself that he would not stir from the bed until she replied. He was pure giddy.
It took her almost a fortnight to text him back. In his stupidity he’d told his best friend Bob not to tell anybody that he’d popped his cherry, shagged Anna. Everybody in school knew a few days later. She resented him for it, he knew that, had to hear it off of her friends. The greatest moment of Joseph’s life quickly became his most despised.
The wind picks up slightly, bristling through Joseph’s hair. ‘Want to hang out tomorrow, grab lunch, the two of us?’ he asks, hearing his heartbeat quicken, he’s never asked her out properly like this before.
She pauses. ‘I would … but I’m actually going over to Liverpool with my mother for a few days.’
‘Really? You visiting family?’
‘No, the two of us are just going to do a bit of shopping like,’ she says, taking her phone out of her pocket and inspecting it.
‘Isn’t it well for some,’ he says taking a large inhale from the spliff. Anna doesn’t reply. Something’s between them now, he knows it, can sense it cutting the air. She keeps glancing across the water, away from him. He feels like a muppet for picking this place to meet her; he’s only done it to try and prove things can be normal again between them. The tragedy of young Brian should’ve been enough for him to realise that this place is now tainted.
The silence breaks with the sound of her sobbing.
‘Anna, are you alright? What’s the matter?’
She leans over, wraps her arms around him, plants her head in his chest. ‘The child.’
‘I know, it’s awful to think that something like that can happen in this day and age.’ It’s not enough. He has to say something philosophical, all encompassing, that will put her at ease and make her realise that he’s the man she needs to be with. Holding her tightly, he wants to smell her hair, but thinks it an inappropriate time.
‘It’s a tragedy,’ is all he can say, over and over again.
After several minutes, she loosens her grip, pulls away from him. ‘I’ve got to go. I’ll see you soon,’ she says, standing up, wiping her face.
He stands up too. ‘Are you sure you’re alright …’ The words get caught in his mouth, like they always do in crucial moments like this. He wants to put his arms around her again, comfort her, but she’s moved away, is retreating now. This moment feels crucial to him and he’s letting it slip away.
‘I’ll catch you soon,’ she says. With that she turns around, walks back up the slope.
‘Enjoy the holiday!’ he shouts after her, but she doesn’t acknowledge him.
Today is the day he’d planned to turn it all around and he’d made an arse of it. He strolls to the water edge and starts skimming stones. Soon his mother will have the tea on the table.
Late that night, with the air all dewy, Joseph makes his way behind the row of houses, through the hedges, back to the river. He has to use the light on his phone to help him find the way and his shoes are sopping as he wades through all the wild uncut grass to the familiar clearing. The dirt is okay to sit on, not too wet, and leaning back he sparks up the joint that he never smoked earlier. It’d been a shit day, shit evening and shit night. He dropped all the other fellas ’cause he thought he’d a shot of spending the evening with Anna. No doubt the boys were wrecked at this stage, probably in the beer garden of The Brig, drinking naggins they smuggled in. Joseph could have joined them, but is too deflated. The clouds are out in force and he can barely make out any of the stars above him.
What will he to do after school? After the results come through he’ll be able to officially sign on. Anna will be off to one of the cities: Galway, Cork, even Limerick. She’d get the points no bother; she’d brains on her. They’d all be together for the next few months; and then there’d be a split between those who left and the ones who stayed. Sure the majority would come back at weekends to hit up The Brig, but it wouldn’t be the same. He’s not fully sure how he knows this, but he does, feels it deep inside of him, almost as distinctly as the hash running through his system.
He stubs the joint out, flicks it down the slope. Lifting his head up, he rubs his chin, inspects the opposite side of the river. Nothing can be heard except the low sweeping sound of the water brushing by.
That’s when he sees it: a child standing amongst the reeds across on the far bank. Joseph leans forward, his hands pressed down on the dirt. Focusing as hard as he can, he expects this mirage to disappear any second. His heart is beating violently. Jesus H Christ, this must be some sort of super skunk.
‘Hello, are you alright?’ Joseph shouts.
The figure doesn’t budge, doesn’t mutter a syllable.
This has to be young Brian; this must be his ghost. The sweat is dripping down Joseph’s forehead fast now. ‘Is it you Brian?’ he shouts over.
He stands up, takes a few steps forward. A beam of moonlight breaks through some of the cloud cover and he catches a clear look of the pale, dark haired child that’s staring at him across the water. Young Brian was a ginger, where this child has a mop of dark hair like his own.
Moving closer, he almost falls over a rock.
‘You don’t even know who I am.’
Joseph stops in his tracks, looks around him. There is nobody in sight. The voice was as clear as day; he couldn’t have imagined it.
The child is still looking at him and a shiver runs up his spine. Every fibre of his being is telling him to scatter till he’s back in his bedroom with the door fastened shut.
‘What do you want?’ Joseph asks. ‘Are you real?’
He gets no response, but the child keeps staring at him, and he can’t avert his gaze either.
Joseph walks forward to the edge of the river.
Taking off his shoes and coat, he smiles at the child, and breathing heavily, he leaps into the water, begins thrashing to the other side. Clawing his way onto the bank, he notices the child is gone.