I knew him vaguely because he was in my young fella Bryan’s class. It was obvious he was a kid with problems—always hanging around street corners with a can of Amstel, a drinker too young to buy booze, a smoker too young to buy fags. Every time I saw him, I’d think, thank God mine wasn’t like that. Not that my Bryan was perfect. We couldn’t prise him away from his laptop, for one thing. But he was generally safe in his room, and he’d look me in the eye when we spoke. This kid—Deccy—looked like he’d never made eye contact with anyone.
He was sitting on the low wall staring out to sea that evening, as I rounded the high bend before the long descent into the village. I suppose he could have been waiting for someone, or admiring the view, but somehow I knew what his intentions were.
I’ll admit it, for a split second I was tempted not to get involved. Pretend I’d seen nothing and assume the next person to drive by would stop. But I thought of how Grainne and I would feel if the cops came to our door with the worst news imaginable about our son, and my foot hit the brake, conscience in my toes if nowhere else.
Everything was peaceful as I got out of the car. The only sounds were of seagulls screeching as they hovered like kites, and the soft thump-thump of Deccy’s trainers against the wall. I felt sick at the thought of the sheer drop to the sea below his dangling feet, yet some insane part of me was admiring the fact that he’d at least picked a nice spot for it. It’s my favourite place in the whole world, the one thing I’d actually take in as I flaked home from the office every evening, a loop of should-have-saids playing in my head. As you approach that final bend, the bay appears, sheltered and serene. I’ve lived here all my life and I still get a buzz from it. High cliffs and a huge sky and white sails on sparkling water. Magic.
Though he must have been aware he had company, Deccy didn’t turn around. My shirt clung with sweat to my back, my heart was going like a hamster trying to outrun its wheel. Taking a few slow steps towards him, I tried to summon the right words to say. Everything sounded crap even in my head, the don’t-be-blues and the look-on-the-bright-sides. That kind of glib talk would have made me want to jump myself. I tried to imagine what would work on Bryan in a terrifying, no-margin-for-error situation.
‘Did you see the match?’ was the best I could do.
There was no reaction. Deccy had his hands jammed in his pockets, earphones in his ears. Grainne says I never notice anything about people, but even I could see he was as white as the bockety roll-up hanging from his mouth. I took another step.
‘The match?’ I said, louder. ‘Any idea what the score was, bud?’
His head turned a fraction, but he kept his gaze on the water. I could faintly hear his music. It was that death metal stuff they like, a relentless roar of fury.
I sat on the wall facing landwards, about ten feet from him.
‘Grand evening,’ I shouted over the music. He ignored me.
‘Isn’t it? A grand auld evening.’
‘I heard you,’ he mumbled, the roll-up wobbling. ‘And it isn’t.’
‘No?’ I tried. ‘Oh.’
‘Why d’you say that?’
He gave me the are you thick or what? look. ‘There’s just nothing grand about it.’
‘Sorry you feel that way.’
A pause. An eternity, moss plunging to the sea where his trainers dislodged it. Then, ‘Yeah, well, I do.’
‘You’re in my lad’s class, aren’t you? Bryan McNally’s class?’
I took a chance. ‘Look, this is none of my beeswax, bud, but are you okay?’
He shook his head slightly, and I’d swear his chin wobbled. Just a kid.
‘Can I help? Give you a lift home?’
‘No way I’m going back there,’ he said, shifting so abruptly I thought he’d fall without meaning to, with not even time to whip his hands free of his pockets.
‘Okay, okay,’ I said. ‘No hassle.’
My nerves were bad watching him. A simple loss of balance was all it would take. And I didn’t trust myself to grab him in case I botched it. I am a natural-born botcher.
‘What’re you listening to?’ I shouted.
‘Edge of Sanity,’ he said, tossing his roll-up stub and watching it sail through the air. It looked surprisingly graceful.
‘Oh yeah, they’re good,’ I lied. ‘I used to be an AC/DC man. When I was your age.’
I kept my eyes on his face, trying to read him. ‘I loved Motörhead too. And Iron Maiden, Judas Priest. We used to draw the names of our favourite bands on our denim jackets. And when they played metal at the discos, all the lads would be out headbanging like mad eejits. It’s a wonder none of us got an embolism. Mind you, I gave myself a nosebleed once. I was an absolute legend in the yard afterwards.’
He rolled his eyes, but I noticed he’d pulled out one earpiece.
‘Who else was there? Oh, Metallica, of course.’
‘Metallica are cool. They’re on my playlist,’ he said, firing me a look I’d like to think was approval.
We shot the breeze for a while, the golden ball of the sun melting into a bronze band that flooded the horizon. He loosened up and started telling me about his dad who only came home for money, about his mum who cried in front of his little sisters. He told me about the kids at school calling him a weirdo. He talked about how pointless every day seemed, how he couldn’t see it ever getting better. I didn’t offer him advice because I had none. Other than the good thing I had with Grainne and Bryan, I had to agree that life basically sucked. Doing a job you hated, with a boss you spent all day trying not to punch, knowing this was it until you were put out to pasture. It isn’t a great sign when the best part of work is driving like crazy away from it. I couldn’t tell him he’d no longer be bullied when he got into the real world because they were out there too, getting their kicks out of telling you you weren’t worthy of a raise. I didn’t say any of that, but once he’d said his bit, he looked less pale.
It was getting chilly, and Deccy shivered despite the hoodie he had on. I was frozen in my damp, short-sleeved shirt. The hairs on my arms were vertical, but with the cold now rather than fear. I rubbed them and chanced saying, ‘Bit nippy, isn’t it? How about that lift? I can drop you wherever you want.’
And just like that, he swung his legs back onto solid ground.
I dropped him by the Spar. Common sense told me he still wasn’t out of the woods, but I was damned if I knew what more I could do.
‘It was a draw,’ he said as he hopped out.
‘The match. It was a draw. Nil-all. There was no winner.’
In the rearview mirror, I saw him stroll past the Spar and duck into the off-licence where they weren’t fussy about age.
It stayed with me. I’d wake in the night, sweat-drenched and convinced my fingers were loosening on something I was meant to keep hold of. I worried that maybe I should have gone to the police, or his crying mum, or at least asked Grainne’s advice. But by the time I got home that night, I felt foolish for thinking he’d intended to do anything drastic. So I said nothing, and I’d occasionally see Deccy around, still avoiding eye contact, but alive.
Some time afterwards, he went on the radio. It was one of those talk things people call in to and a professionally outraged DJ helps them see their issues are even worse than they realised. They were doing an item about the high suicide rate among young men, and Deccy was one of the callers. He talked about my helping him and said it had been a lifesaver, someone asking if he was okay and genuinely listening to the answer. He said he was now on anti-depressants and hoped to train in IT after leaving school. I didn’t hear the show because I was doing battle at work, but Grainne told me when I got home. She was kind of mad, to be honest, and asked why I’d said nothing.
‘Because I didn’t do much,’ I said.
She said she couldn’t believe I’d keep such a thing to myself.
‘Why do you always have to be such a closed book?’ she said.
Deccy’s cousin set up a Facebook page in my honour. ‘Hero Mick’, she called it. I checked it obsessively the first few days and gave all the posts a thumbs up, notifications constantly pinging on my screen. People said the world needed guardian angels like me, especially with the mental health services in such a state thanks to that shower in the Dáil.
Then the comments changed, and some were unreal.
‘U shd of left the loser jump,’ one person said.
‘Waste of space, lol,’ said another. I didn’t know which of us they meant.
‘It was totally irresponsible not to ring the emergency services,’ said someone else. ‘This could easily have ended in tragedy for that young man.’
I asked Deccy’s cousin to delete the page, but she said she’d do what she wanted because she was the administrator, and she’d made new friends through it. I stopped looking after that.
For a while, I was off work. I couldn’t concentrate, exhausted from nights of trying not to let go. I started screwing up, sending emails to the wrong clients or forgetting to email altogether. My boss smirked as he splayed his hands on my desk and said I was on borrowed time. The doctor signed me off with stress, advised against rushing back. But while I hated work, despised the backstabbing and the front stabbing, I didn’t know what to do with myself at home. It didn’t suit Grainne either, me dragging behind her around the supermarket and watching daytime TV with the curtains closed. She thought up projects to keep me busy, but we were in a newish house on a newish estate, so there wasn’t much that needed doing. There are only so many times you can cut the grass and clean out the barbecue. She suggested I do classes, learn a skill.
‘But if I could do that, I could go back to work,’ I argued. I shouted a bit too loudly, may have thrown a few things. One of those things may have caught her on the forehead, but it was an accident, I swear on my life. She said she’d had enough, but wouldn’t specify enough of what.
She discussed me with her friends. I knew this because if she was on the phone she’d go quiet when I walked into the room.
I went back to work because it was easier to pretend to function. Eventually, it was preferable to being at home, with the rooms full of no talking. Preferable to the wary looks she’d started throwing me, and the way Bryan avoided any contact on his rare appearances out of his room.
I think of Deccy every time I drive home now, as I approach that final bend. I still get a kick out of it when the bay opens out ahead. It’s a sight for sore eyes. The kind of view you would choose as the last thing you’d like to see in your life.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
ANNE O’LEARY lives in Cork, Ireland. She won the From the Well 2017 short story competition, was shortlisted for the Colm Tóibín Short Story Award in 2016 and 2017, runner-up in the UCC/Carried In Waves 2015 Short Story Competition, and longlisted for the Greenbean Novel Fair 2016 and RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2015. Her work has featured in Halo, Spontaneity, The Incubator and the Sunday People newspaper. She blogs about writing at anneoleary.com and twitters at @wordherding