By Michael Cusack
Sylvan dipped his head to the plate and hoovered up the devil’s dandruff, the rolled note forming a pipeline to nostrils the size of caves. Most of the one hundred and eighty-eight euro doled out to him by the Irish government was spent on drink and drugs.
Within him lay the inability to rest, to take orders, to conform in any way. When he spoke, his nerves went jingle-jangle and he would glance from the corners of his eyes, always facing the floor.
He grew up in a madhouse, surrounded by madmen. Once he saw a neighbour chasing his cousin across the green with a golf club, swinging wildly and hoping to hit him into next week. Fifteen minutes later, the pair were driving balls onto the busy main road with the intent of smashing passing cars.
Another time, Sylvan’s parents had a violent argument on the street about a packet of Jaffa Cakes. Worse still, he had once seen his mother, skinny as a rake, walking naked around the estates as Tramadol took over her brain.
Sylvan had no talents, no confidence, and a stutter. He was six foot three, but the Killymooney boys nicknamed him ‘Slouch’ because of his posture, and psychologically, he was the height of a midget.
‘That’s good s-s-stuff,’ said Sylvan, raising his head triumphantly. His eyes looked like balloons about to pop, his pupils the size of twenty cent coins.
‘Do you have work tomorrow?’ asked Tazz, his favourite drinking partner. The two boys would buy cans and listen to music every weekend in Tazz’s gaff.
‘No, I told him I’m going on the beer all weekend and I’ll come in on Tuesday.’
‘Deadly. How do you find the new job anyway?’
‘Yes, it’s good, man. It’s great to have some extra cash.’
‘You won’t last, will you? You never do,’ said Tazz, plunging an invisible sword into Sylvan’s body.
‘Ah look, we’ll see how it goes.’
‘You won’t though. You lasted in your other job for about a month.’
‘That’s because I hated the guts of everybody in there. I wasn’t having that fool boss me around either. The lads I’m working with now are sound.’
‘Yes, they’re great lads to be fair.’ Tazz took back the rolled twenty euro note.
They sat together sniffing and drinking until the early hours. At around eight a.m., a car pulled up outside.
‘Right Sylvan, you’ve to head on. My son is here,’ said Tazz, looking at his phone. ‘The ex has just text me.’
‘Already? I thought we were going all weekend?’
‘I completely forgot I was taking him today. But you know the story, once he arrives, you’re out.’
‘S-s-sure he knows me. I just want a few more drinks and lines.’
‘Are you deaf?’ Tazz stood up from the sofa.
‘Ah man, he’s not g-g-going to kn-n-now the d-d-difference. Put him up into his room,’ said Sylvan. He was peeping out through the curtains as Tazz’s ex walked towards the gaff.
‘Don’t test me.’
Sylvan sensed what was coming. ‘Ah man, come on, we’ve partied before when your wee fella was here.’
‘WE DON’T DO THIS IN FRONT OF HIM.’
Sylvan tutted and rolled his eyes.
Tazz corbed it and stormed towards him. He pulled his neck muscles back and then sent his skull crashing onto the base of Sylvan’s chin. Sylvan hunched over and held his jaw.
‘Now, stay in here until his mother goes,’ said Tazz, leaving the living room and opening the front door.
As soon as Tazz brought his boy upstairs and the mother had drove off, Sylvan set sail for home. It was only a short walk from Tazz’s in John Paul Avenue to St. Martins estate. The wind outside was nearly lifting parked cars from the tarmac. The arms of trees were trying to slap Sylvan in the face.
Rage and cocaine go hand in hand. Both filled his body as water filled the lungs of a drowning man. What will I do now? Sylvan thought as he approached the green outside his house. He checked online for any sign of the usual suspects—the junkies and alcoholics that he reluctantly called his friends.
Kitty’s bar? he thought. Kitty’s was an infamous early house where the gypsy’s drank. He would have to walk downtown, through the archway, and knock on the back door. Then hope that whoever was working recognized him on the CCTV screen and allowed him inside. Too much effort.
As he turned his front door key, he remembered the bottle of vodka in his room. He stumbled upstairs and snatched it from underneath his mattress, knocking over dusty old cider cans with his jittery hands in the process. He was going to the Green Lake.
It was where he had spent many hours together with his father before he had ventured up to heaven. They used to flick out the fishing rods and talk all things football. Sometimes they’d slug cans of cheap European lager from the German supermarket across the road.
Thankfully, on his walk from St. Martins to the Green Lake, no cars drove past him. There was nothing worse than being seen steaming in the early hours when normal people were on their way to work.
Sylvan sat by the water, watched the fog lift, and saw swans swimming silently on the surface. An unexplained smile crossed his face which then turned into spontaneous laughter. His heart briefly flowed from sorrow to joy like a tap being turned from cold to hot. This was the story of his life, getting into and out of all kinds of trouble.
‘Why do I do this?’ said Sylvan, mumbling to the sky. ‘Why am I like this?’
‘You’ve been asleep for thirty-two years,’ said something. He didn’t know where it came from. The sky? His head? The swans?
‘No, I haven’t,’ said Sylvan, continuing the strange dialogue.
‘You know you have,’ said the voice with unquestionable authority.
‘I’ve done my best. Look at the life I’ve had.’
‘That’s not true.’ A vague image of a man walking on the lake appeared to Sylvan.
‘I wasn’t given many gifts. I made the most of the small amount I do have.’
‘Lies. You run from life with drink, drugs, and fake realities.’
‘B-b-but.’ Sylvan was stunned as the words pierced his heart like a surgeon’s scalpel. For the first time in his life, he could see himself for what he was. His fear had prevented him from looking and had kept him in la-la land. ‘How do I change? How can I get myself out of this?’ He fell to his knees and bowed his head towards the lake.
‘Dispense with the deceitful stories you tell yourself.’ The man on the water came closer and became a little clearer.
‘I’m weak, useless, lazy, and scared. I won’t be able to...’
‘You must die and be reborn,’ said the voice. The man disappeared.
The sudden movement of the swans taking flight bamboozled Sylvan. They removed the clouds from the sky as they took off. He dazedly stared at some daisies and off into space simultaneously. A fleeting glimpse of God’s love had greeted him when he was at his worst.
His next move become as clear as the liquid he was sipping. He stood up, spilled the spirit into the water and walked towards the bin. He placed the bottle inside it and headed for home.
As soon as Sylvan made it back, he opened a dirty old suitcase and packed as many clothes as he could stack in. Then he emptied the coffee tin filled with coins and tipped them into his backpack, along with his passport.
He needed a few more quid if he was going to do this. There was only one place to look. His little brother’s safe. Ronny had been dealing for a while now and always stashed his cash in there. Sylvan pressed 2-3-6-7-A, twisted the dial, and watched the light flash green.
Copious scrunched up notes, jewels, and gold lay before him. The treasure was obtained gram by gram. Ketamine, cocaine, and MDMA all exchanged with strangers. The type of person who runs at the sight of every blue light. Seeing addicts after nightclubs and in the toilets of scruffy pubs.
Sylvan lifted all his brother’s hard work and stuffed it into his two-strapped grey bag. He saw it as revenge for all the times Ronny had run up on innocent feens down the town. His brother was violent and volatile.
A flurry of novel thoughts arrived for Sylvan. This place has held me captive for too long. My family aren’t going to change. I can only do this with His help. Both the voice and the image from the lake were unblemished in his head.
When his bags were packed, he took his phone from his pocket, unlocked it, and saw that it was eight fifty-five a.m. The post office opened at nine. Luckily for Sylvan, his new job paid him cash in hand, so he didn’t tell the government a thing. He decided to head down by Brefini Terrace, it would be the quickest and quietest route.
He stumbled along with the suitcase clipping his heels on every third step. Blinks lasted longer than usual. Sylvan just hoped that he didn’t meet anybody he knew. The last thing he needed now was a conversation.
Brefini Terrace was like a dog pound. Scraggy canines snarled out through the metal gates and growled as Sylvan dragged his heavy case. He imagined some of the pups had tattoos and smoked fags and their owners organized them into an underground fighting syndicate.
Soiled and stinking babies’ nappies were scattered outside the door of number seven. A skip overflowed onto the road outside number three. This added to Sylvan’s hatred of the place. Can these people not put things in the bin? he thought.
That was rich coming from him. There were new species of insects copulating and populating the hidden crevices of his old room. A place where spiders married maggots and flies danced with dust.
Alone and twisted drunk, he looked to the sky in awe. It always seemed to wink back and say that everything was okay. When he returned his attention to the earth, with its nasty reality of people, he felt uneasy.
A man walked towards him like a zombie born in Chernobyl.
‘That’s Squib,’ Sylvan said to himself.
His cousin used to be full of energy and made everybody laugh on the estates. Except for his sister, he made her cry. Sylvan and Squib loved to watch wrestling together when they were kids. They made up body slams and chokeholds to practice on the younger boys.
As they became older and grew apart, Sylvan remembered his sitting room stinking of stale urine and sweat as Squib slept on their sofa one night. Unfortunately, Squib had put the point of the needle into his veins to escape the pointless pain in his life.
Sylvan watched his cousin as he approached. Squib’s gaze stayed on the concrete street and it sounded like he was chanting. Whatever gibberish Squib was jabbering, Sylvan didn’t want to dabble in. He walked past his kin in silence. His conscience interrogated him for that decision, but Sylvan wanted to get away from people like that. People like himself.
Thankfully for him, he didn’t meet a sinner as he ambled through St. Aidan’s Terrace and Tullacmongan. No vicious dogs insulted him either. Only the chirps of cheerful birds kept him company.
Happy Valley, the Chinese restaurant, was at the bottom of the Half Acre hill. An Cruiscin Lan, an Irish pub, was next door. It brought back memories of his many nights out before he discovered cocaine. He would get jarred up in the Cruiscin, fall in the door of Happy Valley, and bring a bag of grub back up the road.
Mr. Lyndon was opening the shutters of his grocery shop for another day of trade. He’d been running his business in the town for twenty odd years. Sylvan often had to run down and buy some bread and milk from Mr. Lyndon when he was young.
The Garda were outside Kitty’s bar trying to contain a couple of travellers who were scrapping and shouting. One of them had held the seventy-three-year-old owner up at knifepoint and stole three grand from the till. Sylvan was delighted he had decided against going down there and slipped past the incident unseen.
The council cleaners were out sweeping the streets. Sylvan saw a familiar face when he looked left onto Bridge Street. Ron Norman had been with the council for thirty years. A humble man always willing to serve. He volunteered at his local football club and used to coach Sylvan when he was ten years old.
It would be difficult for Sylvan to talk to Ron and tell him where he was going. Once he collected his social welfare payment, he would take a different route to the bus station. Sylvan’s heart was in this town, but he didn’t want to admit it to himself yet.
The queue in the post office was filled with pensioners.
‘COUNTER NUMBER FOUR, PLEASE,’ said the electronic woman.
Sylvan hoped the robotic lady would be quiet. His jaw protruded, and nose wrinkled as people with wooden legs made their way to the counter at the speed of a leap year. He had no sympathy for anybody. The coke, the smokes, vodka, sleeplessness, and a headbutt from his friend left him in limbo.
‘COUNTER NUMBER TWO, PLEASE.’
Sylvan approached the desk while removing his social welfare card from his wallet. He handed it over to the clerk.
‘Ah Sylvan, what’s the story?’ said Nev, the captain of the football club. He used to bring Sylvan up to training on a Friday evening.
‘What’s the craic?’ said Sylvan with a smile.
‘You must have been out in the Orchard for a few last night? Look at the head on you,’ said Nev.
‘Nah, myself and Tazz just had a few in his gaff. Nothing wild.’ Sylvan didn’t feel like sharing his story.
‘Not so bad. You going at it again today?’
‘No, I’m not. The drink is killing me.’
‘Been off it a while myself, lad.’ Nev’s voice was gentle and brought an air of calm to Sylvan.
‘Drinking is a young man’s game,’ said Sylvan, wishing he believed it.
‘You said it, chief,’ said Nev as he counted out the notes. ‘Fifty, one hundred, one fifty, one seventy, one eighty, one eighty-eight.’
‘Thanks a million. It was good to see you again.’
‘Where are you off to with that thing?’ Nev looked across the bulletproof glass and down at Sylvan’s suitcase.
‘I’m collecting my budley here then I’m buying a one-way ticket to Dublin. Could you do me a favour?’
‘Can you keep it on the QT? I haven’t even told my family or friends yet,’ said Sylvan.
‘No problem at all, lad.’
Sylvan turned to walk out.
‘Hold on a second, I’ve got something for you,’ said Nev.
Sylvan expected an insult or a joke to come his way.
‘I’ll tell you what, it must have been some good lush you were on because your stutter is gone.’
Sylvan hadn’t noticed. He is starting to transform me already, he thought.
Nev placed three crisp green notes onto the counter. ‘The capital is expensive.’
Sylvan stood shell-shocked at his generosity. He could never comprehend why anybody was kind to him. He lived in filth, squalor, and rage. Kindness was for other people, good people.
‘Now go on, before I take it back,’ said Nev jokingly. ‘Get yourself sorted in Dublin. No more acting the fool, yeah?’
‘Thanks a million, Nev. You always were a good one,’ said Sylvan, unable to express his astonishment at the gesture.
‘See you down the road, brother,’ said Nev.
‘COUNTER NUMBER TWO, PLEASE.’
The suitcase was lighter as he dragged it out of the building. An elevated heart gave him the strength of a silverback. Memories jumped back into his mind when he walked past St. Felims boys’ school. He remembered hiding in the woods to avoid class. He remembered wild kids who wouldn’t allow information from adults to pollute their brains.
A car beeped at him as he walked around the side of the bus station. He sat outside on a bench beside the bin and reflected on his life. The people he had met, the women he had loved, the pubs, the football club, his time in school and his family. This was his home.
He didn’t know anybody in Dublin. No job. No plan. Fear diffused through his blood and turned it black like a scientist diluting a red tincture with a pipette of darkness. It had always been Sylvan’s closest companion, but the greater fear involved staying here.
The thirty pulled in. The driver headed inside and allowed the passengers a fifteen-minute break for a cup of tea and a smoke. A curious thought jumped into Sylvan’s mind when he saw that Dublin Airport was among the stops on the journey. He threw his suitcase into the belly of the bus.
Michael Cusack is an Irishman soon to be living in New Jersey, USA. He is currently writing his debut novel God in the Gutter. It focuses on conversion to Christianity following a faithless life mired in trouble, drugs, and alcohol abuse. He also enjoys scribbling short stories and poems. Find him on Instagram @mcusackauthor.