WHAT GOES AROUND - IAIN COSGROVE
I remember the sickening crunch of hard leather on bone. At least I think it was bone. Come to think of it, it may have been cartilage. It's not as if I have particular experience of this type of thing. In fact, if I am completely honest, it was the first time that something like this had happened to me.
I am not by definition a violent man. My friends say I have too much of a tendency to let things slide, but when I do blow (which is very rarely) I really go up with a bang. So, when this was coupled with an incredibly stressful day, and mixed liberally with alcohol and a few pissed-up mates, you had a time bomb ticking away.
The night had started unobtrusively enough. Just a few mates celebrating (if that's the right word) the departure of colleagues and friends, and thanking their lucky stars that it wasn't them.
The procedure had been simple enough. There were two meeting rooms in the office. All relevant staff had been directed to one or the other. Whichever office you were sent to sealed your fate. ‘Everyone in that office has just been let go’, or ‘You’ve all been let go.’ It was kind of brutal really. Still, that’s business these days isn’t it? There’s no such thing as a job for life; certainly no such thing as a job for me. That’s right, you’ve guessed it; I was one of the unlucky ones.
The gathering followed a similar pattern to other celebrations. As the night wore on, the lucky ones drifted away, some with relief; others muttering disquieting remarks about who would be next. But all of those whose jobs were being retained were united in their faintly uncomfortable and embarrassed demeanour; all except one.
I should have been more prepared, as I knew the type of man he was, but I was already eight pints to the good, on a single tuna sandwich that I’d had six hours earlier.
Dennis would always be the last person left in any organisation. He was a weasel of a man; the type who would poison his own mother to advance his position over others. I caught a glimpse of him in my peripheral vision and the next thing a pint was placed in front of me. As I turned toward him, I knew what to expect; magnanimous gloating and fake pity; but the sight of his smug superiority was almost enough to make me want to wipe the self satisfied grin off his face.
“Bad luck,” he said, “but it’s not like you can’t have been expecting it?”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked suspiciously.
“Well, honestly, your work rate has been appalling in recent weeks. You haven’t come up with anything meaningful in months, and you come in looking like death warmed up most mornings, stinking like a brewery. What else could I do?”
A dangerous calm descended on me. “What exactly are you saying, Dennis?” I asked stonily.
“I was asked ‘keep or fire’. I had to think of the good of the company and the well-being of the remaining employees. Let’s face it, Dave, you just don’t fit in.” he said nastily.
He might have managed to emerge unscathed if he had suppressed the smile. As it was, he barely got the word ‘company’ out before he was drenched in Guinness. I didn’t even bother with a reply, but as I turned on my heel and made my unsteady way out, I heard the words ‘pathetic’ and ‘loser’.
Throwing my drink at him had not had the calming effect on me that I had hoped. As the door of the pub closed behind me, I could feel my breathing getting quicker, and my hands were constantly clenching and unclenching. I shuffled off in the direction of the nearest bus stop, not looking where I was going, when I tripped over something soft and yielding. I put out my hands to save myself and rolled awkwardly sideways, cracking my head on the pavement as I did so.
I shook my head to clear my vision, before getting unsteadily to my feet again. I looked down at my hands, noticing that the knuckles of the right hand were badly skinned. I touched my head and felt something wet; blood; great, that was all I needed. My clothes were scuffed and one sleeve of my jacket was hanging off. I looked a right mess.
A stifled groan brought my attention back to the object I had tripped over. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom of the half-lit street, I could see that it was actually a human being, or what was left of one. He was lying half under a bench and was wrapped in some old blankets. He turned his head toward me, and I remember thinking that the only discernible features about him were the whites of his eyes, which were surprisingly clear. He reached for an empty coffee cup; the kind dispensed in fast food outlets, and shook it feebly in my direction. He accompanied the pathetic jangling of the loose change with a croaky “Have you any spare change, Mister?”
As I looked at him, his arm outstretched, his beseeching look, the events of the evening began to take hold of me. I felt an icy cold anger and hatred descend on me. Why was life so unfair? Why was it me who lost my job? Why not one of those other wankers? What was my girlfriend going to say? What a pathetic loser! I could hear her now. I stared deep into the whites of his eyes. He was the one who now seemed to be mocking me. Was that a half smile on his face? Hey, mate, what a fucking loser you are! I just wanted to lash out - to break - to smash.
Before I was even aware of what was happening, it was over. I had caught him completely unawares, the tip of my shoe lifting his whole head, and snapping it back, causing his upper body to jack knife across the pavement. His breathing started coming in agonising rasps, punctuated by choking sounds, and I knew I had broken his nose at the very least. The blood was gushing down his face, and running in rivulets across the pavement.
I was rooted to the spot. Dear god, what had I done? What should I do now? I heard voices in the distance, so I started walking swiftly in the opposite direction. I heard more voices and then a shouted “Hey, you!” I did not even look round, but ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I ran until I could run no further. I ran until my legs gave out, and I fell to the ground. I curled up and cried like a baby, not knowing or caring where I was or who saw me.
After a while I managed to compose myself. I sat up and looked around. I had run from Blackrock to Merrion Square, and had somehow ended up in the park. I could just make out the statue of Oscar Wilde, resplendent on his rock in the corner. “Think, you arsehole,” I shouted silently at myself. I stood up and brushed myself off. I looked like a vagrant. My suit was torn, ripped and bloody in places, and after the miles I had run, I did not smell too hot either. What should I do now? Do I turn myself in? Do I go home? Think. Why face the music in a cold dark cell? I would be able to make better sense of the evening’s events after I had sobered up in the warmth and security of my own space.
I reached for my wallet, and opened it. Shit. I had no cash. Never mind, that was easily rectified. I walked off in the direction of Lombard Street and the Bank of Ireland, ignoring the stares of the passers by. Or maybe they weren’t staring at me at all. I was too tired to either notice or care. All I needed was money and then a taxi home.
At last the ATM came into view. Slip in the card, enter the number, how much do you want? Don’t be greedy, just enough to get me home, and maybe a takeout from the off-license to numb the pain; forty Euro please. What do you mean insufficient funds? Ok, give me twenty. What! All right, ten and I’ll do without the takeout. There it was again; insufficient funds; stop fucking blinking at me. Think!
I took out my mobile phone, and scrolled through the names until I came to the one called simply ‘HOME’. I hit the ring button and shuffled impatiently from foot to foot, stamping them occasionally. It was getting bloody cold and I only had a light summer suit on (or what was left of one anyway). Come on, come on, and pick it up will you. My shoulders drooped as I heard the beep of the answer machine. Where was she? I scrolled through the names again until I came to the one marked ‘SARAH MOB’ and hit the ring button again. This time it was answered on the second ring.
“Hello, is that you, Dave?”
“Of course it’s me,” I said brusquely.
“Where are you? I was waiting ages for you?”
“I had other things to do,” I said sharply.
“Yes, I know,” she said acidly. “Why do you think I wanted to talk to you?”
“Listen, we can talk when I get home. Can you just come and get me? I’m on the corner of Lombard Street and Pearce Street, by the Dart station.”
“No, Dave, I can’t. That was what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“What do you mean, you can’t?” I half-whispered into the phone.
“Dave I said it to you many times. The writing was on the wall for months. I don’t know what happened to you; all the drinking and revelry with the mates. Where was the time for us? I told you I couldn’t stay with a loser. And then when Dennis told me you were going to be fired...”
“Hold on a second,” I said, my anger escalating dangerously. “Are you telling me?”
“That I knew about it before,” she said, finishing the sentence. “Of course I did, Dennis was very concerned for me. He’s not a loser like you. And I know it’s harsh coming tonight, but we’re finished. I do not want to see you again. I’m with Dennis now. He has been interested in me for months, and God only knows why I chose to stay with you. He really knows how to treat a girl. So, goodbye, Dave, take care of yourself.”
“Is that it?” I snarled. “After all those months, is that all I get?”
“No, actually it’s not. I cleared out our joint account earlier today to pay all the back rent that we owe, seeing as you were too lazy or stupid to do it. Oh, and I cancelled our joint credit cards, just in case you were tempted to punish me in some way. And before you think of it, I had all the locks changed, and gave away all your stuff to the Vincent De Paul. Not that you had much of any value.”
I started shouting at the phone, but I knew it was useless. She was gone. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there stupidly, the blood pounding in my ears, my fists clenching and unclenching with the sheer stress. What the fuck was I going to do now? And then the tears started again. Not for her or the times we’d had. No, she was a money-grubbing, social-climbing bitch who would have ditched me sooner or later. No, the tears were pure self-pity. I was stuck in the middle of the city, in the middle of the night, with no visible means of support, no ready cash and no credit cards. All my possessions were allegedly gone and I was probably also wanted by the Police for an unprovoked assault on a vagrant. Not bad for five hours work, Dave! And as for that bastard Dennis; it would be more than a pint of Guinness he would get the next time. More like the jagged edge of the broken glass in his face.
I set off towards Baggot Street; away from town towards the canal. It was a clear night, and I could see a half moon above the Georgian skyline. It was cold and my muscles were cramping involuntarily to keep themselves warm. I made vague attempts to rub some warmth into my hands but then gave up, taking some comfort in the cold numbness. At least it was keeping me awake. As I trudged along, I fell into a kind of stupor. A mantra started repeating itself in my head, and before long I was repeating it under my breath in time to the measured shuffle of my shoes on the pavement. Twenty-four hours - twenty-four hours - twenty-four hours. It repeated over and over again.
It was amazing to think that just twenty-four hours previously, I had been the proud owner of a good job, a swanky rented apartment, a good-looking girlfriend and good prospects. Now here I was jobless, friendless, and homeless and on top of that I was cold; bitterly cold. I was also exhausted mentally and physically.
I crossed the bridge over the canal, and crossed the road, narrowly missing a speeding car as I did so. It was then that I saw the lights of the convenience store up ahead, one of those all-night places. I reached into my pocket and awkwardly managed to manhandle the two Euro coin out of my pocket; my fingers at this stage cold, lifeless and useless.
I walked into the shop and bought a cup of coffee in one of those Styrofoam containers with a lid, and left clutching the change. I walked a bit further down the street and then turned down a small laneway. I sank gratefully to the ground with my back propped up against a wall, and cupped my fingers around the coffee cup, letting the warmth bring precious life back into them. With warmth came pain, and a tear sprang unbidden to the corner of my eye, only partly prompted by the ache in my hands. I looked at my watch. It was two-thirty A.M.
I took a mental stock of my situation. I had one Euro, a mobile phone, the clothes I was wearing and my watch; a Rolex fake, bought on the beach in Tenerife. I tried to look ahead and think positively, but the effort was too much. My brain had seized and refused point blank to contemplate an uncertain future. I concentrated instead on the present. I had to get some sleep before I could sort this mess out.
I glanced up the street and noticed the Hotel. An idea started forming in my mind, enough to jerk my legs into action. I walked quickly down the lane and into the car park, keeping to the outer reaches where the lights didn’t penetrate, and made my way around the back. It was here that I had my first piece of luck of the evening. Like most hotels, the kitchens and waste areas were at the rear, and after five minutes I was the proud owner of a large cardboard box and a number of stout cotton sacks; the kind used for paper shredding. I made my way slowly and carefully away; retracing my steps out of the car park and back into the lane. I selected a nice unlit position half way down the street, next to a Telephone box.
Placing the box on the ground with the opening facing away from the phone box, I proceeded to slide my legs into the box and wrap them mummy-like in the sacks. I then slid my body in and curled up into the foetal position, using the rest of the sacks as a makeshift blanket. Rolling the last sack into a pillow, I placed it under my head to keep it from touching the floor and closed my eyes.
It was an odd feeling, trying to sleep on the street. Noises that your brain normally blocks out as white noise are identified and amplified until they drive you to the edge of madness. Cars zooming by, the screech of brakes, the screams and shouts of revellers, the creaking of windblown trees, the harsh shrieks of crows fighting over burger scraps. And the cold is unimaginable. Even in a cocoon of sacking, with a layer of cardboard between you and the pavement, the cold seeps through until it permeates your skin, soaking through to the very core of your being, until you believe you cannot possibly get any colder and then realise you were wrong. Coldness that makes it impossible to sleep and yet makes you so numb you are almost catatonic.
Eventually I can take it no longer. I open my eyes and blink, just in time to see the toe of the boot. I remember the sickening crunch of hard leather on bone...
BIO: Iain was born in Canada to English parents. He was educated in the UK and went on to study at Brighton Polytechnic, before starting a career in IT. He moved to Dublin, Ireland in 1988 with his future wife, and subsequently got married and had three sons. He is currently an IT Director and has been writing in his spare time for the last 15 years. He has written two novels, a number of short stories and has a number of projects underway, including an idea for a short story collection. He has recently had one of his flash stories accepted for publication by CafeLit, a literary cafe project at Salford University. He has also had a short story published by Indigo Rising Magazine.