N OBODY I've ever known loved smashing pennies more than Alan; he got a kick out of it like he was God shaping the universe. He collected them – hundreds of mangled coins, the pictures on their faces all smeared and smooth, their edges burred like insect spines. The tracks were his anvil and the wheels were his tools. He'd put coppers on the line and let the trains do the work. There was a chain-link fence up there that was supposed to keep out dogs and suicides, but it was so full of holes it might as well have not existed. A vibration would start up in the rails, shooting out through them like blood through a vein, and I'd look around for Alan but he'd already be gone.
He was sprung on me, an ambush. One night he just showed up at our house. Ma had been in secret talks with someone on the phone all week, and when she'd laid the dinner table with the good tablecloth I knew I was being set up. She answered the door and brought him in, a stretched, skinnier, paler-looking version of the kid I vaguely remembered from baby-school who used to post his ugly sandwiches through the shores in the schoolyard and who we'd singled out for abuse. I hadn't seen him in years. I'd forgotten him like everyone else.
What I remember most of that first night was the bruise that blazed on his cheek, and that he was too quiet, too polite. He pushed my mother's grey chicken casserole around on his plate and mumbled bullshit compliments. We didn't know what to talk about. My Da ate in the other room. And later, when Alan excused himself to go to the jakes, Ma fixed me coffee and tried the heart-to-heart, laying it on thick with: 'Alan's a lovely boy. I've always been very fond of him.'
And me there: 'Yeah. But he's creepy.'
'I went to school with Mrs Kelly, you know,' she said.
'He's just having a hard time of it recently. The divorce has been hard on them all.' She smiled, that sweet, hopeful smile that described my perfection and could get me to do anything. 'And I'm sure that being seen with you will do wonders for his street cred.'
I thought about what she was saying. I knew her, what she was trying to pull, but she knew me better.
'That's true,' I said.
My mother. I swear to God, she should've gone into politics.
That summer I was working as a lounge boy in the Lifeboat pub, the opening-hour shift since I was only 14. Every morning I'd be greeted at the door by all the ragged old alcos, the ones whose hands shook as if groping for the lifeline the pub's name suggested, though there wasn't one among them who could've been saved. And every afternoon I'd need to get out a little frustration. I started a collection of my own, imagining that every penny was someone from the bar. I changed their shapes and formed them fresh, let the rushing freight trains peel them and stretch them, and hammer them to make them new. One time a penny was me, but when the train came the penny just pinged off into the bushes, and I never got to find out if I'd been changed. After the train passed I climbed back through the fence to follow the coin's trajectory. Alan helped me look, and that's how we found the hut. He called me and pointed down a dark trail cut into the bushes: like a warren-hole made by a man-sized rabbit.
'You first,' I said and in he went, ducking under the branches and in through the thicket. I followed and watched him running and sliding, skidding down the slope and swinging off tree trunks to brace his weight. It was tough going, steep, but eventually I reached the bottom too and found myself in a deep ditch, in a hollow inside tree cover sunk at the end of Bill Coleman's field. Down there, there were stumps you could use for seats, and the lower branches that had been snapped off for headroom lay on the ground, turning black. We found clues as to what kind of people had been there before us: empty and half-empty cider cans on the ground; pages ripped from porno mags hanging from the branches like Christmas decorations.
'This is something else,' Alan said as we inspected the place, feeling like treasure hunters just broken through into a city of gold. We smoked my cigarettes and drank warm cider dregs, and unfolded the pornos and talked. He told me what went on in his mother's house, what went on in his new school in town. He said he hated it in there, the noise; but he hated it out here too, because it was so quiet.
We stayed in the hut for hours, trading stories in which we were the heroes and creating a saga for the hut – who owned it, who'd made it. I told Alan about Coleman, whose field we were almost in. I'd heard that he shot at people who trespassed on his land, and that once, when he'd found a dog in with his sheep – and one of the sheep opened up and torn apart, and the dog standing there with murder in its eyes and its jaws dripping gore – he'd taken the dog into his yard and put a bullet from his shotgun through its eye.
We started going up to the hut every day, after I was finished with work. It was Alan's idea – because it was hidden. And that suited me fine – I didn't really want to be seen with him. He'd wait for me around the corner in front of the church, and sometimes further up the street if there was a gang waiting at the bus stop or standing around outside the chipper. Some days he'd want to talk and we would, and some days he wouldn't and we'd just smash pennies together.
One night he called up to my house late, with a bottle he said he'd stolen from his Da. He had fresh bruises I didn't need to ask about. I said nothing; just started on the walk I knew would take us to the far reaches of civilisation. We drank as we went, the whiskey boiling like hot metal in my stomach.
When we got to the hut there were two girls waiting by the entrance. I felt Alan tense up when he saw them. We went in and they followed us, and we passed the bottle around. The said they'd been there before, that some mates of theirs had cleared the place. One of them I knew from school, and I ended up being with her, but the other yoke was a real hound and Alan had no interest. She tried to grab his knob and he just got up and left, and I had to leave my mot and follow him. On the way I puked my ring on the tracks.
That night we wandered the back roads and the lanes, and talked shit together for hours, howling like lunatics and buzzing off each other before crawling home to my house. Ma was waiting up. She knew I was drunk by the way I lurched in the doorway, and she sent me up to bed, afraid of what Da would do to me if he found out. Alan followed because he didn't want to go home. Da caught us at the top of the stairs.
'Let me smell your breath,' he said, and winced at the reek of whiskey and vomit. 'Jesus. Like a brewery.'
He slapped me then, hard and sharp across the face. My ears rang like a gong, and I tasted blood in my mouth. Da looked like the slap had hurt him too, but then he went for Alan, his face dark with fury. 'This is your fault.'
Alan's eyes were wide and white, his pupils little points of fear: they flickered in a kind of white, terrible fire, and seemed to shake as he shook. He made a low, whining noise. He wrung his hands.
'I'm talking to you,' Da said, but Alan wouldn't look at him. 'Get out,' Da said then, and he did. I went to bed, and all night I lay awake and listened through the wall to my parents fighting.
In the morning it was as if everything had gone back to normal – that was the way things went in my house. Ma cooked me a big breakfast before I went out to the Lifeboat, but just as I was leaving she told me that she'd had second thoughts and I wasn't to see Alan any more.
After work I went to find him, to tell him. I felt I owed him that much. I knew where he'd be. I started walking, and as I made my way to the tracks and followed them I had a strange premonition that in a few years time everything there would be gone. The town would expand, take over all the fields and grow into the next town over, the two places coming together like cut skin healing. And like that it'd spread, an unremarkable sprawl down along the commuter line all the way into Dublin, just houses and houses, towns all the same place and nowhere to go to get away from them. I felt sad for Alan thinking that. But it was all still the future. That evening the walk to the hut felt like walking on the rim of the world, like being in one of those pre-Columbus maps where the world finds an edge and just stops, and the sea spills over into nothing.
I struggled through the fence and ran across the tracks, pulled back the branches and slid down into the hut. Alan was there. I sat down beside him on a stump.
'So,' he said, 'your parents hate me now?' He was rolling a penny across the backs of his fingers, like a movie gangster from the thirties.
'I think so,' I said, but my voice was swallowed by a train horn calling in the distance, so I had to say it again. 'Yeah.'
Alan nodded, and looked up the hill to where the leaves shook. 'Fuck it,' he said, making a fist around the coin. He jumped up and set off. A short run and one long leap. I knew from experience that getting out was rough. You had to sprint up the slope, taking long, light strides, and then snatch for a branch at the top. More than once I'd missed and slid back down on my stomach. More than once my shirt had been pushed up and my chest torn to sunders by stones and sticks. I sat, watching, saw a flailing hand miss a branch. I can see it now, still – Alan falling back, rolling head-over-heel to the far side of the ditch. He got up and ran again, twigs and clumps of dried dirt falling from his hair.
Whispers started out on the tracks, the low tremble of a freight nearing. Alan caught a branch and hung on, his feet scrabbling in the dirt. Leaves whipped up around him and flew in from the tracks. The train's sound grew, loud and strong. He'd never make it, I thought, but he'd go. I ran, jumped, caught Alan by the ankle and he went down. My voice was strangled by effort, and it wouldn't be until much later that I realised that what I'd been shouting was 'Too close.' All things were lost in the struggle, the fight for a life that would blindly end itself.
Alan kicked me hard in the chin but I wouldn't let go. My vision went black for a moment, then red. Black was the train tearing past. Red were the wind and the leaves, the pieces of dirt and litter thrown over us. The noise bounced everywhere off the trees, filling the hut like a spirit or a thought. The train must have been miles long; its going took forever. I punched Alan in the back and he let go, and both of us tumbled back to the bottom.
'The fuck were you thinking?' I said.
Alan gasped. He'd torn his trousers and mumbled with no breath that his Da was going to kill him. When I went to him I saw that he was crying, his leg bent up at an unnatural angle. Under the flap of denim his knee was cut up badly. Blood flecked the hairs of his leg, and dribbled in bright streams. I tore the rest of his trouser leg off and tied it just above the cut. Then I fell down by him, exhausted.
Long minutes went by with both of us too tired to move. We lay together, calming, listening to unseen mice and rats scurrying in the ditch. Darkness fell around us quickly, the way it does at dusk where there are no street lights.
'I don't know,' Alan said.
'I'm going, I said. 'Come on.' But I knew he wouldn't. Alan lay there, and I left him.
I couldn't face the climb up to the tracks again so I fought through the bushes and set off across the field. The corn there was at least five feet tall and the ground uneven. All was quiet but for my breathing and my heartbeat, and my fast feet whipping against the stalks. I kept one eye on the farmhouse as I went, searching for the figure of Coleman and his shotgun. The house was still. No lights but the light in the yard. And yet I was sure that someone waited. I ran. Out of nameless fear. I can't say, even now, what I thought I was running away from or running towards, but I ran until my lungs bottomed out and burned, and my head felt light, and my vision went to spots at the corners. Fourteen is too young to learn that the mind of God may hold two contradictory ideas at once, and never show a preference for either.
I crossed the field and made it as far as Coleman's gate before I stopped, and looked in guilt for Alan. In the darkness I could see back no more than a few feet, but even still I knew he wouldn't be coming. Far off there started up a dull roar, another train trundling through the night, and before my eyes the wind moved the branches of the trees. It joined their leaves together, like hands in a moment of prayer, then divided them again into something else.