Half a Boy – New Fiction

“Mattie, stop. You’ll burn the house down,” said Mam, prodding me in the back with the poker, the other day.

But there’s no heat in the sods anymore, no matter how many I put on the fire and now I’m kicking huge holes in the bank those sods came out of.

“Useless fucking turf.”

Maybe it’s Grey I should be kicking? For throwing Joe off his back the last time we were going to the bog. Or that big lump of a stone that hit Joe in the head when he fell. Bloody stones. We’d killed ourselves half the summer picking them out of the top field and they still came back. I reckon God does make it rain stones in the middle of the night. He must think we haven’t much to be doing except picking stones. But He’s wrong; we’ve lots to be doing.

Joe’s in hospital now. The grey brick one on the edge of Castletown. St. Bridget’s. That’s why I’m walking through the bog. I’m going to see him and it’s much quicker to go the bog-way. I want him to come home before everything falls apart.  Sure I wouldn’t be here, to save turf in the middle of November, would I?

I wish I was, saving turf, meself and Joe. We used to have great craic, we did. Jumping off the banks as we swigged tea from whiskey bottles and taking huge chunks out of Mam’s soda bread.

“Time for ye to stop being so wild. Ye’re nearly men now.”

Mam’s killed telling us that.

“Old enough to start acting responsibly.”

“What does she mean, Joe?”

“We have to stop messing, that’s what she means.”

I’d do me best to stop messing if he’d come home from hospital. I would.

She got rightly riled the day he fell off Grey. Said it was my fault. If I wasn’t cod-acting the horse wouldn’t have bolted but that’s not the way it was at all. If she’d let me explain I’d have told her that. But no, she believed Fr. Constantine. It was him striding down the lane lifting his bat-wing cassock so it wouldn’t dip into the cow shite. That’s what frightened old Grey. I’m sure of it.

I was walking alongside the horse with the turf spades in me hands and when I saw Fr. Constantine me fingers let go off them.

“Waving the spades over his head, he was. No wonder the horse jumped,” he said to Mam.

I don’t remember doing that. All I remember is the blood, splattered all over that stony field and me bawling ‘cos I thought Joe was dead on account of him looking so pale.

I’m shivering now and I know I wouldn’t be shivering if Joe was here. How long does it take to fix him up?

“Just a bang to the head. He’ll be right in no time,” said Mam, when she came home from the hospital.

So why is he still there? And anyway St. Bridget’s not a real hospital; everyone knows that it’s not. They don’t keep you long in real hospitals; weeks at the most not months. And it’s months he’s there and every time I see him it’s worse he seems to be getting. He’ll hardly talk or make a grunt or anything and his face is all crooked.

“It’s the tablets he’s on.” Mam says. “He needs them for those awful headaches he gets.”

It’s them tablets that have him the way he is but I can’t say that or me cheek will be stinging from the flat of her fingers. And I can’t do things as good as he used to. The cows won’t stop kicking when I’m trying to milk them. It’s me hands. Sure what cow wouldn’t kick a buck with cold hands?

So I decided today seen as it’s a Sunday and Mam’s gone to Mass, I’d go see Joe.

“He has my poor heart broken. He won’t even go to Mass anymore. Will you talk to him?” she said to Fr. Constantine last week.

Then she told him what I did to the picture of Jesus and the two robbers on the crosses that’s on our bedroom wall. He did talk to me and I told him.

“It’s their eyes. They won’t stop looking at me when I’m trying to sleep and it wasn’t so bad when Joe was in the bed beside me. Some nights when I couldn’t sleep he’d throw his shirt over the picture so the two robbers couldn’t look at me. But Joe wasn’t there the other night nor was his shirt. So I took his ash stick from under the bed, the one he plays hurling with and smashed the picture only to stop those two robbers looking at me, Father.”

Of course that’s not really true. Joe was in one of me dreams and he told me to smash that bloody picture ‘cos he hates the sight of Christ after Him letting him fall off Grey. But I couldn’t tell the priest that.

Jesus, I have me shoes destroyed from kicking that turf bank. Mam’ll kill me if she sees the state of them. Well, no point in trying to clean them now, not till I get out of the bog anyway. There’s a fierce black cloud in the sky. I’d better hurry up or I’ll get soaked and they mightn’t let me past that big green door in St. Bridget’s with wet clothes and mucky shoes. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone this way at all.

“Would you just stop and think before you do something?”

That’s what Mam is always saying.

“He wasn’t made for thinking. I do the thinking, he does the doing,” Joe used to say.

Then he’d knock Dad’s old peak cap off me head, put his hand under me chin and lift me face to make sure I was listening.

“Isn’t that right, Mattie?”

But I’m thinking now, ‘cos Joe’s not here to do it for me. And I’m thinking I’m not much use to Mam without him around. And I’m remembering what Fr. Constantine said to her last night;

“Would you consider putting Mattie in St. Bridget’s? They’ll take him now he’s eighteen.”

“I don’t know if I could bear having the two of them in there,” she said.

“He’s no use to you here and if he can destroy a picture of Our Lord there’s no telling what he might do to you.”

“But that was only because he was so upset about Joe and I need a man to work the farm.”

“I hate to say this to you, but Mattie will never be a man. He’s only half-a-boy, God bless him. You could sell the land.”

I wanted to shout:

“Isn’t half-a-boy better than no boy?”

But I couldn’t ‘cos then they’d know I was hiding behind the couch and there’d be fierce trouble altogether.

“Paddy would turn in his grave if I let the farm go.”

Me Dad turning in his grave didn’t seem to bother Fr. Constantine.

“It’d still be in the family if you sold it to your brother-in-law. I’m looking for a housekeeper. That’d be a much easier life for you.”

I know I’d be with Joe if they put me in St. Bridget’s but I can’t stand the smell there. I do hold me nose when I go to see him but I couldn’t be doing that for the rest of me life. And once they’d put me in I might never get out. And it’s not as if they’d let me sleep with Joe. The matron told me to shush the last time I was there.

“You’re upsetting the other patients. They don’t like loud noise,” she said.

I was only trying to tell Joe about the fox taking the hens and me running after him with Dad’s shotgun. Fr. Constantine took that too.

And there’d be no jumping on beds or anything like that. All the men in Joe’s ward do is drag their legs after them and you should see the big humps of shoulders on them. When you try to talk to them, they’ll either keep looking at the floor or else look right through you, as if you weren’t standing there in front of them. And the worst thing of all is I don’t think Joe knows me. He won’t even smile when he sees me coming and if he doesn’t know me sure how can I get him to come home with me?

There’s the quarry. I wasn’t long getting through the bog after all. I’ll get some grass and take the muck off me shoes before I go out to the road. The lake on the floor of the quarry looks awful oily. I wonder what’d be like in there now. Maybe I’d turn into an eel if I dived in. We had one for tea once. Joe caught it in the River Barrow and it was a Friday. You should have seen it jump all over the pan while Mam was trying to cook it. And as for the taste of it.

I know that lake’s quare deep ‘cos Joe tried to dive to the bottom of it one day when I threw in a penny that Fr. Constantine gave me on one of his visits. But I couldn’t stand the church smell that was on it. You know the smell you get when they wave that thing around at Mass and smoke comes out of it. Fr. Constantine waved it around Dad’s coffin and I nearly got sick right there in the front seat of the chapel. But I swallowed it back down again ‘cos I knew that I’d get a clip around the ear if me porridge came up and landed all over Fr. Constantine’s shiny black shoes.

“There’s no bottom in that lake.” Joe said. “That penny’s gone straight to hell.”

“I wouldn’t go to hell. Would I, Joe?”

“No, boys like you go straight to heaven.”

The muck won’t come off me shoes. No point in going to town in dirty shoes and if I go home Mam’ll surely kill me when she sees them or worse, march me straight into St. Bridget’s in me bare feet.

Maybe half-a-boy isn’t better than no boy.

What’ll I do then? I’ll climb our tree, that’s what I’ll do. Though it looks awful sad, bent over as if it’s about to jump into the quarry. I love the leaves on it. They have five fingers. But there’s no leaves on it today, they’re all on the ground and they’re the colour of calf scour.

Joe used to hang a rope off one of the branches and we’d swing out over the quarry’s edge, roaring our heads off and he’d shout at me:

“Don’t let go.”

Ropes gone though. I can still climb it though. All the way to the top. Out onto the longest branch. Lying down hugging it I am and I wish it was Joe I was hugging.

“Let go.”

“Why Joe?”

“You want to be free, don’t you?”

I’m a monkey. Me arms and legs hanging on to the branch. See how long I can hang with just me arms and now – one hand. See if I can count to ten. The Master used to grip the cane fierce tight when I tried to count for him in school.

Close me eyes. Whatever happens; it’ll be God’s will, as Fr. Constantine says.

I’m a snipe. No. A hawk.

“Can you see me now, Joe?”

I’m wet and there’s an eel with Joe’s face and he wraps himself around one of me legs but I don’t kick or wave or even breathe. And I’m not half-a-boy anymore. I’m an eel just like Joe and we swim round and round our oily lake.

About the contributor

Anne Walsh Donnelly lives in the west of Ireland. Her short fiction has been published online, in print and also broadcast on radio. She’s taken a break from writing fiction this year to focus on writing and improving her poetry. Her work has been described as being audacious, honest and real.

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