I Have Never – Short Fiction by Elizabeth McGeown

The bottle spins less than smoothly, noisily rattles repeatedly each turn over a bump in the uneven floor. We’re too young for bottles of this kind, but sleepovers always bring at least some contraband. It stops. “Have you ever seen a dead body?” asks Jimmy, in a hushed but gleeful tone.

“I have!” shouts Stuart, not quite understanding the Holy reverence with which we’re all treating the topic. A little data collecting reveals that Stuart knows not who, when or how, and we realise it’s a lie for the prize of the attention of the two girls sitting just outside the boy’s circle. I’m one of them. A non-drinker through choice they won’t let me play, I’m allowed the privilege of watching.

“I have” says Jimmy, deadly seriously. “I’m deadly serious,” says he, no pun intended

“I killed ‘im, I did and after that I spat on him and poked ‘im in the eye.” He swigs some of… whatever it is, showing that he’s lying, or telling the truth, or just wanted to drink. I’m a little hazy on the rules. We recoil and he swells, attributing our reaction to his bravery in this grave matter.

I have. I didn’t say. I sat mostly quietly in his presence. I didn’t spit on him or poke him in the eye as that would be, well, rude. I didn’t spit on my Dad or poke him in the eye no matter how much I may have wanted to when he was alive.

He and I were both territorial fuckers. We had a house that neither of us ever learned to share, stretching and squeezing a two-bedroomed residence between us, my Mum in the middle, silently sea-sick at the constant rocking and rolling, pulling and roiling, bubbling and boiling just under the surface. Battle lines were drawn, rooms bristled when we both entered them, relatives began to stay away.

I sat by the bedside for around an hour, in companionable silence, having nearly been denied my time to speak private things by those immediate who knew us in life, knew that we’d never had kind words and felt we still needed to be separated. That time was the quietest time really. All else was relatives or forced jollity or sitting silently in a house with someone whose hostility blared through their eyes every time they looked at you, even though she said nothing, or very little. She never said the big one “I wish it had been you instead” and for this I am grateful but I felt it in every begrudged meal made for me by rote, out of habit and no real desire to feed me. I wanted service with a smile. She said “Things will never be the same again” and I didn’t see why really, didn’t see why this would change anything, wouldn’t let it change anything by learning to cook when she stopped and forcing her to go about her daily business, outcrying her at times to try and prick a maternal instinct and bring her thoughts back to the living. It wouldn’t be pricked. She said “I wish it had been me” and that was almost worse, as how do you continue to live with someone that broken without their broken pieces touching you? She said “You’re glad he’s dead, aren’t you?” and I sighed like a college professor who can’t get through to his students after the simplest breakdown of information. Relief is not glad and even glad is not bad, not evil.

She said “You don’t want to listen to me, do you?” but my listening was for the living. The sudden freedom I found in my newly spacious house led to me looking outdoors. What else could I conquer?

He came to me in dreams. A thing we never did in life, we queued in a cafeteria eyeing all the delicious meals and chatting about nothing really, waking up just before food was served, always just before the food. She wasn’t there to go-between as death mellows some folk and we didn’t need a mediator. His voice, that voice that droned through walls, that sang with the vibrato that I sneered at and then developed myself, just to see if I could; that had always told me to appreciate the scenery, made me stare at beachside sunsets until he saw the light in my eyes or whatever he sought in my face. I don’t think he ever saw it, and walked away, disappointed. He couldn’t know I had to be on my own to appreciate, that I looked back when I trailed behind, sore feet and a heavy bag just an excuse to watch my surroundings.

Travel guides. The house was full of them. Back then people got brochures from the travel agent and dreamed. He knew it was a dream, as she would never go but I wouldn’t share it with him because I didn’t see the reality of it. Other places were not for me. I was of here, of cold weather and always bring an umbrella and the number 93 bus. He toiled alone through these books, making notes, making plans and not until 18 months AD did I have my first ever flight, spurred on by seeing things. I let him borrow my eyes for The Vatican, mountain ranges beyond his humble agency-recommended Fuerteventura and Paphos. He wasn’t wrong about me at all. He just used the wrong bait. For cable cars, he borrows my eyes. Mountain peaks, he borrows my eyes. Dwindling glaciers, painted ceilings, bison lowing close not minding the idling car he borrows my eyes. I casually say to her, sometimes “I think he would have liked that place,” as I show the photos and years have smoothed her prickly hedgehog spikes, she knows I am sincere now.

I swim for him, for me, his only escape for years the cool water until he got too sick. I hated the training then, the endless timed lengths in place of fun. But I swim for me, for him, he borrows my eyes, my skin for the first shock of the water, my nose for the acrid, welcome Chlorine.

He borrows my eyes, you see, to see.

I have seen a dead body, and one sees through me.

Elizabeth McGeown won the inaugural Cursed Murphy Spoken Word Prize and the Cúirt International Festival of Literature: Find out more, here

About the contributor

Elizabeth McGeown is based in Belfast and is twice-running All-Ulster Poetry Slam Champion and finalist in the 2016, '17 and '18 All-Ireland Slam: the only woman to qualify three years in a row. In 2019 she won the inaugural Cursed Murphy Spoken Word Prize and the Cúirt International Festival of Literature: Spoken Word Platform. Featured performances include Body & Soul, Loud Poets, Lingo, Sonnet Youth, C.S. Lewis Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. Her first e-pamphlet ''twas' was e-published by Pen Points Press in December 2018.

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