Alan McMonagle is a runner-up in the 2012 RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story competition.
Vanessa and me are going places. London. Paris. Rio de Janeiro. We don’t care as long as we’re far away from where we are now.
Every day we meet up at the swamp. One day soon the swamp is going to flood our neighbourhood. Vanessa says she hopes it does. So do I. I hope it devours the entire town.
Our town is slap bang in the middle of the country, miles from anywhere, and built inside a hole made out of bog, weeds, mulch and the soggiest soil you could ever see. If that isn’t bad enough we are surrounded by a dirty black drain that spends its time fooling everyone into thinking it’s a river. There are two sides to our town. The rich side on the hill beyond the railway tracks and the side we live on.
Vanessa is nine and I’m eight. Vanessa’s Ma ran away with Chancer Fay a year ago and I’ve never met my Da. Some day Vanessa is going to be a celebrity. When that happens, no matter where we are, I’m going to be by her side, minding her. We agreed on this ages ago, when we first became friends.
‘Where are we off to today?’ she asks me when we meet up at the swamp.
‘I’m thinking ancient Greece.’
‘Never been there,’ Vanessa says and inside I smile. It’s great to find a place Vanessa’s never been to.
Once we know where we’re going we sit on our rock and look at the Mad Lady. Every day the Mad Lady turns up at the swamp. She stands in the same spot and stares out over the cracked edges, into the muddy reeds. The long silver streaks of her hair look blue in the early sun. The skin on her face looks stretched. ‘She’s like a stick in the mud,’ Vanessa says about her. Others say she’s crazier than the birds.
From time to time she holds herself and sways. Forward and back. Forward and back. Like a timid wave. Or a change of heart. Neighbours taking the back way up to Steele’s Shop give her funny looks. Little Terry Farrell pelts her with balls of muck. When light fades she allows Old Tom Sullivan guide her back inside her house. ‘The town is sinking,’ we hear her say. She has a raspy voice.
‘Is your Da still crying?’ I ask Vanessa when I feel like talking again.
‘He is,’ she says and rubs the side of her head. Then she slides off our rock and gets ready to leave. She always leaves before I do.
‘Same time tomorrow?’
I stay where I am, watching the swamp. Drifts of steam float above it. Nettles bunch around the cracked edges. Giant dock-leaves spread out and billow. There are gnats and clammy webs. Flies dizzy with excitement. Long reedy grasses point to the never-ending sky. Ladybirds crawl all over the place. It’s a great place to meet up when we don’t want to be found. The perfect place.
‘Hey,’ Vanessa calls back to me. ‘Do you think I am growing knockers?’
‘No way,’ I answer, without turning around.
Vanessa’s Da has been crying for a year. He does it resting his elbows on the kitchen table and holding his face in clenched fists. After a while he slams his fists onto the table and starts shouting at the top of his voice. When Vanessa tiptoes close to him to see if he’s alright he swings for her. He does this because he’s taking everything out on her, Vanessa says. Luckily for Vanessa his aim needs to improve.
At about a quarter past nine on the last Thursday of every month Phelim Dempsey shows up at our door. He’s the star salesman for the feed mill at the edge of town and he gets to drive all over the province offering farmers bags of bull nuts at knockdown prices. Ma says he wouldn’t sell bread in a famine, but as soon as he appears she’s all smiles and plates of food and cups and saucers. You would think we had royalty wiping its feet on our step.
‘Howya Jacinta,’ Phelim says to Ma as he puts his large grouty hands on as much of her backside as he can. Then he pulls her close. Over her shoulder he winks at me.
As soon as Phelim has eaten what is put down in front of him the pair of them disappear upstairs. I sit on the stairs, and count seventeen oohs, forty three aahs and one almighty spasm. About an hour later, when she temporarily reappears, Ma is in great form. ‘Here’s a Euro,’ she says. ‘Now off you go.’
‘I should send my Da over to your house,’ Vanessa says when I tell her all about it.
‘All he does is sit with his face in his fists. He needs to see your Ma.’
‘I saw him crying in the back lane yesterday.’
‘Yeah. Him and my Ma used to go for walks together in the back lane. He can’t figure out why she wants to hang around with Chancer Fay.’
‘We hang around together because we are going places.’
‘That’s right. Where to next, partner?’
‘I’m thinking South America.’
‘Brilliant. Anybody who’s anybody has spent time in South America.’
I’m so thrilled I tell her everything I know about South America. I mention the train that reaches through clouds. The desert where it hasn’t rained for four hundred years. The lost cities in the jungle mountains. Vanessa hangs on every word I say. It’s our best journey yet.
‘Are you sure I’m not growing knockers?’ she asks me when I’m finished, shoving out her chest. I tell her not to be silly.
I always stay on after Vanessa leaves. I like watching the sun burn mist off the swamp water. The reed-grass play with the light. The ladybirds move along dock leaves. Sometimes council men wade around the edges of the swamp. They don’t like us being so close. The swamp will swallow you they try to tell us. But we don’t care. At the click of a finger, we can be thousands of miles away.
When I spied on them, Ma was sitting on Phelim’s lap. He was bucking her up and down and her knockers were heading in many different directions. It was as though they had a mind of their own. I heard fast breathing sounds, little cries, gasps. ‘You’re an awful woman, Jacinta,’ I heard him say just before he left. I’ve never looked at them since.
‘I really think my Da should call around to see your Ma,’ Vanessa says when I give her my report. She isn’t asking for travel plans like she usually does. She keeps shoving out her chest and looking at it. She has a scratch under her eye.
‘Is he still crying?’
‘He’s crying and banging his fists on the table and howling like a crazy dog. Then he comes looking for me. His aim is improving.’
‘We have no time to lose,’ I tell her. ‘What about some place in Africa?’
‘We could look for the source of the Nile.’
‘Watch elephants slink into the bush.’
‘I know. We could hang out with baboons.’
We sit quietly together then, making the most of our African adventure.
‘Hey, are you sure my knockers aren’t growing,’ she asks after a few minutes. I roll my eyes and she leaves.
The council men cannot believe there is so much sun. They gather by the edge of the swamp to watch it dry up. But the swamp doesn’t dry up. It continues to rise and the council men scratch their heads and try to work out why. They wear long Wellingtons like fishermen and wade through parts of the swamp and test how deep it gets and make notes in little books and they put up warning signs beside the hidden pools. ‘Let’s go and enjoy the good weather,’ they then say to each other. ‘This is thirsty work.’ And they leave again.
When I sit among the reed grass I see the Mad Lady staring into the swamp. I watch jumbo jets ski across the atmosphere. I make friends with two ladybirds. It will be exciting minding Vanessa when she becomes a celebrity. Sometimes I want her beside me at night. I wish she would stop asking me about her knockers.
Ma is singing in the bath when I get home. She sounds like someone who has just fallen off a cliff. Somehow she hears me raiding the presses and calls me into the bathroom.
‘Hello you. Been anywhere interesting today?’ she asks, soaping her arms.
‘Nowhere special. Are you getting ready for Phelim?’
‘Pass me my gown,’ she says, stepping out of the bath. Luckily she is covered in suds.
‘Vanessa’s Da wants to come over to see you,’ I tell her, flinging the gown.
‘Does he now,’ she says, tying her belt.
‘He’s been crying for a year. He’s going to knock Vanessa into the middle of next month if he doesn’t get to see you.’
‘Is he indeed,’ she says, flicking wet hair away from her face.
‘Well, do you have an answer? Phelim won’t be here for another couple of days. He could come tomorrow, after dinner say.’
‘Here’s what you can tell your little pip. Tell her I said she should stick to the children’s games she’s good at, and leave the other stuff to adults.’
In the morning Vanessa is sitting by the swamp. It’s the first time she’s arrived before me. I’m praying she doesn’t start on about her crying Da and his clenched fists. I have some great places for us to visit today.
‘Hey, guess what? I think my knockers have started growing. Look, tell me what you think.’
She’s standing up and shoving out her chest again, swaying from side to side in the golden light. She looks exactly as she always does. Her swaying is starting to annoy me.
‘I think you’re right,’ I tell her.
‘I knew it,’ she says, beaming now in the sunlight and shoving out her chest even further. ‘So, did you ask your Ma?’
‘Ask her what.’
‘You know, about Da going to see her.’
‘Oh yeah, I did ask her.’
‘Well, what did she say?’
‘She said that you were little more than a pip and to leave grown ups alone.’
She sits back down at the edge of the swamp. She turns away from me so that she’s looking out into the muddy reeds. Then she brings her hands to her face and starts crying. For a moment I don’t know what to do. I’m a little afraid. I sit down beside her and listen to her sobby sounds. Then I notice the marks on her neck.
‘So where are we off to today?’
She doesn’t answer. On a dock leaf two ladybirds are dancing with each other. From a distance I can hear the Mad Lady’s raspy voice.
‘It’s just a silly game,’ she blurts out through her sobbing, and she stands up and glares down at me.
‘We can go to see the Pyramids,’ I tell her. ‘The Mississippi Delta. Or Mexico. We can look for the early burial grounds.’
‘You silly little boy,’ she yells and starts pulling at her hair. She stands up close to me and glares into my face. Her eyes are watery, she has balled her hands and I know we won’t be taking any more trips together. We step away from each other and go in opposite directions. Vanessa, home to watch her Da hold his face in his fists until he feels like taking everything out on her. Me, back to listen to my Ma singing in the bath until a quarter past nine on the last Thursday of the month.
By Alan McMonagle