The three of us were in the car. Me in the back, John driving and Harry in the front seat beside him. It had that new car smell mixed with bits of cheese and onion crisps that had been squashed into the seat grooves beside me. I’d only met Harry a few days before. An English gobshite who laughed at us like he was something better. I put up with him because he was John’s cousin, and the car belonged to his father. It was a rental they’d got coming over here, him, his dad and the small brother half-brother, Steven. Steven was in the boot. I could hear him banging and yelling from where I sat. Some dance shite was playing through Harry’s iPod and John stayed in fifth gear when he took the turns, the roads already wet from heavy rain all morning.
‘Lads’, I shouted as I sat forward. They’d been talking and laughing, I couldn’t hear about what over the music.
‘John,’ I said, this time giving him a good thump on the arm, the sleeve of his white hoodie pushing in to show the skinny arm underneath.
‘For fuck sake, Murphy,’
The car veered to the right as he swung his shaved head around to glare at me.
‘The young lad,’ I shouted, pointing behind me as we missed a BMW by an inch, its breaks screeching and horn blowing.
Harry fixed a grin of perfect, straight white teeth back at me, running a hand through his boyband blonde hair. I couldn’t stand the prick.
‘He’s alright,’ said Harry.
‘John,’ I said, ‘he’s roaring back there.’
I looked away from Harry and met John’s eyes in the rear view mirror instead. They narrowed to mean slits.
Harry had laughed as himself and John lifted up Steven, pushing him into the boot.
‘We just want to see if you’ll fit,’ Harry had said. I’d stood back, pulling hard on a John Player, my free hand in my tracksuit pocket. I wouldn’t have any part in it, but I didn’t try to stop them either.
Steven was only seven. I felt sorry for the young lad, he looked so happy when Harry’d first invited him along with us. Even their father, John’s uncle, raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. He didn’t give a shite anyway. Himself and John’s already half cut father were going down the pub. There were pints to be drank.
John and me had been best friends since we were only kids. We started national school on the same day, John crying as his mother left him. I was the only kid who went over to him. And then Mrs. Glynn, our teacher, said we were to be class buddies and put me sitting beside him. John’s skinny legs got kicked black and blue by the older boys in senior infants and first class every lunch time for two days. He was just that sort of lad. He bawled crying every time but never told on them. I liked that about him. On the third day before they got to him I went and punched one of them, the biggest lad, right in the face. I hit him so hard that I heard a crunching noise when my small brown fist made contact with his big pigeon nose. My parents were called in and they roared at me all the way home. I thought my father was going to belt me rightly then. And he would have too only for Kylie, my little sister, screaming at him not to. Kylie is two years younger than me, born with Down’s Syndrome. She is always sick with chest infections or something, and my dad can never refuse her anything. She told him I was her best friend and he wasn’t to give out to her best friend. Then she squashed me into a hug. She was fairly strong for a three year old back then. Stronger now but still that three year old.
Since that day John and me were friends for life.
We played hurling together too since we were seven years old. I was midfield because I ran faster than a greyhound, so Mr. Roche said anyway. But it was true that once I got my hurl on that ball there was no stopping me. John never once made the team. Not when we played under tens, under twelves, then under fourteens and he hadn’t a hope in hell for the minors now. John was small and looked like a breeze would knock him over, he’d looked like that since he was five. Even as all us lads got lanky and taller John never did. He always looked way younger than the rest of us. But that wasn’t why he never made the team. It was because he was afraid of a tackle and afraid of the ball. I still played midfield now in the minors, I’d see John on the bench, slouching back like he wasn’t bothered about any of it. I knew he was and could never figure out why he bothered playing at all when every time he was just left in the dugouts like an ejit. He went to every training session, even if it was pissing down John was still there. You’d have to give him credit for that.
It was the same way at discos, when we used to go to the No Name clubs, he’d sit or stand around, somewhere near me. Might chat to one or two other lads. But never said a word to any of the girls. I was thirteen when I got my first hand job. Lucy Sullivan, she did half the lads in my year. I’d say she even would have gone off with John if I asked her to. But I knew he’d freak out. I don’t think he’s ever been with a girl. Ever. And now we look old enough that we get into the pubs in town, well I do, John sneaks in behind me, and usually the nightclubs too, depending if the Gards have been around. The girls in there are seriously fucking up for it. And not just the ones from our school either. But John doesn’t even speak to them. Neither of our parents say much about us falling in pissed a few nights a week. Mine because they are usually busy with the latest Kylie problem and they just don’t want the hassle with me. And once I keep hurling they won’t say much anyway. My dad was a big hurler in his day and they think I’ll make county this year, if I don’t fuck up. John’s parents don’t say anything about him out drinking because they don’t give a flying fuck what he does. No nicer way to put it.
‘I said he’s alright,’ Harry said now from the front of the car. The flashy white smile was gone from him this time. John wasn’t John with Harry around. Last summer that prick was here too, but I’d been forced into a week at the Gealtacht so I never met him then. My mother had been on some mission that I wasn’t to waste the summer sitting around doing nothing at home, so I went to the arse end of Connemara and did nothing there instead. But I saw how John was different when I got back. Like he thought he was hard stuff. It soon wore off though when we started back to school in September. John was smart but he hated school, mostly because he was afraid of half the people in it. If it wasn’t for us being friends I didn’t think he’d speak to anyone at all. The other lads in our year, my other friends, they only tolerated him because he was where I was. And they knew I’d flatten them one if they started on him.
I sat back in the seat, pulled the sleeves of my hoodie down over my hands. John’s chin was pushed out, he could hardly see over the steering wheel. If the Gards stopped us we’d be fucked. Harry’s big English head was jerking back and forth. I’d the urge to smash his face out through the windshield. The vibrations of the music were bouncing and fizzing through the seat under me and through the soles of my converse. It was only a Kia, but it drove fast with John’s foot pushing the peddle right to the ground.
‘Let him out,’ I shouted to John in the front of the car.
‘What the fuck is wrong with him, John? Is he a fucking pussy? Want a go at little Stevie is it?’
I felt my fists tighten as the prick made kissing noises back at me. John’s face pleaded with me in the mirror. He knew I wouldn’t take much more. He slammed on the brakes, made a hard turn into the side of the road. I was nearly smashed against the door of the car, the two heads in front flopping to the side. We were barely in off the yellow line. John turned off the engine, pulling the keys out as he opened the car door, storming out, his head dropped looking at nothing but the wet road.
‘Tell me you’re not listening to that soft twat? John, come on, you prick. We’re only having a laugh. He’s fine.’
I got out of the car and followed John around the back, the cold air outside hitting me hard. The shouts from the boot were as clear as day now. Harry stood out from the car, the passenger door slammed shut behind him.
‘Jesus John, this guy your fucking wife or something? You always do what he says?’
I could see John’s face twitch. He was clenching his jaw, a habit he’d done all his life, right before he changed his mind about something. I grabbed the keys off him.
‘That little shit is going to annoy the crap out of me all the way back. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Paddies.’
I pressed the button on the zapper, the boot clicked and I lifted it up. I expected Steven to jump out, happy he’d been rescued. Instead he just stared at me wide eyed, pushing himself back further in the boot. His face was wet and red from crying. I smelled the piss before I saw the dark patch running down between his legs.
‘It’s ok, Steven, come on. You can sit with me in the back,’ I said.
John stood there saying nothing, eating his fingernails. Another habit he had. He’d done the same thing that very first day of school, then and every single time the team was named before a match.
The dark shadow of Harry approaching killed the bit of sun on the back of my neck. The cars whizzed by us, every one making my ears buzz.
‘Oh my lordy.’
Harry leaned into the boot beside me. I tried to push him away with my elbow but he had a good two stone on me.
‘Oh little baby Stevie pissed his pants.’
Harry roared laughing, his hand over his mouth, the other reaching back to John’s shoulder behind us. John had lit a cigarette. I smelled it before I saw it.
‘Looky here, Johnny boy. See what the little rat has done.’
Harry pulled John up to the boot, John turned his head away, pulled on the cigarette burning between his thumb and finger. In fairness to him, John was embarrassed for the lad. Not that he’d the balls to do anything about it. I felt the wind to my right as another car shot by.
‘Fuck off, Harry,’ I said as I leaned in and took hold of Steven’s arm, as thin as John’s was under the white hoodie.
‘It’s alright, Steven,’ I said as Harry kept on laughing. I was surprised how rigid Steven was, how reluctant he was to let me help him out. He shot a terrified look at Harry.
‘You’ll sit with me in the back,’ I said.
‘Oh watch out now Stevie baby, looks like Paddy Irish here wants to fiddle with your bits in the back seat.’
Steven was wide eyed, pulled his arm away from me.
‘You sick fuck,’ I said as I stood up straight turning to Harry. Anger was racing through me. My back was to the road, and I felt the whiz of a lorry go by inches away from me. Harry spoke but all I could see was his white teeth flashing, his words lost over the noise of the lorry’s engine.
‘What did you say?’ I said, moving in closer. Every bit of me was ready to pounce. There was barely a foot between us.
John stepped nearer, as if he might fill the space, stop whatever was going to happen. But I knew better, John was always terrified of a fight.
‘I said, you are a fucking child molesting wanker. Want little Stevie to sit on your dick?’
Before I could pull my arm back to punch him with full force, I felt the crippling pain of his clenched fist in my gut. I stumbled back. It felt like I’d been hit with a sledge hammer. My kidneys, my intestines, my stomach knocked back out through my back. I doubled over, yelling out before I could stop myself from showing him he’d hurt me. The pain was making me dizzy. When I looked up I saw Harry’s mean scowl change in slow motion as his face fell to horror. Beside him John rushed towards me. I tried to speak, tell him I was alright, but the breath had been knocked out of me. From the open boot I saw the small ginger head of Steven peering out, his mouth hanging open. Then I felt John grab my arm, pulling me then pushing me down, knocking me to the ground right by Harry’s giant Nike runners. In those seconds I hated John. Hated him so much that I thought this is it, I’m done with him. How could he take that prick’s side? Knock me to the ground after all the years we’d been best mates? All the years I’d fought for him? I thought that next time someone looks at him funny, makes jokes about him, I’ll join in, I’ll stand there laugh at him with them.
I looked up from the ground, ready to fight both of them now, angrier then I’d ever been. But then I saw Harry’s giant hands flying up to his face. I jerked around to the road, not registering the stones and dirt that cut through my palms as I did, only hearing the sharp screech of brakes. John stood on the road from where he’d pushed me. He was looking at me, his eyes wide. The same way he’d looked at me a thousand times before something bad was about to happen to him. His lips parted, as if he was about to say something, his hand moving out to where I was.
Then smash. Thud. The sound of four thousand pounds of metal slamming into John’s small one hundred and thirty pounds of flesh and bone. John’s eyes never left mine, not until his head was flicked back, and he flew twenty foot in the air. Arms and legs spread wide, he was like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He landed thirty feet up the road. The car’s tyres burned black skid marks on the road, its engine still running as the driver stumbled out. A fat bald man with his hands covering his mouth. Then he bent over and vomited. A small white lump lay in the road up ahead. All I could think was John will be raging if he gets dirt on that hoodie or worse, blood. Blood would never wash out of that white.
I was deaf with the high pitched screaming behind me. I sat up, turned around to tell Steven to shut up. But Steven was still sitting in the boot, silent, his mouth hanging open like he’d no jaw at all. Harry’s large hand was suddenly on my shoulder. I looked at it, so strange to see it there, heavy and warm, the big gold signet ring glinting in what bit of sun there was. I wanted to push him away from me, but I couldn’t move, as if I was glued to the ground. Then I felt Harry’s hands under my arms and he lifted me up to my feet. He tried to pull me into him, some weird sort of hug, but I struggled, turning with his arms still around me to watch the white blur of John up ahead, waiting for him to move. Harry was mumbling something, I felt it through my back as he held me to his chest, his face behind my head, his breath on my neck. He was telling me to stop screaming. I wanted to push him away from me, I needed to tell John to get up off the road. A new noise started, the man from the car with vomit on his shirt talking into his phone, crying like a girl. I gave Harry one last push with my elbows and somehow I managed to get out of his strong hold. And I thought wouldn’t he make a great full back, there’d be no getting through him.
Ignoring the voice shouting after me, I forced my legs to run or something like a run, to where John lay. It felt like forever, the ground pounding beneath my feet. I tried not to think of how I hated John in that minute before the car hit him.
‘John get up,’ I roared at him.
But John’s white hoodie was seeping up blood.