Boy and Man, a short story by Brian Kirk
When he was a boy he never liked the place. His mother took him there from time to time to shop or visit the cinema or the zoo. They took the train that crossed the viaduct over the estuary near the back of their house. Soon they left the fields and farms behind. The pleasant country light drained from the windows of the train as they travelled, and was replaced by a kind of dead grey light he came to recognise as the city’s damaged light.
Trees and hedgerows gave way to concrete walls and iron railings. They passed the backs of red-brick terraces, their impossibly tiny back gardens packed with junk of all sorts. Finally, the houses gave way too, replaced by buses, taxis, cars and large old buildings full of faceless ant-like people. They shunted slowly into the city proper and across the dirty river that flowed through its heart.
Even at Christmas, under the gaudy lights, holding on to his mother’s hand, he felt no excitement at all, only a sickening dread. It was an awful place compared to his home. There was no space, no sky, no air to breathe, no room to play, no time to dream, no silence. No animals lived there that he knew of, except for rats – which he had seen himself in broad daylight scavenging at rubbish bags down a laneway beside the service entrance to a hotel – and those broken, charred pigeons that clapped their wings noisily, uselessly, under the railway bridges.
Some nights he dreamt of being lost there, of trying and failing to hold onto the rough tweed of his mother’s coat as she moved among the throng of shoppers in the department stores. He pictured himself all alone on the pavement outside as the sky darkened and fell, while hundreds of zombie faces passed him blindly.
When he was a young man he moved to the city. He could not wait to leave behind his siblings and parents in that rural backwater where nothing ever happened. He rented a flat with two friends who worked with him in a huge office, a government department, where nobody understood the work beyond their own dull and repetitive duties. For the first time in his life he had money in his pocket, however, and he and his friends frequented the bars and sampled the night life the city had to offer. He spent whole Saturdays in bed recovering from nights where he had physically pushed his body to its limits with alcohol and drugs.
The city was still drab by day, but at night it came alive under the street lights, enhanced by the power of youthful expectation. The days dragged then and the nights were endless, moving from pub to club to gig to party. And yet there was no time to rest. He had to be at every party, he couldn’t take the chance of not attending; that night could be the night, the moment when he would meet the girl he yearned for. He never admitted it then, but he was scared really. Not scared of the city, no, but scared for himself, for his future whatever that might be. So he and his friends stayed together at all times – a comfort in numbers perhaps – each one encouraging the others that, yes, they were really living now, that this was what it meant to live: to be abroad at all hours in the belly of the city, fleeing from the niggling fear, the paranoia of heavy drinking, only to be overtaken by the unrelenting loneliness and recurring hangovers.
By middle age he had already left the city for the suburbs, in search of a house with a garden and a good local school. The kids grew up so quickly. After the initial struggle of their early married life, he and his wife experienced some contentedness at last. He could be in the city every day at work now and not feel sullied or intimidated by it. There was more money around generally, and new buildings and sculptures were popping up all over the place changing the face of the city again, making it appear new and modern.
In the newspapers journalists wrote about what the city might be like in ten, twenty or thirty years’ time, and he thought he understood at last what a city was all about. It had to do with creating something noble in the face of chaos; it was man’s attempt to put a formal structure on the way he lived. And the man knew that the basis of every city was a fundamental fear of darkness and the unknowable forces of nature. Hundreds of years ago people cleared away the trees and forests on the coast beside the river, and began to build without any real plan. And they are building still: houses, office blocks, car parks, cinemas, hotels; levelling roads and paths with concrete and macadam, laying railways, and excavating tunnels through the earth and under the river to carry the foulness of our own waste away from us.
Now he is an old man he wants to be in the city again. He thinks of his children growing up so quickly and running away, as he did, to live there where life’s flavours are sharpest. He forgets the fear he felt back then, the pretence he made of living when he was actually lost, and simply killing time waiting for his life to start.
He no longer fears life, on his own or his children’s behalf – it is really nothing when viewed from under the shadow of death. In rare moments he sees the city clearly. It is no different from a man he thinks: an odd amalgam of hope, desire, love and fear, constantly changing, but crumbling slowly also. A genuine glorious failure.
Brian Kirk is a writer and poet from Clondalkin in Dublin. He was shortlisted twice for Hennessy Awards for fiction and his stories have been published widely. He was shortlisted for The Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2014 and 2015. His first poetry collection After The Fall is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2017. His novel for children The Rising Son was published in December 2015. He is a member of the Hibernian Writers Workshop. www.briankirkwriter.com.