Fortnightly Fiction | That Place by the River
I was scooping the guts out of a lamb when I heard Swinger Dingavan was dead. Maureen shouted across at Steve-o and he knocked off the power hose, the wool and blood circling around him. She said Swinger was found in his Golf with a fuckload of drugs down by the river. A bottle of poppers had rolled under his seat and stank the car out. ‘At least he died happy – that’s more than most can say.’ She’d an odd smile on her puss.
I continued dragging out the guts, feeling a bit sick. I hadn’t been mates with Swinger since that night of the Junior Cert disco fifteen years back. In recent years, we’d give each other a nod of the head across Charlie Macs. He was a handsome son of a bitch and I’d often see him scoring the face off a young one in Dicies.
It was the year after the disco that Willie Dingavan became ‘Swinger’ Dingavan. The things he could do with a hurley. That’s how he got the name, though in recent times most folks think he got it from shagging every young one in Castlemoy. During those Leaving Cert years they thought he might make the Cork team, before he went a bit mad. The usual story where a lad goes off the rails with drink and chasing women. He got a Honda Civic and Mam, when she heard the exhaust revving out on the street, would say he’d be in a ditch before summer was out.
I think I know why he’s really dead. Course, I know what killed him, as does the whole fucking town – too much drugs and shite. But that’s not a reason. There’s always a ‘why’. And I think it might’ve all kicked off the night of that disco.
It was me and my sister Aoife’s first disco; Mam would never leave us go, not since Billy O’Callaghan got arrested for smacking a Mitchelstown lad after the last dance. She said she’d better things to be doing than picking us up from a Garda cell with a shower of other gobshites. But Aoife talked Mam round in the end; she wouldn’t stop going on so Mam gave in to just shut her up.
‘Will Foley be there?’ I asked Aoife. I sat on her bed while she got ready. We always got on well, me and Aoife. There’s only a year between us.
‘Couldn’t give a shit,’ she said, fiddling with her lashes. She glanced at the stereo then stared at the door. I knew she was thinking of Mam so I turned the knob. Run DMC was playing.
‘Did ye break up?’
‘We were only meeting each other. I don’t want a boyfriend,’ she said. ‘Stacey is gonna do slut races. Who you gonna shift?’
‘I dunno.’ I leaned over to the mirror on Aoife’s cupboard, pulling my nose sideways, looking at the bastard of a spot.
‘You’ll make it worse,’ Aoife said. She came over with her makeup thing and rubbed it on my nose. I yanked away. ‘Do you want to hide that thing or what? Stop touching it. You’ll rub it off.’
I looked in the mirror. It looked heaps better.
‘I bet you loads of guys do it,’ she said.
Mam dropped us at the hall about eight. There was a row of lads sitting along a wall drinking from bottles. Aoife’s friend Stacey wore a mini skirt and a top that said ‘porn-star’. Aoife watched Mam drive away.
‘Did ya get it?’ she asked. Stacey nodded. I followed them around the side. I didn’t mind hanging with the girls after being with Aoife at home; I never felt awkward talking to them the way some lads did. Stacey pulled out a bottle of Buckfast. We took turns swigging from it.
‘Gimme some.’ It was Swinger – Willie as he was known then. I handed him the bottle.
‘Your mam okay with me crashing?’ I asked. He nodded. We watched a few lads messing with a shopping trolley, pushing each other around the car park. The trolley fell over and they were all laughing. Foley stood up. He slapped a guy on the back. It was Gary Murphy; he’d a face like Plug from the Bash Street Kids. He was a lanky fuck, his hair all Brylcreem.
‘Do I look okay?’ Stacey asked.
‘You look amaaazing.’ Aoife said. Stacey was chewing her purple lips and half of it was sticking to her teeth. She wasn’t a patch on Aoife; you could’ve driven a truck between her eyes and she’d the brain of a fruit fly.
We polished off the Buckfast before horsing in mints, hoping the old guy on the door wouldn’t smell the drink. Inside, there was a disco-light that put stars on the ceiling and the gym mats were piled at the far side. There was a DJ playing No Doubt’s ‘Just a Girl’ so loud I could feel the beat in my ribcage. The guys and girls were at either ends of the hall. I went with Swinger, Stacy went after Aoife.
‘Get your head out of your arse. Do you want your coffee or what?’ Maureen shouted across the canteen, holding up the Nescafe jar. I looked back out the window to see if the pigeons were still riding on the wall.
They weren’t. I sat down at the table with the lads from my shift. They were all talking about Swinger, hammering on about when they last saw him and ‘wasn’t it only inevitable’. But none of them talked about where he died. Just as well.
Maureen had a smug head on her, telling anyone who’ll listen that she worked with Swinger five years back. She’s the only one who’s stayed here for more than a couple of years. Bit by bit, you get sick of stinking of dead lambs. It gets soaked into your skin and you can’t get it off no matter how hard you scrub yourself.
‘…it was the stunning that got the better of him,’ she said. ‘You’d think from the size of him he’d never be such a big girl’s blouse.’ She laughed and I could see mercury fillings in every one of her teeth.
Stunning: the rows of lambs being pushed one-by-one between railings, having that little metal thing put down on their heads and Swinger pushing the button. There’s not many can stick that for long. Not unless they have a taste for it in the first place. When I started, they tried to get me doing it but I said not a hope.
I wonder sometimes if the abattoir is a curse or a blessing for the town. It’s handy for lads around here with all the sites are gone. It was the only thing I could get after my stint in Australia and I needing to be local since Mam went on chemo. You’d think there’d be more jobs going but an arts degree means fuck all these days.
Melbourne. Now that’s some place. The beach in St Kilda – there was some beautiful looking specimens on it. The ocean – blue like the pictures in magazines. I could see it out the window when I was serving pints. It’d chill me right out. All that space.
It wasn’t just the look of Melbourne that I liked. I was never one for getting in scrapes – I always kept my head low. But down under there was a bit of freedom. You could be anyone. Course, I always had to keep an eye out and my heart did jump a few times when I thought I saw someone I knew in Heaven’s Door. Most of the crowd in Heaven’s Door I wouldn’t be able for, too flamboyant for my taste, but there were plenty of normal lads too.
I even got to seeing someone in the final few months I was there. Aoife was mad to hear all about it. ‘Come on, what are they like?’ she’d ask me and I’d be stumped. God only knows if she was doing it to wind me up. She’d settled with her American by then and a second baby on the way. ‘Isn’t it great to be free of that hole?’ she once said to me. ‘All the small minded fucks.’ The abuse she got off Mam for getting knocked-up during the Leaving. And Gary fucking Murphy of all people. Poor Sam has the same ears.
Aoife never came home when she heard about the chemo, nor did any of the cousins from England. I’d still five months left on my visa but family was family. Mam was bawling down the phone to me. ‘That bitch of a young one.’
Coming back to Castlemoy was odd. It’s funny how you turn back into your old self again. But this place does strange things to the brain. We’re all a bit gone in the head from it.
I’m getting away from my point: the Junior Cert disco. If I’m honest, it was a pile of shit. Crap music and us all glued to the walls.
‘I’ve a naggin in my pants,’ Swinger said to me. ‘You wanna head to the jacks?’
We jammed into a cubicle, his warm arm touching off mine. The whole place stank of piss. The toilet roll had fallen onto the floor and was all yellow. I swigged the vodka, nearly spitting it up as it burned my throat. It took a few minutes to finish the bottle. My stomach burned. The legs were almost coming out from under me. I leaned my forehead against his shoulder for a second, getting my bearings, and for a few seconds he leaned back.
A few young ones were dancing in the main hall. They thought they were the dog’s bollocks, staring at the lads, but none of us left the wall. Then Aoife got up with Stacy and Foley was straight in there. The rest followed. I sat on the ground with Swinger, feeling sick. The room was spinning.
‘Stay awake. They’ll kick us out.’ Swinger nudged me. There was a group of old guys by the door. I watched the crowd; Stacey was kissing Gary and Aoife was shouting in Foley’s ear. It seemed like all the lads wanted the same few girls.
I stood up, my knees just holding. Swinger and I danced with these two from Loretto; he moved towards the blond and they began shifting each other. Her friend was giving me the eye and I was gonna go for it but then I felt sick and had to leg it to the jacks.
I chucked-up into the toilet; it was filthy but I couldn’t lift my head off the rim. I closed my eyes, thinking I should text Aoife but my arms felt all weak.
‘Hey!’ Some tool kicked the door. I woke up, feeling dizzy. I took a deep breath and opened the latch, staggering to the sink. The hot water tap was long gone. I washed my hands with the cold and walked back into the hall, balancing against the wall. I felt a bit better after getting it all up. Swinger was still shifting the blond one, well, not so much shifting as eating the face off her. Her friend was mauling the head of some other lad. I played Snakes on my phone. The clock was barely moving.
Aoife and Stacey dragged me up to dance. I felt mad awkward at first but then I didn’t mind.
‘Still with the girls,’ Gary shouted over. Aoife flipped him the finger.
The disco finished at eleven thirty, the big lights coming on. Aoife’s chin and her nose pink from all the shifting.
‘How many?’ she turned to Stacy.
‘D’you think we should find Mam,’ I said.
Mam was in the Toyota outside, waiting for Aoife. I straightened up, thinking of the booze. Mam asked if we wanted a lift but Swinger shook his head, saying he only lived around the corner. He told her we’d head straight back.
‘Make sure you do now,’ she said.
It was getting dark when I left the abattoir; I zipped up my hoodie as I walked out the gates, my breath fogging. A few of the lads from the shift were hanging at the entrance. Maureen rubbed a butt into the pavement and asked me was I going to my Mam’s or did I have a date with a girl. She started roaring laughing anyhow, that fag-ash laugh you get from being a dried up bitch whose spent two decades in the local.
I’d love to tell her and the rest of them where to shove it. Maybe when I get out of this place I will. But Maureen’s other-half is inside and her sixteen-year-old fostered so she’s getting her comeuppance either way.
I walked into the town centre, thinking about how much longer I could put up with it all, the blood, the guts and Maureen’s sour puss. And then it hit me again what’d happened. Swinger was dead. It seemed mad to me that someone like him, who was all go, could be dead. I wondered how Stacy took the news and if she’d told Swinger’s two boys yet. She and Swinger didn’t live together or anything; no-one really knew if it was to get the welfare or if he got kicked out for having the roving eye. But the two of them seemed happy enough in the pictures I’d seen online. She and I kept in touch, even when I was out in Australia. She’d send me the odd message, asking how Aoife was finding Chicago.
I flicked open Stacy’s profile on my phone. She’d put Swinger up as her profile pic. I thought again what a handsome fucker he was. My eyes were stinging a fair bit. Fifteen years since we’d talked. It was stupid. I read down the messages on Stacy’s wall, all these folks coming out of the woodwork, offering their condolences but really just having a nose. I saw Maureen’s post, ‘Thinking of you babes xx’. I stuffed my phone back into my pocket.
Passing Supermacs, I could see one of the girls at the counter. She gave me a wave. I nodded and walked on, down towards the river. Home was only five minutes up the hill after the bridge.
When I reached the bridge, I paused, thinking maybe I’d turn left. About seven or eight minutes up the quays would bring me to where he’d died. Would the red Nissan be there, a bit hidden by the trees? Would that odd guy in a cap appear and look about for others? I hoped not. A bit of respect for the dead and all that.
What a God forsaken place. Priests and fuck knows who else. Married men who should know better. Wives at home watching Eastenders with not a clue what was going on. I was embarrassed for Swinger, hanging out with that sad lot. Why did anyone go there? Hadn’t they phones and apps to be searching for what they wanted?
It’s a wonder there’s never been a rumour about Swinger in all these years. But I suppose anyone else going to that place won’t be announcing it. To think, Swinger was calling some lad a faggot outside Charlie Mac’s a few weeks back. But maybe I heard wrong. Sometimes, when I pass people on the street, I think I hear people saying ‘fag’ but maybe they aren’t saying anything at all.
After we left the disco, Swinger and I stopped by Supermacs. Across the road, a few of the local heads drank out the front of Dicies. The cold air brought me around, the vodka wearing off.
‘Did you shift anyone?’ Swinger asked. His hands were stuffed in his jeans. He shivered.
‘Nah. Did you?’
‘Just that girl Tracey but for ages.’
‘Was she good?’
‘She was alright. I felt her tits too.’
‘What did they feel like?’
‘They were kinda small.’
We stopped in Centra. I picked up a packet of beef Hoola Hoops and a can of coke. Swinger got four sausage rolls from the deli. After turning off the main street, we came to his house after a bit. We were ten minutes late but he said his mam didn’t give a shit. I watched the bits of pastry sticking to his lips; he squirted the tomato sauce from the packet straight into his mouth.
‘Gimme some coke there,’ he said. I handed it to him and he took a big swig. When he gave it back there was food on it but I didn’t care.
‘Can you smell drink?’ he asked. He breathed into my face. It was warm. I could only smell ketchup.
‘No, you’re grand. What about me?’
‘Fuck sake, the bang of Hoola Hoops.’
I laughed. Swinger slipped his key in the lock and twisted it real slow.
‘We’ll better keep it down,’ he said. I followed him up the stairs, across the landing to his bedroom, the floorboards creaking. He closed the door and flicked on the light. The room smelt like old socks.
‘Will, is that you?’ a woman’s voice shouted through the walls.
‘Get into bed now.’
Swinger stuck up his two fingers at the wall then took off his jersey. He’d hair on his chest. There was a V around his neck where he’d got a suntan. I put down my shoes, taking off my jeans. I looked about the room; the football wallpaper was all torn around the bed.
‘Mind topping and tailing?’ he said. ‘Mam has the airbed downstairs but if we wake her again.’
‘Grand,’ I said, lying on the mattress. He turned off the light. The top of his back had a birthmark on it in the shape of a gun, so he told everyone. He jumped in, his feet close to my head. I lay still and wondered if I was taking too much space. Lying down made the drink worse.
‘Fuck, I’ve a head on me,’ he whispered from the other end of the bed.
‘Me too,’ I said. I licked my teeth, feeling the bits of crisps.
‘Fuck,’ I yelled. Swinger laughed. He was after punching my foot. I kicked him. He kicked back. I grabbed his leg, smacking my pillow down on his head. He yanked himself free, jumped up and pinned my shoulders down, while I tried to knee him.
‘Boys, keep it down. Get some sleep,’ his mam shouted. Swinger looked at the wall. I watched the muscle on his neck which went from his ear to his collarbone. He looked back at me. I could see the white of his teeth. He was pushing hard against me. I reached down. I thought he might have punched me but he didn’t pull away.
The next morning, Swinger was up before me. I’m not quite sure how he got his arm out from under my neck. My lips felt warm from his stubble. Putting on my clothes, I tried not to think about his lips; when I did, I started getting hard and fuck, that was that last thing I wanted.
On the stairs, I got a wave of panic. What if his mam heard something? But I suppose she’d have been straight into us if she’d an inkling.
I could hear the TV going in the sitting room. Swinger was sitting on the floor with the Megadrive, playing Streets of Rage. I sat on the edge of the couch and said good morning but he never turned around. Then I laughed, saying that the woman with the whip was like Aoife but he never said anything. There wasn’t even a chuckle out of him. My cheeks started to feel really hot and I sat back watching Alex Stone kick the shit out of a baddie. Every time I tried to say something, the words got caught in my throat.
Mam picked me up at eleven and I left Swinger playing. He didn’t look up the whole time. My head was pounding as I shouted goodbye and closed the door.
Swinger and I barely said a word to each other since then. He got mad into the hurling that autumn and the creation known as ‘Swinger Dingavan’ was born. Chasing women and downing pints with the lads. Who knows what he was thinking about all those years? And then to die where he did.
In the end, I didn’t turn left up the river but went straight over the bridge and carried on home to Mam. I helped her into bed, then I ordered a Dominos and watched a few episodes of Family Guy off the laptop. I guess there’s no point in being dramatic about things. What’s done is done. You just got to get on with it.
Featured illustration by Aisling O’ Reilly.