Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Hammer Horror Revisited

 

 

We were steaming out the Carlow Road now. Me and Petie. Determined. Petie’s wife Mary yards behind. Mary wasn’t part of our past, and it was our past we were hunting now. We snatched gulps of Heineken as we hurtled on. Beer spilled down the fronts of our jackets and onto the footpath and occasionally even out on the road. Cold soldered our fingers to our beer cans. Fingers made colder still by dribbled beer. Mary wasn’t drinking. It was all she could do to keep up.

 

*  *  *

 

Petie’s eyes had come to life when I sneaked up on him in Bunny Johnson’s and poked him in the shoulder. He’d been slumped at the counter with two brothers years older than he was. Nobody talking. Drinking in the same pub together every second night for ten years I guess they ran out of things to say to one another. After Petie got over the shock of seeing me, he pulled a ten euro note out of his pocket and said, “Let’s see if Bunny can change this into a couple of pints.”

Mary was sitting at a table in the corner with some women she worked in the shirt factory with. She came up to the counter when Petie hailed her.  She was a dumpy little thing. Pale. Mousey hair. Greasy-looking skin. She looked like someone would slap the weight up pretty handy. I knew straightaway she wouldn’t take to me. I wanted to like her. I wanted her to like me. What can you do? Petie married her a year after I left town. They already had a couple of kids; were domiciled in a Sprite Super Major in Petie’s mother’s back garden.

 

*  *  *

 

We ran out of footpath coming up on the Old Graveyard. Polos and Novas full of twentysomethings full of alcopops vroomed by on their way to nightclubs in Carlow. Mary screaming warnings behind us, we did our drunken best to stick to the hedge.

The Old Graveyard was a sliver of Hammer Horror on a deadly bend. An accident blackspot sign hid in the weeds at either end of it. One morning back in the seventies a lorry load of soldiers made smithereens of a tractor there. We watched the whole thing from our vantage point up in the graveyard. After an ambulance took the farmer away, the soldiers lounged around with their tunics open. Smoking. Talking quietly. Waiting for the Guards to show up. Cigarette smoke twisted in the morning air.  It mixed with the smell of warm grass and daisies and clover. The Old Graveyard was sort of a secret den when we were kids. It was mostly Protestants were buried there. No one at all though since the 1940s.

 

*  *  *

 

“Remember the Ouzo?” Back in Bunny Johnson’s bar this was. I handed a twenty euro note to Bunny.  Petie passed one of the two muddy pints Bunny helicoptered onto the counter to me.

 

*  *  *

 

An uncle of mine brought the Ouzo back from a fortnight in Corfu. Slipped it out of an airline bag like it was pornography. “Go easy on that stuff,” the uncle said. That bottle looked as sad to be in Ireland as the uncle was to be back. A plain bottle it was. Liquid in it the colour of water. An industrial-looking label. Red and white. Strange lettering.

We killed it in the graveyard. Petie and me. We never said a word to Billy or Jay-Jay. It was one of those Saturdays in an Irish winter trying to drag itself into spring. The smell of muck everywhere.  Nothing on Telly but rugby. Mud-spattered monsters slugging it out in Murrayfield and Twickenham and Lansdowne Road. Tattered pitches that resembled sections of the Somme.

I called up to Petie’s house on Rabbit Hill, and when he came outside tonguing jam off a slice of batch, I showed him the bottle hidden inside my jacket.

We settled on a corner right in at the back of the graveyard. One lone headstone is all there was back there, surrounded by a family of cypress trees. Petie hopped up on the headstone. I leaned against it and unscrewed the cap of the bottle. I raised the bottle to my nose, “Smells like liquorice.”

“What’s it taste like?”

I took a pull, “Liquorice.” I got this kick in my throat seconds after I swallowed. It made me wince.

“Giz a slug!” Petie grabbed the bottle out of my hand.

We killed it in about thirty minutes.

Halfway through Petie started to crack jokes about the headstone he was sitting on. It was dedicated to Butch somebody or other. Only the letters chiselled into its face were so weathered and so marred with lichen that they read like Mutch. “What the fuck sort of a name is Mutch?”  Petie tipped a phantom Stetson, tapped the top of the headstone with his knuckles, made his voice like John Wayne’s, “Much obliged, Mutch!” Petie was always doing TV accents when we were growing up.

This oulfella came into the graveyard at one point, snooping in and out between the graves. We didn’t hear a thing until he was right there in front of us nodding hello. Totally grey he was. Grey woolly hair, grey windbreaker, grey slacks; I didn’t see his shoes. “Maybe he’s Mutch’s ghost,” I said after the oulfella sloped off.

“Well that was crap,” Petie said when we got to the bottom of the bottle.  He smashed it off Mutch’s headstone.

On our way back to Rabbit Hill we started laughing for no reason. When we got to Rabbit Hill we sprawled out on the green in front of the houses.

Five hours later Billy and Jay-Jay toed us awake. Somehow, mysteriously, we’d been transported to the cowshed across the road. I rolled over on my belly and started puking. My body went rigid and arched like a cat’s and I vomited effortlessly, balletically, into the trampled hay. I puked and puked and puked. Until nothing came out but scorching, terracotta-coloured bile. The bitter taste of it triggering a whole new wave of puking. Saliva ropes hung from my lips. They tasted like liquorice. Then the dry heaving started. I heaved and heaved and heaved. Until my insides were wrenched raw and my head felt like it would burst from the strain. All the while Billy and Jay-Jay laughed, taking time out to toe me in the ribs.

Petie woke up in a cowpat. Cowshit was mashed into the back of his lumber jacket. Glued into his hair. The stain never washed out and Petie loved that jacket. Slap bang down the middle forever after was this pale olive patch in the shape of South America. Petie rolled over on his belly and started puking. He puked and puked and puked. His body went rigid and arched like a cat’s and he vomited effortlessly, balletically, into the trampled hay.

 

*  *  *

 

A row of headstones reared up out of the dark. "Mutch! Mutch!" Petie made for the cypress trees beyond them. Stumbling over bumps and hollows, waving his arms in front of him.  "He only lives down the road," I remember thinking. "He could come in here any time he wants."

He flicked his lighter on and we hunkered down. Beer cans jutting from our knees we followed that jackdaw’s tongue of fire, pleased to see the weathered letters still read like Mutch. We felt vindicated, or something.

We straightened up. We sipped from our cans, swaying on our feet in little semicircles, staring at Mutch’s headstone. This was as close as we were going to get to that mucky afternoon all those years ago. The Old Graveyard owned that afternoon now and it wasn’t giving it up. Anyway, it occurred to me later, we hadn’t been searching for the afternoon we drank the Ouzo after all. We wanted the scores of other afternoons, and the mornings and the nights before we’d started boozing. We were looking for that invisible thread we wind out from infancy, that sounds in our palms of home and mother and all things that are good. We’d let go of it here. Just when we should have held on to it tighter.

“Right,” Mary stumbled up behind us, wheezing. “Are youze two ready to come on now or what? The babysitter’ll be climbing up the walls.”

Petie made his voice like the dad’s from The Brady Bunch.  “We don’t have walls, honey.” Then he switched back to his own voice, “We live in a fucking caravan, remember?”  Mary glowered at me.

 

*  *  *

 

Hard and cold insinuated themselves into my unconsciousness.  I tried to ignore them.  I tried not to wake up. But my eyes opened of their own accord.  A little boy and an even smaller girl stared down at me, the nappies they wore so full they’d turned yellow, starting to slide off their chubby thighs. The girl sucked on an empty bottle.  Her breath whoof-whoof-whoofing in and out of the tit.

I tore my tongue from the roof of my mouth, “Huddo!” I sat up, just missing a coffee table that could have taken a Turner Prize. Twisted cigarette butts like fat worms in ashtrays and saucers so overflowing with butts and ashes they put me in mind of erupting graves. Sticky Heineken cans. Radiating that thick, challenging smell of stale lager. Empty and almost-empty cans loitered on the floor. An abandoned chess game played by alcoholics. The Heineken was winning when we threw in the towel near 3AM.

Something slewed around in my stomach. Then it grew claws and tried to climb out. I picked a can up and shook it. It returned a hefty slosh. “Petie?”

“Yeah?”  This from behind a flimsy curtain. Tentative. Frightened almost.

I could feel Mary holding her breath. I glued the can to the lino again. “I think I’ll hit the road,” I said.

“Are ya off?” Petie said.

I was already on my feet. Petie’s kids staring up at me. Like they wanted me to abduct them. I managed a wink. Then I fumbled with the lock on the door and I got the door open and I stumbled down some steps into the morning.

 

 

 

Mick Ransford has worked at all sorts of things and travelled fairly extensively, returning to Ireland to concentrate on writing. In Ireland he has been published in The Sunday Tribune, Cuirt, Comhar, Crannog, West47 and Poetry Ireland; in the US, in magazines such as MeThree, Whim’s Place, and Able Muse. His work regularly features on Irish radio and has appeared in school textbooks, British, and Irish newspapers and in several anthologies, including the critically received These Are Our Lives. He won a Galway Now short story competition and was short listed for a PJ O’Connor Award and a Hennessy Fiction Award.