New Year’s Day by John Walsh

Till was angry with himself because he’d come to blows with his da again. On New Year’s Eve. They’d been drinking cider and Bull all day. Then when his brothers left, the da laid into him. The same old crap about breaking his mother’s heart, for running away, getting lifted and bringing the guards in on top of them. How she couldn’t take anymore of it and just wasted away. All a load of balls as far as Till was concerned. And he told him so. That’s when the da smashed the bottle on the table and went for him. Till f’d him out of it and left him in a heap in the corner. The place was a wreck. His brothers would be after him as soon as they found the da. They’d go for Till first and then ask the questions. But he wasn’t hanging around for that shit anymore.

It was dark and freezing. He had only the waist-length leather jacket they’d got him, the same stuff they hawked at the fairs in Ennis and Wexford, no questions asked. Came in bulky brown boxes. He kept walking, looking around every now and then for car lights, rubbed his hands together and blew hot breath onto them. His da was the one broke the mother’s heart. Dragged her around the country till she was a nervous wreck. Then dumped her in that kip. Not much love lost between the two of them. He remembered them getting all nicety-nice with each other on a Friday night, only to go on the tear again and end up worse than before. Not much love lost between his da and himself either. Going back thinking they could make things up, because of the time of year. All bullshit. There was no making up between them to be done anymore.

He was hoping a car would come along and he would get a lift. Though maybe he wasn’t safe on the road, they would be looking for him everywhere. But they’d never know where he was, he’d been walking for a good couple of hours now. If nothing else, he’d find a hayshed. That would do, unless there were dogs. He didn’t know exactly where he was, somewhere between Letterkenny and ‘Bofey. He didn’t like towns. There was always trouble waiting for him when he hit a town. He used fields and backstreets, made his way round them.

He saw car lights in the distance, clawing their way through the night. His blood rushed. He looked at the ditch, deep and dark, probably icy and wet. He could freeze there. He decided he’d take his chance. He stood by the road in the glare of the headlights and stuck out his thumb.

The car passed him at speed, then the driver slammed on the brakes. They made an awful screeching as the car came to a halt. Till ran towards it, came up level with it the moment the passenger door was thrown open.

‘Get in fast for crissakes. It must be freezing out there.’

Till climbed into the passenger seat and pulled the door shut.

‘You’re out late,’ the driver said as the car moved off again.

Till caught the smell of drink from him. ‘Thanks for the lift, mister,’ he said, without looking at the driver.

‘I nearly didn’t see you. Wear something bright at night. Did you never hear of that?’

‘I did alright.’

‘But you like doing things your way.’

‘I s’pose,’ Till muttered.

‘Where you going?’

‘Anywhere, mister. Anywhere you’re going’ll do me.’

‘Stop mistering me for crissakes. My name’s Ian. What’s yours?’

‘Till, mister.’

‘Would you cut out the mister bit, I told you.’

Till didn’t reply. He didn’t want to cause any trouble. He settled back into the warmth of the big seat.

‘I’m heading for Galway. That any good to you?’

‘That’s good for me.’ Till caught the mister just in time. He was heading far enough away now for any of them to catch up with him.

‘What’s got you out at this hour of the morning? Your chances would have been zero if I hadn’t come along.’

‘I dunno.’

‘You dunno?’

‘I dunno what to say.’ Till stared at the road ahead. The big car was crossing over and back on the white line of the road. There was no traffic but the road was full of twists and bends.

‘You’re as bad as meself,’ the driver said. ‘You don’t know whether you’re coming or going.’

‘You said it, mister.’ Till glanced at the driver, afraid he might get angry. But he didn’t notice. ‘Can I ask you something, Ian?’ He forced the Ian.

‘Fire away.’

‘D’ye think you’re a bit drunk?’

‘Between you and me, I’m shit drunk. Are you getting worried?’

‘I’m worried you’re gonna get the two of us killed.’

‘Well, I made it this far.’

Till noticed he wasn’t straying as far over the markings anymore since they’d started talking. But the bends were getting worse. ‘You’re lucky you didn’t get stopped.’

‘I’m lucky because I haven’t a clue how I got this far. All I remember is driving off in a mad fit. The rest is a blank. Not good, eh? Do you know your way to Galway, Till?’

Till hesitated. He knew all the roads, it was the towns he had to think about. ‘It’s a straight run down the coast.’

‘Well, tell me, can you drive, Till?’

‘I can.’

‘Do you think you can drive a car like this, Till?’

‘What make is it?’

‘Volvo. They’re big brutes of cars, built like tanks.’

‘I never drove one of these. But I’d be better off driving it than you.’

Ian laughed. ‘Okay, Till, I’ll pull over, you take the wheel. I can grab a sleep.’ Ian pulled the car over and put on the handbrake. He left the motor running. ‘I’d better take a piss while I’m at it. Sit in there and get the feel of her.’

Till climbed over into the driver’s seat. He sank his hands into the soft leather of the steering wheel and held it tight. The feel of the wheel was so light, so natural, like in the TV ads. He felt for the lever at the side of the driver’s seat and eased the seat closer to the pedals. Then he pressed down on the clutch and ran through the gears. Everything smooth. Finally he put his foot on the gas pedal and revved the engine. It was rearing to go.

‘You’ll manage alright, will ye?’ Ian’s voice came from behind.

‘No bother.’ He heard Ian stretch out in the back with a deep sigh.

‘Just follow the signs for Galway. Wake me up when we get that far, if I don’t wake up before myself. I’ll take it from there.’

‘Sound as a bell, Ian.’

‘Put on your seatbelt. I never let anyone in the car without a seatbelt.’

Till drew the belt across and clicked it in. He released the handbrake and let the car roll back out onto the road. He shot a look in the rear-view mirror but he saw no sign of Ian. As the big Volvo sailed easily along, he noticed there were stars all over the place, flashing and blinking into the cold night.

 

Till was twenty-three. His birthday was coming up at the end of the month, always too close to New Year and Christmas. Nobody made a big thing of it. He’d been driving vans since he was fourteen. Heavy, red diesel vans that always made a helluva racket. Driving this big Volvo was a cinch. He wouldn’t have minded some music, but was afraid to waken Ian. He heard him snoring. He wondered why someone like Ian was out driving on New Year’s Eve night, totally out of his head. Families always got into rows at this time of year. Any row he ever had was mostly with family. They couldn’t leave him alone. All he wanted now was to put the miles between him and them, and this time keep it that way.

He knew Galway. They held a mart there couple of times a year. He could see the hill where they parked all the vans and the trailer boxes, the baker’s where they got the iced buns. Or was that Sligo? He thought he knew Galway, but he could be wrong. The only place he really knew was Kilkelly, because of the accident. The guy speeding like a madman ploughed into the side of them just after the da pulled out. They were only crawling. The red Hiace was knocked clean off the road. The da got done for it because of the few drinks he’d had. But it was the madman’s fault. To this day he still got angry when he thought how the da was summonsed for it.

There was a junction ahead where he had to turn right. As he swung round he caught sight of the moon. A very thin slice, metallic bright. He’d have to watch the road coming up through Barnesmore. There could be ice. He doubted Ian would have made it through the Gap. He wouldn’t have felt safe beside him.

Till reckoned it would be another hour before Sligo. It wouldn’t be daylight by then. His plan had been to stay at the da’s for a week or two. Give it a go until the cold spell broke. But that was no good now. He had an older brother somewhere near Ballinrobe. They got on alright. But the wife suffered from moods. One day when the brother was out on a job, she cornered Till, started talking sweet to him. The next thing she was all over him, unbuttoning his shirt and his trousers. They ended up in bed. She was mad for it. Told him not to worry. He did what she wanted. Let her think everything was alright. Then, when she was asleep, he got away. Raided her purse on the way out. No idea what she’d told the brother.

Till felt like a racer taking the twists and turns through the Gap. He tried the brakes gently, just to check the road. No bother. A mate of Till’s had brought him into the flashy new BMW showrooms in Letterkenny. They’d clowned around talking big time to the dealer. All figures and technicals, as if they had a clue. Got to sit into one of the three-one-six convertibles. Mad the money they cost. But it made you feel a whole lot different, like the icing on the cake was all yours.

The tail bit after Barnesmore was the last winding stretch. Till took the car through the bends, then shifted into top and sat back easy as the shadows of Donegal town came up on either side. Donegal was dead. He took a left coming into the square. When they got the new road finished it’d be even deader. He heard they had a big new disco all the farmers’ sons went to and tore the livin’ daylights out of each other. He’d worked on farms around Donegal. He knew the people they were talking about.

On the far side of Donegal he felt the tiredness creep over him. He fiddled around and found the switch for the window. Everything electric. The window zipped down an inch, letting in the cold air. It snapped him awake again. He wondered if he played his cards right, could he get a bed out of Ian. Around five o’clock they’d be in Galway. He didn’t know anybody in Galway.

There was something about this Ian guy. The way he handed him the car keys. Crashed out on the backseat. Okay, the guy could have been a goner at the bottom of the Gap by now. But Till wasn’t pulling any fast ones this time. The road in front of him from here on was straight nearly all way. All he had to do was follow it.

‘You still alright?’ Ian’s voice startled Till. He’d no idea how much time had passed.

‘Sure.’

‘You must be tired.’ Till heard him getting up. ‘Where are we?’

‘Near Sligo.’ There hadn’t been any signs for a while. He wasn’t really sure.

‘Pull over. You better get some sleep. Sounds like you need it. Better let me take over.’

‘I’m alright.’ Till knew he wasn’t, but he was stubborn.

‘Pull over,’ Ian insisted. ‘You get the head down.’

Till switched gears and slowed down, pulled the car over. Doors opened, they both got out at the same time. The ice in the wind cut into his cheeks. They passed each other without a word. Till resisted the urge to bolt. To slam the door and walk off. The old Till. The don’t-tell-me-what-to-do Till. He grabbed the door steady and walked around it. Got himself into the back and pulled the door shut. He did up the zip on the jacket and spread out on the seats. The smooth rhythm of the big motor soothed him. He wanted to hold on to something in his head, but in a couple of minutes he was sound asleep.

*

Till opened his eyes and saw trees outside the window. Bare branches, a palm tree shaking in the wind. A telegraph pole and wires against a soft grey sky. He heard the noise of the wind, dogs barking, the way dogs in the countryside barked at each other. He started up. He was in bed, a big double bed that took up most of the room. His shoes and socks, trousers and jacket were thrown around on the floor. He sat still and listened, but he heard nothing. Nothing to give him a clue where he was. He forced himself to think, then slowly remembered waking, going into the house, the guy Ian showed him the room. He collapsed into the bed he was in now. His watch showed three-thirty. He must have slept right through. He needed a piss. He got out of bed, picked up his trousers and pulled them on quickly. Outside in the hall he checked the doors and found the bathroom. A big, white-tiled bathroom that was freezing cold. There were pictures on the walls, strange colours, nothing he could make out that made any sense. A weird kind of room for a bathroom. He washed and looked at himself in the mirror. For somebody who’d been in a punch-up with his da he looked alright. The da could throw a vicious punch. But he hadn’t got close enough to do him any harm. Till had grabbed his wrist, wrung the bottle out of his hand and pushed him away. It all came back to him. The da hadn’t made any moves to get up again. The drink had him beat.

Till examined the fancy bottles on the bathroom shelf. He took the cap off one and put his nose to it. Woman’s stuff, probably the real thing, not the fakes you could spot a mile off. He had a flashback of buying stuff for his ma. When he was a kid. Paid for it with money of his own. Fancy box and all. The ma was all teary that he’d done it. The box sat there for ages. She never used it. Then she forgot about it. Years later he and his brother were selling the stuff, swearing it was the real thing, god’s truth missus.

Till wondered what he should do. He could go back and wait in the bedroom until the Ian guy came for him. He didn’t feel comfortable sneaking around his house. On the other hand, he was thirsty and hungry. He opened the bathroom door and walked out into the hall. He couldn’t remember what way he’d come in. The hall had a corner, then led on to a porch and on the right he saw a door, probably into the living room. He was about to touch the handle when he heard Ian’s voice. He was talking loudly, the way people talk when they are on the phone.

‘Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s what most people think. I didn’t know you thought like everybody else.’

Till stood at the door, waiting to hear more.

‘Don’t be ridiculous! He’s still asleep in the other room. I’m just up myself. We were completely knackered, the two of us.’

It felt odd to hear yourself being talked about. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do, listening at the door.

‘I don’t care. For me he was a fuckin’ godsend. Who else would have been out there hitching a lift at that hour of the morning? At New Year? He was meant to be there. Otherwise I mightn’t be here right now.’

Till felt awkward. If there was any family they might catch him listening at the door. But somehow there was an empty feel to the house.

‘I’ll think about it. You know me.’ There was the hint of a laugh in Ian’s voice. It reminded Till of him asking if he thought he could drive the Volvo. He wasn’t serious. A Volvo was like any other car. He knew that. Till heard a chair being moved.

‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll be careful. Listen, sorry for what happened. Are we alright then? Okay. Talk to you.’

He decided to knock on the door, rather than wait for Ian to find him there.

‘Come in, come on in!’ Ian called out.

Till opened the door and walked into the room.

‘You’re alive, good. Bet you’re hungry too.’

‘Sorta,’ Till answered. The room was all windows. A fire was started in a big grate but it hadn’t caught yet. Ian was looking at him as if he expected him to say some more.

‘You sleep alright?’

‘Out like a light. Don’t remember how I got to bed. Slept right through.’ Ian was standing behind a chair. The phone was lying on a newspaper. There were breakfast things scattered on the table.

‘Are you a coffee or a tea man?’

‘Tea,’ Till mumbled.

‘Fried egg, bacon?’

‘The works. Can I get some water?’

‘Grab a mug. Help yourself.’ Ian pointed to the kitchen. ‘The tap water’s good. I’ll cook us up some breakfast. See if you can do something with that fire. The pilot on the heating must have gone out. There’s no heat. But I’m not going out to see about it in this weather.’

Till took a mug with the name Sandra on it. He wondered if it was a real name. The water was icy cold. Tasted good. He drank down a whole mug quickly, then refilled the mug and took it with him over to the fire.

‘Can I use a bit out of your newspaper, mister?’ It came out before he could stop himself. Ian was staring at him, about to say something, but didn’t. ‘Sorry. I mean Ian. Can I take a page from your newspaper to get the fire going?’

‘Sure you can.’ Ian was cutting open a pack of bacon. The fat was sparking in the pan.

Till lifted the phone off the paper and took out the centre page. He held it up in front of the fire to block the air flow. The paper was sucked in by the draught up the chimney. Till held on to it and soon he could hear the flames and the crackling of the wood. He looked over into the kitchen. ‘Old Indian trick.’

They sat at the big table close to the window. Outside dusk was closing in. Till gulped his tea.

‘You never told me what had you out on the road in the middle of the night.’ He could feel Ian’s eyes on him. He didn’t like it. ‘What were you running away from?’

Till felt a tightness in his stomach. He didn’t care for people asking him questions. Wasn’t any of their business. ‘I wasn’t running away. I didn’t do nothin’ to nobody.’

‘I’m not saying you did. Not saying you did anything. Just curious. You don’t have to tell me. Good thing for me you were there anyway.’

Till caught up a large piece of bacon and stuck it into his mouth. He chewed on it for a minute then swallowed it down. ‘I had a row with me aul fella. He came at me with a bottle. He likes cutting me up.’ Till rolled up his sleeve. ‘You see. That’s what I got from him the time before.’

‘Jesus! ‘Nice guy your father.’

Till rolled the sleeve down again. ‘You have to be able to give as good as you get.’

‘You mean that’s what you did to him too?’

Till didn’t like the sound of Ian’s voice. ‘I dunno. Don’t think so. Don’t think I did him any hurt. Can I have more tea?’

‘Sure. I’ll make some more.’ Ian rose to go into the kitchen.

‘I don’t want to give you any bother.’

‘It’s no bother. Water’s boiled. Just throw in a teabag. No bother.’

Till felt he shouldn’t have said those things to Ian. He looked around at the big room, wondering what a guy with all this thought about him. About a stranger sitting at his table, showing him his scars, not knowing what he’d done. It would have been better for him to say nothing. He looked out at the trees shaking. Dark clouds, heavy with rain bore down on them. Far in the distance he could see low hills, other houses tacked onto them. The wind kept at it. A bitter cold January south-westerly.

‘So what’s the plan then, Till?’ Ian came back with the tea and more toast. There was an edge to his voice. ‘Where you heading after this?’

‘Dunno. Anywhere s’pose.’

‘There’s an awful lot of dunnos about you, Till.’

‘Must be. Dunno where I am, do I? So dunno where it is I’m likely to be heading then.’

‘Galway, Till. We’re just outside town. Do you have anybody you know around Galway?’

Till shuffled his feet under the table to ease the agitation building up inside him. He felt Ian’s eyes on him. ‘Could I stay here? I’ll leave in the morning. I won’t give you any bother.’ Till could feel Ian wasn’t the same guy anymore, the guy who handed over the car keys, let him drive his big Volvo.

‘Listen, Till. Tell you what we’re going to do. We’ll drive into town. I’ll take you to a hostel there. There are a couple of good hostels. I’ll pay. How about that? You’ll be better off in town.’

‘I don’t like towns,’ Till said. ‘I’d rather stay here. I’ll go into the room and sleep. You can lock me in if you like.’

‘I’ve somebody coming later on, Till.’

‘Sandra?’ Till said.

‘Yeah. How did you know that?’

Till held up the mug. He could see a flush of redness in Ian’s face.

Ian rose and went over to the fire. He took a few logs from a log box and set them into the fire. ‘When you’re finished, I’ll drive you in, Till. I need to be back out again before seven. I’d say we should have no trouble getting a place for you in one of the hostels.’

Till got up from the table. ‘My jacket’s in the room. I’ll go get it.’

‘Take your time,’ Ian said. ‘There’s no rush.’

‘Might as well go now.’

‘Whatever you think, Till. Ready when you are.’

Till was annoyed. You were a goner, mister, without me. With your big car and your big house and your fake Sandra. They’d be no good to you now if it weren’t for me. Go ahead, throw me out. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ian watching him, expecting something from him. But he didn’t say any more. He walked out of the room and closed the door behind him.

The road leading into Galway was empty. New bungalows, Santa Claus and reindeer figures in long gardens down to the road. Somebody had done a deal on trampolines, big blue ones for the kids. But it was too cold for them now. It would be dark again soon. The thought of Galway made Till nervous. He wasn’t sure anymore that was where they held the mart. And hostels, he’d never been to one. What kind of people stayed there? Not many like himself he thought. He watched the road and saw a petrol station coming up on the left. ‘Can we pull over?’ he said to Ian.

‘What?’

‘I want to get out.’

‘Get out? What for? We’re not there yet. We’re in the middle of nowhere.’

‘Just let me out at the Statoil. I’ll be alright.’

Ian slowed the car down and pulled onto the forecourt of the Statoil. ‘For god’s sake, what are you going to do here? There’s nothing here, Till.’ Ian stared at Till, his face twisted in a strange way. ‘Let me take you into town, to the hostel. You’ll be alright there.’

There was no way he could make him understand. He’d felt safe at Ian’s house. ‘I’ll be alright,’ Till said and opened the door.

‘Alright where? It’s freezing outside. Where are you going to go?’

‘I’m not going into Galway.’

‘I can’t just drop you here, Till, and drive off. Shut the bloody door.’

‘I can’t.’ Till shot a look at Ian. Something in Ian still cared, but not enough to silence the fear that had crawled under his skin. ‘Thanks for the lift,’ he said and got out.

‘Here, take this.’ Ian was taking money out of his wallet.

Till shook his head.

‘For crissakes, take it, Till.’

‘You might need it yourself, mister.’

Till closed the door. He took a few steps away from the car, watched it swing around and head back the way it had come. Then he pulled his jacket tight, zipped it up and started walking.

John Walsh’s first poetry collection Johnny tell Them was published by Guildhall Press (Derry, 2006). Salmon Poetry published his third collection Chopping Wood with T.S. Eliot in 2010. A Publication Award from Galway County Council led to his debut short story collection Border Lines in 2012. He is commissioning editor at Doire Press, which he co-founded with his partner, Lisa Frank.

Inspired by

© 2017 Spontaneity. Copyright of contributions remains with the artist.