What you don’t know by Fiona O'Rourke

Of course, the dead man turns up again, his scraggly head looming in the rear view, when all Jay wants is silence, not twenty fuckin questions. Sat there, eyelids at half mast, all cat like and dreamy. Reckons he is Jay’s Da and has a scrawny frame, true enough, and a long nose. Seeing him in daylight, Jay would be hard pressed to deny the shared blood but it’s too late, twenty-three years too late, the Da is dead, what use is he? Jay clenches his teeth on thoughts that could make him roar and crash the car for pure badness. There’s a junction up ahead, so he floors it, and takes a wild left-turn, making the back-end zigzag and the Da wobble in the mirror, his hair fly away, like after a balloon rub.

‘It’s coffin head,’ says the Da, and fills the car with a rusty laugh.

So, the Da can read his mind. Jay says nothing and tries to drop a breezeblock on his scrappy thoughts. Slowly they start squelching out the sides like wet cement. Maybe once he knows things about Jay, the Da will fuck away off into the sky or wherever he belongs. Jay’s face prickles with the threat of a redner. He looks up at grey clouds skulking above the rooftops. Apt or what.

‘Where are you for? the Da wants to know.

‘A funeral.’

‘You never went to mine.’

‘You never came to see me when you were alive,’ says Jay.

‘I’m here now, am’t I? Like I said last time, you need anything, I’m here.’

‘I don’t. I can sort myself out.’

The other night, when dead Da first appeared in the rear view, a dream memory hit Jay at the same time: some faceless Da had already been ferreting about in his sleep, asking him questions. This wasn’t a dream. Jay was sat parked below the flat, in darkness apart from his mobile phone glow, flicking through the news about the motorway pile-up. The Da’s face in the mirror shone extra-pale. His shoulders were clad in a grey suit jacket, same as now. Yammering away, he was doing Jay’s head in with all this I’m here for you bollocks, when all Jay wanted was to bite his nails and think about what to do.

Jay slows down for traffic lights.

‘You may head on,’ he says while watching for the amber, ‘I’m too busy to talk.’

‘Wouldn’t leave you on your own now, Son.’

‘Never worried you before.’

A car idles alongside his, and Jay catches a female’s glance and her barely held-back smile. Jay’s cheeks fire up. He lowers his head so his hair can shield the redner.

‘You got that from me,’ says the Da, ‘uncontrollable face rage.’

‘You can have it back.’

‘It dies with you. Look at me, Mister Cool, you can say anything, it won’t take a fizz.’ The Da indicates his milky face. ‘Anyway, odd time for a funeral, the afternoon? Who’s dead?’

Jay sticks the foot down as the light changes.

‘No one you’d know.’

‘A friend?’

‘A lorry driver.’

‘What’s he like?’

‘Probably like you, dead, only mangled.’

The Da cackles.

‘What’s he called, son?’

‘McBastard.’

‘Very good. Have you not got a suit? Them jeans is more for the pub.’

‘They’re black, aren’t they? So’s my shirt.’

‘You dress that way all the time, so you do.’

Jay tuts. What does he want, for Jay to go, oh, have you been watching over me, father?

Jay drives past a shopping centre, the outside swarmed with taxis, and men stood about with takeaway cups. It must be shite driving for a living, a face always hogging your mirror, and the do I/don’t I talk to this strangermalarkey hanging over you all day. Jay tuts at the cut of a bear-sized man in joggy bottoms, like your man ever jogged a day in his life or walked the length of himself. Lazy bastard just wants easy access. Jay closes his eyes for a moment.

‘Could you not have wore your wedding suit?’ asks the Da

Fly man, fishing for details.

‘No one will be in a suit,’ Jay says. ‘Lorry drivers don’t wear suits.’

‘Too bloody fat, Son, you’re not wrong there.’

Jay starts laughing, then catches himself on: don’t encourage him.

‘You’re not fat, Son,’ says the Da. ‘You can’t fatten a thoroughbred.’

‘Proud of me now, are you?’

‘Never had a chance,’ the Da goes, ‘your Ma kicked me out on me ear. And that was that.’

‘Join the club,’ says Jay, ‘she took off to Scotland and forgot to pack me.’ He just misses the turn-off he wants, forcing him to go around again, on the roundabout. ‘Can you not shut up for a while?’

‘You talk to me then,’ says the Da, in a shoulder-huggy voice, like a drunk on the tap. ‘Tell me about when you were a nipper, say, or a teenager. Did you chase skirt or hit the books? Did you smoke dope or take to the swall?’

Jay eyes the Da, in the mirror. ‘I was in a children’s home till they turfed me out to a block of flats full of Care in the Community psychos, I went to the College of Knowledge, did some certificates, got a job, moved to a better flat, nothing much to tell.’

‘No wife, no kids?

‘A girlfriend, no sprogs.’

‘Where’s the girl today then? Would you not take her out for a spin? Women love funerals.’

‘She’s at work. She doesn’t know.’

‘But you done alright, Son? You have someone to love and you have a car? I never had the money for a car.’

‘Why? Were you pissing it up a wall?’ Jay says under his breath.

The Da’s face drops stung-like, his eyes settle into miserable but hopeful, like a dog waiting on a stroke or a kick. ‘Only wanted to know what you were like as a wee lad,’ he says quietly, ‘wouldn’t harm you to give a few details.’

Jay looks away. A Merc passes, driven by an old man, with fluffy white hair. Jay heaves in a sigh.

‘When I was a wee lad,’ he says, ‘I thought it was illegal for old people to drive. If I saw one in a car like that fella, I near shit myself… What else? One day I discovered I didn’t like cheese, so I threw my cheese sandwich down the toilet, or I would’ve been shouted at for wasting grub. Then I got shouted at for blocking the bog. The last time I went to Mass, it was the secondary school Mass for first years. The priest said Body of Christ, I said, Amen, stuck my hand out, and he gave it to the fella next to me, left me stranded, a big beamer on my face, and no communion. I thought it was cuz I was a bad wee bastard and he knew what I was at. I never went back.’

‘Ach, you’re better off out of Mass,’ says the Da. ‘Will there be Mass at this funeral?’

‘The funeral’s finished. I’m heading to the graveyard.’

‘Making sure he’s really dead?’

In the mirror, the Da’s eyebrows are up and waiting, same way Jay’s go when he’s scanning a room full of strange folk. Jay does look like the Da, right enough. The Da starts smiling, his cheeks deepening the laughter lines around his eyes. Jay feels a stupid smile trying to stretch his bake. Doesn’t mean he’s gone all family-friendly. Jay breaks their staring match and sees that he’s on a dual carriageway. Funny how he’s been driving without noticing. How long for, a half hour, a minute, a few seconds? He tries to picture the roads just passed and nothing sticks. He’s about another twenty miles to do.

‘Yeah, to make sure he’s dead, as dead as you, Da.’

The Da just laughs at that, nodding his head in the direction of his window, like he’s seen a mate on the grass verge.

‘Road kill is not a pretty sight,’ he says. ‘Decapitated heads and so on in the spectacular cases. You’d be as well slowing down. Hardly want to join the lorry driver, do you?’

Jay lifts his foot a wee bit off the accelerator, presses the button for the window, enough for cool air on his face.

McBastard’s dead alright, so said the news. And his ten-year-old son, a passenger in the cab. And five car drivers that the lorry totalled with McBastard’s jack-knife. Probably mid blow-job. Jay squeezes his eyes, tries to unthink that, but too late, it’s in his head now.

‘You can tell me anything,’ says the Da.

‘Pity you didn’t offer when you were alive.’

‘I’m trying here, son.’

‘Yeah, what you don’t know can’t harm you,’ Jay says.

‘I’m dead a few years, nothing can harm me. I died at forty. Don’t worry, it’s not hereditary.’

Jay shrugs his eyebrows. Dead at forty. Only seventeen years to go.

‘Don’t think like that,’ says the Da.

Jay says nothing and looks in the wing mirror at the chain of passing cars.

The news said McBastard was forty-one. Hard to picture him ten years older. Hard to picture him dead. Good enough for him. Dead like the Da in the back of the car.

Jay’s stomach lurches. He glances over his shoulder.

‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Fire ahead,’ says the Da.

‘Can all dead people go wherever they like?’

‘That, I don’t know, I’m only finding my feet.’

Still a useless prick then.

The mirror reflects the sad dog eyes again. Does this mean the Da really knows all that Jay’s thinking and pushing away by squeezing his eyes shut? Can the old man flick through everything like seasons on Netflix? Jay breathes in to try and stave off a beamer, but the heat crawls up his neck.

‘You had a dream about me, that means you were calling me,’ says the Da, ‘And that’s why I’m here. You want my advice? I wouldn’t give him the steam of my piss if I were you.’

‘Dunno what you’re talking about.’

‘Did he start off acting like a stand-in Dad?’ the Da asks.

Jay sends him daggers in the rear view.

‘Spose you know all the details already?’ he yells, ‘just here to wind me up, is that it?’

‘I’m here to help.’

‘Is this your fuckin community service or something for being a shite Da?’

‘It’s a promise I made meself –– to help you at least once.’

Jay makes a fist to thump the dashboard but that will only make him yell more, say too much. He drops his hand.

Promises. Fuck that shit. Promises want big thank yous in return, that’s where they get you. Clenching his teeth extra hard, for a moment Jay feels they could break, cut into his gums, hack his tongue to shreds. Sometimes in dreams, he swallows petrol and sets fire to his mouth. In the mirror, the Da nods, like it’s a reasonable thing to dream. Jay may as well let the thoughts run rampage, the Da’s reading him like a fuckin Kindle.

A gang of estate boys used to gather at the garages behind the children’s home. He’d watch them from upstairs, riding bikes back and forth. Of course, he couldn’t have a bike: health and safety, some shite like that. If they spotted Jay outside the estate, they would circle him, their bikes at unnatural angles, front wheels in the air like angry horses. One time, when they’d chased him into the lorry park near the boats, this man appeared out of a cab, and jumped to the ground. He stared them all down, a long look at each kid and bike, as if memorising all for a line-up. Said he knew their Das from the Ferry Inn, he would have a word, then they’d be in shit street. ‘Unless you promise,’ he said, ‘no more bullying, then your Das won’t need to beat your shite in, you listening?’

One kid nodded quickly, starting the others off, until they all looked like wind-up puppies about to flip. The lorry driver said, ‘Alright, you ever break a promise, you die miserable, now piss off, the lot of you.’ They took off. Jay stood watching the man watching the gang on their retreating bikes, going over the small bridge.

‘Fuckin wee wankers,’ said the lorry driver. ‘What are they? Nothing but cunts, what are they, kiddo?’

‘Nothing but cunts,’ Jay whispered, hoping that was the answer.

The lorry driver man did a wide-eyed glance about the lorry park, like he was checking if anyone had heard, then cracked up laughing, hugging his chest with his arms.

‘OK to curse in front of me, lad, but don’t let none of your teachers hear you.’

Jay nodded. ‘I’ve to go now, do my homework.’

‘Oh, are you away?’

The man was staring at the ground then, sad-looking like he’d lost something.

‘Yeah, I’m sposed to be back by five.’

The man looked up again, at Jay. ‘Aye, well. I’ll be back in my ten-wheeler soon enough, eating a fish supper,’ he said, nodding at the long white lorry he’d jumped out of. McMasters’ Carrierwas written on the side. ‘It’s like a wee house. You can have a nosy some time, sit up in the cab if you want. Plenty of room for homework. But don’t tell your mates, I don’t mind one fella doing his maths or essays or whatever, but I don’t want a crowd.’

Jay nodded and fiddled with the zip on his schoolbag. He eyed the long white truck with the red cab. ‘Do you go to Scotland in that?’ he asked.

‘I go all over,’ said the lorry driver. ‘McMasters’. What a name, huh? Few of us drivers joke about that, I’m driving for McBastard, it’s a hoot, isn’t it, kiddo? What’s your nickname?’

‘Nothing.’

The man slid a mobile out of his jeans pocket.

‘Give us your name-name then. I’ll stick your number in my phone, let you know when I’m back.’

Next time, he said he’d take him over to Scotland on a run, and on down to England if he liked, and Jay could sleep in the bunk. Jay should keep checking in every month to see what run he was on. Only, every first Tuesday, when Jay went down after school and asked about Scotland, all he got was, wait till Halloween, wait till Easter, wait till summer holidays. In Jay’s second year at the big school, the texting stopped and Jay’s couple of pathetic little Where are yous? stayed undelivered.

Jay catches the Da’s eye again. ‘I’m on my own promise, Da.’

‘Thought that,’ says the Da, ‘not a great idea but.’

‘What would you know?’

‘Go see the grave, fair enough, make sure he’s dead. But do nothing.’

‘Aye, whatever… Can you shut up, I’m trying to think here.’

After the crash news, Jay snuck into the flat like it was early morning, and opened the bedroom door quietly. He knelt at his girlfriend’s side of the bed and heard that her breathing was heavy enough. He stroked her hair that lay scattered on the pillow, but didn’t want her to waken.

Watching TV all night, nothing sank in except for the tail end of one programme he had sat glassy-eyed through. This good-looking bird with pink dreads was on about her mother’s boyfriend who had died. She was cry-laughing, her cheeks blotchy red, and she dropped her head while she was talking. I was only a kid, like thirteen, he messed up my life… I had to say to myself, he is so much older than me, and one day he will be dead, and I will go and mess up his grave.She gave details about packing her bag with toilet roll and handwipes, and Jay was thinking, yeah, she took a dump on your man’s grave, holy fuck, and he shivered and bit his nails more. Closure, she said, cleaned me. She looked right at the camera, her face had calmed to pale, and Jay pointed the remote to freeze her image.

Jay lowers his window more, and presses the button for the passenger side. The grave will be filled by now, firm ground to stand on. He could jump up and down just, kick the earth to fuck. Spit on it. Or be like the pink-haired woman and take a dump. Maybe that would shake the clammy grip from the back of his neck.

‘Does she have a name, your girlfriend?’ asks the Da.

Jay tuts. ‘Thought you could read my mind?’

‘I’m only being polite. Alright then, what would Lucy think of your big promise?’

The Da’s eyebrows are up again, raised and waiting.

‘All I’m saying is do nothing,’ says the Da, ‘or she will know.’

 

Jay stops at an oblong of fresh earth in between tidy graves long done up with granite headstones. Two temporary wooden crosses say who is buried in the new plot, Fatherand Son. McBastard and his kid. The graveyard is busy enough. Three other people, all in different rows, two sorting out flower pots, one staring at a headstone, her lips moving, but too far away to hear if she’s talking out loud. Hardly the right time to drop the kecks and bare his arse; the thought alone makes his face burn.

A man and woman arrive, the man lugging a plant in a box. They walk past, the woman in front, and stop at a grave just up from Jay. Jay has driven all this way, timed it to miss the funeral, and now he has an audience.

He could take a piss on the fucker. It would be quicker for a start. Just wheek the zip open, slash, then wheek it up again. Walk off clean.

But that means lobbing it out. And McBastard down there grinning, like he knew eventually one day he would get to see it.

‘I can kick his shite in,’ says the Da’s voice.

‘You still here?’ says Jay under his breath.

‘Who would you rather have annoying you? A Da you never knew or a paedo lorry driver?’

Jay steps closer to the oblong of muck. The earthy smell mixes with a waft of smoke. He hears the woman a few graves up giving off to her man for smoking.

‘Can dead men fight?’ says Jay, keeping his voice low.

‘Not sure. But I’ll hit him a dig if you want,’ says the Da.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ says Jay.

‘Just talk. Get it out of your head, that’s the thing. Why d’you think I’m here?’

‘You a Samaritan or something?’

‘Near enough. Used to be a barman, I got told all sorts. You can’t shock me.’

Jay toes the edge of McBastard’s grave then wipes his shoe on the grass verge. He turns to leave. The Da’s a few steps ahead. He and Jay are the one height. Jay feels a tiredness sink into his bones, like he’s done a day’s graft with no lunch break, and there’s still the long drive home.

Looking down at the bald earth, he realises he is dying for a slash.

‘C’mon, Son,’ says the Da, ‘like I said, he’s not worth the steam of your piss.’

‘I know you’re not real,’ Jay murmurs and heads for the exit.

This story appears in The Broken Spiral, also available at Take Heart Pop Up Art, all proceeds to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Fiona O'Rourke facilitates creative writing in communities and festivals. Published in the Fish Anthology, Thirteen; broadcast for Francis MacManus; translated for Troquel Revista de Letras. Her first novel Have You Found Luke? was joint winner at the IWC Novel Fair 2016. MPhil in Creative Writing (TCD) @fionamkorourke



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