Feeling coldAug 21st, 2013 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Personal Columns
This was written last winter as an entry into RTE Radio’s 2013 Francis MacManus Short Story Competition- it came nowhere.
The red hoodie. He had always liked red. It stood out. Not that he had ever stood out. No-one had noticed him. No-one except Sinéad – and he knew where that had ended.
Walking from his bedroom, a photograph lay on the table beside his bed. Once he had thought he would get a frame for it; hang it on the wall so that in years to come he could show it to his own children, ‘that was my leavers’ year’. He imagined himself telling them about all the people pictured – what they had done, who they had married. Sometimes, in extravagant moments, he imagined classmates pointing to their copies at some future date and pointing at his face and saying, ‘That’s Eoin, there’. Of course, it would never happen and, anyway, it didn’t matter now. They had paid little attention to him in the classroom, they wouldn’t even be aware of him in the future.
He stared at the image of himself. Standing at the end of the third row, looking slightly vague; he had never felt that photographs looked like him. Whatever he looked like on the outside, he was different on the inside. Except when he listened to other people talking about their thoughts, telling stories of where they had been and what they had done, talking in words that he only knew from books, he knew he hadn’t much to say – he was just the kid standing at the end of the row.
Walking slowly down the stairs, he heard his mother call. ‘Eoin, is that you?’ He pushed open the living room door, but remained standing in the hallway in the darkness of the January evening. His mother would question him.
Sure enough. ‘Eoin, you’re not going out now are you? It’s very early. Your father’s not even home yet. He says he never sees you these days’. His mother turned and looked at him standing in the doorway. He would have to talk.
‘Just for a walk, Mam. I just want to clear the head’.
‘Clear the head? Are you feeling all right? We worry about you, Eoin. Your father says you spend too long up in that room. You never go to a match with him now. He used to love it when you went along of a Saturday’.
‘Sure, things change. I don’t know anyone in the club now. My friends have all gone away – college or work. There’s no-one I know anymore’.
‘I’m sure there’s still some you know. I wish you wouldn’t be such a loner. What happened to that nice girl you brought home here one time? What was her name, Sinéad?’
‘It was’. There was a lump in his throat, he needed to get outside. He turned from the door.
‘Eoin, where are you going?
‘Just for a walk’. He stifled a sob.
‘Eoin, would you ever come in here and talk to me’.
‘I’ll see you later, Mam’.
He opened the door and stepped into the cold air. It was much colder than he had imagined. The hoodie and tee shirt beneath offered little resistance to a biting East wind. Still it wouldn’t matter; he would not have to worry.
The street was quiet. Most people would be at home by now and not many would be heading out again – there would be Corrie and Eastenders and all the other stuff that people would be watching on the television. He turned left. He could have gone right, but his dad would come from the right. He always came from that direction so as to have the passenger’s side of the car outside of the front door. He didn’t want to catch sight of his dad. He was a quiet man. Eoin couldn’t remember when they had last had a conversation of more than a few words. Meeting him now would have been too difficult.
Turning left meant passing the school where he had spent his favourite years. If anyone had ever asked him, ‘Eoin, what was the favourite time of your life?’ He would not have hesitated with his answer, his days in Sixth Class. As a twelve year old, there was nothing in the world he couldn’t do. There was no light on in the school building – sometimes there would have been youth groups, meetings – but it took little effort to walk its corridors in his imagination. Ms Murphy had been the Sixth Class teacher, just out of college, always smiling. He could remember the June day when he had walked from her classroom for the last time. Some of the girls had been in tears, but there had been delight among his friends. He had been filled with a deep sense of sadness, a feeling he dared not have admitted.
The community school had come as shock after a year with Ms Murphy. It wasn’t a bad place, just different. It had been easy to disappear in the crowd. He had learned there were only two sorts of people who really got noticed, those who were good at stuff and those who caused trouble. Not falling into either group, he had been able to drift, sometimes even able to miss things without his absence being noted.
He looked at an advertising poster on the gable end of a house: a smiling family on a beach somewhere hot. Big discounts were being offered to those who travelled early. He had never been to such places. When they had gone back to school each September, there had always been people talking about where they had gone – ‘Playa’ this and ‘San’ that.
His dad had come from the West, and each summer they had gone to the farm where his dad had grown up. His dad’s father had died five years ago; a sudden heart attack. His dad hadn’t been the same afterwards; he had become even quieter. It had reached the point where they could have gone to a match and hardly spoken a word. Perhaps that was why Eoin had stopped going – in the silence he had felt even more lonely. Sometimes he had wondered what thoughts had gone through his dad’s mind – going to work each day, sitting watching the television at night, going to the match at the weekend – what did he think?
‘Hi, Eoin’. The voice came from a former classmate coming out of a fish and chip shop across the street. A silver Volkswagen Golf was parked at the pavement; a dark haired girl sat inside it. The two had been an item since third year. Eoin raised his hand, but kept walking.
What time was it? He took his phone from his pocket. Not long now.
The bus stop was ahead. It had been his favourite place. It was here that he had met Sinéad. He had gone to the school in the town; she had gone to the convent three miles out. Each day, walking by the stop, he had passed her. The maroon of her school uniform marked her out as different. One morning he had caught her eye and said a brief ‘Hi’, as he had passed. A term had gone by without them ever doing more than exchange the daily greeting. Then one winter morning, there had been snow and it had become clear that the bus was not coming and, as he walked to school, Sinéad had begun to walk towards her home. He had moved quickly to be able to walk beside her. Their paths had coincided for no more than a few hundred yards, but it had been enough to ask for her number.
That was a year ago, now. Sinéad had become his life in the months that followed. On summer days, they had walked for miles. In the autumn, he had gone to college in Dublin, but things had not gone well. By Christmas, he was back at home. By Christmas, Sinéad had told him not to call her. Perhaps it had been his fault; perhaps he could have just said or done things differently. Hadn’t he told her not to be annoying him? He hadn’t meant it, but he had said it.
Life just seemed to fall apart – no Sinéad, no college course, no friends, nothing. He kicked the air in frustration.
Sometimes he would wake in the morning and the world would not look so bad and he would get up and would hardly have eaten breakfast before the black clouds were back again.
The railway station was up ahead. A train from Dublin must have just come in – people were coming out of the doors. He wondered what it was like; having a job that took you on the train five days a week. Did people sit in the same place? Did they talk to the same people? He travelled on the train for school trips and football matches; not like catching one every day.
The platform was empty by the time he reached it. He wanted to hear Sinéad’s voice. He took out his phone and pressed her number. It answered almost immediately, he knew the voice; he had heard it before, too many times, the new boyfriend. ‘Eoin, this is Paul. Sinéad doesn’t want to talk to you. She’s told you that enough times. Would you just go away?’
‘I just . . .’ There was no-one there. He tried phoning again and got a voice saying the number was unavailable.
The wind seemed stronger; Eoin couldn’t remember having felt so cold. One step and he wouldn’t have to worry.
Shivering, he walked along the platform. Advertising posters offered discounts on travel to places he didn’t want to go and happiness if he bought a company’s insurance; did anyone ever smile at buying insurance?
The express went through between twenty and half past, he had watched it a few times. It must be running late this evening, another train from Dublin had stopped on the other platform. Another wave of commuters came over the footbridge and down the steps. He turned away from them, pretended to be reading a timetable, pretended to be interested in insurance.
The moment approached. There were words painted on the platform warning people to stand behind the yellow line. He thought about his mam, and his dad, who would be home from work by now. He took a step closer to the edge.
‘Eoin’. He looked up. The last of the people from the train were leaving the station. ‘Eoin, how are you? Are you heading up to Dublin?’
He turned. ‘Michael, I haven’t seen you since we left school. What are you doing these days?’
‘I’ll tell you about it. Are you waiting for a train?’
A thunder of sound and then a rush of air passed behind him – the express had gone through.
‘I was’, said Eoin. ‘But let’s go somewhere warm’.