None of us had seen Bluey for about three months when he texted me on New Year’s Day.
It was a weird text, but Bluey was always a weird one. He got the nickname when we were all sixteen and he passed out at a house party in mine. Back then my sister used to dye her hair blue and we thought it’d be funny to stick a blue streak in his otherwise auburn hair. When he woke the next morning, instead of going mad like we all expected, he said he liked it and he’s kept re-dying that streak into his hair for the last ten years. We eventually got used to it and it’s a handy way for any onlooker to figure out which one of the group is the token oddball. “Hey come into town for a cure,” the text said. “Come alone.”
I met him in the corner of a pub down at the bottom of the town on Parliament Street. He looked like shit, sitting on his own with a pint of pale ale in front of him, board games and books on the shelves behind him. It was one of those places that wanted to seem alternative, all wood-panelled everything, but they didn’t want to be off-putting, so there was an Oasis album playing. He had grown his hair down to his shoulders and it was so greasy that it appeared more like a licked dark chocolate bar now, but that wasn’t the worst of it because he had also grown an insipid beard that became sporadic on his cheeks. His skin gleamed, a disgusting vernix of grease, sweat and rain giving him an overcast glow in the semi-lit pub. The hair had obviously been dyed recently, because he had a ridiculous blue streak in his beard too, directly in line with the one on his head. His hair now met his shoulders, like moth-eaten curtains framing his face.
“Sit down,” he said to me as I came over toward his table with a pint of some craft ale I’d never heard of. I sat and sipped and hate to admit that it was better than Smithwick’s.
“Do you want a game of Scrabble?” he said to me once I had finished my first mouthful.
“No I don’t want a fucking game of Scrabble,” I said back to him, already piqued by my hangover and the fact that the first words out of his stupid piebald face weren’t an explanation or an apology. “Do you think anyone wants a game of Scrabble on New Year’s Day, when their heads may as well be melted into the table in front of us? I’ve got a liquid brain and you’re here talking about Scrabble.”
“Alright, alright. Relax yourself.”
My hangover made it feel as if there was a little creature in my skull, trying to wrench it into two halves from the middle of my forehead, going at me, hammer and sickle, making the first layer of my cranium sough with the pressure. It meant that I had no time for board games or Bluey’s eccentricities. I don’t believe in the idea of the cure and wouldn’t have gone only I hadn’t seen Bluey in so long.
“So where the fuck have you been?” I asked him.
He let the question sit for a minute and took a big gulp of whatever dickhead pale ale he was drinking. We hadn’t seen Bluey since our club, St. Broccán’s, had been knocked out of the hurling championship in the quarterfinal. Bluey was taken off in the first half and didn’t come to the sideline as you normally would; he just walked straight to the dressing room, got changed and went home. It was a harsh decision; he wasn’t doing anything good, but neither was he the reason we were losing. We lost the game. The next day the manager, Declan – a blow-in who did nothing but run the shit out of the team – resigned via text to the chairman and Bluey moved out of his parents’ house on the square in Goldfields’ village. The two had never gotten along; Declan’s first rule was discipline while the Blue Man was a Johann Cruijff-esque free spirit, playing for beauty and not victory, the kind of philosophy that looks great as an epitaph but infuriates all your teammates and managers. Bluey didn’t tell any of us he was leaving and none of use knew where he went; he didn’t answer phone calls or return texts and he missed one of the lads’ stag dos. The question had got up and left the room by the time he answered.
“I just had to get away from Goldfields,” he finally said as he stared at his half-full pint glass, his hand still resting on it as if he was ready to choke back the remains of it in one guzzle just at the mention of the parish.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Like have you never felt it?” he looked at me through narrow, incredulous eyes. “The place is so fecking small that you feel like you can’t get away from any problem, big or not. You can’t shift a girl from the village without some fucking eejit giving you a funny eye in the shop the next day because she’s his wife’s cousin and you’re not good enough for her or some other shite. God forbid any of us were gay; the parish would eat you alive. And the chances are that at least one of the lads is.”
“Where the fuck are you going with this?” I shouted and slammed a fist on the table. Suddenly the pub was quiet. The few post-revellers left on from New Year’s looked at me with wide eyes. The music had stopped. The barman scrambled on the laptop for a new album. He went with the first Arctic Monkeys one. I could see they wanted me to get into my car and go back to the country.
“What I mean is, the second I saw that blow-in bollox giving me the curly finger, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to show my face around the parish,” Bluey said and the rest of the pub started to go back to normal once we resumed our conversation. “Everybody would be talking about it, somehow blaming me for the loss even though I played less than half the game. Auld lads in the pubs who only exercise their fecking elbows throwing darts, lifting pints and bending battered sausages into their mouths saying I wasn’t fit enough or some shite. You know yourself.”
“But shur we all have to put up with that whenever we lose, we all took it after the match,” I tried to reason with him. “If everyone left Goldfields every time they got a bit of abuse, there’d be nobody left in the place.”
“And maybe that would be for the best.”
“What so you want home to be a ghost-town is it?”
“Better than what it is now, a town full of vampires,” he said and then took another long, slow mouthful of his drink. I knew that he was taking these prolonged sips to present himself as a tortured man, so I just took another sip of mine and felt the destruction of my internal organs progress into the New Year. “All of them watching on from the sidelines, biting until you give in and just become one of them.”
I decided to ignore my stomach and plunge, so I necked the rest of my pint and went to the bar for another, leaving Bluey to stew over vampires and ghosts and Scrabble on his own.
“How about a game of Monopoly then?” Bluey asked when I sat back down.
“Fuck off with your Monopoly,” I told him. “Do you think I want to be here till next New Year’s?”
“Jesus, you’re in no mood today.”
“I’m not, no. The drink is a fearsome bastard and now I’ve got you telling me everyone where I’m from is a fecking vampire so all I can do is drink more to numb my ears and my insides.”
“Well I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but…”
I interrupted him because, knowing Bluey, he was about to serve me up a dissertation on the mental effect that the constant pressure a small village setting puts you under, with its invasiveness and constant scrutiny. Him and his fucking psychology degree.
“Are you coming back or what?” I asked him. “Training starts next month.”
“I won’t bother my hole, no,” he said matter-of-factly, trying to sound firm.
“Ah will you come on. Declan is gone shur.” I hoped that that could entice him, but his face didn’t flinch – I could tell that it took some effort on his part not to let it – as he looked into the pint he’d been nursing since I’d got here, the muscles around his nostrils drawn tense to control his expression.
“I know he’s gone,” he mumbled.
“How do you know if you haven’t been around and won’t speak to anyone?”
“I still speak to my ma, obviously.”
I let out a big sigh and we stayed silent for a little bit. Bluey necked the end of his pint, choked for a split second and went to the bar for another. It was then that I noticed his clothes, the cuffs on his horrible black corduroy jacket were frayed and torn, the hemline of his too-tight jeans were the same. They looked wet, like he had rolled in the filthy slurry of ice and rain on the footpath outside before he came in and his brown suede shoes were dark, looking as if he had been missing urinals all Christmas.
I went back to drinking my pint and looked at the books on the shelf behind where Bluey had been sitting: Ulysses, At Swim-Two-Birds, East of Eden, all that usual shite that he would read. I’d never been here before, but it made sense to me that this is where he’d go for a drink while trying not to meet any Goldfieldians.
“Were you out last night?” I asked him when he came back.
“I wasn’t no,” he said, looking into the distance, his eyes vitreous.
“How come you look like shit then?”
He laughed at that. “I’ve entered the wilderness shur,” he chuckled, but then sat upright. “And come here, that’s why I asked you in here. I’ve a spare room in my place and was wondering if you’d want it.”
“What?” I asked him. “What would I leave home for?”
“You’re on the dole,” he said. “You haven’t worked a day since you finished college.” What he said was true, I had finished college on the second go last summer and hadn’t worked since, but I took these as reasons not to move out of my parents’ house.
“And?” I asked.
“Think about it,” he said, whirring his pint around like some James Bond villain with a glass of brandy. “If you live away from home, your dole goes up. The rent is cheap, there’s nobody else in the place. It’s perfect.”
“I don’t know boy, it’s a bit much just for a raise in the dole.”
“Look,” he leaned forward. “The rent is only fifty bean a week, which would leave you with what like another ninety?”
“Would it? I don’t know; I’d have to look into it to be sure.”
“I’m telling you it would, I’ve looked into it for you.”
“Alright, fuck.” I thought for a second. “Fuck it yeah, why not. Be good to give the mother’s head a rest and I’ll be able to keep an eye on you. I’ll have you back hurling by March.”
“You will yeah,” he said. “Be good to keep you away from the vampires too,” he winked at me and folded his bottom lip under his eyeteeth, flashing them at me.
We drank for a bit more after that and just talked some general shite, the usual stuff we had always talked about before he took his little weirdo sabbatical. He tried to tell me about some of the books behind him, which ones he thought I’d like and all that, but I wasn’t trying to hear any of it. That night I went home and told my mother about the plan; she seemed a mixture of happy and sad, probably like seventy-five per cent happy, but she still teared up a little when I packed the car and left the next morning, as if I was going somewhere foreign instead of the fifteen minutes into town.
When I moved in, the place was a stinking kip, dying a slower death than anyone bitten by the Goldfieldian vampires would. Bluey told me that he was too busy to clean the kitchen, where bowls encrusted with month-old porridge sat inside of bigger bowls housing the carcasses of half-eaten pasta bakes that his mother had given him. I used the time I spent not working putting a bit of shape on the place, scraping the differing remnants from bowls and plates, removing the ghostly fingerprints from glasses, lifting the abandoned tea bags and tattooed coffee rings from the bottom of mugs.
Cleaning up after Bluey required all the effort and skill of a full-time job. Once he had gone to work in the morning, I’d go into the bathroom, suppress my gag reflex and unclog the shower drain’s disgusting mixture of brown and blue hairs. His little needles of pubes would be littered all over the sides and the floor too, so I’d use the nozzle to lasso them into a circle and chase them down the drain once it was clear. Then I’d flush the toilet two or three times to rid it of any lingering skid marks, applying bleach to the bowl every couple of days. Each morning he woke me up by scraping as much phlegm as possible from his chest and propelling it into the sink. That sickly lump, something like an infected egg yoke greeted me every day while I was still rubbing sleep from my eyes because Bluey was apparently incapable of hitting the drain or running the tap after himself. When all that was done, I would have a bowl of Coco Pops, clean his dishes and mine, go to the gym, come home, eat, nap until Bluey came home and then do whatever with him for the rest of the day, not forgetting to clean up after he ate dinner.
The house was on the imaginatively titled New Building Lane, not far from Parliament Street. We would go back to that pub every now and then and Bluey would ask me to play some board game every time. I’d tell him to fuck himself. It was a small enough house, attached to identical houses with white stucco facades on either side. My room was one of only two upstairs; the bathroom, kitchen, sitting room and Bluey’s room were all downstairs. When I asked Bluey about the room across from mine, he clutched himself a little bit and his jaw windlassed itself for a split second. He had that same reticent glassy-eyed look he had gotten for a second when I asked if he had been out on New Year’s.
“I don’t know,” he said once he had drawn his rows of teeth apart, shaking his head quickly in tiny movements back and forth. “The landlord’s just a bit of a weirdo and told me not to go in there.”
“Is that even legal?” I asked him.
“Shur what does it matter?” he asked back. “It doesn’t affect our rent so just leave it.”
“Jesus, alright,” I said. “Sorry I asked.”
“Look,” he said, stopping his shaking, looking at me dead serious, his hand on my shoulder. “Just don’t fucking go in there, promise me you won’t or we’ll be fucked.”
“Alright yeah whatever grand no bothers.”
And I didn’t go in, or even really think about going in, because what do I care about a room some weirdo landlord tells us not to go into?
Bluey didn’t come with me on the first night of training in February. I knew he wouldn’t and knew that getting him back would be a process; one that I had started just by talking about hurling and changing my gym schedule so he could come along with me. It was an arduous experience trying to get him to knock down the fortress of puppy fat that he had spent the winter building around a once svelte body, but one that was at least working gradually. I still couldn’t convince him to shave the hair and beard combo that just wouldn’t survive on the hurling field. I managed to get him to go for a puck around the day before the training, but it was too soon and I decided that it wouldn’t be worth the breath used to ask him to come.
The training was good; the new coach had insisted that the floodlights be turned on because he was more interested in seeing how we hurled rather than how we ran. It was a welcome change from Declan’s methods the year before where he would stand in his woolly hat, windcheater and tracksuit pants, watching us do press-ups with our hands deadened and turned furiously white in the grass, insisting that any player wearing more than a jersey, shorts and socks would have to make up for apparent softness by way of laps. One of the lads told Dec – he hated being called Dec – that he couldn’t hack the cold in his hands anymore, that it was making his eczema unbearable. Dec made him finish the push-ups on his own in the car park. Of course, the floodlights were off this entire time, so he would stand, bellowing into the unending screen of black, a demonic Ger Loughnane towering over us as the reigning Prince of Darkness. Nobody batted an eyelid when he resigned, even though quitting seemed out of character for such a ball-buster; we were still drinking when the text came through the day after the defeat and we started drinking that bit harder when it did.
I got back from the training that night feeling fresher than when I had gone, energised and ready to tell Bluey about this new romantic we had over the team who believed that hurlers should play hurling. I was still in my training gear – a windcheater he had allowed me to keep on, shorts, leggings and hurling socks – when I came in the door and heard sounds from upstairs. There was a whipping of the air, as if someone was swinging something and tearing the atmosphere, a crunch of collision and then some muffled, feeble-sounding moans.
I went up the stairs and checked my room first to make sure that Bluey wasn’t having some sort of S&M wankfest in there, which would have been consistent enough with his sense of humour. But the room was empty and exactly as I had left it, so I went across the hall to try the door and it turned out to be unlocked. Inside, I found Bluey in full St. Broccán’s playing gear, including his helmet, with a hurl in his hand standing over a lump of a human with patches torn from his hair and whose face was in the carpet. The lump looked up when it heard the door opening and I recognised, barely, Declan’s face, covered in what looked like months’ worth of congealed blood.
The side of his face was like a raspberry, covered in fresh, shining red bumps all dotted from his cheekbone down to the point where a rugged and unkempt beard started on his jaw; it had clearly been the area that Bluey was working tonight. The rest of his face was filthy with blood that had bronzed in its age. His eyebrows had grown to the point of meeting and his mouth was gagged with what looked like the luminous Bainisteoir bib that managers wear on the sideline for matches. Even with that, you could see that his lips were swollen, cracked and covered in that same dirty, old, brown blood. He was naked and his body was much the same as his face; beaten and compressed, a horrendous amalgam of purple, brown, red and the dull yellow that comes with the aging of severe contusions and recalled the colour Bluey’s spit in the sink every morning.
His eyes widened when he recognised me and alerted Bluey to my presence. He had been standing over the body, panting heavily and sizing him up for another whack.
“What the fuck?” he shouted. “How long have you been there?”
“About half a minute, probably,” I said.
“Is training over already?” he asked, suddenly falling back into normal conversation.
“Yeah boy it was a good session, all hurling.”
“Jesus, quick too.”
“Yeah, I like this new lad,” I told him. “Not like this bollox here, new boy knows what he’s doing.”
Dec was moaning throughout this entire conversation; I think it had just dawned on him that I, the first person he had seen in months other than Bluey, would not be his saviour.
“So did you grab right him after the match or something?” I asked.
“No no, the next day,” Bluey said. “Had to set up a place to bring him. Could you imagine trying to do this in the mother’s?”
I laughed at the thought. “Yeah that might have been a bit of a problem.”
Bluey got animated again just then. “Wait a minute now,” he was back to shouting. “You better not tell anyone about this.”
“Why would I tell anyone?” I asked. “It’s for the good of hurling that that fool is where he is now. Not ruining us or some other club.”
“So you’re not going to say anything?” he had calmed down again.
“No, I won’t bother my hole,” I assured him. “Just keep it down at night, like. I’m only across the hall and need sleep, as we all do.”
I made for the door, noticing that the bed behind the tortured and his torturer had an oddly flamboyant zebra print sheet set as I scanned the room. I turned to Bluey before I left. “You should come to the next training, seriously. It was really good stuff, he’s your kind of coach. This might be the year we get out of junior.”
I shut the door and heard a few more swings, a few more thuds and a few more mewls and mithers until one vicious sounding smack and belt stopped the crying. Knowing it was over for the night, I sprinkled some protein powder into a bowl of Coco Pops and went to bed.