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Friday, January 15, 2010

Over the Edge New Writer of the Year 2009: Fiction Winner

THIN BLUE LINE by Orla Higgins

You are staring at the box as you sit at the edge of your single bed, trying to avoid the part where the mattress dips into a big circle in the middle. You have slept in this room since you were ten. Over the six years since, the walls have changed from pink to purple to the colour you put up on a wet Saturday afternoon earlier in the summer. You don’t like painting but your best friends Tamara and Niamh had gone to visit their cousins and you didn’t want to hang around with any of the others. Standing outside in the rain, beside the bus shelter, drinking cans and shouting at the pensioners waiting for their free bus ride into town. Then just running away and laughing at the shades when they drive by in the patrol car. It gets boring after a while. But there isn’t much else to do. They put on lame activities in the community centre for the ‘young people’ but it’s full of do-gooders and holy people like the priest pretending they care.

You wanted the walls to be brilliant white like the best houses on Cribs on MTV. But your step-father got some kind of deal. Now your walls are a dirty looking cream and your mother tells you not to complain.

It was good of him to buy you the paint, money being so tight and everything.

And he smiles, Tony does, behind your mother’s back. The leering private smile he keeps for you and your friends. You hate the thick silver stud that’s always covered with saliva and makes his bottom lip jut out. You hate the way he combs his hair over his bald spot. You hate the way he slicks the ends out with hair gel. You hate when he struts around the house in his boxers. You hate him.

The colours of the terraced houses around the trash rimmed semi-circle of your estate aren’t much better. They are not the ones in fancy magazines called honey cream or Moroccan sunset or pearl green. They are grimy grey, shit brown and puke yellow. The council probably got the paint at a knock-down rate for its knock-down citizens.

You should be more grateful, Crystal. Tony has been very good to us.

Yes, Mum.

He has been good enough to give you another son, lines under your eyes, a taste for bingo and take-out Chinese. Recently he has been good enough to make you pregnant again. Tamara says there is a rumour he sometimes stays with a woman called Mary who has just moved in two streets over. You tried to tell your mother once but she just slapped you across the face and told you to mind your own business. Good old Tony.

Right now though you are concentrating on the box in your hand with the picture of the white stick on the front. Working up the courage to use it. From next door you hear the TV blaring and the sound of Eminem thumps through your bedroom wall. He may as well be rapping here in your own room. The sounds of your street drift in through the open window. You would hear them anyway even if the window was closed. You don’t have to look out to know Mr. Flaherty is shouting at Jack Ward for blocking the entrance to his house. From the back of his white Hiace Jack sells mobile phones and trainers and DVD’s of movies before they come out in the cinema. Bypassing the middle man, he calls it. From further down the street you hear the sound of something like a heavy bag landing on the tarmac and a door slamming. Terry Glynn has thrown his wife out for having slept with his brother. Again. You and your friends joke that you don’t need to watch Eastenders. The soap could be filmed here in your own little street in your own city. Galway. There doesn’t seem to be much difference to you between here and there. Maybe you’ll make a documentary about it when you leave school.

You tried to explain all this to Lucy once but she didn’t understand. Lucy was your brother Ryan’s last girlfriend. She used to wonder about the dirty nappies piled up against the wall of Number 12. You explained about how the Glynns and the Doyles threw their kids’ nappies over the wall at each others’ houses as payback for something that happened so long ago no one remembers. She thought it was disgusting. She said your mother should call the Guards to sort it out. But the shades wouldn’t be bothered with a call from here. It took them two hours to come the last time there was a stabbing and they didn’t come at all when Jack Ward ended up beating his brother half to death on the green. She never lived in a place like this. She just didn’t understand.

You’d love to move, to the other side of the city, to be near your Granny. Your Granny lives in a council house too but not like yours. Everyone has flowers hanging in baskets outside and no-one has been stabbed there in years. There’s always a fire in the front room and the smell of dinner. Your sitting room smells of stale cigarettes. One wall is taken over by the 40” plasma TV Tony got someplace. He even found a way to rig it up so the cable company wouldn’t know. You like to watch stuff on it but not with your mother or Tony or your brothers. They talk over all the programmes and they never want to watch The Hills or Super Sweet Sixteen. So you watch them on the computer in your room.

Sometimes it all gets you down and your mother tells you to stop being moody. Tells you to stop fighting with Ryan and help look after Thomas, even though you mind him almost every night when she is at bingo or in the pub. Ryan never has to mind him. It’s not fair. You think perhaps there must be a way to escape. Two years ago Seán from your class went and hanged himself from the tree house in his back garden. You and your friends used to slag him off because he didn’t have an X-Box. You’re a bit sorry now. Everyone was crying and hugging at the funeral and the school had a counsellor even though none of you went to see her. You’d have gotten slagged off if you did. Someone even set up a Bebo page and everyone wrote nice messages on it.

You wonder what people would say about you if you did the same. You’d get your mother’s sleeping pills and some of Tony’s whiskey. You’ve gotten to like the taste of it. He’s going to catch you some day diluting it with water but you don’t care. Definitely you would take pills. As you swallowed each one you would imagine them floating down to the most important parts of your body to shut them down. The heart. The lungs. Maybe the liver too. You’re not sure what else. You gave up Biology after you failed it in the Junior Cert. All you know is that the pills would help you sleep forever and that feels like it would be a very nice thing to be able to do.

Then again, if you did that you would never get to meet your father. You found his address once, when you were fourteen, in an old box hidden in the back of your mother’s wardrobe. The box was marked ‘Crystal and Ryan’s Baby Stuff’. Your mother named you after her favourite character from a TV show she used to watch in the 1980s, like a million years ago. There were lots of pictures in there of Harry and her. Your favourite was a picture of the three of you. Your father wore a t-shirt that said Oakland and his hair was a kind of grey blonde. He was tanned but it didn’t look like a Galway tan. It looked American. Your mother’s eyes were layered with mascara and fake eyelashes. You were a chubby baby, fat arms, no wrists and just two wisps of blonde hair across your bald head. They looked as if they were afraid they would drop you. On the back, the words Harry, me and Crystal, 1993. But he went back to California when your mother was nineteen, you were six months and Ryan only two years old. He decided he liked his wife there better.

You tried to show the box to Ryan once but he said he didn’t give a fuck who his father was. That he was just fine without one. And you should cop on and forget about him yourself. You had Tony now. You didn’t tell your mother but you wrote to him, to Harry, and you couldn’t believe it when he replied. The letter was written on that crisp blue airmail paper that folds into an envelope where you can write the address on the outside. The stamp had a picture of the American flag and the paper was so thin the blue biro he used had made holes in it. He said it would be a good idea for you to go and visit sometime, maybe when you finished school. He’d like to come to Ireland but he was very busy with his job. Perhaps it would be better not to write again as he might be moving and your letter might get lost. He said he’d write to you when he got settled in his new place. He signed it Harry. He didn’t ask about your mother and he didn’t send you the photograph you asked for. And he didn’t write again. For a long time you checked the mail every day when you got home from school. Then you only checked sometimes. Now you don’t bother checking at all.

You’re getting bored with the summer holidays. You miss Lucy. When Ryan was going out with her, she used to bring you places, like the movies. She called it girl time. She was doing a degree in something called Biotechnology. You liked when she came to your house in her pink and cream Nissan Figaro. It belonged to her mother but you didn’t tell anyone because it made all your friends jealous. She had even been to California. You asked her had she ever been to Oakland but she said she had lived in the city – that’s what she called San Francisco. It was a bit run down, Oakland, she said, not glamorous like Malibu or LA. You were sure she was mixed up and that there must be more than one Oakland.

One night, about six months ago, just before she found out she was pregnant again, your mother started talking about California for the first time in ages. Talked about it like she had actually been there. The memory made her take out the bottle of whiskey from the cupboard by the fridge. You remember her hand shaking as she splashed some into a chipped glass, her voice trailing off to a mumble. You remember how she put a cigarette into her mouth and took the whiskey, the pack of Marlboros and the lighter with her out into the back garden. Back yard really you suppose since the only grass out there is weeds. You went with her but she shouted at you to go away.

You watched her from the window in the kitchen. Her profile was visible in the dark as she sat on the abandoned sofa, the one left out there when Tony arrived home with a new plastic leather suite too big for the sitting room. As you watched, the only movement you could see was the orange light in her hand moving up and down from the arm of the sofa to her lips. Then darkness. Then the flicker of a lighter flame and the dull glow again, moving up and down, up and down. Then your little brother began to cry and you went upstairs to give him his bottle.

You think your mother is pathetic when she drinks whiskey and you’re sure that’s what made your father go back to California. She is pathetic with men. Before Tony there were others that now make even Tony look good. Random men that lurched in the door with her, the stairs creaking in the middle of the night waking you up. Always the second and seventh step. You know which steps because they are the ones you skip over when you get home late. It’s Friday. You’re supposed to go to the disco tonight. The last big one of the summer. Everyone has plans to get cans from Jack Ward so you can all go drinking in the park in Salthill before going in. You look at the box again. You’re not even sure if you got the best brand. You just grabbed the first one you saw as well as some deodorant so it didn’t look like that’s all you went in for. So it would look like an afterthought. Much like you ended up being an afterthought that night.

You didn’t want to go with him but everyone else was paired off. You didn’t want to be the one left behind on the bench on your own. You could already hear Tamara and Niamh giggling. Tamara told you before that it wasn’t like the movies. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t like that, she said. You agreed, even though you didn’t know at all. While you and Glen are doing it you remember the day a woman called Anne came to your school from some rape centre and explained that if you didn’t want to have sex then you could just say no. But Glen is strong. He’s a boxer. You can’t imagine saying no to him now. The tighter you grab his t-shirt, the more he thinks you like it and the more he paws your left breast and bangs into you even harder. Then it’s over. Glen is already on his way back to the rest of them before you have even wiped yourself with a tissue. He is pulling up his fly with one hand, slurping out of a can of Dutch Gold with the other and grinning. You pull your knickers back up, button up your top and put on a grin too. You retrieve your naggin of vodka from the grass and go sit on the bench with Niamh. Tamara is the last to return.

You open the box and spread the contents out on the bed. You read the instructions a few times. They seem pretty easy to follow. Last year Kylie Walsh thought it was cool to be pregnant. She used to walk around holding hands with Tommy Ryan wearing only a cropped top that showed everyone her massive bump with the horrid purple veins that stood out like a Freddy Kruger mask. Kylie Walsh didn’t think it was so cool in the hospital though. She told you and Tamara and Niamh about it one night. It was too late by the time she got to there to get any drugs and it took hours for the baby to arrive and she got all ripped open. You couldn’t listen to the whole story so you went downstairs to get a can from the fridge even though you hadn’t finished the first one yet. You delayed going back in to the bedroom because the thought of it all grossed you out.

You think of all this as you squat awkwardly over the stained white bowl trying to balance the stick between your legs. Some of your urine gets on your fingers. It feels warm. You wash your hands and you go back into the bedroom. You leave the stick on top of your dressing table. What if you are? What if you are pregnant? Maybe you could go to California and live with your father. Then your baby would be American and never have to live in a place like this. Maybe you could have an abortion. Tamara’s sister goes to the college down the road and says there are numbers on the back of the girls’ toilet doors for abortion clinics. She also says that the cleaners and pro-life right-wing bitches are always scratching them off. Maybe you could keep it. It could be a girl.

School starts in three weeks. Leaving Cert. But what’s the point? You crapped out on your Junior Cert exams and now you are only doing ordinary level subjects. Subjects for thick people. Lucy once said you could do really well when she was helping you study. But Lucy left and the subjects weren’t so interesting any more. Tamara has already left school and works in O’Leary’s supermarket. Maybe she could get you a part-time job there. The council would give you a house of your own, maybe near your Granny’s. You’d buy the baby a copy of The Princess and the Pea because that was your favourite book when you were small. And you wouldn’t tell Glen she was his. No-one else knew you were a virgin that night so he would have to believe you.

You know it’s time to check the stick but all you feel like doing is throwing up. You feel light-headed. You wish Lucy was here. She’d know what to do. She would look at the stick for you and tell you everything is OK. You go over to the dressing table. You pick up the white plastic stick and shut your eyes tight. Then you squint them open and see it. Your future. Your future all marked out in the shape of a thin blue line.