Book: Black River (2016)

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He wasn’t built for the life of the scribe, not physically though he certainly had the mind for it—the mind and the thirst that so often went with it. But to see him in person, a good three inches over six foot and hulking with muscle and mass, he didn’t seem like a thinking man, although that’s what he was.

He’d followed his physical strengths in school, played rugby and played it well. The coaches said he could have gone national, maybe even international, but he’d never believed it himself. It was wishful thinking on their part, small-town mythologizing of the assets around them and he himself had never wished it enough to throw in his hat and falsely believe. At home by himself when he was alone he followed his true vocation, filling copy books with short stories and commentary-style think-pieces on whatever he thought the topical interest of the day. He’d always known what he wanted to do with his life even if no one else could understand it. In the end he was glad for that maybe more than anything.

This flu wouldn’t quit. Every spring and autumn it found him—those were the times there were always a strong strain or two going round after all—but this dose was different. This was going on months now. January was always rough but this year instead of receding in February the hangover of the holiday season had merely mutated into a mild but persistent sickness, all runny noses and moist congestion, which had only worsened as the winter passed for spring. Now he was hacking up thick wads of brown spongy phlegm every five minutes or so and his chest stung from deep within all hours of the day. He hated going to the doctor, always had, but now he knew enough to book himself in for the following afternoon. When it got too hard to smoke a cigarette, even Hardy knew something had to be done.

He spent the rest of the day writing up the story on the girl. Periodically he would pause and take out the grainy photo from inside the folder and hold it in his hands. Emily Whelan. She had brown hair and hazel eyes, the kind of smile that could only cross a face that had never known any great sorrow, any great defeat. She could have been anybody’s niece, anybody’s daughter. She hadn’t run away, looking at her now again for the umpteenth time, he felt sure of it. She hadn’t run away and she hadn’t taken the river. At least not on purpose anyway.

It was after dark by the time he finished his final draft and emailed it on over to Downey’s station, who had himself left the office several hours earlier. Hardy pulled on his heavy brown overcoat and paused for a moment before leaving to rifle through his wallet with a sad, quiet, resigned dismay. After Murphy and the doctor got their cut he had twenty, maybe thirty euro left over to do him for the rest of the month, until April Fools’ Day when the new month’s wages came in and he could begin again in comparative financial stability. The rest of the team would be down at the bar already now and he longed to join them but there was no way to make it work. At a stretch he could maybe pick up a bottle of cheap red on the way home. He thought he had something at the back of the freezer that he could heat up and glean nourishment from.

A light drizzle of rain permeated the expanse around the square as he stepped out of the office, the orange and yellow lights of the streetlamps and taxi cabs casting a diffuse glow off the droplets that seemed in the late evening darkness like the hovering auras of some calculating otherworldly energy. The sound of traffic and motors hummed around him, the footfalls of men and women in heels and dress shoes marching apace to their night-time destinations, to their bars and restaurants, comforts and revelry. Hardy pulled the collar of his coat close around his throat and coughed hard, before setting off through the streets amongst them.

It was frozen falafels that awaited him as supper, half a meagre portion, left over from some late night takeaway when the wealth had been richer spread. He ate the spongy reheated hash with slices of buttered white bread and ketchup. At least he had the wine.

There was nothing on television and he browsed the internet for a while, sipping his wine by lamplight, feeling warmer and healthier to the midpoint of the bottle and then downhill from there on after. As he poured out the final generous glass, wine gurgling like blood from the neck of the bottle and settling in the invert dome, itself grubby with a multitude of prior thumbprints, Hardy felt almost worse than he had before pulling the cork. It was now or never, to bed or to seek the second bottle—that was the crossroads at which he stood. It could probably be afforded provided he ate light for the rest of the week, avoided any costly surprises or emergencies. After the act, he might even consider it to have been worth it. Anything was possible.

He picked up the stem of his glass and held it ponderously to his eye. The orange light of the streetlamps outside cast strange shapes through the half-closed blinds, shadows and oblongs along the shoddy carpet of his small apartment living room. If he chose to look there instead of the glass who knew what visions might eventually unfold from those patterns?

Even though his work for the week was all finished, Hardy would still have to be on call in the office the next morning lest any last minute disasters kicked off before the weekly went to press, not to mention his appointment with the doctor for which he would prefer not to be hungover. For these reasons more than the question of money, he decided at last to make for bed, while the stupor of drink was still thick enough in his mind to carry him off to an easy sleep. Resolved, finally, he placed a saucer over the rim of the glass, the murky brown-red liquid now settled like a cave pool or a bog pond beneath it, and left it there waiting on his coffee table, a glass idol in the amber shadows of midnight.


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