One minute you have enough time for one last pint. Then three pints later you’re running for the last bus. Which was why when I made it to Pearse Street, I hoped against hope that the one of the buses approaching in the distance would have the lucky number 67 on their front.
When the blurred digits on the front of the first bus in the procession came into focus, I saw that it was out of service.
Same story with the next three.
They were all finished and going nowhere right now but back to the depot.
Right as the homing beacon was about to kick in and have me walk halfway home before hailing a cab to save a few euro, a bus pulled in right in front of me.
When I didn’t even have my hand out.
A bus driver looking for passengers? Nothing strange about that at all.
The doors opened with a hiss, and I realised I hadn’t even caught the route number.
“Come on, we’ve got lives to live,” said the driver.
“But where are you going?” I asked him.
“Home,” he said. “Chop, chop.”
It must have been the beer that made that make sense, because I climbed on, fishing my travelcard out of my wallet. But I couldn’t find the scanner, where it should have been.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the driver.
I couldn’t really see his face, what with the low light and the thick, scratched Perspex between us.
“The ride is free, is it?” I asked him.
He laughed, as the doors closed behind me and the bus pulled away from the kerb. “No such thing as a free ride, pal. You know that.”
I laughed back, more out of politeness than anything, and worked my way down the aisle.
There were more people on board than I would have expected for a late bus on a Wednesday night. Most people usually avoid eye contact on public transport. Especially at this hour. I know I do. But this bus was the complete opposite.
Every passenger turned in unison to scrutinise me, as if they were looking for something in my face. Like I was on some kind of identity parade.
Funny thing was, I recognised one of them.
He was fatter, older and, I was glad to see, a whole lot unhealthier looking than I remember. This inbred looking fucker. I hadn’t seen him in the flesh in over thirty years, but he regularly showed up in my memories. Particularly when I woke up in the middle of the night for no good reason, you know, those times when irrational thoughts line up and send you into a tailspins only a movie on Netflix you’ve already seen a hundred times can pull you out of.
I found an empty seat right behind him and slumped into it, eyeing the back of his misshapen head, happy to see it was in an advanced state of baldness. He chanced a glance back at me, and I held his gaze with a look I wanted him to call me out on.
“You going to ignore me?” came a voice from the seat immediately behind. I turned to find a smiling face, a very familiar smiling face. “You’re not telling me you don’t remember me, are you?”
I swivelled around to take a better look at him. He was alone like, it seemed, everyone on the bus. No groups of friends or couples on board. Just solitary figures, who all seemed to be taking an interest in me and this exchange.
You ever look at your own reflection for so long that it starts to change, that the layers begin to fall away like the skin of an onion? No? Well, the longer I stared at this guy, the more the years rewound.
“Kenny? Kenny Farrell?”
“The one, the only. How you been?”
“Eh, grand, yeah. Jesus! The last time I saw you-“
“The last time you saw me, you succeeded in having the only thing in the world I gave two shits about confiscated from me.”
“I did what now?”
He shook his head and tried to dismiss it, laugh it away. “Nothing.”
“This is crazy,” I said.
“This,” I said, looking around the bus. “It’s flashback central here. Like I’m on a trip down Memory Lane.”
“You’re half-right,” said Kenny, drawing a smiley face in the condensation on the window. It was then that I realised the bus had not made a single turn yet or even stopped, when it should have done each several times by now. I wiped the pane of glass next to me, revealing nothing but pitch black. There was no traffic, no people, no streetlights.
“What the fuck?”
“That’s what I thought,” said Kenny. “What the fuck.”
I attempted to get up out of my seat but found myself stuck, literally, like my trousers were superglued to the upholstery.
“What did that guy in front of you do?” said Kenny.
“What do you mean?”
“I said you were half-right. All of us, we’re on a trip down Memory Lane. Bad Memory Lane as it turns out. I figured it out before you got on. The seat you’re in, you didn’t pick it. It was picked out for you. We’re all sat behind someone who did something on us when we were young. Something that might have seemed innocuous at the time, but that left its indelible mark on us and our psyche, shaped us into what we became today.” He folded his arms on the back of my seat and rested his head on them. “So, what’s the story with you and your man in front?”
“Oh, this prick?” I said, loud enough that the bovine looking fuck, whose name I never found out, could not possibly ignore. “You probably remember, Kenny, back then when we were kids. I was a bit chubby. Nothing by today’s standards. But it was enough for this shithead to take notice of me and tell me just how much space I was taking up on the planet. Enough for him to go to the trouble of following me home so he could find out where I lived. Enough for him to wait for me at the end of my road every morning and make me dread its arrival. Enough for me to count the days until the summer holidays, where I could just lock myself away and look forward to three months of not having to deal with his shit. Enough for me to go on a diet that same summer in the hope of losing that weight, but end up gaining an eating disorder. Enough for that to make me the wedge that drove my mother and father apart, breaking up their marriage, our family and our home.”
“Yeah. Wow. You know, I always wondered what I’d say to this cunt if I ever came face to face with him again.” Said cunt looked around at me again. “Bizarre as it seems, what I could quite possibly say is thanks. All that shit I went through as a result of what you put me through made me resilient, made me bulletproof, to not let anything anyone says grind me down ever again. In essence, to not give a sweet flying fuck. Yeah, I could say thank you, but I won’t. So how about ‘Fuck you’ instead.”
“Very poetic,” said Kenny.
Whatever his name was, my tormentor opened his mouth to say something. “Save it,” I said. “Say a single fucking word to me and I will bounce your head off that window until something breaks.”
“Again,” said Kenny. “Wow.”
“I’m sitting in front of you,” I said.
“Which means, if what you’re saying is true… what did I?”
“You remember Miss Clerkin.”
“Fifth and sixth class. Course I do,” I said.
“You remember the top drawer in her desk? Where anything she caught us with, that we shouldn’t have had out during class, ended up.”
“Like Star Wars figures.”
“Or football stickers.”
“The stuff eleven and twelve-year-old boys cared about back then.”
“Yes. Like their grandad’s war medals,” said Kenny. “The ones my best friend at the time told me he didn’t believe had been given to me before my grandad died. The ones this best friend told me, if I didn’t bring them into school to show him, he wouldn’t believe existed. And that we wouldn’t be able to be friends anymore.”
“Yeah. Shit, Kenny. You remember me sneaking you a peek at them under the desk so that no one would see? You remember snatching them off me and pinning them to your chest just as Clerkin came in the door after break? Because I do. I remember how she called you up to the desk immediately, took the medals from you and locked them away in that drawer.”
“But I thought you went up at the end of class and asked for them back?”
“I did. But that bitch, she made no exceptions. She told me she’d need my mother to write her a letter if I wanted them back. But how could I do that? Mum had trusted me with those medals, made a massive, big deal out of it. If I was to tell her I’d brought them into school, and had them taken from me, she would have freaked.”
“But I thought Clerkin gave everyone back everything she had confiscated over the course of the year at the end of term?”
“She would have, I guess. But then fate stepped in. And Quigley.”
“Jason Quigley? The knife nut?”
“A few weeks after she took the medals, she caught him showing off a butterfly knife that belonged to his brother.”
“The one who was locked up?”
“One of them,” said Kenny. “Only Quigley didn’t go get anyone to write a letter. I doubt anyone in his family could have. He just came back late one night and broke into the school, took the knife back for himself, along with everything else in that drawer.”
“I don’t remember-“
“No, you wouldn’t. By this stage, they’d done the old musical chairs routine in the school, shaken things up by moving half the class, including you, to another teacher and classroom in the other wing, leaving me with the other rejects.”
“You weren’t one of the rejects, Kenny.”
“Really? I felt rejected. Especially when I didn’t see you again.”
“We grew apart,” I said. “Happens with all kids as they get older.”
“It happened overnight,” he said.
“You know the way they did things in that school,” I said. “We couldn’t move between wings, even at breaktimes. We had to stick in our own areas. Even had different gates to leave the place by at home time. And we lived in opposite directions, Kenny. That’s why our paths didn’t cross. And it wasn’t like today, when every kid has a phone and their friends on tap on WhatsApp and Snapchat to talk to.”
Kenny just looked back at me, expressionless. “Quigley showed me the medals and said he’d keep them nice and safe until I gave him fifty quid,” he said. “It seemed the lesser of two evils at the time, to steal fifty quid from the jar my mother kept in the kitchen cupboard than to tell her why I needed it, even when she caught me taking it. My schoolwork had been suffering in the meantime, I was so stressed over the whole thing. She put two and two together and came up with troubled. I was a liar at best. A thief at least. I was never the same in her eyes again,” he said. “And all because I was worried about losing the friendship of someone who didn’t give two fucks about what it meant to me.”
“I’m so sorry, Kenny,” I said. “I had no idea.”
“Course you didn’t. Like I said. I didn’t see you again.”
The bus slowed to a stop, the braking action making me lean to one side.
“The seat behind you. It’s the only one free,” I said to Kenny.
“Not for long, I imagine,” he said, as the doors opened and a figure in a hoodie got on.
“You know who it is?”
“Like I said, we’re all sat in front of someone who did something terrible to us, something that had a lasting psychological impact on each of us and changed us forever.”
The bus took off again and I watched the hooded figure shuffle down the aisle towards us.
“You shouldn’t feel too bad,” said Kenny. “I don’t. I got the medals back in the end.”
This guy in the hoodie, whoever he was, had a serious limp, like he’d been injured in the hip or maybe the upper leg a long time ago. He sat down in the seat behind Kenny with a grunt and slid his hood down.
Kenny leaned to one side, giving me a very clear view of the man and his scarred face.
I don’t know if Jason Quigley recognised me after all these years, but he knew exactly who Kenny was, and found it hard to look him in the eye, with the one eye he had that still worked.
“Yeah,” said Kenny. “Regardless of whether my mother was ever going to look at me the same way again, I wanted those medals back. Just so happens they weren’t the only thing my grandad brought back from the war. He had this cool dagger too he said he blagged from a German soldier in a prisoner of war camp. Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it was a good story. Good enough to make Quigley want to trade the medals for it. Good enough for me to able to persuade him we needed to meet somewhere no one would see us to do the exchange, for me to give him the blade.”
“Which is what you did.”
Kenny shrugged. “You ever lie awake at night thinking about when you were a kid, how if you could go back and do it all over again, knowing what you know now, what you’d do differently? If you got another life?”
“All the fucking time.”
The bus slowed again to a complete stop.
“Well, this is our chance.”
“Last stop,” the driver shouted. “We’re home.”