By Martin Keaveney
I stop walking on the hard shoulder. There is a light flashing in the distance. It’s different from the yellow glow of the streetlights. A silver torch beam from the bog, over the sparkles of tarmac, through the hue of the blue moon. Now it lights up the canvas of a small tent. There is someone inside. It’s a female. I know by the shape of the shoulders. I better be careful.
I always leave the city when the buses stop running. The clubs are starting, there’s queues of youngsters lined up, perfumed, heels tapping, phones blinking, excitement of the night to come. I hit for the ring road, past the 24-hour service station. Around the big roundabout and onto the east route. I walk fast. I go if it’s dry, if it rains, if it snows. I take what comes. I go no matter what. I probably shouldn’t walk on the dual carriageway. But I live with risk.
There isn’t much notice taken out here after dark. The night has its own laws. I could go by the old road. There’s a lot of hills that way. But I’d get over them. Or I could go cross-country. I have done. Squelching across the bog, trawling through streams, climbing over fences. The world slows you down. It’s never in a hurry. Nature is always on time.
But my old boots are leaking this last while. You can get no wear out of anything these days. I only have them a few years. I can feel the damp coming in already. Even though the shape of this road rolls down from the centre, there is still a film of dampness across it. I sense it coming in my woollen socks. Around the toes. The reeds and marsh are out for now. I’m afraid I’ll have to get new boots for the winter. Then I might take on the cross-country. But the motorway is the most direct. As-the-crow-flies.
They knew what they were doing when they set it out. I know all about road-making. I did an exam on it. I studied the production of road coverings, bridge-building, urban and rural planning, infrastructural strategies and policies, waterways, dams. The route was well planned. On certain parts of the road, you can see the track of it for miles by the lights each side. You can see things better in the darkness of the night.
It’s hard to get silence in the world these days. I’ve tried lots of places. The church. The last morning, I found a couple of parishioners by the devotion candles. Chatting as I knelt and prayed. Down the library. A row broke out one day over an unpaid fine while I was looking for a history book. You can’t even walk along the canal in the daytime, without whooping children rattling crisp bags, beeping mobile phones. People racing everywhere. Round in circles.
I’d only be about during the night if I could. Sounds that were hidden all day come alive at night. The rustling on leaves, doors banging, bins emptying, dogs barking. You couldn’t hear them things during the day. Not with all that goes on. But I wouldn’t be the first to throw light on that.
No cars have passed for a while. Awful waste of a good road really. Lying dormant here for hours. It’s funny to be walking slow on a surface designed for great speed. The road tries to hurry you. But I’ll not be hurried.
It’s like you are in slow motion. The big white and yellow lines, the flat bitumen skin, the crash barrier of two aluminium channels running all the way. The massive green and blue signs. The smaller yellow ones with bars showing how many hundred metres before the next turn-off. Billboards at the slip roads. Designed for people zooming by. You get a glimpse of a woman using a shiny lawnmower or a man filling a sleek washing-machine. Happy people that have something the drivers of the cars should buy. You see it. You want to buy it. But I’m looking at these pictures for a long time as I walk. When you come up close to the giant board, you see them better. You see it as a flat sheet of colours and shapes. If you look really close, you can see it’s just lines of coloured full stops.
The hostel lobby clock put temperatures at between 4 and 5 Celsius tonight. The autumn is dying. The leaves won’t be rustling for much longer. Except in the Copper Beeches. And the evergreens. I’m an evergreen. I don’t lose my leaves in the winter. I don’t hibernate. I keep going all year round.
I’ve decided I’ll move out of the hostel as soon as I can. I’m in one of six bunk beds in a room. The people change every night. But even so, they’re the same. Rattling plastic bags. Fiddling with zips. Blowing hairdryers. Flashing phones. I get cold with those noises. Scratching at you. Great silence out here. I was always fond of the night.
I didn’t want to go to bed at all when I was a boy. The old man would tell me it was time. I’d spell ‘N-O’. He would spell ‘Y-E-S’. But I couldn’t spell ‘Just another half-hour?’ The old man was good at spelling.
There’s always hassle in the hostel. One night in there I thought I heard the cuckoo. I never heard one, even though I lived in the country until I grew up. I was awful excited. To hear the cuckoo for the first time, and in the city. I jumped down off the bunk, the man sleeping below groaned, rattling the wooden bead necklace he wore. I ran to the window. It was like waking up Christmas morning, running to the bottom of the tree to see what the man in red had brought.
I looked across the roofs. There were owls hooting by this time as well. Another first. I couldn’t believe it. But I couldn’t see any birds. I thought they must have all their nests under the eaves. Then I saw a square blue light reflected in the glass. The man with the wooden necklace was sitting up in the bed. He had his phone out. He turned off his alarm. The owls and cuckoos stopped.
I don’t need to find anywhere else when I leave. I’ll firm up for the winter. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Surprising what the skeletal structure, the muscular tissue, the organs can withstand. It’s a durable design. Almost limitless. You’d be minted if you owned the patent.
I’ve tested it well already. I was able to hop sixteen foot when I was sixteen years. The long jump at the village sports day. The sports field was green grassed. White fence posts and blue ropes marked out the running track. Crease suit lines ran in huge decreasing circles for the laps and relays. Wooden swing boats rose high into the blue sky. Children laughed. A man in a suit walked around speaking into an orange spongy microphone with a short piece of wire that wasn’t connected to anything. His voice came out of two blue loudspeakers attached to the top of a telegraph pole. I always wanted a go on that microphone. You could hear him speak all over the village, giving the results of the under-10s three-legged race. But I didn’t mind the noise then. I always loved the night though.
The schoolmaster in the village shook my hand and gave me the winner’s trophy. It had a small golden statue of a man in sports gear. The master’s name was Joe. But he wasn’t my teacher anymore by then. When he gave me the trophy, I could have said ‘Thanks, Joe’, if I wanted. But I didn’t. I said ‘Thanks, sir.’ The master told me I should take sport more seriously. I had a real talent, he said. I could jump very high as well. And I could run fast. I looked at the trophy as he talked, my fingers on the marble base, the little golden plate glued on, inscribed with the year and the word: ‘Winner’. The man in the suit said my name into the orange microphone. It came out the two blue loudspeakers on the telegraph pole for everyone in the village to hear. They took my photograph. Everyone clapped for a long time.
But I didn’t take sport more seriously. I went learning about the roads instead. The old man told me it was more secure. One of the arms broke off the trophy figure a while later. I never did any sport again. That was fifty years ago.
I’m still fit enough. I walk most of the day as well. It’s surprising what the body can train itself to do. Imagine all the miles I could walk over another twenty years if I keep in good shape. No one should ever be in any hurry. Nature is always on time.
I moved out of the flat in the city a month ago. The crowd I was living with were fairly lively. ‘Sticky People’ the landlord called them. He didn’t mean me. If they were all like me, he’d be elected, he said. But they’re not all like me. That was the problem. He was getting rid of the lot of them.
The buck from down the country that called a kettle a ‘kittle’. The foreigner that was trying to learn English from him. The father of three whose family lived in a different continent. There were a few women there too. I didn’t know much about any of them. They’re all sticky people, the landlord said. He wanted to clean the place up and get in a family. Every landlord wants a family.
I didn’t mind. I was glad to be getting out of there. I took a top bunk in the hostel. But I’ll be getting away from there soon enough too. Sticky people in it and all. Out here on the road, there’s none of that. It’s all left to you. Freedom.
I looked at a few places last week. But I didn’t like the terrain. I’ll firm up for the winter instead. I’ll wear two trousers and two shirts if temperatures go below zero. My woollen cap. Thick socks and gloves. I’m fit for anything. I’ll sleep behind the crash barrier on the motorway. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to if the mind is right. The mind is a powerful tool. The old man told me that once.
I’m getting very close to the torch beam in the bog. I can see the tent better now. It definitely wasn’t there last night. Someone sleeping by the motorway. Moved in under cover of the day. Someone with my idea. I can see the woman inside. I can make out the jawline. The shape of the hair. It would be funny if I hopped the barrier and called in to her. Tell her I pass this way every night. Maybe she could do with something brought from the city 24-hour next time I’m passing. A carton of milk. Or a pound of sausages. Or a bottle of 7up. But I don’t talk much to women. Never did. It’s hard to know what to say to them. They’re not straightforward. The old man told me that once. They can be sticky. The night is not sticky. The night is straightforward.
But it would be funny if I told her I was going to be her neighbour. That I’d the same idea. Except without a tent. She’d probably call the law. Say I was some weirdo. There’d be a court visit. A cell at the finish. That’d be the end of the freedom. I value my liberty. I pass by her tent and keep going. Good luck to her. She’ll have to do her own shopping.
I turn onto the slip road after the last yellow sign. I walk up a little hill to the bridge overhead. I walk across, looking over and back at the carriageway, streetlights stretching out into the dark. I can see the tent in the bog. A small triangle of canvas-shaded light. I go by a little roundabout. Then I come into the suburbs. Streetlights shine torch beam silver here instead of the motorway yellow. Security alarms flash in industrial estates. Lines of trucks parked up all night. Awful waste really. The night is a neglected space.
Near the town centre, I cross an old bridge. I stop in the middle, go to the wall, look into the canal. The water never stops flowing here, from dusk to dawn. I hear it splashing against the bank. On the stone cut cap someone has written a small message in white paint: ‘Don’t Jump’.
I get to the main street. I pass the traffic lights, a post office, a supermarket, a clothes shop, a bank. I walk into the town square, cars parked around it.
I get to the statue in the centre. I stand by the square concrete base. There is a gold plate at the front inscribed with the words: ‘J.M. Barrie 1757-1845 – “The Walker”’. I look up at the bronze sculpture. I can see the outline of the boots, the jacket, the big bag on the back, the hat on top. The arms are outstretched. The wall lights of the town hall behind shine against the statue and the head is a black shape as I look up. But I always imagine The Walker is smiling.
I pull my bag off my back. I sit on the concrete base. I look down the street. I have the freedom of the town. There’s always sticky people around the city. But not out here at night.
I’ve walked ten miles on the dual carriageway. But I feel like I could walk forever. I stand. Better not to sit for too long. Hard to get going again. I bend each leg. I rub the backs of my thighs and calves. I’ll have to get new boots for the winter.
I walk down the main street to the traffic lights. They change every thirty seconds, even though there’s no drivers to come and go. Changing colours all night to an empty street. Awful waste of electricity really. I go up close to them. The lights are just circles of coloured full stops. I stare at the amber when it comes. It means prepare to stop. It reminds me of the torch beam yellow. I walk back up the street and sit under The Walker.
I pull off my shoes and socks. I wiggle my toes and stretch them out. I take off my high-viz jacket. The jumper with ‘Champion’ written across the front. The check shirt. The vest. I sit in my skin. It’s good and cold. I look around. Not a sinner, not a sound. I scratch an armpit. I walk out to the middle of the main street. The road is wet on my feet. I stand on the white line in the centre. I flex my biceps. After a minute, I let off a roar. The silence falls again in the town. I let off another roar, louder. I’m coughing after this one. Heart thumps. A light comes on somewhere.
I go back to the statue. I put on the vest, the check shirt, the ‘Champion’ jumper, the high-viz jacket, the socks and the old leaking boots. I put my bag on my back.
I walk by the bank, the clothes shop, the supermarket, the post office. I stop at the traffic lights. I look to the town square. I can see The Walker, the arms outstretched. Smiling down at me. I smile back.
The walk is always easier on the way back to the city. A car whizzes by outside the suburbs. Boxy lads squeezed inside, music beating, a purple light shining from the underbelly. They circle the little roundabout a few times. Then they zoom back by me toward the town. They beep as they pass. Sticky people. I shouldn’t be walking out here at night. But I live with risk.
As I walk across the motorway bridge, I see her leaning against the crash barrier. She is looking up at me. The only trouble with the motorway is there is no cover. But usually there is no need to hide.
There is nowhere to turn off on the slip road. I have to keep going toward her. I don’t let on to see her at all. I keep my eyes down on the sparkling tarmac. But as soon as I set foot on the hard shoulder, I hear her say ‘Excuse me?’ I say nothing. I keep walking. She has the torch in her hand. It shines on the road. But she could flash it in my face, if she wanted.
‘Excuse me?’ she says again. I’m close by now. She says it so loud I couldn’t miss it. Unless I was deaf. But that could be dodgy to pull off. I stop. ‘Yes?’
‘Did you pass by here a while ago?’
‘Pass by? Where? Here?’
‘No. No, I wasn’t this way before. Not for a long time.’
‘I thought I saw you pass by earlier. From my camp.’ She nods back to the bog, ‘I thought it was you.’
‘No. That wasn’t me.’
‘You don’t normally pass this way?’
‘No.’ I look back toward the little town. ‘My car broke down. Back there. In the town. But there’s no one about. I’m going to the city. To get help.’
‘That’s awful, can it be fixed?’
‘Your car, can it be fixed?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know much about cars.’
‘Can you ring anyone?’
‘I don’t have a phone. I don’t use them.’
‘I’d give you mine, but the battery is flat.’
‘That was it.’
‘The battery. In the car. It’s flat.’
‘You poor thing. There wasn’t a phone box in the town?’
‘Vandalised. I must be on my way.’ But I’ve hardly gone two steps and she calls me again.
‘Excuse me! Really sorry to bother you when you have enough trouble, but I’m very stuck, and I wonder, do you, by any chance, have such a thing as a tin-opener? Maybe in your bag there?’
‘You need to open a tin?’
‘Yes, do you have one?’
‘Great! Could I borrow it? Just for a couple of minutes?’
She has a funny accent. She’s not local. Her voice is like the current under the bridge, where they tell you not to jump, she gets higher pitched, same as the water splashing against the sides of the bank, as she reaches the end of each sentence.
She must have grown up in a place hundreds of miles away from here. She picked up that twang in the schoolyard. Pushing, pulling, shouting, screaming. Bouncing balls, stones grazing your arms, a busted nose. I hated them places.
I pull off my bag from my back. Everything I need is within. Three pairs of trousers, three shirts, three changes of underwear, three pairs of socks, my wellingtons and a belt. Three cooking pots of different sizes, a frying pan, one knife, one fork and one spoon. A mug. A razor, a comb and a toothbrush. A shirt, tie, suit jacket and black shoes. A football jersey. My woolly hat. A bar of soap. A penknife with a tin-opener. Carrying all this around probably makes the walk harder. But I never leave anything in the hostel with the sticky people and their sticky fingers. ‘You have a tin and no tin-opener?’
‘Well, yes.’ She could be smiling, but her face is a black shape in the streetlight.
‘If you get the tin, I’ll open it for you,’ I say, taking out the penknife. ‘There’s a knack to this.’ A penknife is a valuable item when you live in the bog. She might not want to give it back.
‘Thank you so much!’ She sounds young, but she could be old. She climbs over the crash barrier. I hear the boots squelching over the bog. I know they are boots by the stamp. I wonder where she bought them. I will ask her that before I go. The torch flashes out the opening, lighting up a part of the night. The tent looks to be of decent quality. I wonder where she bought it. But I’m not getting a tent.
When I move out of the hostel, I’ll lie directly onto the bog. There’ll be nothing separating me from the elements. It can get as cold as it wants. I hope it does. It’s welcome to. It’s surprising what the body can attune itself to. Strange machine really. If you ever built something as durable, you’d be minted.
But no one has yet. It’s a long way off. I’ll take full advantage of the skeletal and muscular structure I was born with in the meantime. Firm up the body. Away from all those racing sticky people. Nature is in no hurry. It’s always on time.
If I fit with nature, I’ll be alright. That’s what they mean by staying fit. Fitting in with nature. Everything makes sense at night. You couldn’t ever get your head straight during the noise of the day.
She’s coming back now with a pile of tins in a plastic box. She must have strong arms. ‘I may get a few opened while you’re here. Do you mind?’
‘No. I don’t mind at all.’ She takes out the tins and lines them up along the top of the crash barrier. I take the first one and clip the tin-opener onto the top. It bites into the rim. I wiggle the handle until it grips the little wheel. As I twist, it clicks around the circle.
‘This is so great,’ she says. An articulated lorry whizzes past. The gust lifts her hair high into the moonlight. There’s a smell of oil and burning rubber.
The moon goes behind clouds. She shines the torch on the tin-opener. I look over to her. ‘If you turn off your torch, I’ll see better in the dark.’
‘Once the eyes become accustomed.’
‘Ah-hah.’ She turns off the torch. I stop twisting the handle and the lid comes off. I can smell sweet fruit juice.
‘Good man,’ she says. She takes the opened tin from me and pours it into the plastic box. I start on the next one. ‘Do you like peaches?’
‘Peaches? Is that what these are?’ I fiddle with the handle. The wheel catches and the teeth chew the rim. I guess she nods, her hair moves around her shape.
‘They’re not fresh fruit, but still they’re good,’ she says.
I get them all opened. I hand her the last one. She’s happy. ‘Thank you so much.’
‘You’re welcome.’ I push the tin-opener back into the bottom of my bag.
‘Would you like a bowl?’
‘Would you like a bowl of peaches?’
‘No, thank you. I’d best be on my way. My car, you see.’
‘Of course. Do you not like peaches?’
‘Do you not like peaches?’
‘I do. I do like peaches.’
‘Don’t you want a bowl?’
‘I’m not sure I’m that hungry.’ I’m beginning to wonder if maybe she is a bit sticky after all. ‘But where are the bowls?’
‘Actually, I use mugs. They’re back there. In my camp.’ She points to the bog.
‘I’d better not.’
‘Come on! You’re safe enough.’ I guess she is smiling now by the rise of her voice. ‘What’s your name?’
‘My name is Jeremiah.’
‘Of course it is. Come, I’ll get you a mug of peaches for all your hard work.’ She climbs over the crash barrier. She carries the box of peaches to the tent. She is fit enough. You have to be to live in the bog. Her boots squelch. She stops at the tent and turns. ‘Come.’
I climb over the crash barrier. My old boots sink. The ground is soft. It wasn’t the best spot to pitch up. With no tin-opener and no bowls. People get very confused. But that’s because of the day.
She has gone inside the tent. I stop at the entrance. ‘Welcome to my camp!’ she says. Her voice sounds different in there. She’s kneeling on a sleeping bag. There are lengths of beads hanging everywhere, all different colours. Some are wooden but most are plastic.
She has the torch set up in the corner. She has two mugs on a small wooden table. They are three-quarter full with peaches in fruit juice. The plastic box with the rest is now covered with a lid, beside a pile of folded clothes. ‘Are you coming in, Jeremiah?’
‘No. I’m fine here.’ I kneel at the edge of the floor cover.
‘Fair enough.’ She hands me the mug. It’s a fisherman’s tin. They use them mainly for worms as far as I know. Good for little else. Burn the lips off you if it were hot. But it’s not. It’s ice cold. Pieces of peach float around in the juice. I sip it. It’s sweet. I suck up one of the peach segments, making a slurping sound, breaking the silence of the night. ‘Sweet, aren’t they?’
‘They’re good. Not like fresh fruit. But not bad.’
‘Not many peach trees around here, Jeremiah.’
She sips the juice. ‘I don’t suppose you have anything to smoke?’
‘Are you going to be here long?’ I say. I’ll have to change my route by the looks of this. Get new boots for the winter and get off the motorway. Take the old road.
‘It depends. I don’t make plans anymore.’
‘That’s about the best plan,’ I say. She slugs the mug. I look around the tent. There’s a pillow with blue strawberries on the case and a photo sellotaped to cardboard on top. There are two children in the photo. Beside the pillow, there’s an alarm clock with two silver bells on the ears. The woman keeps track of time.
I finish the mug. ‘Thanks.’
‘Thank you so much for the use of your tin-opener.’
‘You’re welcome to it. I better be going. My car.’
I hand her the empty mug. ‘Hope to see you this way again, Jeremiah,’ she says and shakes my hand. She doesn’t let go. I don’t know what to do. Her hand is warm. I couldn’t say what age she is. She’s not that young. She’s not that old. Hard to say with women. They’re not straightforward. Then she takes her hand away.
My old boots squelch on the bog as I walk back to the dual carriageway. The water seeps into my socks when I hit deep puddles.
I’ll take the old road tomorrow night. The buck from down the country told me it had been upgraded. New surface, yellow lines for the hard shoulder. Cat’s eyes. Nearly as quick probably. There’s no crash barrier on the old road. But I live with risk.
Martin Keaveney’s debut collection of stories, The Rainy Day, was published by Penniless Press in 2018. Short fiction has been published in many literary journals in Ireland, UK and US. He has also written for the screen and his writing has been produced and exhibited at many international film festivals and on broadcast television. His scholarship was recently published in the peer-reviewed New Hibernia Review, Journal of Franco-Irish Studies, and Estudios Irlandeses. He has a B.A. in English and Italian, an M.A in English (Writing) and a Ph.D. at NUIG (Creative Writing and Textual Studies). He was awarded the Sparanacht Ui Eithir for his research in 2016 and the NUIG Write-Up Bursary in 2018. See more at www.martinkeaveney.com