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Not Yet Twenty

I watched a so-called art-house film with subtitles on the television. I watched for an hour, then as I made my way upstairs, though I was not yet twenty years old, I felt like an octogenarian film director carrying a megaphone in one hand and a script in the other. He moves up each step at the slowest pace, leading with the right leg, dragging the left leg behind because of its bad knee. He touches the wall with his left shoulder to maintain balance, his head reeling with the screenplay for yet another miserabilist film but when he reaches the studio does no more than work at the doodle of a demon with a pitchfork.  

I sat inside the house doing something similar, while a girl called Holly who was staying with my grandmother that semester was celebrating her twenty first birthday out in the back with her friends, dancing and shouting and competing with the boom of bass behind the pop music. Earlier, her family had pretended to give her a present of a rusty old bicycle with a broken saddle, the look on her face until they produced the keys to a second-hand Nissan, her first car.    

After all these years I still recall with the utmost clarity when the telephone rang, not for the first time, that day, and Holly ran in. You never answer the phone. She floated, half submerged in the autumn sunshine that pursued her in the door, hung in a suspension of time, her face lost in the brightness. When she picked up the phone, I stood and began to look out the window, not seeing anything as I listened to her chattering. When she was finished, I sensed her standing there, suspended once more, staring at my back before running off to re-join the fun in the yard. 

I am on my way over Jordan, I hummed, I am an eighty-year-old film maker who revels in the macabre, who entertains the most wonderful hallucinations, brooding and depressed under a black cloud, wallowing in the bleakness, happy as a pig in muck. 

My grandmother asked me to take her dog, Podger, for a walk. I set off, down the hill, along the twisting back streets, alleyways to the quays and along the docks, what marvels for the poor dog, the stench from doorways, stinking drains, poor old Podger, there was a little park by a rail yard, only the dead went there, a closed in, damp, overgrown place, Harrington Park the name inside a rusty iron gate hidden under moss, where the dead slipped from the sarcophagus to remind me that I would be with them soon, I am on my way over Jordan, I hummed, not ready at all, poor old Podger straining at his lead to sniff at clusters of bones, not ready at all I repeated, I wanted to live, continue being alive like everyone else who looked with pity on the dead, live, if not forever, at least live for now, I am not yet ready for the Stygian flood. There was an elastic band on my wrist. It was to remind me of something, but I forget what. There were welts on my skin where I had been pulling at the elastic band, snapping it on and off with manic compulsion as I strolled along, one foot after the other. Perhaps it was to remind myself that I was still in fact alive, if you can call the way I lived being alive. The steady pace. The snap of elastic on skin. I remember Holly pulled up in her second-hand Nissan as I crossed the cobble-stoned street under Bixley Bridge. I had no idea what she was doing driving around down there on her own, I was surprised, I leaned on the car as she spoke, I put my head close to the rolled down window, well of course it was rolled down, in order for her spoken word to be heard and I leaned towards it in order to hear what she had to say. I remember the smell of incense floating out of the car with the background drone of pop. A fellow called Wise ran up, way hay, check out the wheels. I like the colour. Come on, let’s go for a spin. There was drool running out of the unnatural shape of his lips. They both looked at me. I’m just walking the dog, was all I could think of saying. Wise leapt into the passenger seat. The bright yellow Nissan rolled down the road to the traffic lights at the other side of Harrington Park. I let Podger off the lead and he began to run around the grass. The winds of autumn troubled the trees, leaves flying and whirling everywhere.

When I got home and returned the dog to my grandmother in her parlour, I sat on the bed and began to read. It was a German writer, astounding sentences, astounding psychology. I wrote the word in the margin. Astounding. Then I stopped reading and began to repeat the word to myself until it lost meaning. Outside in the kitchen the refrigerator began to hum as it does at intervals as if to beckon me out to have a look at what delights it has stored inside. 

November that endless month. But of course, it is not endless, it ends like all things. It’s just the way we talk. November, Jesus, it’s endless. It even seems to slide backward, like a freak tide. I woke and looked at the dark window. There was no sign of light beyond a vague, purple blob, so I thought it must be at least the twentieth of November, except when I looked at the calendar, I saw that it was only the seventh. No mistake, the seventh day of the endless month of November, that would end after another twenty-three days or so. So much slow time like dead time and yet packed into so very few days, sure that it was the twentieth day of the month at least, what with the darkness in the window, and then the surprise when you prove by checking the ticks on the calendar that it was indeed only the seventh. Saturday the seventh of November, so dark and the first touch of frost. Covered in smoke, leaning forward, a vague smile for the vulgarity of the world, I was much too serious, and I knew it, because I said to myself that this kind of thing could lead to something big. The refrigerator once more broke into song. It was like the calendar and the clock and the rhymes, counting time, every twenty minutes or so it began to rattle out its tune, that gnawing sensation will lead to something big, pacing in the woods, walking the dog, Harrington Park, back around, the narrow streets, the harlots, the drunks, consumption, the vulgarity of it all, at which turn in the procedure I had to make a dash for the toilet, the octogenarian film director almost did not make it, the crisis sparked by either a rasher sandwich purchased in a service station or a can of sardines in brine that had been left open on the kitchen counter for a couple of days. Aghast, that’s the last word for the margin today, a word that reminds me like no other of what it was to be not yet twenty, terrified of dying, wondering every second when the moment would arrive, every moment that is when I was not running around like a ghoul.

Edward Mc Whinney of Cork, Ireland, is a regular contributor to Contrary. Read our interview with him.