Vagabond by S Young

Mostly he’d feel it after waking from a nap in the afternoons or early in the evenings. A wall of confusion, followed by a feeling of being completely lost, lost beyond all hope of being found, and then the sadness, a deep, timeless sadness would fill him, before he’d come to, realise who he was, where he was, and piece together his life once again in small, digestible chunks.

Cathal. Australia. Saturday afternoon.

Cathal had moved here from Ireland five years ago, during a torrent of young Irish emigration, but it was only during these half waking moments he truly knew homesickness.

He rubbed his eyes, squinted at his watch. He’d slept an hour too late. His phone was ringing.

“Story,” he said.

“Six o’clock, yeah?”

Dan sounded full of life. Like all of last night might not have happened.

“I’m in pieces,” Cathal said.

“You’ll be grand. Did you ring your guy?”

“Not yet.”

“Better get onto him so. Big one tonight.”

Dan was a bricklayer too, what Australians would call a “tradie,” and they’d come to Sydney together to make more money than they could have imagined back home. Twice a week they drank pints with other lads from work, most of them Aussies, and they’d laugh outside bars and avoid each others eyes and classify passing girls with an easy cruelty. They’d go in on a bag of coke together on Fridays, hanging around one another’s apartments until they’d finished it all, and the rest of the weekends were surrendered to bed, takeaways, and an overwhelming sense of having done something terrible.

“Will you not stay, no?” Dan said.

“Very funny. G’wan I’ll see you in a few. Three bags full now, don’t forget.”

###

Cathal saw the night laid out before him, like a shift.

First they’d go to the Weston Hotel, the harshly lit sports pub with the slot machines and the mustard carpets and the old men nursing schooners, then onto a club, probably The Swan or somewhere in the city, to elbow through crowds of swaying Australians and stand at the bar showing fifty dollar notes, roaring their orders over pulsing bass-lines, swapping trips to the bathroom until they were turned out onto the street, and then on to an apartment, where the night would grow blurry and stretch out into morning, the sun rising to a new, painful day and the fresh reality of Dan actually, properly leaving.

“Glad to be rid of you,” Cathal had said, taking a swig of his pint to cover his smile, the beer garden around them bustling with summer.

“You’ll be lost without me mate. Last Paddy standing, yeah? They’ll eat you alive.”

“Meanwhile where will you be? In the pissing rain, in your ma’s house, trying to scab enough for some amber leaf.”

The both of them had laughed, but Cathal was only half joking. He’d been home once in the past five years, three Christmases ago, to a drizzly few weeks and a parade of sad faces, everybody whinging, the whole country delighting in its own misery, and while he’d humoured the Aussie lads with impossible stories of Irish sessions and weekends of endless craic, secretly he’d vowed never to return again. Not for anyone.

“You’re mad. It’s different now.”

“D’you know what’s different?” Cathal had asked, and he opened his arms dramatically, presenting the beer garden and the sunny day and everything around him. “This. This is different.”

Dan rolled his eyes and went for another round.

“Quality of life, mate,” Cathal had shouted after him. “Quality of life, yeah?”

Cathal buttoned up his shirt in his bathroom mirror, holding his jaw high, like a bouncer. The colour of his skin still surprised him, how foreign it made him look. He’d come to Sydney white as milk, squinting against the sunny afternoons and imagining he looked like a boy on holidays with his Mam and Dad. Looking in the mirror now, he couldn’t find that boy anymore. The hours of bricklaying had fortified his body and the sun had gone to work on his skin, giving him a solid, weathered look he liked. In the mirror he looked untouchable.

His phone buzzed on the counter. A text from Dan.

“Ruby gone be there tonight. Hello.

“Jaysus. Should I even come out?”

“aha. You do you mate xo”

When they’d flown from Dublin to Sydney there’d been five of them—three Dublin, two Galway—and they’d besieged the city head first, drunk on the illusion of a never-ending holiday. The cost of the city was impossibly high, but so were their wages, and they’d settled into a groove of barely sustainable debauchery, eventually forgetting that none of them had ever really wanted to come to Australia in the first place.

Tom lasted the summer before breaking down to his Ma on Skype, catching the next available flight home to a chorus of jeers and pantomime tears from the boys in the airport, the four of them blowing kisses and wailing like he was going off to war. “He’ll really start crying when he realises what he’s gone back to,” Dan said. “Wait and see. He’ll be back within the month.” But he wasn’t, and soon afterwards Nick and Andy, the Galway lads, were looking wistful, getting maudlin over pints about Gaelic Football, Barrys tea and real chipper chips. They held on for a year and a half but by the time they were gone Dan and Cathal were glad to be rid of them. “Swear to God,” Dan said. “If I’d had to listen any more shite about the fucking Sam Maguire. Imagine going home for Supermacs and GAA football.”

And so that for the next four years it was just the two of them together, the real vagabonds, cementing themselves in this far-flung place with their tans and their visas and specially honed versions of their own personalities.

“I know you though, mate,” Dan would say, usually when slit eyed and past the point of no return. “Don’t forget that, yeah? These cunts don’t know you. I know you.”

He stared at himself in the mirror. Mean faced. Untouchable. The inevitable night looming.

Dan was sold now on this fantasy of Ireland, this promise of a great homecoming, but if Cathal could just ask him to stay, no joking this time. If he could just ask him.

He wrote the text.

“Three bags ASAP? The good shite.”

The Weston Hotel was busier than usual, even for a Saturday, and Cathal did three rounds of the bar with two pints of cider in tow before he spotted Dan and Ruby amongst a throng of laughing, luminous jacketed men. Tradies. Some of them he half recognised, but most he couldn’t place. He edged his way to the table, working to catch Dan’s eye. “Got you a drink mate,” he said, but his voice was lost to the tail end of a joke and a fresh eruption of laughter, so he patted his friend on the back and nodded to the pint.

“Couldn’t find you,” he said.

Dan pointed to his ear, shaking his head.

“I have the bags,” Cathal mouthed, miming a little shake of the fingers Dan recognised straight away.

The men got into the coke and became quick cartoon sketches of themselves, talking at one another and nodding intensely. There were shots. Toasts. There was spillage. They filled the Weston with their voices and the floors pulsed with the weight of them.

“Another one mate?”

But Dan wasn’t available to him anymore. He was lost to the room. To Ruby. To the congregation of eager, sniffing men and their procession of stories from the work sites or the music festivals or various nights out at the Swan, stories that painted his friend in a hundred different ways, none of which Cathal recognised.

“Good bloke.”

“Mental bloke.”

“Top bloody bloke.”

“Make sure to enjoy those winters for me, mate.”

“And the potatoes.”

And they’d erupt again.

Looking back on the night afterwards, Cathal wouldn’t remember exactly what it was that riled him up. Whether it was the hate in the eyes of a pock-marked old veteran at the bar, the laughter that cornered him wherever he went, or the way the wall of men seem to stand with their backs to him as he tried to move closer to his friend.

He’d remember returning from the bathroom and stopping to witness the group from a distance, thinking it looked like a scene from an Australian GoodFellas, the luminous men slapping one another’s backs, filling the room with their hard laughter, and Dan at the helm, Dan the Don, overseeing the whole thing. And he’d remember the song that came on in that moment, “Rainy Night in Soho” by The Pogues, the high notes of the tin whistle cutting through all that noise and filling him with home. He’d remember the welling of feeling in him in then, the easy smile, and moving quickly through the strangers and on towards his friend so they could sway and slur away together to the song in the full embrace of their Irishness.

“Our song!” He shouted as he reached him, taking him by the shoulder. But Dan moved away from his hand, smiling awkwardly, and some of the men silenced themselves. There were sideways glances. The rumblings of laughter. The words had come out wrong, and now these lads were making a joke of them, of their friendship. These Australians who hardly knew Dan. Didn’t know the first thing about Dan, about either of them.

“I think he has a missus, mate.”

Cathal wouldn’t remember much more of the night. But he would remember the laughing red faces, and the fresh embarrassment in him that began rising quickly to anger. And he would remember the smack of his fist against the closest laughing face, the fracas that followed, and the barking chaos that spilled out into the street.

Before he had time to think the whole thing was over. The other men had moved inside and the bouncer had barred the door, blocking his way in and looking away from him, into the far distance.

A slight, middle aged man with the face of a crow ambled by and said:

“Home time, ay?”

“I am home,” he said. But the man had wandered on.

He stood facing the pub, taking big, dumb breaths, feeling suddenly ridiculous, his good shirt wringing with beer, unsure what to do next, remembering now his jacket inside, his wallet, his phone, his friend.

The song was still playing in the bar, reaching him beneath the clamour of the drinkers, but from out here it sounded different. There was a jeering quality to it now, the notes jangly, grotesque, like a cover version meant to mock him. It sounded wrong. It sounded foreign. And so Cathal moved away from it, into the darkness of the surrounding suburbs, swaying towards nothing in particular, moving with a fickle momentum towards whatever presented itself to him.

The wind was fresh against his bare arms, and he imagined he was somewhere else, somewhere alien, turning down nameless streets until he was completely lost, and pushing further now, further on into the dim reaches of a place he no longer recognised.

He would remember the cat peering out from under a wooden fence, the abandoned Milkbar, and the exhilaration of being truly lost.

And he would remember the hard morning sun, the pain in his forehead, and coming to in a fog of loss and confusion before piecing it all together again.

###

Cathal. Australia. Sunday morning.


S Young is an Irish writer living and working in Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in Word Riot, Slow Trains, The Writers Eye and others. He passes the time trying to write

fiction

make films, and keep hold of his own sanity.