Speaking In Tongues By Michael Keenaghan

After the third knock, Amy’s dad bursts out and lunges for me. “What have I told you about coming here?” he says, his hands gripping my jacket. “What have I fucking told you?”

“Look, I just want to know if Amy’s all right.”

“That’s none of your business any more, is it.” He pushes me down the path. “Now piss off, or I’m warning you.”

I make to go, then I steam past him, straight through the doorway and up the stairs. He’s right behind me, and near the top he grabs my legs. We struggle for a bit, but with a punch he gets the better of me. I tumble to the bottom.

“Okay, okay,” I say, putting my hands up. “I’m going.”

I hobble down the path. Neighbours have gathered now, the man next door asking if he needs any help.

“Bother Amy again and I swear to God I’ll fucking murder you!”

Amy is looking down from her window, and even from the pavement I can see the tears.

“I love you,” I mouth.

*

When I walk into the Wetherspoons with my face bruised, Costas laughs. “The state of you, man,” he says. “What happened?”

I’m drinking bottles of Becks and shots of JD, the empties gathering in front of me. Something has to be done. The bastard drives her to and from college now. He’s changed her phone, blocked me from her Facebook, barred me from her life completely. The man’s insane. I tell Costas what I’ve got planned, but he doesn’t understand.

“Waste him?” he says. “What have you been smoking?”

I’ve known Costas since school, but these days I’m wondering if we have a single thing in common.

“Look, he gave you a slapping,” he says. “But you pushed the guy, you ran into his house, what do you expect?”

He touches my arm. “And you and Amy – come on, accept it, it’s over.”

I whack his hand away and almost knock over my drink. Two girls are staring at me. They look at each other and laugh.

I get up.

“Where you going?” Costas says.

“Fucking anywhere.”

*

For four years I was a cashier in Barclays bank, but it ended badly. I work in a phone shop now. At the end of my shift Rakesh calls me into the office.

He looks at me for a few moments, then asks if everything’s okay. He says he’s worried about me. My work performance has deteriorated. There have been complaints from customers, complaints from colleagues. If I’m suffering personal problems then he sympathises, but work is work, and without focus we may as well all stay at home.

I stare at a dot on his desk, realising I’m about to be sacked, but in the end he tells me to go home and think about what he’s said. Have a talk with yourself and maybe we’ll chat again at a later date. As we stand shaking hands, I fight an urge to tell him to stick his job up his fucking arse.

*

Amy used to work part-time at the library. Now she doesn’t work at all. Before we went out, I’d take books out just for the chance to smile or say a few words. Then when she’d finish and walk to the bus-stop, maybe I’d be there too. I never got anywhere for ages, but in the end she said yes.

That first time, we went for something to eat, then on to a pub for a drink. Afterwards I drove her home, and we sat talking in my car for a while. Her mum had died a year before, and she lived alone with her dad. She had an older brother but he lived elsewhere. She was quiet, and seemed unhappy in a way. But when she’d smile I’d feel a glow I hadn’t felt with anyone. When I moved to kiss her, she let me, but not for long. Her dad might be watching, she said.

*

Costas and Nick come over to the flat with beers. Nick pulls out a pocketful of DVDs, and Costas skins up. They settle in, the weed going round and round, but it’s strange stuff, almost knocks my head off.

“What do mean Hollywood dross?” Nick says. “This film’s fucking wicked man.”

At one stage Nick and Costas are so deep in conversation I feel like I’m hardly even there. I zone out for a while. Amy came to the flat only twice, but we sat on this very seat. The second time, we kissed and touched for a bit, but she wouldn’t let me take it any further. “What’s that noise?” she kept saying every time the man in next room would cough or make a sound.

Later I have an argument with Nick over something trivial, but it escalates, goes somewhere else completely. I feel the alcohol burning under my skin, red hot.

“Get the fuck out of my flat.”

“What flat?” he says, looking around the cramped single room. He slams the door behind him.

Costas is sitting horizontally, laughing away.

“You’re out there, man,” he says. “Out there.”

*

Amy’s brother used to touch her up. She told me that one night as we sat in the cinema car park. During the film we’d finished a bottle of cider, and she’d been giggly, snuggling up, but now in the car she’d changed.

We were staring ahead towards the drive-thru McDonalds. I didn’t really know what to say. I asked her if she wanted something to eat, then she told me she was lying. She just said these things sometimes. She couldn’t help it. She covered her face in her hands. I’m drunk, she said, take me home.

We said nothing for a while. Then I told her I’d been touched up too. By a stranger. In a park. She looked at me, and I wondered if she believed me. She asked what age I’d been. Eight or nine, I said. It must have happened three or four times. The same man, tempting me with money and stuff. Taking advantage. It’s just one of those things, I shrugged. I’m not ashamed of it, I just never think about it.

I was lying of course. I just wanted to make her feel better. I think it worked. We kissed, and I held her. She cried for a bit, but still.

Lying in my bed that night, my own words seemed to haunt me. What had I been saying? The past was blurry and fuzzy, full of mystery, full of holes. I didn’t want to think about it.

*

I drive to work. But instead of pulling into the car park, I keep going. I don’t know where to, but somehow it feels right, just sitting back seeing where the car takes me. Amy’s turning passes by, which seems surprising. Then I’m on the North Circular Road, one junction to the next, Staples Corner, Neasden, Stonebridge Park, clear all the way.

At Chiswick I turn on to the A4, heading out towards Heathrow. Somewhere near the airport I turn off and park. I get out and walk. Warehouses, car parks, grounded planes shimmering across the horizon. My fingers entwine a chain-link fence, cars moving behind me as I stare across the haze. I could move out here. Find a room somewhere. Move to where nobody knows me. Ditch everything, ditch life. “Wanker!” somebody roars, and I jump. Faces laughing from a speeding car.

*

Amy’s dad lost his job. He’d been depressed after her mother died anyway, but losing his job was the final straw. He’d worked in insurance. Now, most days than not, he drank. One night after I dropped Amy off, I watched her walk up her path and reach the door. Suddenly it opened and he was there. He pulled her in by the shoulder and slammed it behind her. Later when I questioned her about it, she denied it.

Amy’s dad was a problem. I felt it best to meet him, break the ice. Eventually she relented. She was upstairs getting ready as I sat down with him. I small-talked – sport, work, weather – while his eyes stared at the TV. Finally he turned to me. “Don’t you think you’re a wee bit too old for Amy,” he said. “Twenty three. She’s seventeen years old.”

“She’s mature for her age.”

“Aye, she might be,” he said. “But are you?”

Amy walked in, and the conversation ended there. The next time I spoke to him, he was shouting through the door that Amy never wanted to see me again, and not to come back or else. The time after was when I ran up his stairs and he punched me down them.

*

I tell Costas I haven’t been to work in three days. “Are you mad?” he says. He invites me down to the Wetherspoons later, says Nick and some of the others are coming down.

In the pub something is up. I get the strange feeling nobody wants to talk to me. They’re more Costas’s friends than mine, but still. I get up and head to the nearby alcove to the toilets, stop just around the corner to tune in.

“What’s up with that prick these days?” I hear Nick say. “He’s acting like a retard or something.”

“Nah, he’s just lovesick,” Costas says. “But I know what the guy needs. He needs a lay. A lay would solve everything for the guy, he just don’t know it.”

“What happened with that girl he was with?”

“Amy?” Costas says. “She left him.”

I sit in a toilet cubicle, sipping from a quarter bottle of vodka.

The evening passes quickly. Then at some point everything spins out of control, and I’m on the pavement outside and Costas has me in headlock. I’m growling and struggling but when I finally stop, he releases his grip. “We used to be like brothers you and me man,” he says. “What’s happened to you?”

Nick’s walking away, “Don’t talk to the guy. He’s a fucking dickhead.”

A small crowd are gathered.

“It’s just hype,” someone announces, swatting the air. “Just hype.”

Me and Costas are walking home. I tell him I’m sorry. I’m pissed.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says.

*

On our second date Amy brought her friend Karen along. Karen was big and moody, and obviously didn’t like me. We went to the cinema that night, my arm around Amy, hand occasionally brushing Karen’s shoulder by accident. Go away, I felt like saying. Amy later admitted that Karen had only come along to check me out. She’s a good friend to me, she said, she just doesn’t want to see me hurt.

Then yesterday I saw Karen on the street.

“Karen,” I said, but she walked straight past me.

I followed behind. “Karen, it’s me.” I tapped her shoulder. “How’s Amy?”

She spun around. “Get your fucking hands off me, you bastard. I’ve heard all about you. And if you bother Amy again she’s going to call the police.”

She walked away. My hands were shaking. As she passed some bushes I felt an urge to run up behind her, play the monster she was painting me as. Instead I headed home, sat on my bed and played with a bread knife, carving little slices up my arm. It was something I hadn’t done in years.

*

I visit the doctor. He asks if I’ve had thoughts of killing myself. “Not yet,” I tell him.

He gives me Venlafaxine. They’ll take a while to kick in, he says, and at first there might be side effects. The next day the headache roots me to my bed. At the height of my agony Rakesh leaves a message saying if I don’t come in tomorrow then not to bother at all.

Two days later when I turn up, he calls me into the office and has my P45 waiting. “You gave me no choice,” he says.

*

It happened by the edge of the playing field. It was quiet here, and we’d been here before, parking in on the lane then going through a hole in the fence. It wasn’t my fault. Wasn’t anybody’s fault. It happened naturally. Talking, kissing, then one thing leading to another.

“Stop,” she said. “Get off me.” She pounded my shoulder, my back, but I didn’t, I couldn’t.

*

I dream I have cancer. A lump develops on my chest, right over the heart. Gradually it grows bigger and bigger, pulsing and throbbing, until it sucks the physical life from me and I die. Lying in my open casket, my mind is somehow still conscious, aware of the people gazing down at me. “I’m not dead yet,” I plead. “I’m not dead.” But nobody hears me. Down goes the coffin lid. And down I go into the earth, to remain aware – alive, yet dead – forever.

*

I sit in McDonalds having breakfast. Outside, kids are on their way to school, pushing each other and laughing. They’re in the same uniform I used to wear. I page through the paper. The daily horror stories. A man killing his wife and kids then hanging himself. An old woman dead in front of her television for three years. Then I turn a page and stare into the eyes of a serial rapist. He’d dragged his victims off the street, their ordeals prolonged and brutal. The father of one of the victims said if he ever got his hands on him he wouldn’t be responsible for his actions.

*

Everyone has been waiting to sign-on for ages. It’s hot and humid and nobody is in the mood. A row flares up with one of the advisers. The man slams his fist on the desk. “You’re not listening to me.” The security guard comes over and tries to take his arm. “Don’t touch me. Don’t fucking touch me …” Finally the guard snaps and they fall grappling to the floor. People are jumping in to help pin the man down, but he’s giving it as much as he can. Finally the police arrive, carry him out to the van, one to each limb, the man kicking and cursing.

The mood is different now; strangers talking, smiling. “Best entertainment I’ve ever seen in this place,” the man next to me says.

*

Another morning of daytime TV is going to kill me. I go for a walk. Barnet, Enfield, then down to Edmonton. I end up around Silver Street looking for my gran’s old flat. A brook runs right through the estate, its brick banks the same off-red as the blocks. A slogan outside a church says JESUS SAVES THE DAY. Another on a wall says FUK YR MUM. My gran died fifteen years ago. I give up. I follow the brook along a secluded path of bushes and trees, the North Circ whooshing somewhere behind the fence. I sit for a while on a burnt-out motorbike smoking a blunt.

Passing the shops I’m daydreaming. “What are you looking at?” says a man outside a betting shop. “Yeah, you, man, what you fuckin’ eyeballin’ me for?” I shake my head, keep going, his mate holding his arm, the guy continuing to curse behind me. I turn down a sidestreet, then two minutes later, surprise surprise, there’s a car cruising next to me. The seconds tick by as I try to ignore him. “Fuckin’ prick,” he finally says, spitting in my direction before the car moves on. It’s one o’clock in the afternoon. I shake my head and laugh.

*

I’m heading out of the supermarket. “Excuse me, sir, can I see your bag?” I run. I almost get knocked over by two cars, but it puts me way in the lead. I tear down the backstreets, take a left, then a right, then jump over a back garden fence. Crouched silent among the weeds, I wait. “He went down this way, I seen him.” “Nah, we lost him.” “He went straight down here, I’m telling you.” “He’s gone, forget it.” I reach in for the bottle of vodka, hold it in my hands and it feels like a prize.

*

“Get out of my fucking class!” Miss Garvey shrieked, and we were shocked. Garvey wasn’t normally so blunt, nor Brian McCoy so compliant, leaving the classroom without a word. McCoy was a bully – not exactly big or hard, but thought he was. When I stood up to him once, embarrassed him with a punch, he got his brother’s lot on to me. They jumped me on the way home, broke my nose and it’s never looked the same since.

Then today as I had a few cans in the park, who do I see walking right past me. He hadn’t changed at all, same cocky stride, strutting along on his phone. Instantly I got up and followed him. I was buzzing. The sense of excitement, of righting a wrong, was unbelievable. What would I do? Would I hit him or charge at him, ram him into the lake?

“McCoy,” I called. But he carried on walking.

I came closer. “Ignoring me are you?”

“Hang on a sec,” he said into his phone, then he turned around. “Do I know you?”

Suddenly I felt the leer drop from my face. It wasn’t him.

“Sorry. I thought you were somebody else.”

He looked at me then walked away. “Oh, nobody, just some weirdo,” he said into his phone.

*

“You’re strange,” Amy once said as we sat in Starbucks. “Well, maybe not strange, just … unusual.”

She was smiling, but still, what the hell was she on about?

I leant forward. “You’re the one with the hang-ups, not me.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

Suddenly she scraped her chair back and walked out.

What was I doing? I caught up with her on the street. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t know what I was saying.”

She sulked for a minute then snapped out of it. She linked my arm. “Let’s go somewhere else,” she said.

*

It’s night and I’m parked outside Amy’s house. Her light is on. I beep, just like when I used to collect her, but this time I keep my hand there. Sure enough, there she is, looking down at me. Come on, I telepathically say, We’ve got something. Her curtains snap closed. Then I see her dad coming down the path, straight towards me with a bat. He’s going to break my windows. I start the engine, let him get to an inch of swinging distance, then rev off clean away. In the rearview I see him gesticulating in the middle of the road, livid, and I’m grinning from ear to ear.

*

The morning alarm electrocutes my senses, and I fall out of bed, crawl across the floor, my room a pressure box of fear. This is happening more often now, yet every time it feels brand new. Sitting in the corner, heart beating, waiting for it to go away.

I open the curtains, the day dark and dreary. I flick on the bedside lamp and my face stares back at me through the glass. My teeth are clenching, features distorted. I seem to do this a lot now. Pulling faces at myself. It’s like I’ve got snakes underneath my skin. In ninety minutes time I have an interview on the other side of London. But I’ll be fine then. The snakes will have gone.

*

The interview wasn’t a success, but today I have another one. “Do you have any questions?” the woman smiles, rounding things off. Her insincerity is nauseating, as is that of her mutely smiling male counterpart. The whole thing reeks of bullshit.

“Yeah, I’ve got a question. Am I in or not?”

“Well, we’ll take your application into consideration, and you should hear back from us within a week.” Then she’s putting her hand out, wanting to get rid of me.

“But I thought the post needed to be urgently filled?”

“Yes, it does. But we still have several applicants yet to meet and …”

“Forget it.” I reach over and tear my form in two. I get up and head for the door. Then I turn around. They’re both staring at me, speechless.

“Waste my time again, and I’ll fucking kill you.”

Heading back on the tube, the thought of their faces keeps me smiling all the way home.

The job centre calls on my mobile, but I don’t answer. Then the next day somebody rings at the door, asking for my name. It’s the police.

*

“Do you understand the seriousness of this crime?”

It’s like a film, my eyes the camera. The ride down in the car, the inside of the station, inside of the cell; the DNA swabs, fingerprints, photographs. It’s not me at all, I’m simply playing the part, simply watching. And during the interview I wonder where the spotlight is, the cigarette smoke, the interrogator that pulls me back by the hair, tells me to sign the written confession or else.

“No comment … No comment … No comment …”

*

“So you’re actually out on bail,” Costas says, as we sit smoking in his bedroom; games, DVDs, magazines everywhere.

“Yeah, can you believe it?”

“Man…” He shakes his head. “You could get a criminal record, you know. That could fuck your chances of getting a job.”

“I know.”

“And it’s all lies?”

“Of course it’s all lies. I haven’t said I’m going to murder anyone.”

He passes me the blunt and smiles. “Are you sure?” he says. “Are you sure you didn’t just get angry? It’s only a figure of speech after all.”

“It’s bullshit,” I say. “Bullshitters, Cos. They’re everywhere.”

His mum bangs on the door, shouts that his dinner’s ready, and he’s quickly wafting the smoke, shouting something back in Greek. When she’s gone he says, “I already told her, man, I had KFC today.”

We watch the rest of the Incredible Hulk 2, then he slots in a Jessica Alba film. “Now this is one bitch I’d like to slam all night long.”

I stay for a while longer. Then walking home I almost get mugged.

“I’m asking you for a light man.” Two of them following behind.

I turn a corner, up my pace, and for some reason they disappear.

But that’s it. From now on I’m carrying a knife.

*

I see Karen and another girl chatting outside the supermarket. Both look at me as I pass. I keep going.

“Rapist.”

I stop and turn around. “What did you just say?”

“You heard.”

“Fucking bitch.” I charge towards her.

We’re pushing each other, shouting. Then the guard is heading towards us, the same guy that chased me.

Suddenly I’m holding the knife, everyone backing back. “I’ll fucking kill you …”

I run home. Get into my car. Drive.

*

Night, rain on the windscreen. There’s a bottle of vodka on the passenger seat, and the police chasing on after me. I step on the pedal, tear through some red lights and leave the bastards behind.

“Amy, I love you,” my message said. “But I won’t bother you any more. You will never see me again.”

But who knows. Me, you and everyone – we’re all liars.

Bio: Michael Keenaghan lives in North London. His writing has appeared on various sites across the net including Scarecrow, The Beat and www.3ammagazine.com/3am/remains. Visit him here www.myspace.com/michaelkeenaghan.

6 thoughts on “Speaking In Tongues By Michael Keenaghan”

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