AAE is delighted to present ‘Medjugorje’, a short story set in Sligo town, from End of Days the debut collection of short stories by Aileen Armstrong. End of Days is published by Doire Press.
End of Days, which received Arts Council funding, was commended by award-winning fiction author Mike McCormack as being, “…A stylish, confident debut… stories which unfold with a sinuous ease and patience to trap the reader in their uneasy world…”.
‘No man, it’s nothing to worry about —’
‘But this looks serious.’
‘No man, it’s no hassle —’
‘But I’m sure this must be painful, can I help?’
Eight minutes have passed this way, locked in verbal combat by the bathroom door: JP has been trapped here with Karlo, one going in to use the jacks and the other coming out, and, since the party is so small, so select, both of them feeling the need to introduce themselves. JP still needs to go, but Karlo keeps saying, pointing at the rash on JP’s arm, ‘Is this a disease, or something? Is this contagious?’
In the end, JP has to close the toilet door, practically in Karlo’s face; he has a long, thankful piss; he comes out just as Steven is thundering down the corridor, leather jacket flying, just in time to see Steven take a running jump and land up onto Karlo’s back. The two of them stagger around like that for a few seconds, laughing like drains, and then Steven slides off and throws his arms around Karlo, swallows him up in a hug, and says, ‘Ah Karlo — Karlo, Karlo,’ stands back, and nudges JP so sharply that JP is forced to step out of balance. ‘Did you meet my twin brother?’ Steven says, but Karlo looks JP up and down, burps, and answers before JP can answer — says, in that deadpan German accent, ‘Actually yes. In fact. We just met.’
It’s early June, 2006, and Steven is the reason JP is here, at this party, with these people, in this house, in this up-and-coming estate on the outskirts of Sligo town. The two don’t see each other often, these days, and JP is flight-sick, having flown in the night previously from the Côte d’Azur. Still they have entered into an old way of seeing each other, a kind of thing that they do: not e-mailing or texting until they arrive in town, and, even then, not bothering: just showing up, with invitations, at the place where the other will be. As if years had not passed, as if communication technology had never been invented, as if nothing had changed since those summers they spent together here in the west, and in Germany, in Medjugorje, in Lourdes.
Now Steven turns away from his twin and starts propelling JP down the corridor in the direction of the kitchen, where the stinging, smoked-orange reek of barbequed meat is blowing in from the garden. Karlo gallops ahead of them; he runs just like Steven runs, he wears mad thick sandals and long boys’ shorts, and in the pocket of Karlo’s leather jacket — the leather jacket that is just like Steven’s jacket — a whiskey bottle and its contents clonks and swirls. ‘I think your brother’s half-cut,’ JP says, and Steven pinches him tightly on the shoulders. ‘Ah, well, yes,’ Steven says. ‘Aren’t we are all?’
JP’s not; in fact, he’s sober and pissed off. It was a kick in the pants to discover that Steven’s brother is here: somehow, the presence of Karlo Schulz is a spanner in the works of JP’s as-yet unvoiced, unformulated plans. Yesterday, when Steven had invited him to this barbeque, it had never occurred to JP to write a brother — a twin? beloved? brother — into this evening’s what-will-happen storyline. JP finds himself almost wanting to get upset about this now, almost wanting to take Steven aside and confront him, say something ridiculous like When were you going to tell me, or, This isn’t part of our arrangement!
But whatever, so Steven’s brother is here, so what. JP puts on his best smile when they meet a girl on the way to the kitchen: Danielle, the birthday girl, ‘sweet seventeen today,’ she says; by far the youngest person at this party. Danielle, sipping lemon cordial and not half-cut, has the kind of bug-blue eyes and pale brown hair and general air of weirdness that had Steven, yesterday, at The Rowboat, reaching for the word ‘lovely’ — yes, wait until you meet her, she’s a real sweetheart, yes, a lovely girl. ‘Oh my God, how are you?’ she says now when Steven introduces them, pausing in the corridor, pinching the straw from her mouth. ‘JP is it? Thanks for coming!’
And in the kitchen there is somebody magnificent, Marianne, talking to a panting Karlo and rolling wine-dark remnants around a glass. Maybe thirty-five, maybe older, but in possession of good genes and good jeans both. She has dark hair whorled up in a bun, high-heeled courts, those long, tight jeans; she stands with her back against the counter and her elbows planted behind her on the work surface and her hips pushed forward, one leg stuck out and the other bent back so that the sole and heel of her shoe are clamped against the cupboard door. Who is she posing for, like that? Steven, probably. For he, Steven, has somehow slipped in behind Marianne’s line of vision, and is making eager, pretend, groin-pumps — God, I’d love to nail this bitch — in her general direction.
Women like Marianne come into JP’s life quite regularly. He’s met them any number of times before, here at Steven’s. He knows that if you pull down the gauzy stuff of their fine dresses, you’ll see a Brown Scapular on a rotting string. He knows that the charms they wear at their wrists and ankles are in fact thin-beaten miraculous medals. He knows that if you open their wallets, you’ll find maxed-out credit cards, you’ll find laminated Sacred Hearts. I will pray for you, is what he knows they are saying, with their eyes, is what they want to mutter in your ear, as Marianne will mutter in JP’s ear, long before this night is over, if you would just, please, pray for me.
But right now Danielle has come in and is pulling open drawers, clattering plates, grabbing cutlery: it seems there is to be a sit-down meal. Karlo steps outside and comes back, with a plate, in a cloud of sizzle. Steven stops pumping and turns to the fridge, takes out a pack of lettuce leaves, dumps the leaves into a blue plastic bowl. They have some kind of routine going on, these three, who have been sharing this house for some time now, ever since they — Steven’s words — ‘got back from Medjugorje’. I didn’t think you were getting back from Medjugorje, JP had, at The Rowboat, not said.
* * *
When they have all taken their seats at the table, when oven chips, dry and hot and darkly gold, have been dispatched, with salt and vinegar, to each plate, Karlo says, ‘We can start?’ A piece of toilet tissue is bunched around Karlo’s throat. He is ready like a hungry cartoon man is ready: a greased curl in the centre of his forehead, a knife and fork clenched upright in each fist. Karlo puts a chip in his mouth and then he spits it, pale reconstituted mush, back out. ‘Oh hot, fucking Jesus ho’hot!’ Karlo says. He takes a long swallow of water, shows the table his burnt tongue, and reaches into the pocket of his jacket for the bottle of Jameson. ‘La la la,’ he says, unscrewing the cap. Steven grabs the bottle just before Karlo pours and blocks the neck of it with his finger: ‘“Fucking Jesus”?’ Steven repeats. ‘Please, Karlo? Don’t say that.’
Somebody — Danielle — has lit tea lights, and their effect has only blackened the inside of the house, while the sky stretches on, luminous, outside. ‘Well, I’ll start,’ Marianne says, and she scoops a tinfoil parcel of barbequed meat from the pile in the centre of the table. Pouf, Marianne bursts her tinfoil parcel with a fork. A plume of pungent steam flies in her face, and Marianne coughs. ‘God,’ she says, looking up wildly, until her eyes find Karlo’s; she scrunches her nose. ‘The hell is this?’
‘Mary is our Renaissance woman,’ Danielle says. She looks around the table and smiles. ‘Did I say that right?’ she asks. ‘Did that make sense?’ Danielle’s smile looks a little like she is baring her teeth. Her scalp looks startled, because she has scraped up her hair in a very tight band, and there are bumps there that are not properly smoothed back.
‘It — made sense,’ Steven says, ‘if you were suggesting that Marianne is a woman of many talents.’ He pops the cork of a bottle of Prosecco. ‘Is that what you were going to suggest?’
‘Many talents, now, is pushing it,’ says Marianne, in a fake-modest voice that fools nobody, and that is not, in any case, meant to. ‘I cook a bit,’ she says, and ducks her head to sniff again at the tinfoil parcel.
‘Cook,’ Steven says, counting off a list on his fingers, ‘dance—Marianne is a ballerina,’ he says, looking straight at JP, who, bored now, and uncomfortable — his arms are itching again — has begun to cast about for the salt.
‘No, Marianne is a former ballet dancer,’ Marianne says. ‘That’s kind of different to being a ballerina. Anyway, Marianne is actually a chef,’ she says to JP. ‘She just teaches classes on the side — you know, to make some money.’
Everyone is eating quickly now, tinfoil blasted open, clockwork hands to clockwork mouths. The mystery food is a grey ball of meat, but Marianne, the dancing chef, eats it anyway. ‘I just was telling Karlo how cute you two look in your leather jackets,’ she says now to Steven. ‘We should get a photo of that, for the newsletter.’
‘Why would we get a photo of me and Karlo for the newsletter?’ Steven frowns at his plate, smears the sweat off his forehead in a vicious swipe.
‘Because you’re cute!’ says Danielle. ‘Because twins are interesting! I was interested to meet your twin. Your foreign twin. Who is staying in our house for the whole summer.’ Danielle drums her knuckles on the table, taps, with stubby fingernails, her glass of juice. ‘And you — where are you staying?’ she says to JP. ‘Steven said you have a bed up the road, in that fancy guesthouse?’
‘I said he owns that fancy guesthouse,’ Steven calls from the top of the table, where he is now leaning towards Karlo, where he is now — dicing up Karlo’s dinner with his own knife and fork. And all of the nonsense JP has ever heard about dominant twins and evil twins, and twins having a ‘special connection’? All of it seems to be true. He sees how Steven and Karlo — and they are fraternal twins, not identical — have lined up their plates side-by-side. He sees how closely they’ve been monitoring the food the other chooses, how they nod and make tiny facial movements to each other, communicating with each other in some kind of way that keeps them shielded, absolutely, from everyone else. ‘You know The Rowboat?’ Steven’s telling Danielle. ‘By the lake?’
‘Oh right.’ Danielle’s eyes don’t blink. ‘So where did you two meet?’
‘That’s a question,’ JP says. ‘Steven? Where did we first meet?’
‘In youth camp.’ Steven is back at his own plate, shovelling bashed-up chips into his mouth.
‘In youth camp,’ JP says. ‘In the olden days. When Steven was actually Stefan.’
‘It’s the same thing,’ Steven says with his mouth full. ‘Same name.’
‘It’s a different name,’ JP says, setting down his fork and knife. ‘It’s really not the same name at all. Steven is the name Steven, and Stefan is the name Stefan.’ He looks at Karlo: am I right?
‘So, wait, you’re actually called Stefan?’ Danielle turns in her seat to face to her landlord. ‘As in, Hey, Stefan, when’s the rent due? Hey Stefan —’
‘…your turn for cleaning!’ Karlo says, taking it up. ‘Hey Stefan, stop reading books! Hey Stefan, eat your dinner —’
‘I’m trying to, believe me,’ Steven says.
‘But, okay, JP,’ — Danielle again. She is serious now; her face in the candlelight one carved, dark smile, nothing else. ‘In youth camp where?’ she says. ‘Like where did you two meet?’
‘Dannii wants to know if you’re religious,’ Marianne says. ‘Dannii wants to know if you believe in God.’
‘No I don’t! I’m just interested,’ Danielle says. ‘I mean, I don’t care if you’re not. I mean,’ she says, and waits, ‘Karlo’s not.’
‘Religious as in Medjugorje?’ JP says. ‘The miracle thing? The pray-and-fast?’
‘The pilgrimage,’ she says, and stares at him. Super-cute.
‘Dannii, obviously he believes in God, okay?’ Steven says, filling up his glass from Karlo’s bottle. ‘The guy’s fucking name is John Paul.’
In a week or so, these long bright nights will be on the wane and the dark will close in again after midsummer. But right now the midnight is still crawling with the aftermath of heat, and the skies are still violet and apricot, and it’s still 2006, and Karlo and Steven sit, arms crossed, bookended, at the top and bottom of the kitchen table. Karlo is paler than Steven, and also bigger, but Steven is by far the more alpha. The recent heatwave has tanned Steven dark, a very dark nut-brown; he wears his hair, nut-brown, pulled back in a sporty ponytail. There is a joke about Steven’s hair that JP likes but can’t remember. It’s something biblical, to do with Steven’s long, drizzly curls. Something that had once been hilarious in Medjugorje. ‘So JP here owns The Rowboat,’ Steven is saying, passing around some plates of chocolate sponge, ‘and Mary is still out of work. So who else thinks that’s really interesting?’
‘Steven,’ Marianne says. ‘Don’t start.’ Marianne’s eyes have become hot and tired; she sits back in her seat, doodling one of her stilettos on her foot. Her toes, visible every couple of seconds when her shoe falls off and hits the kitchen tiles, are brown and pliant, the nails painted a bright poppy red. JP realises that he’s been staring at her feet. He is searching them for signs of damage: the poor, tired corns of a career spent in a kitchen, a dancer’s ugly calendar of scars? But there are none, her feet are perfect — and how typical of Steven, to have invented a person like this, to have invented this woman, and called her Mary!
‘Don’t start what?’ Steven’s offended. ‘I’m just making the point that if JP felt like hiring you to run The Rowboat kitchen, then maybe everything would get a lot more different. I mean maybe we would have something quite unstoppable. Maybe we would have, firstly a strong bar scene, secondly some really great cooking —’
‘But who is this “we”, Steven. And why does the food have to come secondly?’
‘Right, so not secondly. I meant, supplementary —’
‘Supplementary?’ Marianne’s eyebrows are practically at her widow’s peak. ‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Let’s say there is a gap in the summer market at the lake. Let’s say we could get the Twelfth of July exodus from up north, the crowds from the Sligo races —’
‘I see this as more of a retreat,’ Steven says. Steven looks bored: a sign of imminent danger. ‘A hub,’ he says, ‘if you like. It has to be different. All of the usual retreats in this country are about the fast, about deprivation…whereas I’d see this project as a celebration of difference. Good food, lively discussion. We need young people, pints of Guinness, creative cooking’ — he nods at Karlo — ‘in winter, a fire and Glühwein. We can do workshops, hold cooking evenings, distribute the newsletter, invite speakers —’
‘But that won’t work.’ Marianne’s frowning. ‘Retreats are about sacrifice, not…gluttony.’
‘I’m not talking about gluttony,’ Steven says. ‘I’m talking about a hub! A centre of excellence! Creativity, spirituality, and good food. I don’t see why this is not possible.’ Steven is about, JP can tell, to throw a massive sulk. ‘You take Lough Derg, for example,’ Steven says, ‘You take Knock. At Knock, there’s a bunch of priests, and a bunch of lectures, and a bunch of young people, and no alcohol. And what happens?’
Nothing productive, JP thinks. The kids sneak off to the pub.
‘The kids sneak off to the pub!’ Steven’s sweating again. ‘So they want to discuss their faith over a pint of beer! So they want a hot dinner! So they want to smoke a cigarette! So what!’ He points to the ceiling. ‘You think those guys up there care about a pint of Guinness?’
Everyone’s quiet, tossing their sponge cake with their fork. ‘I mean, don’t you think?’ Steven says.
‘Maybe,’ Marianne says finally. ‘Worth considering, I suppose.’ Her eyes swivel around the table. ‘Dannii!’ she says. ‘Happy birthday! This cake is just so tasty! Maybe JP should give you a job, how about that?’
‘Karlo made the cake,’ Danielle shrugs.
‘Dannii’s not allowed to get a job yet,’ Steven says. He gets up and starts scraping the rest of his chocolate cake into the bin. ‘Dannii can get a job next year. After her Leaving Cert.’
That carved grin of Danielle’s again: wan and conspiratorial. ‘Oh the Leaving Cert,’ she says, ‘is so obnoxious.’
‘Of course it’s obnoxious,’ Steven tells her, scraping louder. ‘You still have to do it, if you want to live here.’
‘What is the Leaving Cert?’
‘End-of-school exams.’ JP holds out his water glass as Karlo tops him up. He is finally approaching exhaustion now; has been overwhelmed with a nostalgia that is both ecstatic and pre-emptive, and mostly to do with the end of the summer, though it is June and the summer has just barely started. How many years has it been since JP’s own Leaving Cert? He scratches his arm and can’t remember. He says, ‘The Leaving Cert is not that bad.’
‘It’s terrible,’ Steven says instantly. ‘Rote learning? Zero philosophy? Zero real examination of spirituality?’Steven slides the knife into what’s left of Danielle’s birthday cake and pulls it out, examines the oozy, glistening blobs that run the blade. ‘And they ask me,’ Steven says, ‘and they want to know,’ he says, looking up, ‘why these kids keep coming back to me to find answers?’
* * *
At two in the morning Karlo gets up from the table and says he will drive Marianne home. All night Karlo has been drinking steadily and he has now an aspect about him, a kind of performance-composure, and nobody is quite sure about this arrangement. But still they stand on the patio, JP, Steven, and Danielle, and they wave the car off, and outside in the night a warm wind is blowing, and there’s a wicked half-moon, and a smell rising from the lake two miles off. It is everywhere tonight: that sad sense of autumn, and when they go back inside Steven says, ‘Dannii, I think you should move home after this summer.’
It is Danielle’s turn to pose for Steven now: hands on thin hips jutting, shoulders clenched back in disbelief. ‘What?’ she says. ‘Why do you think that, may I ask?’
Steven looks vague; he is not fond of having to give reasons for his ideas, since his ideas are always so — reasonable. ‘Well, because you are young, Danielle. Because taking shit from your family is part of your education.’ And Steven laughs, it’s like his jaw just unhinges, and now JP is back at The Rowboat, yesterday, and in fact he had laughed, too, when he’d seen Steven walk in: and it was a laugh that meant: This is funny. Funny, as in, for the first time in years, all thoughts of Steven had been wiped from his brain. Funny, as in, isn’t it ironic? As in, wouldn’t it be funny — now, that he didn’t care — to see what Steven was up to? He’d bent over double, still in his flight clothes, the drink still in his hand, and Steven had sat looking at him from his barstool, Steven, who was still, hilariously, popped collar and leather jacket and shiny suntan and just oh God everything that was so so wrong it must be right.
‘Would anyone care for a nightcap?’ Danielle is saying. ‘I could make like some little mojitos?’
Steven stops laughing. ‘No, we’ll have tea, Danielle, it’s too late for little mojitos.’
‘But we’ve got all that mint and those limes…’
‘I said No.’
‘…and I’m sure JP here would like —’
‘Just put the fucking kettle on, Dannii! And go down see if we’ve bread for toast!’
“Down” means the cellar: down a spiral staircase off the kitchen that JP has never seen before.
Danielle’s head bobs lower and lower, like she’s disappearing into the floor. ‘Isn’t it cool?’ Steven says. He nudges JP. ‘I got that put in about a year ago. I keep falling down those steps when I’m pissed!’
They stare at each other.
‘Anyway.’ Steven sits down and lifts up the table cloth and starts carving the letters S-T-E-V-E-N into the wooden table top with his nail. ‘How’s it going? How’s the business, man? How is work?’
There is a particular, furious sore on JP’s thigh, and he can’t get at it without becoming abandoned and obvious. ‘Business-slash-work is fine. I think. Who knows? I continue to resist the move to Paris. The scene is tiny but I like it better on the Riviera. I feel like a native after thirteen years. Hey, I see you got a copy of your jacket made, for Karlo? Who’d you pay to do that, someone here?’
‘I liked your last collection,’ says Steven thoughtfully. ‘It was different. I didn’t really get it, though. But it’s kind of like art, really, isn’t it, what you do?’
‘Yes,’ JP says. ‘It is.’ (Like bad art.)
‘And the clothes always look so beautiful on those models,’ Steven continues, dipping his finger into the candle wax. ‘I mean, those models must be like, what, Dannii’s age? They’re so tall.’
‘Dannii is what age? That jacket was a one-off design.’
Steven shouts in the direction of the cellar.
‘DANIELLE. HOW OLD ARE YOU?’
‘HOW OLD. ARE YOU?’
Danielle’s head appears at the top of the stairs. ‘Hello,’ she says. ‘How old are you?’
Steven turns back to JP. ‘So the models are like, seventeen? Who can afford to wear those clothes at seventeen?’
‘More like fourteen.’ JP does not care now; is scratching his thigh under the tablecloth. ‘The models are really very young.’
‘Oh my God,’ screams Danielle’s head. It disappears again and then she comes hammering back up the stairs. She emerges from the top of the staircase to go stand beside JP’s chair, a battered bag of Pat the Baker’s in her hand.
‘You’re that John Paul? The designer guy?’
‘Oh shut up, Dannii! ’
‘I prefer the word “entrepreneur”,’ JP says.
‘Oh my God,’ she says again, gazing at JP. She’s just a skinny pale slip of a thing, all bug eyes, hard to shake. ‘You know what,’ she says. ‘I am going to make you the most perfect nightcap. Don’t listen to him,’ she flaps the bread at Steven. ‘You have to taste this. I’m sorry,’ she says, taking out a knife, lifting a lime from the fruit bowl. ‘I knew I knew you, but —’
‘Dannii,’ says Steven.
‘Wait ‘til you taste this,’ Danielle says.
‘He doesn’t fucking drink!’ Steven yells, turning around to face her.
Danielle drops the lime like she’s been shot, grabs a cloth, swipes it back and forth over the counter. Steven watches her calmly for a moment. Then he turns to JP. ‘Or do you?’ he says. ‘Maybe you do drink, now. Maybe it’s different. How would I know?’ he says. ‘Maybe you do.’
‘I don’t drink,’ JP says, getting up from the table. ‘I need to go to the toilet.’
Steven’s bathroom — the main one, upstairs, as opposed to the dinky little can off the hall corridor — has changed, over the years, it’s worth noting. Once, it had been Grotsville, hairy and crawling like all student bathrooms: once, it had had carpet on the floor. Now, though, it’s clean, well-kept, it has been renovated, it is now a fancy restroom, a room where people who are fancy go to rest. It’s got snow-white tiles and a big gilt mirror. It’s got plants and a pleasant scent of herbs.
JP stands at the sink, examining his sores in the mirror. This is what he and Steven did, those lifetimes ago at youth camp: they examined their sores in the mirror. That first, pre-Leaving Cert summer, they had learned off all the religious maladies, they had itemised the suffering saints. While the others hiked they stood in front of the mirror, Steven and JP, in the empty communal bathrooms — just Steven (Stefan) and JP, reading their sores, diagnosing their futures, and seeing it all: evidence of their anointment, in every fleck and spot and pustule within.
JP gets so close to the mirror now, so absorbed, that several moments pass before he realises that he is shaking all over and that his arms feel almost too heavy to support. He thinks of the two left talking downstairs, and of what might they be saying about him, and of how they might look: two backs bent over the kitchen table, a-huddle in close consultation. Just one candle will be left burning by now, the penny candle that sits — of course! — under Steven’s chin, pulsing out its gentle reverse halo. He’s not the Messiah, he’s…
JP ghostly in the bathroom mirror, itching all over, jet-lag and coarsening skin. He stands idling at the sink for several more minutes, and then he turns and rolls open the taps of the bath. While the tub fills, he touches the lotions and potions that Steven keeps for his visitors, the glass bottles — creams, shampoos, conditioners, cleansers — that sit quietly on Steven’s shelves. The towels are green. The walls are green. The floor is white-tiled and the tiles are as white as Steven’s teeth. It will, judging by the light at the window, soon be dawn.
The room grows heavy with steam and the smell of herbs and horse chestnuts, and then, when he is ready, JP steps into Steven’s bath.
He steeps his skin in these borrowed elixirs, feels the healing in all of that rich water. The sores on his limbs, so swollen with an eerie yellow liquid, burst in the heat of the bath. JP lies back in the suds, lifts up an arm, sees a dark trickle of pus leave his body. And now something is different tonight, he feels different. He feels better than he has felt in quite some time.
AILEEN ARMSTRONG lives in Galway. In 2009 she graduated from the MA in Writing programme at NUIG, and in 2010 she received a Literature Bursary Award from the Arts Council of Ireland. Her writing has been published in The Stinging Fly, Three Times Daily, Cuadrivio, Some Blind Alleys and The Long Story, Short, as well as in the Galway Stories anthology (Doire Press, 2013).
Doire Press is located in Connemara, Co. Galway. Steered by Lisa Frank and John Walsh, the press publishes poetry and literary fiction. “Our writers give voice to what it means to be Irish in a changing Ireland.” Follow Doire Press on Twitter @DoirePress