We buried Calum’s da today. We put him in the same patch of ground that we’d pretended to put Calum in. Eighteen months. I never thought the old man would last so long.
I remember the funeral. The other one. It rained hard, there was no wind and the water fell in heavy sheets across the graveyard. That place is on a hill and normally you can see for miles – from Lough Neagh in the east to the Sperrins in the west. That day, you couldn’t see as far as the grey stone wall that penned-in the dead.
The ground around the grave sucked at our feet and the wooden boards beneath our soles were swollen and soft, like decaying flesh.
Not that there was any of that in the coffin we were putting in the ground.
Calum’s dad turned to me after he threw a heavy clod of mud onto the empty box. He grabbed my arm, his fingers hard as bone and cold as death, and he fixed me with sunken grey eyes.
“No man should live longer than his children,” he said. I’d been Calum’s friend for twelve years and that was maybe the first time he ever spoke directly to me. He only spoke to me once more.
This is how we lost Calum.
The sky was the sharpest, fiercest blue with a single skiff of white cloud scraping the edge of space high above us. We were at Eskragh Lough, six of us. We’d dumped our bikes in the long grass that grew right to the edge of the lough, tossed our clothes behind us and dived into the water.
Eskragh’s not a big lough, but it’s deep and the water was still icy.
We roared at the shock of it and made for the big wooden raft that was tethered near the middle of the lough.
And then we lay, for an hour or two or more.
Sometimes we talked. Bullshit about girls or football or the Brits or music.
Sometimes we swam.
Sometimes we just lay and let our fingers and toes trail in the water.
Then, at some invisible signal like a flock of birds suddenly rising, we were up and off and swimming back towards the shore and our bikes.
But only five bikes were picked up.
We called and shouted. I swam back out to the raft. We swam deep into the lough.
We looked and looked. And then we went for help. And they looked and looked.
Eskragh isn’t big, but it is deep.
They never found Calum.
I was walking past Fallon’s, it’s an old man’s pub full of serious drinkers – men whose faces burn red with the tracery of veins spreading from their nose. The sacred heart lamps.
Calum’s da came stumbling out, hard drunk on a Thursday afternoon. I was walking home from school, still in my uniform, and almost walked into him.
He looked at me. Did he recognise me? I don’t know.
I opened my mouth to say something but found I didn’t have any words.
“Eskragh took my son,” he said. “It won’t give him back.”
It’s dark. Eskragh is black and slick and smooth and it laps stickily at my feet, spreading a sickly chill up my body.
I take off my shirt and stand naked and shivering before the lough.
I take a breath and then I wade in fast, knowing that I must move quickly before the cold takes away my will. Another breath, almost a gasp as the water grips my chest, and then I dive in.
Already my lungs are aching.
Eskragh isn’t a big lake, but it’s deep.