We buried Thomas’s da today. We put him in the same patch of ground that we had pretended we were putting Thomas. Eighteen months. I never thought the old man would last so long.
The day was bright, clear and warm but there wasn’t much of a crowd. A couple of the fellas that he’d started drinking with, after Thomas, and his wife. She came up and shook my hand, afterwards, thanking me for coming.
She looked more relieved than sad.
“These are hard times,” she’d said. “But at least the priest didn’t take long about putting him in the ground.”
I stood for a while, after everyone else had gone, and admired the view.
I remember the funeral, the other one, for Thomas. It rained hard, there was no wind and the water fell in heavy sheets across the graveyard. That place is on top of a hill and normally you can see for miles. On a fine day you can see from Lough Neagh in the east to the Sperrins in the west and all the way to Louth in the South. 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.
The priest droned on for an age about the young man we’d all lost and ignored the shuffling and the grumbling in the crowd as we got wetter and colder and the mud crept higher and higher up our legs and threatened to drag us all down with the empty box.
Thomas’s dad turned to me after his heavy clod of earth had bounced hollowly on the coffin. He grabbed my arm, his fingers hard as stone, and he fixed me with sunken grey eyes.
“No man should live longer than his children,” he said. I’d been Thomas’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 Thomas.
The sky was the 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 water, tossed our clothes behind us and dived in.
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.
I remember Dec’s house had been raided by the army about a week before and he kept telling everyone about waking up with a huge British soldier, his face all blacked out with camouflage paint, looming over the end of the bed and staring down the barrel of the soldier’s rifle.
“All I could see were teeth and eyes,” he roared. “I shat myself.”
Sometimes we swam.
Sometimes we just lay and let our fingers and toes trail in the water.
We watched the army helicopters, big ones lumbering like fat bumblebees and sleeker ones that zipped like angry wasps, as they buzzed across the sky. And we watched the swifts and house martins rip the air, twisting and turning and swooping after insects. Sometimes a fish would break the water and we’d cheer and pretend we’d seen it leap.
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.
They never found Thomas.
Eskragh isn’t big, but it is deep.
I went to Thomas’s wake. I stood in the line that snaked out the door and down the path of the wee garden while we edged closer and closer to the house. I stopped in the doorway and watched the people wander around with their cups of tea balanced on hardly-used saucers whose absences left holes in the display of the little china cabinet in the hall. Tidy little sandwiches, cut in triangles with the crusts removed, rested beside their dainty cups. These people, far more used to mugs and whole rounds of bread, looked uncomfortable and confused in their best clothes. Up they stepped, each one repeating the same mantra: “sorry for your loss… sorry for your loss… sorry for your loss…”, the same grave shake of the head, a firm handshake and pursed lips as they traipsed past. Thomas’s ma and grandda sat on the sofa and nodded each of them through.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t cross the threshold.
The line crept on. I let other’s pass me.
I’d turn around, I’d go home.
But I couldn’t leave.
I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go back.
Thomas’s ma looked up and saw me. I was trapped. She rushed across and grabbed my hand, patting it gently.
“You’re alright,” she said, softly.
“I’m sorry,” I felt my throat tighten and my eyes sting. And then I was crying, tears hot on my face and gasping for breath, leaning heavily against Thomas’s ma. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s alright.” She stroked my hair and whispered. She lead me through the kitchen, busy with women, aunts and neighbours, making sandwiches and tea, and lead me out into the quiet evening on the back step. “It wasn’t your fault.”
We sat on the step, the two of us crying for a long time. She held my hand in her lap. She smelled of earth and lemons and she rested her head on top of mine.
After a while someone coughed in the doorway behind us and Thomas’s ma straightened up and smoothed out her skirt.
“I have to go back,” she said, not letting go of my hand. “I want you to have something of his, before you go.”
I shook my head.
“I don’t – ”
She stopped me.
“Go up to his room, it’s just like he left it, I haven’t been able to go in there yet,” she patted my hand again. “Take something. Anything. Something that you can keep, that will remind you of him.”
“There isn’t anything – “
“Kathleen?” The voice came from inside, it was soft, slightly worried.
“I’m grand, I’m coming,” she said, then turned back to me. “I have to go back. You go on now.”
I dreamt of Eskragh. I dreamt of something pale and cold moving in the depths. It was fast and sleek and it shimmered slightly in the moonlight.
I followed in its wake as we moved through the water, down and down we went in the darkness and never reached the bottom.
And then the thing was gone and I was deep in the freezing lough and my lungs were burning and behind my eyes a terrible pressure was building and building as I began to rise, too slow, too slow, surrounded by a halo of silver bubbles.
I looked down.
The pale thing looked at me. For the first time I saw a face and sad, familiar eyes.
I woke with a gasp
The sweat that soaked my bed was icy cold.
I had been in Thomas’s room plenty of times before. We used to sit here listening to the charts on a Sunday afternoon and taking turns to play Deathchase or Manic Miner on his Spectrum.
He had a collection of page three girls cut out and hid between the pages of an old Warlord annual in his cupboard, we used to look at them too. I riffled out the yellowing newspaper pages and jammed them into the pocket of my jacket. It felt important that his ma didn’t find those.
Then I sat on the bed.
Was there anything I wanted here?
We’d long copied each others records, cassettes and computer games and, anyway, those weren’t the kind of things that his ma had meant.
There were books and comics, Thomas was a reader, but I didn’t have much use for them.
There were Thomas’s medals for football and hurley. The harp his uncle had made him when in the Long Kesh. There was the picture of Thomas Clarke signing the Proclaimation of the Irish Republic before the Easter Rising. Thomas’s ma was a Clarke, and Thomas had been named after her ancestor. And there was the picture of the Sacred Heart his parents had put above the bed.
None of this meant anything to me.
I stood up, rubbing my forehead, kneading my temples.
There was nothing here for me.
Then the door opened.
Thomas’s da was standing there.
I jumped and suddenly felt guilty. I was trespassing.
“Missus Toner said I could come up,” I said. “I wasn’t… I didn’t mean to –”
He just stood there, holding the door open.
I edged forward, ducking out beneath his arm.
As I passed him he stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. He was holding out something. I took it. I tried to say thank you but the old man wouldn’t look at me. He stepped into his son’s room and, without a word, closed the door.
I looked down.
I was holding Thomas’s Saint Christopher’s Medal. He always wore it. The silver medal on a leather band with the neat silver clasp, it was his favourite thing.
I weighed the medal.
Why hadn’t he worn it at Eskragh?
I wandered down the stairs and out of the house, the medal gripped tightly in my hand.
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.
Thomas’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.”
He didn’t last another week.
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.
I have Thomas’s St Christopher’s Medal gripped in my hand, the leather band wrapped around my wrist.
Eskragh isn’t a big lake, but it’s deep.
“Eskragh” was first published in Albedo One #39