Joe Bannon fucking hated getting up for work in the mornings. His ma would shout and shake him for twenty minutes some days before he’d get out of bed. “You’ve to start earnin’ some money for your keep,” she had said to him. He had been given an ultimatum – get out there and make a living or go back to school. And none of his mates were still in school so he wasn’t doing that. He pulled on his socks and jocks, and buttoned up his shirt. His ma wasn’t great at ironing and the shirt was creased. There was hardly any starch in his collar, so it collapsed lamely at the base of his neck. He rubbed some grease into his scalp and combed back his dark hair. He hoped he’d see Denise on her way to school this morning. Denise was a bit thick, and more often than not had a face like a slapped arse, but she’d massive tits and a soft spot for him, so it didn’t matter much.
It was bedlam in the gaf that morning. His sisters, Marie and Audrey, were squabbling in the hallway over whose turn it was to use the bathroom, and he could hear the twins wailing downstairs. The flat was too small and the family too big. Joe thought they were lucky to live on the top floor in a two-storey flat. The Harold’s on the third floor had five kids sleeping in the one room, they didn’t even get a widow’s pension like the Bannons.
“Marie, would you fuck off. I need to take a piss!” “Well hold it and I’ll do me makeup.” “I can’t hold it.” Audrey thumped on the door with her cracked knuckles. “Well then you’ll be needing another pair of knickers!” The girls always carried on like this. At only nine months apart, they were so similar and yet so different. The pair of them were tall and blonde, just like their ma, with the temperament of their late father. Marie chased boys and read Girl but Audrey was saving up for a new piercing and a pair of Doc Martens. Joe thought that Audrey was a lesbian, but she insisted she had a boyfriend. Joe would have to settle for that.
After a quick cuppa and a slice of toast, he was out the door. He was quick going down the stairwell to the bottom of the flats, and even quicker unlocking his bike. It was nifty little thing, had cost his ma a few quid. The others weren’t too impressed when they saw it, telling him it was a kid’s bike. He didn’t care – it saved him walking. He threw a leg over, noticing that someone had messed with the chain. He didn’t have time to fix it this morning. It was probably that skinny gobshite from the O’Carroll Villas. “Bastard,” he huffed. He sprinted the rest of the way to Mr Cleary’s, his feet pounding against the pavement.
Mr Cleary’s shop was a tiny, squat little store in the middle of Camden Street. The city was alive with people, bustling around trying to get in the last of their Christmas shopping. The sky was white with seagulls, as it always was. Mrs Cleary said that birds were ‘bad luck’ and that nobody should be feeding them, encouraging them to stay in the city. Joe had never heard that anywhere else. His ma often said Mrs Cleary talked out of her arse. He believed her.
“How’ya Joe, fine morning, isn’t it?” Mr Cleary was standing at the entrance to his store, coating the door with some fresh paint. He was wearing dark overalls splattered with colour and he had a navy cap on his bare head. “I’m grand, Mr Cleary. Some arsehole is after breaking me bike.” “You’ll be walking today so.” Mr Cleary beckoned the boy inside the shop. It was a mess, bouquets of flowers littering the store. The floor was slippery with water and wet leaves. The smell was overpowering. There were lilies, roses, carnations, violets, snowdrops – Joe was starting to remember the names now. Mr Cleary shuffled behind the front desk and took out his delivery sheet. His glasses rested on the tip of his nose and he pushed them up with his forefinger. “You’ll be doing the Murphy Brothers today.” “Ah, Mr Cleary, I did that run last week.” “Are you afraid of the bodies, son?” Mr Cleary chortled. “I’ve to go all the way to Cabra - without me bike.” “I’ve a bike for ya.”
Mr Cleary exited through the back of the store, leaving Joe on his own. He didn’t want to admit it, but Mr Cleary was right. He couldn’t deny that the bodies gave him the creeps. He was afraid of getting locked in with them. He’d looked at his Great Aunt when she’d died, and she hadn’t looked like his Great Aunt Dearbhla at all. Her face looked like it had been pulled back and her smile looked funny. Her lipstick was the wrong shade of pink. Her skin was waxy. She was freezing. He didn’t like that, didn’t like dead people.
Mr Cleary returned. Upon seeing the bike he was wheeling in, Joe let out a groan. “Go away out of that, Mr Cleary. That’s a girl’s bike.” The bike was a bright pink, complete with a straw basket at the front. “Well you won’t be walking to Cabra.” “For fuck’s sake,” he muttered. “Go’wan. Hurry up. Here’s the lilies.” Mr Cleary thrust the white bouquet at the boy and ushered him out of the shop. “Be there within the hour, good on ya.”
Joe pedalled as fast as he could, he was like one of them fellas from the Grand Prix, the race his mates referred to as the ‘Grand Pricks,’ – he was sure the people on the street couldn’t even see his feet moving. He hoped he wouldn’t run into any of the lads. If they saw him on a bike like that – well he’d look like a right eejit then. And he wouldn’t hear the end of it for weeks. Marty wore his sister’s polka-dot socks by mistake nearly three years ago and they still called him Dotty. He didn’t even want to think about the nicknames they could conjure up for him. He was so deep in thought he almost didn’t hear Denise calling out to him. Bollox.
“Whose bike is that? You’re mad, Joe Bannon.” He slowed to a stop, running a hand through his hair. She was looking well today, even in her uniform. Her wine jumper strained across her chest and she’d rolled her skirt up above her knees. He could feel his cheeks going red. “How’ya, Denise. Me bikes broke. Mr Cleary’s only gone and given me this one.” She twirled a strand of her straw-blonde hair around her finger. “You look funny on that yoke. Have ya not got a motorbike?” “Me ma’d never let me get one of those. Organ-donors she calls them.” “Mikey Wallace has one. He gave me a ride to school the other day.” “I always offer ya a lift on me bike.” “Motorbikes are faster.” “What were ya doin’ on the back of Mikey’s bike?” He tried to hide the annoyance in his voice. “He gave me a ride.” “I bet he did.” “What?” “Ya heard me.” “So what if he did. You’re not me fella.” “You’re a slut, you are.” “Fuck off, Joe.”
He flipped her off before cycling away, leaving her to walk the rest of the way alone. Served her right, he thought, getting on the back of another fella’s bike. He knew that Mikey Wallace – he was a ladies man alright, sure he stole Deco’s bird last week. No way was Joe getting involved in that. He’d rather be in that funeral home than think about it a second longer. He’d kill that Mikey Wallace when he saw him.
He arrived at the gates of Murphy’s at 8.15 sharp. The foyer was covered in a thick, red carpet and the lighting was dim. The desk was a semicircle of solid oak. Joe couldn’t help but think that it was a little too classy for the dead.
“Go through the second door on the left. And keep the door open – if it shuts, it can only be opened from the outside,” the man said without looking up from his newspaper, shooing him away. Men like him always treated Joe like a bad smell, but he didn’t think he smelled quite as bad as the decaying corpses he was about to adorn with flowers. He nodded at the man and headed out the door.
“Fuck me, it’s cold,” Joe thought as he traipsed down the long hallway. It was cold to keep the bodies in good nick, he knew, but he feared he’d soon be dead too if they didn’t turn the fucking heating on. It was cold enough in his own house, with his ma telling him to turn the emersion off every five minutes. He stood outside the morgue. This was the part he hated most – the anticipation of it. He knew how dreadful it would be, to be the only one in the room with a heart still beating. He took a deep breath, nervously putting a hand through his hair before opening the door.
The room was minute and eerily blue, the walls lined on either side with four trolleys. The bodies had not yet been embalmed and were covered with white sheets. The last time Joe had come, he had pulled back one of the sheets to see that the body was fresh. It had deep, inflamed grooves around the neck and the poor fucker looked terribly uncomfortable. Joe had heard them calling it ‘Richard Mortis’, which he thought was a daft name. He was glad the door had not closed over on him that day.
“How’yis?” Joe addressed the corpses. He knew it was queer, but pretending that they were alive made him a little less frightened. He chuckled to himself. “Now who do we have here?” He checked the tag on the flowers. He was sure it was a misprint, or a strange coincidence because it read: Michael Wallace. Joe quickly scanned the bodies, until he found the toes tagged Michael Wallace. Without letting go of the door handle, he reached forward, his body almost horizontal as he stretched across the trolleys to place the flowers on the correct corpse. He wobbled precariously as he balanced all of his weight on his toes. He sighed with relief as he returned to his upright position. He turned on his heel to leave but stopped. He couldn’t help himself.
Joe released his grip on the door handle and ambled towards Michael Wallace. The door closed quietly. He stood over the white sheet for what felt like hours before he slowly peeled the cover away. Mouth agape, he saw that it was Mikey Wallace alright, and he sure was looking worse for wear. His face was all cut and bruised, and there was a huge lump on his temple. Joe thought he must have crashed his bike. Denise wouldn’t be on the back of it again. That last thought consumed him with guilt. He saw Mikey every single day – walking to the chip shop with his brothers and sisters, talking to Denise, heading to work. Joe suddenly felt quite sick. He had to leave.
“Here let me out! Let me out! For fuck’s sake! Let me out!” Joe banged on the door until his knuckles began to bleed. When somebody failed to open the door after five minutes that which felt like an eternity, Joe began thrusting his own body at the door taking running sprints, using all of his force with his shoulders. When the embalmer found him there two hours later, he was curled up in a ball in the corner of the room, sobbing and sniffling.
Joe arrived back at the shop at 3.30pm sharp, wheeling the bike by his side. Mr Cleary was taken aback when he seen the boy, drenched in perspiration and pale as a ghost. “Are ya alright son?” “I think I want to go back to school.” “To school?” “Yeah.” “Why?” “Or maybe I’ll go on the dole.” “The dole?” “Or join the Army.” “The Army? What’s gotten into ya son?” “What else is there to do here, Mr Cleary? I’ve to give me ma a few pounds a week, but I don’t want to be a flower boy anymore.” Joe wheeled the pink bike into the back of the shop. Mr Cleary didn’t know what to say, other than, “Get some rest, I’ll see you in the morning.”
The following afternoon, Joe sat on the crossbar of Deco’s bike and cycled up to the Army barracks. It wasn’t far, and Joe felt at ease with the wind whipping his hair back and the rain staining his cheeks. He didn’t ride bikes anymore, and sitting on the crossbars didn’t count. “They won’t let you in there, Joe,” Deco said for the sixth time. “It’s a laugh.” Once they arrived, Deco bid him farewell. Eyes followed Joe as he trudged up the hill and into the barracks itself. He remained solemn as the men questioned him, weighed him and took his measurements. He signed the document without so much as glancing at it. “Welcome to the Army.”
Joe’s mother searched in vain for her son for the next three days until he returned home. When she discovered what he had done, she broke a wooden spoon off his arse. It didn’t matter much to Joe, he was no Mikey Wallace – he was going to be a soldier, just like his da.