The Killing (Listowel)
The narrow lane was once a main road that wound its way into the north Kerry market town of Listowel. But at this stage, it was carpeted in green overgrowth with chaotic brambled verges, and abandoned to us. My cousin in his late teens walked ahead. While me and my other cousin sharing the age of nine, followed behind nervous and excited in the early morning sun. We stopped by a wooden shed at the side of the laneway. In here, behind some chicken wire, lay the ferrets buried in the warmth of their straw nest. My older cousin handled the small fiery creatures with care. He wore stiff metal-like gloves. We stood back cautiously. Two ferrets, one black and one silver-grey, were eased in turn into a sturdy timber carry case. The ferrets were animals we knew demanded respect and they had ours without question. They were not to be messed with or to be trusted.
A warm and fresh country breeze carried the dense smell of grass as we walked on. Coming off the laneway, we climbed over a ditch and into the field on the other side. The three of us then entered a valley, sunk deep and hidden between the mountain folds; moving through the scrub until the sky overhead disappeared. We then found ourselves standing under a canopy of twisted, dark green branches. Running uphill over rough ground and past small streams, we meandered through the small forest. Birds sang above us in shrill competition; an orchestra in surround sound. The large burrows were badger dens; wide oval openings in the ground. Their dark tunnels ran deep into the earth. We peered in cautiously. Then one of us crawled in to see how far we could go, hoping to find a secret world hidden from sight – and hoping the badger was out to lunch. But in no time fear started to grip, and we retreated back out of the burrow in a panic. We have all been told. Badgers go straight for your nose when they attack.
The smaller burrows are rabbit holes. These are visible everywhere as we continue toward the exit of the little forest. Emerging out of the shade and into the sun, we continue the trek towards the top of the field. Bees buzz amid sunburnt red ferns now dried and limpid. Here, another ditch is again dotted with small rabbit burrows. I look back at the tangled jungle of thick nature. Downhill, beyond the little forest, I can see the small green laneway leading back to the house which looks like a delicate miniature from this height.
My older cousin lays out the nets at an angle from the ditch. He then carefully lifts the black ferret from the carry case. Its slick immaculate coat shines in the sun. The Ferret – the hot steel of nature. Jumping from his master’s hand onto the grass with a bounce, he is off at speed towards the rabbit burrows. A high pitched curling. An unnatural sound. It was the first time I heard a rabbit scream. The ferret burrows while eating into live flesh. The main strategy is to flush the rabbits out into nets, club them, and then sell them at the Saturday market. But sometimes, during these blood rabid home invasions of sorts, the ferret claimed its prey first. I stood back towards the centre of the field, stepping away from the sound of the killing. My older cousin reached for the carry case, bringing the second ferret out into the sunlight. Lean and muscle-primed, its slick silver hair glistens while its snout flavours the smell of the country air, freshly tainted by the scent of drawn blood.
The Nineties (Abbeyfeale)
he crystal sharp cold blasted across my teen’d tender face, while I tried to stay on the tarmac between rumbling trucks and tractors. Each morning I straddled my Raleigh racer and peddled like hell down the weathered, half crumbling road to school. There I had a small network of friends; offbeat, misaligned, marginal. For each of us, everything in some way was slightly collapsed. And we each had our clashes to contend with.
The gang of overexcited school boys came pounding down Main Street on a mission; and it was all because of me. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or frightened. I was in a bit of a state. My stomach was light with nerves; a sickening adrenaline rush had me nauseous. Denis had been a splinter in my side for a good while. He was a tall teen, a year younger than me. Pushing and punching his way through school in a botched attempt to find place.
I wasn’t exactly sure how it all came about, but we were set to fight at four o’clock in the basketball court behind the primary school. Perfectly chosen. It was well away from passing eyes. A fight was always planned in advance of around two days. Just to give your teenage brain something to mull over. Something to tear yourself up about and wrestle with; before it came down to some real tearing and wrestling. I was well psyched by fight time. I had a plan mapped out in my head. Denis was a boxer. And with that came his long reach, trained fists and a vague semblance of strategy. I planned to go in swinging. Right into his torso and leave him no room to pick me off with fast punches. I was going to dig deep into his side and stomach, wind him, and get the whole thing over with. I had hoped we could ‘reason’ it out. But reasoning was a non-runner. When it came to a fight, it was a case of carrying it through to the end. Reasoning meant losing face. Fighting it out, even if you lost, would in some way cement your worth; bolster your standing. That’s what this was really all about. Rites of passage or some shit like that. And I was stuck with it.
The fight managed to bring everyone together. Whether you were a pacifist, a fighter or a thinker; everyone came to watch. Small nerdy John stood on a bench trying to secure a clear view through his thick glasses. Next to him, stood his bully, Kevin – swelled with excitement, going foot to foot with his usual droopy smile. Padraig was perched behind them. An academic-minded young man, he was greatly respected by everyone in the school from the rascals to rejects. On a higher bench for that sweeping view, he stood with a frown; quietly concerned, taking in the whole shambolic nature of the event.
Denis now stood out in the blazing sun of the basketball court in fight mode. And as my focus shifted onto him, the rest of the crowd became an abstract vignette. Denis circled, fists held high to his smiling gob. The gradual first moments of the scrap had stirred up a hot reeling tension; an unyielding growing momentum. The excitement of the forty to fifty boys had now broken into an all-out war cry. A staggering chanting teen-machine mob of testosterone and flailing limbs frantically circled Denis and myself.
A few missed swings and some spinning punches from the hungry crowd, and we were off. I rooted myself in the arc of Denis’s ribcage as much as I could; punching as quickly as I could. The line of vision became tunnel. Sounds into muffle. And my punches seemed to fall dull. I heard no squirms of pain. I wasn’t sure if I was making an impact. A bunch of bare knuckles connected with the side of my face and I was back out in the open yard again. Denis didn’t miss the chance. Some fast, long jabs to my head, and a fist of hard knuckles hit me square in the face; left and then right, one after the other. His height was making things difficult, and I began to crumble.
An avalanche of pain came down across my forehead. It was followed by a swift gush of blood running straight to the top of my nose. ‘Keep your guard up! Keep your guard up!’ came the taunts from Denis as punches came over his cracked beaming smile. Another jab connected with my jaw, and I hung again out in the open; a glorified punch bag. I ran straight for him, barging through awkward hands, and scored a punch to the head. I then raised my elbow forward and pushed back his long lanky arms. I swung a fist into his stomach and forced his weight backwards onto the ground. Lying on his back, blood flowed from his nose. I could kick him into the head or square into the stomach. But that would be bad form right? I wanted him to know I now had the chance to take him out, to hurt him and win. ‘Are you going to stay down!?’ I shouted. I was all tense; frazzled and red faced. Shaky voice. ‘Well?!’ I said it again, except harder this time, crunching out the words through gritted teeth and teary-victim eyes. Denis looked up nodding; squinting at me, humiliated. A gob of red spit lands on concrete.
I step back breathless and stupefied, and the crowd around us began to came into view again. I turned for my school bag in the corner. The evening sun washed through the metal grey sky and onto the yard. Then came the shard through the newly won calm; a hard crunching smack into the back of my neck.
n the city, the rush of the wind propelled our tripping highs as we sped down the street on our bikes. In the warm summer evening, the sky above formed a tight hood over our electric cloud of humid euphoria. Our feet light on the turning peddles. We turned up some time in the late evening. Dropped our bikes outside in the gravel, and then stood in the boiling chipper in front of the menu for ages. Fresh young faces with large darting eyes; heads cocked up to the bright listings of snack boxes and meal deals. The mind was flooded, reaching bubbling. ‘What can I get you lot?’ Our expressions had all timed out.
Dave stood tall next to me, his mouth agape looking up at the glowing menu and lanky in his dark green army jacket. He had a brown envelope stuffed in his pocket, with magic mushrooms recently picked from the hills around his native Dingle. Dave was off his head at the best of times, a bit of a punk but he could be a bit of a prick too. We tolerated him though. James stood next to him. Shorter and nerdier; and very stoned with his ‘Where’s Wally’ striped hat hanging off his crown. Ellen and Donal were next to him, holding onto each other, in love and beaming with smiles. And I rattled away on my usual dose of LSD, little square tabs of cartooned paper called Tasmanian Devils. Potent, precious and long lasting. What a bunch she had to be dealing with.
She came out from inside the counter and asked again with a mock ‘pleading’ tone. ‘What can I get you lot?’ Her voice drifted into my dripping consciousness. The curtains drew back and I came out of the trance. Sweaty brow. It was good she asked or we’d be standing there all night.
Back at the house and deep into the trip, I was now in wild colour. Over powering smell of plums and sweet chewing gums. A dark excitement seizing. Sitting on my bed and looking out the window, a large bus covered in thick brown mud, indicators flashing to turn left, pulled out of my front garden. I smoked to ease the tension. Then a blue train ran through my room.
In the early hours I was on my way home, and I was being followed at a constant, tense pace. The man also on a bike, stayed behind in the near dark at around the three hundred metre mark. I rounded corners and peddled on through a series of sleeping avenues, and he was still pinned to my trial. Home came into view ahead. I dragged the bike through the gate of the house, banged it in through the front door, after eventually getting the key into the damned lock, and quickly looked behind me to see a road empty and quiet. This was me, in a not too uncommon struggle, trying to elope from a stoner evening elsewhere; trailed by shadows. These were the realities of my imagination, and the fictions of my daily life. It took four months of sitting in a darkened room to regain my smile after all that carry on. Breaking glass moments still occurred in my head – less frequent as time went by. Then the summer broke through the curtains.
The bar was in full bloom by 7pm; slightly rowdy with a ragged mob of rockers. The bar staff were barely keeping up with the call for pints, and Carly hung from the end of the bar waving a ten pound note briskly in the air at the nearest barman. She glanced back to us with a cheeky smile, her ass swaying from side to side before us. We sat back on the couches and low stools around a table, swanning pints and filling the ashtray with chain-smoked ciggs. We had only dropped the yokes an hour beforehand, but were all on the train to blitzville. The drink was flowing down easy. Our group was getting more animated in excited conversation. Everyone dreams. And these abstract strands were seeping in quickly to our little corner; taking full form. They fell out of our heads onto the table like gold chunks, which were anxiously picked up, held aloft and analysed with intrigue by the whole group. The rest of the bar bumped and staggered around each other while wave after wave of Led Zeppelin washed loudly over the bar. Drinks splashed softly from generous pint glasses around the table as we whoo’d and haaa’d into the evening.
The lights were dim but the room warm and crowded. Beats pulsed through the smoke machined club of twisting flesh dancing to house, off-beat alternative sounds and dub reggae. We danced on the floor, then took to the pumping heart of the club – a small stage reeking of weed – when the rhythms of a Happy Monday’s acid track burst through the airwaves. ‘The Termight’s Club’ was in full rave. It operated above an old cinema off limerick’s main O’Connell Street, and was the sole alternative to the stagnation of mainstream nightlife. Four flights of stairs from the main entrance, a few more drinks downed, and our heads were in ‘the zone’. I laid on the dancefloor all goo’d out of it, cha-koo’ing confidently, blissed out as others danced in swirling lights around me. Laura laughed while gripping my arms, trying to drag me upright, in order to evade the prowling bouncers. Distracted, she came down to her knees and contended to try and pry some sticky chewing gum from my straggly fair hair. I lay back with my head on her lap. The gum, lime green, was glued into the strands. She pulled at the tangled mess, and a sharp pain came to my scalp. She was well into the challenge of freeing my hair from the gum, ignoring my pleas to leave it – “sur feckin leave it beee!” But our little operation of two was now on the bouncer’s radar. Our bright dilated pupils shined up at him through the disco lights.
I was quickly heaved up from the corner of the dancefloor and slammed through the crowd toward the door. My head glowed on, as we left Laura behind, confused and gum-fingered. “Take it easy I’m going alright.” But the bouncer’s hard tugging and jerking of my limbs went on; waking me up to more pain as we went. As we banged through the nightclub doors he gripped me hard. And as we quickly took the first flight of metal stairs downwards, I knew this guy was going to be a fucker to deal with. He was tall and bald, but not an old man – athletic in his late twenties. Decked out in black bouncer gear, he stopped at the top of the second flight of stairs. His arm gripped tightly around my neck and closed harder on my windpipe. ‘Leave me go you fucking Nazi!’ And then he held me out, kicking my legs free of the steps into the drop below. I swung from his tough muscled elbow, my legs kicking for ground below. The jolt across my throat sent me into a surge of pain. And then he left go, dropping me into the fall of the metal stairs.
Night Train To Moscow
he Russian train system is a robust and efficient institution in a country where other basic services barely survive. It is the bloodstream of the nation and an embodiment of the Soviet dream. The sheer number of possible train routes, taking you mostly anywhere across the Russian Federation is a wonder in itself. Down into the Stan countries of Central Asia, into the Russian Far East or up into the anonymous Arctic Circle cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.
Today’s journey was going to be small in comparison. A twelve hour leap from St Petersburg to Moscow. An overnight journey between two iconic cities. This, for many, is the start of the monumental Trans Siberian Railway. But shoe stringing it, I was on board with the cheapest ticket going. It had old, seated style carriages. There were no intimate sleeper coupes with cosy bunks here. And for most Russians this was typical. Seated by the window, I watch the carriage slowly fill up as the minutes count-down to our departure. My rucksack is stashed overhead, with a small day bag tucked underneath my seat, awkwardly making for tight leg movement.
A tall girl with long black hair takes a seat next to me. Long legs in black jeans awkwardly placed in front of her. She nods with a smile and says something in Russian. I nod back unsure. The carriage is now full and everyone is getting organized to settle in. Once bags are put away, head cushions are tucked in to place and tickets lay on laps for inspection. The carriage attendant, suddenly and unexpectedly, throws me a little plastic bag. It hits me on the head. Half startled and with the little bag in my hand hands, I turn to the girl next to me.
‘What is this?’ I ask her.
‘It’s your blanket’ she laughs.
‘Ah yes, I see’ I reply, trying to not look too lost amongst Russian train etiquette. I pull open the packaging and reveal the little blue blanket.
As darkness fell, the train rumbled on. In the half light of the carriage, passing through abandoned suburbs and black forest, a repeating pattern of dark and white washes over the girl. We were getting on well as we navigated conversations in pigeon English and Russian. She was near my age; in her late twenties. After midnight we moved out to the tight space of the gangway. We had bought two beers from the concierge and had slipped quietly out of the sleeping carriage. She towered over me while we stood smoking. Still tied to the language barrier we drank and asked names, countries, jobs, destinations. Moscow, Nina, an office worker. She was coming back from a weekend with her family in St Petersburg to her work in Moscow.
Back in the carriage, she was now sitting slightly turned toward me. Although not really aware of it, I was the same; turned toward her just a little. Flashes of the passing night showed her form. A dark warm shadow with a subtle smile. A face in zoetrope; her eyes looked me over with searching curiosity. As the darkness of the carriage started to merge with the slow embrace of sleep, we started to glide closer together; face to face, bright eyes on bright eyes.
In the morning I watched half-awake through the smudged windows as Moscow’s suburbs drifted past. Swathes of silver industry ran on for miles, with the grey steely sky hanging low over the early hours of the day. I was captivated by the size of the city, a historic sprawl. It was a full-on megacity. Nina guided me out into Moscow’s Leningradsky train station with her long stride in skinny jeans. I followed her towards an open cafe.
‘The metro closed to the city. Not open yet. We can have coffee, here? This is where I get collected.’ Nina said.
I had to wait 15 minutes for the metro doors to open to the public.
‘Cool, coffee it is. Who are you waiting for?’ I asked.
‘My boyfriend, he’s from Kiev, lives in Moscow.’
Standing there in front of the boyfriend, his broadness unnerved me. He was just as tall as Nina, but didn’t have a word of English. She wrapped her arms around his neck in affection. I stood there perplexed and uncomfortable. With a firm handshake, I said hello in Russian, and he smiled back ‘Zdrasvuta’. He was getting an update from Nina. An Irish holiday maker in Moscow… I was on the side-lines for this discussion. I really did feel the need to move on.
Greetings administered, I walked out into the push and tug of the metro. The morning rush hour starts here, in a boundless flow to the city centre. Millions flood towards the start of their day. My rucksack was tied firm on my back. I held my place in the crowd, as everyone squeezed in towards the ticket sellers who were ready with blank expressions behind their windows.
The rucksack felt heavier when sandwiched midway in the shifting human mass. I tried to stand firm. We heaved forward, and then slightly back. The mass staggered as one to the left and then to the right, wedged tight, until somebody eventually popped into the vacant spot in front of the ticket window. As I shuffled slowly toward the ticket seller, I began to feel my rucksack tug downwards. A sudden jolt, spaced by some brief seconds, was followed by another. The pull, too overstated to be my pushy neighbours, had intention. A little boy was working away at the pockets of my rucksack. Barely able to see him, I tried to turn around, arching to get a look, while at the same time trying to stay steady. The little boy moved easily between the shuffling legs of the masses. He had sought out my rucksack for poaching. He stood directly on my blindside. I pushed back to shake him off, which only annoyed those next to me. The boy was focused and he wasted no time. A cap covered his head and shielded his face, and he was now busy trying to break one of the lower rucksack pockets. The zip wouldn’t budge, stuck under the stress of a horde of dirty socks.
He was like a stowaway in my bag, and he was nearly in the pocket at this stage. Seconds later, like a dropped pin in a bowling alley, he went flying across the floor. And at the same time I got pulled backwards through the crowd, spun around and steadied. It was Nina’s boyfriend. He had dug his way in through the columns of commuters; my bright red rucksack in his sights. As he ripped me back out of the scrum my heart sank and I feared for a Moscow-style head-slapping. He then started waving a card in front of my face, swiped the electronic gate and pushed me through the opening into the metro with a laugh.
Eamonn Sheehy writes nonfiction that jumps into the deep side of travel, culture and counterculture. His work has appeared in YourMiddleEast.com, Kosovo 2.0 magazine, The Sarajevo Times, The Bogman’s Cannon and others. His first book, Summer In The City State – Ceuta To Tangier Through Fortress Europe, was published in 2016. He is currently working on his second book, Stealing Life, depicting the grating boundaries of youth, set against the backdrop of travel through Russia. Eamonn also produces The Rockers Guide radio show, exploring the punk-alternative underground, for Clonline Radio in Clonakilty, West Cork, Ireland, where he also resides.