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The front door creaks open worryingly. Steven and Amy peer in hopefully, and once they’re certain nothing will fall on their heads, they step inside and take a deep breath. For better or worse, they’re home.
“Well, it’s old.”
The South African people have that way of not beating around the bush the same way as their English counterparts, and Amy was no exception.
She knew him better than that by now. But Steven kept trying anyway.
“At least it’s not student digs?”
“It’s not a crack den either, Steven, but we’re not in uni anymore. The time has come to respect ourselves a bit better as to where we lay our heads at night.”
“Out of the way, dickheads.”
Caitlin burst in the door dragging her belongings in a massive antique trunk. The belle of Belfast, equally brash and beautiful, she echoed Amy’s sentiments about the house.
“Jesus this place is fuckin' ancient, Bates Motel how are ye.”
Steven simply sighed, sandwiched between two strong women in the least enjoyable way imaginable.
“It’ll be fine.”
“How exactly? Are you gonna fix it up? You couldn’t fix fuckin' Legos.”
“I’ll hire somebody?”
“There’s a good little yuppie. How did you get this place so cheap?”
You didn’t need to be a decorated detective to read his body language. Caitlin closed in for the kill, smelling his fear. She chased his gaze as he looked awkwardly around.
“STEVEN. DON’T YOU LIE TO ME, BOY. Somebody died here didn’t they?”
His silence spoke for him.
“Jesus, Steven, really?”
“It was of old age, and loneliness.”
“Oh well then!”
“Stop! Just gimme a hand with the, actually Amy help me with this. Baby arms can make a start in the kitchen.”
Amy tapped him on his cheek like a baby.
“Awww it’s ok. Now go on!”
He grabbed a box, and wondered to himself
“I thought living with women was meant to be fun?”
That night they all woke. You learn the sounds of an old house “settling," but this sounded too much like an intruder to be ignored. Caitlin emerged with a hurley in hand, Steven and Amy with tussled hair, hastily clothed. Steven tentatively went first, Caitlin disagreed.
“Stand aside sweetheart.”
As they got closer to the kitchen they heard music. By the light of the oven overhead light, they found an old friend. Damien, Stevens best friend had returned from his travels, and was currently camped out with his feet up on the kitchen table with Steven's bottle of scotch, and a cloud of smoke.
Steven turned off the music, and took his bottle back, and was just about to ask,
when Amy beat him to it.
“What the fuck?”
“Hey it’s you! You’re still together? Good for you guys.”
She smiled insincerely.
“Thank you, so much. How did you get in here?”
“Your bathroom window was open.”
The ladies both turned on Steven.
“No it wasn’t!”
Damien shrugged innocently. Amy took the cigarette out of his hand, and stabbed it out. Rather than look offended, Damien looked somewhat tickled by her intensity.
“We don’t smoke in here, take it outside.”
He simply raised his hands in submission. Steven had been inspecting the scotch for several minutes.
“This was my grandfather’s, it’s worth a lot of money.”
“Thank you for sharing”
“What are you doing here Damien?”
“I wanted to see my friends, catch up?”
“Lovely, well, some of us have work tomorrow. It’s a Tuesday in the real world, unfortunately, so keep it down, yeah?”
She walked out, Damien obliviously turned to Steven to make it worse.
“Steven she seems upset, I don’t mean to pry, but is everything ok for you two… in the boudoir?”
“Oh Jesus, will you stop.”
As was the way throughout their time at Uni, it once again was Caitlin’s job to explain women to the two idiots.
“She’s listening to every word right now.”
“Oh yeah. You’re both gonna regret that in the morning. Nice to see you Damien, couch in the front room is pretty nice. Like the lady said, shut the fuck up though yeah?”
In an ill-conceived bid to lighten the mood, Damien adopted an impression of her accent.
“See ye in d’mornin der now, lassy!”
She flipped him off and went to bed.
Steven gingerly opened the door, Amy had turned away from him, but was clearly not asleep.
“I gave Damien a duvet.”
“Are you ok?”
“Even I know what that means.”
“I DON’T WANT HIM HERE!”
“What happened to, 'I’m fine?'”
“You’re not as funny as you think you are.”
“Oh come on, travel changes people. He’s bound to have grown up a little bit. He’s my best friend, he helped get us together remember? Trust me? Please?”
She turned off the light, leaving Steven to wonder in the dark.
Damien woke up, and saw a beautiful woman in 1940s clothing walk past him into the kitchen, stopping briefly to look at him. His initial reaction to how pretty she is changes when he looks in the kitchen, and she’s nothing there, giving way to an entirely different reaction. He retreats back under the duvet, muttering to himself.
“Oh, as if anybody’s gonna believe this.”
A little while later Caitlin wakes him up with a smack on the forehead.
“Rise and shine, douchebag.”
“Top of the morning.”
She hit him again for that one.
“Alright fine, I’m up.”
Caitlin led him to a small box room currently being used as a closet.
“I left your boxes in there somewhere, but there’s also a load of shite left over from the old lady that lived here. There’s a roll of bin bags, and some new boxes. Keep the good stuff, throw away the shite. Now get cracking.”
While sifting through the old ladies' boxes he finds a picture of a young couple, the man is in an army uniform.
“Jesus, she was a babe.”
“A babe. Attractive. Foxy, even.”
“Well thank you, you’re too kind. I’m Agnes”
“Damien. You’re the prettiest Agnes I’ve ever met. Agnes is usually an old lady name.”
“I’m a ghost, so technically…”
“So what do you do?
“I saw that. You mostly seem to peeve people.”
“Peeve? Who says peeve anymore?
“Again, I’m a ghost.”
“Oh yeah. Hey, stay and keep me company for a bit?”
Even a ghost could sense his desperation.
When Caitlin comes back, the room has been made over. Damien has decorated with the husband's war memorabilia, and lined one wall to the ceiling with boxes. He’s managed to secure a bed and a TV.
“What happened here?”
“I know, right. Those secondhand places down on the high street are great. God bless crack heads who pawn off their posessions.”
They were handing out post at breakfast, and Damien was puzzled to find a letter with his name on it. He went looking for the one person who could be responsible.
“Steven, why do I have a council tax letter? I’ve been here a day and a half.”
“I declared you a resident.”
“Of course you did. You know in that day and a half I have not, as of yet, found a job, right? So how exactly am I supposed to pay the fucking government? High fives maybe?”
“Adorable. I have to go to work now, sad clown, have a good day.”
Damien sat down to phone the council tax helpline, and sit on hold for three days, when he was almost instantly disturbed by Caitlin furiously cleaning.
“My dad is coming. You’ll say something stupid, and he’ll beat you to death with your own shoes. So move. Go upstairs. Hide.”
He refuses to budge. She briefly leaves and comes back with a bottle of whiskey, he follows her as she leads him back to his room, then slams the door.”
The council tax people finally pick up.
“Hello? Yes I need to make a payment apparently. Christ. How much? I’ll pay three months off at once, I don’t really have a job right now. Wow, do me a favour, stop saying the amount, please, I think I might be sick.”
Caitlin and her Dad enjoyed an easy silence, the large Liam Neeson looking man subdued by tea.
Caitlin immediately grew nervous when Damien walked in.
“Sorry don’t mind me.”
With no other choice she introduces them.
“Dad, Damien. Damien, my Dad.”
Her Dad stood up to shake his hand.
“Gerry. You’re the traveling writer is it?”
Of course, Damien did another bad impression.
“Aye, that’s me.”
Gerry stood up a little taller, his face changed, and Damien regretted his decision.
“I’m sorry, are you doin’ impressions of me wee man? Trying to make me sound like some thicko fuckin' leprechaun?”
“You stuck for words now funny man?”
Gerry stared at him for a minute then broke it with a smile.
“Only winding ye up there, Hemingway, relax.”
Damien started to breathe again, only to jump out of his skin when the toast popped out behind him.
“Ehm. I’m gonna go up.”
“Oh, OK Damien, bye.”
Caitlin and her Dad smiled and clinked their mugs together when he left.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“Love you too darlin'.”
Stevens jacket hit him in the face, as soon as he opened the door.
“Hi Steven, how was your day? I’ve had a thrilling afternoon on hold with the council tax people. Charming bunch, they’re poised and ready to take every penny I have, as soon as I start earning again. Thanks for that. Put your coat on, we’re going out. “
“I’m only in the door, Damien.”
Confused and aggravated by this new rush of attitude, he pushed the matter further.
“So? Let's go. Drink. Merriment.”
They both failed to notice Amy arrive. Neither was happy to have a third party present during one of their rare arguments.
“We have an evening planned.”
“Oh god really?”
Nobody was sure whether he meant that about her statement, or simply that she was standing there.
“Why don’t we all go?”
Steven hoped she would agree to that, but knew she wouldn’t.
“I would have invited you to come drinking.”
That was about 50/50 at this point.
“Come on Steven.”
She stood at the door, planting Steven firmly between his best friend and his girlfriend. And then he left with his girlfriend. Undeterred, Damien went out to wage war alone.
The next morning as he lay there pondering how his eyeballs had become so big, and his skull so small, his hand drifted into the cheese burger in bed beside him, and he recoiled in horror. Agnes appeared by the window.
“Good morning Damien.”
“Any success last night?”
“But of course.”
He pointed jokingly at the burger beside him, concerned when she doesn’t get the joke.
He said it, but he looked under the duvet at himself just to be sure.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“I don’t know if you can, but you may.”
“What’s John Wayne like?”
“I don’t know, never got to heaven. I wound up back here until I sort out my unfinished business apparently? Surely he’s in Hell anyway?”
Damien recoiled at the suggestion.
“He’s a republican.”
“I’ll give you that. If you’ll excuse me miss, coffee beckons”
He ran into Amy in the kitchen, she hung up the phone as he walked in, and sat staring blankly into the distance, welling up with tears. He wanted to ignore her at first, but his conscience wouldn’t allow him ignore a crying woman, even if she hated him.
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fine. Just leave it.”
He stared for a moment, thought about leaving, but instead grabbed a chair, and pulled up right beside her.
“My aunt died.”
She glared at him, unconvinced.
“No really. Hang on.”
He disappeared into the cupboard and came back with a bottle of whiskey. She laughed, genuinely appreciating the comic relief when any other day she would have groaned about it.
“I don’t want a drink, Damien.”
“It’s not for you.”
He paused, and then bolted out of his chair like he had a cartoon lightbulb moment. He went to the cupboard again and came back with a bottle of Klipdrift; a South African brandy.
“I haven’t seen Klipdrift in years.”
She said, while opening the bottle.
“You don’t have to...”
He dropped that sentence as she took a long drag from the bottle. He went for two glasses from the cupboard, and returned once again to pour.
“So, talk. Tell me about her, the good stuff, the happy times.”
She cracked a little smile in between sniffles.
“It was all happy times. She was the best. She made everybody laugh, gave everything away that she ever got. She had fuck all to begin with, and what she had she gave to anyone that needed it.”
“My granny was like that, whenever my Mum's back was turned, out would come a shaking frail old hand with 20 quid. The woman is on the pension with 24 grandchildren, and she’s throwing it around like that...”
A smile went between the two acquaintances. The animosity of the last few days was now under the proverbial bridge, and off the duck's back. Damien extended his glass, and they clinked. He let her talk, offering just enough personal experience to assure her he was listening and relating.
To his dismay, Steven found them in the kitchen laughing and drinking together. They offered him a celebratory cheer when he walked in.
“What’s going on?”
“We made up. Needs must, you know. Amy was telling me about her dearly departed aunt. She sounds like an exceptional and radiant woman.”
“Radiant! A Perfect word!”
They clinked and drank again.
“Now, you two have a lovely evening. Steven, will you make the girl some dinner? She’s been through a lot today.”
“OK. Have a good night. And thanks for today.”
They hugged and Damien moved toward the upstairs. Steven stopped him, speaking low.
“Where did that come from? When I left for work this morning she was in a state. I nearly quit my job, and came home anyway.”
“I didn’t do anything special. In my family they're kicking the bucket at such speed we could be on Game of Thrones. There’s no magic formula to this, the only thing I’ve learned is you just have to listen. Grief is the ugliest feeling in the world, if you allow it to it’ll turn everything around you black. The best thing you can do is get somebody to tell the good stories and laugh and remember people the right way. And be there for her. Let her cry if she has to. Time doesn’t necessarily heal wounds, but it gets bearable after a while.”
He gets to the end, and notices Steven looking at him slightly baffled.
“When did you become so sensitive?”
“Contrary to popular belief, Steven, I have my moments. Now if you’ll excuse me I must dash.”
In the midst of another hangover Damien’s phone rang. He answered it, eyes still mostly shut.
“Whaaaaat? Oh god. Really? How much? OK. What time? And what time is it now? OK. Thank You.”
He set an alarm, and went back to sleep. Which didn’t help at all, but it was worth a try.
After a bloody Mary, a shower, and his best suit he felt thoroughly convinced. Caitlin cornered him for some words of encouragement.
“Don’t fuck it up. Be funny, be charming, don’t curse, and don’t have sex with anyone.”
For punctuation she slapped him.
Coming home thoroughly chuffed with his hard work a few hours later; he narrowly avoided a phone flying over his head that smashed against the wall.
Gerry came storming out of the kitchen like a bull, Damien froze in fear, as he came face to face with the man, feeling like one of the extras from Taken, right before he got bounced off a wall.
The conversation didn’t flow, Gerry not in the mood to talk, and Damien much too terrified to do the same.
“I’m a grown fuckin' man don’t you ever ask me that question again.”
“I have to ask boy, what’s your story?”
“What is it you do? From the last few days it seems all ye do is piss people off.”
“With all due respect sir, we’re not at that father-son conversation level yet.”
“Well look at ye now, Kerouac, you do have some balls.”
“Excuse me, must drain the snake.”
“Do hurry back.”
When Damien returned, Gerry was holding court with two barmaids. Damien pushed him, it didn’t go well. He didn’t so much push him as bounce off him.
“What are you doing?”
“I can’t let you do this Gerry. Caitlin will be heartbroken. And she’ll assume it’s my fault.”
“First of all, you don’t know her mother. Second of all, don’t touch me again.”
“I’m prepared to fight you if I have to.”
Gerry backhanded him without warning; Damien went down like a tree.
“Now imagine if I’d wanted to hurt you?”
He turned back into a Dad, picked the idiot off the floor, and dusted him off. Damien took another shot at him and connected. Gerry turned immediately furious, and Damien ran like a Japanese extra in a Godzilla film; straight into the door.
A familiar scene from their university days, Caitlin offered Damien ice for his face over breakfast.
“Good night lads?”
“Yeah, till this gobshite ran into a door.”
“Aww, yeah that looks really sore too.”
“Then stop laughing!”
She was laughing.
“Right, well, I’m gonna make a move, love.”
Gerry stood up and gave Damien a nod, and a handshake.
“Look after yourself there, Holden, you’re alright.”
Damien smiled, and then winced as his face pained him again. Caitlin walked out with her Dad.
She came back a few minutes later and gave Damien a hug.
“I thought you were going with him?”
“I can’t, I’ve work.”
She keeps beaming at him.
“I only did it cos you’d blame me otherwise!”
That night Amy and Steven lay in bed, discussing the days events as couples will do.
“I went out of my way for him. I got him an interview. I stuck my neck out for him, and what does he do?”
“He had sex with someone didn’t he?”
Steven was so familiar at this stage with having to defend Damien he didn’t even have to look around.
“He had sex with the interviewer.”
“Of course he did.”
“And her boss.”
“Of course he did.”
“Who is also my boss.”
“Of course he did.”
“And he still managed to get the job. He’s the new office administrator.”
“Where’s he now?”
“He’s in his room, with my boss. And her secretary.”
“Don’t be. He got work out of it. He’s using what god gave him for good instead of evil. I think this is progress. And on the upside I can get a lift to work tomorrow.
“There you go.”
“And seeing as Damien is now banging half of my office I can show up late if I want to, and basically do nothing.”
Sometimes the best thing you can do is shut up and agree. So he did just that.