Gary Grace


Smoking
.
.

With a long drag off the smoke, Sean squeezed the butt between his crusted yellow fingers, drew it from his lips and gestured to me. Did I want the end? Saliva glistened in the backroom lamp light. I felt sick at the sight of it but didn’t want him to think I was some kind of weed. I took a drag as Sean got up to use the jax and grab a couple more cans, crumbs falling from his lap. When he was out of sight, I rushed to the sliding door and staggered out to the pond at the end of the garden, dropped to my hands and knees and puked. Koi fish flashed through my line of vision. I hurried back in unnoticed, quickly wiping my dripping mouth and eyes. I cleansed my palate of the taste of vomit and rid my breath of the evidence with a mouthful of Dutch Gold.
.
Sean had been drinking and smoking since he was nine and wasn’t bullshitting. He put them away faster than my uncle. At twelve, I’d only ever had the odd gulp of beer on the sly at summer barbecues. Three cans in, I was feeling the effects.
.
The more I drank the easier the smoking got. I couldn’t manage blowing rings. Sean was an expert. He could do this mental fire-engine trick where he put the lit-end of the fag in his mouth and blew so that the smoke came out the butt, all without burning his tongue.
.
Sean knew down to the penny how much a bag of chicken balls, prawn crackers and two cans of Fanta would be. He took a wrinkled five-pound note and some precisely counted change from a VHS box hidden in the second row of tapes behind his brother’s copy of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. When we got outside, he put the money beneath the insoles of his Air-Max that seemed too big for him. Change in one, the note in the other.
.
We walked down the street of white semi-detached houses towards the Chinese in Ballybrack, kicking a crushed can of Lilt back and forth. At the end of the road, we crossed the shrouded green. Great oak trees creaked, and the wind whistled through their branches. I was nervous, scanning the gangs of teenagers, identifiable in the darkness only by the pitch of their voices and the glowing embers of their smokes. The stink of joints was one I was used to; the towel stuffed at the base of my older brother Kenny’s door was only so effective. We passed a group sitting on a giant tree stump, keeping our heads down, saying nothing. Someone hurled a half-drunk can in our direction. I sidestepped and it whizzed past my face, spraying and hissing as it landed.
.
“Just keep walking,” Sean said.
.
My hand reached for his but recoiled just before touching it. We were almost out of the woods. Just before the shopping centre car park there was a trio sat on overturned trolleys, chatting quietly and swigging from flagons of cider. They were all grown men. One of them looked a lot like my uncle. He gave us a nod. We nodded back, moving out of the darkness into the floodlit car park.
.
We were walking along the storefronts, passing Crazy Prices and the newsagents when two lads of about fifteen or sixteen stepped out from behind a pillar. They stopped Sean, asking him for a smoke. He said he didn’t have any and went to walk away. The smaller of the two, in a shiny multicoloured tracksuit, grabbed Sean by the throat and pressed him up against the shutters of the pharmacy. His huge mate glared at me. I did nothing.
.
Your man frisked Sean and pulled out the crumpled box of John Player Blue that contained our last smoke from his jacket pocket. He sparked it up and blew smoke in Sean’s face then scrunched up the box and bounced it off my head. Sean flinched in response to your man’s raised fist, who just smirked.
.
“Nice one lads,” he said, passing the smoke to his giant mate as they walked away. “Fuckin’ weeds.” They laughed in unison.
.
As we walked over to the Chinese, Sean pulled another pack of smokes out of his jocks. He chuckled, offering me one, but I declined, still shitting it a bit. He gave me a dead arm and smiling said, “Ah stop being such a sap, it’s grand.”
.
Outside the Chinese he pressed his back against a pillar and slid effortlessly down to the ground, still puffing away as he removed the money from his runners.
.
For a second, I thought, this lad was some kind of genius. Then I wondered how many times he must have been robbed out there before copping on enough to have a good hiding place.
.

*

Sitting on the wall by the bus stop out in front of the shopping centre, Sean sucked the remaining grease from his fingers. He waffled on about Man City, telling me how his oldest brother had trials with them but injured his knee. He mentioned players and results. I hadn’t a clue, I just smiled and nodded. I had no interest in football. He had loads of brothers.
.
I only knew Liam who was mates with my older brother, Kenny. They’d been left in charge of us over that bank holiday weekend when our parents were away. Kenny had introduced me to Sean for the first time that evening, before he and Liam had fecked off to a rave in some warehouse and left us to our own devices. My brother was always the wild one but whenever I was acting out, he’d give me a thumping. I started to panic a bit about what would happen when he got back to find me drunk, reeking of smoke.
.
Sean rationalised it. “They won’t be back until late; they’ll be locked themselves. He won’t even know.”
.
We were sobering up and feeling the cold. I remembered the twenty quid my brother had left me for an Xtra-Vision and a chipper. I had wanted to rent Mortal Kombat 3, but Sean already had it.
.
“Do you know how much drink we can get with this?” Sean said.
.
His eyes darted around, I guessed looking for someone who might be sound, and buy us more drink. He snatched the note from my hand and headed towards the shops. A couple of lads going in to the off-license told him to fuck off. One auld lad, maybe our dads’ age, seemed like he was thinking about it but then waved Sean off and headed towards his car. I sat watching this from the wall. Once he gave up, Sean rejoined me.
.
“Scabby cunts, the lot of them,” he said, “Someone will come along eventually.”
.
We sat on that wall for what seemed like forever, waiting. A bus en route to Loughlinstown stopped behind us. A familiar shaved head and bomber jacket passed by. I hopped off the wall and ran over to him.
.
“Where are you going?” Sean spluttered out but didn’t budge.
.
It was Clarke, one of my brother’s friends. I called him as I approached. He spun around, fist cocked, encrusted with sovereigns. When he saw it was me his fist dropped to his side, then he started to open and close it like it was sore from actually having thumped the head off someone that day. He tousled my bowler haircut and threw a few jaunty fake digs. I’d often been greeted by his odour in our living room on Saturday mornings. He’d be dying on the couch, hungover. We’d watch cartoons while he waited for my brother to wake up. My Dad would cook us up a fry.
.
Clarke sparked up a smoke, asking me what I was doing down there, with a smirk and no genuine concern in his voice. I asked him why he wasn’t with Kenny at the rave.
.
“Just had a few things to do, you know,” he said, winking.
/
I asked him if he’d get us drink and he chuckled when I didn’t know what we wanted. “Sean has the money,” I said and then Clarke clocked him sitting on the wall.
.
Clarke swaggered over and said, “What do you want Sean, you little bollix?”
.
Sean asked for eight cans of Dutch Gold and a nagan of vodka. He was baffled that I had the money in the first place. He was still berating me about it when Clarke returned.
.
“Consider yourselves lucky,” Clarke said, before giving me a playful slap on the cheek and walking off towards the green.
.
The bag contained a flagon of Linden Village Cider and two nips of cheap vodka.
.
“Bastard,” Sean said with a grin suggesting he was impressed.
.
We walked the long way to avoid going through the green again. I put the nips of vodka in my pockets, and Sean hid the flagon up his jumper, cupping the base with his hand inside. His sleeve was flapping about, and we laughed.
.
We made it back to the gaff and spent the night smoking and drinking in the back room, MTV blaring the ten best tracks by The Prodigy. The cider was a lot easier to drink than the manky lager. Before long Sean was in his socks on the hardwood floor, hammered, showing me this raver dance, twisting, and scissoring his feet back and forth just like your man in the video.
.
Sean narrated his moves, “Stack the shelves…hammer those nails… POINT TO THE SKY!”
.
I tried to replicate them, half-joking. Sean laughed and clapped while puffing away with the fag hanging out the side of his mouth. I tried this and wound up almost swallowing the butt, before coughing it out onto the floor. Sean rubbed my back, breaking his shite laughing at the same time. My face was flushed, and my eyes watered. I looked up at him, spit dripping from my lip, and on cue with the song blaring, Sean shouted, “BREATHE WITH ME.” He rolled around laughing.
.
The flagon had us pissing in the flowerbed out the back, as the toilet was upstairs. I felt free, wanting for nothing. There were exaggerated glances to the sky and anywhere else, making it clear there was no way we were looking at each other’s dicks. But I caught a glance of his anyway. Maybe if I was sober, I would have felt more discouraged by the obvious disparity, but I was locked and found it funny.
.
“Sure, you’re only a little lad,” he said, patting me on the shoulder as he passed, climbing the steps, and entering the back room through the sliding door.
.
Kenny, my brother was standing inside, face still, staring out at me. He wasn’t smiling. Distracted, I pissed a little on my runners. We looked so alike at birth that my mother had always called me his carbon copy. His face and my reflection made me think of Back to the Future. Maybe we were the same person and he’d come back to save me or something? I was pretty drunk.
.
A few of our brothers’ mates were plonking themselves down on couches. The usual suspects, Paul, Ryner, and Robbie. I saw Liam hit Sean a nasty slap and get him in a headlock. The lads cheered as Liam swung Sean around. Kenny ignored them and slowly walked down the steps towards me.
.
Just as he was getting to me, Clarke burst through the side gate bellowing “A Champagne Supernova in the Sky.”
.
He had a beautiful blonde girl on his arm. Kenny got distracted. He hugged Clarke. Whispers were exchanged and Clarke handed Kenny something before noticing me, jumping like he’d seen a little ghost.
.
“For fuck sake, I didn’t see your mini-me there,” Clarke said to Kenny, tousling my hair again.
.
Staring at Clarke’s gold sleeper earring, shaved head, and the beautiful girl kissing his neck, I realised I needed a new haircut.
.
Clarke said, “Look at yiz out here together. Beautiful that is,” slurring a little. “I wish me and me own brother got along… Sorry about the Linden Village,” he said to me. “It’s just a rite of passage to get stung like that when you’re a young lad. No hard feelings yeah?”
.
I tried not to stare. The girl was wearing tiny jean shorts, cowboy boots and a hat to match. Her plaid shirt was tied up into a belly top, exposing her pierced navel. She leaned down and kissed me on the cheek.
.
“You are so cute,” she said in an accent starkly different from Clarke’s, much more like my own. Her glossy lips peeled off my cheek. As she rose back up her breasts brushed right past my face.
.
“See you in there, yeah?” Clarke said to Kenny before heading towards the house, giving the cowgirl’s arse a squeeze.
.
Kenny’s focus returned to me. He put his hand on my shoulder, unblinking and alert. His grip was tight, and I expected a dig.
.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
.
I told him I was grand. He told me to take Sean and go sleep in our house. I tried to plead with him as more girls came pouring in the side gate, closer to my age than his.
.
“I’m not asking you.”
.
Liam dragged Sean out of the house and threw him down on the ground at my feet.
.
“Slag me in front of my mates again…” Liam said and hocked up a green phlegmer on the back of Sean’s head and gave him a parting boot in the stomach.
.
Kenny pulled Liam back towards the gaff. I could see the cowgirl lighting candles. The other girls danced around the coffee table while the lads rolled joints, paying them no attention. I could hear UB40’s Red Red Wine starting to play. Our eyes met again. The cowgirl blew me a kiss as she drew the curtains. Sean watched our exchange.
.
“You haven’t a fuckin’ hope,” he said.
.
The sun was rising as we arrived at mine. I was conscious of his eyes widening at the Merc in the driveway, then at the basketball hoop, but he said nothing. In the porch, he noticed my Dad’s riding boots and was unable to contain himself.
.
“And my mates call me posh,” he said smiling. “I won’t hold it against you, Gaz.”
.
“Your Dad’s a dentist, you gimp,” I replied, “Mine sells cars, for fuck sake.”
.
He copied me, taking his shoes off, and left them neatly in the porch. Inside he walked slowly around the house like it was a museum, examining the exhibition of family photos. When he went to spark a smoke in my room, and for the first time all night, I objected to something. He glared but the cigarette remained unlit and went back in his pack.
.
“So, you’re mad into basketball then?” Sean said with a smirk.
.
I told him I was, that I was actually pretty good and that one day I was going to get a scholarship to America.
.
Sean scoffed and said, “You have to be really tall and black to be good at basketball.”
.
I thought of some examples to dispel this stereotype but seeing as how most of the posters in my room backed up what he was saying, I didn’t bother. The one I had of John Stockton had been recently covered up by a double-sided pull-out of Isaiah Thomas.
.
Sean said he liked to listen to music when he slept and he rifled his way through some CDs, scoffing at most of them as I pulled down the blackout blinds. I wasn’t really into music, so it was mainly just a pile of stuff belonging to my parents. Best of the Sixties, Blondie, and The Beatles. He pulled out one that was actually mine. There was a song on there he liked. It was Don’t Speak by No Doubt. He put it on repeat, a ritual of his, and lay his head down on the other side of my bed. I propped a pillow in the middle between us, lest our arses touch.
.
I listened to the lyrics as the room began to spin. I wondered why he liked the song so much. He didn’t strike me as someone with a lot of success with girls, so what was he relating to? He fell asleep quickly and started snoring. I started to doubt my assumption. Maybe he’d been with loads of girls. If that ugly bastard Clarke was with the cowgirl, maybe I had it all wrong?
.
That night was my first time doing lots of things. It all swirled around in my head. We’d smoked, drank, robbed, and been robbed. I’d had boobs in my face and kisses blown at me by the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I’d made a new friend. He wasn’t like anyone I’d ever met and although I found a lot of what he did disgusting, he was funny and seemed so carefree and unafraid.
.
Then the ceiling began to spin more violently. I felt like I was on the Waltzers in Courtown, like maybe I’d slide off the bed. I knew that was impossible, but I clenched the sheets for dear life. I woke Sean.
.
“I feel like I might puke,” I said.
.
He told me it was normal and to wait just a sec. He left the room and soon returned from the kitchen with a basin and dropped it by my side of the bed.
.
“You’ll be grand, there’s a pint of water there too.”

*

When I woke, my head was pounding. I didn’t recall puking in the basin but there it was. Sean’s smell was still in the room and remnants of Dax Wax from his spidery hair was on the pillowcase. I walked around the silent house in my boxers, scratching my arse and coughing. I was all alone. I couldn’t remember the house ever being that quiet. My sister was staying with her friend Amy. I entered Kenny’s room.
.
I’d been slapped around by him for snooping before and I hadn’t crossed that line since, not without knocking first and always with him being there. The booze must have still been in me because I crossed the threshold without a second thought. I started rooting around in his drawers, under his mattress, even climbed on top of his wardrobe, not looking for anything in particular, just being curious.
.
I found a little wicker basket buried in the back of his wardrobe that had some jewellery I’d never seen him wear before: sovereigns, a thick gold bracelet and fat rope chain. There was a tiny block of hash wrapped in tinfoil, a pack of condoms and a pair of silver brass knuckles. I knew my brother liked a good scrap, but they looked like they could do real damage to someone.
.
I noticed a rugby ball and a football. They were a little flat but appeared to be new. When I pulled them down, I saw they had slits in the back of them. Inside the football there were baggies of white powder and little zip-lock bags of pills impressed with the Mitsubishi logo, the same as on the cars our Dad sold.
.
In the rugby ball, I found digital scales and a money clip. I couldn’t comprehend how much cash was in it – the spring looked strained. There was a big block of hash about a foot long wrapped in cling film. Lastly, or so it seemed, I pulled out a black balaclava. I then realised that there was more concealed inside the ball. I reached in and pulled out a big Rambo- looking hunting knife and then what, at a glance, seemed like the padded handle of a skipping rope. It was heavy and it rattled. I shook it and a metal rod popped out. I shook it harder, whipping it towards the ground, and the rod fully extended. It held firm. There were dents and chips in the paint of the shaft.
.
Looking at myself in the mirror still, I raised my fists and settled into a basic boxing stance, clutching the knife in my left hand and the baton in my right. My focus was drawn to the spaces between my visible ribs. I imagined the blade going right through, its serrated edge ripping my intestines as it was pulled out. I couldn’t picture my brother stabbing or clubbing anyone. But then, it hit me. I was going to be sick.
.
Head in the toilet, I was dry-heaving, clear bile dripping from my mouth and my eyes watering once more. I got myself together and wandered around the house, holding on to the knife and baton, double checking no one was there and making sure the front door was locked.
.
In my room I saw the note Sean had left on my N64. “I borrowed your Mario Kart.” I sighed thinking of the sticker on the cartridge – “This is a Rental Copy.” I imagined the brazen look Sean must have had on his face before he’d fecked off with it stuffed down his jocks.
.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon. The house seemed stuffy, so I walked around opening all of the windows as my mother often did. It was a beautiful sunny day. I gathered the weapons before heading outside to the back garden. Stepping out onto the warm tiles of the patio, I noticed the can, smokes and lighter Sean had left for me on the back step. Birds were chirping and fluttering in the tall trees lining our big back of the garden. I cut some leaves off branches with the Rambo knife. I whacked at the spooky leaning tree down at the back of the garden, watching its bark fall to the ground like picked scabs. Sunlight cut through the branches onto my bare chest. The grass was wet. I missed Sean already.
.
The headache seemed like it was getting worse, and my mouth was dry. I cracked open the warm can and gulped it down until it was empty. I crunched up the can in my hand letting out a big belch, then I licked the saltiness from my chapped lips and sparked up the fag. I took a deep drag and exhaled.
.
The huge blade glinted in the sun. It was light in my hand and slicing it through the air made a whooshing sound. It wasn’t scary anymore. I held out the cigarette and breathed out a heavy tuft of smoke. Breathing freely and examining the little, white, burning stick illuminated in the daylight, I thought to myself, this is easy.
.
.
.

Gary Grace is from Dublin, Ireland. He predominantly writes autofiction. He holds degrees in English Literature from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and an MFA in Creative Writing from American College Dublin. His work has been published in literary journals and anthologies in Ireland, the UK and the US. An early draft of his collection The Nitelink was longlisted for the Best of the Bottom Drawer Global Writing Prize. His story An Irish Wedding in Marbella and Subsequent Email I Sent my Ex-Wife was shortlisted for the LOFT Books Prize in 2023. Gary’s story What’s My Name? was featured in The London Magazine’s online edition. Most recently, Gary was appointed as the Managing Editor of LOFT Books and shortlisted for the TLM Short Story Prize 2023.


To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.
SUBSCRIBE