Hapless kids, Stevie B and me. We mistook a fleeting phase for a permanent state. The last two to pair off, carried into one another by the momentum of sambuca and West Coast Cooler.
We awoke on a foreign futon, May Bank Holiday fugue, denied the option of slipping away in hazy regret. The rest of our gang rattled the kitchen, filling kettles and toasting batch loaf. Their voices gravelly from belting out rebel songs at 4am. Not a rebel amongst us.
‘Heya,’ I whispered, peeling my clammy leg away from his and casting an arm to the floor in search of a sequined halter neck.
Reddening face, he lumbered to his feet. Stevie B’s abdominal frontage strained an Italia ‘90 Ireland jersey as he waded through the aluminium aftermath of a heavy night, scattering cans of Harp left and right. He pressed thick-framed glasses to his nose. A joke about beer goggles, chased only by his own nasal laughter. He velcroed his Reeboks, size 7, same as my Gazelles, and filled the air with words against the silence. Holiday plans, football gossip, his Irish Super Fuels roster. Never knew what to say ‒ still doesn’t.
‘Here’s the love birds now.’ Declan rubbed his hands, giddy. ‘Well? Do we get any deets?’
‘Declan! Leave them be. Jee-zus.’
The Declan and Aisling Show had been playing for the bones of five years. Dec shared his flagon in the beach carpark after a Junior Cert Disco, unclipped her bra and boarded the treadmill to a three-bed semi in our sleepless dormitory town. Their coupling had bonded two groups of four. Karl, Ciara, Bryan and Sarah J paired obligingly, dialling up the pressure on Stevie B and me.
The teasing, the innuendo. Exhausting.
Those were the years of my well-advertised romances with made-up men from UCD or a friend of a girl in work, you wouldn’t know him. Silhouettes of boyfriend material. Each bought me a few months’ peace; freedom to get shitfaced on Fridays without being shepherded in the direction of Stevie B’s brewer’s droop.
Stevie B, a victim of the conspiracy as much as I was. Sound lad. Never stalked me around Nite Owls at happy hour, never leered too long. Rarely spoke to me directly, truth be told. His focus was on drowning the notion that there could be more to life than Assistant Managing a seaside petrol station. His commitment to pints, total.
On the eve of the Bank Holiday, I was conspicuously single. Unprotected. Freshly split from a weeks-long (don’t call it a) relationship with Aisling’s stoner brother. Vultures circled. They had played the long game, awaiting our weakness. Guitars jangled and boomed as shot glasses slammed. Resistance fell, as they knew it would, and our group of eight zipped up into four pairs.
We had been groomed by our six best friends in the world. One day, I promised myself, I would make them pay.
And here we are, 12 years and seven doors up the same road. Just us. Me and Stevie B. And the inevitable preschoolers. All part of the package. As natural as the now ceaseless jokes about our Charlie marrying Aisling’s little one. Multi-generational match-making fuckery.
His skin took an almond glow in summer, helping me believe our union was a choice. He was warm. His hands and words. Those days played soft and free of surprises. June and July were given to navigating one another in kitchens, cafés, bedrooms, beyond the barstool banter that had scaffolded our beginnings. We did a fine impression of a couple.
It was high tide, the day-trippers traipsing to evening buses, when he told me he loved me. He was always going to say it first.
The sunny spell ran its course. But there was no exit. Listen, I’m not sure this is working out would have been apostasy. I’d have lost my friends, all the Nite Owls crowd, that nebulous sense of who I was. Easy now to know what I should have done as a child of 21 years. But I stuck to the familiar, to Stevie B, and invested in looking past his shortcomings. He did me the same courtesy.
Stevie B. Knew him three years and dated him two months before I learned his surname was Brannigan. He went by Stevie B because there was a Stephen Delahunt in his class at the Community School. And it just stuck, even when Stevie D left for a southside private school. Seven years of marriage and he’s still in my phone as Stevie bloody B.
But he’s a harmless prick. Malice free. The list of thoughtless things Stevie has done in our 12 years is short. He forgot my 30th birthday in the foggy fatigue of early parenthood, when I needed celebrating as a singular human. He blabbed about the silent handjob I gifted him in the Omniplex to break the boredom of Fast & Furious 7. And, after his Mam died, Stevie’s big-eyed plea to move in for a few days was a shameless trap. I made tea and sandwiches and sorry faces at his aunties. He just wanted the sympathy ride.
The few days turned to weeks and years and it was a decade before we spoke about the future, a conversation focused on the past.
Last month, I woke up aged 31, still living my adolescent life, but dressing two kids and up for a promotion at work. The phone was dancing. A string of unread WhatsApps, hyping up another big Friday in Nite Owls.
‘8pm pick-up? [Wine emoji, beer glass emoji] No excuses guys!’
It was always Aisling. Organiser, conspirator-in-chief. WhatsApp admin. Suppose we’ll never know, but if this were Germany in the ‘30s she’d have made the upper officer ranks of the SS. As it is, she’s a loss adjuster ‒ turning down home insurance claims with the pride and zeal of a UN weapons inspector. And living for her Friday nights.
The texts were redundant: the drill had barely changed since our Leaving Cert year. We had graduated from underage drinking in the beach shelters to necking naggins in rowdy minivans driven by sighing taximen. We cleaved to routine, refuting time’s claim that change is the only constant.
I issued a thumbs up and turned over in bed where Stevie’s breath was waiting. He had a few last night. Said there was a big game on, last 16 of the Europa League. Galatasaray and Feyenoord.
‘Stevie, you awake?’
‘Wide awake, babes, just restin’ me eyes.’
‘Oh, the best, the best.’
‘Do you ever think about how this all happened? Us, I mean.’
‘Ever wonder if we’ll be doing Sambuca shots in Nite Owls when we’re 41 and 51 and 61…a hundred and fucken one?’
‘Pfff…I dunno, hun. It is what it is, y’know?’
‘Tell me this: Are you happy Stevie?’
‘What?’ That opened his eyes for him. ‘Are you divorcin’ me?’
‘No, Stevie. Feck sake. Some days I just wish…’
‘Wish we could do our own thing? Figure it out for ourselves. Without the Nite Owls gang and the WhatsApps and the Abrakebabra on the way home.’
He propped up a pillow. And we talked. About how it started and how it’s going. About Aisling and Declan. Karl and Ciara. Bryan and Sarah J. The traps they laid. It was our first jokeless talk in years. I looked all the way into his eyes, locked onto mine.
‘I’ve no regrets,’ Stevie said, accessing the low flat tone he keeps for high-density occasions. ‘Don’t like people makin’ me decisions for me, but I’ve no regrets. You and the kids? Best trick I ever fell for.’
‘It’s the principle of the thing, Stevie. The conspiracy. Can’t I be mad at the manipulation and glad of the result?’
‘Like when yer man on eBay sold me that Champs Élyseés dinner for two deal, and it turned out the Champs Élysées was a restaurant in Adare ‒ not the Parisian city break you’d asked me for?’
He can make me smile, Stevie B. And that night in Adare was not without charm, born of punctured expectations. Still, I cannot bear to be played, so I flooded the smartarse eBayer with scalding reviews until he closed his account. To the Night Owls, the same logic: I reserve the right to pursue happiness in the present without forgiving the past.
‘Have you regrets, Cora? Do you wish I were someone else? Someone flashier?’
‘No…No, Stevie, I don’t think so.’
‘You don’t think so?! Christ. Well, let me know when you’re sure, one way or the other.’
‘Ah don’t be like that ‒ I don’t want some other man in particular, Stevie, or some specific other life. But does your gut never feel the niggling tug of wondering? The one that whispers of alternative ways of being?’
‘With someone else.’
‘Maybe, but not necessarily. Just another way of being us. A version of you and me that’s as perennially delighted with themselves as Ais and Dec, or as Karla and Ciara’s touchy-feely smugfest.’
‘You don’t know that they are any happier than we are, Cora. We see them for six hours every Friday night, steeped in shots and spritzer. There’s no way of knowing what happens in private.’
‘But maybe there is. Maybe we could know. I could find out, couldn’t I?’ I gripped the faded logo of his musty sleeping t-shirt, an excitement brewing in my core. ‘If I knew their struggles it might help me make peace with my own.’
We would, it was agreed, find our way to contentment, to freedom, with a little help from revenge.
Summer light does something to me. Always has. For a flash, I entertained the notion of a morning quickie. It had been weeks. Months since we’d managed it sober. As I ran an arm around Stevie’s fleshy back, our youngest intervened. Best to get up, put breakfast on, pack lunches and brave the M50, she said, by rattling her bottle along the bars of her cot like an impatient inmate.
Our lives together, imperfect and improbable, worked. Stevie’s shifts in Super Fuels freed him up to do five creche runs a week. Me, guilt free, singing away the 40-minute spin to the tech job that keeps us in nappies, rusks and Harp lager. I could never raise a bitter word against Stevie. Might throttle him into silence some evening, but that’s born of exhaustion not hate. Save my spite for scheming matchmakers.
‘Break a leg, Madam President.’
‘It’s Vice-President, Stevie, and there are 40-odd VPs in White Hat ProTech.’
‘If you say so, your VP-ness.’ After his curtsy, he laughed loudly into my ear as we hugged in the hall. ‘P-ness!’
‘You’re a bloody child, Stephen Brannigan.’ But I love you. And I should say it sometimes, you maddening lump.
My new office door delivered privacy from the cubicle safari. Space to think about company strategy and Webex Palo Alto. And to write Sunlight.exe, the privacy killer.
The WhatsApp pinged the Friday hours away. Ais, Ciara and Sarak K churning out GIFs and LOLs. I offered thumbs ups and sounds good as the fine details of the usual plan took shape and set: pre-pub drinks ‒ prinks, Lord preserve us ‒ in Karl and Ciara’s at 7pm, taxi to Mahony’s at 8pm, before vibrating into Nite Owls full of caffeinated cocktails. Two-for-one first drinks for Gold Card customers.
Late afternoon I texted the Sunlight download link, with the words: Is this yer one from school? And studied the screens of my desktop as new folders opened one by one, filling with files. Pure thrill. Ais and Ciara were in instantly. Karl and Bryan soon after, always lurking. Then came Sarak J.
Ciara could have cost me the full set. ‘That link’s dodge? My phone restarted and it took 10 mins to re-install Android?’
But Declan took the bait ‒ yer one from school, a tastier promise than engaging with Ciara’s panic about OS updates.
Me to the group:
‘Guys! My phone’s been hacked. DO NOT open any links from my number! x’
Me to Stevie:
‘It’s done. [Heart]’
Serenity. Not easily found among the Block Rockin Beats of Nite Owls Nineties Nite. But the calm that washed through me was of the kind that comes with knowing more than everyone else.
Declan, Karl and Bryan were busy proving their manliness by amping up the camp on the dance floor. Hit them baby, one more time. Stevie hopped from foot to foot beside DJ Psyche, in time to some other music in some other place. No glasses on the dancefloor please, sir.
Ciara and Sarah J were shitetalking about their kids. Couldn’t hear each other, didn’t care. I sank into the olive leather-look alcove, anticipating tomorrow, as Aisling whisper-shouted her woes into my ear. ‘Like, it’s been a year, like. Two, maybe? He doesn’t want to when he’s sober and he can’t when he’s drunk, d’ye know whad I mean?’
Some night, a decade ago, I collected the conversational data required to automate my responses to any Nite Owls conversation. Words, nods, facial contortions. Frees me up to run other apps in the background while the ChatBot services Aisling. Jesus, really? / Gawd, yeah, I know / Ah that’s very rough [arm rub].
Bouncers marched Declan over to Aisling, like she’s the Mam of an eight-year-old causing ructions at a soft play. Our cue to head for food before Declan gets a dig from the Scrappy-Do schoolboys he was squaring up to. Looked at him funny in the jacks. Not his fault. Why does this always happen to him?
Swift exit. Four Doner Kebab meals, please. Eight straws.
We floated home by the coast road, arms flapping at unlit taxi signs. Chat tomorrow, great night, love you guys, text me if you’re watching the match.
Stevie always paid the babysitter, small-talked the poor girl out the door. How’s school? Holiday plans? ‘Sorry we were so late, Debs…thanks again kiddo.’ His wink is a turn-off, but I was past the point of foreplay. I hauled him up the stairs by the belt. In our minds, we were sex-tape worthy, our best performance in years. Who would click to watch Stevie pumping away in the dark, I do not know, but we were alive with an energy once believed buried under six feet of jaded domesticity.
Why start with Ciara? Had to start somewhere, I suppose. And she never got my jokes when the others were around. Kept me in my lane. Made sure that whoever I am, whoever I become, I’ll always be who I was in 1999. And she drones on about work but has no clue what I do. That may be for the best.
We began trawling her texts and cookies, a simple script I had knocked out one lunchtime. Blunt enough weapon: it flagged salacious keywords that busied Stevie while I mined her emails. Stevie reported back at high frequency.
‘Few flirty exchanges with a Jay Dizzle? But nothing hangable.’
‘Nah, that’s Jason Dingle or Dignan or something. Teaches music in her school. Wrote a rap opera for the sixth year grad and compared it to Hamilton. Total shitehawk. Keep digging.’
‘She Googled What is lesbian scissoring? in January. That any use?’
‘She was curious for a good 45 minutes…’
‘Just stay focused, will ye?’
I know I’m a bit short with Stevie sometimes. He responds by going quiet until I throw him an easy look. Or chases my approval by upping his pun production. I prefer the silent treatment, but he hadn’t spoken for 20 minutes. Record breaking and worrying.
‘Anything juicy, Stevie?’
‘I’ve moved on to Karl.’ Blue light reflected from his glasses, eyes glued to the laptop.
‘And location data from Google maps.’
‘Yeah, cross-checking location against texts, bank info and his Paddy Power app.’
I twisted away from my twin screens, taking in his almondy glow.
‘Stevie B, you little daisy ‒ A1 for effort!’ His chest inflated as I double-tapped his knee.
‘Yeah, no, like, I feel bad for Karl. He’s in the shit. Up to his gills in debt and he hasn’t been next nor near his office for the guts of five months. Unless he has a new gig in the bookies on Station Road.’
It was a Saturday evening at 8.15pm in a living room still darkened by Stevie’s Mam’s smoke-infused shag pile carpet, but I kissed him like a lairy 21-year-old in Nite Owls on her fifth sambuca. ‘I love you Steven Branigan.’ His face, taut and shiny, looked as happy as I felt.
Kompromat, everywhere. The dark joy of discovering the trust people place in incognito windows.
We exchanged competing theories to explain why Sarah J’s seasonal fidelity to dating sites dovetailed so neatly with Bryan’s quarterly outreach to Estuary Escorts. Maybe they were both in on it. Open relationship. Maybe the escorts were revenge for the Tinder dates. Or vice versa. Whatever. We filed it away in the Sunlight folder on my desktop.
Stevie, whose heart was always quicker to guilt than mine, had bugged me from the outset with his conscience-tweaking qualms. I kept on task, mechanical and forensic, until we got to Ais and Dec. That caused me to pause. No news in Aisling’s steam-of-drunkness texts to her saintly sister about Declan. Summary: it’s a sexless, joyless, dreadfest down at number 26.
But Declan. Declan had put the hours in on the gayest corners of the Internet’s porn swamp. If Aisling was out with the sister, away for the weekend, putting out the washing, Declan was online. Balls-deep in digital dick. No Grindr hookups, no Phoenix Park rentboys, no Capel Street chemsex saunas. Only lust, unquenched.
Isn’t it always the homophobes? Years ago on some GAA lad’s stag in Carlingford, Dec asked Stevie if he ever wondered whether Karl was ‘a fag’. It was a mystery, he mused, over alternating rounds of Strongbow and Jägermeister, that our year in school was a ‘homo-free zone’, apart from that lesbian in Mr Nolan’s class. But her parents were Unitarians, so she was an outlier from the get-go. ‘Just lucky, I guess,’ was Stevie’s dim-brained response.
I stare hard, sometimes, at the faces of people on the Nine O’Clock News holding oversized EuroMillions cheques. They got the thing they said they’d always craved. Is that why they look a bit vacant? The death of want. Or is that simply the face that comes when you follow a Champagne breakfast with the lunch menu wine pairing in L’Ecrivain?
‘What’s up?’ Stevie said, as I rolled my chair away from the desk. ‘Jackpot, no?’
‘Yeah, yeah. The motherlode.’
‘So, we gonna fuck ‘em up or…?’
‘Suppose we could,’ I said, my voice as faint as my face was absent. ‘Pick our moment. Nail them one by one. Or all at once.’
‘We’re gods, babes ‒ hacker gods!’
He produced the hammy howl of a pantomime villain, longing for me to play along. Not for the first time, he had delivered what I wanted and awaited affirmation, only for me to question the wisdom of the completed project.
Revenge was a reach for Stevie B, but he’d give it a go if it might make me happy. When the guilt came for me it was driven not by remorse for invading the lives of the Nite Owls with Sunlight, but for corrupting Stevie’s soul.
The WhatsApp revved up again. Predictive text and afternoon Riesling already playing havoc with Aisling’s words. ‘BBQ in oars horse? Dublin Kerry march at 5 clock ‒ Dec bot burgers in butchers [Cow GIF]’
Stevie tilted his head, scrunched his cheeks, put his foot down.
‘Cheers guys,’ I replied. ‘But we’re having a quiet one here with the kids. x’
Stevie squeezed my hand, kissed my head and made a beeline for our barbecue with fresh springs in his heels. The sun does something lovely to his complexion this time of year.
Gary Finnegan is a journalist and writer based in Kildare, Ireland. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Irish Times, Sunday Independent, Irish Examiner and Evening Herald; his fiction has appeared in The Honest Ulsterman and The Galway Review. Gary has won two Irish Medical Media Awards and was the Irish winner of the EU Health Prize on three occasions. His book, Beijing for Beginners: An Irishman in the People’s Republic, is published by The Liffey Press. He has degrees in physiology and science communication, and is pursuing an MA in creative writing.
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