The old pub was as dark and dank a hole as Ireland had ever produced. It was the perfect hiding place for its whiskey-bloated patrons. They scurried from shadowed corner to the dimly lit bar like creatures fearing predation. So it must have been only by some queer alignment of the noonday sun, some rare equinoctial tilt of the earth, that allowed a chance beam to slip in through a mucky skylight and pierce the guts of the place. It was this light that caught in Ger’s beer as he raised his pint glass. It glinted and glistened with a golden loveliness that was almost absurd in the confines of the dingey lounge. Ger stood there like lady liberty with her torch aloft and began his spiel.
‘Well, here’s to you, ya jammy bastard. May you find every success in your cool new life in Amsterdam! And may you only lose your mind in a cool Hunter S Thompson kind of a way and not in a the-voices-made-me-do-it kind of way,’ said Ger.
‘Cheers to that,’ I said. We clinked glasses before chugging down a few sloppy swallows, rivulets of beer dripping down our chins and rolling down our necks.
Noon was our favourite time to drink. It was the quality of the quietude, almost like being in an empty church or sitting on a big mossy rock by a slow river on a misty day.
The old bench in the corner we had claimed creaked as we leaned back with gassy sighs.
‘How is the aul mind anyway? You’ve not been out much since all that stuff in Galway.’
That stuff. Yeah. That stuff. What happened in Galway didn’t go away. What it did was burrow into me and go to sleep. But some stuff you don’t say out loud. Some stuff you leave alone and hope it goes away by itself.
‘Nah, I think I’m mostly over all that. Galway was just weird like that. Just bad hash giving me, like, intrusive thoughts or whatever. Pretty common, apparently. Like when you look at a baby or a puppy and get an urge to drop-kick it through a window or something.’
‘It’s common, I told you. Everyone’s at it.’
‘Yeah, right, well, I’ll take your word for it. So, no more flashing images of bloody crucified Jesus pointing his finger at you?’
It was a skull, actually. A flashing red skull. It was the same skull they used in those pro-life campaign posters I helped me da put up before the referendum. ‘No, not since I got home.’
Ger arranged the beer mats into a diamond formation. ‘Would you ever go back up there? Back to college?’
‘Nah, fuck that.’ I said, spinning a beer mat of my own in circles on the table. ‘I can’t stay here. This country, it’s just, I dunno, time to go is all.’
‘Fair enough.’ Ger scattered his diamond beer mat formation. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t make it up to Galway with you. It might have been different if we were both there.’
Ger knew something bad had happened in Galway, but he’d never gotten the full story out of me. He would probe like this occasionally to see if I’d spill.
‘I just worry sometimes. Like, what kind of job can you get without a degree?’
‘I’ve enough money for a few weeks arsing about anyway. And I’m sure I’ll find work eventually. I could be a warehouse slave or a supermarket slave. Good slaves are always in demand. They all speak English over there anyway.’ The beer mat I had been spinning went skittering off the table. I left it where it fell.
‘Well, there’s always the red-light district. A nice fresh boy like yourself. I’m sure you manage to make ends meet.’
‘Har har har. But yeah, I’d say I would make a bomb. Gay men find me fierce attractive for some reason.’
‘You’ve kind eyes.’
‘Not my firm buttocks, no?’
‘No, gay men are mad for the kind eyes.’
‘Yeah, they love coming bucket loads onto kind eyes.’
‘Is there a need to lower the tone like that?’
‘No, no. You’re right. So, what about it? Will you be, eh, lowering the tone yourself?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know, will you be’ –whistling sounds— ‘down the red light district.’
‘Whistling in the red light district.’
‘Yeah, you know, giving it the ol—’
He pokes a finger into the O of his other hand and whistles low to high.
‘Eh, I doubt it, to be honest. I’d say I’ll avoid the aul whistling.’ I said it quite evenly, I think, but no matter, even the dog on the street knew that whistling was the whole reason I was going. I needed to get over Jules. I needed to be a human again, and this was how.
I hadn’t had a good whistle since we broke up. Me and Jules did try to make it work after, but it’s not something that makes a couple stronger. It’s like an acid between you. I remember that day in Starbucks, straining to keep our voices low, our iced coffees sitting in front of us untouched.
‘I’ll go by whatever you decide,’ she said.
‘Then get rid of it.’ I said without hesitation, with relief, with anger.
‘But can we not talk about the possibility of— I mean, did you not just vote no in the referendum a few months ago?’
‘Here, Jules, this isn’t a fucking game, like. We’re in no fit state—’
‘But can we just—’
On and on and on, like some kind of nightmare you can’t wake up from.
‘Martin!’ called Ger to the old bartender, twirling his index finger in the air for another spin on the merry-go-round like some kind of wizard casting a spell. ‘Why, man? It’s the whistling capital of the world. All those gorgeous girls in their windows. I’d say you’ll pop in for a look, alright.’
‘I’ll have a look, of course, sure everyone goes to have a look.’
‘—You’ll have a look, alright, I’d say, ya dirty bollox! Maybe two looks!’
‘Gerry, will you keep your voice down, for fuck’s sake.’
‘Yearra relax, will ya, there’s no one here. And sure, Martin’s mad for it anyway.’ Gerry gestured to Martin, who was pulling the fresh pints.
‘Yeah, well. I don’t want word getting out that I’m off to Amsterdam to—.’
‘—Alright, alright. But what about the—”
—whistling—as he put an imaginary joint up to his mouth.
—whistles again, flicking an invisible pill into his mouth.
—more whistles, this time pantomiming a long cocaine snort.
‘You know. Fweet-fweet.” And he motions the stabbing of a heroin injection in the crook of his arm.
‘Gerry, use your words.’
‘The fucking drugs, man. Those sweet ass drugs. Surely the great Shane Turner will be tumbling down the rabbit hole.’
‘I think I am.’
‘Fuck me, man, that is exciting. What about your mind? Like with all that stuff last year, you’re not worried that it’s gonna, like, bubble up again?’
‘Well, I don’t think so. I mean, I’m grand now, so it should be fine.’
‘Well, let me know how you get on. I’m expecting a detailed trip report in my inbox as soon as.’
‘Of course. Sure, what would be the point of doing it if I didn’t get to send you an email about it.’ I shifted in my chair, made awkward by the accidental sincerity.
‘Don’t be gay.’
‘Right, yeah, sorry.’
‘Speaking of gay, I got you something.’ Gerry handed me an envelope. ‘It’s not anything. It’s just— Just don’t open it until you get on the plane, okay?’
‘Ohh, how gay and mysterious of you.’
We spent the rest of the day playing ‘’member when,’ and parted ways, shitfaced, of course, at around five. I wanted to tell him. Just let it all out. I knew it was probably the healthy thing to do.
‘See, after the clinic, the procedure, when the baby was gone, we started smoking a lot more hash. We got into coke. There were some skaggy pills. We took whatever we could get our hands on. Some nights I didn’t even feel like it, but this was what we agreed we wanted. We wanted this instead of that. So we did it, whether we felt like it or not. It felt like we had to prove to the baby that we would have been shit parents. And to ourselves, I dunno, there was something to be proved. So we did it whenever we could. I stopped going to college and started dealing a bit. It was around then it showed up. The skull. Red and flashing. Behind my eyelids. Sometimes laughing, sometimes screaming. And I thought I’d lost it, Ger. I really did. Jules left, back to Belfast, I think. She hated me by the end. But I stayed, wandering bug-eyed down shop street, trying to blink the fucking skull out of my head. Intrusive thoughts, says the doctor. Normal, he says. Lay off the beer. I’m telling you now, Ger, I’d never been so frightened of anything. And that’s what this whole trip is, Ger. I’m trying to start over, and please, will you come? Will you please come with me? Cause I’m scared, man.’
But some things you can’t say. Some things you just have to clamp down on and hope they go away on their own.
The next day I packed light. I didn’t have much to bring anyway, and half of it was books and ratty old poetry notebooks that I couldn’t leave behind in case my mother rooted them out and had me committed.
I had Ger’s envelope in my carry-on luggage. I took it out as we were taking off. Inside was a single scrap of paper, and written in Ger’s childish scrawl was ‘HST.’ I smiled. The underlined ST were my own initials, and HST was Hunter S. Thompson’s moniker. He who was revered among young eejits the world over. He who made getting high seem like some kind of political rebellion, something righteous. Like drinking eight cans of Dutch gold and smoking diesel-soaked hash from a coke bottle bong in your parents’ shed was the ultimate assertion of spiritual sovereignty. Fuck the man. Fuck the system. HST: patron saint to sunken-eyed addicts all over the world. Herder of schizophrenics and paranoids. Protector of jobless masturbators. Father and mother to moon-drunk delusionals the world over.
HST. HST. I smiled and put it back in my luggage, grateful I had at least one friend who understood me.
I found a Hostel right off the main square, a street called Kromme Waal, barely a stone’s throw from the train station. It was a big dark swampy green three-story townhouse that looked as if it were troubled by a hacking cough and a swollen prostate that kept it up nights.
The basement room was little more than a cell. A single bed squashed in the corner, a dresser with the drawer missing next to it, a dripping sink under a smokey mirror, a single naked bulb dangling from an exposed wire. I switched it on. It flickered and was sorry. The only other light source came from a single rectangular slit of a window too high up to look out of. That was it. And all painted the same cow dung green as the outside. It was shite, but that was fine. At least I had my own room.
It didn’t take me long to find a coffee shop. From the outside, it looked like a regular coffee shop, apart from some minimal Bob Marley / Rastafarian stylings. And it stank in that beautiful rich way, a heavy, almost cloying perfume. Bells sounded off in the distance, jarring and dissonant, they complained to one another. I knew from my lonely planet guidebook that these were the famous Westerkirk bells, a sound said the unsettle and unseat the demons that lived in men. Apparently, the church felt the city warranted this mass exorcism at regular intervals throughout the day.
Inside the coffee shop, a few people seated around small driftwood-esque tables, clacked on laptops and spoke on phones. A young couple sat on the corner sofa holding hands, she with her head lolling to rest his shoulder.
I nodded my hello to a sullen-looking cashier, who ignored my friendly head incline. He sat on a stool behind the counter with his arms folded. He had marked me as a tourist, and I could not begrudge his animosity. I ordered a ready-made joint as politely as I could.
There was some missing time. I was outside now, and the world was vibrating—the air dense and humming. I couldn’t breathe. I needed to puke and to shit and to piss and to breathe. My heart was pounding in my ears, too fast, far too fast.
I was wet with sweat, cold and shivering. I felt like a ghost, like I had no body. I was cold, and I was hot, and I really needed to shit. The bells banged and bonged, plotting and scheming.
I wandered lost for a while, stunned, kind of electrocuted, stuttering my pleas for directions from disgusted locals. I did find my hostel eventually. I ran up the stairs to my room. I fumbled at my door with the key and collapsed inside.
As I lay on my bed, I could feel my humanity returning. The soul, tremulous and dim, settled back into straw-filled bones. I hugged my knees to my chest and waited for my mind to reform. The weed was a little stronger than I was used to.
I opened my eyes. A slat of sun was shining in the narrow window. I sat on the edge of my bed and rubbed my eyes. I watched the motes dance gently in and out of the light. I went to the sink and splashed water on my face.
‘What the fuck is this place.’ Bells broke into obnoxious laughter as I spoke.
Outside, the air was cool, and it filled my lungs, and I was made alive by it.
I found a pub on one of the canal streets and set myself up outside. Pigeons pecked the pavement by my feet and looked at me askance. ‘Alright, lads,’ I nodded to them. I said a little prayer of thanks as the first swallow of Heineken hit the back of my throat. The bells cheered my first sup. I had another beer. Then another. The sky was blue. The air was fresh and optimistic.
I felt good, purged almost like I’d spent the night before bawling my eyes out or screaming at my father.
I went for a stroll along the canals, eyeing myself in the diesel-slick reflection. I eventually found the street I was looking for. It was not even noon, but the place was bustling already. It was pretty much exactly how I’d imagined it would be; A street full of red-lit windows where half-naked women curled their pointing fingers at you as you passed.
The women were good looking enough, I suppose. A lot of them looked tired, dark circles under their eyes, pudgy belly folds frowning as they rested chin on elbow and elbow on knee, perhaps waiting for the devil to come and claim his due, just like Rodin’s thinker. It was a little depressing. I knew those girls didn’t want to be there, not really.
Maybe I was just being a prude. Would a factory worker’s eyes look any less damaged after a fourteen-hour shift in a windowless warehouse?
I decided to make one last pass and head back for another pint with the pigeons. On the way out, something glinted, and I was made blind. I stopped Infront of her window.
She was the shiniest girl on the whole street. She was bright and new and young. What in God’s name was she doing in a window? She looked little more than a teenager. Part of me wanted to save her. Call the police and tell them I’d found a shiny girl in a window. Her parents needed to come and collect her immediately. The other part of me wanted to do different and diametrically opposed things.
She threw me a wink. She made a blowjob motion with her hand, pushing her cheek out with her tongue. I swallowed.
How was she even free? How was it that here on this street of perverts that there was not a man inside her right now, trying to suck that bright shiny light out of her eyes?
She continued to wave me over. I stood there, frozen mid-step, a fish that wanted to be caught. She jiggled a huge wobbly dildo up close to her face and threw me a wink. Then she kissed the dildo.
You,’ she mouthed. ‘Yes, you, come here.’ She waved me over.
I approached her, and she opened her door to let me in. I stayed on the street. I swallowed.
‘Yes?’ I asked.
‘Fifty euro for suck and fuck, twenty minutes,’ she said.
‘Suck and Fuck.’
I could feel the line. That invisible barrier that once crossed could not be uncrossed. I would become that sort of man. I would enter my mother’s son and leave someone else. I would pay her for sex, and after, we would both be just a little bit less shiny.
I wanted to go home. It was wrong. She pulled down her bra and flashed a pale tit with a cherry-pink nipple. It was wrong. I knew it was wrong. But that was no longer the question. The question was about me now and whether or not I cared.
She took my hand in hers and tugged at it. ‘Come in,’ she said. ‘Come in and fuck me.’ I held my ground. I could vaguely hear the distant cathedral bells, their clanging and clonging, their gasping and panting, their mean gossiping.
And then she looked me in the eyes and tugged again.
Back at my canal bar, I saluted the pigeons, ‘Lads.’ They pretended not to notice me, their beaks in the air. I ordered a beer and drank it quickly. The beer lay my head upon its lap. It brushed the hair from my forehead. It hummed a gentle lullaby.
We had no choice. What kind of a life could we have given a child? It was time to move on.
I had another few drinks. I drank until my hand steadied. I felt better and better. I headed back out into the world. My mind was fine. The skull was gone. It wasn’t coming back. The bells collided with enthusiastic agreement.
I would, I decided, go and check out the magic mushroom shop. I could just look, just see what the story was.
The shop walls were cluttered with alien heads, lava lamps, rotating planets, and wild geometric sculptures sticking to the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Here was all the tacky tie-dye pageantry of psychedelia. All the ancient magicks were for sale now. The doors of perception, buy one door get one free.
The dreadlocked clerk stood over a glass counter filled with fungi. The black light from the mushroom display lit his face from below and gave him a demonic aspect that made me cringe when he greeted me.
‘Greetings traveller,’ his twisted teeth shone at me.
‘And what does this one do,’ I pointed at the big brown mushroom.
‘This one is very nice, very floating and good visuals for you,’ he said, smiling broadly.
‘And this one?
‘This one very strong, more for very experienced users.’
‘And is there a mild one? Like, for beginners?’
‘This one is good for beginners.’ The one he pointed at had long stalks with a dark yellow head.
‘This is your first time?’
‘Okay, so I think these are good for you, but no need to eat them all. Just eat maybe half, and you should have a nice time. Just to try for first time because, you know, some people don’t like the feeling.’
‘And is there any way to stop the trip if I don’t like it?’
‘Eh, well, you can try to drink some orange juice, but really you just have to wait.’
‘It depends on the person. It can be 4 or 6 or 8 hours, maybe. Some people never come down.’
‘I’m joking,’ said the clerk flatly as he put them into a plastic bag for me.
I hadn’t asked him to do that. Now he was ringing them up. I had not agreed to that either.
I handed him the money.
‘Skull,’ he said.
I felt the blood leave my face. There was a flash, the briefest flash. ‘What?’
‘Skaal. It’s Danish. It means cheers.’
I remembered Galway. I remembered being afraid to close my eyes because I knew what I would see when I did. And I was terrified because I thought that at any moment, the skull in my head would begin to talk. And I knew, somehow, that once it did, it would never stop. But the skull was gone. I hadn’t thought about the skull for a long time. I closed my eyes. The skull was gone.
Back in the hostel, I took out the box of mushrooms and put them on the bed. I looked around my room. The suffocating sewage green paint, the bare flickering bulb, the drip, drip, drip of the sink. The single narrow window even had those metal security bars across it; so much for set and setting.
I would just have to make do. I rummaged through my rucksack and took out the two cans of Heineken I’d stuffed in there. I put them on the dresser next to the mushrooms. I took out one of my new notepads, fresh and clean, with only a few lines written on the plane over. I opened it to a blank page and put it on the dresser with a pen. I rustled around some more and found the note from Ger scrunched up at the bottom. I unfurled it and placed it next to the mushrooms. HST. I looked at my altar of assorted talismans and charms. It would have to do.
I cracked a can of Heineken and sat back on the bed. I picked out a mushroom and examined it. It had a vaguely purple tint, almost phosphorescent. The yellow cap was so vivid, a bright bulging phallus. They were beautiful. I wrote in notepad. ’The mushrooms are beautiful. I am going to eat them.’
I took out one and bit the head off it. It was unpleasant, earthy, like eating mud and Rennie. I finished the stringy stem then I took out another. There were six mushrooms in the box. Each mushroom was about two mouthfuls. I ate the second one.
I sat cross-legged on the bed and finished my beer. I looked at my watch. I opened another beer. I scribbled in my notepad, just etching in the corners, swirling little designs. I ended up drawing several skulls in the process. When I realised what I’d done, I tore the page out and tossed it across the room. I drank my beer, taking deep pulls. I tried to write a poem but tore before I could finish the line— we had no choice. I paced, clicking and clapping and smacking lips and clicking my tongue. Then eventually, something did start to happen. My vision seemed to sharpen or tighten, or well, I can’t explain it; everything seemed more real. I looked at the notebook. It was there on the dresser, just as it had been, only now it was more there. It was actually there. Really there. There in 3d. There in HD.
I felt like I was thinking more directly too, or that I had more conscious control of my thoughts, like I could direct the beam of my attention wherever I wanted, and it would just go there without the usual background interference. I was my real self now. Oh, look at that notebook, thought my real self. The thought reverberated inside me. My thinking had become so precise and clear.
I took up the notepad. I snorted a little laugh. Thoughts like arrows, I wrote.
I finished my last beer and looked around the small room smiling. I put on some music. Bob Marley, good ol’ Bob. Gentle Bob, kind Bob, such a lovely Bob.
I was feeling good. I was feeling airy and loose and light. I took out another mushroom. I gobbled it down. Then I ate two more.
I listened to the Bob Marley album with a dazed smile. The music was somehow more real now, more inside of me, more alive. I took out the CD from my Walkman. I opened my CD book and flipped through to see what else might be good. Tool. The Doors. David Bowie. Slip knot. Green Day. The Ells. Oasis. I sat on the bed for a while and looked around my room. I looked at the bars on the single window. ‘A bit prisoney, alright,’ I said aloud. My voice sounded like it was coming from an amplifier with the reverb turned up. I felt as if someone else had spoken out of my mouth.
The bile green paint looked to be shifting slightly at the edge of my vision. I put my face up to the wall and squinted at it. I ran my fingertips over the paint. Unsettled, I put the Bob Marley CD back in again. I skipped through the first song. Skipped again. Next song. Next song. Where was that gentle one that I liked?
I put my hand to my forehead. ‘Calm,’ I said. ‘Easy.’ I took up my notepad and wrote. ‘No choice.’
I paced up and down the room rubbing my cheeks with both hands. I yawned my mouth open as wide as it would stretch. I clenched and unclenched my fists. A scream formed in my mind; it slid into my belly and sat there like hunger.
We really did have no choice. What kind of life?
I paced. I rubbed my forehead and my temples as though my fingertips were erasers. I paced and looked in the mirror. I paced and looked at the wall. I took out the Bob Marley CD. I put the Bob Marley CD back in. I drew a picture in my notebook. It was a skull. I threw my notebook across the room. I splashed some water on my face. I watched my neck elongate in the mirror. I watched my face change into Ger’s face. I scrambled around the room, looking for the stupid fucking HST scrap of paper. I found it under the bed. I held it up to my face. It was a skull. Had Ger drawn the skull? I squeezed my ears.
I tried to piss in the sink. Nothing came. I put my head between my knees. I looked at my watch. ‘No-no-no, that can’t, I can’t.’ I counted the hours again on my fingers. I paced the room. I lay on the bed. I looked through my CD collection. I put on The Doors. I took out The Doors. I lay on the ground. I put Bob Marley back in, and then I took him out. What was that Jules had said? That she would go by whatever I decided? Was that it?
I wrote in my notepad. ‘Never. Never never never never. ‘ I filled the pages with never nevers. I drew a skull. I threw the notepad away.
My thoughts were spiders and ants and centipedes, the walls were melting, and I couldn’t get a hold of myself, I couldn’t find myself because, in my head, I had no feet, nothing was tied down. I couldn’t breathe. The air wasn’t entering my lungs properly. My chest went up and down, but no air was going in. I pissed myself. Did I? I checked the bed. It was dry. Or was it wet? If I had beer, I might be able to get a grip. I had no beer. I couldn’t get a grip. I was losing it. Why didn’t I buy more beer? Why were there bars on this window? We were in no fit state. Why was I here in this awful place all by myself? The bells rang. Doom. Doom. Doom.
I drew a skull in my notepad.
I drew a picture of a man screaming.
There was nothing to stand on. Nothing to stop me from falling.
I drew a skull.
I buried my head in the pillow.
I opened my eyes. I closed my eyes.
I drew a skull.
I lay on the bed.
I raked my fingers down my face.
I lay on the floor.
I had to leave this room.
I could not, under any circumstances, leave this room.
I drew a skull.
My face morphed and melted.
My hands bulged and shifted, the palm lines elongating and contracting, all futures possible and impossible. Nothing was certain. I couldn’t right myself.
I wrote in my notepad.
‘Her choice too. Not just me. Don’t. Shouldn’t do that. What kind of life? Never. Never.’
I drew a skull.
I drew a skull.
I drew a skull.
I drew a skull.
The bells, no longer outside, no longer distant, roared their accusations.
I drew a skull.
Sean Tanner’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, The Lonely Crowd, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Moth Magazine and Litro Magazine, among others. In 2017 he won the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award for first fiction, and in 2018 he received the John McGahern Award for literature. In 2021 he was awarded a full literature bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland.
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