The Pearly Fence

The Pearly Fence

Short Fiction

Eoghan McGrath



Bits of paper and shit build up in the bottom of your pockets. It’s an underappreciated benefit of getting so inebriated you fall asleep with folded up pizza plates in your pants. You wake up the next day, chuck your sweat-greased Levi’s into the machine, and in a week you have a full mossy ecosystem in there. Now, if you work in a job which draws your mind to everything else you can make a sort of game with the mulch. You can draw a line through it with a fingernail, dare yourself to sniff the scree and then go ahead and smell it. It’s an amusement akin to the joy smelling your own farts produced in school. The joy at idly producing a gas which disturbs and garners the attention of those around you. Simon Charlton was a subconscious pocket scree sniffer. His nose wrinkled at the till.

Simon’s abuse began as a means to alleviate the chronic pain in his lower back which came as a result of the car crash. I say ‘crash’ rather than ‘accident’, in case you’re one of those folks who don’t ascribe accidents to negligence, as most ought to be. Indeed, Eoin had been speeding, and his recklessness had resulted in the death of Simon’s son and the slow decline and collapse of Simon’s marriage. Eoin received an eighteen-month sentence while Simon’s life imploded. Simon discovered Eoin’s address but in the end had refused vengeance. Chronic pain, my friends. In the intervening time Simon had accrued an extended knowledge of every pain pill in every pharmacy in Galway city; the dosage, the absorption speed, the longevity. Mixtures were his speciality. If two drugs had different mechanisms of action, you could mix them to double the effect, and you needed to be at least three cans deep before popping to produce an enhanced effect with alcohol. Simon was a chronic pain wizard.

Still a bit buzzed from a 5am slide Simon swayed almost imperceptibly at his till. While he ploughed another furrow in his pocket his mind floated to an article he had read somewhere online. It was about a young guy in the Netherlands or maybe the States, (he had a Dutch name anyway) who suffered from chronic pain and depression. The guy had tried smoking weed but it somehow made his physical pain permanently worse. The agony was so bad that he saw no other way out than to die. Euthanasia was prohibited in whichever country he lived so he eventually ended up hanging himself in a motel. His father had spoken to the press about how he didn’t blame his son in the slightest. He had said something like; “there was no point in him being alive. It was just pain again and again, worse each day. I would have shot him myself if it had gone on any longer. How could I expect him to stay alive like this? My own flesh.” Simon recalled that the article was written in a way which vilified the boy and his father. The man had “encouraged the suicide of his own son” after all.

The boy’s journal had been dug up post mortemand a few of the lines which featured in the article flushed so easily in to Simon’s brain he recalled them almost every day without realising. “Thing is, I know people will say that I was selfish or that I took the easy way out. But I know for certain that 99.999 % of people would do the same. Thing is, most people who hear about me have never experienced pain like this. I’ve been called overdramatic more times than I can count. Nobody really knows what it’s like to feel pain this way. The law-makers, the press. How can they make informed decisions about what is best for people like me when they have no idea what it’s like? If you couldn’t enjoy your life, you’d want to end it too. I guarantee”.

Simon shook his head absentmindedly. He was inclined to side with the journalist; the boy in the story was kinda weak he guessed. It was all a matter of managing the pain, and then just pure taking it like a man. Simon could take it, he wasn’t a child. The stench of the crap trapped underneath his nail pulled his mind back to the present. He had developed a sort of ranking system. This one was a strong eight. Work was almost over anyway and the rest of the night was his to enjoy.

Most evenings Simon liked to get shit-faced and maraud through Galway city like Jack Torrance in the hallways of the Overlook. The Romanian lady really shouldn’t have tried to sell him the bouquet of flowers.

“Why don’t you sell your fucking golden teeth? F’you need money so bad?” he said, pointing to his mouth with his middle finger.

Some tourists stopped to look.

“Well? Why the fuck doesn’t she?” He expression flicked from grimace to grin. Tourists were his favourite. “Hey Italianos, dio porco, dio lardo, dio can!”.

He could talk to anyone when he was in the right mood and medicated in just the right way. He always felt he was doing his bit for Irish tourism. This is what Galway was all about.

The air in his Dominic Street apartment was always heavy with stale piss and smoke. The fumes condensed to little creeks on the walls, staining and warping the places where they met the floor. That night the cheese and base of the pizza he’d bought in Spar melded into a sort of gritty paste in the oven but he finished it anyway. When he checked the box it was a week out of date. He necked two cans of Pratsky then a handful of pills before easing his way under the sheets feeling everything from the middle of his back down to his balls aching. A rigid wank brought sleep soon enough after. The streams from the walls crept along the fault lines in the pine floors as he slept. A finger of liquid stretched out to loop into the rim of a discarded pill bottle. The humming in his brain drowned the buzz from the city and he slept deeply.

Seagulls woke Simon just before he saw his son get mashed into the windscreen. It was 6am. He mashed the bedside table until he found the bottle. Empty. He had known that. In the bathroom he masturbated again, and inspected the line of scarred tissue up his left side. Chicks love scars. He smiled at himself then licked some of the moss from his front teeth. The stiffness in his back eased a bit as the shower got hot, and he thrust his hips out slowly getting a few cracks more than average. Doesn’t matter if the place is a kip so long as the shower is good. Like a penny in a poo-pile, it was a quality shower.

The lady in the pharmacy went to get her manager. “Can’t sell you these I’m afraid”. Simon knew for a fact the manager did coke. Bastard.

Simon’s boss was the fat neck-bearded nephew of an old Galway hurler who had no medals but whose name marked a framed hurl which hung beside the nutritional info posters. Were this anywhere other than Supermacs on Cross Street, that kind of pedigree would barely get him a small fries, much less a cushy managerial position. Simon’s boss also bore an uncanny resemblance to the villain from Space Jam. Simon’s fantasies of sticking the antique hurl up his boss’ fat arse had naturally led him to nickname the man “Golly Bar”. That particular morning Simon was too far gone even for pocket scraping, and Golly Bar had taken exception to the column of drool Simon had allowed to flow unchecked from the corner of his mouth over the side of his register.

“Take a good hard look at yourself like.”

Simon’s face was almost charred-looking in places. He had sores around his mouth and his right eye was taking half a second to catch up with his left. He washed and dried his face as best he could in the soap-water-air combo machine but his head didn’t fit properly, so he had to dry himself off with toilet paper. Bits of it stuck to his face like little grey stamps.

The schedule for bathroom checks was posted on the back of the bathroom door. A tissue stamp floated down to camouflage into the wet floor. It was Sunday morning and he knew too well the fetid amalgamation of shit, piss, and vomit that would be slathered across each cubicle. The middle cubicle also had a man in it.

The occupant of the stall was wearing a mismatch tracksuit with the sleeves pulled up revealing a landscape of veins and scabbed skin. Simon’s left foot twitched instinctively toward the bathroom door. He had to run and get help at once. It wouldn’t do to have a junkie die when it was his day for bathroom checks. But taking a last look over his shoulder Simon saw that without any doubt, the man was dead. He was young. Near enough Simon’s age. He probably had a child, probably dead too. Leaning into the cubicle a bit Simon saw that the man’s mouth was crusted with stale foam, and scanning his arms he saw a minefield of puncture marks. The pity which usually plunged from his collarbones into his stomach at the sight of death, even upon passing the carcasses of badgers honeycombed with tyre-tracks, did not materialise. He stood there for a minute pouting his lips sort of nodding to himself. He considered the man. He didn’t know how long he stood there nor how long they had been smiling at each other when pocket-borne smelling salts pulled him back and he went to fetch Golly Bar.


* * *


Meanwhile in Heaven, another man, one Michael “Mutt” Cawley, was pacing along by the pearly fence which proceeds in an infinite continuum outward from the pearly gates. Dispassionate looters had raided his shop on North Earl Street during the Rising, and all Mutt remembered was a sharp pain in his chest, the sensation of breathlessness, then the transcending light of those same gates.

Mutt hadn’t married because “fuck dat”, and was happy because heaven was filled with an infinity of beautiful and available Women. Now, an infinity of beautiful Women sounds like a dream come true for most guys, and Mutt took full advantage of it, at least to begin with. The problem is, once you’ve slept with, or masturbated to a girl of infinite beauty and virtue you can’t really top it. The mental vault where wank-fuel is kept becomes overcrowded with faces of equal appeal and leads to a stagnation of the carnal senses. Plus, Jesus kept referring to everyone as brothers and sisters which just made things weird.

Mutt had worked his whole life and hated the idea of the afterlife being an eternal retirement. Accordingly God had fitted him with a nice, easy-to-manage shop which made a steady profit. Mutt didn’t buy anything with his earnings however because he just had to wish for stuff and stuff would appear. The days of chasing knackers away from the veggies were gone. However, Mutt, the roguish salesman leaping out of bed with ideas for promotions and charming old ladies into buying more tights, also belonged to the previous life. He had the quickest wit in North Dublin, but he was far from there now. In Heaven everything he said was witty. He had come to realise that when everyone laughs at every joke, humour ceases to exist.

Mutt felt completely unrooted in Heaven. In North Earl Street you had to fit or else you simply couldn’t be there, and it was hard to have a sense of belonging in a place that was not only timeless but nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. It was this sort of vague non-definition of heaven that Mutt disliked. It could be infinitely small, packed somewhere between the burgeoning subatomics of the ice under Mars for example, or colossal like a vast sphere encasing a multiverse. He hadn’t figured this all out for himself either. One day he had simply wanted to know and so he knew. The uncertainty itself was a fact, but it really didn’t matter anyway. Big or small, “infinity is fucking infinity God damnit”, and that’s all there was to it. Mutt’s resentment of it all was as inconsequential as piss in the Ocean. Somewhere in the coming eternity he was going to feel every emotion in every single way, billions and billions of times over. He would amass such experience that any torment or triumph would be faced with equal lucidity and indifference. Like humour, infinity was also the death of experience.

Mutt’s friends seemed to be having a great time of it though. They got to do whatever they wanted all the time and were completely content. Dublin won the GAA double every other week which was fine, but unlike his friends Mutt was unable to ignore the fact that every other county won it too. It didn’t stop at GAA. Leitrim had won the Champions league only yesterday for the twelve-hundredth time since Mutt had died. It was fun the first time. It was fun the second time. The fiftieth time… It became like being trapped in a room with only a handful of books to read. Doesn’t matter if it’s Joyce or a toaster manual, by the hundredth readthrough you’re cutting yourself on each page just to liven things up.

When he looked elsewhere for companionship he found only those who had already resigned themselves to one monotony or another. The millennials and multi-millennials of heaven could always be found beneath trees taking heroin and passing the blurred seconds in a bliss of infinity plus one. They were born into suffering and Mutt couldn’t really blame them much. The black death section of heaven was particularly lively. The Crusaders knew how to use a pipe too.

Somewhere (it didn’t matter where) along the pearly fence Mutt stopped and peered through the bars. The clouds which puffed exquisitely between his toes stretched away into the dim whiteness of the beyond. Over the past weeks he had tried to find a hole in the fence or just some sort of ending, but of course he could not. He never seemed to get very far in his quest. Every time he needed to go take a piss his mansion would appear just behind him. He resigned himself to the fact that once you are outside of time and space there’s nowhere for you to go. Turned out the afterlife was no life at all, just vague grey subsistence. He was free to do anything, but he was forbidden to die. It couldn’t be called life if you couldn’t die.

He lowered himself to his knees slid his hand through the bars and traced eight words into the thinning layer of cloud on the other side.


* * *


Back in Galway, Simon Charlton was lying on the grass of Eyre Square with tears crawling down his temples into his ears. He was asking himself over and over again the same question that everyone on the verge of doing something drastic asks themselves; How did it come to this? Somewhere in his brain he knew why. That rational side of him, the side that had kept him going to work and stopped him one pill early every time, knew it all. You got fired for being consistently late, so you ran out of money on the next would-be pay-day. Then you tried to steal cans from spar and pills from the pharmacy, earning yourself life-time bans. The rain and seagulls are much worse when you’re sleeping on the street. They’ve kept you awake for the last week or so. You haven’t slept, you haven’t eaten properly. You’re completely fucked up, in other words. Now you’ve nothing to do but lie here, appreciate the slow crumbling of your spine, and wonder why with complete sobriety. You could go back to Golly Bar and ask for your job back, but you know he’d just call the guards.

The most frightening thing to Simon was the roadblock his brain had now hit. No idea or rationalisations came to him. His family seemed incredibly far away. If they really cared they would have messaged me. Then again, if you really cared you would have messaged them. He had always been able to think his way out of things. He could take things further than most people because he always intuitively knew when to stop. But there was nothing intuitive about his new position. Bubbling up from the far reaches of his subconscious came the only idea that would make it stop. The boy from the Netherlands or wherever hadn’t really been so weak after all. Chronic pain, my friends.

That night, Simon walked out to the Quincentenary Bridge. It was late enough that only a car or two passed every ten minutes. When he got close enough to the middle of the bridge he placed his hands on the rail and looked down into the reel of moonlight. He remembered seeing the helicopters overhead on another night like this five years ago. Two search helicopters had scoured the Corrib and fire crews lined the railings on every bridge. The helicopters had been deafening that night. You could hear them in the city, over the street performers, stag-dos, and drunken invalids. The sound of the blades at every door. The great humming and yawning in the air had silenced the gulls and framed the city in the instance of the departure. He recalled the strange sensation of being able to hear something nobody else could. In the end the catchers failed to catch, pints were pulled in bemused indifference, and a student washed up in Clare a few weeks later.

As the river crept below, Simon’s instinct to avoid more pain collided with an equal and opposite instinct to survive. Like tectonic plates mashing together they drove upwards, pitching his pain into a smouldering clump in his chest. The sensation dried out his throat but seemed to kick his body into motion. He swung his legs over and sat on the railing. It has to be now, it has to be now, it has to be now, don’t hesitate. He slipped his bottom off the railing, and felt his weight transfer to his arms which instantly trembled. As he hung over the edge his back felt as though it was being pulled apart by microscopic demons with crowbars. His fingers slid an inch towards the edge. Drops of rain sought the spaces beneath his palms. The sound of the water seemed to grow louder in his ears as he gazed down and saw the full expanse of the river beneath him.

Then with great effort he pushed himself back up onto the railing. In one movement he swung himself back around and slid back onto the pavement. Every part of him trembled now. He felt almost as if he were floating, as though part of him had fallen into the water and was drifting down along to the city. With nothing else to do, the rest of him put its hands in its pockets and strode to the campus side of the river.

He walked all night and wished he could have jumped. He stopped at Bridge Street and then again at the pier, but the thing could not be done. He crumbled against a wall at the back of Father Griffin’s GAA club. He heard the bay washing and hitting around him. It was constant. The pain in his back fixed him into the place. The cold made each of his movements as rigid and drawn-out as the groaning and creaking of iron girders bending beneath the weight of the ocean. The worst thing was the pain of knowing how long it would all last. Back pain wouldn’t kill him, and he couldn’t kill himself. None of his suffering meant anything.

He felt the light slapping of webbed feet all around his head. Gulls had come to inspect him. They fought loudly beside his ears and he felt their wings brushing against his legs. A louder deeper squawking forced his eyes open. Fucking swans. He managed to get up to his feet and stagger away before they could get a proper peck at him. Without purpose he walked to Eyre Square with the breaking sun on his back.

He was sat on the stone wall beside the public toilets when a stranger handed him a cup of coffee. Squinting against the sun Simon was unable to make out anything about the man’s face. He saw a white shirt with a black tie, then a name tag. He could make out the words “JESUS CHRIST” floating in front of his face. There were two of them. He squinted from one to the other, then became preoccupied with his coffee. The Jesus Christs in suits sat beside him. For a while they said nothing as the humming of the city gradually built up around them. Simon remembered nodding a lot. He heard lots of nice things. Rewards, inducements, paradise. At last he was given card and left alone. His pockets were a definite ten when he checked later that day. He would never reach those heights again.


* * *


“There must be some way out of here,” said Simon to Mutt.

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