Maggot’s brothers, The Twins, were not quite identical but the swarthy, black-eyed pair did their best to complete each other with their matching Bay City Roller outfits of denim and tartan, their raven black hair hacked into jagged, home- made mullets. Despite the clownish rolled- up denims exposing outsize army surplus boots, their constant presence in and around Mario’s Arcade, the geographic centre of the village and their headquarters, inspired palpitating radar blips of repulsion, promised deep precipices of despair for anyone who looked too long into those black eyes. The wide berth they were given, by those with and without authority, was not purely physical. It was not just the pan-handling or the petty theft, the spray paint or the glue, the public urination or the broad daylight assaults. It also had to do with the local knowledge that long after the last shop’s shutters rasped down, the pub’s last punters had steamed homeward, and the last yappy mutt gave in to exhaustion, they would still be there on the wall outside the arcade, side by side or back to back in near- perfect symmetry. Or later still, if you cared to look, you could have seen two contorted silhouettes dangling from the battered swings and slides of the area’s only playground, waiting out the grinding silence of the suburban night, often until the delivery men from the dairies or bakeries began their rounds. They would spot the whey-faced pair in their rear view mirrors making for their boards of fresh bread and crates of milk, accelerating away from a problem that would, thank Christ, never be theirs.
Even at the age of eleven, Maggot and I knew we would never visit each other’s homes. Most days we managed to avoid the bulk of the bullies and thick tongues of the hopeless eejits by cutting through Bamboo Forest and inching across the weir, the colours of the river Camac below ranging from snot green to terra cotta to a milky beige, depending on what chemical process they were using that day up at the paper mills. But our banter always began to lose momentum as we approached our separate turns, mine to the new estate, his to Watery Lane caravan park, the County Council’s only alternative to his family’s recently condemned inner city flat. And after the last “Deadly!” or “Rare!” was half-heartedly uttered, it was always Maggot who turned first, with an upward jerk of his chin, to clamber off the mounds of soil, weeds and rubble left behind by our estate’s builders the year before, and on to the pitted gravel of Watery Lane.
That day The Twins were squatting on a section of dry stone wall at the entrance to the caravan park, watching us approach. Turning for home I was already focused on the slices of fresh Vienna Roll and the Kung Fu Annual that were waiting for me there when I heard the unexpected call-back.
‘Here, Domo! Domo! ’
I saw Maggot waving his arms over his head across the faces of The Twins, standing now and gazing unmistakeably in my direction.
‘C’mere, Domo! C’mere!’
I looked toward the gable ends of my estate for some signs of life, then into the countryside behind Maggot and The Twins. I was searching, in escalating panic, for a rescuer, preferably an adult one. I was compelled to move, I knew. I couldn’t just go home; not now. Not after The Twins taking an interest like this. Hoisting the straps of my rucksack on to my shoulders, I walked forward. Maggot broke away from The Twins and met me halfway but I could see on his face that a transfer of allegiances, from me his school friend, to his blood kin, had already taken place.
‘D’ya wanna bunk into Albert’s? The lads is let watch and they can bunk us in.’
I had no idea what Albert’s was yet but I wasn’t about to tell anyone that.
‘Deadly!’ I replied and, avoiding Maggot’s treacherous eyes, strode off toward The Twins.
‘Oh, wait’ll ye see it, Domo. It’s rare, so it is.’
They watched us approach, a cross-haired grin on each face, two frames from the one roll of film; spot the difference.
‘Yaaaa, lads. Are yis right, then?’
This was me, getting an astonished double- take from Maggot, gobsmacked at his estate friend’s correctly nuanced leap into the dark. The Twins regarded me dourly for a lurching five seconds, then cracked up, noisily and unreservedly. It was a world-class, once-off laugh, a full-gummed, eye-rolling recruitment ad for sadists; but also, for me, a small success.
‘’C’mom’ said one of them then, wiping a string of drool from his chin, turning into the entrance of the caravan park.
Long before we reached Albert’s, the bellowing hit us. Like the first blast of audio in The Tower cinema, the only thing to do was to give in to it, adjust to the certainty that for the next while you were not going to be able to hear anything else and may as well give your mouth a rest and watch. I also realised it was the same sound I’d been hearing almost every day since we’d moved in to the estate but that at a distance had seemed no more or less significant than road traffic, birdsong, power tools, overhead planes. Up close, though, that sound and now the violent thrash of metal and clatter of hooves accompanying it, fairly rattled me
But I still followed Maggot’s gestures directing me around the trucks and vans parked outside the entrance to the large, breeze-blocked barn, its red tin roof and sides climbing three transparent stories to frame a hazy portion of the Dublin hills beyond.
Maggot knew the drill and was quickly at the furthest edge of the trucks. Slower, I accepted one twin’s pulling me by my rucksack straps to catch up, getting out of range of the men in blood- stained shop-coats, caps and gloves, standing in clouds of cigarette smoke around the entrance or trotting with sections of carcass over their shoulders toward the backs of their vehicles.
It wasn’t The Twins who were hiding. It was a given that they feared no one, even such sour- faced, heavy- footed men as these. I understood from the way they took possession of me and Maggot, all four of us moving as one, that it was us being smuggled into this place.
As we emerged from the recesses and approached the fenced enclosure, one twin pushed me to my knees behind the pile of sandbags propping up one section of the metal barrier. I started to protest but then looked across at Maggot, grinning back from a similar position, eyes just above the rim of the bags. The Twins leaned on the barrier itself, chins on folded arms, and waited.
Albert, it turned out, was the broken down Teddy Boy at the centre of this whole show. Jet black quiff and sideboards framing a puce-toned face that could, for all the wear and tear, have belonged to a third twin. But Albert’s every movement and gesture made him the Daddy there. His bare forearms and brow glistening with sweat as the other men struggled, dragging the harnessed animal forward as Albert directed and instructed, his arms stretched wide as if to receive an embrace, counter-pointing the demented bellowing of the heifer and its companions out back with a crooning baritone easy easy easy. It continued until he stepped forward and, roughly caressing the tufted hair between the ears of the trembling, constrained animal, murmured a short blessing.
And everyone there knew, even me, that this was what we were all here for. When Albert stopped whispering and went still for a fraction of a second, his stillness created a vacuum that reached out and enclosed everyone present. Albert himself knew this best but, from the way he grabbed the bolt gun from the man next to him, with violence, as if he was at fault, you could tell he had never fully embraced his work.
He put the barrel between the animals bulging eyes and a segment of time went missing, and stayed missing, between the ringing crack and the sight of the animal twitching on its side on the concrete floor.
It had been left to The Twins to guess for themselves, what everyone in the caravan park and most of the village beyond already knew: that Albert was the father they’d always been told had died years ago. And even they by then were already hardened to this work that their father would always remain uneasy about. They hadn’t even watched the kill, only the latest of dozens they had been present at, unacknowledged but unhindered by Albert. Their icy scrutiny had been reserved for the face of the newcomer, mine, crouching around their knees.
And as the freshly traumatised Albert abruptly stalked off to console himself with his stash of Smirnoff, that likewise was no secret in the locality, and the other men set to work with their blades and skewers, I knew I couldn’t take my eyes from the killing floor, no matter what. So the mask of detached fascination I assumed stayed fixed through it all: the tide of blood rushing across the raw cement floor as the jugular was pierced, then swept back toward the metal drains; the grey heave of the guts coming out; the limp wobble of the carcass as the saw blades tackled bone. This mask of mine stayed fixed for so long that by the time the process was finished, the flanks hanging on a rail with the others, it seemed not to matter whether it was a mask or not. Like the living animal transformed into fresh meat, my pretence had become a fact. How could Maggot or The Twins or anyone else now get behind my eyes, under my skin?
This, however, did not impress The Twins. No honours were conferred on me that day and no further invitations would be extended. Outside, after my rucksack was opened and its contents less than gently examined, myself and Maggot standing in a frieze of helpless dejection, I was sent home minus two comics, an almost new set of felt tip pens and twelve pence.
Albert’s reappearance came too late to change any of that. Our presence had been noticed as we left, and he couldn’t have been seen to let it pass. But whatever he’d had in mind, barrelling down the lane in his blood-flecked smock, it never went beyond that open gate. He made it appear to be a territorial matter; in sight of the caravan park, we were beyond his jurisdiction.
Or maybe it was the way The Twins turned to him as he ran, not just their heads, but their entire man-sized bodies turning to face him full on, in combative readiness or in love-starved hope, who could tell what was in those four black eyes meeting Albert’s, their fists full of worthless booty and fiddler’s change?
Albert stood in the open gateway, hands on hips, chest heaving from the run and the anger that had propelled it. He let it subside as he looked at The Twins and the two smaller boys from under his dangling kiss-curl. Waiting them out, rendering them down to the freakish caravan park mistakes they were and always would be. And that job done, encountering no resistance, no hard chaw guff or corner boy cheek, he hawked up a gob of phlegm, deposited it on the gravel in front of his feet, turned and walked back.
Not waiting to be dismissed, I headed for home. And the further away I got from there, and from Maggot and the twins, the more intense my reawakened hunger became.