Read by Silas Hawkins
We were fifteen years old and we didn't have enough grey matter between us to form one small but sensible idea. We were dumber than the day was long, and this was high summer, 1975. Standing at the edge of the field we did our best to conceal the lingering stupidity in a blue haze of cigarette smoke. We didn't want Tom Kavanagh to look into our eyes and see the accumulated nothing.
"Opium is just like turnips or spuds," he said in his Bogman accent. "You weed it, you water it and you walk away from it. There isn't going to be any funny business, because funny business would land the pair of you in reform school …"
Eight acres of bursting poppies leaned one way and then the other under a blue Irish sky.
"We'll drop the hut down before lunch, so you have some place to get out of the sun, but don't be spending all day inside, or it'll be taken away just as quickly. Am I making myself clear?”
We nodded our vacant heads.
Tom turned and left the field. He could have opened the five-barred gate, but he chose instead to vault the wire. It might have been a cool move for a younger man, but he snagged the tip of his boot and fell on his face, and then refused to look back because he knew we were sniggering. He got into the old Bedford and drove away, humiliated.
"What a moron,” said Paul. “I can't believe I’m putting up with this crap for twelve quid a week."
"Twelve quid,” I echoed, and then we both laughed and laughed until it wasn’t funny any more. Paul spat on his hands as if he were about to do some serious work, but then he just leaned on the hoe and looked off towards the hills.
"Pink Floyd play Knebworth in July," he said, telling me a piece of information that everybody in the entire galaxy was fully aware of. It felt like he was just trying to rub it in because we would unquestionably be stuck here, in this arse of a town, excluded from the party.
"Shine on you crazy diamond," he said, quoting The Floyd.
"Wish you were here," I replied.
"Wish I wasn't."
We looked at the flowers waving in the field and said nothing for quite a while. It was nice. It wasn’t a strain. We didn’t have to think.
A little after twelve o'clock, a flat-bed lorry pulled up with our hut on the back: an eight by eight box made from ship-lapped pine; it smelled of creosote and pipe smoke. The lorry driver and his helper winched it down onto the tarmac and we had to drag it into the field. I left the door open hoping that it would air out, but the smell seemed to be ingrained in the boards. Paul dodged inside, then looked out the window and snarled, "Get off my land." He stuck out the handle of the hoe, pretending it was the barrel of a shotgun. He made a bang and I dropped to the ground, clutching my chest. There hadn’t been a cloud in the sky for weeks. I lay there wondering why I didn’t spin off the planet, into the blueness above.
"Do you believe in gravity?" I asked.
Paul came into my frame of vision and looked down.
"Do you know anything about this stuff?" he said, nodding towards the poppies.
"Only what I read in the National Geographic."
"Do we need any special tools?"
"Just a sharp blade," I said.
He pulled out a Stanley knife and waved it around.
"Would you sell your soul to see the Floyd in concert?"
"Sure,” I said.
Paul made a slashing gesture across his palm with the Stanley knife and before I could get out of the way, two or three droplets of bright red blood came splashing down on my cheek.
"Hey! What are you doing?" I said, jumping up.
"Let's sign our pact in blood."
"I don't want your blood all over me."
He took a paper tissue out of his pocket and held it tightly in his fist, then passed the knife to me. I nicked the back of my middle finger and we mixed our blood together.
"There, are you happy now?"
He was. Just then the Angelus bells in the town started ringing.
"Wooooohhh!" said Paul, in a ghostly warble. “That’s the devil clanking his balls together.”
"When does he come to pick up our souls?"
"I don't know,” said Paul, lighting a match and flicking it into the air, “I think maybe when you’re in
At lunchtime, a stream of cars headed into town. The men and women from the offices in the Research Institute looked lost and meaningless as they gripped their steering wheels. Tom Kavanagh cruised past slowly, craning his neck, watching us as we weeded on the headland with fake energy. He beeped the horn twice but we didn't look up.
“What a moron,” said Paul.
After the last car departed we got down to business. We slid into the middle of the field, taking care not to leave any obvious path through the poppies. Paul slashed away with the blade and I followed close behind, squeezing the milky juice from the bulbs. After forty-five minutes we went back to the hut, ate our sandwiches and drank our tea. We did this every day for the next two weeks, ending up with a quantity of gum about the size of a tennis ball. It was wrapped in a supermarket bag and hidden under a cool cluster of dock leaves at the end of the field.
Paul was the one who came up with the idea of selling the tennis ball to Wuzzy Ryan. Wuzzy was a red-haired boy with powerless eyes. He came from a grim home where nothing ever worked out. There was an older brother called Scuzzy and a younger sister called Huzzy. Scuzzy had been in the army for less than two months; he was kicked out when they discovered he had a tendency to hurt people when they were asleep. Huzzy was a scary combination of shapeliness and mental retardation. Whenever she answered the dog-scratched door to their council home she would turn sideways and force you to squeeze past her speed bumps. She licked her lips and batted her eyelids, a lot. It was as if a space alien had hijacked a human body, but never learned to work it properly. Paul once summed up the entire family by saying that somebody had broken into their gene shed and robbed a bunch of chromosomes.
Wuzzy was alone in the house when we called. He had just painted his bedroom walls with one thin coat of ‘midnight sky’ emulsion and blotches of the previous colour came through, like pasty skin under a black nylon stocking. We sat on the bed. Wuzzy weighed the tennis ball in his hand, and then offered us twenty tabs of acid, but we said no; what we wanted mostly was cash.
“Fifty quid for the lot.”
Wuzzy batted his eyes and licked his lips. In the semi-darkness of the room he looked just like his crazy sister, but without the speed bumps.
“I might give you thirty,” he said.
“Thirty-five,” said Paul, “along with six tabs of acid.”
Wuzzy nodded and then picked out a small sheet of blotting paper from the middle of a Sven Hassel book. We were on our way to Knebworth.
Recently I've been getting the feeling that somebody is standing behind me. It's not a nice feeling and it doesn't matter how much I drink or smoke or bang-up, it never goes away. It's like something permanent and dark is hovering right back there, just behind my head. I think I know what it is, but I'm afraid to say.
Last week I ran into Paul. He was coming out of the bookie shop on Kelly's Corner and he was counting money.
“Did you win?” I asked.
“Nah! Just counting what I didn't lose.”
I haven't seen much of Paul over the years. A long time ago he turned into a bald, fat guy and it looks like he’s going to stay that way. The Knebworth weekend was probably the last time we were close and neither of us remembers much about it. Before we got on the ferry to England we dropped the acid and smoked the small blob of opium we had managed to keep. Somewhere outside Chester everything started to blur. I vaguely remember running down a street shouting, “Thank you Satan!” with Paul charging along beside me going, “You're a top man Satan, top man!”
I asked Paul if any strange stuff had been happening to him recently, but he couldn’t think of anything. In fact, he said, he’d probably welcome something peculiar because it would break up the endless boredom in this arse of a town. He asked me if I was working and I told him the truth: people who hire people don’t hire people like me.
We should have turned to walk in opposite directions, but I had a question I needed to ask.
“Do you ever think about your soul?”
He thought it was a joke and he turned up the sole of his shoe for a moment and studied it.
“I’m worried about damnation,” I said.
He asked me if I needed some money but I said no, I was fine; nevertheless he squeezed a fiver into my hand, and it would have been bad manners to give it back.
“I think the devil is behind me,” I said.
Paul looked embarrassed. He wanted to turn and walk away but he was probably worried I would follow, talking loudly about supernatural stuff.
“Don't you remember the weekend we went to Knebworth?” I asked.
“Long time ago,” he said, looking into my eyes, trying to peel back thirty-five layers of the onion.
“Long time ago,” I repeated.
The speed of the town slowed down all around us. Moving traffic looked like it was parked. Birds stopped flying in mid-air. And I could hear things. I could hear Paul's heart beating, the blood running around in his veins, the thoughts jumping across the tiny spaces inside his head. I listened to those thoughts, but there was nothing connected to the field, the hut, the Stanley knife, the blood and the bargain with Lucifer. And then I realized.
“You’re already taken,” I said.
He looked genuinely puzzled, but I knew he was an empty canister, a spiritual void, a soulless creature forced to walk around this dreary place, eating and drinking and smoking and backing horses. I could see no pleasure inside those eyes.
“The devil has already snatched your soul,” I said.
Paul put his hand on my shoulder and stepped around me. With the spell broken, the whole town started moving again. The sound of a horse race, all numbers and enthusiasm, came belting from the TV in the bookie shop. “Shine on you crazy diamond!” I shouted after him.
“Wish you were here!” he shouted back.
“Wish I wasn't,” I replied.
I looked in through the open door and watched the action on a big flat screen as it switched from Chepstow to Newmarket. The favourite in the 4:25 was a horse was called Mephistofilly and I wondered if she too was a sign. I placed a bet with the five Euros that Paul had given me; it was a long shot at fifty to one but I knew I had to take it. Supposing the devil was offering me the opportunity to win back my soul? Supposing I won?
I took a seat in the corner of the bookies and closed my eyes and waited for the race to start.
Derby of Lost Souls by Barry McKinley was read by Silas Hawkins at the Liars' League Nature & Nurture event on Tuesday June 14th, 2011 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Barry McKinley was nominated in 2009 for Best New Play in the Irish Theatre Awards for his play Elysium Nevada. He is currently editing a collection of short stories drawn from his late 1970s London diaries. He attends the National Film School in Dublin where he is studying for an MA in screenwriting.