By Shane Leavy
Wind rose and drove rain against the van with a hollow, rattling roar. Inside, Michael winced.
‘Don’t worry, young fellah,’ said Barry, huge behind a glowing cigarette where he sat opposite, ‘we won’t tell your mammy you got wet.’
Tom huffed smoke in a chesty snigger from the driver’s seat, then dropped his cigarette out the window.
‘Right boyos, I’ll be back around six,’ he said. ‘Barry, you’ll need to finish cutting them rusty sheets of galvinise before sticking the new stuff up.’
‘Unless Michael wants a crack at the angle grinder.’
‘I’ll give him a quick go after I change his nappy,’ said Barry, and the two men wheezed merriment.
Barry climbed out of the van leaving Michael flushing in the darkness. He scrambled out, pulled on his hardhat and reached for another.
‘Do you want your hardhat?’ he said.
Barry waved it away and swarmed like a bear up the thin ladder leaning against the slatted shed, while the van growled to life and splattered out of sight. Michael shivered alone in the drizzle and retreated into the sour slurry reek of the cow shed where his high-vis vest gleamed in a pile of tools, illuminated by a gaping hole in the corrugated steel roof. A greasy puddle of rain stained the concrete beneath.
Barry’s boots stomped above on the metal roof and Michael hurried up the ladder with trembling hands. Barry was in place at the crest of the high steel roof by the time Michael appeared, panting.
‘No rush,’ said Barry.
Michael stepped slow up the sloped roof and staggered at a gust.
‘Should we not get harnesses?’ he called.
‘And attach them to what?’ said Barry.
‘We might be able to rig something up – a bit of rope or something – attach that to one of the rafters.’
‘Will you get on with it.’
Michael hesitated, but Barry had turned his back and his angle grinder sprayed an arc of orange sparks from the metal sheeting. Michael crept up to the apex, hunched nearly double to keep his fingertips in contact with the rooftop before him. Below, the fields spread grey-green to a distant fir plantation that bobbed and surged in gusts of chill wind.
The angle grinder fell silent and Barry dragged up a corroded sheet of steel to Michael, who reached for it and faltered.
‘I haven’t got my gloves!’
‘Well I might cut my hands,’ Michael said, realizing then that Barry was bare-handed too
.‘Are you queer?’ said Barry.
‘No! I’m –’
‘Well stop acting the queer and get a move on, good lad.’
Barry turned away and the angle grinder screamed once more. Michael took the sheeting with care and hauled it to the edge of the roof, where he felt his boots skid slightly underfoot on the wet steel. The jagged sheet turned twice as it fell and clanged to the grass, one twisted section of rust severing the mud. Michael wobbled back across the roof and the rain rose once more. Rivulets cascaded down between each corrugation underfoot and his boots skidded again with a short, sick lurch.
‘Barry,’ he called, and then louder over the grinder: ‘Barry!’
The grinder silenced.
‘It’s slippery, man, shouldn’t we use harnesses?’
There was a pause; the trees gushed wet in the distance. Barry rose and turned, standing tall above Michael with the grinder in his hands.
‘You are useless.’
‘It would just take a minute, there’s harnesses in the shed.’
‘Pull yourself together or I’ll throw you off myself.’
Michael looked up at the huge, slouching gorilla width of Barry and a flush rose across his cheeks, tightening around his eyes.
‘Are you crying?’ said Barry as he beamed down at Michael with the angle grinder loose in his thick fingers.
Michael tried to speak but blubbered instead with a gasped sob.
Michael heard himself sob: ‘Shut up.’
‘Woah! Shut up, she says! You’ll regret that when I tell everyone you were bawling, bitch.”
Michael choked his sobs, aware of the tremendous width of Barry above him, fat bulging from his muscular body, a haze of acne burning red on his neck. Barry’s sagging dark eyes gleamed with merry malice.
‘Dry your eyes, baby,’ said Barry, and he reached to brush Michael’s cheek.
Fleshy fingers reared and touched the dampness on Michael’s face. Michael recoiled and one boot skidded backwards down the metal so that his legs parted into a groin-aching splits that made him shriek.
‘Christ!’ laughed Barry. ‘You can’t make this shit up.’
Michael scrambled to his feet.
‘You nearly killed me!’
‘Will you calm down. I didn’t do nothing. And here, your eyes are still wet.’
In slow motion Michael saw his own thin fingers intercept Barry’s approaching hand and fling it sideways away. He felt his weight shift forward and one boot stepped up towards Barry, whose face leered closer. Michael heard a sob jerk from his own mouth as his hands thrust up through the slippery surface of Barry’s high-vis vest and shoved, hard. For a long, hanging moment Barry looked astonished as his hands flailed, one still clutching the angle grinder. His balance dropped backwards, he stepped back into the hole in the roof and sank in a soundless plop out of sight; then a terrible metallic crash reverberated hollow in the shed below.
At once, Michael’s head swam and he fell forward across the apex of the roof. He clung with rain-numbed fingers to the relentless rolling contours of the corrugated steel, eyes squeezed shut. The world gushed and whirled receding around him, nausea rose in a monstrous heave from his belly and his mouth filled with saliva that he spat into the sliding channels of rain.
After a while the hot swirl in his head calmed and he grew aware of the distant roar of wind in the fir plantation and the sonorous patter of rain on the roof. From the shed below there was a deep silence. He opened his eyes and looked out over the fields for long minutes as the horror retreated and his muscles relaxed.
Michael eased forward to the hole Barry had cut in the rusted steel roof and peered over the edge. Barry lay on his back in the darkness a long way below, unmoving. It seemed in the gloom that one eye was open. Michael stared at the dark hollow of that eye for a long time and horror began to rise again in another convulsion from his belly; he moved back and squeezed his eyes shut, feeling a strange mixture of unbearable heat under his clothes and paralysing cold in his fingers. After a long time he moved again and looked, and Barry was still lying on the concrete. A dark pool welling by his hair, blood or brains; Michael turned and spat a mouthful of hot saliva again.
‘Barry,’ he called down into the sonorous shed. ‘Barry, mate, are you okay? Blink if you can hear me.’
One eye lay motionless open.
‘Barry,’ he said, louder and then screamed: ‘Barry, move! Move your finger or something, you prick. Barry, are you dead?’
Still the body lay still below. Thoughts began to coalesce, and it seemed astonishing to Michael that minutes earlier he had been looking forward to getting home from work and now everything was destroyed. Barry: dead. He, Michael, a killer somehow and doomed to prison with hundreds of other huge, criminal Barrys with thick, fumbling fingers. His sisters in school harried by gossip and innuendo. His parents: his mother on the waiting list for a new hip limping into a prison to hold his hand. His grave father, facing retirement after a lifetime of labour and decency, weeping over his lost son.
‘Shit. God help me!’
A crafty thought intruded: nobody knows.
Tom would be back before long. Michael remembered offering Barry his hardhat when they were leaving the van, perhaps Tom had overheard. Barry had been reckless and could easily have fallen himself.
Michael rose slightly with the fingers of one hand still touching the roof and peered around his position. Fields stretched away in all directions, bisected by the narrow finger of twisting grey road. A bird sang from a twisted hawthorn and the distant plantation swayed its rustling dance with the wind. There were no cars or tractors – no witnesses – and Michael felt a rush of relief like joy, an almost physical pleasure that brought a smile for a moment to his face. At once this was followed by shame, but then, he thought: what use would it be to destroy two lives? He thought of his mother and father, denied their son and ruined in sorrow. What would be the point of that?
Let it be assumed that Barry had fallen by his own reckless laziness, he thought. Michael’s concerns about their failure to use safety equipment on site would be vindicated. He would take on Barry’s work, and his wage. Tom would be back soon, though, and Michael imagined him clambering across the ruined cattle stalls and finding Barry’s smashed body. To appear innocent, Michael had to do the right thing, immediately, so that Tom would find the scene closed.
All of this happened in a whirl as thoughts buzzed and tangled in Michael’s head. He pulled himself over the edge and shouted down once more to the motionless body, then slipped out his phone and dialled 999.
‘Hello, what’s your emergency?’
‘There’s been a terrible accident. Someone fell off the roof.’
‘What’s your address, please?’
‘I’m at Mullaghmoe, there’s a cow shed, a big slatted shed, it’s on Fergal Kelly’s farm in Mullaghmoe, about two miles outside Frenchpark.’
‘Is the victim with you?’
‘Is there… I think he’s dead. I don’t know if you need ambulance or what but he’s dead.’
‘The emergency services are on their way. Is your colleague with you now?’
‘He fell, I’m still on the roof.’
‘Can you get down from the roof safely?’
‘Eh, yeah, yeah there’s a ladder.’
‘If it’s safe to do so, can you please get down from the roof and tell me what injuries your colleague has?’
‘Yeah okay, give me a minute.’
He clung still to the roof with one hand as he shoved the phone to his pocket but misjudged and it slid past down the steel with a high whine, coming to a stop in the leaf-clogged gutter below.
Michael hung to the apex and looked back down the roof to his phone where it jutted out of the gutter with the rain trickling around it. The thought of being that close to the edge again turned his stomach, and he wondered if the phone was still connected to the emergency operator or ruined already by the rain.
‘I dropped my phone,’ he shouted towards it, ‘so I can’t answer for a minute, hang on please!’
He listened, but could not hear if the operator had replied from that distance over the ceaseless rumble of rain.
His body felt exhausted but buzzing now with feeble relief. Below him was his path over the roof back to the ladder; ahead lay the hole. Michael froze for a long time looking across the black horizon of the hole and at last felt his shoulders tense as he eased forward for another look. He saw in his mind’s eye the terrible mundanity of it: a rain-greased concrete slatted shed floor, patterned with brown sprays of slurry, the angle grinder cable wrapped around a dislodged steel stall divider where it had tangled in the fall, and Barry’s great body with outstretched arms, one bulging eye and a damp gloom spreading from the back of his head
Michael pulled himself with care over the edge of the hole and looked down at the rain-greased floor and a circle of stain, but no body. Barry was gone.
Michael felt a bolt of iced water in his belly and he froze, then jerked his head further forward over the hole to peer deeper into the gloomy shed. There was another stain that might have been blood or a splatter of vomit, but no sign of the body. Michael tried to calm his whirling confusion and saw with dreadful intensity the key point: if Barry had survived the fall then he would tell everyone that Michael had pushed him. It would be Michael’s life destroyed, and the massive, malignant Barry restored to power.
He leapt to his feet and wobbled across the slick roof too fast, causing his boots to skid, and he smacked against the metal roof with a great reverberating gong. He felt his teeth click into his lower lip in a burst of iron-hot blood; he slipped, screaming down the roof, fingers scrabbling on the corrugated grooves, until one boot caught the edge of the gutter, and though the PVC squealed at the shock, it held. Michael gasped, guts all squirming seawater, faintly astonished that he had almost died. He spat a mouthful of blood onto the steel, where it dribbled viscous down the rainy groove and soaked into his high-vis vest.
Michael squinted past his shoulder down to the gutter, which squeaked as he shifted his weight. He dared to press against it with his boot long enough to push his hands under his body, then pressed the rubber toe of his other boot against the roof. Gaining grip on the metal, he eased the other up from the gutter and crawled sideways over the grooves. The ladder rose on his left and at last he eased his boot with thrilled fear over the edge and found the first step. Michael twisted his body and for a dread moment the ladder slipped a finger-length before it stabilized, and he scrambled with leaden legs down to the ground.
He fell from the last step onto his knees in the muddied grass, then forced himself to crawl and then stumble towards the open end of the shed.
‘Come on you prick,’ he hissed, beating his chest with trembling fists, ‘come on you prick.’
The shed yawned open with its sour stench; shadows clung to the corners away from the patch of grey light where the roof had been cut open. Michael scanned the gloom for signs of Barry, then ventured a few steps inwards. Down here the noise of rain on the metal roof rose to a deep roar.
‘Barry?’ Michael lisped through bloody teeth. ‘Are you in here, mate?’
He stepped further towards the dangling angle grinder and the bloodstain. His eyes rose around the hollow building and found Barry, stuck to the wall near the roof like a gargantuan spider, head twisted backward in a downwards leer. Horror flushed through Michael’s body and his chest burned as he stood transfixed before the monstrous Barry, hanging from the corner where the wall met the roof, tied, he noticed, with blue twine here and there, his fat flesh bulging between the knots. Then the face twitched and fell open, and the black shape of a bird fluttered out and vanished up through the hole in the roof. The vision resolved itself to Michael: not his victim clinging like a swollen tarantula to the wall but a collection of plastic sacks, tied clumsily together by the farmer and hoisted onto the wall for future use.
Michael struck his chest with a fist and hissed.
‘Come on, come on, come on!’
He knocked his knuckles on his hard hat and advanced in the new rush of dazed relief. Ahead lay the place where the body had lain in spitting rain. The angle grinder still dangled from a broken stall divider over a pool of blood, insinuating itself into the rain puddle, and a second splash of vomit. Michael looked past it, and there, slouched in an open stall, was Barry. There was blood around his ear, but he blinked in a single lazy motion. His heavy face gleamed blue from the phone lying open in his hand and Michael saw as he approached that Barry was scrolling through a list of taxi companies.
‘Are you okay, Barry?’
Barry’s head moved to look towards Michael but halted at once and he winced.
‘Are you okay, Barry?’ said Michael again. ‘You had a bit of a fall.’
‘I have a terrible headache.’
‘Do you? Well you banged your head, didn’t you?’
Barry’s lips were wet with vomit, Michael saw, and his revulsion rose with a kind of judgemental disgust with this corrupt, massive, overripe man, oozing fluids like a rotten fruit.
‘You pushed me,’ Barry said with a slur.
Michael’s heart froze.
Outside he thought he heard a distant siren.
‘I didn’t push you, Barry, you fell. You weren’t wearing your harness.’
‘You’re in big trouble,’ said Barry, mumbling off then into slurred incoherence.
There was indeed a siren rising outside now.
‘Don’t you talk to me like that!’ Michael hissed.
He stumbled with a moan back to the place where Barry had fallen, pulled off his high-vis vest and wrapped it around his hands. Michael seized the loose steel stall divider that had been pulled free by the falling angle grinder cable. He marched back to Barry and moved around behind him where the wound was a black mass of blood and hair, breath holding tight in his chest, and he swung the steel divider like a club, cracking Barry across his wet fractured skull. Barry slumped forward and lay un-moving. Outside the siren rose higher and stopped; blue light flickered around the open back of the shed. Michael darted back with the divider and placed it beside the bloodstain where Barry had first fallen. It looked as though it had been dislodged in the fall. He unwrapped the high-vis vest from his hands and pulled it back on around his shoulders.
He looked back at Barry but this time there was no motion from the broad body. Outside a door slammed.
‘Hello? Is there anyone here?’
Michael dashed to the end of the shed and around the corner. A woman in a Garda uniform was trotting towards him from a squad car, carrying a medical bag. Michael felt his legs loosen and he staggered to a halt.
‘Oh,’ he said, throat tightening, ‘but I need an ambulance, not police, I called for an ambulance.’
‘They’re on the way,’ said the Garda. ‘There’s been an accident?’
She advanced and Michael trotted back ahead of her around the corner and into the shed, relieved in a rush to see Barry still slumped forward.
‘What’s his name?’ said the woman.
‘Barry,’ said Michael.
‘Hello Barry?’ she said. ‘Can you hear me? My name is Jo, I’m a Garda, the ambulance is on the way.’
Rain hissed on the metal roof above them and the Garda fumbled with Barry’s huge body, easing him flat on his back.
‘How long has he been here?’ she said.
‘A few minutes, I’m not sure. I was on the roof too and I slipped myself – banged me lip, see. Nearly fell off – he didn’t want us to wear harnesses. He was sitting here when I got down.’
‘You should sit down if you’ve had a bit of a knock yourself,’ called the Garda.
Michael nodded and drifted back to the open shed end and out into the yard. He stood watching rain drift in pulsing waves across the fields, drenching and relentless, but twisted at a grunt from inside. The Garda was kneeling over Barry, plunging on him with violent chest compressions that shook his blank, vomit-spattered head. Michael stared in astonished revulsion as Barry’s arms quivered under the Garda’s thrusts.
‘Could you help?’ she said, panting.
For a ghastly moment Michael thought she wanted him to give mouth-to-mouth.
‘Hold his head, please,’ she said.
‘But surely,’ said Michael, ‘he’s… gone.’
‘If the ambulance doesn’t arrive,’ huffed the Garda, ‘in the next five minutes then he will be.’
Michael trembled as he placed his hands on Barry’s damp temple, which jerked with the Garda’s thrusts. Michael saw beads of sweat drip from the Garda’s chin onto the great torso. A fierce crack noise emanated from Barry’s chest and the Garda cried out before calming and glancing at Michael over her compressions, panting heavily now.
‘His sternum,’ she said and kept pumping, but then hesitated and stopped suddenly with a sigh.
‘Damn. I’m afraid your friend isn’t going to make it.’
Oh, the relief!
The Garda spoke into her radio. She looked up.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Well, Michael, the ambulance are still going to come to pick your friend up, so they can treat your mouth too. Do you want me to take a look at it?’
Michael shook his head, feeling his eyes close with exhaustion and forcing them to open again. The woman was looking at him with tension wrinkling her forehead, intent.
‘Can you tell me what happened, exactly?’
‘Well he wouldn’t let us use harnesses.’
‘He didn’t want to.’
‘I see,’ she said. ‘Well, Michael, basically what’s going to happen is that I take your statement and we’ll take some photographs of the scene. If we’re satisfied that it’s an accident, we’ll hand it over to the Health and Safety Authority – they’re responsible for workplace accidents.’
‘Okay,’ said Michael, and once more relief rose like pleasure.
‘Now Barry was on his phone just a minute ago,’ said the Garda.
Michael froze, skin prickling.
‘The phone was on when I came in,’ she said. ‘It looked like he was looking up numbers for a taxi. Or were you using it?’
‘I – I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘You don’t know what?’
Michael’s head swam as he tried to discern the safe path through this new hazard.
‘I don’t know,’ he said with a dull lisp through his cut lip, ‘if he was on the phone.’
‘Did you notice that he had the phone, when you got down?’
The Garda frowned and stared without words at Michael, letting seconds pass.
‘I’m surprised,’ she said at last, ‘because I saw it clearly, it was still glowing. Those things go off after a few seconds. Why do you think it was still on?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Either you used it or Barry used it, no?’
‘Well Barry must have.’
The Garda fell silent and gazed in thought past Michael out to the drenching fields.
‘Well,’ she said, then, ‘I’m sure it was a shock.’
‘It was,’ said Michael and felt his chin shiver.
‘You won’t be doing any more work here until the health and safety crowd take a look. I didn’t see a car outside. Do you have a lift?’
‘No. My phone is stuck in the gutter up there.’
The Garda frowned again with surprise as Michael pointed and he felt a strange squirm of unease.
‘Well I can give you a lift if you like,’ said the Garda. ‘If you’re up for it we could stop by the station and I’ll get your statement. Patch up that lip.’
Michael nodded. They walked back out into the rain and Michael saw an ambulance slashing up through the puddles with its siren off. The Garda let him in to her car – the front passenger seat, not the caged back – and noise fell as the door slammed after him. The car was warm. He pulled off his hardhat and dabbed at his bloodied mouth. At his feet he noticed a box of tissues and he pulled one to clean the blood from his chin; there was a faint feminine scent of balm.
Outside the ambulance came to a halt and Michael saw the Garda hail it and stroll over. Two ambulance men climbed out and hunched, listening, with the rain on their backs. Michael felt his fingers drift to the door handle and pull it with a dull click; the door opened a crack and the sounds rose again.
‘…take a look,’ said the Garda.
‘Right so,’ said one of the ambulance staff.
They walked past Michael in the Garda car, one of the men meeting his eyes and nodding with brief solemnity, towards the shed.
‘He was using his phone,’ Michael heard the Garda say, ‘just before he was unconscious. Is that strange?’
The medic’s response was muffled and their feet crunched on over the gravel and fell silent as all three entered the shed. Michael felt the hair rise on the back of his head and a fresh bloom of dread. He gazed down and noticed his own smudged blood gleaming red-brown on his high-vis vest, realizing with a jolt that his blood could be on the steel divider that he had grasped with the vest to kill Barry too. He thought of his phone stuck in the gutter’s putrid leaves, perhaps still broadcasting to the emergency operator while he was talking with Barry. He saw the back of Barry’s skull burst loud with blood and hair under the steel divider, in his memory amplified and sonorous like a cracking coconut. At once he felt a strange burning sweat prickle under his jersey.
‘Shit,’ he whispered through his cut lip.
He felt his fingers push the car door wider and he put one foot out. The rain had degraded to fine, drenching drizzle now and struck the windscreen ahead without sound, sliding down in blurring cascades. For a long time Michael sat with one chilling foot brushing the gravel.
A noise caused him to jerk and half-rise out of the car: the Garda was coming out of the shed with furrowed brow, speaking into her radio. Their eyes met and animal terror reared up from his belly like bile and at once Michael was out of the car and running with bone-aching legs. He flung himself scrabbling at a stone wall where a thread of barbed wire plucked a bloody hole in his finger and he staggered moaning on into the rushy field beyond, boots slurping on the rain-soft earth, shouts ringing in his ears and the world whirling in mad dread around him. A dark puddle reared before him and he leapt from one hummock of hard rushes to the next, but his boot skidded and he plunged instead knee-deep into clinging muck. He lurched forward on hands and legs, sinking to the elbow and wailing, with the sound of splattering boots and shouts rising behind.
(Bio: Shane Leavy is a writer and researcher based in the rural west of Ireland with publications in Pop Shot and Ekphrastic Review.)