EXIT THROUGH THE THRIFT SHOP
Oisín jumped on a stray plank of wood with both feet. He heard its dry snap surge through the empty rooms and crackle into the darkness of the house. They stood there, the pair of them, in the dimness, and Oisín tried to exhale for as long as the dust took to settle – watched with outraged lungs as the specks fell, pell-mell, through the dappled light that had wormed its way past the boarded-up windows. He noticed most of the detail. Noticed the musty smell that was so strong it was a taste, and the bizarre, cultish paintings on walls that were stained half-black by the rising damp. He had been trying to be mindful, lately.
‘That was nice and loud now,’ said his friend Kelso, who stood even taller than usual in huge steel-capped boots he had thrifted on George’s Street Thursday last. ‘Let’s try out these boots.’ He swung his great larruping legs at a conglomeration of empty paint cans in the room’s darkest corner, his pendulum kicks sending the half-empty, shrieking cans across the room and with dolloping thuds against the torn wallpaper.
Oisín winced. He felt he should stop him, that there must be something objectively the matter with causing all this chaos. But he could find no solid reason, and decided he was being irrational. Oisín made sure never to act on irrational impulses. He smiled politely at Kelso.
‘Kelso, have you ever had an ulterior motive?’
‘You know, ulterior motive.’
‘Yes.’ They stared at each other with four huge eyes. ‘I mean, yes I know what you mean. I think possibly, but I associate ulterior motives with evil people, and I’m quite nice. Sometimes I will take a circuitous route to the bin so I can walk near a pretty girl. Does that count?’
‘I’m not sure. I’m not sure that’s in the spirit of ulterior motives.’
They paused in the boring stillness. Kelso wore a fisherman’s beanie that didn’t cover his ears. He removed it and took his tobacco and rolling papers off his head. He had lots of empty pockets. ‘What is it you do in these abandoned houses usually?’
‘I come with Amber, take pictures of her recording.’
‘Yes, the kazoos of course! Fantastic.’ Amber Leggatt had added Oisín to a WhatsApp group where the addresses of abandoned houses around Dublin’s southside were posted. While Amber recorded cow bells and kazoos and shouts from downstairs to be mixed into her music, Oisín took pictures of her in the act or photographed the empty houses in a way that made the frame seem empty too. He liked that his film camera put an actual mark on a material piece of film – it didn’t just record pixels like a digital camera. Like the difference between taking a bite out of something and just smelling it – texture. He was embarrassed by his pretentiousness on this point – and in general. He wanted to be more genuine.
They looked at the crude asterisks drawn on the wall in blue paint, pentagons and hands with eyes in the palms.
‘Has there been any development there?’ Kelso asked. ‘Between you two.’
‘She asked me to direct her music video actually, but I said I didn’t feel qualified.’ He wasn’t qualified to be her tagalong friend, not to mind her director.
Kelso lit his cigarette. ‘Can’t fail if you don’t try, I suppose. We’ll have a look upstairs will we?’
The red carpet on the stairs sank into the rotted wood and made dull thuds of their footsteps. Kelso in front, taking three and four steps at a time, swinging himself roofward with help from the bannister, which Oisín heard give twiggy twitches of exertion.
‘This place is properly run down,’ Kelso declared to the second landing, the house getting damper and closer and fuller of pigeon-droppings as they ascended.
‘Yeah I’d love to know who owns it. Most of the ones I go to are like abandoned 2000s builds so aren’t this run down at all, just sort of unfinished. They don’t have the smell.’
‘The smell, yes.’ Kelso gave a long, loud exhale through his nose, and looked about him in the gloaming gloom.
The landing boasted two tall, shuttered windows. Oisín prised open the shutters and looked out at Dublin’s rooftop canopy, saw the trees of Herbert Park in the warped, dirtied glass.
‘It looks like someone’s pickled Dublin, put it in a jar,’ he found himself saying, trying to appreciate the view as much as possible. To stand and feel himself standing.
‘You’re such an arts student.’
Oisín laughed but before he could shoot a riposte, Kelso had turned and given the door behind him a heeled kick which yielded a thin, firm bang. The door held, so Kelso twisted its knob and shouldered it open after a few huffed attempts. The room beyond was in total darkness. He switched on his phone torch, threw open the door and took one slow step into the blackness.
‘Turn off your torch, we’ll use our lighters,’ Oisín called after him. Kelso turned back, flipped his torch upwards so his face was lit as by silvery floodlights, his corduroy shirt collar a huge pair of shadow wings on the ceiling above him. Then blackness, a sandpaper click and his face half lit in the pulsing light of his lighter.
‘A brilliant idea, O.’ Oisín lit his own and followed. The room was small, no more than six feet across. The pockmarked walls glowered in the unsteady light. They stooped to the floors, running their quivering lights low along the walls on either side. Dozens of dead swallows lay in tangled confusion, some alone on the floorboards, their beaks tucked to their breast as if weathering a storm or a blow; most in twined heaps, wings and feathers akimbo. Oisín thought, ‘scores’ – scores of the things. He wondered why he was being so pretentious today.
‘Jesus,’ whispered Kelso.
‘Why haven’t rats eaten them?’ asked Oisín. ‘What did they die of, that rats didn’t eat them?’
Hunched, following their lights along the ground, they took the last few steps to the room’s far end. Propped against the wall, a gravestone of white marble, rectangular except for its rounded top. Unmarked. After a few seconds of breathless silence, Kelso said, ‘That is wonderful. How absolutely terrifying.’
‘Fantastic.’ Oisín’s heart beat at his jugular, blood-heat under his chin, his throat tight with fear. ‘With the birds as well.’ A hotchpotch of wayward significance.
‘Alright,’ Kelso said loudly. ‘This is great so far anyway, let’s go find some more hilariously scary stuff.’ They backed out of the room, crossed the landing and entered a large bedroom, its three-poster bed stripped of its mattress and the room lit by a single, unboarded sash window.
Oisín wanted a go at kicking something. A small coal bucket lay tucked under the dirty white marble of the mantlepiece. He picked it up, set it in the middle of the room, and connected a gorgeous grubber kick. His toes walloped against the target through his soft Reeboks and the felled bucket erupted, discharging a huge plume of soot that filled the room and powdered them both.
Oisín put his weight discreetly on his left foot. He grimaced in the squinting, falling stillness. ‘I am very sorry. I am a silly man.’
Kelso’s bright round eyes smiled through the soot, laughter dislodging a dark snowfall from his hair and shoulders. ‘You absolute arts student.’
‘You call yourself a liberal but here you are in blackface.’
They heard a thunderous crash from upstairs.
They stood up straight, walked briskly to the landing. Another crash. A whump. A gargantuan clomp on the bare wooden stairs above. Descending from the gloom, thumping with increasing speed. Faster and louder and – seen, now, as it rounded the bannister of the half-landing, taking a lucky deflection off a stray piece of panelling and tripping lightly down the remaining steps – a black bowling ball scooted off the lip of the last step and rolled to a stop between them as they stood, petrified, at the bottom of the stairs. Four crude faces drawn on the ball in blue paint – happy, sad, happy, sad. Then footsteps.
Oisín’s dirty Reebok runners, jigging nervously; Kelso’s huge brown Dunlop boots at the ends of his long, splayed legs; the bare feet of a man, his pale skin darkened by grime and by thick, curling foot hair. They sat on blue camp chairs in the uppermost, mustiest room of the house. Black floorboards covered with sleeping bags and deflated air mattresses. One wall pouting with lips of sagging lime green wallpaper, the other three covered with symbols and childish sketches, all lit by the harsh LED light of a camping lantern that hung from the ceiling by a piece of catgut. Oisín’s mum used lamps just like it for lighting pumpkins at Halloween. There were large tubs of open paint in the room’s centre, specked with dirt and drowned bugs.
The man was speaking, slurred consonants skipping happily out his nose, ‘Again lads, don’t worry about it. I get people in here all the time thinking it’s abandoned. It is abandoned, I suppose, I just live here. I usually let people go about their business downstairs, just lock that door there until they’ve gone away. But yous have been doing some serious ruckusing since you got in here, and I like to minimise damage to the house, lads d’ynow.’ He stopped and took long, wheezing breaths.
‘You really scared us with that bowling ball prank,’ said Kelso. ‘It wasn’t on.’
‘But I can see where you’re coming from,’ Oisín interjected. ‘You’ve got to protect the place you – live?’ Be polite. Humour the man. Get out. Notice the detail for a story later.
‘Exactly, young fella. And,’ he looked at Kelso, ‘it was very, very funny.’ He offered them tea from an ancient iron tea pot that sat on top of an idle gas burner. Kelso accepted, distractedly. Oisín declined.
‘Yeah. Yeah it was funny, in fairness to you.’ They were silent as the man pottered slowly about the room, looking for a cup for himself and coughing and wheezing as he went. When he sat down again, Oisín tried to note every detail of the others’ hands. The man smelled of urine.
‘You’re not exactly a paragon of responsibility yourself though, are you?’ Kelso said loudly. He kicked even further back in his seat and thrust his cup high and out before him for balance. ‘Respectfully, I mean. We’re young men, students, we’re not supposed to be responsible, but you’re what, in your sixties? And you’re squatting?’
Oisín tensed. He tried to be mindful of his surroundings, tasted the dust along the ridges behind his teeth. To sit and know you’re sitting. He saw the man smile, pick some fluff off his trouser leg.
‘I’m forty-four, forty-five tomorrow. I run this place as a sort of B&B.’
‘For the huge secret underground hobo community?’ said Kelso.
‘Who else.’ Oisín realised with a sort of dismayed relief that the man took this as a joke which, he supposed, it had been. ‘No, it’s for all sorts. I have a no homeless person policy here, actually. Or no junkies anyway, y’now?’ Here he shifted buttockload, looked at them each more closely, seeming to struggle to bring them into focus. His nose was broken. ‘It’s young men and women usually. Often foreign. Single, alone. Between jobs – and I don’t mean that in the way it’s often meant. Really, between jobs or apartments. Respectable people who have just mistimed their money a bit and have nowhere to go for a couple of nights, y’now? When the hostels are full, someone usually sends a few my way.’
‘The hidden homeless,’ Oisín blurted, borrowing the phrase from the news and thinking of his own rent, which his parents paid. Was that even the right term?
‘I suppose so. I’m the one who’s hiding them.’
Kelso asked for a cigarette. He took it, perched on the edge of his seat, and looked at it like Macbeth’s dagger. With hushed intensity, his throat a well of feeling, he spoke. ‘You’re sick, man. You’re sick – with TB or lung cancer or maybe you’re just asthmatic but you’re ill. You can’t live here any longer. You’ll die. There’s bird flu or something here man, you have to get out.’ Kelso got to his feet, bent his spare frame over the man in his chair, hands held behind his back like a school principal. He continued, tearfully, ‘You’re miserable, wretched, dying, pathetic. And I mean those as just descriptors, not insults. I think you’re a good man. You need help—’
‘I need help! From you!’ The man leapt from his chair and stood puff-chested under Kelso’s chin. Oisín had never heard a real grown man shout – scream – outside a sporting context. He felt as if the floor would shatter beneath them and send them tumbling down into oblivion. ‘Get out of my house! Get out of—’ he crumpled onto the floor in a fit of retching coughs. Prostrate on his stomach, he heaved great bileful barks onto the wooden floor, each shuddering spasming heave followed by a short, shallow gasping breath. Oisín imagined him dying. They could either report it to the police and admit trespassing or leave him to rot in the cold dampness.
When the fit had subsided, Kelso crouched down next to his head. His cheek to the hardwood floor, the man glared at Kelso’s right boot.
‘You need help, and I’m going to help you. We’re going to sit now and you’re going to tell me about yourself.’ Kelso lumped the man into his own chair. ‘And I’m going to do anything I can to help you.’ He lit the cigarette he had asked for, and handed it back to the man. Oisín wondered whether this wasn’t inconsistent with the TB-asthma diagnosis; he didn’t offer his lighter. Instead, he tried to follow their protracted conversation, his senses blunted by fatigue and stress.
Kelso and the man, Vincent, sat opposite one another. Kelso strained forward at intervals with huge, empathetic nods and nosed noises of approbation, making a twitchy show of his empathy. Vincent had come to Ireland, to Bray, at fourteen, and then Dublin, for work, living in squalid splendour among the artists in Temple Bar until it was redeveloped in the ‘90s and they all found themselves with nowhere to go. Now, he sat hunched in his camp chair, scowling down at Kelso’s boots while he answered his questions. Oisín could tell Vincent was distressed, impatient; he picked distractedly at his trousers. They were not, after all, paying guests.
Oisín wished desperately that he could turn their chairs so that the two sat side-by-side. His dad said that men were programmed from their hunter-gatherer days to like those beside them and hate those in their eyeline – this was why pubs were set up with long counters, and why his parents only broached touchy subjects when they were in the car. Oisín wondered why men in plays were always disagreeing with each other, seeing as they always had to be facing out to the audience. He had an idea for a play with no conflict in it but he hadn’t the plot thought through entirely yet.
When Vincent began telling stories about previous guests, Kelso stood, looked down at him and nodded, and left the room. Oisín watched him out the door and crooked a lippy smile back at Vincent. They heard bootfalls downstairs and Oisín wondered whether he would be able to draw the place from memory. ‘I like your paintings Vincent. They’re creepy but great.’
When Kelso returned, he was carrying the gravestone, which he hefted down into his seat.
‘Get a load of Moses over here,’ Oisín said, smiling without enthusiasm.
‘Oisín, can I have a marker please.’ He took the marker and wrote ‘Vincent’ at the top of the marble. He asked Vincent’s surname and wrote that too – ‘Devine’.
‘Vincent, have you ever seen A Muppets Christmas Carol?’ No.
‘Alright. Vincent, that’s your name there. If you don’t get your act together, you’re dead meat. Vincent, have you ever seen Fight Club?’ No.
‘Yeah alright fair. Anyway, I’m writing my name on here too, and my address and phone number. I respect your independence as a man but if you’re ever in trouble, call me.’
‘Where did you get that gravestone?’
‘Alright, we have to go now, but I’ll be back next week to check on you. Goodbye Vincent.’ Kelso reared his head and flared his arms in a stiff yawn. Oisín left forty euro on his seat; he wondered whether Vincent ever actually had any guests. He tried, once more, to take everything in.
They waited for Vincent to say goodbye but he was turned away, looking at the stone tablet. Then he spoke very slowly, pronouncing each consonant clearly now, clacking over the Ks. ‘You can help me right now, if you like, Kelso. I need a pair of shoes.’
Kelso looked at Oisín.
‘Not those runners, too flimsy for my purposes. I’d like yours please, Kelso.’
‘A few sizes too big for you, surely?’
‘Nope, exactly what I’m looking for.’
‘Okay, Vincent. As a token of my friendship.’
Kelso removed the boots, handed them over, slowly. Vincent took them and walked with a swagger to the paint tubs in the centre of the room where he submerged the right in blue paint, the left in pink. Reaching upwards, he tied them to the LED lamp that hung from the ceiling. There, they spun and shot globules of paint all over Vincent and the floor and almost as far as Kelso’s wool-socked feet. The light strained and spun and swung with their weight, dislodging the room from its axle, making its shadows jump and scatter and grow. Vincent stood, paint-flecked and beatific, looking at Kelso.
The boys left in quick silence down the stairs and out the back window and around to the street that was orange with mist. They unlocked their bikes and cycled home. Oisín wished he had asked Vincent to pose for a photo.
On the cycle, the mist thickened into heavy, smattering droplets. By the time they reached Pearse Street, the rain was heavy, tasteless when Oisín tongued his top lip. Kelso’s thick socks hung despondent over his pedals.
They entered Oisín’s tiny Pearse Street apartment and Oisín turned on the oven for Tesco freezer pizzas. His flatmates had left for the weekend, though their used plates and mugs covered the tiny countertop. Oisín put his wet clothes on the rad and Kelso put on one of Oisín’s oversized Fila jumpers, spare corduroy pants that were short even on Oisín. They tumbled onto the small sofa.
‘I think you should do Amber’s music video,’ Kelso said, queuing songs on Spotify.
‘Are you giving more advice?’
‘You’re a reasonable man. We’re two reasonable men.’
Oisín considered the possibility that Kelso didn’t realise Vincent had been taking the piss out of him. Straight-faced, he said, ‘We’re not, for example, pridefully defiant to the point of rejecting perfectly good advice?’
‘Exactly. Do the video.’
‘I’ll do it, yeah.’
Oisín liked sitting in his warm apartment, sitting beside his friend. He felt comfortable now. He wasn’t sure he wanted anything more to do with abandoned houses – but at least they had filled an empty Sunday. Kelso paused Spotify, opened Soundcloud and put on one of Amber’s new ones. ‘Positively Gothic’, it was called. They tapped the armrests in time with the music, softly.