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  1. Cheeno

    Cheeno Contributing Member

    Mar 5, 2008
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    A helping hand

    Discussion in '"Consequences" Short Story Contest' started by Cheeno, Jun 2, 2008.


    Tony thanked the cloakroom girl for the three jackets and made his way back to the table. Though the lights were now on, and the bouncers were busy encouraging reluctant punters to finish up and leave, the music was still blaring out its madness. He approached the table, smiling to himself at the sight of his friends, Donal and Terry, who were busy kissing respective girls they’d clicked with earlier. He hadn’t been bothered with any of the prospective partners they’d introduced him to throughout the evening, no matter how persistent their endeavours had been. Blondes, brunettes, redheads, it didn’t matter; he’d no intention of inflicting himself on anyone, especially with the coming day and all it entailed.

    He gave them their coats, politely refusing their invitation to go on to a party where he knew he’d end up sitting alone, wishing he’d taken his own advice and gone home; anywhere to be away from the happy people. He made his way out of the club and stood, surveying the street which was now packed with the very revellers he’d been trying to escape from. Directly opposite was the ornamental façade of the Gaiety theatre, resplendent in yellow against the sterile modernity of the Stephen’s Green shopping complex he needed to pass to get to the taxi rank. He clenched his eyes shut, banishing the unwelcome memory of childhood trips to the Gaiety musicals, with his mother’s calls to him when he’d return from the toilets, frozen solid on the steps, trying desperately to find his seat in the blackness.

    He looked up to the sky. No stars had survived their journey through the cloud-cover, but he didn’t mind once it was dry. He took a refreshing breath and walked the short distance east to the Stephen’s Green taxi rank, only to feel his heart sink when he turned the corner and saw the rapidly growing queue across the street. He knew there’d be no chance of a quick escape, positive also that he’d never have the patience to stand easy in such a noisy, heaving mass of drunken clubbers. He hated queues anyway, especially late-night, outdoor ones. He bit back the welling frustration and continued walking, willing to try his luck at hailing a cab off the street.
    Muffled screams from across the road, near the end of the queue, stopped him in his tracks. A small crowd had gathered around two people wrestling on the ground. Two girls, tangled together, were being cheered on by a bawdy group around them. Tony sighed and turned to move on, unsurprised by the spectacle; its occurrence only justifying his previous reasons for staying out of Dublin’s city-centre at night. Next time, he’d not let the lads talk him so easily out of staying home.

    “You should tell them to stop that,” a small, thin woman said to him.

    Tony glanced across at the melee before staring at the woman who stood to his right, arms folded across her chest, mouth firm.

    “Tell them to stop it,” she ordered, her dark eyes wide in her head.

    “Me?” he asked, touching his chest with the palm of his right hand, aware of his heart’s sudden efforts to escape his chest. He took a steadying breath and swallowed the tightness in his throat. “It’s nothing to do with me.”

    “No?” She stiffened and straightened, her brow furrowing into a deep frown as her gaze bored into him. “It’s people like you who just pass by and let it happen.”

    “But I’m…” He stopped, unable to understand why she’d picked him out from the army of clubbers heading home along the footpath. “I’m…”

    “You’re what?” she asked, her stance and scowl oozing aggressive disgust. “You’re just going to turn your back and let them do that to each other? Can’t you see what’s happening?”

    He glanced back at the howling group of onlookers. “Jesus, what am I supposed to do? I’m just making my way home.” He turned back to her. “I…I don’t want trouble.”

    “Typical,” she spat, her gaze piercing him. “It’s the likes of you who turn a blind eye that has the country in the state it’s in. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

    Tony swallowed back the swelling lump in his throat, unable to believe he was being put into such a situation. He shuddered, aware of a cold sweat forming on his brow and the back of his neck. He shook his head and looked across the road. The two women where on their feet, handfuls of each others hair grasped and pulled to extreme, at an impasse within their circle of friends, being studiously ignored by the rest of the queue. He turned back to her, shuffling from one foot to the other, wishing, for once, that the lads had left the club with him. They’d probably push him across the road, laughing, but at least they’d be there to back him up.

    “So much for your civic conscience,” the woman said, snorting derisively at him. “It’s too late now, anyway.”

    Tony frowned, waiting for her to elaborate, but she simply threw her head back in disgust and stormed off. He looked back across the street to see two cops, their high-visibility vests standing out in the crowd, holding the two screaming women apart. Problem solved, but the woman’s look of disappointment in him burnt into his chest, stifling his breath and, for a long moment, filling him with a sense of utter uselessness.

    He wondered why she’d picked on him to intervene in the fight. He was alone, obviously in a weak position in such an inherently dangerous situation. Why him? He tried to visualise her; her aggressive reaction to his shock at being asked. Aggressive, but also afraid. The noise of the street left him as he considered it. Why would she go out of her way to stop a stranger and try to force him to endanger himself, just to stop a bit of a scrape between a couple of drunks?

    He closed his eyes, picturing her determination and disgust, and could only reason that she’d acted out of fear from being on the receiving end of such an action before; a victim looking to help, maybe because she hadn’t received it when she’d required it for herself. Someone had passed her by in her time of need, and now she was cursed to stop and elicit assistance every time she saw an injustice taking place. His mother would have told him not to be taken in by her; that she was just another poor soul who had a gripe against society because life wasn’t working out the way she’d planned.

    He shook it out of his head and watched the show across the road. The cops were pushing protesting men away from the two women, now under arrest. A squad car was pulling up at the kerbside, ready to swallow the ‘revellers’ and take them to the weekend bedlam of the city-centre police station, until sobriety and shame caught up with them the next morning in the District court. He felt heat flush through his chest and clenched his eyes shut again, struggling to push back memories of drunken arguments, thumping, like nightclub music, from the kitchen below his childhood bedroom. He shook his head again and took another steadying breath, quieting his heart’s rapid drum against his ribcage. Enough, he needed to move on. Get home. Get safe.

    He needed a taxi, but it was obvious as he walked along that he wasn’t alone. Available taxis in Dublin, after the clubs poured their bowels onto the streets, are rarer than friendly hyenas on the African plains. It was after three o’clock and the footpaths were hectic with walkers, stragglers and strugglers, most suffering the effects of too much late-night philandering. He made his way west from the Green, down Bride Street, with its neglected blocks of flats, crossing south to the corner of Wexford Street where he stood for a few minutes signalling, unsuccessfully, at approaching cabs. It didn’t help that he was in direct competition with a group of boisterous female clubbers, giggling in manic glee as they collapsed against each other in their drunken endeavours. It also annoyed him that taxi drivers so often failed to extinguish their ‘for hire’ light after picking up a fare, leaving the likes of himself and the gaggle of young ladies beside him waving in vain.

    After a short while, knowing it wasn’t going to happen, he decided to make his way south, up Camden Street, through Portobello and across the canal into Harold’s Cross, towards his flat in Terenure. It was a four mile journey, give or take, but he didn’t mind the walk, it would give him the time he needed to breathe; to clear his head. The day ahead was his mother’s anniversary and, though the lads had forced him out, trying to take his mind off it, he actually needed to spend time alone, thinking about it; creating the clarity necessary to put it into perspective.

    He walked along, past disparate groups of teens and twenty-somethings, all chattering wildly, as if four hours trapped within the guts of an ear-splitting club meant they had to spend the next one blathering away like a gang of mad monkeys just to regain lost equilibrium. He’d never felt the need to bury himself in the sub-culture that went with clubbing; the manic socialising, its alcohol and drug induced lie providing no answer to his disconnected state of being. He preferred, more than anything, to stay sober; not to get caught by the warped detail that lurked within, waiting to invade his thoughts whenever his guard fell. No, alcohol only opened doors he feared to stand near, let alone pass through.

    He succeeded in manoeuvring through a particularly vibrant bunch spilling out of a cheap burger joint, only to find his path blocked by some unfortunate youth hunched over a waste bin; garbled groans accompanying violently spewed vomit, splashed out and across the bin and surrounding footpath. Tony recoiled from the stench. He just wanted to get home, having had more than enough adventure for the night.

    The groans grew louder and more desperate, as if the young guy was in labour; the retching seemed to come from a great distance inside, exploding like a starved scavenger over the splattered carcass of the bin. Tony shook his head and stepped closer, cursing himself for his inability to keep walking. He blamed his mother. She’d always said, “If they need help, help. If not, pass on.” He knew the lads wouldn’t have any problem, simply stepping over the drunken teen, maybe even slipping a quick kick in to teach him a lesson about spoiling the public walkway.

    He touched the youth’s shoulder, stepping back to avoid a reflexive arm swing.

    “Whoa, man,” he said, keeping out of reach. “Take it easy, I’m just checking to see if you’re okay?”

    The youth groaned and tried to wipe matted hair out of his face.

    “Are any of your friends around?” Tony asked, catching a vapid gaze from strained eyes. All he got in response was an impassioned groan and another example of whatever the youth had ingested during the night’s festivities.

    “Hey, leave him alone!” a young girl screamed from the still-vibrant bunch outside the burger joint.

    Tony looked at her and held his arms out wide. “It’s cool, I’m only checking to see if he’s okay.”

    “Get your ass away from him,” a young guy bellowed, trying to attract the attention of his partying friends.

    Tony looked down at the hard-suffering youth, then back at the now silent group. “If he’s your friend, you shouldn’t leave him alone in such a state.”

    The vomiting youth continued to struggle to empty the contents of his stomach, his frantic groans taking on a high-pitched desperation, reminding Tony of cats’ demonic fighting in the late-night garden of his childhood.

    The young guy in the group stepped forward. “I said, get away!”

    Tony stepped back, keeping the prone youth between himself and the group, who seemed to omit a collective snarl as they moved towards him. He felt his muscles tighten and knew it would be a major mistake to prolong his Good Samaritan effort. So much for going out of your way to help someone. He silently admonished his mother for putting him into another potentially lethal situation. He shrugged and turned away, easily losing himself in another group a few yards away.

    He kept his head down and stayed on the east side of the street, walking around groups or stepping over the odd inebriated heap on the footpath, ignoring groans and pleas along the way. He loved this part of Dublin, but not at this time of the morning; notorious for trouble after the mass exodus from the pubs and clubs in the area.

    He stopped and checked for available taxis but the situation hadn’t improved since his previous effort. He crossed to the west side of the road after the Palace nightclub, thankful to be finally leaving the worst of it behind. He looked ahead, along the near empty street, its lights casting an eerie glow over the blacktop and vacant traders’ lots. Every Saturday morning, as a child, he used to accompany his mother down the same street as she went about her weekly shopping; her soft hand guiding him through the bustling throng, stopping at different vegetable and meat-laden stalls to test produce and chat with old neighbours. It had seemed to him, then, that everybody knew her and wanted to talk to her, and he’d felt so proud and strong in himself knowing that he belonged to such an important person.

    He continued on, remembering, but trying not to. It was too difficult, sometimes, to let it all rise up from the safety of ‘knowing’ denial. He inhaled deeply and sighed, silently chastising himself for allowing it to happen. He knew he’d be up for the rest of the night, keeping the television company; too sad to make the journey into the uneasy realm of sleep and its inevitable heart-heavy dream-world.

    He was crossing the entrance to Pleasance Street when his attention was caught by a woman’s cry. He looked right, towards the noise, but it was too dark to see clearly. He heard her cry again, this time followed by men’s laughter. He strained to see through the murk of the unlit road, thinking he could make out someone being pushed about, but he wasn’t sure. He felt a certain relief at their laughter, telling himself it was just another group of cabless drunks making their way home, taking a shortcut through the darker side-streets. He shrugged and walked on but stopped when he heard her screaming at someone to get away from her.

    He cursed himself again as he turned and walked back to the Travel Agent’s on the corner. He stuck his head out just enough to see around the side, squinting to achieve better clarity.

    “****!” he whispered, realising the truth of the situation. Even through the darkness and distance, it was obvious something bad was happening. He couldn’t make out the exact details, but the girl was definitely being roughed up. He looked about, wondering why, when he needed to stop someone for assistance, the street he’d just walked up; struggled through, was now empty. He groaned inside and zipped his jacket up, took a deep breath, and hoped he could just get in and out without too much hassle. He knew, though, that such things only went so easy in other people's reality.

    He jogged down the south side of the road, using a row of parked cars as cover, trying to keep his footfalls as light as possible. He was convinced they’d hear his change rattling away like falling chains in his trouser pocket, and hoped against hope they’d be too caught up in their endeavours to notice. The area was dangerously dark, with hardly any streetlights operating. As he got closer he saw she was putting up a fierce struggle against two guys swinging her between them. He slowed, reckoning his best advantage was that he had the element of surprise. He hoped. He kept silent, veered right between two parked cars, and raced across the road, straight into the group, smashing into the tallest guy and sending him flying to the ground. Then he grabbed the shocked girl’s left arm.

    “Sharon! What the hell are you doing with these two?” He pulled her with him, back towards the lights of Camden street.

    “Get away from me!” she screamed, frantically trying to pull free of his grip.

    “I told you to wait for me!” he roared, before whispering, “Just walk as fast as you can.”

    “My bag!” she cried, dragging her feet in her efforts to stop, her smudged eyes pleading with him.

    “Come on!” he shouted. “The rest of them are waiting at the taxi.” He tried to pull her, but she was making it too difficult, twisting and pulling at him. Then he saw the two guys, now over their initial shock, racing towards them. She was too distressed to understand his instructions so he knew it was either leave her and leg it or stay and deal with the consequences.

    “My keys and my purse.” she cried, looking around in a futile search.

    “****!” he groaned, knowing what was coming. The guy he’d smashed into was following close behind his smaller, stockier friend and, even as shivers ran through him, Tony knew there was only one thing to do. He took a quick breath and shoved the girl through an open garden gate, quickly side-stepping and tripping the first assailant, whose momentum sent him flying past. He had no time to follow the guy's progress, immediately taking the brunt of the taller one’s weight.

    “Bastard!” was all he heard as they both landed, tumbling, across the concrete footpath. The guy was trying to get punches in but Tony kept as close and as tight into him as he could. The rank smell of stale sweat seared his nostrils as they rolled and twisted; punching, kneeing, banging and grappling. There was no sense of time, just speed and savage reaction; strength on strength, and he felt he was getting the upper-hand when he was clobbered across the back of the head and dragged off, away from his opponent.

    He tried to get his bearings but the ground lay at an awkward angle and things wouldn’t stop moving long enough for him to achieve proper focus. He kicked out where he thought his attacker was only to be smothered in punches and kicks from another direction. He kept his arms in close, rolling and twisting as best he could but too many of their attempts were getting in. One of them connected, fully, with a kick to his right side, knocking the wind completely out of him and all he could do was role up into a ball and hope they would give up before going too far.

    Unable to catch his breath, he knew in himself he’d have to open up soon or blackout. One of them was deliberately punching him on the back of his head, trying to break the protective grip he had there. The other was busy kicking and stamping, cursing loudly when he’d miss a direct hit. He was sure he heard the girl’s screams but he kept his head tucked in, knees up tight, eyes firmly shut. At a point during the onslaught, unable to keep track anymore of what contact was being made, he shifted away from himself and thought of his mother, the way she’d looked after him; keeping him by her side as they’d weaved in and out of the crowded traders’ stalls. He’d felt so proud, carrying the net-bag of vegetables for the Sunday dinner. She’d told him he was her hero; that she didn’t know where she’d be without him. Her warm hand would grip his tight as she smiled down at him. He could see her now, leaning into him, keeping him safe.

    Then it was over; nobody on him. No more hits. He stayed as he was; red-hot, throbbing pain searing through his body. He tensed again as he felt someone beside him.

    “It’s okay, my friend. They have gone away.” A friendly voice, with an Arabic accent.

    “Are you very hurt?” Another voice, with the same accent.

    “Are you okay, my friend?”

    “We will call an ambulance, but we cannot stay.”

    “But we cannot leave him.”

    Tony heard them argue in their own language. He opened his eyes and slowly uncurled, cringing with the excruciating pain in his right side. He raised himself onto his left elbow, trying to manage his rasping breath.

    “Please, my friend,” the stranger advised. “It might be better if you stay on the ground.”

    Tony groaned and waved him away, gripping onto the garden railings and slowly pulling himself to his feet, grunting loudly from the shock of pain in his legs. He felt their hands on him as they tried to assist him.

    “No!” he protested, shrugging them off while using all his strength to stop himself from toppling back to the ground. His legs were trembling uncontrollably and he had to grit his teeth at the sharpness of the pain shooting from what felt like the raw stumps of his shins.

    “You must let us help you.”

    “Hey, leave him alone.” It was the girl.

    “Excuse me, Miss, we are trying to assist him.”

    “Yes, yes,” his friend said, in support. “I have called an ambulance. I think you should remain here until they arrive.”

    “I’m alright,” Tony mumbled, coughing up and spitting a thick gob of bloody phlegm through the railings. He tried to look around but it was all he could do to keep a grip on the steel bars. He coughed more phlegm up, resting his forehead against the coolness of the ornamental spikes in an effort to slow things down. Through the pounding thunder in his head, he tried to focus on those who’d gathered around, some enquiring whilst others were giving their version of events.

    “Is he alright?”

    “They robbed her bag.”

    “He must’ve jumped in.”

    “Is she alright?”

    “They knocked the hell out of him.”

    “Did they get them?”

    “Did she get her bag back?”

    “They got away.”

    “It’s always the bleedin’ same.”

    “A real hero.”

    “Here’s the Filth!”

    There was a general shift away from the scene as a squad car pulled in. Tony realised the two Arabic men had disappeared around the nearest corner, but the girl had stayed beside him, gently wiping blood from his swollen face.

    “Bastards,” she said, throwing the bloodied tissue into the garden. “They did a real job on you.”

    “You…think so?” he asked, with an ironic tone that even surprised him. He leaned into the railings, thankful for their support.

    “The cops are here,” she whispered, taking more tissue out of the remains of her handbag.

    “Great,” he whispered back, “but I think an ambulance would be more useful.”

    She laughed nervously, gently dabbing his face again. He groaned, turning away from her. His stomach was doing somersaults and he felt his grip on the railings becoming less secure. A cop stood on the other side of him.

    “Are you okay, Sir?”

    “Uhh, I’ve been better.”

    “The ambulance is on its way,” the cop said, moving around to study Tony’s face.


    “I don’t think he’s too well,” the girl said.

    “Was it you he...assisted?”

    “Yeah,” she replied.

    “Are you okay?”

    “I think so,” she answered. “I got me bag back, but me purse and keys are gone.”

    “But you’re okay?”

    “Oh, ****!” Tony gasped, trying desperately to control the over-powering nausea churning through him. He felt his throat clamp and he had to struggle to catch his breath. He shuddered violently as a cold wave overtook him and he had to cling tighter to the railings, shivering uncontrollably; his teeth chattering like he remembered they had when he’d fallen through the ice one January evening in the field near his housing estate. His mother had come to get him and carried him home, wrapped in her old fur coat. He’d never forgotten how secure he'd felt in her arms.

    He made an effort to focus on the security of the railings, but his weight overcame his remaining strength and he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t have time to register the effect of the impact; his focus overtaken, instead, by a violent eruption from deep inside. He retched until he thought he was turning inside out. His head felt as if it was going to explode; the blinding tension forcing him to gasp and choke until he was convinced he was about to have a stroke or drop dead.

    He was vaguely aware of the cop beside him, encouraging him on, and the girl, gently rubbing his back.

    “Here’s the ambulance now,” a voice called.

    He blew out through his nose, snorting what felt like the remnants of a lifetime from his head. He took a deep breath, briefly savouring its freshness before wincing at the caustic sting in his nostrils and the back of his throat.

    “Alright there, Bud?” the ambulance-man asked.

    “You missed all the fun,” Tony whispered, balancing tenuously on all-fours over the mix of bloodied vomit.

    “I’d say it was some show, huh?”

    They all laughed. Even Tony, though the resulting pain shot through him like red-hot arrows. A few minutes later he lay in the ambulance, curled on the trolley, covered with a blanket. He lay with his eyes closed, taking comfort from the smooth motion of the ambulance as it sirened its way through the dark streets. His pain was multi-layered; from pinpricking surface to a deeper, clawing, numbness creeping through his right side from his shins to his head. His breathing was shallow and quick; his body’s defence in an instinctive effort to avoid feeding the deep attacker.

    He tried to ease through the fog, grasping onto the light of a safer, less painful, place; a front seat, upstairs on a bus; his mother beside him, pointing out the places her father used to take her when she was his age. She was holding his hand, softly but securely. He leaned into her, deeply inhaling her scent; smiling to himself; happy knowing how special he was.

    “My hero,” she said.

    “Am I really?” he asked, snuggling into her, a proud flush filling him with warmth.

    “Oh, yes,” she whispered, gently touching his face, “I don’t know where I’d be without you.”

    He heard the words and opened his eyes, momentarily confused before smiling back at the girl beside him, her warm hand soft against his face.

    Words: 4484

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