Afterlife - Chris McQueer
I always think about the time my pal Ciaran died. We were 14 and at a party. Well, he didn’t die at the party, but that’s when the chain of events that led to his death began.
The start of his downfall could’ve been his granny dying, but I’m sure the real cause was this night. We were in this new guy from school’s house. A horrible, grubby flat in Cranhill. This new guy stayed with his da. Just the two of them living in absolute squalor. Plenty of my pals, and me as well, were raised by single mothers and we all found it really fucking weird that this guy was raised by his da and his da alone. It was mind-blowing to us. We asked him where his maw was, if she was dead or whatever, he just said she’d upped and left. The same as most of our da’s had done. To us, a maw just abandoning her family was unthinkable; women didn’t do that. It was a guy thing.
Anyway, we were at this party. I say ‘party’ but there was only 6 of us there. 4 of the boys sat in the living room playing FIFA while the new guy, Stephen, showed me his bedroom. That was another weird thing about this boy; he had the biggest room while his da slept in the tiny wee box room.
This boy supported Partick Thistle instead of Celtic or Rangers like a normal person from Glesga, which to us, was the weirdest thing about him.
‘My da’s a junkie,’ he said to me, dead calmly, while he rummaged about in his sock drawer.
‘Awrite?’ I replied. I didn’t know what else to say.
‘Aye. He left these in the kitchen.’ He held up a wee bag containing two orange tablets. My mouth went dry. That’s something that stuck in my mind for years. How dry my mouth went almost instantly. Just pure fear I think it was. As a kid growing up in the east end, you see reminders of the damage that drugs can do everywhere you look. You equate drugs with fear. Well, you do if you’re a shitebag like me. ‘Take anything and you’ll end up being a junkie,’ parents and teachers drummed into us from a young age. Funny how they never mentioned much about booze.
‘What’s that?’ Ciaran asked Stephen as we went back through to the living room. Stephen squeezed the pills gently through the bag.
‘Eccies,’ he replied.
I remember I was freaking out at this point. Ever just get that feeling something bad is going to happen? I had that then. Big time.
‘What do they do? Have you ever took one?’
Ciaran asked, his voice quivering. Whether it was because of puberty or because he was nervous I’m no sure. Stephen shook his head.
‘Naw, they’re my da’s,’ he said. ‘He says that they make him feel happy.’
Ciaran’s expression changed completely. Wide-eyed curiosity is how I’d describe it. His granny had died the month before and he’d taken it hard.
It wasn’t an expected death, the way it usually is with old folk; she’d been hit by a bus. Ciaran saw the whole thing happen right in front of him. He didn’t speak for a fortnight after it. Who could blame him? 4 weeks later and he was back at school but he was a different guy all together.
Before his granny died he was dead funny and cool. Always did well in school too. Since he’d came back though, he was nothing but bother for the teachers. They’d always said how conscien-tious he was, how attentive and how polite. Now he was withdrawn and if a teacher asked him to do something he’d either ignore them or bite their head off. Everyone was afraid of him. He told us the head teacher had a meeting with his maw and he said Ciaran clearly wasn’t ready to come back to school. His maw said she had nobody to watch him while she was at work and that he had to go to school. He ended up being placed in ‘isolation’.
He’d sit in the head teacher’s office with a pile of work and just sit in there in silence. He said it was brilliant. At lunchtime he’d hang about with us and seem nearly back to normal. A bit of solitude seemed to do him good. That night at the party was the first time he’d left his house, except to go to school, since his granny had died.
‘Ye want wan?’ Stephen asked Ciaran.
Ciaran tried to answer but it was as if he had a lump in his throat, like he was going to start crying. He swallowed then croaked out an answer.
‘Ah’ll hawf it wi ye,’ said Stephen. He pressed his thumbnail into a pill, splitting it perfectly in half. I noticed it had a mickey mouse shape stamped into it. ‘Make sure ye drink plenty ae water.’
After half an hour or so, Ciaran turned to me and said he couldn’t feel anything and that the pills must have been duds. His jaw told a different story however. His teeth were clenched tightly together and I swear to God I could hear them grinding.
‘I need some water,’ he said. He got to his feet and grabbed an empty, glass Irn-Bru bottle from the rubbish-strewn floor. He went through to the kitchen and filled it from the tap. Sitting back down on the couch, Stephen passed him some chewing gum.
‘Nah, I’m alright,’ Ciaran said, declining the offer.
‘Naw,’ Stephen thrust the chewing gum into his hand. ‘Take it, it’ll stoap yer teeth fae gettin fucked.’
After an hour and a half, Ciaran wouldn’t stop talking. He had been repeating the same theory he had about boys who were raised by their grannies.
‘This is the hing, right,’ he said, for the fourth time. ‘All the gimps in school are raised by their grannies. No maws. No da’s. Grannies. They’re spoiled. They don’t live in the real world. Their grannies do everything for them. Look at that cunt, Josh, for example. I’m in the same techy class as him and honest to fuck, he can’t do anything.
Can’t even hold a hammer properly. What kind of boy can’t hold a hammer?’
The other boys at the party sat enthralled, listening to his rant. It was complete nonsense, obviously, but he was saying it with such conviction.
‘Here, Stephen,’ Ciaran said. ‘Want to half another pill?’
‘Naw, man. We better no. Mah da’ll be annoyed. You’s better head hame actually. He’ll be hame soon ah hink.’
‘And another hing,’ Ciaran ignored him and continued his rant. He was getting really angry now. I knew he had a lot of anger within him that he kept contained but to see him unleash it was quite something.
‘The way they fucking dress,’ he continued.
‘Have you seen these Granny’s boys on non-uni-form days?’
We collectively shook our heads. Fashion didn’t mean a lot to us at 14.
‘They dress like paedophiles. Cheap, horrible black shoes. Aw polished up nice like they’re in the army or something. Like they’ve never been used to kick a baw in their life. Fucking chinos and shirts and all that. Cause Granny wants to make them look nice and smart. I hate them.’
The next day, Ciaran started a fight with a boy in the year below us at lunchtime. Right out the blue. We were walking down the street, going for a chippy, and he launched a half-full bottle of Irn-Bru at this poor wee guy. The cap end of the bottle scudded him on the back of his napper and it made this horrible noise like… well like a plastic bottle hitting right off someone’s skull. The wee guy turned round and you could see his lip trembling. I’ve never felt more sorry for someone than I did right then. He was standing there, his schoolbag far too big for his wee frame, trying his best not to cry as Ciaran strode towards him. I tried to stop him, I did, but really I could’ve tried harder. I can’t remember if it was 2 or 3 of the wee guy’s teeth Ciaran ended up knocking out.
‘What was that all about today, mate?’ I asked him as we went to another ‘party’ in Stephen’s.
‘Fucking Granny’s Boy,’ he snarled. ‘Wee cunt told his granny what happened and she was at my door last night. My maw’s raging.’
‘Well fair enough, mate,’ I said. ‘You started on him for no reason.’
‘I just fucking knew he was a Granny’s Boy.
You can just tell. I hate them,’ he took a sip from a quarter bottle of Glen’s vodka and winced. ‘I hate them all.’
Stephen ended up getting taken into care after his da went missing. He moved school and we never saw or heard from him again. Since we had nowhere left to go and hang about, and since the rest of our pals’ parents didn’t want them hanging about with Ciaran, me and him had started sitting in my room most nights. He’d lie sprawled out on my bed, relaxing with a joint while I paced around the room, lighting candles, spraying air freshener and panicking in case my maw smelled it. One night I said to him that I wished he wouldn’t smoke hash in my room and he replied: ‘Just turn the music up and your maw won’t smell it.’ Incredible logic. Maybe there was some degree of rationale in there somewhere because it seemed to work; my maw never found out Ciaran smoked hash in my room but she did find out we had went joyriding in her motor. She found out because we crashed the fucking thing. Ciaran was driving, I didn’t have a clue and had no interest in motors, neither did he, but my maw’s was automatic so, according to Ciaran, it was just like a dodgem. Anyway, he went through a red light and a transit van smashed right into the driver’s side. It all happened in slow motion, it was mental. They say your life flashes before your eyes in situations like that but it was more just a feeling of calm, like everything was going to be alright. I turned to Ciaran as he sped up on the approach to the traffic lights and I could see the van hurtling towards us. He looked at it then back it me and I swear to God he smiled and winked. The nurse told me Ciaran had died after she put my arm into a stookie the next morning. He’d died instantly they reckoned. The driver of the van ended up paralysed from the waist down. What did I have to show for it? A broken arm and a couple of wee cuts. That was it.
At Ciaran’s funeral, my maw wouldn’t let go of me. She clung onto my arm for dear life, saying things like ‘I’m so glad it wisnae you that died,’ and all that. We had to walk into the chapel past Ciaran’s maw and the look on her face is something I’ll never forget. My maw gave her a look of sympathy, that way you sort of purse your lips and nod your head at someone. But Ciaran’s maw just shot right back with the iciest stare I’ve ever seen. She had every right to be annoyed; It wasn’t fair she’d lost her boy while my maw still had me, totally unharmed.
I died a good 40 year after all this happened. Throat cancer it was that got me. Never smoked a single fag in all my life. Relatively young I was, I suppose, but I never liked the idea of getting really old. I suffocated in the middle of the night, sur-rounded by other decrepit, dying cunts. And see as I took my last breath, that same feeling of calm that I’d felt right before that van crashed into my maw’s motor came back. I didn’t even struggle or try to help myself, I just waited to die. It was a nice way to go, I think. I’d said, well more like rasped, my goodbyes to my daughter and my grandweans a few hours before and they’d went off with smiles on their faces because my youngest grandson couldn’t stop laughing at my new gravelly voice. It was a nice way to see them off. Leaving them with a smile. I’m glad that’s how I went rather than them seeing me get even worse or dying in front of them.
I’ve been in heaven for 3 weeks now. I met God, can you believe that? He’s a bit of a let down, to be honest. He seems dead bored. You get 10 min-utes with him when you first arrive here then you get passed on to an angel who acts as a kind of holiday rep to help you adjust to life in Heaven.
‘Aiden Gray,’ He said to me, looking through some paperwork. ‘You’ve done no too bad, pal.’
‘Cheers,’ I replied.
‘Nothing diabolical. Nothing particularly amaz-ing either. Kept yourself to yourself. I like that.’
‘There’s a few cunts here you know. Yer maw.
Yer granny and granda. Couple of pals as well.’
‘Is Ciaran here?’ I interrupted.
‘Hing oan, I’ll check,’ He ran a finger down a list of names. ‘Wit’s the boy’s last name?’
‘Aye, he’s here. Och, that’s a shame. 14 he wis when he died, eh?’
‘He stays with his granny. A wee hoose, near where you’ll be staying.’ God put the paperwork into the drawer of His desk. I’d forgotten all about Ciaran’s grievances with boys who stayed with their grannies by this point. Wish I fucking knew what I was about to get myself into.
‘I’ll pay him a wee visit.’
‘Good for you, pal. He could be dain wi a bit ae company.’ The Big Man nodded at the white door of his office and started poring over the next new arrival’s paperwork.
‘Aw, sorry, can I ask you something before I go?’
‘Naw. Wan ae the angels’ll answer yer questions.’
The angel I was assigned to was called Rebecca. She was nice, turned out she was from Cranhill as-well and was a social worker when she was alive. She died back in the 70s, wore these horrible milk bottle specs and had a massive perm.
‘Rebecca, I can’t help but notice that just about everyone here is old and decrepit, including me.
What’s the script?’
She gave me an apologetic look. ‘When ye get here, son, ye stay as ye were when ye died.’
‘So I’m gonnae remain in my 50s forever? I don’t even get to go back to being 24 when I was in my prime?’
‘Sorry, son. It’s just how it is,’ she handed me my welcome pack and the keys to my new house.
My new house happened to be an exact replica of the house I’d grown up in. In a exact replica of the scheme I’d grown up in. Heaven is a weird place. Rebecca told me that it was really an exact replica of the world and that I could go anywhere. Even through time. I could go back and mingle with the Neanderthals that used to cut about Cranhill tens of thousands of years ago if I wanted. I declined and said I’d rather go and visit my pal Ciaran. She said: ‘No bother, son,’ and in the blink of an eye we were standing outside his front door. Well, his granny’s front door.
‘This is his granny’s house,’ I said to Rebecca, confused.
‘Well, he was only a wee boy when he died.
He had no one else to look after him. His maw’s not scheduled to die for another wee while, according to her file, so he’ll be here until she gets here.’ She nodded at the door and disappeared.
I chapped the door and Ciaran’s granny answered it.
‘You,’ she said, looking me up and down. ‘You were in that motor wi mah Ciaran that night.’
‘Eh, aye. I was,’ the look this woman gave me, honest to God, man, she made me feel like I was 14 again and getting into trouble off a teacher. ‘I should’ve stopped him from driving the motor that night. I’m sorry.’
‘He’s in the kitchen,’ she pointed over her shoulder. ‘Ye can tell him yer sorry.’
There was a right strong smell of soup in the kitchen. I mind Ciaran once telling me how much he loved his granny’s homemade soup. He stood at the cooker with his back to me, absent-mindedly stirring the soup.
‘Awrite, mate?’ I asked, trying to sound as cheerful as possible despite the tense atmosphere in the house. He didn’t reply. He didn’t even turn round.
It took a few moments for me to take in what he was wearing; a pristinely ironed blue shirt tucked into beige coloured chinos and big chunky black sensible shoes.
‘CIARAN!’ His granny shouted from the living room. ‘YOU BETTER BE STIRRING THAT SOUP!’
‘I am, Granny,’ he muttered. The left side of his face twitched.
‘So,’ I was trying desperately to make small talk.
‘You know anybody up here then?’
‘Naw,’ he said, his eyes transfixed on the soup whirlpool he was creating. ‘Everybody apart from my granny is still alive. Even my maw.’
‘Awrite, I said. ‘Cool.’
‘So’s my da. And Stephen. And everybody we went to school with.’
‘Good for them, I suppose, eh?’
‘So, eh, how’ve ye been?’ I ventured. A safe bet of a question, I thought.
‘HOW DAE YE HINK AH’VE BEEN!’ He sent the pot flying across the kitchen, the soup leaped out of it and onto the wall with a splat. Some of it splashed back onto his chinos and my ear. I backed away from him slowly as he turned around to face me for the first time. I noticed his hair was combed into a neat side parting. He used to wear it kind of spiky and messy when we were at school.
‘My maw’s still alive,’ he took a step towards me. ‘My da’s still alive,’ another step. ‘Every cunt we hung aboot wi at school is still alive.’ Another step. We were nose to nose now. ‘And you only died yesterday.’
His granny gasped from behind me. I turned round to look at her, she was peeking her head out behind the living room door.
‘Don’t you fucking say anyhin ya auld crabbit cunt,’ Ciaran pointed at his granny. He turned his gaze back to me. ‘Do you know what it’s been like?’
I shook my head slowly.
‘Living with her,’ he literally spat the word ‘her’out. Flecks of spittle joined the smattering of homemade soup on my right ear. His granny gasped again. Ciaran shoved me and I went sprawling on my back. He stood over me. For a 14 year old, he was an intimidating figure.
‘I’ve been up here for near enough 40 year,’ his eyes were wild, ‘hinging aboot wi mah FUCKIN GRANNY!’ He grabbed me by the neck of my t-shirt, hauled me to my feet and screamed in my face: ‘YOU SHOULD’VE DIED IN THAT FUCKIN CRASH WI ME!’
‘M-m-mate,’ I thought I was going to pish myself with fear. ‘I’m sorry.’ I don’t know why I apologised for not dying in a car crash but you say weird things in situations like this.
He flung me out onto the street.
‘Forty fuckin year, man. Wi mah granny. Nae cunt else. Just her,’ his voice was a bit calmer now as he stood in the doorway. ‘Look at the fuckin state ae me.’ He gestured down at his clothes.
Dribbles of soup crept down the legs of his chinos like orange slugs.
I had to admit though, his shoes were shiny as fuck.
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