Flakey prised open another tin of glue, clawed out a large dollop, reversed his plastic bag and began inhaling but had trouble sustaining a vivid illusion. Next to him, Coogie was in a wide-eyed coma, his bag having burst around him, leaving him covered in goo, tobacco flakes and bits of grass.
Somebody was buzzing Flakey. It was Torchy.
‘Flakey. Look. Coogie’s brainless again. You can see straight through his ears!’
Flakey turned to Coogie, parted his yellow, purple and orange hair and found an ear. Torchy buzzed him again.
‘No brain. What did I tell you.’
Sure enough Coogie had no brain. Flakey could see straight through his head to the other side of the river where the sun was stuck like a big bubble to the roof of a derelict factory.
‘I can see youuuuu!’ said Torchy, waving to Flakey through Coogie’s empty head.
Torchy’s dog, Prince, began barking at something, then Coogie in his illusion began howling to Prince and Flakey patted Coogie’s head and rubbed his thick neck underneath his collar.
‘Be letting him lick your face next,’ said Torchy.
‘Je think so?’ said Flakey. ‘Je think I’m one of them! I don’t have too many women’s organs!’
Torchy laughed, drank some warm cider and began working his glue bag furiously. Then he called Prince to his side, forced the carrier bag over his jaws and worked the bag like a bellows while the panting dog struggled.
‘Whadda you see, Prince, boy? Rabbits in the sky? Millions of rabbits? Or juicy, juicy bones?’ Torchy fell back and went into a trance, then came around a few minutes later to the arrival of Isabel, his girlfriend.
‘Hiyas,’ she said. She had climbed through a hole in the fence, followed by a friend who was thin and had short black hair. Both girls were in their school uniforms.
‘How long are ya here?’ asked Isabel.
‘Would you like a baby?’ replied Torchy.
‘Find a basket in the reeds, didya?’ she said, before introducing her companion. ‘This is Lillian from our class.’
‘Lillian?’ said Torchy. ‘Your Da hung himself, didn’t he?… Flakey, her Da topped himself after he was caught in bed with her and the brother.’
‘What was he doing in bed with your brother?’ asked Flakey.
‘Not my brother! Her brother.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’ said Flakey.
‘They weren’t exactly taking a nap,’ laughed Torchy.
‘So?’ said Flakey.
‘Fah,’ said Torchy, and nursed the bag at his mouth. Isabel had sat down on the ragged ground but Lillian stood trembling and was close to tears.
‘Sit down!’ ordered Torchy. ‘You’re casting a shadow.’ He took hold of her ankle and threw her over Coogie who softly moaned.
‘Coogie, do you want a fag?’ asked Isabel.
‘Do you want him to explode,’ said Torchy.
‘Coogie! Coogie! Coogie! Do you want a fag or not?… What’s wrong with Coogie?’ she asked.
‘Ah, let the dying dog sleep,’ mumbled Torchy. Then he sat up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. ‘Speaking of dogs, where’s Prince?’
‘He’s probably away having a piss,’ said Flakey.
‘Yeh, but where is he. He can have a piss anywhere… he’s not an oul doll… PRRR-INCE! PRRR-INCE!’ He stood up but wobbled and fell down beside Isabel. He kissed her, then started sucking her in the eye as she screamed and laughed and pushed him off and rolled her eyes at Lillian. But Torchy pulled her close to him and continued sucking her eye.
She sat up, half-angry. ‘Torchy! See if you’ve done it again. Has ee? Has ee, Lillian? Is my eye black?’
Lillian nodded indecisively.
‘See you, Torchy. Our form teacher thinks I’m being bate by my Da.’
‘…ever lays a finger on you, you tell me. He’ll be a hit ’n’ run,’ said Torchy.
Isabel glowed with pride and turned to Lillian who cracked the delf of her mouth with a pathetic, nervous smile.
‘Torchy. Want us to go and see if we can find Prince?’ asked Isabel.
‘Come on, Lillian. We’ll take a wee look.’ The pair left and arm-in-arm walked down the river bank. They weren’t gone long when Isabel began screaming. ‘Torchy! Torchy! Flakey! Flakey!’
The boys fell over each other but eventually struggled to their feet and shambled down the embankment.
‘What is it? What is it?’ shouted Flakey.
Where the river narrowed into the sluice gates Isabel pointed out a dog’s body and four stiff legs revolving through the metal bars like a turnstile.
‘He’s killed himself!’ cried Flakey.
‘Never!’ protested Torchy. ‘Not Prince!’
‘Maybe he thought he was a fish,’ said Flakey.
‘You’ll think you’re a fish if you don’t shut up,’ said Torchy.
‘If you think you’re up to it, big lad,’ said Flakey, and when Torchy’s back was turned hit him a hard slap across the head and Lillian smiled sweetly.
Torchy jumped into the cold river which immediately devoured his shins. He pulled at the bloated body trapped by the channelled water and unfastened it. Carrying it like a baby, suppressing his sniffles, he waded to the bank where Flakey took the dishevelled corpse from him.
‘The shock’s turned his coat wiry,’ said Flakey.
‘What!’ said Torchy, bewildered. ‘Letssee… Hey, that’s not Prince! That’s a terrier! Prince’s more greyhound!’ With his runner he levered the dead dog back into the river.
‘Torchy. Look at ya,’ said Isabel. ‘Ya’ll have to get changed before you catch your death.’
Torchy wrung out the tail of this shirt and began shivering.
When they got back Coogie was sitting with his arms around Prince and was talking to him.
‘There you are, boy!’ shouted Torchy, but the dog retreated behind Coogie.
Flakey sat down and went through the plastic bags for uncongealed glue.
‘No more glue, Flakey,’ said Isabel. ‘It’ll kill your brain cells. That’s enough for one day.’
‘It only kills brain cells you don’t use,’ he said.
‘No. It kills your big brain cells,’ groggled Coogie. ‘But two wee ones grow in their place’.
Torchy was watching Flakey. ‘Half that glue’s mine, don’t forget,’ he said.
‘It is, aye. You’re forgetting Prince’s cut.’
‘I’ve hardly had any,’ said Coogie. ‘So you can have mine.’
‘Are you coming, Flakey?’ asked Isabel one more time, as she helped Coogie to his feet. ‘It’s near six.’
Flakey sat stubbornly and stared into the sun. He felt them leave with a slight twinge of loss yet hadn’t wanted them to stay.
When he was aged two baby Kevin developed a red, patchy rash on his cheeks which quickly spread to his ears and neck and then to the crook of his elbows. He would scratch it until it suppurated. Then it would dry in scabs. The rash was worse in the autumn, migrating to the folds of his small body, causing him intense discomfort and a wheezing which lasted for days. Depressed at home by the constant arguments and fights between his mother and father he would respond with a tantrum of vigorous scratching. At school he would secretly rub at his encrusted skin. One day, sharing a desk, he scratched his head and the dry, scaly skin fell like snow flakes.
‘Watch it, ‘Flakey’!’ said the boy beside him.
Although the eczema was to slowly retreat, the nickname given to him that day, and which he hated, stuck fast.
He retrieved some more glue from a mislaid tin and over the next hour swung from good illusion to bad, often screaming with fear, sometimes laughing with joy. Gum gathered in the corners of his eyes, eyes hung at half-mast, and his nose felt as if it was encrusted with fibreglass. At one stage he felt his body burn from the inside and he became terrified. He furiously worked his bag and thought of a huge waterfall until the illusion materialised, then faded. Propping himself against the wall with its brown flood-mark he realised that something inside his left arm, above his wrist, was annoying him. He watched as the semi-transparent lump flicked this way and that just below the surface of the skin. He pressed it with his finger.
‘You’re dead, so you are,’ he whispered.
Flakey stretched out, fumbling in his trouser pocket for his knife. He released the blade slowly from its cover, then he opened his arm in a small run above and below the lump. His skin parted like pork fat and in the quickly-gathering red juices he saw the mouse’s tiny feet pop out first. Its glistening grey down dried instantly and the mouse, on its back, raised its head to scrutinise the world. Its eyes shot open wide, focusing on Flakey, and its whiskers twitched. Then it showed its teeth in a small, nasty snarl. Flakey shrivelled in terror, unable to scream. In a split second the mouse rolled over, dashed out, scattering spots of blood along his arm, and disappeared into his sleeve, racing towards his frozen throat, a long umbilical thread spooling out of his wrist after its trail.
Flakey began smacking himself and he was unable to escape the mouse he had found and killed in his bed a few nights before but which was now alive again. He surrendered and began sobbing, wailed like an infant and rocked himself for something.
The blood trickled from his arm and he was completely incapacitated, unable to respond to his situation but groaning at the manifest pain of loneliness, of desolation – Ma with her boyfriend in front of endless videos, endless carry-outs: Da gone six years now with a girl young enough to be Flakey’s sister.
Flakey was cold, yet his forehead was soaked in sweat. He felt nauseous from the cloying glue between his toes, in his pores, on his lips.
‘Kevin?’ A whisper. ‘Kevin?’
Through the echoing of his heartbeat in his ears he heard his name – his real name – being uttered. He turned and through the lenses of his tears glimpsed Isabel’s friend Lillian gingerly approaching.
‘What have you done to yourself?’ she said, kneeling down and taking his hand in hers. ‘Oh Kevin, you’ve mutilated yourself. You’ll have to go to the hospital.’
‘No way! They’ll send me to a psychiatrist for electric chair treatment. I’m not going there!’
She had taken off her school tie and bound his arm. And, licking the ends of her handkerchief, she cleaned up his small wound, eventually dressing it with the blemished square of linen.
‘Maybe it’s not so bad after all, Kevin,’ she said, reassuringly.
He smiled wanly, still embarrassed at having been caught crying.
‘So you can talk,’ he joked.
She returned a bashful smile, sat down beside him, put her arm through his and leaned against his shoulder. She kicked his tin of glue and they watched it roll down the embankment towards the river, tumble over the edge and strike the water where it floated for a few seconds before sinking.
Flakey shuddered and felt sick.
‘You okay?’ she asked.
‘I’ll be okay in a bit.’
They sat in silence for several minutes. The western sky was now ruby and a sort of peace descended. Slowly, Flakey appreciated how tightly she was gripping his arm.
‘You okay?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she replied, huddling closer, and tucking her pleated skirt beneath her.
And as they sat, Flakey became overtaken by a softening of his disposition, by the innocence of their union, and he smiled.
‘Do you wanna get married?’ he said.
She giggled and it made him happy. Two fifteen-year-olds sitting along the bank of a dirty river.
‘Is your Da dead?’ asked Flakey, after a few moments.
She shook her head, Yes.
‘So’s mine.’ After an interval he added: ‘And my Ma.’
Her big eyes showed she understood.
‘Would you take me somewhere, Lillian?’
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘I don’t know. Somewhere. Anywhere.’
She thought for a second.
‘Okay. Shut your eyes.’
He was surprised but closed them anyway. And, to the sound of the lapping water, she hummed him the sustained happiness of a lullaby which he had never, ever, heard before, but which still took him back.
And the beauty of it being no illusion.