Boys Tell Stories

‘THEN this woman gets on the bus – a skinny, sad little girl. She pays the driver, starts to walk towards the back of the bus. She walks past our guy. He looks away, out the window. He’s absentminded, just staring out the window, thinking about stuff, folding and refolding his ticket. He looks back towards the door…and there’s the same girl getting on again. Still small and mopey, handing over money to the driver in the exact same way. Your man does a double-take. Didn’t she just get on…? So he looks to the back of the bus and she’s not there. And he’s sure he saw her walk past him to take a seat in the back. He turns back to the front again – she’s disappeared. What the fuck is going on here, you know? He rubs his eyes, shakes his head, tries to work it out. She was up there, then behind him, then back up, then she was gone again… The driver turns round, really slowly, and stares at a point just over the guy’s shoulder. And he feels this chill. The driver has a really weird expression – blank, and cold. Not really threatening or anything, but something unnerving about it. Then the driver stares…at him. And he feels a breath – a gentle breath – on his neck. He turns – the girl is right behind him – the same cold, lifeless eyes as the driver. She whispers to him, “Now your journey begins”, and she sticks him in the throat with a thin steel knife! It goes right through and comes out the back of his neck, blood pouring out, gleeurk, and he can feel his life leaking away. The girl pulls out the knife – still blank and emotionless – and he notices there’s no blood on it. She puts the knife away and sits back, looking out the window and settling herself, like she’s getting ready for her journey. The guy turns back to the driver, who starts the engine. The bus begins to move. And as his last few breaths leave his body in little gasps, he finally realises: this is the bus of the dead, taking them all on their final journey. To where? Destination…unknown. The end.’

‘Aw, that was terrible!’

‘Yeah, that sucked. I thought it’d be pretty good for a while, with the cripple hiding inside the luggage hold and all. I thought he’d have a bigger role to play.’

‘Hey, fuck all of you, okay? I think it’s a right good story.’

‘The ending was too ambiguous. It just…ended. There was no resolution, and a ghost story needs resolution. To calm our fears.’

‘What was the point of that cripple, anyway?’

‘He’s supposed to represent those lost souls who aren’t going to heaven or hell. He’s in limbo.’

‘So, what? He was trying to bum a lift or something? Ha ha! An after-life hitcher!’

‘Ha ha yourself. You got a better one?’

‘He doesn’t, but I do…’

‘Shut up a second. You can tell it in a minute. I heard this really creepy story from my older brother, and it’s true. Any of you can ask him about this if you want. Okay, Leo went to college in Cork, right? This is a good few years ago. Anyway, he remembers his first Friday in first year – fresher’s year – when he was going to the station to get the train home. Because he was only in digs, he didn’t have his own flat, so…off home for the mother’s cooking. So he’s walking along, gets lost, but meets a girl from home who sets him right. I mean, what are the chances of that, even? Randomly bumping into someone from here in a city of a quarter of a million people? That was weird enough for starters. Anyway, he continues on his way to Kent Station – gets there twenty minutes before the train is due to leave. He walks down the slope, that pathway there, and into the main area. The place was busy enough; this is peak time for rail travel, remember, half five on a Friday evening. Leo bought his ticket, got the paper, walked around, whatever…killing time. The tannoy goes, “Train at platform such-and-such, calling at all stations for Dublin, leaving in five minutes.” He picked up his bag and…’

‘There’s a platform such-and-such in Cork train station? Can’t say I’ve ever seen that.’

‘Yeah, whereabouts is that platform?’

‘Ha ha. Next to platform thingamabob.’

‘Shut yer faces, you tools. Let me finish the story. Leo picked up his bag and walked over to the platform, to the ticket stamper fella, and went down into the tunnel to get to platform whatever-the-fuck on the other side of the tracks. Now, there were a fair few people making the same trip; not a huge crowd, like, but a healthy amount. Students, mainly, like himself, some businessmen and a few families and so on. Anyway, he boards the train, walks along a few carriages – you know how he has asthma, so he wanted to avoid the smoking carriages, as they had then – and eventually settles into a seat in an almost empty carriage. Must have been up near the front. The train pulled away in ten minutes or whatever, and Leo had a read of the sports pages, then put on his Walkman, put his feet up – he’d the whole four seats to himself – and had a bit of a nap. Only for ten minutes at most. Then he came around again and felt a bit hungry. The snack car was way back towards the back of the train, so he walked back to buy something. Now, on the way he didn’t really notice much; I suppose he was half-asleep, a bit groggy. He reaches the snack car, buys a coke and a pack of crisps, guzzles them down standing right there. The coke was flat and the crisps were stale, I might add.’

‘Stale coke and flat crisps. Truly terrifying. What a great story. Now, if I could tell mine…’

‘I’m only mentioning that because of what follows. So shut your big gob, could you, for two minutes? He finished his snack and started walking back to his seat. And the train was almost completely…empty. Seriously. There was about nine people on the whole fuckin’ thing. Now, it’s not like the people he passed were creepy-looking, or acting oddly, or anything like that. They were regular people, you know? A few students sleeping off a hangover, some fat-head in a suit doing some work, two kids reading comics and their mother snoozing next to them. Normal people doing normal things. But there was so few of them. Leo knew that more people had got on the train. He’d seen them go through the tunnel under the tracks. He’d seen them get on the train at the other side. He knew they boarded that train. So…where had they all disappeared to?’

‘Maybe they got a different train, douche-bag.’

‘Yeah. At platform thingamabob. Ha ha ha!’

‘Look, I’m only telling you what happened. My brother saw that train fill up – not completely, but a good bit. Two-thirds full anyway, he reckoned. Now he’s walking through it and there’s nobody aboard. It’s empty, get it? So where did all the people go? Who were they, and where did they go? He kept walking through the train, empty, empty, empty all the way, and when he reached his own carriage there was a girl sitting in the seat just inside the door. You know the two seats there, with no table? She was sitting there, reading a book. So he stopped and said, “Sorry, did a lot of people get off at the last stop, do you know?” She just looked at him and said, “What do you mean? The train hasn’t stopped yet.” Well? Whaddya fuckin’ think of that, Doubting Thomases? The train hadn’t even stopped yet.’

‘Yeah, brilliant, Stephen King. Quaking in me boots here.’

‘Ah, up yours, dickwad.’

‘That’s…not really a ghost story, though, is it? It’s a mildly strange incident that happened your brother. If it happened.’

‘What do you mean, “if”?’

‘I mean he was a student, for God’s sake. He was probably still toasted from all the joints the night before. Imagining things. Having hallucinations.’

‘No, Leo doesn’t smoke. I told you he has asthma.’

‘Yeah, all the students smoke pot, don’t they? I can’t wait ’till I get to college. Woo-hoo! I’m never comin’ off that cloud!’

 ‘Look, can everyone shut the fuck up and listen to my story now? Please? Thank you. Alright, this is about a guy, a complete asshole. We’ll call him…Dennis.’

‘Hey, thanks a lot, dipshit! Why don’t you give him your name?’

‘Because I’m telling the story, and I say he’s called Dennis. Anyway, Dennis was a real scumbag. Total knacker. But not in a cool, clever way; like, he never really did anything worth talking about. Never robbed a bank or kidnapped someone. Dennis was all tuppenny ha’penny crap. Vandalising the phonebox. Fecking sweets from the local corner-shop. That kind of thing. Hanging around, smoking and spitting on the pavement, with all his loser mates. You know the sort, now. Thinks he’s a gangster but he’s just a mediocre little thug who doesn’t have the brains to be a proper criminal. So one night Dennis and his biker pals, and all their girls, go out to a nearby forest, bushy drinking. Flagons of cider for the chaps, Smirnoff Ice for the ladies. A real sophisticated occasion: they’d sit around a fire in a clearing in the forest, talking shite for six hours and looking forward to the chance of a ride down in the dirt. These guys are pure class acts. So they’d go out to this forest – and it’s a really old, dark, thick forest, okay? Not all spindly little fir trees, but old growth, deciduous, oak and sycamore and… Conor, you’d probably know more of them. You were always better at all this nature stuff… Anyway, anyway, there they are, drinking away, and Dennis is getting more and more drunk. And as Dennis gets more drunk, he becomes a bigger and bigger asshole. A real mean drunk, right? Bad-tempered and aggressive. At about midnight, he leaps up from the fire and pulls out a knife. One of his mates – the only sensible one in the group – we’ll call him Tadhg…’

‘Aw yeah, so you get the sound one.’

‘Would you shut up, or I’ll make Dennis a homo as well. Tadhg says to him, “Here, Dennis, take it easy now, what’re you going doing with that knife?” Dennis raises his hand, like this, and says, “No worries, Tadhg, I’m only making me mark.” He goes up to a nearby tree – this fucking massive oak tree, hundreds of years old. Beautiful and sort of spooky at the same time, the way trees sometimes are. Dennis puts the point of the blade against the bark, and one of the girls lets out a yelp and goes, “Dennis, no, no, you can’t do that. The trees are enchanted here.” Dennis just snorts and asks her what she means, and she replies, “I heard this from my granny. An old monk put a hex on this forest centuries ago to protect it. ’Cause he was afraid of it getting cut down by farmers or whoever, and he lived all his life here and wanted to protect the forest. You can’t cut it, or there’ll be a curse put on you.” Now, Dennis was a dumb bastard. Thick as the proverbial pig’s mess. So needless to say, he didn’t pay a bit of heed to what she said, just ploughed on ahead and cut into the tree bark. “Dennis has a big dick” or “Man United rules”, something thick. They all sort of forgot about it then and went back to their drinking and messing around, although the girl who’d made the warning would glance over every so often, a nervous look on her face. But Dennis felt like the real big man for doing that, because he’d shown them all that he wasn’t afraid of anything. He was indestructible. He settled down on the ground with a half-full bottle of cider, watching the fire die down and smiling away smugly to himself, thinking he was so clever and tough. And slowly, slowly…Dennis drifted off to sleep…’

‘Do you think you could make it a bit more quickly, quickly? I’ve to go for a pee. I’m bursting.’

‘Do it in your knickers, you baba. You’d be used to that.’

‘Yeah, just piss in your pants, Briano, and shut up interrupting me. Now, maybe it was all the drink in his system, but Dennis slept long and hard. A dirty, deep sleep that an explosion wouldn’t have shook. And he dreamed a bit, too, which he didn’t normally do. Crazy, vivid dreams about motorbikes driving along the forest’s pathways, about snow and sunshine and torrential rain all happening at once, about fire and big columns of ashes. He dreamed he saw his own face in the column of ash as it rose into the sky. Dennis woke up, and everyone was gone. But there was something else, too – something was wrong, and he wasn’t quite sure what it was. He looked around and slowly realised that he wasn’t lying down anymore: he was standing up. But how could he be standing up when he’s just been asleep?’

‘I was just about to ask that. How?’

‘I’ll tell you how. It was with a sense of increasing terror that Dennis realised…he was inside the tree. He couldn’t feel his body – like, he’d no sense of physically being stood up there, inside the trunk – but he was inside it anyway, looking out. He tried to scream but remembered that he had no mouth, so he just looked around instead. The fire was dying down, smouldering away, and all his mates were gone, their bikes were gone, the girls were gone. He was on his own, and he couldn’t leave. Dennis couldn’t leave that tree. At first he thought, “This is still a dream – I haven’t woke up yet.” But after hours passed, and he could feel the rain against his face – or was it even his face anymore? – and the breeze on the tree branches, he finally knew it was no dream. He was cursed, because he’d cut that tree, and now he was stuck inside it. Days passed, nights came and went, and Dennis got more and more distressed and mental. He was so bored, you wouldn’t fucking believe it, going out of his tiny mind; I mean, what do you do in a tree to pass the time? All he could do was gaze around at the clearing, at the odd bird or squirrel that’d hop into view, praying to Jesus to release him from the curse. But there was no release. The next weekend all his mates came back again, and he could hear their conversations and everything. They talked about work and their bikes and this and that, and then talk turned to Dennis. One of the girls goes, “I don’t like coming back here now. After what happened to him.” Her fella says, to calm her down, “Nothing happened, okay? Dennis is fine. The eejit’s probably gone off somewhere on the piss. He’ll be back in a few days.” Then Tadhg – the cool one – says, “I don’t know, Brickhead,” or whatever the guy’s name was, “Dennis damaged that tree and had disappeared the next morning. He was just…gone”, and he makes a little “pooft!” shape with his hands, like a magician. “Disappeared into thin air.” They all got over it soon enough, though, and had the craic into the small hours. One of them even came and pissed up against the tree; he was so drunk he’d forgotten what they’d been talking about. He made a real stinky, cidery piss up along the trunk and Dennis could feel it, all along where his legs should have been, hot and sticky. Disgusting.’

‘That is disgusting. Yuk. Cider piss up your trousers.’

‘Moron, didn’t he just say that Dennis didn’t have any trousers by this stage?’

‘No, he had no legs. That’s what he said.’

‘Well, how could he have trousers if he didn’t have legs?’

‘Quiet, the pair of you. He had legs, he didn’t have legs, he didn’t know one way or the other. D’you understand? This was magic, an evil curse. He was trapped halfway between this world and the next, a ghost and still a man, with a body but without a body at the same time. The tree was his real body now, I suppose. Weeks more passed, and months, and whole seasons, and Dennis stayed stuck in that tree. His friends forgot about him soon enough; the guards had asked them a few questions, but they hadn’t a notion where he’d got to, and they just got with their lives. Like, you can’t wait around for someone to come back when you don’t even know where they’ve gone. And once the winter hit they weren’t going to be coming out to the forest, anyway; too cold and wet. But Dennis felt that coldness; he shivered all day and all night, rain pouring down on top of him and icy winds freezing the balls off him. If he still had balls. You know what I mean. One night, then, a young couple came out in their car for a bit of jiggy-jiggy, a bit of fun. This pair obviously hadn’t heard about the curse or anything. They drank some beer and then had a screw, right up against the tree trunk. It was awful, sickening: Dennis could feel the girl’s arse squashed up against him, and her tailbone banging back into him, yer man’s two paws squeezing the bark. Him grunting away like a horny pig or something.’

‘I never wanted to be a tree so much in my life. Ha ha!’

Quiet, assface. We’re coming to the good part. When they were done, the guy lets out a roar and thumps the tree, right where Dennis’s temple would have been. Then he gets this stupid look in his eyes, a bit crazed, a bit cocky, and runs back to the car. He pulls out a big knife and says to his girl, “Here, Donna” – she was probably called Donna – “I’ll draw a little heart on the tree and put our names inside it. It’ll be in memory of my first outdoor fuck.” And she goes, “Don’t lie to me. I know you and that tramp Lisa used to come out here all the time.” “No, no,” he says, “I meant with you.” Ah well, that’s okay. So our boy – we’ll call him, eh, Ricky – Ricky draws the knife, and cuts right into the bark. Right into Dennis’s face! He could feel the blade like it was going through his own skin. He screamed silently with the pain, aaaaarrghh Jesus make it stop!! After what seemed hours of this agony, Ricky finishes his masterpiece, steps back and takes a look. This big, stupid grin on his face. Then Donna squints and leans in, going, “Hey, someone else has carved their name into this. Givus the flashlight.” They get the light and shine it on these words: “Dennis woz ’ere”, and the date of exactly one year before. “Well, sure, somebody has to be the first,” says Nicky. I mean Ricky. Then the two of them toddle off to the back of the car, where they go to sleep under a blanket. And Dennis, still in unbearable pain, locked inside his prison of the tree, manages a small smile. He smiled, because he knew, come sunrise…he’d have some company.’

‘Is that it?’

‘That’s it. Now come out of my way, I’m going outside for a smoke.’

‘Aaaw! That was worse than his!’

‘Yeah, that sucked. I hate to have to say it again, but it did.’

‘The ending was too ambiguous. It just ended. No resolution. You need resolution in a ghost story.’

‘What was the point of that, anyway?’

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