Bloody But Unbowed: Belfast, 1998
Fiction by John Herbert
You look in the mirror at your bent face, feel the side of it numb where, when they fixed you, they damaged the nerves. A year later the side is swollen still, misshapen. It’s not easy to spot unless you look for it. You look for it. You’re off kilter now and, short of more surgery, it’s a mark for life. Half of what faces the world is cut off, numbed.
You wonder if you’re dressed smart enough to face them, if the look of you, toughened and healed will confront them with the shame of it. You think of the five of them, imagine them too at their mirrors, straightening ties you guess they only wear for court and weddings, the awkward twist and shrug of the movements as they tie them, their feral fingers remembering things not done since school. If they went to school.
It returns. The sneer and shove of the meeting, the glare of streetlights in the dark of that evening, the glow of car lights on wet tarmac heading out of town, the group of them surrounding you, the first smack of fist on flesh, your own swinging and flailing back, a lurch at one in self-defence and fury at the sting of the blow, the shove into the road, the squeal of tires and swerve of the car away from you, your stagger back up the curb, to them.
Then nothing until an arm shaking you to wakefulness, the stagger and struggle to your feet, face wet and swollen. Ambulance, vomit, bright lights and pain. The hospital and stitches. Ice. The sting of needles and scouring your broken skin, taut threads pulling you back into shape.
You moan at the lights and pain, try to slip back into sleep.
The nurse tapping your temple. ‘You’ll be asleep again, soon enough, darling,’ she says. ‘We’ll let the doctors have a wee look at that, so we will. Fix you up proper like. But stay with me now, alright?’
Later you wake again, your face swollen, your teeth painful, cinched tight with wires that cut into your gums. As the swelling fades, the bruises on your face move from purples to browns, add new contours of pain to the landscape of your hurting.
You don’t walk the streets easily at night anymore. You flinch at sounds, walk with your hood up, your stance wide, projecting a defiant stomp, your eyes shifting from side to side, anticipating what’s ahead, straining for what’s behind. They’ll not catch you again.
As you look in the mirror, you tilt your head sideways, steal a glance in profile, see where the thick triangle of muscle at your neck bunches. You’ve worked hard for it, lifting weights, ignoring the looks, enjoying the grunt of your breath, the burn in your arms and legs, a pain you get to control. You enjoy the layering of muscle, the thickening of limbs, solidity of tread when you walk, the ropes of tautness and shadow when, at home, you examine yourself, newly forged, in the mirror at night.
You bind your hands like your Daddy showed you, hit the heavy bag, try to keep images of those wee shites from your thoughts, feel the sweat drip in greasy beads from your hair, keep your head down, swing at the hips, land heavy percussive belts into the creased leather until the bell rings and you heave in breath. Then go again.
You’ll see them again. The lawyer has warned you about it, her thin in her pencil skirt and deep-brown voice, rehearsing with you the questions they might ask you, time and again. She’s pretty enough and, in other circumstances, bumping into her in a bar somewhere, you’d be interested, but not now, not when she’s helping you face up to those shites. You’re ready for them.
You examine yourself, the tight shave of the sides of your head, the long flop of hair at the front that you tie back when you work out, decide that today it can fall loose. Too formal, you think as you look at yourself and roll the sleeves on the white blouse higher, reveal the intricacy and colour of your tattoo. No make-up today, you think, nothing to hide the lines and shade of the scars you conceal when you’re out. Let them judge you and your tattoos and let them see the new cords of muscle growing beneath the ink.
© John Herbert
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read John’s interview]
John Herbert currently lives and teaches in Brighton, UK. He holds a PhD from Birmingham University—on E.M. Forster’s fiction—and is a graduate of New Writing South’s Creative Writing Programme. He has won AdHoc Fiction and Microcosms Fiction competitions, was long listed for the 2017 Brighton Prize for short fiction. His work appears in the Brighton Prize anthology and DNA Magazine this year. In addition to short stories, he writes flash fiction and is working on a first novel. It focuses on surfing, drinking and dislocation. He dislikes having his photo taken (a self-evident truth) and prefers the second person to the third.