R.E. McAuliffe

No one believes me, but it’s true. My cousin Conor could fly.

You wouldn’t think it to look at him, for now he is fleshbound. Over the years we have watched him sink beneath his clozapine-clogged bulk.

He was a lot lighter, of course, in his airborne days.

It was a month he stayed on our sofa, many years ago, that I first witnessed Conor in flight.

Early on a Sunday morning. That shadowtime when the world slips away from slumbering adults, and drifts into the heady misrule of the young. Streets teem with clubnight drifters, punctuating the dawn with their gunspatter revelations, their jabber of love. Seagulls scatter the twittering garden birds as they dive for the dribbles of curry sauce, the discarded chips and half-chewed burgers that litter the wake of the revellers.

Not me, not yet. Sleepless, I stood at the kitchen window drinking a glass of water and watching thrushes flap into the hedgerow at the raucous descent of the gulls. It was only looking up I realised that the gulls themselves were fleeing, their squawks not of aggression but of terror, as a larger form than them swooped and rose and coasted and plunged again. An odd shape for a bird, I thought, squinting at what I realised must be instead an elaborate toy kite—no, one of those giant balloons they use for advertising, for now that it had embarked on its descent I could see it was humanoid, with arms and legs and yes, that must be it, an American product it had to be, so sophisticated, its limbs articulated—Coca-Cola?—and rolling measured and firm like a swimmer’s, and there I was, the first in all of Cork to behold this wonder, this gimmick, so life-like, so like a boy—but not like just any boy—like Conor, my cousin Conor, so low in the sky now I could see the little flurries of his wrists and ankles as he rode out the wind—my cousin, could he—one of his mad schemes, so like him and so apt, to model himself in helium-filled foil and hire out his likeness. But no, I saw the face now and the eyes and this was no balloon, no mannequin or model—could it be?

He landed softly, toes scraping the earth, like a child on a swing steadying himself to a halt, his face level with the kitchen window so that we locked gazes. In that instant that same child’s mischief glinted back at me, the bold boy teasing his mother with a pretend stop when really he was just gathering momentum to go back up there again, playtime not quite over. And he made a faltering pirouette, then a more certain twirl, and all at once he was spinning, his hair-face-features blurring to a single point of light into which the garden’s colour rushed, the throbbing scarlet of fuchsias and the brazenness of sunflowers and the morning sky reddening to the blush of a linnet’s breast, all colours swirling up with centripetal force as he rose abruptly heavenwards to the white glow of the sun.

It was morning proper, my parents snuffling into slow wakefulness, before he returned. He sauntered past me into the kitchen.

‘The next time,’ I said, ‘take me with you.’

He turned back and grinned at me.

‘I will,’ he said, ‘yeah.’

His father had thrown him out again, after another visit from the guards; he would have been late teens then. School well behind him, he meandered a while between warehouse jobs and stacking Supervalu shelves, then skeltered through a spate of enterprises, each of which he shucked off like an itchy pupal skin. Random shipments of moulting dreamcatchers, or Louis Vuitton handbags with slightly skewed logos, would materialise for him to hawk down the Coal Quay. No sooner had his patter gained him a regular custom than he abandoned his pitch. After busking on Patrick Street he was invited to join a band; they gigged a few times, then at their first big booking Conor forgot to turn up, and it was as if the band, all those hours of rehearsing, had never existed. One summer he trudged door to door the length and breadth of Bishopstown, selling copies of the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, often both to the same household. By the time the Gideons and the Hare Krishnas caught up with him, neither takings nor evidence was left, and Conor, eyes wide if pupil-blown, denied all earthly knowledge. And in between he peddled eighths and wraps behind the GAA, palmed pills and poppers round the toilets of Sir Henry’s.

‘Francis needs to cop himself on,’ grumbled my father. ‘Sort his own son out and not be handing him off to the rest of us to deal with.’ But my mother insisted that Conor would stay with us as long as he needed to, although Francis was my father’s brother and Conor no kin to her.

‘It’s the crowd he’s running around with are the problem,’ she pointed out. ‘No sense him moving in with them and all. And we’ve only Orla left at home. It would be another story if Ger was still here, but Orla’s the sensible one.’

So Conor moved into our front room, so much more pointedly temporary, so much more domestically inconvenient, than Niamh and Paula’s old room would have been. And I sensibly tiptoed round him, sneaking occasional wonderment at the unfamiliar boy-stretch of him, the salt-sticky scent of toe-holed socks and smoke-wefted denim intruding in our nest of daughters.

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