t began with Pascal Givens.
“Check it out, lads,” he said, hands planted upon his hips, face lifting so we could see. He spoke in clipped, smug sentences, each cherryed by a pouting sneer. “Shop in Drumcondra. €40 a pop. My Uncle Trevor got it for me.” And biting his lip he waggled his neck.
We crowded round— a dozen of us behind the Water Tower where the lawn sloped down to the Main Road, where the teachers couldn’t see. And we stared— out the front of Pascal Givens’ neck a long black length of pliant rubber protruded, held by a leather strap. It curved, ever so slightly, the end angling higher than the base and when he talked it wobbled— when he plucked the rounded end it gently slapped against his chin.
He pulled the strap so tight it left a long blue-yellow bruise— “I’ve to chew a thousand times before I swallow.” He pouted, smugly, eyes half-lidded. “Whatcha think of that?”
What did I think of that?
Head bowed surreptitious, I peered at the other boys, saw looks of big-eyed admiration pass between them— tentative, then strengthening, and so I contorted my face to share their wonderment, their delight, their envy.
We murmured our approval, that’s grand, that’s lovely, I’d love one of them meself as Pascal Givens pulled upon his ornament and blaarted like a fingered goat.
“Does it hurt?” whispered Brennis Gorevan.
“Only as much as I let it,” sneered Pascal, and that didn’t even make sense, but the boys laughed and shared their winks and knowing looks and I laughed along and winked as well.
As he turned to show us the big bright buckle at the back, the bell rang for class. “Okay boys,” he purred, clicking his fingers and turning them into angled guns, “Show’s ovahhh. Later on lads, I’ll let you have another look.”
The boys slunk along the rosebushes to the Fifth Class door. Softly they chatted while over their shoulders they shot furtive glances at Pascal’s jugular ornamentation…
Pascal dawdled, tightening up his strap, and seeing that we’d been left alone for the moment at least, I chanced my arm.
I sidled up to him. Pascal Givens was tall and thin and virtually chinless, his hair a mop of mouse-brown curls, his skin pale, lightly freckled. His colourless eyes leaked condescension from every look, from every imperious nostril flare and eyebrow arch.
“Pascal,” I said, “Pascal, could I have a go?”
“Have a go?” he said, eyebrows and nostrils sweeping in a sneer, and I could feel his sharp italics, “On what?”
Wordlessly I reached up and…
…The end of his ornament.
Instantly he slapped my hand away, abject disgust wrinkling his features. “What the…?” came as a spluttery eruption.
“Can I have a go?” I repeated.
“No, you can’t,” he hissed, pulling his ornament out of my reach, “It’s mine.” He stared down at me, his voice a cruel coolness. “You’ll probably break it. Stretch it out of shape.” Protective fingers ran along the rubber length.
“I wouldn’t,” I said in a small voice, “I’d be real careful.”
Pascal looked at me as if were a gollie on his sole and spat “Get your own!” He swept away. Left me standing on the path.
And I thought: I’ll get one. I’ll be the next to get one.
I didn’t know all the boys were thinking the same thing…
That was how it began.
hree days later.
We turned in our seats, trying to see where that noise was coming from.
Through the door came Gobdaw Lawns, his face split in a huge and earnest monkey-grin, and we saw what had him beaming. His voice was slow and thick: “Da took me into town on the bus. And we got off in Drumcondra. And I got this.”
He bent his rubber with a thumb and his had a red stripe up the side, emblazoned with lightning letters that spelled the word Jazz-ay.
It made Pascal Givens’ look like shit.
Givens sat at the back of the classroom, arms across his chest, thunderous revulsion on his face. Of all people to usurp him… Gobdaw Lawns? The plasterer’s son—thick as shit and twice as fragrant.
But the next day Pascal was waiting, his arms behind his head, feet crossed upon his desk to show his dirty soles. The paragon of nonchalance.
We all saw it— an inch-and-a-half longer and stiffer than the one before. “It’s the latest,” he said as we stooped, “Lim-ah-ted edition. €70. Titanium slush core. Raffia strap.”
Our impressed breaths whistled and just like that we forgot Gobdaw Lawns, the red stripe, the Jazz-ay.
But the next morning, little Tommy Sweetnam appeared at the school gates, hands clasped over his throat, the smallest smile on his chubby face. On the steps, he opened his hands and showed us. “Satin finish,” he whispered and he let all of us cooing boys touch his yellow strut. (Tommy Sweetnam was good like that.)
Pascal Givens was incandescent, Gobdaw Lawns lost and confused— how fleeting their time in the limelight had been! As both looked on we carried Tommy Sweetnam on our shoulders around the yard and he was king, king of the ornaments!
And the next day Barry Lawlor and Connor Moynalty both came wearing ornaments on their necks, and Barry’s was made of polished brass and Connor’s whistled softly when you squeezed.
That was the escalation.
It was exponential now…
When the weekend came you’d see the boys at the bus stop, studiously not meeting each other’s eye, and those who couldn’t afford a new ornament spent every minute polishing the ones they had, sprucing it up, trying new attachments and finishes— making the most of what they had.
But I had nothing…
One afternoon I tried to explain it to Mother.
“You wear it on your neck,” I said, pointing.
“I get that,” she replied rinsing a cup under the tap, “but what’s it for?”
“What’s it for,” I said, incredulous, “what’s it for? It’s… It’s…” My hands made futile contortions as I tried to explain— I gave up. “Maaam, all the boys are wearing them!” She made her lips very thin and going for broke I cried “‘Badger’ Gambol hung a bell from his, Ma! A bell!”
I let that hanging in the air.
Wet plates rang as she slotted them into the rack to dry.
“If you want to save and buy one yourself,” she said, “I won’t stop you. But honey, we haven’t got that kind of money to waste.”
Unslithering from a plastic glove she held my chin with a clammy hand.
“You understand, don’t you?”
I nodded stiffly, shiny-eyed.
(I hated her.)
One lonely lunchtime by the Water Tower, I heard two boys whispering. Inching round the corner I saw Oscar Shorthall and Gobdaw Lawns, hands upon each other’s ornament. Oscar’s was small and fat and purple and he kinked his head to one side to let Gobdaw tie a green ribbon around the plastic stem.
“Not that far up,” said Oscar softly, “Tie it lower down.”
Slowly turning to slink away, my runners scraped on gravel— the boys spun round at the sudden rasp, faces frozen, ornaments quivering—
Shock melted into rage when they saw it was me. “Fuck off,” snapped Oscar Shorthall, tightening his ribbon, “Get your own fucking ornament,” and Gobdaw opened his mouth, cowishly staring.
My ears burning, I turned and left them to it.
I saved every penny, worked every odd job I could find—washing Dr. Proutfot’s car, sweeping the path outside Whimpers, bringing shopping home for Mrs Delaney.
But whenever I thought I’d saved enough and went to Drumcondra with pockets full of change, other boys would’ve bought them all, or demand had forced the prices up.
Always I returned empty-handed, with the breeze upon my bare throat.
It seemed like everyone had their ornament— long and short and rubber and wood and chrome and glass and see-through and every colour under the sun.
True, they made fun of Jobbee Coby because his was second-hand and soft and swung to the left but at least he had one. He could hold his head up high.
I was the boy with the naked neck.
And I asked myself: When would I get mine?
When would I get my ornament?
nd then, inevitably, the only boy without an ornament…
On that final day Pascal Givens returned to school bearing the most elaborate, most expensive jugular furniture yet. Gold it was, and crystal tipped, ribbed in alabaster struts, elk-skin strap curving round the jaw, in lariats looping around his ears, dropping a fringe of leather tassels topped with pearls.
He grimaced with the weight; wincing, straining to keep it straight and stumbling. But the crown was finally, irrevocably, his— he was the best and had the neck to prove it.
All the boys gathered to offer their obsequiance, but I slunk away along the rosebushes, bowed and scuttling— the bare-necked pariah.
I wasn’t fast enough.
Pascal shouted and I heard the thump of feet but before I could make it through the door, the laughing boys were on me.
They encircled me, rubbing their ornaments, making them wiggle, laughing at me, pointing at my bare neck, darting forth to slap my throat.
Someone, I never found out who, hustled up behind me and pulled my trousers down, revealing my white legs, my white underwear.
The howls of the laughing boys, their leering faces, their neck-bulbs pawed with hungry hands and Pascal Givens, standing on the wall, his golden rod arcing into sunlight like some living god…
Something in me snapped.
Connor Moynalty was the closest—I yanked the ornament from his throat—the strap held for two tugs then gave and I slapped him in the face with the red and rubber length–.
“Oh!” he squeaked, lips all wet and womanish.
I swung, and Oscar Shorthall got it in the eye and tumbled backwards. “C’mon!” I screamed, jabbing with the ornament, “Who’s next? Who’s next?”
The circle round me widened— I was watched with wary eyes and Pascal Givens’ lips twisted in a sneer.
With trousers round my ankles I shrieked “You’re all idiots!” I held the severed ornament above my head. “Why can’t you see? They’re dicks! You’re all wearing dicks on your necks!”
I flung the rubber to the ground— it sprang back up— the boys recoiled— and then it lay there— a lopped limb.
Words; sharpened by tears, “You don’t look cool. You don’t look fashionable—you look like a— like a— like a bunch of pricks!”
The shrill words hung in the air. The silence was a shameful thing, like a small, sudden erection.
“I sold my bike for this,” gasped Fergal Rooney, and he fumbled the ornament from his neck, “I never liked this thing in the first place…” He started crying, horribly, and the other boys just looked at him.
“It hurts…” whispered Tommy Sweetnam, “It hurts…” and when he unclipped his ornament we saw the livid wound it left.
Still Pascal Givens was a preening thing, rolling his eyes and pouting and running a thumb along the ridgeline of his length. Nothing we had said affected him.
With the anger in me, I pushed my way through silent boys and stood under his gaze. I pointed my finger up at him.
“Don’t you be looking smug, Pascal,” I roared, “You’re the worst! Everyone knows your Uncle Trevor is a paedophile—”
Pascal staggered as if he’d been hit.
“Take that back!” he gasped, his ornament wilting. “He was cleared of all—!”
“It’s the truth!” I screamed, “That’s why he bought you that ornament, that’s why he got you to wear it!”
“Lies,” said Pascal, “Lies,” but around us more and more ornaments were being unstrapped, were being tossed to the ground.
“We’re not playing anymore, Pascal,” said Tommy Sweetnam. “It’s stupid.”
“But I was the best,” said Pascal in a pale, defeated voice. “I won… I won!”
Tommy put his arm round Feargal Rooney. Others helped the half-blind Oscar Shorthall to find the nurse. The crowd broke up.
I stood there, even when the bell sounded; stood there watching Pascal Givens, his hands upon his ornament, tears streaking his face. “But I won,” he repeated. “I won.” No longer the king; just a skinny, frail child with a dick sticking out of his neck.
The first to wear one, Pascal was the last to lose it. For weeks he bore their taunts and jeers until one cold November morning, he appeared, neck scarred but naked. We met him by St. Barnabus’ Hall.
“I lost it,” he said, “Me and a girl from Trim,”—and he stared, defying anyone to question her existence— “Well, it came off. We looked but we couldn’t find it.” He sniffed. “I’ll just buy a new one next week.”
But he didn’t.
The fad had run its course.
other looked up as I came in the back door.
She was smiling.
And I knew before she said anything…
It was in a shoe box wrapped in pink tissue…
“I couldn’t let you go without,” Mother said as she hugged me.
“I love you, Mammy,” I whispered.
Wait until the boys see me.
I’ll be the greatest.
My turn to be the greatest.
* * * * *
Graham Tugwell is a writer and performer of Irish distraction. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, his work has appeared in over thirty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine and L’Allure Des Mots. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com. He has previously published here on http://www.snakeoilcure.com.