Excerpt

Kala

Colin Walsh

July 27, 2023 
The following is from Colin Walsh's debut novel Kala. Walsh's short stories have won several awards, including the RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story Prize and the Hennessy Literary Award. In 2019 he was named Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year. His writing has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, and broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4. He is from Galway and lives in Belgium.

Hogan’s Square is pure buzz as you walk towards Flanagan’s. It’s Friday. People are coiled like a spring. They wanna dance, they wanna sweat, they wanna fuck. They want. You provide. The contours of the Square shape themselves towards you. You’re a new focal point. Faces turn to you like flowers seeking the sun. Feel their energy, the rush of recognition. Is that Joe Brennan? Phones rise to take photos, and you pretend not to notice, gliding above the world, in the Other Place.

Article continues below

Tonight’s your first night without your arm in the sling. Elbow was still tender as you cut off the cast in the kitchen, the skin around it a bruised corsage. But you’ll be able to play guitar again by tomorrow, if you keep it rested. You’re sure of it. Haven’t been able to do any workouts with this elbow on you, but when you glance at a group of young wans you catch their eyes running over your chest, your tatts.

You catch the noise from Flanagan’s before you cross the road—music throbbing under the sound of drills, nails being hammered. You wanted it this way. The venue officially launches next week, but you want to build the buzz already, so you’ve the doors wide open, allowing the music to pour out, giving people a glimpse behind the curtain into a magic you’re bringing to Kinlough. There’s a front-facing window with a small bar, already serving takeaway pints. Flanagan’s was a legendary spot before the recession. Now you’ve swooped in with the money to relaunch the place. Home-town boy made good. Posters for your residency on the windows—solo acoustic shows starting tomorrow night. Bringing It All Back Home. You want people to know this is happening. Tonight’s about making an appearance, meet and greet the staff, take a few pictures for their socials, your socials.

Pause for a second to let a gaggle of girls take a selfie with you. Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod. Tell them to be good and cut through the road between stalled traffic, feeling eyes widen as they watch from their cars.

Inside Flanagan’s it’s a hive. Stand in the door frame. Inhale the moment. The sawdust scattered on the ground. The unvarnished wood tables. Lads with hipster beards are attaching an old bike high over the bar. Several projectors are in place, ’70s exploitation movies patterning up the walls. Tattooed girls at the bar stuffing empty wine bottles with candles. Guys dressed like Oliver Twist painting a mural of Bosco and The Morbegs in the corner where the board games are kept. Someone’s inside the photo booth, polishing the seat. Duggan is behind the bar with a notebook, taking stock. Chin your hello to him and walk to the stage, slip into the DJ booth by the PA. Slowly turn the volume down so people don’t even notice it’s happening. There’s a microphone. Turn it on and the speakers groan. Every face turns to you. The ripple of recognition moving through the place. Laugh into the mic. “Evening, guys. Just wanted to drop in and say hi. You’re doing fantastic work. This is gonna be fucking awesome. I’m gonna spin a few tunes up here for a bit and say hello to each of you. I hope you’re all as excited about this new adventure as I am. All right? All right.”

Article continues below

There’s a scattered applause as you connect your laptop to the PA, open Spotify, and start the playlist you’ve been working on all afternoon.

Start things slow. Cook things up into a smoulder. “Our Theme” by Barry White and Glodean. The synths ripple slow and the bottles on the bar quiver when Barry’s vowels shudder through the speakers. People are working with more urgency now. The air’s more charged. The place is a universe in the scoop of your palm. Feel the staff glancing over. Affect a faraway look, like you’re seeing something on the horizon, like you’re the music. Bob Dylan expression. Visionary, staring into the mystic. Early evening and it’s a sweet one. The air crackling. Take a photo of the view from the DJ booth. A blur of bottles and bodies glows warm in the background. Fiddle with the filters, then stick the photo on Instagram with the tag Our Theme x. Theresa likes it within about ten seconds. So does Mush. Stare at the phone till you hit 100 likes. Less than thirty seconds. Good.

“Lonely Disco Dancer” by Dee Dee Bridgewater. People are

still at their tasks, but their heads are bopping. The tattooed girls are smiling at you as they move their hips. This is the vibe you want when the interviewer arrives next week. A Rolling Stone profile to mark the ten-year anniversary of The Other Place. You want the profile to happen in a variety of spots around Kinlough. Portrait of the Artist as a Local Man. You’ve lived in LA for five years, snatching visits back every six months or so. But you’re on home turf now. Can feel it, in your gut. You’ve landed. You’re here.

At the bar, Duggan’s polishing glasses.

Article continues below

“Some talent in here tonight,” he goes, looking at the girls. “What’ll you be having? Still on the Granny beer?”

You nod and he takes a non-alcoholic Paulaner from the fridge, shaking his head to the cluck and gasp of the bottle as it opens. “It’s a sad day when a Kinlough man won’t have himself a proper drink during Race Week.”

“I suppose you’ll have to live with that.”

Duggan is one of these lads who’s never left Kinlough and can only understand himself in terms of the town. He’s a big deal here—he’s managed several bars over the years—which makes him think he can talk to you as an equal. “That stuff’s like beer with a condom on,” he says.

Ignore him. You’ve already explained about your elbow, the bruising, the pain medication. Can’t drink alcohol till you’re healed up. That’s not even a lie. But Kinlough isn’t LA, people here see you not drinking and they get suspicious. Something behind their eyes closes up.

Article continues below

Tell him you’re gonna nip out for some air. The 12-inch cut of Isaac Hayes’s “Walk On By” booms about the walls.

“Good man,” Duggan says, staring at a tattooed girl as she leans over the bar to adjust the frame of a photo by the mirror. The picture is of your first band. It’s you and Mush and Aidan, skinny and ruddy-cheeked, guitar cases at your sides. Ye’re trying to look cool, arms folded, squinting into the camera, engulfed by the sunlight blaring through the fountain at the top of Hogan’s Square.

Someone had always put Fairy Liquid in the fountain by the time ye got there on Fridays after school. Ye’d stand about Hogan’s Square, waiting for the bus, pretending not to notice all the girls. Ye were fourteen now, so ye’d gone half your lives without speaking to a girl your own age. Ye’d all been mixed together—fellas and girls—in the same primary school, until ye were seven and made your Communion. Then all the lads got turfed into St. Jude’s, which was the all-boys school down the road but might as well have been another planet. Boys’ school was a new place with new rules and ye’d had to learn them all overnight. How to curse, and spit, and scrap. How to stare someone down, how to kick someone without them grabbing your foot, how to knock the shit out of someone on their birthday without hurting them. Ye got tighter then, yourself and Aidan and Mush, like sticks binding so none of ye would snap under pressure. In primary school you were a king. You didn’t need to fight to prove yourself, like everyone else, cos you were the best at football and the smartest in the class. Now you were fourteen, and in St. Simon’s Secondary School for Boys, with hair around your dangly bits and a new voice after dropping on you. You’d heard that girls loved lads that went to St. Simon’s, cos it was the one secondary in Kinlough that made you take an entrance exam. “Only the cream go to St. Simon’s,”

Dad often said. Yourself and Mush had been shocked that all-boys secondary school was nothing like Saved by the Bell or Buffy or Dawson’s Creek. It was just another load of smelly lads.

So after school on Fridays, ye’d walk up to Hogan’s Square and try and look cool for the beors from St. Anne’s. Mam said you were handsome. And you knew Mush was handsome too— all the mams commented on it. He had curly hair and what Mam called “boy-band features.” Ye’d be leaning against the railings at Hogan’s Square trying to look cool and Aidan would catch scoops of foam from the fountain and try to mash it into Mush’s hair, and Mush and him would get each other in headlocks and everyone in the Square would look at them, and you, and you’d laugh and pull them by their schoolbags till they fell over, and if the girls from St. Anne’s were looking at ye then ye’d fight a bit louder, and knock each other about like that all the way onto the bus to your house where ye’d fling the schoolbags under the stairs and get out of your uniforms into your trackies, swallowing whatever snack Mam had made—scorching your tongues, fanning your mouths, panting like dogs—heading out to play headers and volleys at the old goalposts in Taylor’s school yard. Until recently enough, ye’d still play the Gun Game, where ye’d run around the school grounds and duck behind prefabs, killing each other. Mush did a brilliant line in getting machine-gunned to death, he could make his body thunder about before he hit the ground. Ye were too old for that now, though. When ye got back to the house from playing football, the minute ye’d get in the door, Mam would be serving up the Friday Classic: chicken nuggets and chips drowned in her special sauce. “How d’you always know the exact moment we’re gonna be back?” Aidan would ask, and Mam would laugh and tell him it was a woman’s intuition. “And that’s a wonderful thing, Margaret,” Aidan would say, arms folded like he was one of the grown-ups. He loved saying things like that to your mam, to annoy you. After the Classic, there’d be a giant mess-fight in the sitting room till ye felt sick, then multiplayer GoldenEye marathons on the Nintendo, eating Tayto and chocolate and shouting abuse at each other. Dad would come in from work with a box of almond Magnums and he’d fake arm-wrestle each of ye before handing them over. When he’d lose, he’d say, “This is police brutality,” which the lads found funny, every week, cos Dad was still in his Garda uniform. Then he’d sit in his chair, crackling the newspaper and falling asleep. At around ten o’clock, he’d drop Aidan home.

Article continues below

This was when yourself and Mush would head upstairs and chat.

Whenever ye did this—chatting—there was something secretive to it. Unknown country. Chatting was a girl thing, something boys weren’t supposed to do. But Mush was different. He liked conversation. He knew loads about films—way more than you. His mam let him watch anything. He’d tape mad stuff off the TV which ye’d watch at sleepovers above his mam’s café. Stuff with boobs in it and everything. Half the time ye didn’t understand the films at all. But ye’d watch them and know that ye were reaching out to something bigger than Kinlough—touching the Other Place, a world that was realer and more romantic than life—and sometimes the movie would linger in the room afterwards like an echo of the future and ye’d sit by the window of his mam’s flat and stare out over Fox Street saying nothing.

That’s where ye were sitting the first night you told him about the girl.

You’d first seen her at the bus stop in Hogan’s Square. Spotted her the odd time on Fox Street, too. She stood and stared like she was being soundtracked. The thick storm of dark hair, the lazy shadow at her mouth. Her eyebrows—pure Hollywood. The Other Place. Mush knew who you were talking about straight away. Said she sometimes came into his mam’s café with her friend, a loud blonde wan. You spent a whole Saturday sitting there pretending to read a book and she never showed.

The quivery feeling inside you after school every Friday as you walked to the bus stop, hoping she’d be there. The time you worked up the nerve to stand near her when she was leaning against the railings, listening to her Discman. The day you almost sat next to her on the bus.

You made her vivid in poems, lyrics, daydreamed scenarios copied off TV and music videos. You’d write things in your diary like, “Everywhere I stand is a shore she is washing over,” and then you’d read that to Mush and he’d close his eyes and shake his head with a pained look on his face and say, “It’s the thunderbolt, man. Like when Michael Corleone meets Apollonia in Sicily when he has to run away after killing McCluskey and Sollozzo but she gets blown up by the Barzini family and Michael never gets over it, but he becomes the Godfather.” Mush’s brain was wired backwards. But that’s why he was someone you could chat to—he had something of the Other Place in him too.

You’d tell him you’d written another song about her and he’d get excited and urge you to play it. After pretending you didn’t want to, you always played it in the end. Ye were going to be famous together one day. Biographers would include photos of your handwritten lyrics and you and the girl would be one of them legendary couples that become synonymous with true love. John and Yoko, Sid and Nancy.

Mush started elbowing you every Friday to go up to her and ask what she was listening to. But you were too nervous. There was one time you thought she was looking your direction and you felt yourself burning up under her stare while Aidan ran about like a fool trying to nuggy Mush’s skull. Mush was distracting Aidan on purpose, to keep him busy so you could just talk to her, pure casual. But you chickened out. No balls. Mush never slagged you for it—he just made eye contact to show he understood. That was one of the best things about Mush. Sometimes ye’d hear a particular tune, or see a scene in a particular movie, and ye’d look at each other and know that ye were both thinking the same thing. You only get one friend in life like that. And Mush was yours.

*

well man

what’s the craic? you done at the caf?

yo man busy busy lol

Fancy calling up to flanagans? I’m out the front, it’s very chill

Mush doesn’t answer. Been trying to get him to meet up ever since you came back. Three weeks, now. Look at the message again. Very chill. You sound like someone who lives in LA. You can picture Mush rolling his eyes.

Usual craziness across the road in Hogan’s Square. People drinking cans, relaxing in the grass, getting the last of the full sun. And you having a drink outside Flanagan’s is nothing at all, it’s no big deal. It’s a non-alcoholic beer, so you’re not even really drinking. You only do it because you choose to and if you ever did drink again and it was an alcoholic beer, so what? You’re a grown man. It’s Race Week. You don’t need permission. You’re working. You can have a drink when you’re working, you’re a rock star, for Christ’s sake.

Take a picture of your pint and Instagram it when a voice shouts from the Square: “Howya, sexy!” The twins are shouting at you as they cross the green. “Any chance of a lush of your drink?” Marie calls. Donna walks next to her like a glum shadow.

Marie’s a pure flirt. She was a chatty kid, but now her jokes have got a charge and she expects you to hit the ball back, hard. You’re about to shout a comeback, the voice already in your throat, when a feeling like cold birds flutters from your heart and down through your arms. If you looked quickly you’d say it was Theresa, walking through Hogan’s Square, past the twins. It could almost be her, something of her essence is there. But everything’s slightly off. The posture, the haircut, the vibe. It’s Theresa in a fun-house mirror. Her back is ramrod straight and she glares around herself, all forward energy, dragging a roller case.

It’s Helen.

You almost duck back into Flanagan’s in case she sees you.

Marie hugs you gently. “Are you well?” She has been doing this every time she sees you, ever since you came back. Donna hangs back, as usual, looking suspicious. “How’s the elbow?”

“Grand.” Look over your shoulder, to the Square. Helen’s still there. Phone in her hand, looking around. You need to get inside. “Is it not difficult to play guitar like that?” Marie says, touching your bruises. She’s standing close to you. “It’s like a gorgeous armband, isn’t it? It could be one of your tattoos.”

She looks up at you with dangerous eyes, and you hear Donna snort behind her: “God.”

Mush once told you he was convinced that, one day, Donna would literally be bored to death.

Marie takes a selfie with you for her Instagram. You smile reflexively. Your head’s full of noise. The Square, the brassy blare of Isaac Hayes from inside Flanagan’s, the loud chatter of the people around you.

Helen’s still there, standing. Helen in Kinlough.

__________________________________

From Kala by Colin Walsh. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Colin Walsh.




More Story
Come Join the Party! Lessons from Visiting Every Gay and Lesbian Bar in the Country When my favorite gay bar closed in Cleveland, coastal folks agreed it was gentrification. That didn’t square with life...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.

x