I haven’t seen Tom in three and a half years. He came home for a month or so in December of ’92—the day after Christmas—because his father was on the way out, bisected by a bad stroke and pining for the whole family to be around him at the send-off. That winter Tom was shaken, a little darker no question, but still more or less the same lad he had been when he was eighteen, and sixteen, and twelve: sombre, intense, obsessed with the notion of bearing witness to the kind of shit we couldn’t bring ourselves to watch on TV. The sort of fella who’d list off body counts from Central American combat zones like they were football scores, whose bucket list of travel destinations looked like the index page from a particularly bleak foreign policy dossier. That’s why he disappeared out there in the first place, barely a week after they declared a state of emergency. Just after the city went into total lockdown. Even after The Times told him point blank that they couldn’t afford to pay another foreign correspondent, especially a trainee who had yet to clock a single hour on the ground in an actual foreign country. Even after his GP told him Sarajevo was the last place on earth a person with cardiomyopathy should be holed up. Even after he promised us all he’d turn back at the border, once the photos were taken and the locals quizzed. It took him six days, two planes, a boat, and three trains to get into the city, while the rest of us sat at home trying to find the place on a sun-bleached primary school atlas. God only knows how he managed to sneak himself back in the second time.
“They’re getting cut down in the streets over there, Karl, blown apart in their homes,” he slurred to me over a flat pint of Guinness at a lock-in in Doyle’s the night before New Year’s Eve, “and it’s only going to get worse, if that’s even possible.”
One of the barmen I didn’t recognize was singing “Carrickfergus” with his head bowed and his eyes closed tight like a man battling the daybreak.
“Then why go back?” I asked him, because I didn’t understand. I still don’t really understand.
At the arrivals gate in Dublin airport we stand around with our sweating hands buried in our pockets. In the line next to me I can hear Baz crack his knuckles through the cloth, his thumb pressing them downward one by one like he did before any exam we ever took together. During the forty-minute car ride over, he chain-smoked five Marlboro Reds, a brand I have not seen him buy since that week Sarah Dalton thought she was pregnant. His predictions for this trip we’re about to take have already been somewhat less than optimistic.
“This is gonna be a disaster.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Listen, why do we have to go to America to do it? I fucking hate America.”
“You can’t hate America, Baz. You’ve never been to America.”
“Well, I hate Americans.”
“You only hate Americans because that Brandy girl called you a hick.”
“I’m from Dublin! How can I be a hick if I’m from fucking Dublin?”
“Well, if anyone can find a way.”
“What’s the point of flying halfway across the world if I’m just gonna strike out with all the birds there?”
“You strike out with all the birds here.”
“But at least that only costs me the price of a taxi home.”
“This may come as a shock to you, Barry, but pulling birds is not the primary objective of this trip.”
Makeshift cereal-box placards bounce up and down around us. In a rainbow of Crayola colours, they read “Welcome Home, Charlie,” “Corporal Brian Clarke,” “DADDY!!!” Every few seconds someone else catches a teary pair of eyes and the same broad smile spreads across another weary face. A stocky soldier in crumpled fatigues takes a knee and catches his daughter in his arms. She’s dropped a naked Barbie doll on the floor by the conveyor belt where the last beat-up duffel bag—Tom’s, I suppose—is resigning itself to another slow rotation. I want to take a picture of her, vice-gripped to her parents’ legs as they embrace, but Baz scoops up the doll and holds it out to her before I can get the lens cap off my camera. For a second it seems like the girl doesn’t understand what this tan piece of plastic, its bleached blonde hair pig-tailed with human-sized scrunchies, is. Baz holds Barbie by the tips of her feet—for the sake of decency, I imagine—and seems unsure of what else he can do to clarify. He coughs, and turns the doll right-way up, as if positioning is where the confusion lies. Then the girl’s huge brown eyes light up wide and she grabs the doll with both hands.
“What do you say, darlin’?” Her father’s voice is hoarse and soft.
And then they’re gone. Out through the stuttering automatic doors and into the street. What comes next? They’ll drive back slowly to a small starter home that’s cleaner tonight than it’s ever been. The little girl will want to tell her daddy everything that’s happened to her over the past week, because that’s all she’ll remember, and her father will listen and do everything he can to keep his eyelids from drooping shut. When she finally falls asleep this man in the crumpled fatigues and his wife will want to strip down and press so close into one another that they can’t breathe, but they won’t. Not tonight. Tonight, they’ll collapse on top of the covers with only their shoes removed, with the lights still on, and sleep forehead to forehead. They’ll both sleep longer than they have in months, until the vibrations of tiny feet jumping up and down on the bed rise them. And then they’ll all start living again.
Still no sign of Tom. Five minutes have passed since the last passenger emerged from the tunnel. I’m taking deep, slow breaths through my nose, trying to calm myself. I can picture him fetal on the floor of the airplane bathroom, his long limbs curled around the cistern, refusing to leave.
“Why do they always take the clothes off, do you think?” Baz asks, his head jerking toward the automatic doors.
“Off of the Barbies. Why do the girls always take the clothes off? We never stripped down the Action Men and dragged them round by the hair, did we?”
“Action Men don’t have hair.”
“You know what I mean. What’s the point in spending the extra money on Coke-Addled Divorcée Barbie, or whatever the fuck, if you’re just gonna throw away all the special gear anyway?”
“Christ, I don’t know, Baz. She’s a kid. Why do kids do anything?”
“I’m just saying it’s a waste of money. They should sell the things naked and save themselves the hassle.”
“Maybe suggest that to the managers at Toys ‘R’ Us, so. Go up to the desk and say you’d feel more comfortable if they stripped the dresses off all the Barbies.”
“As a cash-saving measure.”
“You holding up all right?”
“It’s fine. He’ll be out when he’s out.”
Tom rounds the corner as a charcoal-gray ghost. He’s gaunt in a way I never thought possible for a man his size. Heavy bags sag down to the tops of his high cheekbones, like dog tongues of hollowed-out bogland. Three years under siege and six months in a padded room will do that to you I suppose. Baz and I tense up, like cadets awaiting inspection. His lank mane of dark hair, now slashed from the roots with silver, drags like a shadow across his left eye socket, emptied for over a year now. A patch made of thin black felt covers what I imagine to be the tunnel to a very private room, the part of his brain that stores the worst bits of it: the shelling; the snipers; the toes and fingertips and tufts of hair poking out from mounds of fresh rubble like spring saplings, and who the fuck knows what else. Tom stares at us for a full ten seconds before he realizes who we are. I left a message with the clinic’s receptionist to say we’d be there to drive him to his mam’s, but maybe he never got it. Or maybe we’ve changed more than I think. Inching his way through the not-quite-a crowd, grimacing, as if there’s a steady wind blowing against him.
“Oh, sweet Christ, will you look at the state of him!”
“Quiet, Baz, for fuck’s sake,” I hiss.
“He’s gonna kill himself. This is actually going to happen on our watch. Again.”
“Stop. I’m serious. No more of that talk.” He must really be panicking to even brush up against this subject.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to… but I’m telling you, this is a mistake.”
“This is not a mistake.”
“Karl. Look at the lad. We won’t be a night into this trip before he opens up his wrists in a hotel bathtub somewhere.” He taps his head twice with his knuckles and blesses himself.
“Have you developed Tourette’s in the last few minutes?”
“He looks like a Bond villain. You’re not concerned?”
“Of course I’m fucking concerned,” I hiss through a grin, because he’s almost within earshot now, “but you need to calm down.”
“I need to not have his mam cursing me out in the middle of his funeral, is what I need. You know what that aul wagon will say: ‘He was fine when he was in Bosnia. It wasn’t till he got home to that gurrier Barry Connolly that he got down on himself.'”
Tom moves in measured steps. It’s taken him an age to walk the few paces across the green linoleum floor to where we’re standing, a distance every other passenger has covered in something approaching a run. We don’t hug because that’s not really how we are, and because even in his current state he must know how estranged we’ve become. Still, I put my hand on his shoulder as we shake and try to stare through whatever fog he lives under now. His hand is limp and calloused and dwarfs mine. Baz basically mugs him for his bags and tells him that it’s been way too long, way too long, way too long. We are now the last three people standing under the florescent lights of the baggage claim. Their surgical glow exposes about a dozen tiny white slashes that cluster around Tom’s right cheek and run to the curve of his jawline. He smiles weakly at us, and it’s genuine, I think, but he still hasn’t said anything. Why hasn’t he said anything? Another horrendous silence descends. Baz’s eyes are screaming at me. This, just this simple social awkwardness, is his nightmare. I’ve seen him all but pass out in similar circumstances. Tom brushes a strand of hair away from his face.
“How are you, lads?” Whispered, but it’s him all the same.
“All right, man, yeah. You?”
“I’m OK.” If ever a man did not look OK.
“Are you hungry? Will we grab a bite to eat here before we head on?”
“No, I’m fine. Just a bit tired. I haven’t been sleeping so well.”
“I’m not surprised, sure you’re coming from a fucking war zone, aren’t you!”
Baz actually grabs his mouth after he says this. I think I see a tiny smile departing Tom’s face as I swivel back around but I can’t be sure. I look at Baz to see if he caught more of it but he’s busy examining his feet so I just let it hang for a few seconds before gesturing toward the exit.
“We’d better get going, all right, don’t want to have your mam waiting up all night for us.”
“No rush. I don’t think she sleeps that much either.”
Tom stops walking then, drops slowly onto his haunches, and unties the fat rope knot at the top of his bag. For a second I think he’s going to produce a gift, until I realize just how ridiculous that would be. A plastic bag full of bloodied rubble and an extra-dull butter knife from the nut house canteen? Tom, you really shouldn’t have! No, he’s checking on something, turning it over in his hands to make sure it didn’t break in transit. A battered metal box, tinted with rust, about the size of a small toaster. When he’s satisfied that all is well, he pushes it deep into the center of the bag, ties up the opening, and rises without explanation.