In the balloon shop on Cork Street, Dermot stands momentarily transfixed by the helium turd with a smiley face that floats above him.
He turns to consult his daughter.
“What in the name of God is that thing?”
“That’s the poo emoji, Daddy,” she informs him matter-of-factly.
Eleanor is six, going on sixteen, and expert in all things – balloon and otherwise.
“Oh, I see,” says Dermot, but he doesn’t see, not really. What he can’t fathom is what special occasion could possibly warrant the purchase of such an item. Perhaps a jilted lover sending a departing gift? But then, when Eleanor’s mother ended things with him, the last thing on his mind was sending her a whimsical balloon.
Looking at the floating poo, Dermot is suddenly reminded of a boy from school whose nickname was “Code Brown.” When this boy was a toddler, he had shat himself while swimming. The entire pool had to be evacuated. The unfortunate moniker followed him all the way through primary school, and then on into secondary school: a bobbing turd he couldn’t outswim as the Jaws music played, all for a stupid mistake he had no memory of making. Nicknames are a funny thing. They have a way of sticking to people sometimes, whether they want them to or not.
“Look, the Halloween balloons are over there.” Dermot leads his daughter over to the skeletons, ghosts, witches, and giant orange pumpkins with black smiles.
He gestures towards the display. “Which one, Elly? You can have whichever one you like.”
He is expecting a smile in return, but she turns to him with a serious face.
“Nobody calls me that, Daddy.”
“Calls you what, Love?”
This is the one nickname that won’t stick. He has been trying to give her this thing, this term of endearment, this pet name. It seems important. Something that could be theirs alone. He can see himself holding it out to her, this hopeful offering, but she is turning away and it slips through his outstretched fingers like water.
“Are you looking forward to trick-or-treating, Ell –“ He corrects himself, “… Eleanor?”
She smiles yes as she looks at the balloons. Dermot won’t get to bring her trick-or-treating this year, or see her in her costume. She is dressing up as some YouTube celebrity he’s never heard of. On Halloween night, she will be with her mother on the other side of the city and he is fine with that, perfectly fine. He won’t be a part of it at all this year, but he can buy her a special Halloween balloon today. That much at least.
“Who will you go trick-or-treating with?”
“Mammy,” she says.
“Yeah, and anyone else?”
She rattles off the familiar list of her friends – ChloeFiadhEmilyAoife – that run together so that it sounds like one impossibly long-named individual.
He knows what he is doing and he feels a twinge of guilt, but he can’t help himself. He’s listening for an interloper, another adult… well, let’s be honest, another man. He wonders about Cara’s love life, if she’s seeing anyone since they broke up. He thinks of the end of days of his and Cara’s relationship when he felt like he had packed his cock and balls away in a box. Masturbating in the shower. Cara turned away on her side. Inches from him but the distance between their bodies insurmountable.
“How about this pumpkin?” he says. Eleanor shrugs, unimpressed. Dermot remembers, with a pang of shame, his carefully constructed lesson on Irish mythology and the origins of Halloween that was a total wash-out in class yesterday. He should know better by now. His South American students aren’t interested in the fact that Jack-o’-lanterns were once carved from turnips. They are not interested in some mythical Ireland of the past. Stories of banshee and púca are no good to them. They want to know about affordable rooms in shared houses, cash-in-hand jobs, and for the au pairs: how to pronounce the impossible names of their ruddy Irish charges – Caoilfhionn, Tadhg, and Donnacha.
When Dermot started working at the language school two years ago, he received his own nickname. He had gone his whole life without one and was surprised to find himself suddenly bequeathed with one at this late juncture. When he was Eleanor’s age, he wanted a nickname so badly. Everyone else seemed to have one. For some reason, his friends or family never gave him one. Dermot Noone was always just Dermot Noone. And it wasn’t like there weren’t options. He could have been Dermo, or Nooner, or even just Noone, the way some lads were referred to solely by their last name. Now he longed for the blissful before-time when he didn’t have one at all.
It happened on his very first day when he wrote his name on the whiteboard.
The students sounded it out, but tripped over it.
Doormat… Doormat No one.
The other teachers got wind of it. “Nice weekend, Doormat?” “Howya, Mr. No one?”
Dermot laughed, because what else can you do? A sudden unexpected sympathy with “Code Brown” about twenty years too late. It’s not as if he can’t take a joke, have the craic, but when you’re going through a divorce, the last thing you want is your colleagues laughing in your face and calling you doormat. He contemplates leaving the job pretty much on a weekly basis. The pay is dismal, but then the hours aren’t too bad. Four days a week so he gets to spend the whole day with Eleanor on Fridays after he collects her from school. She stays at his place for the night while Cara works the nightshift in the restaurant.
Besides, he likes the students and he enjoys teaching. Certain questions come up sometimes that make him realise the strangeness of language, the malleability of it. Just last week, one of his students said, “Doormat, what is in bits?”
“In bits?” he repeated. He wrote it up on the whiteboard. He told them you could be “in bits” at a funeral, so that must mean upset. Or you could be “in bits” after waking up from a night out so it must also mean hungover.
“I like your bits?” ventured one of the students.
“Em, no, your bits are… something else,” he explained. He hoped he wasn’t blushing.
After himself and Cara broke up for good, and he had to move out of their home and into the flat on Cork Street on his own, he felt like he was literally in bits. Parts of him were all over Dublin. His heart was somewhere trampled under the double bed. His cock and balls somewhere still under lock and key.
There hadn’t been anyone since Cara, although he’d been thinking a lot about Thalita recently, the receptionist at the language school. Did she like him too or was she just Brazilian?
She kissed everyone hello. “Olá. Tudo bem?”
“You coming for drinks with us, Dermot?” she had asked him yesterday.
She was the only one at the school who pronounced his name properly. He explained that Friday was his day off, his day with his daughter. As she listened to him, she dipped her finger into a tiny pot of lip-balm and rubbed the sticky substance onto her parted lips, and he was ashamed he found the gesture so erotically charged. He imagined kissing those lips would be like drinking the most refreshing drink on a hot day. The tang of sugar and lime.
Dermot looks up to see that Eleanor has strayed away from the Halloween balloons and over into the hen party section. It’s full of the type of comedy props he has seen clutched by cackling gangs of women as they weave through Temple Bar – high heels scrabbling on cobblestones.
She points at one of the balloons. She has made her decision. “This one, Daddy. I want this one.”
“Which one?” he says, stalling for time.
“This one!” she repeats, pointing at it impatiently.
He feels a sharp stab of concern. He tries to keep his voice neutral, calm. “Why do you want that one?”
“It’s pink!” she says.
“Oh,” he says, relieved. He almost laughs. “Well, I’m sure there are other pink…”
Eleanor goes to grab it. It’s just out of her reach. She stands on her tippie-toes.
“No, you can’t have that one, Love.”
“Why not, Daddy?”
“Because it’s not… suitable. It’s not, eh… for children.”
She observes him gravely. “I’m a big girl, Daddy.”
“Let’s go back over to the Halloween ones. How about a spooky ghost?”
“No, that balloon! You said I could have any one I wanted.”
“Yes, but not… Look, we’ll find you another one. A better one. How about…?”
“No! This one!” She stamps her foot like a tiny dictator.
“I’m not buying you a mickey, Eleanor.”
“Mickey!” she cheers.
He immediately regrets his mistake. Now she has a name for the thing.
“Mickey!” she says. “I want Mickey!”
She grabs the balloon by the string and pulls it downwards. The pink monstrosity bobs towards him mockingly. He looks around the shop, desperation setting in. No, stay calm, Dermot. There’s still time to redeem this.
“What about that Mickey instead?” He points over at Mickey Mouse. Mickey will get him out of this. Mickey, his saviour.
She’s having none of it. “Not that Mickey. I want this mickey!”
He hates Mickey Mouse. With his grinning smirk and his little tuxedo pants. Dermot sighs a heavy sigh of the defeated, convinces himself it’s not that big of a deal.
“Right,” he says with grim determination. “Right.”
He brings it up to the counter to pay. He can’t meet the cashier’s eyes. “Just this, please.”
The woman frowns. “You’re not buying that for the child?”
“No,” mumbles Dermot. “Course not.”
Eleanor throws her arms up in the air. “Mickey!” she cries.
“What do I owe you?”
Outside, Dermot tells himself that it isn’t that bad, but the inarguable fact of the matter is he’s walking along Cork Street with a giant, neon-pink, inflatable cock and balls on a string.
Eleanor is skipping. “Mickey Mickey Mickey Mickey…”
He tucks it under his arm but somehow that makes it even worse. He doesn’t want to touch the thing, so he reverts to holding it by the string and letting it bob on the air behind him. His flat isn’t far from the balloon shop. If they can get there quickly, he reasons, maybe everything will be okay. He keeps his head down and picks up his pace.
A car horn beeps. With a start, he hopes it isn’t someone he knows, someone from work. One of his students. Or one of the teachers, Or worse, Talitha. He can see it now. Turning up on Monday. Good morning, Mr. Mickey. How was your weekend, Mr. Mickey? Would that be better or worse than Mr. No One? It occurs to him that maybe he doesn’t need to go for drinks with everyone on Friday to spend time with Thalita. Maybe he could invite her for a drink, just the two of them.
“Come on, Eleanor. You’re too slow.”
“No, you’re too slow, Daddy.”
She speeds up on her little legs. He starts to skip along beside her.
“Keep up, Elly” he says and increases his pace.
He turns, thinking she is about to reprimand him for using her nickname again, but she reaches out to take his hand. The whole thing strikes him as tremendously funny all of a sudden. He starts to laugh and breaks into a run, glancing back to make sure the mickey balloon is following them. He wonders if he’s losing the plot altogether. Eleanor shrieks with delight as she runs beside him.
“Hang on, Elly,” he says as they reach his building.
He catches his breath as he takes out his keys. Still laughing. He must tell his class on Monday, he thinks. He’d forgotten you can be in bits from laughing too.
Máire T. Robinson is a fiction writer and screenwriter based in County Galway. She is the author of novel Skin, Paper, Stone and short story chapbook Your Mixtape Unravels My Heart.