It was like lugging a dead cow, and that was the way we would forever describe it. All four of us had heaved it, the great patterned reject: digging our fingers into the threadbare fabric of the arms and sweating, our faces red and determined. Two at each end, and another – less of a help – trotting along near the middle. Every dozen yards or so, we’d stop, taking loud, open-mouthed breaths of chilled October air and grinning at one another, before tackling the next stint.
Shaun and Luke had calculated that it would take us about an hour to cart it from the layby outside Victoria Wines, where we’d found it, to Broan’s Field, behind Shaun’s house.
‘An hour. How’d you work that out?’ Siobhan had scowled.
‘Just worked it out like. Maths.’ Luke had shrugged.
‘You’re in red group for maths and your mam says you still can’t tell the time.’
‘Do you think we’ll get telt off for taking it?’ Shaun had asked. He stood, shivering, in his brother’s school shorts. Ever since he’d pissed himself at the first term disco he’d never worn trousers out. He claimed it was because he was always too hot from running around, but we knew it was so he could pee through the leg hole if he was ever caught short again.
‘Who cares?’ Said Siobhan, glittering with defiance.
‘It’ll do perfect for the club house,’ Luke had announced, when we’d first clapped eyes on it, torn and unwanted, in all its unclaimed glory.
That summer, Luke had spent a considerable portion of the school holidays watching old episodes of American sit coms, from the stack of his dad’s VHS that he was allowed to watch. The idea of building a club house had not been a difficult sell, and we had spent the first month of term discussing it, deciding on the intricate details: where we might find the wood for the frame, how many locks we’d need for the doors, which colour of paint to use for the KEEP OUT sign. At school, we’d found an illustrated book of Tom Sawyer, and our heads filled with visions of a spring spent whitewashing neatly nailed panels. A trap door would be a nice touch, too, Luke had thought, and the consensus had been that we could probably build a dungeon underneath it all, if Shaun could get at his dad’s tools.
Mam had done us a salad cream sandwich, in a bag, which I’d balanced on the cushionless base of the thing, as we shuffled along.
‘Take your brother, too,’ she’d said, drying cups in the kitchen, so I had. ‘Mind you don’t go far.’
Before we found it, I hadn’t planned on telling Liam about our plans for the club house. It had been a secret scheme between the four of us in Miss Winch’s class, and Liam was only six – too young to know what it all meant anyway. He’d only slow us down, or worse: tell.
About half way down the row of garages by the Taylor Flats, the first few flakes of snow began to fall, and the air shuddered with a sudden density of cold. It was then that he had started on about wanting to go to the shops, or to stop and play tuggy; that he was tired, and could he sit on it as we carried? It wasn’t long before the others had had enough.
Siobhan snapped first.
‘Can’t he just go home, Annie?’
We let the settee drop. As the time had passed, and the air thickened with cold, our patience and caretaking had waned. The three remaining wooden feet clattered down on the concrete, making an uneven echo against the garage doors, like horses’ hooves.
‘He can’t go home now. He’ll tell before we’ve got it back.’ I said, biting my nails.
‘I woooon’t.’ He whined, his face flushing red and hot, as tears came. He looked up and howled into the thick air.
Luke, who had no brothers of his own, tried to take charge and trick him into submission.
‘Oi, big lad.’ He goofed, and bent down to lift Liam onto his shoulders, inadvertently and clumsily pinching his small thigh in the crook of his own skinny arm. The howling grew louder.
‘Annie, people will hear.’ Shaun said, alarmed and looking around anxiously at the balconies above the row of garages. He pulled his shorts up with both hands, and hopped from one foot to the other. ‘They’ll hear and we’ll get it.’
‘No one will hear.’ Siobhan hissed, twisting her upper lip into a scowl. ‘Stop being such a crybaby. You’re as bad as him.’ She turned to me and sighed heavily and with intent, as she announced the plan.
‘We’ll leave it now and come back for it tomorrow.’
There was little in the way of resistance from the rest of us. Though the sofa was missing its cushions, the remaining fabric had absorbed the moisture of the threatening snowfall, and the weight of it had caused our arm muscles to vibrate since we had put it down.
‘If someone takes it…’ Luke whispered.
‘They won’t.’ She stated, and the decision was made.
Back at home, Liam, Dad, and I sat around eating tinned fruit cocktail from plastic bowls, watching Heartbeat as Mam had her bath.
I had wondered whether Liam would tell about the settee, or the swearing, but he seemed to have forgotten. Just in case, I let him drink the syrupy dregs from my bowl, to sweeten the deal, and by the time the theme music to Ballykissangel came on, I knew we were in the clear.
‘Right, bed. Up the dancers, you two.’ Dad said.
It wasn’t hard to lure him into a few repeats of Roxy Music and some dancing in the living room, first, before Mam came down. We spun around in circles, as Dad finished his tea, stretching the limits of Sunday night as far as we could, pushing the thought of school and sleep into an inexhaustible vacuum somewhere in our brains, until Liam stopped spinning to throw up on the living room floor.
That night, as he rolled over in his sleep, I heard him mutter something about club houses. I laid awake for a while longer, watching the snow, which wouldn’t settle, float past the window, and thinking of our floral conquest sitting motionless, in the great and unholy absence that is darkness. I imaged gangs of thieves coming in the night, to steal it away, as the four of us fought them off it, our loot worth a king’s ransom; defending it with our lives, pirate-like in our ferocity, together in my mind, but not together, at the same time.
Years later, in the living room of her parents’ house, we would sit together at Siobhan’s wake, and remember how, returning after school the following day, the settee had disappeared. It hadn’t occurred to us as kids, when leaving it, that it had blocked the entrance to the garages and would no doubt have been removed first thing the following morning.
‘What were we thinking, carting that thing across the estate?’ Luke had smiled, taking a swig from a bottle, and spilling froth over the only shirt he owned: the maroon uniform from Victoria Wines, stark and ill-fitting amidst a room of black.
‘Ey? It was your idea.’ We’d turned, chuckling and incredulous. ‘Fucking dungeons and trap doors!’
We drank. Drank, and traced the route back in our minds, remembering the snow and each taking turns to exaggerate the weight of the thing; snorting at the ambitious club house that never was, and the vanishing settee; at both our determination and our naivety; at the could have been and the was; and at us now, laughing and not laughing, as we sat with our heads close; together, and not together, at the same time.