For The Good Times
When we were kids my da loved to take me and my brother to the reptile house in the Belfast Zoo at the Cave Hill. I was never a fan of snakes, but I always loved that bit when you walk through the door and you’re plunged into darkness and it takes you whole minutes to get your eyes accustomed to the light, that bit when you have your arms out in front of you to steady yourself and all you can see are these aquariums floating in mid-air, all of these colour tellies from hell.
My da always says to us that snakes are the most innocent creatures in the world. Look into their eyes, he says to us, take a good look and be honest with yourself. There’s not a bad bone in their bodies, he says. I didn’t even know snakes had bones in their bodies.
Then, one day, he brings one home, as a present, for my brother. He brings a real-life snake home as a pet and starts feeding it on live hamsters, live hamsters that he’s breeding in the garage and that never see the light of day outside of when he marches across the back garden with one of them squirming in his hand on its way to getting eaten whole.
I need to teach you, he says to us, then he would sit us down, in the dark, in Peter’s room, in front of this lit-up aquarium, like we were at the movies, and he would educate us. A snake is just doing what it does, he says to us, with no malice whatsoever. It’s playing with it, Peter says to him, look, it’s taunting it. Snakes don’t taunt, my da says, what are you talking about? Then the snake would pounce and its big hinged jaw would go back and it would swallow half the body of the hamster, whose legs would be kicking out behind it as its head disappeared down this great black throat and endless belly that God Himself had created, that’s what my da says, God Almighty Himself created snakes, he says to us, and then Saint Patrick kicked them out of Ireland. Beat it, Patrick says to them, go on.
But that was your man Saint Pat’s big mistake, my da says. Saint Paddy’s original balls-up was booting the snakes out of Ireland in the first place, because that meant there was no one left, no thing left, is what he meant to say, no thing left to get victimised, no thing left to take all of the blame for the suffering of the world, and so the Irish turned on one another. In the absence of snakes they just fucking went at it, but they went at it as innocent as snakes themselves, with that same look in their eyes, that same look that says, what about you?
If snakes could shrug, my da says to us, they’d be at it all day. But you need shoulders for that.
So you see, that’s why, in The Bible, there’s a snake in the Garden of Eden what takes the rap for everything, my da says to us, and when Peter would say to him, but wait a minute, da, wasn’t it Jayzus that was supposed to take on all the sins of the world, wasn’t that his job, then my da would look at us both and he would laugh with those eyes of his, eyes like a happy snake that could shrug all it wanted, and he would grab our shoulders and he would kill himself, he’d be cracking up, as if we were the most naive kids in the world, and he loved it, but one day we were going to have to wake up to the reality of Christ Jayzus and snakes and what goes on in Ireland, and in Eden.
My brother came out as a gay when he was eighteen year old. My da threatened to beat it out him. What about snakes, I says to him, what about innocent snakes? We were having this big fight in the living room the night Peter dropped the bomb. Snakes don’t turn gay, my da says. You don’t know anything, Peter says to him. All snakes do it up the arse. My da knocked him halfways across the living room for that one.
In the end Peter moved to Canada just so as he could get away from the fucking Garden of Eden. But it’s true, I found out later, Peter was right, all snakes do it up the arse.
When my da was killed a few year later, Peter didn’t even come back for the funeral. No snakes in Ireland, he says when I called him on the phone, remember? The night Peter left my da took the big fucking snake that he had bought for him and forced it down the toilet. I watched him do it, just feeding this massive fucking thing head first into the bog. The thing made a dash for freedom. Just fucking scooted round the U-bend, never to be seen again. It would rather sleep in a sewage pipe for the rest of its days, I remember thinking, than spend another night in my da’s house with an endless supply of live hamsters. That says it all.
Then another snake came along and killed my da. A snake what hit him over the head with a fire extinguisher in a pub, and what snapped his head half off his body. Years earlier, when me and Peter were still living at home, his own da had died and his body had lain upstair at my gran’s house in an open coffin. Do you want to see your grandfather? my da says to us, and he has a gleeful look on his face like he is asking us if we wanted to bunk off school and drink a can of cider in a car park. It was another opportunity to teach us, this time about the big one. He took both our hands and led us into this grey room with the last of the light coming through. There was my grandfather, lying there, dead. It’s alright, my da says to us, it’s okay. Have a good look, he says. Take it all in. You need to learn.
I can’t even remember what he looked like. I can’t even remember my grandfather’s body lying there in his coffin at all. All I can remember, and it’s clear as a dream, is me and Peter, standing there, holding hands with my da in this grey room, next to a coffin, and him smiling and saying to us, go on, don’t be scared. There’s worse things to take to your grave, I’ll tell you that.
Extract taken from For The Good Times by David Keenan, published on 10th January by Faber & Faber in the UK. To pre-order the novel, visit Faber & Faber.
David’s previous novel This Is Memorial Device was the winner of the inaugural London Magazine & Collyer Prize, a prize for innovative debut fiction. Read more about that here.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.
Want to win £500 and be published in the UK’s oldest literary review? Enter our Short Story Prize!