His father, on the other hand, favoured names such as Gary, Brett, Vince and Max – names that left one in no doubt as to the issue of intent.
‘Any brothers? Sisters?’
Detective Sergeant Nankervis’s typing – slow and tentative, as if she were hazarding a guess as to what might lie beneath each key – recalls his first encounter with Remedial English.
‘What does ‘remedial’ mean?’ he had asked.
‘Means you need to try harder,’ came his father’s curt reply.
Mrs Riordan, the Remedial English teacher, was given to using words beginning with ‘dys-‘ which, though their meaning eluded him, appeared to carry with them negative connotations.
His father, ever suspicious of polysyllabic discourse, yanked him from Remedial English in favour of football, an act which seemed to coincide with an escalation of hostilities between his parents.
‘He’s never going to be a footballer!’ argued his mother.
‘It’s character-building,’ rebutted his father. ‘Teaches him to be a team player.’
‘He’ll never be chosen for the team!’
‘Then maybe he just needs to grow a pair!’
Whilst perplexed at the connection between horticulture, fruit and football, Damien was in no doubt as to his father’s disapproval.
It was at times like these that he wished he did have a sibling – someone to diffuse, dilute, possibly diffract the rancour that danced about the edges of the kitchen table.
No ambiguity there.
‘Can you spell that for me?’
And that said it all.
It was to Cerise’s bosom that he retreated when a footballer’s elbow deprived him of the vision in his left eye.
‘It’s his own bloody fault,’ cried Bill. ‘He’s an easy mark. He needs to man up and teach them not to mess with him.’
Most of his attempts to man up ultimately found their way to Cerise’s bosom – this one with a broken tooth, that with a cracked vertebra and the other with his head having been shoved inside the stinking bowl of a school toilet.
The chief perpetrator of these serial affronts to his manhood was one Laurie Holmes, a lad with the proportions and demeanour of a side of beef. As captain of the football team (he played ruck-rover), he was known and widely feared for the unnerving, animalistic ferocity of his tackle.
His eyes were tiny and close-set, his complexion raw with the cold of early morning practice, his shoulders broad and hung with a dirty, ragged, cable-knit pullover (always the same one, worn next to his skin) seemingly fashioned from hessian.
He spat frequently and expertly (Damien assumed the excess saliva derived from the festering of several broken teeth) through a tight, virtually lipless orifice adorned with impetiginous excrescences. He was, in a phrase, as rough as guts.
Up until the moment when Damien had been thrust onto the football field, he had somehow managed to fly under Laurie’s radar. But now, as a permanent fixture on the interchange bench, he soon became irresistible to the team captain.
There were beatings (more humiliating than painful), bites (invariably resulting in running sores), serial depilation (leaving areas of his scalp entirely denuded) and the horrors of public derision (his nakedness exposed when stripped bare by Laurie in front of the girls who mattered most).
‘How long have you known Laurie?’
Just as Laurie had always seemed able to smell his fear, so too Detective Sergeant Nankervis somehow zeroes in on his bête noir.
It was almost a decade now since the very first beating. So long, in fact, that his position in the dumb, brutal pecking order of school life had undergone a subtle shift from school punching-bag to school mascot – a shift which carried with it its own dubious reward.
Intrigued at Damien’s capacity to absorb punishment without any show of defiance, Laurie had come to regard him as something of a Larry to his Moe – which meant that, like it or not, they had become oddly inseparable.
The blow to the solar plexus, predictable in its sickening immediacy, had given way to an unsettling, unwanted, unwieldy embrace. Not the kind of embrace that had formerly awaited him at the maternal bosom of Cerise but, rather, a kind of vice-like, jack-knifing lassoing, whereby the back of his neck would suddenly find itself roughly gripped between biceps and fist in a raucous show of male bravado, culminating in a slap to the cheek, a twisting of the nose or a knuckle to the skull. No contact with Laurie was ever entirely free of pain.
‘Where did you get the alcohol?’
It occurs to Damien that he has never thought to ask that question.
Saturday night had rolled around, with the customary screeching of rubber on road that accompanies the obligatory handbrake turn, and he knew that Laurie – his nemesis, his torturer, his protector, his self-imposed friend – awaited his appearance.
Out in the car – a beaten-up, hotted-up 1966 Dodge Phoenix – is Laurie along with six of his footy mates. Damien’s appearance, at a full head shorter than any of the others, serves as the cue for much whooping, razzing and caterwauling.
He is rammed into the back seat, right up against the door, a coke bottle half-refilled with rum shoved into his hand. The rum seems as much a part of Laurie’s persona as his twisted nose or his cauliflower ear, the origin of neither of which anyone would ever think to question.
Some pills are pressed into his palm. Only a gormless nerd would ask what they are – someone who didn’t deserve a seat in that car. He’s worked too hard and suffered too long not to claim his rightful place there.
He downs the pills with a gullet-swilling gulp of rum, senses a slight tilt in the spinning axis of the earth, and the remainder of the evening takes on the familiar blur that enables him to cuss and spit and wrestle and piss along with the best of them.
‘What time did you arrive at the Copa Cabana?’
He has no idea.
He does recall that there was trouble getting in – they were deemed too drunk, too rowdy – but of course Laurie knew someone, and they were soon lined up, backs to the bar, spotting talent.
Laurie spotted as keenly as he spat. It wasn’t long before he’d settled on their mark.
‘Had you ever met this girl before?’
Detective Sergeant Nankervis pushes forward an 8 by 10 glossy of a pretty girl with dark hair, blue eyes, a nasal piercing, a tattoo of a swallow on her neck and small, gold crucifix earrings hanging from each lobe. She is above average – an 8, maybe even a 9 in the right light.
‘Do you remember her from that night?’
There’s something about those earrings.
The Dodge has disgorged the rowdy band into a park somewhere – freezing cold and pitch-black but for the light from Laurie’s phone, which he uses in order to fumble his thick-fingered way to the zipper on her dress.
She is tottering, held up at the elbows by the centre-half-forward on the left and the wingman on the right, the vapour of their breath licking her neck and dissipating on the angles of her jaw.
She is suddenly on her back in the mud, naked thighs bouncing the light off in odd directions.
Panting gives way to grunting as Laurie’s hulking mass obliterates her tiny frame.
She cries out. It is a cry of pain, then fear, then terror, and then comes the scream - brutally muzzled.
The teamwork is seamless, each player wrenching a limb to the outfield as his teammate attacks the centre.
It is Damien’s first time off the interchange bench. His main chance. He dare not disappoint.
With the chanting of his mates ringing in his ears, he feels her cold, writhing flesh up against his shirt, his lips ravaging the swallow on her neck as the tiny crucifix dances before his frenzied eyes.
He imagines her picking out the crucifix from her top drawer, trying it on, admiring herself this way and that in the mirror, wanting to look her best for the big night out. He knows it is either her or him. They can’t both emerge from the night unscathed.
Suddenly he is upright. It’s done. There are slaps on the back, cheering, chanting, upending of coke bottles. The opposition has been trounced.
A cry emerges from the mud. Laurie deals with it.
‘Were you aware that the girl died in hospital as a result of the injuries she sustained that night?’
He blinks. He has a splitting headache. There is a kind of fog over his brain. He wishes he were in the arms of Cerise, his fevered brow buried in the warmth of her loving bosom.
But Detective Sergeant Nankervis’s voice is getting in the way. She’s reading him his rights. One of them appears to be silence. Something about her voice reminds him of Mrs Riordan’s.
He wishes he’d persisted with Remedial English.