‘Shadows’ by Paul Hammond

Smashing Times’ June 2023 newsletter comes out on 29 June. Among its many artworks is the short story ‘Shadows’ by Dublin-born writer Paul Hammond. Currently writing a debut collection of stories as part of his PhD at Royal Holloway University of London, his fiction has appeared in Litro, Gutter, The Manchester Review, Neon, and elsewhere. His work puts a microscopic lens to the inner workings of ordinary people, highlighting the nuances of their emotional universes. Their emotions, however strongly felt, are rarely addressed explicitly between the characters in his texts. Instead, they are hinted at, disguised, or repressed, as honesty – or rather, an attempt at honesty via forensic self-questioning – is reserved for the narrative voice alone.

The prevailing emotions in ‘Shadows’ are jealousy and guilt. The story examines the power imbalances in two young Dubliners’ friendship, while carefully presenting a moral dilemma. What is more important to honour: one’s own feelings of inadequacy, or loyalty to a lifelong friend? And at what point does living in someone’s shadow become too much?


On the train to work this morning, I chuckled. I wasn’t amused by anything, the opposite actually. It was a resigned kind of chuckle, reserved for those moments when you have to wonder at the way things work out sometimes. It was twenty years to the day since Colm Dunne was betrayed. And tonight I was having dinner with him.
     Today was a struggle. The client meetings went all right, a bit of a distraction. Being alone in my office was different. Thoughts I’d done my best to control kept coming back. Ronan Newman, the person I’d done my best to forget, kept asserting himself in my mind. I felt disconnected from the present, like I’d been taken over by my twenty-one-year-old self.
We’re meeting at 7pm in our usual spot. I arrive first and am taken to a table near the back. It’s a couple of months since I’ve seen Colm, but I reckon it could be a couple of years and he’d look the same. He comes in with his head high, wearing a navy three-piece, hair still as blonde and full as ever. He greets me with a smile and tells me it’s been too long, and I feel like the only person in the world he wants to see.
Colm and Ronan were a pair as far back as I can remember. If not joined at the hip then separated by millimetres. As only children, growing up next door to each other, both were the closest the other was getting to a sibling. Ronan’s mother, Molly, cut back to part-time work after he was born. She would collect the boys from school every day, watch them walking towards her, side-by-side, or Ronan just a half-step in front.
     Ronan was the more confident of the two. He spoke more, louder, and decided who amongst the rest of the class he and Colm would be friends with. When Colm’s head bowed, as if scared of angering the air around him, Ronan’s would rise, scanning the world the way a new parent does, their attention now accountable for two people.
The waiter arrives with two pints of Heineken. He is short, with an Italian accent. While pouring the water, he lets some fall onto Colm’s shirt. I’m about to say something when the waiter notices what he’s done, grabbing Colm’s napkin and dabbing at the wet patch.
     ‘Sir, I am so sorry,’ the waiter says.
     ‘No problem at all. Honestly,’ Colm says, as if convinced that his shoulder shouldn’t have been below the bottle.
     The waiter leaves to get a new napkin.#
     ‘What kind of waiter is your man?’ I say.
     Colm smiles. ‘Ah, he’s probably been at it for hours now. Hard not to make the odd mistake.’
     I say nothing, ashamed at my reaction. Colm rarely speaks ill of anyone or anything. It’s his natural manner, as if he didn’t see much around him worth getting worked up about. Not that he’s passive, more that he’s just very accepting. I think it’s this part of Colm that makes the people around him want to protect him. We call his tolerance naivety, and assume that when the bad stuff comes along, Colm will be defenceless.
     Maybe it was Ronan, way back in school, who was the first to notice this disposition of Colm’s, and the first to set about looking after him. Or maybe Ronan was just an outgoing kid and I’m reading too much into it. It’s so long ago now that it’s hard to be sure. But for someone who only knew Colm and Ronan from, say, their teenage years onwards, it might be surprising to learn that Ronan commanded their early relationship. Not only because of how this dynamic changed in the years that would follow, but because of Ronan’s deformed right arm, cut off from birth, with a stump where his elbow should’ve been.
As usual, myself and Colm spend the first portion of the evening talking about work. We’re both in law, but at competing firms. We mention a case involving a student from our class at university, and another one in the public eye. This talk, however, gets boring fast, and by the time our food arrives we’ve moved on to more intimate and ancient topics.
     Colm is retelling a story about Mr Hamill, our old business teacher, who vomited on two of the lads after a Senior Cup match.
     ‘And remember then,’ Colm is cracking up, barely able to cut his meat, ‘Principal Morgan shouting… And we were all expecting him to go to town on him, maybe even threaten his job. But then he just stood up, took a sip of his pint and was like, “Ciarán, you’re a fucking disgrace not being able to hold your drink in front of these young men. What kind of example are you setting?”’
Rugby was to our secondary school what darkness is to night. If you were on one of the teams, the teachers were more lenient with you, and nicer to you. This might sound unfair, and probably it was. The only thing I can say is that once you’re in a structure like that, and you’ve known nothing else, it becomes hard to speak out against it.
     When it came to rugby, Ronan, for obvious reasons, was a spectator. But Colm – tall, strong in the legs, lean-muscled in the chest and arms, and quick – was one of the best players in our year. I think it was rugby that brought Colm out of his shell, and Ronan Newman’s shadow. The rest of the lads were in awe of his skills on the pitch and a group formed around him. Not to say that Colm and Ronan weren’t still best friends; they were, everyone knew that. But the dynamic of their bond had changed – Colm now the new hot property, Ronan the sidekick.
     I remember a strange event. For us at that time, winning the Rugby Senior Cup was like winning The Masters or Wimbledon or The Champions League. We hadn’t won the cup for over a decade, but this particular year, with Colm and company on the team, we thought we had a chance.
     In the semi-final we were up against a local rival. The match was played in wind and sleet, and was a drab, low-scoring affair. In the last minute, our fly-half, Dean Donegan, had a 35-metre penalty to take us to the final. Dean slipped during his run-up and the ball landed short of the posts. We were out of the cup. What came next were moments of shared agony, some heads in hands, others watching our rivals celebrate. With handshakes and conciliatory words being offered on the pitch, just off it, alone on the sideline, was Ronan Newman, smiling. Not a big grin or anything that would’ve gotten attention. More like a wry smirk.
              With all that happened in those minutes, I don’t know if anyone actually saw Ronan smiling. Maybe you could say that it was the way the sleet was blowing into his face that made him look like he was doing so. I don’t know. These memories are foggy. To me, though, it has always seemed like he was smiling.
I order dessert while Colm waves at the large-headed infant at the next table. The child’s eyes are wide and in awe, the kind of look I’ve seen Colm get for years.
     ‘How are the kids?’ I ask.
     ‘Good, thanks. Yeah, Holly was sick last week. Bad dose of the flu, but better now. David’s as wild as ever. Only girls on that lad’s mind these days.’
     ‘Only natural.’
     ‘Ah yeah. Suppose we were much the same at that age. Can’t be too hard on him.’
     I nod, feeling a little short on words. I know what comes next.
     ‘What about yourself then,’ Colm starts. ‘Still living the bachelor lifestyle?’
     I look around the restaurant, as if scoping the place for tonight’s fun. ‘I am,’ I say.
     ‘Must be good craic?’
     ‘Yeah. Well to be honest I was seeing someone up till about a week ago. Scottish woman. But didn’t end up lasting.’
     ‘Right. Sorry, man.’
     ‘Nah not to worry.’
     We both sip our pints.
     ‘I’m still holding out for that role as best man, though,’ Colm says.
     I laugh. ‘Well, on the increasingly off-chance that the role exists, it’s yours.’
The time around the lost semi-final was interesting. Most of us were losing our virginities, or trying to, or pretending to have. Friday nights were spent in large houses, belonging to one or other of the team members’ deep-pocketed parents. We existed in those months in a kind of limbo: too newly fond of alcohol for any sober activities to seem attractive, but too young yet to get into Dublin’s nightclubs.
     At these parties, amidst blaring electronic music and guzzled-down cans, arrived the struggling heels of private school girls. Their presence brought an influx of sexual innuendoes, or, from less crafty mouths, explicit references to penis sizes. Accompanying this, probably unsurprisingly, were very few people actually having sex.
     The arrival of young women to our parties brought a new kind of exposure for Ronan and the place where his arm should’ve been. Not that these girls were cruel or anything, most of them were lovely. They probably even gave Ronan more attention because of the deformity.
     The problem was that it was platonic attention. The girls thought of him as a cute little thing – he was about five foot three at the time – who was best friends with a hunk. And while Ronan lingered for months in a collection of friend zones, Colm was one of the select few actually having sex. He’d found himself a girlfriend.
     Tara Burke came along around the time Colm’s parents’ marriage was struggling. Niamh Dunne had slept with a colleague, and I think Tara succeeded in plugging a female-shaped hole in Colm’s life. Caring, beautiful, and intelligent, Tara was as much a source of envy to the other girls as Colm was to us. In that sense, I suppose they were perfect for each other.
We eat dessert and order another pint. We’re talking about our friend, James Rodden, who just got divorced from his American wife, Felicity.
     ‘He’s a good lad anyway,’ Colm says. ‘He’ll probably find someone else.’
     ‘Probably, yeah.’
     ‘Might even get another wedding out of it. His last one was great.’
     James and Felicity’s wedding was staged in a big hotel just outside Dublin. It was a warm day, and most of us stayed outside as evening became night. My memory from late evening onwards is patchy. It’s twelve years ago now and I can’t remember a night when I was as drunk since.
     Anyway, at some point in the evening, me and Colm were alone at a table outside. We were talking about the time when Colm was campaigning to become Students’ Union President of Trinity College. Full of red wine, I felt as close to my friend as I ever had. What was said was something like:
     ‘Colm, man. That whole year was mental. I don’t know how we got through it.’
      ‘Me neither, bud. But hey, we did.’
     There might have been something else said before Colm asked:
     ‘Sometimes I wonder, though, you know… What actually happened?’
     I probably drank some more wine before saying, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean. Anyone’d be curious.’
     ‘Yeah. Obviously I’m over it like. It’s a long time ago now. But it’d just be nice to know.’
     I remember fixing my gaze on a piece of patio. I thought about how I might ruin a happy occasion. Then I thought about what I owed to my friend – the truth, no doubt – but also what that truth might do to him. Though he said he was over it, I wasn’t sure I believed him – so why shatter a friendship? He and Ronan were still so close at that time. The thought of their separation made me feel ill.
Back to Tara Burke, Colm’s girlfriend for two years of school, and two-and-a-half at university. I got to know Tara fairly well in that time. It was she who got Ronan a date to the Debs.
     Claire Adams was Tara’s best friend the summer before we all started college. To Ronan, who’d become a bit of a third wheel to Colm and Tara, she was a blessing. During the night of the debs, however, it became clear that Claire had little intention of getting with Ronan. She must’ve owed Tara a favour, because the look she wore, at the beginning of the night at least, suggested that she was being held hostage. Ronan, in spite of this, spared no expense: his debit card was almost permanently lodged in the machines behind the bar. After a while, he and Claire were drunk and dancing. And towards the end of the night, Ronan, seeing what all his friends were doing, climbed onto his toes and went for the kiss.
     By then, receiving a cheek rather than lips was no great shock for Ronan. At our parties, lots of women spoke to him before walking away at the first sign of physical intimacy. It was a bit odd, therefore, to see Ronan, a minute after this latest rejection, striding off the dance floor, red and wet in the eyes.
     Thinking about it now, I don’t think it was Claire’s cheek that upset Ronan as much as Colm’s reaction. I remember him laughing at something Claire said just after the attempted kiss. Colm, to his credit, followed Ronan off the dancefloor, out into the smoking area. They had a chat and a few minutes later everything was fine.
     And this is how it was for Colm and Ronan in school. Whenever they had a falling out, it was dealt with very fast. More like brotherly spats than anything else. And bar a couple of weird moments from Ronan, I think it’s impressive how close they stayed through these years. You might’ve thought that physical differences would’ve taken them farther from each other than they ended up being. And even if there was something brewing in Ronan that might explain what happened a few years later, I reckon it was far below the surface.
     Colm and Ronan both got into law at Trinity College. This was an uncertain time for all of us. Less than half of the group made it to Trinity, and those of us that did felt a bit naked for the first few weeks. We spent those weeks shoulder to shoulder, as if holding each other afloat. And we clung to Colm the most, figuring that he was the man to follow in order to keep the group intact.
     Joining three of us in law were five of the other lads, spread across business and science degrees. Over the four years, most of us stayed close. Those not sharing a course went to the gym together, or were on the same rugby team. For Colm and Ronan it was the same. Both found new friends, but never a replacement for the other. And what friends were made were often known to the other in some way.
     I’ve sometimes thought that Ronan would’ve been better going his own way at Trinity, ditching his identity as the little man amongst the rugby players. Not that Ronan didn’t make friends, he likely made more than most. But these new relationships forced Ronan to maintain the status he’d had in school – the mascot. He benefited from being the smiling, one-armed hero at a time when it was socially desirable to befriend someone less fortunate. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these friendships were only about image, but I wouldn’t count that out either. Other motivations were at play for everyone at that time. Social proof was important.
     Emma Costello. The person with the biggest impact on what would happen between Colm and Ronan. She was in a girl in our year. And while attractive by most accounts, her beauty was unorthodox. She had a strong liver and a will to distance herself from the more feminine women on our course. Her calling was to flats and cheap lager. She started hanging out with us early in first year, became part of the group.
     Ronan and Emma were close. Close enough that you could ask one what the other had been up to at the weekend. They were just friends, but to most of the lads, I guess it looked like all but Ronan’s words told of a deeper affection for Emma. He spoke, when not to her, then often about her. His mood would be exchanged for a better one whenever she showed up. It became clear to the lads who’d known Ronan since school that this was a new level of intimacy for him with a woman. I remember loads of times when this connection was questioned.
     ‘Ronan, man. When you going to tell Emma how you feel?’
     ‘What do you mean?’
     ‘C’mon, mate. You’re into her. We can all see it like.’
     ‘No, I’m not.’
     ‘It’s cool, man. It’s no big deal like. But you should tell her.’
     ‘Lads, I’m not into her. Honestly. We’re just mates… And she has a boyfriend.’
     This was true. His name was John Kilkenny. But John Kilkenny studied abroad and the few times we’d hung out with him he’d failed to impress. A lanky specimen, who was quiet when sober, clinging to Emma like she was a balloon ready to float away. Then with a few pints onboard, he’d get brave, speaking as though we’d all missed a trick by not studying in England. It was hard to see what Emma saw in the man. And everyone loved Ronan. And, I say this with little pride now, most of us were unfazed by the words ‘I have a boyfriend.’
     But maybe Ronan was different, and those words did mean something to him. Or maybe he didn’t want to lose a friend. My gut tells me it was insecurity, even if not the conscious kind. A deep fear of another rejection, masked by a noble performance.
     Conversations like the one above happened more than once. More than ten times, I reckon. They all contained the same stubborn line from Ronan. Not once did he say that he liked Emma in that way. After a while, people stopped asking, and the relationship was set.
     February of our third year was a busy time for all of us. Elections are like rugby matches with less literal dirt being flung around. We had seventeen, I think, on Colm’s campaign team. And despite how in vogue anti-straight-white-man sentiments were that year, we had a good lead in the polls. I’d put this down to Colm’s popularity. Not only was he well-known on campus, but he was liked. His promise of steering the SU against the annually rising student contribution fees went down well with the 20% of students who would bother to vote.
     It was Friday of the week before voting began. The team had gathered in Colm’s on-campus accommodation, and a shelf-load of Tesco wine had been bought. The polls now suggested that, barring some weird intervention, Colm would win the election. I got drunk pretty fast that night. A week of handing out leaflets and pleading with freshmen to ‘vote for Colm Dunne and cheap education’ had taken its toll. I wanted to relax.
     The week had been tough for other reasons too. It saw the synchronised break-ups of Colm and Tara, and Emma and John. Tara, who was on Erasmus in Valencia, and who had already initiated two ‘relationship breaks’ that year, finally broke it off for good with Colm. Emma and John ended their relationship mutually. Something about lives needing to be lived before settling down.
     It’s impressive how well Colm handled himself that week. His insides must have been falling apart. Yet through every vote-acquiring conversation he remained externally OK. I think I could have done more to help him that week. Not with the campaigning, but by asking him if he was all right a few more times.
     That Friday, at around midnight, some of the team left to go clubbing. I was drunk and knackered and decided against it. That was my first mistake.
     After a couple more hours of drinking games, those of us who hadn’t gone clubbing decided to call it a night. Unlike many on the campaign team, I didn’t live on campus.
     ‘Mind if I crash here tonight?’ I asked Colm (my second mistake). He and Emma were sitting on the couch, Ronan in the armchair. I think everyone else had gone by then, apart from Killian, Colm’s flatmate, who was in bed.
     ‘Course, bud,’ Colm said.
     It could have been then, or a few minutes later, that Emma asked the same thing.
     ‘Yeah, sure,’ Colm said.
     ‘Thanks. Ronan, do you want the couch or the chair?’ Emma said.
     ‘You can have the couch,’ Ronan said.
     Colm stood up and stretched, yawning. ‘Ah, no. You can have my bed, Emma. I’ll sleep out here.’
     ‘I’ll be fine, Colm. It’s your bed, like. No hassle.’
     ‘We’d both fit. Then Ronan could have the couch.’
     ‘I’m fine in the chair, to be honest,’ Ronan said.
     As if Ronan hadn’t spoken, Emma said: ‘You sure, Colm? Wouldn’t want to put you out.’
     ‘You wouldn’t be. Honest.’
     ‘Hmm, all right. If you’re really okay with it?’
     ‘Yeah, absolutely.’
     ‘Really, I don’t mind sleeping on the chair,’ Ronan said.
     ‘It’s cool, man. You can stretch yourself out on the couch there,’ Colm said.
     Ronan paused. ‘All right. Stay for a bit and chat though, no?’
     ‘I’m knackered,’ Colm said.
     ‘Same,’ Emma said.
I don’t remember there being anything else said that night. When we woke up the next morning, sore heads were jolted by an article in the Trinity News: Colm Dunne in Groupchat Sex Message Scandal.
     The news exploded around Trinity College. In my time there, I learned that however small an impact student politics has on the outside world, when inside its own world, its developments are as mammoth as any world news saga. And this was a saga, a scandal, onto which Trinity News, notoriously concerned with gender politics and all things social justice, jumped. Colm’s closest rival in the election was Danielle Hegarty. Gay and working class, Hegarty was the prototype left-wing candidate.
     That morning we had a team meeting. Amidst the Red Bull, coffee, and ‘what-the-actual-fucks,’ came the question – who was the rat? It had to be one of the fifty-odd rugby players in the groupchat. We made promises to Colm’s vacant eyes that it’d get sorted.
     The published screenshot left out the context for what Colm said. Had the previous messages been included, they would’ve proved that Colm writing ‘line them up and bend them over,’ was an impersonation of what they expected Matthew Lords to say when he confirmed his attendance for the night’s party. The messages around Colm’s were worse. But he was the one running for President.
     The suspects? A couple of peripheral members of the groupchat, known to be friendly with Danielle Hegarty. The student who wrote the article said she received the screenshot as an attachment to an email sent from Colm Dunne’s campaign team account, something that was confirmed when we checked the sent messages. A few suspicious eyes were thrown around the team, but no one came forward. We concluded that someone on Hegarty’s side hacked the email account, and one of the suspect rugby players took the screenshot.
     The following Monday we lodged a complaint to the Junior Dean, claiming foul play in the election, and charging Trinity News with incompetence for publishing dubiously sourced information. We contacted both Trinity News and The University Times, demanding that they publish the truth. And they did, but much too late. It really was the perfect crime. Colm became the scapegoat who fell from the precarious position rugby culture was in at that time. Rugby culture = lad culture = Colm Dunne = sexist comments. People at that university were already on the edge of condemning the way we behaved. And while this was probably fair enough, it shouldn’t have been Colm to take the fall. If anything, pure-old Colm transcended the rest of us. But people like to be proven right. They like their opinions of people locked away in boxes. And they like throwing away the key. The first wallop of any news is the greatest – Colm didn’t stand a chance.
     Over the following days, Colm went into a dark place. Twenty-one years of pretty smooth running, then inside a week a break-up, and waking up to a few thousand people disliking your face and name. We announced Colm’s election withdrawal from Vincent’s. He’d swallowed a box of painkillers the night before and was deemed to be a lucky boy, with flatmate Killian to thank for his life. He spent four nights in the hospital, surrounded by family, friends, and Ronan, sitting for long stretches beside his bed, comforting, crying, and appearing as much the victim as Colm was.
     Colm deferred the rest of third year, moving back home to get well. The lads visited him of course. And Ronan, living next door, would provide updates. Around campus, the name Colm Dunne eventually wriggled free of any great stains. After Hegarty’s victory, the truth that the message was an impersonation settled like dust, slowly and far too late. No concrete explanation was ever given for what happened.
There’s a story I once heard – I’m not sure of its source anymore – of a tightrope walker. This performer was one of the best in the world and toured the globe as the main event in a circus company. The tightrope walker had a brother, younger than him, who didn’t walk the line but fixed it, calibrated the correct tension for his older sibling each night. The tightrope walker had never fallen during a show, before one night, during a grand performance in New York, when he did. The tightrope walker was furious after the show, claiming that someone had lessened the tension in the line. He asked his brother why he hadn’t checked the line before the routine, to which his brother replied, calmly: ‘I did, brother. I just wanted to see you fall.’
     Thinking about it now, I’m not sure if I heard this story from a person at all. It could have been told to me in a dream. But wherever it came from, I think the analogy is appropriate. I think twenty-one years in the shadow of Colm Dunne became too much for Ronan to take. As if he had for his whole life been situated behind a pure glass ball, one he could never quite catch up to, and one that flung back into his eyes a reflection of himself running and panting. Eventually, Ronan got tired of running, and chose to reach out to the ball, grab it, and smash it to pieces. As if he couldn’t believe a thing so pure existed.
The waiter comes back with the bill. I reach my hand out before Colm slaps his card onto the tray, shaking his head as if I’d committed some minor felony.
     Outside, a few minutes later, we’re both still drunk, and in the limbo of knowing that by ignoring better judgment, the night could continue. We decide against it, wishing each other well, saying how nice it was to have dinner, and promising not to leave it as long until the next one. Colm puts out his right arm, before withdrawing it, tilting his head down as if he had now committed the crime.
     ‘Fuck, man. Sorry,’ he says. ‘I’m fairly gone.’
     I feel like putting my arm around him, revealing all into his ear. I’d tell him how sorry I am; that I would take it back if I could.
     ‘No worries, man. It happens,’ I say instead.