Montpelier Parade By Karl Geary: Book Review
Sonny Knolls is a 16-year-old in 1980s Dublin with the odds stacked against him: the youngest, self-described “runt” of seven brothers, with a gambler father and a mother at her wits’ end, targeted by school prefects, dismissed by the teaching staff and left with petty crime and alcohol for amusement.
And then his eyes are opened to a world of literature and love, and life beyond an impoverished council estate, by Vera, a woman old enough to be his mother, yet as damaged in her own way as Sonny himself.
It’s not just a sexual awakening, more an emotional one, and Geary’s particular first-person narrative draws you in, making you see in Sonny what those around him can’t, making you root for him, hoping he’ll make his escape.
This powerful debut novel is tender and raw and heartfelt – and one you’ll immediately want others to read.
Montpelier Parade By Karl Geary: Book Extract
‘The world’s a frightening place.’ Joe McCann scooped up a lump of minced beef with his fingertips and pushed it inside a small white plastic bag. ‘True as God,’ Joe says. ‘True as God.’
You stood beside Mrs Anderson, cleaning the glass meat counter using folded newspaper and water mixed with a couple of tablespoons of vinegar. At the side of Mrs Anderson’s head where the bandage stopped, you could see the bruising, black and blue.
‘That’s just over a pound’s worth, Mrs Anderson. Is that all right for you?’
He didn’t wait for an answer. He sealed the little bag with a string of red tape and set it on the counter like a white balloon.
Mrs Anderson’s hand trembled when she reached across the counter with some coins. It was an effort for her to pick up the bag of meat and rearrange her shopping bag to accommodate it.
‘I hope they find them,’ says Joe.‘I know they will, I know they will,’ he says.‘Get that door for Mrs Anderson, will you, Sonny?’
You tucked the wet newspaper into your armpit and ran and opened the shop door for her. The bell over the door made a thin sound as she left the shop and you felt the sodden paper through your shirt.
‘Listen, good luck to you now, good luck,’ says Joe.
Mick came from the back room and stood beside him. ‘Dreadful,’ says Mick as he slowly ran his hands out over his apron. You could never tell if he meant something or if he was winding you up. You just weren’t good at that sort of thing. He winked at you when he knew Joe wasn’t looking.
They stood in silence, Joe and Mick, side by side like bookends, suddenly still, as if their last thought was important, something they didn’t want to forget.
Joe was tall, fifty, or something like fifty. A face so mild that you couldn’t look at it for long without turning.
There was a new supermarket less than a mile away. Mick never said anything about it in front of Joe; how it was only the old people who didn’t drive that came to the butcher shop, how the shop stood between a post office and a Chinese takeaway like a jilted lover unable to account for its misfortunes.
When the glass counter was clean, you walked into the back room to get the brush to sweep up the stale sawdust. Mick was bored, you heard him come into the room behind you. He stood in front of the chipped mirror that was hung by a run of rusted wire, wrapped around a nail over the sink. He pulled his comb out like a cowboy with a sixshooter.
‘You ever touch one, Sonny?’ he says.
His hair was brown and thin and greasy, the fine comb easily found its way through.‘Touch one, did you ever touch one?’
‘Touch one what?’
‘A gee . . . A growler?’
‘Are you deaf?’
‘Yeah,’ you say, ‘course I have.’
‘Where is it?’
‘You don’t know, do you? Show me, show me where you think it is.’
You felt your face flush.
‘It’s not where you think it is,’ you say.
‘Where? Where do I think it is?’
The skin across Mick’s face was mottled; he’d been told not to scratch at it when he was young, but he had scratched.
‘You don’t know, you don’t,’ he says.
He put his comb into his back pocket and stood with his hip against the sink a moment, then pushed off it and pulled his apron aside.
‘Here,’ he says. ‘It’s lower than you think . . . It’s . . . do you know where your balls are?’
‘Right, well, it’s between where your balls stop and your arse begins.’
Mick was bent over himself showing you when Joe came in and told him, ‘Knock it off, you.’
Mick winked. Says, ‘We’ll learn you, lad.’ He walked out front and you heard him say, ‘Mrs O’Brien, you get younger every time I see you.’
Joe looked at his watch and then at you. ‘Come on, you, shake a leg.’
‘That’s right, Miss O’Sullivan.’ ‘Will that do you now, Miss O’Shea?’ ‘Good enough, Miss McCormick.’ ‘That’s it now, as the fella says, that’s it now.’ And on it went, Mick and Joe, their voices came and went all day like a background radio.
You were paid ten pounds a week, one hour after school, except Wednesdays when you’d mince the sheep’s lungs for dog food and that took an extra hour. You’d worked there over a year and had saved two hundred and sixteen pounds.
The light had almost emptied from the sky, and in the shop glass you could sense your reflection under the fluorescent light, brush in hand. Beyond, the car lights streamed past.
It was near closing time when the bell chimed again and Mr Cosgrove, holding the amber smell of Higgins pub, nearly fell in the door. He was drunk and Joe was afraid of drunks. He left Mick to serve him.
Mr Cosgrove put his hand on the counter and fanned his fingers out to steady himself. It was only later when you thought about his fingerprints, you had no recollection of cleaning them off the glass. But you must have. They were gone for sure.
Mr Cosgrove dipped his chin to his chest and seemed to be waiting to stop swaying, his smeared newspaper pressed into the side of his old man’s overcoat.
‘Is it something for your tea, Mr Cosgrove?’ says Mick. He stood with his arms folded and his head cocked to the side.
‘Mr Cosgrove! Something for your tea?’ Mr Cosgrove raised his head and gathered Mick in his level stare.
‘Something for my tea. Yes.’
‘Well,’ says Mick, ‘I have some nice liver there. You can fry that up with some onions, lovely. Or, eh . . . I have some burgers, fresh made. Ya can buy two, eat them yourself and give the wife one when you get home.’
Mick glanced over to make sure you’d heard.
‘Have you a heart?’ says Mr Cosgrove.
‘Jesus, I couldn’t sell you the heart, Mr Cosgrove. The wife would never speak to me again.’
‘I’d say I’d be hungry after it,’ says Mr Cosgrove, but Mick didn’t like that.
‘Come on now,’ says Mick. ‘I’m closing up, stop wasting me time.’
‘Fucking leave me starving, it would.’
‘Do you want the liver?’ says Mick, without looking at Mr Cosgrove.
‘Do you want the liver?’
‘Didn’t I just tell you I did?’
‘Look it, if you’re going to be thick about it you can go somewhere else.’
‘Give us fifty pence worth,’ says Mr Cosgrove.
‘Break the bleeding bank, why don’t you?’
Mick reached into the tray of livers. It was fully dark out side and the cars had their wipers on. Rain clung like ivy to the shop glass. Mick dropped a bag of livers on the counter tied with perfect red tape.
‘Give us fifty pence for that, Mr Cosgrove. And there’s an extra piece in there for you, all right? So you won’t be talk ing about me?’
You thought you heard Mr Cosgrove say something like ‘Good one,’ or ‘Good man yourself.’
Mr Cosgrove pulled a pile of coins from his pocket, spill ing tobacco dust to the floor, and peered into his open hand, lost. Mick took a silver fifty pence.
‘Right-ho,’ he says without a hint of failure. He saluted Mick and noticed you. ‘All right, young sweepy boy.’ His milky eyes washed over you and he says, ‘You start out a sweepy boy, you’ll end up a sweepy boy . . . Unlucky.’ And he chuckled then.
He pushed himself off the counter and went to the door like he was walking the length of a small rowing boat. The copper bell rang, and Joe reemerged from the back room.
You were closest to the door when the crash was heard. Time slowed, you’d heard how that happened, it really did, time slowed and you were given the accident in instalments. A car horn first and then, underneath, the sound of rubber dragged at great speed across tarmac. And then the sound you’d imagine a wet heavy overcoat would make if you dropped it on a hard floor.
Mick, Joe and you all froze, like the characters in a cartoon, looked to the sound, to each other and back to the sound.You heard the wooden brush handle hit the floor and then you were out on the wide path, in the rain, the wind.
A small van had jumped the line and sat facing the wrong side of the traffic. You could hear the put-put-put of its diesel engine gently turning over. It was perfectly intact, save one lit headlight swinging helplessly by its wire.You couldn’t find the driver’s face, just his white knuckles on the steering wheel.
Mr Cosgrove’s misshapen body lay across the wet tarmac. His plastic bag had been flung a few feet away from him; it was burst, empty. You couldn’t help wondering where the livers might have been, when you felt a hand on your shoulder. You could feel the cold of the wet shirt pressed to your skin.
People were shouting. Joe was standing in the middle of the road, a hand raised to traffic. The driver from the van had emerged and was on his knees in front of it, his fist was pressed to his forehead, and with a splash on the road he was suddenly sick.
A small group fixed themselves to the path and compared what they knew from the telly, while round the corner came the flashing blue lights of a Garda car, as if it had been hiding back there, waiting for this moment. And all the while under Mr Cosgrove’s head a blood pillow, rich and dark and thick, ebbed slowly from some unseen crack.
You found yourself standing over his body, bending your knees as you dipped closer. Rain collected in the pockets of Mr Cosgrove’s half-closed eyes, his yellow teeth bared in a grimace, and you thought if you were to touch his skin, it would feel like chicken too long out of the fridge.
A packet of ten Sweet Afton poked from his shirt pocket, still sealed in plastic. ‘Get out of that, the bloody hell you think you’re doing?’ Two Gardaí were coming towards you. You stood quickly, but not before your fingers surrounded the cigarettes and silently pulled them from the man’s pocket.
Joe stood behind the Gardaí. He caught your eye and at once you knew he had seen you take the cigarettes. It was too late, you’d slipped them into your pocket. A Garda pulled you by the elbow to the path and when you tripped on the kerb, he caught you. ‘Go on about your business,’ he says.
You stood alone inside the shop.You’d heard the door chime shut, and it surprised you, everything in the shop unchanged.You were not sure what you thought would be different, but it seemed mean that it was the same.
You picked up the wooden brush from where it had fallen and swept the last of the sawdust towards a small pile you had made earlier. Then, using a metal shovel, scooped up the pile. You put the brush and shovel aside and began to lay fresh sawdust big fistfuls at a time, sprinkling it like seeds across the linoleum floor.
The bell chimed behind you, and you felt the quick rush of night air.
‘Sure you just never know, as the fella says, you just never know,’ says Joe, tapping his boots on the doormat that only he ever remembered.
‘That’s it,’ says Mick.
Their voices were low and mature and then silent. They shared a glance at you and then a knowing look to each other.
‘Right,’ says Joe. ‘That’s grand, lad, that’s grand, just leave it there and go on home.’
You still held a fistful of sawdust when you got to the back room.You threw it to the floor and took off your apron. Only then, after you had put on your coat, did you notice your hands were shaking.You felt the hard lines of the cigarette packet through the pockets of your jeans as you walked past Mick and Joe. The bell chimed, and you turned left out of the shop. Next chapter
The light from the TV washed over the faces of your brothers. Their eyes shone in the dark room, vague and distant. Your father sat in his chair, closest to the fire, waiting to be fed.
In the kitchen the strip light flickered from time to time; it always made a humming sound. Cold water ran over your mother’s hands as she skilfully peeled the potatoes with a small paring knife.There was an electric deep fryer she’d got years earlier. Its colour was faded and beginning to crack, and grease covered the red ‘on’ light, making it dim. The fryer made condensation drip from the wallpaper and down the glass in streaks.
Your mother didn’t say anything when you came in, though you knew she felt you there. You opened one cupboard after another, peered inside, but really you were watching her. Finally you sat at the table. She was old, your ma. You were the youngest, and she was old.
You hadn’t decided to tell her about Mr Cosgrove, and now, in the thick air, you knew you wouldn’t.You would save it for yourself.
‘Ma,’ you say.‘Is dinner nearly ready?’ You wanted to hear her voice, then you’d be able to gauge how it was. But you had given her a way in. She dropped the knife on the steel draining board and dried her hands in a tea towel.
‘No,’ she says. ‘Your father’s not eaten yet.’ She raised her voice to be sure he heard. ‘I don’t know if there’ll be anything left at all.’ She went closer to the doorway. ‘The young lad wants his dinner and I’ve nothing for him, nothing, another Friday and nothing.’ Then she turned back into the kitchen. ‘Ask your father where your dinner is,’ she says.
Beyond the doorway, there was only the volume of the TV. The last brother out had not turned it off. She spoke to you then, but was only pretending to.
‘Paddy Power got something, sure, the bookies got it all right, they got it all. Liar, rotten liar. I never want to hear you lying, do you hear me, Sonny? Something I can’t stand, it’s liars.’
A year earlier, when she was too skinny, and she wouldn’t eat or sleep or cry and she would chew at her nails till they bled, Dr Harwood had given her pills so she could sleep, but you didn’t think she slept much.
She picked up a pot from the cooker and carried it to the sink. Pouring out the scalding water, she was lost in a cloud of steam. Out dropped a lump of bacon and wilted cabbage leaf into a sieve, and she put them on a plate.
‘Has the house in the state it’s in. He’s a nothing,’ she says under her breath. ‘Tell your father his dinner is ready,’ she says. The plate sat spewing steam.
It used to be different, but you were too young to remember that. Now the boys were older, stronger. You wondered sometimes if your father understood what went wrong, why his family had closed themselves off to him, shutting him out. Occasionally he would rear up on his hind legs and scatter the brothers, and the air would be clean for a while, but then by degrees thicken.
You pushed yourself away from the table and stood. You could never pick a side. He sat in his chair, his head still; you saw his eyes look away from theTV. His cigarette burned close to the filter in his thumbless hand.
‘Dad,’ you say, but it was too soft. You tried to fix it. ‘Dinner’s ready.’
You went back into the kitchen and out the back door into the shed attached to the house. ‘Where are you going?’ says your mother.
‘Shed,’ you say. She seemed disappointed.
The shed had a single light bulb and some of your father’s old tools. Somebody was going to finish off the walls and the roof, but they didn’t. Scattered across the concrete floor were your used bicycle parts, salvaged and stolen, but mostly stolen. There were nearly enough parts to make up a whole bike.
You closed the door, and your family faded away. They didn’t come out there, it was too cold; after an hour or so you couldn’t feel your toes and your hands stopped working. The bastard sound of the telly bled through, and you suddenly flung the spanner at the wall. It barely made a sound. They’d sit like that for hours, save a trip or two to the kettle, and then one by one they’d disappear off to bed, leaving your father alone.
Every night he checked your mother’s ashtray for anything she’d not smoked fully. You tried not to catch him. After midnight you were drawn back inside, when you knew it was just him and you heard the opening music of some old black and white. You warmed yourself in front of him at what little was left of the fire.
‘This is a good one,’he says.His eyes brightened a bit, and he lit the end of a charred cigarette. His face was different when they were sleeping.
‘Yeah?’ you say and ran up the stairs, the way you’d learned to do it without a sound, your feet to the sides of the step where wood didn’t cry out.
You went into the bathroom where the lock on the door was half painted over and could only be half closed, crouching down behind the sink to remove a loose tile. This was where all your secrets were stored, in a cavity behind the sink.You felt the old tin pencil case that held the money that would some day take you away from there, a silver lighter that wasn’t always yours, and then the new plastic of the ten Sweet Afton you’d put there when you’d come up to piss.
You went back downstairs and found your father’s seat was empty. The compressed cushion took a breath. The boiled kettle clicked to a halt as you balanced the packet of cigarettes on the arm of his chair and quickly sat close.
You heard his flatfooted shuffle before he appeared in the doorway carrying a mug and a slice of folded-over bread in his good hand. The tea lapped from the cup with his unsteady movements, staining the white bread and falling to the carpet. Your chest tightened, and you wondered if you should have given the smokes to your mother.
‘That kettle’s boiled,’ he says into the room and then stopped. He nodded towards the packet and turned to you. His face was hard, and his dark brown eyes had you.
‘What’s this?’ he says like it might be a trick you were playing.
‘Found ’em,’ you say. He looked back at the smokes and a sound like ‘oh’ came from his chest. He blinked a couple of times and made the same sound again, but this time the tightness left his face and he looked old. He raised his mug high and backed himself into the chair, careful his elbow didn’t disturb the packet. It was later, when you were nearly lost inside the film, that you saw him open the Sweet Afton.
You were sleepy when the film ended. Your father stood and turned on the lights. He emptied his ashtray into the cooling fire; the butts only smouldered and you knew they’d stay in the grate until the fire was lit again the next afternoon. You shifted your weight on the sofa as if you were preparing to move. He turned off the TV and says, ‘We’ll be leaving at eight.’ Then he says, ‘Right,’ on his way out of the room.
You listened to his every footstep up the stairs, his full piss and then the final two steps of the landing. A door opened and closed.
You collected the cups around the room and left them in the kitchen sink. You would have washed them, but you didn’t want to make any noise. You turned out the lights and stood in the blackness listening. A tap dripped in a tired way, and the rafters could be heard upstairs, bracing against the low wind. Your body shuddered with a chill, but you didn’t move, not until you were sure they were all sleeping and the house was still.
Feeling around the chair, you dropped to your knees and rubbed at your prick till it hardened, while you stoked the embers of your memory. Miss Gill, when she bent over to pick up her shopping. That ad on TV with the girl in the bathing suit. Finally you settled on Sharon Burke, where her brown legs met at the base of her miniskirt. There was only the sound of your breathing, as her hand roughly took your prick. Her eyes were as remote as the pictures in a magazine. You lifted her skirt and held her so tight it hurt you both. Her breath laboured like yours, and in a final shudder you felt the warmth spill across your hand.Your fingers slow and strong as you held on as long as you could before it was gone and you were in the dark.
You lumbered up the stairs to bed, exhausted. The temperature dipped with each step. You undressed quickly. The sheets cold. You could hear the half a dozen lungs that surrounded you, all pulling at the same air. You asked God to bless them all, but it was mostly out of habit now. You looked about the room, the tall bunk beds, the shape of the bodies under the layers of blankets and coats. You could see the dead face of Mr Cosgrove and closed your eyes tight, but it wouldn’t go away. You wondered where his body was now. You thought about the big fridge at the butcher shop before you turned towards the wall. Next chapter
The sun had shown great promise earlier in the morning, resting just behind the thin clouds, but as your father’s white Ford van pulled closer to the grand Georgian terrace of Montpelier Parade, it had yet to show itself. Your father’s hands fell across the steering wheel like a riverboat captain’s.
He was a country man, your father. He came to Dublin young and had not felt at home since. Still, when he threw the steel of a shovel into the earth his whole body moved with a single purpose: there in the physical landscape he became himself and finally he made sense. It was true that men decades younger would try to keep pace and fall aside, silently watching. Even your brothers would give that much.
It was just nine o’clock, and you felt sick from the heavy lifting. You carried the tools from the car through a narrow laneway that went around the back of the house and into the garden. Everything you touched was wet and cold and refused to surrender last night’s weather. You wanted to rest, close your eyes a moment and feel warm. You were worried you might faint and imagined your father, mortified, standing over you, pushing your body with the heel of his boot.
‘Get a mix on,’ he says as you rounded the corner holding the final bag of Portland cement, straining not to seem strained. He stood looking over the broken garden wall. Red bricks littered the grass, and a cast-iron gate hung to one side, knocked by the high winds some weeks back. A fisherman and his son had been drowned off Dalkey Bay when their boat capsized, their bodies lost, washed out to sea. It had been in all the papers.
The shovel felt enormous in your hands. You tried to mimic your father’s rhythm. With the ease of an alchemist he could bring the sand, cement and water together, but you could not. You could feel his eyes on you and knew that he was only waiting to finish his cigarette before he took the shovel back.
‘Give me the bleeden’ thing,’ he says. ‘You look like you’re having a fit.’ You stood watching. Outside the house you were free to admire him.
It was late morning before you found a rhythm, not his, but it would do. Your body had warmed itself, and as you gathered the red bricks into a neat pile, the world was silent, laid out before you, slow and wide, punctuated by an occasional songbird and the wet scraping of your father’s shovel like the gentle ticking of the day.
‘Who lives here?’ you say.
He stopped shovelling, and his breaths came quick as he leaned his hip against the wall, searching the sky above, his gums showing.
‘Who lives here?’ you say again.
‘The people who have a broken garden wall live here,’ he says. ‘Do you want them for something?’
‘I do,’ you say. ‘I want to buy the place and give us both a day off.’
He smirked and that was lovely. He put a fresh cigarette to his mouth. A blue Bic lighter was dwarfed in his hand, he sparked it, then shook it a few times, and it took. Grey smoke came out his nose.
‘It’d be some penny now, that house,’ he says, looking over the three floors of pale sandstone, the perfect windowpanes.
‘It’s big,’ you say.
‘Big all right, but big and all as it is, you can only be in one room at a time, no matter how much money you have.’ All but a single window on the top floor was covered with heavy fabric. The ground floor had closed wooden shutters. The longer you looked the more decay began to show itself. Thick green moss along the line of the gutter. The plaster was cracked, and you could see into the exposed innards under the sill.
‘Must be eleven?’ he says. The question drifted and was not to you; his weight shifted, and he made a decision.
‘Go on and get the sandwiches,’ he says, and you found yourself about to run to the car, but you held fast and walked like someone whose body was heavy.
You sat almost side by side on the bricks that you had stacked, unfolding the tinfoil, biting roughly at the sandwiches.
‘You’d think she’d throw out a cup of tea,’ he says, his voice low, still chewing.
‘Who?’ you ask.
‘Your woman, in there.’ He says, ‘You’d think a house like that, she’d spare a few teabags and some feckin’ hot water.’ He searched the blank windows. ‘Feck it,’ he says, throwing his bread back into the tinfoil. He stood and walked along the path to the door. His fist landed on the wood like two gunshots, then three. Someone moved past the upstairs window, but it might have been your imagination. Then you heard a woman’s voice muffled from inside.
‘Yeah,’ your father says. ‘Yeah . . . I just wanted to get in and make a tea, a cup of tea.’The roughness had gone from his mouth.
‘Good enough, yeah.’ He nodded at you as he walked down the path and sat back on the bricks. ‘Jesus, you’d give a stranger a cup of tea.’ His voice low, satisfied. ‘That’s how they are, this lot, they’d walk all over you if you let them, that’s how they hold on to the money.’ He dug his heavy boot into the earth and turned the heel.
You picked at dead skin on your hands, hoping you’d find a callous or a good cut. There were none, but red dust from the bricks lined the undersides of your nails.
A latch clicked on the other side of the door, and you and him cocked your heads like stray dogs. A woman emerged, trying to balance a tray in her hands and hold the door with her foot. ‘Go on and help her,’ he says, and you felt his elbow hit your arm. You stood attentive, but that was all. She came towards you along the little garden path, her eyes fixed on the tray.
‘Frank, I’m so sorry, but I got a late start today,’ she says. She was English.
‘That’s all right, ma’am,’ he says. ‘But for the sambos get a bit dry without it.’ Her fair hair blocked her face, but you already knew the smile rich people gave when they talked to someone they thought stupid. He stood up as she came closer. ‘Take the tray,’ he says to you, but you didn’t, you stood motionless. Her head rose up, and without meaning to be bold, you let yourself look at her.
She wasn’t old at all, not in the way you’d expected – it surprised you – but she wasn’t young either. She was beautiful.
‘Oh,’ she says, noticing you beside your father. Her eyes were green and worn in, like she was watching from a big room behind them.
‘And who is this?’ she says to your father, her voice like a newsreader’s.
‘Oh, that’s me lad,’ he says, and his stout figure was transported to a market day out west, standing in the mud and shit, tipping his hat to a passing carriage.
‘Hello, lad,’ she says with a faint smile. ‘I’m afraid I’ve not brought you a cup.’
‘That’s all right, ma’am,’ says your father. ‘He’s fine without.’
‘Are you fine without?’ she says.
‘Yeah,’ you say, quick to agree. She stepped towards you, passing the tray, her smile lines still showing, and for a moment you knew how she smelled.
‘There’s a few biscuits there – not the good ones I’m afraid, I’ve not been out.’ She lowered her head and searched around her feet.
‘Oh, thanks, ma’am,’ he says, then stared in silence. She pushed her hand into the pockets of what you assumed to be a man’s bathrobe. Sizes too big, worn and tartan; the kind old men wear in hospitals.You could see the flesh of her hand through a hole in her pocket where her finger had scratched from the inside a thousand times and broken through.
‘How’s the work going?’ she asks.
‘Good now. Won’t be long getting done.’
She looked at the wall a moment, the way you might look at a jigsaw puzzle you were never going to do. ‘Great,’ she says, and there was more silence. She looked at you again, this time in a lazy way. ‘Good of you to give your dad a hand today.’
‘Oh, he’s a good one all right, smart too, not the building for him. He’s a good job up in McCann’s butcher’s during the week after school. Smart all right, get a trade indoors.’
You couldn’t look at her then.You could feel a burning across your face. Shut up, shut up, shut up, you thick culchie bastard.
‘It’s a good profession,’ she says simply and without interest, and turned and glanced at the back door.
‘Good all right,’ says your father.
‘Well, I’ll leave you two to it,’ she says.
‘Good enough, ma’am.’ He sat back on the pile of red bricks.
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘If you need the toilet, it’s through that door, up the stairs and . . .’ She paused. Her hand uttered in the air. ‘Yes . . . first door on the landing to the right.’ Her smile landed in the middle of you both. And silently she went back along the little path, inside.
‘Stop gawking like an eejit,’ you heard him say. ‘Pour that tea and sit.’
The tray was wooden, smooth and lovely to touch. You set it carefully on the grass and poured his tea from an old fashioned teapot. Your father fingered through the biscuits on a small plate that looked to be from the same set. He picked one up and held it under his nose, then flung it back with such force that it skipped off the tray.
‘She didn’t kill herself with that spread, did she?’
You left the biscuits untouched even though you wanted one.
‘Weak piss,’ he says after the first sip.
The blue sky only held until late afternoon, but even then when the clouds came dark and low, it didn’t rain. On the hour, you heard the coast train stopping at Seapoint before moving on towards Howth or Bray. Your father said nothing. You watched him carefully. He took off his shirt and used it to wipe under his arms and neck, packed sinew and muscle moving just beneath his skin, sallow and scarred.
The work day was ending when you heard him hum a faint, nameless tune. It lifted your mood. He told you to start cleaning up. It was two hours before the bookies closed and now he was in a hurry to leave.
‘Bring that tray back in to her,’ he says. He was standing stock-still, looking at the great house. The pennies you’d pay for his thoughts. ‘Go on,’ he says.
As you bent and picked up the tray you saw a string of tiny ants leading from the grass along the rosewood, ending at the untouched biscuit.
‘I need the toilet,’ you say.
He looked at you and exhaled. ‘Just go behind the wall there, like I did.’
You felt your shoulders shrug.
‘Take your shoes off before you go in there – be quick about it.’
When you got to the granite step, you dipped and pulled your boots from the heel. Your socks were wet, grey-white, and a blackened toenail was exposed on one side.You used your shoulder to push open the heavy door, and the first step on the cold flagstones chilled your feet. Narrow splinters of afternoon light found their way through the gaps in the shutters, burnishing here and there the contours of the kitchen. You found an old Belfast sink and unloaded the tray into it, putting the biscuits into the bin, and later you thought about her finding them.
In the hallway, stronger light filtered past stained-glass panels above the main door and a patchwork of amber, red and blue inched across the floor. The walls were high, the cornices seemed to float, and the pictures on the walls were not pictures of the pictures, even you knew that. The sound of your own movement up the stairs disappeared into the carpet. You found the bathroom following her directions: top of the stairs, first on the right.
Once locked inside, you finally admitted to yourself that you didn’t need to be. You were there to discover her, as if in the stacked white towels, the pile of books on the floor, or the assorted toiletries, both gilded and plain, she could be found. There was an ink drawing without a frame, hanging from a single thumbtack: a large woman, naked, drawn from behind, her head turned. Her eyes found you.Your fingers traced the outline of the ink, every curve, every curve. You wondered if she was still home or if every room in the house was like this, empty and full of her at the same time.
You didn’t wash your hands, instead you ran the tap and watched how the rising steam fogged the mirror, just a little, just enough to blur your reflection.
The lock made a steel popping sound even though you took great care to be quiet. Pat, pat, pat down the stairs without a whisper. You knew that the way to your father was back through the kitchen, but in the hallway off to the left a door was open. You stood completely still, comforted by the fullness of the silence as it settled around you like water in the bathtub.
A few easy steps, and you were standing inside the doorway watching her. She sat on a worn blue couch, facing into the room, her elbows stuck to her knees and her head resting in the pocket of her hands. not reading or sleeping or even allowing her shoulders to rise with her breathing, just staring, like the way you’d watch telly, but there was no telly. Her old bathrobe had been replaced with a soft red sweater and a dark wool skirt that ran just past her knee.
Without remembering your place, you say, ‘Are you not feeling well?’ At first she didn’t move, then she turned and you could see one of her eyes, and she laughed a little, but just with her breath. Keeping the same half-smile, she says, ‘I feel fine.’ There was a joke in there, but it was only for her.
You wondered if she had heard you come in and traced your movements throughout her house. ‘I don’t want to be a butcher,’ you say. You rubbed your fingers together and they were numb.
‘No,’ you say.
‘What do you want to be?’ she says.
‘I don’t know,’ you say. ‘I want to go away, leave here . . . Ireland, I mean, leave Ireland.’
‘Where would you go?’ she says, and you heard the sudden blaze of a car horn outside, and you knew it was him, missing the 4.10 at Cheltenham.
‘I don’t know,’ you say and felt you needed to pick somewhere, anywhere. ‘Maybe Barcelona,’ you say then because, in case she asked, you knew that it was in Spain.
‘Well,’ she says. ‘Maybe you can move to Barcelona and become a vegetarian.’
You looked away, unsure. The car horn again, longer this time.
‘You have a beautiful face,’ she says, but you didn’t think she was trying to be mean. Your face felt suddenly hot.
‘I think that’s me da,’ you say.
‘I think so too,’ she says, turning back into the room. Her hair spilt forwards, and you saw her white neck. You stepped backwards, out the door, through the hallway, across the kitchen and outside into the still-light garden. You were running towards your father.Next chapter
You could hear the car engine making that tick-tick-tick cooling-down sound.
‘That’s one fifty, one seventy. One seventy-five.’ In the front seat beside your father, your hand held out as he counted coins into it. Cars passed, and a scatter of children could be heard somewhere, laughing.
‘That’s three fifty, four.’ He dug around in his front pocket searching for more coins, staying away from his back pocket where he kept his roll of notes. You lowered your hand to seem as if you didn’t expect any more; you had learned to be grateful for any amount, you always got more that way.
He found another fistful, more than he wanted to give over, you knew that, but he could never put them back now that he’d shown them.
‘Here,’ he says and put the whole pile of coins in your palm. ‘Here, now listen,’ he says. ‘Hide that from your mother.’ It was more than six pounds, maybe seven, guessing by the weight. You wouldn’t count it until you were up the road and out of his sight.
‘Thanks, Da, thanks.’ It was wrong to put the money straight into your pocket. You weren’t sure why, it just was.
You were done with each other then, itching to take leave of each other’s company. The car was parked beside the bookies, and there were the notes in your father’s back pocket. For a moment you thought about your mother at home and that awful look when she worried. You thought about her chapped and hardened hands. She did so much.
‘You were a help today,’ he says. You almost said thanks but didn’t. ‘Jesus, but she was a posh one, huh? I’d say a silver spoon there all right.’
The sun had dipped below the slate rooftops so slowly that it seemed to be clawing to hold on. A bus went past, and the car rocked a little.You wanted to have that easy way with him, that easy way that men have. ‘Oh, silver spoon is right.’ That’s all you would have had to say, then laughed. You thought about her, her name, what was her name? You couldn’t ask him. She’d never once looked at the hole in your socks, and she must have seen it. You remembered then that she wore a gold chain around her neck and wondered if it had a crucifix at the end of it. She’d fingered the chain absentmindedly when she looked at you.
‘She was nice,’ you say. But not like you were committed to it, not like you’d fight for it.
‘Nice me arse,’ he says quickly. He looked out the car window, his eyes rolling over the Paddy Power sign as if for the first time. ‘Nice? A few biscuits . . . She got you cheap enough? Huh?’
‘Suppose,’ you say.
‘Suppose is right,’ he says and looked at you once before his hand reached for the door handle. ‘Not a word now,’ he says, and the car trembled when he got out. You did the same, the coins still in your hand, looking back just once and catching his eye by mistake.
Walking home across the green through the thickening dusk, you saw your mother’s shadow at the window, behind the net curtains, trying to hide. You knew she had been there for hours.
‘Where’s your father?’ she says as you cleared the doorway and you felt her fingers lock around your wrist.
‘Don’t know,’ you say.
‘How could you not know, weren’t you with him?’
She was small, your mother, not more than five feet.
‘He just dropped me at the corner,’ you say.
‘Did he go to the bookies?’
‘Don’t know.’ Her grip held you in place. You knew you could push past her but not without being rough. Your eyes fell on the wool pattern of her cardigan, the blended strands of pink and grey and white. At the elbow where the wool pulled tighter, her skin showed underneath.
‘Did he get paid?’ she says.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Did he pay you?’ she says, and you were lost.
‘Bastard,’ she says, letting go of your arm, leaving you for the brothers in the living room. You ran upstairs. ‘Can you fathom that?’ you heard her say. ‘He didn’t even give the young lad any money, none . . . the rotten get.’
It was the weekend, so you were allowed a bath. The stains ran from your naked body and coloured the few inches of cooling water. Your arms, your back, your knees exposed.
You lay back and felt a chill on the inside of your thigh where the water stopped. You closed your eyes, like stepping out of your own body. The water gently lapped at your skin. Your prick was hard.
You held her to you, her lips wide. Please, she says. You could feel her press against you. Please.
Downstairs, when you were dressed, your jeans felt tight and clean.You hid seven pounds and a pocket knife in your coat pocket in the hallway, a cigarette wrapped in toilet paper and three red matches too.You were unable to get all the dirt from under your fingernails and were no longer proud of it.
It was after six, and the bookies closed at six. Your father would lose, he mostly did, and then there was nowhere else to come but home. You ate your dinner, the clock ticked and your mother paced the rooms, from the front window where she’d watch for his car then back out to your brothers, where they sat wordless, spread across chairs in a vigil. You ate quickly. She’d start at him when he got in, use what she could to hurt him, use you. You stood up from the table and she noticed the unfinished plate.
‘Where are you going?’ she says.
‘Nowhere,’ you say. ‘I’m not hungry.’ But you knew you had to tell her that you were going out; she worried, and you couldn’t stand that.
‘That’s him now, Ma.’ One of your brothers saw his car coming down the road and pulling up alongside the house. Your mother froze a second, then went to the window to see for herself. From the kitchen you heard the handbrake being drawn, the engine shudder and die. She was quick from the window back to the kitchen. She rubbed her hands like she was cold, and her gathered thoughts seemed to confuse and frighten her.
‘I’m going out,’ you say and propelled yourself towards the hallway.
‘Out, out where?’
You had only a moment before he came through the door. You took your green army coat from the hook, your favourite coat, the coat you wore to feel strong, sometimes invincible. You eyed the lock and expected it to turn. You couldn’t go that way, you couldn’t face him. You went back to the kitchen.
‘Just out,’ you say. She followed quickly behind.
‘No one,’ you say, putting on your coat. Quieting the coins in your pocket between your fingers.
‘You’re going out in that night, on your own?’
The fat your mother had used to fry the chips had cooled, and now a brown skin had begun to congeal across the unwashed plates.
The front door opened, your father was home. You heard his heavy footsteps on the stairs; he’d gone up to hide whatever money he had left. You imagined all the hiding places all through the house, every cavity stuffed with secrets. Your mother looked at you.
‘Go then,’ she says in a simple way and retreated into the room with your brothers. You felt the first flash of a hot tear.
Out the back door. In a single movement you’d scaled the little coal bunker and scrambled onto the eight-foot garden wall. From there you pulled yourself up on the roof of the shed.The corrugated metal cried out in rhythm with your feet. You dropped to the other side and ran. Ran past the hall door, the white Ford, further out across the green, until you saw the first lights of the shops, heard the trucks on the main road where you folded over and filled your burning chest with the night air.
It was cold, cold enough to see your breath every time you exhaled. The rain had held off, but your feet had got wet running through the grass, and you pushed your damp socks around with your big toes.
‘Excuse me, miss?’ you say. You were standing about twenty feet back from the lit off-licence.You were careful not to step towards her; she was alone, heavyset, her face kind. She was carrying a bag, canvas and weighing enough to pull her body to the left as she walked. She was wearing a fitted pea coat, but the effect was pointless. It made you feel sorry for her, and you hated that.
‘Excuse me, miss?’ you say again, and this time she slowed, keeping a distance. She was wary of you. You had your coins already in your hand, two eighty, the exact amount. You held the coins where she could see them, so that she didn’t think you were begging or going to hit her.
‘I’m really sorry to bother you,’ you say in your best accent. ‘But, I’ve been invited to a party tonight.’ She stopped a few feet from you then, on the off-licence side where the lights were brightest. ‘It’s just they won’t let me in unless I bring something – I wonder if you’d mind getting me a bottle of wine . . . in there. It’s two eighty.’ You raised your hand and stepped towards her, but not too much. If you could get the money into their hands, they rarely gave it back.
She looked at your hand and then over her shoulder towards the light.
‘Thanks very much, thank you,’ you say, as if it had been agreed, and took another step towards her.
‘Sorry, no,’ she says and pulled the strap of her canvas bag higher on her shoulder, resting her hand across it. ‘No, no,’ she says, and you could see her eyes searching for a way around you, so you stepped back away, bowing your head to her.
It was getting late.You wanted to go and find Sharon up at Cats’ Den, and still leave enough time to get into town on the bus. You’d sit upstairs, at the back, that was the best. You’d watch them all drinking and kissing and shouting. ‘Tickets now, folks, tickets now, please.’ Then the leafy Booterstown and Ballsbridge would give way to Dublin City, and you’d have your bottle hidden and your single cigarette safe inside your top pocket.
Another fifteen or was it twenty minutes that had passed? Your shoulders began to buckle with the cold. Two more failed attempts and now fewer and fewer people. You saw a group of five approach, and out of growing desperation you tried it.
‘Sorry, excuse me,’ you say, and your own voice sounded hollow to you. Two men, taller than you, and three women. You had timed it all wrong, and although the man saw you, he wasn’t willing to give up his impending punchline. After they laughed freely you asked again. They were closer then; they slowed, and their eyes surrounded you. You held the money forward, but already you knew it was no use.
‘Sorry to bother you,’ you say. ‘But, I’ve been invited to a dinner party.’ The blonde girl took to laugh. ‘And it’s just that I wanted to bring a bottle of wine with me… as a sort of thank-you.’ The coins felt damp in your hand and you thought of your father doling them out in pieces. You thought of his way with her: Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. Three bags full, ma’am.
‘What is that?’ one man says.
‘Two pound eighty,’ you say. ‘It’s how much it costs.’
‘Two pounds eighty? Two pounds eighty?’ he screamed in a fit of laughter; the rest followed.
One of the girls pushed at his shoulder affectionately. ‘Oh, don’t be so mean,’ she says, and as she pulled his arm and they walked on, she says it again.
‘That’s probably the same little wanker that stole your coat,’ he says.
It was a long spell with only a few passing. When they did, they were all wrong or you were afraid of them. You began to dread standing there to watch the shutters roll down, and then you’d have to walk home, too afraid to go into town without the wine for comfort.
A woman walked towards you wearing a tan rain mac with a thick belt pulled across her waist. You could tell she was posh by her tall walk. Her boots made a pop-pop sound. You looked away. You didn’t want her to feel you waiting for her. Pop-pop-pop. When it felt right, you turned.
‘Excuse me, miss?’ you say, but recognised it was her. Froze then and surrendered everything except her.
‘Hello,’ she says, as simple as that, and then she waited for you to tell her why you’d stopped her, but you couldn’t. She was smiling at you. She looked over her shoulder and could see the brightly lit off-licence.
‘Oh, dear.’ She put her hand to her face and her index finger brushed just above her upper lip. ‘Where are your friends?’ she says, and looked across the empty streets. ‘When I was your age, I always was the one picked to ask someone too.’
‘Hiding,’ you say and no longer felt as shy now that you weren’t alone.
‘Go on, let’s have it then,’ she says.
You took the warm coins from your pocket and felt your face break into a smile, until you saw how you had been gripping the coins so tight that now they’d left an ugly imprint. You saw the dirt on your nails and felt so grubby that you pitied her having to touch them.
‘No, no,’ she says. ‘I want the pitch, the full pitch, and it’d better be good.’
‘The pitch?’ You lowered your head so she didn’t see how you thought of her.
‘Excuse me, miss?’ you say.
‘Yes, young man.’
‘I’m sorry to bother you . . .’
‘The apology is a nice touch, but look up, you’re looking shifty.’
‘Sorry to bother you, miss, but I’ve been invited to a party, and I wanted to bring a bottle of wine, you know, as a thank you.’ You held out your hand as you had before. ‘They won’t serve me inside, and I wondered if you’d mind . . . Thank you, thank you so much.’ You were a little pleased with yourself; you couldn’t help it because she seemed a little pleased.
She stood still, watching you a moment. ‘Good,’ she says and turned and walked directly to the shop, not taking the money, but calling over her shoulder, ‘Red or white?’
‘Good choice,’ she says before disappearing behind the door.
You were no longer cold but stamped your feet anyway. An old woman passed, heavy with bags, and you thought maybe you’d help her if you weren’t waiting. As you looked around, you felt warm to it all, the worried faces that drifted endlessly by in cars, hands cuffed to the wheel. The Monkstown church, lit up in the distance, suddenly seemed a kind building, even though they were Protestant and just showing off having floodlights.
When she came back her rain mac was open, and you could picture her inside the shop, carelessly opening the button between her thumb and forefinger. She held the bottle, wrapped in a dark plastic bag, against the same red jumper she had on earlier.
‘You know one of us should be ashamed of ourselves,’ she says. She was wearing the same skirt, but you had got that wrong, it was darker than you remembered, the wool heavier. ‘Here, and hide the bloody thing or we’ll both be done.’ She was a little out of breath.
‘Thank you,’ you say.
‘You’re welcome. I hope she is very lovely, your friend waiting up the street.’ She began to button her coat. ‘Red wine is romantic.’
‘Well, are you and the boys going to split a bottle of wine?’
‘No,’ you say and smiled because that was true.
‘Well, have a good night,’ she says, and she seemed for a second almost shy. She smiled a little and touched your arm before she walked away.
‘Thank you,’ you say and held the bottle like a trophy and watched until she disappeared.Next chapter
It had started to rain, but it was the gentle kind. There were fewer cars along the Strand Road, fewer street lights too. You could hear a train bound for Bray; its engine sounded like it could smash right through you. All the while you watched the road ahead for packs of boys that would beat you up just for meeting them. They’d push you first for fun, as if they hadn’t decided they’d hurt you. ‘Giz a smoke,’ they’d say, or ‘What are you looking at?’ They’d call you a queer and then you’d feel a kick from behind. Once they had you on the ground, they would exhaust themselves with kicks and punches. It was really the anger that made you cry, not the pain, but it all looked the same to them, it helped them go on.
You walked fast then, left off the Strand Road and away from the Martello Tower, away from the starless sky that hung over the Irish Sea.
You stood at the dark end of the church car park and stared across the scrub of wasteland to the lights of your housing estate. It was hard to hold your breath, hard to listen. You waited for your eyes to adjust, and when you felt brave for a moment you ran. Through the darkness to the other side of the high rocks, to Cats’ Den, where a huge rock jutted out to form a natural canopy. Hardly a few hundred feet from the housing estate, completely hidden. You arrived at Cats’ Den and searched around in the dark for a rock to sit on. The wet from the rock kissed at you through your jeans, and all the while you kept your hand clenched tight around your pocket knife. You waited to catch your breath.
You took out the bottle of wine and studied its label. It was a simple green bottle. Instead of a golden swallow were French words or maybe Italian words. There was no price, just a white paper scab where she had quickly pulled the tag with her nail. The kindness of that.
It was not a screw top, so you used your pocket knife to force the cork into the bottle. Its sour tang made your lips tight. You tipped your head back and took huge glugs that left you breathless. You closed your eyes and felt the liquid burn through you, past your throat to your belly and further, warmth spreading across your groin. You opened your eyes, wiped your mouth. Warm, all warm.
Time passed and a great silence descended, and you were no longer scared. It was as if the whole city had held its breath and tiptoed away.
You thought about having the cigarette, you even patted your hand across your chest pocket where you felt it, unbroken, but you decided to wait until you were in the dark of the cinema. Then you realised you had an extra two pounds eighty. You could buy a whole pack of ten smokes. Carrolls were the best, the packets were red like American cigarettes.
You thought about her, how decent she’d been. You barely noticed yourself as you took another swig from the bottle. It never burned as much the second time. ‘Apples in an orchard,’ you heard yourself say aloud, followed by your own slight laugh. You reminded yourself to keep quiet and then wondered why. After all, you weren’t afraid. Not until you heard that scraping sound in the distance like boots over stone. You felt for the outline of your pocket knife; for years you had carried it, but then you knew for sure you could never use it. You tucked the bottle into your coat and let your thumb rest over it. Listening, as the movement came slowly towards you, and you knew that someone was waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dark, just as you had done.
You remembered Sharon, only then, when you saw the top of her bleached head as she stumbled through the brambles towards you. Her head was lowered as if she was looking for something that she’d dropped earlier. You called into the darkness,‘I’m here.’ So as not to frighten her.
‘Fuck you doing here? Thought you were scared of the dark,’ she says, catching her breath.
‘I’m scared of nothing, me.’
‘Shut up to fuck or I’ll give you something to be scared about. You got any smokes?’
‘One, but I’m keeping it for later.’
Your mother didn’t like Sharon. She lived up the road from you, and her father had two rusting cars sitting on cinder blocks outside the house. The county council had been called up, an anonymous complaint that they were unsightly. Her dad was a drunk and wouldn’t move them.
She found the biggest rock to sit on, the comfy rock, and took out her own cigarettes. In the spark of her match she must have seen the bottle sticking from your coat pocket. She looked off into the night.You felt shy then, taking the bottle out and sipping at it.
‘Where did you get that?’ she says.
‘This woman bought it for me.’
Sharon pulled on her smoke and even in the dark you could see the billow of her exhale.
‘She sounds like a fanny,’ says Sharon.
‘You’re a fanny,’ you say.
‘Least I’m not drinking that shite.’
‘You don’t want some?’
‘Do I fuck.’
She took her cigarette between her fingers and rolled it in a perfect circle. Sharon was little more than a year older than you, and since she’d left school she could be found up here most afternoons and some evenings, smoking.
‘I saw Mr Cosgrove get killed.’
‘You did not,’ she says, excited.
‘I did, right outside McCann’s. He was drunk, he walked into the road.’
‘I heard his head was nearly knocked off, that he was mangled.’
‘Ah, no, he wasn’t, but it was bleeding. From his head. The rest of him looked all right.’
‘He couldn’t have been all right if he was dead.’
‘I know, but that’s what was weird.’
‘Was he not mangled and all?’
‘No.’ But then you thought of his face, that terrible look, and his body on the cold ground and everybody staring.
‘I’d love to have seen that.’
‘I fucking would, I never get to see anything.’
You had played together when you were children, before she’d grown and wore heavy makeup, before she had boy friends that had cars and wives and gold rings on their pinky fingers.
‘What are you saving your smoke for?’ she says then.
‘I’m going to the pictures,’ you say and heard yourself draining the excitement from your voice. You were lit up by the night and Sharon couldn’t join you there, so you felt across the wide distance for her, still back in the plain evening, and hated that sympathy you had for her.
‘Do you want to come?’ you say, only because you were drunk.
‘Why don’t you go with the fanny that bought you that?’ she says.
‘I’m going on me own.’
‘Course you are, Johnny-no-fucking-mates.That’s you.’
‘Do you want to come?’
‘That read-underneath again?’
‘Do I fuck, rather drink me own piss.’
‘It’s a good film.’
‘You’re some awful ponce,’ she says and flicked her lit cigarette towards you.
‘Only ’cause I wanted to.’
You thought of Sharon, that way, your bodies flung roughly together. She hugged her jacket around her. Her feet kicked in and she leaned forward, rocking herself there. You’d come close a few times, but you’d left off, not wanting to be one of those boys who made her cry. You looked up to see if you could find a single star or trace the outline of the moon.
‘You’d better go,’ she says.
‘I’m all right for a bit.’
‘Don’t do me any favours.’
You wanted to go then. It was getting late but you couldn’t face leaving her there alone and felt trapped.
‘What are you going to do?’ you say.
‘Go home, I suppose.’
You asked her for a cigarette, she gave you one and you sat together, swaddled in darkness, smoking.
The seats at the back of the bus were all taken, so you sat a few rows from the front. The driver had seen the bottle, had given a warning look, but said nothing. It was bright upstairs and there was a clatter of laughter at every seat.
Two girls got on at the stop after you and then sat side by side one row ahead. They were about your age, but they’d dressed to hide it. You looked out the window and pretended not to be listening, stealing looks across the sides of their faces, to the makeup lines applied in a hurry, in the dark maybe, without their parents seeing.They laughed, showing their teeth and passing a naggin of vodka back and forth.
When the bus heaved into its final stop at Eden Quay, you waited to hear the door make that forced-air sound downstairs before you stood. Outside, there was only a scrap of neon along O’Connell Street, a rush of people, a thousand crushed cigarettes underfoot, and shouts and cries that rose up and receded across the oily Liffey.
In the Adelphi’s lobby, a handful of people stood around in small clusters, waiting.You were holding a ripped orange stub between your fingers, the only one there alone, the only one not old. Nobody stopped their conversation when you arrived, but the volume dropped, and eyes rolled over you in a lazy way. They whispered then, like secrets were being told.
‘Screen Two has been cleaned and is now ready for seating,’ says an old woman in a ruffled tuxedo shirt and black waistcoat, fully buttoned. She wedged open one side of a double door with her foot and held a torch over the stubs. The modest line moved slowly forward.
You took off your coat, used it as a cover for your bottle and offered up your ticket for inspection. The darkened theatre smelled of detergent over stale smoke.You walked quickly to the right of the screen and passed under a little sign that said ‘MENS’.
There was the hum of an unseen generator. A tap dripped, and the light flickered over pink tiles. You shivered and for got to notice yourself as you passed the mirror and on into a single cubicle.
You undid your pants and sat. The seat was cold, the relief of pissing. Your elbows tucked into your knees, your fingers pressed across your tightly shut eyes. Inside of you a howl of feeling started, just under the surface: an alone feeling you couldn’t keep from yourself. You inhaled violently as though you’d been underwater for days, and your whole body shook. You punched the partition wall and a wave of pain passed through your arm. You pulled your pants up, swinging open the little door, angry to find that your face in the mirror was still light, still young.Your red mouth, your round soft lines of a soft face.You made a fist and punched at your face, just once, but it made your head ache.
You sat at the far aisle, towards the back, and the old velvet seat fell forward with a loud clunk. You looked for the images hidden in the beam of light overhead. Just light, until it landed on the big screen showing the last of the ads.You took a couple of slugs from the bottle and then carefully held it on the ground between your feet. Cigarette unwrapped from its toilet paper and examined for cracks, you sparked a match off the back of a chair. It took, first strike, as if it had been waiting for you all along.You were back, caught up again with the smoke and the heady rush.
Betty’s round body appeared, naked, beautiful, a lover between her open legs. The great cries of pleasure coming off the screen sent one couple scurrying off in search of a refund. You sat with your head tilted to the dark, every inch of her known to you, frame by frame.You missed some of the words, but just bits here and there, it didn’t matter. You understood he loved her, right up to the end, even when he covered her face with a pillow and held it there until she died.
The credits rolled, but you didn’t move. You were drenched with feeling. You didn’t move, not when the house lights were pushed to full beam; even the aggression of the cleaner didn’t rouse you. It was not until the empty bottle dropped from your fingers and rolled to a stop that you stood.
The lobby was bright, unfamiliar. You saw the old woman in the ruffled shirt who had taken your stub. When you held her hand in yours, it felt unbearably soft.
‘Thank you,’ you say.
‘All right, get home safe now, love. Jimmy?’ she called out. A fat man in a shiny dark suit had an arm around you. He had a drift of dandruff across his shoulder, but you didn’t say anything.
‘Good man,’ he says. ‘Good man, this way,’ and his arm felt nice as he led you outside. You were planted along the dark quays with the river on one side, and on the other, bodies escaping Saturday night on the last bus.
You decided to walk. It was dangerous, you knew that, but you wanted the chance of seeing the girls who walked along the canal. The streets looked the same and you lost your way more than once, until you finally met the slow moving water. Cars crept by and sometimes stopped and waited for the girls’ heels to crackle to life.They would lean across the glass and talk low and get in and get out and wrinkle like wrapping paper on St Stephen’s day.
‘You looking for company, love? Then what are you looking at?’ one of them says. ‘Jaysus, your ma know you’re out?’ She laughed, and her lips rolled back tight across her teeth, her skin painted and rough as calf’s leather. A car slowed but wouldn’t stop. She was annoyed then. ‘Here, young fella, fuck off and leave me work,’ she says, watching the car disappear like a wish.
‘I’m sorry,’ you say. She looked at you, and with no hurry she pulled the string of her handbag across her shoulder and walked, joining some other girls who stood smoking by a bench. She lit a cigarette off the burning tip of another.
You sat on a bench further along the canal, listless, dull. You thought of the long walk home and were exhausted.Your head spun and your eyelids began to drop. If you didn’t open them, you knew you’d be sick. And then your head lurched to one side and you were.
The footpath rolled out in front of you. Your own feet on it, one took the lead, then the other, endless. Sometimes a car passed, sometimes leaves scraped together in the wind, but you didn’t look up. When you thought of her, she was sleep ing, in her warm bed, surrounded by clean sheets and soft pillows, in a perfect room, in a perfect house on Montpelier Parade.
It was like a dream, that’s how you’d remember the four or five miles you walked to deliver yourself to her door step. You banged on her door with your fist and called to her, ‘Missus.’ It was loud. It felt good. ‘Missus.’ You roared until your voice went hoarse with the relief. A light went on upstairs, and there was movement beyond the heavy door.
‘Who the bloody hell is that?’ she says. ‘I’ll call the guards.’
‘It’s me,’ you say. ‘Me, you got the wine for.’
Silence, and then a key moved in the latch and the door opened. She stood there, light thrown around her; you could feel it on your own face, and you could feel your eyes squint.
‘You’re joking, you have to be joking. Do you have any idea what time it is?’
‘No,’ you say. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Christ, I knew I shouldn’t have bought it. I knew,’ she says. It was mostly for herself. She leaned her forehead to the edge of the door.
‘What do you want? What? Because I’m about to call your father,’ she says.
‘I want, I was at the pictures and it started me thinking.’
She looked at you, confused. She was wearing the same robe, pulled in a tight knot across her waist.
‘Why are you here?’ she says, her voice pouring in and extinguishing you. on the long walk you’d had it, an idea, a thousand gorgeous things to tell her, but now, as you looked shyly down, every one left you, and even the lit cigarette you thought you held was gone.
‘I’m really sorry, I shouldn’t have.’ Your foot was already feeling for the first step as you began to back away.
‘Oh, for God’s sake!’
‘I’m so sorry, I wanted to . . .Thanks, thanks for the wine, it was the good wine. I noticed that.’ She came forward and her face fell into shadow and you were standing at the base of the steps and could no longer see how she looked at you.
‘I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry,’ you say again, before you panicked and ran.
‘Wait.’ She called after you once, then stood there a moment, pulling her robe around her. You saw from your hiding place beyond the wall as she stepped back inside the house, turning once before she closed the door.