The intermittent electric buzzer tore me abruptly out of a dream, a beautiful dream in which a huge, mythological bird had landed in my parents’ garden. It was a vast creature, silver, heraldic, with a cry that was perfect and far beyond the threshold of hearing. I was reluctant to leave the vision, and so the dream at first tried to assimilate the insistent buzzing into its mutable logic. Surfaces bent and distorted so that the bird became no larger than a dodo and the noise became an alarm call that rang from the direction of the gate. Now the bird was threatened and I was seized with panic. How might I protect it? The topography changed again, and we were indoors, the bird becoming a talking cat set in a glass cage, and now it was the cage itself that rang out. At the third mutation the surface of the dream shattered and I was thrust awake, my head throbbing from the wine I’d had earlier. Somewhere in the building a cistern was filling up.
I was dizzy, and it was an effort to accustom my eyes to the pulsating darkness. Moreover, the floor of the bed-sit was littered with clothes and discarded CD cases, so that it took me some time to negotiate a path through to the intercom. All the while the staccato electric buzzing detached itself and circled about the walls like a menacing insect, pricking and goading with its sense of urgency. My eyes half shut, I stubbed my toe as I reached the far wall and silently cursed to hell whoever had pulled me out of the dream of the bird.
‘Who’s there? Who is it?’
A squint over at the radio-alarm told me that it was ten minutes short of three o’clock.
‘Come one! Who is it?’
‘ls Chantal there?’
‘Jamil? ls that you?’
‘Hello? ls Chantal up there?’
‘ls that you, Jamil? Listen, she’s not. She’s not here.’
‘Hello. It’s just that… I’m looking for Chantal.’
‘Look at the time, for Christ’s sake. I was asleep.’
‘She’s not up there?’
‘I told you. She’s not here. Jesus, Jamil, it’s three o’clock in the morning.’
Furious, with a stale film over my tongue and an acute throbbing setting in behind my eyeballs, I groped my way back into bed and tossed onto one side. Although I knew it was hopeless, I tried to recapture the huge bird in my mind’s eye, but my consciousness remained too focused to allow me to drift back into sleep.
Now a few minutes have passed. Time drifts by with nothing but the night’s indeterminate respiration mixing with my own breathing and from faraway the sound of a can being kicked along. The darkness has grown translucent, filling the room with submarine buoyancy, so that I feel I am being lifted into a dark current of hours.
All at once my heart leaps. Outrageously, now, and again now, the buzzer erupts and interrupts in staccato bursts of raw electricity.
‘FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!’
‘I’ll get it.’
Chantal has sat up in bed beside me, and in a single movement swings her feet onto the floor. Her hair is tousled, her eyes almost closed.
‘It’s that gobshite Jamil again. Leave it. Let him go to hell.’
But she is already on her feet and picking her way through the clothes and books over towards the intercom. The neon light filtering in through the curtain paints a blue sheen on her skin where she stops so that I can imagine her sculpted in marble. I watch her as she begins to speak into the receiver and feel an absurd wave of jealousy that she stands naked while she talks to him.
I would have to strain in order to catch the static humming that continues for some minutes from the intercom, but the occasional electrical distortion casts a syllable out onto the night. These fragments of words confirm what I had in any case imagined; that he is agitated and pitiful; that he speaks to her in a peculiar patois that he knocked together out of French, Arabic and who knows what African tongue; that he has in no way changed or let go of the past. I permit the syllables that reach me to fall to the floor without making any attempt to decipher them, but instead nurture my bad humour and rub my eyes in deep circles into my sockets. Chantal’s replies, as usual, are in English.
‘Oh my God! Where was that?’
‘Vvvvv … vvvvv … vvvvvv … vvvvvvvv’
‘Ok. Listen, wait for me. I’ll be right down. Do you hear me? Don’t go anywhere, Jamil. I’m on my way down.’
She stands erect and looks at me, anticipating my displeasure.
‘It’s Jamil. He’s been in some sort of a fight.’
‘I have to go down. Look, he might be hurt.’
I allow a thin veneer of indifference to disguise my irritation at this piece of news, and make no move to accompany her as she dresses.
Soon after I met Chantal we’d gone out, the three of us, to the music centre in Temple Bar. It was my first time there, not theirs. There is, I feel sure, an irony in that, although to tell the truth I can’t remember if the venue had even existed the last time I’d lived at home. Ten years back I’d left Ireland to take up a job on the continent and now I was more a stranger here than they were. It was the old story, I suppose. The wanderlust, they say our race is heir to, had run its course. Like everyone else, I came back. Too many pints of Guinness drunk in the departure lounges of airports, and a vague nostalgia that I wanted to kill off before it had the chance to trick me with false or fabricated memories. In any event, such memories as I had retained were soon belied by the vista of cranes and multiplex centres, of bars over-spilling with noise and suits, and the hoarse bellowing of English stags.
From the very first I’d failed to warm to Jamil. He’s a humourless type, perpetually foreign and ill at ease. Whatever the exact nature of the relationship he’d had with Chantal prior to their arrival here, it was immediately clear that, whereas she was anxious to move on, he was inherently hostile to anything that smacked of accommodation or change. He refuses to let go of his origins, and continues to speak to her in the fragmented patois that she onlv, understands with difficulty and which serves to exclude all others. Nowadays I avoid him, but on that occasion I could scarcely have guessed how he’d be. Besides, I was alone here, my friends mostly married or moved on, and I was eager to fit into Chantal’s world.
Some time after the concert wound up we’d dropped into an all-night dive on Camden or Wexford Street to pick up a few singles of chips on our way back towards Rathmines. I remember I had misgivings the moment we entered the place. Bright, naked strip-lighting, the air thick with frying and vinegar and, close by the door, an acrid puddle of fresh vomit. It must have been some time·after the pubs had closed: bleary eyes and stifled yawns were scattered about the walls of the place waiting for their orders. You could sense these eyes variously looking at the three of us almost from the moment we walked in.
Even then, though I barely knew Jamil, I realised that walking into such a dump could only spell trouble. At one time it would have been a matter of accents, of Dublin 4 or 6 and the city centre flats, but now the mix was more complex, and no simple question of colour either-as someone once said, in Ireland we haven’t had the time as yet to become full-blown racists. Besides, none of Chantal’s other friends ever seem to get into any kind of a scrape. But Jamil has a way that is not altogether ingenuous of standing out and looking perpetually restless, of fixing his eye in agitation on everyone and everything without distinction, of attracting the attention of anyone that is bent on making trouble. On Saturday night in that part of town there’s never any shortage of those who are looking for trouble, and it came from the direction of the door just as I was paying for the order.
‘Would you look at the darky pimp and his whoore.’
Jamil hadn’t moved, but was staring at the eyeless red-face in the hooded coat that had staggered against the first table, sending a tray of litter skirting across the floor. Chantal stepped towards me with forehead lowered. I glanced quickly past her to see how many of them there were but could find no one inside or outside, beyond the general public, to whom the words seem to have been addressed.
‘I said, would you have a look at the daaarky pimp and his Jaysus whoore.’
Chantal touched my arm lightly in a gesture that said ‘let’s go quietly before there are fists thrown’, but Jamil was still rigid, frozen, his back pressed to the wall and his eyes fixed on the figure of the drunk who had flopped untidily into the chair by the door. The latter looked to be somewhere in his twenties, his face bloated and crimson, with eyebrows a thick black that might have been drawn on in charcoal. The hood of his coat left the sockets deep in shadow.
The entire chip shop had turned into a frieze, a tableau of glances or turned backs that were defined and held fast by the ugly challenge still hanging in the air.
‘Come on, we’re out of here.’
I touched Jamil’s shoulder as I passed him, but he shrugged it away and refused even to look at me. So I put my arm around Chantal to steer her safely past the sprawling drunk. Just as we rounded him he leaned backwards and the hood fell clear of his head. A crew-cut, tight to the scalp, and the tattoo of a dog at the side of the neck. But his eyes were unfocused and almost whimsical, at odds with the thick menace of his words. He raised his hand vaguely up, vaguely towards me.
‘Are you right, boss? An bhfuil an cailín leatsa?’
I thought of stopping, but Chantal squeezed my forearm tightly and pulled me on towards the door. I hesitated again as the damp air of the night struck me, but she pulled me on with ever greater urgency.
‘Leave it. He’s a drunk. He’s just a stupid drunk.’
‘But what about…?’
‘Come on. Jamil will follow us. He’ll be out in a moment.’
But he wasn’t. We waited, concealed in a doorway about fifty yards up the street. After a couple of minutes more I grew uneasy, released myself from Chantal’s grip and made my way back through the drizzle towards the take-away.
Through the misted window the scene looked almost exactly as I had left it.
Jamil was set like a statue against the wall, his eyes still fixed on the drunk who was now slumped over the table. He seemed to be tense, coiled, waiting for the word or gesture that would release the trigger of his anger and set him upon the figure in the coat. But the man remained mute, slumped, his head buried in the crook of an elbow.
Then a mouth started laughing by the counter, a set of teeth and a gold ear-ring in a leather jacket that had been finishing off a kebab. The Gorgon’s stare was immediately upon him, bulging whites of eyes that leapt out from the dark skin. The look was met, repudiated. A hand was pulled across the sniggering jaw. Jamil removed himself from the wall and let out a stream of foreign words that, for being unintelligible, sounded all the more challenging. Two other leather jackets stood up from a table, triangulating with the first. The jet of tribal words continued without a single pause for breath as Jamil made for the three of them. So rapidly did he move, so unexpectedly, that fists and boots were flying by the time I realised what was about to happen and jumped in to pull him away. Of course by then it was too late. I lost half a pint of blood that night, and very nearly an eye.
The night condenses, lightens, slips away from me. Chantal has been gone for more than two hours now, and I don’t expect her back before evening. She said she was going to take Jamil as far as Tallaght hospital. Another scrap. Another dozen stitches. Whether he looked for it on this occasion or whether it wasn’t his fault I neither know nor care. Whether they’ve begun seeing one another again, I also neither know nor care.
The February night has passed by, and a cold grey is breaking to the East behind Rathmines clock-tower. The arc of the bay will be turned to aluminium foil, whitened in occasional furrow by the approach of a dawn car-ferry. The city will begin to wake, and soon the streets will be grid-locked with traffic. Somewhere towards the mountains, from a window in Casualty, Chantal will watch the pale disc of a sun climb low in the metallic sky-the white phantom sun that barely serves to warm the air here.
Perhaps I’ll stay. Perhaps I’ll return to the continent. One way or another, I’ll have cleared the ground of the first snares of false memory that I’d begun to fear. I’ll be ten years older, abruptly, though wiser only in what I’ve turned my back on.
An age ago I went away, and while I was gone, the whole city slipped slowly away from me, as slowly as the passing of years and seasons, of weeks and days, of hours, the passing of hours.