‘What’s your name again?’ I ask.
‘Una,’ she says and scratches at her arm.
It’s midnight. The pub is smoky, packed with teenagers and middle-aged men.
I know her father, Sean. Worked with him blocklaying. I’ve been on all-day benders with him, slept on his couch. A good guy, but getting on a bit.
‘What age are you?’
‘I’m nearly eight,’ she says and grins at me.
‘Too young to be in a pub.’
‘I’m not. I used to drink beer when I was three. I liked it then, but I don’t drink it anymore.’
She’s still rubbing nervously at her arm. I light up a cigarette. I feel bad about smoking with her sitting beside me. I don’t put it out.
‘Mammy promised she’s giving up smoking after she’s finished the next two packets.e’
I look towards the bar where her parents sit. Her mother, Anne, smiles at me, turns back to her husband. I feel bad for Una. Most Saturday evenings she’s in here after Mass, and too many times her parents don’t go home until they’re kicked out of the pub.
‘Why don’t you ask your father to go home?’
‘He’s grumpy because he’s drunk. He won’t let us go without him.’ She puts her hand over her mouth, covers a yawn.
All night she’s been running in and out of the pub.
She spent a long time out in the unlit car park.
Sean never looks at her. Before Una was born he’d grumbled about being caught at his age, having to marry Anne. But when Una was born he was like a child at Christmas, excited and proud. I suppose the novelty wore off. Maybe he’s different when he’s not drinking. You can feel him change after the first few whiskeys. He steps into another sphere, forgets any bargains he’s made with the world.
Una has his dark looks: sallow skin, brown eyes. Her mother is skinny with frizzy curls and blue eyeshadow. She always looks tired.
‘Chasing jail-bait, Conor?’
I ignore the guys who slag me. They love mouthing off.
‘Tell me a funny story,’ I say to Una because I’m too tired to talk. I can feel the dirt under my fingernails, grit in my boots. I was too lazy to go home, wash and change. No girl will look at me tonight so I’m free to get blasted.
Then I see Sheila. She’s up the far end of the bar talking to Damien Kelly, a smug medical student who’s home for the weekend. Sheila looks gorgeous in tight denims and a top that leaves her shoulders and upper back bare. I wonder if Kelly has made a move on her, if he’s had what I’ve had.
Una kicks me gently on the shins. ‘You’re not listening to me, Conor.’
‘Sorry. Go on.’
‘My funny story is about Daddy. The first day of my summer holidays he forgot I was there and locked me in the house when he went to work. I had to ring Mammy at the supermarket.’
‘You were all on your own?’
‘My dog was with me. He shat under my bed and made a terrible smell. When Daddy came home he kicked him out of the house and he went away and never came back.’
Una threw her head back and laughed like a teenage girl. I knew she didn’t think it was funny. I used to always see her cuddling that dog, a horrible mongrel with long legs and a small body.
‘Tell me something else,’ I say and smile at her. While she tells me about how many pages of Harry Potter she’s read, I watch Sheila flirt with Kelly. She’s punishing me. I see her push her hips closer to Kelly’s chair, flick her blonde hair over one shoulder. He doesn’t look that interested.
‘I had to give the book back to the school library because some of the words were too hard for me. I’ll read it next year when I know more words.’
‘You have a boyfriend?’
She giggles and nods her head. ‘He has an earring, a long one, and he’s from Dublin but he lives in the country now. This other boy sent me a picture of himself on Valentine’s Day but no card!’ She roars with laughter and swings her legs. ‘Look, my legs are fat,’ she says and rolls up her trousers to show me her skinny calves.
Jesus, I’ve had enough of that with Sheila. Where do they learn this stuff?
‘Conor, do you have a girlfriend?’
‘I’m not sure,’ I say.
‘You’re not sure! Did she dump you?’
A Shania Twain song is playing on the jukebox.
The teenagers groan and blame old Hanlon, who plays it over and over when he’s drunk.
Sheila throws me a dirty look, moves even closer to Kelly. She’s twenty-three, twelve years younger than me. I used to think she was tough, independent.
‘No, she didn’t dump me. She says that I broke a promise I made to her.’
‘You’re too young to understand.’
‘I am not. You promised me when I was five that you’d bring me to the bumper cars in Mosney. You said you’d come the next Saturday to pick me up. I was all ready but you never came. You promised you’d buy me candy floss too.’
Jesus, what a memory. I had a hangover when I promised her that.
‘What did you promise Sheila?’
I look at Una. She’s got her father’s smirk on her face: half-teasing, half-vicious.
‘How do you know I’m going out with Sheila?’
‘I heard Mammy talking about it.’
I feel sick. My eyes are watering from the smoke.
The jukebox blares out a U2 song. I realise that I know the name of every person in the pub, young and old. I know where they live, who they’re married to, sleeping with, in debt to, in lust with. And they know about me.
‘People don’t like her. I think she’s pretty but Mammy thinks she’s cheap.’
I think of Sheila naked in my car, her smooth limbs, handfuls of her hair in my fists. She whispers in my ear what she wants. Tells me how many lovers she’s had. Less than I’d have guessed, far less than I’ve had.
‘What do you think cheap means, Una?’ I shouldn’t ask a small girl this. I’m definitely drunk.
‘That she’s a slut. That she’s kissed loads of boys.’
‘Do you know Sheila?’
‘She’s helped me in the toilet when Daddy was too… when I was smaller. She buys me crisps and orange sometimes. And she knows some good jokes.’
She’s the only woman I’ve been with who laughs with pleasure when she makes love.
‘Do you love her?’ Una asks me. She’s not smirking or using her false laugh. ‘Do you love her the way people love each other on TV?’
I don’t need to ask her what she means and I know she’s not talking about sex.
I stare at Sheila’s tanned shoulders. ‘You’re a very clever girl, Una. What do you want to be when you grow up?’
‘I’d like to work in a supermarket, like Sheila and Mammy. Or I might be a vet.’
‘Sheila’s studying at night. She wants to work in an office. You should go to college, Una. Get away from here and see a bit of life. You’re smart enough.’
Sheila catches my eye and stares back at me.
‘Am I? I don’t know if I want to leave Mammy and Daddy. If I worked in a shop I could live at home.’
Sheila walks over to where we’re sitting.
‘Hi, Una. You’re up late again. Want a drink?’
Una smiles broadly at Sheila but shakes her head no.
‘Is Conor annoying you?’ Sheila asks her.
‘No. He was telling me how pretty you are.’
Sheila grins at Una. ‘You are scary for your age, little girl.’
Una sits bolt upright then scrambles off the seat.
Her father has moved towards the door. She opens it and as soon as she’s certain her parents are leaving she bolts out into the darkness.
‘You think I’ll be like him?’
Sheila sips her orange juice. ‘Is that what this is all about?’
I shrug, finish off my pint. The stout feels heavy in my stomach.
She takes something out of her handbag, hands it to me.
‘I can’t do it on my own,’ she says. ‘You promised if it ever happened… You have to decide before it’s too late.’
The black-and-white scan I hold is a coded message, a test. A peek into one of my possible future worlds. I can’t make out any familiar shapes. My eyes are watery, smoke-stung.
‘Are you crying?’ she asks in a gentle voice.
I try hard to see my future. I can only see hers.