Mags stood at the window and stared down the empty mountain road. The last of the dusky light was starting to disappear. He was late, again. She walked from the window to the small wooden-framed mirror which hung between pictures of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Fatima. She took a brush from her handbag and ran it through her dark wavy hair, in which the first strands of grey had just recently appeared. At the sound of a rattle from the kitchen she found her hands reaching towards her short denim skirt, trying to make it stretch longer.
Her mother hobbled into the room cradling a cup of tea in her hands. She sat down in her armchair and pulled her cardigan-the top of many layers-tightly closed around her, although it was a mild September evening. She picked up the remote control and switched on the TV. She was a woman who claimed not to watch television at all, but in truth did little else. After a few minutes, she turned her small tortoise face towards Mags.
‘It’s a strange time of the night to be headin’ out. In my day it’s coming home you’d be at this time.’
There was no point in arguing with her, Mags thought.
No point in saying it was only half eight. Her mother had little grasp of time these days; she thought it late because Mags had been at the window for over an hour. Mags hoped that she would continue in the ‘in my day’ vein and didn’t start on about Con again. Right now she wasn’t sure she could take the ‘he’ll never marry you’ sermon.
‘In my day you had to be in the house for half eleven or you got what for. None of this gallivanting to three or four o’clock in the morning. If I’d have come in at three or four o’clock in the morning, my Da would have taken his belt to me.’
Mags didn’t answer. She could have pointed out that was fifty-five years ago. She could also point out that her mother’s gallivanting would have been done when she was eighteen years of age – she married at nineteen. Mags, on the other hand, was thirty-four.
‘In my day they had proper dances, with no drink, and as for going to a pub, no self-respecting young girl would have set foot in a pub.’
Mags had stopped listening completely now.
Headlights were moving swiftly up the narrow road, towards the house. A few seconds later a horn blew and with a quick goodbye, she was gone.
Her mother turned her head back towards the TV. Its shaft of light lit up the darkening room. Her eyes were drawn towards the top of the TV to the silver-framed pictures of her grandchildren, smiling in the Chicago sun. Children she had only seen on Kodak paper. Then her attention was taken by the theme tune of ‘Stars in Their Eyes.’
Con had been drinking already – Mags could smell it on his breath-but she didn’t care, she was glad to be away from the rasp of her mother’s voice. Now if only she could talk him into going someewhere other than Heaney’s. She took a packet of cigarettes from her handbag and decided to give it a try.
‘The town will be crawling with tourists,’ she said as she pushed the cigarette lighter. ‘What about someewhere else?’
‘Somewhere else? Where?’
‘I dunno. Limerick? It’s just I hate it when the place is full of tourists.’
‘It’ll be grand. You’ll be alright when you get a few drinks.’
She lit her Marlboro Light, let down the window and blew the smoke out. She didn’t mind all the tourists. The older couples-usually retired Yanks with baseball caps and golf trousers and the women in checked jackets and bright green blouses-what could you fear from them? But this was the start of the literary festival, when an annual plague of writers infested the town. They came from everywhere: Dublin and Belfast, London and Manchester, New York and California.
Con passed the turn for Limerick without mentioning it again. Not that Mags thought for a moment he would do anything else. Saturday night meant Heaney’s Bar, where he would sit on the barstool opposite the Carlsberg pump and drink until he was ready to fall down. She hated the view from the adjoining barstool. She hated his cronies who would talk about twenty-year-old football matches as if they didn’t know the result. She hated Heaney’s.
There was a time when it didn’t matter where she went as long as Con was with her. There was a time when she was just glad to be seen with him as he strutted through town, the hero of some recent football match. But that seemed like a different Con. They didn’t even look alike. The Con she first went out with didn’t have a pink bacon face and the belly of a sow. He didn’t have a grey mane of unkempt hair or wear hopelessly out-of-date crewneck jumpers. He wanted more than just the same barstool week after week.
After they parked the car they started walking towards Heaney’s. She decided to try one more time.
‘What about The American Bar?’ she asked. ‘At least it’s got a pool table and a jukebox.’
‘Don’t be daft, sure it’s full of young ones with the tracks of their nappies still in their arse. Who in their right mind would want to drink in there?’
Smoke and the clatter of voices met them at the door. Con found two stools near the bar, ordered a pint of Guinness for himself and got Mags a bottle of Budweiser. She lit a cigarette, took a drink from the bottle and looked around for anyone she knew. She could see Con’s eyes move from table to table, looking for people he didn’t know.
It didn’t take long. Two American girls came in and stood beside him to order a drink. They were both in their mid-twenties, one blonde, one brunette, deep tans and shiny white American teeth. She could hear him start in: ‘Here for the festival? Enjoying yourselves? Seen much of the country?’ After a few minutes they had pulled up stools and joined them at the bar. He did the introductions.
‘Patricia, Cathy, this is Mags.’
‘You’re not from the States, are you?’ Patricia asked, nodding at Mag’s t-shirt, which spelled out ‘New York’ in star-spangled letters.
‘Were you there on vacation?’
‘I think the t-shirt came from the exotic town of Limerick,’ Con said, ‘which is as far as our Mags has ever been. Now, I’ve never been to New York myself but I was in Boston for a couple of summers. Do yous know Boston at all?’
Patricia did. Her uncle lived there and she had spent many months working in his restaurant. They talked about the bars, nightclubs, and the buildings that Con had worked on. He bought a round of drinks. The Americans had pints of Guinness, Mags had another bottle of Bud.
Con wanted to dominate the conversation, but he wasn’t having it all his own way. Patricia seemed more keen to talk about Patricia than to listen to stories from the Con archive. She was an aspiring screenwriter and, through a close friend who was a waitress in a bar where Oliver Stone drank, she had managed to get one of her screenplays to the great man. It was less than two years ago; she was confident she would soon hear something. Three times Con had tried to start with his football stories, but each time there was another actor or director story from Patricia.
Mags kept the bottle of Bud close to her lips at all times. At any lull in the conversation she would take a sip. She was afraid of being asked to comment on whether Stone or somebody called Kubrick had made the definitive statement on Vietnam. All the time Con talked away, saying one name or another as it suited him. Con had never known when he was out of his depth, even with things he was good at, like football.
Cathy pulled her barstool closer to Mags. She looked bored with the conversation between Con and Patricia. ‘Do you guys always drink in here?’ she asked.
‘We usually go to The American Bar across the street. It’s got a pool table and jukebox.’
‘Is there anywhere else in town worth checking out?’
Mags thought for a minute or two. Most of the pubs in town were like this one – ancient and smoky, full of old men and older music. ‘Naw, you’re as well going into Limerick; Bogart’s or The Pitz are good.’
Although Cathy was friendly, Mags wanted to get away.
There were too many questions she didn’t want her to ask. She didn’t want her to ask where she lived. Cathy probably had her own apartment in New York – how did you explain to someone like her that you lived in a small mountain farmhouse with your mother? She didn’t want her to ask about Con, either. She could just imagine Cathy’s reaction when she heard they were going out 14 years. She would have to tell Patricia, and they would both look at them as if they were another quaint Irish novelty, like sheep wandering the roads or old men on black bicycles.
Mags turned to say to Con that she wanted to go, but he had finally got talking about himself and football so there was no chance of moving him. He got the barman to hand down the picture from behind the bar. Twenty-five footballers of varying shapes, sizes and hairdos stared in faded colour from a glorious past.
‘So do yous recognise anybody?’
Patricia and Cathy didn’t, so he pointed to a tall gangly youth with long thick black hair tied with a white headband.
‘Oh my God, is that you?’ Patricia asked. ‘What age were you then?’
‘Eighteen. I was the youngest man there. The youngest, and the best prospect of the lot of them. That’s what they said. Some of them lads are legends around here, but I was going to be the best of the lot of them.’
‘What happened?’ Patricia asked.
‘Aw, this,’ he said, raising his pint to his lips. ‘And that.’ He held up his glass.
‘Alcohol has been the downfall of many a great athlete,’ Patricia said.
Mags had heard this all before. He never did tell what happened. He never told how he tried to mix it with a Kilorglin full back made of solid rock. Of how he was carried from the field with his leg broken in three places. Of how he came back a year later and found both his pace and his nerve were gone. It was better to be Kerry’s George Best: a genius spoiled by drink.
He was retelling a story she had heard a hundred times, of how he scored the winning goal in the championship final over 15 years ago. Patricia was asking him questions about it. Mags knew she was taking the piss.
Mags had been handed the photograph before it was returned behind the bar. She remembered that Con. A Con who was every young girl’s dream, with his long black hair and dark Latin looks. A Con who would let no one make a fool out of him. A Con worth having.
She interrupted his story and told him she wasn’t feeling well.
‘It’s just the drink. Go and get some air. You’ll be alright.’
The warm night air hit her at the door. She walked past the hotel and into the town square. The smell of onions wafted from a chip van parked on the corner. A young couple came out of The American Bar and walked towards the dark alley that led to the car park. Their hands were draped around each other’s back, tucked into the pockets of each other’s jeans. Mags watched as they disappeared into the darkness. She walked to the door of The American Bar. Loud music blasted from the jukebox. She took a deep breath and walked inside.
The bar was almost empty. Six young fellas, all in their late teens, stood around a pool table. There was money on a side table and loud cheers for each shot. She sat on a stool at the bar, ordered a beer, lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in the air. After a few minutes she picked some change from her purse and walked towards the pounding jukebox. She flicked through the songs and realised she didn’t know most of them. She settled on two Bruce Springsteen tracks.
One of the young men from the pool table came to the bar to get some change. He was about eighteen, dressed in a black denim shirt and black jeans. His hair gel shone in the bright light of the bar. He dropped some of the change the barman gave him. As he was down picking up the coins Mags could feel his eyes looking up at her from the floor. He was looking up her skirt, she was sure of it. He stood up and stared over at her. She tried to look away. On the jukebox Springsteen began to sing.
I hold you in my arms, as the band plays …
‘Who put on that shite?’ He turned and walked towards the jukebox. He started punching the buttons but the song kept playing. He turned towards Mags.
‘Was that you?’
She reached down, lifted her bag and went to leave.
‘Where are you going? Stay and listen to your fucking shite song. You can’t put on that shite, then fuck off and leave the rest of us to put up with it.’
She looked behind the bar. The barman had gone in the back. She could hear the theme tune of ‘Match of the Day.’ She turned and started to walk towards the door. He grabbed her shoulder and pulled her round.
‘I said stay and listen to your song.’
She could see his eyes were empty. She was surprised he could even see her.
‘I want to go,’ she said.
‘Stay and listen to your shite song.’ He put his hand up towards her head, caught her hair and pulled her face around until it was looking into his. ‘Maybe you want to dance? Is that it? Are you leavin’ ’cause nobody asked you to dance?’ She struggled in his grip.
‘Maybe it’s more than a dance you’re looking for?’ He was holding her hair tightly. Her face twisted in pain. ‘I’ve never had an older woman. What age are you?’
She didn’t answer so he pulled her hair even tighter. ‘I asked you what age you are.’
‘Twenty-nine,’ she said.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see two of the other pool players coming towards them. The tall guy with long black hair still had the pool cue in his hand. The smaller stocky one was drinking from a bottle of beer. They were standing only a few yards away. They were between her and the door.
‘Leave the woman alone, Seanie,’ the tall one said. ‘Come on back to the game.’
Mags felt her hair being released. She made a grab for her bag as he turned to face her rescuers. There was something familiar about the tall one.
‘Fuck away off,’ Seanie said.
The noise at the pool table stopped. There was total silence. Mags slinked towards the door. Once the words were out Seanie seemed less sure of himself. He stood limply, not daring to add to his remark. Mags looked at the tall guy, so cool and confident.
‘Liam,’ he called back towards the pool table behind him, ‘take your wanker of a brother home, before he gets hurt.’
From beside the pool table a small lad in a Celtic jersey came forward. Mags was at the door now. She pulled it open and dived outside. She was shaking.
She started to walk towards Heaney’s. The bars had yet to empty and the streets were deserted. She was sure she could hear footsteps behind her. They seemed to be getting closer. She turned, but saw no one. The door of Heaney’s came into view and for once she was glad to see it.
The crowd had thinned out. The Americans were gone and Con sat at the bar on his own. His head was down and he seemed to be half asleep. He spoke in mumbles. She told him that she wanted to go home and he offered no resistance. She got his keys from his jacket pocket and helped him into the car. He farted. She drove fast and hard up the small narrow roads towards Con’s house.
The moon shone down on the farmyard as Mags helped him from the car. Empty buckets lay strewn in piles of twos and threes, some upturned, some not. A fast-decaying tractor was parked in front of the farmhouse door.
The house smelt musty and the sink was filled with unwashed dishes. Everything she touched was thick with grime. He fell onto the sofa and she knew there was no point in trying to get him to bed. He farted again in his sleep. A picture of his mother scowled at them from the top of the TV.
Even now, Mags could still hear her voice echoing around the room, always with the same, overheard words: ‘I don’t know why you waste your time on that daft girl, Conor. You could do a lot better than that.’ Two years she was gone. Two years since he returned at dawn to find her cold, bony corpse at the bottom of the stairs. Two years since he last made love to Mags.
The speedometer never dropped below 70 as she drove the five miles of winding mountain roads to her own house. She would have to be back before he got up, so he could go for a cure. The last time she wasn’t, he took the tractor.
She sat on the bonnet of the car and had a last cigarette. In the distance, a cow called out for its calf. Moths flapped against the porch light. The tall guy in The American Bar came into her mind. So young, so confident, so damn sexy. Next weekend she would tell Con it was over. Next weekend she would get a lift into town and go back to The American Bar. She would find him there: her youthful Con. She flicked her cigarette into the air and watched it fly like a firework. Then she heard the hiss as a puddle of water extinguished it.