How does a young fella born to a place of dismal fields and cold stone churches turn out to be fuck-off cool? How do you compute boreens and crows and dishwater skies and make it add up to a nineteen year old who walks into a party and every girl in the place goes loop-the-loop?
But not walks—walked. The party has been over for fifteen years. It was in Galway, a Saturday night, a Sunday morning, after the nightclubs had closed and the late roar of the streets had started to break up. A couple of dozen people—you’d say children, if you could see them now—went back, in pairs and in small groups, to a rented house. Most of them were still mashed on cheap nightclub drugs. The house had tongue-and-groove walls greening with damp and was filled with the smell of the damp and with the cloying waft of a low-grade cannabis resin. It was a little past four. The panes of the sash windows trembled with vibration from the music that was playing and the miserable furniture was pushed back to the walls. He went alone to a vantage corner. He hunched down on his heels and scoped out the ground. The girls wore lycra and had their hair styled in blunt retro fringes, like Jane Fonda in Barbarella. They wore clumpy shoes and tiny silver dresses, or flight jackets with heavy fur collars, they wore Lacoste, Fila and Le Coq Sportif. He sized them up, one by one, from ankles to nape, and he paid special attention to the tendons and the neck muscles; he was a canny young farmer at mart. He made his decision, quickly and without fuss. He crossed the room towards where she was dancing and he said hi. She ignored him. He felt dry-mouthed, tense with concentration, excited. He would need to follow her eyes, carefully, and find the words that would lighten them. This was work. She was aloof and this had its magneticism and he may have begun to despair but he received a quick enquiring glance from over her shoulder and so was heartened. Gesture politics, in an old house, on a rough winter’s night, down a backstreet of Galway. There was water moving nearby, it wasn’t far from the Claddagh. She had a hindquarter on her it was unbelievable. ‘I saw you at Wiped, yeah?’
‘Yeah. What was your name again?’
Two words were enough to give it away as a Clare accent, flat and somehow accusatory, an accent he didn’t approve of, normally, but she was good-looking enough to get away with it. His accent was from further north, and a shade east, pure Roscommon. It was designed for roaring over chainsaws and horsing out ballads to the fallen martyrs of Irish republicanism but he had honed it, somehow, to a hoarse-sounding, late-night cool.
Around them, all was nervousness and elation. Lit up like stars, everybody loved everybody, and there was little shyness about saying so. Hugs and love and tearful embraces. It was all tremendously fluffy. These were children born to unions of a pragmatism so dry it chaffed, they came from supper tables livid with silence, they came down from marriages where the L-word hadn’t darkened the door in decades. There was the feeling of sweat from the nightclub cooling on the small of your back. He wore a number two cut, it was Daxed and brushed forward, and the sideburns were daily tended to. He by habit checked out people’s shoes: she was wearing Fila creepers, of which he approved. He owned three hundred and eighty-seven twelve-inch records, mostly made in Berlin, Sheffield or Detroit. He had a father with a head like a boiled ham.
‘It’s coming on in waves, like.’
‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘I know what you mean.’
Not by any stretch of the imagination could you say she had big tits but fine, really, at least not like your one out of the art college the other week, like an ironing board she was.
‘Waves,’ he said, and he chewed his jaws and rolled his shoulders.
The windows shuddered with bass and rattled with wind. There were the usual January gales off the Bay. It was one of those nights you’d be skinned walking down Spanish Arch, if you were heading for the taxis on Dominick Street. He weighed up his chances of getting her into a taxi and out the far end of Salthill. He lived in a bedsit there the size of a shoebox. He could make tea and toast without getting out of the bed. It was a row of old seaside boarding houses, mostly in disrepair. He could see down to the prom, to the low breaking waters and the power walkers in rain gear, their garish colours moving quickly through the rain. He sometimes followed random women on the prom. Yummy-mummies, coming out of Mass or the Centra: he walked at a reasonable distance behind, and was pleasantly hypnotised by the swaying quick switches of their rears. He almost always managed to control himself but sometimes they were very pale and beautiful. He scribbled down their car regs, just to mark the sighting, for no other purpose than that. He kept a list of regs and descriptions in a folder beneath his bed.
Only once had he become fevered. That was the day he followed the woman to her house on Taylor’s Hill. He had hauled up over the high wall and huddled in the wet garden behind her hedge. He peered into the kitchen—the light was on at three o’clock, it was such a dark afternoon—and he watched her boil a kettle for tea, the steam rising out of it, and the blood rushing in his ears. This was the most erotically-charged moment of October. He was on ketamine at the time.
‘Waves, like,’ he said. ‘I think I’m coming up on the third one now. I wouldn’t be surprised.’
She sensed something about him. When he looked at you, handsome and sharp-featured though he was, you got the feeling that comes after you’ve chewed a mouthful and you just know that the chicken is dodgy. She moved away from him. She went to her friend, Alice. She asked Alice if she knew him.
‘To see,’ said Alice. ‘Majorly cute. You must have seen him around the place. At Wiped and that. At Sex Kitchen?’
‘Yeah but why is he always on his own though?’
‘Maybe he’s just a bit quiet,’ said Alice.
Alice had a forgiving nature, especially when it came to men. She could find a good word to say about most anything in pants. She came from Tipperary and was the shape and texture of a kiwi fruit. She was so button-nosed you would think to press on it and hear a bell. She stood a jaunty five-nothing in her tallest heels. She was vivid, emotionally, and would make an opera out of the smallest crisis. She feared the routine and the humdrum. She sensed how easily these might overwhelm the paltry glamour available to a small wet college town in the west of Ireland. She was intuitive: she had an idea of the vast adult dullness that loomed around the next turn. She shook her head to be rid of the thought; tonight, she was hellbent on fun.
She drifted away from Martina, politely, still smiling. She loved her friend dearly but Martina was five ten and supple as a fawn: in the foreground perspective of a house party, the contrast-gain would not be Alice’s. She went to the kitchen, where there was a congregation too sophisticated to dance, or too smashed, or too shy. Alice’s gift was to immediately offer herself as an intimate and to be accepted as such. People let it all hang out when they talked to Alice. She enjoyed this but it could be a burden, too. She was left with little space for her own worries. Even her father had spilled to her, always, even when she was a kid, and with shit she didn’t need to hear. This had made her mother jealous, even though she couldn’t understand why. Theirs was the first divorce in Tipp after divorce came in.
Alice in the kitchen sat by Mary Pearson, and took her by the arm, and they listened, with glazed smiles, as Obran rattled on and on at one of his endless, self-aggrandising yarns. Mary kissed Alice’s button nose and laid her long, elegant fingers across Alice’s nervous knees. The manner of this, the languid ease of it, edged just a shade beyond chumminess. Mary Pearson had deep sexual talent and was becoming ever more comfortable in its realm. She was a slender, fine-boned twenty, plain-featured but attractive, with that particular charge of attractiveness that comes in freckles and neat chin and dirty eyes, and she applied it through the touch of her fingertips and Alice moved on again, bashful now. The kitchen stank of Wednesday’s bolognese and drying sweat.
Mary listened to Obran ramble on—bollocks talk—and she watched Alice join another small huddle, and she watched the stunned, wordless lads from Connemara who had eaten too much ecstasy, and she smiled for Jack and Kay. She watched over them all with the fondness that is usually reserved for watching over small children. She was born to middle age, and a lascivious one: all solace was in the senses. She’d slept already with three of the boys and two of the girls at the party. She’d been notching them off in History and Politics, and she was working her way through the hockey union too. Her father owned half Ballinasloe. She had not talked to him since the horse fair, when he’d accused her of sleeping with an itinerant. She bored of Obran—anyway she’d already been—and she crossed the kitchen towards Jack and Kay, she was convinced she could talk them into it yet. Ollie stumbled as she passed and almost knocked her over.
‘Ollie! For fucksake. Watch where you’re going.’
‘Lady Muck,’ said Ollie, bowing. ‘My sincere apologies, like.’
Ollie moved on through the hallway. He paused to steady himself with a hand on the hall table. The table had flyers for pizza, taxis and Jesus. That snot-nosed bitch, the look she always gave him. He peeped into the main room and it was writhing now—there had been a fresh intake from a party in Salthill broken up by guards. He decided that he had no interest at all in the main room. His business was done for the evening and anyway he felt short-breathed and tense and his vision was definitely blurred, especially out of the left eye. He went upstairs instead. He wore his puffa jacket, as he did at all times. He stuck his beany, bristled head into a small boxroom, saw that it was empty, and gratefully threw himself down on its lonesome single bed. Ollie had overdone it, again. Ollie had been overdoing it, in one or another, since he was big enough for shoes. His eyes were frightened and atrocious, pissholes in the snow, and they gave him a comically tormented look, always, even if he was in good form. He was local. He sold amphetamine cut with paracetamol to students, and he signed on at three post offices, one in the city and two in the county. He drove a Corolla that was rotten with rust, it had neither tax nor insurance. He smoked too much cannabis. He drank like it was going out of style. He no longer had parents, he had six brothers who between them had six wives, nineteen children and twenty-eight dogs. His brothers would slag him about the seventh bride but Ollie had no interest in women, nor in men for that matter—he had interest in money, cannabis, cars, amphetamines and longneck bottles of Corona lager. He had a kind of antic court jauntiness, almost medieval-seeming. There was no violence in him. There was vast bitterness in him. He made up stories out of the wet salty air, about people and for people, to frighten them and to entertain. He was currently putting it about that Mary Pearson had HIV. He was subject to magical thinking about the significance of the number nine. He put together a fat cone that used up five Rizlas and two entire Rothmans. He sucked down the lovely resins and immediately took on the notion that there were guards outside the house. They could have followed the crowd that came in from Salthill. Of course they could have. It wasn’t just likely it was probable. He took another drag and felt his crown tighten and he decided it was certain, he didn’t have a minute to spare. He went to the window and looked down to the parked cars, and to the shadows, and the rain blown across the town. There were plainclothes out there, of course there were, and they were waiting for him to make his move. Well, they hadn’t bested him yet and they wouldn’t tonight. It was Ollie’s belief that he was tailed by plainclothes five or six days out of the week and he wasn’t entirely mistaken in this. The window was an attic window—a cheap Velux job set into the slate roof—and he saw that if he took off the puffa it would be easy enough to wriggle outside; he was slim-hipped as a ferret, and he could move along the rooftops of the terrace that the house was set on. Puffa out the window, and he climbed after it, with the cone wedged efficiently in the corner of his mouth, a dull burn. From the rooftop you could see to the cathedral, its wet concrete looming through the foul weather, and distant, the blur of the taxi-lights in rain, and all around the sodium gloom of the lamps. Ollie zipped into the puffa again and patted himself down to check for wallet, keys, lighter, fags, dope. He pressed back against the dripping slates and worked out his escape. He counted the chimneys along the length of the terrace—nine. He would need to climb to the other side, over the crease of the rooftop, and from there he could shin down a drainpipe into a yard, and then make his way down back towards the docks. So long as there were no dogs he’d be fine. He set to.
‘Who’d leave a window open on a night like this? It’s a fucking icebox in here.’
‘Actually the breeze is kind of nice now, leave it open a while. Whose room is it anyway?’
‘Probably Alan’s. It certainly smells like a wankpit.’
‘Does, doesn’t it?’
‘Well, if it’s Alan we’re talking about, there’ll be no shortage of action,’ and he made the jerk-off motion with his hand.
‘Please, Jack. Not an image I want to stick. He’s not here, is he?’
‘Think he’s home still. There are cows to be milked in Leitrim. There’s no such thing as Christmas for cows, you know. Come here.’
‘What what? Do you honestly believe I might be feeling romantic?’
‘You’re making too much out of this.’
‘Easy for you to say.’
‘I thought the plan was we weren’t going to talk about it. Tuesday it’s done with and we can forget about it.’
‘It was crazy taking a pill.’
‘What difference does it make, Kay? You’re getting it looked after on Tuesday.’ ‘Looked after! This is starting to sound like something from the 1950s.’
‘I know, yeah. She takes the lonesome boat. I am in the moody, guilt-ridden role. It’s a play-of-the-week starring Cyril Cusack and Joan McKenna. Can you hear the uillean pipes?’
‘Siobhan McKenna. Anyway nothing’s decided.’
‘Don’t. Everything is decided. We’ve been all around the houses with this, it’s set for Tuesday. We do it and it’s done.’
‘I’m the one up on the table!’
‘Woosums! So fine, okay. Tell you what. Let’s have it then. We’ll buy a semi-d and sign up for Fianna Fail.’
‘You’re an arse. Why don’t you go and rub off Mary Pearson some more?’
‘Maybe I shall, maybe I shall,’ and he made the cross-eyed look, and he did the Twilight Zone music, and she laughed.
‘What are we going to do, Jack?’
‘Unbelievable! Really, I mean you’re outdoing yourself tonight.’
‘I know. I’m a maggot. And you adore me, so deal with it. And come here, look? Please.’
She could taste a mercury note in her mouth and she wondered if this was in some way connected. She rose to leave. She was quickly getting towards the end of Jack. She saw that all was used to reinforce his masculine place in the world. All was weighed and tested for advantage. In everything that occurred, he saw possibilities for developing his own sense of himself: he had used the crisis merely to give a burnish to his self-importance.
‘Where you going?’ ‘Stay where you are, Jack, I’m just getting some water. I’ll be a second.’
Everytime she left his presence she felt a delicious lightness come on her. She went lightly down the stairs and into the late throb of the party. The house was full of music and breathless talk and attempted romance but just as it peaked it began to fade, too, and people were tiring some, they were beginning to splay out on the cushions on the floor. The cheap drugs were wearing off and Sunday morning had begun to announce itself. It threw rain against the windows, like handfuls of gravel and nails, and there was stomach cramp and dryness of the mouth and morbid thoughts. Serotonin receptors tipped over like skittles—dead. Kay went to find her coat. The coats were in a pile behind the record decks and she winked at the dour-faced Northerner playing records.
‘Kay, what about you?’ he said.
His world was round, twelve inches in circumference, and made out of black vinyl. He had tight hair composed of tiny curls and he would take a curl and twiggle it between thumb and forefinger, a nervous tic. His calling was to educate the west of Ireland to the pleasures of old-skool Detroit techno. The trouble with this town was that people didn’t want to know. They wanted to listen to the same old same old, week in week out. They wanted the big tunes. They wanted the cheese. Well, they could look elsewhere. He wasn’t going to play ball. If they didn’t like it, they could piss off. If they wanted cheese, they could go down and listen to Sonny Byrne. They’d deserve each other, Sonny Byrne and that crowd. Fucking mouth-breathers the pack of them.
‘Do you know what I’m saying, Kay?’
But she was gone, she’d headed for the door, in a swish of auburn hair and a fun-fur coat. Little Miss Thing. Not that the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. What she was doing with the other creature he would never know. Jack Keohane? An excuse for humanity! An egomaniac! But that was this town all over, wasn’t it? It was all surface. Sometimes he wondered why he troubled himself with these people at all. They hadn’t a notion. To prove the point, he put on an old Derrick May, one of the first Rhythm Is Rhythm things—genius!—and he surveyed the room owlishly as it kicked in, but no. They didn’t get it. He twiggled a tiny curl between thumb and forefinger. He chewed a lip and sulked. He had enough of the place. He was going to take off, no question, one of these fine days, they wouldn’t see his arse for dust. They’d be sorry then, and they listening to Sonny Byrne and his cheese—big fucking piano tunes. The major problem would be the shipment of the records. There were several thousand and that amounted to serious dead weight. Everybody was sprawled and splayed, they were lying wrapped around each other on the floor. A handful of gravel against the window. He’d just put on an Orb album and leave it at that. It was as much as they deserved. He went through to the kitchen to search out Noreen. There was no sign of Noreen.
‘Nice set, Coll,’ said Helen.
‘Oh was it?’ he said, ‘was it really now? So what the fuck are you doing in here?’
She huffed out of the kitchen. The sooner somebody took that arsehole to one side and sorted him out, the better. Helen Coyle, if she insisted on anything, insisted that life should be mannerly. She was a petite dark-haired girl, carefully arranged, with an expression of tremendous pleasantness and openness. She thrived on neatness in all things. She had been at a loss, tonight, when she realised that her affairs had spun out of control. She was in the process of leaving Eoin for James. She sat on the stairs and reviewed the situation. She had not quite informed either of her plans. She felt that she had put enough out in the way of suggestion and signals, that they should each be able to grasp the new reality.
Dealing with men was like dealing with infants. If they weren’t puppy-dog, they were crude and arrogant, and which was worse? She wasn’t ever taking ecstasy again. It brought all this emotional crap up. And it… just… wasn’t… neat. She put her head against the banisters and closed her eyes. Eoin, in her opinion, had already stalled in life. When they first went out, he’d seemed to have everything opening up for him. He was rangy, good-looking, quick-witted, he was fit and active, he didn’t drink much or smoke much or do drugs much, he was sociable and presentable. But slowly, in the two years of their relationship, his terrible secret had slipped out: he was a settler. He would settle for the small solicitors firm in Galway. He would settle for a quiet, unperturbed life. He would settle for a house on Taylor’s Hill and a new Saab on a biannual basis, and he would involve himself delicately in the probate of small farmers and shopkeepers, and he would father unassuming and well-spoken children. But not with Helen Coyle he wouldn’t.
James, who was, inevitably, Eoin’s best friend, had a wider reach to his ambition. He was a broad-beamed, meat-faced man—at just twenty-two, there was none of the boy left—and he moved across the ground with a sure-footedness born of privilege. He had subtly courted Helen Coyle for the two years she had been involved with his friend—in the end, not all that subtly—because he had recognised early that in back of the pleasantness and openness there was an overwhelming want for progress. He saw that they would propel each other forward, through all the years and the bunfights, that neither would allow the other to slacken, not for a moment. James was handsome but in the way that a bulldog is handsome and in the cause of advancement he would have the grip and clench of a bulldog’s jaws. That was good enough for Helen Coyle—she’d made her decision.
Slowly, with a sense of building unease, the night gave away on itself. The slow fog of the mood drugs lifted and left nothing at all behind. Still there was some low music and people lay on the cushions and couches, and Alice, button-nosed, slept on her arms at the kitchen table. There was a tiny snoring sound if you crept up and listened to her quietly, and she dreamt of faraway places and pleasant young men in a warm light.
The nineteen year old from Roscommon had been rebuffed at every turn and he prepared for a cold wet walk out the long curve of the bay to Salthill. He would not spend on a taxi if there wasn’t cause to. They would already be unwrapping bundles of newspapers outside the churches and the gulls, raucous with winter, would circle down from the low sky in search of last night’s chips.
Helen went to her room upstairs and she quickly, neatly undressed and she stood for a moment with her left hand laid on her flawless belly—the satisfaction of that—and her pert nose twitched, she believed that she could smell smoke. She put on her dressing gown and followed the smell, it came from down the hallway, from the boxroom. She pushed in the door and saw Jack asleep on the narrow bed and the filthy old carpet smouldering on the floor. It was clear at a glance what had happened. His cigarette had fallen but there had been a piece of luck, he had the window open and rain had come in and put out the few flames that had started. It was almost at the finish of its damp smouldering by now. She went to find Coll, who shared the house, and yeah, a bucket of water, just to be sure. Fucking Jack! He could have put the whole place up, these old houses were always going up. Every year the Advertiser had another dreary tragedy, with names and ages and places of origin, from Carlow, originally, from Roscommon, originally.
Coll was back in the living room, flicking through his records. She whispered it to him. Fucksake! he said. Fucking typical of these people! There’s another deposit gone! He ran upstairs and saw that it was as she said—he didn’t and never would trust women’s accounts of things—and he went to fetch the water. When she had bent down to whisper to him, he turned just in time to see the swell of a breast beneath the dressing gown and the image now occupied his mind to a far greater degree than the non-event of a failed fire.
Martina turned to Mary Pearson, on a couch pushed back to the living-room wall, and she said:
‘Dave Costelloe? Yeah, but… kind of low-sized, isn’t he?’
‘I know. It’s the kind of way that if he was three inches taller he’d be a different man.’
‘Yeah but I do know what you mean, he’s kind of dirty?’
‘Oh, filthy! There is absolute filth in those eyes.’
‘Yeah, there is but… Jesus. Can you believe the time?’
‘Sunday’s a write-off. Come here, do you want to go and get some breakfast? I’m pretty sure Anton’s is open.’
It was eight o’clock, in Galway, on a Sunday morning. The wind had eased, to some extent. It would be a cold day with intermittent rain. Ollie drove the Corolla down the docks, his beany head swivelling left and right. He had people to see at the Harbour Bar, which kept market hours, and he had only the one wiper working. In rain, it felt as though the Corolla was gone half-blind. His shin was reefed open from the drainpipe but the wound had dried up some and, all told, it was unlikely to kill him. He passed by the house and wondered if there was anything still going on there. If things worked out at the Harbour Bar, he could knock back up and do some more business. But just as he drove past, the last of the stragglers emerged to the grey old streets and another wet morning of the reconstruction.