In the late morning, distracted and mildly confused by hangover, Pete, Laurence and Guffa sat at a table in Ballyorban’s Venetian Tea Rooms. Outside, the soft drizzle continued. Entrenched on a narrow cobblestone street of the town, the café was a surprising feature in the small Irish village, named and modelled after the types of elegant establishment that were sprinkled around Italian landmarks like the Piazzas San Marco and del Popolo. The walls were papered with scenes of Tuscan village life, and the large room tinkled plates and silver teapots as waitresses weaved in and out of the replica Roman columns, attending to the Sunday customers. It was the habit of the young men to meet here after a night’s drinking and Billy was the last to arrive.
‘And here is the very man!’ Guffa said.
Pete and Laurence nodded in greeting to Billy, who exuded a vibrancy that belied the previous night’s alcohol consumption. As always, he was wearing his velvet green dinner jacket.
‘How are the lads?’ he beamed. ‘Peter, you’re looking shook!’
‘Weren’t you the cause of it,’ Pete croaked in reply. He was curled over a cup of tea, his face ashen.
‘And did you not enjoy yourself?’
‘I feel like a monkey died in my stomach.’
‘Well if a monkey died,’ said Laurence, ‘it was only because you drowned him in liquor.’
‘Fuck off the lot of ye. Have I no friends?’
A waitress came and they ordered food. She was a shy girl with a short haircut and glasses, her eyes moving sheepishly between the first three lads as they each asked for the full fry. Billy then ordered a bowl of oats and a fruit salad. Pete asked for Anadin, but the blonde teenager, run off her feet, said that they weren’t allowed to give out tablets any more.
The wildest nights always seemed to coincide with Billy’s presence. Born in Cape Town, where his South African father and Irish mother still lived, Billy’s complexion reflected his more exotic genes. When he’d reached an appropriate age his father sent him to school in Ireland, where he lived with relatives until after secondary school, when he moved into his parents’ Irish home, a large manor outside of the town.
He didn’t see the need to work, and given the generosity of his father’s stipend, Billy regularly disappeared for weeks on end, only to return with a healthier tan and stories involving bars and women from places none of the rest of them had heard of.
At the Venetian Tea Rooms, he ran a hand through his floppy blond hair, then down the chest of his jacket, before turning to Laurence and suddenly clapping him on the shoulder.
‘And here’s the man that saved my life last night!’
‘Oh yeah? How’s that?’ Laurence’s recollections of the night were scattered, so this was certainly a revelation.
‘Ah, now. Don’t act like you don’t remember, ye modest cur ye!’
Laurence raised his hands in a gesture of helplessness. The waitress came again and put another pot of tea in the middle of the table. Guffa’s curiosity broke.
‘Well? Are you going to tell us or what? We’ll have to get a medal made up, I suppose?’
‘Jesus, I think I’m going to be sick.’ Pete made to get up before changing his mind and settling again.
‘Shut up and drink your tea!’ Guffa topped up his brother’s cup. ‘You’ll be grand… Billy?’
‘Sure when there was no bed for me in the cottage, I went up the driveway to kip in the jeep.’ An imported American Chevrolet, Billy’s jeep would comfortably accommodate several sleeping bodies. It had been shipped over to him from America, a gift from some millionaire that Billy had caddied for in Scotland at some time or another. ‘Engine running and all so I had a bit of heat and off I went to sleep, and the car filling with toxic fumes. And didn’t this fine citizen alongside me somehow sense the danger, and come up and open the window, hence letting out the smoke and saving my crippled soul!’
‘Were we up at the cottage last night then?’ mumbled Pete from behind his hands, which periodically moved from his face to his midriff and back again.
‘Ah come on!’ Guffa screeched. ‘How drunk were ye? Don’t you remember baptising Laurence over the side of the bathtub?’
‘Not at all,’ Laurence said, straightening up. ‘I feel great after it!’ He stuck his chest out and let out a note of song that he thought sounded holy. Pete only crumpled further into the table.
‘And one of the first acts of Laurence’s spiritual rebirth,’ continued Billy, ‘was to save my life. How biblical!’
‘I wouldn’t be too sure,’ Laurence concluded.
He wasn’t too sure at all. Could he remember walking up the muddy driveway with Billy, in the freezing mountain air, with only the silence of the shaggy mountain farm animals sleeping and the stones and wild streams? He tried to piece things together, and of course it started at the pub.
They had pulled up outside the Crossroads at about eight and the three lads hopped out. Billy drove on to find a place big enough to park the jeep. There was Hannah, or rather thoughts of her, and later the phone call that he had promised himself he wouldn’t make. After the call, that feeling of overwhelming love sickness, of needing someone so bad and not being able to have her. And of course going back over the whole festering debacle again, starting the cycle anew. She had been distant, distracted. He felt that she didn’t believe him. Or was it that she no longer believed in him? Either way, it was awful.
And the drinking, there was that. At a table in the corner of the Crossroads they drank pints of stout and tequilas till about ten.
‘Tequila at the Crossroads,’ repeated Pete when they told him at the tea rooms. ‘Jesus, that was early.’
Guffa let out another screech of his inimitable laughter. ‘And you got off with Stacey O’Regan after that!’
‘I did not.’
‘Well, you might have for the condition you were in,’ said Laurence. He continued recounting: ‘From there we went to Harry’s—’
‘Harry’s? That hole of a place?’
‘At your insistence too, where you stood more than one round of whiskey gingers.’
‘You were chatting to that Finn lad as well for a while; I’m not sure about him at all Pete.’
Pete didn’t respond.
In fact, Laurence remembered that Harry’s had been great craic. It was a small, dark place. The maroon carpets were heavily stained and in the toilets the broken yellow tiles were covered in fag butts and watery muck from boots. But the drink was cheap and the proprietor, Tim Murphy, was a member of Ceoltas, so there were great trad sessions at the weekends. Laurence remembered flinging Emma Nally around the floor to the music and being flung himself. Round and round we go! Where we’re going, nobody knows! It was at that point that he had called Hannah, perhaps re-ignited by the female touch. His drunken conversation on the pavement outside was probably overheard in segments by people as they arrived and left, or came outside to smoke. It was a town where everybody knew everybody else’s business anyway, so what did it matter? When he returned to their table in Harry’s, a couple had taken it over, sitting there quietly, watching with interest the madness unravelling around them, or maybe watching anything to avoid conversation with each other. Laurence had looked and found the other three at the bar, talking rot. He joined them as if nothing had happened.
‘And when we were finally kicked out of Harry’s,’ he continued between forkfuls of his café breakfast, ‘Billy drove us up to the cottage.’
Being an exile of sorts—at least in his own mind—Billy felt that he needn’t obey the laws of the country. So he drove drunkenly and whoever got in as a passenger knew well what they were letting themselves in for. But he wasn’t all bad either. Billy was the most compassionate person Laurence had met, an unashamed idealist and unreservedly generous. Anything Billy could do to help you out, anything at all, you could consider it done. And, for some reason, he never took off the green jacket.
The only story of Billy being seen without it had been related by Pete one afternoon. He claimed to have seen his strange friend in the long, oak-strewn driveway in front of his house, naked but for a poncho and shouting. Pete, being in the company of a girl at the time, had moved swiftly on, laughing and remarking as to who that mad fucker might be. In fact, it was Pete who probably put it best, when he observed that every time Billy was away and he tried to re-construct an idea of him—maybe in conversation with someone or even in his own head—he found it impossible. Like trying to recall the tune of a distantly remembered song, he said, when a new, catchier tune is playing on the radio.
At the cottage, long after the pubs had all shut, Pete cursed the tribulations of Laurence and Hannah, and dragged his old school friend up the stairs to the bathroom to cleanse him of his ill love. Laurence laughed and went along with it, while downstairs Billy told Guffa about a rural beach town in the south of Italy, and how he had done the tarantula dance with locals. Guffa, for his part, was falling asleep with a guitar in his hands.
Then, over the side of the bath tub Pete was roaring improvisations of all the biblical phrases he remembered from childhood. In the name of the Holy Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away! The Drunken shall inherit the earth and all the alcohol and ride the ugliest bitches in town! I command you to abstain from this devilish Hannah-whore and see the light, my son. See the light and ye shall inherit the fine women of Ireland and indeed of the World! Laurence screamed that the water was too hot and that he was being scalded. Memories surfaced of his mother washing his hair over the side of the tub when he was younger. It was all over quickly enough.
And the saving of Billy’s life? Time passed after the baptism, Laurence knew that. It was four, five maybe; they were listening to music. I want to live with a cinnamon girl. I can be happy the rest of my life with a cinnamon girl. Pete had passed out on the old springy couch. Billy was humming and playing the spoons in time with the music. The walls were yellow in the lamplight. Sounds were soft and came from far away. Guffa had crawled upstairs into the first of the two beds.
Laurence awoke in a bed to the slam of the door. Had he dreamt the noise? He thought he could remember hearing the trees like they were waves on a beach. Tarantulas were on his mind; he thought they might be on the floor. Maybe it was raining too. There was the racket of water on the corrugated roof of the shed. He got up. Did he see a fat moth moving slowly across the middle of the floor in the hallway?
He stumbled out the front door. It was cold and windy. The mud was slippery. He was in his socks. Up the path it might have been a section of the hedge, or Billy in his green jacket leaning into the hedge. Laurence thought he remembered calling out and, yes, Billy had responded. Having trouble walking, he said. Laurence’s wet socks slapped the path. They walked to the jeep arm in arm and climbed in.
Laurence tried to start a conversation about Hannah, but Billy could only ramble. The engine was started, for heat. Did any of this happen? Was there smoke? Had the window been opened? Had he opened it? Laurence felt like his memory might be filling in details where they didn’t exist. He had woken up in the bed. It was morning and his socks were dry. Guffa had already left.
Amidst the eager banter of the tearoom crowd, Pete heard the story of his actions in the pub and at the cottage with increasing anguish, right up until Guffa’s telling that he had brought his older brother home in a taxi early in the morning, so that they wouldn’t worry their mother. Of course, Laurence didn’t mention any of the Hannah stuff.
‘And I don’t remember a thing,’ Pete finally said.
‘All these lost moments will come back to you, I reckon,’ sniffed Guffa, ‘as your life flashes before your eyes.’
At this stage, three pots of tea had been drained. Torn, empty sugar packets were strewn about and small pools of spilled liquid had gathered in places on the table.
‘As yours may well have last night, Billy,’ the youngest man finished. ‘Indeed!’ Billy chuckled.
‘I don’t know about that,’ Laurence said.
Then Pete struggled to his feet and caught up his jacket. ‘Take me home, Guffa,’ he said. ‘It’s sleep I need, not tea.’
Guffa left money for their breakfasts. Pete had, of course, lost his wallet somewhere.
The table was cleared. The breakfast and brunch crowd evolved into the lunch crowd. Billy and Laurence stayed on and ordered more tea. From the window, the sky began to brighten. Light in the café became more natural and faces were clearer now.
‘You spoke with Hannah last night?’
‘It will happen, my friend. Maybe not straight away, but it will. Ye’ve got ye’re problems, I know, but you’ll sort them out eventually.’
‘I don’t know.’ After a prolonged period of indecision, had come this phase of complete despair; Laurence couldn’t decide which was worse. ‘I just always seem to say the wrong thing. I told her I loved her last night, for Christ’s sake.’
‘It’s not funny! She didn’t believe me anyway. It’s too late for that kind of stuff.’
‘Hold on. Do you really?’ ‘What?’
Laurence shrugged. ‘I don’t know. What difference would it make? I’ve blown it too many times at this stage to ever—’
‘Have you ever been to Venice, Laurence?’
The two young men looked at each other. They first met in college, in a Kavanagh class, and discovered that they were living in the same town. Graduated for almost two years now, both of them still longed for the bars and lecture halls of the campus. At the table, they saw the tiredness in each other’s eyes.
‘Of course I haven’t. You know I haven’t.’
Billy sat back and lost his hands in his hair. He was looking off through the wall, then at Laurence, and away again.
‘Because you saved my life,’ he eventually said with a smirk, ‘I will tell you this: Venice is built entirely on water, Laurence. Water.’ He spread his arms wide.
‘Ah, come on.’
They paused as a fresh brew was placed in front of them. Billy called the waitress his darling and she smiled. He continued: ‘A whole city built on water, Laurence… Think of water, the balance of it throughout everything, within the sea or the river, or in a bottle or a bathtub, within itself. The constant movement, the passion of a hard rain or the storm at sea. And yet always it holds itself together. It calms. It balances out and is in harmony with itself. Water always comes back to itself, you know?’
‘I think I need to piss.’
‘The harmony and the balance of water are created not by any kind of skill or progress or knowledge on the water’s part, Laurence, but simply by being.’
Billy emphasised this last word by bringing his outstretched palms slowly together, until he looked as though he was about to bow. Laurence poured them a cup of tea each. He went about adding sugar and milk to the rusty-coloured water in his cup.
‘And what is this fabric when it comes to human existence, Laurence? What is the being?’
‘I think I can guess.’ ‘It’s love.’
Laurence fell back into his chair. ‘Is this supposed to help?’ he said, sighing. ‘Good things happen to good people,’ Billy replied. ‘And you, my friend,
are a gem.’
Billy then began to make his own cup of tea. He let out a satisfied groan before taking a long gulp from his cup. The sound then, only, of other conversations, and on the walls the vision of the terracotta villages in Tuscan hills.
‘And so what does Venice represent then?’ Laurence finally asked, ‘on top of all the water.’
‘It’s a city, Laurence. In Italy. You ought to go there.’