Her name was El Niño. Her father called her that because the night she was born there was a storm. He said it signified the way she was to live her life. I met her in an elevator. I wanted to go three floors and forget about it. Instead, everything changed.
Thing is, bout meeting a girl like her, it hits you like a curve ball. It’s not like you get written notice. It’s fast, short, and leaves you spinning. I left my finger on the button for the third floor and asked: ‘Goin up?’
‘Yeah, second year.’
It was the last day of the semester and I’d spent it following a lecturer around. I’d been after him for a while. His wallet bulged so big I coulda jumped up right there in the class and taken him out. But that’s the downfall. That’s how mosta of my friends spend their holidays behind bullet-proof glass. They get impatient, can’t wait, always want the big scoop.
The guy taught socialism. Hardliner. I disagreed. What a fuckin hypocrite. I looked down. Saw this wad popping out, thought: fuck, I gotta get me some of that. We all like the capital. But I waited. Scoped him out. Asked him a question after, like: ‘Excuse me, Mr. McKenna? I’m just wondering where can I get a copy of The Communist Manifesto?’
He looked me up and down said ‘Call into my office this afternoon. I’ll have one there. Costs €3.50.’
Thought: fuck you, selling the goddamn pamphlet that says we should kill the capitalist. Makes me sick. He bent over to get his briefcase. I saw a chance. Thought about it. Some chick came from behind and said: ‘Sorry, Mr. McKenna? Do you have a minute?’
Ah, fuck off hippy kids, always looking for the revolution. I’d nearly scored too. Heart beatin fast, going in for the kill and snared. Bitch didn’t even know what she was talkin about, just trying to sound all smart and shit.
Left. Thought: get him later. Maybe at the office. Send him somewhere.
Started the game ten years ago. Never been caught, except once. Old man clocked me hittin some geyser on his way to the post office. Pension hanging out. I was in fast, hit hard, knocked him. Played the Good Samaritan, pulled him up with one hand, took his cash with the other. Next thing I see is sky. Father staring down, frothing at the mouth. ‘Give it back,’ he says, ‘ya thief. Never been no robbin in this family till now, and I’ll knock it outta ya.’
He had a heart attack six months later. Tough times. Needed to bring home some grade. Took up robbing again. Probably turn in his grave, but, what’re ya gonna do? Get a fuckin job?
The elevator hit the first floor. Took in her intoxicating perfume, asked: ‘You doin English?’
She went for casual, arty and open-minded tone. ‘Classics and Soc/Pol. You?’
‘English and Soc/Pol. Goin go see McKenna, about buyin The Communist Manifesto.’
‘Oh, were you in that lecture today?’
‘Yeah, bullshit or what?’
‘I thought it was interesting.’
‘Whatever you’re into.’
‘Why you want the Manifesto then?’
Thought fast. ‘I wanna take a read over the summer. Give it a chance, see if this Marx kat’s really got anything to say.’
‘What about the revolution? Wasn’t that enough?’
‘Maybe, but I wasn’t around, so now I gotta find out for myself.’
‘You tell McKenna?’
‘No, bastard wants €3.50. Tells me he wants a revolt against the capitalist, but I gotta pay for it—fuck that.’
She raised her eyebrows. Style and attitude, said: ‘It’s all about progress.’
‘Or a lost cause.’
‘Or the bigger picture?’
‘Or floor three. Beauty before the beast, babe.’
‘Went too fast. Gimme your number, we’ll take it up later.’
‘You don’t waste time.’
‘Life is short and the clock is tickin.’
She scribbles it out, says: ‘I’ll let you buy me a drink, see how it works from there.’
‘Names El Niño.’
‘There was a storm the night I was born. My father said it signified the way I would live my life.’
‘I’m Charlie. After my father, and my grandfather, and his old man too. One long line of Charlie.’
She smiled a hundred suns. ‘Cute, see you this evening?’
I walked with the feel of her wallet inside my coat. Silly bitch. Wrote the number and left her bag open. What was I supposed to do? Sorry, Mr Opportunity, no one around?
Got to his office. He was bald with a gut. Sat typing something. Probably more overpriced communism. Knocked, said: ‘Mr. McKenna? I talked to you today, after your lecture, about buying The Communist Manifesto?’
He turned, fixed his glasses and scrutinised. Obvious disdain. Must have been my clothes. Loose and long shirt. Cap on backwards.
‘Yes, yes… Marxist economics, wasn’t it?’
I looked around. Saw books on Orwell, Nietzsche, Smith, Rawls, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, the whole fuckin crew. Oscar-winning irony. What a phony, with the belly and the white picket fence. I just knew he had to have one, with two cars and a sprinkler. These guys always have fuckin sprinklers. I think their wives make them get it. Keeping up with the fuckin Jones’s.
He ruffled in his desk, took out a copy. ‘Well Mr…’
‘Well, Charlie. That’s €3.50, please.’
Took out my stash, asked: ‘You got change for a hundred?’
He frowned and I saw the disappointment. The dilemma. The profit or the cause? Checks his pockets, looks around. Says: ‘I… let me see, I… don’t… at the moment. Anything smaller?’
Frown time for me. ‘Oh?’
‘Tell you what, you can call back with… no, actually… hang on and I’ll see if Doris is in the office. She might have some.’
Disco. He took his fat ass up and waddled out. Almost caused a tremor on the corridor. This place is a real fuckin Jurassic Park. Scanned the office some more. Saw the wallet on the table. Could be obvious. Fuck it, not here for the socialism. Acted fast, skimmed the notes, left a few. Didn’t want him seein the wad all thin. These guys looked after nothing better than dust. Heard him thank Doris. Probably fuckin her. Blowjob at lunch. Some extra petty cash on the side. Some revolution.
He returned. ‘Yes, got some change from Doris. A hundred you say?’
We did the exchange. The cold greasy feel of money changing paws. The fear that someone’s gonna snap the goods and screw the whole deal. This could get ugly. Everyone just be like Fonz and stay cool. I took the pamphlet and watched him, like a starved dog, stuff the cash into his sweaty pocket. He didn’t open the wallet, wouldn’t be like a man of the cause. Watched his beard and smile. Yellow teeth, stink of cigars. Wet armpits. I could tell he always took the lift. Could see the cholesterol, like a ghost’s aroma, hangin around his head. The red patch at top, screamin with rage, like follicles pulled with pliers. He stood salivating, jingling coins, said: ‘You’ll like it.’
‘Oh yeah. Can’t wait to get a read of this. I’ve been after it for a while now. I love Marx. He’s my hero.’
He turned his back and dismissed me with: ‘His day will come again.’
I left and took the lift back down. Could still smell El Niño. In my head, I had an image of McKenna. Sitting in his office, with a smile for another one recruited to his illusions. And behind him, an ugly spectre, hanging with menace, waiting to sever his spine. And the wallet lying open, gutted like a slaughtered animal. At least he got €3.50 back. I threw the pamphlet in the bin and walked home.
She looked beautiful in the photograph. Sallow, and those hazel eyes, that tell you she understands almost everything, like she can see into your soul. Necklace, colourful beads, and that blinding smile. She had the usual: cards, a license, receipts. Some looked sentimental, others just there. Most important was the wad of notes. Counted hers and the communist’s. Made the day handsome. She must have been paying fees or something. Sat back and my bed creaked. Outside, it was still bright as the church bells rang for six. Still had her number and I was tempted to call. Monday was a bad night on the street. No crowd, no anonymity. I picked up her wallet and shoved it in an envelope. It’s an honour thing, and a karma thing too. Always have to post the wallet back. Every time, get the money and send home the rest. Just coz, keeps us in business. Poor fools fill it up again so the next guy can hit ‘em.
An hour of bored contemplation passed. Then I called her. She sounded weird on the phone. Her voice all broken and soft, like warm strawberry milk.
‘Hey, storm girl. Wanna get that drink?’
‘Sorry, Pablo, broke like a train wreck.’
‘No way, kitten. How you gonna cause a hurricane at home?’
‘No dust, honey. No choice.’
‘What happened? You lose it on a pony?’
‘Any kats in question?’
I was getting pissed off. Just wanted outta the house. Wasn’t in the game for the guilt trip. I should’ve known, though. When I play the scene in my head, I’m not me. I’m watching from the outside like some kat in the corner, and I’m tellin myself to hang up the goddamn phone and dodge the nosedive.
‘Guys like that should be fuckin castrated. I mean, a girl like you, minding her own wax…’
‘Done ‘n’ dusted now, Charlie. Point is, no grade.’
Made a decision and said: ‘Negative.’
‘Don’t get ya.’
‘I’m good for it.’
‘What ya gonna do?’
‘Sit at home.’
‘Like a Toblerone?’
‘No go, tornado. Ain’t I sposed to buy anyway? Meet me in Massimo’s at eight o’clock.’
She seemed to think, said: ‘Hope you’re flush.’
‘Rendezvous at eight, then.’
We were both early. I met her at seven forty-five. Long black jumper and tight blue jeans. Her dark brown hair came down over the side of her face. She sensed me come in and looked up. Those eyes: searching, intelligent, deep. I asked: ‘You wanna pint?’
‘Vodka ‘n’ coke.’
‘Comin up. Cubes?’
‘No thanks. I’m cool enough.’
Wanted to say: ‘And you’re still so damn hot.’ Instead said: ‘Sound.’
Drank them. Got more. I said: ‘So hit me with a life secret.’
‘Where do I start?’
‘Why you drinking Cidona?’
‘I was an alcoholic at sixteen.’
‘That the last time you drank?’
‘Seventeen. Nine years ago.’
‘Wow. You must’ve started young.’
‘Thirteen years old. Bushes, car parks, football pitches, all scattered with flagons of cider.’
‘Everything. Name the poison.’
‘Who ya telling? My brother was in a pub last week, in the town I’m from. He met one of the locals from the old days. Guy says: “Where’s your brother? I never see him.” and my brother says: “He don’t drink no more.” And the guy, all fulla surprise say’s: “Jaysus, and he was good at it too.”
We sipped, she asked: ‘When was rock bottom?’
‘Hit a cop.’
‘Do any time?’
‘No. Close, but too young to go down.’
Took a draught of Cidona, it tormented my mouth with memories of Strongbow, said: ‘Return the favour, tell me somethin.’
‘Travelled the last five years.’
‘No. Thailand, China, Australia, some of Europe…’
‘Ever goin back?’
‘I’d love to. When I’m not so broke, maybe. Gettin robbed doesn’t help.’
I swallowed hard, said: ‘Oh, another twist?’
‘Yeah, hit me.’
Felt the first wrench of guilt. It was detrimental. Thought: What the fuck am I doin?
I sprung for the night’s drink. We stayed there till close. Chewing the fat, shooting the breeze, give it a name, call it talking. After, the bouncer came over, high on power, clapped and said: ‘Come on, guys, love is portable.’
Drained the chalice and left.
Exterior. Front of pub. Night.
I asked: ‘Your place or mine?’
‘Where you live?’
‘Sounds good. We get a cab?’
‘Let’s walk, I need the air.’
Came down by Monroe’s and walked through the canal behind The Roisín Dubh. By the old playground, with the graffiti on the wall, was where she saw the swings. ‘I wanna swing.’
‘Swings. Come on.’
‘Forget about it.’
‘Hey! If you’re comin home with me, you’re goin to swing first, damn it.’
Shrugged. Thought: what’re ya gonna do?
She hopped on and I pushed her forward. She floated back, legs out, real aerodynamic. ‘I love the playground. It reminds me of being a kid.’
I stood to the side and watched her sailing back and forth. Thought: she looks beautiful. Tried to put it out of my mind. Business and pleasure. Then, fuck it. Why not? I was sending her the wallet back and gave her the dollars in vodka. Odds and evens. It’s all good.
She tried to stand, wobbled a bit and fell like a bundle on the path. No reflexes. Thud. Then laughter. She stayed down, looking at the sky. ‘Come lie with me.’
We lay back. I put my head on her shoulder. Both staring at the stars, she said. ‘This is a good night.’
‘Oh yeah.’ I lit a cigarette, blew some crystals. ‘I stole your wallet today.’
‘What’s with the catatonia?’
‘I knew you’d call. This way I get free booze and my money back.’
Finished the smoke and walked to her place. Went through the college. Loud drunks hanging around outside the church. Shoes hanging on the power lines, sign of a dealer. Walked through Ardilaun Road and came up by Laurel Park. She lived in 49, top of the hill, light in the porch.
Exterior. Front of her house. Night.
‘Want a nightcap?’
‘I don’t do nightcaps.’
Made it to the stairs. Enter passion. Luscious breasts. Skin, creamy and soft. Kissed her all around. Beautiful scent on her neck. She took off my shirt and went lower. Getting into it. Got naked and went for glory. It was animal. Hard, rough and fast. Calmed down and went upstairs.
Interior. Bedroom. Night.
Large bed, purple walls and a poster of Guevara. Stereo in the corner with a rack of tunes. Beside it saw: Clapton, Oldfield and Moby. Put in the whale, track nine, ‘Extreme Ways’. Greatest tune of all time.
Lay back on the bed and took in the beats. She sat on top. Her hair tickled my face and her nipples rubbed hard on my chest. Locked legs and went in.
Interior. Vagina. Moist.
It was: smooth and passionate. After, went for Oldfield, Tubular Bells.
She asked: ‘What do you think about death?’
‘He’s a bastard.’
‘He’s a bastard.’
‘Had much experience?’
‘Once or twice. You?’
‘Yeah, parents. Car accident.’
‘That’s when you hit the road?’
‘Aye. Got the fuck outta dodge. How would you like to go?’
‘Die? Thinkin like that is dangerous for a guy like me. You?’
‘By choice. I don’t wanna get old. Ever.’
‘Self-inflicted, If you know what I mean.’
‘Not suicide. Just excess. I see women in the gym tryna get younger. Feel younger. But they know time’s slipping away. I always think they regret not making a better time of their youth. When I think the only way is down, that’s when I wanna check-out. Not hang around past my sell-by date, all leathery like a dried fruit.’
‘Whatever does it for ya.’
Wrapped in the smell of our juices. Clammy and warm. She asked: ‘What would you do if you heard I was dead?’
‘Just met ya, kid. Tough call. What d’ya want me to say?’
‘I don’t know, somethin profound. Smoke?’
I dragged heavy, thought, blew a passive cloud, said: ‘Think I’d go Vodka& Red Bull, and wash it down with a pint of cider. Then chew on some Tequila worms.’
‘After nine years?’
‘Yeah. Then do the waltz with a bottle of Jack. World needs women like you. If y’all start dyin, then I don’t wanna be round neither. No point.’
She frowned, leaned on her elbow. Put a palm under her chin and bit her baby finger, said: ‘You’re a cold fish.’
‘I just complimented you.’
‘That’s not what I mean. You’re like… detached.’
‘People been telling me that my whole life.’
Third time was slow, intense and sensual. Saw us through till dawn. The birds were out and the dim light came through the curtains. My lids were heavy. I looked into her brown pupils. She was awake and alert and she stared. I blinked, just like a photograph, and fell into my last real slumber.
In the morning, she was gone. Exit El Niño. No note. No goodbye. Got up, put on my threads and went home. Hung out in Forster Court, thought she’d call. No bells.
Weeks went by.
Summer kicked in and I plied my trade. Kept an eye out but never saw her. Took it as a one-night stand and stayed busy. It was productive too, and I made a lotta dough. Convinced myself that I didn’t care, she was too wild for someone tryna stay dry. I needed to stay outta the abyss. I read, worked out, and stole for three months. September came and I expected a chance meet, but she never showed. Sleep was getting tough, like I’d been to the goblin market; the taste of forbidden fruit fresh on my lips.
Her name was El Niño. Her father called her that because the night she was born there was a storm. He said it signified the way she was to live her life. I sat on my couch, the box unfolding the scene before me on the six o’clock news. They found her by the Spanish arch, stretched out and full of morphine, a smile on her face. A couple of old ones were there crying, talking about tragedy and youth and all the rest, but they didn’t get it. Nobody got it. And the paramedics, with resuscitation over, closed her eyes for the last time and shook their heads.
Later that week, the funeral went on for hours. It was a wet November evening and the wind could be heard howling as the crowd filed around the coffin inside. She’d meant a lot to a lot of people. Her normally tanned face was pale as a full moon. Nobody knew me. They didn’t know what the hell I was doing there. As I left the funeral home, I turned to see her for the last time. Blinking, I caught the image of our final moment together, captured and imprinted on my mind.
I see her everywhere now. Across the street, behind a delivery van, the back of her head disappearing into a shop. Her voice calls my name from a distance. I see her in my reflection, standing behind me, hovering around like a translucent spirit. All the time I hear about storms and weather phenomena. My mind picks up on everything, like a radar for pain. Tunes from Mike Oldfield. The Frames. Moby. All sendin out her echoes.
The nights are cold and long and bring demons for company. The future stays dark and numb. I spend the nights on the streets, head down, kickin stones and dodging the cracks, looking for a distraction. Nothin comes. The city is awash with students and innocence. Thoughts swirl and corruption hovers around my mind, always looking for a chink.
The room is dark with the only light coming from the television. Its muted screen shows pictures of war. The table in front is strewn with old papers, filthy plates and cigarette skins. Outside, I can hear the swish of the cars go by on the quiet winter road. Particles of dust float through the TV’s spectrum. There’s a party next door and I can hear muffled laughter and the intermittent strumming of an acoustic guitar. Bottles clink together and people run up and down the stairs. I’m thinkin about a walk, but there’s nowhere to go. I could try sleep, but I know it won’t come. There’s a movie on later, but I can’t concentrate. I want to stay in, but it’ll drive me crazy. I want to join them next door, although I’ll have nothin to say. I could go out and rob, but I’m too distracted and would probably get caught.
Everything I do is loud. A cup falls into the sink and rattles my nerves. In the bathroom, I turn on a tap and it sounds like amplified radio static. My reflection repulses me. It’s like a bad portrait of someone else. I don’t know who this person is. My hands are shaking and my legs are weak, like I have some crazy fever. There are goose pimples on my neck and somewhere inside I can hear a slow throbbing vibration.
Back on the bed, I try tunes but they don’t work. I can’t sit still. I stand up, light a smoke and look around. My jacket’s hangin on the hallstand by the door and my shadow dances behind it.
Interior. O’Malley’s. Night. They say you take up where you left off. If so, I’m in for the long haul. Some things about a pub are universal. Barman drying a glass. Old man at the counter. Fire going in the corner. I give the heads up and he leaves down the towel. Hands in the back pocket, all enthusiastic. I give him my order. It comes. I pay and get the change. I let it sit. I lift the beverage and let it swirl, taking in its aroma. I get a beer mat and put it underneath. I leave it back down and tap my knee. Not many in. Guy my age in the corner, sitting on his own, pint of Bud and a discman. He looks indifferent, content, oblivious. I’m starting to feel warm. I slide my fingers round the rim of the glass. The chair has arms designed for the elbows. I sit back and get cosy and let a rabid desire take hold.
I raise my poison and salute the old geyser. He returns it. We drink in unison, me with less patience. It goes down fast, acidic and hard, and the breeze rustles across the back of my neck as a door slams behind me forever.