The building was nothing special, the kind of place you might walk past every day and never notice at all, an old and shabby place, which had been broken up into flats and bedsits during the late sixties. It stood, seemingly unaware of the lives that passed their days and nights within it, on a quiet road near the canal in Rathmines, about thirty minutes walk from the centre of Dublin.
The room was cold and empty, only dimly lit by a bulb hanging a little too low from the centre of the ceiling. The light shade had probably been white at one point, but it had since turned an organic shade of brown. The skirting boards warped and buckled against the peeling mildewed walls, the carpet was worn through in some places, stained brown and red in others. The smell was of decay and neglect with a subtle undertone of unfulfilled potential.
The room had been rented for over eighteen months by a horrendously tall man named Oliver St John Smith: blue eyes, soft jaw, new money and proud of it, never one to miss a trick. He knew a handy little number when he saw one.
He had not decorated for he did not live here. The bleak and run-down décor lent a certain something to the proceedings and as he knew only too well, if you get the look right, you’re halfway there.
Smith opened the peeling door to the built-in closet and felt around for the pull-switch. When the light came on he lifted three cheap plastic chairs out and carried them to the centre of the room. He could see his breath condensing on the damp air as he arranged them in a wide circle. It was exciting; he could feel a faint throbbing in the trousers of his navy suit.
The suit makes the man.
This was his favourite part of it. The calm moments before anyone else had arrived, just him and the wanton joy that came with the knowledge of what was to unfold.
The first client arrived at eight minutes to nine. Early. Smith liked that, meant that he was keen and would probably come again.
Smith opened the door and greeted the man. He was utterly nondescript: average height, brown hair, not really good looking, not really ugly, about forty, maybe older, maybe younger. He wore a tightly-cut black suit and a ludicrous canary yellow tie. The man did not speak as he stepped through the door.
‘Would you like a drink?’ asked Smith as he showed the man inside and gestured for him to take a seat.
‘No,’ the man replied, his voice was nervous, uncertain. He walked across the room quickly, guiltily, and took the seat farthest from the door. He had heard about the show through a business acquaintance, anyone who was anyone seemed to have attended. This was his first time.
‘You’re a little early. We agreed on nine o’clock. There are two people yet to arrive. Are you sure that I can’t get you a drink? Wine? A vodka, perhaps? I have some Red Bull.’
The man said nothing. Just shook his head and checked his watch.
Soon there was another knock on the door. A woman entered, in her early thirties, tallish, pretty, natural blonde hair. The man in the yellow tie could smell the fact that she had just put out a cigarette as she took her seat opposite him. Disgusting, he thought.
The woman felt cold. She wished that she had brought her heavy coat. The new one she had bought last weekend in one of the fancy boutiques off Grafton Street. But this was such a shabby place, and it was such a marvellous coat, what a shame it would have been to have worn it here. She would never get the damp smell out of it. And the walls, if she had accidentally brushed against the walls then the damn thing would have to be binned. She would never have forgiven herself.
The woman accepted a gin and tonic from Smith. The ice rattled as she took her glass.
It was one minute past nine.
‘We’ll begin as soon as the third of our party has arrived. I shouldn’t think it will be too long now.’
The cold was beginning to creep into the man in the yellow tie’s bones. He looked forlornly at the large cast-iron radiator that clung uselessly to the wall beneath the window. The copper pipe had been forcibly ripped out; it looked like a crooked dead branch. There was a strange feeling beginning to grow inside him, a feeling of both want and repulsion. It was an unnatural thing to do, but who was to say what he could and couldn’t do? He was a success. Self-made, rich, full to the brim with taste and wealth and false manners… no decency though, nor any sympathy. But he would not have gotten where he had by being decent and kind. He stepped on people every day. And none of them ever had the balls to complain. They fucking well knew better.
Footsteps then, in the hallway, sharp and quick.
Smith rushed to the door and opened it just as an enormously fat man raised his hand to knock.
‘Hello again, Sir,’ said Smith, ‘You’re becoming quite a regular.’
The fat man did not acknowledge him. He sat down and was handed a large glass of whiskey without being asked.
The woman tried not to look at the fat man, tried not to stare at the heavy rolls of flab and gristle that hung over the edges of the plastic seat. His thighs seemed impossibly large. She was reminded of an elephant seal. She tried not to look but she could not ignore the fact that he was staring straight at her. She glanced up and he nodded his huge bald head and raised his glass to her. He then repeated the gesture to the man in the yellow tie who tried to force a half smile out as the fat man slurped at his whiskey.
Smith refilled the glasses and then stood with his back to the door. The fat man had to twist his body in the chair to see him.
‘Our entertainer tonight is called Laura.’
The fat man pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
‘She is twenty-four and has three daughters, all by different fathers. She lives with her children and her mother in a two bedroom terraced house. Her ambition was to become a qualified hairdresser but that wasn’t to be. She is five-foot-six. Her measurements are 35-30-37.’
The man in the yellow tie crossed his legs.
‘Would you like to meet her?’
They all nodded. The woman felt something catch in her throat. Her cough sounded tiny and far away.
Smith left the room and walked down the grotty corridor. Two doors down, he took a key from his pocket and opened a door.
The fat man cradled his whiskey in soft, anaemic-looking hands. This was his third time at the show and he was surprised at how nervous he was, almost as nervous as the first time. The second time he had felt very little, probably because on that occasion the performer had been a young man.
Smith re-entered the room holding Laura’s hand.
She reminded the man in the yellow tie of the girl who worked in his local shop. She was wearing nothing but a peach coloured satin slip.
The hem was tattered and hung halfway down her thigh. It needed a wash. So did she.
‘Don’t be frightened. It’s all right,’ whispered Smith as he led her to the middle of the room.
He left her then, standing alone, in the centre of the circle of chairs.
‘Give our friends a twirl then, Laura. Don’t be shy.’
She began to do a kind of pirouette, it looked like she was drunk but she was not… only scared.
‘Tell us about yourself,’ said Smith. He had his back to the proceedings, rooting around in the closet for something.
The girl began to cry.
‘I’m Laura Davidson,’ the tears were choking her.
‘Come on now, tell us some more. Why are you here?’
‘I’m here because I don’t know what else to do. My kids… I’ve got to get them out of that estate. They’ll be dead before they’re teenagers if they don’t get out.’
Smith turned around holding a small stool and a length of thick rope.
The blonde woman looked up and saw that there was a strong steel hook screwed to the ceiling. It reminded her of the kind of hook you might see a side of beef hanging from.
Smith walked to the centre of the circle and placed the stool on the carpet. Then he stood on it and reached up to attach the rope to the hook.
The noose dangled like a pendulum, ticking down the seconds, never losing count.
‘Well then, shall we proceed?’ asked Smith.
The blonde woman’s eyes were wide and bright, she did not answer. The fat man nodded and slurped again at his whiskey. Smith thought he could see the faintest trace of a smile there behind the glass. Mr Yellow Tie felt a little sick, his head was shaking involuntarily. He was beginning to think that he might have made a mistake; maybe he wasn’t so indifferent after all. Smith paid it no mind.
He held out his thin hand to support the girl as she stepped up onto the stool.
‘Careful, now,’ he whispered and then he was fitting the heavy noose around her neck. Tears streamed down her face, her hair was matted to her forehead.
The man in the yellow tie had been expecting some eloquent speech or at least a goodbye of some kind but there was no chance for that. Smith kicked the stool away and the rope went taut. The girl swung back and forth, kicking her legs, her fingernails tearing at the skin of her neck as she tried to loosen the rope’s awful grip. The room filled with the warm smell of urine and then something worse. It lasted for maybe forty seconds.
They sat in silence for several minutes as the body slowly swayed to a halt.
The woman left first. Her hands shook as she gave her empty glass back to Smith. She did not say goodbye. As soon as the woman’s footsteps had faded down the hallway the fat man stood up and walked to the closet where Smith was tidying away the glasses and liquor. They whispered to each other and then he left. He winked at the man in the yellow tie as he walked out the door, a wink of comradeship, a wink of, you’re all right Jack, you’re one of us.
Several minutes passed and still the man in the yellow tie had not stood up. Smith had stalled at the closet for as long as he could and now he walked across the room and said, ‘Could you leave please, sir? I don’t mean to be rude but I am expecting another party at ten. I have to clean up, you understand.’
The man stood up on unsure legs.
Smith looked at him curiously, ‘Was it not what you were expecting?’
‘No… I thought, I… I didn’t think it would be like that.’
‘Hmmm, most of my clients have a grand old time. This is the ultimate folly. Witnessing an event such as this is the definitive measure of social standing. How many people can say they have seen another human being commit suicide for their pleasure? You should be very proud of yourself.’
‘But, what about her children?’
‘Oh, don’t you worry about the children. It’s all taken care of; they’ll be out of that estate by the end of the month. I know a man who works for the Housing Authority, a good man, knows what’s what. He’ll get them and the girl’s grandmother moved to a nice new estate. No drugs, no gangs. Plus, the money she made from tonight will see them right for a year or two.’
‘But, if things were that bad then why didn’t he just move them to a new estate anyway? She must have asked. Why did she have to go through this?’
Smith moved closer to the man and patted him on the shoulder like he was dealing with a naïve child.
‘Look, don’t feel guilty. You just helped three kids. Not everyone can get what they want. I doubt my friend in the Housing Authority would have even taken Laura’s phone call. Why should he? What could she have possibly done for him?’
The man felt sick, Smith seemed unable to grasp the idea that a person might help someone else and not expect something in return. It was wholly alien to him. Laura’s body was still hanging from the ceiling. The man stood there, looking into Smith’s eyes, he felt lost.
‘But, it’s his job. The girl shouldn’t have had to do anything to get… I mean, why didn’t he…’
Smith tutted loudly. ‘Just leave, go on, get out.’ He was getting angry, the carefully nurtured accent was evaporating. Underneath all the refined airs and graces lay nothing but a mean streak and a wide smear of spite.
Smith could tell that this was one customer who would not be returning, and what good is a customer like that? Still, the man did not move.
‘Look, are you going to fuck off or what?’ I’ve got a business to run here. Fucking pain in the arse do-gooders. You paid for it, pal. If there wasn’t a demand then I wouldn’t have a business, would I?’
And then Smith was right in the man’s face, his eyes bulging with contempt. His fists were clenched.
‘D’you know what? You people make me fucking sick. How many houses have you got? Ehh? How many fucking flats have you got rented out to saps like her? You’re as guilty as I am, pal. At least I make it fucking quick. You just bleed them dry for fifty fucking years and then dump them on the kerb when they can’t pay their bills. This is the new Ireland, pal, if you’re not on top then you can fuck right off. I made my money, she didn’t, she’s dead, tough shit. I didn’t make the system, I just live in it and I’m not going to feel bad for knowing how to play the game. They’re nothing but scum; some of these people haven’t even got cars for fuck’s sake.’
The man in the yellow tie felt the world rushing in on him. He felt more alone than he ever had in his life. He had been cold for so long that this sudden weight of empathy was liable to overwhelm him. He hurried through the door and down the long, dark hallway to the stairs. He could still hear Smith shouting, ‘Fucking arsehole.’
He stumbled out through the main door on unsteady legs. At the bottom of the steps leading up to the door he saw two young men getting out of a BMW.
He paused there, leaning against the cold steel railings as he tried to steady his breathing. The young men passed him, raucous, loud, and made their way inside.
When the door had swung closed he looked in through the grimy window. They were laughing as they made their way up the stairs.