On television screens families and housemates and people alone watch footage of the destruction. Predicted to be the most powerful storm since the nation’s records began, it is the tail of a Category 3 hurricane that has decimated parts of Mexico and the Revilladego Islands. Here, trees come down along primary roads and wild boreens. There is already a death toll, the first note of its staccato passage struck in South Leitrim, an elderly man favouring the promise of a pub and the local news over the danger of the gales. He is gone forever now, buried into the lane by an old yew. Further south, two people are married in the eyes of God. They say that the hotel would probably be closed—the church too—but because of the recession must take what business it can get. The cars should never have ventured beyond the driveway, they say, but still they move in slow train along the abandoned dual carriageway, from country chapel to four-star city centre hotel. From backseats the wedding party cheerfully ask the drivers to sound the horns—even as they glance nervously out the window, watching for a swaying tree or a cow lifted on high like in the film—but the klaxon call is lost in the howling as they descend into the vacant city sprawl, each car rocking from side to side.
Chip bags, cans, plastic bottles, newspapers, polystyrene cups, wrappers, pens, cardboard, fruit skin, cartons of various design; all kinds of debris is chased up the Mall as the cars stall outside the hotel. An empty shopping trolley shudders across the road to clatter into the curb and fall, sliding then in the direction of the river. ‘Fuck this,’ John says to his suited friends, and he is the first to force his way from the car.
John knows most here, old classmates, but he was probably invited to this small wedding only because he attended both stag parties, the first in Prague and the second, for those who couldn’t travel, in Wexford. As he opens the door the gale rips at its hinges. He struggles to counter that power with both of his underused arms and his suit jacket flutters, suddenly panicking, wanting to be anywhere but on his shoulders. Slamming the door he makes for the troop of staff who have gathered inside the glass-fronted lobby.
As two porters let him in, the current bursts through the lobby like a tantrum, scattering flyers and brochures from the marble reception counter. A vase topples from its plinth only to be caught by a young, surprised waitress.
‘Fair play to you!’ John digs his hands into his pockets, pinching his thighs, embarrassed now that he is the first. He should have at least escorted a lady; anything would have been better than the selfish dash for refuge. He stands among the uniforms, looks out with them to the wedding cars and remarks at what a crazy thing they have all done. ‘We should all be at home.’
‘None of us’ll ever forget this day,’ the manager says, an edge of excitement in his Northern accent. He’ll tell this one forever.
Outside, some tiles come off a roof and we feel that the world for all its sins is truly coming to an end. When the first car moves off John is stricken with fear, again pinches his thighs. They’re calling the whole thing off, going home without him. He leers giddily at the two porters. ‘They’re leaving!’
The porters smile, not confident enough in their English to comment.
Ribbons cling to the bonnet of the Rolls Royce, are a frantic blur as it turns a wide circle, coming up onto the pavement and lining up about two feet from the doors. Making up for his earlier lapse in etiquette, John pushes his way out and opens the back door. Puts a hand out for Josephine Kelleher, neé Kelly, who wears a simple ivory dress. A petite girl of twenty-seven, with little cleavage beneath the long falling curtains of her dark hair, Josephine was the first dance John ever had. A slow set at a rowing club disco, perhaps aged eleven. She steps out now and smiles at him as if he is a total stranger. Says, ‘Thanks,’ and places a hand on her head to keep the hair right. Says, ‘Dear God!’
It should have been Cian Kelleher chaperoning her like this, would have been, had John not stepped out with his stupid smile and fraudulent bravado. Cian was a year ahead of John throughout school, had always that enviable quiet confidence. He never needed anyone’s attention, never had to talk himself up. Even his wife fell into his arms. A toolmaker now, John cannot look him in the face as he follows after his wife and the Rolls Royce moves on.
The second car follows suit. Relieved parents finally arrive, in the company of the priest and a sole surviving grandparent. They remark yet again on the weather and the fact that they are almost the only ones here over forty years of age. They are grateful for these two seeds of conversation. Next come bridesmaids and groomsmen, and the people with whom John shared the fourth car. JJ strides up and asks, ‘Can we get pissed now?’ Soon the lobby becomes a quiet place again and, in a small function room nearer the belly of the building, away from the howling winds, the bar is set upon by twenty-something-year-olds.
‘By Christ,’ John says to JJ at some point, ‘what kind of omen is it for the holy union of our own two friends?’
John finds himself watching Orla, a cousin of the bride, as she stands alongside him at the bar, chatting to one of the few elders. Her eyes are set apart, large brown eyes, and she has a strange kind of boxer’s nose. She is, by all related accounts of her, a drunken lunatic. He watches for signs of this, excited deep down, and sees the proof in the way she looks unashamedly into people’s faces as she talks to them, in the way that when she puts her gin and tonic down it is left in limbo, leaning from beer mat to bar counter. The glass is neither here nor there, and the nervous potential energy is thrilling. John is attracted to her in a way he is not attracted to the mother of his boy.
‘Look at us,’ JJ is saying. ‘Twenty years ago this is the schoolyard. We’d all be here bar a few. We’d be playing soccer with a tennis ball.’
John knows how this one goes. ‘And now we’re marrying.’ ‘Fuck,’ says JJ. ‘Christ.’
JJ has piled on weight since those school days, addicted to the meat he gets at a staff discount from O’Sullivan’s. He sups his pint fondly. He often does a great trick where he joins his hands behind his back and takes a full pint of cider up in the grip of his teeth. It has even been recorded and committed to the Internet for anyone to see.
Paddy too has a trick: he can’t sing, which makes it all the mightier when he straps his tie below his receding hair line and climbs aboard a table to belt out a full and perfect recital of We Didn’t Start the Fire at the top of his lungs. Then there’s Boris, who’ll fall asleep anywhere after five-to-seven pints. At John’s own twenty-first birthday party, on a December night, Boris was found under a Ford Mondeo in the car park, at four in the morning. Why don’t I have a trick? John asks himself. Why am I always in the crowd for these things?
‘And now we’re all builders,’ Paddy is saying. ‘And teachers.’
‘And butchers and accountants and painters.’ ‘And bankers and doctors.’
‘And IT people.’ JJ points a finger.
I don’t have a thing. John tries to appear nostalgic. I mingle. I say things that make people pleased with themselves. I go on the Internet all day and then repeat what I’ve learned. But nothing marks me out. He finishes his drink and raises it to his gang. ‘More of the same?’
‘We’re all grown up now,’ Paddy concludes. ‘We’re the fabric of society,’ Boris finishes.
‘The future,’ John adds. They toast themselves.
They drink a few pints more before they are seated at round white tables. We are all drunk, John believes as he pulls a chair, believing it in the way a man does after four pints of stout, in the way that life has become an epiphanic thing, in the way that JJ’s gesture, as he speaks with a brick of a hand on Boris’s bony shoulder, is in some way symbolic. Orla, the artist, takes her seat next to him, giving him that broad smile, her soft nose the north star of his vision. She shakes his hand in a single pump, her fist small even in his average, unweathered hand. He sees his own clipped nails, thinks of his days at the computer calculating risk, saying words down the phone like streamline, credit, internal.
‘You’re one of the locals?’ she asks, lifting her glass.
‘For my sins, I admit to knowing this crowd,’ he replies, hoisting his own. ‘Cheers.’ Her voice crackles as if she’s already smoked too many cigarettes. ‘Cheers.’
JJ laughs. ‘Cheers!’
‘Let’s get slaughtered,’ Paddy says.
JJ is all grin, spinning empty side plates. ‘No date?’ ‘He’d only slow me down.’
‘Ahow! You’re out to get your hole so?’
Orla hoots, raising her eyes to the ceiling drapes.
‘Don’t mind this oaf.’ John fidgets with his pint, already feeling the protective instinct.
‘Sure, if I get a good offer.’
Paddy comes around the table, red-faced, big-eared and joyful, gets down on one knee, pumps Orla’s little hand and says, ‘Patrick Leonard at your service,’ and the whole table is released into laughter.
JJ holds court at the table, talking about wedding presents. Meats and vegetables are served. He has given to bride and groom a set of kitchen knives and chopping boards. He tells them how important it is to have good blades.
‘Do ye like meat?’ he asks the present ladies, and there is lusty mirth again, that of men enjoying their laughter, falling about like maniacs. Wine arrives, the storm pushed to the back of the mind now.
Only one of the girls does not seem to enjoy the food. She’s shy and cynical, can only poke at things with her fork. The wine is finished off; they order more. Blaming the storm, the hotel is now down to red only. It is poured and enjoyed, and no one worries about the disruption to the delivery schedule. John asks Orla what kind of stuff she paints. Paddy tells them about computer games and John stops him to point out how infantile their generation has become.
‘Our fathers were working hard and raising families when they were twenty-five. Look at us talking about games!’ This, full in the knowledge that he can pass an entire day at online poker.
Bending to retrieve his fallen knife, he sees Orla’s stockinged calf under the table. Even with his mouth full of mashed potato he wants to bite a chunk out of that calf. Suddenly it is later and they are discussing pornography.
‘It’s great to see so many young people here today.’ Mr Kelleher seems afraid of the microphone. He isn’t ancient himself, maybe not far beyond his fiftieth year, tall, grey-haired, another quiet man, speaking in metronomic sentences that betray his recollection by heart of a memorised speech. ‘Ye are more educated, more talented than us that came before ye, and ye are all, especially you, Cian and Josey, a credit to your parents. And remember these compliments when it’s time to care for us old fogies.’ The jokey plea is more touching because of the speaker’s satisfaction in the well-rehearsed punchline. There’s more, but most have already tuned out.
Deborah calls from Fuerteventura and he takes the phone out to the corridor to hear her better. Tells her he misses her. The three of them are having a ball, she says—her mother is not getting on her nerves this time—and when he speaks to his son he tells him he loves him. ‘I’ll see you in a week,’ he says.
The servers clear the cutlery and crockery until the plains of tables are populated only by herds of various species of glass. The wedding party lines the perimeter of the laminate wooden floor and watches the happy couple take their first dance. There are no rehearsed moves here, no flamboyance, only a slow shuffle. Cian and Josephine mirror each other’s comfort.
John watches Orla dance with another cousin. She bounces her hips from side to side. In his bewildered mind’s eye she is a mermaid on a seaweed-strewn beach. Her borrowed legs are pale, shimmering, and he feels a deep hunger.
‘No prisoners,’ Paddy decides, and the talk goes like this until they are dancing themselves and trying to make fools enough of themselves to be charming, throwing arms and legs, doing twists and pumping fists and sweating, sweating, and going to the bar for more drink and shouting louder and louder all the time to get each other’s attention.
John and Orla rant about some show they both enjoyed as kids, some painting he likes and wonders does she know, some important point about the state of play in the property market, some complaint about the banks, some story about how he plans for the future with his partner and son, some moan about how much he hates his job, how she’s living her dream and how they were all meant for better than this, some borrowed anecdote about a friend who kidnapped a midget. And he’s thinking about wedding mornings in the family home—the getting dressed up, the gel in the hair, the fixing of the tie in the mirror, the watch, the socks, the waiting for others, the fingering of the lapels, the open door letting the air in and just waiting, waiting, waiting to be walked out of. And still in the front of his mind he’s thinking about Orla, her mouth, his room upstairs, about the vacant spaces all around them to lie down into. He’s got his arm on her shoulder and then around her shoulder and she’s punching his chest with her tiny fist when he mocks her. He’s telling her how much he loves his girlfriend, how his little boy is learning the alphabet. Then they’re on the dance floor again and he’s holding her two clammy hands and they’re rolling off each other and everybody is reeling, the place heaving like a ship in the storm.
A crowd has gathered. ‘JJ! JJ! JJ! JJ! JJ! JJ! JJ!’ Hands absent, the glass comes up, always seeming like it’s about to slip from his lips. The nectar drains away until there is only a clear pint glass upturned, seeming to balance on his chin, and he bends then to let it back on the table and everybody is applauding hysterically. Paddy dances on a chair, beating the air with his fists. There is talk of smoking joints from someone’s bedroom window. Pills are reported to be going round, nobody knowing the names of these things anymore. Boris watches, hands in pockets, a dopey, gleeful smile across his face. Despite wanting to fuck Orla very hard John does in fact love his girlfriend. Tomorrow, he would regret it—if it were to happen— and here she is downing red wine in front of him, her bottom hitting gently against his legs, an ecstatic observer of life, her eyes and mouth saying, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!’
He is happy to find the bathroom empty. Staggering into the cubicle, he bounces off the wall, the toilet seat, the cistern. After letting down his trousers he prepares a handful of toilet paper on the cistern and then, facing the wall, satisfies himself. It is over quickly. Twitching culmination of ecstasy, he drops the sodden paper in the bowl and rights his trousers. Tucks the shirt and loosens. Thoughts of his absent partner flood him with tenderness. Deborah, he says. Debbie. The room spins.
On exiting the cubicle, the vision of the white tiles soothes him. He smiles. JJ comes in the door. ‘HOOOOOOOOOOO!!!’ John cracks up. JJ is pissing in the urinal and singing and John shakes him by the shoulders so that his piss will fly. JJ roars but pisses on and John falls about in convulsions and then some lad is laughing alongside them and now they are talking football.
In the wedding hall people pose for photographs, postures ludicrous and sincere. John emerges from the bathroom and realises the beauty of the room. Fairy lights adorn the long curtains and ivory drapes billow about a huge chandelier. Spotlights strobe the dancefloor, making holograms of the dancers. Everything reels and then Orla is there again.
‘I was wondering where you went.’ She takes him by the arms.
There are bottles of red wine still on the tables, tables that are lonely Shinto gods now, the chairs all pulled away from them. Orla arrives with a tray of blue shots and the group winces when they empty them. Someone else returns with more. ‘Where does all the drink come from?’ The shirts and tongues hang out; the eyes have lost all focus. Paddy’s tie is on his head. ‘We are the generation that remembers life before the mobile phone, before Internet. Where did all the fucking drink come from?’
John dances with Orla, a glass of red wine in his hand, the liquid swirling in the glass, funny how it moves like that. Some of it lifts out of the glass, defying gravity, spilling onto her dress. It’s magical how it happens, but then she’s looking at the wine stain on her chest and rubbing at it. He apologises, mumbling, and she laughs as she tilts a dollop of her own red wine onto his shirt. ‘Now we’re even!’
‘Even?’ He pours wine onto her legs, where it runs over her knees. She shrieks. People look serious, then they laugh.
She empties a glass over his head. Lads around them are dancing with each other like lovers, hugging and cheek-kissing and mock-humping. Orla puts her hands to her mouth, shocked and amused at what she has done. JJ is hysterical about it all so John throws what’s left of his glass into JJ’s face. The dumbfounded look comes into the butcher, the widening of the eyes and O-shaped mouth. Orla is bent over, crying tears of joy, when JJ empties the contents of his own glass into her hairdo. Then she is shrieking again and someone else gets involved on her behalf, throwing a clear liquid onto JJ’s shirt. It is as if John has only blinked and suddenly everybody on the dance floor is pouring alcohol over everybody else. Bottles of the Shiraz have been retrieved from tables and are poured liberally overhead. The floor is a shallow, bloody pool. JJ gets Paddy in a headlock and decants a half-bottle through his hair. Orla slips screaming on her backside. Some people still dance to the music, throwing their arms around and embracing the drink dispensed over them as rain after a drought.
The elders look on with awful faces. Paddy dives chest-first across the wet surface, crying, ‘Slip’n’Slide!’ John is tittering, tittering, tittering and still pouring whatever drink he can find over friends and strangers, sloshing some of it into his mouth, the rest over shoulders and backs. Three porters are trying to break it up but they’re getting doused themselves. John sees Boris asleep at a table, head buried in folded arms; a full bottle is emptied out of John’s happy hands.
The lights come on and the music stops. People drenched in wine run about like children in a gory water fight. There is a brief bout of fisticuffs, soon broken up. The bar has been shut down and John and JJ trawl the tables for leftover drink. Someone says the guards have been called. Some men are pulling off heavy red shirts; one cousin is down to a pair of underpants, standing by the top table with his hands on his hips looking crossly about him. The two newlyweds are nowhere to be seen. The women begin to disappear into bathrooms and bedrooms.
‘We’d be thrown out but for the storm,’ someone says. ‘The army’s out because of the storm.’
‘For fuck’s sake, we’re not at war!’
The manager is telling people to go to their rooms. Anyone not staying is to assemble in the lobby.
‘We’ll have to pay for this damage.’ ‘Battle fucking Royale!’
‘How the fuck did this happen?’
‘It’s only a bit of craic for Christ’s sake.’
‘The thing is that it’s the random mutation of non-random cells.’ ‘Let’s nobody lose their cool.’
‘Who started it? For fuck’s sake, who started it?’ ‘That’s how you do it now.’
‘There’s no fucking taxis.’
‘Of course there’s no taxis. There’s no anything out there.’
John understands none of this. He rocks there dead-eyed. He thinks about the Stanton account. About the Panini machine outside his shared office. Then there’s the wine coursing down all of the faces and arms, filling the shoes. He’s suddenly hungry.
‘Has anyone any food?’ he asks. ‘Has anyone any grub?’ In the lobby the manager stares, his arms folded.
Then John wanders corridors alone, in a dream within a dream, passing numbered bedroom doors. Down an echoing staircase with a yellow block wall. The little glass windows of service doors, all locked, show him kitchens and stores where he could eat if he could only gain access. A fire escape. He goes out. Fuck them all.
The howling winds barrel down the dark side street. All becomes clear where it was muddled and dimmed before. The door won’t open again to let him back in and he is bullied along by abusive nature, whose invisible power is unfathomable. He lets out his tongue and turns his head sideways to catch the currents. In moments his clothes are dry. He could eat a horse. He could eat the chunks of slate and masonry that litter the streets, the fast apocalyptic clouds above him too. Tie flying in his face, he takes out his phone to call someone but fumbles and drops it, watches as the pieces are sucked away down the pavement.
‘Fuck!’ His words too are swept away before he has a chance to hear them. ‘FUCK YOU!’ All the wine, he thinks, shuddering in the cold gale.
By the river he grips the railing to stop himself going over. A million white waves ride the impossibly black water. He misses his son. I could eat the riverbed, he mutters to himself, enjoying his mute voice and the wind rattling through his head. I’m too hungry to go on. In the far distance he sees an army truck moving slowly, lights on full. He will buy the boy a remote control fire engine for his birthday. He is swept along in the direction of a bridge that shines neon on the river. A property sign flies out of the darkness and past him, hitting the railing only a few feet away, tipping up and sailing out over the river where it splashes into the dark again. The new city hall comes into view, a lit-up window-and-steel wedge on the cityscape. He’s so hungry, he could eat city hall. He could mangle the whole fucking country, the storm and all, his hunger that of the consuming void. He wonders whether hunger might be his thing. Staggering along, he wishes he was anywhere else: back at the hotel with everyone, home in bed alone, or on a beach in Fuerteventura maybe, watching the boy build sand castles, comforting him when they are washed away by the tide, scurrying to help him begin them again. More than that, he wishes that he was no longer hungry, or that he could be certain about even one thing.