Valentine Neary, senior bouncer at the Peacock Bar and Niteclub, had something in his teeth. His tongue probed along his upper row, where something wiry and prickly had snagged itself between bicuspids. With quick, successive jabs of his tongue-tip Val dislodged it. He swabbed the inside of his mouth with his pinkie and held it up to the yellow eave light. Val studied the thing adhering to the glistening pad of his finger. Once he realised what it was, he couldn’t help but grin.
Boris, Val’s right hand man, reversed out the side door tucked inside the club’s doubledoored entrance, bearing two pint glasses of Lucozade bunched with knuckles of ice.
‘Credit that, Boris.’ ‘Credit what, boss?’ ‘I just pulled a pinprick of pussy out of my gob.’ Boris searched Val’s face, not quite catching the sense. ‘Prick of pussy… what?’
Val looked back down at his cocked pinkie, at the vagrant filament stuck there; it was a cunt hair, electric red, and it belonged to Martina Boran, the youngest and fairest daughter of Davy Boran, the Peacock Bar’s proprietor.
‘Nothing, lad.’ Val smiled again, and with a flick of his fingers commended the hair to the North Mayo night.
‘Ta, Boris,’ he said, taking his Lucozade. ‘No problem, boss.’
Val could make out the noise of a vehicle approaching the turnoff. He took a gulp of Lucozade, swished it round his mouth before swallowing, and checked his watch. One thirty-three a.m.; the lights were going up in just over an hour but still they came, in a steady stream, discharged by taxis and minivans into the floodlit murk of the club’s gravel parking lot, the boys and girls of Glanbeigh Town and environs. The Peacock got a young crowd. Over the years it had acquired a reputation for its selective—and selectively lenient—door policy; the sign tacked to the wall behind the ticket booth said YOU MUST BE OVER 21 TO ENTER, but it was well known that a certain laxity was permitted. Fanny frequently got in without ID as long as they’d dolled themselves up to the due degree. Lads were also expected to make an effort; proper shoes, a shirt, and to try the door in groups no bigger than three. The main rule was: no drunks. Val had been on the door for eight years, and could read the drink in people’s faces unerringly. Him and the rest of his crew—Boris and Mick and Mossy— brooked no bullshit. Anyone with even a notion of acting the prick got the boot.
‘Is busy, busy,’ said Boris, nodding as the taxi pulled into the carpark. From it emerged four girls. Val and Boris took them in, the four barelegged, in miniskirts and heels and tops cut from impressively inadequate swatches of material. Val squared his shoulders and cleared his throat. It was doubtful any of them were older than eighteen. As they approached the girls became quiet under the cool wattage of the bouncers’ gazes.
‘Evening, ladies. How are we all doing?’ ‘Awright’ ‘Grand.’ ‘Super.’
Only one did not immediately answer Val’s question, and she was the prettiest. She drew her pale face up, tucked a dangling tendril of dark hair behind her ear and narrowed her brown eyes.
‘Well, sweetlips?’ Val said, and smiled. ‘Not so bad, Val, no worse than yourself, I’d say.’
So she knew him—but then most everyone in town did, at least by rep. Val couldn’t quite stick a name to her, but nursed an inkling she might be a Devaney.
‘Not long left in it tonight now girls—’ Val made a show of checking his wristwatch, ‘mightn’t be worth your while, I’d say.’
Might-be Devaney grinned sourly, and sneaked a look off to the side of the building, where there was nothing but a couple of parked staff cars. She looked back at Val, kinked one perfectly delineated eyebrow.
‘Ah no, Val,’ she said, ‘we’re still keen anyways.’
Val inclined his head and puffed out his cheeks, as if considering a revelatory piece of evidence, then stepped back and pulled open the door.
‘In you go, girls. Enjoy.’ Their faces lit up with relief. ‘Ta, Val!’ ‘Ta!’ ‘Cheers!’
Val only nodded, impassive. Might-be Devaney held his eye for a moment, then brushed silently past. Val took a sup of his Lucozade and plainly assessed the girls’ behinds as they queued at the ticket booth. Boris stamped their hands and they slipped one by one into the club’s hammering, strobelit interior.
Back when he’d first encountered Martina Boran, she was just a kid, a mute, studious sixteen year old burdened with braces and baby fat. She’d sometimes drop into the Peacock after school, when her father was tending bar in the lounge and Val was helping the floor staff set up for the evening run. Weekday afternoons in the bar were morgue quiet, the only regular customers a handful of the town’s senior pissheads, intent on drinking through their pension money by a respectable hour. Davy loved to talk his daughters up—the eldest was a teacher in Naas, the middle one a radiographer in Bristol—and was no different with Martina.
‘This one,’ he’d say, grabbing the girl by her shapeless shoulders, ‘is off to Trinity, boys. Medicine!’
Martina would only roll her eyes and sigh. She’d take a booth at the rear of the lounge, haul a brick-thick textbook out of her bag and bury her head in it for the next couple of hours, face set in an expression of miserable diligence, while her father happily pulled pints for the geriatrics pickling on their stools.
A couple of years passed. Martina seemed to drop off the radar altogether in her Leaving Cert year, and the next Val heard she was off at college; but in Galway, not Dublin, and doing Arts, not Medicine. She turned up again at the start of this summer, Davy having decided to put her to work in the Peacock on weekends. Now nineteen, Martina had grown up and into herself. First night on the job she showed up sporting a pair of knee high leather boots and strategically gouged pink tights, hair dyed to a high orange flame and a murderous glint in her eye that said the dowdy teenage bookworm of yesteryear was dead and gone.
Val found himself inventing excuses to hover in her vicinity. He’d lean against the edge of the bar as Martina stacked glasses into the washer, stall by a booth as she swabbed down tabletops sticky with spilled spirits. They traded banter, drolleries, exchanged knowing looks as the Saturday night crowd heaved and swelled around them. One night a few weeks back Val offered her a lift home. Sequestered side by side in Val’s Nissan in a shadowed corner of the parking lot, they talked pleasantly and meaninglessly for a few minutes, until Martina cut across whatever anecdote or observation Val was unspooling and asked him to stop acting the bollocks and do what it was he wanted to do. Val’s grip tightened round the steering wheel as he mumbled something about not being sure what that was. Martina had only tutted, then shoved her hand decisively down the front of Val’s trousers.
Since then, they’d been meeting up in a casual way a couple of times a week, usually on those evenings their work shifts coincided. Because he was almost thirty and she was a decade younger, because she was heading back to college at the end of summer, and because of the complications that would inevitably ensue should her Da get wind of who was ploughing the apple of his eye, Val had proposed that the thing between them be kept to themselves. It would serve no useful purpose to have their business broadcast about town.
It won’t, Martina said.
The night club closed, the last of the crowd hounded out, Val went looking for Martina. She wasn’t in the lounge, where the other bartenders were inverting stools and hoisting them onto tables. He figured she was up having a crafty smoke. He climbed the stairs to the first floor, moved past the ladies and gents and tried the fire exit at the end of the corridor.
Martina and Joan Doody, a stout, pleasant girl Val had rode a couple of times last Christmas, were standing outside, at the furthest end of the small fenced balcony that overlooked the carpark. Their backs were turned to Val. They were sharing a smoke, but the smell—heady and herby—told Val it was no ordinary cigarette.
‘Well,’ said Val.
The girls startled and turned, Martina almost dropping the joint.
‘Jesus, Val,’ Martina said. She jutted her lips, expelled a flume of silver smoke.
‘Hope that’s medicinal,’ Val said, and laughed. He then surprised both girls, surprised himself too, by casually forking his index and ring finger and gesturing for the roach.
‘Cheers,’ he said.
Val pinched the joint awkwardly between his fingers—it was already half gone— and jabbed its end into his pursed lips. He inhaled. The lit end brightened and stung his fingertips and the smoke tore at his throat.
‘Hold it long as you can, Val,’ Joan said, smiling.
Val tried counting to ten in his head, got as far as four then barked out a cough. His eyes sizzled with tears. He put his fist to his mouth, composed himself.
‘Didn’t know you partook, Val,’ Martina said, taking the joint back from him. ‘You’ve corrupted me now, girls.’
Val wondered if Martina knew that he and Joan once had a thing, but figured she didn’t. It wasn’t serious anyway, petered out equably, and Joan had since become re-engaged to the lad she was having trouble with at the time. Val had a knack of staying on the right side of the women he slept with, a necessary skill when you operated in as tight a radius as Glanbeigh town. He looked down through the fence’s honeycomb of wire.
‘How’re things faring out down there?’ he said.
‘The hangers on are hanging in,’ Martina said, and stepped forward, so she was standing shoulder to shoulder beside him.
From their elevated niche, the three watched as the last of the night’s crowd slowly dispersed. Girls huddled together rubbing their bare, goosefleshed arms. Boys stood alone with their chests out, fists wadded into pockets, glowering at the dark with thwarted, bloodshot eyes. Other boys and girls leant into one another, tangling arms, laughing conspicuously. Digits were being carefully fingered into mobiles. Girls lingered on the threshold of taxi-doors as boys extorted a final kiss and hug, the accompanying grope—open palm grazing the curve of a buttock—so brief as to be plausibly inadvertent. And certain pairings had already slipped away alone together, leaving their friends to make their own way home.
‘Gobshites,’ Martina said. ‘Let’s finish the clean up then get a drink, fuckers. We deserve it.’
‘He might have to go.’ ‘He being the Drummer,’ said Joan. ‘Aye. Might be time for me to deal in his chips.’ ‘The lad on the course. Aiden.’ ‘Yep,’ said Martina. Val smiled.
Martina and Joan were lying side by side on a tartan blanket spread out on the grass in front of Val’s Nissan. Val was leaning against the car’s bumper, his tailbone knuckling the lip of the bonnet. His arms were folded across his chest, hands tucked pensively into his pits. They were on the bank of the Mule river, the car parked maybe ten feet from the water’s edge, at the end of a sanded driveway leading down from the main road. The Peacock was a quarter mile back up along the road. It was gone five in the a.m. Just before lockup Martina sent Val a text: FANCY A DRINK DOWN BY THE MULE AFTER. USUAL SPOT 15 MINS;). Val left first, in his car, Martina following on foot, a bottle of rum filched from the supply room stuffed under her jacket, and Joan in tow.
The darkness was beginning to lift, but the girls, as Val looked down at them, remained blurry and indistinct in the gloom.
‘And what’s the fool done to warrant being got shot of?’ Val said.
Silence. Martina made a noise, a sharp, cat-like cringe. Joan responded with a nasal snicker. Val shifted his weight from one foot to the other, feeling rebuked for daring to intrude into the girls’ flow.
‘He’s not a fool,’ Martina said eventually. ‘Well, not exactly. He’s nice, Val, nice. But we’ve been going out five, six months now. And he’s been on my tits all summer bugging me to head down to him or for him to come up here and hang, and… I just couldn’t be arsed, either way.’ ‘So he’s a nice buck, but not nice enough, or maybe too nice,’ Joan opined sagely. ‘It’s like just chill man, I’ll see you when I see you, y’know,’ said Martina. ‘Oh, I hate when it’s like that.’ ‘I don’t even like his band. He’s in a band and I don’t even like them.’ ‘Well, relationships are… dicey propositions at the best of times,’ said Joan and laughed. She must have surely figured out what the story was between himself and Martina by now, Val thought.
‘He’s so excitable. Laps at my neck, like a dog. Pants,’ Martina said, sticking out her tongue and going hah hah hah. Joan started shrieking.
Val came up off the Nissan’s bonnet and walked down to the edge of the water. He was keyed up, as he always was after a Saturday night shift. Light from the main road threw a little illumination across the river’s breadth, catching the dimpling and distending of the black waves as they pushed by.
‘It’s nice, isn’t it?’ Martina was up and behind Val now. She pressed the mouth of the bottle of rum into Val’s back, ran it over the notches of his spine. ‘What?’ said Val. ‘The water. Looks nice. Moving along there, like a… well-trained creature.’ ‘You pissed?’ said Val. ‘Thought a man like you wouldn’t need to ask that question,’ she said. ‘I can’t see your face,’ said Val. ‘Kissy, kissy,’ Joan groaned, supine on the tartan. ‘Down here reminds me of Groningen,’ Martina said. ‘Groningan?’ Val said. ‘It’s in Holland. I was there for a bit last summer with the crew from college, when we were doing Europe. We stayed in these wood cabins in a big park outside of the town, more like a forest really, with a pond and a bunch of swans living on it. At night we used to take mushrooms and go sit by the water and watch the swans glide around, and wait for old Father Time to swing by.’
‘Father Time?’ Val said. ‘Father Time,’ Martina said, and Val could hear the smile in her voice. ‘He was this tramp, I guess, lived on the grounds apparently, though no one was sure where. He looked about two hundred years old and had this mountainous shaggy white beard that trailed down to his nuts. He used to tool around the woods at all hours on the oldest, creakiest bicycle you’ve ever seen. We’d be sitting there, out of our gourds, chilling with the swans at two in the morning, and then you’d hear the squeaking of the wheels and the clanking of the chain, and we’d start nudging each other and saying here comes old Father Time, laughing our asses off, and then he’d go whizzing by, and we’d shout and wave at him but he’d never stop or say anything, just give us the same wide-eyed spooky stare he’d always give us. He had a dog, a dinky little jack russell that’d come trotting along after him. The dog had a leash clipped to the collar around its neck, and it used to chase after the bike carrying the end of the leash bundled up between its jaws.’
‘It’s a clever dog can take itself for a walk like that,’ Val said, watching as a pair of headlights approached and pulled in on the other side of the river. The far bank was relatively built up; there was a lit parking lot, a boardwalk and a wooden pier where a few townsfolk kept their rowboats and one-mast sailboats tethered.
‘Look now,’ he said.
Two men got out of the car. They were toting fishing rods and tackleboxes, and were dressed in waders, those shoulder-strapped, breast high waterproof leggings. The pair plodded along the boardwalk, encumbered and inelegant, like men in spacesuits. At the edge of the riverbank, they checked their lines and stepped carefully out into the current.
‘You like this place, don’t you, Val. You like everything about it,’ said Martina. ‘That sounds like an accusation.’ ‘Not at all. Someone has to stay put, hold the fort.’ ‘You’re not going anywhere that far.’ ‘Galway’s not that far,’ said Martina, ‘but it might as well be the moon for people like you.’
One of the fishermen drew his rod up over his shoulder and pitched it forward in a fluid stroke. The baited hook buried itself in the skin of the water.
The following Saturday, the first in September, Martina blew off her final scheduled shift in the Peacock to head back to Galway early. No valedictory fuck for Val, not even a farewell text. It was a busy night. Val spent the evening resisting the urge to check his messageless mobile. Just before two a.m., Mossy radioed in from the dance floor. Val and Boris waded in through the crowd to find two young lads going viciously at it beneath the DJ booth. Mossy attempted to prise them apart and received a shot to the kidneys from the taller one for his troubles. He doubled over and went to ground. Without a word, Val came up behind the tall kid and wrapped him in a headlock. The kid swung an arm back, trying to claw at Val’s face. Val pressed his forearm up into the kid’s neck until his knees obligingly buckled.
Later that night, at home, undressing for the shower, Val realised the kid had got him after all. He touched the back of his head. In the flesh behind his right ear was a row of narrow crescent indents where the kid had dug his nails in; the skin was broken but not bleeding. After his shower, Val walked into the kitchen in nothing but his boxers, secreting a trail of sloppy wet footprints onto the lino, and fished a bottle of beer from the bottom of the fridge. The moon, bright and engorged, shone down through the window above the sink. Val sat at the table for what seemed like a long time. After a while, he picked up his mobile.
The text he eventually sent Martina was so long, he had to dispatch it in four sequential segments. He didn’t think it likely that Martina would reply, or reply in any meaningful way. Still, he asked her how she was, was Galway as lively as ever, was she intent on dumping the drummer or was she going to give the lad another shot. Val said that he was sitting in his kecks in his kitchen at four in the morning with nothing but the usual shite having gone down at the Peacock, no change there and there likely never would be, and that no matter what had or had not happened between them he was looking forward to seeing her the next time she made it back from the moon.