Owen Doran was sitting at the bar of The Boatman Tavern when his friend and former bandmate Eli Cassidy came through the door. By then Doran was the Boatman’s sole visible occupant; shortly prior to Eli’s entrance, Doran had witnessed the Tavern’s barman, a monosyllabic Eastern European with a pale, sharp-planed face, extravagantly scarred Adam’s apple and skin coloured crewcut, step into a trapdoor in the floor of the bar. The barman, hitherto a clipped, evasive presence, had raised a brow, established one second of ferociously lucid eye contact and dropped noiselessly out of sight.
Consigned so abruptly to his own company, Doran had felt exposed, on display. To stem his self-consciousness, he’d futzed with the extremities of his suit—pinching plumb his shirt cuffs and tamping securely under his chin the swollen, inexpertly folded knot of his tie. He had nipped restrainedly at his beer and tried his best to ignore the ticking of the clock above the bar.
When the Boatman’s door thrummed on its hinges, Doran turned to the source of the disturbance bearing an instinctive scowl; seeing that the intruder was Eli, his scowl deepened out of sheer surprise. But then it occurred to Doran why Eli was there. Wiping swiftly at his face with his fingers Doran permitted himself a corroborative glance at the bar clock—it was, finally, gone eleven, and it was a relief to know it was gone eleven. He turned back to Eli and modified his craggy, pug-dog lineaments into an expression someone who did not know Owen Doran might mistake for benign.
‘Welcome, fellow coward,’ he drawled.
Eli Cassidy blinked and frowned in his dark coat. A residue of the bright, rained-through morning had trailed him in and now it was diffusing from his hatless head and thin, sloping shoulders like a contagion.
‘You on your own?’ Eli said, shaking off his coat. Underneath, a black suit.
‘The man will be back, he’s just below ground a spell,’ Doran announced. ‘Drink?’
‘Redundant question,’ Eli replied, stalking forward.
Eli’s rinsed brogues squeaked on the Tavern’s floorboards. He transferred his overcoat from one arm to the other. Limply piled and dripping, it resembled the shapeless, lustreless corpse of a drowned animal. Eli heaped the coat on the stool adjacent to Doran’s, but remained standing himself. Eli looked good, a trim man in his forties in a well-cut suit, though Doran could detect the ingrained reek of tobacco beneath the crisp ozone scent of his wetness. And the suit, on second look, was not quite pristine; there were streaks and gobbets of something slick adhering to the trouser legs.
‘Is that shit on your knees?’ Doran asked.
Eli looked down.
‘Did you fall?’
‘Yes,’ Eli admitted. His face mottling, Eli considered the row of bar taps, their black levers level in the air. A little vein throbbed above his right eye. ‘I’ll just wait for the fucking guy, I guess then,’ he sniffed.
Doran sighed, fitted his feet against the lowest rung of his stool and levered himself halfway over the bar, gut pressing into the counter’s bevelled edge. He eyed the trapdoor in the floor, its rectangular metal door yawning upward, resting at a forty-five degree angle against a shelf of soft drinks and no sign at all of the barman.
With no little dexterity, Doran contorted his right arm in under the bar, extracted a pint glass, and from his side of the counter pressed down a tap and held the glass angled in place as he evenly poured a pint. Doran watched in the bar mirror as the glass filled, as the pint’s head bubbled and bloomed. Pouring from the wrong side of the bar required the same queasy narrowness of concentration as writing with your weaker hand.
‘Well done,’ Eli said as Doran handed him the pint. ‘The staff don’t mind?’
‘What staff?’ Doran said, looking around and snapping two fivers from his wallet. ‘There’s one post, and it’s been abandoned.’ He put the money by the taps.
‘How are you, anyway?’ Eli said.
‘How am I? A tad dismayed to find I’ve as little a pair of balls on me as you.’
Eli took a mouthful of his pint. ‘Psychic of you to have the same notion, alright,’ he said.
‘Cravens think along the same lines. Though I was here first,’ Doran said, ‘which makes me definitively the cowardlier.’
‘You didn’t go up at all, then?’ Eli asked, nodding towards the Tavern’s windows.
Doran shook his head. His dirty red hair was gathered and cinched into a small, Samurai-ish pigtail at the crown of his head, and he had tidied up his beard, Eli noted. Doran was a short man with a barrel chest lapsing into a greedy boy’s pot belly. He was wearing a cheap, boxy suit that was deep navy, not black, and his tie, unflatteringly wide and short, was patterned with what Eli now realised were tiny skulls. Such a flourish of gallows impudence was Doran’s style alright.
‘Did you?’ Doran said. ‘Go up?’
‘I had a wander,’ Eli admitted, low-voiced. ‘The Cemetery first. To see where they were putting her. It’s on a hill.’
‘Maryanne,’ Doran said.
Eli gave a small shake of his head. The shake was not demonstrative; it was to himself. ‘Maryanne,’ he said. ‘When did you hear?’
‘A couple of days back,’ Doran said. He looked at Eli. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, with a formal wince of his brow.
‘Me too,’ Eli said.
‘How’s Laura?’ Doran asked.
‘She know you’re here?’
‘And the baba?’
‘I refrained from sharing my plans with the three year old,’ Eli said. ‘You got any creature on the scene yourself?’
Doran grinned. ‘Those days are done, I’m almost sure.’ He splayed a hand on the counter and inspected the digits, as if in a moment of recent inattention a ring might have somehow contrived to snag itself there. ‘No,’ he continued, ‘I’ve entered the era of grand onanistic solitude, and to be honest, that’s fucking fine by me.’
‘I doubt that,’ Eli said.
‘Well,’ Doran said, raising his brows and trailing diplomatically into silence.
Doran’s eyes went again to the clock. Eleven minutes past eleven. The burial would follow at noon. He himself had arrived at the Tavern—which due to the steady custom of mourners maintained an early licence—just after nine, empty-stomached but full of cringingly honourable intentions. His plan had been to bolster his courage with a quantity of preliminary drinks before heading to the funeral. But the drink had not coaxed forth that kind of courage (as he knew, in his bones, it would not), and so Doran had sat, and not moved, and eleven had come and gone, and he had kept drinking in order to tolerate his ingrained cowardice. Cowards were cowards, Doran considered ruefully, but they required conviction to be so—the brave thing was usually the easier thing.
Doran took a long draught of his pint and smacked his lips with satisfaction.
‘Mortality’s a skull-fuck, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Hm,’ Eli grunted.
‘She wasn’t well,’ Doran said, ‘is what I heard.’
‘Me too,’ Eli said.
‘Did we always know she was not well?’
Eli considered the skulls on Doran’s tie, the repeating rows of black eye sockets. He went to say something, but his throat refused, cracking and puckering inwards upon itself. He swallowed and began again.
‘I don’t know. You think on it, you turn things over. But the memories come out of your notions of them, what you thought was happening. And Christ knows we all had our dramatic days, back then. But if you’re asking if I ever thought she’d do this.’
‘It would never have occurred to me to ask,’ Doran interjected, looking down into the sudsy, popping surface of his pint. ‘Was it done violently, I wonder? Was there grisly theatre involved? A messy aftermath.’
‘Christ, it hardly matters now,’ Eli said.
‘Or painlessly, hygienically,’ Doran went on. ‘There was a guy back in the day, and when I say day, I mean the forties. A writer. He done himself in and had to leave a note of course, had to attempt a pithy little addendum. “I am going to put myself to sleep for a bit longer than usual. Call it eternity,” is how he signed off this planet.’
‘You want to control it,’ Eli said.
‘Fuck her,’ Doran said. ‘Fuck her for what she did. And we’re not even getting the worst of it, are we? We’re the old guard. We’re from the old way back days. We’ve already had to get over her, haven’t we?’
‘Fuck her,’ Eli repeated softly, experimentally. He turned composedly to the bar. He kneaded the bridge of his nose, the sockets of his eyes.
‘Sorry,’ Doran said.
‘Why? You’re just Doran being Doran,’ Eli explained.
‘Sorry,’ Doran said again, ‘you know my cuntishness is as congenital as my cravenness. The only cure is no me.’ Doran extended a beefy palm, patted Eli’s shoulder. ‘But I was always glad you and her got together, you know.’
Eli chortled. ‘Now that was a bad idea.’
‘It was a fucking terrible idea,’ Doran grinned. ‘But what wasn’t, back then? After I quit I spent a season licking the windows in the mother’s house in Portlaoise, for instance. You two tried, anyhow.’
‘The marriage was insanity.’
‘The glory days,’ Doran said wistfully. ‘You say we had our moments but not you. You were a good boy for so long. Sensible, abstemious. You were Eli, sorry, that sounds like an insult but it’s not. Only she could turn you out of your equilibrium. She had a knack for it.’
‘Not that she meant it, I don’t think,’ Eli mused. ‘But she did make you want to lie down in the middle of traffic, alright.’
‘Was that how it felt?’ Doran asked.
‘That’s what it feels like it felt like,’ Eli said. ‘But I don’t know. I don’t know how it was for her. At all.’
Eli took a sip of his beer, Doran a deep quaff. The barman showed no sign of resurfacing; the clock ticked on. Eventually Doran gave a gentle, annunciatory clearing of his throat.
‘She was our girl, a singer in our band, is what she was,’ he said. He raised his glass and kept it aloft until Eli chinked it.
Eli could not deny that, at least. Sunken Figure was the band Eli, Doran, and a third friend, Proinsias Stanton, had founded in college, twenty years ago. Doran had been the original frontman and lyricist, ransacking undergrad poetry anthologies to flesh out the bloviated pornographic gibberish he half barked, half crooned. Eli wrote the actual music—clean post-punk lines and agitated percussion—and played bass. Stanton was lead guitar and for a time attempted to manage the band. Maryanne Watt first materialised on Stanton’s arm, a serious girlfriend, in the long post-college epoch Sunken Figure spent toiling upon the capital’s circuit. Stanton himself soon gave up, quitting the band for a job in the national forestry. Maryanne quit him and stuck with the band. Eli convinced Doran to let her on stage. And she did look good, rattling a tambourine and occasionally contributing tremulous backing vocals. Other members—drummers and auxiliary guitarists and keyboardists—came and went and Sunken Figure laboured amiably on, eking out enough of an existence to continually defer extinction, until the turn of the millennium, when something like actual success occurred. There was, finally, a major label deal, a hit single. There was coverage, attention, even money. And then came the grand folly; a marathon triple-figure-date pancontinental tour that ate up thirteen months of their lives and killed Sunken Figure stone dead.
The trouble started with the single. For the major’s album, Ley Lines, Maryanne had sung lead on only one song, a B-side that was shifted up onto the official tracklisting at the last minute, but that song was the hit. Every interview and public appearance thereafter was an exercise in clarification. What the world wanted was more folk-pop gems smoulderingly essayed by the willowy brunette—instead it got more Doran, howling and spitting on his haunches over lengthy, bristling compositions. The classic soap-operatics kicked belatedly in: at some ill-advised point Doran and Maryanne began sleeping together. The tour just would not stop. As things soured Maryanne migrated from Doran’s bed to Eli’s. Eli had been sadly, silently in love with her since the time he had first laid eyes on her, and he gravely capitulated to what could only be a bad idea. Neither were the affairs successive, but concurrent. In the cramped, panoptic confinement of tour-life Maryanne alternated nights with Doran and Eli. Doran, surprisingly, was the one to quit first. With a month left on the tour, he stole away on a dawn flight from a frostbitten airport in Helsinki, made for the rural midlands town he had sprung from and summarily deposited himself into the care of his mother, to embrace what he would thereafter denominate his Brian Wilson Period; a six month interval of flannel-pyjama’d reclusiveness, weight gain, round the clock dope smoking and twilight bouts of compulsive weeping in the backyard greenhouse, the mildewed cord of his bathrobe stuffed into his mouth to stymie the worst of his guttural heaves.
Determined to salvage something from the implosion of Sunken Figure, Eli and Maryanne got married and divorced fourteen months later. All through his music career, sensible and stoic Eli had barely drunk and studiously eschewed all harder substances, but by the end of their connubial stint Eli’s appetite for illicit stimulants in general and cocaine in particular had outpaced even Maryanne’s, no mean feat. What money did not go up their noses they fed into the production of Maryanne’s solo record, In the Gardens of the Lune, a dauntingly ambitious, sonically incoherent concept album that took as its subject matter the posthumous travails of a fictional family of dead Jews (Holocaust victims, naturally) residing as superpowered ghosts inside the moon. Over layers of wintry distortion, painstakingly amateur-sounding instrumentation and time signatures so scrambled they practically induced nausea, the lyrics unpacked a labyrinthine downer of a narrative in which the family’s little ghost son and ghost daughter commit ghostly incest, learn to manipulate the tidal patterns of the earth, and eventually cause the waters of the world to flood the entirety of Central Europe—all conveyed by Maryanne in an electronically treated, Bjorkesque fusillade of strangled yips, refrigerated keens and echolaliac blurts. The album was not well received.
After the marriage ended, Maryanne stayed on in London. Eli returned to Dublin. Doran, recovered from his fugue, showed up there too. Eventually the men crossed paths. There was awkwardness, but little animosity, and with Maryanne and Sunken Figure subtracted from the equation, they found making peace relatively easy. If they did not return, quite, to being friends, they were happy to let their orbits resistlessly overlap. Years passed. Eli became an accountant—he had a wife now, Laura, and a daughter. Incapable of any other life, Doran returned to the scene, scratching around with a couple of new bands, running DJ nights and picking up production gigs here and there. He became a sort of ironical eminence, courted by each new wave of local musicians ready to buy him a pint in exchange for a few war stories. But Doran seemed okay, to Eli, more or less functioning and more or less content, or contentedly discontent, and that was the best the likes of Doran was ever going to get. Meanwhile trickles of info regarding Maryanne made its way into Eli’s ear. He heard she remarried, that she too had had a little girl. But nothing more substantive than those scant elementary updates, until this.
Doran said, ‘I loved her too.’
‘Yes,’ Eli said.
He was looking at the windows. The rain had stopped. The inner panes of the windows were layered with dust; what light came through appeared microbial, quivering with impurities. The Boatman faced onto a lane that ran along one side of the cemetery wall. The cemetery gate was at the end of the lane. The procession, both men knew, would pass right by the pub. They would not be able to avoid seeing it, Eli realised, or at least making out its long, aggregated silhouette in those same dirty windows.
‘I saw the family,’ Eli declared.
‘Oh?’ Doran said.
‘After I went up the hill I took a path down to the rear of the church. Curiosity, I guess. I hopped a fence and squinnied down behind a row of saplings. Hence the dirty knees. I hunkered down and watched through a bush, saw them going into the service.
‘On your knees?’
‘So I wouldn’t be seen.’
‘Ah,’ Doran said.
‘I caught a glimpse of them, alright,’ Eli said.
Over the totality of the years, and even their marriage, Eli had met Maryanne’s father exactly once—a tense hotel dinner through which Eli suffered the thin, vertiginous feeling that everyone at the table, including himself, was being played by actors. Maryanne’s father, a retired barrister, was even then implausibly elderly, eighty-six to his daughter’s twenty-eight, though he was still hale and snappishly alert. The woman accompanying the father—a dashing woman in her fifties with a sleek chrome beehive—was very much not Maryanne’s mother. The actual mother was purportedly insane, certifiably so, and had been domiciled in an institution as far back as Maryanne could remember, and that’s all Eli ever got out of her about her mother. There was one sibling, an older brother who worked in Futures, in Hong Kong, and who never came home.
‘Furtivity is our natural state,’ she had told Eli when he asked why she always said so little about her family.
‘I saw the father,’ Eli continued. ‘Must be touching one hundred now. In a wheelchair, flunkies either side. Insane. I saw the brother. Had to be him, looks just like her. A double, disconcerting to see her in a man’s face. I saw—I think—the husband, and the kid, her girl. But they didn’t see me. And they wouldn’t know who I was if they did.’
‘But they would know of you,’ Doran said.
‘Maybe,’ Eli said doubtfully. He drained his drink. He put the glass down. He blinked, heavy lidded. He was woozy after that single pint, and knew he would be on his ear if he went as far as three. He considered the door in the floor.
‘He’s down there? The guy,’ he said. ‘How long?’
Doran rubbed his chin. ‘He must be in fucking China by now. Fuck this noise, this is negligence. You want another bev?’
Eli grimaced, considered his constitution, and said Yes.
‘Hup,’ Doran said, rising again over the counter and searching with his hand for more clean glasses.
‘Eh, hi,’ Doran heard Eli declare. Something moved in front of Doran. A package of refrigerated muscle encased his hand and commenced crushing his finger bones together. Doran looked up. The barman’s smile loomed above him, mild and indicting, and beneath that smile a second one, lividly concertinaing his neck.
‘No,’ the barman hissed.
Doran wrenched his hand free of the man’s pale grip.
‘A word would’ve achieved the same,’ he said, shaking his smarting hand in the air.
‘Can’t. Just. Take,’ the barman said with infinite reasonableness. Then: ‘What you want?’
Doran ordered the drinks and the barman picked out two clean glasses.
‘What were you doing down there anyway?’ Doran asked, nodding towards the door in the floor.
‘Well now. That’s as good an excuse as any. What’s your name?’
Eli watched the barman top up the pints and dip each in turn, tipping away the runoff. The sloughed foam pumped down the outside of each glass and sank into the grated metal recess under the taps. The barman was tall, six four at least. His scars were hideous, a row of ragged, mortified grooves bright against the lines of his collar.
‘Well I’m Doran. And this is Eli.’
The barman gave an acknowledging grunt and distributed the pints, hooking away the empties in the same movement.
‘This,’ Doran said, and with his index finger circled his own Adam’s apple. ‘It’s a nasty fucking razor burn, Do-kitsch. How’d you end up with it, if I may ask?’
The barman drew himself up. His lips twitched. He seemed to be deciding whether to say anything at all. Then he grinned, politely, as if he was obliged to find the reminiscence fond, ‘I was in the war.’
‘The war,’ Eli said.
‘Of course,’ Doran said. ‘And which one was that?’
‘Bosnia. You recall?’
Doran waved a hand in the air. ‘There was a bunch of them down that neck of the woods, wasn’t there? Serbs, Croats, Sarajevans, all that noise, killing the shit out of each other.’
The barman nodded.
‘I mean, it was complicated, so forgive my ignorance,’ Doran said.
‘It was not your problem,’ the barman said.
‘Though evidently, it was yours,’ Doran said with some regret.
‘Now just excuse,’ the barman said and retreated deftly five feet down the bar. He stooped low, rummaged momentarily and returned to his full height brandishing a chequered blue and white terrycloth and a purple bottle of lemon cleaning spray. He
turned a tap and ran the terrycloth beneath it, then twisted out the excess moisture. Onto the dark brown surface of the counter he dashed a succession of brisk, parallel jets of the lemon spray. He waited for the mist to settle before applying the damp terrycloth, bringing it in a neat rectangle around the sprayed section of the counter, then working inwards in diminishing, carefully concentric rectangles.
‘Now continue,’ he said.
‘With the interrogation?’ Doran smiled. ‘Sorry. We just need our minds taken off the here and now. We’re drowning in morbidity here. You get a lot like us, I imagine, funeral-goers in their maudlin moods.’
The barman, eyes following the terrycloth, shrugged his shoulders. His English was good, but it was impossible to know how much of Doran’s talk the man was following. Without looking up he said, ‘We get everybody.’
Doran gripped the lapels of his suit, flick-wrenched them into tautness. ‘But not us, not us,’ He singsonged. ‘So you were in the Army then? In the war, in Bosnia?’
‘Army. Yes. I was.’
‘And that’s when you got that collar?’ Doran said.
The barman grunted again. He put away the cloth and spray, and travelled back up to the spigots, where Doran sat and Eli stood. To Eli, he said, ‘Your friend talks a lot of questions.’
‘That he does,’ Eli said, wondering if Doran was going to keep at the guy, and already knowing the answer. Something like fatigue swept over Eli; as usual it would be his job to intercede, to referee or placate if Doran went too far with his escalating provocations, as he so often did.
‘I’m just interested in the world. I’m an interested person,’ Doran pleaded. ‘You must forgive me in advance, like all my other friends,’ and clapped Eli on the back.
The barman grinned again.
‘It was friends did this,’ he said, drawing his index finger across his neck.
‘Friends bombing friends. Our own men,’ he raised a hand over his head and whirled it around, miming either falling ordnance or debris or both. ‘Thinking we were not who we are.’
‘Some friends,’ Doran said. ‘Jesus, huh?’ He turned to Eli. ‘Well, Do-kitsch is opening up now, though I couldn’t prise two words out of him earlier.’ He raised his glass to the barman. ‘I’m sorry about your friends. But life goes on, huh? For us, at any rate.’
The barman smiled neutrally and tended to another task beneath the barline. Doran and Eli sipped their drinks. Eli looked to the windows again. It was becoming unbearable, the waiting. He felt a grainy runnel of dust in his throat and he could see, where the light was most acute, the motes scuffling in the bar’s sealed atmosphere. He wanted air. He wanted a cigarette but he also wanted air.
‘They’ll be coming this way any minute now,’ he groaned.
‘Stay put. Keep the head down and stay put,’ Doran said tightly, bolting what was left of his drink and whirling his finger for another.
‘You are not going to your funeral?’ the barman asked.
‘Doesn’t look like it,’ Doran said.
‘Ah, because we’re scared,’ Doran said.
‘Scared,’ the bar man repeated, huffing amusedly through his nostrils.
Doran shrugged. ‘Look at us.’
‘We’re not,’ Eli said, annoyed at Doran’s insistence upon this point, even if it was true.
There was a lapse into silence, and Eli waited for Doran to fill the void. But it was the barman who spoke next. He extended a long finger towards Doran.
‘Well, I tell you,’ he said, ‘you made me a little strange when you come in.’
‘Me?’ Doran practically squealed with delight.
‘Why?’ Doran asked.
‘I tell you,’ the barman said. ‘You see you look like a man, exactly like a man I saw in the street. In the city, in the siege,’ he said.
Doran looked at Eli then turned back to the barman.
‘Good fuck, go on,’ he demanded.
‘This man, he was trying to get to a woman and child. This is with the shooting, the bombs, every day, all day. Snipers in their holes, up high. Shooting all day. The noise of the bullets whizzing and whizzing in the air. The woman and child—maybe his wife, his daughter? They were already gone. In the street.’ The barman held his hands vertically out, palms facing each other, then pressed them in close. ‘In a thin? Alley. One and one.’ Now his fingers pinched adjacent spots in the channel he had shaped in the air, placing the little bodies. ‘And after a long quiet time, he come out, running. To get them, this man, you see. Crazy. Running, but too slow. The bullets, whizzing, whizzing. And so,’ a jerk of the shoulder, ‘he is one of them too.’ He pinched a final spot in the air, like he was quenching a candle. ‘He look like you.’
‘He looked like me,’ Doran cackled.
‘Yes,’ the barman exclaimed. ‘This is why, when you come in…‘ he raised an index finger to his temple, corkscrewed it, ‘and I am back. I am there.’
‘He haunts you,’ Doran said.
‘Who?’ the barman said.
‘The man, the man, the man who looked like me?’
‘Ah!’ The barman hyphenated his brow in reproof of such a notion. ‘Nonono,’ he smiled, ‘I had forgot him. Like this,’ he snapped his fingers. ‘But you walk in today, and so he comes to me. It was a long time ago.’
He put out two more drinks.
‘A long time ago,’ Doran mused in a smooth, declaratory tone, as if he was about to start telling his own story. But all he did was scratch at the stubble on his chin.
‘Yes. Now please excuse, I must—‘ the barman forked two fingers in front of his lips and mimed exhaling, then pointed to the door.
‘I’ll join you,’ Eli said.
‘You’re going out there?’ Doran said.
‘It will be fine,’ the bar man said. ‘Please, do not interfere again with the taps. I will be right back.’
Eli held the door. The bar man strode through, so tall he had to duck to avoid the lintel. Doran watched them go over the rim of his glass.
Outside the sky was a dismal monochrome. The men arranged themselves side by side on the lane’s narrow pavement in front of the tavern. The cemetery wall ran tall. There were trees on the other side, their thickly leaved and shadowed branches jostling above the parapet. The barman was watching them. He had conjured already from somewhere a cigarette into his mouth. Unlit, he ignored it and stared fixedly ahead, his face in profile intent yet expressionless. In fact not a part of his body was moving; it was as if he had switched himself off. Such self-effacing stillness, Eli thought, must be a useful trait in a barman, who was after all only required to exist at specific intervals.
Eli nervously bumped a pack of cigarettes from his suit jacket. When he proffered a light the barman became abruptly animate again, turning to Eli with an appreciative grin. Eli lit them up, one and one. Wisps of smoke zipped away on a wind he could barely feel.
‘I have a wife and child,’ Eli announced.
‘Yes,’ the barman said tonelessly, as if this disclosure was to him a drearily familiar fact.
‘Your story,’ Eli went on. ‘About the guy in the alley. His wife and kid. I have a wife and kid,’ and felt instantly facile for having invoked the comparison.
The barman said nothing. He began to rock curtly to and fro on his heels, lending the impression he was shivering, although it was not unusually cold. He looked up the lane, down it, and then back at the trees; the smaller branches were in a state of continual minor agitation.
‘It was a story,’ the bar man said finally, with flat finality. ‘Your friend made me remember.’
‘Were you the one shooting?’ Eli said.
The barman looked at Eli’s eyes; not into, but at. Eli considered the possibility that this man deserved his scars—deserved worse, perhaps—but how would you ever know? Balanced against the doubt that his grievous little anecdote was either entirely fabricated or so extensively embellished as to be practically fiction was the doubt that it was not.
The barman took a dainty drag of his cigarette—he was smoking with such hallucinatory slowness that Eli was beset by the misimpression his cigarette had not diminished at all—and held the smouldering cylinder towards Eli.
‘I thank you for the light,’ he said.
‘That’s alright,’ Eli muttered.
Eli looked up, and beyond the barman’s shoulder he saw them coming. The long-bodied, shining black hearse, flanked and pursued by its trail of mourners, all moving together at a stately crawl. The procession came down the lane. Eli stepped into the doorway of the Tavern as the hearse went by.
Maryanne’s father, a hairless, grim wisp in a suit and wheelchair was at the centre of the group in immediate train behind the hearse. A pouting kid in her late teens had been assigned chair-pushing duties. A stocky, foreign-looking woman was holding the old man’s hand and leaning over him with a healthcare professional’s solicitous disinterest as she paced carefully in step with the chair. Eli remembered the woman with the chrome beehive. She was evidently off the scene—she could be dead too, of course. There was the brother, paunchy, middle aged but retaining an indelible vestige of Maryanne in his face. There and gone, and after him came the husband; at least ten years older than Maryanne, a bushy browed man with a genteelly dissolute look to him, his cheeks rucked, a grey stripe running through his sandy hair, mid length and parted schoolboyishly in the middle. With his hands he was steering the shoulders of a little six- or seven-year-old girl. Eli knew who she was. Her face was mercifully veiled. None paid the least attention to the man dressed in black and the barman standing by the Boatman’s entrance. The crowd’s unanimous obliviousness filled Eli with relief, and made his laborious pre-emptive trepidation seem silly, for all this, he realised, had nothing to do with him.
When the last of the procession had passed, the door behind Eli opened. He felt something against his shoulderblade. It was Doran, grinding his forehead against Eli as zealously as a cat. Doran lifted his face, and turning around Eli saw that it was blotched.
‘Ah fuck it,’ Doran said. ‘Let’s do this.’
‘I always was. But if I start bawling, it’s ‘cos I’m three quarters cut.’
Doran had brought his pint glass with him. He drained what was left and proffered the glass to the barman. The barman took it. Addressing Eli, he indicated with his smoking hand towards the receding procession.
‘This is yours?’
‘This is ours,’ said Eli, dropping his cigarette onto the pavement and administering a summary stamp of his brogue as he stepped out into the lane. Doran followed. They soon caught up, and by the time the procession reached the cemetery entrance, the barman, still smoking and watching for nothing better to do, could barely distinguish the pair from the rest of the party, save for the substantial orange dot of the fat one’s head.
The tall man and the fat man and the rest of the group passed through the gates and out of sight. The barman killed the cigarette and stowed the remainder in his pocket; no sense in wasting. When he went back inside he saw that the tall one had left his coat, lumped and dripping on a stool. It was a good coat, three quarter length and nicely tailored, expensive, the barman saw once he unheaped it and wrung it out. He checked the pockets for identification, but found nothing. He hung the coat on a rack in the staff room, scrolled up a couple of sections from an old Sunday paper, and stuffed the scrolls into each arm, dropping additional sheets of the paper on the floor beneath the coat to sop up any residual drippage, and waited for the man to return. An hour or so later a small band of mourners did drop in, but neither of the two men. The next morning the coat was still there, unclaimed. Soon, the barman thought, holding up another polished glass to the teeming, grained light that every day coursed through the Tavern’s dirty front windows, the man will come back for it. But the man never did.