Dropped out of the sky into Dublin for the day. Press some flesh in Georgian rooms because I’m here on business don’t you know. Admire a skirted rump or two just long enough for them to see. This is Capel Street now, the sun on my face. And that strange coolness at the back of my neck because I’ve just had the rug trimmed. Halt at a junction waiting for their new tram to pass. She’s a pretty machine. With bells on. Infinite are the ways it could have happened but who comes borne by behind glass, a private smile, seated like royalty, only the Redzer. We lock eyes. There’s the gurrier’s wink from her and this numbskull in a new suit forgets years of everything.
Now I’m not spoofing or making noises about being a stud but I could rise to any occasion for that chick. Indoors or out, down in the dumps or in bits after midnight. Sure remember the time in Huddleston Road and the gas leak, the entire street was supposed to be evacuated and where were we?
She had our Hughie on tap. Those little fingertips at my throat. The lightness of her nudity on my back. I need cock mister every kiss said. The tits, the beefy freckled balubas she loved to lick herself. Right from the first time ever on a mattress on the floor of the Stamford Hill squat to the final sayonara in a power shower in Ally Pally, me pretending I couldn’t hear her crying, I never let the girl down. That’s a distance of twenty odd years we’re talking. Though the Redzer was never one for looking back.
Do you mind the time we hit Cornwall for the weekend? I’d say or something. You got all hot and bothered by the young dudes in the wetsuits. Remember? Phase two, this was, about two weeks in. We were living in—
Hughie, can we not just watch this film without you competing with it? And haven’t I told you this phases talk of yours ruins my mood. This phase. That phase. It depresses me. Life put in boxes like that. Stacked and labelled in one of your smelly boss’s misery-brown removal vans.
Remember the peacock feathers back at the hotel? You nicked them out of a fat bronze vase and did the seven veils. You were up on the window sill in your yellow knickers. Remember the day we bought those knickers together in that creepy wee shop near Paddington?
Neither of us knew it then but there would only be three phases. The first was six-and-a-half weeks long, then we did a line for five months, and lastly, the big one coming in at just under two years. Three stints together ended by three ladylike disappearing acts. That girl could do one out of your life quicker than it takes to boil the kettle.
Where you going?
I told you.
Tell me again.
Stop sniffing my bra Hugh. Give it to me now.
You have magic powers so you do. I wasn’t in the mood there, right, and then I realised you were standing behind me, close up behind me, dead still, and I pretended I didn’t know you were there, and I could hear your breathing getting deeper, and I started to feel it going into my back from you, waves of it and—
Baloney. Why do we always have to talk about it afterwards? Now give me my bra or you’ll never see these again, she said, with a priceless shoulder shake.
Or take that vintage scene of rattling through the tunnels under north London. There’d been a few days of full-on battles about the move back to Ireland. Throats raw, we went down into the tube at Angel. Normally, you don’t catch me underground but this Sunday morning I followed her down, probably because I thought she was punishing me. And I was getting a taste for it. The escalators were out of order. We seemed to have the tiled rabbit holes to ourselves. Deeper and deeper ahead of me she sank. Left me alone with the fear. The characters in those posters for musicals and plays all stopped having fun and stared out at me, licking their lips. On the third escalator a thick banshee fog of ventilated air set the stage for my comeuppance. Then down the last few steps on my arse, holding my nose. The way the train just about made the fit between the platform and the concave cliff, squeezing in slower, slower, then stuck.
There was Viv, her hair down now, stepping bravely on board. The carriage was empty. Of course it was. Because it was doomed. People knew not to get on. And had I really seen a driver? There was no driver. It was Tony Blair’s fault. The blood on his hands. Innocence can get you killed anytime. Yes, they were trying out a new type of time-bomb called Innocence. We had stumbled into some kind of classified trial run. The cliff-sized ads rippled as the train doors hissed and banged against Viv who had put her body in the way. The look she gave me meant act normal Hughie or they’ll eradicate us and she hoisted her blouse and bra and stepped back into the carriage.
Those anti-authoritarian tits did what the meds or the counsellor couldn’t fix. She sat me down, knelt between my legs. Ripped off the belt like a shackle. The zip like a gag. Lights blinking. Grey roots in the red furze. That nose of hers had definitely been straightened. She had you emptied by Moorgate.
The Wee Red liked a drink and a joke and a vigorous tête-a-dick when piqued but she never enjoyed hearing me tell the story of how we met. And met again eleven years later. And met again two years hence. Everybody else saw the funny side of it. And the scary side of how your life can take a surprise turn while you’re crab-walking towards a Camden kebab shop or wolf-whistling a bird in south London. Infinite are the ways we might not be ourselves. One small decision, a detour or an extra few minutes in the sack and you might be somebody else. And somebody else might be you instead. The Redzer didn’t dig the message. As a matter of fact, I was giving one of my better renditions of it, our story, the last time I saw her miffed freckly bake, when she walked out of a tapas bar on Green Lanes where our mates had gathered to wish us the best of luck on our move back to Ireland. They were mainly my crowd as it turned out, all except one, Sally, a Bollywoodish lab-technician who Viv had been messing about, and with, not quite behind my back. Only Sally and me mid-flow, noticed her leave. That was our Viv for you, always slipping away before the punch line.
I said to her, Sally, I feel your pain, girl. She’s walked out on me not once but twice and there wasn’t a whore small or cruel enough in London to take my mind off her. Back in the 80s, right, during our first phase, you know what she said to me, and right, she was holding her asshole open with both hands at the time, no fancy nail polish then either, seventeen she was, a runaway, and she says, Do me Hughie like I’m Thatcher. Maggie Thatcher. I’d never heard the like.
Sally, down unlocking her bike, said, Somewhere in your moronic heart I think you know Genevieve doesn’t want you to go with her. You try so hard to embarrass her because you know this. She wants to be free.
You’re being a sore loser, Sally girl. She was scot-free twice and she still came back. And why’s that do you think? Because of my skill in the kitchen?
Don’t you get it? She thinks she has damaged you.
You know your problem Sally. You take her too seriously. This is where you went wrong. Irish women like to say whatever the fuck they want and then expect you to forget it ever happened. You’re way too heavy. You’re too—remember that night the three of us did our bit for love together? Me at the top and you at the bottom? Who was the one who got all upset and weepy afterwards? Who was the one who comforted you? Me. Not Viv. You need to lighten up.
Pussy to the saddle, she said, I would hurry home if I was you.
Viv and me had another fight before coming out. She was right in my face. I pushed her away and she hit her head off the door frame. It was the excuse she needed. How dare you hit me? I didn’t hit you. How dare you hit me? I walked the plank of shuttered Green Lanes. The key turned without the usual resistance.
In the hall, a recent blast of Givenchy corrupting the damp air. Light on in the bathroom and the living room. Her green coat should be over the back of the chair, her bag on the table. She should be in bed, a little drumlin under the duvet. You don’t even have to check for the suitcase she keeps in the spare room. You found the ring under your pillow.
Stop lying Hughie. You don’t want to go.
I do want to. I’m ready for a change.
I know you don’t want to go. I know okay. It’s obvious. So can you just stop lying about it. Just tell me.
All because I’ve had a few?
You’re coked up. You’re out boozing all the time. Just face it will you. You haven’t even found the balls to tell Tobias yet, have you?
It’s called having mates. I’m saying goodbye to my mates.
Just say you’ve changed my mind. I can take it.
Maybe you’re the one who’s changed their mind. Maybe you want to do another runner. How many fresh fucking starts does one woman need?
We all think about it at some stage, moving back home for good. The jolt of the touch-down on the Dublin tarmac that will finally realign the bones and exorcise those phantom pains. For some it’s the death of kin with a plot of land or your own kid giving you lip in a squaddie’s tongue, and some run out of excuses one fine day and pack their bags in a hurry. A voice inside which you normally treat as a crank suddenly makes sense while you’re doing the shopping. Or after one last attempt to wreak havoc in your life, the voice falls silent. If you can survive that, London, or wherever it is, becomes your castle. I’d say it should be a recognised condition. And the nearest I came to it was with Genevieve Querney from the cramped streets of Fairview by the Liffey swells.
So why didn’t I kill her that night on the bus back from Brixton? Why didn’t I smash every tooth in her two-timing head and plop her juvenile’s butt in the Thames? For weeks, months, she’d been filling my shell-like with her arguments for calling it a day in London. What a heartless city it was, so indifferent and rude, so many hours wasted on transport, where the pound is king and the pollution hides the taste of violence, the racism and the rent, the multicultural myth and meanwhile she’s munching on home counties’ best Bollywood promise. On the way back from that flop of a Morrissey gig was the moment she chose to fess up. All her guff about Ireland maybe, or the rain sealing us in on the top deck by the front window, had me telling her about the day I left Dublin on the ferry, and how I fell in with this German couple. Rainbow warriors roasted by decades of bonfires who took a shine to young Hughie on his big break for freedom. Who incited him with drink and kindness and bloody tales of the battle of the Beanfield in 1984 when the pigs had given the New Agers a lesson in authority
at the solstice gathering in Stonehenge. Who took him below to the hold and laid him out in the back of the camper van and said they would cleanse him for his journey and they put their hands on him and pinned him down with whispers and Poor Hughie began to freak. He pulled his new flick-knife and pierced the husband’s thigh. He got out the driver’s door, ran for the stairwell and spent the rest of the trip like a stowaway on the misty deck.
I’m sleeping with somebody else, said the Redzer.
You bet you are, I agreed. I’m a different person now. And it’s all your doing actually. Mind that shy wee bloke you made take off his clothes? You had to do everything. I couldn’t even get my desert boots off. You know I never knew it existed, not for real, not for the likes of me. Beauty, I mean.
I’m having sex with another woman Hugh.
That one Genevieve’s tastes were always changing. Any hint of a routine in the bedroom and you’d notice she was talking more about other countries again, about the places she had never seen. Phase three, Ally Pally, she had less of the multiple O’s but they were deeper, and more serious, and paralysing, and lasted for minutes on end. I used to have to check she wasn’t deceased. A far cry from the days of phase one when she couldn’t keep her hand out of her Yellow-Pack knickers. Or the woman of phase two who had discovered silk and white gloves and liked to stand on my head.
Tell me you never stopped looking for me.
Never. Every day.
And you couldn’t get it up for anyone or I’ll crack your skull.
Nobody gives me the horn like you. My meat was broke. Girls and boys too—I tried everything.
I knew I’d track down your gee again. Didn’t I find you?
The boys and me in the van, coming down by Ruskin Park in Camberwell, winter, 2003, after a job. The traffic slow because of road works so we cut over to Denmark Hill. Tall houses behind wet bare trees on a steep slope. Spotting a bit of skirt skidding on the mowldy leaves, I stick my head out the window and shout, Get your tits out Ginger, show my gob for the reaction, and catch a face smile and wink back at me. We drive on for a few minutes before it sinks in and I tell them to pull over.
Put me down you big yob, she says in a shower of greasy drops from the high boughs.
We repaired to the nearest pub, right by the overground station there. Hair shortened to bob length again, a black cashmere turtle neck, no make-up. Two years since she absconded from Tufnell Park. She had got herself a new passport and cleared off to Estonia to teach English again. And now she was back living south of the river for the first time. I couldn’t help wondering who it was she might have left killing a vodka in Tallinn after he’d gone for a dump and came back to find her gone.
What do we do? she asked after a long silence. She seemed shaken, awestruck by us meeting again.
Did I really believe it when I said, We’re not trapped in a lift or something Genevieve. We don’t have to do anything. We can walk away if we want. Was it not already decided, eye meeting eye on Denmark Hill? Wasn’t I already imagining one of her specialities, the pitter-patter of her tiny fingers up and down my shaft, the muscly international tongue?
She took my hand across the table, and said, Hugh I’m sorry, and I’m just not at all.
A few massive days later, Tobias invited me for a frame or two in the club in Soho. When he wanted a serious word, it happened over a game, an elder spider crawling over the walnut edges of the table on a nest raid, jabbing, retreating, the white horseshoe moustache twitching under the upholstered Stanfast shade. He plays like he’s against the clock, fast, instinctual. I’ve seen him do a one-four-seven in eight minutes ten seconds with his extra-heavy black and gold ash cue. If the old man had got wind already that the Redzer and me were rubbing shoulders again, he might find another use for it.
By the time the reds were down, he was still talking business. Around then Tobias was pondering expansion into the specialist art stuff, transporting gear between galleries and exhibitions. I fluffed an easy take of the yellow.
You’re not even here, he said. No concentration. No focus.
Late night, boss.
The reason you got out of the van, what, this claustrophobia of yours again?
He was on to us. I looked around and saw that the other eight green slabs were empty. I could have sworn there were games underway when we arrived. You don’t lie to Tobias. I’ve seen where that can lead a man. Anyway, I owed him. He’d put me back together so many times the man could write the instructions.
It’s a small world, I said.
Don’t try to be smart, son. That Irish dick of yours is happy only when it’s dipped in trouble, he said, straightening his monographed cuffs. Dip it somewhere else. The Chinese. The blacks. Try the Brazilians. Those women could teach her a thing or two about her issues with authority.
She’s all of those in one.
He uttered some Yiddish oath and said, Correct me if I’m wrong here son but didn’t I hear lately that you had been discovering, what shall we call it, a new predilection for the more epicene arts of Greek street?
Dumbly, I watched him smoothing the moustache, a sign he was aggravated.
Third time lucky maybe, I said.
Time you say? Time is our element. Each of us moving through time. At high speed. What have I taught you?
Rivers to the sea. I know. Rivers to the sea.
Well stop behaving like an effing salmon then.
Not so long after that, Viv came home and said she had bumped into Tobias on the street near her work. Typically, she refused to believe there could be any other explanation for him being in the area than stalking her. No, he hadn’t said anything directly but he had insinuated plenty, she claimed. All his melancholy pleasantries added up to a threat. He’s only your boss, Hughie. He employs you to organise moving boxes around in an ugly van. I let the jibe pass. I wanted to keep the peace because this was the day before the anti-war protest in 2003. Viv was going on it while I had made sure to be as far away as I could, out at Heathrow dealing with some missing cargo. We seemed to have agreed to avoid any mention of it this time around. No calls or texts from her during the march either. The news on the airport screens showed it was colossal. In the evening, on the way to join Tobias and some of the lads at our usual spot, a Chinese on Brewer Street, there were towers of placards in Soho Square and skeleton costumes were doing victory dances from the lampposts over the hyped-up crowds.
The biggest in history, Viv said with a drum-roll on the table when she appeared in the restaurant. Tobias plucked his moustache, probably thinking I had tricked him. The others had gone on thankfully. Viv treated the two of us to noisy kisses on the mouth and then she slid in beside Tobias. After a while, he ordered her the Peking Duck because she was too busy with the day’s highlights to read the menu. Then she scoffed the whole lot of it without noticing, the steam from the pancakes melting the face paint. Hoarse, euphoric Genevieve didn’t give a monkey’s. She didn’t miss a beat either when Tobias, after dipping the corner of his napkin in a water jug, began to gently wipe the smears of paint and hoi-sin sauce from the corner of her mouth.
From all the reports the turnout in Dublin and Paris and Berlin and everywhere else had been huge also. Every generation discovers the secret anew, Viv needed us to understand, the secret the establishment works to blind us to with hourly blizzards of fear and hatred and envy and self-disgust and the massive trap of the unending present. And that secret is our power together in numbers, she said, looking hard at each of us in turn, her voice so tired now she was almost gasping. Yes, the grinning tyrant Blair was finished. The pseudo-battle between left and right was over. This is the new dawn, you two dopes, don’t you see?
Infinite are the ways this could run, I was thinking, ready to jump in if there was a barney. To give him his due though, Tobias, who’s the kind of Tory who believes people would eat their own children if you let them, encouraged her to keep talking, tempted perhaps to bask in the rays of hope from her. I suppose he’d never seen this side of The Redzer. Or her, his solemn way of listening and questioning that gradually made you realise there was even more to what you were trying to say than you thought.
A few hours in and the two of them had more or less forgotten my presence across the manky purple tablecloth. That was a sweet feeling. A wee quiet harbour in the corner of a Soho restaurant. Soppy as it sounds, I was able to kick back with my Courvoisier and behold the two people who meant the most to me in the world bobbing together briefly on the current that pushes all things towards the sea of tranquillity.
No he ain’t.
He is too. That’s Hughie for you.
Is he drunk? What’s the matter with you, son?
And Viv said, You know he cries when he makes love?
I was her lover and her best friend’s husband and her Butlin’s doctor and her hunger striker and shy stranger and Brendan Behan and ghost and sad bull and pimp and virgin cowboy and Dave Allen on his stool and her child and a magic talking-tree man and the invisible man and pagan chieftain and three window-cleaner brothers one stormy afternoon but she never let me be her bitch. It was the same night after the restaurant, a new request this, I asked her to use our one deep-frozen glass dildo on me and out she jumps from the bed like I was trying to oppress her. A week went by and she still couldn’t look at me. I’m not going to apologise for it, she said, I can’t do it, I just can’t. I like my man to be a man. That’s very deep, I said. Yes it is, profound actually, and you’ll have to lump it. Shall I tell you a story about this man of yours you don’t want to hear? Please don’t then, Hugh. It’s time, I said. The time is right. Your man was just out of his teens, living in London in a squat, not long over from Ireland. I know all this, she said. And all about how one day this terrible bitch upped and left poor Hughie, deserted him, and lo and behold he ended up sleeping on the streets. I know your adventures on the streets till I could act in them. Yeah well here’s a new role, I said. One night I met this man in Victoria station, a man in a suit, with a leather briefcase and he asked me if I was hungry. He had missed his train, he said, and had time to fill. He had a faint Yorkshire accent. He offered to buy me some food in a café at the corner, on Vauxhall Bridge Road. An Italian place. You bet, I said. He asked me a lot of questions and god knows what I said because I was too busy stuffing my face on the food, bread and ham and then meatballs, I’d never had meatballs before. And then he said he was tired and had a hotel room nearby if I wanted to sleep on a proper bed, a real bed. Sheets. The smoothness. A soft mattress. A pillow. Yes please, I said. Did you really, Hughie? Yes I literally begged him. He laughed too. And I begged some more. Stop there, that’s fine, she said. I don’t need to hear the rest. Yes you do. You see Genevieve I was a young girl in his arms. And he petted me. And stroked me. And he was gentle. And he stopped when I told him to stop. And he kissed me on the back of the head and turned away from me and left me to enjoy the comfort and warmth which were even better than I imagined. Bliss. I fell asleep in bliss. A cheap hotel in Victoria? They probably weren’t even fresh, she said. And I fell asleep, I said, and when I woke there was an animal on my back. I couldn’t see him because I was pinned down. The power and the voice had to be a monster’s. A demon. It was growling and gargling words, the violent stuff about how I had to be given to the beast. That happened to your man Genevieve.
So the dame missed her chance on that front. The subject was never broached again and the freezer door stayed shut. The Irish question took over her thoughts soon enough. The first airing was after a strange incident in the grounds of Alexander Palace. We were out for a walk on a decent evening like many another law-abiding couple, enjoying the open space and the glimpses of the yellow palace through the old trees which had found the energy to bud again. A black woman came running awkwardly across the grass toward us and stopped to ask us if we had seen her daughter. The woman was obviously at her wit’s end. I tried to calm her, asked what the girl looked like, the stuff you’re supposed to do. During this, Viv was shaking her head at me as if I shouldn’t get involved. Then she pulled me aside and told me to stop encouraging the woman. She grabbed my phone. By the time I got it back, the woman had run off again.
We were arguing about it at home later. Viv saying she knew straight away the woman was a crazy and there was no missing child. I thought Viv was being cruel. Cruel? she said and happened to knock her glass off the table. It smashed. Viv didn’t move. Are you waiting for me to? I said. No answer. I got the brush and pan from under the sink, swept it away, wiped the floor. Viv still hadn’t moved.
That’s never happened to me before, she said. Some new tone in her voice made me study her face. She was scared.
What? Breaking a glass? No big deal Viv.
She shook her head, unconvinced.
I take back the word cruel okay, I said.
It’s not like me, she said.
What isn’t like you?
She went to the bedroom. Hours later, I go to check on her, sit on the edge of the bed, and that’s when she says it, Do you ever think about going home?
Travel was always the answer for that one. Way back when, it had been Latin America, then Berlin, Eastern Europe. And now Dublin. The grass was always greener on San Lazaro or Prenzlauer Allee or the Clontarf Road. I began to curse the airplanes sallying hither and thither about in the London skies. The cops stopped one night when I was pissing against the window of the local travel agents. Sure didn’t I burn her lousy passport right in front of her. When she slipped out of the tapas bar on Green Lanes, noticed by only glossy Bollywood Sally and me, that’s about where I had got to in the story, the passport burning.
Phase two this was, the Huddleston Road flat in Tufnell Park. Stucco ceilings, picture rails, an Edwardian hunting frieze around the living room. A massive wrought iron bed we didn’t have sheets broad enough to fit.
You stole my passport you control freak?
Yes. I admit it. I damn well stole your passport. And I hid it in my porn stash.
We’re around May Day here, 2001. Another protest rally planned. Reclaim the shagging streets. Smash the G8. I hadn’t turned Tory or anything but the idea of being trapped in a big crowd had me waking up at night in a sweat. Viv said she understood but I knew deep down she was disappointed in me. I fucked her in a corner of the bed and harder again behind the front door before she left and then I stayed home and watched on the news how the cops corralled thousands of people for hours and the shit kicked off. Two full days later she arrives home. The only thing that kept me sane was that I had her passport.
The attack of the gay mutant stuff or the plain old bukake cheerleader?
There’s this new stuff from India, really sick stuff with singing and dancing.
You wouldn’t dare. Give it to me.
Why Hugh? Because I don’t have a panic attack at the mention of a plane or a boat? Because I think there might be more to life than London? Don’t I talk about us travelling together? Doing something else than the 9 to 5?
I like having a job. It’s what us ordinary folk do. We go out the door and come back in the door. But you? That front door closes and I’m left wondering if you’re ever going to darken it again.
Give it to me now. Right now.
Crap. It won’t fucken catch. Who decided to make passports non-flammable?
Where are you going? We have to sort this out once and for all.
To find some fucking petrol.
She didn’t stick around for long after. Five months we shifted our way through in Tufnell Park, the jungle wings of summer sunsets at her back as she straddled me on that sinister bed. Her purple hardside suitcase growing a pearl on top of the maple armoire. She had some job teaching English to foreign academics but she was bored. Behind the new long veil of fine red hair, she sat on the very edge of the antique chairs, reading books on the Crusades, smoking, hooked on the cheapest gin from the high street. It was eleven years since I’d seen her. How dare a dope like me even dream of making her tarry?
Stop staring at me, Hugh. I’m not going anywhere.
I wasn’t thinking that. I was remembering one night in a certain gay bar.
Baloney. No you weren’t.
Is your nose different?
People should stay in their homes, lock the doors and chain themselves to the bed. If they have to venture out they should cover their faces and speak to nobody. Infinite is the variety of what could happen to you al fresco. A decent day’s work done, you’ve had a few pints and instead of going straight home you might fancy a kebab from your favourite spit in Camden. The pavement is a sad old rainbow and ends suddenly with you riding a tiger-skinned stool in a bar mirror, a high stage of multi-limbed heresies on behind you. This geezer next to you, white vest and a muscle throbbing in his waxed skull, could shout in your ear, There’s no more fun to be had in London, which might tempt you to shout back, I wouldn’t know mate, I’m a tourist myself over from Ireland. And you might buy him a drink and play the star-struck yokel but your new friend turns suspicious, thinks you’re fibbing about being a paddy and waves another guy over, the small dapper type, who has personal experience of the emerald isle due to his auntie or sister in ancient Clonmacnoise, and these two might decide for reasons mystifying and probably perverse to expose the truth about you and your ethnicity, and the questions become sharp and spiteful and the dancers get stuck tighter together on the stage, until, perhaps, the dapper one has an idea and vanishes and returns unwrinkled with a girl in tow, a small busty chick with damp red hair, and this chick might stare at you in disbelief and you at her, and she could wink at you and say, I know how, and pull you off your stool and stick her hand between your legs under your ball bags. Oh this one’s an Irish to be sure, a thoroughbred northerner if I’m not mistaken. Oh infinite are the ways.
Didn’t this whole damn yarn of ours begin with a wink from her? Isn’t that where I always start the story she despised me telling people? A squat in Stamford Hill. The nightly gathering of the time-travelling rabble in the upstairs room with the bits of stained glass in the bay windows. Cider and hash rollies and guitars. Winter 1990. Thatcher and the Poll tax. Troops Out. Black Flag. Spot a new face on the floor in the corner, a small thing, short red hair with a fringe, a walkman, oxblood DM’s. Even with her knees up inside a baggy jumper you could still see the weight of the tits on her. A dent in her nose. And then she bloody winks at you. I thought there was something wrong with her.
Next morning in the kitchen, she’s there at the table poking through a book. There’s aIways people passing through the house so she could be somebody’s sister, somebody’s girlfriend. I nick a few slices of bread, stick them under the grill. Out the window, the long February streets run down to the canal and the marshes. Fumes of mixed fats fog the glass as Morrissey gripes in her walkman, England is mine and it owes me a living. Her very first words to me while I’m scraping out a margarine tub, You have an arse like a girl’s.
Now I was only a runt and easily pained. I hadn’t much of a sense of humour then either. So I showed her what’s what by pretending she didn’t exist. Which worked fine until one Sunday morning arriving back from another squat somewhere, there she was sitting on the front stoop, shivering in her big jumper. I’m sorry, she said, I like your arse, I do, I just can’t stand the noise of toast being buttered. Don’t sit around the fucken kitchen then, I told her. Why are the IRA bombing Leicester? she said. How the fuck should I know? But you’re from the north, she said. And you’re not, I said. But I heard you were in a concentration camp, she said. I lost the rag, informed her it wasn’t a fucken concentration camp, it was a big open camp you went to over the border if you had to leave your home in a hurry. The Free State Red Cross ran it. So watch out with questions or you might get your hooter broke again.
Years later, Genevieve would laugh it all away like it never happened. The politics, the arrests, the pub-collections, the dole offices, she was happy enough to hear me reminisce about but not the astonishment of her breasts in my hands or her clit-bean between my teeth the first time or her eyes when she was ready to let rip or my two fingers up her ass or what she could do with a condom or the bruises from her little heels pounding the back of this nervous young militant. And not the way, neither, how she deserted me after six and a half weeks.
I can date it exactly. The Poll tax riot, March 31st, 1990. I lost her in the crowd at Trafalgar Square when the cops ambushed us from behind on their silky steeds, a cavalry charge from an old history book, batons instead of swords. Blood leapt like flames from skulls around me. The roar that went up from the crowd, they must have heard it in Birmingham. A girl dropped at my feet, caught by a Metropolitan hoof. We had nowhere to run. People on their knees howling. Then the snatch squads in the black overalls. Blue helmets. I managed to climb some scaffolding, searching for Genevieve below. All creeds and colours dragged away by the ankles. And when the first shock had passed and the fight back began, I threw myself in. We smashed through the windows up to Leicester Square, gutting everything in our path. I was covered in blood now. A transit van clipped me and I got right back up again. Two bobbies nailed a black guy next to me. Another two dragging this New Ager woman by the arms and one of them won’t forget me. Sometimes I stopped, just stood there and took in the chaos, staggered but admiring it somehow, the pigeons flying around in it. Then the blunt digit of a baton in the ribs. Up again and two grabbed me. And another two. They ripped the clothes off me in the struggle to get me into the back of the van. The bastards threw me naked into a cell.
You’re doing what? Tobias said.
I’m moving to Dublin with Genevieve.
You’re mouth is saying the words, son, but I don’t see it.
We’re moving to Dublin.
After the cops charged me and let me out in charity-shop clothes, I went back to the squat. The Redzer and her rucksack were long gone. I wandered the streets for a few weeks. A man called Tobias, a bailiff, found me when he was clearing out a squat in Stamford Hill. A youngster in the basement, bricked up in a room, filthy, bonkers, who wouldn’t even give his name.
You throw everything away for a whiff of the blarney cunt.
Go easy Tobias.
What have I taught you? Most men amount to nothing more than a—
I know. Fear begets truth. But this is what I want.
Wake up sunshine.
Being the gentleman he is, Tobias was big enough to offer to move our belongings across the water in a private container at his own expense. I remember what was supposed to be our last game of snooker together, and how, on a break of 82, he was speculating whether I might be useful to him in Dublin. I told him it was all off. Genevieve was gone again. For good this time. He was under the lamp, stretched for the white in the centre of the table. You’re telling me you’re staying now, he said. I nodded, shrugged or something. He destroyed the pink and came down the table in the shadows towards me. Stood in close, resting his weight on the cue between us. His smell of egg and rubber. The watery eyes tried to make mortal sense of me. You know something? he said. I bloody well hate snooker, always have, and he laughed so hard he had to sit down.
Long and shiny as the years, the tram slides by me now on Capel Street with The Redzer on its back. Now do I give chase? Infinite are the ways and means. In the barber shop up the street, the same one I used the day before I took the ferry to London, this tall fella on the scissors with a ponytail and a London accent. Archway his manor. Turns out there’s a good chance he got on the same boat after I got off, going the other way to find his Irish roots. We took each other’s place we decided. Kept the equilibrium. The kilter. And is it my other duty now to clatter through Dublin in pursuit of one sedentary Genevieve Querney with the light limbs and the sailor’s wink. Blimey, there’s my phone.
Bjorn. Perfect timing.
How was the flight? The pill was a help, yes?
Not a bother, Bjorn. How do you always know when I need you?
I am missing you terrible already. I can hear the gulls. So romantic.
You know what Bjorn. I’m a survivor. I’m fucken alive. Alive alive oh Bjorn.
Show me later. Which time you home tonight?