Pup is indignant about the flag. It is indignation that swells and spills over and it provoked in him, in the fifteen minutes between then and now, a dreadful need of being with his own people. The tribe at Justy’s do not let him down. They lift their heads; they share his shock; they call his pint. First he is animated. His indignation asserts itself in arms arcing through the pungent, carbonated air of Justy’s, ten minutes to seven, Friday evening, late April. Then he is pensive. He is melancholic. He shifts in his bar stool, lugging its legs an inch over the tiles. He has relinquished the mass of his story but is momentarily lost in its absence. This is Pup. He is young and he is gangly and there is an awful lot he doesn’t know.
Sparky luxuriates in Pup’s ignorance with the imposed ecstasy of a condemned man tackling his last meal. Pup’s constitution will one day match what houses it, but for now he lopes and leans and baulks and scratches. He is only just gone twenty-three and works in the warehouse of a place that sells uPVC doors. He is six foot two or three without the bulk to make it look right. He has a young wan in the housing estate on the arse of the town; she is rubicund and mostly sullen and whenever she comes to Justy’s with Pup, Sparky asks her if she thinks she’s on The Missions or what? Sparky would have plans for Pup if he thought the young wan would let him. Pup is sincere and possessed of a laugh that lays waste to everything around it.
Now Sparky tries to jog Pup from his gloom. He unfolds himself from his over-bar hunch, leaves one forearm on the counter and the other on his hip and aligns himself so that his belly shrinks. ‘And they just have it flying there?’ he says. He is loud and sure and his voice has the desired effect. ‘Fucking unreal,’ says Pup, and he uncoils also and looks around at his audience. ‘Like it was always there. The fucking cheek. The fucking…’ he doesn’t know what.
Boom bust boom. There is an economic recovery, the news says; in Dublin only, the news will not concede. The management of Justy’s—Justy himself being long dead—never knew the sound of a full till and so they do not know how hard a fall it was when the fall came; Justy’s never attracted the kind of patrons susceptible to fiscal undulations. They have a day trade: no busy times, no lunchtime surge, just a steady current of the same old same olds. This allows for certain liberties. If the customers want a lock-in, there’ll be a lock-in, during which the smokers light up. Clandestine services can be pitched in the beer garden—from two regulars in particular: the cur who sells the dope and the malkin who sells the suck-offs. If Sparky has a want of a bit of grub but no mind for the road home, he can bring in a snack box or a takeaway dinner from the hot counter of the Topaz on the lower road or even a cooked chicken from SuperValu and and eat it at the bar. Justy’s looks after its own and its own murmur and tut at Pup as he relays his story.
He starts, as before, from the point at which his lift dropped him after work. He strolls in along the lower road towards the town square, considering the fresh weekend; he crosses at the roundabout; he spots to his left the gaudiness of it, its flashing in the damp breeze, its fucking audacity. He peers, shades his eyes, squints. He comes a little way up the path towards it. It flies to the right of the EU flag, which flies to the right of the Tricolour. It is a Union Jack, hoisted on a flagpole at the entrance to the Kilcreehy Castle Hotel. It makes no sense. It is like there is a glitch in his sky.
‘What reason could they have for that, now?’ ponders Cullinane from the cluster. A man of many scars and few head hairs, a pragmatic man. He submits that the hotel is to host a wedding tomorrow—is one of the families British?
‘Sure someone must be going,’ Sparky says. ‘Someone must have been asked to the Afters.’
No one in Justy’s has been asked to the Afters. This wedding occupies the tribe for a small time—who is going, if they are not; who is signing the nuptial contract; where this British family get off tramping into the Irish heartlands with their inglorious cloth. And the concession then to rationale—it might not be all that bad. As a gesture, y’know. As a nod towards friendship between natural foes. Perhaps it might have been a good thing, in another time. It is, the tribe at Justy’s decide, just too soon.
Sparky is surest of all that it is just too soon to fly a Union Jack in Ireland; if it wasn’t too soon then why did they all get such a shock on hearing Pup’s story? It is not usual for groups numbering more than, say, five souls to share the one reaction. Sparky is a thinker, though he might not look it. He likes to believe that it is for this reason he’s nicknamed ‘Sparky’; I’m not an electrician at all, he laughs, often, ah but I’m a live wire. Those who ask about Sparky’s nickname are rarely acquainted with those who know that Sparky is Sparky because Sparky was his dog’s name when he was a boy. Nevertheless, Sparky is sharp enough. Fierce cute, even. He reminds himself often: I’m no fool. The thought that he is a fool and so too stupid to know that he’s a fool gives him terrible anxiety.
‘The Butcher’s Apron,’ he says. ‘That’s what they call it above,’ and he flicks a thumb, as if Northern Ireland is the attic atop the manor where they might tuck away their loons and malcontents.
It is too soon and it is an affront and so action needs to be taken but the shock resonates and it’s too strong to allow for thoughtful planning. And so tactics need to be charmed out, whetted by emphatic reminders of their history, of the ties that bind compatriots. Reminiscence is a virus hopping from host to host and strengthening; one by one they succumb to it, Pup, as the instigator, first. My granddad was in the IRA. Everyone’s granddad was in the IRA. My father’s great uncle was shot by the auxiliaries. That Mass rock up off Gogarty’s Lane, that was our land one time. They spin yarns from old battles. They lament hardships suffered by ancestors. They are connected by ambassadorial grief, and through the thickening fog—for they drink as passionately as they talk—Sparky feels loss. Like something has been yanked from his grasp. The loss of a birthright.
Talk turns to other invaders. The new crowd come not with pikes, swords or firearms but with impudence. They set up businesses and primarily serve their own. They send their children to the local schools and secure exemptions from compulsory Irish lessons. They drive taxis—almost all the taxis, keens the chorus. Sparky shifts in his seat. This kind of chatter always ends in cacophonous ignorance, each voice shoring up and adding to its precursor’s woes; the predictability of it saps him.
‘We’ll go have a look,’ he says, and waits to catch Pup’s eye. ‘We’ll go have a look, will we?’
That he has stirred Sparky into action cheers Pup greatly. He swigs the dregs of his pint and belches, leaving his jaw swing for longer than is necessary. He stands, grinning now, as if he’s forgotten the alien colours.
Their town is of an unremarkable layout: a spine of pubs, chippers and dentist surgeries, capillaries stretched out to a Lidl on the west, an Aldi on the east, sheathed by a vellum of pebble-dashed housing estates and fields patched with burnt circles and sodden depressions. There is only one route Sparky and Pup can take and so they take it mechanically, each locked into his natural gait—Pup to his bouncing, stretching getalong, Sparky to his heel- knocking, clipped swagger, like a man afraid to trust his own knees. And there is a clamminess to the wind and to their surroundings, dankness to the concrete under them: the earth is nervous.
The castle of Kilcreehy Castle was never more than a stone framework around which was propped and plastered the necessities of the hotel: the castle houses only the lobby and reception desk and two suites above, suited mostly to American genealogy enthusiasts. Sparky and Pup do not make it that far, their crusade interrupted at the eyesore on the flagpole.
Well, what do we do now? thinks Sparky and the thought’s incompetence upsets him; he is not used to being useless, not inside his own head.
As if in sympathy Pup breathes, ‘It’s a shock, isn’t it?’ The flag is lurid in artificial light. It is bold and mocking and in its overlapped crosses it clashes even with itself. It is, notes Sparky, an empire’s flag, an arrogant thing. It is bigger than he thought it would be.
He knows the Tricolour should not be flown after sunset. He doesn’t care so much for the other two but knows that reverence is meant to be extended to them as well: the cold new European empire, and the brutal old.
He walks away and Pup catches up and keeps pace.
‘What do we do now?’
Sparky says, ‘We ruminate, Pup.’
They do not return to Justy’s. They head instead to a pub closer to the hotel. This is owned by one Terry Corrigan, who’s twenty-four stone and mobile only in the gravest of circumstances, so Sparky and Pup are served by his son Darren, who inhabits the role of landlord with studied precision. He dispenses one-liners. He is fluent in politics, county rivalries and the Champions League. He is a master of ambiguous responses. He has walnut-coloured eyes and has never managed to grow a decent beard. ‘Sarcastic fucker,’ Sparky says, cradling his pint in the sweep of his right hand, and Pup agrees.
A band has just finished setting up and its frontman conducts soundchecks as Sparky and Pup get cosy. Sparky hopes for patriotism. The Wolfe Tones. Paddy Reilly. Songs about revolution, emigration, bloody fraternity. Pup fidgets and looks around, twisting over this shoulder, then the other, like a man trying to free himself from a mangled car. ‘Will you calm your tits?’ Sparky says—a wisecrack he learned from a nineteen-year-old niece—and Pup guffaws. The band start their set but they play ‘Pumped Up Kicks‘, then Olly Murs. Little in the way of rumination has taken place but Sparky wants to move. ‘Come on,’ he says and Pup apes him, swigging back the final third of his pint and stretching ceremoniously.
Sparky is not yet drunk but he is itchy for it—the haze and the loss of heed, inhibition drowned; drunkenness feels like being submersed; he likes that. It takes time and effort to get Sparky drunk, because it’s the one sport where practice makes the player worse. It means that nights out have become expensive, sometimes crushingly. Pup’s nights out too, but for different reasons: Pup always buys rounds of shots at closing time.
The upside to the protracted sobriety that defines his fifth decade, Sparky thinks, half-bitterly, is that he can outlast Pup or any of them at funerals, christenings and weddings.
Which reminds him again of the flag. ‘I wish,’ he tells Pup, ‘that they’d played some of the old songs, that band. It’s all trendy these days. It’s all fuckin…’
Pup knows what he means.
There is not much light left now. A smudged ribbon of cloud separates the sky from its khaki horizon. Sparky clears his throat.
He is less a singer than he is a chanter, his voice trained by tipsy nationalism and the camaraderie of Saturday afternoon football terraces. But he tries to give it meaning. He tries for sweetness, even. Soul sound. The way the monks mean it, or the Welsh.
I was eighteen years old when I went down to Dublin…
And Pup joins in, just as solemn and sincere. There is a point where Sparky realises they might make each other cry, far as they are from intoxication. They are under the influence of the song or of what the song means, what any of it means… They are custodians of a history, Atlas to its weight, and the tune is just one of many, a sinew of great heritage, of a country, a family compelled by the border of sea, thirty-two counties, thirty-two, each as much part of the whole as the next.
Sparky and Pup slow their steps but the song ends; songs do not go on forever.
‘What’ll we do now?’ asks Pup. Sparky is loathe to return to Justy’s. He has unfinished business with the enemy banner. He tilts his head to the right, to the door of another pub. Three houses down, four more to go—five if he counts the hotel bar, and he might yet. ‘I haven’t been in here in a long time,’ Pup says as they cross the threshold.
They settle down by the soot-stained fireplace. They have two more pints apiece and Pup then moves to the vodka Red Bulls and gets even more fidgety, bouncing on the balls of his feet and watching the women. He is not old enough for fidelity, Sparky knows, and Christ, distraction is hard enough to come by, there should be concessions made. It’s a small town and a big world and he knows that Pup is stuck here, that he has no mind for travel and even if he did, no fucking money and no chance of coming by it. He suspects that Pup’s young wan is tolerant of occasional, whispered betrayal, so long as she’s not poked on it, so long as he doesn’t get anyone pregnant. She’ll marry him some day; they’ll get a mortgage; he’ll quieten.
But Sparky isn’t lax on Pup’s wandering eye tonight. He is in need of attentive company tonight. So he says to Pup, ‘Did you know that the Fianna are only sleeping?’
Pup is instantly and gratifyingly wide-eyed.
‘How’s that, Spark?’
‘Fionn mac Cumhaill never died, they say. He’s in a cave and he’s asleep and the Fianna sleep around him. They’ll wake again in Ireland’s most desperate hour, and put what’s wrong to rights.’
‘You’d think,’ says Pup, ‘the Anglo thing would’ve gotten them moving.’
‘Sure then there must be worse to come,’ says Sparky with satisfaction, and while Pup sits enchanted and chewing his bottom lip he finds a two-euro coin and brings it to the jukebox on the wall by the bar and sifts through Metallicas and Rihannas for ‘Uncle Nobby’s Steamboat’ and ‘Carrickfergus’ and ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’. And so the magic is extended and Pup’s eyes glint with clannish fervour and not with the notion that somewhere in this place is hidden the chance of a feverish ride against the back of the town grotto.
The lights are flicked off and on for last orders and Pup leaps forward for a couple of sambucas and, with Sparky refusing his measure, downs both.
They leave and move with purpose towards Mighty Bites where Pup orders taco chips and a chicken burger, and they sit outside so Sparky can have a fag, and there aren’t many people out, it being only Friday and an unremarkable weekend, but they make a carbuncle to a small mass in their late teens. Sparky tells them the story of the sleeping Fionn, but they seem uninterested and he spots one of the girls smirking at another. ‘You think it doesn’t mean something,’ Sparky says, trying to sound sage, ‘but it’ll mean something to you soon enough.’ Where are the young people to go, he wonders, if not to London or Melbourne or Toronto? They are dressed too well for this town and they know it and it pleases them. He feels it like a burning in his throat. Or his gut. He’d like to lift a cheek of his arse to relieve himself but decides against it.
‘How are things with you, Paud?’ trills one of the girls and Pup brightens and tries to answer with calculated, masculine nonchalance, and Sparky winces on his behalf; the girl is seventeen or eighteen, glittered and spiced, and she has no interest in Pup beyond the pallid cruelty of deceit. He watches Pup sit straight and the girl sidle closer, watches her winch her neckline so that her breasts thrust for her chin, watches her eyes settle on the fleck of special sauce at the corner of Pup’s mouth. ‘Let’s go,’ says Sparky, and Pup blinks and says, ‘Sure, you jog on if you like, Spark,’ and there’s a pang flipped in Sparky again. He reminds his friend that they’re not done with the night yet, that there’s a great impudence they have yet to challenge. ‘Oh yeah,’ says Pup. He announces darkly that they have something to take care of and doesn’t notice that the young wan neglects to react.
So Sparky leads them back to the flags, and now in the early hours they are still slapping the breeze. And maybe, he thinks, swaying in queasy accord, if the hotel people had done their duty by the Tricolour and taken it down at sunset, and taken its rival with it, maybe he would have allowed himself home to bed. He’s irritated, then incandescent that the protest’s been pressed on him, after the week he’s had, because the hotel people won’t follow the rules, can’t be bothered to do what’s right.
He pushes on down the hotel driveway, Pup in tow.
The lobby light is dimmer than he expected, late and all the hour. There is a dark stone floor, brocade upholstered couches, mahogany. A broad- shouldered man in a gunmetal grey suit behind the desk, arms moving, hands busied with office implements. Laughter travelling from a distance, orphaned sounds, strangers’ merriment.
Sparky lays his hand on the polished desk top and his hand looks pink and his fingers stubby.
‘Do you not know,’ he says to the broad-shouldered man; his badge sports no name over the embossed title of Night Manager, ‘that the flag is supposed to be lowered at sunset?’
The Night Manager frowns. His actions slow. And then ‘Oh!’ and almost indiscernibly a breathy stream of f sounds; he stops what he is doing. ‘It should have been done, lads,’ he announces. ‘Sorry about that,’ but he doesn’t look at either of them and Sparky’s not sure whether this is out of curtness or shame but either way it emboldens him. ‘Are you not going to do it now?’ he says, and Pup to his left puffs his chest, a manifestation of Sparky’s valour.
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ says the Night Manager. ‘And while you’re at it,’ says Sparky and his voice cracks, ‘You can take down that other one and leave it down; it has no right to fly here; long enough we were trying to get rid of it.’
‘Ah,’ says the Night Manager. ‘Well. We have a wedding tomorrow, lads; he’s from England; it’s a courtesy.’
‘It’s an offence,’ says Sparky.
‘Well it isn’t,’ says the Night Manager.
Not having the benefit of intoxication, how can this broad-shouldered man see the heart in Sparky’s objections and travel, in his mind’s eye, back to when this land was raw and the bloody rituals that birthed it appreciated? And Sparky, so usually persuasive amongst his own, has in fuelling this beautiful devotion tied his tongue: he slurs, and staggers once, and loses words. And Pup cannot help. Sure what would Pup know; he lopes and leans and baulks and scratches; he’s young and weak and vulnerable; he is not even used to his independence.
They are defeated and insult on injury they retreat back to the Union Jack, that symbol of a great history denied to Sparky and to Pup, to all of them.
Sparky thinks, how many of us died to send that yoke back where it belonged? He imagines laid out before him a battlefield, he sees young men fall for honour, he imagines them clean-shaven, in dull grey waistcoats, in flat caps to a man. He weaves between the flagpoles. ‘Where’s the rope?’ he says. ‘There’s a rope to bring it down.’ But the halyard is inside the pole, secreted behind a locked panel, and he cannot get at it. He steps back. He looks up.
‘It flies there,’ he chokes, ‘as if it means nothing anymore.’ Sparky cannot bear the thought that he missed out on its meaning something. He has had a thorough education in its significance; he passed with flying colours Inter Cert History and Italia ‘90 and Was It For This? and he has travelled, Sparky, he has lived in Liverpool and Chicago, he has felt his Irishness, he has known meaning in it, and—
‘Hold on,’ Pup says. He starts in the raised shrubbery in which one too many flagpoles were planted. His abundance of joints and limbs makes sense for once; Pup is lithe, Pup is a machine. Sparky stands into the shrubbery after him. He sinks a little into its soil as he cups his hands for a leg-up. Pup begins to ascend. He coils around the metal supporting the flag of the European Union, sticks out the sole of his runner and balances against the pole on which is hoisted the Union Jack. He strains, pants, and makes progress and Sparky is almost overcome.
A good lad, Pup. No cop on, but a steady compass, a sense of right and wrong, a willingness to learn, a heart unrivalled in the town. And look, Sparky laughs, up he shimmies! And when he reaches the flag there will be the feeling that a great deed was done in a small gesture, and Sparky waits for it.
But there is no gesture. There is no pride plucked from the sky; there is no evil vanquished. There is only a fall. Down he comes again in great disarray, limbs bunched, face to the dirt, and Sparky stands over him, ‘Pup? Jesus. Jesus, Paudie,’ but there is no answer, and he knows that’s the end of it.