Weddings, she was thinking. Weddings. How other people spend my weekends. They were always two-day affairs now and she still felt their aftermath back in work, moving through the frenzied grey mass at King’s Cross, prepping an overcooked smile for the lunch mope to Pret. The mountains of unreasonable you put up with in London. No one would ring you in Wexford and expect you to hightail it an hour-plus to a pub in Dublin, but she did, everyone did, pressed in as carriage doors slammed and she was shuttled through the stone. No one at home made you stay up the night before your own birthday, baking a cake for the office, like she’d done here, even though she didn’t bake. Seemed more like punishment for ageing. Getting the Friday off hadn’t been hard. Everyone was always hopping out for doctors’ appointments. The whole office seemed pregnant.
He queued and he yawned and he was on the same red-eye as three other lads going to it. He didn’t recognise them until later but of course that was it, there was only ever four-hundred people in Dublin. In hindsight he was surprised they flew from Gatwick and not City, which was basically a posh bus. But then this early they weren’t coming from Bank. The Ryanair Bag Gestapo saw them coming and made them try to squash their carry-ons into the regulation space. Two jumpers pulled on each until it was like Michelin men boarding the flight, roaring laughing and sweating hard with the layers.
She was woken by the trumpets. Give yourself enough time, she thought, and you can make yourself early for anything. There were two English girls behind her, boozing since Victoria.
‘No, you do.’
‘No, you do.’
Then, roared in an accent that might have come with a jig and a nylon orange beard:
Elbows, then the other one squealed it again. The two girls collapsed into each other in giggled shrieks.
She was back for the one night.
He was back for two nights, and two hours into it he was watching the quays through fat drops of rain on the Aircoach windows. The Liffey was still sunk between her slimed walls. Say yes to a wedding and you could feel your wallet shriek. He got off the coach and walked from the motorway. He used a key he hadn’t used in months. He was in the house for an hour and he spent it with his sister and mother on the couch.
‘College doesn’t interrupt Home and Away anyway.’
‘Shut up. Y’know in real life, Alf Stewart would be a massive racist. He’d call them all Abos and want them with the migrants on a prison island.‘
Outside a car horn plunged the street into noise and when it didn’t stop after five seconds he knew it was Graeme and that his lift was here. He swung his bag onto his back. His mother threw him an instruction as he went through the hall:
‘Ask him if he’s still a gobshite.’
He listened to Graeme as he sorted through CDs that had been in the car since before he left. He was no help trying to remember Rob’s parents’ names. Better off out, Graeme explained: staying here meant you’d to go to every wedding going. Graeme was on five for the year so far but it was only the June bank holiday. A man at one last year said he’d done a full dozen. This was before stags, some abroad, some out West. Clay pigeons, the only time in his life he held a gun and he was still drunk when he did. There was one in Valencia. One in Edinburgh where the entire group never left two blocks, sunk under the gothic shadow of the castle. The taxi driver had dropped them off by the Pubic Triangle, named for the strip clubs he seemed to know in lavish detail. The smokers swore by the deep-fried Mars bars. There’d been a staglet too in Wicklow for the dads and the less financially viable. The chat was on who was next to drop the knee.
She got changed in the Bed and Breakfast up the road. She stood in front of the pine bunk beds in the room. The choice all hers now, she couldn’t pick top or bottom and she felt stupid. The room reminded her how much her rent was. Being single had turned expensive. Her flatmate left a month before to move into a bigger place with the boyfriend. She examined herself knowing she’d finish looking at her hair. The vicious silver cycle of grey threads: find them, think about them, grow more of them. She was two years into that war. A little longer: that was April, this was June. She tried to remember when she last saw the bride. Christmas. She was friends with Ruth because of their parents. And at times during school. And then she moved away and Ruth didn’t. And everyone was back for the wedding.
She always thought she’d marry an Irishman. Maybe she did believe in The One but if she did she believed he’d have moved to Toronto by now. If he were here, would she be a different woman? Sunday trips to bottle banks. A Rathmines life. Her sister talked about upcoming weddings for months beforehand. How many weeks were spent negotiating fonts and starters. Out of nowhere she started thinking that someone out in the world right now was torturing an animal and she nearly went home right then thinking about it. Somewhere in the world; she checked herself. Not just anywhere. Horrors happened in real places with real addresses. Maybe a quiet farm not far from here, somewhere out here, out in the country.
He checked in. He looked around the room. He took a shower and turned on the news. He opened the suit bag. The chill stung him down. He’d brought the wrong suit. Magic. Just magic. Probably a cold sore next. He put it on, swam in it, felt clowned by it. He found Graeme and the lads watching a match. He floored the first pint. Former back rows whose hands shrank the size of the glass. Elbows on the bar. Televised sport a solid man crutch. You can see who was used to wearing suits and who wasn’t and he knew where he fitted into that. He couldn’t imagine a proposal. Couldn’t see how you’d do it. Could already see himself looking at YouTube tutorials for advice. But everyone was managing to get it done, so surely it was possible. He’d taken to sleeping with his laptop.
She joined the walk up and the heel clack, the bubbles and the small talk. The wedding industrial complex. The pleasantries exchange. These were girls who had their shades on if the weather hit eight degrees. In the event of complete cloud cover the shades were perched higher, nested in their hair. A forest of arms. Smiles and introductions. Strong handshakes and ‘You scrub up well‘ got wheeled out by lads catching up. There were swapped notes on Netflix addictions, of the adorable crosses borne in the form of husbandly laziness. The men talked about steaks, cupping the pads of each other’s hands to show which parts correspond to what tenderness.
He was with Graeme and the startup crowd as a man talked about Barrow Street:
‘Yeah I live and love off it.’
Graeme’s mates played tag rugby midweeks and queued for brunches. He didn’t say anything but he was to understand that the value of your employer is to be measured in how many free smoothies they gave out and how little tax was paid. He glugged his pint.
Everyone was corralled down to eat, a benign tipsy herd shuffling into the banquet hall.
He let three people go first and he’d do this all night, standing at one time for a full minute as eleven plush forms motored past. The ceiling reminded him of a meringue. It was details-competitive beside him with two lads comparing cufflinks. It’s bad news when there’s a glass each of champagne and stout and red in front of you. At the table he rubbed his chin, hearing his mother in his head: a shave wouldn’t have killed him.
The table looked up at her. She looked at her name surrounded by names she didn’t know. She cleared her throat.
‘I’m not sure I should be at this table.‘
Ruth came over. She spoke to her for three minutes. Ruth introduced her to everyone. She sat down and started shaking hands. Found herself beside Helena, three years older, perfect Donnybrook teeth and a passion for The Secret because it had Changed Her Life. It was all visualising. You’d only to see it. On her right was an uncle who looked like a dachshund and a heart attack stuck together. She watched Ruth glide to the top table.
Now it was jackets off and everyone was well on their way. Single lads, just five percent too much on the eye contact with the bridesmaids, too much time spent over shoulders and not enough on the person in front of them. He spied the first drunk, a younger cousin. ‘Course. The bookies wouldn’t have taken bets on that. People went outside for smokes between courses.
She shifted and lifted her head slightly as speeches continued, hoping she looked kind and interested.
Only men spoke.
‘And she looks just amazing today.’
Pools were going on how long each speech would be, schools of fivers fished out and thrust to the centre of the table. She let her eyes drift around the room.
‘Doesn’t she look wonderful today. If she wasn’t marrying my son…’
The room loved it. She’d no one to nudge under the table at this.
‘And the rest, as they say, is history.’
He watched Rob stand for his speech, groomed and immaculate. He thought of what had been brushed under. How Rob put his mouth on mouths he shouldn’t have. How that had been put somewhere else now, somewhere no one mentioned. When Rob had told him. How much he hated Rob for that, for putting it on him, snaring him in his Audi with the knowledge.
She clapped. The best man stood. The room nodded sagely back as he spoke. Everyone’s face a cherubic droop, ready to hear the finest about the men arrayed before them. The fourth of the men stood down and the fifth stepped up.
Napkins. He examined the cutlery and thought that yes he was behind in adult life but the colours of that fact only seemed fierce at times like this. He thought by Christmas he’d have to make a call on it. He wasn’t living in London. He was surviving in it. He could call himself an actor but you are what pays you, not what you did in college and he knew where that fell.
She sipped her wine and nearly enjoyed how easy it was for everyone at home when people left. They talked like every Irish son or daughter abroad was off waging a great campaign of personal achievement, but better weather didn’t solve it all, didn’t solve the works. We just got stuck out of sight, she thought. We just got rotted elsewhere.
He found himself at the bar again. Sharpeners were in play: long eels of cucumbers slid submerged between gin and ice. He watched himself in the reflection. Along the bar, a Castleknock blonde held court over the groom’s hulking younger brothers. He listened to her thesis: the absolute state of some Southside girls.
‘I’ll see you in Myo’s at Christmas Eve, ladies, see how far you get.’
A chattered sharing about the best spots for ‘people-watching‘ and she felt cold and she felt nasty. She turned and leaned in to the three girls beside her.
‘You know what I reckon? I reckon people-watching is just brunch speak for perving.‘
One unsteady laugh. Two dropped faces.
It was anyway.
‘So what, like, you hate brunch?’
‘I don’t hate it. I don’t believe in it. Just if you’ve enough cash and patience to spend a tenner on eggs on a Saturday morning, you did Friday night wrong.‘
That didn’t go down too well. She realised she was a little drunk the second after she said it. Helena put the chat back on track. She got a text from her sister asking how Ruth looked. She wrote back under the table as Helena called something ‘funky’. She thought that the only people who said ‘funky‘ were people who never listened to funk in their fucking lives. She turned to her right.
‘It’s all binary when you get down to it isn’t it?’
‘Of course that’s it. That’s it entirely.’
‘Beef or salmon. Boy or child.’
‘The very dilemma.’
She turned back to her left where the girls were now onto snapping up houses in Portobello and Stoneybatter. Mummy and baby yoga. And the party was only starting. She wasn’t staying the second day.
On her way to the bathroom a girl stopped her.
‘Your hair is Oh My God.’
‘It’s like a hot gypsy look I love it.’
She felt the wine was going to answer this one for her.
‘I’m half Roma,’ she said.
‘That’s my people you speak of.’
The girl looked confused.
‘Why would you say that?’
Out the window, peaches and corals moved past chased by laughter. She thought that these days—planned and not remembered—were driving us all mental. She’d heard of a girl going around pricing the rooms and venues when she was single.
He was out in the walled garden as night fell. He watched a glad fat uncle, Falstaff pride whenever he had the groom close and bringing up the stag whenever he could. The talks went back amongst the lads, back and back into school and summers between, the broken glass in the cocktail-wet sand of a Stillorgan car park. A beach in a car park. He raised his glass until it filled his vision.
She’d been single eight months. She’d been hurt and tender in ways she didn’t know was possible since. Some memories were grand. Some eased off and some pierced her at weird and inconvenient times. She thought of her brother Jonny. How he’d rung her—‘fuck a Skype’—the night she found herself out of a relationship. How he’d hurt with her because he’d been hurt most of the time. That was the thing with being gay, he told her. You don’t get a chance to fuck it up till so much later. That’s what Jonny had said to her, late that night, that’s what being gay really meant. It meant having a teenage relationship at twenty-fucking-four. The revulsion felt fresh and toxic as he spoke. The wrong people. Not bad people, just the wrong people. He was still behind on his mistakes, he consoled her, but she was bang on schedule. She snorted through her tears. Jonny told her on his twenty-first that he’d go off to Canada and go off the rails and that’s exactly what he did. Came back wiser, but quieter too. She didn’t know much about what that life away had been for him. She was headed back to the table when she turned and wandered inside.
They spent two and a half minutes beside each other at the bar. He felt her close by but that only charged the space around him. He looked down. He ran his thumb over the hills of his knuckles. She used her card. She wondered when she wouldn’t be so broke that using your debit card wasn’t a gauntlet of nerves. He saw her in the mirror. He saw her through the blinkers of the booze and the etched gold letters but didn’t look at her straight. The bar girl spun towards them.
They turned. Their eyes met. His face did a shy brightening hop.
‘No. You’re grand.’
‘Did you order?’
‘You go ahead.’
And they didn’t talk again.
The night galloped on. Lads playing at ghosts in the hall, the tablecloths over their heads, eyes sunk and wild. Baroque seas of Heineken. Fresh notes used every time, a hill of coins in his pocket. He found himself at the bar again. He spent an hour there. He’d three people in his field of vision he needed to dodge. He saw Rob’s dad and flicked his eyes away. The man’s company was like being trapped in a lift. Keep moving. How much had been spent on hair all told in the whole place? A Turkish grandfather had done his for eight quid, dry cut. The shock the first time the old man burned his ear hair off him. He felt a firm hand on his shoulder.
‘There’s the man.’
Rob hugged him and he hugged back. Over a pint he let Rob talk. He was caught up on all Rob’s plans. He leaned in conspiratorially to talk about virgin priests but they were still getting the progeny baptised when the time came. Schools decided it, absolutely.
‘I’m an atheist but a realist too, sure.’
‘D’you want a pint?’
He was swept into another round. A clink and a refusal of money, the see-saw of cash grasped. Past midnight, Graeme and the lads were storming back from the jacks with their eyelids sprung open, forcing through their arguments like bullying county councillors. It all felt like Communion and how much did you make and get yourself a new name. You know when you’re dodgy and you stumble, and it’s a bit odd and only a second ago he was looking at himself in the mirror, but now he was suddenly between three doors and outfoxed. And sorry but who the fuck put this puzzle here, and fuck off and he was having a great time, he picked a door and he crashed through back into the lads. It was growing late and it was growing light.
She was sore in the morning.
Back in the lobby of the main house a staff member scrambled towards a leaving party.
‘Excuse me? Excuse me? No one paid.’
But it got covered.
A girl she’d talked to the night before was fizzing up six glasses of Solpadeine for couples staying the next night.
‘It’s like the difference between using filters on a photo or not,‘ she explained.
‘Only one thing for it.’
‘Do the job.’
There was talk of getting on the road, of service stations and breakfast rolls. She felt her brain bang off her skull wall.
He did nothing with the second night home. He went for the cure with Graeme and when he got home he’d forgotten which steps creaked on the way up to his bedroom. Hangovers like this reminded him of school, when the weekend cowered before Monday. Reminded him of old flat Sundays watching Serie A, stadium roars in the quiet house.
She landed in Terminal One in the dusk of Saturday. Seasoned at this, she picked up a reduced sandwich in Marks and Spencer. She got the next train.
He got a flight the next afternoon. Spat out by the Tube an hour later and only the kebab shop still welcoming with pink neon. Taxi drivers, Arsenal stickers and families swaddled in white robes. He checked his phone. The lads would still be up. He’d make Match of the Day 2. He walked up wet dead streets into his flat.
They lived within a mile of each other for another year and a half. They never saw each other again though they shared some shops. They don’t know this but we all have it carved.