Once upon a time on a dark and stormy night Elizabeth vanished into thin air. My devastation was inconsolable. Despair rained down like arrows and I was engulfed by a wretched melancholia at the Heartbreak Hotel. In one fell swoop my blood ran cold and sent a shiver down my spine. ‘Oh, Elizabeth, my love, my darling, my sweetheart, where art thou?’
How I yearned for her. I can remember the first day I laid eyes on her like it was yesterday. What a divine creature she was. A gift from the gods. Not of this world. Drop dead gorgeous poetry in motion. She was as beautiful as the day is long. One in a million. We fell madly for each other. Head over heels. Resistance was futile. It was true love. We were a match made in heaven.
Her disappearance begged the question, ‘Where had she gone?’ Poor Elizabeth. My grandfather, lord have mercy on him, used to say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree so at the drop of a hat I searched the garden. To call a spade a spade, it was a shot in the dark but I kept my fingers crossed for light at the end of the tunnel, for a glimmer of hope. But she was nowhere to be seen.
The garda station, as luck would have it, was on my doorstep as the crow flies. I spoke to Garda Maguire, told him the story. Maguire was a man’s man, hands like shovels, tall, dark and handsome, popular with the ladies. Fit as a butcher’s dog but not the sharpest tool in the box if you get my drift. I threw my cards on the table. The ball was in his court now.
‘Mr O’Brien,’ he said, solemnly. ‘You can rest assured that I am helping myself with my inquiries and that I will do everything in my power to liaise directly with a liaison officer to implement best implementation procedures.’
‘You’ll find her, Garda Maguire. Won’t you?’ I said, with a trembling bottom lip.
‘As of now, I have no specific intelligence, Mr O’Brien. But in order to ascertain her whereabouts I will not be seeking anyone else in connection with the incident. Public order must be maintained.’
‘Of course, guard.’
‘I would like to speak to anyone who was in or around the village square area of the village on the night of Tuesday last, June 16th, or anyone who may have seen or may not have seen anything suspicious.’
‘I’ll keep my ears peeled, Garda Maguire. Do you need a description of Elizabeth? A photograph maybe?’
‘I cannot divulge that information or comment on operational matters,’ he said. ‘But you can count on me, Mr O’Brien. Blood, sweat and tears are all in a day’s work for the boys in blue.’
‘She’s the love of my life, guard. You have to find her.’
‘A word of warning, Mr O’Brien. You might want to prepare for the worst, brace yourself for bad news. But then again, you’d never know, maybe she’s lying low, or off sowing her wild oats. Stranger things have happened,’ said Maguire, reducing me to tears.
‘Aww. C’mere,’ he said, with gorilla paws outstretched. ‘Who needs a hug?’
I read between the lines that the writing was on the wall, so I decided there and then to catch the bull by the horns and hit the ground running. I knocked on the milkman’s door.
‘I’ve an axe to grind with you, O’Donnell. Where’s my fucking wife?’
My forthright enquiry went down like a lead balloon. He looked at me like I’d ten heads. The silence was deafening.
‘Well?’ I said. ‘Cat got your tongue?’
The milkman stood there in freckled bemusement, his blood—unbeknownst to him—beginning to boil.
‘Not playing with the full deck O’Brien, are you?’ he said. ‘You’re crazy in the coconut.’
‘There’s no smoke without fire, O’Donnell. Won’t pull the wool over my eyes.’
‘Make yourself scarce now, O’Brien or I’ll box the head off ya. And don’t ever again darken my door.’
I walked the length and breadth of the village like a man possessed. Took a fine toothcomb to every nook and cranny. I rooted through bins like a flock of delinquent seagulls drunk on flagons of cider, climbed electricity pylons, I shook ash, sycamore, beech and horse chestnut trees like a sociopathic hurricane. Elizabeth was nowhere to be found but I saw her beautiful face everywhere I turned. Those lovely blue eyes, and the luscious red lips, reflected in shop windows. I saw her galloping towards me at Frawley’s stud farm, her head held high and alert, ears pricked. She barked at me with pleading paws against Mike O’Connor’s gate. Her smile beamed down at me from lampposts. At the supermarket checkout my heart quickened as I spun her around only to be greeted by Betty Fitz, a blue-rinsed octogenarian who could swallow her chin at will. I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a bad dream. Love, let me tell you, is a double-edged sword that blinds us all.
Halloran’s bar and lounge had a look of noble decline about it, 70s chic you could say, faded décor, darkly lit and impossibly alluring. It was like a home away from home. Tom, the proprietor, was a gentleman and a scholar and he always had Hank Williams’s Greatest Hits playing low on the tape deck behind the counter.
The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky,
And as I wonder where you are,
I’m so lonesome I could die.
Tom’s other great passion was poetry. Sometimes a verse affected him so profoundly it induced a state of momentary paralysis. He was often found slumped over a book on the tiles behind the bar or prostrate on the floor of the toilets, presumed dead by the unfortunate punter who happened upon him. Over time the regulars grew accustomed to this little eccentricity and they’d step over him to pull their pints and leave the money on the counter to await his inevitable resurrection.
I sat skulling porter with Gregory The Bastard Greyhound who was, as always, in a state of curled perpetuity beside the fire. I smoked like a trooper and drowned my sorrows for Ireland. Hit the bottle hard. I quaffed the rotgut. Swamped the firewater. I wolfed down the booze. Gorged on the gargle. Ingurgitated the ethanol. I swigged the spirituous liquor with wild abandon. Drank myself under the table in a Bacchanalian orgy of wanton guzzlement. Alcohol sans frontières. Cradled by a supreme intoxication. Enraptured. Oh, the sweet oblivion of liquescent doom. I fell out the door of The Codfather chiphouse and collapsed comatosed face-first onto my snack box, pulverising chicken legs in the melancholy night.
I awoke, sunburned and discombobulated, and in an advanced state of dishevelment in a flowerbed after having caused myself a bit of mischief. Yet again I had made a grave and spectacular miscalculation regarding the dosage of my medicine. A sight for sore eyes I was with the broken nose, the curried forehead and the tail between my legs. Was my sweetheart dead? Had she bitten the dust? Was she six-feet under pushing up daisies? I was in limbo. I had to know. I would leave no stone unturned. With a splitting head and a broken heart, I picked myself up and dusted myself down, went out to the shed for a shovel and pickaxe and back to Halloran’s for a cure.
I had seven quick pints before I dug up the beer garden. Lo and behold there wasn’t a sign of her. Not a trace. Ticked Halloran’s off the list. Tom Halloran summited one of the Saharan dune-style mounds of earth and surveyed the subterranean realm. Silhouetted against the glare of the morning sun, his wispy grey mane swirled gently in the summer breeze. He looked down on me as I rested on the shovel, heroically perspiring. His mouth agape, like he’d simultaneously lost the power of speech and choked on a fillet of steak.
‘Jesus-Christ-all-fucking-mighty. O stony grey soil of Monaghan,’ Tom gurgled, in that softly spoken lilt of his. The words streaming out of his gob, falling over themselves, like the sleep-drunk guests of a burning hotel bursting through exit doors into the dead of night or a great migration of startled wildebeest fleeing some unknown terror. ‘What’ve you done, O’Brien? Have you lost the fucking plot?’
‘Sorry, Tom. Tis Elizabeth. I have to find her. Can’t live without her.’
Tom, for once, seemed to lose the run of himself and began ranting like a rabid W.B. Yeats:
‘All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.’
Then he collapsed like a sack of potatoes executed by firing squad.
I dug up twenty-three more back yards that afternoon. I burrowed wildflower meadows and rockeries. Mined Japanese gardens. No dice. Ticked them off my list before the guards finally put a stop to my excavatory gallop and locked me up. Spent a week in McLoon’s psychiatric hospital. You know, the funny farm, the cuckoo’s nest, the madhouse. It was bedlam in there. My mind unravelled like a cheap pair of tights, but I had come full circle so maybe it was all a blessing in disguise.
I spent the following decade swamping porter, interspersed with frenzied digs for Elizabeth when at liberty of the psychiatric authorities. They had me on the tablets, but there’s no tablet for what was devouring me from the inside-out like some starved animal. The guards had me barred from every hardware supplier in Munster. Said if I was sold a shovel they’d shut down the shop. Couldn’t get my hands on one for love nor money. Took to robbing them from garden sheds like a common criminal because I was going through them at a ferocious pace. Many an evening I had to resort to a soupspoon. Now that’s no fucking barrel of laughs I can tell you. Tough, slow work that. Fingers do be raw after it. A man would have no trouble with the insomnia after a day’s digging with a soupspoon.
The villagers, in all fairness to them, were kind to me at first. They rallied round, were really supportive. The priest called. The neighbours did what good neighbours do. They dropped by for tea, brought homemade cakes, buns, apple tarts, hot dinners. You name it. They told me that time is a great healer, and that everything happens for a reason. Said it was all God’s will and that Elizabeth was in a better place now. To be honest I couldn’t make head nor tail of what they were saying. Then Margaret Madden called. She hugged me and held me to her ample bosom.
‘My Derek ran off into the night terrified by the Halloween fireworks,’ she said, the tears welling up as she whipped out a photo of a King Charles Spaniel. ‘Look at those eyes. Look at ‘em. Five years gone. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of him. It’s the not knowing that kills me. Poor Derek. All I want is closure.’
‘Thank you, Margaret,’ I said, now taking refuge in fantasy, imagining, hoping against hope that Elizabeth and Derek had somehow found each other in this lost world, and were cuddled up, comforting each other like Margaret and I had today found each other in this world.
But all those kindly visits stopped when I excavated their little oases of calm. Tunnelled into their man-made ponds. Chopped up their hardwood decks or broke up their patio slabs. I know a good patio doesn’t come cheap. Money doesn’t grow on trees. But if it looks like a duck and talks like a duck then it’s a fucking duck. Blatant NIMBYISM in my humble opinion.
They euphemistically diagnosed my plight. Spoke in hushed tones of my penchant for intemperance. They called me a pisshead, an inebriate, a lush, a dipsomaniac. Said Father Matthew, Lord have mercy on him, would be turning in his grave. Reckoned I wasn’t the full shilling. That I was away with the fairies. Mad as a bag of cats. Said I was a pure lerk. 5/8s. A stark raving lunatic. Said my marbles had taken leave of their senses. They spoke of my drinking but never of my thirst. ‘Much madness is divinest sense,’ I told them. I’d promised Elizabeth I would leave no stone unturned and despite the best efforts of the villagers, the Guards, and the psychiatric services, that’s just what I did.
On a spring morning I dug up the last garden in the village—quarried Garda Maguire’s immaculately landscaped acre of ground and broke his Agra Red Indian Sandstone paving slabs into little pieces. Afterwards, I lay there on the broken stone clawing at the soil and at the dead daffodils and the mutilated snowdrops and I bawled my eyeballs out. Cried like a baby I did. Wailed the primal scream of a psychotic banshee. I picked up a fistful of earth and let it fall through my clenching fingers. No sign of her. Not a trace. She was nowhere to be seen. ‘Oh, Elizabeth, my love, my darling, my sweetheart,’ I vociferated from the top of my tar-encrusted lungs, ‘where art thou?’
I had fulfilled my promise, and now I had nothing left to live for. A great sense of calm came over me. I had made the decision. For once in my life I had clarity, a cold-blooded clarity. I was not long for this world. I was going to top myself. Give up the ghost. Pop my clogs. Exit the stage.
The sun jostled its happy head around the clouds as I sauntered home through the village with the shovel and pickaxe over my shoulder. I nodded at the line of god-fearing locals coming out of morning mass who all steadfastly avoided my gaze and I whistled past the graveyard and the headstones of all the boys that gave up the fags.
I’d just thrown the rope over the exposed beam in the sitting room when I heard the rattle of the letterbox. Curiosity killed the cat, so I walked over and there it was, staring up at me: the new takeaway menu from The Codfather chiphouse around the corner.
A meal-deal bucket of chicken tenders saved my life.
I was grand for a while, on the straight and narrow, or at least I thought I was, but looking back now I realise it was only a dead cat bounce. My life had spiralled into control, had a bit of structure to it for once. I was off the sauce and going to five AA meetings a day. Any time I felt stressed or thought about a drink, or had the old euphoric recall, my sponsor told me to say the serenity prayer, and to keep fucking saying it until the moment of weakness had passed:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I must have said it three hundred times a day but it worked like a charm. It was like a magical force field. Nothing could touch me. Infuckinvincible I was. I had the bingo on the Tuesday night, had my electroconvulsive therapy at McLoon’s on the Thursday and had the yoga and the aqua aerobics of a Saturday morning. You know what they say about idle hands and the devil’s work. I wasn’t going to fall into that trap, no fucking way. But I’ll tell you, I didn’t expect the ten-year anniversary of Elizabeth’s disappearance to hit me like a tonne of fucking bricks. Didn’t see that one coming.
It was early one Sunday morning and I was after putting down a bad night of it, tossing and turning and the mind racing. I couldn’t sleep a wink with the sadness ating me like quicksand inside in the bed. I thought it was going to swallow me up. Despair rained down like arrows. My devastation was inconsolable. Hope curdled inside me. The black dog was back gnawing on my soul so I had to get out of it fairly lively.
The grey crow sky cawed at me as I made my way through the drizzlepiss morning. Next thing I know, Garda Maguire pulled up beside me all flying gravel and flashing blue lights. Pure dramatic like. He jumped out and he was roaring and waving his truncheon at me.
‘O’Brien, you fucking latchiko. Public order must be maintained. I’ll murder you to death.’
And then he started fucking and blinding something about his Agra Red Indian Sandstone paving slabs. I tried to explain the situation, tried to apologise, tried to reason with the man but he was having none of it and he kept swinging and me ducking and side-stepping like I was in a fight to the death with a Kamikaze wasp with slash hooks for wings. Even the serenity prayer couldn’t help me weather the storm of blows to the head, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…’ He kept on swiping like a madman but I was in no mood for that bolloxing to be honest with you. It was like a red rag to a bull. ‘Fuck this for a game of soldiers,’ says I. I felt all the pain, all the hurt, all that suppressed rage bubble up inside me. It seemed to amass in my right fist, a great vengeance pulsed through it, it was like the fist took on a life of its own and gave Maguire the dig. Flattened his nose it did. He flew through the air like a dead superman, crashed against the windscreen of the patrol car and slid down the bonnet like shit on an equatorial slate.
Halloran’s was the only early house in the village. Even though he didn’t partake himself, Tom hated to see a man thirsty. Of course, he was fond of the spondulicks, of the dosh; he liked the few bob, so everyone was a winner.
I went round the back to avoid the attentions of An Garda Síochána and knocked the secret knock on the barred window. I was now in a state of acute ontological crisis—precipitated by the temporary abandonment of my pacifist principles— which had manifested in a chronic aridity of the oral cavity considered the source of vocal utterance. Fucking parched I was. I heard the bolts open on the emergency door.
Tom was instinctively cognisant of the gravity of my predicament due to his consummate professionalism.
‘Come in, O’Brien. Jesus, come in out of it and I’ll douse you back to health,’ he said, his head darting left and right like a paranoid chicken on some new and, as of yet, unclassified industrial-strength amphetamine manufactured in an underground Chinese laboratory.
I sat where I always sat—warming the arse on the stool beside the fire with Gregory The Bastard Greyhound. Had the place to myself. Hank Williams sang low, still as lonesome as ever.
‘While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,’ said Tom. ‘What’s your poison?’
‘Pint of stout, Tom please… and think I’ll need a small one as well,’ I said, salivating at the kaleidoscopic array of bottled possibility displayed on the mirrored-shelving. The cognac—Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier VSOP; the gin—Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire; the vodka—Smirnoff, Absolut, Stolichnaya; the Scotch, love a good Scotch I do—Glenfiddich, Johnnie Walker, Glenmorangie; and best of all, the Irish whiskey, the uisce beatha, the water of life—the Paddy, Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Bushmills and the Powers. I basked in the glow of their golden glory and contemplated the thrilling variety of transparent delivery mechanisms to the gullet at my disposal. Oh, what wonderful vessels. I undressed the bottles in my mind’s eye, caressed their elegant glass bodies. They paraded their beauty like catwalk models. Such wicked titillation. What tickled my fancy? What caught my eye? How can one pick a favourite child? Paralysed by the paradox of choice. Such eternal wonder to behold.
‘Oh, Tom,’ I implored. ‘Put me out of my fucking misery.’
He pulled the pint, left it to settle and handed me a glass of Powers.
‘Drink that,’ he said.
‘Ah, yes. The Three Swallows,’ I said, rubbing the hands together. ‘Whiskey river take my mind.’
It was like stepping into a warm bath after a long day at the quarry splitting boulders with the forehead.
‘Look, Tom. I’ll kill two birds with the one stone here to make a long story short. I can’t live, if living is without her. I can’t live, I can’t live anymore,’ I said, as the tears cascaded down my skull. It was a torrent. My eyeballs were raining cats and dogs.
‘She didn’t tread softly on your dreams, O’Brien, did she?’ he said, topping up my pint. ‘Get that into you.’
I knocked it back. Glug, glug, glug. Swamped the Powers and smoked like a trooper. A great sense of calm came over me. I had made the decision. For once in my life I had clarity, a cold-blooded clarity. I was not long for this world. The porter was going down well so I said I’d a have a couple of more pints and a bit of an auld singsong with myself before I’d go home to the rope.
Some time passed, a time unknown and unknowable to me.
‘Tom,’ I said, ‘You know how much I loved that woman don’t you? I loved her to bits. Oh, this vale of tears. This is the last straw for me, I’m telling you. The end of the fucking line. Can’t handle the Heartbreak Hotel anymore. This world is nothin’ but a ball of sorrow. But there’s always the rope, Tom. There’s always the fucking rope.’
Tom paused for a moment and stared at me. His eyes, blue pools of sincerity.
‘Easy on with that talk, O’Brien,’ he said. ‘Death shall have no dominion. Though we live in a world that dreams of ending, something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin.’
‘For fucksake, Tom. You’ll burst the heart out of my chest,’ I said, now sobbing extravagantly onto the mahogany countertop.
‘Do not go gently into that good night, O’Brien,’ he said, hands in the air, looking up to the heavens like an evangelical preacher cresting the wave of a perfect sermon. ‘And the days are not full enough. And the nights are not full enough. And life slips by like a field mouse. Not shaking the grass.’
The eyes started rolling in his head. I thought he was going to collapse. Thought the poignancy was going to take the legs from under him but he somehow regained composure like an Olympic gymnast maintaining a perfect dismount on a broken ankle.
‘Remember that, O’Brien,’ he said, ‘and remember that wine comes in at the mouth and love comes in at the eye. Time to get drunk. Don’t be a martyred slave of time. Get drunk. Stay drunk. On wine, virtue, poetry, whatever. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’
‘You’re a gas cunt, Tom. Throw me on another pint,’ I said wiping the teared snot from my face. ‘Sure, I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.’
‘Alas for those that never sing but die with their music in them,’ he said, polishing a brandy glass.
‘You’re a beautiful man, Tom Halloran. A beautiful man,’ I said, still weeping effusively. ‘I’ll tell you no word of a lie, as God is my witness. But I’ll dig, shovel or no fucking shovel, I’ll dig up this Atlantic rock with my bare fucking paws if I have to, I’ll dig down to Australia, Jules-fucking-Verne wouldn’t get a look in. There’s always the next village, Tom. The next madhouse. There’ll no one stop me, man, woman, nor beast. Sure, what can a man do but dig? Answer me that? What can a man do but dig? Dig the fuck out of it. I’ll dig, Tom. Mark my words, I will dig.’
I removed my shoelaces and my genuine imitation leather belt and gave them to Tom. He handed me out his shovel over the counter. Fair exchange is no robbery. And with a bellyful of porter I staggered out into the deathbed of the evening cradled by a supreme intoxication. Up Hill Road with the tongues of the boots flapping in the breeze and the crack of the arse peeking out over my jeans like a baby kangaroo from its mother’s pouch, and on up to the bus stop outside McMahon’s family butchers, breaking stride only to take a slash and vomit magisterially agin the Garda station door. There wasn’t another sinner on the street. Not a soul. Tumbleweed job. You could hear a pin drop. It was like I was the only one left alive or who had ever lived. At the bus stop I rested on Tom’s shovel, lit a fag and sucked on it with the jaws of an ass. The carcinogens wafted snake-like past my snout, up towards the quintet of demented starlings on the telephone wire, then disappeared into the last of the fading light.