I wanted to stay home, but Jamie asked, so I went.
Kelly’s is crowded and loud, always fucking loud, and smells like a hangover.
It’s not quite sunset yet. It’s not started. The telly on the wall’s trying to give everyone a seizure. I hear static and what sounds like the distant voices of the presenters, only that’s not possible cos the mute symbol’s blinking on the top right corner of the flat screen.
The tip of my shoe scrapes against the floor and taps on the counter.
‘. . . splits his infinitives all over the fucking shop, but . . . Alright, Sid?’
I pull a smile from the corners of my mouth. ‘Fine.’
Jamie’s hands flail about when he speaks, when he gets this way, when the spark lights behind his eyes and his accent gets thicker and he’s letting loose. Second or third pint?
He gives the next page a little slap and I find myself wondering once more why he bought the fucking book in the first place.
‘The man can’t tell an Oxford comma from an intoxicated koala bear!’
‘Maybe he’s got the metaphors down,’ I say.
‘That wasn’t a metaphor, mate,’ he says.
‘Not even a little bit.’
‘Well, I’m not the writer.’
He snorts. ‘Neither am I, evidently.’ And he takes a swig.
‘What was his name again?’ I ask.
He closes the book to check. ‘Nathaniel Flair.’
‘Please tell me that’s an alias.’
‘Fucking romance fucking novelist eejit pen name, for fuck’s sake.’
I shrug and tip my empty glass. ‘Maybe that’s what you need. A pen name, I mean.’
‘What I need is to write fluff.’
He’s looking at the ceiling. I check, in case there’s something up there, but no.
You’re losing it, Robinson.
I swing my head sideways to shake the voice out.
Jamie barely registers it.
‘Escapism,’ he says, like he’s about to puke, like the word is reaching down his throat and pulling itself out. ‘People want escapism. “Sorry, Paddy, your stuff’s too serious.”’
‘They call you that?’
‘Pretty sure one of them thinks it’s short for Paddington.’
‘Paddington Flair. That’s good, you should make a note.’
He chuckles. ‘Right!’ Then, with a wave in the general direction of the barman, ‘Want another?’
Sand crunches in my mouth, rough and dry. I just nod. Sometimes it’s safer to just nod, cos sometimes the wrong word comes out, and Jamie has to ask again, and that’s just awkward for everyone.Then the barman asks ‘What can I get you?’ and the whole thing comes back to bite me in the arse.
Jamie orders a Guinness, which means he’s either had one too many or he’s decided to steer into the skid. I order a lager – their cheapest. The barman says ‘You got it,’ and I see him glance at Jamie over his shoulder as he pulls the pints.
‘Where’s Tom?’ Jamie asks.
‘I told him seven,’ I say.
‘You told me six o’clock.’
‘I told him seven.’
The barman trots back over. ‘It’s me birthday,’ he tells Jamie, all flirtatious, all smitten, and slides the Guinness over.
‘Is it?’ Jamie says, and turns back to me. ‘Too serious, my arse. Fucking ostriches, the lot of them.’
‘Have we moved on from koala bears, then?’
He takes an impressive swig from his glass and his fist tightens on his lap. ‘Just look at them, fucking jerking each other off!’
My body tenses with the spike of stress. The song springs out in response, mechanically, like a jack-in-the-box.
‘It’s raining men . . . hallelujah, it’s—’
‘Shh,’ Jamie says.
‘Sorry,’ I say.
I swing my head left, trying to make it seem like I’m just tucking a strand of hair behind my ear.
Jamie sees, and asks with his eyebrows, without asking.
I tell him I need a piss and shuffle off.
Some bloke watches from behind the pages of the Mail as I walk past. I keep my head down until I’m out of sight and make a right through the door with the triangle character.
One of the reasons I like this place, that sign. Owner never took it down. Fuck knows, he could get into trouble for that. It’s a stupid thing to do, pointless, reckless, idiotic, but you’ve got to admire the guy’s nerve. Jamie would call it hypocrisy. That’s not taking a stand, he’d say. That’s a cop-out, he’d say, a small gesture to feel better without actually trying anything real. Me? I probably shouldn’t be trusted to decide what’s real or not.
‘Hallelujah, it’s raining men, every specimen.’
I check every stall – no one here.
‘Tall. Blond. Dark. Lean. Rough and tough and strong and mean.’
The water from the sink scalds. I rub until my hands are red and raw, and stare at my reflection for a while. Someone’s scrawled ‘FUCKIN KILL YOU ALL YA CUNTS’ across the mirror in black marker. I stare at that. Then I dunk my head under the tap and lap up the burning water to stave off the headache.
Back in the bar, some melodramatic fucker’s belting out ‘The Wild Rover’ on the stereo in a forced Dublin accent. As I approach, I catch Jamie mouthing the words, gazing at his Guinness, and I smirk.
‘You’re joking, right?’
I nod in the general direction of the barman. ‘He’s playing it for you.’
Jamie waves me off. ‘He’s not.’
But then we both look and the barman gives him a wink.
Jamie turns back to his pint. ‘Fuck me.’
‘Nah, you’re not my type.’
This earns me a laugh and a playful nudge. I take a swig of my lager and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.
‘Anyways,’ he says. ‘What’s new with you?’
I shrug. ‘Nothing.’ Then I decide to make at least a bit of an effort. ‘Got a Hawaiian in my bag.’
He makes a face. ‘Aw, mate, that’s gross.’
‘I’m getting chips on the way home.’
‘Pizza’s free.’ I shrug.
‘Why d’you always have to go for the weirdest shit?’
‘I can’t fucking stand pineapple.’
‘Free pineapple,’ I say.
‘Getting chips,’ he says.
I’m about to reply, but I don’t, cos all of a sudden everyone has gone quiet. A voice has risen from the stereo.
She’s singing ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’. The recording is old and it screeches and cracks and we’re all holding our breath.
‘I sat within the valley green,
I sat me with my true love.
My sad heart strove the two between,
The old love and the new love.’
The sound sweeps up and meanders down. It echoes, glides effortlessly.
My head begins to spin in time with the rise and fall. I listen for the next trill, the next deep vibration. I can almost see her, her mouth, her throat and the vocal cords inside. I can almost see the sound. It’s green and earthy brown, like a tree, sort of.
Then, slowly, a guy in one of the booths raises his glass. Another follows, and another, and soon half a dozen glasses are up.
‘The old for her, the new that made me
think on Ireland dearly’
I feel the prickle at the back of my neck, the tremor in my hand. My brain’s getting sweaty and my mind’s slipping out of its grip. If it gets away, if it gets away I won’t be able to catch it again.
‘While soft wind blew down the glen
And shook the golden barley.’
And as she sings, as she sings, I start again too, inside, under control. Humidity’s rising, barometer’s getting low, and the pounding beat from inside clashes, discordant, with the melodic lilting. According to all sources, the street’s the place to go.
Jamie’s fingers close around his own glass.
He makes a move.
I grab his wrist.
He releases the glass and I release his wrist and I’m starting to hum out loud, it’s raining men, hallelujah, it’s raining men, but I’m already slipping away.
‘Jamie, let’s go, mate,’ I whisper, but it’s too late.
‘Alright, that’s quite enough now, gentlemen!’
They’re in the doorway, three of them – always three, three by three. I spot the batons and guns at their hips. They notice me noticing.
The leader – always a leader – sighs and gives us the disapproving head shake.
The barman pops the record out and he’s laughing as he addresses us. ‘Oh come on, fellas! Who called ’em?’
‘Did you call ’em, darlin’?’
Jamie chuckles into his beer. ‘Right, that sounds like me.’
I try to kick him under the counter, miss, and my foot slams against the hardwood. I bite the inside of my cheek for a while.
‘I didn’t mean offence with those Irish tunes, ya know?’ says the barman.
‘I know you didn’t,’ Jamie says.
‘Nobody called us, Reg, we just happened to walk by.’
Well that’s fucking likely. Bloke in the corner’s still reading the Mail like nothing’s going on.
‘Alright, this establishment is going to close down for the evening, if everyone would please step out.’
‘Come on, now! Not like I’m hurtin’ anyone, eh?’
‘You know I would, mate, but it’s your third in three months. I let you off again and I’m looking at suspension time. You have to help me out here.’
For a second Reg seems about to protest again, but the look in the officer’s eyes shoves the words right back down his throat.
He turns to us. ‘Sorry, fellas . . .’
And that does it. The crowd breaks into grunts of disappointment. The guys all stumble to their feet. One of them trips and nearly spills his pint down Jamie’s back.
They usher us out with emphatic waves and a tad more pushing than strictly necessary – someone’s hip against mine, a raspy voice in my ear.
Reg spews a constant stream of apologies. ‘Sorry, sorry! That’s the way it goes, eh, lads? Why don’t you go ahead and keep the glass, Frankie. Just bring it back round tomorrow, alright?’
Tomorrow. I guess that’s hope for you.
As they escort him away, I watch his foot catch on the threshold, his fingers stroke the frame of the door. His mouth is still smiling; the rest of his face is not.