She sashays over to this guy, I don’t know how she does it, that hipsway, that femme thing that would disgust her in another female. Low centre of gravity maybe. On top she has on an old army shirt of mine, one with epaulettes and a little West German flag on the shoulder. She has it open a few buttons and she has on a black bra underneath and is showing a triangle of white flesh, her freckles curiously arranged, as if on purpose, like you might see on a map, like a line of islands off the cost of artic land.
Today is the best day for The Game, as she calls it, because it’s rent allowance day. She knows how to pick them, she knows the type of lad who would go for the kind of girl that she is. She reads them quick, and knows what stories to play. The whole vulnerability thing, or the hard as nails thing, or the what music do you like? thing, and how she loves them too, that band, The Damned, or The Happy Mondays or Johnny Thunders or Megadeth or whatever shit the Mark says. It doesn’t matter, she’s not who she is, it’s an act, an artifice, something built in front of you that lasts for as long as it’s needed and when you’re on the ground with one of your teeth in your cupped palm, collecting your own blood like it was alms, you appreciate that art for what it was, my friend, the work of a pair of masters, light and dark and fire and ice and soft and slap-hard. Also, your wallet’s gone. Tough.
I didn’t see how it could work, until we did it the first time, and even if the pickings were slim, the rush was something else. She hooked this Galway eejit with thick locks of red hair that went down his back, beyond his arse. His face was a terrain of greasy whiteheads, a moonscape unclaimed by any superpower. His eyes were dead when I chinned him, empty, accepting, realising too late how Michelle was a chimera. That voice in his head, the whole time, telling him this can’t be really happening, was right. The voice could have saved him, but he wanted to believe. If you saw her, you want it too. Maybe when I came up behind him, boxed him on the right ear, his jaw, to stun him, and as he twisted, shocked, to face me, and I placed my forehead on the end of his nose, maybe he thought fuck it, it was worth it. That hour sat with her on the grass, as the sun went down, the warm air, the howl of the kids playing the football. He was alive, briefly, and this spray of blood and that mushed cartilage is there to remind him that he lived. He didn’t resist when I went through his pockets, he just simpered. We ran, we ran down the darkened lanes and out onto the streets which were flanked in yellow light. We ran back to the gaff and back into the room and we were livid with adrenalin and running and we got naked in fucking seconds. It’s not even about the money, I said, but she gave me a look and said we needed the money and we did, of course.
Michelle goes over to this bloke, and stands there, in his sunlight, her shadow across his face. He looks up from his book, its cover a lurid smear of blue and orange: sci-fi for sure. She’s asking for a light, holding out a cigarette to him. There was no chance he didn’t smoke. He smiles and then pats his pockets, leaning back so he can tease the lighter out of his jeans. They’re tight jeans he’s wearing, he’ll have no sperm left if he continues with them. But then, maybe that’s his plan. Cheaper than johnnies, and less hassle. Michelle flops down next to him, her head bent with the lighting of the smoke and she blows out. Then she offers him one, and he takes it and the connection is made.
I watch, as surreptitiously as I can. Time crawls and some suit sits next to me on the bench. He’s not really a suit, just a bloke in a shirt and tie and some very pressed trousers, the kind you buy with a belt already in them in Guiney’s without actually looking directly at them because of what they represent and if you did, you’d collapse, and cry, and realise all your decisions in life have led to this point where you’re standing in Guiney’s buying shit trews so you don’t look like a knacker in front the Man, who will never look in your direction anyway. He looks bored and scoffs a ham and cheese roll and slurps on a can of Lilt. He’s reading the Star, hunched forward. When he finishes he sits back, puts the paper to one side and lights a smoke, inhaling deeply.
Shadows have shifted again. –Do you mind, I say, picking up his paper. –Have it, he says, -nothing but shite in it. I feel sorry for him, that his sense of wonder has gone, it’s sad that Diana’s hairstyle or Jack Charlton’s fishing secrets can’t hold his attention. He leaves, morosely, scrunching up his litter and placing it in the bin, like a good citizen. I scan the paper, peering over the top of the pages at Michelle. The pair of them are deep in conversation, her head bobbing up and down in agreement with whatever he’s saying.
Once the paper is spent, and the sun has moved across the sky, I decide it’s time to get moving. I stand and walk over to the other side of the park, past her eyeline, knowing that she sees me. I tap my wrist, where a watch might be if I had one.
She’ll suggest that they go somewhere, walk out of the park, head down the lane that’s dwarfed by the Cathedral on one side, and the civic offices on the other. That’s where I come in.
I walk, in and out of shadows; the green, shimmering ones cast by the trees, the cold black ones next to the walls. I blend, I disappear, I wait for her and she walks by. The pair of them laughing at something. He’s bigger than I thought, but there’s nothing to him. His leather jacket is keeping his bones together, not his muscles, not his tendons, not even his will. He’s sticks, riddled with air. No problems. No bother. I follow at an inconspicuous distance, sparks eddy about me, fag end flicked against the wall kicking them up. I run a knuckle off the creases of rough stone, take up some skin, prick some colour into the day, red and urgent. The breath inside me is solid with anticipation: it’s pure rock. The game is on, and there’s a throat tightening expectation that can’t be matched by anything else, not the football or the riding or even taking Deano Flanagan’s Capri out onto the dual carriageway and tipping 90 on the speedo, one tyre blow from oblivion. There’s nothing like the pre-feeling you get in the rightness of your knuckles when you’re about to swing them at some fucker’s head.
I watch them, but something is up. She’s gone off course, turning right instead of left and taking him to a tiny pub down at the bottom of the lane. Grimy windows, ornate script above the door: McGettigan’s. Blue paint on the walls coming off in flakes. There was no communication about this, but I reason that this Mark is loaded enough to get the pints in. If he’s offering, Michelle isn’t going to refuse, and I can’t blame her.
I don’t know what to do with this buzz I’ve got, this thrum in my fists. I finger my own change in my jeans, some rolled notes, some loose coins. I could stretch to a pint myself. Who’s to say I haven’t earned it. I give them a few minutes while I wait outside. The sky is knotted somewhere over the Northside, which you can see from this incline. The clouds are blue black, taut like bruises. But that’s the Northside for you.
When I enter the boozer my eyes have to adjust to the gloom, to the universe of motes hanging there in front of me, petrified in a shaft of glum light that noses in through the grime and nicotine on the windows. I feel as if the floor lurches, disorienting, like we’ve hit a squall. I can’t see them, at first. I get my bearings by focussing on my reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
I order from the barman who’s reading the paper. –Pint, I say and he grunts and moves over to the taps and stands there pulling away, like he was standing at a wall having a piss. Then he lets it rest and we’re all in thrall. I hear a giggle and look over to a seat by the door, under a mosaic of coloured glass held together with dull veins of lead, bathed in these discrete reds and yellows, abstract and odd. She’s reeling this one, you can see it on his face, using his hands to illustrate whatever story he’s on about and she’s there, her legs pulled up on the seat and laughing at him and the holes in her tights.
Your man’s not quick with the pint. He might tell you that it’s the art in the pulling, letting it rest that little bit longer, but he’s checking out the form for the 6.15 at Listowel. I start tapping my knuckles on the bar and he gives me his gammy eye pulls himself up off his stool and finishes with the pint, sluicing off the head with an old knife. A snotload of foam slopped into the traps under the taps. He puts the pint in front of me, this sculpture that he’s been working on these last ten minutes or so. –Bout fucking time , I say and he gives me half a yellowy eye, hardly arching his brow. I’m just not worth the full arch. But fuck it, the pint’s decent. Package of crisps would go down well, but I’m not sure I have the odds. Which won’t be an issue, once I get my knuckles into this lanky cunt over there.
There’s a trick with the acoustics. Hidden away, by the door and sitting under a red, mildewed curtain, their voices are dead to me, but the ouldlad at the end of the bar with the polar bear living in his ear is mumbling to himself and I can hear every mad-lined vowel. –It’s time, Vinny, he says. With a grunt, the barman gets up and turns on the radio. He’s checking in with the nags, but it doesn’t matter what it is, because it’s distracting, staticky and restlessly alive.
I can see Michelle and the Mark in the mirror, between the dusty spouts of Tullamore Dew and Drambuie bottles that no one has supped from in a decade. He’s getting up, those long legs stretching and clicking upright, like something arachnid, and coming towards the bar. My heart beginning to thunder, with your man on the tranny calling out these improbable names of sleek mares and their urgent trots across the bog lands of Ireland to the fevered excitement of assorted, hat wearing old men who’ve nothing else in their life. It’s reaching a crescendo, my heart, the race. I rub the scraped skin on my knuckles, the fresh, electric prick of pain focusses.
–Two pints of Guinness, he says. Michelle loves her Guinness. His voice is odd, much deeper than his scrawny chest would have you believe. His Adam’s apple is huge, as if actual apple must be stuck there, like he was a suckling pig. And in a way he is.
Vinny ignores him as the commentator approaches climax on the radio. The horses are bunched together, hitting the final furlong, a nose here, a length there. Vinny can’t contain it. –Come on European Union, he calls. –Come on, you cunt. We’re invested now. The Mark turns to me and me to him and we meet eyes. They’re blue at the edges, but fiercely white in the middle, around the iris, as if they were unfinished. Like there’s part of him missing. And that’s scary.
European Union takes it by a hair. You’d love to see it, that little jockey’s arse in the air and the sods flying about, the whip flaying the hind of that massive beast.
-European Union, 16 to 1. Vinny says. -16 to 1, Pat, and the old man at the end pipes up.
-How much you stake? I ask. Vinny just gives me the rheumy eye. His shirt used to be white, but now it’s yellowing around the seams, and getting too tight. Open a couple of buttons at the top and Vinny’s black hairs poking out, like he’s got Linda Lusardi tucked down there for warmth.
-Get to fuck, I say. –That’s three hundred quid.
-Three forty, with the stake back, says, the Mark, assuming were all thick and can’t count. –You must have some insider knowledge. Care to share?
Vinny’s calmed himself and taken to the taps again, composed. –No tips, says Vinny. –It’s all there in black and white.
-You picked out a 16 to 1 by the form?
-Hasn’t rained in Listowel in three weeks, said Mad Pat down the end, surprisingly coherent all of a sudden.
-Black and white, says Vinny again and puts the pints on the mat next to the taps, letting the cosmos of cream disentangle itself into a monochromatic coherence.
-I’m going for a piss, I tell everyone and no one and get up. As the Mark stands at the bar, exchanging his new found love of the horses with his best friend Rheumy Vin, I give Michelle the eye, tapping my wrist again. She gives me a languid look, heavy-lidded eyes, almost drunk. I enter the door marked “Gents” and almost fall down the stairs, narrow and cold. The jacks reeks of piss hundreds of years old. The tiles are grimed, varicose with cracks across the porcelain, trimmed with moss. There’s a dead, sepulchral echo down here, under the street, something ancient and moribund, something in the thousands of cocks and millions of gallons of piss that have passed through here, like it was important or humbling in some way.
He’s back in his seat when I exit the fetid jacks, and I have to walk past them. He’s telling her something again, and she’s smiling, cheeks reddened, supple as a rag doll. I want to put my hand on the back of his lank, greasy head, and force his face onto the table, to flatten that nose, maybe even push his head toward his own pint glass, to see the explosion of black porter and slick red, the thick gurgle of shock, the one that comes before the thin shrieking realisation of pain. But she shoots me some eyes. So quick, if you weren’t attuned to her you’d miss it. I walk past them. He’s reeled in. There’s never been anything more reeled in. There’s decapitated bass lying on beds of tin and ice on stalls in Moore Street that are less reeled in, that still have some semblance of a chance. Not this lad.
I’m checking my paltry change. –I suppose you wouldn’t shout us a pint, Vinny? What with your newfound wealth, I wonder aloud.
-I will in me swiss, he replies, with admirable restraint, it has to be said.
-Could you stick a half in here, I ask, handing over my glass, circularly streaked, thick with residue of head clinging to the insides, the sign of a well crafted pint, the mark of an artist. Vinny’s not having it though. He pulls a half into a half pint glass. I’ll be sitting here, sipping at it like someone’s grandmother, stoic and silent, not deigning to remove her headscarf. I light a cigarette while I wait, hoping deep, meaningful drags will re-imbue me with masculinity.
There’s something in the fug of the place, the way the lights, low and golden, catch on the mirror, the tick of the clock behind the bar, the creak of the stool on the blackened, warped floorboards, the gentle ebb and flow of Pat’s mumbling, that’s tiring, draining. Time has stopped or is moving at such an accelerated rate I’m old before my time, by some many hundreds of years.
-Why did you follow me? She says and I’m returned to the meantime. There I am, with a stubby half pint in front of me that I’m taking delicate sips from because I don’t want to finish it too quickly and be left with nothing. She sees it, but doesn’t say anything. It’s beneath a joke.
-This is The Game, isn’t it?
-You’re supposed to wait outside.
-For two fucking hours?
This conversation is happening at a whisper, both of us speaking out of the sides of our mouths, looking the other way. We’re strangers, perfect strangers. She’s no more interested in me than she is in Vinny’s winnings or Pat’s insanity. The pocks in the bar keep her eye as the two pints she orders sit and await Vinny’s artful knife work.
-I can’t leave while you’re here.
-Why not, to fuck?
-Everyone will see you follow us. I look around me. Vinny’s back in the paper, Pat’s talking to his ex wife, who’s dead this last decade or something. –Sylvia, I’m not coming home tonight, he says. –You’re dead and that’s no good to me. I’m a man who needs more than that.
I light another fag, trying to keep the rage from spilling out.
-Finish that, she says. –And leave. Wait for me down the lane. You know where. He’s nearly pissed, so maybe you won’t have to hurt him.
I probably wouldn’t have to anyway, but I’m not that magnanimous. I’ll hurt him because I want to, his spider’s legs and half-finished eyes and the promise of a deep pain in my knucks in the morning, rude and red and reminding her, as we count out the notes, of the work I’ve done in her name. And she’ll kiss them, one knuckle after another, slowly, like apologies.
Vinny pushes the tap, then pulls it, then takes out his knife and does that scoop, the phlegmy slap of foam on the traps, his indifference to it all. She hands over a tenner and I wonder where she got it. Is it his, or ours? I make a show of finishing the glass of stout, and place it on the bar. It’s a woman’s glass, and I feel ridiculous. –Enjoy your winnings, Vinny, I say. I give her one more look, before taking the evening air, just some gent, out around the town.
Time crawls. The knotted fist of clouds above the Northside has grown like a tumour, the day is taking on a chill, the sun hostage to this creeping blanket of black. This is not the summer’s day of earlier, but I don’t mind. It will rain, sharply and cold, I’ll stand here, hidden from view, behind a curve in the cathedral wall, waiting for her to lead him past me, perhaps with the tacit promise of a fumble, a hand down those holey tights, his tongue in her mouth. None of it will happen for him, instead bone will strike bone, and a fool will be parted from his money. Rain will collect between the cobbles, canals reflecting silver, and we’ll run, Michelle and me.
Dara Thomas Higgins is a writer and musician living in Dublin. By day he writer for television, by night be plays bass guitar. Early evening is for naps.
Illustration of author by Eoin Whelehan, who is collaborating on a graphic novel with Dara.