Saturday, February 17, 2007

Liverpool, 17 December 1998 12.55 am

The dark blue Transit van bounced the kerb at the junction of Bold St and St Luke's Place, coming to a halt in the middle of a small pedestrianised area facing a roofless Victorian church. A three quarter moon shone down on pavements slick from recent rain and a solitary bell chimed the hour somewhere across the city. Leaving the engine running, the driver dismounted the cab and walked to the rear of the vehicle. Breath steamed from his mouth into the December night. He was tall and wore combat fatigues, black balaclava and leather gloves.

He unlocked the rear doors and pulled them open in a motion which was both efficient and unhurried. Two similarly dressed figures emerged from the darkness of the van's interior. Between them they half dragged, half lifted a stout middle aged man by the arms. His feet hit the pavement and he tumbled like a half - cut marionette. The two men roughly pulled him erect facing the rear of the van, his arms pinioned behind him. A thin trickle of blood ran from down his temple staining the starched collar of his pressed white shirt. His head rolled from side to side as he attempted to bring his eyes into drunken focus on his surroundings.

The driver gestured with his head towards a structure in the centre of the pavement area a few paces from where they stood in frozen tableau. It was a sculpture. A minimalist's idea of a Christmas tree fabricated in 16 gauge steel. Painted white, it rose thirty- five feet into the night sky. Its serrated branches tapered from base to pointed apex like the jagged teeth of an ocean predator.

In a movement which might have been rehearsed, his captors frog-marched their prisoner backwards in double time towards the tree. In a single smooth motion they hoisted and pushed the middle aged man against the tapering point of one of the lower branches. The momentum forced its tip through his torso. As it emerged on the left side of his chest, he emitted a choked moan, a mixture of surprise and agony. His chin dropped onto his collar bone and a widening patch of blood stained the pristine white of his shirt front. He was dead before he had time to register his fate.

Without looking back, the two men turned back to the van, pulling off their balaclavas as they climbed into the cab. Still efficient and unhurried, the driver closed and locked the rear doors, re-entered the cab, put the van into gear and drove smoothly off the pavement and away down the road. Within seconds the odour of exhaust fumes hanging in the dampness of the winter night was the only memento of their presence.

Chapter 1

I was living down on the docks that year, in a flat in a refurbished warehouse. I liked being by the water. I had my back to the city and in the still of the dockside night I could watch ships arrive and leave with every tide.

The passing of ships in the night was a good metaphor for my life then. I was rudderless, floating through the days, moved only by currents I couldn't control. It was a time spent slipping the moorings and drifting when I should have been lowering the gangplank and coming ashore. Somewhere inside I suppose I was waiting for a safe harbour beyond the reef my life had become. In the meantime, I got by bumping into other drifting objects amongst the flotsam and jetsam of Liverpool life. There was nothing or no-one amongst them to act as my sea-anchor.

My girlfriend had left me at the start of the year. I was on a tailspin towards forty. I was out of work. It was coming on Xmas and my closest friend in the world was the large grey cat who let me share his view of the river. And I was drinking.

Drinking is probably the wrong word for what I was up to. It implies some sort of pleasure. I was engaged in a process involving chemical saturation which passed the time and, excepting short walks between bars, kept me off the streets. It was self-medication providing the numb escapism necessary for the emotional abdication I was seeking. Don’t misunderstand, I was no AA, working my way down to hitting bottom, alcoholic. I was just looking to shake hands with oblivion and I knew that one day, if I kept it up, I’d run across it in a room full of bar-flies not unlike myself.

The good thing about that kind of drinking is that you’ve always got friends. There’s always someone around to take your mind off your life. Dull people become interesting, interesting people become fascinating and to make them that way all you have to do is keep the drinks coming. I was good at that. And a man has to have a hobby. Staying up late and drinking a lot of beer was mine. It definitely beat facing an uncertain future and middle age.

I'd just put the phone down. I don't know why I'd picked it up in the first place. These days it only brought more fresh hell. Bernadette Geraghty had called to tell me that her husband, my former employer, was dead. Tom Geraghty, a Spike Island jack with three decades on the Liverpool force and sole proprietor of Open Eye Security Services (Our motto we see it through) was dead and gone. He was my best friend. Whatever that means.

He had been killed the night before at the junction of Bold St and St Luke's Place. A hit and run she said. The impact had impaled him on a conceptual Christmas tree installed there for the season. Its branches were white painted steel tapers. I'd walked past it half a dozen times in the last week. I tried not to imagine him hanging there like some grotesque Yuletide decoration, dripping out his life's blood onto the flagstones. I failed and the image sent ice-fingers up my spine.

I'd not seen him in the nine months since I slipped the net on Open Eye. Now he was gone for good. I almost hated him for dying on me. It was too late for an Irish macho, male-bonding reconciliation. Too late for a drink induced kiss-and-make-up session. I suppose if there was a time to feel guilty, good old through to the bone, mortifying, moan- inducing Irish Catholic guilt, this was it. The news pushed me one octave below numb. And now I needed a drink. A big drink. I pulled on my coat, left the flat and letting the door slam behind me.

As I walked through the marina towards town I couldn't help but think about Tom. Like most things in my life, the job with him came about by accident. I'd rented a flat over his office in Seel St. and Geraghty started using me as a human answerphone while he was out collecting debts, serving writs, and generally snooping around. After a few months he decided to formalise our relationship by offering me paid work.

He was a firm believer in the Irish Catholic work ethic. Every man should have a regular job, even if they don't exactly kill themselves doing it. According to Tom, all he needed was a body to answer the phone, keep the diary, and pay the bills on time. Or so he said. An easy minimum wage with no heavy lifting and plenty of time to piss away turned into five years of irregular hours and plain hard graft.

Open Eye specialised in small stuff. Maritals, tracing, commercial undercovers, security systems and the occasional bit of CPP; 'minding' to you and me. Five years of that had left me with a microscopic perspective on life in general. Digging the dirt on errant spouses, collaring petty thieves for tight-fisted shopkeepers and hunting down sullen teenage runaways for bereft and angry parents tends to have that effect.

But I've always liked learning and the old man taught me a thing or two. If he didn't know himself you could guarantee he knew someone who did. And I won't trouble you with some of the things they did know, if you catch my drift. He was an old school hard cop from Liverpool 'A' Division who took mouth from no man and made sure everyone knew it.

He introduced me to a world I'd recently begun to make my own. Late drinkers, seedy night clubs, blues and shebeens. The kind of places where you can always get something approximating what you want, be it drugs, a woman, or just another beer to delay the onset of morning. He knew where to go after everywhere else had closed. He knew the inhabitants of those places. They knew him, and if they respected or feared him I don't think he cared that much.

In between undercover work in factories and warehouses, tracing debt skippers and doing the dirt on adulterers, we had a lot of time for each other. We were close in that oxymoronic way Irish men sometimes become. Tom was probably the nearest thing to father I could recall. My own parents had been killed in Belfast during the height of the Troubles. A trip to town from which they'd never returned. An unclaimed bomb had left bits of them all over the city centre. There's a shopping precinct there now. At fourteen I'd been taken in by an aunt in Liverpool, a widow with four of her own all younger than me. Male role models had never been a significant feature of my growing up.

It wasn't the pay or the hours that brought about the parting of our ways. I had met a dancer called Linda, we'd vowed eternal love, decided to settle down together and bring babies into the world. I'd taken on a responsibility for the first time in my life with all the fervour of a convert. I started to think about mortgages, pension plans and providing for my putative family unit. I even started taking an interest in the running of the business, rather than just accepting my pay at the end of the week. I began to think in terms of expanding, diversifying and increasing the client base.

Tom wouldn't have any of my MBA bolloxology. It was his firm and he'd run it the way he always had. He was getting on and as much as he liked me, as a younger man I was a rival. The same story has been repeated time and time again in small farms, shops, and pubs wherever Irish people are. If I suggested a change, he automatically said no. If I said black he said white and if I put up a fight, he was always ready to remind me how lucky I was to have the work at all and if I didn't like it I could always fuck off back to being an unemployed chancer. Or words to that effect.
'Good for nothing, no-mark waster, who'd still be living on shit street if I hadn't taken you on out of the goodness of me heart'.
These were words that ended most of our business meetings in the last few weeks of my employment.

And then Linda danced out of my life. She'd decided that settling down wasn't such a good idea after all. She needed more time to explore her “self”. Alone. This was explained in a one page letter left on the kitchen table in the flat I now inhabited between pubs. Postcards sent from exotic places on the other side of the world and indistinct messages left on my answerphone in the wee small hours suggested she was still exploring. After a time I'd stopped wondering who the other members of her expedition might be.

Her leaving hurt me far more than I was able to admit. It's an Irish thing. Someone goes, you shrug your shoulders, head off to the pub and drown any loss you might feel in pints of plain. Sometimes they'll even join you for a quick oscail an doras, the drink for the door. May the road rise to meet you and don't let the door catch your arse on the way out.

Tom bore the brunt of my abdicated emotions. If I was going to be a heartbroken fool too stupid to admit it to himself , I was going be a financially secure one. Money can make up for a lot of things. Even repressed emotional devastation if the wages are good enough. Months on, my only success was in perfecting my heartbroken cynicism and increasing my capacity for alcohol.

Dr Freud might say that my falling out with Tom represented some kind of delayed Oedipal crisis on my part. They say Irishmen put off growing up as long as possible. Tied to their mammy's apron strings and under the shadow of the old man. I don't know. Sometimes a cigar is just a slim panatella.

What I did know then was that at I felt bad. I'd always thought of Tom as indestructible. He'd still be swaggering from pub to pub and intimidating scallies for as long as God gave him breath. Beyond death and taxes, it was one of the few things I could rely on. I knew his wife. She'd fed me often enough. I'd watched his twin daughters, Breege and Cait, grow from self-conscious teenagers into confident young women. He loved his children with intensity but not possession. They were his crown jewels. I thought of them now and the times he'd warned me about playing up to their teenage flirting.

'Don't let me catch you looking sideways at them girls of mine, boy' he'd say 'Or I'll take your legs off at the knees. They're too good for a latchicoe like yourself.' He was right. They were. And now he was gone.

Chapter 2

It was a mild night for December and the walk up the steep incline of Parliament St had me sweating by the time I turned into Gambier Terrace. A knot of prostitutes gathered under the street light at the corner of Faulkner St. It was only nine o'clock and their best trade wouldn't start until the boozers kicked out.

'Are ya doing a bir o'bisness, luv?’ one of them asked as passed by. She took hold of me by the waist and walked with me a few steps. I felt her hand go down to my back pocket feeling for a wallet. Another time I would have shrugged her off and refused with a smile, but tonight some small angry worm turned in my head.

'How much?' I said.

'Ten for a wank, fifteen for a suck, and twenty for a fuck.'

She was about nineteen but the smack had taken its toll and what might have once been a pretty face was now thin and pasty with eyes that never quite connected with your own. She was wearing cheap patent leather high heels, a lycra miniskirt, and a leather jacket that would be unfashionable in weeks, if it wasn't already. Her legs were bare and her hair was pinned up in a topknot that reminded me of a pineapple. I thought of Tom's two daughters and the contrast couldn't have been more stark.

'Not enough' I said.

'Yer what, la?' A bemused expression flickered across her face and she cocked her head on one side.

'Not enough. I'd want a fuck of a lot more than twenty to shag you, wee girl.' My remark took a while to register but when it did her reaction was predictable. She raised her hand to punch me in the face. I caught her by the wrist, slowly shaking my head and keeping my eyes fixed on hers. She must have recognised the anger in my face. The fight went out of her. I stared at her intently for a second or two longer, released her wrist and turned to walk away.

'Go and fuck yourself, den, you mad paddy bastard' Her nasal screech was like finger nails running down the blackboard of the winter night.

'I will so. Nothing beats sex with someone you love.' I spoke without looking back.

Any further abuse was interrupted by the arrival of her minder. Another smackhead. In his twenties with a mop of dirty blonde hair combed low in a fringe almost to his eyeline, he wore the scally uniform of shell-suit and trainers. He was a little taller but thinner than me. They could have been brother and sister. The same pallid looks and mean, darting eyes. He blocked my path and spoke over my shoulder to the girl.

'Dis fucker bothering you Marie?'

'Fucking bastard thinks he's clever, Kev.' He turned his attention to me.

'You been giving lip to my judy, arseface?' I looked into his face and said nothing.

'I'm talking to you, you fucking queer. Are yer deaf or wha?' I continued to look into his face. I could feel my blood rising. I knew I wanted very badly to hurt him, also very badly. 'You heard, cunt, are you fucking deaf? he said. 'Now fuck off before I make you.'

The ugly meanness of his features was echoed in his voice but I didn't feel like playing the role of scared punter that night. I stood there, staring him out. He reached out to grab the front of my coat. I side-stepped past his arm and grabbed his wrist. I twisted his arm up his back and pushed him face first into the thick hedge that ran the length of Gambier Terrace. He yelped as a thin privet branch whipped into an eye. I continued to push up on his arm and down on his head with my other hand. Marie tried to grab me from behind. The other girls had disappeared into the night. I ran my heel down her shin on to her instep and heard her howl and swear in pain. She let go her hold on my jacket. She'd have to wear tights tomorrow.

His head went down through the hedge and his forehead made solid contact with the low wall beneath the hedge. I ground it into the sandstone parapet and would have gone on but the anger left me as suddenly as it arrived. He was shouting in pain and anger. I held him there for a few seconds and then bent and talked close into his ear. His cheap deodorant failed to mask the sour milk smell of his body odour.

'You're a lucky wee boy tonight, Kev. I'm not going to tear your arm off however much I want to. And believe me I do.'

'Gerrof me yer fucking bastard' he hissed 'I'll fucking do you next time'

'Count yourself lucky if you last til the next time, wee man. You're in no position to be giving out threats.' I applied some more upward pressure on his arm as a reminder.

My anger had subsided so much I'd begun to wonder what I was doing and more importantly how I was going to bring this situation to an end. I lifted my hand off his neck and reached into his pocket. There was a knife, a five inch butcher's tool with a thin worn blade and an evil point. I wondered how many drunks and old ladies he'd threatened with that.

'Not nice at all carrying something like this around in your pocket, wee man. You could cut yourself badly. I think we'd be as well to hand it in at the station, don't you?' I nodded down the road towards Hope St nick.

'Fuckin' 'ell. I didn't know you were a bizzie, mate, you should 'ave said. I'll kill that fuckin' bitch Marie'

'You'll do nothing of the sort wee boy, except run and hide every time you see me coming. If I see a mark on that girl, I'll do more than twist your arm. I'll pull the fucker off and feed it to you. Understand?' He nodded his head frantically.

I flung the knife high over the hedge and heard it and in the soft undergrowth. Marie had disappeared. I pulled him up from the wall, turned him round to face down the Terrace. I raised my foot and gave him my boot up the arse to help him on his way. He went sprawling on to the flagstones. I hoped it hurt.

'Now fuck away off and remember what I said.' He picked himself up and ran off up Faulkner St. I'd have to watch out for him the next time I walked along there after dark.

I continued my walk to the Irish Centre. At Hope St there was some activity outside the police station. Gang trouble over the past few months and a number of shootings meant the local bizzies had started tooling up. Herren Heckler and Koch were doing good business with Merseyside constabulary these days and Messrs. Smith and Mr Wesson weren't far behind them. Armed police on every corner made the city feel more like Belfast than Belfast.

Body-armoured cons were loading into a transit minibus festooned with matt-black grilles. They looked like something off the Deathstar. I half expected Darth Vader to step out and see them off. May the force be with you indeed. They wore side-handled batons, handcuffs, and other equipment on Batman utility belts slung low on the waist. Much good they would do them facing a sawn-off Remington. Mind you, so far the dealers had only been killing each other.

I knew what Tom would have made of all that. In all his time on the force, he never even owned a set of handcuffs. He'd joined up in the days when Liverpool policemen had to buy their own. He'd refused on principle. First he could find better ways of spending the ten or eleven quid they cost and second, as he put it. 'the day I need a pair of cuffs to bring in some buck on my beat, is the day I jack it in and go back to the land of the bogs and the wee folk.'

Outside the Philharmonic pub a coachload of tourists were being set down. I wondered what brought them to Liverpool in December. The Beatles, probably, and an domestic economy that still functioned, unlike the one in this city. In ten minutes they'd be back on the bus after photographing each other in the brown marble toilets where John Lennon once threw up.

I walked on and I could see the lights reflecting through the stained glass tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral at the end of Hope St. It was a building that inspired a mixture of awe and shock. It stood on its own embankment, a gargantuan space capsule come to earth in Liverpool surveying the whole of the city from sea to shore. The prods had had the decency to build their cathedral into the side of a hill. Not the taigs. It was a message to the whole city when it was built in the sixties. 'This is our town' it said, in no uncertain terms. And wasn't everyone to know it? Even the Protestants were Catholics in Liverpool.

Chapter 3

The Irish Centre nestles in the shade of the cathedral. A century before it had been a gentlemen's banqueting club built to service the appetites of Liverpool merchants who'd grown fat on the strange fruit of the slave trade. When they ate 15 course dinners and planned the future of an empire on which the sun never set, their nearest neighbours lived on stirabout in the poorhouse where the cathedral now stood. If there was irony in the present use of either site, I couldn't say quite what it was.

I stepped inside the door, said hello to Jimmy on the desk , and wandered into the bar. It was a week before Christmas and the place was awash with premature celebrants. I took my usual place at the end of the bar under pictures of Connolly, Pearse and the other men of the Easter rising. Theresa was working the bar alone, effortlessly serving six or seven orders simultaneously while engaging in banter with her favourite regulars.

Eventually, I caught her eye. We didn't speak. She knew my order of old. As she poured my pint I looked around. There were a few people I knew enough to say hello to, but none of the major drinkers were about. I knew it would only be a matter of time, though. Theresa brought my Guinness.

'Alright love? How's me favourite customer tonight? She was a small, dark and attractive woman, a little younger than me. Once upon a pre-Linda time we used to flirt, trading craic and intimacies in equal proportion. For a while there had been rumours about us. 'And her with a husband and three bairns in the house' was the standard comment on our behaviour from the old ones. The rumours, like the flirting, had largely petered out since Linda had come and gone.

'Alright thanks darling girl, how's yourself? And could I have a large Jameson as well, please'.

'You're starting early tonight ,aren't you? You'll be no use to me later on when I get warmed up'

'Ah, mo chroí , if I thought you meant that, I'd go on the wagon altogether, so I would. The Jimmy's isn't for me, it's for a friend.'

'Since when did you have friends, U? I thought there was only me in your life.'

'I have to have something to do with meself while you're at home with Séamus and the kids. What's a man to do to heal his broken heart?'

'Have you shares in Bowater Scott or wha'? Cut it out before I run out of Kleenex, will yeh. Large Jimmy's was it?'

I nodded in reply. She walked to the optic and poured a large measure of the amber fluid. She returned and placed the spirit glass beside my pint on the bar.

'Are you alright, love? Only you look a bit down in your boots tonight.' I didn't feel like explaining.

'I'm fine, thanks Tess. Just a bit of bad news, that's all.'

'Wha' 'ave the dole found yer a job at last, then?' She laughed and before I could respond had turned to serve pints to some other punters. Fifteen-love Theresa.

I looked at the Jameson's for a while and then walked pint and glass in hand to the nearest empty table. I sat down and placed the whiskey carefully on a beermat. I looked at it for a little longer and thought of Tom. I touched the glass with my glass and toasted him in my own mind. Beneath the hubbub of scouse and Irish accents, Shane McGowan groaned a mournful song over the sound system. It wasn't long before my reverie was disturbed.

'Alright, U? Have you heard the news about Tom Geraghty? Terrible that wasn' it? I heard there was blood all over the show.'

It was Brendan Monaghan cadre of the local Connolly Association and a living example of scouse wit, or so he thought. A squat, bald man in his sixties, he spoke in continuous breathless monologues. Before I could respond he went on. 'Course, that line of work you expect something to happen, but I bet he never thought he'd end up hanging from a Christmas tree like a bleeding fairy light, though.'

'Brendan, do you ever shut up and give your arse a chance?'

'Sorry lad, I forgot you two were mates.'

His face took on a sombre cast for a second and then he glanced about him quickly changing the subject as he did so. 'Anyway, while I'm here I'll sell you a Democrat. Forty pee, mas é do thoil é.' I dug into my pocket and handed over the loose change. He passed me the paper.

'Go raibh míle maith agut. By the way, have you found a job yet or are you still sponging off honest taxpayers such as meself? Mind you, you'll never be rich buying socialist rubbish like this. It's a good job one of us round here is a capitalist or the likes of you would starve to death.' Before I could reply he'd bustled off to sell papers a few tables down from me. I flicked through the paper. It was the same old stuff. You could always rely on socialist Republicanism.

I was ordering my second pint when Timmy arrived. I saw him across the room scoping for company, waved him over and added a pint of Harp to my order. I hoped he was on an up tonight, I needed him to be on good form.

When he was up Timmy was like a head shower. A diagnosed manic-depressive since he was fifteen, he'd been in and out of hospitals, psychiatric units and half-way houses as long as I'd known him. He was one of those people who had huge insight into the world and no defences to it. He could reduce you to tears of laughter with his stories and just as quickly have your eyes filling up in the other way when he shared the pain he'd endured over the years. He joined me at the bar and his face was full of concern. He put his arm around my shoulder.

'Are yer alright lad? I heard about Tom. I'm dead sorry.' I shrugged his arm off.

'Aye, I'm alright. It's Bernadette and the girls I’m worried about'

‘Ave yer been up to the ‘ouse yet?’ I shook my head and swallowed the last of my pint. He looked at me intently as Theresa placed the pints on the bar.

I paid for the drinks and we sat down at my table. A second large Jimmy's joined its predecessor. Timmy looked at me hard again and I felt his eyes penetrating my skin. I couldn't hold his gaze.

'It's hit you, hasn't it lad? Me, I never liked him, he was a hard old bastard and he made me and our kid's life a misery when he was working down our way. He gave us more kicks dan ha'pennies, I can tell you. I wouldn't say I was glad he was gone dough.'

'Don't start ,Timmy, alright? Just leave it, eh?'

'Alright, U. I'm only saying like. D'yeh reckon it was an accident or wha'?'

'I don't know, kid, but let's just leave it for now and we'll have a couple of beers, ok?' He shrugged his shoulders and stared at me across his pint. We were joined by a few more regulars, there were more pints bought and the two Jamesons sat there untouched a reminder to me, if no-one else, of an absent friend.

As we got drunker, a debate about the situation in Northern Ireland became fractious. Safe out of it in Liverpool, there were still some folk who thought the cease-fire was a mistake. They preferred the simplicity of the Armalite over the complexities of the assembly. I wondered how many Omaghs it would take to convince them otherwise. Voices began to be raised as arguments entrenched themselves. Hearing armchair republicans advocating the return to the gun in a war where they'd only ever been spectators made the anger worm in my head turn for a second time that evening.

Timmy had to separate me from the company. He knew about my parents, none of the others did. He pulled me away just as I was offering Kenny O'Malley the opportunity to express his opinions beyond the front door. The two Jamesons were still on the table as we left. They wouldn't last long after time was called.

'U, you're a stupid bastard sometimes. That fucker O'Malley is a karate man and doesn't he like to show it off. He'd have done you quick as look at you.'

'Cop on, Timmy, do you think I give a fuck about that shite? Bleeding bollixes in pyjamas, don't scare me' My words were slurred and I could almost taste the numbness in my lips.

'They might not scare you, you thick Paddy bastard, but they can cut your drinking career off in its prime whatever you like to think. And he's one twat that would take pleasure in putting you on dee 'ospital diet. Come 'ed, we'll have a last bevvy across in dee Aquaba.'

He dragged me across Mount Pleasant and into Hope Street. I had followed this path on so many evenings I didn't even have to think my legs into action. A ring on the bell and the the Georgian door swung open wide to admit us. As ever, I was greeted with an obsidian smile by Ali the Somali doorman. As we crossed the threshold the thought struck me that I'd never seen him nor he me when I was sober. It was not an insight to be proud of.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Chapter 4

In Liverpool it was a self-evident truth that ending a night’s drinking in the Aquaba was an admission of defeat. Run by Somalis for students, actors and other late night losers it was the last resort of the lonely and displaced. Free in, pub prices and few fights, if only because most of its clientele were searching for a different kind of oblivion, the Aquaba was a twilight zone of familiar faces and meaningless, drunken conversations with people who remained transient strangers no matter how many times you met them. Bogart and Bacall looked down from badly painted murals on boozers and losers stuck in a repetitive waltz of late night drinking and casual liaisons.

'Fuck.! Is it my round again?' Timmy protested loudly as we lined up against the bar.

'It's alright, la, I'll get deese. Pint a Guinness and a pint a Harp, Loreena'. Timmy and I looked at each other and then around to the source of the voice.

We both turned to face our benefactor. It was Hatter McVie. Another Liverpool character. He'd never bought me a drink before in all the time I'd known him, but he grew up in the same street as Timmy so I assumed the charity was directed towards him rather than me. He looked at us from under a broad brimmed straw panama. The last time I'd seen him he'd been wearing an old bowler with a ragged brim. This was a definite improvement, if a little unseasonal. His wire frame glasses glinted in the light from behind the bar counterpointing the darkness on our side of it. His teeth, framed by a neatly trimmed beard, were yellow with nicotine.

'Alright, Hatter. How's yer mam? The old lady was only asking after her the other day' Timmy said.

'Bearing up, lad. You know how it is with that Alzheimer's. One day she thinks I'm me dad, the next she doesn't know me from Adam.'

Five times married, Hatter had been living with his mum for the past few years. Sometime poet, sometime pimp, he had run pubs whose stay-behinds were legendary even by Liverpool standards, but Hatter lived a quiet life now. Part of the Liverpool scene when there was one, now he was on the dole and looking after his old one. The drinks came and Timmy and I raised our glasses to him. He nodded in acknowledgement.

Someone waved to Timmy from across the room. He left me at the bar to join them. I leaned back and watched him walk across the bare wood floor. Humphrey Bogart looked down on both of us.

'I heard about Tom. Fuckin' tragic that.' It was Hatter again. I looked across to him and he signalled me to draw closer with flick of his head. I moved along the bar towards him. 'I don't know what you've heard la, but it was no fucking accident.'

'What d'you mean?'

'Fuck me. 'ave you got cotton wool in yer ears, kid? I mean' and he spoke the words slowly with the deliberation one would use with a child or a deaf person, 'it was no-fucking-accident'

'How d'you know that?'

'I don't know it. I just heard dat's all.'

'Who from?'

'Hey lad, ask no questions and you'll be told no lies, alright? But a little bird told me that Geraghty was poking 'is nose where it didn't belong. You know wha' I mean?' I shook my head

' Tom did that all his life, wee man. It never got him killed.' Exasperation crossed his face. He could have been telling the truth but I just didn't want to know right then.

'Hey, I'm fucked if I know. I'm just telling yer wha' I 'eard, alright. I thought you might be interested since he was your mucker, like. I mean he was never going to win popularity prizes, now was 'e?'

'Yeah, but...' He interrupted.

'But nothing, pal. All I 'eard was that someone wanted your mate Tom off the case, as thee say in the best detective fiction. To tell the truth, I only mentioned it because I thought you might know 'oo he'd been upsettin'.

'I've not seen Tom this last nine months. We'd had a falling out. I don't know what he was at.'

'Well anyway, someone had 'is cards marked, that's wha' I 'eard. I'm just telling yer.'

I thought of all the people Tom had put away in his time. He'd been off the force ten years before he died, but memories, like prison sentences, could be long. And in Liverpool scores always get settled sooner or later.

'So where did you hear this about Tom anyway?'

'Hey lad, I might be cabbage lookin' bur I'm not green, alright? I just heard from someone who heard from someone who for all I fuckin'' know heard from someone else, ok? You know what this town's like, you've fuckin' well lived here long enough. I don't know who 'e'd got on the wrong side of and even if I did, I wouldn't fuckin' well tell you. I've got the old girl to look after.' He turned away and sipped from his drink.

'Alright, kid, alright. So when did you hear this?'

'Look, la, I just heard, dat's all. When, where or who is my business and what fuckin' difference does it make anyway?'

'It makes a difference to me, so it does.'

'Look, pal, Geraghty's dead. I can think of half a dozen who might be laughing at that thought. You're not going to bring him back, so just sup your drink and stop midering me. Alright?'

'Aye, alright. But if your little bird starts tweeting again, you let me know, ok Hatter?'

'I suppose so, but I'm not promising.'

'Loreena, a Guinness and a Harp, and one for himself here.'

I paid for the drinks and carried the two pints over to the table where Timmy was chatting animatedly with two women. Functioning on auto-pilot I placed the drinks on the table and didn't pay too much attention to them. I was still digesting Hatter's words. My thoughts were interrupted by Timmy's voice.

'Alright U, for a minute there I thought I was going to have to buy meself a drink. This is Alison and this is Sarah.This is me mate Ulick, bur 'is friends call him U.' He indicated the two women with separate nods of his head. They were instantly recognisable as students, one in her early twenties, the other maybe five years or a decade older. The older one was dark haired with white skin. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, with alcohol I guessed. The other was fair-skinned and pink-cheeked in a definitely Saxon way.

'What should we call him?' the dark one, Sarah, asked. She was very pretty and her eyes were a sharp blue. She reminded me of Linda. But there wasn't a woman who didn't these days. She had an English accent, from somewhere in the West Midlands.

'Depends 'ow friendly you're planning to be' said Timmy with a leer. 'Excuse me, I'm just going to rinse the prince'. The two women giggled. He rose from the table with the steady deliberation of a man just on the wrong side of a few pints and walked back across the room. Their glasses were empty.

'Will you take a drink?' I asked, at a loss for anything else to say.

'Oh yes please' said the blonde. 'Mine's a cider and Sarah is drinking Beck's.' Her diction was crisp with the received pronunciation of the Home Counties and minor public school. I walked to the bar and ordered the drinks. Timmy joined me at the bar on his way back from the jacks.

'Which one d'you want, mate? They're both up for a bir o' crack.'

Drink never affected Timmy in any obvious way when he was manic. I only saw ever him drunk when he was depressed. In this phase he could drink all night and still remain articulate and funny. I'd seen him operate with women before on many occasions. He made them laugh so much, he was down their throat and between their legs before they knew it. 'I've been with blondie before, but I wouldn't mind a go a' 'er mate, if you fancy her.'

'Timmy, you're a pig, you know that?'

'Pig I might be, bur I'm never short of dee old female company, unlike some I could name. Have you sorted yerself out about that tart from Hong Kong yet or are you still beatin' yer breast and howlin' at the moon?'

'Mind your own fuckin' business, my mad friend.'

'Hey lad, I might be mad, bur I'm not soft. At least not where the judies are concerned. Trouble with you is you're still looking for Miss Right when what you should be looking for is Miss less wrong than the last one that fucked you over. You get to our age, mate, and there isn't much choosin' to be done.'

'Since when was I your age, you dirty wee bastard? Come 'ed, these drinks are going flat.'

We re-joined the two women at the table. Soon Timmy had us all giggling helplessly with one of his stories about the Orange Lodge his granddad had belonged to. I'd heard it before, about the Grand Master who thought that Martin Luther was a 'wee blaarck barstarrd who got shot in America'.

He and Alison went for a dance. Sarah remained with me at the table. She was talkative enough for both of us but when she tired of telling me about her studies and the boyfriend she'd just broken up with, she started to interrogate me. She wanted to know where I was from, where I lived now, what I liked to do in my free time. Most of my replies were short and to the point. Finally she got to the big one.

'So, Ulick, what do you do?' Her eyes were penetratingly, almost electrically, blue and I felt that I was being interviewed rather than making small talk.

'You could say I'm semi-retired.'

'So what do you only do half as much as you used to then?' She smiled and sipped from her glass.

'Like everyone in this town who isn't a student, a social worker, or a bizzie. You know. A bit of this a bit of that.'

'Are you normally this evasive or is what you do a secret you're ashamed to tell me?'

'Well if you must know, I used to be an inquiry agent, but at the moment I'm what you might call reviewing my career options.'

'What, you used to be a dick and now you're on the dole? Sounds like a country song.' She smiled again and I noticed her lips formed an almost perfect rosebud.

'I prefer to think of it as resting, if you must know.'

'So when you were a private detective, what did you detect? Was it interesting?

'Oh the usual stuff. Greed, lust, the normal human failings. And no, most of the time it wasn't that interesting, just tedious. People aren't as imaginative in their immorality as we like to think.'

'What a shame.' She smiled and shook her head. 'I was hoping you'ld let me in on the seamy side of Liverpool life.'

'You don't need a detective to show you that, wee girl. Just look around this room and you'll see most of it here. Thieves, dealers, con-men, alkies, reformed alkies, adulterers, would-be adulterers, couldn't be adulterers if they tried, stop-outs, lock-outs, and spongers. That's just in this bar. If you head downstairs you'll really rub shoulders with the creme de la scum.'

'See your man over there at the bar.' I nodded towards tall man in a tan leather jacket. 'He has five women working Hope Street for him as we speak. See the guy he's talking to. They call him Joe Boots, 'cause he carries an extensive range of pharmaceuticals.'

'I didn't realise I was in such illustrious company. Are you always so bitter?'

'I'm not bitter. It's just the reason I know this stuff got himself killed the other night.'

Her interest moved up a gear at this remark, but at the same time I could see something resembling compassion in her face.

'Killed? Oh I'm really sorry. Was it someone close?'

'Not really. I just worked with him a few years, that's all. Would you like another drink?' She nodded her assent and I walked back to the bar. I returned with the drinks and she resumed her interrogation.

'How was your friend killed?' she hesitated and then said quickly 'Of course if you don't want to talk about it I'll understand.' I felt the drink kick in and the small angry worm turned for the third time that night.

'I'm so glad to be in the company of someone who understands' I sneered ' but if you must know, he was run over by person or persons unknown. But that wasn't what fuckin' killed him, darling girl. What fuckin' killed him was a metal fucking Christmas tree that some twenty grand a year wanker from the fucking council thought would put us all in the spirit of the fuckin' season. That's what killed the poor bastard. Now are you satisfied? You have the fucking gory details to tell your mates in the junior common room tomorrow.'

My outburst had clearly shocked her and she looked desperately around for a sign of Alison or Timmy. They were nowhere to be seen. 'I'm really sorry. I wasn't looking for gossip. You just looked as though you might want to talk about it that's all. I really didn't mean to upset you.'

Her face took on a genuine look of concern and her hand reached across the table to rest on mine. I started at the touch. She was the first woman to touch me in tenderness in the six months since Linda had left. Her hand was warm and dry and her finger tips were soft and smooth. My anger subsided into dormancy.

'Ah sure it's alright, wee girl. I shouldn't have gone at you like that. It's the old paddy temper. You know what we're like when drink’s taken. Talking of which, will you take another?'

'Let me get it. It's our turn.'

I didn't argue and turned to watch her walk across to the bar. She was wearing black 501s, DM's and a white T-shirt, it was kind of student uniform. Mentally I compared her body to Linda's. She had broader hips but I didn't get the impression she was held in place by the stiff material of her jeans. I tried to imagine myself in bed with her. But since Linda, I couldn't imagine myself sharing a duvet with anyone other than the cat.

From behind, her T-shirt did not hide the straps of her bra and all I could think of was red lines on white flesh. She returned with the drinks I could see her nipples dark through the whiteness of her top and I wondered what her breasts would be like to hold. Even in my drunkenness I doubted that that would be my fate. But you never knew your luck with the women. She sat down. I raised my glass to her and she touched hers to mine across the table, her eyes focused on mine. I told her about Tom and the accident. She listened silently while I spoke, nodding thoughtfully from time to time. Eventually, she spoke.

'I'm terribly drunk now.'

'Ah well so, you're in the best company for that. Anyway, there's no such thing as terrible drunk. Either you are or you aren't and either way I promise not to take advantage of you'

'Really?' She stretched the word out. 'I only came here to have advantage taken of me.'

'Well sure, I'm a good catholic boy and all I see when I look at a woman is guilt.'

'All I see when I look at a man is germs. Isn't that a sign of the times?' She smiled broadly and I couldn't but help return her smile. Her eyes never left mine. Her hand snaked across the table and enclosed my own.

'How are you off for germs, then?' Her grip tightened on my hand.

'It depends what you mean. Are you talking about the sharing or avoiding of them?'

'Depends what's on offer. The way things are at the moment, I'll take my chances'

'Well as far as I know, I'm relatively germ-free, but I haven't had any tests.'

'You can always use a condom. That would do for me.'

Before I could reply, Timmy and Alison returned to the table. Sarah released my hand and the two women exchanged meaningful glances in that code which women use and men can never understand.

'Timmy says he's knows a place round the corner that's open after this one closes. Do you fancy it Sarah?' I interrupted before Sarah could reply.

'Ah Jesus, Timmy not the Max. You can't be taking these young ones down to that kip of a place.'

'What the fuck's wrong with the Max, la? It's bleeding open innit?

'That's about all you can say for it. Look at the fuckers who drink there.'

'Since when did you get fussy, U? I can remember more than the odd few nights down there wit' you.'

I could see Sarah's interest was aroused. Her quest for the louche had overcome her desire for sex.

Tonight, the last place I wanted to end up in was the Max' or the Maximum Break to give it its full title. It was one of Tom's haunts, but despite that I'd never liked the place. Scouse and Beryl, the old couple who ran, it were friends of his from days on the beat. But it was what it was. A run down snooker hall, come shebeen, come coppers' knocking shop.

They sold spirits and warm bottled beer from a cupboard under the bar and had done as long as anyone could remember. The local bizzies turned a blind eye because there was never any trouble, mainly because they were largest section of clientele. It was also a place for touts, hustlers and the odd student who thought working his way around college was a better option than working his way through it.

I'd seen too many an innocent part company with a week's wages in a 'friendly' game over its green baize tables and overheard too many fit-ups being arranged around the bar to ever find myself feeling comfortable there. I never knew why Timmy liked it except for the fact that it was always open for a drink if they knew your face. During his manic phases that was a major plus for anywhere in his eyes. It was only the possibility of post-Max coition that stopped me just walking away.

'Well I wouldn't mind checking this place out, specially if it's as bad as U makes it sound.' She looked across the table at me as she spoke.

'Alright then, come 'ed' said Timmy 'Let's drink up here and get across dere before deh queues start.' His irony was lost on them but not on me.

As we headed out the door. Ali's eyes met mine. As he said goodnight he smiled gently. They say the Chinese are inscrutable, but I couldn't tell anything from his expression. Over the years he had seen me leave the Aqaba in varying states of drunkenness and except for my time with Linda, rarely with the same woman on consecutive nights. I wondered what was going on behind that face; approval, pity, amusement or just the good manners of complete indifference. As long as I put money in his pocket what did he care, I thought. And why should I care anyway? I did though, without knowing why just then.

Chapter 5

There was a noisy queue for taxis outside the Aquaba and several knots of people saying rowdy goodnights crowded the pavement. We weaved between them and stepped over at least one semi-comatose drunk, a kid of about twenty asleep with his back propped on the low wall outside the club. His friends waited for a vacant cab to carry him to his bed. I hoped his cabby was a sympathetic one, otherwise it would be the scenic route home and a few more quid out of his pocket that night.

We turned right past the Phil' into Hardman St and down the hill towards town. Timmy had Alison by the hand and was chatting to her animatedly, pointing out sites of interest as they walked. Sarah and I walked a few yards behind them. We didn't talk and we didn't touch.

As we waited to cross at the bottom of Hardman St I looked over to the spot Tom had died. The Christmas tree was still in place and appeared to be undamaged. Its skeletal foliation seemed to luminesce in the sodium lights. In my mind's eye I saw the Fire Brigade hosing it down, washing the stains of Tom's blood down the drains and out to sea. There would be no trace of him left to upset shoppers and tourists. Beneath its branches was a police notice appealing for witnesses to the previous night's incident. I wondered how long that would remain in place.

We walked past the burnt out framework of St Luke's church. The moon which shone behind it was in the third quarter. The one working face on its sandstone clock tower showed twenty-five past two. I wondered how long Tom had watched his life tick away on its rusting fingers. I didn't know why, but it seemed important.

As we passed the church it started to rain very hard. A sudden squall had blown in from off the river. We dashed the last few hundred yards down a sidestreet and into the doorway of the Max. Behind the glass inner doors on a barstool sat Scouse Farrell. Five foot four, but broad as a bull. The height of the stool disguised his own shortness. All you saw was a big man in his sixties with brindle hair shaved to a crew cut and a nose broken almost flat into his face. He leaned forward without looking up from the copy of The Ring on his lap and with a hand as large as a spade pulled the door inwards.

'Alright Timmy, alright U, I'd ger in out the rain if I were youse. Don't want you ruinin' de expensive carpetin' on us now. A' dem girls wit' youse, and if so, do thee know the trouble they're in? ' The utterance came in a machine gun nasal burst of pure Liverpool accent.

Scouse's appearance always made me smile. From the top down he wore the classic uniform of an old time night club bouncer. Double-breasted DJ with cheap silk lapels, over-tight at the seams and straining across the midriff. Immaculate, white dress shirt and black dicky-bow from which his thick neck seemed in a struggle to escape. Below the waist was a different matter. Tonight he wore a pair of baggy pale brown acrilan slacks and wool carpet slippers in red and beige plaid.

'Alright, scouse' said Timmy ' Are the plates playing up again?' He'd noticed the slippers too.

'Don't talk to me about de' feet , pal. I'm lucky to be standing here with them at all. You'd think wit' de number of quacks I've seen, one o' dem would be able to sort 'em out. Mind you dis weather doesn' help at all'

'I've got some oil I made in me O.T. group up at the day hospital that's supposed to be good for feet. I'll bring you a bottle down next time I come' said Timmy.

'Ta very much, lah. Bur I think it'll be Lourdes water that dese things'll need before long, ar kid. I'll be chuckin' out from a bleedin' wheel chair if dee keep up the way dey have been.'

During this exchange the two women stood patiently looking through the glass partition which separated the foyer from the main room of the Max. There wasn't much to see. Apart from the lights above two of the half dozen snooker tables which took up most of the floorspace and a desultory fluorescent tube illuminating the small bar in the corner, the room was wreathed in blackness. Players would emerge out of penumbra and into the pool of light bathing a table, shoot their break and then return into the shadows. The darkness on the periphery of the tables was as impenetrable as the expressions on the faces of the snooker players. Only their cigarette smoke lingered longer in the light than they did.

'I s'pose it's my fuckin' round again, is it?' said Timmy 'I never thought I'd end up using me disability money to subsidise third level education.'

The two women giggled drunkenly as Timmy ushered them into the main room. As I turned to follow them Scouse placed his hand on my arm and halted my progress. He leaned towards me. Perched on his stool his face was level with mine.

'I'm sorry for your trouble, lad. We found him, you know. I called the ambulance, bur it was too late for him.' His voice was low, intimate and strangely gentle.

'What happened, Scouse? Did he say anything?'

'I don't know lad. About half one last night Billy Parkes, you know little Paddy's eldest lad, come dashin' in here ravin' about a body hanging from de tree up at de top der. I got the missus to phone for an ambulance and walked up dere for a look see. I thought it might be some 'ead the ball, or a smack 'ead, you know like. I couldn't believe me eyes when I saw Geraghty hangin' dere. By de time I got to him, he was gone. I don't know how long he'd been dere. Dere was blood everywhere. I've seen a few things in me time, but this was terrible.'

'Did anyone else see anything?'

'At dat time of the morning? Dere's no fucker about is deh? Dey're all hoping for a last go at gettin a shag before de clubs close, or well tucked up for dee night. De young feller only found him because he'd spent up early an was on 'is way 'ome, like.'

'Did the Parkes lad say anything?' He shook his head.

'He was in a right state, I'm tellin' yer. Little get thinks he's a hard man, an' all. Well he's not the man 'is father was, if last night is anything to go by. No bottle, none at all. Anyway, son have you 'eard from is missus? D'you know when's the funeral?'

'Aye, she called me tonight to let me know. She didn't say when the funeral was. There'll have to be an inquest and a post-mortem, I suppose.'

'Well if you find out, ler us know. I'll keep me eye on the Echo in the meantime and Beryl'll organise a whip-round for a wreath. Mind you der'll be a few here dat won't be purrin' der 'ands in deir pockets too quick. Deh big fellah wasn't popular, even amongst ' is own, you know. 'E was always dead straight with me doh.'

'What about the Parkes lad? Is it worth speaking to him do you think?'

'I doubt it la'. That one will still be wetting de bed with nightmares. I got now sense out of the little bollocks. Dey had to take him to the 'ossy too, you know wit de shock. Anyway, as I said before, I'm sorry for your trouble. Tell Beryl your next round's on dee 'ouse.'

'Thanks, Scouse. I'll see you later.'

I turned and walked away from him into the main room. Timmy and the women were on stools at the bar.

'Here's the man of mystery now' I heard Sarah say as I approached. Her voice was timbred with a brittle ring of drunkenness. The conversation with Scouse had somehow sobered me up and I began to feel the grief I'd been controlling all the night. Timmy handed me a drink. It was a Jimmy's. I drank it back and ordered another round. Beryl brought them over and refused the money I offered her.

It's alright lad' she said softly 'Put dat towards the flowers for Tom'. I returned the cash to my back pocket.

'Fuck me old boots' said Timmy loudly 'A free drink in 'ere. As somebody died or what?' I gave him a glare and he realised what he'd said. He started to apologise and I stopped his words short.

'Forget it, Timmy. Don't dig a bigger hole for yourself than you already have.'

His pale blue eyes looked deeply into my brown ones as if he was trying to establish my state of mind. His round face held no expression. He had spent so much of his own life being looked at by people in that way he'd picked up the knack himself. Sarah, insensitive to the tension between myself and Timmy, put her arm around my shoulder and leaned onto me. I shook her off gently but firmly and moved just out of her reach along the bar. I threw back my drink, put the glass carefully down on the bar and stepped away from the group.

'I'm heading on now. I'll see you again, alright? Safe home to you.'

'Aye alright, U, see you round.' Timmy's voice sounded hollow with a tone of contrition. The women said nothing for a moment. I was across the room and through the door before I heard them call their goodbyes.

I said goodnight to Scouse and stepped into the street. The rain had stopped and the moon was still bright as I walked down the hill towards home. I circled around Chinatown and cut through onto Paradise Street. There were few clubs in this part of town and those that there were did their business mainly at weekends. The sudden squall had polished the empty pavements and they shone like obsidian. It felt like walking on the moon.

As I walked I thought of Tom plodding the beat around here and remembered some of his stories. It was strange. I'd not thought about him since the P45 had dropped through my letter box but now on the deserted moonlit streets everywhere I looked seemed to be a feature in the geography of his past.

I passed a spot on Paradise Street where he told me that as a probationer he'd arrested his first drunk. The lad turned out to be a cousin of his from Listowel and didn't he only write to his parents to say what a gentleman their son was. Telling them how Tom had got him a warm bed and a good breakfast on his first night in a strange city. He had the tact not to mention the forty bob fine it had cost him.

At the end of Paradise Street I turned right and cut across past some seventies' municipal monstrosity onto Wapping. I passed the Baltic Fleet, a pub named from the days when Liverpool still had one. I remembered the story of Betty Savage, a real life Maggie May who'd worked the south docks. According to Tom she'd had her throat cut after rolling one drunken sailor too many. It was a Dutchman who'd done it. Not because of the money, but because she'd ditched his wallet in the River Mersey. It was bad luck really. The wallet contained the only photograph he had of his wife and child. They'd been killed by the Nazis in a concentration camp. He'd searched for Betty every time his ship had docked. Eventually he found her and killed her. Mad with drink and remorse, he'd given himself up to Tom at the Pier Head sub-station.

It chilled me to think that so much of my knowledge of the city, my adopted home, was loaded with someone else's memories. I saw it through the eyes of an ex-rozzer now lying cold on a mortuary slab. I didn't have place-memories of my own to recall. At least none that were worth passing on. Even if there was ever anyone to pass them on to.

Chapter 6

By the time I reached the waterside the analgesic effect of the drink had begun to recede. The fog horn of tanker across the Mersey at Tranmere oil jetty echoed and bounced across the glassy surface of the still river making a sound lonelier than I thought was possible. I remembered a Hank Williams' song one of my uncles in Belfast had made his party piece when I was a kid. That night I was too blue to fly but not quite so lonesome I could die. I still had the cat for company. Humming the tune softly to myself I approached the entrance to my block.

I was fumbling for the keys as black cab pulled up at the kerb. There was a dark haired woman in the rear seat and she leaned forward to pay the cabbie. I carried on fumbling with the key in the lock. The cab door slammed just as I had managed to open the lobby door and its passenger joined me at the threshold. It was Sarah but that didn't register with me for a moment. As I focussed on her presence I felt less drunk than tired. She spoke first.
'Hello, U'.

The cab did a three point turn and sped off in the direction it had come. I heard the sound of the diesel motor fade in the distance. The tanker across the river blew its foghorn again twice. The sound now seemed somehow impatient. I remained silent, one foot on the porch, one inside the threshold.
'Timmy gave me your address. I didn't think you should be alone tonight.'
'For a wee man he has a big mouth, that lad. I hope it doesn't get someone into trouble.' The words came out in a slurred half mumble.

'I can go if you want. Just let me call a taxi.' I looked at her for a moment, like a poker player trying to read her face for a tell. I drunk-stumbled over a reply.

'No, no. It's okay, I'm just surprised that's all. Come in and have a cuppa. The place is a bit of a kip though.'

She smiled and appeared to relax. I led her though into the hallway and turned on the light. Under the fluorescent she looked older than she had in the dim lights of the Aquaba. I could see the odd grey hair amongst the black. She was closer to my own age than I had first thought. I beckoned her towards my door, unlocked it and pushed it open. I was immediately conscious of the smell of soiled cat litter. Collins had been busy while I was out. If I could smell it, I knew it was ten times more noticeable to her.

'Sorry about the reek. The cat's been locked in all day.

'You have a cat? Where is he? What's he called? I love cats.' The questions came with the rapid fire enthusiasm of a child.

'Collins, cause he's such a big feller.' The joke, such as it was, didn't appear to register with her.

As if in answer to a cue Collins appeared like a silver grey shadow in the bedroom doorway. He arched his back and glared at me in the way only a cat can. She bent to stroke him but he darted around her and into the bathroom. I heard the thud of paws on plastic as he landed in the bath. It was followed immediately by a loud and indignant miaow.

'Excuse me, but he wants a drink. Go through and sit down.'

I directed her through to the living room and walked back into the bathroom where Collins sat like an Egyptian idol gazing intently at the cold tap. I bent over and turned it on to drip. He leaned forward and licked greedily. As he drank I did a quick tidy-up of the bathroom. It was so small it should have been difficult for it to get too untidy. Too many things out of place and you just couldn't get into it. I threw some bits and pieces into a cabinet, had a quick wipe around the sink removing old shaving stubble, and checked the pan for skid marks. There were none. I pissed, quickly splashed my face with cold water and returned to Sarah in the living room.

She'd cleared a space for herself on my old sofa and was looking about herself with open curiosity. I stood in the doorway watching her pick a visual path through my possessions. She finally turned to look at me.

'This is a nice place. I love your view.' She nodded her head towards the large french window that overlooked the riverside. From the opposite bank the lights of the Wirral peninsula shone and reflected on the surface of the water.

'Sure it's a bit of a mess' I looked around at the boxes and packing cases that littered the room. The remains of last night's takeaway pizza still lay on the carpet in front of the TV.

'You ought to see my place. I know what it's like when you've just moved in.'
'I've been here nearly a year.'

'In that case it's a pigsty and you should be ashamed of yourself.' She smiled and shook her head gently from side to side.

'Men. Typical.' she went on 'And you Irish men are the worst, you know. You're so used to having your mammies clear up after you, when it doesn't get done you'd never think to do it yourself.' I interrupted before the lecture went on.

'Would you like a cup of tea?' I half-turned indicating the kitchen.

'I would, yes.'

As I filled the kettle and set it on to boil, I called back to her through the open door..

'You seem to know a lot about Irish men'

'And whoi shouldn't oi?' Her voice took on a stage-Irish lilt. 'Aren't oi a choild of the Oirish diaspora, meself so? Weren't me dadda and mammy exiles from the green soil of auld Erin?' I rinsed out two cleanish mugs and warmed the teapot from the hot tap, emptied it and dropped in three teaspoons of tea from a tin caddy.

'My mother's from Mayo, my dad's from Donegal. It was a mixed marriage. I was brought up in the midlands. My given name is Sorcha Ní Dhonmhaill, believe it or not.'

Her voice came from much closer than before and I turned to see her framed in the kitchen doorway. She held the old pizza box in one hand.

'God, U, the kitchen's worse than the living room. Do you never wash up?'

'Once a week, whether it's needed or not. And anyway so, do you not know what my mate Bukowski says about people with tidy kitchens? It indicates a mind with nothing better to occupy it' A change of subject was needed.

'An bhuil tú Gaeilge agut?'

'Níl mé. Well a cúpla fócal as they say. My dad was a native speaker but he was a bit ashamed of the fact and never wanted us to learn it. Anyway, I don't know who your mate is, but remind me never to eat at his place if it's anything like this.'

'Just call by on a Saturday and you'd not recognise the place. Don't leave it too late though. Saturday's also my cooking at home day.'
'Is that an invitation?'
'It could be, so. Just sling that old box in the nearest clear space.' She moved some dishes to one side and put the box in the cleared space.

The kettle reached a boil and I poured the water onto the leaves in the pot. Filled a jug with milk from the fridge which I sniffed before pouring, put pot, jug and mugs onto a black Japanese lacquer tray that Linda had left behind, pulled a teaspoon from the cutlery drawer, turned to her and said

'Do you take sugar, sugar?'
'No thanks, I'm sweet enough.'

We both winced at the old joke. Before I could turn to pick up the tray she had taken the short step from doorway to kitchen unit, put her arms around my neck and kissed me full on the lips. I responded by leaning into her and wrapping my arms around her waist. Her tongue entered my mouth and as it met my own I could feel an erection forming. Sensing my condition she pushed her pelvis against me and I felt myself become firmer still. It was almost an alien sensation.

I moved my lips onto the whiteness of her neck and kissed it gently down towards her shoulder. She leaned her head to one side and her right hand moved with a slight pressure down the length of my spine. Her left hand pressed down on the back of my head making my lips press harder into her shoulder. The pressure increased as she pulled me closer to her. I gave her a nip at the point where neck joined shoulder and she mewled lightly like a kitten. She began a gentle cyclical grinding of her pelvic bone against my groin and I felt the uncomfortable constraint of my jockeys. I untangled myself from her grip, took both of her hands in mine and raised them to my lips.

'That was nice.' I looked into her eyes and smiled 'Now. Is it tea or sex you're wanting?'

'Sex first, then tea. And biscuits if you have any.'