Saturday, February 17, 2007

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.

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