Saturday, February 17, 2007

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.

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