By Matthew Doyle

 

 I

I pour the Scotch Lad a pint. All the heads call him that, whether he has a fondness for Scotland or the whiskey or both, I can't say. Anyways, I call him Scotch. I stick Lankum on the stereo and Radie Peat sings something lovely over the drone of a bellows.

'Fuck, these sound like a miserable shower,' Scotch says in an accent thick with Dublin Town.

'So negative,' I say to him. 

It's quiet for a Tuesday because there's no ball on the box tonight. I pour Scotch another pint without asking. I know he'll want one. You get to know the rhythm of the customers after a while. 

The Fog lands in and sits at the counter beside Scotch. His name is Fogarty, but in these parts, he's known as The Fog.

'How's The Fog,' I say to him.

'The Fog needs a pint,' he says, then nods to Scotch, but they won't start chatting until they sink another pint and the porter loosens their tongues. 

The Fog is retired age, but I don't know if he still works. From the way he holds himself I'd say Scotch labours in construction. Scotch and The Fog talk about life, which for them is the price of a pint and the Dublin Gaelic football teams.

'Whatever happened to that nice looking young one you were going with?' The Fog says to me.

'She gave him the elbow,' Scotch says, volunteering as my proxy. I foolishly confided in him the last day he was in.

'Ah, wasn't she bound to come to her senses eventually,' The Fog chuckles.

'The best-looking thing to come in here in a long time and he had to go and ruin it.'

The Fog and Scotch are riffing now.

'And we're stuck here looking at him moping behind the bar, listening to that miserable music.'

'The music was probably her influence.'

'Oh, I'd say so, she had an arty look about her.'

'The type who buys her clothes in a charity shop.'

'At least he keeps the pints coming.'

'I'll say this for him, he's never let me go thirsty.'

I'm saved by the phone ringing behind the bar. Fucking mercy. 

'Is The Fog there?'

'Ah, hello Misses Fogarty,' I say, loudly, so himself can hear. I've never met the woman, but I know her voice. I look across the counter and The Fog is sinking his pint and pulling on his coat to run out the door. 'Don't be worrying, he only left just this minute, I'd say he'll be home to you shortly.'

Scotch laughs and nods to the taps so I know to stick him on another.

 

Closing, and it's dead quiet. Scotch has gone home, and the only punters left are a couple making eyes at each other over their empty glasses. It would be too awkward to clear the table, so I wipe the counter using a cloth manky with porter and crumbs. I pour myself a pint for want of nothing better to do, although I'll only have the one, any more will tease the sleep from me.

I close the shop and walk home. I live in a basement flat that reeks of damp. Herself hating staying there, but that's not the reason she ended things.

Black sky, Dublin under lights, the street is a stage. The audience is one million strong. I see a man sleeping on a bit of cardboard. He's under the spotlight, though no one sees him.

Dublin, I call you home, but I hardly know you.

 

II

Ned, my da's uncle, owns the pub. He bought the place years and years ago and christened the place Ned's. The deal included a little apartment above, giving him somewhere to lay his head.

I started working for Ned when I was 14, cleaning glasses and serving tables mostly. It was just a couple of hours here and there so Ned could keep a proper eye on me. Nowadays I take on four or five nights a week, including Friday and Saturday. Annie, who's as old as Ned but is sprightly and sporty for her age, works the other nights. Ned mostly works during the day so he can meet the old regulars and potter about the place, although he'll come down from his lair to give me and Annie a hand if it gets too busy.

Ned is my only family. He's been very good to me all my life, but especially after Da died and Ma lost herself in a bottle of vodka and her bitterness. She's gone now, too.

I was eight, only, when Da died. We lived in a flat in the Liberties in Dublin at the time, near Ned's, which meant I was always in and out of the pub. Da was great fun. He taught me to swim on Donabate Strand and he always brought me to Croke Park when there was a Dublin game on. I was sleeping when Ma came into my room and lifted me out of bed into her arms. Her tears wet my face and I started sobbing, not knowing why. I cried because she cried. All she said was the pricks got him. I could already smell her new scent - vodka and bitterness. She loved him, wholly.

Ma had to identify his body. I won't say what happened in my trousers when she described the big crater where his face used to be. 'Never forget what the pricks did to your da,' she said to me, first came the bitterness, then the waft of vodka. I bawled into her chest. 

All my ma ever told me was he never did a wrong to anyone who didn't have it coming. I pieced the story together over the next few years, mostly from other lads in school who'd heard it from their da's and older brothers, about the dealer who killed a rival, so the rival's boys shot him in retaliation, the way it goes. I boxed the head off a few lads for saying things about my da. One time when I was sitting in the headmaster's office after a fight, waiting for Ned to collect me, I heard a teacher say, 'Just like his father.' I'm nothing like Da, I thought, the man who never raised his voice or his hand to me. 

When I got a bit older I went to the library and looked up his name on the computer. I read about the man, known as The Boy Concannon for his boyish good looks, who sold heroin around Dublin. I realised then my da had two faces. 

Ned moved me and Ma into the flat above the pub the year after Da died because Ma had no means to support us. She was no good for working, keeping up with the vodka and bitterness became an ever-tightening noose around her neck. Her own family disowned her when she married Da. I don't know of them except to shake hands with the ones who came to her funeral. Cirrhosis got her in the end. 

I'd do my homework in the pub after coming in from school, then Ned would feed me, all so I didn't have to be near Ma when the bitterness came out, that was an ugly side of her. But when it got busy Ned would send me upstairs and I'd find her semi-conscious on the couch, mumbling and dribbling all over herself. I'd wipe the saliva from her mouth and chin with a cloth before putting a blanket over her and brushing the hair out of her face. I always tucked her in with a kiss on the forehead.

Ned became my new guardian after social services put a title on what he'd been doing for years. I dropped out of school before the Leaving, Ned was raging but he couldn't sway me, so he started teaching me the pub trade. Ned had a pile of records by Pecker Dunne and Margaret Barry, Frank Harte and Liam Weldon, Paddy Tunney, too, and my true schooling took place kneeling on the floor by the speakers listening to his records. Then I got to know the musicians who find their way to Ned's on Thursday and Sunday nights. Ned knows them all by name and instrument, and they all know Ned and they greet him with a hug because Ned is a patron of musicians in Dublin. 

 

III

She loved molasses. When I was near her I could smell it on her breath and taste it when we kissed. She was studying painting and sculpture in the art college around the corner and she'd come into Ned's with her friends because the pint is cheaper than anywhere else around. She'd always stop at the bar for a chat, but she intimidated me because she painted and listened to music from South America. Her name was Fleur. Even her name was a painting. Four hundred days and twenty more was all I had with her.

We got chatting properly one night when she sat at the counter after her friends had gone. I had Margaret Barry on the stereo, what a treat. Fleur had never heard of Margaret and I wondered what was going on with the music in South America to keep her from our greatest singer. I'd have prattled on all night to Fleur only for The Fog and Scotch were thirsty and quick to remind me of my responsibilities and how the service wasn't the same since Ned semi-retired.

I met her for a drink a few days later in a pub on Manor Street. We got on grand. Fleur was an absolute doll and she never made me feel small because I didn't know anything about art. I told her how Ma's grief after Da died became a noose, but I never said anything about the cruel business he was involved in.

I had to work the one New Year's we were together, and she came and sat at the counter in Ned's even though all her mates had gone away for the craic, the sport. The old ones who are on the way out kept saying to her, 'Ah, you poor little thing, aren't you all on your own and the night that's in it.' I'd glance at her and we'd share a smile because the old one's didn't know we were going together.

But then Malachy appeared. I knew the head on him when he came into Ned's with Fleur - he was Tim Solan's younger brother. I knew Tim from school and we were pally for a while. Malachy was in Fleur's sculpture class and I could tell from the smarmy look on his face that he was trying to get with her. Ned's was busy, so I was up and down the bar firing pints at thirsty punters and I could see Malachy with his phone out on the table showing Fleur all the stuff about The Boy Concannon. 

She roared at me through the night for not trusting her enough to tell her all, and with the dawn I had to let her go. It was autumn and I walked for hours hoping to find myself in purgatory. One of those days when the sun shines piercingly low in the sky and the dark greens and browns and reds in the world jump out so it feels like you're tripping. I'd taken neither acid nor mushrooms, though the latter of course were in season.

I eat molasses now to remember the taste of her.

 

IV

I see Scotch and The Fog and they're talking about the price of a pint in some new joint that has opened nearby. Scotch says he won't go near the place again because of the extortionate prices, and to make matters worse they serve craft porter, which he can't stand. Anyway, he says, he much prefers Ned's even though he has to look at my mopey head. 

Mags and Peggy are old ones, not on the way out just yet but they're getting there, and they're sitting together drinking cider. Peggy is trying to convince Mags to go to the karaoke around the corner even though Mags would much prefer to stay where she is. When Peggy slips off to the Ladies, I say to Mags, 'P-E-G-G-Y spells danger.' Mags laughs.

There's a crowd in from the art college. I glance over in hope more than expectation, but Fleur isn't among them. She doesn't come in anymore.

It's a Thursday, which means tunes. There's a well-known head playing tonight. Well-known if you frequent certain musical circles.

'Is this the same crowd who are here every week?' Scotch says.

'Nah Scotch, different.'

'All those trad heads sound the same to me.'

'Philistine,' I say and pour him a pint.

Ned has come downstairs for a poke about the place before settling at the bar for the music.

'How's Ned?' I say.

'All right,' he says and his whiskers curl in harmony with a grin. 

Ned has a head of thick white hair, so he needs a comb to tame it. A pair of thick silver rings pierce either earlobe. He's wearing a black waistcoat over a white shirt with black trousers and winkle pickers. He often reminds me of Sam Elliot as The Stranger in The Big Lebowski. Sam Elliot might even be as cool as Ned, too.

The well-known head sings a ballad known to the old ones and the room goes quiet. 

Scotch turns to me after he finishes and says, '36 verses he's after singing there and each one more miserable than the last.'

I wipe tables and pour pints and share a joke with The Fog. I place a whiskey in front of Ned, but he doesn't notice because he's caught in the music's rhythm. He closes his eyes and taps the toe of his shoe off the floor, softly, so as not to distract the players. I let the music burrow into my heart. Tonight, it's plaintive, and suits my mood.

And I think about Fleur and how wrong I got things. I know now I should have told her my name is Archie Concannon. I am grandnephew to Ned, son to Angela and Robbie. I am the spawn of a man with two faces, child of a killer.