by Mike Day
A sad story of guilt and alcohol set in modern Dublin.
The Skyline of Dublin
By Mike Day
Word count 3,939.
The skyline of Dublin is a mishmash of chrome towers and old pan tiles, blackened by coal and peat smoke. Here and there broken roof trusses lie open to the sky, like the bones of a dead whale, waiting the wrecking ball of redevelopment.
Old men with folded in faces stand outside narrow public bars, sucking on cigarettes, trying to drag out the last of the nicotine. Whilst young girls cling to each other as they totter past on dangerous heels.
In the city centre tour guides shepherd loose-necked tourists past monuments that proudly bear the bullet holes of a republic’s birth. Hard-faced kids dodge in and out of the Saturday shoppers, alert for the main chance.
Near the main post office, a three hundred and ninety foot stainless steel needle pierces the sky. The town’s planners have called it the “Monument to Light”; but to the locals it’s “The Stiletto in the Ghetto”, besides other less savoury terms.
Dublin is, and always was, supremely alive. Not perfect, far from it, but moving and changing. It looks at its self reflected in the Liffey and smiles a lopsided smile; Celtic tiger, tatty old man, heart of Ireland.
Patrick David Murphy was perched at the bar on a high stool. A few feet behind him, old pictures of the city liberally covered the pub’s panelled wall. He himself was somewhere in his sixties, probably, though amongst the regulars estimates ranged up to the mid-eighties. He sat with hunched shoulders in a worn brown leather jacket, and in his left hand he held a pint glass, the Guinness suds trailing down the inside till they met the jet black liquid near the bottom.
In his right hand was a small silver locket. The fine chain pooled on the polished wooden counter beneath.
‘What have you got there?’ Sean asked from the next stool. He was a small man in contrast to Patrick’s six-foot frame. Fast eyes that were always moving gave the impression of a man around whom you’d be wise to keep a hand on your wallet.
Patrick knew him better than that; they had run through the same streets as children, dodged the same bullies and stolen from the same market stalls. ‘Honour amongst thieves’ he would have said, still he kept his own cash stuffed deep inside an internal zip pocket, ‘Only an idiot puts temptation in front of a friend.’ ‘It was herself's,’ he said as he turned it over with a thoughtful twist.
‘Only to me.’ He proffered it to the small man.
Sean put down his pint and wiped his hands on his greasy shirt. He took the locket and opened it with one yellow thumbnail.
Inside, one frame held a sepia photograph of a young woman in a servants smock. She had long black hair that fell loosely over her shoulder and a shy, pretty smile. In her hands, she held a wooden bucket. Judging by the way that she leaned back with straightened arms it must have been a full one.
‘Pretty girl,’ Sean said.
‘Her Mother’s sister, she was in service in an English lord’s house.’
‘I hope she burned the feker out.’
Patrick looked sideways at his friend. ‘No, but some other feker did. Late one night while she was in bed.’
‘Ah Jesus, that’s harsh. Did she get out?’
‘Not into this world.’
Patrick nodded at the barman who brought over two new pints from the shelf behind the pump, and went back to pour replacements.
Both men sat silently watching.
The barman half filled each straight glass and then left it to settle. A few minutes later, he returned and completed the process.
‘So what you doing with it in here?’ Sean asked.
‘My granddaughter's turning twenty-one. It’s about time she had it.’
‘So you thought you would bring it the bar for old time’s sake?’
‘Work on! I’m on my way to see her mother.’
‘Are you two talking now?’
Patrick took a long pull on his new pint and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. ‘That’s why I popped in here – courage,’ he grinned, bringing the glass back to his lips.
Half an hour later he was walking down amongst the old brick houses that huddle down by the docks. He walked slowly with the exaggerated care of the practiced drunk.
At his daughters door he stopped, pulled his jacket into a semblance of order, and stuck his chin out, ready for battle. He knocked sharply three times and tugged irritably at his coat once again.
The dark green door swung suddenly open, revealing a middle-aged woman wearing a pinafore and a scowl. ‘And what can we be doing for the likes of you?’ She asked planting her fists on her ample hips.
‘Daughter, I have come to call on your eldest.’
‘What do you mean, why?’ he demanded, looking affronted and secretly regretting the last few sips of courage.
‘Because it was a snowy day in the desert the last time our lord and master graced us with his presence.’
Her face, beyond the scowl, had once been graceful. Now her complexion was hardened by nights at the fish factory and days scrubbing floors. Her hair was amber, flecked at the temple with pale grey, and pulled back severely into a bun at the base of her skull.
‘Well are you going to keep your own father standing on the door step, or are you going to invite me in for a cup of tea and a piece of something?’
She looked at him for a long moment. ‘The neighbours will complain if I let you camp in the street.’ As she spoke, she stepped aside to let him pass.
He climbed the two red brick steps and walked into the bright hallway. The smell of furniture polish and washing hung in the air like damp incense. ‘How’s your Roddy?’ He said slipping his flat cap from his head and holding it awkwardly in both hands.
‘Oh he’s well, sure enough. He made supervisor six month a go; course they kept him waiting a bleeding age before they told him.’
‘You still at the fish plant?’
‘We’ve still got bills to pay. Roddy’s money isn’t enough by itself.’
‘No, times are hard all round,’ he said gazing around the hall at the holiday photos in ethnic frames.
‘Is that what this is all in aid of?’ Her arms folded automatically over her bosom.
‘No…no, I just wanted to deliver a present to Amy, it’s an antique,’ he added proudly. The effect was spoilt slightly by his reaching out a hand to steady him against the wall.
His daughter’s eyes narrowed. ‘If it’s thieved you’ll not bring it in this house.’
‘Shame on you, this…’ he said pulling the locket out of his jeans pocket by the long chain, ‘was your mothers and now it will belong to Amy.’
‘You had best come in and sit down then,’ she said eying the spinning locket suspiciously.
He followed her through the first door into the front room. While he sat carefully in one of the fake regency dinning chairs, his daughter went through to the kitchen to make tea.
She returned a few minutes later balancing two teacups and saucers, both sporting a large homemade biscuit. ‘So just explain to me again, this locket is going straight to Amy? Don’t I get a turn or something?’
He looked at her for a moment as he reached out and took the drink from her. ‘Your Ma, God rest her soul, left you everything that mattered. This was just something she wanted Amy to have.
‘And it saves you buying her a proper present for her birthday.’
He looked down at his feet, studying the creases in his black leather shoes. ‘No, I have got her a “Proper present.” I just wanted to give her this before the big day.’ He could hear the whiney note in his voice and couldn’t help wondering when their relationship had first become reversed.
‘Hmm,’ she sounded unconvinced.
‘So how have you been?’ he asked.
‘Look, she won’t be back for at least an hour and I’m not going to sit here wasting my breath. Do you want something?’
On the mantle piece, the clock that used to grace his fireplace ticked off the seconds. ‘Just a little company, be welcome in my daughter’s house.’
‘You should have thought of that before.’ She reached across and took the still full cup from his hand.
He stood up, feeling awkward and lost. ‘Tell her I said hello. I will just leave this here for her.’ He placed the locket close by the black slate clock. As he turned for the door he paused. ‘I wasn’t always like this you know.’
‘I remember.’ She handed him the biscuit as a parting gift.
Outside in the clear air he walked slowly back, choosing to go via the waterside. Gulls swooped in graceful arcs, yellow beaks turning as they searched for scraps. He held the biscuit a long time before breaking it in two. One piece he nibbled on half-heartedly, the other he threw out into the turgid water. Birds clamoured and screeched as they tore through the air to claim the scrap first.
He watched, envious of their appetite. If he could finish the other half, he would be pleased. At the back of his head an all too familiar itch told him that the shakes wouldn’t be far behind.
When he reached the bar ten minutes later, he slipped the remainder of the biscuit into his jacket. His stomach felt sour and he felt the sweat begin to trickle down his spine. He pushed the door open and the fug of warm bodies and beer washed over him. As he pulled his familiar stool under him, the barman was already pouring a shot of Bushmills.
‘You look rough,’ the barman said as he added the whiskey to Pat’s slate.
‘Nothing a pint won’t fix,’ he said after swallowing the short. The liquid tasted of peat fires and honey and burned all the way to his empty stomach. He felt the delicious relief begin to flow back up his chest, out into his arms and legs, and finally taking the sharp edges from the fragments in his head.
Patrick David Murphy looked around at the other drinkers. To a man, they were familiar. Not perhaps each and everyone by name, but still the same faces that had kept him company since his wife had died nineteen years ago.
Drink had always been a part of his life. At first it was just for the Craic, but over the years it had required more and more alcohol to reach that same sense of euphoria. Now all those cracks were beginning to show.
When Mary died, he told himself that he’d died too. It was easier to let the tide of misery just carry him out to sea. Easier than coping with his daughter and her uptight husband. Easier than waking up every morning and knowing that he would still be alone when he fell back into bed after closing time.
He jumped as an unexpected hand slapped his shoulder.
‘So did she like your present?’ It was Sean back from the gents.
‘Dunno, our Joan all but through me down the steps.’
‘She’s a card sure enough,’ he said as he hauled his diminutive frame up onto the four-legged wooden stool.
‘Oh yeah, barrel of laughs that one.’
‘So what did you do in the first place to get her back up?’
‘Nothing.’ Pat raised his eyebrows in an attempt at innocence.
‘You were chucked out of your own house. That’s a pretty big nothing.’
Pat looked at Sean for a moment and then shrugged.
‘Mary was sick…’
‘I know; a fine woman she was, God rest her soul.’
‘She was sick for a lot longer than is generally known. Three years of remission and relapse, then the whole bloody cycle all over again.’ That’s when I started to really drink.’ He took the proffered pint out of the barman’s hand. ‘Helen blamed me, said I should be the one taking care of her mother, not turning up drunk at any hour.’
‘You were hurting. She should have seen that.’
‘She was only in her early twenties, still a kid really. As far as she could see I let them both down.’ Pat looked at the dark bubbles that defied common sense to float downward through the settling pint.
‘But you didn’t. It was hard, that’s all and you needed a stiffener or two to get you through the day. Any man would.’
‘No… No, I should have been there for both of them.’ He took a deep swallow of the stout. ‘You know where I was the night she died?’
‘In here. Sitting right here, getting drunk.’
‘You weren’t to know.’
‘Doctor told Helen to fetch the priest. I slipped out the back way. I even pinched a tenner out of my daughter’s purse to buy myself a drink.’
The heavy wooden case clock fixed high up on the wall chimed four.
‘So she kicked you out of your own house? That’s a bit much.’
‘We were weeks behind on the rent. She got the landlord to put the book in her name. Sure though, he didn’t care as long as he got his money.’
‘Is that when you used to sleep above the pub in the old function room?’
‘No, that was a couple of years later, when my landlady did pretty much the same thing, before the council set me up in the flat.’
They talked about nothing, everything, just so long as it avoided anything. And finally, when the pub doors closed behind them they began to shuffle in their own separate directions towards their beds.
Patrick woke to a thumping in his head that transformed itself into a rhythmic banging on the front door. He crawled out of his sweat-soaked bed and pulled last night’s trousers over the underpants that he had fallen asleep in. He scratched half-heartedly at his string vest as he wobbled towards the door.
He leaned against the door with his forearm to support him as he peered blearily through the spy hole.
‘Shite!’ he said as he stood back. He raked his fingers through his hair and grabbed his brown jacket off the single chair. ‘Coming!’ he called as he threaded one arm down a sleeve.
When he opened the door, a young woman stood there, looking at him with his Mary’s eyes.
‘Amy. What time is it?’
‘Ten past eleven, Granddad.’ She wrinkled her nose at the odour that wafted from the room. ‘Can I buy you breakfast or something?’ She said gesturing to the hall outside.
He looked around at the pit in which he lived. ‘Yea, okay sweetheart, whatever you say.’
They walked past his usual café, heading towards the city centre. Amy didn’t speak for a long while as they walked.
Pat was glad of it as it gave him chance to try to get his head back on straight.
As they passed an old church she suddenly stopped, looking up at the carved saints over the door. ‘Do you still go to church?’
‘No, just thought as it was Sunday you might have wanted to,’ she stuffed her hands deeper into her jeans pockets and carried on walking.
They reached a corner café that looked a lot cleaner than the one where he normally sipped at a bowl of tomato soup.
‘This ok?’ She asked.
‘Grand,’ he said feeling in his pocket for any cash he hadn’t drunk. A couple of Euros and some shrapnel. ‘I seem to have left my wallet back in the flat,’ he said feeling lower than even normal.
‘That’s okay, my treat.’ She led him inside and chose a table by the large window. She picked up a menu and began to study it.
It gave him time to look at her properly. She had the wide cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes of her mother and the tall frame of her father. Her hair was brown, but she couldn’t help that, he supposed.
‘Well?’ She asked.
‘Breakfast? What are you having?’
‘Oh, just a cup of tea and a piece of dry toast. Thanks.’
She leaned forward, ‘Granddad, it’s all right. I said I will pay.’
He looked at her, so like her Gran. ‘No sweetheart. It’s my stomach, you see. Food and me, well we don’t see eye to eye these days.’
She looked at him full in the face and seemed to search there for a moment. ‘The drink, is it that bad?’
He looked down at his hands. ‘It’s my own fault. But I don’t have to worry about my weight either.’ He smiled to let her know he was joking.
The waitress came over and smiled at Amy, ‘Can I get you anything?’
‘I’ll have the continental breakfast and black coffee. He’ll have tea, toast and jam.’
Patrick glanced at the waitress, ‘Dry toast please, darlin, no jam.’
She scribbled on an order pad and ripped off a copy. At the top, forty-nine was printed in thick red numbers.
‘I came by to say thanks for the locket,’ she said reaching a hand across the table to place it on his. ‘It really is beautiful. Mam said it belonged to Gran?’
Her skin looked as though it belonged to another species lying there on his. Hers was smooth, pale, like marble. His was a wrinkled brown, covered in liver spots and even now, at rest, it shook for the want of a drink.
‘Yeah, she wore it every day of her life from when she was your age. It was a present from her father for her twenty-first birthday. He had bought her sister an identical one two years before on hers’
‘What was he like?’
‘Miserable bible basher, as far as I could see. Course he never thought I was good enough for his little girl though; broke her heart when he wouldn’t come to the wedding.’
‘He didn’t go?’
‘No, back in those days people were really particular about family matters. Once he turned against me, that was that.’
‘So why did he? Was it the drink?’
‘No, no, it was something else.’ Patrick looked out of the window to watch the people in the street. He was actually seeing a different street, a different time.
‘So what happened?’ Amy was leaning forward, interested.
‘You don’t want to know about old history.’ He said it with a gentle smile on his face that hid the churning in his stomach.
‘Duh, of course I do.’ She sat back and folded her arms.
‘Mary’s sister, Gwen, she would have been your great aunt, I suppose. I met Gwen when I was working as a stable boy up at the manor house out on the Cork road. Course it’s not there now, burned down by the Finians. She and I walked out for a while but then I met Mary.’
‘So you dumped the sister?’
‘No, well not dumped, exactly. sort of showed Mary more attention, that’s all.’
‘How did her sister take it?’
‘Not so well. She turned away from me entirely. That was why their father set against me; said I was too fickle for his girls.’
The waitress came back with the tray. She deftly unloaded Amy’s breakfast and coffee and then served Patrick his Tea and dry toast.
‘Thanks,’ murmured Grandfather and Granddaughter.
‘So how come you still got to marry Gran? I thought if her father forbad it you couldn’t get married back then?’
‘Oh, true enough but, well, you remember me telling you that the great house burned down that one night?’
She nodded utterly transfixed
‘Well Gwen was still in her bed. All of the Irish servants had been warned an hour before to get out by the masked men with the torches. But somehow the message never got to poor Gwen up in the attic. People said that they could hear her calling out for her daddy above the flames.’ Patrick stopped again to watch a bus unload a bunch of tourists. ‘After that, Mary’s Dad just sank into himself. We were married a few months later, just after her twenty-first birthday.’
‘Do you think that she might have known and decided to stay in the building?’ The question escaped past her lips before she could stop herself.
‘I don’t know. I often thought about it.’
‘What did Gran think?’
‘I don’t know, but she carried that locket with Gwen’s portrait in it for over forty years.’
Amy put both of her hands over his. ‘Is that why you weren’t there when Gran died? You couldn’t stand to lose them both?’
Patrick pulled his hands from under hers, ‘That’s enough of that old nonsense. Eat your breakfast before it gets cold.’ He reached for the tea with both hands to keep it steady and began industriously to sip it down.
Dutifully, Amy began to eat, aware that she had crossed a boundary that the old man was unwilling to allow.
They ate in silence. He began nibbling at the dry toast, washing each crumb down with a swallow of tea. She buttered a croissant and took large bites, though she tasted nothing of its flavour.
After they had finished he stood up. ‘Well it has been lovely to see you sweetheart. Tell your Mother I said hello and that I’m sorry… for everything.’ And without another word, he shuffled out of the café.
She watched him go before reaching for her purse. Inside, next to the cash to pay her bill was a small oval photograph. She had taken it out so that she could put new ones in its place. She looked at the woman who had her own eyes for a long time then put it carefully back in her purse.
Her Mother took the call a week later.
Amy heard a muffled sob and then the click of the receiver. ‘Mom?’ she called already feeling a cold heavy knot in her stomach.
She went with her Mother to identify the body. The policeman at the mortuary said that he had two empty bottles of whiskey beside him when they found him on a park bench in the Botanical Gardens.
Afterwards they gave them a small Jiffy bag with his wallet and watch in it.
Amy noticed that right at the bottom was a scrap of something. She reached in and pulled out a thin oval photograph. It showed a man, young, handsome, holding a heavy bucket up at chest height. He was laughing at the camera.
‘What’s that then?’ Her mother asked with a deadened voice.
‘I think it is the other photograph from the locket.’ She paused. ‘That means that Great Granddad didn’t buy a new locket for Gran, he just handed her her dead sister’s locket with the original photos still in it. It’s as though he was blaming them for her death.’
Her mother looked at her through eyes that were still red. ‘It was a long time ago, nothing to do with anything now.’
Amy shook her head. ‘Everything that he became, the drink, all of it, it was all because of the guilt. Both of them trapped, unable to forgive themselves.’ She shook her head, ‘All those years.’
Overhead a gull hung on a sea breeze, the traffic grumbled past, and the city moved on.