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A FIFTH OF BRUEN

Ken Bruen

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INTRODUCTION

ORIGINS OF AN ORIGINAL

By Allan Guthrie

Imagine, if you will, the time before Jack Taylor, the time before Brant & Roberts, the time before Serpent’s Tail published Rilke In Black and Her Last Call To Louis MacNeice. Picture a bar in the west of Ireland. It’s evening. Smoke hangs thick in the air. Laughter bounces from table to table. It’s the Galway Arms Bar, and there’s the young Ken Bruen, smiling and joking as he hands over a copy of his latest book to a brand new reader. That reader was one of the lucky ones.

Ken Bruen’s early works have been much sought after in the last few years, and they’ve been virtually impossible to obtain.

Until now.

You have in your hand, A Fifth Of Bruen, an omnibus edition of those early works, four short novels and two collections of short stories which Ken Bruen used to sell by hand in the bars of his home town.

The first of the novels to be published was Funeral: Tales of Irish Morbidities. Published by Terrance Publishing in 1991, it tells the story of a young Irishman who is fascinated by funerals. So much so, that his life is spent frequenting one funeral after another. What’s intriguing about this novel is that, as with most of Bruen’s very early work, it isn’t a crime novel. Oh, there are crimes, sure, but it’s a literary novel, no question. Highly contemplative, introspective, but even then, I’m glad to say, Bruen didn’t “do scenery”, and the plot has a pace to it that’s often frequently absent from the typical literary novel. And, of course, it’s full of Galway humour.

In Funeral we find the following appearing in (to borrow a Bruen phrase) jig time:

America

Books

Irishness

Alcoholism

Fathers

Poetry

Quotes

And of course:

Lists

Bruen aficionados will recognize in the above list some of the obsessions which have gone on to drive many of his subsequent novels, creating the idiosyncrasies which make the Bruen novel stand out from the crowd, and make his books horribly imitative for us, his poor colleagues. Bruen is the one writer it’s not recommended to read if you’re writing a novel yourself. His style is so easy, fast-paced, elegant, it’s hard not to find yourself emulating it.

Shades Of Grace, published in 1993, is a love story, but of the sort that only Ken Bruen could write. The central character is, like many Bruen protagonists, a literary-named figure: Ford (after Ford Madox Ford), a social worker who should really have a social worker of his own. Ford is an Irishman abroad (London), who falls in love with an American, Grace (Bruen temporarily amalgamates the two countries with his use of the acronym, CIA, to mean Catholic Irish Alcoholic). Yes, Ford has a drink problem. So much so that a client tells him, “You drink and you drink and you fall over every time I see you.”

This novel has some terrific observations, from the anti-authoritarian “The police arrived about midday. In plain clothes, they had that politeness that slaps your face,” to the more general aphoristic rhetorical wit of “How dangerous could someone called Cecil be?” Bruen wasn’t writing noir yet, but Ford bears many of the hallmarks of a noir protagonist.

Martyrs, originally published in 1994, has more emphasis on plot, more twists, more surprises, more suspense. But without sacrificing any characterization. It’s here that Bruen first quotes a crime novel, the protagonist, Stephen Beck, saying, “If you had to quote a writer, make it a crime writer”. Beck is a loser. He has a degree in sociology, runs a market stall, has “an ex-wife, an ex-child, and no excuses.” And his alcoholic brother is in a hospital for the “dipstick dysfunctional.”

Even back in 1994, Bruen was giving mothers a hard time. This novel is where the darkness in Bruen really starts to take hold. There’s a scene which takes the reader’s breath away with the startling speed and unexpectedness of the violence. One of those instances where you say, aloud, “What?” Then re-read the paragraph and say, “Jesus, he really did just do that.” But I’m giving nothing further away. Read on. Martyrs can’t be beaten for full-on bittersweet irony.

Danny Taylor (distantly related to Jack, I wonder?) is the vigilante protagonist of All The Old Songs and Nothing To Lose. Here we’re firmly in crime fiction territory. Danny’s wife and kid were killed by a joyrider, and Danny’s sense of outrage has led him to seek to serve his own brand of justice. For all kinds of wrongdoings. Danny’s a complex character. He breaks arms at the slightest excuse, yet loves Larkin and MacNeice. And his idealized sense of justice is offset by a keen cynicism. His friend Richie describes the effects of ICE (amphetamines): “you don’t eat, sleep. And it lingers for about three days,” and Danny’s response is: “Bit like love, is it?” With typical Bruen wit, Danny is surely the first vigilante hero with a bad back.

Of Bruen’s many short stories, “The Time Of Serena-May” is the author’s favorite. And understandably so. Bruen is renowned for making the reader laugh and cry, manipulating our emotions like a conjuror. This stunningly moving story is shot through with emotional honesty: “They said a Downs Syndrome baby had one chromosome too many. Maybe it was everyone else who had one less.” But there are also wonderfully subversive moments, such as this definition of nuns: “women in hoods who do a lot of polishing.”

Bruen demonstrates a sleight of hand that all writers would love to have, and the dexterity with which he delivers, time after time, is awe-inspiring. Some further examples include this piece of succinct characterization from Funeral where Bruen describes the barmaid, Eileen, thus: “mebbe she’d had a head of hair once”; and this pithy aphorism from “Upon The Third Cross” that slams home with the ineluctable truth of a speeding bullet: “You left prison but it never left you.”

Like “Serena-May”, “Upon The Third Cross” is another long short story, this time using the kind of multiple point-of-view that’s reminiscent of the Brant novels. This, though, is not a police procedural. It’s perhaps better described as a criminal procedure, with an ex-con protagonist, his grief-crazed sister, a couple of “bone breakers” and their unsavoury boss. This is an excellent revenge story with some very nice twists.

“Where do you stand on homosexuals?”

“Well clear.” (“Priest”)

“Priest” was originally published in the collection Sherry and Other Stories. Only Ken Bruen would give a later novel the same title, but it just goes to emphasize the extent to which the priesthood is a key theme in his work. “Priest” opens with a desecrated alter, and introduces us to Father Morgan, the kind of priest who delivers a drunken sermon and then bites a Rottweiler, and whose thinking is “all below the waist”. He battles with his demons as best he can, belting back Jameson to stem the sexual desire he feels towards Sera and Kate, two women who’ve recently entered his life. But along with the sexual attraction, there’s an air of malevolence about the place as memories of the dead Father Malachy are reawakened …

With the huge success of The Guards (nominated for seemingly every crime fiction award under the sun, and winning the Shamus), Ken Bruen is fast becoming a legend in his own lifetime. But that wasn’t always the case.

Back in the bad old days, Ken Bruen published a novel called The Hackman Blues, one of the most important books in the crime canon. And it was published against seemingly everybody’s wishes. Even after its publication there were anguished cries from the House of Lords to have the book banned. To have created such a commotion must have been both bemusing and amusing for the young author. There must have been times when he wondered if he made the right choice. He did, despite strong pressure not to. Hackman is a book that tells it like it is. A book about AIDS. A book where everything doesn’t fit neatly into the pigeon-holed template of redemptive crime fiction, where order and justice prevail, no matter what. That’s Ken Bruen. He writes noir. There aren’t always happy endings. There isn’t always redemption. There is often chaos. The unexpected happens for no reason. Life sucks, but it’s a ride, folks, and with Ken Bruen, you’re hanging on by your fingertips for dear life.

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FUNERAL

TALES OF IRISH MORBIDITIES

“Waste … Remains?”

Learnt

All there was to learn

of the wasteful

and

the wasted

what remains

isn’t always

the worst

that’s left behind.

Funerals can be fun. How’s that for a positive attitude. I was thought-feeding this when a shadow loomed above my dwindling pint (of stout). Sean, a second-hand bookseller. I knew him well … well in the Irish sense. I’d buy him a drink, and he’d tell me some secrets of the trade. The following one nigh on destroyed me. His name was Shaun after his year in America … but he’s over that now. I don’t remind him of it … often.

“A fella brought in five hardback Graham Greene’s today.”

“In good condition?”

“Pristine! Like they were never opened.”

“And?” (I had to ignore that pristine.)

“He was in a fierce state from drink. I offered him a fiver.”

“Did he take it?”

“He hemmed and hawed … sweated … shook, then snapt the fiver.”

“God bless Graham Greene. I suppose it’s a complete coincidence that he was a convert to Catholicism.”

Sean gave me a worried look. Vaguely satisfied I wasn’t needlin’ him, he continued. I was, but that’s neither here nor there.

“I was checking through the third book, and on page five there was a fiver … on page ten there was a tenner … on page twenty, a twenty …”

“Stop! Stop for Godsakes … I know alcoholism is a progressive disease, but this is cruelty itself.” Sean idled with his pint. I dunno what visions the glass yielded. An endless line of first editions … mebbe. I could stand it no longer.

“Okay … okay … tell me just this. How many pages in the book?”

“Two hundred and fifty,” and he laughed. Deep. I didn’t like him a whole lot then. But I had to know. Damnit. He knew that.

“Tell me the title then.”

The Human Factor.”

“Oh, sweet Lord above … that’s vicious.”

I allowed myself to notice him sucking on the glass. Do it. Go to it, I thought. I knew I’d hear a story like that on the day of a Monday funeral. What else! I looked at my watch. I should be moving for the 6:15. A crowd would already be gathered at the morgue. I hate the Monday funerals. But I knew I either give this thing my whole attention or forget it. Due to my own naivety, I’d missed the nine o’clock removal from the church. Recently, I’d been practicing a bracing honesty. Deadly stuff! I had also neglected to touch the talisman I’d written above my bed. It’s a favourite G. K. Chesterton paradox. The one describing Elizabeth Barrett’s life at home with her bullying father.

“She took a much

more cheerful view

of death than her father

did on life.”

Mighty stuff. But I’d forgotten to touch it and paid the price. The Irish town I live in is undergoing a crisis of identity. Who isn’t? It’s large enough to warrant the dubious title of city but retains a provincial flavour.

I had hardly hit the main street when I saw O’Malley. It was too late to avoid him. So we did the Irish dance of polite verbal hostility.

“How are ya, Dillon?”

“Not bad. And yerself?”

“Fine, fine! Have you time for a coffee?”

Everything in me roared – No. No way – not ever … so I said, “Yeah.”

I was suffering from a glut of self-improvement books. A galaxy of inspirational tones were having an adverse, not to mention perverse, effect on my behaviour. Terms like confrontation, face your fears, and best your neuroses had me dizzy with integrity. I bought the coffee. Black for O’Malley … like his nature. Whoops! A negative attitude. True though. O’Malley could never stand me. I decided to cut right through to this.

“You never liked me … did you?”

He nearly dropped the coffee in his lap. “Wot?”

“Let’s face it … (good, positive approach) you hate the living sight of me. Would you like me to tell you why?”

“Cripes! Have you taken drink?… anyway, why do you think I don’t like you?”

“Because you can’t understand why I don’t need a crowd, why I hang out on my own. My independence grates on your nerves. But the reason you most dislike me is because I never mention the money you owe me.”

“Ary … you’re as mad as a hatter. Everyone knows that.”

“What’s more, I can also tell you the reason I don’t like you. It’s a lot simpler …”

“Who the hell cares, you’re a bloody lunatic.”

“I don’t like you because you don’t like me.”

I got up then and left. Timing: it’s all in the timing. By evening the story would be all over the town. T’was too late now to catch the nine o’clock hearse. I heard O’Malley roar, “Ya bollix,” after me.

I notice nowadays that they like to spell this “bollix” in an up-market fashion. I’m a traditionalist and like the old forms. At least O’Malley had given me the old usage. Why didn’t that make me feel better. The story by tonight would lack the financial aspect. By now O’Malley might even have converted it to me owing him the money. My father operated on a different type of diplomacy. He’d have taken O’Malley behind the guards’ barracks and beat the living daylights outa him. One thing is certain, there wouldn’t have been any roaring of names after him. Traditional, up-market or otherwise. They buried my father in 1980. Shortly after I began my first faltering steps on the funeral philosophy, my Irish instincts ensured that logic would play no part in the formation of this. Obvious works of reference like The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I completely ignored. I knew instinctively that if the philosophy was to be practical, I’d have to steal, adapt, and plagarise wholesale. This I’ve done. The beauty was that familiarity could seem like the ring of truth. I had two fathers. The one who actually existed and the one I wish he’d been. In June 1980, I buried both. My mother is a non-runner. She died when I was three and is buried up in Louth. A fierce enough epitaph in itself. Drink killed my father. But in Ireland, very few died from drink. They die pist in car crashes, in drunken brawls, fall drunk from bridges, under cars while footless. But … the death certificates list coronary failures and other euphemisms which leaves other drinkers free to the business at hand. My father died in the horrors … screaming of funerals he’d never attended. This was relieved with rats and various low-life forms coming through the walls to him. I think he mentioned bank managers in there. He was sixty-two years of age and, moments before he died, he sat bolt upright, like the best clichés. I moved near for words of wisdom … words of comfort … mebbe. He grabbed my wrist. Many’s the one since who regrets the last error of judgement. He should have gone for the throat. The stench of his breath was woeful. But I was going nowhere. The grip was ferocious. Betwixt a mixture of spittle and venom he roared, “Get to the funeral …”

My then-girlfriend wasn’t big on funerals. Marisa. Not your usual Irish name. Her mother had notions of grandeur and some gothic romance she’d been reading lodged in her memory. Her brother was less fortunate. He’s Raoul Darcy. Try telling the knackers in the school yard you’re Raoul.…

I met her ’round about the time I’d got my first funeral notched up. I was a novice then and fairly shaken by the grief of the family.

No stranger to drink myself, I went to The Weir for some oblivion. I was building towards heaven when she sat down. I took note without interest. Early twenties, blond hair, dark eyes, roughly 5’2” and thin to the point of anorexia. Turned-up button nose and a “friendly” mouth, as they say here. The hair was fresh washed and with new leather and baked bread, my favourite fragrance. I dismissed her.

“Bit early … is it?”

“Wot.”

“Early, like early to be getting legless. Don’t you have work then?” I played the gamut of responses,

– mind yer own business

– wot’s it to you

– silence

– a belch.

So I said,

“I’ve just come from a funeral.” She didn’t disappoint. Her face was a mix of concern and curiosity.

“Oh! I’m sorry … oh dear … am … was it someone close?”

“Close enough.”

“Let me get you a drink. Is that Jameson?”

“Paddy.”

“Oh right … I mean, sorry … I’ll get it.”

I watched her order the drink. I liked the air of calm she had. How far wrong can you go with a girl who’ll get the drink? A coffee for her. I was reaching immunity and little cared.

“I’m Marisa.”

“Howya Marisa.…”

“And you?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“No, I mean … what’s your name?”

“Well, while my father was alive, I was always called young Dillon. Since he died, they dropped the ‘young’ … which I’m not … am …”

“Not what?”

“Not so young either … anymore.”

I was becoming befuddled. As this was the point of the exercise, I didn’t struggle.

“Well, okay then. Dillon, so … highly trendy.”

“What! What are you on about?”

“Bob Dylan … Dylan Thomas, you’re right in there.”

“I have to go now.”

She looked startled. Good, I thought, and left.

A week passed. I slotted in ten funerals. I still hadn’t come to grips with my vocation. Back to The Weir. I was putting down the first part of the funeral thoughts on paper. This was slow. Three glasses of Paddy were whispering “Why write, let go …”

“Howya.” I looked up. Her again.

“Oh … hello … Maura …?”

“Marisa.”

“How are you?” She was staring at the empty glasses.

“Keep passing the empty glasses.”

“What?”

“Do you want a coffee … a drink … a sandwich … a slap …” she asked.

“A coffee.”

I nearly left then as she brought back two coffees.

“So … are you well?”

“Mar … i … sa, yea, what do you want?”

She was caught. I wasn’t into confrontation those days, only drink. It spoke loudly. You can put anything to the Irish except direct questions. The devil mend you, I thought … in your grief it might help you to talk.

“You’re a counsellor, are you?”

She could have given me a hiding there.

“I’ll go.…” I wanted that so I said, “No … would you read this … please?”

I passed the first part of “Funeral” to her. The title got a jump from her. I had written:

“Funeral”

“England”

Funeral …

was the face – constrict

it took me years

to put together – crazed

a mix

of tragedy small played

upon a smaller stage

blend with

the farcial events

a random fate

believed not random

pushed my way

in England

all the years I

wandered thru

I never heard

not once

a funeral took place

with advertising

“Ireland”

But Ireland – always

we go the route

for melodrama

hoarding death

to mingle with

the welcome – back

your business first

to ask

the why

– mere information

they’ll with the deadliest

of smiles – free-set

remark

“Response”

Your funeral

it is

a race that mocks it

to its very face

yet lives on dread

of what

it might not hold

three days

on walking slow

I feel the fear

beneath my very feet

recede.

It was early days. She laughed out loud.

“This is hilarious … oh, I love that … the notion of funerals with advertising.”

I had expected scorn. Was I hoping for it? Her reaction meant we might have a chance.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit insane?” I asked.

“But of course I do … that’s why I love it. Can I have a copy?” Magic words.

I told her about my cousin then. He was twelve years in London. He never heard hint nor hide of funerals. He returned home and in his first month, went to eleven.

“Do the English not die?” she asked … laughing.

“Well,” I said, “like everything else they do it with the minimum of fuss. The Irish roar at it. They thrash it, shout at it, try to strangle it. It’s as if by keeping it loud and brash, they can keep it controlled. Death has a fierce job of sneaking up on us.” She was hooked. I continued. “The Irish greeting is ‘how-yah, do you know who’s dead.’ I often feel like asking people if they’ve been to any good funerals lately. I hear people remark of funerals, like football matches – there was a good turn out.”

Marisa was nodding furiously. On I went, cruising now, the drink nearly forgotten.

“Watch any Irish mother. They’re full of chat, tea, and vitality. They get to the daily newspaper and straight to the obituaries. Never mind what’s huggin’ the headlines. They zero in and want to know who’s dead. You get asked in complete seriousness, ‘Is anybody I know – dead!’ Then, ‘Been to any good funerals lately?’ A bit like going to the cinema. How long before they start reviewing them. I’m not coddin’ you [which is the Irish preface to a lie], but I heard a woman say that a friend of hers died. Her companion asked the cause … ‘Oh, nothing serious’…”

Marisa said, “Death, where is thy sting.”

I had a bad moment when she did. Lord, I tried to blot it out. Our fragile communication was near beached on that. Roll with it. She hadn’t yet mentioned Dylan Thomas’s hackneyed poem … hope lived, if you’ll excuse the irony. I continued.

“I heard an American ask where he could find a real ‘wake.’ I think it was probably listed under the ‘not to be missed section’ of his guidebook. I dunno of any other country where the corpse gets to be the guest of honour … the final entertainment. Our whole vocabulary hinges on the closeness of death. Sick aren’t just sick, they’re at death’s door. To describe the pits, you only mention you felt like death warmed up.”

I was whacked, so I took a hefty whack of the Paddy.

Mistake! It let her commit the dreaded one.

“Did you ever hear of the Dylan Thomas poem on the death of his father?”

“No.” Very quiet I said that.

“Oh … well it goes, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’”

“I see.” My heart was pounding.

“I must get you a copy,” she ended.

Worse and worse. Visions of her reading this to me over open caskets began to shape. I stood up.

“All the best now … goodbye.” And I fled.

A measure of my terror was the glass of whiskey I left behind. Did you ever? I knew I’d dream of her mouthing “Rage rage against the dying of the light.…” No amount of whiskey would remove that taste. I did what I could. I crawled into the nearest card shop and, sure enough, a flurry of Desideratas were scattered expensively. It’s my heritage to try to erase nausea with saccharin. The platitudes induced the inertia … not the ideal solution, but I couldn’t crawl into a bottle if I was to work later. My mother left one legacy. A leather-bound copy of Thomas Moore’s “Irish Melodies.” The dialogue between living and dead is captured in “O, Ye Dead” … which lines I memorized:

“It is true, it is true, we are shadows cold and wan;

and the fair and the brave whom we loved on earth are gone; …

That ere, condemn’d we go

To freeze ’mid Hecla’s snow.

We would taste it awhile and think we live once more!…”

I spoke to a fellah who frequented the early morning houses by the docks. He had no doubts about resurrection. According to him, the dead lined up each morning. No conversation. Absolute quiet. An hour after opening, the “curses” took effect and the “dead” indeed came back to alcoholic life.

All through Joyce is the theme of the dead returning. In Ulysses, Stephen sees corpses rising from their graves like vampires … to deprive the living of the joy. Like the Inland Revenue. “The Dead” begins with a party and ends with a corpse. Like Finnegan’s Wake, you get the blend of “funferal” and “funeral.” America sags under the weight of Joycean study. My own favourite piece of Joycean lore was uttered by his daughter Lucia. Hearing of her father’s death she said … in disbelief:

“What is he doing under the ground, that idiot. When will

he decide to come out? He’s watching us all the time.”

Who’s to say.

I work as a security guard. It’s not in preparation for better things. I have no aspirations to act or better myself. The shift system is ideal for my funeral timetable. When I told my father, he laughed.

“It takes you all your time to mind your own business.”

Neither of us noted the significance of his next remark.

“Anyway, it’s your funeral.”

The Weir and Marisa were now indistinguishable. Over the bar, I knew I had to change my behaviour. For the moment I settled for changing my drink.

“A Jameson please?”

A fellah was nodding into his pint. He looked up.

“Did you ever see God?” he asked.

“I’d say you saw him recently,” said the barman.

“Fruggit,” he said.

A new obscenity or more of the same, but slurred … perhaps.

I’d just ordered the coffee. She arrived.

“I got you that,” I said.

“Thanks.” Whoops, the ice dripped from the gratitude. Murder with manners.

“Will you sit for a minute?” I asked.

“Okay,” … I had to ignore the tone of sulk. I’d go for broke. I began.

“I like you a lot, but I’m woeful in the beginning. If you could suspend the surface stuff. Bear with me for awhile till you see if mebbe we have something going here. Could you ignore the outside while, as Donne wrote, ‘our souls are in negotiation.’”

She smiled. Donne is an unfailing hook. I waited. Fiddled with the nigh on empty glasses. I was on the verge of laying out the gist of Lowry’s Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid. That nervous I couldn’t throw the ole “don’t care switch.” She spoke. Phew-oh.

“I dunno what to make of you. The most I see of you is your back … rushing away. You have me mystified. I’d like to take the chance. I read that funeral thing you gave me so I’m going to ask you the same. Then I’ll leave and I’ll meet you here on Saturday night. Is that okay?”

I nodded. She gave me a sheet of paper, smiled awkwardly, and left. I read:

“And Dark Rain”

Out of the rain

a suitcase full of show

contains

a sandwich turned

to staler expectations … eating

slow

un-relished most

is eaten sat

at but another departure

have put in motion

hurt … I feel intense

these hours – lull

of cheered conversation

buzzin’ clear, breathin’ agonised

“the rain itself was dark”

if you I might part ways

have freed from this

I’d travel … whoa

that twice it back again

if you’d be un-affected

stand!

to grant me un-afraid

the moment

in our loss.

And what was I to make of that. “Fruggit,” I said and got me another one of them Jameson. Marissa and I would be okay, I reckoned. As long as she kept out of the funerals, we’d have a shot at it.

Family!

“Will you come to the house?” she asked.

We were sitting on the Square. Side-steppin’ the winos, we’d wrestled a bench from a stray tourist.

“No,” I said and said nothing else. Long pause. The winos had put the make on the tourist.

“Is that it … blunt and no explanations?” she fumed.

I considered carefully.

“Right.”

“Just come once … and I’ll never ask you again.” It was now a point of principle. I had to make a stand. All sorts of un-spoken freedom rested on my not submitting. True to my heritage … I said, “Okay.”

“What … janey mack … will I ever understand you … cripes, thanks. Call tonight so … am … at eight.”

Dazed … she left. The head wino bowed graciously as she passed. Preoccupied, she neglected to give him anything. Her turn towards the town was orchestrated with a hail of abuse. The type that begins, “I know your ould wan,” and trails off in spittle and, “God blast all belong to you …”

Few have the hallmark in abuse like the Irish. The Americans have an elaborate style which prefaces their obscenities with mother.… This may be a by-product of a matriarchal society. The essence of their swearing further involves the addition of an initial to various deities as in Jesus H. Christ.

Growing up, two names held complete power. You knew you were in deep stew when an adult described you as a “pup.” And the ultimate trouble … was when teeth-grit they whispered, “You young pup” … you could prepare your will on that. Second only to this was a “blackguard” used to describe low-life of every type.

A wino sat beside me.

“How-yah,” he croaked.

“Fair to middlin,’” I replied.

I knew he wouldn’t ask for money as his greeting hadn’t included, “Sur.”

“We’ll hardly get a summer now,” he said.

“Right enough,” I said.

The fact that it was November was neither here nor there. Neither of us remarked on it. He produced the Cyrus and gave it a fierce wallop. It took him places as he twitched and jerked to silent melodies.

“Ar … gh … ah … orh … whee.”

I took this to be appreciation of the desired effect. I took my leave and left him to his visions.

I tried not to project the visit to Marisa’s home. I owed her on two counts:

1. She hadn’t yet mentioned Elton John’s dirge “Funeral for a Friend,” despite flaunting a battered copy of Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.

2. She hadn’t commented on my not commenting. (Dare one Irish phrase it, that this spoke volumes.)

I went to work. I was then the security guard for Traders’ new supermarket. The usual mausoleum. My brief was to prevent people borrowing the trolleys. I had yet to apprehend one of these criminals. The chances of so doing were remote. The customers usually greeted me by name. Familiarity here definitely bred conspiracy. The security firm sent a van round on Sunday mornings to collect errant trolleys. The blind-eye arrangement was maintaining us in employment. How bad was Traders hurtin’ …?

Being Irish means never having to say you don’t know. The accuracy of the reply is purely a wing-shot. Despite the video revolution, going “to the pictures” is still a prerequisite in courtship. I hadn’t yet escorted Marisa to them and was mystified as to her bringing me home to meet her parents. This was stage eight, at least, in the game. “Why,” I wondered during my shift at Traders. “Dunno,” I said as yet another neighbour greeted me and wheeled Traders’ finest into a sunset.

Back at my place, I washed slowly and drank quickly. I had a bottle of Metaxa brandy for special occasions. Taste didn’t matter. Anything that walloped the back of your eyes like this had to be quality. The vague headache I was entertaining testified to the quantity I was having. Next I’d be humming! I put on a black tie. This was in heavy current use … for work and the funerals. I’d miss a funeral today but I could double up on Saturdays. My quota was high … what else … I hummed.

Tear apart

the artificial lines

of ill-defined

communication

would you … like

me as much

if

close … as in the

nearness of a situation

we had been

– Lord strive

that near related

Blood ties

had brought … the

ounce of tolerance

have heard it claimed

as part the heritage

on the birth-right

now obscured

thru pain observed

in Ireland … family

have seen

more sure-d-ly

is peace the licence

to … to hurt

without the consequences

care?

Care I

a murmer less

to mutter twice

blood is

and it has seemed

to long have been

that thicker is

than sense

I might have known

or broach

the furthered cliché

is

to hurt – sign-full

the ones

you’re closest to … I think

on that

could only pray

this cliché then, I hadn’t understood

a family

to plead the years

thru waste

to plead … is given

what is given

un-explained

am better in

the strands of old

denial … here

I don’t apply

and sure

it is

if it is … that far

from what I wish

it might have been

can live

in rough-shaped harmony

with what

it is for now

begin

deliver … from myself

an own

with equanimity can’t say example

– no

from myself I guess

on illustration.

Her family lived in Maunsells Hill. The sort of area where they deposited their rubbish in designer bins. My anticipation wasn’t eased by the brass name plate “La Rosario.” I rang the bell. Worse … chimes, and unless I was badly mistaken, did I detect the strains of “Viva Espana.”

Add my Greek-brandied level, and Europe was thriving. Marisa greeted me. There was no effective way of ignoring the chimes. If she’d greeted me in Spanish I’d have fled.

“For whom the bells chime,” she said.

There is no reply to that. Her parents were lurking in the sitting room. Tunnel vision helped me block out the various bullfighters and flamenco dancers lining the walls.

“Bill and Irene,” said her father.

I’d call them a lotta things. Their Christian names wouldn’t be included.

“A drink?”

“Whiskey,” said Marisa and shoved what appeared to be half a bucket of it into my hand.

“You’re in the Security business,” Bill said.

“I am.”

“The coming thing,” said Bill.

“Tell us about yourself,” said Irene.

I knew of few conversation killers to rival this. I took a near-lethal swipe of the whiskey. Marisa was a huge help. She said nothing. Irene produced the photo albums. I was almost relieved. Double vision obliterated the first two volumes. I muttered “Who” … “Where” … “Surely not” … “janey mack” … at staggered intervals.

Bill told me about the insurance game. He took as given that I knew nothing, and after a brief background, he recounted his coups across the country.

“You’re insured?” he said.

I didn’t know in my floating state, did he ask “You’re innured” … to what … to grief … did he know about the funerals? The whiskey lashed over the brandy. A supremacy struggle. The upper hand was definitely with the whiskey, and I didn’t throw up. I looked at this small plump man in his plump suit. Who the hell was he? I’d read that when you’re threatened by a person, try to see the child in them. I concentrated … and saw a fat kid in a fat suit.

“I renewed,” I said.

Irene was making ferocious hand signals from across the room – to me?

“Do you dwink … no … am … do you drunk yirself?” I asked.

“Never … never touch it … not a drop … nor does my wife. Not that we’re against it … in moderation.”

Would he say it … he did!

“Moderation in all things …”

I made a gigantic effort.

“Clen … clendii … dee … cleanliness is next to … whoa … to Giddiness.”

A total silence.

“Have you met Raoul?” Irene gasped.

Who the hell was Raoul? In fact, who the hell were these people?

“Raoul is our other child. He’s an English language teacher,” she persisted, “and Marisa is heartbroken since he left again.”

Two thoughts collided. The explanation for “And Dark Rain.”

The second thought I verbalized … sort of.

“His … hiss … hiss there a big demand for … fur … English langua … uage here.”

Marisa jumped up.

“We have to go.”

I was thinking “I’ll miss them” when she grabbed my hand. I was half-way down Maunsell Hill before I knew what had happened.

“Jay-sus,” she said. “Oh sweet Lord … oh God.”

“Where’s the fune … fun … the fun-eral?”

Marisa hailed a taxi.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

A long complicated word struggle, as first I had to remember myself. Sharing the information wasn’t easy. With the help of the driver we pieced it together.

“Langers,” said he. Pist in other words.

The driver helped me into the flat. I offered him tea.

“Well, I wouldn’t mind a bit of whatever put you in orbit,” he said.

I lashed the last of the Metaxa into a mug. He threw it back.

“Paint off a friggin’ gate,” he said. “Well, goodnight to ye now.”

Marisa was building some form of fatal coffees. I slept. Raging thirst pulled me awake. The flat was dark. A litre of water later, I looked into the bedroom. Marisa was snoring lightly. Between spasms of nausea and remorse, I shuddered beneath the shower. Missing the funerals today was bad, but a line blazed thru my head. “And never to Maunsells Hill go no more.”

It was easy to slip quietly into bed. Noise of any volume was pain personified. It crossed my mind that less drunk, I might even now be slipping into Marisa. Drink is a rough mistress. She woke me with a coffee. I felt as if someone had slept – very badly – in me.

“You look like shit,” she said.

Ah … I thought. Not exactly soothing, but probably accurate enough.

“Well …” she said.

I figured this wasn’t an enquiry – gentle – into my health.

“I liked the taxi-driver,” I said.

“Do you know what you said to my parents?”

Was she insane; sure, wasn’t I part-time there? I didn’t.

“I’m sorry.”

I don’t have a hang-up with apologies. I make them unconditionally and let the flak settle where it will.

“My father asked you what you were in. Do you know what you said!” I didn’t.

“M … m … ph … not the exact words … no.”

“Words!” she roared. “Word … you said, ‘Bits.’

“When he asked later how you’re parents are doing … you said … or worse … you slurred, ‘Dead, thanks.’”

Sick as I felt there in the bed, I marvelled at my manners.

My stomach shuddered when the coffee hit.

“Good coffee,” I ventured.

My mouth wasn’t benefitting any better. Marisa was pacing the room. A fine recall she had. Though this perhaps was not the time to compliment it. She continued.

“My mother managed to ignore you dribbling on the photo albums. She even offered to show you Raoul’s wedding album … and you asked, ‘If she had any good mortuary snaps’ … God above.”

I tried to look cowed.

“Well … come on, Dillon, what have you to say?” she seethed.

“What I have to say … Mau … am … Marisa, I already said but I guessed you missed it in there. At the beginning it was, and what it was … was ‘Sorry.’”

Hands on hips, she stared at me. I was impressed with the amount of words I’d strung together. In light of my present state of non-health.

“Okay … Dillon. What is it you want from me? What do you bloody want.” So I told her.

“Two aspirin.”

Var … oom … hinges off the door. I knew she wasn’t gone to seek aspirin. Sometime today I’d have to see Julie. The best friend I had. The only friend I had.

“And there’s always Julie,” my father used to say.… “You could do worse and, knowing you, you probably will.”

Parental blessing.

I think I’ve always known her. She grew up in our street. Despite hidings from her mother, I was the friend she got and kept. At twenty-nine now, I had a year on her and absolutely nothing else. She was 5’1” … dark haired, blue eyed, with a strong body as witness to a hard rough life.

“Never show them how they’ve hurt you,” was her total credo. It was said about her that she feared neither man nor God. Brazen was the common judgement. Julie encouraged that. She worked for a travel agency. For three years she’d been based in Greece. Hard years for me. I didn’t even have the funerals. She’d married a Greek, and this had lasted two years. Back home she kept her relationships on a fling and fly basis.

I faced a dilemma! If I was to see Julie, I’d miss the 6:15. Could I risk two days without attendance. My post contained the November Dead List. A “Who’s Who” of the local dead. Murder erupted in most families with its arrival. Resentments lived far beyond the grave. People were highly indignant about the company they kept … even in death. In-laws were a point of bitter feuds. The names of the dead appeared on this list, and masses were said for them. Families were highly sensitive to their names being linked to in-laws they detested. In Ireland the final leveler was regarded as a right chancer. The grim reaper had one hell of a cheek. Cemetery Sunday was the day to flaunt your status among the dead and in front of the living. The weeks prior to this were the busy season for the stone masons. Polish, improve, and sheen them headstones. My father was there, top-tenned. A list he loathed – “Compiled by gombeens for the benefit of gobshites.” I put it beneath the only photo of him I possessed … he glared as always. I tossed betwixt Julie and the funeral. Julie lost, so I went to see her. The travel agency was the principal eyesore on the main street. Julie took early lunch.

“The pub?” she asked.

“Sure.” She wasn’t big on the “how-yah doings … the how-yah bin.” She reckoned you’d get to that. She ordered Guinness and sandwiches. I nursed the drink. The sandwich was out of the question.

“Like that, is it?” she said.

She lit the first of what would be a chain.

“What … I’m alrite,” she said.

“Dill, you look like you’ve got religion or AIDS.”

“I’ve been dreaming of my father again. And then this morning, on top of a hangover – ferocious mind you – I got the November Dead List.”

She ate some of the sandwich. Another cigarette. I reckoned she was running the Irish belief:

“If your dead father

comes to you in a

dream, he comes for

bad news. If your dead

mother comes … she

comes for good news.”

“So, any show from your mother?” she asked.

“No.”

“Well, let’s get to it, Dill. What have you been at. Apart from minding the business interests of the town.”

“The funerals …”

“I don’t want to hear that dead stuff today. Sorry! I just can’t get into that. What else? Anything that doesn’t stipulate that friggin’ black tie of yours.”

I finished the Guinness, and my stomach eased. Not a whole lot, but the broken glass feel was ebbing. I told her about Marisa. The slight up-step in health encouraged me. The Maunsell Hill visit came out, including Marisa’s version of it. Julie whistled … low. I got some more Guinness.

“Okay, Dill. Do you want some advice, comfort, or a decent lashing?”

“A smatterin’ of them all,” I said.

She knocked the colour off the second Guinness. The head went way down. The cigarette took a hammering. Time to die.

“O-kay, Eddie.…” I knew from the rare mention of my Christian name that this was serious business.

“This funeral crack is weirding you out. You won’t tell me what’s involved there. How much do I want to know, I ask myself. Most of the time the lights are out inside your head. You’re getting to be one strange fellah. I don’t care if you keep chasing the kinda women who put the ‘R’ back into reptilian. Will you come round to me after you’ve finished work?”

“I will.”

We sipped the Guinness dregs. I took one of her cigarettes. Her eyebrow raised a touch. She knew the crucified battle I had to quit. It tasted woeful. Thank God … nip back up on the cross for a spell.

I managed to get to work. The draw towards a dedicated piss-up teased and shimmered. The funerals would take a drastic beating then. Work it had to be. I bought the pack of cigarettes without too much of a struggle. Before hitting out that evening, I coerced myself to get some food down. Two eggs on a base of chili beans … hot as I could raise them. When I got to Julie’s, I’d be fit to kill for a beer. Whatever state the eggs had been in, they sat in dismay in my bewildered system. My breath would oil hinges. Only as I prepared to leave did I notice the small yellow envelope … match the eggs I thought.

“Sorry … will you meet me on Friday at 8? I’ll wait on the Weir Bridge.

Love in warmth, Marisa.”

The makings of a haiku, her …

eggs in chili

love in warmth

Now … beat well.

I passed O’Malley outside a pub. He was footless. He muttered a string of obscenities, and I’m not positive, but I thought I recognised “Bollix” in there somewhere.

I smiled in what I think they call fellowship. I figured he was not the person to lay my haiku on. I think the seventeen-syllable requirement might have thrown him. Julie answered on the first ring. She was wearing a grey faded track-suit. Dressed to run, I thought.

“Beer or what?” she asked.

“Oh, beer, I’m chili-d out.”

She handed me a stein … relic of her travels, and I gave her Marisa’s note. She snorted. I drank – deep. I repeated the haiku. “That’s atrocious,” she said. The note … the haiku? Both I guess.

“I have Chesterton for you,” she said. I read:

“There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two is two thousand times one.”

She sat on the floor where I had half-folded. Her hand moved along the inside of my thigh. Just that and I was sparked. I kissed the top of her head … fresh washed hair … lemon fragrance. She eased the zipper on my jeans, and her hand went inside. I moved direct to ready.

“You’re sure ready?” she said.

I turned and she lay back. Sliding the tracksuit bottom off, she gave a rare and rarer smile.

In Irish style, we got to bed after. I sat, half-propped with beer, a cigarette, and Julie … not necessarily in that order.

“Care,” she said, “is the difference between sex and making love.”

“I’ll have me some of that.”

To maintain the edge I smoked … and whacked down a week’s worth of beer.

“When a woman asks you what you’re thinking about, especially in bed, always – get that ALWAYS – reply ‘I’m thinking about you, dear.’ Stick relentlessly to it. Bearing this seriously in mind Dillon, what are you now thinking of?”

I ran the limited replies a bit. I wanted to tell her the only requirement for a haiku was your quality hangover. I said, “I’m thinking of you.”

“And … did you want to add anything?”

“Oh right … dear.”

“You know, Dillon, I odd times think you might be the only company I need … and that’s got to be real close to love.”

“As close as you might need.”

“But …”

But! My heart lurched. Even the beer sagged. What’s this “but” crap. Yer shot of pathetic fallacy … lean heavy on the ole pathetic.

“The truth is … I can live without you … in Greece. I thought of you all the time but abstracted. You’re a deep vital part of me, but you don’t of necessity have to be part of my life.”

I lit some fags. The psychic kick to the cobblers. Nicotine seemed a kind alternative. What I was thinking was, you callous bitch. I hated her full then. The pure hatred nurtured on love. Accept no other. I nearly hummed, “My Sentimental Friend.” Go for broke. I reached for her breast. The love we made was slow and with more tenderness than I’d ever now concede. The cigarettes burned slower in the ashtray. Without care, they burned regardless.

Before she slept she asked, “What are you thinking of, my love?”

I stretched with what must have appeared total contentment.

No contest.

“I’m thinking of you, dear …”

She chuckled way down in her throat.

The refrain played a long time as she slept. It whispered cruel – sex is … is sex … sex is.

Julie hadn’t a whole lot of say in the morning; I had less.

“Will you meet yer wan on Friday?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve got to meet a fellah … how about a double date?”

Was she mad! Flick the range of morning melodramas. Reply with the lash:

1. Screw you lady.

2. I’d rather borrow money from O’Malley.

3. What the hell – is the hell going on with you.

To prepare myself, I spooned the dead eggs before me … go. “Fine … see you in The Weir at 8:30.”

We left the flat without any post mortems. No fuss. Wasn’t it grand to be free of the kiss on the cheek … the “Have a nice day, dear” rigamarole. I didn’t mention I was going to be in fine time for the 9:15. At the canal, Julie said, “Bye.” I said much the same. Would a morsel of warmth be so dangerous. I looked at the Chesterton plaque she’d given me. High above the water, I hurled it. I didn’t wait to see it hit. My closest friend. Close … yeah.

“Close”

Age

itself is solving … most

the dreams

I’d longed for … bad … and

fear

of course ensures

the present ambitions

elusive do remain … that

close

I’ve been

to knowledge – I evaded

all my skirmished life – on

near

is near enough

for what

I’d need to know.

My hangovers had an echo of Samuel Pepys about them. While watching a living man about to be castrated and disemboweled, he said, “The man was looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.” I felt that kind of cheerfulness.

The 9:15 was a small affair. The deceased was an old-age pensioner. The casket was open. I looked long into the dead face. Shriveled and decrepit. Of the small crowd, maybe four of the people actually knew him. A man, remarkably similar to the corpse, tugged my arm.

“Did you know oul Kearns?”

“Yes.” In the grave tone.

“He was a sour oul bastard, the same fellah.”

“M … m … ph,” I mumbled.

Decipher that, you wasted fart.

“He was a blow-in – he’s from Kildare.”

Not any more, I nearly said. The death hadn’t caused any furor in Kildare. Come to the West and get yerself a begrudged send-off. The coffin was closed, and we shambled towards the door. Let’s go Mr. Kearns.…