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Authors: Kevin Barry

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BOOK: Dark Lies the Island
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They sped twenty and thirty and forty kilometres beyond the speed limit through Sligo and into Leitrim and then Cavan. It was a useful tactic then to drive into Northern Ireland, a separate jurisdiction – the ladies planned for failure as much as success, failure being the commonplace – and it was not until they had crossed the bridge that marks the border, where Blacklion gives way to Belcoo, that they permitted themselves speech again.

‘I’ll tell you this much,’ Ernestine said. ‘I would not like to see a read of my blood pressure right now.’

‘It’d be crazy,’ Kit scolded.

They drove on, and at length they settled to the miserable fact that the day was done for.

‘As we’re on the road,’ Kit said, ‘we could hit the Asda in Enniskillen and pick up some wine.’

The cheaper wines from north of the border would provide a small consolation when they returned, just the two of them, to the floral-patterned walls of the bungalow. It lay blamelessly behind a windbreak of pines – the trees created about the home an aura of great silence. Birds did not nest in those trees ever.

Quickly, the Toyota was on the outskirts of Enniskillen, and traffic was heavy. Another festival – this time by the Erne – drew crowds to its merries, and the air was thick with barbecue smoke that travelled over the water. The afternoon ascended to its peak; the heat was terrific. They saw a shaven-headed, shirtless man and his long, dark-haired partner as they walked towards the carnival, with a small child between them, a little boy.

‘Are you watching,’ Ernestine said, ‘the creature with the head?’

‘Would have the look of a soldier,’ Kit said. ‘A squaddie.’

The Toyota stalled at traffic lights and the family passed directly in front. The ladies regarded each other dolefully.

‘A fine environment for a child,’ Ernestine said. ‘To be growing up in a house where the father has a pierced nipple.’

‘The look of drink off him as well.’

‘Oh it’s sweating out of his every pore, Kit!’

In truth, they weren’t shy themselves with the New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon, four pounds sterling the screwtop bottle. They went through it by the crate, with the radio set to Lyric FM, the classical station, and it played
late
, always, into the bungalow’s night, with Ernestine leafing through her power-tool catalogues, and Kit with her small-hours glaze on, and her occasional trilling.

They went sulkily about the aisles of Asda. They filled a trolley with the wine. They bought frozen mince in five-kilo packages. They bought kitchen towel in the fattest available rolls – they went through such an amount of it. Tiredness caught up and it carried age’s taste. The migraine glare of the aisle lights was a trial, and so too was the drone and chill of the refrigeration, and so too the futile cheeps of the piped music. The day was marked by and was heavy with failure, and it was as if their luck might never change but as they neared, by fate, the customer services desk, it did. An announcement was made: a toddler had been found, and its parents should approach at once – the child was panicked.

Boldly, the chance was taken.

‘Oh my darling Allie!’

Ernestine at a dash reached the desk, and she flung herself on the child, and Kit was at her back, and she kept watch; she knew they had perhaps a minute, maximum, no matter how vast the Asda.

‘Oh thank you so much!’ Kit cried. ‘Oh thank you.’

‘Ah she’s upset, she got a wee shock, a wee shock is all …’ Ernestine soothed as the toddler continued to scream.

The customer services lady was delighted to have reunited the odd family – ‘Allie, is that her name?’ she said. ‘Pretty.’ Delighted to be rid of the screaming child, she waved them along.

Held in a firm lock by Kit’s steel-wire arms, it was a monstrously burbling infant they carried at pace across the car park – their trolley abandoned to the air-conditioned
aisle
. Quickly they were away, and Ernestine through the busy town gunned the Toyota.

Belcoo.

Blacklion.

Dromahair.

And now they began their descent to the midland plain, and the toddler wailed itself to a state of purple exhaustion, and it was laid on the back seat.

Kit after a time turned and eyed it coldly.

‘This is no angel,’ she said.

Ernestine consulted the rearview and tightened her lips in agreement.

‘Is it not kind of … wall-eyed, Kit?’

‘It is. And a jaundicey class of a look to it, I’d say. Once the purple clears.’

On a straight stretch, Ernestine turned to give the child a more considered appraisal.

‘I wouldn’t think we’ll be depriving the world of an Einstein,’ she said.

‘No indeed.’

‘Bad blood, Kit.’

‘Sure what kind of parents? Can you imagine, Ernie? What kind of parents would lose a child in an Asda?’

‘Drunks and drug addicts and prostitutes,’ Ernestine said.

‘With tattoos on their backsides,’ Kit said.

‘It smells, Kit.’

‘Oh, a smell that would knock you, Ernestine.’

‘Look at the Babygro!’

‘It’s busting out of it.’

‘Fattish alright. Being fed on white bread mulched down with milk and cane sugar.’

‘Asda-bought the Babygro.’

‘Oh, classy.’

‘Could it be …’

‘What, Kit?’

‘Could it be an itinerant we have on our hands?’

‘Oh Jesus Christ, a tinker child!’

‘Ernestine, what I’d say to you now …’

‘I know, darling.’

‘Do you?’

‘You’re right, darling.’

‘I am! The likes of this …
thing
isn’t worth the effort nor the risk.’

The decision was made. The Toyota pulled into a lay-by. The toddler was lifted by Kit from the back seat. It was taken across a ditch and left beneath hawthorn bushes – a kindness to give it shade from the sun that was hot still. The Toyota with relief departed the lay-by, and headed for home, the bungalow, the windbreak pines planted in the soft give of an earth that hid so efficiently.

Near the lay-by as the evening aged the toddler sat silently beneath the hawthorn; it was stunned. It blinked against the midges that came up from the lake to feast on it but it had no strength left to cry. With interest, the toddler was watched by a pair of hooded crows, who stalked about importantly – like fascist birds, like jackboot gestapo – who waited on its final weakening, and for its sore eyes to sleepily close.

THE MAINLAND CAMPAIGN

Camden High Street, Sunday morning, 11 a.m
.

HE STOOD WITH
Manus by the elevator in the tube station as the crowds rose up in a great surge of bodies and voices.

‘It’s a scrum of people alright,’ Manus said.

‘Wait till you see it coming on for one o’clock,’ he said. ‘Once the hungover fuckers have woken up.’

Sunday morning meant Camden Market and all the tribes were headed for it: the goths and the punks, the rockabillies, the acid-house kids.

‘You’re one twisted fucker, Steven. Did I ever tell you that?’

‘The way it works,’ he said, ‘is there’s a kind of honour thing with the buskers.’

An old hippy slapped his guitar and wailed a Neil Young song by the base of the elevator.

‘They take it in turns,’ he said. ‘When you leave your guitar case down beside the fella singing, it means you’re next in line. You go off and have a cup of tea and a smoke.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘That’s it. Sundays, you get a half-hour each by the moving stair. Is the arrangement.’

‘The fucking crowd,’ Manus said.

‘It’s nothing yet,’ Steven said proudly. ‘One o’clock? You can’t breathe for people coming up that stair.’

They were a dozen to the cell. They came from north Tipperary, south Limerick, north Kerry. Steven was the one they had chosen. The young fella was lethal. They could tell that by the set of mouth on him. Also he had the blood.

‘This day week?’ Steven said.

‘I can try,’ Manus said. ‘A fucking guitar case.’

They went into the hot morning sun. Even the pure unmoving heat of July was a relief after the crush of the tube station. They headed down the High Street among the crowds.

‘Some collection of fucking poofters,’ Manus said.

The goths sold bootleg tapes from briefcases stacked on bakers’ pallets: Sisters of Mercy live in Amsterdam. The punks sat on the ground on the corner of Inverness Street and drank cider with their dogs. The rockabillies headed for the early dance show at Camden Lock. The acid-house kids bounced about like rubber toys and beamed madly as they headed into the warren of the market stalls. There were two blokes in old-fashioned gowns outside the Electric Ballroom.

‘Some collection of homos,’ Manus said.

They went along past the veg stalls of Inverness Street. A graffito on the wall read:

’88 Summer Of Love – Enjoy This Trip

They went into the Good Mixer which had no more than a scatter of old men at its tables yet. Manus bought the two pints and they played a game of pool.

‘How you fixed anyway?’

‘I’m not so bad,’ Steven said.

‘You at the French restaurant yet?’

‘Kensington Church Street.’

‘You’re turning out the gourmet cuisine for ’em, you are?’

‘I’m KP,’ Steven said. ‘Kitchen porter.’

‘Nice way of putting it for a pot scrubber.’

‘Well.’

‘Charles and Di down that way, no?’

‘Not far.’

‘You’d have an aul’ lick off her and all, wouldn’t you?’

Manus was a dog man from north Kerry. There wasn’t much wrong with the back end of a greyhound he couldn’t fix. He worked often at the Walthamstow track. He was the only one that Steven met with on a regular basis. That was the best practice, no question. Everybody studied the practice. Late at night, in the farmhouses and semi-ds – the practice.

Steven named bottom left for the black and made the shot easily.

‘Handy,’ Manus said.

Steven was seventeen the month of June gone. He had a black mass of backcombed hair and a graveyard pallor. His uniform daily was motorcycle boots and black army trousers, no matter the weather. He lived in a squat near Goodge Street station. The building was owned by Arabs and the apartments were for short-term lets. There were always at least half of them empty. Change the locks and they had to give you six months’ notice to get out.

‘What’ll you do after?’

‘I’ll go to a pub and watch the news,’ Steven said.

‘Wear your eyeliner,’ Manus said. ‘Keep the hair up. Wear all the gear, yeah?’

‘No fear,’ Steven said.

Kensington Church Street, Thursday afternoon, 3 p.m
.

Polly, the restaurant manager, was most attractive when she was angry with him.

‘The telephone,’ she said, ‘is for bookings only. It’s not for your personal use, Steven. It’s not for casual calls.’

She talked to him as if he wasn’t exactly in the same place as her. He’d been called up from the basement kitchen to the phone in the restaurant. It was not good for business – the sight of Steven with the sauce stains and the hair and the boots.

‘It wasn’t casual. It was important.’

‘Never again.’

It had been Manus on the phone. The guitar was fixed and ready for Sunday. Polly clipped away on her heels, and he was left to the KP corner – it was a mess of steam from the washer and towers of stacked plates and ancient sinks stained with green and brownish moulds. The way it was in the kitchen, if nobody was looking, he’d fork a couple of baby new potatoes somebody had left on their side dish and run them through the creamy sauce in the bain-marie. Nigel, the chef, caught him at the caper with the potatoes one day.

‘Pat likes his spuds,’ he said.

The shift was ten until three, six days a week, and the money was dirt but it filled the hours as he waited. Walking to the tube after, he enjoyed the warm air of the street, and he bought a tin of lager in the Paki shop – his new routine – and he sipped it as he went. He played tapes on the Walkman, his own compilations. They had been made in the bedroom at home before he had travelled. He hopped the barrier at the station – he had not so far bought a ticket.

Back in the squat, he lay on the mattress and he halfways slept and he had an erection. The excitement of the night lay ahead, and it was a great distraction from the Sunday.

It was ‘Feet First’ at the Camden Palace on Thursdays. He showered for it even. He had not yet managed to hook up the electric for the squat and the shower was ice-cold and reviving. He burned a candle in the windowless bathroom for the mirror and he got himself made up to the hilt. He drank from a bottle of red wine as he worked on his face. He set water to boil on the Argos campstove he had bought with his first wages. When the water was ready, he stirred five spoons of sugar into it, and with careful fingers he worked the mixture into his hair, teasing out the strands until they were high and as if wind-blown.

All summer long he had been in rut heat and lonesome. He was in love with the girl in the Italian chipper. He was in love with Polly the restaurant manager. He was in love with the middle-aged lady who pulled pints at Presley’s and called him ‘Ducky’.

‘You’ll have your Guinness, Ducky?’

He was in love with every girl on the Northern line as it aimed for Camden. The anticipation built, and as he entered the Palace he trembled. At ‘Feet First’ they played everything he wanted to hear – unbelievable, it might have been his own collection he was listening to. Sisters of Mercy, The Mission, Einstürzende Neubauten, one after the other, all night long.

He saw her dance nearby. She was a blonde girl, not English he could tell, and the blonde looked good against the black of her clothes.

‘Sab …’

‘Ina.’

‘S.A.B.I.N.A?’

‘Yes.’

She worked for a doctor in the Black Forest. She was a housekeeper there. She was in the city for two weeks only. She was staying with her aunt. He kissed her and she took to it and they kissed and felt each other for a long time then on the dark seats by the sideways. He could see a village in the German woods with great trees all about. He could feel the cool and fresh air. Her English was not advanced but they could talk well enough and it felt easy to be with Sabina. After the music had ended, they sat on the railings on Camden High Street for a while and talked and kissed more.

BOOK: Dark Lies the Island
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