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CITY OF YOUR BIRTH
—Ma's gone. Jesus Denny, yeh have to come home.
Your sister's words from the night before like some spiralling mantra, her voice slurred by drink and small-sounding, a lifetime away. You hadn't heard the accent for months.
You ended the call and still the words were there, dancing, odd and sad and haunted.
The nighttime ferry was packed, the mostly Irish passengers drunk and raucous, the eastern European crew hovering on the edges of things, tired and wary. You sat with your bag between your knees and watched.
And so you're here.
You pass through Dublin ferryport's unmanned ID checkpoints, your sports bag awkward and heavy as you shift it from one shoulder to the next, a tinny female voice on the loudspeaker announcing something with a Polish accent, something about luggage, the need to take care and a lack of liability, before being cut off as the automatic door sucks shut. Cold, salty air and a slight breeze. Behind you the ferry looms huge against the night sky, the Irish Sea beyond an immense glittering darkness. A bus is waiting, humming in the dark, a small huddle of people with bags and suitcases crowding the doors. You wait your turn and struggle onboard, drop coins into the machine, a copy of the Evening Herald open on the driver's lap. You haven't thought about that paper for a long time. He nods without looking up. You sit by the window and a young man sits beside you, although there are other empty seats. Excitable, jumpy, his hands wringing about themselves in a bony flux. He's wearing faded jeans and a tight and battered leather jacket, his blond hair cropped and his beard patchy. The smell of sweat lurks behind his cheap deodorant. His pupils are black holes.
—Grand to be home, wha?
You nod, the bus shunting forward.
—Can't beat it, says the young man. —Over the water were yeh? Obviously, yeah. Fuckin ferry port, isn't it? Swansea I was in. Deadly little city. Small like but cool, yeh know? Great fuckin craic. And this mad bird I met, oof. Should o seen her, Welsh lass. Fuck sake. Off her trolley she was, pure mental.
The crumbling docklands pass by. Strange that so dilapidated a place can exist in this city, these odd dark shapes and leaning gates, these silent, haunted buildings. What was before, what's left behind.
—Took her back to her place, few vodkas and that. She was pissed up like. Place was a bit of a kip yeh know? But fuckin hell yid wanna see this bird, absolutely fuckin stunnin. Mad like but gorgeous, deadly fuckin bird altogether, tellin yeh.
Past the Point Depot and onto the quays. The lights of the city, the gothic and angular Ulster Bank headquarters across the Liffey like some huge and squatting medieval folly, throbbing, malevolent. The young man licks his dry, cracked lips and grins.
—Up for everythin she was, oof. Came fuckin buckets. Bet the arse off her. She'd a kid in the other room though, which was a bit annoyin like, yeh know? Cryin and that.
Through side streets, the walls grey and close. Dimly lit apartment windows. Flashing neon signs, people hurrying along and others idle, loitering. A man on a street corner, his face briefly lit by the flickering flame of his lighter. Black, dark-eyed, his hair braided. Then nothing, a shadow reclaimed.
—She starts goin on about the kid, then. Had to give yer woman a smack in the end. Fuck that. Not interested. Yeh have to let them know who's who, course yeh do. Some fuckin ride though, I'm tellin yeh, oof.
The bus stops. You stand and the twitching man beside you does likewise.
—Last stop this, is it?
You nod and pull the bag from the stairwell, step off the bus. A crowd of drunk teenagers stumble past, laughing and whooping, mock fighting. You walk on, the curious statue of Joyce to your right and then, towering above it, above everything in the city, the Spire, an immense silver needle pricking at the belly of the night sky. Cars and buses glide past on either side, O'Connell Street bustling with drunks and revellers and dotted amongst these the tall broad forms of gardaí, streetlight flashing from their jackets.
—Fuckin dyin for a drink are you? Wanna grab a scoop like? Auld Dub or somethin, yeah? Although it's a bit touristy now, mind. Could do the Foggy Dew instead if yeh want, always jammers in there.
He is standing to your left, his eyes on a passing woman in a short red skirt, her arms crossed beneath her breasts.
You shake your head and step forward, crossing the road first to the Spire and then the GPO. The young man follows, unperturbed, shucking and winking at passersby, nightmare shadowside of a life you have long lost any love for. A longhaired man in a Chelsea jersey pisses against one of the GPO's Ionic columns, still pocked with British bulletholes, and a shout goes up from a garda in a deep Donegal accent. The man breaks and runs with his penis flopping, his mates laughing on the corner of Middle Abbey Street some yards behind you.
—C'mere t'me yew, ya dirty fucker! C'mere!
The garda's shoulder catches you as he bustles past, spinning you. Your bag hits the ground.
—See that? See yer man there pissin? Fuckin madman. Fuckin mad town this, isn't it? Fuckin deadly.
You haul up the bag and walk on, your shoulder straining and your bicep aching dully. Past McDonald's, past Burger King and across Bachelor's Walk, over O'Connell Bridge and past Fitzgerald's on the corner, the mingled raucous sound of bodhran and fiddle and tin whistle spilling out, then into the new Super Valu where you buy a bottle of Sprite from a young sad looking Chinese woman with pink hair, not to drink but to break into the last fiver you've got in your pocket for bus fare.
—Yer not goin home are yeh? Grab a few scoops and a few youngwans, no? Tellin yeh man, fella like you, betcha the birds are all over yeh. And anyway I've a plan B if the natural charms don't work, yeh know? Lookit.
The young man slips his hand into his jeans pocket and surreptitiously pulls out a small bag of pills. He winks and grins his toothfucked grin.
—Know wha I mean? Stick a few o these in their drink and yer fuckin Casanova. Any bird yeh want, any way yeh want. Oof.
The 78a pulls in and you step onboard, the young man still on the path behind you, arms out, a puzzled look on his face.
—No? Yer missin out, man. Tellin yeh. Yer fuckin missin –
The doors collapse inwards and you head upstairs, taking the front seat, watching the streetlamps shimmer on the Liffey below. The Ha'penny Bridge is thronged with people crossing the river. A woman crouches and drops something into a Styrofoam cup at the feet of a sleeping man and passes into the crush. The upstairs deck of the bus is empty. You pin the bag between your legs and lean your head against the buzzing window.
City of your birth; Dubh Linn, the Black Pool. The bus kicks into life. You're almost home.
THE FACTS WILL DESTROY YOU
Wha d'yeh do when yer ma's gone, like? I can feel the sadness comin back, an echo o that horrible raw hurt from the day I got back from Wales. I pulled aside these pale blue plastic curtains and there's me ma, lyin in the bed. Her face was different somehow. Have yeh ever seen someone yeh know after they've died? This weird thought jumped into me head – the crap-lookin waxworks in that museum in town, the one near Parnell Square. I remember goin there years ago, with me ma, I was about nine or ten and yeh only really knew who each waxwork was supposed to be from the context. Yeh knew George Best cos o the hairdo and the old-fashioned United jersey, and the Pope cos o the robes and the little hat, that kind o thing. That's what I thought of in the hospital – that me ma didn't look like herself, not really, but I knew it was her cos me sister Paula was standin beside her shakin and sobbin, her face streaked with mascara. And the ring on me ma's finger, a ring me nanny gave her. Smooth. White gold.
I took her hand. It was cold. Freezin. The woman who washed us and loved us and dragged us all up. Hands that weren't her hands.
Jesus, me ma's gone.
That simple and that fuckin complex.
I'm after forgettin me key so I have to ring the bell. No answer. I ring again and then I remember we need a new battery. I knock instead. And again. About eight years later Paula answers.
—I'd the radio on, sorry, she says. —Eamon Dunphy. He's bleedin wired to the moon that fella.
She's still in her dressin gown, the pink one with frilly bits, and she's wearin a battered pair o Homer Simpson slippers that used to belong to me. Fuckin image o me ma, Paula is. It's freaky how similar they are. Me ma was beautiful and I suppose Paula is, too. They look exactly like a woman from this book I've had since I was a kid, a book me uncle Victor brung down from the North . . . she might o been Cúchulainn's wife, actually; long, thick blonde hair, high cheekbones and a lovely nose that'd probably look a bit too big on a face less impressive and regal . . . a trinity of warrior women, me ma and Paula and the woman in the book. Well, if the ancient women of Ulster dressed in Top Shop, like. And, in Paula's case, if they had dipso tendencies and swore like fuckin sailors.
She looks at me bag and smiles.
—Ah, get chips, did yeh?
—Yer a life saver. There's fuck all in that press.
We go inside. Paula gets a couple o plates out and rummages in the sink for forks. She pulls out two and runs them under the tap, dries them with a tea towel. The sink's piled up with dirty plates and cups and glasses and all sorts. The kitchen in general – the whole fuckin house, actually – looks stale and sad. Me brother Shane was around last week, checkin up on us, like – he called the place a disgraceful fuckin kip and, even though he does me head in, he's right. It's fuckin awful lookin. Without ma the place is fallin apart. I think that kind o prompted him to arrange the meetin with the solicitor. Well, that and the smell o money.
Paula sways a bit as she walks over to the table with the plates.
—You fuckin locked? I say.
—Yeh are, I can tell, Paula. Jesus.
—I'm not locked.
—How many yeh had? What're yeh drinkin?
—I had a bit o that vodka. A little bit.
—Fuckin hell, Paula.
She smiles. Her eyes have that floaty look. She sits herself down carefully at the table. Probably no one else'd even notice that she's drunk, but I'm well used to her. She reaches across the table and takes up the bundle o chips and opens it up on her plate, the paper a big greasy rose unfolded in front of her.
—Ah, a spice burger, deadly. Thanks. Haven't seen these in ages.
—Yid wanna sort yerself out, Paula. The state o yeh.
She waves a chip at me. —Jesus, lighten up Denny. I'm grand. Fuckin hell. Hair o the dog is all. She pops the chip into her mouth. —What's the story, so? she says, mid chew.
I scratch me chin. I want to have a go at her about the drink, make me feel a bit better about meself, but fuck it, I'll leave it. —We're lodgers, I say.
—Yeah. From next week. Me, you and Teresa. Or tenants or wharrever.
—Is there a difference?
—Dunno. We've to pay rent anyway.
Paula tilts her head and makes her unimpressed face, absentmindedly shakin a load o salt over her chips. —Supposed to leave it by the fuckin graveside, are we?
I'm not in the humour of arguing with Paula so I let that slide. Stress is the last thing I need after that horrible fuckin meetin with Shane and the solicitor.
—The rent goes to Shane, I say. —He owns the house like, that's wha the solicitor said. Sure we knew that anyway. The solicitor said we'd be able to get rent allowance off the dole.
—What's he gonna do with it?
—Give it to charity. Wha d'yeh think?
—That's a fuckin . . . are yeh serious?
—That's wha the solicitor said, Paula.
—And wha did you say?
—Wha could I say? Shane paid the mortgage off so it's his, it's all kosher. It was all sorted with ma, like. Before . . . yeh know.
—So he's keepin the money?
—He's actually keepin the rent money?
—Yeah, Paula. Yeh listenin? It's his. It's his house.
Paula thinks for a few seconds. She cuts the spice burger with her fork. —He could let us have it just as easy, she says, eyes on her burger. —The rent money, like. I mean, he's got his own fuckin house, he could give that rent money back to us. Or split it, even. Sure it's no skin off his nose if the mortgage is paid off. That's all profit.
—Say it to him.
She looks up at me. —I will. He can hand that rent straight fuckin back. Greedy fuckin bastard's rollin in it. I'm not payin rent to live in a ghost house.
—Don't say that to him.
—Don't say fuckin 'ghost house' to him. Jesus. Cop on, will yeh? Yeh know wha he's like. He's already on the warpath cos o the state o the place.
—Denny, it is. It's a fuckin ghost house. I'm tellin yeh.
—Okay. Wharrever. It's a ghost house.
—Exactly. And here, another thing, if we're payin rent then he's the fuckin landlord and that means he has responsibilities. He can get a new hoover and sort the oven. And he can fix that fuckin toilet, the fuckin smell'd drive a funeral up an alleyway.
—He was lecturin me today about havin people over and that, though. He's not gonna do anythin when he knows we've got loads o people dossin here and all the rest.
—The fuck does he care?
—That's wha he said. I'm just tellin yeh.
—Fuckin miserable bastard.
I pour the curry sauce in a zigzag over me smoked cod. This is startin to do me head in now. Between Shane and Paula, like. No fuckin peace. No fuckin life this, I'm tellin yeh. Back from Wales to this. Jesus.
—I'm just tellin yeh wha he said, Paula, I say. —Yeh could o come and had all this out with them there and then but yeh were happy enough here knockin back vodka so just fuckin . . . stressed out to death in that solicitor's office, I was. Yeh know I hate places like that.
Paula tucks her hair behind her ear. Somethin's happenin, I can tell – she's thinkin . . . the cogs and gears in motion, makin some sort o mad, we're-all-gonna-end-up-homeless decision. She's smilin again. Bad news, man. Bad fuckin –
—Know wha we need? she says.
—G'wan. Can't wait to hear it.
—A séance. We're gonna have a séance. Talk to the ghost. Get Pajo to do it. Serious.
I shake me head. —Mad. That's all I can say, Paula. Fuckin . . . madness. Yer mental.
From the Hardcover edition.