PINT GLASS MEN

(Excerpt from HOMETIDES – working title)
by
Darran Brennan

In the same way blood vessels burst in the cheeks during prolonged periods of constipation, a face can turn quite red from forcing yourself to cry over the death of a man you had few feelings for.

He built half of Tallagh with his bare hands.

He would come home with a concrete smell on him; a fragrant dust wafting off his clothes when he walked. Thick oily fingers slathering hunks of butter onto heels of bread while the chili con carne bubbled away in the pan. Head up to his hip, barely noticed by him, he was a man; the Man, you were nothing.

Built half of Tallagh with his bare hands.

Always had the energy to go to the pub after grafting all day. “Chips, battered sausages with curry sauce. Twenty minutes, thanks,” he’d say, like he was making a pitstop. The insult to ‘the little wifey’s’ cooking manifesting in her as chain smoking (leaving the mortal realm and entering some dark netherworld). She’d turn to stone, feet on the hearth itching to hop up, refusing to budge until the precise time the chili stopped bubbling. A woman and a mother again (not a wife though) stomping into the kitchen where he’d be loitering, cold shouldering past him to stir the pan, adding more water from the kettle then back on the throne, icy stare forwards, deep into that realm of nothingness.

No words were said between, none were needed, they did their talking in other ways. Like when she wore makeup, not to please him but to provoke a reaction; a conversation that never came. His grunt, roll of the eyes, the maleness oozing out of him and dousing the nakedness of her feminine flame; a dominant energy reducing and framing her as the little the little skivvy.

Bubbling, simmering, sticking to the bottom, going black, she barely noticed you either. Nothing to them. If she said anything it was in some way directed to or about him. He’d play the unimplicated, benign and loveable fellow who needed to get away from the mad thing he was living with and get down the pub. And he’d be gone, without a word, but a feeling left like blood had been spilled on the kitchen lino.

He’d come home drunk, smiling eyes, dancing moustache,  so loveable he could do no wrong. Her anger would be beyond comprehension, which would allow him to call her ‘nutjob,’ whispering to you conspiratorially: “Spends too long in the house wondering what the neighbours are saying about her. She needs to make some friends”.

You’d have to choose a side: happiness (with the fun drunk man) or misery (with the dark angry woman).

So it was…

She was unlikeably in love with him.

The youth are fickle.

She pushed people away who didn’t get miserable with her.

“No wonder the kids have no friends with a mother like you,” he’d say.

We’d be thinking, we have friends… or does he know something we don’t.

He built half of Tallagh with his bare hands.

She was going to haunt in the living life out of him, he was going to swim through a sea of Guinness to get away from her.

It was a steady movement over the years; a marriage glaciated and shifting from love to hate. To us, it was as normal as the blue slushy ice in our plastic cups as we sprung alongside them on our dysfunctional summer holidays. The dams would not burst, there was never a tear shed (that came as adults). It was habit, a bad one. We were an inability (and an unwillingness) to give ground. Passed on, learned and relearned, we fought over nothing.

Staying together for the kids, I heard one of them say. Hilarious. Staying together to win the final round; have the last say, but the silences could go on for months. Once it lasted a year and a half without them uttering a word to the other. Wondering when and if, you couldn’t help but admire them for their determination. Then, while wondering if they would go on like that until you were eighteen and could leave the house, there’d be a lul in hostilities, usually in the run up to Christmas. You’d get out the proverbial football and kick it around the no man’s land of the dinner table, knowing there’d be issues over money in January, ramping up the tension in February to slowly return to bitter normality as Paddy’s Day approached. Those years taught a kid something about tenacity and the fighting spirit but nothing about forgiveness, understanding and love.

Still wearing the snake skin, still the expensive leather smell, still rocking your twenties; those years of attrition silenced you; and you would never be quiet again.

What can fill an empty space? What else but the old favourites: drink and self loathing. Your body’s tear making infrastructure has lacked the sufficient funding and development for decades. Sweaty memories seep through the fissures and cracks,  not tears. Emotion is a ghetto. If any are permitted, it’s anger. It flows easily through you; a swaggering above it all, swinging through the jungle lovability. Except today your mind-body terminal has opened.

For a day you’ve cried for the man who caused everything. Some blame must be attributed directly to him for your sorry situation, however his father may be the culprit. Ambition, which toyed somewhere between grasp and reach (beyond both if honest) fostered the festering insecurity that drove you to chase fame and riches (caused by a grandfather’s jealousy over another grandfather’s financial success).

It takes more self reflection, honesty and understanding to lift the layers. To let go is hard. You didn’t get the gifts you wished for, nor the holidays, but that isn’t the issue, apparently. The simple stuff tripped you, the easy stuff, the stuff you can find anywhere and give for free: a hug, a kiss, a timed look, an understanding word, the simple gift of time, that’s what we’re all chasing. Not money nor fame or power. It’s a bifurcated desire for love.

Visions of him wear as a second night of disturbed sleep leaches into a third day. Then, after a good eleven hours on the couch (from 11 A.M. to 10 P.M.), you’re released from the grip of it (like a hearty shit after the most troubling bout of constipation).

Turning the bathroom taps to splash cold water on your face, you’re gazing down at the hands of an older man; hands that have wisdom in every congruous movement. Not erratic hands like the aul fella (Dad sometimes) who was always anxious about money, status and popularity, nor disengaged and brushing over everything like normal, but hands with presence; the hands of a man of substantial rational, spiritual, emotional and esoteric wealth. Slowly, interweaving fingers under the water, powerful in the moment, solid and enlightened.

Listening to a muttering voice, raising eyes up to see yourself anew. “Recovery starts with forgiveness and that starts with seeing who you really are, as ugly as it might look now.” The water invigorates facial skin cells, a simple yet thrilling experience not before appreciated. The face looking back is raw (but real).

The lighting in the bathroom makes things look worn; older. You’ve a Navy seal’s beard and only disposable razors. The thought of a barber grabbing hold, as if a nose is removeable, squeezing lips without bounderies (while trying not to slice flesh) doesn’t garner enthusiasm. “You can’t go to your dad’s funeral looking like you’re homeless.”

When the razor clogs, the yelp sounds pointless; a body still too depressed to send the messages to the vocal cords. “You’re staring at the blood” creating pink streams on the white ceramic, vanishing into a murky plughole. A hairless bonce in the toothpaste speckled mirror is a forgotten face; its imperfections stark. “Skin is blotchy”, bags under eyes worsened against the daylight and the smoothness of such porcelain white skin (again, it’s the real you).

Upper chest muscles look lean if a little unemployed, covered in black garish tattoos in unesthetic places. Skip the genitalia, it’s never going to be enough. There are brightly coloured (impulsive) tattoos below the waist that bare no connection to the dark art that adorns the upper half. Or perhaps the colour was hidden, and despite never making the decision, was a statement (that only lovers would discover). Deep, man, and beautiful (real). A smile has been difficult, it looks as disconnected as every decision you’ve ever made.

Stick to a solid Irish furrow, a good famine face or an RTE Sport pundit’s gurn, one of those should fit in grand at the funeral.

A white shirt hangs on the back of the poky bathroom door. “Careful not to knock the mirror off the wall” as is the case every time. “Whoever cowboyed this shithole”—that costs two thirds your weekly income—“utilized every inch.”

Congruous fingers button a shirt fastidiously until they notice ironed out tears posing as grease stains. “Two buttons open gives an appearance of ease” but isn’t right for a funeral.

A few old flings will be there.

“Jesus, what a thought.”

He’d want it that way.

“True.”

The hair gel has paw marks in the tub. Pink slime slathered into three inches of soot black hair, comb raked hard across the scalp as penance. Standing wide legged, observing someone’s reflection. “Death and slicked back hair makes everyone look like an Italian Mafioso.” Without a beard, skinny jeans, bed head, tats on display and attitude, “You’re sort of him: his fat fingers, his hairy chest, his slight potbelly”.

A beleaguered tear making infrastructure pays out a globular single gem that in no way represents the tsunami of emotion bottlenecked inside. Thoughts of going back to Crumlin after all these years makes rumbles in the guts that might require a spare pair of boxers in the inside pocket. Your accent hasn’t changed much but you walk differently, think differently, feel differently. Crumlin is a place where you can get a schlap off one of the numerous nut jobs for giving the wrong glance, a place where community sticks together,

and you’ve turned your back.

“Alright, what’s the story?”

Not Crumlin enough.

Sniff. “Alright man, what’s the fuckin’ story?”

Lean into it more, give it more balls.

“All-right, fuck-in’ staw-ry bud-dy.”

Bit much. Somewhere in between.

The wallet is on the table with eighty five Euros in it. It’ll all be spent on drink. “People will suck the eyeballs out of your head.” They’ve been in cycles for decades: bills, weekends down the locals, nights in front of the telly watching shiny faces that bare no resemblance to them while allowing themselves to be seduced and pandered to for advertising money (and not knowing what the fucking story is). They’re angry about being shafted, working long hours, paying tax on tax, austerity measures carried on from the recession, conspiracy theories, global warming, pandemics. And it’s you, “You the flash fuck who thinks he’s better than everyone” they’ll look to be the whipping boy.

“You can’t get into a scrap at his funeral.”

Sure it wouldn’t be Ireland if ye didn’t.

The sly ones will send over a few freebie pints. They’ll butter you up, catch you with your guard down, remind you of your mistakes. A pair of Lucozade lips will say something, drink will swill, emotions will chilli con carne, the anger will burn in the pan; in your eyes. Stares will be fired back from across from the room, with a white cider savant’s smirk. You’ll swagger over. “What’s the fuck-n’ sto-ry, Bud?” But everyone is sensitive to your pain here, and you’ll swan off looking for someone else to punch before feeling shit and latch onto some stranger. You’ll pretend not to care, guzzle the pints, redirect your lonely mong outwards as only you know how, lose the run of yourself, find your brother and punch him instead of telling him how you feel. Niamh will scream. Mam will be catatonic from her high dose of antidepressants. The talking heads will point and say “Look at the state of that thing”. You’ll swing at anybody in the vicinity; old men whose hearts are weaker now but still remember you fondly. They’ll end up on the floor, drenched grey in knocked over pints of Guinness. Women (who’ve been waiting for an excuse to take another shot at hurting you after you shagged them and then their mates) will yell into your face. You’ll back away, tears in your eyes, “Sorry,” (so sorry for everything) and leave—probably jump into the canal again, too.

You take two twenty Euro notes from your wallet and stare at the mirror. “Three drinks, no more, after tomorrow, never touch another drop.”

A taxi can be found anywhere in Dublin, no point ordering one, “But you’ve been flapping your arms about for ten minutes”. A rare one passes, then another three without as much as a glance back—fifteen minutes in spitting rain. Gel is stinging your eyes

Irish furrow, Emmet, get that famine face on.

You look at your phone but can’t remember how to dial a number or search the internet. Not a car, a truck nor bicycle will stop. Back and forth between street and passing stranger and phone, looking and typing. Letters that make no sense, scrolling and looking; looking and scrolling; scroll and scroll and scroll. When your brain decides your ankles should know the drill, a passing group of Spanish students catch you mid stumble.

“Jaysus.”

“Jaysus,” says a black eyed young girl, playfully mocking your accent.

She’s from another galaxy where the sun shines every. single. day. Her shoulders are decorated with yellow padded straps. Her caring and carefree stare is an answer; the cure. Soft lips painted with pink lipbalm, smelling of bubble gum; a worry free fragrance. She’s young, too young, jailbait, and she responds with an inherent, innocent warmth. A request to be loved, too? Has it in abundance but it’s wasted; nothing special in her world.

“Free me.”

“Puta.” A voice comes from the mass of tan skin, black hair and backpacks. A fiery pair of eyes attached to the head of a cobra who shoves transient noncity away. “Fuck off.”

“Sorry, sorry…I’m s…sorry.” Clawing at your neck despite having left two buttons of your crisp white shirt open.

Although you haven’t worn a watch since the age of nine, you’re looking at your wrist, elbow up high like an actor making sure the people at the back of the auditorium can see. A clock tower on the steeple of the Rathmines College says the funeral is well underway and you’re a fuck up. “No point going now.”

Mindlessly walking back to the flat, phone ringing. Maisie. “Hey.” You’re relived sigh is ominous.

“You okay?”

“Not really?” The eight steps up to the door of the house is like the Hilary Step on Everest, half way to success you die, laying back euphorically and enjoying the rain spitting onto your naked face.

“What’s up?”

“My dad died. I’m going to his funeral.”

“Jesus, it doesn’t rain but it pours, does it? Are you okay?”

“I’m as grand as can be expected.”

“I can hear in your voice you’re not.”

“Give it a rest, it’s a situational low.”

Her sigh is morphine. “I’ll come with you.”

“It’s cool… just wanted to speak to someone.”

“I’ll take a half day off work.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Where are you?”

“Sitting on the steps outside the house.”

“I’m coming, I just need to call in.”

“Can you meet me at The Flowing Tap? I’m going to head there now. You’re a hero.”

“Don’t I know it? See ye there.”

Don’t get into property, it’s a racket and people will hate you (secretly or not). You’ll do all the hard work in the country with no thanks; pay all your taxes, shore up the economy but eventually it’ll wear on you, you’ll go off the books, and that’ll gnaw away until the grave. That was the one bit of advice he gave you, drunk on a school night downstairs and well past midnight. You were watching a movie, shaking with nerves or excitement or both. He always had an infectious energy, like nothing could hurt him (and everything hurt you). The future couldn’t come quick enough. “What a fucking lie that man was, a pint-glass man.”

There’s a
familiar face in the Flowing Tap pavilion, familiar in that he recognizes you
but you don’t him. He’s one of those faces you always run into in Dublin who knows
the score, has answers for everything and eyes that speak
in a Moore Street chant
:

Greasy lips, betting slips, pressed shirt with last year’s sweaty pits. 

He’s never missed, likes a risk, you can trust him because he says what he thinks.

You can trust him until you break his trust, and he’ll do everything to test that. He has an everything going well for him stupid grin on his face and a shiny bald head that he rubs where there is heavy stubble on the back and sides. The look in his eyes is hard to describe, it’d be easier to describe what it’s not and figure it out by process of elimination. It’s not kind, nor mean, nor worried, nor bitter, nor discerning (not along unprejudiced lines), nor aloof, nor picky, nor proud. It’s not anything except a look of searing confidence (more assured than Nobel Peace Prize winners). It’s the bouncer who needs his quotas of saying ‘no’ to the male competition; a solemn yet gleeful ‘Not Tonight’ face.

Including you, there are seven people in the pavilion: Not Tonight face; a skinny Irish looking barman, perversely taken with his phone and firing off hushed, snidey remarks to people in ear shot; a serene in body Indian barman with eyes expressing a once untroubled mind, now jostling with his inner self’s degradation (that he hides beneath a shy smile cum grimace); an anorexic looking blonde haired cleaning lady, swiftly mopping the floor outside the jacks with the jittery movements of a chain smoker; and there are two old codgers drinking whiskey and water at the end of the bar (seemingly conversing without the need for words). 

Not Tonight face is alone and comes over. “Story,” he says, in a nasally South Dublin accent that has the effect of a stinging fly. “Here for the funeral?”

You glance up from your pint of Guinness. “It’s my fath—me da’s funeral.”

“Are you Joe?”

“Yeah.” You frown. “I go by Zac now, but Joe’s fine.”

“Mark… Mark Johnson!” He rocks on his heels like he’s Gardaí. “We were in Drimnagh Castle together.” He’s impassive on the surface but ostensibly dying to do the whole male bonding thing beneath. Sensing you’re not the same Joe Emmet you used to be—the one he apparently remembers fondly—causes him to keeps an ambiguous act while making sure you see his new found, grown up confidence.

You muster a smile.

An insidious glint flashes past his eyes. “Heard you were in the States.” 

You sip the head off your pint and unselfconsciously lick your top lip. “Yep.”

“What part were ye in?” 

“San Fransisco, LA, spent some time in Arizona. Done a bit of touring.”

“Touring?” He folds his arms, his eyes do a bit of looking you up and down. “Bikes like?”

“Bands—a band I mean.” You lean over the bar and escape into the eyes of the Indian barman, who nervously but resolutely acts unfazed about the nefarious paddywhackery going on beneath his colleague’s celestial smile.

“Any of those curry monkeys in the States, was there?” Mark whispers to you, leaning closer. He gives a genuine smile that has a manipulating effect of creating an artificial rapport. While he’s being offhandedly racist (muttering casual slurs under his breath) you wonder if he’s trying to be satirical. You try to think of more lyrics based around his white shirt with the creamy pits.

“Sick of them I am,” he says. “They’re fuckin’ ungrateful. Keep to themselves they do. It’s not good here now, it’s all changed… for the worse.”

“Was it so good?”

“Before the drugs and foreigners, it was deadly.”

“It was alright.”

“You’re sort of an immigrant anyway.”

“My ma’s from Belfast not Africa.”

He shoves you with his shoulder and chuckles. “Good to see you again, it’s been too long.”

By way of Mark’s size and proximity, you feel the presence of your dad when he was in a great mood and it was just a random Thursday but it felt like Christmas. If coming from someone else, the things he said would have made your mouth hang open, or caused you to leave the room, or at the very least cover some part of you with a pillow. With him—as with Mark—you had a blind spot because you didn’t want to be left out in the cold and feeling alone. 

You laugh nervously at the toxic memory and try to catch the eye of one of the barmen.

“Fuckin’ country is gone to the dogs,” Mark says. “But we’re not going to take it. There’s going to be a revolution in this country if it keeps going the way it’s been going. There’ll be blood on the cobbles. Tiocfaidh ár lá.” He winks.

You’re considering what to say without resorting to lecturing him about equality and the long term economic benefits of multiculturalism and the business it brings to the country. He’d say he’ll never see any of that money, and he’d be right. 

He sits down beside you, his brawny arm and body pressed up against yours like you’re brothers, eyeballing the Indian barman. “The fuckin’ streets are full of Dubs livin’ in tents because those curry monkeys are taking all the jobs. That job should go to an Irishman or Irishwomen. They already have half the houses, and now they’re onto our women. I’ve an Iranian below me riding a bird from Cork, for fuck’s sake. Although he can have her.” He slaps you on the back. “They’re all mental cases.”

You’re considering telling him you think the barman is probably nicer or has a better temperament or isn’t sexist or hasn’t got a cocaine problem or a drinking problem or a post Celtic Tiger ego problem. You should remind him women are no less mental than men, but you won’t because Mark sees you. He feels your pain, and is talking to you softly. He notices little things that are wrong with you in a way your da should have. He cares about you, that’s clear, and isn’t looking to judge you for your mistakes (if you exclude the clothes you wear). He even seems to be taking into account all the assumptions you’ve faced being you as well as the typical ones you face being male; tarred with the same brush as groping presidents and raping footballers. He knows you’re a misunderstood soul kicking a ball around no man’s land at Christmas and dreaming about the touch of a woman or a cold beer on a close day. He knows that side of you that’s expected to succeed, that side that loathes himself if he fails, and the side that’s supposed to fall on your sword and accept it when the wife gets the house and kids and you’re left to sleep in a bunk bed in a hostel swarming with pickpockets posing as backpackers. For all those vulnerable sides to you, he loves you.

Pint-glass Men, Pint-glass Men, mopping up each other’s tears. Beermats, peanuts, no more fears.

Pint-glass Men, Pint-glass Men, slapping backs and chinking glass. Showing selifies of her arse.

Pint-glass Men, Pint-glass Men, ever need a friend to stay with you ‘till de end of days.

Pint-glass Men, Pint-glass Men, you can do no wrong with them, they will be your bestest friends.

It feels odd to be so close to a sexist, racist moron and not want to remove yourself. To a lesser extent, it feels unprecariously rewarding to have Mark’s friendship and support because (inherently) he has the human touch. Nowadays, a touch is filled with faux pas, anxiety, a pivot towards permissions, assumptions and restrictions benefiting personal liberties or classification and categorical ranking of status, coupled with neurosis and fear. Mark doesn’t need to do anything, he’s like…

like the fucking Irish Buddha. 

“So, what have you been up to since I last saw you, Mark?”

His eyes narrow and curve up like two crescent moons. That’s all he does. Nothing more. By the look on his face, that’s all he thinks he thinks he needs to do. That look says he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and acts the fool. The power of self belief is undeniable, you think, remembering the times you were dancing on the stage with all eyes on you.

Let’s skip over the part where you had a little A-class assistance on that front.

When you believed so did the world, and Mark, the longer you spend time with him, is annoyingly authentic and convincing. You understand now how it feels to be a woman chatted up by a thick bloke who has natural charm: strangely effortless and worrying in that it could easily blossom into blind love and marriage… and eventually drunken domestic violence. Indeed. “So, Mark, you married?”

“Unfortunately.” He doesn’t see you rolling your eyes because he’s on the hunt for a wiggle from the cleaner. “I have two boys, both United scum like their ma.”

You know what he’s been doing since you last seen him: a fair bit of womanizing by the looks of it.

“Got meself a little ride of a Romanian bird on the go,” he says, with a cheeky smirk, using the mirror on the back of the bar to recon the room for talent. “Does whatever I ask her to do. Licks me—”

“Right, lovely, don’t want to know the gory details.” You blink away the image and sip your pint, checking the clock on the wall. “How long do funeral’s go on for?”

“Half an hour,” he says, expressing genuine concern and sorrow for you. “I knew your da, sound man he was. How come you weren’t at the funeral?”

“Haven’t seen anyone in years. I think I subconsciously made myself late so I didn’t have to go. Don’t feel part of the family any more.”

He puts his arm around your slumped shoulders. “Ah man, I feel you on that one, bro. A couple of the lads went to OZ and came back with the same complaint. You should be able to broaden your horizons without getting ghosted by your family and friends.”

“Yeah.”

He rubs up against you like a stupid but affectionate dog. “Me aul wan was the same. Jay, me brother, went to college and then lived in London, came back all political. He wanted to change Ireland, ye know? Was mad into havin’ the niggers in the country and supported feminism, too. Fucking dope. But he got some bird up the duff and that all changed. He needed someone to babysit for him, hah! Had to do a load of kissing up to me ma. Ye want to here him about the niggers now,” he says, laughing out loud and eyeballing the Indian barman.

You down a quarter of your pint and consider leaving, but you won’t. Despite his twisted views, it’s been years since anyone’s been straight with you. You know where you stand with him and your chronic paranoia is strangely absent.

Pint-glass Men, Pint-glass Men, walk in somebody’s shoes, know how it feels to lose.

Pint-glass Men, Pint-glass Men, maybe he’ll break his rules, maybe you’ll change his views.

Mark is talking but you’re drifting, remembering things that you thought had slipped away; insignificant moments from your past, a time before you worked so hard to impress people by proxy of being cool; a time before all that fakery and emptiness. A time of soaked beermats and Olympic Guinness rings, the smell of the grey bar cloth mopping up the chaos of the long weekends, the Harp Larger, Carrol’s Cigarettes smoked to the butt, a toddler on the lap juiced up on TK Red Lemonade; King crisps, Fanta orange; feeling close to strangers who, for that short while, were family; people you didn’t question about their political stances, people you didn’t nonchalantly fall out with and talk about and fall in love with again. All around you there was laughter, kindness and warmth; the craic and the cheer when Houghton chipped the Italian keeper. You didn’t care about brown shit dripping from the ceiling because you were free, running out the door of the pavilion into the rare month of sunshine.

Whilst you’ve been reminiscing, Mark has left to go to the jacks. You get up and return to that chamber of stillness: the snooker room. It has the serenity of an empty church. Back then, it would muffle the noise of the monkeys swinging from the lights during those hazy summer days. Things became focused in the snooker room. It was a grand place, regal even, and a room for men only. There wasn’t sign on the door barring women, but did one ever cross that threshold? Not until the little Delaney girls got brave and legged it in to do figure of eight laps around the two tables, leaving their tangible playfulness in the only sanctuary for devoutly neutered husbands. 

In the snooker room, males were something else altogether; deliberate when leaning over the table, considered when aiming, controlled with their emotions.

“Shush lads, Dennis is taking his shot.” 

Eyebrows down, eyebrows up, eyebrows down and quickly up again. Elbow back, elbow forwards, smooth, adjusting the force needed, perfecting the cue action, honing for the next shot; always improving: ‘One day, the Crumlin Ball Bag Christmas turkey’. 

To a boy, those solid men—who were unlike all the good and decent married men who frittered and flirted in and out of your life—were God like entities, endowed with superpowers. You admired them for their secret, that your dad didn’t seem to have discovered yet: precision, dexterity and skill. As far your aul fella knew those qualities couldn’t be developed, you either had it or you hadn’t (and you hadn’t).

It’s so quiet in the snooker room. The green felt feels hard and slick and not feathery like it used to. Any man’s hands that laid upon that hallowed indoor pitch had dirty gold, ruby encrusted rings and yellow, well manicured fingernails. The confidence oozed out of their bracketed arms. Whenever a little doubt crept into a solid man’s head, he’d do a little eyebrow shift and something inside him would occur that turned him into a faultless machine. A droplet of doubt could divert your sickly flow of confidence, but not those beady eyed, tar stained giants. 

You observed the unwillingness to relent but still didn’t know the trick to it (yet!). It came from somewhere inside, a deep pool of reflection that you couldn’t glimpse (not when he was looking anyway). Only when his eyes were down and on the ball could you study him, go inside him a little and rob a bit of his energy—something that was apparently wrong to do (and why mothers always shoved their children aside from these solid sorts of men). Hence, there would be a ping pong match between the boys and the men where the boys pretended not to look: blank face, a quick gawp, then back to blank face. 

See, he’d get put off by your admiration, not being used to it (unless it was coming from some slapper giving him the eye and promising to go down on him later). Admiration brought back memories of pleasure; hence children and solid men shouldn’t mix. There was a degree of acting to it all because a boy’s admiration confused a solid man’s brain, so you weren’t supposed to go inside him to discover his superpower. Some men are just a bunch of signals, apparently.

But there was never a sign on a man’s face that he was having doubts about himself. It was felt; a bus route where the best of them took the wheel, hit the breaks, kicked everyone off the bus before driving home a sublime shot. With his arm rolling back like a metronome, he’d hit the white, tap. It’d roll as if controlled by telekinesis. The polished stone, with blue chalk marks, would glide over the downy green cloth and clink softly into a red. The red would peel off and thud against the cushion. The silence was momentous until it clinked into a ball over the pocket. Majestically, we waited for the pleasing plop. 

“Good shot, Dennis.” Whispered and respectful. 

A solid man was always bruised by the white ball resting against the cushion; bad shot on his end. He’d open the hatch on the bar. “Tommy”—barked— “Guinness.”

“On the way, Dennis.” 

Then your aul fella would come in roaring some monkey business, landing like an inebriated fighter pilot. “Alright,” he’d bellow to you, letting it all hang out in lieu of picking it all up again to avoid a 3 A.M. cold chilli bombardment.

The entertainment had arrived—much to the annoyance of the serious triers. The solid man was never flustered by provocateurs like him. Dad claimed he wasn’t the snooker type, nor the football type. He was more the boxing type (because at heart he wanted to look hard but was a big softie). Snooker wasn’t stimulating enough for him, he said; there didn’t appear to be enough of a rush for him and it certainly wasn’t as hobby inducing as drinking was. “Borin’ shite,” he’d say, loudly as a cracking goal was curled into the roof of the net from forty yards out with the outside of a boot. But he did have some respect for the preserved decorum in the snooker room, albeit a reluctant regard.

In his later years, he became a solid man, picking up the cue and focusing all his efforts into measure and control (outside of driving a car or a nail). By then, his ego had to acquiesce that his pint-glass man image was not so endearing. Some pint-glass men like him could have been real players. A couple of the tar stained local legends (who might have been sex offenders) got bags of kudos because they stuck around The Flowing Tap and were content destroying nobodies for a few scoops, bringing a bit of class to the place. 

Dad had his moments of class when he wasn’t obsessed with having the craic. They all left something of themselves in the snooker room. We did, with rare moments of lucky brilliance, too. If you took the pint out of their hands or caught them on a good day, they were the aspirational poetry in motion young working class boys needed; winners even in defeat and masters of themselves: solid men.

That quiet room speaks to you about respect, honesty, decency and honor. If women had ventured in there, they’d have seen how different pint-glass men could be, what they hid beneath the impenetrable exterior. Your mam would have realised what else he became down the pub, when he wasn’t sozzled; when men held other men accountable and kept their house in order (in the way womankind do). She’d have realised he didn’t know himself at all; none of them had scratched the surface; actors all. All they knew was how to front and drink and play away the worry, the fear and the silences. It’s a crying shame, but as Mark swaggers in he throws his warm body into yours and gives you a knowing look that sings to you:

Pint-glass men, pint-glass men, it’s last orders at the bar, there’s wisdom in untroubled hearts.

Pint-glass men, pint-glass men, children who still drift apart: return, the bitter cold departs.

Pint-glass men, pint-glass men, together they might break away, admit they were afraid to say.

Pint-glass men, pint-glass men, hear them if they ever do, warm like the sun, change like the moon.

“Pint?” says Mark.

“Sure why not.”

You lead the way, shaking your head as he oxymoronically calls the cleaning lady a frigid slut.

 

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TREOIR: CURSE ON THE ISLAND

Background about this excerpt: Jonah has albinism and has a natural gift for science. Here he tells Donnacha about a scientific explanation he has for déjà vu.

There are two theories in Treoir that Jonah tells Donnacha about—and this makes Jonah an important person to him and a driving force when he has to decide to risk everything to rescue him.

I first though, vaguely, about both of Jonah’s ideas as a boy. ‘What if God is just a big brain. What if we live inside that brain’, kind of thing; the stuff kids think of and forget all the time. Those ideas came back to me while writing this, and I developed them using quantum physics and other theories on the universe to underpin Jonah’s ‘musings’. I’m not sure if either ‘theory’ would stand up to proper scientific scrutiny, but they are compelling—and beautiful—when you think about the universe in this way. Enjoy.

From chapter 9

We walked in silence together, Jonah trying and failing to assimilate my mood or lack of one. I was resigning myself to the fact that a reduction of all my worries and sorrows to a single and manageable nuance such as guilt had shattered and I would have to endure an unending feeling of falling without ever feeling anything else ever again.

He put his hand on my shoulder and lowered his dark glasses. I stopped walking and turned to face him, not knowing what I wanted to say. He had an angelic expression, like all the wisdom in the world was within him and he could plug and resupply my bottomless pit. “Do you think it knows when someone dies?” I asked, after a lengthy silence. “The universe, I mean.”

“The universe?”

“Yes. Do you think it’s conscious about someone dying?”

“I think it’s conscious of everything.” He covered his sensitive skin with his sleeves and hood and held his hand out, staring at it. “When I was young, I used to wonder if I was here. I used to think I wasn’t. Almost like I was seeing myself as a memory.” He showed me the black fossilized crustacean he’d found. “Time is funny like that. Our conscious perception of it runs at a different rate. Time flies, you know? And reality is perception, of course.” I let him ramble, glad to not have to think about Erin. “I had deja vu,” he said. “And I started thinking. What if our galaxy has ended already and we’re glimpsing the consciousness of an observer who is somewhere else where time runs much faster. It could be another sign the universe is conscious and connected quantumly. Our sense of time may make it appear that we’re here, but to that observer, we might be extinct already. We may be able to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the future because of some universal connection, a consciousness showing us a few seconds of what that observer has perceived caused by some kind of quantum entanglement. What do you think?”

I fished out a lump of material with intricate colourful stitching from the water. Hand-woven; a sarong, one from the east, maybe Thailand or Bali. I just stared at it, thinking of Erin. “It’s not good to think I don’t exist, Jonah.”

“No, you do. You’re just catching up, consciously speaking, because we perceive time at a much slower rate. Like data transferred over a slow internet connection. When we see a quantum leap—an electron moving without an apparent traceable path—that may be proof we see time much slower. The electron may have moved so fast, faster than light—and possibly at the speed of consciousness—that we can’t map it.”

“Interesting.” I felt my mood lifting.

I sat in the sand and he sat beside me, giving me a sympathetic grin. I continued to just look at him, wondering how anyone could see him as a curse. “Your family,” I said. “They thought you would bring them bad luck. That must have hurt you.”

He shook his head. “I used to think that, but we bring bad luck on ourselves with our actions and our thoughts, and with our disharmony.” His face was angelic. “When we think only of ourselves, then everything good about the world becomes invisible, including ourselves eventually. All we see is the bad or the possibility of bad, and we have to find someone or something to blame. We never fix the problem, we do things to cover it up. But when we observe the world and take into consideration our affect on it, then it opens for us.” He listened to the birdsong. “Then we exist in harmony with it. In love with it. Love and harmony are quantum and entangled with creation. They are the power in the universe. Maybe we can prevent our extinction by being conscious of the consequences of our actions. Maybe time and consciousness are malleable, just because one observer saw one reality, when unobserved another reality can exist. Like the double-slit experiment.”

Beyond my world of life and death, meaning and meaninglessness, of third points between reason and imagination and all the physical and common laws pertaining to reality, “something always leads me back to harmony, to love,” I said. “Love was like withdrawing from heroin after I’d been without Erin for a while. It scared me to look for it again.” A lump stuck in my throat. “A little more work and you might have a real theory, Jonah.”

He opened his arms. “I was thinking more a religion,” he said and chuckled.

We took a walk up the coast, and I was in a more reflective, philosophical mood.

“We have a college on the island. It’s renowned the world over,” I said. “Would you like to attend?”

He laughed sarcastically.

“I’m serious, Jonah.”

“I haven’t got the money.”

“No, we have a different outlook on education at the college. Ned donated all Wann’s paintings, they sell for millions. It’s free on Treoir.”

“How is there a college on such a small island?”

“Erin thought we should do something for Treoir so they’d accept us. She believed a college would make the students more loyal to the island. Many of the students have rejuvenated Saints Rest and Clippers Hook, where before they were leaving.” I took a barefoot walk in the stony sand. “She thought if you charge a student thousands to contribute to society and make them pay high taxes because of their earning potential, you create a mercenary mindset. And when they become worldly enough and skilled enough you may find they will be less inclined to act morally responsibly and may exploit for personal gain. Look at how big corporations operate. It’s more prudent to find ways to make education free. That way you create thankful, respectful, and loyal citizens who want to contribute and improve society for all.”

His eyes were full. “So I can go to college for free?” His voice cracked. “Here on the island?”

“You’ll still have to pass the entrance exam. But you’ll do okay. It’ll be specific to your interest as opposed to a general intelligence score. And we make exceptions for people with ideas like yours.”

His feet danced. “Teachers said I wasn’t smart. I never did well in exams.”

“Maybe you were self-conscious because of the way society is formed into groups. You couldn’t focus on things around you because the focus was always on you. It’s a new start. Come on, I’ll show you the round tower.”

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