It had been a strange day. The snug was packed with people I didn’t know and outside the sun glistened off damp city streets. People hurried along with their shoulders hunched and their collars up, eyeing the blue sky with distrust. The snug’s wooden window-screen kept most of this from the souls huddled within. They sat around their low table on squat stools, elbows up and backs bent, constructing the conversation to plug the gaps in this makeshift cocoon, but the chatter was still punctuated by the passing drawl of tyres through the slush outside.
‘You wouldn’t believe it. Pure white’, the Old Man said. ‘Don’t think it’s ever been worn. Couldn’t have been. Not worn and kept that white. Sure you couldn’t be on stage with a set of pipes like that and not come out of it sweating like a bull.’
He gripped his pint glass by its base and took a slow draw. I couldn’t help watching the run of his arm, sinew and bone, as it disappeared into the cavernous sleeve of his grey, woven jacket. The jacket was hardy, but no amount of careful maintenance could conceal the wear. He replaced the pint glass onto the beermat, the small thump was a presiding gavel as he passed final judgement on the matter.
‘You’d never believe it. Never worn and as pristine as the soul of the lamb. You should go see it. It beggars belief.’
The rest of the crowd nodded in agreement and resignation. They wouldn’t believe him and they would never make the trip to take a look, but it had been a good story. A small silence descended while people contemplated their drinks. Eventually from the corner a large woman with a slow voice offered something to the table.
‘Those goddamn election posters up everywhere are a bloody disgrace.’
And they were off. No use in looking back. The table rumbled on with the serious business of the day. I kept my own council and let the words drift over me as I finished my own drink. My quiet wasn’t a drag on the conversation. We were all only here to spend the time. I let my mind wander to the world outside as it moved on without us. The city would be young and dogged by this time of the week. The day would seem slow, but it would not linger long in the memory of anyone. White delivery vans rode up onto pavements and shop assistants made a show of looking busy. It was a Tuesday and I’d always hated Tuesdays. It was the time of the week when I felt most like there was no way out. Out of what exactly? I don’t know. It was just a feeling, and most of the time these things cannot be explained.
It had become my routine to take a day once a month and disappear into the secret world of the mid-week free from work. On days like that you can stand on any street corner, your time unplanned before you, and still feel the daily machinery whirring away behind tall, glass buildings and open-plan office spaces. What went on out here while I was tucked away in there? I’d always wondered. Don’t think ill of me. I wasn’t a drunk. There’s just something delicious about locking yourself into the low-lit gloom of the public house when you’re not supposed to. I’m not ashamed to say that.
The dregs stared up at me and I could tell a few glances were being cast in my direction. I could stay and drink or I could leave. There was no third option. I slid off the stool and grabbed my coat, staying crouched so as not to disturb the table. As I slipped out the door the Old Man turned and caught my eye.
‘Go and give it a look. It beggars belief.’
I nodded and left. My departure warranted only perfunctory nods from the rest of the drinkers. I was nothing but a blow-in to them, and like the day that was in it I would not mark their memory. That didn’t trouble me much. They had their own world to tend to. I was going out into mine.
I stepped into the cold sunlight, zipped myself up against the wind and headed off in the direction of Dame Street. It wasn’t yet lunch-time so I was still free to stroll where I would without fear of discovery or disruption by a familiar face.
I wasn’t sure what to do now. His voice still rang in my ears and a part of me knew that it would not be long before I went in search of the Old Man’s white suit. How could I not? But it was too soon just now. I needed to work my way up to it. You spend so much of your time searching for those sweet spots in life when, for reasons beyond astrology or physics or the quality of your diet, things slip smoothly into the right tracks and the future is an open line before you. I am not wise. I cannot predict the frequency of such things, so I intended to savour all the possibilities of this small adventure before I allowed for the potential of disappointment. After all, it might be just a suit.
With my back to Trinity I strode past the golden tree of the Central Bank, and for the sake of it turned on my heel at the mosaiced stag’s head that was set into the pavement, ducking up the alley towards Dame Lane. A young vagrant was huddled up in a doorway with a blue sleeping bag. He was beating out a rhythm on an old paint-can, poly-rhythms mixing with the footfall and traffic.
I picked my way with care along the old streets and came upon the Iveagh Buildings. Life was always a little slower in here. The tall, red-bricked blocks turned their backs to the rest of the city and looked in on one another, unconcerned with the central city rush. It was here that I looked for food. It didn’t take long to find myself a small café down from the University perched on the corner of Patrick’s Street.
Inside the café the windows had fogged to create another screen between here and there. The room was decorated with delicate, white garden furniture and each table was draped with a yellow, linoleum cover spotted with illustrations of small, blue brookline and alkanet flowers. I packed myself into a table along the wall and ordered soup from a young waitress. Her golden-brown hair escaped in flares from a pencil-held bun. She took my order with politeness but never looked at me directly and disappeared behind the counter after our quick exchange. When my soup arrived I ground some pepper into the broth and stirred it well.
My thoughts mixed with the steam and returned to the Old Man, who would still be holding court back in the snug. Our conversation had started at the bar when he’d commented on my watch. It was a relic from my primary youth. It had a small, silver body and a deep-brown leather strap.
‘Where did you get that from?’ he ventured, sliding the question along the bar towards me.
‘From my Godfather. Years ago.’
I’d always worn it, replacing the strap sporadically as my childhood moved away from toys, first replaced by girls and then into the fake sense of adulthood beyond even that. I made a point of being sure to replace the strap with the same deep-brown colour as the original. There was an inscription on the back of the silver body that read February ’93 and still managed to gleam from the tarnished steel.
‘Very nice. You can’t beat a good watch.’, he said, pronouncing beat like bait and raising his glass in salute. He assured me such an artifact was a rarity in people my age and then continued on with a story about his own litany of lost timepieces. With that I was locked in to the Old Man’s world of recollections for the morning. Eventually I was invited to join him in the snug when one of the other regulars strolled through the door and greeted the Old Man with a nod and a gesture.
I cannot remember what turned the snug’s conversation back towards my watch. Perhaps I’d been too quiet, or perhaps the other familiars who had joined the table with an ease bred only from regularity were beginning to wonder who this intruder was. I needed some validity and the Old Man was responsible for my presence. He understood this, and by way of vouchsafing for me he gestured towards my watch with his pint.
‘Do you see that watch there?’ The table turned as I pulled up my sleeve to allow everyone a good look. ‘Where did you get that from again?’
‘It was a Communion present. Not much, but I’ve always liked it.’
‘Rare to see young people with watches nowadays’, the Old Man repeated for the benefit of the table.
‘It was from my Godfather. He told me you should always have something to remember occasions like that by.’
‘A wise man. Ever heard of a place called Molloy’s?’ And with that the Old Man was off onto another yarn. I was happy to leave him at it.
I wasn’t going to tell them the full story. The small boy stood alone at the top of a church during a week-day mass in The Lough Parish. That was not for them. But I’ll tell you.
I’d only come off the boat a few months previous, but my Grandparents had made it known in no uncertain terms that a condition of our stay in the family homestead was my introduction to the Eucharist. There was no fight. We were in no position to fight. It was merely mentioned and never contradicted. I’d missed the usual school-led timeline for such things, so this meant a special occasion just for me one morning in February. The congregation was made up of my parents and siblings sat uncomfortably next to my Grandparents all dressed in full Sunday pomp, along with the Parish’s regular coterie of elderly devotees who took up their favoured positions for worship as they peppered the pews behind us.
My Uncle was acting as my Godfather and his family sat behind ours, his children quiet and respectful, simply delighted with the unexpected freedom from school and happy to sit through anything that prolonged the treat. A family friend, warm and delighted to see us back, sat beside him to act as my Godmother. The normal run of the mass was interrupted to allow for my own little ceremony. A request was made for my presence at the altar. My Godparents, sat either side of me, each placed a hand on my shoulder to guide me up and out of the pew. The weight of their palms felt good, and I was happy the beat in my chest did not cause their touch to recoil. The other celebrants raised their heads with interest at the disruption to routine. In shirt and tie, and with hair parted and neat, I was beckoned to the front where I knelt down on the cold, marble step. This place was strange and I was nervous. Nervous that I would mess up a sacrament that should have been second nature to me. Nervous that my presence was a fraud soon to be uncovered. The priest came down and spoke to me, looking directly into my eyes. It was not possible to look away and I felt I had passed into some sort of test that would examine me down to the soles of my boots. I said the words as I’d been taught. I always had trouble telling my right from my left and I was petrified that when offered the host I would present the wrong configuration of crossed palms, exposing myself as a sham and a spoofer. Instead I kept my hands clasped in front of me and opened my mouth. The priest cocked an eyebrow and I almost fainted, but the ceremony progressed without incident. Then all of a sudden it was over. I was being led down the aisles and outside to shake hands with people who beamed smiles at my introduction into the Holy Catholic Church.
Out on the damp, stone steps an old woman whom I’d never met before and have not seen since shuffled up to me. She planted a suckered kiss on my cheek while she pressed a one pound coin into my hand. She was happy for me. More than that, she was delighted. Some part of her had been confirmed. Everything would be okay for her. I was still in a nervous haze and could only remember parts of what had happened since I’d approached the altar, but she was calm and slow and contented. She smoothed the side of my hair and disappeared away into the world. I knew the thing she felt was beyond me. And now, with my feet hugging the café’s small wall-mounted radiator, or earlier in the safety of the snug, I can still remember the lines of her face that pointed straight from birth to death to that pocket of the world where everything was as she thought it should be. This was something that I would never tell my daytime bar mates. This was something that I would never tell my young waitress.
Out on those same steps my Godfather had given me the little navy box that contained the watch. ‘You should always have something to remember these things by’, he said, the crease of his mouth giving way to a grin.
And I’d always kept it. Right through those first few months back in a country that wasn’t supposed to be new to me. Through the years that filed in between. Through the hundreds of daily stories that begun, unfurled and ended between then and now, through to this moment in this café as I took off the watch and placed it beside my bowl. It was an odd custom that I couldn’t remember beginning, but now I could not eat a meal without doing it.
I finished my soup while I warmed my feet, paid and left, emerging back out into the sharp light of February sunshine. It was time. I braced myself against the cold and headed up the hill towards the looming gothic buttresses of Chirstchurch that arched over the passing traffic with a brazenness that refused to be bypassed or ignored no matter how much time travelled underneath. I was headed toward Thomas Street and the Old Man’s Molloy’s.
The Old Man had used my watch as a way to crowbar into the conversation his own story of a shop that sold only Communion suits. The table’s attention had shifted away from me and they’d seemed sated with my small personal admission. It had been enough to allow me to stay with them in that snug a little while longer. Sharing is the price of conversation. This is known. Some people share truth. Some share fantasies dredged from the images of the people they wish they were. This is also known. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. As long as something is offered to be talked about, picked apart and judged upon you’ll be allowed to stay. If you don’t like that, take your drink and sit somewhere else, please and thank you, good luck to you and yours. I never share too much. My conversations can sometimes be short.
Molloy’s had operated on Thomas Street for years. ‘It’s fuckin’ older than I am’, were the Old Man’s exact words. It was the last of an old-guard of local traders, and it remained on a street that had once been its own heartland. Molloy’s was peculiar for more than just its primary trade, and the Old Man’s story had centred around a white suit that hung behind the shop’s counter.
‘It beggars belief. It’s up there just like it’s waiting for collection. Like he could walk in at any moment looking for it’, he said. The Old Man might not have made his living from words, but storytelling was his trade and he knew how to pace and bleed information into the fabric of the conversation to keep the table interested.
‘He could! He could! He could!’, the Large Woman said as she slapped the table, losing her patience. ‘Who the hell is he? Spit it out for Christ’s sake.’
The Old Man grinned. She had hit her cue immaculately. He gripped his pint and took another slow draw, wiping the foam from the top of his lip with a wizened knuckle. ‘He, is none other than the Maestro of Mullingar himself. One. Mister. Joe. Dolan, if you please’, he said, punctuating each word with a sharp jab of his finger for full dramatic effect.
‘Go’way’, was one reply.
‘Fuck off’, another.
‘I won’t’, he said.
The Large Woman just snorted and returned to her own drink, looking out through the window and into the heavens for some solace.
One of the other regulars that had taken in the whole conversation in silence while hunched over his pint now spoke down into his glass like it was a microphone and said, ‘There’s no show like a Joe show’.
The Old Man clapped his hands with delight, ‘Exactly! That’s exactly it. And its up there behind the counter just like any other suit. It was the last one he ever had made. Never got to wear it. Popped his socks before he came to collect. You’d imagine they’d put it in the window or something. But no. Just up behind the counter like it wasn’t anything else.’
Like it wasn’t anything else. That seemed about right. And after all the Old Man’s words I now found myself on a schizophrenic day in February stood outside this shop feeling stupid. It had a blue façade and the display window was littered with tiny mannequins donning an array of suits. They ranged from the conventional right the way through to three-piece affairs of a military nature. Scattered among the suits were hand-painted signs proclaiming deals, prices and payment plans. I stood before the door with my hands anchored in my coat pockets. I was in serious danger of losing my nerve. What on earth was I going to say once I got inside? That I was just browsing, without a child in tow or a ring on my finger? They’d smell the rat immediately. I’d more likely be chased back out into the street for the whole world to see my shame and disgrace.
Through the glass door I could see two gentlemen inside. One was middle-aged with greying hair, handsome and dapper. He stood behind the main counter with a roll of fabric, measuring out lengths with the efficiency of a practised hand - quick but unhurried, sharp and even. The younger man was furtive and barely visible in the back of the shop. He sat at a bench facing a wall with a hulking great sewing machine in front of him, wiry hands and glazed eyes passing cuts of cloth beneath the hammering needle that struck out a thin ratatatatat that I could hear from out here on the pavement. They did not talk to one another. They were absorbed in their tasks and used to the work of the day being the silent language between them. The ratatatatat was the chiming bell that counted off the seconds from the minutes, and the days from the months.
Neither of them had spotted me through the door yet, and I decided to call this off as a bad lot. I would continue on down Thomas Street and off into the red-terraced maze of the Coombe and Pimlico. There I would try to lose my sense of cowardice and defeat as I convinced myself that I had merely preserved the integrity of a good barside tale.
From behind me came a polite cough. I turned around to find a man in jeans and a tracksuit jacket bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. He nodded toward the door of Molloy’s.
‘Alrigh’, buddy. Are you heading in or wha’?’
I had nothing to say to that. Now I had to go in. I pushed through the door and into the shop. A small electronic bell tolled above my head as I entered. I held open the door for the man behind me, who bustled straight up to the counter and addressed the older gentlemen.
‘Hartigan, can you break a twenty for change for me?’
Hartigan, shifted aside the lengths he had been working on. ‘I suppose so. Let’s have a look.’
He glanced at me. ‘I’ll be with you in a second, okay?’
He didn’t wait for a response but I nodded anyway and moved off to inspect the rest of the shop as Hartigan rang open the till and began to shuffle through coins. Racks marched up the walls, arranged in ranks of three columns high and five rows deep, with a steep rake ensuring you could see the suits of differing sizes lined up behind the frontrunners. Each rack held its own particular type of suit which, just like the display window, ranged from the sober to the outlandish. I paused to pick at the golden brocade of a generalissimo style suit hanging near the door. I failed to imagine the circumstances under which this could possibly be foisted onto a young child outside of fancy dress. Yet here it was, popular enough to hold a prominent place amongst the rest of the suits. I thanked the powers above, that I could not embrace but would never fully disbelieve, that my parents had not tried to do the same thing to me. My simple slacks, shirt and tie a godsend to me at eight years of age in a place I didn’t know with people I didn’t recognise. Not that my grandparents would have allowed anything else.
Photos of the young men in their new communion suits were stuck on every other available space in the shop - on pillars, on doors, on sideboards and on the wall-space that separated the different blocks of suits. Hundreds of them beaming out into the camera. Some were brazen and stout facing full forward into the lens, while others tried to shy away with their body turned just slightly sideways and a hand raised up to place an unsure finger at the edge of their mouth. I tried to find myself in them, to see through their eyes into the adults most of them would become, but I couldn’t. I moved along.
I’d almost done a full circuit of the shop, which was little more than a small room, before I finally saw it. It was hanging above the counter Hartigan had been working at when I first entered. It was hung at the end of a rack that held suits waiting for collection. They were all pressed and covered in a thin plastic sheath.
Hartigan, whom I presumed was the Molloy proclaimed on the sign above the door outside, was still counting out change from the till in the middle of the shop. The young man who sat at the sewing machine in his little alcove behind the counter paused his needle to give me a sidelong glance before returning to his work. I noticed but gave it no mind.
I looked on at the suit. What set this one as different from everything else was its size. It was for a man and dwarfed everything else the shop had to offer. Just like the Old Man had said, the suit itself was pristine and white. Only the tie was black, which seemed to give it more of a presence, I could not say why. Embroidered into the middle of the tie in ornate white stitching was two words, one name; Joe Dolan.
What did you know? It hadn’t been a lie. Stood before it now I could almost see the man wearing it on a spot-lit stage in the midlands, studded silver microphone in one hand and a broad grin looking out over an adoring crowd as he introduced his next song. A hush would descend only long enough to hear his few words before a shrill cheer would wash over him. The lights would change and then he was off. Another cheer would rise after the first few bars with the recognition of the tune before the crowd sat back to sing along and sway with the air and the sweat and the life of a night being driven towards the pinnacle of memory. A memory they would all keep close. I could see all of that, and I wished I had lived it with them.
‘My Da made that for him. It was his last suit, as it turned out. Joe’s, that is. He never wore it.’
Hartigan had caught the line of my gaze and was strolling over to me. The electronic bell tolled once again to let the other man back out into the street with his handful of parking change. Hartigan returned to his place behind the counter and addressed me directly.
‘Can I help you with anything?’
I looked at him and opened my mouth to lie. But, for some reason I didn’t. I don’t know why.
‘I… I’d just come into see the suit, actually. I heard about it off this old fella that I was talking to earlier.’
Hartigan nodded and clicked his tongue as he looked away with something that fell between a grin and a grimace. ‘That would be Dermot. It’s a favourite of his that story, you see. To be honest with you, he never shuts up about it.’
‘It’s a good story.’
‘That entirely depends on how many times you hear it.’
‘Well there’s not much to it really. My Da used to make suits for all the old showbands. He stopped eventually. No money in it. Which is why the changeover to communions. But he always still made Joe’s.’
‘Ah well. I don’t know.’
Hartigan smirked and looked away. I knew what he meant. Things like that become normal once you live them.
I chuckled and smiled. ‘Again, a fair point’.
The bell tolled again and I looked around to see an old woman coming through the door.
‘How are you, Audrey?’, Hartigan said.
Audrey looked up and waved a hand at him. ‘I’m good, thank God.’
She was well into her seventies and wore a heavy, navy cardigan over a white shirt and a stout woollen skirt. She was small but walked with such an air of purpose that it made her big enough to fill the room. Short, powerful legs pumped away behind thick, flesh-coloured tights as she crossed the floor. She ignored us almost completely and instead made for the corner by the window, rummaging around in the cavernous pockets of her cardigan for Lord only knows what.
As we watched Hartigan gave me a light tap on the shoulder and said, ‘Watch this now. If you liked the suit, you’ll like this.’
From her pocket came a small, stoppered glass bottle with a clear liquid inside. She blessed herself and uncorked the bottle. With a quick flick of the wrist she sprinkled a few droplets into her corner, closed her eyes, bowed her head and began to talk with low, whispered words that slipped out of her mouth and floated down to land on the floor with the water. The sun blasted off the street and arched around the woman. The moment settled and printed itself onto my memory and I knew that whatever this was would stay with me, out through this life’s half-light and on into the dark.
She stayed still in her corner, whispering her words for perhaps half a minute before blessing herself and moving on to the next corner of the shop, this time beside Hartigan’s counter. Hartigan moved with surprising deftness to clear himself from out of her way. He pressed his palm against my shoulder and guided me toward the front window. He hushed his explanation to me.
‘Audrey comes in every day to bless the shop. She’s been doing it for years. Since my Da. That’s Holy Water in the bottle. But better to keep out of her way. She’s the reason we put a coin into the pocket of every suit we make. It’s for the boys. She said that you’ve got to give them something. For luck.’
Audrey finished up and moved onto the next corner. A car’s thunderous exhaust revved and roared outside, piping to be looked at, anxious for the attention. It had a force loud enough to make me wince but Audrey moved on unmindful. Her movements were guided by a surety of purpose that was birthed from more than mere habit. Whatever she was doing was a part of her soul and it would not be denied. And I envied her. Because I knew I would never have that within me.
Written by Adam O'Keeffe © 2015
Illustrations by Sinead Fox © 2015
These stories are inspired by, but in no way based on, the things we've been told. We want to make that clear. Anything contained within these pieces of fiction are just that, fiction. In here you will find tales of rich men, poor men, beggar men and thieves. None of them are real but all of them are alive.
Written by Adam O'Keeffe © 2015
Illustrations by Sinead Fox © 2015