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Stayers’ Hurdle

His eyes squint as the 6am light reflects off the plastic bags, cans and crisp packets of the Grand Canal. Portobello has never looked so good, as his legs struggle up the incline away from the city. The sound of the water makes him suddenly acutely aware of the thirst in his mouth, the remnants of warm beer long-replaced by an all-encompassing dryness with a sinister chemical edge. His stomach suddenly cramps, and the effort of the walk is now superseded by a fierce clench. Fifty-year-old bus driver shits himself on city bridge – the headline flashes before his fading eyes and a smile cracks out from his parched mouth. But he holds on and continues down towards Rathmines. And as he struggles down the main street past the barracks, the birds high up above the rugby pitch chirp. And he looks at the message scrawled on his hand – ‘Tomorrow the birds will sing’ – the marker still visible along with the minuscule cartoon birds in question. And he knows it to be true, for Dennis O’Kane has never felt this alive.

Twelve hours earlier, and it’s the 5.15 at Kempton Park. That was the big one. Circled in the Post over his corn flakes, there was some serious value to be had. Those heavy spring showers really fucked up both form book and favourite, and the various weather forecasts he’d seen placed a nice dousing for the greater London area right around 4. Brentford vs Burton would be a good indicator – throw a couple of quid on that, find some dodgy website from the Far East showing it and fire on 50quid on Paco’s Prince once the heavens opened over west London. That would take him right up to 6 o’clock or so, certainly late enough for a few celebratory cans of Lidl’s finest. Premium Pils for a premium Saturday.

The morning sun bounces off the metallic blue Fiesta outside his window. There was certainly no chance of it moving anytime soon – he’d heard the hippie girl next door come in fairly late last night, and come fairly heavily this morning. Yet another Saturday tradition in Grosvenor Gardens, one of the downsides of this cheaply built 1970s apartment block. The amber shine on the TV nearly stirred something in him, as it always did. Weekends spent punting and pinting in the rain suited him perfectly. Grey days were guilt free for a grey existence. But the sun was far more judgemental. It pierced the trees, emerging from a shadowy blue sky to permeate his ground floor flat and in one swoop of light ask the question – is this it? Is this really it? And the answer for the last ten years had been a yes, an anguished, numbed yes sustained by accumulators and aluminium Ales. An existence that he generally accepted as his destiny, but that stung on those sunny Saturday mornings to the soundtrack of a stranger’s sexual climax.

He crossed the Rathmines Road, interactions complete for another day. ‘That’s 6.89, do you have a Clubcard?’ ‘he’s in to 7s now, that ok?’ ’any change?’ A couple of old lads smoked angrily outside Grace’s pub, stale smell of Budweiser and farts permeating out the door. He’d given it a go, become a familiar face for a while, but it wasn’t quite him. Sometimes he could sup away in silence or pass a few comments on whatever was on in the corner. But there’d always be some loud cunt who would ruin it. Always had to get the last word in. ‘I’ll tell you this for nothing…’ That or bring up the missus. Or the kids. And he’d sit there and stare into his pint, pining for an inexistent memory.

5.18. The muck flies up past the leathery hooves as they approach the second last, Paco’s Prince beginning his charge to the front. The silver can begins to crumple under the tense grip as the heartbeat quickens. The warm pissy beer momentarily quenches the nervous dryness and the world is a distant back marker to the action. Clears the last in second, but the favourite is leggy as fuck and he knows it. The whip cracks frantically but it’s redundant as Paco’s Prince strides past, gliding over the heavy ground. Chuck a bit of rain down and those fancy English cunt horses don’t stand a chance. Paco’s Prince, descendent of some knacker horse and trained in the non-regal Roscommon storms it at 10s. Get the fuck in. And before the high diminishes the door knocks. What the fuck. Who the fuck. Ah sure g’wan the fuck.

‘Yes?’
Confused. Beautiful, but confused. ‘Simon?’
‘Eh sorry?’
‘Simon, the Airbnb?’

She’s not Irish, that much is clear. She’s also definitely not here to see him. Nobody looking like this would be standing here to see him. Come to think of it, nobody would be standing here to see him.

Victorious euphoria beginning to wear off sharply, as sweat forms on his neck.

‘I think you have the wrong door. No Simon or Airbnb here.’

Mild distress, and he notices the case for the first time. Noticed the wet hair as drips formed on his doorstep. Those spring showers clearly weren’t confined to west London, the change in weather having gone unnoticed by him.

‘Is not Airbnb?’
‘No’
I’m very sorry for disturb you.”

The sadness in her eyes. He’d never seen anything like it. Never been captivated by something so instantly, strongly and painfully.

‘No that’s ok. I wasn’t up to much. Where were you looking for anyway?’

Confusion again, but of a different type. The look of someone without a fucking clue what’s just been said. To be fair, communication had never been his strong point.

‘Ahhh – can you say again?’
‘Yeah where were you looking for? What address? House number?’ Speaking slower this time – fuck does she think I’m treating her like a retard? Sweat building, ads loudly interrupting in the background.
‘Ah yes, yes.’

She took her phone out. It was always these moments she’d mistype her pin. Had to be on some strange doorstep in some strange town, talking to a stranger who was speaking some completely alien form of English.

‘One moment’, as she cleared a comically large raindrop from her screen. A mutual laugh
‘Bit wet out there – was sunny and all this morning!’
‘Oh yes – oh no! I am too late’
‘Sure could be back in an hour – you never know’
‘Here – Apartment 3, Grosvenor Halls, Rathmines,’ Their heads briefly touched as she showed him the phone, a 21st century fleeting moment. She smelled like heaven, and he was immediately aware he smelled of Lidl Cans, a chipper and a 50 year-old batchelor with a Heinz-heavy diet.
‘Right so I’m 3 Grosvenor Gardens, Halls is the other side of the car park.’

More confusion.

‘C’mon I’ll show you.’

He stepped across the threshold and pointed her in the right direction.

She made her way across the potholed courtyard, and he felt a sudden urge to keep the conversation going.

‘Holiday is it?’
‘Yes yes – holiday!’ as she looked back at him through the rain.
‘Well you picked a great place!’ the sarcasm clear even through the linguistic border.

And as she entered into the building across the way she glanced back at him and laughed – ‘So far so good! Thank you!’

Door closes and for a few seconds he lingers outside. The tv is still on, horses being paraded for the next race. The horses that have paraded round that living room for the last ten years. Those fucking horses. He sits down, reaches for his can and takes a sip. 1m6f heavy going, grade 3. No clear favourite but fuck all value. Her scent lingers. Fuck all value. How many races has he watched with fuck all value. How much of his life has he spent sitting here. Fuck all value. His head is racing, his heart pumping. ‘What the fuck have you done. What the fuck have you done. Fifty years-old and this is it. Fifty fucking years!’ The remote smashing the wall startles him, as the batteries roll across his cheap, dark green carpet. And before he can stop himself the TV is off, his keys are in his hand and he’s gone.

The Dodder. It hadn’t been the best choice of route to evaluate his existence, as young life and love buzzed back and forth to Trinity Halls, repealing and appealing. But he’d made it to the Dodder, and now he sat and watched it flow. Briefly he thinks of jumping in. Not as a suicide thing – he’d never really been into that. More just to do something. But sure he’d only end up back in the depot in Donnybrook, only this time a wet miserable cunt. One adjective wasn’t going to change much. And then he thought of her. He wasn’t delusional. She must have been half his age, and if he was a Bohs she was a Barcelona. Short of a seriously dramatic injection of funds that wasn’t going to happen. But still. There was something more. Her eyes had so much life in them, so much expression. She was hardly going to fuck him or anything, but he felt she could help him. He felt she had to help him. And as the rain started to fall again to the rustle of wind and leaves he looked around and realised his thirty minute walk to this bench was the furthest he had walked in months or even years. Rocks parted the water as it surged down from the Dublin Mountains, currents merging together again effortlessly on their race to Ringsend.

Nature made it look so easy, like it was all part of an inevitable process. And for many years he had assumed life was the same. He’d sat and waited for it to happen. Waited for the girlfriend, the wedding, the kids, the grandkids – the milestones that those around him ticked off as they faded further from his life into their own. Friends from his road, lads from school, his brother, lads in work. ‘I met a bird,’ ‘I’ve been seeing that Sarah wan from round the corner,’ ‘lads got a bitta news – you’ll be needing your suits next summer!’ ‘its a boy!’ ‘Fucking Johnny’s got his girlfriend pregnant.’ It had always seemed so natural to them. Breathe, eat, love, live. And as the group left behind got smaller, the comments started to hurt a bit more. ‘Ah sure you just have to find the right one!’ ‘You’re better off without – they’re a fucking a nightmare.’ ‘How about you Dennis – any birds on the go?’ Like a sprinter on a mountain stage, when the peloton dropped you it hurt more. And there’d been the occasional glimmer, the odd hope of getting back on. A few dates here and there, a couple of the sexual hurdles cleared. But then just as he’d grabbed someone’s wheel the pace was cranked up, until eventually he’d let go. The river flowed on and the rock stood still.

‘Its beautiful, no? Is the Doo-Der?’

Jesus. It was her. What the fuck was she doing in Milltown?

‘Yeah yeah, lovely. We say the Do-dder though. Not many tourists come here! You get into the apartment ok?’
‘Ah yes yes. Thank you again! You come to the Do-dder a lot? Is a nice walk!’
‘Eh yeah.. no not too much no. Actually not for years.’
‘And today?’
‘Eh.. just felt like a walk. Good to stretch the legs I guess.’

A silence. Normally a silence was welcome – an escape route back to the sofa. But he’d already traded the sofa in for a wooden bench so he pressed on.

‘So what has you in Dublin?’
‘Holidays. Its not a normal place for holidays?’
‘I guess it is, but Temple Bar or the Guinnes Factory and all that stuff. Not really Rathmines and the River Dodder!’

She laughed. She didn’t fully understand him, though it was getting easier, but there was something comforting about him. His complete lack of sophistication, his honesty – there was no agenda here. There wasn’t going to be a subtle touch of her shoulder, or some invented shit about Brecht or Voltaire.

‘Exactly! Everyone goes there. I don’t come here to see more French people, or Spanish or Americans. I come to see Irish people and the… Dodder.’
‘Fair enough – sure Temple Bar’s a fucking shithole and the Guinness Factory is just 15 quid for a pint. And you’d get a better one down the local anyway.’
‘Local?’
‘Ah sorry – a local pub. One with no tourists.’

Was it technically a local if you hadn’t been in about four years? The place was rammed, the old lads seeking refuge in the passageway between the jacks and the smoking area as the younger crowd milled around the bar. She returned with two more Guinness. It may have been 4 years, but his memory was spot on about the pint Slatterys did.

‘Its got to be creamy, but smooth. Kind of velvety.’
‘But how can it be good in one pub and not another pub?’
‘It just is, but you can tell by looking at a place. No music, old lads and lots of wood – you’re getting a good pint. Pop music, disco lights and a plastic glass you may as well drink your own shite.’

He regretted the vulgarity but she loved it.

‘Ok, we need to compare it. I need to see.’
‘You want to drink shite?’
‘No! I want to try Guiness in another pub! To see the difference.’

Another pub, coming up with one had been a struggle. He couldn’t in all consciousness bring her near Grace’s, couple of the ones down in Donnybrook maybe…

‘You know the George Bernard Shaw?’
‘The writer?’
‘No no, is a pub. My friend lived two years in Ireland. Recommended it me. The same person who recommended me Rathmines!’

She looked him in the eye, almost conspiratorially. Flashes of decades ago, when a girl got that look in her eye. Annie Kelly in the Bleeding Horse, her hand resting on his leg. He’d almost blown his load. He knew this was different – very little chance of a fumble down Pleasants Place – but the glint was the same. And it was fucking magical.

‘Richmond Street’ as she showed him her phone.

That one. Mad looking place. Hipster, I believe the term is. Suddenly he was incredibly aware of his old corduroy trousers and baggy shirt resting on his belly of many years of neglect.

‘Ah yeah. You want to go there? Eh… yeah wouldn’t be my style I guess but yeah. sure go on. Bet you the Guinness is shite though!’

The wind on the street bit at her cheeks and cleared some of the brown, stouty fuzz from her brain. Maybe this was why they drank so much, because the weather smashed you sober. And suddenly the oddity of her situation forced itself on her. She had been in Dublin for a few hours. She was drunk. She was with a fat, old man. Well not grand-pere old, but 50+. 30 years older maybe? Travelling alone always hinted at some sort of romantic possibility, but this was certainly not one of them. This was not a George Clooney, not the mysterious Irish man her friends had joked about. ‘Oh you’re going alone? Interesting… Are you coming back alone?’ But she was having a great time.

‘Look I know I’m probably not who you pictured spending your night here with so if you want to head off or have friends to meet, that’s grand. No need to bring me along.’

The interruption, the silence the street, the traffic, It had thrown him. What the fuck was he doing here ruining this girl\s night? A sudden urge to run back to his comfort zone, grab a bag of chips, let off the fart he’d been sitting on for about 20 minutes.

‘No, no – come on! We have to try this other pint.’ She didn’t want him to go. She didn’t want to default to her people. She didn’t want to wander into Dublin, find people who looked like her. Find people who talked like her, thought like her. Find some guy who fucked like her and ate brunch like her. For this weekend she didn’t want that bullshit, the same lines and conversations. Pills and ruminations on Le Pen, house music and start ups.

He fucking hated this place. For someone who’d spent 4 years in silence watching horses on a moderately comfortable sofa, this was too much, too quick. He lifted his glass and the plastic threw another few millilitres of brown on his hand. Nothing worse than bad Guinness, but they’d hit a rhythm and he couldn’t change. The conversation had mostly been about her and Dublin. She fielded questions on the former, he was the expert on the latter. Twenty-five-years-old. From Paris. No clue who Neymar was and indeed it had nearly killed the conversation. Intrigued by Irish culture and had planned the trip with an ex. Decided to do it solo, hence in the Bernard Shaw with a fat bus driver.

The basics had been divulged earlier in round one – name, job and marital status. He was Dennis, she was Chloe. He drove buses, she worked in graphic design. He was single. She was single. The latter had segued into rounds two to six. The ex, The idea of Dublin. The mutual break up that turned out not to be so mutual. The drama of the French. Irish drama. Joyce. Behan. The great tradition of the drunken wordsmith, the tragedy settling at the bottom of the glass while the tomes travelled the world. But as the bell tolls for round 7, she lands the first decisive punch.

‘Were you ever married before?’ It was funny how rounds did that. A conversation could be halted mid-stream while beverages were acquired, and a completely new one struck up to herald their return. No warning, no context – each pint was its own snippet and this one Dennis O’Kane had been dreading more and more over the last ten years.

‘Eh, no. Never walked the plank, as they say.’
‘The plank?’

Fuck. The whole language thing. Sweat pores opened again, clocking serious overtime of a Saturday.

‘It’s an expression… but yeah, never got married’
‘Did you ever nearly get married?’

Ah here. That first punch developed into a sequence. Irish people wouldn’t ask you that. Must be a continental thing. He looked at her, her expectant gaze unaware of any faux-pas having being committed.

‘Nah, not really. I mean it depends on what you mean by nearly but.. no.. not even nearly.’ It really didn’t depend on what was meant by nearly.
‘Is normal in Ireland?’

Temporary relief, as she starts talking about declining marriage rates in France. How it’s fairly common these days for people to just co-habit. But he knows its only temporary and it’s time to throw in the towel.

‘Ah look, the truth is… I never really had anything serious.’
‘Serious?’
‘I… never really had what you would call a girlfriend.’
‘Ah.. you are gay?’ Says it like she’s solved a fucking puzzle or something.
‘Ah jaysus no.. I mean not that its a problem.. but look at me, I hardly look it, do I?’

She laughs, eschewing her default political correctness.

‘Well… no maybe not.’

He wants to leave. He wants to get up, throw his plastic pint over this crowd of young, happy cunts and retreat back to Rathmines. But she keeps looking at him. An expectant smile that knows he will submit. And suddenly he starts telling his story. A few dates in his late teens / early 20s, the odd ride up to his mid 30s and then nothing. Friends paired off and faded away. Those that remained would focus nights out on setting him up, the mortification of being shoved towards some poor girl in the corner to bore the ear off her for five minutes and apologetically move on.

‘Why?’
‘Eh.. like I said, just never really found anyone.’
‘No.. I ask why, not what. Why did you never ‘find someone?’

The air quotes. The jugular. Shame turns to anger, but still she smiles. There’s no malice there. There’s purpose.

‘I guess… I don’t know. I mean… I’m not exactly George Clooney, am I? I watch football and horses, I drive a bus and my diet is oven chips and pints.’

Silence. The smile, the stare but silence.

‘I was never good at talking to people. Like with a group I was ok, I could contribute. But one-to-one… I don’t know what to say. I never knew what to say. A rake of pints used to help, but even then…’

He trails off. There’s a lump forming in his throat.

Silence.

‘Like.. if I liked a girl I’d get nervous. I’d… I knew I wasn’t worthy. They’d want someone better.’

Silence. He’s struggling to keep it together.

‘Or I’d start thinking about what my mates would say.’ See them all in the corner laughing. ‘Dennis is after scoring some rotten bird – it was the pressure. I… I… I don’t know. I just don’t know.’
‘Dennis…’

She holds his hand. Relief. It’s over – he can sense it’s over.

‘If you do not love yourself, you will not love anybody else. If you do not love yourself, nobody will love you.’
‘What?’
‘You have to love yourself first. Before anything else.’
‘This advice would have been nice 20 years ago…’
‘Its advice for now. For today. You can start today’
‘Yeah… easy to say. Easy for you to say… you have everything going for you. You’re young, you’re beautiful, you’re… happy.’

Her smile doesn’t waver. Her glance doesn’t break.

‘And so are you. You can be beautiful, you can be happy… young… well ok, maybe not young.’

They laugh. A badly needed moment of comic relief.

‘I’m not beautiful though, and I don’t think I’m happy…’
‘Are you happy tonight?’
‘Tonight… until about 10 minutes ago!’

Meant as a joke, and she takes it that way. More laughter. Then silence. A longer silence and she finally looks away, as if she’s calculating something.

‘Ok, I know what we do. Tonight we have fun, and tonight we make you feel happy and beautiful. Wait here.’

His brain is fried. Piecing together the last few hours. Painfully regretting the last few decades. Pondering the next few minutes. Is she coming back? What’s she got planned? Am I getting sucked off here? The pints have definitely gone to the head.

She comes back and takes his hand. Something is pressed into his palm. Her eyes dart quickly around the smoking area.

‘Take this.’
‘What?’
‘Quickly! Take this!’
‘What is it?’
‘Ecstasy’

Drugs and love. Two things he’d never touched. And two things he’d seen consume a fair few mates.

‘Ah here, I don’t do that shit. Never have.’
‘You don’t go out drinking with young French girls either! Try! It’s not a lot, but you’ll like it. It will help you.’

She looks up at him, eyes expectant and insistent. He knows this only ends one way.

‘Now we can have fun.’

The thing is so small he barely feels it. If it weren’t for the slight chemical tinge in his throat he wouldn’t be sure he’d taken it. How the fuck does this tiny thing leave fellas on the floor?

‘So what’s supposed to be happening to me now?’
‘Nothing! It takes time. You’ll know when you know.’
‘I’ll take your word for it, but I’m not sure its going to do much to a big lad like myself.’

Forty-five minutes later and he’s standing at the bar by the dance floor. Warmth is rushing through his blood, words rushing out his mouth. The young lads he’s talking to are clearly loving the novelty of it, the novelty of him. but it’s love all the same. He sips his Becks and savours the surge of hops into his dry mouth. The dryness causes the briefest sense of panic and dread, the briefest moment of apothecary awe. How the fuck is something so small so powerful? But the anxiety is washed away as quickly as it arose, as this newly formed brain trust calculate he most likely drove them to school for 6 years.

‘I’m telling yiz, I drove that 16 bus for six years. Fucking hated you lot crowding the corridor in your fucking oversized blazers. Never got how yous were able to chat to any women at all looking like extras from a fucking production of Bugsy Malone.’

‘Did you know half of us were sneaking on without paying?’

‘Of course I fucking knew, You weren’t MI5 lads! Did I care was a different question. Whether Dublin Bus got their hands on your 50p or not was no real concern of mine.’

‘The shit we used to get up to on that top floor… smoking joints, getting hand jobs down the back.’
‘We saw it all. There was a few lads in the garage who were known for taking a bit too much interest in the cameras if I’m being honest.’

The conversation goes on, and Dennis is suddenly an observer, surveying the scene in front of him. The scene around him. The crowd is swaying, if not in unison, in generally asynchronous frantic motions to the music. Chloe hovers around making acquaintances but never moving too far away. And at the centre, there he stands. He knows he stands out. He knows there’s nobody like him, not even remotely like him there. He senses and sees the odd looks and comments from the shadows, the disdainful eye of the dickhead behind the bar. But he doesn’t care. He’s aware it’s the chemicals talking, but he doesn’t care.

Somewhere just off the South Circular Road. He sinks into a dusty sofa while around him people dance. Tiredness is taking over and the offer of ‘top ups’ sensibly declined.  The smell of spliff, so recognisable from so many routes, hangs heavily in the air. Out of the illicit smoke Chloe emerges from the impromptu living room dance floor. She sinks down beside him.

‘So?’
‘So?’
‘So did you have fun? Do you feel happy?’

Such a simple question, but he takes an age before answering. His brain struggles with the various computations and calculations.

‘I had fun. I definitely had fun. Compared to an evening of betting on the horses I had great fucking fun. But happy?…. It’s hard to say. I mean … yeah I was happy for the night, but like, tomorrow this is just a hangover and a memory. Maybe a story. It doesn’t change anything.’

‘Yes.. tomorrow you will feel terrible. And probably the day after that too! Maybe even in the next couple of hours.’
‘Cheers for that. Feeling much better now’
‘Ha well, you will feel terrible maybe. But you will also feel different. You will think and realise that happiness is possible. Life is possible. If you let your brain see it.’
‘So take these things every day?’
‘No! I think never take them again. But remember that feeling. Remember how you talk to me, to them, to yourself. Remember the difference to how you talk to yourself this morning.’
‘It does’t work that way. I mean I’ve gone drinking and been happy. Woke up the next day and felt shit. I know how this works.’
‘Dennis, do you like films?’
‘Cinema – do you like cinema?’

She likes these fucking random questions. Suddenly he’s properly fucking wrecked.

‘Eh yeah, I guess. I mean, everyone likes films, no? Look, I think I’m going to head. Leave you to it.’
‘My favourite film is with Charlie Chaplin. City Lights. It is a silent film, but there are words in it I never forget. The main character finds a man who is by the water. He is going to kill himself. And Charlie Chaplin, the main character, says this line to him.’

She takes his arm and turns it over. She has a marker in her hand. And then she’s writing.

He reads it. ‘Tomorrow the Birds will Sing.’

‘Tomorrow the birds will sing. Tomorrow can always be a better day than today. But you have to believe it and you have to make it happen. You will still have horrible days, you will still have horrible moments. But if you keep believing this, if you keep thinking of this message, you will be ok. Listen to the birds.’

She draws two little birds to complement her quote.

‘Do you always do this?’
‘Do what?’

She leans over and kisses him on the cheek.

‘Goodbye Dennis. Thank you for showing me Dublin and for showing me you.’

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