Four hours after his head gets kicked in, he’s wheeled into the A&E on a gurney. Splayed, supine, he looks like a crash test dummy; blood soils his tracksuit. Only the saliva oozing from his lower lip tells them he is human.
His breathing is shallow but steady, hence why none of the nurses see him. They think he’s sedated from the morphine. He is still dazed, but resurfacing. He keeps his eyes shut and listens, sneaking the occasional glance around the room to which he’s been brought. Best not draw any more attention, he tells himself.
The corridor they leave him in reeks of piss. He reckons it always does. Dried pools of blood splatter the floor; someone has recently tried to haphazardly mop them up. Bodies and scarring lie in both directions; from outside, the wail of sirens say yet more will soon come crashing through the door, battered and gory as he. Wearing blood-speckled gloves, nurses ricochet between patients, administering drugs and wrapping bandages. He hears a shrill bleeping noise followed by a monotone voice crackle over the intercom: “D reg to resus, please.” Passing around packing gauze or tubes, orderlies and paramedics shout to one another. A girl lies on the gurney next to his, frayed mini-dress blanketing her fractured limbs and her face smeared in mascara. On the other side, a man is awake, his shirt torn off and draped in IV wiring, a white tube bandaged to his wrist; he looks as if he is doing his best not to scream. Opposite them are a pair of lads covered in blood; some aul’ one wailing that she wants to go home, the drunk in the next stretcher making stifled gurgles, while a phlebotomist with panic in his eyes works hard on pumping his patient’s stomach. Wailing fills the air as a senior doctor stands at the centre, clipboard in hand, under the laser-like arc lights.
He doesn’t expect anyone to take much notice of him, because in the grand scheme of things, his injuries are minor. He’s probably one in a thousand that night at St. James’ Emergency Ward, and with a number like that, far more pressing concerns than his bloody mug go on around him. In rooms like this, blood is everything. It has to be preserved, or rinsed clean of whatever disease threatens to pollute it. And yet, for the nurses and medics, like antibiotics or stale coffee, it remains just another part of the job.
He must’ve been unconscious for hours. At first, he wonders what difference the initial injection makes. He is quiet, probably the only quiet patient in the entire ward. The pain, an insistent throbbing in his head, thuds at a low intensity, unlike before, when it had been the sun and the moon, the sum of all life, a rogue wave flooding his body, burrowing into every limb and pore, robbing him of even the sense to scream out. Or was that just his hangover, stinging vestiges of the cider he’d skulled back at the hall? But to be able to breathe normally again was a relief.
Niall Keane remembers nothing since he left the Dark Horse Pool Academy. He wasn’t brought here in an ambulance; that’s dead certain. Someone drove him here, in a van; someone whose face he can’t quite recall. No one knows he’d been out at the Dark Horse; not his ma or brother, nor even any of his mates. It might have been one of them who’d driven him here, someone who bolted the second they pulled up. But he shrugs that thought off.
The hospital personnel aren’t worried about him dying. If they were, they’d have seen him by now, wrapped his head in fresh bandages like a teenage mummy, and sent him home. That’s a good sign. He thinks.
He feels in his pocket; the solid square lump of his phone is a reassurance. Ma’s going spare, he just knows it. He sees her compulsively dialing his number and, once it goes to voicemail, leaving nervy, sob-wrenched messages for him to call her. The sound of his voice will calm her down, but only for a sec; she’ll bombard him with questions about where he is, and he’s in no humour for that.
All the same, as he takes the phone out, he curses under his breath: the black screen tells him the battery is gone. More so than letting ma know his whereabouts, he wonders again who dropped him off here in the first place.
Unmoved by all the chaos whirling around her, the senior doctor flip through her clipboard,. She has her eye on him. And with one eyelid open, Niall watches her turn to stride out toward the waiting room. None of the nurses seem to notice her leave. His vision is blurred; everything is unclear, fog-bound. Maybe she didn’t leave; maybe she hadn’t been there at all. He looks around; though he’s sure the noise in the room was close to operatic, he barely hears anything. Every agonized wail, every shout, every door-slam or slapping footfall from out in the corridor, amounts to a garbled drone in his ears.
How the fuck did y’end up here, Horsebox? Who brought yeh?
His brain swirls. He can’t concentrate; flares of light and sound, voices and faces he doesn’t recognize, drift and tangle through his skull like kelp, before sinking back into the ghostly murk of his subconscious. He’s unsure if he’s thinking to himself or babbling aloud.
Well, sure, in a place like this, does it really bleedin’ matter?
Damo’s voice rustles in his head. As it always does in moments of crisis.
He wonders how many people in the ward will die tonight. No matter how hard the medics try, how much they inject or cut or bandage, he knows he’s sharing a room with a few soon-to-be corpses. Perhaps the nurses and medics know who’s doomed and who isn’t before they even set to work on them.
But we’re all soon-to-be corpses, Horsebox. No-one gets a pass from tha’ queue.
Rapid and fleeting, a shiver of panic, cuts through him: will he die as well? Can you die from a headwound that isn’t a bullet?
So I believe, Horse. Depends on how much blood you’ve lost.
How many others in the room have head wounds like his? Is he the worst to roll into the A&E that night? No, he couldn’t be. At least he’s sentient. He hasn’t forgotten his name. He’s not knocked out cold; the concussion didn’t kill him. But he’s going to vomit any second.
It’s then that he remembers how he ended up there.
The usual shite of a Wednesday evening kicks off, but in a different place this time. The place being the Dark Horse, the time being after dark. It’s one of those pubs tourist manuals make a point of ignoring. Every county in Ireland has at least twenty of them. The boozers that time forgot.
It’s a kip, an ancient kip. Despite the smoking ban, a tang of stale nicotine still ghosts it. Niall’s been inside three times already. It huddles at the end of Talbot Lane, an unwashed relic refusing to die well into the new millennium. Walking through its doors is like entering a filthier end of recent history, when people were masters at being skint and cheerless. The same five or six aged pissheads sit slumped over their pints, on any given night, with only the ticking of a clock for company. Des, the place’s lone, unsmiling barman, eyes all newcomers like he’s a hawk. The Clancy Brothers or Wolfe Tones or something similarly lachrymose blare harshly from the antique jukebox. Beams of dusty, slender light ooze through the lace-curtain window. The cigarette machine by the jacks glimmers for a euro. Cracked photos of everyone from Connolly and Pearse, Michael Collins, JFK, Archbishop McQuaide and Yeats, along with grainy, archival shots of Dublin from the early twentieth century, clog the wall like a hall of withered fame. There’s no cash register; an old jam jar half-full with coins and rumpled banknotes, placed beside the beer taps, waits for the night’s earnings.
It doesn’t even have that aura of dangerous glamour that such places reputedly have; it’s just a kip. ‘Strictly over 21s!’ reads the sign above the entrance, but no-one’s ever bothered asking for his ID. One look inside tells him that things like late licenses and IDs aren’t a major priority in the Dark Horse.
The more Niall is warned against going in there, the more his curiosity grows.
It’s the pub’s poolroom, below in the converted basement, that gets him. It’s where the younger crowd goes; it’s where the billiards and dartboard are. They stay here after hours. They congregate at the table, arrange the red and yellow balls in a perfect triangle under the lamp. Once the cue clacks off the white ball to scatter them, the game starts in earnest. Of curlicues, ricochets and pensive maneuvers, scores are vigilantly kept. Like sharks in a tank, you and the lad you’re playing against circle each other, choosing your targets, knowing the others will watch your every move. Every time you sink a ball or miss a shot, roars of approval or mockery bounce off the walls like a war-cry. But pool isn’t a yob’s game – you need to have a plan. The games usually go on long after midnight, closing time is never too strictly enforced, and there are usually girls around.
No girls tonight, sadly. On a Wednesday, there never are. Felt most keenly by the lads, their unaddressed absence is an overwrought dearth that sinks into each boy’s bones, sullying the air like the cigarette smoke they exhale.
Niall’s surprised there is no Garda van parked out across the way. Though he’d never admit it, the lads intimidate him with their pugnacity, their arch and profane banter, their predatory laughter at seeing him in their zone. They’re not unlike the lads at school; but these are men. Lords of the late hours, afraid of nothing and no-one. They make most of the cunts he has to call peers look like choirboys. Under their words seethes real danger, and he wants to join in. Finally, he dares himself to head out there, slipping down the laneway like a man going undercover.
On a crisp March evening, bag sagging off one shoulder and resolve in his eyes, he stalls it into town on a DART. He gets off at Tara Street and shapes across the river to the northside, cutting down the side street which winds past Marlborough Lane, gulping from a can of Karpackie. Sporting his hoodie and Reeboks, he looks as dodgy and feral as any seventeen-year-old with no street smarts can hope to, in that part of the city. His phone’s switched off and no-one knows he’s here. The few mates he does have probably think he’s at home, spliffing it up by himself. His ma thinks he’s at evening study; she’s better off being left in the dark.
In a week’s time, he’ll be sitting the first of his mock exams for the Leaving Cert; he’s done fuck-all study, and has fuck-all intention of starting. The life’s being slowly but surely sucked out of him with each day he spends hunched over one of the flaked and graffiti-slathered desks, trying to get his head around maths, geography or whatever they advise he fills his brain up with, in order to pass the year. Evening study, past papers, CAO applications; his head is wrecked by it all.
Mainly, he does it for his ma,; to keep her happy and off his case. But if he were honest with her, in a way he knows he never can or will be, he’d say he wants out, that school’s a waste of time, that he’d just love to get hold of an Uzi and several pipe bombs and detonate the place, teachers and students alike, out of existence. He loves his ma, but since Damo fucked off to Australia, he’s now the centre of her world. All her hopes and dreams rest on his shoulders.
“When you’re older, son,” she’ll say, eyes proudly glazed, “you’re goin’ to be huge. Brains to burn, so y’have.” And the way she says it, elated and satisfied, as if she’s witness to a heaven-sent miracle, really gets on his wick. Like it’s a sure thing, done and dusted. If he’s heard her say it once, he’ll hear her say it until his ears bled. These past two years, she’s been like an Antichrist about the whole thing.
Her thinking is, he’ll go on to pass his Leaving Cert, then get into college and earn a degree guaranteed to land him a good job, with generous wage packets and a good pension at the end of it. If this happens, he’ll be the first in the family to ever go to college. What he’ll actually study when he gets there, he hasn’t a clue, and nor does she. English or Art or History, maybe, because they’re the only subjects he’s ever been any good at; they’re also the three most useless degrees he can hope to pursue. Or so Damo always tells him. Better off doing Engineering, or Computer Science; at least they’ll get him somewhere job-wise.
But Niall doesn’t want a job. Or good marks, or a decent Leaving, or prospects, or any of that shite adults keep insisting he should want and have. He’s a different future lined up for himself.
He isn’t like his brother Damo, who left school in fifth year and immediately went to Sydney for work. Ma had high hopes for him, too; but Damo was too thrill-seeking, too hungry for adventure to remain in Ireland and was always more outgoing, more eager to throw himself into the scrum of life than Niall had ever been. He probably laughed to himself when the recession hit; the only man in Ireland to do so. It gave him the perfect excuse to get out. Most of his mates expected him to leave soon; and Niall was no different.
After overstaying his visa, Damo was living illegally in Sydney for two years; he’d ended up doing three years on FIFO work in Perth. A few of his mates had already been arrested and flown back to Ireland when their own visas were overstayed.
Most of this he told Niall late at night over Zoom; Niall’d watch the fuzzy image of his brother on the laptop, the day-glo sheen of Damo’s work-jacket stinging his eye. At the other end of the world, his brother is just up and getting ready for work. The conversation always ends with him having to leave. Damo treats these sessions like he’s a Delphian master-guru, sacred and sage, and Niall is a pilgrim seeking his counsel.
“I don’t wanna come back, man. It’s buzzin’ down under,” he’d declare, in the cheerfully defensive tone he took when trying to avoid explaining himself. “I’m free out here. And sure look, you’re wasted on the aul’ 9-to-5. ’Course, the aul’ 9-to-5 doesn’t even exist anymore, but how and ever. Y’aren’t meant to be bolted up in some shithole office, firin’ emails back and forth all fuckin’ day. That’s just the dead end, man. No, you’re better and smarter’n tha’. Smarter than me, you. Better off bein’ your own man. There’s fuck-all else y’can ever be.
“Lemme ask yeh somethin’, Horse,” he says, lacing up his work boots. “You’re a big boy now. Have y’no plans for yourself, no? No job lined up for the summer, even?”
“Ah, man, don’t start this again, I’m not in the humour,” Niall wants to snarl, but even over the crackly monitor, Damo’s stare commands a response.
He says, “Dunno what I want to do. Maybe head out there and join yeh. Lookit, I’m just tryin’ to keep Ma happy. It’s not like she’s got anyone else. I’m goin’ for the grant to get in as well –”
“Y’are in yer bollocks,” Damo cuts him off. “Ma lives in a fuckin’ dream world, man. They’re only exams, like. They won’t get yeh anywhere, not anymore. I know they tell yis all this, that yis need to get by in life. Believe you me, they fed us the exact same shite in school, but lookit. I’d no Leavin’ comin’ out here, but here I am, workin’ away in the sun with any number of mots to ride on any night of the week. Spendin’ cash like a mad thing, me. Would y’not join me, Horse?”
Niall peers at the screen. “Y’know I would, man. But Ma needs me around.”
“Y’need to break free of her. For yourself, like.”
“Ah, but I am. I’ll be headin’ off to college, sure. It’s what I want to do.”
“Is it, though? Or has Ma just been drillin’ into your head all these years that it’s what y’want?”
Niall’s teeth clamp. Deep down, there’s a germ of truth to what Damo says. But Niall won’t give him the satisfaction of staying quiet. He tries to keep his voice even and low, so as not to wake his Ma in the next room.
“It’s far better than fuckin’ off to Australia when things get rough.”
“Here, I’m glad I fucked off! I’m after makin’ a shaggin’ life for meself, Horsebox. What was I at before this? Beyond pissin’ about on the streets of Dublin? No cash. No future and no fuckin’ prospects. You tell me what’s worse, yeah? Gettin’ the fuck out ’cos there’s nothin’ to live for, ’cept waste away on the dole, maybe?”
His breathing crackles over the monitor. Niall gives him a moment. “So why’d y’leave?”
“To improve, why’d y’think? For the fuckin’ scenery?”
“Well, no, but – ”
“Everyone I was in school with either fucked off like me, or else stayed back there to rot. Hopelessness, man, it’s a disease. Bad as the fuckin’ cancer. I was browned off in Dublin; I felt like an eejit with no life. I was an eejit with no life. And I wasn’t alone, believe you me. People act surprised that the suicide rate’s goin’ up. Doesn’t surprise me at all. Y’lose hope, so y’do. Ma’s kitchen knife starts to look like the right answer when y’can’t see nothin’ ahead. But not me. I didn’t want to rot at home, hopin’ things’ll get better, ’cause we both know they won’t. I’ve more experience now. And you should start doin’ the same.” Then, before signing out, he flashes a gleeful little smirk and asks: “So, ’mere to me, Horse: how’s the oul’ LC gettin’ on? Studyin’ hard, yeh?”
This time, Niall decides to cut him off. He leans forward and says, casually as he can: “Tell us, d’you know where I can find Oren Collins?”
The smirk disappears. “Whajusay?”
“Where’s he? I’ve a thing I’d like to run by him -”
“Here, you’re not to be hangin’ ou’ with him. He’s a fuckin’ dirtbird, tha’ chap!”
“I thought he was yer mate.”
“Yeah, was me mate! ’Til I got wise to him. Man, look, stay away from the likesa him. He’s not worth the shite on your boot heel!”
It’s at that point that Niall hits the ‘end call’ button and logs out.
“D’yeh know who he is?”
“No. Never seen him before. He’s just some kid’s after ambled in. Shouldn’t’ve even been there, like.”
“But y’brought him here in the van.”
“Course I did. Coulda been my kid, man. Or yours, or anyone’s. Couldn’t just leave him there to bleed, like.”
“Yeah, true enough.”
“But man, every night in tha’ fuckin’ place, a few digs do be always gettin’ dished out.”
“Who else was there?”
“Oren fuckin’ Collins. He did this.”
“Well, of course he was, and of course, he did. Holdin’ court, as per fuckin’ usual.”
“And sure, when is he not? Only the king of tha’ kip, so he is.”
“Not after tonight, he won’t be.”
“He’s been in a bad way recently, from what I’ve seen. Ever since his brother died.”
“Mmm. Heard abou’ tha’. Topped himself, didn’t he?”
“He did, yeah. And it was Oren who found the body.”
“Hard thing to do. To bury someone tha’ young, I mean. Wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
“Doesn’t excuse any of this, though.”
“Gas thing is, he says he’d be doin’ fine, though, tryin’ to just get on with it, y’know? Not that I’d ever ask him about it, mind.”
“That was how long ago now?”
“The funeral was only a few months back. He wasn’t at it, I heard.”
“Fuck. And how was he tonight?”
“Ah, sure, y’know Oren. Full of piss and vinegar. Givin’ it loads tonight, so he was. More’n usual, if I’m bein’ honest.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, he was playin’ against Niall, and he must have missed a shot, ’co Niall started takin’ the piss out of him. Only havin’ a laugh like, anyone could see tha’. But, before y’know it, he gets a dig in the head with the bottle.”
“Fuck. Are y’serious?”
“That’s just not on.”
“I know. Oren’s after goin’ too shaggin’ far this time. He was always well able to look after himself, but it’s not a man he’s after bottlin’ here. It’s a kid, man! And that kid’s now lyin’ in that A&E over there, with his head in fuckin’ bits.”
His arms shake in tiny, fitful jolts. He can’t stop or still them – they move on their own, mutinying against the rest of him. Niall’s blinks are rapid, in an attempt to clear his vision. Again, his skull has begun to boil and, as if in time to his ever-quickening heart, that scar on his cranium throbs threatenening to unsew the crumbly, discoloured stitching that like a track-mark, trails down his face. Along with his body, the gurney’s rocking slightly as his fingers quicken and curl into claws.
Now unglued, Niall swims in and out of an ether where colour and noise bubble and erupt at him. If he was even able to scream out, in fear, more than any kind of pain, he doubts it’d make any difference.
Say that again, y’little shitebag. I fuckin’ dare yeh.
He knows that voice, and never wants to hear it again, least of all in his head. Reaching up, he runs a shaky finger over the wound where his flesh was punctured. Beneath the gauze, he feels the dried crust and somehow, the bandage has come undone so that the blood is soaking through. Life is seeping out of me, he thinks. Like bilge from a ship, torrents of vitality ooze down his jaw, in oily teardrop, and with every heartbeat, another wave of it leaves him.
I’ve no problem breakin’ your skull, pal.
Fighting isn’t his bag, and, he reckons, never will be. He’s always known better than to fire his gob off. Enough lads in his year have gotten their heads kicked in for less. He keeps to himself. For the full six years he’s been there, school is still a jungle. The lads rule the tarmac roost, smoking out in the lane and getting their pick of the girls. During lunch, when they’re all off playing football on the waste patch behind the prefabs, he retreats to the library, barricading himself among the shelves and dust-gathering spines where he knows no-one’ll find him. A will to survive drives him to do this, hammered into him by years of taunts, threats and clenched fists. He knows what an easy target he is, what ripened prey he makes for the hounds. He’s sick to his back molars of being afraid, of walking the gauntlet formed by their stinging tongues and casual cruelty, of always falling for whatever wind-up they drop. He’s determined to demonstrate, if only to himself, that he can run with the lions. The real hard men, the ones that even his schoolyard tormentors fear. Any funny looks and they’d gladly dance on your head. All of them sound as a pound one minute, raring to hit you a box the next. Too much hassle hanging out with them, his mates’d say. Fuck them all, he thought. Half of them’ll be locked up or dead before they reach thirty.
Do yourself a favour, son. Don’t slag off a fella y’don’t bleedin’ know.
What the fuck did he say to set him off? Had to have been something. Niall knew he wasn’t being cheeky; he hadn’t been trying to make a show of Oren, he was only having a laugh. Oren had a temper, but he wasn’t a headcase. At least, not before tonight he wasn’t. Niall knows none of the lads really like Oren very much, but Des lets him hang around the Dark Horse because he keeps them in line. Des is a decent skin. No way would he have let Niall lie there and bleed.
By now, the ether is rolling over him. The nurses don’t notice him drift off. He wonders if Oren even said half the things he remembers him saying.
More than anything, he could do with a spliff. His brother’s words thud through his skull. He clears his throat.
“Fuck up, Damo,” he says aloud.
His nerves crackle steadily; he wishes he’d a few cans more. The Karepckie wasn’t enough. He suddenly remembers to slow his footsteps, let his arms hang more freely by his sides, and loosen his schoolbag’s buckle. Even with the gargle in his veins, he doesn’t feel any braver.
Down the lane, the Dark Horse looks like it’s waiting for him. A red-gold neon shimmer bleeds from the doorway, flanked by garish signs of ‘Strictly Over 21s!’ and ‘BYOB’. Niall is glad no smokers huddle outside. His eye is drawn to a battered Honda 600, padlocked to a nearby pole. He knows that bike; knows better than to go near it.
The hand painted sign tacked to the entrance grabs his eye: a horse’s silhouetted head against a burnt-gold background, flanked by two pool cues crossing one another, and the place’s name stenciled in bulky, Germanic lettering: Dark Horse Pool Academy. The low pulse of grind music throbs in his ears, like a heartbeat. It gives him little spur to linger.
Niall glances up and down the lane, alert for anyone. He makes for the door, aware that somewhere above him, a security camera is monitoring and storing away his face, his clothes, his shuffling movements, before he stops in his tracks.
He finds himself standing there for a long time. He keeps his eye off the bike. Once or twice, someone walks down the opposite direction; seeing him on his own, in the soiled flicker of the hall’s entrance, and they pause, before carrying hurriedly on. Each time, he tries to catch their eye and hold it; they glance warily at him before quickening their pace. A junkie shambles past and eyes him for a second before shuffling back off into the nighttime crowds.
He’s prepared for tonight. As Damo’d say, “Never go anywhere without a plan.” There’s only one way to get in with Oren – shoot a nifty game of pool. Niall knows he couldn’t play pool or hit the rails for shite, but that’ll soon change. With more dedication and enterprise than he’d ever shown in his life, he gave himself a month to hone his skills. Then he’d seek out Oren.
The excuse he spins his Ma is, he’s either still at evening study, or else staying over at his mate Dalty’s gaff. During that full month he claims to be studying for his mocks, he’s trawled the halls, every evening and weekend well spent sharpening his skills. A quick google search tells him where all the best tables are to be found. He’s played pool in Ryan’s, Fibbers, and even the Hideout – but the Dark Horse is where the real action is.
He keeps an eye on his phone, so he can get home in time without arousing suspicion. Away from her prying eye, he’d wander in and see who he could get. The money she gives him for food ends up going on a game or a practice session – if there were any takers to his offer. He just hopes she doesn’t get worried and ring up the school to see where he is – that’ll be the end of him.
Both games and practice are vital. He found he enjoyed pool; took to it more naturally than anything else in his life. Most of the lads he played against were men, with jobs and lives and experience, some of them just in for a quick after-work gargle and a game. He ran balls, sussed out which tables were good for a hustle. At the very least, it was better than being trapped in evening study or gurning over Facebook at 3am.
The owners realized he wasn’t looking to get served or even cause hassle, just to shoot a good game; they left him to it, mostly. Niall didn’t drink when out there – he knew better than to expose himself. Kept himself confined to Cokes or Fantas. He had to, especially in the Hideout. The men who played there took full advantage of the BYOB policy, downing several cans to his single coke. Niall noticed this made them less steady on their feet, and no matter what their billiards skill was, less capable of pocketing balls with quite the same level of dexterity. He knew better than to feel shame if he lost – everyone likes a graceful loser, after all – and it wasn’t as if they were playing for champion-hood. If anyone got suspicious, he could run for cover elsewhere. Better off if he stayed quiet.
Gradually, Niall began playing a better game. His natural reticence allowed him to sharpen his eye to an opponent’s skills: his means of maneuver with a cue, the speed of his hits, how he handled defeat or the fact that he was losing to a kid. Soon he was playing as many as five, six or seven games a night, and winning most, if not all, of them. They were quiet games, and he knew better than to bet with cash he didn’t have or to shoot his gob without being able to back up his claims. He learned and memorised both the written and unwritten rules of 8-ball and 9, one-pocket or bank. The glare of overhead lamps. 9-foot-tables. A ball that isn’t struck by a cue tip meant a foul. Feel free to shark if you want your head kicked in.
He wasn’t aiming to be champion – it was just a means to an end.
Still, Niall knew staying quiet meant they’d distrust him – the fact that he looked younger than he was, not even shaving yet, still made them write him off. Anywhere else, this would have melted his head – but in poolrooms, it could be underestimated and used to his best advantage. Once or twice some hothead he’d just bet hauled him off the floor by his shirt-front, and others rushed to his defence.
Finally, he pours the dregs of his can into a drain, throws his shoulders back, and heads inside.
There’s no-one behind the bar. The pissheads don’t look up; he trundles past them to the door at the far end, down the narrow stairway leading to the poolroom, Reeboks clumping on each steel-edged step. Music rises to meet him, Dropkick Murphys blaring raucously from a jukebox somewhere. He pushes open the door.
Standing in the doorway, carrying a tray loaded with empty pint glasses, is Des.
Des the barman doesn’t even blink as he takes him in. Of everyone there, he doesn’t look like he belongs. Niall expects any employee of the Dark Horse to be a tattooed, anabolic-fuelled gouger at the very least, with a hurley stick at the ready for anyone who dares order a white Russian, not this lean, balding fella of nearly sixty, wearing a black work shirt with the hall’s logo stenciled on the breast, who strains a little under the weight of his tray and stares hard at him and his schoolbag. Des’s specs make him look more like a scholar of Jesuitical philosophy than the night manager of a northside shithole; half-moon, they catch the dim light. Just over his shoulder, Niall sees the place’s logo again, the silhouetted horse and crossed cues, framed and nailed to the far wall. A pool table stands in the centre of the room, like an altar. Suspended above it is a low-hanging lamp, spilling a harsh radiance over its green, faded cloth. A cluster of lads are gathered at it, talking, laughing, sculling pints. Two are engrossed at the baize, several rounds in. Their abrasive chatter eddies in a cavernous, nonstop clamour.
“Here, what’re you at?” Des barks.
“I… I’m just here for a game,” Niall replies.
“No games for y’tonight, kid. G’wan home to yer mammy.”
Niall looks at him, hating the feeble, snivelling quality his voice has taken on. “Here man, I only want to have a game, like. Could y’not gis a chance, no?”
Des jerks his head with a sage click of the tongue. “Y’shouldn’t be down here. There’s nothin’ for you, kid. ’Mon, out.”
“Ah, man, are y’serious?”
“Out, now! I won’t tell y’again.” The sudden ferocity with which the bald, spindly man speaks is quite jarring.
Before he can answer, Niall hears the squelched gurgle of a toilet flushing, as one of the lads skulks out of the jacks, wiping his hands on his trousers. He clocks Des at the door and pauses. He sees Niall, narrows his eyes.
“Here, are you not Damo Keane’s brother? Fuck me, y’are! How’re y’keepin, kid?”
Niall looks up at the newcomer.
“Alrigh’, Oren. Whatsa crack?”
He doesn’t notice Des’ head whip back to Oren, nor does he see his look of concern as Oren approaches Niall, pumps his hand up and down in a single grasping shake.
“Jaysus, man, lookat ye. All grown up since I seen y’last.” Oren’s teeth flash. “Yer a right little hard man now, wha’? Last time I saw yeh, y’were barely outta yer nappies. Niall, isn’t it?”
“It is, yeah.” Though he’d never admit it, a flicker of pride that Oren remembers his name hits Niall.
“Nice one, kid, fair fucks. Great t’see y’doin’ your brother proud. So what’sa story anyway? What has y’down these parts?”
“Well, thing is, I was lookin’ to head down and just, y’know, have a few games. Don’t think yerman over there wants me in, though.”
Oren stares at him for a second and then at Des, who’s watching with stern-faced discontent, and smirks: “Don’t mind him, man, y’can have mine, sure. And anyway, no better place for a game than here. I’ll be shootin’ a few balls meself with onea them tossers now in a sec. ’Mon over, sure, let’s get mouldy.” He turns to Des: “Here, Dessie, bring us down two pints there, will yeh?”
It’s a command and not a question. Des walks upstairs, shaking his head.
“There’ll be some craic had tonigh’ kid, donchu worry.” Oren steps in, prowling for the table. Niall scuttles after, nearly tripping over a loose shoelace as he goes.
“Gis a shot of yer cue there,” Oren barks at no-one in particular. One of the lads promptly hands him the one he was using.
“So, what happened after?”
“Well, Oren stood over him, breathin’ hard like he was after runnin’ a marathon. He stared at all of us, and at Des. Next thing y’know, without a word, he drops the glass and legs it outta there like a hot snot.”
“Yis were all reelin’, I’d say.”
“Man, no joke, I kept askin’ meself, did he just do that? I mean, it just happened so fuckin’ fast, like. And lookit, I’ve seen Oren do damage before, but this is diff’rent.”
“Well, Des, fair play to him, was the first to snap out of it. He checked Niall’s pulse and then he told me to put him in the van and bring him out here. No time to call an ambulance. Your man’s pumpin’ blood out’ve him like a mad thing. I was too in shock to say no. And anyway, if Des gives y’an order, y’ don’t be askin’ questions, y’just work away and do it.”
“Well, fair balls for mindin’ him. And y’didn’t just fuck off after y’left him?”
“Well, how could I, man? I’ve to make a statement of some description soon enough.”
“Will the guards be in, d’yeh think?”
“They will, yeah, for all the fuckin’ good they’ll be. They’re great for the aul’ secrets in that kip. I know I won’t be sayin’ a word to them.”
“Will y’be here for much longer, d’yeh think?”
“I’ve to make a statement. For when the guards arrive, like. And it’ll take a while. I just know it, man.”
Oren slips a twenty-cent coin into the table’s side-slot and presses it. There’s a hollow rumble as the balls slide up to the return box from the collection chamber. Rollie tucked behind his ear, Oren reaches gently inside, the leather stitching on his forearm twisting as he draws the balls out in twos and threes, like plucked fruit. As he racks them up, Niall can’t help but notice he’s grinning at him, a whetted incisor jutting over his lower lip. In the lamp’s buttery glare, Oren looks like a leering, unshaven prince.
“So tellus, how’s yer bro? Been fuckin’ yonks since I seen him last.”
“He’s sound,” says Niall.
“He still down under?”
“He is, yeah. Fucked off to work out in Sydney. Might end up havin’ to follow him out there someday soon. Leave this fuckin’ kip behind.”
“But he’s never been back since, no?” says Oren, frowning. “Not even to visit, like?”
“If he has, no-one told me.”
“He still bummin’ lads?” Oren peers at him and grins, but a nasty crease tugs at his mouth. He snorts. “’Monly messin,’ Soldier. He’s sound, your brother. Always was.”
“So I believe.”
“And so, c’mere, it’s just you and him, yeah? You’ve no other brothers, sure y’don’t?”
“I don’t, no. Just me and Damo flyin’ the flag.”
Oren smirks. “Good man. And c’mere, how long’s it been since I see y’last?”
“Few years now, it’s been.”
“’Wan outta tha’.”
Oren is on the reds, and he’s soundly beating Darren, the fella whose cue he took, who now leans on his own, keeping watch. Oren stoops warily over the top rail, elbow drawn back as he readies his shot. The cue strikes the ball in a clean, straight hit; there’s a clack and the ball rolls from the left cleanly into the corner pocket. Oren throws his arms wide messiah-style.
“Ah, fuckin’ whopper!” he howls.
“Nice one, Oren, fair play to yeh,” Darren, beaten, says timidly.
“Skills, bud. They can’t be bought,” Oren replies, moon-dancing back and forth.
“Yeah, good man, Oren,” Niall tries calling out, but no-one’s listening.
The others give various approving grunts and mumbles as Des returns with Oren’s round. Oren hands him a folded-up tenner as he places two frothing pints on the rail.
“’Man, Des, you’re a star,” he says. “Dig in, Young fella.”
Niall takes his pint with both hands, ignoring Des’s owlish glance. So far no-one’s said a word to him, or even made anything of his presence, but Niall’s fully confident that, from now on, getting served in here should be a doddle.
The poolroom smells of disinfectant, with the residual reek of BO hovering in the air. Des keeps the place in good nick. Every square inch is scrubbed and polished to the point of sparkling. From doorway to table rail to ‘Exit’ sign, there’s no dust or spillage, not a hint of a stain anywhere. Even the scuffed floorboards are well-swept.
Niall sips his pint, grimacing at the creamy flow of wheat on his tongue. One or two lads, he notices, look his own age, which boosts his confidence a bit, but not too much. He listens to scraps of conversation: one of them loudly boasting about some Estonian bird he claims to have shagged in a hostel down in Kerry, another talking bollocks about joining the Foreign Legion, hardest bastards in Europe, maybe the world, while his mate scoffs and tells him to fuck off with himself.
They shoot pool like they’re born for it. Some for cash, others for pride or thrills; there’s no sole reigning champion. Anyone might wear the crown. And if girls are there, which may well be the case later on, the stakes are acutely higher for everyone.
Niall keeps an eye out, but especially on Oren. He’s dangerous, his own man. Always has been, ever since he hung out with Damo in school. Oren was in Damo’s year, but got expelled long before he even did his Junior Cert. Ma never liked him.
Them and their mates used to get gee-eyed on cans up in Damo’s room. Niall remembers lurking out in the hallway, feeling puny and inane, wishing he could join in, the scent of hash and the sound of lads’ stoned grunts seeping from under the door as they played Xbox to the hammering boom of Tupac or NWA or The Game, or else madouaveh in the field behind the estate.
Oren owns the Honda parked outside, but Niall remembers him tearing up and down that field on his old scrambler, a mucky roostertail spurting up from the grass behind him, its abrasive buzz echoing for miles. Now, it seems, he’s graduated on to even louder, shittier things.
Oren was a mad cunt, even then; in the breadth of a spark, things’d go from grand to haywire whenever he was around. There were lads four, five, six years older scared of him. The few times Niall met him, he always seemed to have a new black eye. Once, he saw Oren headbutt one of his mates just for asking if he’d a spare smoke. He didn’t know if it was the lads’ tense laughter, or the blood jetting from your man’s nose when he finally picked himself up off the floor, that shook him more. The last Niall saw of him was at Deco’s going-away piss-up before he left for Australia, three years back; he ended up getting barred from the pub they were in, for hitting the bouncer a dig. A few months ago, Niall friended him on Facebook, purely, he’d told himself later, on a whim. That was how he first heard of the Dark Horse.
Most lads in Damo and Oren’s year ended up either on the dole or jabbing their veins full of gear; Damo got out by going to Sydney; Oren somehow avoided it. Throwing shapes and headed nowhere fast, he couldn’t give a single flying fuck. In fact, right now, he’s sucking diesel. When in the Hall, he always is, but everyone knows not to set him off. The lads surround him while he hogs the table and banter, scabbing smokes or coins and always at the top of his lungs. He’s the closest the place has to a bouncer. Even when standing still, he’s either tapping his foot or darting his eyes around the room.
Whatever deformed home life he comes from, he makes sure only his most trusted mates know. No Leaving Cert, no qualifications. He works part-time as a bike courier for one of the smaller city-centre firms, whenever he’s not happily pissing away his dole on mots, pints or the Dark Horse.
And he’s only just in from work now: his biker jacket still clings to his torso like armour, even though the Hall’s roasting; his helmet rests on a stool.
Niall takes a longer sip. He gasps and splutters, grips the bar to steady himself. Oren suddenly notices and eyes him with malign glee.
“Here you, Youngfella, d’yeh fancy a game?”
All conversation dies down; it’s as if the volume of the place has been suddenly shut off.
“Yeah, no bother,” Niall says, doing his best to sound nonchalant.
“Fuckin’ whopper,” replies Oren, handing him a cue.
“Darren, is it?”
“Doc, howiya. ’S he alrigh’?”
“He is alive, fortunately -”
“Ah, thanks be to fuck.”
“- but I’m afraid he’s still falling in and out of consciousness. We’ve notified his mother and she’s on her way down here now.”
“Ah, Jaysus. D’you know when he might wake up?”
“I’m afraid there’s no telling with this kind of trauma. He took a fairly hard blow to the head.”
“I know, sure. Wasn’t it me who brought him here?”
“Well, yes, of course. Anyway, I just want to inform you that you’re not yet free to go. I have a few forms I need you to fill out first.”
“Will the guards be along, d’yeh reckon?”
“They usually are, in cases like this. They’ll want a statement off you.”
“Ah, here. They’ll be a long time waitin’.”
“I was just told to bring him here. I saw fuck-all with what happened him.”
“But weren’t you on the premises when it happened?”
“I was, yeah. But I was in the jacks. I saw nothin’ after tha.’ I swear.”
“Alrigh’ Ginger, how’s tricks?” one of the lads slurs in his direction as he pockets a yellow ball.
“Grand, y’mad cunt, and yourself?” he hears himself holler back. The words just slip from his lips, clean and blunt and natural, as if he’s been one of them all his life. He doesn’t bother waiting on the surly reply; he’s not going to prance in and fire his gob off right away.
Meanwhile, Oren’s giving it loads, his concentration divided between the game and the row he’s having with Darren about recent Irish history. He’s switched from Guinness to cider, and talking faster and louder. Niall chalks his cue, waiting for his shot. His own half-drunk pint, gone flat, lingers on a nearby counter. So far, Oren’s barely acknowledged him throughout the game, instead addressing the entire room.
“The Irish brought terrorism to the fuckin’ table, boys. Invented it, we did. There’s ragheads out in the middle of the desert right now usin’ Irish methods of blowin’ shite up.”
“Yeah, themselves,” some other cunt says and they all laugh.
“Fuck up, you. Here, it’s my shot.”
Oren takes his measure. He shoots well, with the cheery confidence of a victor. He’s impossible to shark. Knows every trick, and how to counter them. Even when arguing with Darren, he sinks balls with a fluid, crackshot ease. For his part, Niall reckons he isn’t doing too badly himself. Still and all, he’s happy to let Oren win. If only this once.
“Two shots to you, soldier,” Oren says grudgingly, as his shot misses.
Niall steps over, sees a stray yellow ball that lies over the right. He knows to keep his eye on it, but he’s more aware of Oren circling nearby, about to abruptly laugh or whistle or break into harsh, tuneless song. He leans in and cuts it. The ball reels in a slow, steady arc, somehow doesn’t collide with any of the others, and plunges headlong into the right side pocket. He gives himself a second before leaning back, his face calm.
“Good one, man,” says Darren.
“Yeah, fair play to yeh,” one of the others says.
He doesn’t know if they’re acknowledging a decent shot or muting their approval, but he does his best not to grin.
Then he hears his own voice, reedy and alien in his ears, say: “The mighty Oren Collins, gettin’ his arse handed to him by a kid. Never thought I’d see the fuckin’ day.”
There’s a split second of silence. Oren’s jaw hardens. And then, out of nowhere, the others break their shites laughing.
“This the beginnin’ of the end, boys?”
“Didn’t see tha’ comin’.”
“Won’t be showin’ his face in here again, that’s for sure,” giggles a fat lad seated at the table’s far end.
“Shuddup you, y’thick,” Oren spits. “Sure y’can’t even hit off that shaggin’ rail, never mind get the hole!”
“Oh, d’yeh mean like when y’got your hole with tha’ fat bird outside the Czech Inn? Lovely big tits on her, and tha’ was it. Must’ve been like ridin’ a fuckin’ whale, man!”
“’Least I got me hole that night. Couldn’t get yer hole in a room full of halves, you!”
The others laugh, but Oren’s eyes shimmer dangerously. Then, out of nowhere, he smiles.
“He’s righ’, though, boys. Even great generals have their defeats. Must be losin’ me touch after all, wha.”
He turns to Niall, who stays quiet. Darren’s eyes dart between them, and round the back, Des stops whatever he’s doing and paces warily out from behind the bar, his mouth tight. The laughter dies down.
But all Oren does is grin, and hit Niall a dig in the shoulder, a little too hard.
“Nice shot, Soldier,” is all he says, and angles his cue back over the rail.
Niall stays quiet. He’s resolved to keep his mouth shut from now on. But he might be accepted, almost like one of them. He just doesn’t hear Darren’s sharp exhale of relief, or see Des upend one of the fake leather stools over the bar and fix one of its fractured legs with wood-glue, eyes narrowed to the task. He does it freely; no more pints ’til the game ends.
Oren’s gone back to laughing and slagging, but his eyes are still lit.
Des disappears down to the cellar to change kegs. Now that he’s gone, the lads’ voices grow louder than they had been, their banter more urgent. Last call isn’t far off; a crackle of resolve sizzles in the air. One or two have since left in order to catch the last bus or LUAS home; but most stay, eager for whoever and whatever the night might bring. The Guinness and cider roil through his belly, and all Niall wants to do is gulp down more. Wherever the boys are heading off to next, he’s determined to follow.
AC/DC’s ‘Hells Bells’ plays; its snarling riff twitches at his muscle memory. He jerks his head back and forth in rhythmic, mesmerized bobs. Oren just sips generously from his Bulmers, mouthing the words. The final shot’s now in sight. He draws his right arm back in a triangle, his left stays even and parallel to the cue. Once more he leans over and sends the white rolling to strike the last red. It misses by an inch and recoils back towards the centre. Oren grits his teeth. Niall avoids his eye.
“Listen, c’mere to me,” Oren says, out of nowhere. “Be thankful for Damo, yeah? Be thankful he was there. We don’t all have brothers. And yours was a decent skin. D’yeh know what I’m sayin’, like?”
It occurs to him that Oren is far drunker than he realized. He wears a feral expression, eyes radiant and bulging and locked on Niall, and his knuckles have paled as he grips the table’s upper rail. He breathes heavily, grunting almost, as if working himself up for something.
Niall realizes he’s waiting for an answer, and tries to conjure up a quick reply.
“Cheers, man, thanks. That means a lot. Really, it does.”
“Yeah, no bother,” Oren slurs, softly. His eyes drop to the floor.
The others ignore them. Oren is the only man speaking softly amidst a sea of shite-talk and invective. And right now, Niall’s in no humour for solemnity. He doesn’t know what’s come over him, but he suddenly takes a step forward, throws a laddish arm around Oren’s shoulder and cackles in his face:
“And, sure look, Damo always said y’were a shite pool player, anyway.”
He turns away and sees Des, who has since re-emerged from the cellar, gawp in sudden alarm, his half-moon specs glinting as he sees something beyond Niall’s shoulder.
But Niall doesn’t turn around in time, and he doesn’t see the others freeze in shock, or Daly’s head snap up in confusion from his phone. All he hears is glass shattering and boots thumping clumsily as Oren cracks his Bulmers over the table and charges. He hears the brief interim of silence as ‘Hells Bells’ finishes and ‘Unforgiven’ by Metallica starts up. He doesn’t see Oren, broken pint glass in one hand and a mouth full of venom, roaring at him to say what he just said again. The glass clouts off bone, Darren blurts out the single word “Jaysus!” and silence wafts like mist through the Dark Horse Pool Academy. All Niall sees is a brief, blinding starburst of light as he hits the floor.