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Coyne sat drinking his pint. Minding his own business. Like many other men alone at bar counters throughout the city of Dublin, he looked like he was driving something big. Sitting on a high stool, steering a crane, or a truck, or a bus full of half-drunk passengers. He was leaning forward a little and staring straight ahead at the inverted spirit bottles Hussar, Paddy, Napoleon, Cork Dry. As always, his wheatfield hair was standing up on his head. As always, he looked like he'd just had an idea.
He called over the barman and ordered a gin and tonic.
Behind him in the background, there was a click of pool and the wash of voices from the back bar. The TV was like a grotto in the top corner with the faithful flock staring up in blind devotion. Traffic rocked the bar as it passed by outside. And from the lounge next door, the nasal lament of a band howling through bathroom acoustics: You don't know what it's like. Dragging through the words, like red fingernails down along the spine.
What on earth did Pat Coyne think he was up to? Gin and tonic was not his kind of drink. It was an odd decision all right, and the barman did a quick double-check with his eyes, announcing the name of the drink in bold to make sure he hadn't got it wrong before he mechanically dropped ice and lemon into a glass, pushed it under the Cork Dry teat and sent clear air bubbles floating up through the bottle. Turned and whisked the cap from the tonic.
Coyne nodded. The symbolic gin and tonic sitting beside his solitary pint. It was for Carmel.Coyne's estranged wife, Carmel. Some distant hope that she would walk into the Anchor Bar and sit down beside him.
As always, Coyne was talking to himself. Explaining every move he made. Justifying his contorted logic to the inner audience in his head. If somebody was to draw a map of Coyne's mind, some kind of three-dimensional elevation of his intellect, it would look something like the Burren landscape of County Clare full of shale and fissures and layered escarpments, full of complicated underground channels of water and all kinds of exotic plant life surviving in the most unlikely places. In matters of the head, this temporarily off-duty, perhaps soon to be ex-Garda, was an enigma even to himself at times. Damaged, some might say.
The Anchor Bar was full of familiar faces. Some of the ferry workers were playing pool in the back. McCurtain from the Port and Docks board was there, talking his head off to some of the fishing people from the harbour, while in the snug as usual, the poet was sifting through a manuscript, mouthing words to himself. One of the barmen was acting as a kind of quiz master, asking some of the men how many airports there were in Ireland. Think about it, he said, and the men pondered over their pints, knowing that there had to be some kind of catch.
It was a quiet sort of place, with wooden compartments for separation and lots of nautical artefacts such as a copper beacon, Admiralty charts of the Irish Sea, pictures of Galway hookers and bottles of Finest Sea Dog rum that nobody ever drank. There was a brass clock and a brass bell which they rang in desperation at closing time as if they were on a sinking ship. After which all the drowning people would desert the vessel and stand outside on the pavement talking. It was the kind of place that left the Christmas decorations up all year long a furry red, tinsel boa draped all around the top of the bar along with a set of fairy lights. It was a place for all types. A ferryport refuge at the back end of Dun Laoghaire. And Dun Laoghaire was the back door of Dublin city. And Ireland was the snug of Europe.
Coyne ordered a further gin and tonic. And later on another, even though he knew she wasn't coming. It made no sense. Would have been a true miracle. An apparition. Three untouched gins and three full bottles of tonic stood lined up on the bar counter alongside his own pint on the highly improbable, more than impossible odds that she might stride in through the door. Coyne even looked around from time to time whenever he heard the squeak of hinges. No chance. He was a sad bastard.
Coyne had been off work for five months now since the fire. Injured in the line of duty. His wounds had healed to a greater degree, but the acid lick of flames had left its marks, like embossed hieroglyphics on his back. His lungs too had suffered smoke damage, and water damage, like blackened walls and waterlogged carpets. Occasionally, he was forced to stop in the street to cough uncontrollably. Traffic coming to a halt as he rasped and dregged up some magnificent verdigris trophies. Jesus, some of the stuff Coyne had uncovered in his chest since the fire should have been exhibited.
But these were only minor problems in comparison to the subliminal damage. No amount of compensation could make up for the unquantifiable psychological scars. He was jumpy and unreasonable. Sometimes angry and uncontrollably moody. Potentially violent, even. Suffering from a range of emotional problems and currently undergoing a series of psychiatric assessments to determine whether he was fit for work. He was regularly attending a therapist, though with great reluctance. He didn't believe in that sort of thing.
Coyne was refusing to co-operate. He resented the interference and hated the sound of encouraging words. Turned down all medication and mistrusted every prognosis. He would have preferred a good ending the nobility of things coming to a close. He wanted to go out in glory. And this was perhaps the key to the hidden backlands of Coyne's unfathomable psyche. He didn't want to be healed.
Coyne the man they could not cure. The code they could not break.
Tommy Nolan came into the Anchor Bar towards the end of the night. The last pub on his odyssey. He came in the back door and drifted around the bar greeting the regulars one by one. He was everybody's friend. Did odd jobs for people at the harbour, like a grown-up child or an orphan that everybody took under their wing; a harmless, goodwilled man with a limp and a stammer who still lived with his older sister Marlene in a small corporation flat nearby.
Coyne bought him a pint.
I have to tell you something, Tommy said.
Tommy sometimes repaid the pints with bits of information. He had a serious speech impediment, with saliva spilling from his mouth, like a tap that could not be fully switched off. Lips soft and glistening.
Coyne looked up and tried to read Tommy's lips. Then watched him opening his mouth wide to drink from his pint. Black liquid sloshing back and forth between the glass and his mouth. An exchange of fluids in which it was hard to establish if there was more of it rushing in or more saliva rushing back out, until the whole lot finally drained down and Tommy Nolan smiled at Coyne with his red face, and a brown dribble running down from the corner of his mouth. Ready to start the next pint.
The Lolita, Tommy spluttered.
He was showering Coyne with a spray of diluted Guinness and local gossip. Hosing down the whole place with droplet infection, trying to tell Coyne about the illegal imports. Right here at the harbour. The Lolita had just come in an hour ago. No cargo of fish. No ice-boxes. No trailing flag of seagulls.
Coyne looked around uneasily. Not here, he thought, putting up his hand. He didn't want people to think that Tommy was a scout or an informer of some kind. Once a cop always a cop in the eyes of the public at large.
Besides, Coyne was preoccupied by his own internal world these days. He had no real interest in crime any more. He was looking for broader solutions, something more global than the ordinary day-to-day activity around this coastal suburb of Dublin.
By then they had started ringing the bell and the Anchor Bar was going down fast. The band next door had finished at last with an almighty crescendo that went on like a five-minute orgasm at the end of every night. End after end, amen. McCurtain from the Port and Docks board was furtively receiving a no-cover, porn video from one of the ferry workers. And Coyne was still sitting at the bar with his three gin and tonics in front of him, beaming out like beacons of love and betrayal. He might as well have been looking at the emptiness of the Irish Sea by night. Lines of latitude; streaks of foam; wave after wave rolling unrelentingly towards him across the wide open counter on a black night. Another lonely bell clanging furiously next door and men shouting 'time'.
He began to pour the tonics into the gins. Then shared the lot into two equal glasses, and handed one over to Tommy.
Here you are, Tommy. Knock it back.
Put it this way, it was a waste of time trying to bring Coyne back to normal. He had never been normal in the first place, and was hardly going to fit into the parameters of textbook sanity at this point. His psychologist, Ms Clare Dunford kept encouraging him to try and put the past behind him and to seek personal satisfaction. Not to feel so guilty about peace and pleasure. She talked about happiness as if it was the ultimate goal. As though everybody had a moral duty to be content and make the most of life. And nobody was ever allowed to be sad, or unfulfilled, or maladjusted ever again.
Coyne's ex-wife, Carmel was the same, trying to arrange appointments for Coyne to go to all kinds of healers and alternative practitioners. Even though they had been separated for over a year now and Coyne was exiled from the family home in his own two-roomed flat, she was still devoted to fixing him up. He presented a real challenge. Anyone who met Coyne thought to themselves I could repair him. Christ, that man needs help. He should be on medication. But Coyne had developed the protective coat of a hedgehog, bailing himself up into an untouchable mass against the society around him, with a shield of cynicism and indifference. He had become a solitary creature. A dissident on the Happy Block.
Don't take away my pain, is what he bawled at his psychologist on the first encounter, when she spoke about the properties of Prozac.
I mean, what else would a man have to hold on to. If he was cured and normal, then he was as good as dead. They would take away his roar and leave him like a defenceless creature. A certain amount of chaos and insanity was vital to his existence. Rage and insanity were national characteristics. There was mayhem and derangement in his blood, which couldn't be erased that simply without turning Coyne into some kind of benevolent Frankenstein.
Coyne had been told already on numerous occasions that he had a fixation with the past. He was unable to move forward. The clock had stopped with the symmetry of a significant ending, somewhere around 5:55. The calendar hadn't moved on since the day of the fire and he was holding on to history. He had no current story for his life except the old one. I only listen to songs that evoke memories, he revealed under psychoanalysis. He kept getting into arguments, and generally behaving badly, complaining about things that nobody took seriously but him. Unfit for work. Unfit for society.
The Anchor Bar was closed. Barstools placed upside down on the counter. The barman was sweeping the cigarette butts into a corner and the lounge next door was silent and empty, except for the musicians packing up their gear. The pool table at the back was in darkness and the bar was deserted, with a high blue cloud of smoke and conversation still hanging in the air. Somebody counting the till.
Coyne was the last to leave. He went home along the seafront, feeling the breeze blowing in off the sea. He saw the black water of the harbour and the row of trawlers berthed along the quay. He saw the sleazy, orange-pink glow coming across the water from the city. The yellow lights of Dublin Bay lit up like a tinted crystal bowl. The twin stacks of the Pigeon House with its red beacon lights and the flag of dusty-pink smoke drifting inland.
He walked home along streets of B&Bs and guesthouses. Past all the names like Stella Maris and Belleview. Santander or Casablanca. With tacky palm trees outside casting a subtropical illusion, and leatherette leaves whispering on the breeze. Gardens with stones and rocks pillaged from the coast and placed in neat decorative lines on the edges of grass lawns; around flowerbeds and benches. Suburbia's last line of defence. The whole borough had barricaded itself in behind these stones. Streets named Tivoli, Adelaide and Villarea. Maretimo Terrace. Sefton and Grafton. Houses that sounded like they came from a shaggin' Yeats poem, like Ben Bulben, Lissadel. Where did these people think they were? Where was Phil Lynott Avenue?
Coyne lived on Crosthwaite Park, or Cross-eyed Park as they called it. This was the flat where he had spent the past twelve months or so with his son, Jimmy. These were the separation terms Coyne looked after Jimmy, while Carmel kept home and looked after Jennifer and Nuala. It was not a final, end of all communication, separation, and there were still a lot of common areas of concern that allowed the marriage to linger on at a distance.
Coyne still talked to Carmel in his head.
It's not the way you think, he said, indirectly giving her a report on his life as he climbed the stairs and entered his flat. She was the inner audience to whom he offered his querulous commentary.
Look, the place is tidy, he pleaded. It's not a health hazard, you know. Look at the tea-towel neatly hung up on the stove. Look at the crockery all washed and put away. I know I'm a useless cook, but I do my best. I look after him, Carmel. I swear! Jimmy's a good lad.
But there was something reductive about this one-way conversation. He sat down in despair, as though people had stopped listening to him. His audience had gone to sleep again. He watched a National Geographic video on spiders. A male spider was plucking the web of a female. Serenading spiders! Web harpists! Would Coyne ever be reunited with Carmel? seemed to be the question all nature was asking.
Coyne woke up in his armchair some time later, stiff and numb along his left arm. He got up and switched off the TV, went over to the phone and dialled a number. He waited a while until the phone was picked up at the other end and a sleepy male voice answered. It was the voice of his old bank manager, Mr Killmurphy.
Hello, Killjoy, Coyne said.
The voice on the other end was stunned. Hello! Hello! Who is this?
Remember the patio, Killjoy. Remember the bitumen all over your crazy paving. And the granite barbecue in the shape of a miniature Norman castle. Remember the' garden terrorist.
Who is this?
I'm coming back Killjoy. I hope you haven't forgotten, you bastard.
I'm going to call the Guards!
The phone went dead and Coyne smiled. This was part of a new campaign of remembrance. What was the point in letting Mr Killmurphy walk away from the past? Coyne was playing the role of civic conscience here, meting out punishment and retribution to an old enemy. Coyne, the sad bastard, standing by the phone with the grin of a sick deviant on his face, carrying the mother of all grudges in his heart.
Coyne's son, Jimmy was pissed out of his head that night. Rat arsed! Maybe even off his face on some other substances. How Coyne had missed running into him was remarkable. They practically crossed each other's paths as Jimmy and his friend Gussy made their way towards the harbour. His son was a headbanger, following in his father's footsteps. Except that Jimmy had no declared idealism other than getting out of his head.
He was insane in the membrane, as the song went, with little sense of self-respect. He and Gussy were on their way to do damage. They had their minds fixed on getting into one of the yachts on the marina.
They were not looking for anything in particular. It was more like a general quest for the crack. A bit of harmless sport. Or maybe Jimmy had lost it, somehow, since Coyne and Carmel broke up. Perhaps he was the real victim, acting out the fracture of his parents' marriage in a more dramatic form, for all to see. He and Gussy made their way on to a yacht and kicked in the cabin door. Opened the fridge and found it stocked with champagne and sausages. Started celebrating right away so that Jimmy got twice as drunk again and couldn't even stand up. Sat on a mound of sausages and laughed uncontrollably as he opened up a tube of Pringles.
Once you start, you can't stop, he said, as it rained Pringles all over the cabin floor.
Jimmy didn't even have the sense to leave the flare gun alone. While the champagne corks were popping and Gus started spraying the stuff around like a rally winner, Jimmy struck back with a flare which suddenly ripped through the cabin like a red meteor. Almost took Gussy's face off and sent him back, dribbling champagne over himself in shock while the flare continued to spin and fizzle around on the floor, burning a crest in the navy carpet. Big black Cyrillic script. The whole cabin lit up pink like a love boat. Pink portholes throbbing until Gus covered it with a jacket and snuffed out the brief comet's life.
How they weren't spotted by the harbour police was a miracle.
Jesus Christ, Gussy said, and within minutes they were back on the pier again. Jimmy getting sick into an empty Pringles tin, as though it had been specially provided for seasickness. Hanging over the blue railings like a puking pilgrim, retching up his ancestors.
Gussy made a run for it. But Jimmy didn't see the point. He found himself a sheltered place along the pier and sat down. Watched the swell of the tide lapping against the steps in the harbour. Tried to focus on the swirling red beam of the lighthouse for a while until he laid his head down on the cool granite stone and fell asleep. The sea was calm. A heron stood on the steps close by, like a silent witness.
Around that time, two men were driving along the coast road towards the harbour in a red van. The man at the wheel was the skipper of the Lolita, a chubby, forty-year-old man by the name of Martin Davis. Bald with a full-blown, bushy brown beard, he carried an extensive bit of freight out front, like a beanbag paunch hanging over the belt of his trousers. He was convinced that women liked a big belly with soft black fleece. It could be massaged and slapped. A convex sign of prosperity, fun and formidable appetite.
In the passenger seat, with his legs stretched out, sat a wiry man by the name of Mongi O Doherty who interpreted the bulging shape of the skipper's stomach as a sign of weakness. The exploitable, soft underbelly of a man devoted to pleasure.
Mongi was younger than the skipper, with a shaven head and a different temperament entirely. He saw pleasure as something you stole from others. He had been brought up in an environment where pleasure was something you grabbed while you had the chance, something that was normally associated with another person experiencing pain and dispossession.
As everyone knew, pain and pleasure were the same thing, only on opposite ends of the scale. Understanding this was the basis of capitalism; if you didn't grasp the barometer of human longing, then you were fucked as far as making money was concerned. At the point of a knife, or a dirty needle, it was surprising, for example, how quickly people despised their own material belongings. Moneylending and drug sales had also proved this point beyond any doubt. And a gun, well that was the true revolution. At the point of a gun, you had people begging you to take their money. Fear and pain altered everything.
With these elementary rules of commerce, Mongi had developed true leadership qualifies.
The name Mongi had various sources. One of them is thought to have had something to do with his protruding teeth. People recognized an uncomfortable combination of the benign Bee Gees smile and a savage horse-bite of yellow neglect. His smile was a kuru grin of cannibal revenge, and his laughter produced a kind of echo over the city of Dublin. The hollow laugh! The millennial laugh of progress. The great capitalist laugh of eternal growth and incessant innovation.
It was rumoured that Mongi had once bitten a Garda in the face. Leading people to believe that the origins of his name had more to do with the style of the mongoose, darting in and out rapidly to bite its prey. But the irony only fully ripened when you discovered that his nickname Mongi actually came from the word mangach in the Irish language, meaning toothless. His real name was Richard O Doherty.
To hell with fishing, he was saying to his new associate, Martin Davis. Fishing had become an extinguished way of life belonging to the last century.
You're dead right, skipper Martin Davis agreed.
Everywhere around the Irish coast had been fished to bejaysus. Mackerel-crowded seas, my arse. You had to compete with a massive fleet. Every factory ship in Europe was out there grabbing the same statistical slice of fish pie, fighting like a bunch of cut-throat pirates over the Atlantic fish-finger quota. Nobody would eat the glow-in-the-dark radioactive plaice from the Irish Sea any more. And what was the point in braving all kinds of inclement conditions, getting your hands raw like the Man of Aran and risking your life for a bit of stinking turbot. Every piece of fresh cod was marked and numbered on a radar screen; caught, gang-raped, cooked and consumed before you had a chance to slip the mooring.
Fishing is a cold and smelly business, Mongi said gravely.
Don't be talking, Martin Davis said, a grimace of disgust on his face.
You probably spent more money on fucking talcum powder than you earned on the catch.
The skipper couldn't agree more. He was nodding like a rear-window travel dog. I hate the fish trade, he was saying. I hate all those biblical innuendoes. Casting out nets. Gathering souls and all that stuff. Look, Mongi I know what you're saying here. I've seen the movie.
But Mongi continued to place his own philosophical spin on the new dawn of opportunity. He was putting forward a vision for his people. The Irish were through with subsistence economics. He was the right man to be talking, with a name like Mongi. As they sped towards the harbour in the skipper's new van, he sounded like a fishmonger, glorifying the new enterprise of loaves and fishes. Sudden abundance! Economic miracles! All that had changed was the nature of the catch.
Wet-backs and fish-backs, Mongi echoed with his hollow cackle.
They could see the lights of the harbour below them. Two piers reaching out into the sea, embracing the visitor. Grabbing trade from the outside world.
Excerpted from SAD BASTARD by Hugo Hamilton. Copyright © 1998 by Hugo Hamilton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.