Authors: Nick Laird
For the Lairds
‘For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch.
What a bloody awful country.’
Reginald Maudling, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the plane back to London after his first visit to Belfast, 1 July 1970
Moving is easy. Everyone does it. But actually leaving somewhere is difficult. Early last Wednesday morning a ferry was slowly detaching itself from a dock at the edge of Belfast. On it, a man called Geordie was losing. He’d slotted eleven pound coins into the Texas Hold’Em without success–not counting a pair of Kings which briefly rallied his credits–and had now moved two feet to the left, onto the gambler. The three reels spun out into
–a melon. Fuck all. Geordie’s small hands gripped each side of the machine as if it was a pulpit. He kept on staring at the symbols, which again and again represented nothing but loss. Then he sniffed loudly, peeled his twenty Regals off the machine’s gummy top and sloped away. Eighteen quid down and they hadn’t yet left the harbour.
The boat, the
, was busy, full of families
heading over for the long July weekend. Geordie bought a pint of Harp from the gloomy barman and slumped onto a grey horseshoe-shaped sofa in the
, then sat forward suddenly and took a pack of playing cards from the black rucksack by his feet. He started dealing out a hand of patience. A short man in a Rangers tracksuit top stopped by his table, swaying a little with the boat, or maybe with drink. His shoulders were broad and bunched with muscle. He held a pint of lager and a pack of Mayfair fags in one hand. The other was in his tracksuit top, distending it like a pregnancy. He had a sky-blue baseball cap with
McCrea’s Animal Feed
written across it. He looked as if he’d sooner spit on you than speak to you and yet, nodding towards the other pincher of the sofa, he said: ‘All right. This free?’
Belfast, east, hardnut.
‘No, no, go on ahead.’
The man sat down carefully, like he was very fond of himself, and held Geordie’s eye.
‘You think we’ll still have McLeish next season?’ Geordie continued, looking at his tracksuit top.
‘Oh aye, I think so, though he’s a bit too interested in players and not enough in tactics.’
‘You on holiday?’
‘Spot of business.’
‘Oh right. I’m seeing some friends. You heading to Scotland?’
‘Naw, on down to London.’
‘Oh aye? Me too. You not fly?’
‘Taking a van.’
Geordie paused, to see if the offer of a lift was forthcoming. It wasn’t.
‘Hot enough today, eh?’
‘It’ll do all right. Better that than pissing down.’
They talked the usual talk. About pubs and places and discovered that the stranger was the nephew of one of Geordie’s dinner ladies. Which was how they swapped names. Ian. Geordie. They played whist and matched pints for the next two hours as the ferry ploughed through the water to Scotland. Just before they got in Geordie went out on deck to clear his head. Outside he shivered and watched the wake turn lacy and fold back into the sea. He felt off. His mouth was dry and the ache in his head suggested that afternoon drinking hadn’t been such a great idea. He turned slightly, to take the wind out of his eyes, and Ian was standing beside him, smiling secretly out to sea. Geordie nodded briskly at him and went in to the toilet.
When he came back to the table Ian had dealt the pack out and was in the middle of a round of pelmanism. Seeing Ian concentrating on the cards, crouched forward, intent, just as he had been doing earlier, made Geordie feel suddenly well-disposed towards him.
‘You not play patience? It’s a better game.’
Ian turned over the Jack of Hearts.
‘No skill in that. This’, he tapped the back of a card, ‘exercises the memory.’
Staring hard at the grid of cards, he turned over a matching Jack, clubs, then placed them both into a discard pile at the side. Geordie said it first.
‘Listen mate, I’ll be in London for a while later on this week as well, and I don’t know so many folks down there. If you give me your number maybe we could meet up for a jar or two?’
‘Tell you what, you give me yours and I’ll ring you if I’m free.’
‘Aye, do. That’d be a laugh. We’ll go out and get slaughtered.’
The solicitor Danny Williams was looking in his baby-blue refrigerator. His pinstripe grey suit jacket sagged over the narrow shoulders of a kitchen chair. He had discarded his tie and shoes. The room was dim and the only light came from this massive fridge. It was like a UFO opening its door in his kitchen. ‘Take me to my dinner,’ Danny said out loud in the empty flat, without humour, as he stood snared in the pale luminous strip. An empty jar of mayonnaise sat by itself in the middle of the top shelf, like a judge on his bench. Danny found it difficult to look in his fridge when he was alone. It witnessed his failures. He would often wander round his airy flat, peckish, open it, see nothing he fancied (or could eat without risk of illness) and walk away again. Danny was skinny. The fridge clicked off its light and Danny resolved to make toast, a Saturday visit to Safeway. The doorbell went. He walked down the hall, unslid the chain, and opened his life.
Geordie Wilson was standing on the step. His small frame was silhouetted against the London evening sky. He looked charred, a little cinder of a man. His navy tracksuit hood cowled round a narrow and freckled face and his bagged eyes looked very blue and watery in the light from the hall. He had several days’ beard growth. He could have been Death’s apprentice.
Geordie Fucking Wilson.
In the slowed-down moment, Danny registered a furious argument being conducted further down the
street between a man and woman out of sight. It was in Russian or maybe Polish.
‘Someone’s for it, eh?’ the figure on the doorstep said, snapping his elbow into the air. Danny felt his head lift suddenly. He shuddered, and realized just as quickly again that Geordie, this burnt-looking thing, was not going to draw a gun and shoot him.
‘Easy up big man,’ said Geordie, reaching a hand out for his shoulder and smirking. ‘It’s me. Geordie. How are you? What about you? Surprised?’
‘Hello,’ Danny said slowly, blinking in exaggerated shock, ‘Geordie Wilson. I knew it was you. What the hell brings you here?’
They would go to the King’s Head, but first Geordie came in and dumped his bag on the sheeny wooden floor of the hall, and they edged round each other, like novice ice-skaters, as Danny moved towards the kitchen to get the jacket of his suit. He slipped it on, felt its impropriety, like armour at dinner, and slipped it off again. He was wearing his grey suit trousers and a white shirt, which, though open-necked, still displayed cuff links as tokens of a serious man. He pulled a navy zip-up fleece off a hook, and then decided to wear his scuffed Levi’s jacket over it. He looked like a social merman: pinstriped lower, denimed upper. Geordie stooped and removed his fags and lighter from the rucksack. It was only when they’d left the house that Geordie asked where the pub was. It was an incontrovertible fact that this was where they were heading. Some friends you take to cafés and cinemas, some to concerts, others to matches or shopping, but some, the ones you grew up alongside, meaning the ones you
learnt to drink with, you always always always take to the pub.
As they walked, Geordie was forced to half-skip to keep up with Danny, whose eyes, still varnished with surprise, were trained on the pavement. Gum studded the cement like the beginnings of rain. It was too warm for a jacket and he could feel sweat beginning to prickle along his spine. His face was tight with goodwill, his stomach with nerves and he wasn’t certain that what was happening was happening.
Geordie Fucking Wilson.
He needed a drink.
The King’s Head was a nasty little place but close, with a chubby cream cat that had the run of it to such an unreasonable extent that customers would be standing, possibly shivering, possibly pregnant, whilst it stretched and yawned and dreamt on a seat in front of the fireplace. It had the look of a theatre bar. All busy carpet, threadbare velvet and smeary mirrors, and signed sepia photographs of stars, faded with smoke and sunlight to the same dulled obscurity as their subjects. Its landlord was the obese and charmless Gerard, who sported a lame goatee in a lame attempt to define a lame jaw. Years back, when Danny had been looking for an evening job during law school, he tried all the local pubs for bar work. Gerard had immediately said
Sorry mate, hardly enough for meself here really.
Danny had persuaded his then-girlfriend to call in and ask. Tamara, a delicate woman whose distinctive nose exacerbated her accent and deportment into something approaching minor nobility, had put her head round the door and Gerard had offered her work immediately. They then couldn’t decide if Gerard was sexist or anti-Irish or just anti-Danny.
Still, it was the closest pub and proximity–to lazy men in the city–is worth an acre of stripped floorboards, battered leather sofas, and four elastic student barmaids, which was what the second nearest, Pravda or Molotov or something, offered.
Geordie wandered to the far end to get a table and Danny stood at the bar.
How weird is that?
He looked very well, really, considering, Danny thought, watching Geordie tap his lighter on the table at the far end of the bar. Chirpy. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time, not since 15 August 1995, the summer Danny came back from his first year of uni, though neither remembered the incident. Danny was driving his father’s grey Volvo estate up the widest main street in Ireland, Ballyglass’s High Street. Ballyglass is really only this street. Other thoroughfares run off it at right angles before petering out into lanes and housing estates and fields. Geordie was crossing the lights by Union Street and Danny was waiting at them, holding the car on the clutch. Geordie saluted him and Danny, reclining, lifted a finger off the wheel and nodded a greeting. Both passed on feeling a little gladdened, a little embarrassed. Old friends know too much.
While Gerard stood and sullenly stared at the two jars of Guinness, waiting for them to settle, Danny watched Geordie fidgeting. He never could sit still. When they were at school, Mr O’Neill the maths teacher had told Geordie that he had no brakes. Danny, remembering that, pictured it literally: Geordie driving through Ballyglass in a car on which the cables have gone. Up Fairhill and Oldtown he could keep pace with the traffic. His car would look like the others, accelerate like the others, and
he would sing along tunelessly to the songs on Townland Radio just like the other drivers. But downhill, to James Street, to the Ballymore Road, the car wouldn’t slow. He might try to warn you, flash his lights, beep his horn but he’d still collide and send things flying: other drivers, rickety cyclists, grocery shoppers, idiot dogs.
Geordie Wilson, a bad bastard who lacks the ability to stop, and he’s come to see me.
Danny delved for his loose change and counted it out while he waited for Gerard to steer his bright blue paunch, like the front of a bumper car, around the open drawer of the till. Gerard performed the manoeuvre quite neatly, pausing in front of the cash register to slam it shut with his side, and then pressed at the optics with two highballs, growling. Danny placed his scuffed Adidas on the brass footrail and shifted his weight onto it, keeping his balance by holding onto the side of bar. What
these rails for? To tie your pet to? He turned again to watch Geordie, sitting at the table, idly aiming and flicking a match, unlit, at the fat white cat which sat a few feet from him, defiantly licking her paws.
Gerard set the two pints down in front of Danny on an already sodden Carlsberg towel, and noiselessly accepted the exact amount (
I think that’s right
) proffered by Danny. He splashed the coins in the open drawer of the till, and went back to watching some sportive tangle of colour and shouting, wrestling perhaps, on the telly in the corner.
Their table was round, too low, and pocked with circular marks, a Venn diagram of sessions of previous drinking. Their lack of back support forced them to lean forward, conspiratorially. They looked like grandmasters. Geordie moved first.
‘All right fella. Sorry to drop in on you like this. You look a bit shocked.’
‘No don’t be stupid mate. It’s good to see you. What’s been going on?’
‘No no, you go first boss. Last I heard you were doing the law.’
‘Yeah. I’m a fully paid-up lawyer. Qualified almost three years ago. Working in the city. Good money, bad hours. But here, what about you? Let’s hear your news.’
‘Aw, you know me. Bit of this. Bit of that. None of the other. Some of the above.’
Danny had forgotten this, how Geordie spoke. It struck Danny now that maybe it was because he felt awkward. He sounded like a client squirming, mixing bonhomie with avoiding your eye. Danny waited.
‘Well, I’m officially an unemployed labourer.’
‘That what your business card says?’
‘It’s what my dole form says. I wish to labour. But no suitable labour’s available. Suitable’s the key. You wouldn’t believe what they’ve made me go on. I’ve been apprentice, trainee, new-starter, jobseeker.’
‘So you just living off the bru?’
‘Off the bru and on the…’ Geordie lifted his pint and nodded towards it, ‘brew.’ He then laughed too loudly, a little hysterical.
Danny eyed him quizzically. ‘You’re still a funnyman. Funny peculiar.’
‘Sorry mate, I’m a wee bit caned. I had a smoke in that park at the end of the road before I came to see you. What have I been doing? Well…’ Geordie puffed his cheeks and blew breath out for a second. Danny felt the heat of it and moved slightly back. ‘I was doing a
bit of cab work with Tommy Vaughan’s Taxis. Driving the old biddies to and from the Bingo. Leaving them over to their friends’ houses for tea and chat or up to the church on a Sunday.’
Danny was reminded of what he’d wanted to ask him when he’d been at the bar.
‘How did you know where I lived anyway?’
‘Just phoned your mum and mentioned I was coming over and she told me. Got your phone number as well but thought I’d just call round, surprise you.’
Damn sure you did. Otherwise I’d have produced a bulletproof excuse.
Danny also suddenly realized why his mum had called him at work that morning when he’d been on a conference call: an e-mail from Jill, his secretary, had popped up on his screen asking him to ring her back. He’d forgotten, as usual, but this seemed a disproportionate and cruel punishment.