Archive for February, 2012

Coins

February 24, 2012

Coins sat in the bar by the seat where he always sat. Not in it, but by it. Staring into the surf of his drink. Two twenty-something girls had occupied his usual corner. A blonde and a brunette. Dressed in primary colours. They were out of place in that bar and knew it. They felt awkward. As though everyone was staring at them. Everyone was. They spoke to each other in whispers and muffled giggles, looking back and forth to their touchscreens for distraction. Despite their obvious self-consciousness, there was a kind of excitement to their discomfort. All the Irish pubs they’d been in so far had been full of lively, confident men and women from around the globe. Well-dressed and comfortably hip adultescents that were closer to the present moment than any generation that had gone before. The iGeneration. This pub was not one of those places. This place was new. At least to them it was. This place was news.

“What can I do for you?” asks Philip, the barman.
“Could we have two whiskeys and one bottle of coke?”
“Sure. Ice?”
“A little.”

They had come looking for adventure and memories. They had found both. All the things that had happened, good or bad, could later be recounted as proof of having lived. Their hostel had been overbooked, and they’d had to share a room with two Japanese girls, who were equal parts fun and caution. They had kissed the Blarney Stone and lost bracelets in the process. Temporarily, at least. They had stepped up and down the Giant’s Causeway and had edged across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. They had seen more of Ireland than most Irish people had, or would in their lives. In less than a week. Now they were on a new mission: to get lost.

“Here you are. Enjoy,” says Philip, placing the drinks before them.

The Settle Inn was a typical small town pub. Its seats were covered in green upholstery, and the stools were maroon, or at least people remembered them being that way. The lights were low, and were nestled in tulip-shaped lampshades, coloured a light brown by years of the bulbs’ heat. Philip, barman and owner of the inn, longed for new clientele. He generally had a positive outlook on life, but of late had begun to succumb to despair. A kind of restlessness was growing in him. The bar. This bar he owned. That was the source of it.  It was this place that he blamed these seeds of sadness on. Nothing he had done since taking over The Settle Inn seemed to have had any effect. The place had a mind if its own, and no redecoration could lift the heaviness that clung to it. His favourite part of each day was the morning, alone, preparing for what lay ahead. He would unload the dishwasher, checking each glass as he went, all the while looking around at the empty room imagining what it could be like. He imagined a small stage near the doorway, where singers could sing, or poets could recite. He’d have it by the front window, so passers-by would see them and drop in to have a look at what was going on.  But his plans never came off. His quiz nights bombed. The older folk complained that the questions were too hard, while the younger ones just cheated with their phones. He stopped having them after the fourth one. None had been profitable. He’d brought in a digital jukebox to liven up the place. He’d filled it with classic jazz and blues albums, indie rock compilations, Hits of the Eighties, and a whole hell of a lot of Motown, but all that anyone ever played was The Pogues.

“Where are you girls from?” he asks.
“Australia,” says the brunette.
“Ah, very nice. What part?”
“Sydney,” says the blonde.

Though the locals held the out-of-towners in disdain, everybody warmed to the tourists. Some summer nights, the local to tourist ratio was an even split. Mid-July to late August there was a buzz about the town. These were the best nights of the year. His weary regulars would rise to life, as though awoken from a great slumber. They smiled. They winked. They advised. They warned. “Throw that guidebook away, will you. It’s nonsense,” they said, regardless of the fact that they’d never read a page of one of them. The locals rose to the tourist challenge, ticking all the boxes required for stereotypical Irish folk. Hearts became deeper. As did pockets. Glasses and voices were raised to the roof. They told tall tales, broke out in ballads, and the Irishness of their English grew stronger with every syllable and every sup.

Today was not one of those days. This was winter. The end of November. The little light that came in only served to highlight the dust floating in the air. Coins sat at the bar with his head so close to his pint you could swear they were talking to each other. Jim McCudden sat reading the form in the snug in the corner. Patrick Owens and Michael Comiskey were playing draughts by the fire. The only voice to be heard was that of the TV newscaster announcing more cuts, and the occasional ‘Shower of bastards’ response from one customer or another.

“Shydney, eh?” says Coins, lifting his head from his pint and turning towards them, while at the same time looking past them. As though really talking to someone else, someone who wasn’t there.
“Wazh there Chrizhtmas,” he says and pauses, his sentence hanging on the verge of being a question, cryptic and dreamlike, until he adds, “nineteen shixty-sheven.,” and pulls himself upright into his proper storytelling posture.
“Chrizhtmas. Hotashell…  May.” He pauses again, squinting. “Or maybe Lily?”

He began his story in the middle, which is the same place he began a lot of his sentences, and some of his words. The girls listened and nodded along, as though they understood. They couldn’t. Coins’ speech was slurred when sober, incoherent when tipsy, and incomprehensible when drunk. He had been a seaman. He’d seen every port, and had a story for each one. At least he used to. Or thought he used to. It was not just his speech that had slurred, but his mind too. Places had muddled into each other over the years. Of all the cities he had seen, events he had witnessed, women who had quickened his heartbeat, and mischief he had got mixed up in; only a few fragments remained. Misremembered girls walking renamed streets of cities in which they had never been, where whatever words they had once whispered in his ear had long since faded into sweet nothings.

“Fire… she is… broke… rise up… over all over… lasht thing I saw…”

Philip translated as best he could. Having gotten used to Coins’ slurred speech over the years, he was able to decipher most words. Though the narrative still escaped hm. Not that he cared. Philip had a love/hate affair with his clientele. Summer threw up a few joyous weekends every year, but for every one of those glass-raising, spirit-lifting, heart-warming evenings, there were a hundred down-in-the-dumps, dog-tired days. He was tired of talking about the weather. He was tired of the horse races he had to show on the telly. He was even tired of Fairytale of New York. But most of all, he was tired of his regulars. The auld fellas who clogged up his bar with their mumblings and their grumblings. They seemed to soak up the daylight. No matter how sunny the day outside, or how strong the light streaming through the window, these guys always made it seem dull and rainy. He dreamed of barring them all. Let them find another bar to depress. Why did they insist on bringing their doom and gloom into his bar? He knew his regulars put off potential customers. Potentially interesting customers. The locals weren’t fond of out-of-towners. At least once a day, a couple of fresh faces would step inside the door and glance around. Philip tried to usher them in with words of welcome, but it rarely paid off. The regulars would turn, look, snort, look again, and turn back around; and the potential customers after a quick consultation with each other, would make a dignified retreat.

Philip was aware that it was the cold stares the barflies give that drove them away. The stares and the silence. A bar with ten people in it, and not a word being spoken. But, what could he do? He’d love to kick the regulars out, but at the same time they were his livelihood. Every spare penny they have ends up in his pocket. He’d go under without them. Plus, they’d never done much to warrant being barred. Besides getting drunk, incidents in The Stumble Inn were rare and easily resolved, and he could hardly criticize them for getting drunk.

“Deep clear blue. Falling. Falling,” continues Coins. His eyes are glassy and red. The girls have gone back to their touchscreens, communicating more with the hemisphere they’re from than the one they are in. Coins has lost his audience, but he goes on nonetheless. Philip slices lemons. Less listening than observing. He has heard them all anyway. And made sense of none.

“One two kangaroo. One two kangaroo,” blurts Coins, as a wet laugh breaks out on his face, down through his nose and out the side of his mouth.

Coins’ gift of the gab had long since waned from what it was. It wasn’t just that his words were incoherent. Behind the words themselves, the story itself had been eroded. Where once he would embellish his tales with fanciful untruths and colourful exaggerations, now he merely tried to tell the dull truth, and rarely got even that. A combination of senility and self-regulation had whittled away the rich tapestries of bullshit that he once wove.  What might have been seen as bawdy and bold in a man of younger years was considered lewd and lecherous in someone of his age. His cheeky charm had crept towards a vile vulgarity. His pausing, which used to be for effect, was now solely for the purpose of recollecting his train-wreck of thought. His catalogue of memories, which used to come to mind so vividly, eluded him in his ageing. The details grew cloudy and distant: names of places, and of faces; causes and effects; the reason and the rhyme; the season and the time. These things hid in the dusty cobwebs of his memory, and he could not go on till everything had become clear. And it rarely did. Neither the truth nor the lies coming to mind. Nothing but the grey between the two.

“Six feet six teeth I says,” he says, as the bar telephone rings.
“I’d love to stay and translate,” Philip says quietly to the girls, “but I don’t want to ruin the ending.” They laugh politely.
“In all the other bars on this street, there’s two more like him, and at least one worse,” he adds, picking up the receiver.

The girls returned to composing posts on their phones, so friends and family back in Sydney knew exactly where they were and what they were doing. They had wanted to find the real Ireland, the one off the tourist trail. As did everyone else. And they had duly found it and subsequently ignored it. They tried to capture it in texts, tweets, photos, and video; so that in the future they will be able to look back on the time that they had almost been here. They were here and yet not here. These present moments would become their future pasts. And unfortunately, they knew this.

Philip hung up the phone, and started wiping down the bar.

“Where else are you girls planning to get to?” he asks.
“Not sure. Any suggestions?” asks the blonde.
“Anywhere but here,” he says jokingly, but in his heart he meant it.

He was dreaming of the bar he could have had. In a city far away, where the Irish were the tourists, and the locals were vibrant and loud. Where stories were never told twice. Where people spoke in truths, and not just in gossip, rumours, and hearsay. Where folk danced on matted verandas out the front no matter how old they were. Where there was no jukebox because the customers themselves were made of music.

“Pull uz another, Phil,” says Coins, pushing his glass away from him.

Coins, too, was lost to another world. To faraway times rather than faraway places. He thought not of what he lived through or of what he had seen, but of the times when he was still able to remember what he had lived through and could reconstruct in words what of the world he had seen. Times when he could hold court with just the tone of his voice. When he could build suspense, cloak an audience in intrigue and mystery with the will of his tongue, or deliver a punchline to an enraptured bar. No one could hold a candle to him when it came to tales of adventure or of misadventure. But his wit and wisdom was not what it once was. No sooner would he begin his tale than it would start to unravel. He had told them so many times he was no longer sure of which parts he had made up, or of which he had left out. He had sifted fiction from fact and back again so often that he could no longer tell the difference.

“There you go.” Philip placed the pint down on the beermat in front of him, picking up the change that Coins had counted out.

At the far end of the bar Jim McCudden rose from his seat in the snug and wandered across the room to the jukebox in the opposite corner. He put his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a pile of coins. He picked through them in his palm, dropped a couple in the slot, and returned to his seat. And soon after, once again, it was Christmas Eve, babe; in the drunk tank.

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