I was prompted to post this chapter from my book, All The Dead Voices (2002), as a result of several photographs of the Winton Arms Hotel on Twitter by Irish Unionist – @wackyj67 – who publishes, and is a source for, some great pics. This story, The Lakes, is based on an amalgam of real events in the lives of several people I knew, though the names have been changed.
T H E L A K E S
Around tea-time the call went out to the exercise yard in Cage Two that the news was coming on. We finished the lap and came in. I had just enough time to recognise the place where I had been a waiter four years earlier, in 1969. I watched the explosion on the black and white television, the outer walls of the bar being knocked inwards as if from a supernatural punch, followed by the top floors tumbling to the ground in a gasp of splintered joists, bricks, mortar and a cloud of dust. I wondered about the people with whom I had worked. The reporter stated that the place had been cleared after a warning and no one was injured.
The public bar had once attracted busmen from Oxford Street depot, dockers, sailors and stragglers, people at the Friday market, some young people hawking stolen record albums. At the turn of the century the lower and upper floors of the block had been a hotel (though I couldn’t fathom where the rooms had been) and the old name could still be discerned in moulding on the facade.
I had lost my job as a part-time waiter in the International Hotel when business slackened after Christmas and for the next few weeks had been looking for another job whilst I finished my studies. I had become use to having my own pocket money and was proud of contributing to the house. Late one afternoon I pushed through an ancient bubbled glass door which led into a dark and dingy public bar. Most of the clientele were elderly. Serving calls for pints of stout and ‘a wee Mundies’ was a middle-aged man with a mop of white hair and a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He looked me up and down and must have noticed that I was under-age.
‘What can I get you?’ he asked. I said I was looking for a job, any type of bar work. Some impatient customers at the end of the counter were bawling and he told me to take a seat, he would be with me in a minute. I sat at a table. An old boy next to me pulled a pipe from his mouth and put down the evening newspaper. He squinted. ‘Did ya say ya were lookin’ for a job?’ he asked. I nodded. ‘This cunt can’t keep anybody. He’ll pay ya fuckin’ peanuts.’
I shrugged my shoulders. I needed money, mostly for records and electrical parts. I had only one opportunity of spending a little on one girl, Marian, whom I’d gone out with some months previously. I wanted to have some money for the holidays, though I wasn’t planning going anywhere, but dreamt of falling in love that summer and having a long-term girlfriend at last and whom I would spoil.
I hadn’t been too successful at catching girls. I was gauche and hadn’t the knack to interest or fascinate them with subtle jokes or gossip. I usually said the first stupid thing that came into my head. Because I had worked weekend nights I missed out on many of the dances where you served your apprenticeship in social interaction with the opposite sex. I dressed atrociously and was never satisfied with the shade in my hair which moved from the side to the middle and back to the side again, trailing current fashion by six months. To make matters worse, at sixteen, I had a high forehead and looked as if I was going bald.
So, Marian was, briefly, my first steady girlfriend. I met her in late summer, 1968, when she came into McGivern’s butcher’s shop where I worked during the holidays. My sister, Geraldine, was engaged to Joe, the son of the owner.
Marian and I were both fifteen. Sometimes she was with her mother, sometimes she was on her own and would recite the meat order in gracefully enunciated words which stopped my heart as I ceased whatever I was doing at the back and peeked through a little window cut into the wall which allowed a view of the shop and the till. She was short with shoulder-length brown hair which she tied back in a ponytail, dark brown eyes and longish eye-lashes.
One Saturday morning I was delivering meat to her house and had just propped up my bicycle when she was coming out, on her way into town. In her driveway she stopped to talk, then suddenly grabbed the transistor radio I kept in my basket and made off with it. I chased her on foot and caught her. As we struggled in the street with my arms around her waist, she bent over, clutching the radio to her midriff, and began laughing as I tickled her to let go, but she refused. I took her steel comb from her handbag and she begged to have it back. I took out my door key and she asked me what I was doing. I said, Wait and see. I agreed to give her the comb back for my radio. She looked at the comb. I had scratched our first names on it.
I couldn’t believe how daring I was next; have no idea where the words came from. I asked her would she like a spin on the bar of my bike and was overjoyed when she said, ‘Sure!’ As we cycled down her street, like two maniacs, my old woodwork teacher, Mr Devlin, was coming out of his house, took one look at me, shook his head and smiled.
The following day I did my deliveries quickly, called over, and we went into her parlour. She played the piano and I sat on the stool alongside her. The next day she made us coffee. I asked her would she like to go out for a walk the following night. She answered with a long purr and my heart began sinking until I saw the glint in her eye and realised she was teasing me. I nipped her in the side and she started laughing.
On another morning when I called at around nine she was still wearing her nightdress – white cotton, with a pattern of sewn, little violets. We were kissing passionately on the sofa when her younger brother or sister interrupted us. Her parents, I think, must have been out working.
Then she and her family went on holidays to County Donegal – for four days, she said – and I was shattered the whole time and took to biting my nails. A school friend told me to be careful, that she was a flirt and a two-timer. I was gutted. When she returned she showed me photographs of her dancing and enjoying herself in Bundoran and that put me in a bad mood and I think I began avoiding her – the first time I discovered my stubborn streak, a strong trait of mine to cut off my nose to spite my face. We made up, saw each other a few more times but then she dated a boy from Lisburn and that was it. And that was the love of my life until the following summer, working in a new bar.
The man with the white hair behind the bar was Frank, the owner. He served a customer, then beckoned me to the counter. He looked at my slight build and asked what bar work I had done. I exaggerated.
‘Are you sure you can lift cases and kegs?’
I assured him. He said I could start that weekend.
I got paid fifteen shillings a night and when school finished I worked full-time and got £7 for a fifty-hour week. Most publicans paid poor wages, working on the assumption that their staff supplemented their pay by stealing cigarettes and fiddling the till. It created a vicious circle. Those who stole resented the honesty of those who didn’t, which created ‘shop floor’ friction. And those who didn’t steal resented being underpaid, continually subject to temptation, were frustrated and thus tetchy, despite having a clear conscience. And both sides knew that many bar owners exaggerated spillages (for which they were compensated), adulterated drink and substituted cheap spirits in brand name bottles.
My work that spring and early summer was upstairs as a barman during the day, when business was slack, and as a waiter at night under the supervision of Roy, the charge hand. On Saturday mornings I vacuum-cleaned the lounge, which we had only superficially tidied the night before, mopped behind the bar, washed and dusted, and stocked the shelves.
Franks’ wife, Vera, would appear from nowhere as if to check I wasn’t skimming the profits. She always dressed, appropriately I thought, in black: tights or nylons, pleated skirt, polo neck sweater, the sleeves of which came to just below her elbows. She wore a small pearl necklace, a style she probably borrowed from Audrey Hepburn, pearl clip-earrings and a silver charm bracelet which clattered along the counter. She had pokey breasts and a face that was sometimes too heavily made-up. Vera was determined to go places. But even I, still much of a kid, could sense that her ambition would be thwarted, that her world was circumscribed by parochial factors and that Frank, a good fifteen years her senior, had neither the charisma, stamina or drive to be taking her out of the slum.
In the mornings, before opening, she would arrive in the lounge with a large silver tray bearing half a dozen dainty cups and saucers, a jug of cream and two bowls of sugar cubes, which she removed from the tray and arranged along the length of the counter. She handed me a jar of instant coffee which I suspected journeyed daily with her between the bar and her house, somewhere near Saintfield, about ten miles from the city. She had been to Paris the month before and it was there that she probably drank coffee for the first time and was smitten with the idea of bringing it back to the natives. I don’t think she knew there was a difference between instant coffee and the real thing, though she repeatedly asked me, in a querulous voice, if I knew how to make coffee and to be sure the customers knew that we had real cream. When she left I drank most of the cream, having had a sweet tooth in those days, and made up the remainder with milk. I think the idea of the coffee was that we would attract a better class of customer, which was nonsense.
Most of the men, who crawled in on those Saturday mornings, bedraggled and unshaved, were escaping from wives and children, or had nipped out of work and were simply looking for a bit of peace and quiet and an infusion of whiskey or gin to slow down the trauma their senses were experiencing. Some callers wondered if by chance we had found their wallets, their car keys, a shoe, or their dentures in the toilet bowl when we were cleaning up.
One Saturday, just after we opened, Vera was up close to me, issuing instructions, and the light odour of her breath reminded me of Marian’s when she had opened her front door to my knock, yawning and smiling and beckoning me into the parlour. Vera’s breath had a hint of that familiar morningness, which wasn’t unpleasant, just hadn’t yet been kindled by the day. I can still recall it: it was not unlike the smell of leather after it has worn a bit. I was startled by the resemblance and suddenly yearned for Marian’s company – or someone’s. Ridiculously, there were times afterwards that seeking to be reminded of Marian I deliberately drifted close to Vera and imagined the downy nape of Vera’s neck as being that of Marian’s.
I remember the sun streaming through the windows on those Saturday mornings in early summer and I humming away as I shined the silver measuring cruets in preparation for the day ahead; naïve, preoccupied with trying to please people, lacking in confidence, thinking what record album or radio part I would buy with my pocket money, avidly reading about and trying to comprehend the deteriorating political situation, wondering what you had to do to keep a girlfriend.
I wasn’t allowed to play a radio but Vera’s idea of a convivial atmosphere was very bland piped music. She had tapes of cover-versions of hits from recent years – Vince Hill’s ‘Edelweiss’, Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Please Release Me’ – recorded cheap by session musicians. She put the player on every morning and thought it the Eighth Wonder of the World. She used to sing to these excruciating copies. At the time I thought they brought back to her fond memories: bland fond memories. The sound system played these reels of tape on a perpetual loop and was stored in a broom cupboard next to the entrance to the ladies toilet. One day, bored by a particular number – I think it was ‘Something Stupid’ not by Frank and Nancy Sinatra – I tried to fast-forward the recording and the fucking tape jumped the heads and came spurting out like water from a hose. I panicked and just slammed the door shut.
When Vera returned later to check how many coffees we had sold (none) she stopped, listened, looked, then said to me, ‘Do you hear anything?’ There was a hubbub from a few customers but I knew what she was referring to. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘You can’t hear the music. You can’t hear the music!’ I shook my head in ignorance. She went to the cupboard, opened the door and several hundred feet of magnetic tape lurched out at her like a drunken man. She jumped back and was close to tears. I hadn’t expected that. She shouted at me: ‘Were you near this machine? Did you touch anything?’
I was a bit afraid of her and denied any involvement. Then I was annoyed at my own reaction: it was only a broken tape and I was certain it could be easily replaced. She had about nine other tapes, all equally as tasteless. There were probably a lot of simple plans in her life that had gone awry and this faulty cassette might have been just another reminder of some recurring curse on her luck. Then she got bad-tempered with me and I ceased to feel sorry for her.
She made Frank buy a new machine.
Roy the barman was small and wore glasses. Some obstreperous customers to their cost mistook him for a pushover. When fights started he would leap over the counter, knock heads together and throw customers down the stairs. How no one had their necks broken still amazes me. He came from Coleraine or Limavady but had some sort of a fall-out with his family, came to Belfast and rented a flat over by Queens University. He was obsessed with his car, rallying and women, in that order. With the women he was a charmer. I loved working alongside him, looked up to him. He told me that he had worked day and night for a full year to afford his car, a souped-up Mini Cooper.
Several of our customers in the upstairs lounge were weekend prostitutes with clients or on the look-out for clients. Not that I would have had a clue. It was Roy who said to me, ‘Did you not know this was a knocking-shop?’ then laughed at my incredulity. He told me that some of the women were married and were working to pay off heavy debts that they had incurred behind their husbands’ backs. At sixteen I could not visualise why such a circumstance would drive any one, particularly a woman, into the squalor of paid sex, and initially I didn’t believe Roy. On the evening that I first started work there my Da and I caught a bus together into the city centre. He was on his way to Telephone House where he was an operator. I told him the name of the bar and it obviously didn’t register as a dubious place to him.
Sometimes on Fridays and Saturdays when I returned from my break in a nearby café Frank would tell me to help him in the downstairs bar. The crowd there had usually slackened but the floor was covered in discarded betting dockets, cigarette butts, spilt drink, empty potato crisp packets, torn-up table-mats, and the tables were dirty and sticky, the ash trays overflowing. I would clean up before going back upstairs.
Roy resented me working downstairs and said Frank or one of the barmen there should have done their own cleaning, that I was employed to work in the lounge under him. ‘That bastard deducted a pound of my wages because I was late the other morning getting my car serviced,’ he said of Frank, then lifted a packet of cigarettes from those on sale, opened it, took out and lit one and smoked it angrily. Frank himself smoked behind the public bar but didn’t allow his staff to smoke in the lounge, though upon my return Roy was technically on his break.
We would call last orders at about a quarter to ten and come ten o’clock we barracked the customers with shouts of, ‘Time Now, Please!’ and ‘Last in the House, Ladies and Gentlemen, Now, Please!’ No singing was allowed but Roy and I always tolerated a moderately good crooner. Then two policemen would arrive from Musgrave Street barracks. They set everyone on edge, standing in the middle of the floor with their revolvers in their holsters, checking their watches and staring menacingly at those who hadn’t finished their drinks. When the last customer had left Frank came up the stairs from below to tally the take-ins and told Roy to put up a few drinks for ‘the officers’. The Sergeant always allowed himself two brandies. Roy set up the drinks but never engaged with them.
At the weekends a chip van used to park at the bottom of High Street, close to several bars in the vicinity, its steamy tendrils luring passers-by, especially the inebriated. After work, Roy and I would have wonderful greasy hotdogs with boiled onions covered in tomato or mustard sauce. We would stand in the street on those warm nights, the buildings radiating the day’s heat, and in his conversation he would treat me as a coeval, even asking my opinion about the political situation, and for a few minutes I couldn’t shut up and felt important.
The last bus left Castle Street for West Belfast at about eleven and I wasn’t always certain of catching it, so Roy took to offering me a lift home.
One night he asked if I wanted to go to a mad party. He detected my reluctance and said, ‘Come on, you’ll get a woman!’ We collected his car and drove to a house in Dover Street, close to the Shankill Road. Inside, the music was blaring and everyone was drunk or doped or both. A few lamps were lit and there were bodies all over the place, couples kissing and pawing each other, oblivious to the surroundings. Roy offered me a smoke of a joint and I said I didn’t smoke. He kept telling everybody I was a virgin and asked a woman to take me upstairs. I was relieved when she told him to stop embarrassing ‘the wee lad’.
Here was the door into the world I had fantasised about, yet now balked at entering. I began to get worried about the late hour and asked Roy how I was going to get home. He said he would take me. I was a bit concerned about his condition but didn’t like the idea of walking, especially given the rising tension on the streets.
We got into his car but instead of driving down to the Falls Road he raced up the Shankill Road, had the windows open and was screaming and laughing. I was terrified. I felt we were about to die. He turned at the top of the Shankill and came back down again, ignoring red lights and causing some traffic to brake. Then a car appeared from behind and began to flash us before attempting to overtake us.
‘It’s the fucking cops!’ Roy shouted and stepped on the accelerator. We shot away and created some distance between them, but a few moments later Roy slowed down until the car came right up to our bumper and then accelerated away again. I was begging him to stop but he was enjoying it. He turned into Townsend Street, took a right into Divis Street and drove up the Falls. The road was fairly clear for a Friday night.
‘Was that not something!’ he said.
‘Roy, that was fuckin’ dangerous. We could have killed somebody or been killed.’
‘Aw, I’d never do that.’ He turned into my street, Iveagh Parade. I got out and had just closed the door when a car, with blinding headlights came speeding up our street. I couldn’t believe it had found us. At the speed it was coming it was going to crash into Roy. Roy slammed his vehicle into reverse, turned onto the Falls Road and sped off, with the other car in pursuit.
I went home, wondered if Roy had been caught, arrested and gave my name to the police and how long it would take for them to raid our house. In bed I tossed and turned and went into work the next morning expecting to see squad cars outside the bar. But the bar was shut. Two of the downstairs staff, whom I didn’t know that well, were standing about, then Roy came along in his short sheepskin coat, despite the good weather. He was smirking, hadn’t shaved and looked a bit untidy. I asked him what had happened. He said, ‘They couldn’t catch me.’ He said he didn’t know if they got his number plate, but probably didn’t in the excitement.
A cream Ford Corsair pulled up and a male passenger, Frank’s brother, got out. He came over and told us that Frank was taken to hospital during the night with a suspected heart attack and the bar wouldn’t be opening that day. We asked how he was and he said that it was serious but that he would pull through.
And that’s how Vera ended up managing the bar. Roy did his utmost to undermine her. He argued with her about the stock, made faces behind her back and occasionally mimicked her voice when she was out. ‘Oh dear! I think we need some more Pimms for our coostomers from Cherry Valley!’ I laughed with him at the start. He would open the door at the bottom of the stairs for her, as if he were a gentleman. It pleased her. Then, later, he would whisper to me, ‘I saw up her legs. She’s wearing suspenders and stockings today.’
Before Frank’s heart attack Vera never worked nights, but now put in long hours. She became friendlier towards me. Roy and she eventually got on well. On Saturday mornings she would join me behind the counter, ask me about myself, how did I think I had done in my exams, as she made both of us neat sandwiches or crackers, including ones with a thick filling of Philadelphia cheese, which until then I had never tasted. She stopped serving the coffee that nobody wanted. She allowed me to bring in my radio and I caught her singing snatches of the gospel song, ‘Oh Happy Day’, which was then in the charts. I smiled when I heard her making up some of her own words to The Beatles’ song, ‘Get Back’. She saw me and I told her that she didn’t know the words and that I was going to have to keep the radio on all the time if she were to learn them and she laughed and said, ‘Okay.’
She now stood closer to me when she was talking and I found myself studying her eyes, wisps of her hair, her mouth and the stretch of her throat which bobbed rhythmically as she spoke. She took to wearing low but modest tops and it took considerable will power to keep my eyes off the flush of freckles which streamed south from the delta of her throat and which darkened spontaneously as we spoke. I saw her in an entirely new light. Saw her beauty and fragility and that her earlier pompousness had been a shield, hiding a basic lack of confidence, even though she was the one probably wore the trousers in the marriage. On one occasion she actually joined me on my break and I hoped that the waitress would think Vera my girlfriend.
Frank recovered and had been back a few times, mostly taking it easy in the public bar and coming up to the lounge rarely, as he didn’t want to overexert himself.
My Uncle George knew the manager of the White Fort Inn, a pub in Andersonstown, and he telephoned me one day in July to say that they were short of a waiter and that if I got my foot in the door I would probably end up working behind the bar after a few months. The money was better, the bar closer to home, so I told Frank I was leaving. He was a bit dry with me though Vera wished me the best and slipped me a £5 note as a present and Roy said to keep in touch. And that was that until 1973 in jail when I watched on television the car bomb exploding and the old hotel on the corner of the block collapse in rubble.
A middle-aged businessman from south Belfast, charged with forgery, spent a couple of days on our wing in Crumlin Road Jail in October 1978 when I was back inside on remand. Though his offences were not political and normally the IRA would have refused such a person permission to associate with us, I think he was allowed to stay so that his brains could be picked. One morning, as we were being filtered into the yard, he was alongside me as we came up the steps and he asked could he walk with me.
I had no objection: prisoners vicariously feed on the lives of others or need new listeners for their own old stories. We were talking about this and that, schools we had gone to, bars he had drank in before the Troubles. I told him about all the places I had worked in and as I mentioned the city centre bars he suddenly interrupted me.
‘What a small world! You must have worked for my mate Frank!’ he said.
‘Frank and Vera?’
‘That slut,’ he said.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘You don’t have to talk like that. She wasn’t the worst. I haven’t seen her in years. And I heard Frank died. What happened to him?’
‘Well, his wife didn’t help for a start. She was a slut and good riddance to her. They were married about three or four years when she pissed off to England with one of the barmen and then when he fucked off on her she came back to Belfast looking to see if she could get back with Frank.’
I had heard some of what he was saying.
‘The eejit, Frank, was going to take her back. He told me the house was lonely and he missed her, but I told him he was mad. He was very sick at that stage and wasn’t thinking straight. You knew he had a bad heart, right? Then he had a massive attack which finished him off.’
‘So, did she get the pub and the house?’
‘The pub was on its way out by then. It was always on lease. He didn’t own it.’
‘But it was blown up in 1973. Would they have got some compensation?’
‘’Seventy-three? Five years ago. No, no. He’s more than five years dead… He was out of the bar by then. There was no house for her, either. It was repossessed. Frank had no head for business. Full of great ideas and not a bad fella but he had gone through about four trades and knew nothing about any of them.
‘Vera probably got a couple of grand from a policy but she quickly went through it. She ended up working in the clothes department of the C & A, or one of those shops. She was a right balloon. There’d be a Tupperware party – or something like that – and she’d have to buy everything, even though they needed none of them, not having kids or anything, and Frank never stopped her.’
‘So, what happened to her?’
‘Took an overdose and was found in the bath.’
‘She killed herself?’
‘Yeh, what did you think I meant? She was on her own over a weekend and wasn’t found till the Sunday or Monday.’
‘Where did this happen?’
‘In her flat off the Ormeau Road.’
I was stunned. A day or two later he was granted bail. I never found out if his case went to trial or if he was convicted.
Four years earlier, and shortly after I was released from internment, I met up with a former internee, Kieran Meehan, for a drink. Kieran’s two brothers, Colm and Eamonn (whose nickname was ‘the Major’ – he had served in the British Army, in Aden, I think) were still interned. Kieran’s sister-in-law, Maura Meehan, aged thirty, and her sister, Dorothy Maguire, aged nineteen, had been shot dead by the British Army in 1971 for protesting against British army raids in the Falls area. After his release Kieran had got work as a bouncer-cum-security man in various bars around the town and I went out with him for a few drinks one night on the presumption that he knew where was safe. It was on the door of the Trocadero in the Markets that we banged after closing time, looking for more drink. Kieran knew the barman and we were let in.
The place was packed, was choking with smoke. The bar was supposed to have closed about a half hour earlier but the juke box was still playing records, most of which reminded Kieran and me of jail and the men we had left behind. We ordered drinks and on a stool in one corner I saw a face I couldn’t quite place but which looked familiar. I asked Kieran did he know who the woman was and he said he had seen her once or twice before when he was doing the door. She looked up at me and stared but she didn’t appear to know or recognise me. Then I realised she was quite drunk. I wasn’t exactly sober myself and it took me a long time to run pictures through my head, including several of Marian, before working out that this person was possibly Vera. I told myself it couldn’t be. I couldn’t imagine this pub being her scene. I wasn’t sure of her politics, though I thought she came from a Catholic background, but had never heard her talk in familiar terms about well-known nationalist or republican areas, and so presumed she was from a suburb of Belfast and was one of those Catholics who had no interest in anything but themselves. I told Kieran that I was going over to talk to her and he winked at me.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘But don’t I know you?’ She scrutinised me and focused. When she smiled I knew it was her. ‘It’s Vera, isn’t it? I used to work for you and Frank, remember!’
‘…Danny? Look at you! Danny?’
‘Yip, it’s me. What are you doing here?’
I suddenly remembered that the IRA had destroyed her and Frank’s bar and livelihood and felt a bit embarrassed.
‘Just drinking,’ she said. ‘And what about you? Did you finish school? Are you at university?’
‘No, I didn’t go,’ I said, evasively. She looked a bit haggard but still attractive. In fact, she looked not much older than me. ‘Who are you with?’
‘I was with a friend,’ she said. ‘But she had to go on.’
I was just about to ask her about Frank and Roy when the air was shattered by a burst of gunfire and people started screaming. Both of us were terrified and Vera grabbed me tightly as we took cover on the floor. The front door burst open and a man who had been leaving just as the shooting began shouted that the shots came from Donegal Pass, a nearby loyalist area. Some men had the presence of mind to jump up on chairs and smash the overhead lights, plunging the place into darkness. Then there were several more cracks of gunfire. Vera was squeezing my hand very hard. She wasn’t hysterical or screaming but was shaking.
‘It’s okay, it’s okay!’ I reassured her as we huddled together, our backs to the bar counter. She was breathing fast and our faces were close in the semi-darkness. We sat still for what seemed like an age but was probably only a minute. People from nearby streets were outside shouting, asking was anyone hurt and inquiring about friends and relatives. A few lights were put on and everyone got up from the floor and someone joked and demanded from the management a free drink.
I helped Vera up and asked her was she okay and she said she would be.
‘Look at your trousers,’ she said, and dusted them down with her hand.
‘Does Frank know you’re here?’ I asked.
‘Frank? Frank’s dead.’
‘Ah God, I’m sorry to hear that. I didn’t know. What happened?’ Then, realising that this was neither the time nor the place, I quickly added, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’
She sniffled and was approaching tears, whether as a consequence of the shooting, the alcohol or grief, I wasn’t sure, so I talked quickly.
‘Do you want me to try and get a taxi? Are you staying in town? Do you want me to see that you get home okay?’
‘I live just up the Ormeau Road,’ she said. ‘Could you see that I get there?’
‘The Ormeau Road? Whereabouts?’
‘The Holy Land. Do you know it?’
I knew it vaguely. Those streets around south Belfast named after Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem and Palestine. I crossed to Kieran. ‘I organised that for you,’ he joked about the shooting, ‘to see if your “bangers” were still okay.’ I asked him how I could get Vera home. He said that taxis had been ordered. ‘You weren’t slow there,’ he added, misconstruing the situation, and I didn’t care to explain. ‘Watch that Ormeau Road. You mightn’t be able to get back out. Whereabouts does she live?’
I told him.
‘Don’t try to come out tonight, I’m telling you. It’s dodgy.’
I said I’d sleep on her sofa. A taxi arrived and we left. We had only a short distance to travel but could not have safely walked past the loyalist district between. She insisted on paying for the taxi, which was fortunate, because at her door I realised that I had almost no money. She fumbled for a key, found the lock and we entered the cold darkness.
‘My friends are away,’ she said. ‘I’m at the top.’ She threw a switch but nothing happened. ‘I forgot. That bulb’s gone.’ On the first landing she stretched her hand into the bathroom and switched on the light to show us the way, turned, and asked me if I wanted a cup of tea but I said I didn’t drink tea. Then she said, as if it had just occurred to her: ‘Danny, how are you getting home?’ It then occurred to me that she didn’t know that I was just out of jail, and that I slept everywhere and anywhere but home, since I was avoiding being arrested and re-interned.
‘Could I pitch a tent here for the night? It wouldn’t be safe trying to get back to the Falls tonight? And we let that taxi go.’
‘I’m sorry. Of course you can stay the night. You can crash down somewhere… This is my room up here, but you’ll have to excuse the mess.’
She opened a door and switched on a light. The sight before us was shocking. She had been burgled while out and a robber had tipped the contents of her drawers and wardrobe all over the floor. There were socks, hair-rollers, knickers, bras, shoes, letters, several books, hankies, scarves, lipstick, all scattered willy-nilly over the wooden floorboards.
‘Jesus!’ I said.
‘I know, I know. I told you it was a mess. I’ve been meaning to tidy up but never got around to it.’
So, I said nothing.
‘Do you want a drink?’
‘There’s a bit of Vodka…’ she waved a bottle at me, ‘and some lemonade.’
I said I was okay. She poured the remainder into a cup and added the mixer. She switched on an electric fire, but could get just one bar to light, then sat down on a single bed and told me to sit on the one and only armchair in the room.
‘I heard you went to jail,’ she said, as she crossed her legs.
‘Who told you that?’
‘I am from Belfast. Everybody knows everybody else.’
‘I thought you were from Donaghadee or Comber. Somewhere out of Belfast.’
‘Whatever gave you that idea? I was born at the top of the Ormeau Road and lived in West Belfast until I was thirteen, then moved to East Belfast. Well, weren’t you in jail?’
I told her a bit about myself and was trying to work the conversation around to Frank. She sipped her drink and started to shake a little. ‘I have to ask you something, Danny. Have you seen or heard anything about Roy?’
I had forgotten his surname. ‘Last time I saw Roy he was working with you.’
She burst into tears and I was taken aback for a second or two. I got up, crossed the room to the bed where she was sitting and put my arm around her. ‘Easy, easy,’ I said, awkwardly. She cried into my shoulder and when she looked up she was beautiful, sad and vulnerable. I wanted to kiss her. She was Marian and she was fifteen. I wanted to make love to her.
‘I haven’t heard from Roy in ages, Danny. The police couldn’t trace him and they think he’s dead. But he could be alive, couldn’t he?’
‘Vera, I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.’
So over the next hour she told me her story, parts of which, the earlier parts, she thought I knew and squeezed my hand during the telling to test my denials. She had married Frank in 1967 when she was twenty-three and he ‘a handsome’ thirty-seven. She didn’t know why she married him. I didn’t believe her. Perhaps she hadn’t faced up to the fact that she was after money and status and comfort.
When she spoke about Roy and me visiting Frank in hospital, I had forgotten all about it, but it came back to me, an image of a side ward and Frank with wires attached to his chest to monitor his condition, though he looked part of a grotesque experiment. She had come in by taxi and left Frank when we did. Outside, it was raining and Roy offered to run her home but dropped me off first. Their affair started shortly afterwards. Had I not noticed the change in her at the time, she asked? I said I had noticed her more animated and laughing more. She spoke of Roy in terms I could not quite recognise: ‘a brilliant fella,’ ‘the love of my life’…
They had been seeing each other for a few months by the time the Troubles broke out – I had already left and started in the White Fort Inn – and then Roy began talking about going to England. She told him she would leave Frank. Vera never elaborated on Roy’s reaction to her proposal. (Back then, I could imagine Roy going to England to escape the Troubles and Vera, but I must have thought that because I was still prejudiced by my first impressions of her, her bossiness. Roy had mentioned to me getting out of Belfast but I couldn’t see him wanting any baggage.)
One morning, before opening hours, Frank, whether he suspected anything, unexpectedly made his way up to the lounge. ‘That’s when he caught us,’ she said. ‘That’s when it all came out. At first I thought he was going to have another heart attack, then he called me all the names of the day. Roy pushed him aside and I felt a bit sorry for Frank when he fell back against the counter. Roy walked out and told him he could shove his job. We hadn’t really finalised everything, money-wise. Frank told me to explain myself and I said there was nothing to explain, I loved Roy. He said, “That’ll last.”’
She moved out of her home and in with a friend for a week or two and stayed with Roy at the weekends. Roy said he had been promised a job, temporarily, but with prospects, as the landlord of a bar in the Lake District. Then Frank’s resolve weakened and he began making overtures to her. Roy said she was welcome to come with him but would understand if she wanted to try reconciliation. The way Vera told me, Roy was committed to her but was acting nobly. She followed Roy to Cumbria but it turned out that he was working as a barman. She worked as a waitress in the same place and they lived in a small apartment in mews at the back, which I thought sounded picturesque. Their life was probably adventurous and exciting for the first few weeks, or week, struggling against the odds. But I am sure that Roy came to resent Vera, her naïve enthusiasm, and that their relationship became fairly strained.
Roy had taken his beloved car over to England with him. One day around October he drove to London for an interview and stayed overnight. Police were able to verify that the following day he did the interview at a hotel in Islington, after which he telephoned Vera to say that it had gone okay, and he was heading back to Cumbria. He was never seen again.
The police had issued appeals and released a description of his car and number plate but there was no response from the public. An appeal was broadcast on radio and television. There was no record of Roy having applied for unemployment benefit or paid or filled in returns for tax. When she came back to Belfast she contacted and met his brother. His family hadn’t heard from him either.
I didn’t know what to make of it.
‘It’s been over four years now, Danny. And I can’t get over him… I miss him so much. He was my life,’ she said and began sobbing again. ‘I went to London and searched for him. I walked the streets for weeks and I thought I saw him a few times but it was just people who looked like him from the back. Something desperate must have happened to him, Danny. He might have lost his memory. He could be in a hospital even now and they mightn’t know who he is. I even thought Frank might have had him murdered.’
She gulped her drink and dried her eyes with the side of her hand.
‘What do you think?’
‘Gee, I don’t know what to think. It’s incredible.’ Given her obsession with Roy I didn’t think it tactful to inquire about Frank – who was definitely dead. She leaned her head against my shoulder and I thought she was dozing.
‘Do you want to go asleep now?’ I said.
‘What? Oh…sorry. Where are you going to sleep? There’s the living room downstairs, if you want to sleep on the sofa.’
‘It would be freezing. It’s warmer here with the fire,’ I said. ‘I could crash down in the chair with a coat.’
‘Will you put out the light, then.’
I bent down slowly to kiss her and she offered me her cheek. ‘Thanks for being a good listener,’ she said.
I borrowed her coat, switched off the light, and pulled the coat over me. I saw her illuminated by the single bar of the electric fire as she unsteadily undressed, her lovely legs, the white of her back to me; heard the sigh of the bed as she got in, and the whisper of the bedspread as she drew it over herself.
‘Night, night, Danny.’
‘Night, night, Vera.’
The fire made the air arid but that was preferable to shivering throughout the night on a sofa in an empty room downstairs. I went over in my mind what she had said, though I also worked out that she was only thirty, nine years older than me. I waited for a signal and occasionally my heart thumped with adrenalin when I thought she was about to say something. But soon she was murmuring in her troubled sleep and I eventually fell asleep but woke up at the noise of her turning over, looked at my watch and saw it was half seven.
I quietly got up, eased open the door and left. I never saw her again.
As the years pass, the image of Frank begins to fade and what is left are a few impressions: the man with the mop of white hair behind the bar who gave me a job; the gap in his front teeth; the way he smoked; his joking with the ‘peelers’, as Roy and I called them. Frank, somewhere in Roselawn Cemetery, his bones sharing a grave with those of his elderly parents.
I can’t remember him ever being affectionate towards Vera, though when he talked to travelling sales representatives he always wormed into his conversation a remark or reference to ‘my wife’ which, he might have imagined, raised his status and caused him to be viewed in a fresh, more complimentary light, especially if she was already a familiar, slightly sexual presence about the bar. You knew he was proud. He probably liked the idea of having a younger wife. Until Roy spoiled things.
I started out admiring Roy but he went down in my estimation – though not because he ran off with another man’s wife. During the course of writing this, and thinking long and hard about him, a phrase he used regarding sex, and which I had entirely forgotten, stunned me and came to represent something of his foul mind. ‘If she bleeds, she breeds,’ he remarked more than once about girls who passed us in the street.
Roy, the cad, the fly man, living somewhere in England, Ireland, Europe or America, with wife Number One or Two; the grown-up children; dandling a grandchild on his knee; living under some nom de plume; perhaps with a string of hotels or motels to his name.
Or, perhaps not.
A few months ago I had an American visitor to my house, an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. He told me a story about his cousin, a businessman from Colorado. In the nineties, this cousin, who had been divorced and re-married, became estranged from his daughter for several years until one day she telephoned out of the blue, which made her father overjoyed at the prospects of reconciliation. She lived in Arizona, he in Denver. Then, that Christmas, she suddenly disappeared. Her father and her mother (who never remarried) put up posters of her in many states, and placed her photograph on an internet site about missing persons.
Two years ago, a man driving through Colorado in the early hours of the morning lost control of his vehicle and it skidded off the road, crashing through some brush and into one of the many lakes that pockmark a particular county in that state. By sheer fluke, someone driving behind witnessed the disappearance of tail lights some distance ahead, suspected an accident and informed the police. They dragged the lake and the first of two cars they brought to the surface contained the body of the missing girl who, they worked out from Christmas presents in the trunk of the car, was on the way to surprise her father and make up.
Vera. I have thought about Vera on many occasions. Her blind love for Roy. Her death by overdose and drowning in a cold bath in that flat over a long weekend.
Another memory: the afternoon I climbed the stairs to take over from her and found the lounge completely empty of customers. Outside, the skies had darkened. She was standing still and staring at the window where little firmaments of rain had begun gathering along the glass, reflecting the light of the pale universe of Belfast. Her silhouette was like a tableau from a Vermeer painting. I startled her and she turned and gave a sad smile, of the type one resorts to when offering condolences – speechless yet suggesting the words, ‘What can I say?’
Vera. Her silly coffee and cream. Her wardrobe of black. Her Philadelphia cheese. Her trying to sing the words of a Beatles’ song. Her short period of romance and happiness, predicated, I am convinced, on a delusion.
Her dreams unrealised.
Her breath no longer.