I dug this story out recently. It was highly commended in the 2014 Takahē short story competition. (Takahē is a New Zealand literary journal.) It’s one of my favourite pieces of work – perhaps because it takes the reader to Northern Ireland, where I was born. It’s never been published, although I did post it on my old blog site. Here it is again. The judge of the competition said the story displayed a blend of “restraint and intense emotion”, and had a “nice understated humour, as well as a use of rhythm and repetition that … [showed] a love of and care for language.”
I could have asked for no higher praise.
The Girl Behind the bar
The girl behind the bar, her face tight like a punch, takes my order.
She grips at the tap with a grubby thumb, her blonde hair lank and imprisoned in a black band. She serves me my Guinness and a little mat to go under it, then turns away to wipe glasses. The muscles work in her back as she screws the tea towel round and round and round, like freeing a stubborn cork.
“Sure you’re not from around here,” says a drunk man on a stool. The bar is propping him up.
“I’m not sure of anything,” I say, only half-joking. The girl and I share a reflected glance in the mirror behind the bottles. She reaches up to put a glass away. It is fogged in a grey film.
“You Australian?” The question is soggy with alcohol. One more beer and the girl will recruit her boss, perhaps, to show him the door.
“New Zealander,” I say. There is a shift in the air, not unfriendly, as people at the nearest tables register a foreigner. The girl stops wiping.
The drunk man reaches for my words, and misses. A slow-motion fumble with his trousers as he drains the last from his pint glass, then he sets off in the vague direction of the toilets. I sip at my Guinness again, careful to avoid the fingerprints. Danny Boy comes on the stereo and suddenly I am a cultural cliché. The girl has turned around, the tea towel now over her shoulder, the shamrock pattern a cloth tattoo.
“My father was born in New Zealand.”
“I know,” I say. “That’s why I’m here.”
She pinches her lips and narrows her eyes. “You’re not with the police?” Her mouth has formed the question without effort; she is obviously used to asking it.
“No. Not the police. Your father is my brother.”
Surprise opens her face a fraction. She considers this unfamiliar branch of her family tree and whether she should graft herself to it. The street door opens and she is busy for a few minutes serving a couple whose matching peak caps and mispronunciations announce them as tourists, and not very clever ones.
I wait until they have moved off, clutching their Irish beers. I clutch my own as I speak. “You’re Elizabeth, aren’t you? I’m Sam.”
“I didn’t even know you existed,” she says as she summons the tea towel from her shoulder and wipes the bar where the male tourist has spilled the head off his beer. She slaps the towel onto the puddle. “No-one ever told me.”
“I know. It’s been a bit quiet, our side of the family.”
I recall my father’s response when I informed him of my impending journey to the other side of the world. He asked me to take my brother’s leather-bound Bible with gilt edging, gifted to him at his baptism. In the silence that followed my mother tended to her collection of dolls on the mantelpiece, dusting in and out of the spaces between them. “Tea, dear?” she asked as the dust swirled about her head like a recalcitrant halo.
“Sam,” says Elizabeth. “Is that so. Come to visit beautiful Belfast, have you?”
I think of the taxi ride here, driving down Falls Road, my driver delivering a practiced tutorial on the numerous brightly painted murals adorning the gable walls. The Red Hand of Ulster. The Union Jack. UFF, UVF, UDA. The Shankill Butchers. A man in a balaclava stared down through the sights of his rifle. No surrender. Shell-suited tourists were snapping him, shot after shot, desperate to take home some genuine Belfast history. Freedom fighters, paramilitaries, martyrs and taxi tour advertisers rubbed colourful shoulders and jostled for attention. See us. Hear us. Remember us.
The drunk is weaving his way back through the tables, one arm held out in front of him to ward off evil, or perhaps to aim an imaginary gun. Elizabeth observes him, waiting for him to stumble. He makes it back to his post without incident and orders another beer.
The tourists are arguing, the wife’s angry whine rising above the crack and slap of conversation. “But I don’t wanna to go to the museum. I wanna go see the castles. That’s your real history right there. Don’t you wanna to see the real Ireland?” The husband examines his beer mat.
“I’m going to visit your Dad tomorrow, and I thought you might like to come,” I say.
Elizabeth tosses the towel into a bucket behind her and wipes her hands on her jeans. She looks like me, I think, but emptier. The troughs and spikes of adolescence have flat-lined to leave her wilting. In her eyes I see my brother’s shadow. She shakes her head and the shadow shifts. “No, you’re OK. I’m workin’, I’m not off ‘til late.”
“I could speak to your boss if you like,” I offer. “I’m only here until Sunday.”
Her mouth is forming the word No when the drunk on the stool stands up. His face is florid as he sways and spits out words like peanut shells. “Me father beat me. Beat me with a belt, so he did. Black and blue. Black and blue. Black and Tan, you’re half a man. A fuckin’ Fenian bastard, so he was. What can ya do, what can ya do. Black and Blue. Black. Blue.”
His voice winds down, a child’s mechanical toy. Danny’s pipes have stopped calling and the pub has gone quiet. Elizabeth’s face has closed again. The tourists shift uncomfortably in their seats and their Northern Ireland guide book falls to the wooden floor. Crack, like a bullet.
The next song comes on and in the leather booth at the back a young woman and an enormous man with one hoop earring stand up. They shake hands. She has a black folder under her arm and is wearing too much eye shadow, and her pink skirt barely covers her buttocks. The man with the earring stares at her bottom as she totters out the door on her stilettos, unsteady as a toddler and not much older. As he makes his way back towards the bar people turn again to their pints, except for the tourists. The husband has taken his camera out. The wife picks up the guide book and bangs it on the table between herself and her husband. She stabs at the castle on the front cover. “Don’t you wanna shot of that?”
The man with the earring picks up the drunk’s glass, handing it to Elizabeth without looking at her. He leans in. “Come on then Tom, sure that’s enough there now, eh? How about you pop on home to your wife now, OK? She’ll be waiting for you. Come on, now.” He shepherds Tom towards the door, guiding him by the elbow. They look like they are going to dance.
Elizabeth is grasping Tom’s glass. It is half full, or half empty. “I’m moving to London,” she says. “Next month.”
I blink. “Really? I didn’t know.”
“Sure it’s been a bit quiet, our side of the family,” she says.
Elizabeth’s boss comes back and moves behind the bar. “You didn’t wipe my table properly,” he says. “It was fuckin’ sticky.” He takes the glass from Elizabeth and tosses the leftover beer down the sink. He hands it back to her. “She’ll be fine, so. Can start in a week.”
“Grand,” says Elizabeth as she puts the glass away without washing it. “See you tomorrow.”
She grabs a coat and bag from the small room behind the bar and pauses to look at her reflection in the mirror. She releases her hair from the tie and combs her fingers through it, once, twice. She moves out from behind the bar and as she walks towards the door she looks over her shoulder at me. “You stuck to your seat or what?”
I scramble to put on my jacket. As I walk towards my niece I hear the tourists asking if they can take their beer mats and a bar towel. “But one with shamrocks on it, or a castle,” says the wife.
We emerge onto the street just as the daylight is fading. It is my first time in this city and I am acutely aware of the manner in which the dusk falls on the pavement, the sounds of foreign people heading home, the way the air smells different. I suggest we go to dinner, and Elizabeth says she knows somewhere close by.
We travel in silence for a few minutes, past shops and a small park and two sets of traffic lights. The bulbs are caged behind mesh wire. We start to cross a large square. There are lights in the ground and just as we pass they blink on, as if our steps have flicked the switch. A busker in the centre of the square is suddenly illuminated. His guitar case, open on the ground in front of him, is empty. He wears a green jacket covered in pins, each bearing a shamrock or a leprechaun or a slogan. Kiss Me, I’m Irish. He is a singing souvenir. The American woman in the pub would love him, I think. She would want to pack him in her suitcase and take him home.
Elizabeth lights a cigarette and the smoke curls around our heads. She exhales and charms it into the Belfast sky.
“His release date is coming up.” She squints through a jerky drag. “He’ll be out in a month.”
“I know,” I say.
We stop outside a lit window painted with the words The Corner Grill. It is half full, or half empty. People are settling into their chairs, shrugging off work jackets and loosening ties, gratefully transitioning from one existence to another.
“This OK?” Elizabeth asks, tossing her cigarette to the ground and grinding it with a sneakered toe.
“You know better than I do,” I say. “You live here.”
“Not for much longer,” she says. I glimpse the hint of a smile as she opens The Corner Grill door. “So you’re my aunty then, for real life, like?”
She steps across the threshold.