If a bar is not kept at all times moist to the touch it will grow feral, dangerous.
Think of it as a type of sessile organism, a compact colony surviving only on the odd sobs of stout and the dead skin of patrons.
This particular bar has pulled the fibres from the knit of my jumper and planted them upright in the mahogany so that they sway like sea creatures. Poor thing must have been starving.
It’s St Stephen’s day morning and I’m consulting the paper. First meet is 11.
I use an inch-long pencil to circle names. My first pick is a tip from the radio, 6/1.
Neil returns from the bathroom preening with dull satisfaction. His paper wagging beneath his arm like the tail of one of those strange fish that sticks to the bellies and backs of sharks.
I can see his picks, circled with red pen so that his choices cannot not be easily erased or forgotten.
He pays for his drink and while he does I catch the contents of his wallet – a loyalty card for the only barber in town and a balance of cash for the day, all big notes. His bank cards are at home. He knows better.
We leave and walk to the bookmakers, two doors down, last year it was five.
Neil is shorter than I am and going bald in the most unfortunate of ways, thinning in strips instead of patches. This doesn’t seem to bother him. He lets it grow until it’s unbearably mossy.
He has pale pocked skin and a sturdy crest of a nose. Sometimes when you call to the house for him, his brother will answer and tell you that Neil is out the back breaking blocks with it.
Right now he has the look about him of someone confident, canny.
The bookies is packed and has the visual palette of a stuffed ashtray. It smells of insoles and devastated carpet.
The only female here is the cashier, Joanna. She has the kind of calm in her eyes that you see in nurses and first responders.
Once on the carpet Neil doesn’t respond to verbal signals. He will not discuss picks or winnings. Men are invisible in this place.
At 2 o clock I tell him that I’m hungry. He seems agreeable. This must mean he’s up.
We go back to the pub and eat vegetable soup, crumble in soda bread that’s thick as scones. We have a carvery lunch and a pint of free cordial each. There is discussion of Ibiza.
He tells me that he’s going to get a job in the new year, that he’d like to come with us on the holiday. Says though, that it’s hard with the Mother the way she is. I sympathize, but secretly I know that if it wasn’t this it would be something else. Neil has the sort of mind that subconsciously seeks labyrinths. It’s not broken, it just does what it does with a ruthlessly efficiency.
He’s never been out of the country. He’s never eaten pasta or drank barista coffee. To my knowledge he has only ever been to the cinema that one time with school. He likes football and playing poker online, thinks he’s better at both than he is.
We step outside for a smoke. I rub my belly and tell him what the Father told us over Christmas dinner.
He told us that when he was thirteen years old his Dad organized a job for him in a plant nursery somewhere between Aherlow and Lisvernane. They supplied food and accommodation for the summer and a couple of quid would go back home.
The meals weren’t much, spuds and bacon, mustard from a tube if they had it. Breakfast was porridge and tea without milk or sugar.
He told us that he would be so hungry that by lunchtime he would start to eat chips of wood from the handle of his shovel and in bed at night he would sometimes chew the feathers from inside his pillow.
The story has Neil shaking his head, ”Different times.” he says.
Back in the ashtray the smell has evolved to include the bizarre body odours of farmers fresh from the field.
It’s not wholly unpleasant. It has a spicy quality to it, something cheap splashed against a hairy throat on the way into town.
Later myself and Neil huddle in the doorway as a heavy shower leathers the blanked out windows. Threads of rainwater drop from a clogged-up gutter and clap against the pavement. Even the smoke we’re blowing wants nothing to do with the weather, it circles our faces, seeks shelter in our pores.
Neil is about as happy as Neil gets. Tells me he’ll put the deposit down on Ibiza tomorrow, maybe he’ll even get a deal in the sales.
When the bookies close we make our ways back to the pub. Neil keeps walking.
I pat his back dutifully, offer to buy him a drink, curried chips if he’s hungry. He doesn’t answer me, just carries on down the street, trans-illuminated by a connect-the-dot forest of birches wrapped in fairy lights.
Once inside, I go to the bar, run my hand across its skin. It feels dewy, fed. I knock it once to see if it answers, thumb the vinyl-like groves in the wood. A voice comes; I order a stout.
I think of Neil, walking alone in the country dark. I bet he’s starving.