O’Neill’s was heaving. A confusing warren of a place with drunkenness scoped into its very architecture, it was so packed you could barely hear the people across the table from you. Still, it was good to be here.
Conor didn’t make it over every year, and he was thinking now that maybe he should. Dublin didn’t suffer from the contagious doom that settled on London at New Year, that emptiness that had you feeling like an extra in a remake of ‘On the Beach’. Like the rattle of hail on a tin roof, simply being here was a comfort.
Conor smiled lazily at Jarleth and the rest, basking in the maelstrom of their chatter and thinking, in a low-level way, about making a resolution to give up women for the year.
He didn’t exactly go after women but wherever he went, they were always there. He’d go on holiday alone or go see a band, and always he met someone. Maybe it was genetic. Maybe he had one of those faces or body smells that made women want to adopt him. Either that or red hair was less of a turn-off than they said. He had no special reason for wanting to give it a rest. No major upset or anything, it was just, think of all the extra time he’d have for his own stuff.
If he was celibate, though, would people be able to tell just by looking at him? And would he become odd or unsocial the way celibate people were meant to be?
Odd word it was, anyway. Cel-ib-ate. Cell-Ibbott. Sell. I. Bait.
From across the table other words were carried over to him, ‘massive’, ‘the old dear’, ‘USB port’, ‘un-fucking-believable’, and he tried to imagine a sentence linking them together. Words and phrases drifted past and slid together like pebbles on a beach, losing their individuality and forming something else altogether, a comforting sandbank of un-words. He noticed after a while that Jarleth was waving at him slowly and exaggeratedly like they were dive buddies and he’d found some amazing piece of coral he wanted to show him.
Jar’s lips moved, but no sound came out.
Conor leaned forward. ‘Sorry, what was that?’
‘I said, do you never think of coming home?’
‘To Ireland, like?’
‘Well of course to Ireland. Where else?’
‘Home is where you want it to be.’
His automatic response came out sounding glib and defensive.
‘Ah, you know what I mean, Conor. It can’t be much fun over there. Them English folks haven’t a clue how to enjoy themselves, have they?’
The two women laughed, and this confused Conor because hadn’t the one with the wine coloured hair said she was from Bath? He turned his friend’s question over in his head, not sure he knew enough English people to form a representative sample.
‘They’re the same as anywhere else. Some of them are alright, some of them are bastards. But not everyone I know over there is English. I’ve friends in London from all over: Asia, East Europe, North Africa, Mexico. Iceland, even.’
‘We’ve all that here too now, you know.’
‘The roar of the Celtic Tiger, hah?’
‘Now we’ve a few bob to spare everyone wants some. Sure they reckon in ten years time the place will be only half Irish.’
Conor wondered would the new people pick up the lingo? What he missed most about Dublin was the way people talked, the mocking humour that took all in its path as fair game. That is, if Dubliners did still talk like that. Tonight was fine, but these last few days he’d heard a fuck of a lot of talk about property, like it was some seriously cool new game everyone knew how to play. Even his Ma and Da’s friends that worked on the buses and used to be in the Dublin Workers Party, half of them had bought rental units out in new-build satellite towns so far west of town they were nearly in Galway, or off in Europe somewhere on the far end of a Ryanair flight. Listening to radio adverts for forty year 110 per cent mortgages, Conor got the feeling Dubliners had all taken a crash course in some foreign language he didn’t follow.
The blonde ran her fingernails through her hair and fluffed it out. A restlessness was running through the pub. Others too were standing up and searching out their coats.
‘So listen, we heading up to Christchurch or what?’
She meant for the bells, the ringing in of the New Year. The new millennium, in fact. Conor didn’t mind a trip to Christchurch if that’s where the action was, but the river was definitely closer.
‘Isn’t the fireworks by that clock in the Liffey?’ he asked. ‘The one with the countdown beaming up from under the water?’
‘Listen to this, Jar. He wants to go see the Time in the Slime.’
This was the blonde one again, Jar’s girl. Conor ought to know her name. Jacinta? No. Orla, was it? Or Fionnuala? The two women stood clutching each other like little kids trying not to wet themselves, wobbling gently on their high heels. Their laughter was raucous.
‘I’m telling ya Conor, you been away too long,’ Jarleth said. ‘They’d to have that clock hauled up out the river, the filth was too much for it. Once they cleaned it and put it back, didn’t the bleedin’ yoke start to let in water?’
‘I don’t believe you,’ Conor said although in fact he was beginning to do just that. ‘You mean the fucking half a million quid millennium clock broke down before the millennium?’
The blonde’s shoulders shook as she pulled Jar’s coat around him. Her smile faded as she turned to him and said,
‘Did yez not hear about all that over in England, Conor? Sure it was only in the water less than a year. They must’ve loved that.’
‘’K’s sake! The only faster way to burn the cash would have been to give it to the bleedin’ KLF and let them set it alight.’
‘Ah, would you go way. It’s no worse than yeer wobbly bridge that ye had over in London, is it?’
He woke to the sound of Jarleth and his bird giggling in the next room. Conor hoped the giggles were post rather than pre, because he didn’t want to hear them going at it. If he booked a hotel when he went back to Dublin he had too much privacy, but here in Jarleth’s live-in flat over the sound studio he was lucky to have any privacy at all. Still, it was closer to town than his folks’ place, which was presumably why he’d fetched up here.
He’d stayed at the studio before, but all he remembered was, it was out towards Ringsend in some desolate part of town with nothing much in it, not even a petrol station or an allnight shop.
The room was pitch black but for a tiny shaft of light. Conor’s throat ached and he was dying for a piss. From the bedroom came the scrape of a match, the smell of cigarette smoke, muffled voices.
Good, then it must be post, so it was alright to use the bathroom.
The beer pinched his bladder as it streamed out of him. When he was done he stared into a mirror white with flecks of toothpaste or shaving foam. The end of the old world, the start of a new: but Conor didn’t look or feel quite new enough to make the transition. This time next year he’d be thirty. He was closer to an oul’fella than a youngfella now.
The bathroom door creaked.
He quickly turned on a tap to wash his hands.
Glancing round he half expected to see Jarleth but it was that girl from the bar, the one with the wine coloured hair.
‘There you are,’ she said.
She ducked and rinsed her mouth at the tap, then slugged back some cold water. Her hair looked even brighter in this light. Not wine coloured at all but the colour of lollipops. Ketchup red. What on earth did she dye it with – those ground-up insects they put in strawberry ice cream? Or maybe she put ketchup on her hair.
‘Come on back, it’s freezing without you.’
The way she grabbed his arm made it pretty clear something had gone on between them, but he didn’t remember it. Too many similar scenes to be overwritten; no space to cram this one in. She pulled him down on to a nest of cushions and sleeping bags on the living room floor, and kissed him determinedly.
‘Wow. Didn’t take long to shatter that resolution.’
‘Me being celibate.’
‘Like you were saying to me up at the bells? But that was pure provocation, you never meant a word of it.’
She laughed. He didn’t contradict her but he didn’t laugh either. Seeing his face, she looked almost guilty.
‘Tonight doesn’t count,’ she told him, running her fingers up his neck and into his thickly tangled hair.
Conor didn’t like it when people touched his dreads. He’d noticed that even people he’d barely met wanted to do it to see what they felt like. To get them to stop he was going to have to shave his head or something.
‘Resolutions start when you wake up on New Year’s Day. Do what you want tomorrow, my friend, that’s up to you. Tonight belongs to the old year.’