Fiction

Brian Coughlan – Downhill

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Downhill

Distorted by the arc of a shiny tap, the reflection‘s stare seems outrageous and unfair: a stick-thin arm, long turkey-neck, distant treble-chinned face. But it‘s so short-lived as to be practically momentary – with a dark body already looming into view. The creamy overflow running like magma meets the dark wood to form a circular pool. You must wait for it to settle fully; downward flow of darkness meeting light, heavy black falling away; white collar forever forming, forever thickening. Seeking distraction, your eyes follow the activities of a slight barman, the myriad of his tasks; replenishing ice, dealing beer mats, re-arranging clinking bottles; all the while that tiny crucifix around his neck falling along its thin neck chain. Your hand shakes. Let it shake. Until the darkness has completely settled. Until there is absolute harmony. Pure white and pure black. Take a long relieving mouthful and savour its bitter taste.

The barman is scrawny and mean-spirited. But consistently so. Placing the listing tower of glasses on the bar, he wipes the beaded sweat from his forehead with a raggedy old dish-cloth.The same dish-cloth is used to dry glasses held briefly under a cold tap and rubbed with a dirty sponge stuck to the end of a stick. Having read your mind, he looks deep into your so-critical eye, the stick/sponge tightly clenched in one hand, a scum-filled glass in the other. Doesn‘t say a word. You understand by his snarling expression, by the savagery in his eyes, that if there is any problem, even a suggestion of one – if you raise so much as a faint whisper of dissent – you can go elsewhere, with immediate effect. He couldn‘t care less. Best to stay on his right side. You say nothing. Inspect the floor. But his stare does not waver. It remains, weighing you up, as the clock tick-tocks, balancing out, well just about, in your favour. If not here then an empty house. Rooms rented to indifferent strangers. A cold, draughty place with the same walls. All seventy-four of them. You counted them once. Walls that seldom do talk back, unless to say: “Go right ahead so. What difference will it make?” To spite them you drain half the pint in one long glugging mouthful. A bit of it spills down your chin. Order another one quickly. The barman imperceptibly nods. He places the half-filled glass on the draining board. You should always have one ready to start before the one you‘re drinking gets too low. What you like about this place is that nobody here gives a damn about you. They would rather look through you. They would rather pretend that you are invisible. You might as well be.

Or go back to the empty house. It will mean having to cook yourself a dinner. Then eat it.Afterwards you will have to clean up the mess. Because there is always a mess. Where there is cooking there is a mess. Dishes and trays and plates and knives and forks and glasses and cups and bowls – streaked with grease, grime, filth, food remnants, and bits of unidentifiable matter, which reminds you to buy more of that cheap washing-up liquid. Usually after dinner and having cleaned up the mess, there is nothing else to do but turn on the television, be consumed by it – to forget the mess; especially if the mess was not fully cleaned up. There. You admit it. Sometimes it doesn‘t get cleaned up properly. Sometimes it gets left there. Sometimes the kitchen stinks with piled-up dishes so badly that you completely avoid it by coming to this place.

Always some football matches on in this place or darts, or snooker, or boxing gives meaning to their lives and distraction from the truth. They wear replica jerseys and shout at the screen. The players can‘t hear you. You know that, don‘t you?Your attention floats away from the TV screen.You find yourself gazing at the bar, at the hundreds of bottles of various colours and designs and shapes nestling together on ledges against a mirrored background. Navel gazing. Your reflection is right there! Nestling among the mirrored glass, behind the bottles.You don‘t quite know what to make of it. Is it an ugly face or a handsome face? Either way it‘s just another face. One of many. Every so often you adjust your footing on the pole that runs along the bottom of the counter and pull in your bar stool to allow people get past without them having to your back.

Then you order another drink; fish around for change in the deep seas of your trouser pockets; then stand up for the first time all evening. Feel pins and needles come and go.

Standing makes you realise the need to take a piss so you negotiate a pathway to the toilet. As you enter, the urinals suddenly burst into life, fountaining onto the hard yellow florescent cubes of sweet-smelling disinfectant. They also provide something to aim at. It is so good to have something to aim at, in life. You laugh at that quip while pissing onto these cubes, evenly, as if putting out a fire, watching the resultant steam rise and quickly condense on the dull stainless steel, when you hear a slow slurring gurgle of a voice.

“Are you deaf or something?”

You turn your head, just slightly. There‘s an older man standing beside you with tangled grey hair, features all smeared across his face in a big dollop of drunken stupidity. Staring right at you he holds his tiny much-wrinkled trunk with two over-sized gnarled hands. The whole effect looks like a baby elephant‘s head. Naturally you try not to stare and don‘t supply a word to him. In fact you‘re completely at a loss for words. It seems that all the possible words you might have used have already bolted from this dank toilet and are waiting just outside the door, listening with idiotic grins and holding up fingers to their upturned lips to stop themselves from giving away their hiding place.

“Are ya a bit slow on the uptake?” he says.

You go back to urinating and try to make it come out faster, much faster.All the while he continues to stare at you, dully, head lolling, mouth opening and closing like a goldfish. You can tell from the corner of your field of vision that he is not going anywhere in a hurry. When you‘re finished, you pull up your zipper and step back from the urinals to tighten your belt. Now he‘s gaping over his shoulder at you with a deeply furrowed brow, one hand splayed open on the tiled wall, to stop him from falling down into the urinals, into all that piss and vinegar, running for the hole in the ground.

“Hey – I‘m talkin to you!” he shouts.

You nod at him, in a good-natured way and leave; he is still leaning over the urinals. Returned once again to your drink, you briefly consider the strangeness of the incident. The football fans have all left; their scum rimmed glasses still sit on the counter. The barman has changed both age and sex into a young and extremely bored-looking woman. She leans against the register with her arms crossed, staring into space, doing nothing. With a nod to your near empty pint glass she drags herself to the taps and pours you another one. All the nuts are gone; you run your finger along the inside of the packet and lick the salt off your finger. You should really go, after this one. Clean up the waiting mess, get a few hours of decent sleep, and maybe even read a bit of that book, the one with every second page dog-eared. Why are you wasting your time in this kip? Isn‘t it time you got off your fat ass and did something useful. Join a gym. Start jogging again.

At the far end of the bar, he catches your eye, nods, his glass raised high in salute. You name him Scourge. Perfectly convinced that he knows you from somewhere other than the toilet. Scourge nods again and gives you the thumbs-up.You watch helplessly as he waltzes and blunders his way indelicately through the crowded pub until he is standing right next to you, his twinkling eyes raining down recognition. Meanwhile the bar woman wants her money. Her hand twitches with impatience as you sift through the coins; you think you have it exactly so you do the sum in your head, adding this coin and that, to her palm as you feel her impatience growing; the dose beside you is talking into your ear and confusing the count. There, four sixty-five! And the hand closes on the money. Departs the station and arrives at the destination, with a jingle of other coins. It is noisy in here now. Voices raised everywhere; rebounding from the walls and ceiling and seeming to argue with other unconnected conversations. You are having trouble hearing him.

“Well, how are you keeping?” he asks, giving your back a good hard slap.

You tell him you‘ve never been better. But there is a problem: either because you don‘t say these words loud enough or because he is deaf, you have to speak up: he bends right down to meet the words coming out of your mouth. It is such a pain in the arse to have to repeat something, especially something as inane as the last statement – but what else can you do? You hear the words coming out again but without any conviction. I‘ve never been better! They are duly ignored. He is not here to listen. He is here to talk. And talk at you he will. You can see him getting warmed up and taking a long draught of stout as you stare at the newly conjoined reflection.

“Haven‘t seen you in – I don‘t know how long!” he slobbers.

You try. You really do. You try explaining it to him – that you have never clapped eyes on him before in your whole life. That you‘re strangers, you even go so far as to introduce yourself and extend your hand. This attempt is met with a blank expression and a phlegm inducing spasm that turns out to be his mode of laughter. He slaps you on the back again, harder than the time before. While wincing you are told to look down at his feet.You see that he is not wearing any shoes. All he has on are a pair of thick work-man‘s socks. You can smell the fetid odour, wafting upwards, of old dried-in sweat. It‘s like a malodorous cheese. Except worse, because you can see the source of the smell, there‘s no mystery involved. Just his stinking old half-rotten socks.

“She hides them, stop me coming over he says, while wobbling.

He extracts, from his trouser pocket an enormous handkerchief, coins spill and roll across the floor as he unconcernedly rubs each hairy nostril of his big red nose covered in open pores. His two hands splay themselves on the counter. This is the lull period. His drink soaked brain is trying to think of something to say. Evidently it‘s too hard. Instead he just opens his mouth; teeth broken and missing, looks all around him – as if trying to figure out where he is – as if the words will come out by themselves. The hands pen you in. They do not look like they are made from skin and bone; more like they were hewn from concrete. A long inhale through those freshly cleaned nostrils. It‘s a bit like being slobbered over by a dog, same heavy panting and bad breath.

“What was the name of the song we used to sing?” he asks, squeezing your arm.

He is mistaking you for somebody else. Despite the impatient explanation it just doesn‘t register. You might as well be talking to the bloody wall. The song we used to sing? His imploring look into your eyes, into the back of your cranium, where your soul has curled up into a foetal position, yields no song title. You shake your head slowly and very firmly, put your arm around his shoulder, push him away gently – as if expecting him to float gently off to some other shore. Instead the house-lights flashing dash him back against the rocks of your total disinterest. Behind the bar our old friend, the contrary barman, is slowly wiping his fingers on the dish-cloth and staring at you and your new best friend. The scales are out again. Opportunity presents itself.

“He‘s not supposed to be in here,” says the barman, that steely look in his eyes.

Scourge noses his way under your armpit: the friendly old dog hiding from a telling off. You have to pull him out of there. Try and straighten him out. A silly smile all over his bright red face. Guilty by association – that‘s what you‘re concerned about. You try and distance yourself.

“You‘re barred” says the barman.

A hammer blow. It catches him right on the kisser. He sways alright. Oh yes boy – you see his head duck down, a few beads of sweat flying off him but crucially, he stays on his feet, he doesn‘t go down like so many others would in his position. He stays on his feet and not only that but he swings a haymaker of his own, with eyes closed and mouth screwed into a pout. He says:

“Michael, I thought we could get over that.”

The crowd in the pub are suddenly tuned in to this statement. It comes from such a dark and desperate place that it is greeted with an ironic manly cheer. Oh yes, and the knock-out punch is his gentle plea for just one last drink. One for the ditch. Just a small one. You don‘t know the history between these two but there must have been some kinship in the past, something unknown; because the barman turns and places a glass under the bulb and a scoop of ice, a reluctant scoop of ice. Except now Scourge has no money to pay for his drink. The last of his change rolled away moments ago and it has left him, bereft, sadly bereft. Upon news of this, the barman is already taking the drink away with a private scowl of satisfaction.

“Make that two!” you say, throwing money on the counter.

No sooner has the barman doubled the order and taken your money than he begins grinning angrily; tells you to get him the hell out of there. Who does this barman think he is? You are suddenly, inexplicably enraged, on behalf of this drunken waster who has been pestering you. You are winding up to begin an impassioned defense of the poor drunken sod when you feel him slump against your shoulder like a new-born. He drools all over your shoulder and bubbles emerge from his nostrils. Though still standing upright his eyes remain firmly shut. The responsibility is now yours to drink both whiskeys, which you perform in quick succession, following them up with a loud belch of satisfaction that elicits a cheer from the crowd. They give you directions to his house. It is situated up the road, near the community hall. Someone hands you his stinking bundle of a raincoat. You drape it over his shoulders and haul him out the door.

Outside it‘s breezy but neither warm nor cold. Just breezy and quiet, compared to the pub. It must have rained all through the night. The ground shines in the lamplight. His socks soak it up as you lead him over the road. At least he‘s capable of supporting his own body weight. Stumbling steps, detours around parked cars, steadying against a gable-end, all in all, an epic journey to get him home where you ring the doorbell, knock with the knocker, bang with a fist. Nobody answers. There is nothing else for it – you take out your keys. Select the correct one from the bunch. Slide it into the hole. Turn it to the left; simultaneously nudge with your shoulder. The door opens. A familiar smell. You leave him draped across a wicker chair in the patio room, mouth wide open, snoring softly. When you close the door his wife comes out, and devours the body – like an octopus that has been waiting under a rock – with her cardigan wound around her neck. All of her tentacles catching hold of its prey. You are already on your way down the hill coming close to the cathedral, when her voice calls after you.

“Would you not come in for a cup of tea?”

You shake your head. You keep going downhill. There‘s no point looking back at her. The cathedral bells will start any minute now and you want to be back before that happens; before those slow painful collisions, before those awful final deadened gongs of another day all gone. And the question you keep asking yourself is: How do you know when you‘ve truly hit rock bottom? Because you can keep walking downhill forever in this town. It slips all the way down into the sea. That‘s a fact. Anyways, there‘s still that mess to clear up, from yesterday, and the day before. You really should see to it before bed. Boil the kettle. Roll up your sleeves. Get stuck-in. It won‘t take long. That‘s what you‘ll do, when you get back. Clean up the mess. But then you are reminded: there‘s no washing-up liquid. So it‘ll be tomorrow then.


Brian Coughlan has a Master‘s Degree in Screenwriting from NUIG. He has published work with The Bohemyth, The Galway Review, Storgy, Write Out Publishing, Toasted Cheese, Thrice Publishing, Litbreak and LitroNY. In 2014, he was shortlisted for the Industry Insider TV Pilot Contest as a co-creator of the drama series Panacea. He is an active member of the Galway Scriptwriters Group since 2013.


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