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Pure Winter

Blindly in the cold dark of the bedroom he grasped for the phone, found it and fumbled, dialled the rank, and gasped -

‘Hello, Economy? Cab for the Regional!’

‘Excuse me?’

‘I need a cab for the Regional! I’m below on Cecil Street! They’d want to be puttin’ me on a fucken drip altogether!’

The air of the phone filled with a long, judgemental pause -

‘Can you try sayin’ that again for me, love?’

This was what he was dealing with. Pure ignorance. He rose on to his elbows and resituated an amount of phlegm and with what strength he had left he dragged from himself the words of his predicament and tried to enunciate the words as best as he could. This turned into a speech that went on for quite a while – it took in broken hearts, lost time, and faithful old friends long gone to the dark back of memory. It brought sympathy now to the despatcher’s voice, a quake to it almost -

‘Ah, I know, love,’ she said. ‘Don’t I know it only too well.’

‘Tellin’ you now,’ he said. ‘My time o’ life? You wouldn’t know which end is the sleeves’.

‘Nor whether you’re comin’ or goin’,’ she agreed.

The black pit of a winter’s night and the flat was cold as the far side of the moon but their words as they came out in consort glowed for him now like embers in a grate. Talk could be a wonderful thing when it wasn’t ignoramuses you had in front of you.

‘Would you not want an ambulance altogether?’ she said.

‘Amb’lance?’ he said. ‘’Round this place?’

‘Who’re you tellin,’’ she said.

‘At this hour o’ the mornin?’ he said.

It was only when he was installed in the back of the taxi and coasting all too slowly under the swimming lights of Catherine Street that he realised he had things wonk-ways again, that it was four in the day rather than four in the morning.

Not that you’d know it at this angle of December -

The city was vapourised by the river. It was lost to the Shannon miasma. It was an underwater kingdom. It was murk and fog and icy rain and bitter wind and wheelie bins keeling over by the new time and Tesco bags with minds of their own. It wouldn’t see its hand in front of its face ’til March. He looked out at it all in tremendous long-sufferance. The lights blurred. He spun out on the lights, eyes rolling. Was he some class of a saint, he wondered, to be dealing with it at all? He didn’t recognise the driver. He spoke to the back of his head anyway -

‘Is Gerry not on?’

‘Gerry which?’

‘Gerry Mac?’

‘Don’t know him.’

‘Everyone knows Gerry. Would have been better if Gerry was on. Gerry knows what I’m like. What you say your own name was?’

Along the Crescent, up O’Connell Avenue, out the Ballinacurra Road: the stations of the cross. He let himself out at the garage for a box of fags before heading into the A&E. The wind across the forecourt would take the hair out of your ears. The agony in the garden it was like. The same woman in the garage shop behind the screen; she recognised him; she was gorgeous in the mask even.

‘Bad again?’

‘Ferocious,’ he said.

‘It’ll get better,’ she said.

‘We live in hope, my darling,’ he said.

She smiled and wished him a Happy Christmas all the same and his heart broke into fifty two pieces and as he crossed the forecourt to the taxi again he floated above the scene and above the outskirts of the city and above the darkening fields and the darkening woods and the great turning black strip of the river; the Clare hills beyond were sat there like gloomy judges in the fallen dark. Of course you wouldn’t be long floating around this place and grimly he re-entered his soul. The A&E non-Covid was fucken crawling -

The halt and the lame. The Jesus-heals-broken-hearts brigade. Fellas with welts of hurls got. Faces opened. Chest clutchers; weepers; mad laughers. An apprentice jockey with a lump the size of Jerusalem on his forehead, an also-ran. The saddest little Santa that was ever seen was hanging off a white plastic tree in a bucket. He got talking to a lad who was after taking his own thumb off with a circular saw.

‘A Makita.’

‘A which?’

‘Is the brand name.’

‘They good?’

‘Powerful. Depend what you’d be cuttin’.’

Country lad. Big eyes, honest shoulders. Probably from Patrickswell or someplace brutal altogether. He liked the country people. They didn’t make bones out of things. They kept their faces straight. His number would be a long while coming up but there was company anyhow.

‘Wrong with yerself?” the country lad asked as he tightened, without complaint, the bloody towel about his hand. The towel looked like the Battle of the Somme.

‘Wouldn’t believe it if I told you,’ he said.

‘Go on sure.’

‘I woke up there in the bed a while ago. Day nor night I didn’t know whether I had. Which is one thing. But what do you say about a fella who wakes up in a bed, looks up at the ceilin’, and has no idea who he is at all?’

‘Do you mean …?’

‘Name nor face nor next o’ kin I couldn’t pick out. Was I a man or a beast even? Then I was waitin’ on the taxi below on Cecil Street outside the flat coz the bell is bust a long time and I don’t hear the phone when it goes, a Nokia, they’re hopeless, and I took one long slow look down into a puddle and I hadn’t a glimmer who it was lookin’ back up at me, it could have been Sylvester Stallone was lookin’ back up at me.’

‘Now,’ said the country lad.

‘They’d nearly want to leave me into 5B altogether,’ he said. ‘No man ever deserved it more. Three days from now would nearly do me.’

The doctor was a very pleasant young man. Lovely manner. No rush or sense of pressure. Well got-out, pair of new Adidas on him, goldy-looking ones.

‘I’d nearly say you’re a Spaniard?’

‘You’re close enough. Next one over.’

‘Turkey?’

‘I’m Italian. I come from Secondigliano.’

‘Where’s that now?’

‘Close to Napoli … Naples?’

‘Ye’d get a powerful summer, I’d say?’

‘Very hot. But Joe listen …’

‘Melt’d be out in you, I’d say. I’m not great with sun meself … Never was.’

‘Joe, do you know your date of birth?’

‘I have that much. Strangely enough.’

‘Yes?’

‘October 2nd, 1947. The year of the big freeze. They’d six foot o’ snow below in Colbert station. Low-sized fella from Rathbane had to be dug out of it altogether. A wagon-maker.’

‘Okay. Thank you. And maybe can you tell me who is the President of Ireland right now?’

‘Michael D. Sure didn’t his aul’ fella have a pub on William Street? Ask me a harder one.’

The hospital was a city within the city. There were all the lights and vitals of a city. The citizens were busy and hot-faced and attentive to each other. There was great old talk to be had. All you had to do was wander the green corridors. You could be lost for years in it. There were smiles easily worn despite what was going on around the place. It was like a happy war.

‘You know that there are no beds, Joe.’

‘It’s the anxiety,’ he said. ‘It has the batin’ of me altogether this year, doctor. When a man has lost his …’

‘I can write you a script for now.’

‘Ah listen? In fairness? I’m on the ropes here, boy, are you not listenin’ to me? On account of the anxiety. Not knowin’ me name nor where I come from? Lyin’ there in me own bed and I could be Lord Lucan. Tell you, it’s the virus would have you rattled something shockin’ and the Sky News. And of course it’s not this one I’m worried about at all. It’s the next one that lands in on top of us. That’s the bastard that’ll have us on the flat of our backs altogether.’

‘Joe, listen to me …’

‘Would I be as well off out of it? Is what I’m wonderin’ now the whole time.’

‘Joe …’

‘Do the HSE do the lamps?’ he said. ‘HSE would want to cop itself on at this stage. The happy lamps for the sad winters. Sure half that do be wrong with us in this place is the winters. Is the pure dark! Are you lookin’ out at it? It’s not fucken Italy! ’

He was back in a taxi at twenty to ten with a script for a dozen Roche 5s. Result, all told. He could float away past Stephen’s Day; the wren, the wren would be out and all. Didn’t know the driver. Fella with a long poll and a jaw on hinges like Beaker off The Muppets.

‘Busy tonight?’

‘Kept goin’.’

‘There somethin’ on?’

‘Arra you know yourself.’

On O’Connell Avenue townwards now the young were processing in their great finery. Tottering heels and displays of leathers and pearls and shining boots and swirls of hair and coloured furs – a medieval parade, as if the plague already was over. Lashes fluttered in the icy rain. Hoarse barks of testosterone were croaked out. Past the People’s Park where the trees conferred sombrely in the ghost voices of the rising wind. He was dropped off at the late chemist on Parnell Street. The radio played lowly as his script was filled, Stop The Cavalry. He groaned and shook his head against it.

‘I never liked that one either,’ the chemist said, smiling.

‘Jona Lewie? He’d have the eyes crossways in your fucken head. Forty years of him we’re after sufferin’.’

He made the offie by a whisker and was home with a six-pack of Tuborg, the valiums, and a bag of chips from Luigi’s by a quarter past ten. Whatever way the timer was working on the heating – they’d sent rockets to the moon with less complication – it welcomed him in like royalty, like a prince, the flat was like toast. It was lovely.

Near midnight. He took a sip of beer and flew away on a little dream and opened the window a fraction and put his feet up on the sill. The cold air that travelled in was for a few moments at least delicious. The streets were not what they should be yet but they rang out all the same. The midnight bells rang and already it was Chrismas Eve. Singing voices; shouted taunts; hilarity. The wind was getting still higher; the voices carried. Time unspooled, ran off with him – away once again to other Decembers. Wish I could be dancing now. Again he could not precisely put a name nor a face to himself but what the fuck did it matter even? In the arms of the girl I love. He had arrived alone at the deep cold heart of the winter. It was all headed in one direction only.

Award-winning author of novels and story collections. IMPAC Dublin, Goldsmiths Prize recipient. Stories in New Yorker, Granta. Playwright & screenwriter.