The Writers Voice
Every Thursday night, for the past two years, Alec Gallagher carried his pint of Stout and guitar case from the main bar of the Arlington hotel out through the foyer and into the music room.
The big clock at the end of the bar said seven minutes to eight. Alec knew that sometime shortly after eight, the musicians, old and young, would start to appear; school teachers, tilers, bricklayers, accountants, retirees and the unemployed, hauling banjos, guitars, fiddles, melodeons, whistles and bodhran drums, into a room that would see them hustling for position around three tables.
Tonight’s music session, Alec had told himself, would be his last. Today was his sixtieth birthday, an event that he had decided to keep to himself.
At the far end of the music room a slim good looking dark haired woman sat at a table next to a tall young red headed man
“Do you need this table?” the woman asked, as Alec began to rearrange the chairs.
“You’re fine. The gang won’t be in for a small while yet,” he answered, with a reassuring smile.
As the room filled and the session took hold, the woman, offered again to give up her table, only to be reassured that their was plenty of room for all.
Alec pondered the young man beside her. He looked pallid and drawn. Alec had seen him in the hotel before, but never in the music room, and never with a woman. A ‘bar fly’ was what Alec had previously thought of him. Tonight he wasn’t sure. There was strangeness about the man and about the woman that he couldn’t put his finger on.
It was people that had attracted Alec to the music session. The music itself, he believed, was a catalyst that caused a strange magical transformation in people. He had respect for talent, but the thing that kept him arriving every Thursday and staying on into the wee hours, was the possibility of something greater than perfect pitch, or the odd occasion when the musicians would finish a tune together.
Three miles away in the West Cork countryside, thirty eight years old Kevin Carmody picked up his friend Luke Gorman from his home to start their journey into Bandon
“So, what kind of a night are we going to have?” asked Luke.
“God knows...” replied Kevin. “But if ‘juke box Alec turns up at the session, I think I’m going to kill myself. I wouldn’t mind if he could sing, or had some sense of time.”
Luke looked at Kevin. “What?” asked Kevin with indignation?
“You… you’re whaling on like some old *Banshee. You have this thing about Alec. He’s there every Thursday, hail rain or shine. If it wasn’t for Alec the
Session would not have lasted this long.
*Banshee- a female spirit in Irish folklore, said to whale as a sign that someone is about to die
“I’m telling you, the man’s arrogant.” “He’s an embarrassment…” continued Kevin. There followed an awkward silence before Luke spoke again.
“I’m going to re-phrase my question,” he said, and in a somewhat diplomatic tone, he continued. “What kind of a night do you think we might have tonight?”
“Excellent, brilliant, wonderful, you’re right, you big bollix, you’re always right.” joked Kevin, with a friendly slap on Luke’s leg while launching into a loud Banshee whale that made them both laugh.
Back in the music room several musicians were locked into a set of reels. The dark haired woman had taken on a chardonnay glow and her eyes were firmly fixed on the fiddle player. When the set had finished the woman stood up. “More?” she called out, directing her encore at the fiddle player. But before she could consolidate her call, the young fellows at the next table started to strum out one of their manic compositions. This would be Alec’s cue for his second trip to the bar.
“How are the boys doing Mary?” he asked the barmaid, as he had asked her every Thursday since she had told him about her twin boys going over to England to join the police force. Mary for her part never tired of talking about her boys.
“I got an email last night;” she said, they’re on a special course, but their not allowed to tell me where. Somewhere cold I think.” Mary’s answers always left Alec with questions, but they were questions that he felt, for whatever reason, it was better not to ask. It was at this point that Kevin approached the bar.
“How are you?” Alec asked.
“I’m fine. How’s the session?”
“It has possibilities?” Alec answered.
“I see the rock and roll’s started early” continued Kevin, taking a poke at Alec’s comments to himself the previous Thursday, when he accused him of spoiling every ones night with all his ‘Bob Dylan shite.’ Alec reacted to Kevin’s snipe by raising his glass.
*“Slainte,” He greeted, before turning and heading outside to where several of the musicians were enjoying a smoke on the pavement.
“Here’s just the man,” said Luke, when Alec came outside. “Tell him what you just heard John.”
“It was Mary behind the bar, she reckons that the bar-staff are fed up with the same old tunes and have requested that we play a bit more modern stuff
“What’s it got to do with them,” snapped Alec. “Their only the hired help for Christ sake…”
“My sentiments indeed brother” said Luke. “Who gives a shite what they think. What are you drinking Alec?”
“I’m fine thanks Luke. I have an early start tomorrow.”
Alec told a white lie. He would not have an early start tomorrow, or any other morning in fact.
Alec had thought it strange when Margaret had first suggested that she would like to spend some time alone with her sister in Canada. But he found it even stranger when he got a phone call two weeks later from a woman, a complete stranger, living in Winnipeg Manitoba, asking him if he knew where his wife was at this very minute, and she continued, without a pause, to tell him that his wife was sleeping with her husband.
Unknown to Alec, Margaret had met the man while staying in a hotel a year earlier when she had accompanied Alec on a business trip to Montréal. She had also for the past year, on an almost daily basis, continued the secret affair on the internet. She had told Alec, when he phoned her, that the ‘magic’ had gone from their marriage of thirty two years, and that she had finally found her soul mate.
“Luke, are you going to come back in the music room and sing a song?” Alec asked, hopefully.
“It’s a bit early, don’t you think?”
“It’s never too early. You could be dead this time tomorrow, god forbid.
“You’re right,” agreed Luke. “What shall we sing?”
“Something slow and mournful,” replied Alec, with a solemn look on his face, “a powerful song, A song to sooth a tortured soul.”
“Oh shit man, it’s too early for a slow song.”
“It’s never too early,” snapped Alec, with passion. He gripped Luke’s arm. “Remember what I said brother, ‘It’s never too early.”
As Luke and Alec made their way towards the music room the big clock at the end of the bar said ten-twenty-two. The serious musicians were all taking a break when Alec reached over the table for his guitar. A Strong loud G chord played in a slow waltz time had Luke in no doubt as to which tune Alec had chosen for him to sing.
“Long time ago said the fine old woman
Long time ago this proud old woman did say
There was war and death plundering and pillage
My people they starved through mountain valley and sea
And their whaling cries they reach the very heavens
And my four green fields ran red with their blood said she”
When the song had finished and another immediately started, Alec left them to it and headed back out into the main bar for his third and final chat with Mary.
In contrast to the music room, the main bar of the hotel was now quiet, and almost empty.
“He’s had too much” said Mary, lifting her head from a magazine and nodding in the direction of the young red headed man slumped in the corner of the room.
The relative hush of the main bar was suddenly broken by the noisy entrance of four young women, who still wearing their lime green shirts from the five-a-side indoor football with the words Arlington Hotel printed across the front, were heading in the direction of the music room. Alec’s eyes turned back to Mary
“What’s the story with the dark haired woman alongside him?” he asked.
“What dark haired woman?”
“The one over in the…” When Alec turned, she had gone. “She was there just a second ago,” he continued.
“You better ease up on the stout Alec,” said Mary, with a confused look.
Alec shook his head in bewilderment.
“When do you get the chance to see the boys again?” he continued.
“They have a break in September,” Mary answered, “and we’re hoping to get together for a holiday in Cyprus. We love Cyprus; we were there for eight days last Christmas. They flew me over to meet them.
The small talk was starting to bore Alec as much as the session was irritating him. But he had started his third beer and was committed to a routine that would see him hanging around the hotel until after midnight
“A big deep breath,” he told himself. “Get back into the session. Get involved.”
Back in the session room he encouraged a few more reels and marches and even managed to muster up something of his old energy to produce a sing-a-long.
“How are you girls?” Kevin called out, in a bellowing voice that immediately focused the room’s attention on him-self. The girls flushed a little. “Do any of you sing a song?” Kevin called out. Alec had heard it all before. “No we’re just here to listen” answered one of the girls shyly.
“Do any of you like Bob Dylan?” Kevin continued, and before the girls had time to shrug their shoulders, he started strumming his guitar in preparation for ‘Knockin’ on Heavens Door.’ “This one is for you, girls,” He shouted with a big grin on his face, “and I want to hear you sing the chorus.
The girls as it turned out were in fine form for the singing and when the song ended they were calling out for more of the same. He had his audience and he wasn’t about to let go.
Alec had decided that he would keep his cool no matter what? There would be no dirty looks or smart comments. Tonight was his last night at the session and he was determined to finish it on a high note.
“Goodnight” was all that Kevin said, as Alec squeezed past him. ‘Goodnight’ had become more powerful than all Alec’s rational planning and will power combined. Alec had been stopped dead in his tracks by ‘goodnight.’ He turned and looked straight in Kevin face.
“You’re a fucking cock-head” he said boldly, then turned and continued his journey outside.
He had no sooner stepped onto the pavement than Kevin came charging out behind him. Incensed by the insult he flew at Alec. Alec stood statue still on the pavement while
Kevin’s spleen exploded with every guttural insult it could muster defusing them all into a spray of hot saliva that would settle on Alec’s pale ‘emotionless face.’
But Alec wasn’t there. He was seventeen again. He was in the living room of his parent’s house and it was his father who was screaming at his ‘emotionless face.’ “Brian is dead… Brian is dead. Don’t you understand, can’t you get it through your thick head? Brian is dead” Alec didn’t understand. Alec was in shock. He remembered very little about the previous twenty four hours that had begun with a depression induced binge of alcohol and marijuana, and continued for fourteen hours before he drove himself and his thirteen years old brother through a guard rail and into the Bandon River. He could feel the pounding voice as it throbbed deeper and deeper inside his head.
“What do you have to say,” he could hear, but his father had gone and it was Kevin’s voice. “Aren’t you going to say something?” Kevin asked.
“When you’ve finished I might” answered Alec, with a blank expression on his face. Kevin at this point threw his arms in the air, and turned and went back inside the bar.
A few seconds later he came back out again, walked straight up to Alec, took him by his arms and kissed him firmly on the forehead.
“I love you man” he said. “God bless you.” He turned once more and walked back inside to the bar.
Last orders had been called and Alec was now sat alone on a bench outside the Arlington Hotel, listening, as a stone would listen, to the sounds that were reverberating from all around the inside and the outside his head. The breeze touched his face as it would touch a stone and he felt complete refuge inside of himself. He’d been here before, sometimes for a long time and sometimes for only a brief moment. He knew that it wouldn’t last, but while it did he felt bliss.
“Kate… My name is Kate.” Alec looked up. It was the dark haired woman. “You mind if I smoke?” she asked, sitting down beside him on the bench.
“We have to die of something” he answered. She lit a cigarette, looked at him and smiled.
“You’re Alec, right? They said you were a bit of a strange one, but I never listen to all that shit, we’re all strangers to each other.” She nudged in closer as she continued. “Do you think I did ‘the right thing Alec?”
“The right thing, about what?” he asked.
“He’s a friend. You no what I mean? I have to look out for him. You and
Mary?” she asked, changing the subject.
What about me and Mary?”
I don’t miss much Alec” she said, with a knowing smile.
“Our conversations are just small talk, mostly about her boys.”
“She’s a fucking *Jackeen, did you figure that one out Alec,” she said, dropping her half smoked cigarette on the flagstone and crushing it with her sneaker.
“We can’t help where we were born, sure we can’t” said Alec, trying to avoid going to where the conversation was heading.
“Did she mention her boys?”
“What’s with the inquisition?” he snapped.
There followed an awkward silence before Kate linked her arm under his and continued.
“I like a glass of wine occasionally and just occasionally I talk too much. But who gives a shit… Mary’s little Jackeen’s are over there, at this very moment and there training them Brit bastards to come over here and murder our boys...”
“Shush…” said Alec. “Enough talking, let’s go back inside for the anthem.
As the anthem was being sung, the hands on the big clock, at the end of the bar, were pointing upwards to twelve o’clock.
“Goodnight everybody,” Mary called when the anthem finished “everyone outside, now…Time please.”
Alec locked his guitar in the boot of his car and walked to where the die-hards were continuing the music session in the beer garden.
“What was that all about with Kevin earlier?” Luke asked, as Alec sat down on the wooden bench next to him. Alec shrugged his shoulders.
“Nothing worth talking about,” he answered, with a smile, and then continued to watch the spectacle under the neon light, as two of the girls in the lime green shirts sent the others into fits of laughter with their antics and dancing to Luke’s rendition of ‘Satisfaction.’
Kate and the red headed man came and sat on the bench next to Alec. The red headed mans face was ashen. He was tugging at Kate’s arm in an effort to get her to leave. She ignored him.
“Play some more on that thing,” she said, pointing to a fiddle that was laid out like a corpse inside an open case on the top of the table. The red headed man stood up abruptly and took off with a stagger down the cement path before turning into a laneway at the back of the hotel “He’s a friend,” she said, looking directly at Alec. Alec made no comment. “Am I a bad person?” she asked.
“Probably,” said Alec. “But he’ll get over it.”
“He wont,” she said, with a snarl. And before the fiddle had played its last note the woman had stood up and without further comment followed the red headed mans foot steps down the path and away into the laneway.
*Jackeen: A derogatory slang term for an Irish born person, usually from Dublin, who has favourable leanings toward the English influences in Ireland. It literally translates (small Jack)
The first rain drops had crashed ominously on the surface of the plastic table and by the time Alec had reached the sanctuary of his car the heavens had opened. He turned on his windscreen wipers and watched across the car park to where the dimly lit figures of Luke and Kevin struggled frantically to unlock their car. He watched as their tail lights came on. He continued watching through the sheets of rain as their tail lights left the car park, crossed over the bridge and then finally he watched them fade to nothing.
He turned the car radio on. Then off again. He sat listening in the darkness. The rain had become all consuming. Close to the deluge, and yet untouched, he felt good; a second skin, a cacoon, a canvas tent in a blizzard, a womb.
His tranquillity was suddenly shattered by a whaling cry that sent a chill through his body.
“Open the door; I’m drowning” a voice called. He could see Brian’s desperate eyes, but there was no time. He had to save himself. “Open the door,” continued the voice. It was Kate’s voice. He unlocked the passenger door. “Jesus Alec, what were you, asleep or something?” she asked, while switching the cars interior light on and turning the rear view mirror to check her appearance.
There followed a long silence until he spoke again.
“You have a strange way of appearing from out of nowhere,” he commented “and you disappear just as quickly.
“Well you can blame my cousins ‘the little people’ for that” she said, in a ‘dead pan’ delivery, while continuing to preen her self in the mirror.
“Don’t get comfortable.”
“I have to be somewhere” he replied, staring out into the darkness
“Maybe you could drive me at the top of the road, if it’s not too much trouble” she suggested while pushing down the locking button on her door.
The rain had started to ease somewhat as she gave directions that took them over the bridge, then left along the river before turning right to climb the hill.
“Just here” she said, indicating an area of dimly lit ground that was some distance from the houses. “Turn the car around,” she continued without explanation. Alec turned and parked on the opposite side of the road. He waited for her to leave.
“You really should leave now. I have to be somewhere,” he repeated.
“You know that’s not going to happen, you do know that, don’t you.”
“Please…” he begged. “It’s been some kind of a mistake, please just go.”
“I can’t... This is what I came for Alec,” She said reaching out her hand to him.
He was aware of the safety railing that was ahead of him but despite this he kept his eyes firmly focused on the lights of the barge that sat moored alongside the far river bank. With his foot pressing the accelerator hard to the floor he could see on out through the flickering lights, to a figure moving on board the barge and he wondered quite calmly at what would keep a soul awake at such an ungodly hour.
“Good morning. Its seven o’clock and you’re listening to RTE Radio News.
Guarda were called out to two separate incidents in West Cork overnight. A middle aged man is believed to have drowned when the car he was driving crashed through a guard rail before sinking in the River at Bandon. Less than a half a mile away a second body, that of a younger man was discovered in a laneway behind a popular Hotel. The Guarda are yet to identify the two men and will await the outcome of the coroners report.”
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