Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 9
Next: Chapter 11

10

O’Keefe finds the John of God’s Boxing Club on Gardiner Street and enters, his eyes taking a moment to adjust to the dim light of a foyer plastered with yellowing fight bills. He follows the sound of clanking steel plates into a gym that is windowless and redolent of sweat and liniment, of leather and dust. He locates the source of the machine-like noise at the back of the gym. Under a dangling electric light-bulb, the sole occupant of the gym—the man O’Keefe assumes to be Ginny Dolan’s doorman—is on his back on a bench, pressing an impossibly heavy stack of weights off his chest.

Standing by the empty boxing ring in a pale shaft of illumination from the gym’s single skylight, O’Keefe watches as the man finishes his set of exercises, the weight bar crashing into the rack above the bench like the sound of trains coupling in a station.

‘I can see your father in you,’ the man says, sitting up, his bare chest and shoulders like slabs of quarried rock.

‘Can you, now? Albert, is it?’ O’Keefe says.

‘I can and it is.’

O’Keefe says nothing, gazing at the man who returns his stare, unafraid.

‘Look, I’ve been hired by Mrs Dolan to find her son, Nicholas. She wants you to help me or spy on me, I’m not sure which. Either way, I’ve come to tell you …’

‘… That you’re delighted to have me round as a minder.’

‘That you shouldn’t feel obliged.’

‘I don’t feel obliged, Mr O’Keefe,’ Ginny Dolan’s man says, standing and taking a pair of massive bowling-pin weights from a rack and beginning to swing them upwards and back down in a controlled motion. Grunting out the words: ‘But Missus Dolan obliged me and she obliged you and that’s all there is to say about it.’

‘I’m well used to working on my own. I don’t need your help, sir.’

‘Your auldfella needs your help and you’ll need mine. There’s no sense in mithering on about it.’

‘You’d do well to leave my auldfella out of it,’ O’Keefe says, his face running hot.

‘Don’t worry yourself, Mr O’Keefe,’ the doorman says, through the strain of his exercise. ‘There’ll be not another word about him. But I don’t need to tell you he owes Mrs Dolan and it’s my work to oversee the payment.’

Anger rises in O’Keefe, and he contemplates lunging for him, but there is too much that he does not know. About the debt. About his father.

‘Are you nearly finished then, so we can get started?’ he says.

Ginny Dolan’s man does not reply, completing three sets of pin work. His wrists and forearms are as thick as the Latvian hemp rope tethering ships on the quays. He strips off his trousers and walks naked to a tap on the wall at the back of the gym. Over his shoulder, he says, ‘Unless you want to wash me back, wait outside. I’ll be all handsome and lovely in a flash.’

 

Some minutes later, O’Keefe is standing on the cobbled path in front of the gym with the doorman. Barefoot children in patched and ragged clothes gather around them, hands held out for copper coins. ‘Please, mister, a ha’penny for a bit of grub. Please, mister, for me babby brother, he’s fierce with the crooping coughs, so he is.’

Each child has a similar plea, and shouts it simultaneously so that soon they become indistinguishable to O’Keefe, but Ginny Dolan’s man smiles at the children, his hand coming out of his pocket with a jangle of coins, which he carefully counts out, making sure each child gets two ha’pennies, no more no less, each an equal share of the spoils. As he dispenses his coins, more children approach and these are also given their share, each child responding with a loud and, to O’Keefe’s ear, sincere belt of gratitude: ‘Thanks mister. Blessing of God on yis, Mister Albert.’ These children know him by name. Know him to be a soft touch.

O’Keefe studies Albert as he shoos away the children with a firm but kindly wave. The fact that he is a head shorter than O’Keefe is not unusual. O’Keefe is a constable’s son and had been a constable himself. The height and girth requirements of the RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police have ensured that there are few men in the country bigger than policemen. Even so, Albert is shorter than average. O’Keefe puts him at five foot six in the raised boot heels he’s wearing.

But, as he has seen in the gym, the man is built like an armoured car. His shoulders and biceps strain at the expensive light wool of his suit jacket—he wears no overcoat in the Indian summer weather—and the slabs of muscle that form his chest are like bodhráns under a crisp white shirt and pink and claret-striped tie, the wide chest tapering to a narrow waist and hips. His neck is freshly shaven, thick as the trunk of a young oak and a stiff white collar is drawn so tightly around it that O’Keefe imagines it would strangle the average man. A snap-brimmed black bowler tips low over pale blue eyes; a pale face—a night-worker’s face—splashed with freckles, butted by a jutting jaw; a nose flattened like a boxer’s. Or a doorman’s, O’Keefe thinks, noting the small red moustache and devil’s smeg of a beard at his clefted chin. He is roughly his own age—thirty odd—O’Keefe reckons.

‘Are you finished?’ O’Keefe says.

‘I am,’ Ginny Dolan’s man replies, cocking his head to the right and closing one eye, casting his face in cynical, if not sinister, mien, as if because he is forced to look up at most men, he looks up to none. His voice is calm, however, and there is the flicker of a smile on his lips.

‘Look,’ O’Keefe says in one last effort to liberate himself. ‘You feel free to look where you like. Mrs Dolan may have thought you could give me a dig-out but I’d say I’ll be grand on my own.’

Ginny’s man says nothing, and instead takes a thin cigar from inside his suit jacket and lingers over lighting it. Focusing on the tip of his cigar, he says, ‘You weren’t so grand on your own that you ended up in a drunk’s bed at your auldfella’s gaff.’

Heat rises to O’Keefe’s face again, and he thinks he has probably blushed more in the past week than a wedding-night virgin. So much for ‘not another word about it’. But there is anger melded to the shame he feels, and he holds his stare on Ginny Dolan’s man for a long moment, much as he used to do to those who challenged him when he’d been a Peeler.

Ginny’s man, head still cocked, meets this stare with one eye and holds it, unwavering, and O’Keefe realises that perhaps this Albert relishes a scrap as much as any policeman.

‘You’re a rare one, you are,’ O’Keefe says.

‘“Rare one” is right, Mr O’Keefe. Now you know.’

‘Right so, now I know. And now I’ll be off on my business for Mrs Dolan and you may shag off on yer own.’

The doorman does not appear offended. He pulls on his cigar and holds the smoke in his mouth, releasing it slowly, forming his lips into an O and conjuring a large ring of smoke. The wind catches the ring after a moment and snatches it away.

‘Mrs Dolan says we work together, we work together. She’s paying you. You do what she says and not one thing different.’

O’Keefe recalls the roll of notes Ginny Dolan had forced upon him for ‘expenses’. He takes it out and tries to hand it to the doorman, who ignores it.

‘Take it,’ O’Keefe says.

‘Put that back in your pocket before I get thick with you.’

O’Keefe realises there is no way he can force the money on the man and shoves it angrily back into his pocket. ‘She obviously pays you well. Do you do everything she tells you and not one thing different?’

‘That’s a stupid bleedin’ question.’

‘Then bleedin’ answer it.’

Albert sighs, as if speaking to a disappointingly dull pupil, and cocks his head again. ‘The answer is that every fella from Foley Street to Amiens Street and down as far as the Custom House docks does exactly whatever Mrs Dolan does say, and so help them God they better. That’s the answer and you’d do well to learn it. There’s more men than me she can call on when she needs them. Not that she needs more than me more often than not.’

‘Is that a threat then, Albert? Is that how I’m to take it?’

‘You may take it any way you like, Mr O’Keefe, but you’ll not cross me or Mrs Dolan.’

Again, O’Keefe resists the urge to lash out at the man, thinking of his father, his mother. What could his father possibly owe this man’s madam? He feels a spark of resentment towards his father for landing him in this mess. Exhaling, he decides he will hold his fire; shrug off this thug of a doorman when the time is right.

Forcing himself, he says, ‘So, Albert. You’ve a surname, Albert?’

‘Just Albert does be grand.’

‘Just Albert it is, so. I’m just Mr O’Keefe, then.’

‘I’d say there’s very little just about you, Mr O’Keefe, having once been a Peeler.’

O’Keefe smiles through his exasperation. ‘Little enough, Just Albert, little enough.’

‘So we’re straight is all.’

‘Straight as …’ O’Keefe recalls a version of Ginny Dolan’s words. ‘… straight as a bishop’s …’

‘… prick,’ Just Albert says, ‘when the Mass is finished.’

O’Keefe laughs despite himself. Jackeens, he thinks. Dubs. Even men you hated could break your heart with a turn of phrase.

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Next: Chapter 11