Two boys enter Burton’s Hotel on Lower Abbey Street and pause in the lobby as their eyes adjust to the bright, electric light. The young woman behind the reception desk watches as they share a quick word; watches as they settle something between them before the taller of the two approaches the desk, his companion stepping to the side of the lobby’s entrance to wait.
The young woman notes that the approaching boy has clear skin and large, dark eyes; brown hair that hangs over his forehead from under his cap and is tightly cut around his ears and collar; that he is wearing long trousers and a well-cut jacket, polished black boots. She reckons him to be fourteen, perhaps fifteen, years old. He wears no telegraph boy’s hat or badge and is too well-dressed for a messenger boy.
Smiling, revealing even, white teeth, the boy says, ‘Mr Murphy from across the water, which room is he in?’
‘And why would you be needing to know that?’ the receptionist asks, smiling back at him not unkindly. A messenger boy after all, she thinks. Of a sort.
The boy blushes and takes off his cap, tapping it nervously against his thigh. The woman is used to this. She has a similar effect on many young men, causing them to blush and stammer and stumble over their words. It is not an effect she intends. She does not see herself as beautiful; though she is aware that her appearance—her green eyes, and the mass of red hair tamed in a demure French knot—is one of the reasons she was chosen above others to man the reception desk at Burton’s Hotel.
‘I’ve … I need to see Mr Murphy. I’ve a message for him.’
‘Why don’t you give me the message? I’ll have it taken up.’ The young woman arranges the guest register on the mahogany counter, aligning it perfectly with a stack of the previous day’s newspapers and a booklet advertising train tours for the visitor to Ireland.
The boy shakes his head and says, ‘No, I’ve to take it up meself … myself. It’s important. It’s …’ He searches for help from his friend but none is forthcoming and he brings his gaze back to the woman. This time there is an exaggerated, youthful severity to his face, a seriousness in the boy’s large, brown eyes that belies his age. ‘Can you give me Mr Murphy’s room number or have a porter call for him, Miss? He’d be cross with us both if he thinks I’ve been delayed.’ He pauses for effect. ‘And we can’t be having that, can we?’
The woman nods at the veiled threat in the boy’s words.
‘Of course not,’ she says. ‘It’s room thirty-four. You can take the lift. I’ll get Michael to run it for you.’
‘It’s grand, Miss,’ the boy says, appearing relieved by her acquiescence, smiling, his face young again, innocent. ‘No need to bother your man. I’ll take the stairs, sure.’
She watches as the boy turns away and crosses the lobby, checking the clock on the wall and her wrist-watch to be certain, and jots the time in a diary kept below the desk. When she hears the boy’s footsteps ascending the stairs, she steps into the small closet behind the reception desk that houses the hotel’s switchboard, closing the door behind her. First, she rings room thirty-four and speaks briefly with Mr Murphy from Southampton. Then she dials an outside line and consults with a man waiting in the Flowing Tide public house nearby.
Moments later, a man enters the hotel. Without acknowledging the receptionist or the lad waiting by the front door, he takes a seat in one of the lobby’s armchairs and opens a newspaper.
The receptionist knows that this man’s colleagues will soon be waiting—with a motor car, or perhaps on foot—in the darkened laneway that runs beside the hotel, for the boys to emerge.
Huddled in the laneway, hands jammed in the pockets of ill-fitting and threadbare jackets, are not the reading man’s colleagues but two ragged, barefoot youths with caps pulled low on their foreheads.
The older of the two boys, a shock of long, white-blond hair riding his collar, does not plan on being barefoot for much longer. He has the fish-knife after all, and not many fellas—especially not jumped-up, jam-eating youngfellas like the ones they had spotted on Suffolk Street and followed to the hotel—put up much fight once they glommed an eyeful of the knife. No, the boy thinks, even if the youngfellas take ages inside, they are worth the wait. Worth a bob or two and a shiny, fine brace of black boots to land the toes in, in the offing, them two young buckos, strutting the streets this late at night like peacocks in their lovely smart jackets and white shirts. Asking for it, they are, he thinks and then says aloud: ‘Fuckin’ asking for it, wha?’ His mate, smaller, younger, smiles and nods in the shadows beside him.
When the messenger boy returns to the lobby, the receptionist notes in her diary that it is four minutes to midnight, writing the time as ‘23:56’ as she has been taught. She does not look up when he passes her post and is met by his waiting friend, nor does the man sitting across the lobby with the newspaper. She hears the front doors to the hotel open, feels a blast of cool evening air enter, bringing in with it the scent of coal smoke and diesel fumes, toasting hops and the low ebb of the Liffey.
A moment later she hears the man’s newspaper crinkle and fold, hears the soft thap as he tosses it onto a side table and follows the boys out onto Lower Abbey Street.
She lights a cigarette in the empty lobby—holding it low below the counter out of a habit of secrecy—and takes furtive drags in silence. Waiting, wondering if she will ever know what has happened—if anything happens—outside.