‘Seán O’Keefe is on his fourth pint of stout in Slattery’s of Rathmines. Relishing the silence—curling cigarette smoke winding in the shebeen light of late afternoon—he is drinking the day away, as he has done most days in the five months since he demobbed from the besieged and now disbanded Royal Irish Constabulary. What he had begun thinking of as an extended holiday from the incessant strife and danger of life as a Peeler has turned slowly, surely, to this: a Player’s Navy Cut burning down in his fingers, a fairy mound of shredded betting slips in front of him on the bar, five or six pints in an afternoon and sometimes more of an evening. Not doing the dog on it, as the saying goes, but supping enough to damp down the nightmares that still come to him, even now, in his new life as a conscript in Dublin’s vast army of thrifty, jobless bachelors. It is an army marching on bacon sandwiches, tinned stew and beans heated on single-ring gas burners in damp digs and back bedrooms; an army barracking in pubs and betting shops; convalescing in the Carnegie library, weary foot-soldiers obliterating the days and hours alongside snuffling, time-killing comrades.
Today, O’Keefe has had two winners—one a decent one, three bob at eight to one—and a fair place from Newmarket. He is up in pocket for his efforts, though it hardly matters to him if he wins or loses. He lifts the Sporting Life racing pages and wonders will he bother with another flutter.
‘Michelle’s Prize in the four-ten at Gowran Park,’ an older man at the bar says, three stools away and the only other customer in the pub since O’Keefe entered, not looking at O’Keefe but staring at his own racing sheet, eyeglasses resting on a bulb of burst capillaries. ‘I’ve been watching her—worth a look she is.’
‘The ground’s meant to be fierce hard going,’ O’Keefe says, to be polite, not looking at the man in turn, ‘but she’ll have weight against her.’
The man beside him shrugs and pushes his spectacles up his nose.
Davey, the young barman’s apprentice, stands over the day’s Freeman’s Journal opened out on the bar, his rag-wrapped hand idly polishing the inside of a pint glass. Sensing need—already proficient at the trade—he looks over, and O’Keefe nods for another pint, and as he does there is the unmistakable sound of gunfire from outside the pub. Four sharp cracks—pistol shots, O’Keefe knows from experience—and then a burst of what sounds like machine-gun fire. Couldn’t be, he thinks. No, it could be. It could be artillery next, the times that are in it. As he thinks this, a stray round punches high through the pub’s front window, carving the air above his head before shattering the nicotine-tinted mirror behind the bar. There is a moment of frozen silence before it is broken by a flurry of harried motion behind the counter, and O’Keefe watches young Davey wrench open the hatch to the keg cellar and leap below for cover.
O’Keefe turns in his chair but does not rise. If it’s for you, it won’t go past you. He listens, tossing his cigarette end to the floor. Two single shots follow, and again silence. Then a woman’s high-pitched wailing, a whinnying horse and the urgent gurgle of male voices on the path outside the pub. The man on the stool beside him looks up from his newspaper, but not before circling something with a nub of pencil and jotting out several figures beside this.
‘Safe enough for a shuffle ’cross the way, would you say? Wouldn’t want to miss the off.’
O’Keefe knocks gently on the bar with his knuckles. ‘You take your chances in this life.’
‘That you do,’ the man says, standing and draining the foamy dregs of his pint. ‘Life, love, horses.’ He smiles. ‘Bullets. All a game of chance, wha’?’
Turning back to his pint, O’Keefe says, ‘You’re not wrong there, you’re not.’ He watches the man leave the pub, squinting against the momentary flare of raw daylight as the pub door swings open, and as he does, he thinks of his brother, Peter. A game of chance …. On the beaches of Turkey, bullets and luck. He had won and Peter had lost, and he had never felt like he’d won a thing since that day and the bloody days that followed. Guilt bucks inside him. Lucky boy, you, O’Keefe. He leans over the counter and looks down into the bar’s cellar. ‘Come up and pull my pint, Davey.’
The young barman’s head appears in the hatch at floor level, red-faced with fear or shame or effort. On the smooth-worn boards around the hatch are shards of shattered mirror, a thousand tiny reflections of the end of an afternoon. ‘Is it over?’
‘It’s over,’ O’Keefe says.
Climbing the steps to stand behind the bar, letting the cellar hatch clap shut behind him, the barman looks up at the spidery bullet hole in the window and at the mess of glass crunching under his feet. ‘Mr Slattery’ll dock me wages for that mirror.’
‘Only if the bullet was meant for you, Davey,’ O’Keefe says. ‘I’ll tell him you did your best to catch it before it hit the mirror.’
‘It’s no lark, Mr O’Keefe. Those fuckin’ … feckin’ … rebels! And the Free Stater jaysus bastards. A shower of bullies … all of them, both sides, God forgive me, but the English weren’t half as bad. We could have been killed.’
‘That’d stop Slattery docking your wages.’
The barman ignores him and collects a sweeping brush and dustpan from the end of the bar. ‘What was it anyway? It’s not often there’s shooting around here. In town, fair enough, but Rathmines? Sure, who’s there to be shooting at? Surgeons and commercial travellers and bank managers, for the sake of holy God.’
‘There’s more than one who’d like a pop at his bank manager, mind,’ O’Keefe says.
The young barman shakes his head and looks up from his sweeping. ‘Will you not go out and see what happened, Mr O’Keefe?’
O’Keefe sighs. He has seen enough shooting in the past ten years to sate a lifetime’s curiosity as to its causes and effects. Yet even now, since leaving the police and settling to his quiet life of pints and ponies, he cannot escape it. Gunfire is as common a sound as the tolling of church bells in his city now, but O’Keefe has stopped caring why, or how, or what has happened.
Once the bullets are not for him, he couldn’t give a tupenny fuck. Every bullet has its billet—another saying he remembers from one of his wars. The billet this time: the mirror behind the wall, or some poor sap outside. He is about to say this to young Davey but is suddenly ashamed of the sentiment. Once it’s not got my name on it …. There is something craven and cowardly in it. He searches for his reflection in the bar-room mirror and finds only the pocked and naked plaster.
He slumps off his stool. ‘I’ll go out and see. You pull me that pint.’
The young barman nods. ‘Mind yourself, Mr O’Keefe. They could still be out there.’
‘Life’s a game of chance, Davey, were you not listening?’
On the footpath outside the pub, O’Keefe joins the usual crowd of onlookers that assembles at any accident as if to reassure itself of its continued good fortune relative to the hapless maimed or dying. ‘Look-sees’, he and his fellow constables in the RIC had called them.
The look-sees have clustered this time around the fresh corpse of a fallen dray horse, still bound in its traces, attached to the coal wagon it had pulled in life. The beast’s legs are splayed unnaturally beneath it, its dead eyes wide and still behind blinkers, which have slipped in the tangled rigging of reins and bridle. A thickening pool of crimson soaks the road, grouting the gaps between the cobbles and the tram tracks.
Horse carts, motor cars and a tram halted on the obstructed tracks are blocking traffic behind the scene of the violence, and O’Keefe has an instinctive desire to enter the scene and bring it to order. He resists the urge, searching the crowd for any attending Dublin Metropolitan Police. There are none in sight, and O’Keefe is not surprised. Unarmed, the DMP are known to be scarce when the shooting starts. The new Free State government has allowed the DMP a continued existence, unlike his own disbanded Royal Irish Constabulary, but has not granted them any power to prevent or investigate crimes committed as part of the civil war. The new government has its own ‘police’ for such matters.
Several minutes have passed since the shooting, and O’Keefe’s eyes are drawn to the sacks of coal stacked on the back of the wagon and to the street boys and haggard men beginning to take an interest in it. The coalman is lucky, he thinks, that his horse has been shot in Rathmines. Any closer to the city centre and there wouldn’t be dust enough left on the coal wagon to raise a cough. He takes out a Player’s and lights it, watching the wagon driver kneeling beside the horse. It takes O’Keefe a moment to decipher what the driver is shouting.
‘Who will pay for this? Who will pay for me horse? Jaysus and all the fuckin’ holy saints, I’ve had this horse for nine year and now look at her! Jaysus wept, how’s a body to make a crust in this godforsaken pit of a place at all?’
There are tears in the driver’s eyes, rage or genuine grief for the horse, and O’Keefe feels a flash of pity for the man.
‘Who indeed?’ a man’s voice next to him says, and O’Keefe turns to it.
It takes him a second to recognise the fellow. It is the thick, brown beard that has thrown O’Keefe, but there is no mistaking the voice, the gruff, jocular Dublin accent softened by the snowy steppes of his earliest childhood. ‘Solly …’
‘I heard you were back, Seáneen, and haunting the taverns. How’re you keeping?’
‘Better than some,’ O’Keefe says, nodding at the coalman kneeling in the street and offering his hand to his old friend. ‘Did you see it?’
‘Heard it and ducked for cover like the coward I am. Chap over there said it was a car full of trenchcoats pulled up and started popping away at a lad on the opposite side of the road there. He claims it was the ever elusive Felim O’Hanley they were gunning for. The green pimpernel.’
‘And the poor horse got it in the crossfire, along with Slattery’s window and mirror. I nearly had a bullet with my pint.’
‘Free State musketry leaves much to be desired, so I’m told.’
O’Keefe smiles. Harold ‘Solly’ Solomon had been eight years old when his father landed the Solomon clan in Dublin, renting the house two doors up from the O’Keefe’s with another Ukrainian Jewish family fleeing the pogroms of central Europe for the poverty of Dublin. The poverty had not bothered the Solomons much, and they now own the house they had once rented. The three Solomon brothers are professional men, their sisters married well to upstanding Dublin Jews.
‘Will you come inside for a glass or three, Solly?’ O’Keefe asks.
Solly tugs a pocket watch from inside his coat. ‘Seeing as I’m late already, sure, a quick one would be no harm.’
When they are settled at the bar with their pints of stout, Solly says, ‘How is the father anyway, Seán? I’ve not been in since your mother called for me, what, two weeks ago now? I must stop in to him.’
O’Keefe is puzzled. He has been to see his mother only once since his return to Dublin. Five months of wilful negligence, though his digs are hardly a mile from his home. This pub, a fifteen-minute walk to his front door. He feels heat rise to his face.
‘I … I didn’t know he wasn’t well.’
Solly takes a sup and nods. ‘I know things weren’t good between you and the Da, Seán. After Peter … God rest him. Jesus, don’t I know what fathers are like, having one of them myself?’
‘Your auldfella’s a sound man, Solly. Not like mine at all.’
‘Different but the same. We go weeks without talking.’
‘Not seven years, but …’
‘No, not seven years. Jews have a harder time with begrudging silence than the likes of ye. If only for the chance of further recrimination, my auldfella can’t hold his tongue for long—you’re right there.’ Solly laughs. ‘He’s always asking after you, Seán, Daddy is. You should call in. The pot of borscht is still always on the go. The mother as well would love to see you. She’d want to feed you up, you know that.’ He breaks into an imitation of his mother’s rudimentary English. ‘Irish boy, only beer, need food for fat. No beer, soup! Soup! You’re a fourth son to them, sure.’
‘I’m too thick to be a Solomon.’
‘Every house needs a heavy.’
O’Keefe laughs softly. ‘Will you go another jar, Solly?’
Solly claps him on the shoulder. ‘No, I’ve a patient to see in Rathgar. I’ll be hoofing it now that the tram’s off. But we will, Seán, soon, yes? Call in to me and we’ll go for a gallon.’
O’Keefe realises what he must ask his old friend, and feels the shame of asking. ‘Solly? What’s … wrong with the auldfella? He’s all right, isn’t he?’
Solly’s eyes darken under his homburg. ‘You should go see him, Seán. Go see him and then call in to me and we’ll sit down for a chat. But you’d do well to see him, right?’ He squeezes O’Keefe’s shoulder, and O’Keefe shudders under the grip.
‘All right, I will.’
‘Good man, Seán.’
‘Right so, Solly.’
O’Keefe walks his friend out of the pub, and watches him weave his way through the thinning crowd. On the street a DMP constable has finally arrived on the scene, and has enlisted some men standing on the path to help him shift the dead horse and the coal wagon off the tram tracks. O’Keefe turns momentarily north, instinct directing his heart homewards, but shame trumps instinct and he swivels about face—a parade ground pivot from his days of drill in the Peelers and the army—and heads back into Slattery’s to the safety of the bar’s daylight shadows.
For three days, O’Keefe drinks. He does not eat and does not play the horses and only vaguely remembers stumbling out of wherever he had finished the first night. There was whiskey involved and the heady miasma of perfume and sweat. The laughter of women and a crackling gramophone.
Noon or sometime after, O’Keefe rises and finds the bottle of Jameson on the desk beside his table. It is a bottle he has no recollection of buying but is glad he did. He pours stagnant water from a pitcher into a glass and adds whiskey, and in half an hour he starts again in Slattery’s, and keeps at it until he falls down outside of Kehoe’s on South Anne Street. He is lifted to his feet by a man he has met in the pub, and guided to a hack and driven back to his digs, stopping twice to be sick, once at the top of Stephen’s Green and again at Harcourt Street. Shortly after this, a quarter mile from his family home, he tells the hackney man to stop. The driver waits in silence, his horse’s breath a lazy billow in the night air. ‘Fuck it, drive on,’ O’Keefe says, before passing out.
He awakes early and is sick again, but blessedly back in his digs in the faded darkness of night on the cusp of morning. A darkness that will not grant sleep. He eyes the whiskey bottle, a quarter full, takes up the pitcher of water in shaking hands and pours it into his one glass and adds whiskey. And starts again. To help him sleep. Today, he thinks, he will see his father, his mother. But sleep first.
Again to Slattery’s, where Davey asks him has he not had enough, at half twelve in the afternoon, and from there in his memory he has only a dim, flickering reel of pubs and flashing blasts of conversation until a kindly constable and again a hack, and this time he gives the driver the address to his home instead of his digs.
His father answers his sloppy knocking and O’Keefe is dimly aware of the surprise on his father’s face, and then a strange blankness as if he does not recognise his son, but it is gone in an instant, replaced by a smile and then his mother is there. And then he is aware of nothing until he awakes in the bed he had slept in as a boy, in the bed he had shared with his brother.