O’Keefe shuts down the Trusty and wheels it into the light from the front doors of the Achill Guest House on Bow Street. He has misgivings about leaving the bike unchained in this part of town at a time when fighters from both sides of the conflict are requisitioning transport of any kind. He has heard that a good deal of commandeering is unofficial; that there are Free State soldiers as well as Irregulars taking their mothers to mass in requisitioned Rolls–Royces. He gives the Trusty a long look, says a small, reflexive prayer that it will still be there when he comes out, and mounts the steps of the Achill.
The lobby walls are tiled, the floor a scuffed black and white parquet studded with crushed dogends smoked down to nothing. Along the wall to the right there is a short queue of men waiting before a reception booth surrounded by wire mesh. A small window is cut into the mesh through which the cashier transacts his business. Some in the queue are day labourers and one or two appear to O’Keefe to be dockers or small farmers’ sons up from the country. Some of them may only need a bed for one night before returning to wherever they have come from, but most, O’Keefe reckons, know only places such as this as home, where the lobby smells of stale sweat and alcohol
and failure. This is a place where men stay when they have no place else.
A man in a torn tweed jacket and oversized trousers rolled up at the bottom stands in front of the caged reception with his cap clutched to his chest, trying to slide two coins through the dinner-plate-sized window to the cashier.
The cashier—a tidy, balding man with a thin moustache, a blue-grey necktie and braces over a white shirt—berates the man in a west of Ireland accent.
‘You stink of the road. And you expect us take you in just because you’ve begged the shrapnel for one night’s bed? You stink like a beast of the fields. The whole house’ll stink of you. How am I to know you won’t shite the bunk you’re given for that shilling?’
The dosser’s words strain the tiled walls in a high-pitched pleading that is abject and shameful to hear. The men in the queue look down at their feet or away at the walls, knowing it might soon be them begging for a bed. ‘But sure,’ the man in torn tweed says, ‘doesn’t everybody reek of the terrible hard times that are in it? I’ve come for a wash as well as a bed.’
‘You’ve only enough money for a bed and no wash. You may let the rain wash you and not be reeking up the whole of this house with your stench. Now shove off with you, before I have in the police.’
‘But I have the money. You told me last night not to come back til I had coin for a bed, and now I have it.’
Anger catches in O’Keefe’s throat as he watches. The cashier’s threat of the police galls him further. A small man with small power, abusing it on the down-and-outs. As if the police were the muscled arm of his pettiness. He approaches the cage and says to the pleading man, ‘How much for a bed for the night?’
The man in tweed turns to O’Keefe, fear dilating dark pupils, his cap clutched in front of his heart like a shield. ‘I … two bob.’ He turns back to the cashier. ‘Jesus in heaven, sir, why’d you call the guards in, you needn’t have done that! I’ve money and all and …’
‘I’m not a guard,’ O’Keefe says, using the common term for policemen in Dublin. ‘And even if I was, I wouldn’t be running like a lackey for this jumped-up fucker.’ He turns to the man in the cage.
The cashier is standing now, and pointing his finger behind the wire mesh. ‘Who do you think you are? Calling me that? I’ll have the police in on you, I will, for vicious slander.’
O’Keefe senses the men in the queue take a collective step back and, holding the cashier’s eyes, he flashes his hand through the cage’s window and grabs the man’s necktie, jerking him forward so that his face bangs the wire mesh. He pulls at the tie and wraps it in his fist, trapping the cashier’s face against the cage. With his other hand, he dips into his jacket pocket and takes out Ginny Dolan’s roll of banknotes. He hands it to the man in tweed, turning his head to count the men in the queue.
The man in tweed stares at the roll of notes and back to O’Keefe. ‘What?’ His mouth sags open in wonder.
‘Take two pound notes off that roll and put them through the window here,’ O’Keefe says, tugging harder at the cashier’s necktie so that the man’s cheek extrudes through the mesh in small, fleshy diamonds. The man is grunting, unable to open his mouth to call out.
‘Then put the roll back in my pocket.’
Tweed looks to his fellow dossers in the queue, and O’Keefe can see one or two of them nodding and cracking small smiles. The man takes two notes and slides them through the window, carefully avoiding touching O’Keefe’s fist wrapped in the cashier’s tie.
‘There’s rent for two nights’ bed, bath and feed for these men,’ O’Keefe says to the cashier. ‘You’re to give them the tickets they’ll need, and if one of them, so help me God, is abused by you, and I hear about it, I’ll come back and pull you through this window and batter three shades of shite out you, d’you hear me?’
The cashier gives a small, painful nod and O’Keefe releases him.
‘Now, where are the showers in this place?’ he asks the cashier, who slumps back into his chair, the imprint of the wire mesh an angry red grid on his face.
‘Through there, sir,’ the man in tweed says, stepping behind O’Keefe, eager to help and pointing to the door leading into the main hallway of the doss-house. ‘And down to your right, down the end of the hallway. Then downstairs and past the canteen. And bless you, sir. God bless you and yours.’
‘Good man,’ O’Keefe says, patting the man on the arm. ‘Sleep well.’
Men loiter in the main hallway of this former hospital under the gas jets, and O’Keefe stops at one group and asks have they seen any lads of Jerry Byrne’s description in the Achill. The men shake their heads and will not meet O’Keefe’s eyes. He had not expected more from them and does not attempt to buy the information. Gone is the terror of informing from the days of the Tan War, but very few men would accept payment for information in front of other men for the age-old shame of it.
He follows a yellowing, handwritten sign down cellar stairs to the canteen and scans the few remaining diners there, seated at long benches with arms shielding steaming tin plates piled high with cabbage and potatoes and small, fatty morsels of greying bacon. No boys are among them. He thinks to ask one of the serving women—older, thick-bodied women whose faces are carved into permanent frowns—but decides against it. Boys under eighteen years are not permitted to stay in the Achill, and a kitchen woman would hardly admit to serving one for fear of losing her job and ending up in the female version of this place. He leaves the canteen and makes his way down the long hallway to the swinging doors marked ‘Showers’.