It was deadening winter, one of those feeble afternoons with coal smoke for light, but I found myself in reliably cheerful form. I floated above it all, pleasantly distanced, though the streets were as dumb-witted as always that day, and the talkshops were a babble of pleas and rage and love declared, of all things, love sent out to Ukraine and Chad. It was midweek, and grimly the women stormed the veg stalls, and the traffic groaned, sulked, convulsed itself, and the face of the town was pinched with ill-ease. I had a song in my throat, a twinkle in my eye, a flower in my buttonhole. If I’d had a cane, I would have twirled it, unquestionably.
I passed down Dorset Street. I looked across to the launderette. I make a point always of looking into the launderettes. I like the steamy domesticity. I like to watch the bare fleshy arms as they fold and stack, load and unload, the busyness of it, like a Soviet film of the workers at toil. I find it quite comical, and also heartbreaking. Have the misfortunes no washing machines themselves, I worry? Living in old flats, I suppose, with shared hoovers beneath the stairs, and the smell of fried onions in the hallway, and the awful things you’d rather not hear late at night… turn up the television, will you, for Jesus’ sake, is that a shriek or a creaking door?
And there he was, by the launderette window. Smoking a fag, if you don’t mind. Even though I was on the other side of the street, I couldn’t mistake him, he was not one you’d easily mistake. Steel-wire for hair, a small tight mushroom-shaped cloud of it, and he was wizened beyond his years, owlish, with the bones of the face arranged in a hasty symmetry that didn’t quite take, and a torso too short for his long legs, heron’s legs, and he was pigeon-chested, poetical, sad-faced.
I walked on, and I felt the cold rise into myself from the deep stone centre of the town. I quickened my pace. I was too scared to look back. I knew that he’d seen me too, and I knew that he would flee, that he would have no choice but to flee. He was one of my oldest and most argued with friends. He had been dead for six years.
I didn’t stop until I reached the river. The banks of the river were peopled with the foul and forgotten of the town, skin-poppers and jaw-chewers, hanging onto their ratty dogs for dear life, eating sausage rolls out of the Centra, wearing thin nylon clothes against the seep of the evil-smelling air. The river light was jaunty, blue-green, it softened and prettified as best as it could. I sat on a bench and sucked down some long, deep breaths. If I had been able to speak, the words would have been devil words, spat with a sibilant hiss, all consonants and hate. Drab office workers in Dunnes suits chomped baguettes. People scurried, with their heads down. People muttered; people moaned. I tried to train my thoughts into logical arrangements but they tossed and broke free. I heard the oompah and swirls of circus music, my thoughts swung through the air like tiny acrobats, flung each other into the big tent’s canvas maw, missed the catch, fell to the net.
I was in poor shape, but slowly the water started to work on me, calmed me, allowed me to corral the acrobats and put names to them. A car wreck, in winter, in the middle of the night, that had done for him, and there is no coming back from the likes of that, or so you would think. The road had led to Oranmore.