Chapter One –
Her name was El Niño. Her father called her that because the night she was born there was a storm. He said it signified the way she was to live her life. I met her in an elevator. Wanted to go three floors and forget about it. Instead, everything changed.
Thing is, bout meeting a girl like her, it hits you like a curve ball. It’s not like you get written notice. It’s fast, short, and leaves you spinning. I hit floor three and asked: ‘Goin up?’
She purred. ‘Third floor.’
It was the last day of the semester and I’d spent it following a lecturer around. His wallet bulged so big, I coulda jumped up right there in the class and taken him out. But that’s the downfall. That’s how mosta my friends spend their holidays in a cage. They get impatient, can’t wait, always want the big scoop.
The guy taught socialism. Preached about a perfect world, one without money. I disagreed. What a fuckin hypocrite. I looked down and saw this wad popping out, thought: fuck, I gotta get me a piece of that. We all like some extra grade. But I waited. Scoped him out. Asked him a question after, like: ‘Excuse me, Mr. McKenna? But where can I get a copy of The Communist Manifesto?’
He looked me up and down, said: ‘Call up to my office this afternoon. I’ll have one there, costs €3.50. That alright?’
Thought: fuck you, selling the goddamn pamphlet that says we should kill the capitalist. Makes me sick. He bent to get his briefcase and I saw my chance. Went ahead and some chick came from behind.
‘Sorry, Mr. McKenna? Do you have a minute?’
Ah, fuck off hippy kids, always want the revolution. Nearly had him too. Heart beating fast, going in for the kill and snared. Bitch didn’t even know what the fuck she was talking about, just trying to sound all smart and shit.
Left. Thought: get him later, maybe at the office, send him somewhere.
Started the game bout ten years ago. Only been caught once. Old man clocked me hitting some geyser on his way from the post-office. Pension hanging out. Was in fast, hit hard. Knocked him, played the Good Samaritan. Pulled him up with one hand, took his cash with the other. Next thing I see is sky. Father staring down, frothing. ‘Give it back,’ he says, ‘ya thief. Never been no stealin in this family til now, and I’ll knock it outta ya.’
He had a heart attack six months later. Tough times. Needed to bring home some grade. Took up robbing again. Probably turn in his grave, but, what’re ya gonna do? Get a fuckin job?
The elevator passed the first floor. I took in her intoxicating perfume. It smelled like confidence, prowess, intrigue, desire. Asked: ‘English?’
‘Classics and Soc&Pol. You?’
‘English and Soc&Pol. Goin go see McKenna, bout buyin The Manifesto.’
‘Were you there today?’
‘I thought it was interesting.’
‘Whatever you’re into.’
Second floor. She scanned me from the toes up, blinked and asked: ‘Why you want The Manifesto then?’
Thought fast. ‘Take a read over the summer, give it a chance, see if this Marx kat’s really got anythin to say.’
‘What about the revolution?’
‘Fuck the revolution. I wasn’t around.’
‘Have you taken this up with McKenna?’
‘No. And the bastard wants €3.50. Tells me he wants a revolt against the capitalist, but I gotta pay for it – fuck that.’
She raised her eyebrows. Style and attitude. ‘Maybe it’s all about progress.’
‘Or a lost cause.’
‘Or the bigger picture?’
‘Or floor three. Beauty before the beast, babe.’
‘Went too fast. Gimme your number and we’ll take it up later.’
‘You don’t waste time.’
I shrugged. It felt the right thing to do. Silence threatened.
She scribbled it out and said: ‘I’ll let you buy me a drink, see how it works from there.’
‘Name’s El Niño.’
‘There was a storm on the night I was born; my father said it signified the way I was to live my life.’
‘I’m Charlie, after my father, and my grandfather, and his old man too. One long line of Charlie.’
She smiled a hundred suns. ‘Cute. See you this evening.’
Walked, with the feel of her wallet inside my coat. Silly bitch. Wrote the number, left her bag open. What was I supposed to do? Sorry Mr. Opportunity, no one round, call back later?
Got to his office. He was bald with a gut. Sat typing something, probably more overpriced communism. Knocked, said: ‘Mr. McKenna? I talked to you today, after your lecture, about buyin The Communist Manifesto?’
Turned, fixed his glasses, scrutinised. Obvious disdain. Must have been the clothes ─ leather jacket and cap on backwards. ‘Yes, yes, Marxist Economics, wasn’t it?’
I looked around. Saw books on Orwell, Nietzsche, Smith, Rawls, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, the whole fuckin crew. Irony apparent. He ruffled in his desk, took out a copy, said: ‘Well, Mr…’
‘Well Charlie, that’s €3.50, please.’
Took out my stash, asked: ‘You got change for a hundred?’
He frowned. I saw the disappointment. The dilemma being: the profit or the cause? Checks his pockets, looks around. ‘I…let me see, I…don’t…at the moment. Anything smaller?’
Frown time for me. ‘Oh?’
‘Tell you what, you can call back with…no, actually, hang on and I’ll see if Doris is in the office…she might have some.’
Disco. Took his fat ass up and waddled out. Almost caused a tremor on the corridor. This place is a real fuckin Jurassic Park. Looked around, wallet on the table. Could be obvious. Fuck it, not here for the socialism. Acted fast, skimmed the notes, left a few. Didn’t want him seeing the wad all thin. These guys looked after nothing better than dust. Heard him thank Doris. Probably fuckin her, blowjob at lunch and a cash bonus on the side. Some revolution.
He returned with: ‘Yes, got some change from Doris. A hundred you say?’
Did the exchange. The cold greasy feel of money changing paws. The fear that someone’s gonna snap the goods and screw the whole deal. Could get ugly. Everyone just stay cool. I took the pamphlet. Watched him, like a starved dog, stuff the money into a sweaty pocket. He didn’t open the wallet. Wouldn’t be like a man of the cause. Watched his beard and smile. Yellow teeth. Stink of cigars and wet armpits. No exercise. Always takes the lift. The stress. Thought: arteries. Could see the cholesterol, like a ghost’s aroma, hovering around his head. The red patch at top, screaming with rage, like follicles pulled with pliers. He stood salivating, jingling coins, asked: ‘You like it?’
‘Oh yeah. Can’t wait to get a read of this. I’ve been after it for a while now. I love Marx. He’s my hero.’
He turned his back, walked to the table, dismissed me with: ‘Enjoy…’
Left and took the lift back down. Could still sense El Niño. Her scent vamoosed from the mirror behind. In my head, an image of McKenna sitting in his office, with a smile for another one recruited to his illusions. And behind him, an ugly sceptre, hanging with menace, waiting to sever his spine. And the wallet lying open, gutted like a slaughtered animal. At least he got €3.50 back. Threw the pamphlet in the bin and walked home.
She looked beautiful in the photograph. Sallow, and those hazel eyes that tell you she understands almost everything, like they can see into your soul. She had the usual: cards, a licence and some receipts. Some looked sentimental, others just there. There was change and a few notes. Counted hers and the communist’s money. Made the day handsome.
Sat back and my bed creaked. Outside, it was still bright as the church bells rang for six. Took out her number, tempted to call. Monday was a bad night on the street. No crowd, no anonymity; no action. Need: patience and tact. I picked up her wallet and put it in an envelope. Still sticking by the code. It’s an honour thing, but it’s a karma thing too. Always have to post the wallet back. Every time. Get the money and send home the rest. Just coz. Keeps us in business. Poor fools fill it up again so the next guy can hit ‘em.
An hour of bored contemplation passed. Then. She sounded weird on the phone. Her voice all broken and soft.
‘Hey, storm girl, you wanna get that drink?’
‘Sorry, Pablo, broke like a train wreck.’
‘No way, kitten, how you gonna cause a hurricane at home?’
‘No dust, honey. No choice.’
‘Lose it on a pony?’
‘It was stolen.’
She let the word linger. I was getting pissed off. Just wanted outta the house. Wasn’t in the game for the guilt trip. Said: ‘Guys like that should be fuckin castrated. A girl like you, mindin your own wax…’
‘Done and dusted now. Point is, no grade.’
‘Don’t get ya.’
‘I’m good for it.’
She laughed and said: ‘Forget it.’
‘What ya gonna do?’
‘Sit at home.’
‘Like a Toblerone?’
‘No go tornado. I’m supposed to buy anyway. Massimo’s at eight.’
She let it dance, then said: ‘Massimo’s at eight? Hope you’re flush.’
‘Rendezvous at eight then.’
We were both early. The place had a Spanish edge. Salsa vibe. Red wine. Candles on the tables. Smell of varnish. She sensed me come in and looked up. Those eyes: searching, intelligent and deep. It was seven forty-five. She was in a long black jumper and tight blue jeans. I asked: ‘Pint?’
‘Vodka and coke.’
‘Comin up. Cubes?’
‘No thanks. I’m cool enough.’
Drank them. Got more. She said: ‘So hit me with a life secret.’
‘Where do I start?’
‘Why’re you drinking Cidona?’
‘I was an alcoholic at sixteen.’
‘That the last time you drank?’
‘Seventeen. Bout five years ago.’
‘Must’ve started young.’
‘Fourteen. Bushes, car parks, football pitches, all scattered with flagons of cider.’
‘Everythin. Name the poison.’
The clatter of a pub getting busy. Stools. Glasses. Music. Atmosphere. The beermats on the table soaked in lager temptation. I went on. ‘Guy told me once; he was in a pub in my hometown, place called Ballinrobe, met one of the locals from the old days. Local says: ‘‘Where’s Charlie these days? I never see him.’’ and my guy replies: ‘‘He lives in Galway now. He doesn’t drink anymore.’’ and the local, all fulla surprise says: ‘‘Jaysus, and he was good at it too.’’
We sipped. She raised an eyebrow, asked: ‘When did you hit rock bottom?’
‘Floored a cop.’
‘Do any time?’
‘No. Close, but was lucky with the judge. Your turn.’
‘Before college, I travelled for a year.’
‘Thailand, Beijing, Australia. Some of Europe.’
‘It’s beautiful. I’d love to go back.’
‘Why don’t ya?’
‘Oh. Another twist?’
‘Yeah, go then. I’m enjoying myself.’
Felt the first wrench of guilt. Detrimental. Thought: what the fuck am I doing? Shot it down. At the bar, got her the drink. It took a while. Enough time to contemplate the top shelf. Vodka ghosts and wild cider demons. Paid and sat back down. Stayed there til close. Chewing the fat, shooting the breeze, give it a name, call it talking. Bouncer came over, high on power, clapped and said: ‘Come on, guys, love is portable.’
Drained the chalice and left.
Exterior. Front of the pub. Night.
I asked: ‘Your place or mine?’
‘Where you live?’
‘Sounds good. We get a cab?’
She was kinda drunk, said: ‘Let’s walk. I need the air.’
Came down by Monroe’s and walked up passed the canal behind The Roisín Dubh. Lit a smoke and watched her. Conflicted about business and pleasure. Then, fuck it. Why not? I was sending her the wallet back and gave her all the dollars in vodka. Odds and evens. It’s all good. Got to the old playground, with the graffiti on the wall. She saw the swings, said: ‘I wanna swing.’
‘Swings, come on.’
‘C’mon, I love the playground….’
She tried to walk then tripped on the path. No reflexes. Thud. Then laughter. She stayed down, looking at the sky, said: ‘Come lie with me.’
Lay back; put my head on her shoulder. Staring at the stars. A light wind, a cold whisper, almost gentle. She said: ‘This is a good night.’
‘Oh yeah.’ I dragged hard, blew some crystals. ‘I stole your wallet today.’
‘You know? Then what’s with the catatonia?’
‘I knew you’d call. This way I get free booze and my money back.’
Finished the cigarette and walked to her place. Through the college. Loud drunks hanging around outside the church. Shoes hanging on the power lines — sign of a dealer. Walked through Ardilaun Road and came up by Laurel Park. She lived in 49, top of the hill, light in the porch.
Exterior. Front of her house. Late.
She asked: ‘Want a nightcap?’
Made it to the stairs. Enter passion. Luscious breasts. Skin, creamy and soft. Kissed her all around; neck tasted like peaches. She took off my shirt and went lower. Got naked and went for glory. It was animal. Hard, rough and fast. Calmed down and went upstairs.
Interior. Bedroom. Large bed. Smell of lavender. Purple walls and a poster of Guevara. Stereo in the corner. Went to a rack of tunes. Saw: Clapton, Oldfield and Moby. Put in the whale, track nine, Extreme ways. Greatest tune of all time.
Laid back and took in the beats, she sat on top. Hair tickled my face and her nipples rubbed hard on my chest. Locked legs and went in.
Interior. Vagina. Moist.
It was: smooth and passionate. After, went for Oldfield, Tubular Bells. She asked: ‘What do you think about death?’
‘He’s a bastard.’
‘He’s a bastard. Why d’ya ask?’
‘How do you want to die?’
‘It’s not somethin I think about. You?’
‘By choice. I don’t wanna ever get old. Ever.’
‘What, check out on your terms?’
‘I don’t know. When I think the only way is down, that’s when I wanna go. Not hang around passed my sell-by date, all leathery like a dried fruit.’
‘Whatever does it for ya.’
Wrapped in the smell of our juices. Clammy and warm. She said: ‘I wanna hit the road again too. See more, do more.’
‘But you ain’t got the cash.’
‘Folks left me some dough.’
‘Where they gone?’
‘Died in a car accident.’
‘How much they leave?’
‘Can’t touch it until I’m twenty-one.’
‘Couple of months.’
‘And then you’re gone?’
‘Yeah. Pay the debts, book a flight and party like crazy.’
She paused. Then said: ‘€50.000, something like that.’
She looked at me. I looked at her. We looked at each other. Then she lay back and lit a cig, said: ‘You think I’m crazy.’
‘I don’t know, it’s not that I wanna die, it’s that I just wanna do something first, something that says I lived.’
‘I don’t really think that far ahead.’
‘What would you if someone told you tomorrow…if someone told you I was gone….’
‘Just met ya kid. Tough call. What d’ya want me to say?’
‘I dunno. Something profound.’
I took the smoke from her hand. Dragged heavy; thought, blew a passive cloud, said: ‘Think I’d go vodka&redbull and wash it down with a pint of cider. Then chew on some tequila worms.’
‘After five years?’
‘Yeah, then do the waltz with a bottle of Jack. World needs women like you. If y’all start dyin, then I don’t wanna be round neither. No point.’
‘But you’ve just met me.’
‘I’ve seen all I need to see.’
She sat up, put a palm under her chin, said: ‘You’re a cold fish.’
‘I just complimented you.’
‘That’s not what I mean. You’re like…detached.’
‘People been tellin me that my whole life.’
Third time was slow, intense and sensual. Saw us through til dawn. The birds were out and the dim light came through the curtain. My lids were heavy. I looked into her brown pupils. Where am I now? She was awake and alert and she stared. I blinked, just like a photograph, and slept.