If you can read this one with an Irish accent in your head, so much the better!
He doesn’t recognise me, at least not straightaway. I can see it in his eyes. Not that they don’t show interest. Far from it. He makes no bones about that, his eyebrows raised, his eyes scanning me with intensity. But there’s no recognition in those steely blue eyes of his. None.
‘Hi,’ he says, pulling on the beer bottle, angling his body to one side, letting me get closer to the crowded bar.
‘Hi’, I reply. ‘Thanks’, indicating the space he’s made for me. He’s standing here alone. The club’s filling up, but it’s like no-one has seen him yet. Like he’s snuck out here by himself, anonymous, just part of the crowd.
He nods, takes another pull on the bottle. I watch his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows, stare a little too long at his throat. The evidence of man’s surrender to the sinful charms of his Eve. According to some, anyway.
‘What’s your name?’, his eyes heavy on me.
I draw breath.
This is it.
‘Jess’, I say.
‘Jess.’ A frown plays across his features, drawing his eyebrows downwards. He licks his bottom lip. Puts the bottle on the bar, and proffers his hand. ‘I’m –‘
‘Conor. I know.’ And then I watch his face as the penny drops and his eyes widen in shock.
‘Jess! Fuck me. I thought you looked familiar. Fucking hell. My kid brother’s girlfriend, right?’
I smile slightly, tilt my head back a little to look directly up at his face. ‘Not anymore,’ I reply.
‘Right enough. Not anymore. But you were. Back in the day?’
My turn to nod.
‘Fuck. Wow. I mean, you’ve grown up!’
‘That’s what happens, Conor.’ I smile more, then check myself. ‘If you’re lucky, that is,’ I add. Our eyes meet up then, hold each other for a second or two, and then we both blink, look away. When I next look at him, he’s finishing off his beer.
‘What can I get you?’ The barman is standing in front of me.
‘Uh. Vodka, double, no ice. And some tap water.’ Turning to Conor, I gesture at the bottle. ‘Another?’ I ask him.
He nods, and I order that too, all the while feeling Conor looking at me, a warm blush working its way up my neck, and I’m cursing how I go pink so easily. The barman is back with the drinks. I hand him some cash, pick the change out of his hand, and put it into my bag. I push the bottle over to him. It’s cold, condensation dripping down the bottle and without thinking about it, I put my fingers in my mouth to suck at the cold water on them.
‘Cheers then,’ I say, holding my glass up at him. He raises the bottle and we clink.
‘Sláinte,’ he replies. ‘To Liam.’
‘Liam. Yes.’ And I almost down the vodka in one, the memory of that lovely boy filling my head for a few seconds, chased by the warmth in my throat as the vodka does its work.
‘What brings you back here, then?’
I hesitate. I’d expected the conversation to be over and done with. ‘Summer break, you know? What about you?’
He tips his head over towards the stage. ‘We’re playing tonight.’
He smiles. I smile. We both drink a little more. I look at him as much as I dare without making a complete idiot of myself. His hair is shorter than it used to be. Short at the back, longer on top, thick, some of it falling over his forehead and into his eyes. It’s dark as coal, still. And he still has those high cheekbones, those frighteningly clear blue eyes, and dark stubble shadowing his cheeks and chin. Earrings in both ears — silver hoops. An old biker’s black leather jacket with silver zips. All in all, a good look. I sigh.
‘Who are you here with?’ he asks, breaking the quiet that’s fallen over us.
‘Caitríona, Nora, and my brother,’ I say, assuming he’ll know who my brother is, now he’s recognised me.
‘Ha! How is the old bastard?’ he asks, and we both laugh again.
‘Same. That fucker’s never changing, you know?’ I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but I think he’s moved closer to me. But just then, a big red-haired guy is forcing his way through the crowd that’s built up around us, and is clapping Conor across the shoulders.
‘There you are, you cunt. Been trying to find you. We’re up soon.’
‘Right enough. I’m finished here.’ He takes a final swig out of the bottle and is turning to go, when he grips my wrist.
‘Later’, he says, releases me, and then he’s disappearing through the crowd. Was that a question or a command, I wonder, as I watch his back. With a tremor, I see he’s wearing a dress under that jacket. And for the few seconds it takes for that fact to settle in my head, and for him to disappear out of my view, I appraise his exposed legs, the black lace-up DMs, and the dark orange colours of the dress. Not bad, I think to myself. Now, I’ve always liked a man in a dress. Maybe something to do with reaching puberty at a time when the so-called New Romantics were the thing, with the boys wearing make-up and hair spray, and their androgynous fashions. Or maybe just something I was Escort bayan born to like. Who knows? Just to be clear, I was always more interested in how they dressed than in the music they made. But so, now, the thought of Conor wearing a dress was, umm, intriguing. I catch the barman’s eye, order another double.
We’re all standing together, at the back, holding our drinks. His band is about halfway through their set. It’s a long time since I last heard them. Five years? Longer? His voice is good. Deep, throaty, a little raw sometimes. Especially for the ballads, when they come. Makes me feel edgy, a feeling magnified by the deep bass and drums that jump and vibrate through the whole place, from the floor up. More importantly (for me, anyway) he’s still wearing the dress. It looks like a Sixties number, original. A shift dress, from what I can see when his leather jacket swings open as he bends into the mic, coming down to just above his knees. He has good legs, too, so that (for me, anyway!) he pulls off the look pretty well.
‘Smoke?’ My big brother holds out the packet towards me, but I shake my head. He flicks one into his mouth, something he practised until distraction in our teenage years, lights it, takes a drag and drapes his arm over my shoulders, heavy. He’s a little bit drunk. We stand like this, companionably, enjoying the sounds, him tapping his foot, me keeping time with my hips.
I wonder if he’s put on make-up before getting up onstage. His eyes seem darker, like he’s put on mascara, eyeliner, maybe. I sigh. If only!
He hasn’t done anything except pay complete attention to playing the set out to the end. His face is full of intense, animated, concentration. He’s moved across the stage and back, held his hands out to the people crowding up against it, checked in with the rest of the band as they’ve moved from one song to another. I was sure he couldn’t see me, us, here at the back anyway. It’s not a huge venue. This is definitely a special, back-home, kind of gig, smaller than the places they are playing elsewhere, but it’s big enough for a couple of hundred people, I reckon. Plus, I am pretty short. I like to think I’m 5’3″, but I’m not sure if that’s really the truth of it. My brother got the tall genes in our family, and, he jokes, I got the looks. I’m not sure about that either, truth be told. I still find it hard to see the grown-up version of my fifteen-year-old self, when then, all I could ever see was the unruly dark red hair and the freckles that tortured me. But as they’re finishing up onstage, he looks directly at me, standing there taking the loud applause, right at me, and tips his chin up at me. Then, he’s stalking off the stage, arms around his band mates, wiping at the back of his neck with a bar towel.
‘Was that at you, or me?’ My big brother is grinning stupidly at me.
‘Fuck, it’d better be me, you daft sod. I’ll claw your eyes out for him,’ I say, rather more vehemently than I’d meant to, and he roars with laughter.
‘He’s not my type, to be fair,’ he says, when he’s calmed down enough. ‘I like my men a bit more straight-looking,’ and at this we both fall about laughing, and I feel so happy to be here with him. I miss him terribly. This kind of night out with him was what got us through our adolescence, both of us square pegs in round holes. But I’m taken by surprise when he squeezes me into his side, and kisses the top of my head. “I miss you, sis, I really do.’
‘Me too, Ray, me too.’
‘Won’t you be coming home when you’ve finished your doctorate?’ he asks into my hair.
‘Maybe. I dunno. It’s — hard — being back.’
He gives me another squeeze. ‘I know. Liam.’
‘Yeah. Liam.’ I sigh. ‘And mam. But — mostly — Liam.’
‘Hey, what’s going on?’ It’s Cat, suddenly in view, bouncing up and down in front of us.
We release each other and Ray asks; ‘Who wants another? I can get to the bar before all of these other cunts, if I go now.’
We order up, and he lopes off in the direction of the bar.
‘So, isn’t that — I mean, wasn’t that — Liam’s brother up there?’ Cat asks, stuttering. She’s a couple of years younger than me, wasn’t in the same crowd as me or Ray back then.
‘Yeah, that’s right. Older brother.’
‘Thought so. How long ago is it that he died? I was, what, fifteen or so, I think.’
‘That’d be about right. Six years, thereabouts,’ I say. Not that I don’t know exactly when he died. It was 18 August 1984, a Saturday. He’d taken me home on the back of his motorbike. We’d made out, facing each other, him sitting on the seat, me sitting on him, and then he’d driven off down the lane, and that was the last I saw of him.
An accountant, driving home from a bar in Dublin, had ploughed straight into him. They said he was killed outright, but I was always suspicious that this was a lie, to stop me from thinking about him lying there in his own cooling blood, watching his killer kneeling next to him on the road, crying like a fucking baby, too drunk to think about Bayan Escort running down the road to the phone box and calling a fucking ambulance. That’s how they were found, by a neighbour actually, an hour later, as he’d been driving home from a late shift at a bar in the next village. It had been less than a mile from my house, and I hadn’t heard a fucking thing. He’d bled out, there, on the road, and I hadn’t known a fucking thing about it.
‘Sorry.’ Cat brushes my arm with the back of her hand. ‘Didn’t mean to bring it up quite like that,’
‘S’ok, Cat. I can still get pretty raging about it. But — it was a long time ago.’
They’ve cranked the music up, playing hits from back then, matching the demographic in the club tonight.
Cat squeezes my arm, gives me a kiss on my cheek, which I think probably leaves some of her bright red lipstick behind.
‘We were just kids,’ I say, and she hugs me again. She’s taller than me (uh, who isn’t?) and I confess to enjoying the feeling of her tits up against me. In that scoop-neck top she’s wearing, I could almost lick them from here, I think to myself.
‘Drinks,’ Ray announces, and Cat releases me. I take the glass off him, down it in one, savouring the heat again as it flows down my throat.
‘Need the loo,’ I say, and make my way through all the people, over to the loos. Miraculously, there’s no line, and I sit in the cubicle, resting my head up against one of the partitions, still enjoying the feeling of the vodka.
I’d gone to London almost the day after his wake, to university, finished one degree, started another. Dealt with the shock and the grief by experimenting with a few different substances. Pills, some powder. And drink. Sure, that. You can’t grow up here without appreciating the functions of drink. And sex. That too, once I’d worked out, with some professional help, care of the university’s free health service, that Liam hadn’t died because we were making out that night, or because we’d argue all the time about me leaving for London, or because I’d also once kissed his best friend one time when we were in the locker room at school. Six years — was it a long time ago, really? Or just another life?
Back outside, I wash my hands and give myself a brief look in the scuffed mirrors along the wall. The unruly hair is tied back and up, but some of it is still escaping around my face and down my neck, behind my ears. I wear enough make-up to cover the freckles on my face, but they’re still there on my neck, shoulders and down into my cleavage, pale, but still visible. I’d put on a halter-necked dress, black (of course!), with a short skirt that kicked out when I walked or danced, so I’d also put on some big knickers to match the dress. Didn’t want to flash my bare arse. At least, not to everyone. I bend down to re-tie one of the laces on my boots. They have a heel (5’3″, remember, I need all the height I can get), and then I’m ready again for the fray.
As I come out, I can see Conor on the other side of the club with his band mates, being greeted by guys who looked like they’d have been in his year at school, or thereabouts, getting clapped on the back, hand-shakes all round. The girls around him behave like skittish ponies, tossing their hair and laughing with their mouths too wide. It’s a scrum all around him. I lean up against the wall, feeling like I can take a good look without being noticed. I watch as he bends his head down to hear what people are saying to him, and then, to some of them, he’s talking right into their ear, his lips close up to them. I can imagine what this might feel like. His breath on my ear, feeling his body heat so close to me. And recognising, from old, the way he pushes his hair out of his eyes, how it drops forward every time he has to lean down, how he pushes it back again. When you saw them next to each other, you could tell that he and Liam were brothers, but they didn’t immediately look like each other. For a start, Liam had been much fairer, a little more solid, where Conor is all limbs and wire. Secondly, Liam had been a sweetheart of a boy. Quiet, determined, shy. I’d been a bit shocking to him, how I’d liked to drink until the sky spun and dance until I couldn’t catch my breath; how I’d shown him what to do once we’d reached the point of him getting inside my bra, and then my knickers.
Conor and the band are slowly making their way over to the bar. A space clears in front of them, and I see, with satisfaction and more than a little hope, that he’s not changed clothes. Still in the dress. Nice. At that moment, he turns his head and looks right at me. Again, it’s as if he’s known I was there all along. Again, does that thing with his chin, tilting it up at me. One of the ponies notices, and I can see her making a grab for his arm, but he doesn’t seem to feel her, and she has to let go, as he’s moving off, his own momentum stronger than her pull.
I push myself off the wall, to re-join Ray and Cat and the rest of the gang. They seem drunker Escort than when I’d left. They’re all jabbering away at each other, talking over each other, passing the fags around, sharing them out like we used to, when we couldn’t afford to buy a pack each. I find myself heading back to the bar for more refills. It’s mad fucking busy now. I wait with as much patience as I can muster. And jump out of my skin when a heavy hand lands on me at the back of my neck. I swivel and it’s Conor, dwarfing me with his height, standing right up close behind me.
‘Hey,’ is all I can manage.
‘Hey. I’ll get these,’ he says.
‘Um, it’s a round — Ray and Nora and me.’
‘Sure,’ he says and like magic, the barman materialises in front of us, takes the order. All I can think about is the weight of Conor’s hand resting on my bare skin. I twitch again when I feel him fiddling with the ties that fix the halter-neck together, rolling them in-between his fingers, and I know I’m blushing. His smell — the leather of his jacket, his sweat, beer — is also impressing itself on me.
‘Thanks, put it on the tab mate,’ he’s saying, and I grab the three drinks in my hands, and we both turn away from the bar, getting out of the way of the next wave of thirsty drinkers.
‘Thanks, Conor.’ He’s walking with me, towards Ray and everyone.
He somehow manages to bring me to a stop. He’s smiling, looking at my face and then his fingers are pressing on my cheek, as if rubbing at something.
‘You kiss the girls, do you?’
I understand — Cat’s lipstick must still be there. I’d forgotten. Hadn’t even seen it in the mirrors just now. ‘Sometimes,’ I say.
‘Really? Sometimes, or always?’
‘Sometimes,’ I arch an eyebrow at him.
‘Interesting,’ is his reply. He’s still sweating from being onstage. His hair is slicker, and his jacket has parted enough for me to see the dip of his collarbone, little rivers of sweat shiny there. And definitely some eyeliner. Maybe mascara, but he already has such black eyelashes it’s hard to tell.
‘Jess, get the fuck over here, my throat’s been cut.’ This, from Nora, whose voice could call in the boats, it’s so loud. She’s waving at me, arm at full stretch, as if the voice wouldn’t be enough.
It’s a few steps to reach them all, and I pass the glasses. Just then, one of the best songs from my last year at school comes on, and Cat and Nora both yell in delight, grabbing at me.
‘Jess, Jess, come ONNNN!’
I down the vodka before I’m pulled into the melee on the dance floor, handing the glass to Conor. Who takes it, grabs my wrist just like earlier, and mouths, ‘come back,’ at me. I just about get to nod before I’m being spun around by Cat.
We dance like the possessed. Jumping, stomping, roaring to the beat. Ray joins us, which just adds to the madness. He’s the better dancer of all of us. He grabs my arms, holds them up high, as we both jump and twist in a manic burst of energy. One song, then another, and another. We’re on a roll now, our bodies responding to the music through sheer muscle memory. I catch sight of Conor every so often, standing with some of the band, but he’s looking at the dance floor. At me. The songs are rolling out now, showing us no mercy as our arms and legs refuse to be still. Next time I look over, he’s gone. We’re spinning with our arms outstretched to the Psychedelic Furs, singing at the top of our lungs, ‘yeah, heaven.’ Then, it’s Simple Minds and I almost stop dead in my tracks, until Ray catches me and holds onto my arms, making me move with him. He knows what this song is to me. Knows he has to stay with me.
‘Always came a time
Time was by your side
We were spending time
We were staring out’
He won’t let go of me, doing all of the work for both us, just as he did back then. I’m clinging on to him, feeling everyone around us stomping, hands high in the air, yelling out the lyrics they know by heart. We’re not yelling them, just mouthing them at each other, as he holds onto me.
‘You alright?’ he manages to make me hear, shouting in my ear.
I nod. Rest my head against his chest.
We stay like this through the next song, whatever that is.
‘He’s still here, Jess. Liam. We all still remember him.’
I raise my head. ‘Yes, I know. But he’s gone, too. And that’s how it should be.’
He looks like he’s going to cry, the great big softy, but just then it’s the unmistakable opening bars from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and we neither of us can help breaking out into ridiculous grins, remembering our mam’s scandalised look as the lyrics came out of the radio/cassette player in the kitchen full blast, me and Ray dancing to them like crazy, making the cat scatter out of the back door, their meaning dawning on her sweet Catholic face.
We dance together, just like we had in our kitchen, repeating the lyrics. It’s as if everyone on the floor is one big writhing, leaping, animal.
‘Oh my god, I’m fucking dying here,’ I gasp, but then it’s Bowie.
‘She’s not sure if you’re a girl or a boy.’
Irresistible, obviously. We know these lyrics by heart too. How could we not? I wonder if our mam had difficulty telling if either of us were boy or girl. Poor mam.