I served my apprenticeship in the family business with my mother as she died from pancreatic cancer.
My first job took me to The End of The World Bar and Lounge.
The End of the World on Bridge Street was where chancers, shitehawks, eejits, scumbags, belligerents and fools went for reprieve from the town before re-entering the streets to do further damage. Women only came in on Child Allowance day, Race week or Prison visiting day, sipping Babycham and Powers from red straws, so as not to have the glasses steal their greasy lipstick from their pursed lips. Men unwrapped their mattress money from brown hankies to buy ponies, dogs and Wavin pipes along with their Smithwicks with a Guinness head and a can of Harp for the drive home.
The End of the World was wedged uncomfortably into the small terrace that followed the curve of Bridge Street. It was an oaf, too big, too awkward for the town. Broken gutters left green and brown stains on the white walls. The smoking area was an old lean-to that joined the bar to the toilets. Half of the corrugated roof had peeled back in a storm during the second bad winter and threatened to take the balls off any low flying pigeons. There were no seats. The smokers would lean against the walls that they would, later in the night, vomit and piss on. These were men that you would never see sitting down. The same men that stood at mass, at the bar, beside the dog track, at wakes. They were the men that stood.
I had to give the front door a good push. It was pitch dark inside. The carpet was dull and sour. Mick Ruddy stood behind the bar facing me. There wasn’t a sinner in the bar. He didn’t smile. I sat opposite him, making sure my skirt didn’t rise up too high.
Mick Ruddy inhaled and stood back to look at me properly. He then leaned in.
“Did anyone see you?”
I shook my head while taking my iPad out of my bag.
“Can I’ve a cup of tea please, Mick?”
There was an awkward silence as he scraped around for clean cups and spoons. He placed the tea in front of me, and pulled a battered leatherette stool out from under the til and sat facing me, both hands gripping the bar.
“So Mick, you said that the doctors found a blockage?”
“You know Mick, there’s usually nothing to it, an angioblast, a stent, you’ll be set for another good few years.”
“I eh, aaaah yeah I know that,” he scratched a beermat with his thick thumbnail. “But you know yourself like....ye have to be ready, you know?”
“Is it ok if I ask you a few questions?”
He looked down and nodded.
“Have you ever let the licence lapse?”
Any big VAT bills?”
“Do you complete the Annual return?”
“Fully? Every year?”
“Do you owe money to anyone? Including but not exclusively to the priest, the travellers or the mart?”
“Jesus no.” He breathed the words through filthy teeth. His idea of dental hygiene was smoking menthol cigarettes.
“Are you worried about anyone being left to mind themselves after you go?”
“Bell and Bobsy.” He cocked his head over to the fireplace where there were two scruffy terriers that I had initially assumed to be a bunch of rags left out to be burned.
“Ok...so who is the heir to the pub?”
He suddenly looked down and became sullen. “The nephew.”
Its always a bloody nephew. Or a ‘nev-yuh’ as they are called around here.
“And there’s a good bit of land as well I believe?”
Mick nodded. “And a bit a’ the bog.”
I wrote the last bit down with an asterix beside it. I leaned back and began.
“So Mick, I’m sure you know a bit of what I do but you’ve probably heard a few myths as well.”
“As soon as you need me, I’ll be here. I’ll look after you, your assets and your dependents. You’ll die in your bed, warm and in no pain. Your affairs will be in order and anything you own will be worth more than it is now. You’ll get the best of food, medical attention and the most important thing, you’ll go the way you want.”
“I’ve heard all of that.” He nodded, looking serious.
“There has to be a guarantee: if you are on my books and you suddenly drop dead, I still get a retainer from the will.”
His eyes widened. “Really?”
“Mmhmm... I have to make a living, Mick.”
Silence. He nodded.
“The will needs to be done now, while you are still well. And when you want me, I’ll be here.”
“And what about the nev-yuh?”
“Leave that to me. What is your relationship like at present?”
“Arrah, he’s rough like. You wouldn’t want his kind of company in a place like this, never mind running it.”
Wow, he must be as rough as a wart on a verruca.
“Okaaayyy Mick, well the only thing is for you to figure out what to do with the money that I don’t keep, and we’re set.”
“Well as long as that bleddy nev-yuh doesn’t get it, you can do what you want.”
The call came on a Tuesday morning, which is unfortunate, as I don’t particularly care for Tuesdays. By lunchtime I was packed and heading towards the Regional. By teatime on Friday, Mick was back in his own bed, a grubby terrier resting on each swollen foot. The bar was busy. My presence had attracted a few more men, sent by their wives when they heard of my arrival. They stood nervously around the bar stools.
I sat and watched my first dawn break over Bridge Street. When it was bright enough, I took the ashes out. A van was parked at the end of the street. So the nev-yuh had found out about me then.
When he came, I was bathing the dogs in the yard. In fairness to the nev-yuh, he did try to intimidate me. An ancient shotgun nestled in the crook of his elbow, swinging wildly. He stormed into the yard so quickly he had to turn around to shout at me.
“We know who y’are, ye Black Widow bitch. Ye’ll be leaving now, an’ take those rats with you.” The terriers quivered in their suds.
“Would you like some tea then?” I walked past him. “I’ll just give the girls a rinse here and I’ll get you some tea. And a scone as well. You look like you could do with a scone.” He did look it, in fairness.
“I don’t want your scones, ye’ll be tryin to poison me!” He roared. I went in to the kitchen with a towelled terrier under each arm.
“You’ll have to speak up, loveen, I can’t hear you with all that noise out there.”
The nev-yuh’s indignant face grew purple and he stood, pigeon-toed, in the yard. “What? You’re a mad bitch, y’are!”
In fairness to the nev-yuh he did sit down and eat his scone. I had taken the precaution of hiding any dockets or papers that mentioned money off the dresser.
I refilled the nev-yuh’s mug. “So you see, I’m in a bit of a predicament with you. I can’t leave here and you’re barred. It’s been lovely having you. Would you chance a bit of fruit cake for the way home?”
“He’s MY uncle. Did you tell him you’d marry him or something? He’s a bit thick and you shouldn’t be taking advantage.” He roared, crumbs showering the good tablecloth.
“Look it, I’ll cut your Da a percentage after he’s gone, but he has to stay away and leave this poor man in peace.” I got up to wrap a bit of cake in some tinfoil. “Let me help you with your coat. I’ll just put this slice of cake in the pocket for later, loveen.”
“I DON’T WANT YOUR FUCKIN’ CAKE!” He roared as I helped him on with his coat.
“Well, thanks for calling by. I’d love to ask you to tea again but I’m afraid with you barred and all...” I handed him back the gun.
“I’m coming back, an’ I’m bringin’ me Da, so you can go fuck off!”
Mick and I didn’t speak of the visitor, or any of the other visitors that came with their guns and threats, and once, the priest. I’m not sure if Mick knew about my shotgun but word soon spread around and business couldn’t be better. The men that stood grew fond of me, and brought potatoes, turf and bottles of whiskey in for Mick.
On the last day of the horse fair one of the men came in with his nephew. Thady Smith was a good man, a slight limp had slowed him down but he was a kind man and treated his animals and the lads on the farm well. I nodded to Thady and began pouring his Smithwicks.
“How’s the boss man?” He took off his donkey jacket and hung it beside the door, nodding to his nephew to do the same. The donkey jacket kept the shape of Thady and stuck out awkwardly from the wall. The insulation tape on the elbows caught the afternoon light coming through the snug window.
“He’s grand Thady, eating everything and sleeping when I want him awake and keeping me awake with his stories all night; but sure isn’t it better than the alternative?”
Thady nodded gravely. Dying was a serious business.
“This is me nev-yuh Michael. He’s here for a mare.” Thady jabbed Michael in the ribs and smiled into his beard.
“And do you think you’ll find her?” I asked, winking at Thady, god he was nearly crippled from pride with his joke. I’m sure he came up with it years ago and was dying to use it. “Are you looking for a young one with a bit of life in her or an aul wan that’ll keep the peace?”
Thady turned from the bar and coughed out a laugh. Michael, tired of going through this joke again, nodded.
“Guinness with a drop of blackcurrant, please.” He sat down as he said it.
The other men that stood laughed and slapped the counter. “Jesus lad do you want a straw with that? Did you leave the pram outside?”
‘There’s nothing wrong with sitting down to a pint, lads,” I hushed them. “The blackcurrant is nice, you should try it! When you kiss someone then you’ll taste like berries instead of Guinness farts.”
They blushed and turned to their pints, shuffling their council issued workboots together, closer.
I watched each dawn break with a cigarette and a cup of tea, huddled with the terriers. They were fierce worried about Mick. He had good days, where I would sit him up in bed and play him covert recordings from my phone of the locals talking in the pub. After hours, we would speak about his life; me smoking out the window, the terriers fighting over the hot water bottle. After a while, it was better that I slept on the floor beside him. He didn’t ask where the painkillers came from, or the cost of hospital equipment that helped him breathe. He was a perfect client.
Each dawn, I would sit and watch him. I learnt from my mother to never feel sorry for the people we looked after. They were noble men and women. The last time anyone in the bar saw Mick, he was playing poker at the counter with a couple of the Mongan boys from the hill, laughing over their bad luck with a new lurcher. Each sun would rise on a smaller, more scared man. I held his hand and spoke to him about having to be happy to leave the world, and I think he believed me.
On his last dawn, I placed Mick’s head in my lap and the terriers sat at his feet, terrified. His face had sores from the oxygen mask. His eyes were large and watery.
“Mick, I know you’re scared. I’ve got you though. I’ve got you.”
His back arched. I gave him some more pain relief. All of his veins had just about given up and the needle hurt him, but it was soon forgotten.
“Mick, you have to be ok with this. It’ll be ok. Close your eyes and relax. It’s time to go, loveen.”
When the condensation began to build up inside the mask I knew that was it. I held his pulse in my hands for as long as I could. I cried over his skin as it began to change, pale, briefly pink, then translucent layers, compressing together as the air left them.
The wake was a rough affair, with the lads from the bar committed to a good send off. Mick’s family were disgusted by me as I called each of his friends in to the back kitchen to have a chat and hand them over an envelope. Many refused, so I told them I would send it to them in one month’s time. I would be gone by then and their pride would be long gone too. I gave the nev-yuh an envelope for his father. It broke my heart but it if it meant that they left this place alone, and wouldn’t curse Mick’s soul at every family gathering, I could take the hit. I wouldn’t make a habit of it though.
My last job was the headstone. I was happy with the grave, I managed to win a good plot off one of the Mongans in a poker game. The rising sun lit the limestone nicely. I put the leads back on Bell and Bobs and went to the car. In return for the pub, the land, the bit of bog, I have to feel sad about Mick for the rest of my life now. Sad that he didn’t have anyone else to carry him through. But I’m proud that he was not alone. Not a burden on anyone. I’ll be someone’s burden one day. They will count me down, carry me through and gently let me go.