‘Hey Susan! Can you do me a favour and get me some strong painkillers from the chemist? You’d be saving my life.’
Sinead knew before she turned around that it was Sylvester. Sylvester was only a few years older than her but his nose was already accentuated by broken blood vessels. He could be vicious when he was drinking but always sorted her out for a decent ten spot of crumbly black hash. Even though he’d got her name wrong again, she looked at his shaking hands and followed him back down the high street.
‘Any chance you could pay as well?’ he asked when they got to WellPharma.
‘Sorry Sylvester, the college grant’s not in yet.’
He counted out the money in loose change and stepped into the alley. The pharmacist’s assistant glared as Sinead counted out the fistful of mostly copper coins.
Back around the corner, Sylvester ripped open the white paper bag and the cardboard box, popped out six tablets and gulped them down dry. Then he took a joint out of his pocket and held it up. Sinead followed him down the narrowing streets towards the river. Sylvester stopped a huge man whose belly stretched out a lurid yellow ‘Jewel of India’ t-shirt.
‘Omar, my good friend, how are you? Any part-time jobs going?’ asked Sylvester.
‘Not for you Sylvester my friend.’
‘No, no, no,’ laughed Sylvester, ‘not for me, for my kind young fellow student. Susan is helping me get back into college.’
Everyone said Sylvester had started an M.A. or a PhD in Philosophy but had dropped out because of his drinking or his schizophrenia or because he’d had an affair with a lecturer who had broken his heart. Everyone said he had six brothers who were either in jail or dead and that his uncle brought all the hash into the city. Sinead didn’t know what to believe.
‘I am looking for a waitress. Can you call to The Jewel this evening young lady?’
She had no waitressing experience but Omar didn’t seem to mind. Despite the name of his restaurant, Omar was in fact from Pakistan. He served a variety of curries or steak and chips for those who came to drink wine until the early hours.
By the end of September she had tried every dish on the menu, but after a month it all tasted the same. Sinead never saw Omar’s wife except when he showed her their wedding video on the small portable TV that was usually linked to the security camera. Omar narrated the brightness of his wife’s red sari and the weight of her gold jewelry over the black and white footage.
Sinead had a house share near the city bypass. The housing estate was sprawling and grey, the only brightness provided by the inflatable tiger on top of the filling station across the road, but the rent was cheap and her housemates were office workers who went home at weekends. After nights at The Jewel she lay awake watching next-door’s sensor light flicking on and off, too wired by the drunken diners to sleep. In the morning she felt nauseous, the smell of fried food and incense ingrained on her skin.
When she went to the college she ended up reading the same sentences over and over in the library or falling asleep during the Philosophy lectures. She learned more from Sylvester. They decided on Existentialism for her final essay over a joint behind The Cathedral. It was the only part of her course she related to; the deadness, the detachment.
By October inside the restaurant was colder than outside and Sinead demanded that Omar turn on the gas fire even when there were no customers. He scowled and told her that it cost 50 pence per minute to run but switched it on. Sinead was staring into the gas flames when Omar took her hand, turned it over and stroked her palm. She stiffened, ready to jump up.
‘Your future husband will be very beautiful,’ he said.
‘I told you, I’m never getting married.’ Sinead rolled her eyes.
He traced an upside down arc on her palm, then ran his rough index finger horizontally below it and frowned.
‘Someone important to you will die on New Year’s Eve.’
Then he turned her hand to one side and stroked the small lines under her little finger.
‘You will have a boy and a girl, you’ll marry young,’ he said.
But she was thinking about Roisin, who she was going to see in Edinburgh for the Hogmanay celebrations.
‘Is it Roisin?’
He didn’t answer. She snatched her hand back and shook her shoulders as if that would shake off the dread.
‘I’m still taking Christmas week off. I told you that in September,’ she said behind her as she made for the kitchen.
‘Don’t go to Edinburgh!’ he shouted after her.
She took a weekend off work so Tom could help her go over the coursework. They had met down the back of Monday’s Ethics lectures and he’d offered to drop over the notes she’d missed. But it was sunny so after an hour she suggested they go drinking by the river with a bottle of vodka. She picked blackberries for them to eat, scratching her hands and tearing her coat. They had a bath together when they came home in the twilight.
Later she told him about the Jewel’s regulars; Margaret who cried after a bottle of wine and said her boyfriend didn’t fancy her anymore, and William the Chinese guy who offered driving lessons in exchange for English tutoring. Tom said she needed to hang out with students more.
November drove out the last of the sun with freezing grey rain. Sinead and Tom got a taxi into town after another day in bed. They sat in the student’s union with pints of Bulmers on ice that she had paid for. He draped his arm loosely around her back as they drank.
Sylvester came in and sat down on the stool opposite them, one eye attuned to the bar. ‘So this is where you’ve been hiding Susan. Get me a pint of Bulmers too before I get thrown out.’
Tom took his arm away and muttered that he had to get the bus home. Sinead jumped up to go to the bar and when she came back Sylvester had already swallowed the end of their pints.
‘You’re a star,’ he grinned, grabbing the pint bottle and striding out the back door with it.
The barman pushed past in pursuit, ‘You out!’
Sinead wasn’t sure if the barman meant her or Sylvester but she left anyway. By the time she caught up with Tom he was in the Square.
‘How did you get here so fast?’
‘Fuck’s sake Sinead, you can’t buy winos drinks in bars. Would you do that at home?’
‘Sylvester’s grand,’ she said. ‘It’s not his fault; it’s a disease, and he’s had a seriously shitty life. And he’s trying to quit, he really is. He’s coming back to college to finish his PHD.’
‘You haven’t a clue. I’ve lived here all my life, he went to school with my cousins. He puts it on to get girls.’
‘He got me the job.’
‘He doesn’t even know your name,’ he said, straining at the distant streetlights as if that would make the bus come faster.
Sinead was eating when Omar came into the kitchen, side stepping as he always did. She stopped chewing as he examined the large Tupperware box that had been delivered earlier by one of Mrs. Lahiri’s sons.
‘Mrs. Lahiri is cheating me again,’ he said, counting the samosas.
‘Mm,’ she replied through her stolen samosa, nodding her head and trying not to choke.
'So you are still not taking up my double pay offer for New Year’s Night?’ he asked.
She shook her head.
‘I warn you, you must not be drinking,’ he said waggling his finger at her, ‘the death I see is because of alcohol.’
She swallowed hard.
‘No alcohol? On New Year’s Eve.Come on.'
‘Crazy Irish people,’ he said, shaking his head.
He started chopping lettuce for the side salad that nobody ever ate. Sinead pulled the fryer basket out, shook the chips and though they were still pale and soggy, couldn’t face another moment in the tiny kitchen. Slinging the half- cooked chips onto one of the cracked plates reserved for staff she squeezed past Omar into the restaurant. Red tinsel hung half- heartedly from the beams and Frank Sinatra droned White Christmas, replacing the usual manic Bollywood hits. Through the window she saw Sylvester drinking a can on a bench. He was still there at the end of her shift so she waved goodbye to him.
‘How do you know Sylvester?’ asked the cab driver.
‘We’re friends,’ she said, ‘he helps me with my college stuff.’
‘Yeah, he’s a clever man. Dunno where he got it from, the way he was brought up.’
Sinead closed her eyes and pretended to sleep the rest of the way home.
Sylvester turned up at her house the next day. She had been hoping it was Tom when she heard the doorbell. ‘How did you know where I lived?’ she asked, laughing to hide her awkwardness as he followed her into the kitchen.
‘Nigel told me.’
‘The taxi driver from last night?’
‘Oh, of course.’
‘Well, he knew we were friends, knew I helped you with college and all that so I came to see how that essay was going.’
‘Oh, you know. The usual. I’m trying to read The Stranger again.’
‘Ah, our friend Camus killing an Arab. Omar better watch out.’
‘He’d kill you if he heard you calling him an Arab.’
He laughed and starting rolling a joint, outlining the plot of the novel for her while they smoked out the back door. Sinead scrounged frozen crispy pancakes and chips from the tiny freezer compartment of the fridge where they had been gathering ice crystals. Sylvester wolfed it down while it was still hot so Sinead gave him the rest of hers. She offered to buy him a bottle of cider in the supermarket on the way back into town. He left her at the Square and walked towards the group of men huddled around the fountain.
Sinead worked up until the night before Christmas Eve. Her father drove her back from the bus station. She pretended the exams had gone well. Her mother had hugged her briefly but then went straight back into the kitchen to prepare the turkey.
Christmas Day dinner saw her father chew loudly with his mouth open, her mother eat with her eyes down, and her sisters giggle amongst themselves while picking at their food. Afterwards her father snored through the black and white film he had insisted they all watch together.
Sinead slept for the rest of the week, only getting up at night to watch videos and eat the rest of the Christmas Cake. Her father left her to the airport on New Year’s Eve. The tiny plane lurched at every gust of wind. Beside her a well- dressed woman got sick into a paper bag for the duration. Sinead turned down the offer of a drink from the trolley.
In the years since school Roisin had given up the tight jeans and
the Metallica t-shirts: She wore ripped fishnet tights and docs with a black ra-ra
skirt. Her face was caked in white beneath backcombed hair and black lipstick. On
the purple bus from the airport the two of them ate the sock full of magic
mushrooms Roisin had produced from inside her trench coat. The twisting streets
of Edinburgh surrounded Sinead in a benevolent cloud as she started coming up.
‘You look like Edward Scissorhands,’ she said, staring at Roisin.
Roisin chopped at her with her fingers. By the time they got to the pub they were laughing hysterically. They squeezed their way up to the bar.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t drink, because of the mushrooms?’ Sinead said, ‘I’ll have a diet coke.’
‘Cheap round for me so,’ said Roisin ordering herself a Southern Comfort and red lemonade.
The barman served them in plastic glasses, and they pushed back outside, elbows out. Roisin squatted against the wall. Sinead was distracted by something moving under the pavement. When she crouched down, she saw subterranean layers of little people, oblivious to her, carrying on with their technicolour lives.
‘I don’t think we should have taken the whole sock full,’ Roisin said when Sinead showed her.
‘Lost a contact- lens have ye hen?’ said a man towering above them.
‘Yes, come and help us look,’ Roisin said.
Several people joined in the search blind to the happenings beneath them and Sinead kept her hand over her mouth as Roisin directed them. When the bells rang they jumped up to join hands, arms crossed, and pretended to know the words to ‘Auld Lang Syne.’
Her flight was delayed so when Sinead arrived back to the house it was nearly time for work. A cold blast of air greeted her. In the kitchen the glass was smashed beside the handle on the back door. There was a mess of crushed Cider cans, empty packets of Nurofen Plus and dirty plates made into ashtrays.
‘Sylvester?’ she called out.
All the drawers were open in her bedroom; the clean t-shirts for work were gone, along with the contents of her change jar. Her copy of The Stranger lay on the floor, the cover half torn off in squares for roaches.
‘I’ll fucking kill you, you wino bastard,’ she screamed, kicking the bed.
Sinead went back out the front door, leaving the mess for the girls to discover, cursing Sylvester under her breath all the way into town, marching through the Square to confront him. He wasn’t there.
Omar was standing at the kitchen door with his hands on the hips. ‘Well look who’s back at last,’ he said.
‘Happy New Year to you too.’ Sinead squeezed past him and threw a handful of frozen chips into the fryer then went into the tiny storeroom and took a clean t-shirt from the box.
Omar came out when she sat down and started eating. He stared at her arms folded over his belly,‘So your friend Sylvester is dead at last.’
The chips turned to wallpaper paste in her mouth.
‘They found him in the river last night. He was wearing a Jewel of India t-shirt so the Gardaí came here, in front of the customers. I had to go down there. People were taking my photograph. It will bring shame to The Jewel.’
Sinead's mind went blank.
‘This is what your alcohol does,’ Omar said and went back into the kitchen.
She ran upstairs and spat the half chewed chips into the toilet. She splashed cold water on her face until she heard the door jingle downstairs, then pulled on the yellow t-shirt and went downstairs to greet her first customer of the New Year.