‘Something I said?’
I had walked past. I hadn’t recognised him. I knew he was back - I had heard - but I still walked past. I had spun back on my heels like a skateboarder and by the end of the spin I had him fixed. It was the lisp that gave him away - the lisp that he soaked up all that slagging for in the Jez .
‘I don’t believe it! It’s the Brazilian!’.
The last time I saw him he had just completed the chemo and was something like half-ways through the radiation and as bald as the lad who used to do the cattle market reports on the telly way back. He was skin and bone then and he didn’t really want to talk and that was never like him - he always talked even when he shouldn’t. Now he had put some of his old weight back on and most of his hair had grown back but he was a long ways from what he once was.
‘Yep - it's me!’
‘I asked after you the other day. I met Sweeney in the pool. I asked for you and he told me that you were back.’
‘Back?’. He sampled the word like he was tasting his coffee for sugar. He always drank a lot of coffee in which he always used a lot of sugar. That was why we called him the Brazilian. He also smoked an awful lot of Major cigarettes.
‘Yes sir! Sweeney was telling me you were home. I met him in the jacuzzi in the centre. You should have seen the get-up of him. Wrapped inside the biggest red towel you ever lamped sweating off the effects of the blowout they had in Quigley’s after the game on Sunday. He said he saw you..’
‘Yes, you are back. Big time!’
He stared at me. He looked seriously out of it. Christ! What on earth did they have him on? Did he know who I was at all? Without the history we shared I would have done a runner but then slowly his engine seemed to start turning and he was back on it again.
‘Yes, I am back. I am! I’m back!’
‘Big time!’ I had him at it now so keep him rolling.
‘Yes. I’m back in the game’
We fell into a hug of sorts. We actually grappled. I think it was a kind of bravado on his part to show that he could still handle me but to me it felt like hugging something dead. I didn’t let him know that though.
‘Ho-ho easy on mate you’ll hurt me.’
He knew I was spoofing but I knew it would give him a lift so I kept it going.
‘So…anyways…. how are you doing? How are you keeping?’
‘How am I keeping?’
‘Well yea… you know…’
‘How am I looking? That's what I want to know.’ He leaned into me apparently for inspection. He smelled of hospitals.
‘Well great. I mean you’re still a stupid looking bollix with a big lump of a head on top of you but after all you are a Mayo man. Otherwise, you’re at no loss.’
That smashed the ice! We laughed and ran our Raging Bull shadow boxing ritual. Then he turned serious. He looked around as if to check nobody was listening.
‘Have you got a minute or two?’
‘I think I could squeeze wan in for you I suppose. Only messing with you man. Of course, I’ve always got time for the Brazilian. We’ll sit down’.
We went to the square to one of the benches that the council had recently painted rainbows on. I sat down first. The graffiti the protesters had sprayed to cover the rainbow had clearly started to fade. He took an age to get settled. I tried to fill the silence.
‘Are you long back?’
‘And a day. A week and a day. Tuesday of last week. A week and a day.’
He drew a breath and then I knew it was going to be my turn to answer inane questions.
‘So how are you doing?’
‘Great. Teething problems but otherwise….’
‘Teething problems? You...?’
‘No not me, ya bollix. The baby.’
‘My baby. Our baby.’
Wow! I didn’t know. Congratulations! What is it?
‘Wow! And the name..?’
‘We call him Karl. He’s cutting the back ones these days and nights. He’s like a briar!’
‘Aw the poor kid.’
‘Hell be a Calpol addict by the time he has the mouth made’.
‘The poor ladeen. Wow! I just can’t get my head around you being a dad’
‘Are you serious? This is the second one.’
‘Get outta town!’
‘Oisin turns three next Wednesday.’
‘You productive bastard!’
We laughed genuinely this time because that was funny. He always had a way to put funny stuff together. The laugh seemed to tire him out. He sighed and took out a pack of Major cigarettes. The pack was almost covered with the new supersize health warning issued by the HSE earlier in the year. He twigged me looking at it.
‘I haven't seen major cigarettes in the longest time. I didn't know they could still be got’
He smiled and put a finger to his lips. He opened the box and coaxed out the drawer and almost offered me a cigarette
‘No, not anymore.’
‘You must be a millionaire. Actually, that’s something I wanted to ask you about. These…. how did you do it?’
‘How did I quit? I just did. I just stopped.’
‘Well, yes. The coldest turkey ever. One day I was a smoker; the next I wasn’t.
‘ No way!’
‘I lit up my last cigarette at ten to midnight in Greaneys last New Year’s Eve. I dropped the butt in the jacks just as the town clock hit the twelfth bell and washed it down with a half-gallon of Guinness generated piss and goodbye fags forever!’
‘Man, you’re a legend. I could never do that.’
‘Now I’m not going to lie to you. It wasn’t easy. But I really wanted to quit. I think that’s what made the difference.’
I let the silence kindle between us for a moment before I asked.
‘Did they tell you to give them up in the hospital?’
It wasn’t a cold day at all but I felt a chill rip through me. Surely, he had smelt a rat himself?
‘They left it up to meself.’
‘I do think you could do it though.’ I heard myself say.
He stroked the silver foil out of the box, laying the cigarettes out flat out on the lid. He turned and asked,
‘The baby…What is your partner’s name?’
‘Vatna! Are you serious?’.
‘Yes. She’s Lithuanian’.
It took him a moment to twig…
‘Piss off. You’re pulling it. You have to be! You were a shitstirer always.’
‘No, I’m serious. Lithuanian.’
‘Aw come on. Leave me alone’.
‘Oh, alright I am taking the piss’.
‘You bollix you haven’t changed a bit.’ Then we both laughed
‘Actually, her name is Gillian. Gillian Moore’.
‘Good lad! From whereabouts?’
‘Ok, you’ve sussed me again. I could never get anything past you. No Gillian is from Galway – Mervue – old Mervue - Ceannt Avenue. She works with the HSE up in Sligo.’
He stared at me and decided he could believe me now. I thought about asking him about Gemma Murray, but I knew she had gone to Australia right after he got sick and I had heard that she wasn’t coming back. I decided that he probably would prefer it if I didn’t ask.
I asked the next question and then realised I shouldn't have.
‘Are you around for Christmas?’
‘I hope so’.
I covered for myself the best I could…
‘Didn't mean it like that, ya bollix. It's only I have this notion you see... A get back together for us all. No big deal. Just a bit of grub. A few scoops. You. Me. Sweeney. Thompson.
‘Sounds like fun.’
‘Yes. . like the old days. I think Fahey will be home from London. He’s got a new squeeze, did you hear?. An Italian lad - a hairdresser’
‘The old days.’
‘And why not?’
‘And why not!’
‘Yeah. We’ll take a break for midnight mass in the Friary. We served mass there together often enough..It’s just a one-off. Just to get back in touch. Long overdue.’
‘Okay, count me in.’
‘We will do it!’
But I knew we wouldn’t do it or if we did then the Brazilian wouldn’t be with us. Sweeney had stuck out his chest like he always did when he knew something no one else did and said that the Brazilian wouldn’t see Christmas. He said that he had it on good authority! He probably had but he shouldn’t have said it and I called him out on it. He said it was true, but I said that it didn’t matter whether it was true or not he just shouldn’t say it. I shouted at the big red towel that was struggling to cling on to his fat arse as he headed for the jacuzzi.
‘Nobody knows their fate! Nobody!’ I shouted into the steam and the echoes.
The Brazilian drew a cigarette out of the box. He rolled it between his thumb and fingers and then put it into his mouth with the filter out.
‘You have your fag in assways.’
He turned the cigarette, grunted at it and fumbled it back into his mouth.
‘You wouldn’t happen to have a light?’.
He looked at me when I didn’t answer. I shook my head. He put the cigarette back in the pack and closed it. He turned to me suddenly with a chuckle.
‘The very same!’
‘An Italian hairdresser?’
‘No less!. Fahey was always gas. He used to fancy you - did you know?’
He dropped his head. He tried to trap a dried leaf on the pavement between his shoes. Then somewhere from within the symphony of the late afternoon a laughing voice broke free. A child’s voice. It was for just a moment, but it was for real. He didn’t seem to hear it. He let the leaf go. It lay still for a second almost like it was surprised to be released just before the wind came and grabbed it.
‘I knew that.’
We sat in the silence for some time as the evening started to pour shadows into the spaces around us. So he did know about Fahey. We wondered. Did he know about his prognosis now? Surely he must. I asked him,
‘Can you guess where I was headed when I met you?’
‘No, where were you going?’.
‘Dunnes for nappies was where I was headed – sizes two and eight extra stretch – them was the orders!’‘
‘Them Sligo women are tough.’
I didn’t correct him. We laughed again. He spoke my children's names softly.
‘Karl and Oisin.’
He remembered their names! But where did that come from? Was he pining for the children he would never have? The children that Gemma Murray would never send him to buy diapers for? It was the first time I sensed sadness in him. I wanted to help or at least try…
‘I do think you can do it - the cigarettes I mean. I believe you can.’
He bowed and shook his head. He knew it didn't matter. He stretched out his hand to me. It was ice cold. I stood up.
‘I'd better get into Dunnes before it closes.’
We both laughed. His laugh spluttered out in a fit of coughing. I clapped him on the back until he got his breath back.
‘Are you alright?’
‘Yes’, he whispered, but it took him a while.
‘We’ll chat soon.’