EXALTATION

I shook off and zipped up. In the club jacks the sounds of Belfast being violently sick into the cubicle toilet reverberated off the tiles. It was the third time this week I'd heard it. How many times it had been since he got all shook up I didn't know.

Jack was leaning against the sinks, scratching the stubbled side of his face as if deciding what to do with the lad. "Bless him," he said, "He ain't well."

"Blessin' him won't do any good," I said, "He's been 'ill' for three bleedin' weeks."

"Alright, Dr. Stokes," Jack put up his hands; "What's your diagnosis?"

I was quiet.

"Wash your hands, you dirty bastard," he told me, "I'm gonna see if O'Reilly's okay."

I exited the toilets without a word or complying and emerged into the mournful club room. We'd since hung the whole place in black. It was fucking depressing.

I lit another green from my pocket and was reminded of something else. It was right in front of me now: the bloke from the park and his business with Liam. I heard both voices – both recognisable even though one liked to change like a manic depressive and the other I'd only heard once – from the other side of a thick curtain. They were low but spitty, getting heated, one furious at the other. I put my head as close as I dared. I listened.

"You owe me, Liam."

Oh, typical, exciting. The appetiser to start off any curtained verbal showdown.

"We all owe everything to everyone," came Liam's nervous, gravely voice, "You owe me a lot of things, Delaney, and I never storm up to spit in your face for it."

There was a bump then. A crash. A hindered breathing and I saw the hand at the throat pushing him against the wall.

"You filthy little crack whore," came the spit out. I bet there was no piss with this: "You've fucked us around for too long."

But then there was a whimper. There was another and a thud and a choked voice begging into the floorboards: "I need another chance."

There was a pause. A sigh. I heard something being put down: wood on wood; a metallic ring.

"Liam," said the bloke, "I don't like whores and I don't make any wonderful exceptions. I'm giving you a week and that's incredibly generous and until then you're not getting any more coke off me."

And he left saying nothing more, Liam sobbing into the floor. I moved quickly as he pushed through the curtain, tucking something inside his jacket and eyeing me as I walked away as casually as possible. But it looked like this guy knew the tricks and if he did my attempt at a blasé stride-by probably went acknowledged as exactly what it was.

Liam – Ginger Liam with a permanent cold. Wide eyed, red-nosed, pale-skinned Liam. Debt-payer.

Delaney – I guessed.

When I was 15 I couldn't tell brown from white, sugar from snow, and probably thought speed was used by Olympians and skunk and weed were two different things. But I wasn't clueless;

My mam had been a heroin addict. Fuck, she'd been a doxie after she left home, that was something everyone knew. Emma Kirby, brassie. Grab her while you can. Feed her and feed her again with the cash she needs for her dirty horse habit. That was what she lived by.

That was, before she met the Old Man and had me. It stopped then. He didn't. I'd grown up thinking the fact that my dad had died of a junk overdose common. Standard. Issue.

That was heroin of course. But I couldn't imagine coke, just another whiter powder, being any a worse master.

"He's fucking late."

Marco trudged up to me at my post metres from the bar, third glass in hand and looking remote. He was combed and preened. He was wearing his best jacket.

"Yeah, well," I said, still slightly shaky, "Don't let him keep you."

"What the fuck else have I gotta do?"

"What about the fella off the quay?"

"What the fuck about him?"

"He was nice."

He breathed out, bull-nosed. "It's not about being fucking nice, Aiden."

He saw my dubious expression and steam-breathed again, his glass coming down hard on the wood ledge, jacket off and hair rough.

"Fuck this."

I saw him go and my face threatened to crumple. Sickness and debts and silly being-left-at-the-altars. Where the fuck was Seamus when you needed him and when you need him to talk about the fucking coke problems of shitheads like Liam?

A girl at the bar.

Of course I was pulled to her. She was a fucking bird, wasn't she? The only one and a good pair of tits to match (except Maggie of course, but no one paid attention to her). A pair of hips. Good arse and a good pair of eyes and ears and proper hair falling over a good pair of shoulders. Yeah. She was human. I'd seen her more than once and it hadn't been piping the blinding nectar or selling the daily juice out of fat wet palms.

Aine.

Aine with tits and a gee box.

That was very fucking appealing.

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