Down the Local
Gráinne Daly (University College Dublin, Ireland)
There were the just-pop-in-for-a-few-after-work types in mortar-caked Snickers with earfuls of sawdust, quenching the thirst of a new extension for some fussy couple who like to remind them that they are paying good money for the build so do it well and do it quick. That’s when they’re not going on about the neighbour’s bigger extension stealing their sunlight. If the tradesmen build as efficiently as they drink, the job will be finished tomorrow.
There were the few in for the match. They arrived at twenty to and had pints in hand by kick off at quarter to: pros. They sat at the little tables beneath the big screen, more than half of them wearing team replica jerseys. The jerseys made them resemble a subs bench, though maybe for a rugby team rather than soccer given their generous volume. They oohed and aahed at play and weren’t friendly in what they said about the referee. The chippies at the bar nodded in agreement with their ref talk. ‘A Utd dick,’ one added.
There were the old regulars: stalwarts that were the furniture of the bar. They had been there longer than the big screen or the new lounge. They had even outlived the cigarette machine. Like the stools they sat on, they had seen better days: all manner of fault-lines etched across their faces, cracking like the leatherette of the cushions they sat on. Shrunken cheeks inflated to sink mouthfuls of pints: pint drinking pufferfish. They didn’t mind the film of plaster one of the tradesmen deposited on the bar every time he reached for his pint. ‘Wasn’t your man Michelangelo a plasterer?’ said one pufferfish to another. ‘And a painter,’ his compatriot replied. ‘A double jobber,’ said the first, and they both rinsed their smiles with Guinness.
There were two or three couples scattered in the snugs around the place. Quiet couples. Women with short hair and neat jumpers. Men with no hair. The men bought the drinks. The women leaned in close when they talked to their husbands. The husbands smiled and nodded, tilting their heads back, folding their arms across their generous stomachs. They looked at the nearest telly to keep an eye on the football, grinning every time the subs broke into their colourful chorus over by the screen.
There were two barmen behind the bar. One was the manager, the other a much younger chap who took in the entire length of the bar with no more than one of his great strides. He had the pace to get a game in Old Trafford himself. The manager said something to the pufferfish who in turn laughed. He reached for the remote control and changed one of the little tellies to cross country skiing. This pleased one of the snug ladies who responded by squeezing her man’s arm, then reminding him her carton of dry roasteds needed refilling.
There were several men in corduroy trousers and plaid shirts huddling over cups of tea at the far end of the bar. One had a bottle of Ballygowan in front of him that he hadn’t touched since he arrived. Every time the barman pulled a fresh pint, the man looked at the amber flow with a romantic glint in his eye. He poured over maps, constituency lines drawn in yellow highlighter, canvassed areas crossed off in red ink. They wanted to streak more red across the map before the end of the night – the election was only a week away. The teas were drank and the men left through the side-door. The untouched Ballygowan remained. As did a leaflet for a Fianna Fáil TD who, it was widely known, despised his veteran running mate.
There were two women – jeans, neat bobs, expensive-looking handbags – who sat near the men’s toilets. One drank white wine as though it may be her last night alive. She already had the onset of jelly-eye. Her bobbed friend drank bottles of Coors Light, but her eyes were fine. When she smiled, her facial muscles moved as they ought to: everything seemed in place. She sat up straight, her long legs reaching under the table, almost hiding the powder blue stilettos that must give her at least an extra four inches in height. When she spoke, her friend laughed. A lot. She must’ve been riotously funny. Another quarter bottle of wine was opened, poured, half of it sipped in one go. She clocked five men in chords and country looking shirts filter out, and again, an outburst of cackled laughter. ‘There go my chances,’ she said with a snort.
There were two fellas eyeing up the girls from a tall table across the way. They both wore white runners that had to be fresh out of the box: they glowed in a surreal distraction against the dark navy Fleurs de Lys carpet. Between stares at the pair, they flicked through the screens of an unfathomable amount of mobile phones that appeared from their pockets. They took calls, sipped bottles of Bulmers, looked in the girls’ direction, took more calls. Rinse, repeat. The one with a goatee perched his leg on the bar of his stool and bounced it incessantly. Even when they jelly-eyed girl dropped an empty glass on the floor, the knee kept rising and falling in the same steady beat: a knee in need of Ritalin. The door opened and a teenager in a red SuperDry hoodie walked in, looked around to find the two lads and headed straight over to them. Goatee handed him a phone and something that fit discreetly in the palm of his hand. He left by the same door. If he’d been a few seconds longer he would’ve heard the girls’ eruption into hysterics at a text they received. ‘Bananas,’ said one of the lads, and stopped looking in their direction.
There were three old dears at a low table beside the glass casing that housed the carvery serve-over. The lights were turned off on the serve-over but the corner still smelled of the day’s gravy. Two of the dears referred to someone who had won the jackpot at bingo tonight as ‘a dirty looking aul so and so’. The other, a handful of a woman, just skin and bones and a day-old blow dry, replied with a tame, ‘bad cess to her anyway’, which only sparked a further round of vicissitudes against the unfortunate winner. The angrier women sat with vodkas before them and an empty soda bottle they had shared. The delicate woman sat with a pint of Beamish that must have been delicious because it was raised to her mouth every minute or so. It wasn’t long before a fresh one manifested before her. ‘That was sent over from the bar for you,’ said the young, fit barman. She craned to see who she knew at the bar and one of the pufferfish raised his pint in salute. ‘Thanks Freddie,’ she mouthed, and blushed. She gulped a huge mouthful to compose herself.
And there was a man on his own at the far end of the bar. He sat with his back to the big screen and didn’t look in the direction of the subs when they broke into a chorus about missed shots or yellow cards or VAR, whoever he was. He kept his eyes focused on something on the bar: a small card or leaflet, it was hard to make out. The manager broke the reverie when he placed a fresh pint on the counter and announced it was on the house. The man smiled weakly, setting off a fork of jaded lines around his eyes. As the manager turned to walk away, the man slipped the thing across the polished counter. The manager read it. He blessed himself and handed it back to the widower. ‘God rest her,’ he said, and left him with his fresh pint and his old memories of his newly departed wife. On the stool next to him was a mauve umbrella: hers. He placed it on the stool she liked to sit on.
Phillis Phelan would have been eighty tomorrow. She would have been sat there with a bright crimplene top on, and her burgundy lipstick – that no matter how carefully she applied would always end up in tiny flecks on her teeth – and she would have been talking to Tommy about horseracing or politics; in both cases she would have been giving out because it was only on rare occasions that she’d win a few bob, or that the bloody gombeens in Dáil Éireann would get something right. Phillis loved Willie Mullins and she’d back his horses whenever she was having a flutter. Tommy did a bet in her honour today: Douvan. It came in at 12/1. The winning docket was in his hands, soft from being palmed all evening. He would collect it tomorrow, and stick it on Final Approach in the Champion Hurdle. It would romp home for the birthday girl: his winner, forever.
Gráinne Daly is a PhD candidate in University College Dublin. Sport in creative Irish literature is her primary research interest and she is currently working on a novel that speaks to Gaelic games. Winner of the UCD Maeve Binchy Travel Award 2019, her poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction has been published in numerous publications.