At Gale’s pub in Coleraine, I sat down for a bleeding stout and found the place all but deserted. Some chairs were turned atop their tables, and emptied glasses sat bottoms-up, foam falling in pools around their rims. Peanut shells and ends of fags littered the base of the bar, and I leaned against the lacquered counter, holding a ten-pound note in my hand.
“What’ll it be?” the barman said, approaching me from a row of taps and wiping an ashtray with his apron.
“Murphy’s,” I said, “and a finger of whiskey.”
“Not that Catholic shite. Black Bush, on the rocks.”
He took my tenner and poured a pint, then left the stout to settle on a coaster. I watched through the glass as the cascading bubbles rose and formed a creamy head, turning the liquid from brown to black, a deep well of sin beneath a cloud.
“Oi!” said a voice from a few feet behind me, muffled by the clatter of pint glasses falling. “Ya spilt me bloody drink, ya bloody sod.”
I turned to see a tableful of half-langered men, their fingers clutching fat cigars beneath a veil of lingering smoke. They howled and guffawed and spat out their brews, drenching their card game of two-four jacks as one of them scrambled up from his seat. He wiped off the crotch of his stout-sodden slacks and shook a foam-smeared fist at the table.
“Aye, laugh it up, fellas,” he said through his teeth. “Cunts sound like a buncha bleedin’ jackals.” He picked up his pint glass and stuck out his arm, holding it down toward the man to his left. “You owe us a drink, Finn,” he said as he cocked his thick neck.
“Feck off, Jake,” said Finn with a smile, and he sucked on the end of his Cohiba.
Jake turned the glass in his hand and poured out the bit of beer left in its bottom, sending foamy black driblets onto Finn’s denim lap.
Finn stood from his chair and sent it sliding backward, its wobbly legs squealing along the rugged hardwood floor. He took a step forward and spat at Jake’s feet, and I watched as each man snarled at the other, compelling me to reach for my stout and some nuts. Every good show deserves snacks after all.
“There a problem here, boys?” the barman called out, placing my second drink on the counter.
Jake and Finn maintained their stare and clenched their jaws as their table sat frozen.
“Oi!” said the barman, slamming his fist down like a gavel. “There’ll be no trouble here. Understand, lads?” He turned and shook his wrist as the two men nodded, their bulging eyes fixed forward and their faces so bleedin’ red, you’d think the smoke around them came from steam shot from their ears.
I sipped my pint as Finn eased back into his chair, pulling at its arms and bringing its seat toward his legs. Jake grabbed the front of his shirt by its hem and twisted the fabric outward, wringing the green-plaid cotton and sending suds to the ground through his fingers. And then, as his tablemates resumed their game of cards, Jake turned to the bar and found my gaze and dried his wet hands on his chest.
“Oi,” he said as I drank from my glass. “Can I help you with something there, pal?”
“No,” I said, wiping froth from my lips.
“Then why’re ya feckin’ starin’?” Jake stumbled forward from the puddle at his feet, and he grabbed an empty bottle from a table. “Ya think this is funny, eh, ya thick-headed sod?”
“It does look like ya pissed yourself,” I said with a slight raise of my glass.
“I’ll feckin’ batter ya,” Jake stammered as he gripped the neck of his bottle and raised his hand above my head. “Come on then!”
But I turned my back to Jake and set my pint down on the bar. There’s no fun in taking shots at drunks, I thought, and instead, I took my shot of Black Bush.