At Gale’s Pub

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.”

“Jameson?”

“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.

 

The Promise of Spring and Morning

The room is stale and dreary, pale and lifeless, and its off-white walls are bare and vacant and cracked like fractured eggshells. I lie swaddled in the itchy, powder blue linens of a hospital bed too short and too narrow for my crippled body—and the bed’s guardrails sprout up either side of me as if I were confined to a crib with nothing to do but look up toward the paint-chipped ceiling. Fluorescent lights blink back at me and glow a sickly green, fluttering constantly and buzzing like epileptic bumblebees. My neck is braced and bandaged in red-stained cotton, and I strain my eyes toward the room’s only window. There, the golden gleam of sunlight beams and glistens, fighting for some measure of real estate against the fluorescent flood.

An old, twisted maple tree sits soaking up the sun outside, its bark stripped and weathered, and its leaves as red and black as my battered eyes. It’s almost devoid of foliage, yet it stands tall and silent, relishing the lingering warmth of fall, and pondering the impending frosts of winter. What leaves it does have are worn and withered, and they shiver in the autumn breeze, trembling like trapeze artists resisting a faltering grip.

The sky above begins to blacken as the sun curtsies and dips below the horizon. Its flowing gown of pinks and golds blazes across the heavens before burning up and drifting down in rippling layers of orange and crimson. Curtains of navy and midnight blue unravel to the ground and blend with the fiery fabrics still sparkling in sheets across the smouldering skyline.

The fluorescent bulbs above me hum and drone a bitter lullaby, and my eyes begin to fade like the sunlight at my window. My chest aches with each shallow breath I take, and I can smell the putridly sweet stench of iodine and blood oozing from my sutured wounds. Yet, as the pain digs deeper and compels my teeth to clench, I dwell not on the freeway or the crash that brought me here, or the foul, fetid memories of fire and melting flesh. All I can think of are the maple tree and its leaves, and the evanescent sunset outside.

Why should I fear death when the maple tree is sure to bloom again in the spring? The last of its scarlet leaves have dropped now, and it stands a naked silhouette in the sun’s red afterglow. Dead it may seem, its long branches bare and black in the absence of light, but unless the heavens strike it with fire, it will endure the cold of winter and live to dress in leaves of green.

Why should I fear hell when the sun is promised to rise again in the morning? Can that same promise not pertain to me? Though some nights stretch on longer than others, the sun never fails to wake from its slumber, and its rays are always bright enough to rout the black of night. Yet if my resurrection is possible, and is anything like the rise and fall of the sun, will I wake to skies of darkness or to clouds of burning gold?