A sign of change
It was another Friday night in the flat on the canal. It had become my second home after my catastrophic reentry from Greece and four months of boozing and working for pennies and falling from churches and nearly dying. It was warm and full of characters, not a lick of privacy, a mini commune if you will, but there was no other place I would have rather been. I had gotten used to the constant comings and goings and on the quiet days when I found myself with only one or two friends, I felt nearly lonely.
People started arriving in dribs and drabs , each one helping themselves to the kettle and to the dwindling supply of tea bags. Some came from work, or study or like the majority who were on the dole from the day drifting in and out of pubs waxing philosophically about life and trying desperately to find a point to it all. The evening got underway as usual, from tea we moved onto tins and flagons of cheap cider. We were waiting patiently for a very important person to arrive, Fergus, he was the man who brought our smoke. A quiet fella with piercing eyes and a tough yet gentle way about him. Of all the people who passed through that flat, he was the most interesting. He had a respectful day job and just did this on the side and did enjoy the company even though he wasn’t part of the ‘inner circle’. We had become a rather large clan and as happens with clans, cracks in the equilibrium were starting to show.
Within the group a few couples had formed over the years and through no fault of their own, simply growing up and changing direction and perspective they began questioning their futures together. Some had gotten together after a drunken night together, I had been victim to that. Two wasted years thinking that was what you were supposed to do. A one night stand can’t just be that or can it? The girls seemed more together, some were nurses, others studying and working and others still planning on the all illusive and difficult immigration to the paradise land of Australia. The lads seemed to be stuck in a sort of limbo, the refusal to accept jobs they deemed beneath them left them on permanent dole payments and angry discussions about how things should be.
It was about ten o’clock when we heard ranting coming from the front garden. I ran to the bedroom window and looked down to see Brendan, probably the most charismatic human being I had met up until that point in my life, arms wide singing a Neil Young tune between laughter and senseless ramblings. He had obviously made a few pit stops before his arrival and was looking worse for wear. We welcomed with the usual camaraderie and swiftly handed a pint. Brendan had dropped off the radar recently and from what we knew had some family things to sort out at home in Tipperary. Dublin then seemed as far away as London. Some of the group we had already lost to far corners of the world, Phil, who had actually witnessed the taking out of non other than one of Irelands most infamous criminals, The General, had disappeared to New Zealand. Antonella went to Australia and others joined the long line of ferry immigrants to London. Totsie, the scruffy, mousy and mouthiest of the clan had gone to New York with high hopes of becoming a barman. He bragged that he already had a job set up and that he would never set foot again in rainy old backward Ireland.
My former best friend Nathalie arrived with a couple of new acquaintances. We had had a massive falling out, typical girl stuff, random jealousy involving a guy. I hadn’t seen her in quite some time so we sombrely saluted each other then went about revelling with others. The flat was full to the brim with people and the smell of smoke and drink had thickened the air. Conversations that night were intense. The country was at the tail end of a long recession and we were all weary from it. The shine had gone off the suffering melancholy which had inspired many of us over the years to write poetry, songs and to share moments of solidarity. We now wanted a change and the anger and anxiety over our futures had begun to show its horns. Waves of laughter mixed with sharp sparring of ideas and opinions cut through the evenings atmosphere. I spent a good portion of that night talking to the smoke man, Fergus. He wasn’t either way about anything that night, just observing the spectacle and I was in need of a quiet corner to myself.
Gus arrived home around eleven and he was well oiled as usual. His thick accent, often mumbling half arsed tales and floppy hair which covered his eyes made him our groups teddy bear. Many an evening was spent laughing uncontrollably at one of his nonsensical stories. We asked him for news about Totsie, they were best mates and we expected him to have an update, it had been 4 months since he had left for New York and no one had heard anything since. Around the room there were several joints being prepared. I was working on one next to Fergus when I realised I ran out of papers. I tried to get Hillary’s attention but she was in fits of laughter over something and the music was too loud so I went across the room to Brendan. Someone started knocking on the door. It was the flat downstairs. There was a phone call for Gus. He staggered downstairs closing the door behind him, trying not to let the smoke waft out into the hall. Brendan hand me his last two skins and I finished my joint with Fergus. We started sharing before passing it around to the others.
Gus came back and closed the door. He also turned off the music and appeared to have lost 5 pints of blood. He typically pale skin had gone three shades whiter and he trembled while he mumbled something about just having received a phone call. We all stopped what we were doing and asked him what was going on. Totsie had been found dead. Beaten to a pulp outside the pub he had been working at in New York. His father was on his way to identity the body. We all sat in silence. The news just wouldn’t sink in. Gus stood and cried. The room seemed to fade in and out. It was as if a ice cold wind had come in and blown us all frozen. Someone went to put the kettle on. Gus sat down on the couch and we gathered around. He had apparently pissed a fella off that evening, the wrong fella, by drunkenly hitting on his girlfriend. He was set upon after hours, alone on the footpath with no one to defend him. We had always said his mouth would get him in trouble one day. It chilled us to think that he died like that and so far from home.
The flat that night had begun to feel claustrophobic and after the news of Totsie I started to look around the room at the faces that had become my day to day for so long. The habitual meetings, the pub crawls, the nights spent aimlessly drinking and smoking until the wee hours of the morning only to sleep in and get up and do it all again. It wasn’t just me, the others felt the same I know they did. The looks on their faces said the same thing that was going through my mind. ‘Its time’. For so long we had lived a cloistered existence, protecting one another, maintaining this safe little world. Exploration had become our enemy and we were stifled. I started remembering the dreams and ambitions I had before letting myself lull into this placated state. A writer, an artist, going back to university. Everything had been put on standby, yes by the economy, the country our circumstances, but also by fear. It was easier living this way, the clan moved together, thought together, drank together and stagnated together. The phone call that night had brought a clarity that I was not expecting.
It was about four in the morning when we all crashed and I found myself nestling in Fergus’s arms. Reflecting, we had spent nearly the entire evening together. And it was as if this ‘new’ person, different from all the rest, symbolised my break. A breath of fresh air, a light at the end of a tunnel that so many of us had created around us. I was saddened for the loss of one of us. But I thanked that moment for setting me free. That morning when I woke, the bodies strewn about the place and the stale smell of smoke and half drunk tins made my stomach turn. I wanted nothing more than an empty house. Fergus awoke and grabbed his hoodie. I walked him downstairs and it was at the door that he asked the question that would be the key to the rest of my life: “Do you fancy meeting for a coffee later?”. And the answer that would seal my fate: “Yes”.