Shaun O Ceallaigh is a freelance writer from the Republic of Ireland. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in the journals Crannóg, Tir Na nÓg, and Howl.
The Hungry Publican
Proprietor of the Corner Bar, James Leary, parked his Landrover, lumbered into the pale morning light, and crossed the street. He unlocked the pub’s front door and stepped inside. As was the case every morning, the metallic stench of stale porter soaked the air. When he raised the blinds, the mess from the previous night lit up: smeared pint glasses gathered on the bar; off-target peanuts and crisps mashed on the floor; a small pool of vomit. He lit a cigarette, hooked his thumb in his belt loop, and surveyed his empire.
A presentable veneer was achieved by midday. After returning the mop and bucket to the cleaning closet, he pulled the coins he’d found on the floor from his pocket. Not a great haul. Mainly ten and twenty-cent pieces. But three one-euro coins and a single two-euro brought the total up to an acceptable seven-sixty. He sat at the bar, lit another cigarette, and grinned, crunching the coins in his fist.
Soon, the secondary-school kids would arrive for the lunch hour, fuelled on Coke and Fanta, pumping coins into his arcade machines and jukebox. Stand behind the bar, take their money, and watch the coins accumulate. So easy, any cunt could do it.
After lunch, the first of the drunks would make an appearance – sweat pouring after the few hours’ abstinence – desperate to empty their wallets. In they’d come, the harried look on their faces melting with the first taste. An addict who thinks he’s free – a prisoner afraid to leave captivity. Worse, a prisoner so deluded, he thinks he’s the jailer. You couldn’t fault it as a business model.
He went behind the bar and tossed the coins in the register, each in its allotted tray. All he had to do was wait. They’d all be in soon – the town’s dregs – the hopeless stench rising. So easy, any cunt could do it.
At midnight, James bolted the door from the inside. There would be no lock-in tonight, with only one table in the bar occupied. As he took his seat, he tossed his stake – a blue plastic disc – onto the centre of the table. Dick ‘the Pig’ Butler shuffled the deck. The flabby cop started dealing and, as the cards landed, James glanced at the other two men at the table. Andy Hogan nuzzled a large Powers, hawkish eyes glued to the cards. Tom Fitzmorris nibbled from a packet of peanuts, his eyes glazed. He’d arrived early and enjoyed more than a few.
‘How’s work, Dick?’ he asked. ‘Busy keeping us all safe in our beds?’
‘Usual shite,’ the Pig Butler replied, placing the deck on the table.
‘And you, Hogan, how’s things on the Council?’
Hogan picked up his cards. ‘Mind-crushingly dull, as always.’
‘I bet you find ways to liven things up, though. Am I right?’
‘I do my best.’
James looked at his cards. A two of spades and eight of hearts. Fuck.
Hogan tossed some chips into the pot. ‘I raise ten.’
‘I fold,’ he said, tossing down his cards. He sighed, straightening on his stool. ‘What about you, Tom? How’s the farm? The kids?’
‘Ugh, fine. Fine. See your ten and raise twenty.’
‘You trying to bluff me, Tom?’ the Pig Butler asked with a leer. ‘I’ll see and raise twenty.’
‘It’s getting rather rich early tonight.’
James got up. ‘You’ll all have another one?’
The three men nodded without looking at him. He went to the bar and poured four more whiskeys, watching them as the game continued. More than one way to win. Who would it be?
Tom Fitzmorris cheered, throwing his hands in the air. The farmer reached forward and collected his winnings. Luck was with him, for now. Finished pouring the drinks, James plucked the four glasses in one hand, the bottle in the other, and returned to the table. ‘Drink up lads, we may make a night of it.’
Earlier in the evening, around supper time, the pub had fallen quiet. At a table under the window, two strangers – a couple straight from the office – were getting handsy. James watched them, elbow propped on the bar as he supported his head. Across from him, plonked on his usual stool, Danny Evans babbled on about some shite. He wasn’t really paying attention to the old man, but Danny seemed to be enjoying the telling of his tale.
‘You gonna pay for that pint, or do you expect it for free?’ he asked, interrupting Danny.
‘What? Jaysus, sorry, lad. The mind’s not with it tonight.’ Danny pulled out his tattered wallet and handed over a tenner. James brought the note to the register.
‘Go on, continue with what you were saying.’
‘Oh, yeah, well now, this is the bit, wait ’til I tell yeh. You won’t believe this now, but it’s the truth. If it’s a lie, let me be struck down. Wait ’til I tell yeh. Just wait now, and I’ll tell yeh.’
James returned to the bar and slouched forward. Tangled in his story, Danny forgot his change. Danny always forgot his change.
The couple at the window seemed oblivious to his glare. The woman looked younger than the man; probably his secretary. Pretty in a posh way. The kind that’s prim and proper until you get her in the bedroom, or a quiet bar, then she wants to be degraded – used like a snotted tissue. Blow your nose in it, fuck it in the bin, then get another one. That’s what she wants, the bitch. Letting that old fucker paw her. That’s what posh bitches are like. Tomorrow it will be back to prim and proper, but tonight… Well, look at her.
‘And I told her,’ Danny said, shaking his undercooked head. ‘I told her, listen to me now. I told her. I said to her, I said…’
Out foreign, drunks sit in bars and mope. They hang their heads in shame, knowing their place – on life’s scrapheap. In this fucking country, the deluded cunts think they’re kings. Up and down the island, in slurred voices, dribble on their chins, pontificating about the state of the world. No one has the heart to tell them to shut the fuck up.
He glanced at Danny. The head waggle, the varnish on the eyes as he blathered on. Old fool doesn’t realize he’s one of life’s rejects. And that’s the publican’s gift – maintaining the delusion. If the day ever comes when these fuckers wake up, if they ever see the reality, see where they stand in the pecking order… Jesus, there’d be mass suicide. There wouldn’t be enough graveyards to hold the corpses. The bodies would pile up in the street.
‘Danny, are you gonna pay for that pint or do you expect it for free?’
‘God, did I not pay yeh?’ He reached for his wallet again. ‘Too busy telling yeh about this wan. Here.’
James took the tenner from the old man. ‘Go on with your story, there, I was enjoying it.’
‘Yeah? Yeah, so this one, she says… What was it she said? Oh, yeah, she says to me, she says…’
He slid the tenner into the tray. Back at the bar, he nodded at Danny as he prattled on. The old ones were the easiest to fleece. You don’t get that with the young lads – sharp little bastards. But time will change that. History repeats. Go back far enough and you’d find a young Danny Evans determined not to make the mistakes of those above him. But history repeats. They’re sharp now, these young lads, but they’ll fall down the same hole.
‘So, I looked at her. I looked this cold bitch in the eye, I did. That’s what I did, I looked her in the eye, and I said, I said…’
At the table, the man groped at the woman’s breast. Half on top of her, like a randy dog. But she wasn’t complaining. The look on her face – coming in her pants-suit. The smirk. Her head hanging back as the old prick slobbers on her neck. Gagging for it.
She happened to glance across the bar and their eyes locked. James didn’t look away and she froze, her smirk dropping. She pushed the man off her, collecting herself. He looked hurt, like a slapped child. With flustered movements, she gathered her things off the table: phone, keys – then threw them into her handbag before getting up. And like that, she was gone, the man trailing behind, crouched into his fat frame to hide his erection.
When they were gone, James picked up his rag and wiped down the bar. Fucking bint, I was only looking.
‘So, so now, she says, she says to me, she says… What did she say? Oh, yeah, she said…’
He looked at Danny. ‘You gonna pay for that pint or do you expect it for free?’
James looked in turn at Andy Hogan, the Pig Butler, and Tom Fitzmorris. As the night wore on, and the whiskey flowed, their enthusiasm for the game ebbed.
The Pig Butler finished what he’d been saying. ‘…fucking raped him with a rolling pin. Bent him over a table and fucked him in the arse.’
‘Bollocks,’ Tom said, with a bovine lurch.
‘I’m just telling yeh what I heard. Fucker’s still not walking straight. Had to have an operation. They did damage to his insides or something.’
‘Well,’ Hogan said, ‘it seems our women are revolting.’
‘Bollocks,’ Tom repeated.
‘Revolting, me hole. That’s mental-illness shite. We used to lock up people like that. Now it’s all this care-in-the-community – letting people like that live amongst the decent.’
Hogan took a drag from his cigar. ‘I hope you’re not including us amongst these decent.’
‘Well, yeh know what I mean. Fucking nutters running around the place. People don’t notice, but I see them – muttering to themselves. I’m telling yeh, it’s only a matter of time.’
‘Bollocks,’ Tom said again, before keeling over and slamming onto the floor.
The remaining men stood and looked down at the prone figure. Then they returned to their seats.
James wiped his nose on the back of his hand. ‘I think Tom’s had enough.’
With the hour approaching, James wrote his special offer on the chalkboard: 2 drinks for price of 1.
Danny Evans continued scuttering from his mouth-hole. James came out from behind the bar and carried the sign outside. Then, thumb hooked in his belt loop, he stood on the frozen street, waiting.
A scattered group of men and women, all ages, were soon walking towards him, heads sunk on hunched shoulders. The Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting met every week in the church and finished up at nine. He watched them approach, then raised his arm in greeting. ‘Two for one, lads. Come in and have a drink.’
‘Fuck off, Leary,’ a youngish man at the front of the group said.
‘Ah, don’t be like that, Carl. I’ve not seen you in ages. Come in and tell me the gossip.’
‘First one’s on the house. Come in and have a drink, will yee?’
As the group past the pub, Carl returned and faced him. ‘You’re a nasty son of a bitch, Leary, you know that?’
‘Come in and I’ll buy you a pint to say sorry,’ he said, winking.
‘You’ll get what’s coming to yeh.’
The group reached the end of the street and rounded a corner. He dropped the smile and returned to the bar. Danny was still rabbiting on – hadn’t noticed he’d left.
Thursday night and the bar empty. This shit can’t continue. Fucking Holy-Joes poaching my best customers. Think they’re better than the rest. Well, it’s only a matter of time. I’ll rope them back. One by one, I’ll get them. No cows escaping my milking shed.
The front door creaked open and two older men shuffled in, sweat pouring down their foreheads, a tremor in their limbs.
‘Ah, lads, it’s good to see yee. It’s been too long.’
‘You said two for one, didn’t yeh? That’s what you said.’
‘I did indeed. What’ll it be? Yeh both look parched.’
‘Give us two Smithwicks.’
‘Right away, gents. Sit up there beside Danny.’ As he took down two glasses, he kept up the smile for his returning customers. Every cow wants to be milked.
After the card game, James unbolted the front door and Andy Hogan and the Pig Butler swaggered onto the street. He looked back at the silent figure on the floor.
‘What will you do with Laughing Boy?’ Hogan asked, lighting a cigar.
‘I’ll get a taxi to drop him home.’
‘Getting himself in that state,’ the Pig Butler said, shaking his head. ‘Ruined the night.’
‘I wouldn’t go that far.’
‘Well, gentlemen, same time next month?’
‘Aye, I’ll see yee.’ He closed the door and returned to the bar.
Tom Fitzmorris lay unconscious on the floor, a trickle of drool pooling beneath his mouth. He stood over the farmer and poked him with his toe. ‘Tom, Tom. Get up, Tom.’
The farmer grunted but didn’t stir. Certain he wouldn’t be disturbed, James bent and rummaged through the man’s pockets. He located a wallet, flipped it open, and pulled out a wad of notes, which he stuffed in his own pocket. Next, he found the farmer’s phone. He’d have some fun with that.
Half an hour later, he parked the Landrover at the side of the road and, after fumbling with his seatbelt, climbed out of the vehicle. Drizzle fell. In the valley below, the town lay coated in shreds of navy mist, punctured at intervals by the glow of street lamps. He opened the back door. Tom Fitzmorris was curled on the dog mat. He grabbed him under the shoulders and pulled the farmer onto the road. Feet juddering over the rough tarmac, he dragged the man to the lane leading to his farm and tossed the limp body halfway into the ditch. He lifted the legs off the road, then rolled him into the drainage channel. ‘Don’t want any fucker rolling over you, now, do we, Tom?’
Back inside the warmth of the Landrover, he dug the phone from his pocket. After a quick nose through the photos, he laughed to himself and unbuttoned his trousers. He kneaded his cock until semi-erect, then, positioning the phone, took a picture.
After fixing himself up, he sent the picture to all the contacts in the phone, then lowered his window and tossed the device onto the verge.
More than pleased with himself, he started the engine. The time to return home had come. Time to rest for a few hours and then get back to business.