“My God, what happened to your face?”
As conversation starters go, you’ll admit it’s a grabber. Beside me, I saw my colleague Ray wince. I hadn’t seen Emma since college, but she always did know how to make an entrance. The Garda uniform certainly helped.
It took me a moment, but I answered her without emotion. “Car crash.”
Around us, the pub I ran was bustling, lunchtime-busy, and those in earshot pretended not to have heard. The autumn sunlight was streaming through the window and my Tuesday morning hangover had decided to stick around. Down the counter, heads were turning at the sight of a cop, even if she was only in for a coffee.
“It… it’s not… it’s not that bad,” Emma said, trying to make up lost ground and leaving little doubt that she thought it was precisely that bad.
Losing a sizeable chunk of the scalp above my left temple had led to unsuccessful plastic surgery and a final, more radical solution had left me with a vivid scar down my forehead and a ragged hairline.
I was terribly self-conscious about it, but the efforts of family and friends to assure me that it was hardly noticeable had achieved the unintended effect of making me feel worse. I could see the truth, or I could when I was able to persuade myself to look in a mirror, and being told I was imagining things just made me feel patronised.
People are great. Except when they’re not. “Weren’t you very lucky all the same?” Possibly the most infuriating thing you could ever say to someone who has just had the top of their head cut off, carved up and put back on in the wrong order.
“Oh yeah,” I used to think, “I was blessed. Hope you never have this kind of luck.”
People mean well but it’s like they never know when to stop talking. Lately, I had taken to telling bereaved friends “I’m so sorry. Beyond that, I actually don’t know what to say so all I’ll say is you know where I am”. It was the best I could do.
I still have bad dreams about the night my car went off the road. Which is actually fair enough. It was like a bad dream when it happened, too. My beautiful, treacherous Rover. I still miss it. I blamed it for years but of course the fault was all my own.
Sober but driving way too fast in a fog of tiredness, work-induced stress and inexperience, with Bozz Skaggs blaring “Drowning in the Sea of Love”, I slipped the car onto the grass verge and overturned at eighty miles per hour. I remember hanging upside-down as the car ploughed on, the windscreen and the road grinding into the side of my head. It’s easy to remember. It all happened in slow motion.
I remember the blood. I remember how calm I was, how cool I was when I flagged down a car and told the terrified driver not to worry, it wasn’t as bad as it looked, scalp injuries always bleed a lot. I remember how organised I stayed until I got myself safely to the hospital. I remember too that when the admitting nurse asked my name I fell apart completely.
The crash was bad. Really bad. The botched surgery was worse. The surgeon who tried to persuade me afterwards that, as a smoker, I had “probably” caused the wound to re-open, yeah, he was a particular comfort to me. I’ve heard said that you’ve never really experienced life until you’ve had a brush with mortality. Reaching like Doubting Thomas to touch the bone of my own skull took that to a whole other level.
My millionaire boss, to give him his due, was the only person to acknowledge how bad my injuries were. Given, however, that he was not known as the most thoughtful man in town, I tried not to put too much stock in his prediction that “no woman will ever be able to look at you again”.
I don’t know if I suffered from depression after the crash. Have you ever felt an endless, dull, grey misery that leaves you feeling hollowed out? A weight that flattens everything? When you just keep going because you haven’t the energy to consider an alternative? Is that depression?
I felt sometimes like a particularly convincing actor, essaying all of the emotions necessary to walk the waking world while doing so without ever feeling anything. Sometimes half the battle is just to keep going. Sometimes you realise that all you do is keep going.
Two or so years later, in the first or second year of the new century, depending on where you start your millennium, I felt oddly relieved. I hadn’t been imagining it. Someone who had only seen the before and after and not the in-between had been shocked. My forehead really was a horror-show and Emma had confirmed it.
Before I could talk to the woman who had been planning on being a sculptor the last time we met, she was called back to work. Brief, insincere promises of future contact were exchanged. There had been, years earlier, an uneven friendship which had ended after a drunken kiss. Some things you don’t get over.
As she left, Ray came over. A shy extrovert and a very funny young man, he was a gifted musician and, like me, he had no business working in a pub but couldn’t think of anywhere better to go just for the moment. Since the crash, he had been my best friend. Another lost soul.
“The accountant is looking for you,” he said, “Again. You promised her a cheque?”
The boss’s wife had a habit of using the bar as her personal petty cash book and the company accountant would spend weeks hassling me to pay up.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said. “What is this time, sofas? A gold-plated tea-cosy? Or, or, I dunno, a trip for the fuckin’ dog to go to EuroDisney, to meet Goofy or something?”
“Bathroom fittings, I think.”
“Jesus Christ. Bathroom fittings. How am I supposed to turn a profit when this sort of shit is going on?”
“You know she’ll be back, right?”
“Who, the accountant? Oh, I fucking know she will.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“It’s just something I’ve been worrying about for a long time.”
“It’s very personal.”
“Is… is Goofy a dog?”
“Get away from me, Raymond. At least try to look busy.”
Because life can have a sense of humour, Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons decided to announce on the stereo just then that “Someday, we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny”.
I had a strict policy that the television was only turned on as a last resort and the music played in the bar was my choice. If I was honest, “Rosalita” was probably too fast and turned up too loud for the lunchtime crowd but, the humour I was in that day, telling me that might be a mistake.
The bank staff arrived, our local Masters of the Universe. The economy was booming and so were they. I stepped around Ray, leaving him to deal with the one group of customers he hated even more than I did. “You bastard,” he muttered at me, before greeting the bankers with an insincerity even they were incapable of missing.
Now Bruce was telling Rosie that this was her daddy’s “last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance”, a line I always thought worthy of a John B. Keane play. I made my way along the counter to our resident Waldorf and Statler, George and Mal. Any day they were in was a day I’d get at least one belly-laugh.
George was a thin, dusty Yorkshire man of indeterminate age, perhaps forty-five, perhaps seventy-five, perpetually troubled by what he called “fooken emmeroids”. I often suspected that he seemed to have something mysterious over the boss, a man for whom he sometimes worked as a handy-man. (“He’s far from fucking handy”, was all that the boss would say on the subject.)
I got on okay with George, but could never quite figure out the reason for his popularity. I suppose though that once you got over the sexism, the racism and the almost violent homophobia he was probably a grand fella. He reminded me a bit of Pig Pen from the “Peanuts” cartoons, in that he was perpetually surrounded by a smog, in his case cigarette smoke and negativity. One regular swore that, if there ever was a ban on smoking in pubs, it’d George that the government would use to sell the idea.
Malcolm Prendeville was a once-successful lawyer, gone fat and bitter from drink and resentment. “If she had left me for someone else, I might have forgiven her,” he once told me. Never getting over the fact that his marriage was ruined by his own failings rather than the attractions of someone else, he ran what was left of his solicitor’s practice in the mornings and would spend the afternoons with us. He would enter at lunchtime, the Racing Post hidden inside the Irish Times. “Business and pleasure, m’boy,” he would say. “Business and pleasure. Take your pick as to which one’s which.”
His first five or six pints always made him wonderful company and he knew me well enough to leave before what he called “the fellow on the Night Shift” took over.
“Call me Mal!” he would say, and most people did. When they thought he was out of range, many would refer to him too by his full nickname “Mal Practice”.
Approaching the two of them I could see George had something on his mind. He had a look on his face that put me in mind of a dog looking in a butcher’s window.
“Ah see yer talking to that wumman puhleeceman,” he said, his tongue not quite hanging out. “Eee, Ah do luv a wumman puhleeceman, me.”
“Is that so, George?” asked Mal, in his plummy upper-class Cork accent, his gaze unwavering from the Irish Times. The reading glasses slipped slightly down his nose. “You’re an afficianado of the Ban Garda, I take it?”
“Eee, Ah doan’t mind telling thee. A wumman puhleeceman would be mah fantasy.”
A few of the other customers started to smirk. This double act was always worth a listen.
“I… see. The uniform, is it George?”
“Oh, aye. Uniform. Oooaah!”
“Handcuffs as well, I suppose,” said Mal, rattling the business page slightly. The glasses moved further south.
“Woaaah! ‘Andcuffs! Eeee! Kinky!” George wasn’t even joking now. “And a truncheon!!”
There wasn’t quite that sound of a needle being suddenly dragged across a record, but Mal put down his Irish Times. He turned to George. I think disbelief was the only thing keeping his glasses on the tip of his nose.
“A truncheon?” he asked, the italics almost visible in the air. “Really, George? A truncheon? With your piles?”
As we all fell around laughing, George slowly realised the joke and became indignant. His usual ashtray complexion reddened. “Eee, Ah sed kinky, but Ah din’t mean that fooken kinky! Not up t’jacksy!”
I had a pain in my side from laughing and the madder George got, the more I laughed. I’m not ashamed to say I shed tears, only the first that day.
By 2pm the majority of the lunch crowd was gone and Mal and George were talking again, sniping back and forth about soccer. It was starting to turn back into a normal day. I was thinking about the crash and wondering why I felt lighter than I had in a long time. Maybe it wasn’t just that someone who had not seen me since before the accident had finally put a measure on it. Maybe it really wasn’t as bad as I had thought either.
I was turning this over and it struck me that our lives often drift along and sometimes a calamity or a chance encounter can spin us in unimagined directions. It also struck me that maybe if wounds are acknowledged, then maybe they can heal. Maybe people can too.
This wasn’t a breakthrough moment or anything. This was a jumble of thoughts and emotions but it was nice to feel the weight just a little less today. The hangover was lifting too and with it the nagging worry that, since the crash, my drinking was becoming an issue.
I spotted the boss’s long-suffering accountant at the end of the counter. “You promised me a cheque!” She was smiling but I knew she wouldn’t leave without her money.
“And you promised me that Imelda fecking Marcos would stop charging her bathroom fittings to the bar account. How much is it this time?”
“€1,500? Ah for God’s sake. This is ridiculous.” I reached for the chequebook. “What’s today, the tenth?”
“The eleventh. The year is flying.”
“So’s my bank balance. I mean, how many bathrooms does she have?” My outrage was mostly habitual and almost humorous. As I handed over the cheque, the payphone started to ring. “Go on, look, I’d better get this,” I told her. “I’ll see you. Good luck.”
I picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
It was one of the bar-staff, a girl known to me as “I Can’t Work This Weekend Because”. Sounding out of breath, she asked if I had the television on. A strange question. She knew I wouldn’t have the television on at lunchtime of a weekday, unless something important was happening.
“Turn it on,” she said, “Now.”
In New York, a plane had crashed.