Billy Lawson emerged unsteadily from the lavatory in Dunhill’s pub.
He’d been drinking since ten o’clock in the morning. He’d been outside at a quarter to, staring at the foul green scum lying like a thin knotty blanket on the flat waters of the canal.
He’d watched the rats slipping in and out of the water, their tails dragging behind them. As soon as he had heard the bolts being shot back behind the door, he’d pulled his pension book out of his pocket. It was folded in half and he’d held it tight in his right hand, the fingers dark brown and smelling of tobacco. His fingernails had black tips and he hadn’t shaved for three days. He wore a flat cap with the peak stained by a thin wavy band of dried salt where sweat had soaked into it from his forehead. The whites of his blue eyes were bloodshot and his nose had little tufts of white hair sprouting out between the blackheads. His old black overcoat was dotted with little balls of fluff and the soles of his worn shoes were beginning to separate from the uppers.
The barman had looked at him and said immediately,
‘F*** off, Billy. Your credit’s no good here at the minute’.
‘Here’s ma pension book, Frank. Ah’ve signed all the sheets. Ah’ve put Maggie down to collect it.’
The man had taken the book, flicked through the thin pages with the green print and the weekly perforations down the middle and said, ‘OK. Ye can come in. But nobody knows about this. Unnerstan?’
‘It’s f***in illegal’.
‘Aye, ah know. Don’ worry’.
That had been over three hours ago. The pub was hot and crowded now. There was a lot of noise, laughter, swearing, arguing. Somebody had boked on the lavatory floor and Billy had vomit on his shoes, but he got rid of most of it by scuffing through the sawdust scattered on the floorboards in the bar. Little clumps of the sawdust clung to the leather and the laces, but he could brush them off when they dried out. He made his way back to his chair at the table under a picture of the local Gaelic team. Eddy Ferris had just bought another round, two bottles of Guinness and two half-uns of Bushmills’ whiskey. He was reading the Daily Mirror. As Billy sat down he looked up.
Billy picked up his Guinness.
‘Who gives a hoot?’ He swallowed half of it in one go and chased it with a gulp of the Bushmills. He half wondered whether the stout was one of the bottles he’d corked for the pub weeks before when his money had run out and he’d offered to work to pay off his slate. Maggie Dunhill was a hard oul’ biddy. Ye could spend yer last penny in the place and they’d slam the door in yer teeth as soon as look at ye.
It had been just the same in France in 1916 when he was nineteen years old. F***in landlords must be the same everywhere. As Ferris continued to rustle through his paper, Billy’s mind slipped back forty-two years. ………………………
It had been drizzling at first light, but now it was sunny and the sky hadn’t a cloud in it. Steam had begun rising out of the mud in the trench and the flies had started to appear, buzzing over scattered scraps of food. It was a quarter past seven . Shells had been whining over their heads towards the enemy trenches since dawn. Billy and his brother Harry had helped each other to do up their packs. Somebody had said that they were carrying about sixty-four pounds. Jesus! That was four stone! That wasn’t far short of half of Billy’s weight. But the British guns had been pounding the Huns for nearly a week and the lieutenant had said after prayers that it would be a picnic . Most of the Germans would be dead by now and their wire cut to ribbons.
They’d hardly fired back for four days, he’d said, so that proved he was right. McPherson, the Antrim man had even put on his Orange sash and kept telling everybody that it was the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne so that was a sign from God. Billy was unimpressed. There’d been no machine-guns at the Boyne. Walking to the German side in broad daylight wouldn’t be any easier if Jesus himself was doing it with you.
He was greedily drinking his rum ration from a tin cup when the earth heaved and shuddered with the biggest explosion he had ever heard. It was louder than any shell that had ever burst near their trenches. It was as if the whole of the earth had erupted around them. Everything shook. The English miners must have tunnelled close to the Germans and packed a massive mine near their wire.
The lieutenant was from Belfast and his voice was hard and high-pitched. Billy picked up his rifle and stood in front of the ladder. Harry was on his left and McPherson on his right. He looked left along the line and saw scared faces and lips quivering in what he knew were prayers. Well he wasn’t goin ta pray. Harry shouted, ‘Good luck, Willie.’
Their two brothers had died with the Dublin Fusiliers a year earlier at Gallipoli landing from the River Clyde at Sedd el Bahr. Some a***hole’s great plan had gone wrong. As usual. And eleven hundred Dubs had gone west.
‘We’ll be all right, Harry. Ma can’t lose all of us.’
In quick succession, there were nine huge explosions. More mines. God! How could the Jerries not be finished now? With a bit of luck this might be easy enough after all. Silence. The guns had stopped. This was it.
‘God bless you all!’ The lieutenant looked at his watch and raised a whistle to his lips. As its shrill blast emerged, it was joined by others and Billy could hear bugles and shouts. As he grasped a rung of the ladder with his left hand, he heard McPherson shout ‘No Surrender!’ and then they were up and over the top. …………………………….
‘Ye know our Tom’s got one of them televisions?’
‘Our Tom’s got one of them televisions! Ah was round there larss night. There was a show on with all these fellas done up like nigger minstrels. One of them has a voice like Al Jolson. Fantastic. And the women showin’ all they’ve got. But the jokes were f***in awful. Them English’ll laugh at anythin’.
He couldn’t remember much about the bit between leaving the trench and reaching the German wire. He knew that he was one of the few who made it. Most of the rest had dropped like poleaxed cattle. The lieutenant was gone, and McPherson. Harry had made it too. They had forgotten all about the orders to walk five yards apart. The men who made it to the German trench had raced up the hill panting under the weight of their packs. It was a short and brutal struggle with stabbing bayonets to clear the way with screams of ‘Faugh-a-Bellagh!’ and ‘F*** the Pope!’ A short rest and then a desperate struggle to win the Schwaben Redoubt. But after they had taken that, the f***in British guns had started to drop shells on them and men were falling like ninepins. Later the Germans began shelling them too and when night came the survivors stumbled or crawled their way back to the starting point. It had all been a complete waste of f***in time. Five and a half thousand dead and wounded. For f*** all. …….
Billy felt movement in his right hand and looked down. His index finger was hooked and pulling against an invisible trigger. He could see again the face of a young German he had shot in the head. His hand shook and he lifted his glass of whiskey and downed it in one go. He rapped the glass down on the table and raised his arm to order another round, which the barman brought to the table with a note for him to sign. He scribbled his name and sat back staring at the wall. Tony Wall the hurler stared back at him from a framed photograph with a fly darting back and forward on the glass. That was a good one. Wall on the wall.
The noise of the bursting shells was deafening. ……………………….
‘Whaddya think of Stirlin’ Moss, eh?’
‘The racin driver. He came second to Hawthorn in France last week but he finished in fronta Fangio.’
‘Dont’ give a f***’.
‘Jaysus, yer a desperit man, Billy.
This has gotta be the besta craic. Sure I might as well be sittin here on me own.
An will ye stop pullin that f***in trigger. Ye gimme the creeps’.
Billy looked past Ferris and saw Joe McFee approaching, leaning momentarily on each table that he passed. Nobody returned his greetings. When he stopped beside Billy there was no preamble.
‘Would ye have the price of a drink on ye, Billy?’
‘No. Got no money’.
‘Ye don’t seem to be doin too bad without it. How about a wee one on yer slate? Ye can have it back the morra.’
Billy’s trigger finger twitched several times.
‘Where were you in 1916?’
‘Ah f***, not that oul s**t again. Sure ah wasn’t even born, ye oul eejit. Are ye gonna gimme a drink or not?’
‘If ye had been. If ye’d been old enough te go, would ye have gone?”
Joe’s face widened in an ingratiating smile.
‘Course ah would, Billy. Sure you know that as well as I do.
I’m not one a them mad nationalists. Sure I’d have gone.
I’d have joined the Fusiliers too! Aye , Faugh a Bellagh!’
‘Then you’re a bigger eejit than I am.
Clear off outafit. There’s no drink for ye here.’
Joe stared coldly at him. His mouth tightened and he turned away without another word. He walked straight to the door, pushing against a boy who had just walked in with an armful of copies of the ‘Belfast Telegraph’.
‘Watch where yer goin, ye wee sh**e’. He banged the door shut behind him.
‘Good fer you, Billy. That’s the way to handle him. He’ll be away home now to punch the wife. Why does she put up with it?’
Billy didn’t hear Ferris. He was looking over his friend’s shoulder. He threw back his whiskey. ……………………….
He was listening to the guns again.