Mild enough, he decides, and turns right at the gate, going up the road, away from the centre of town. Never know who you might meet on Abbey Street or O’Connell Street even at that hour of the morning. Around the corner, out of sight of the house, he pauses to light up a cigarette. He’s not a smoker, doesn’t know if he even enjoys smoking, but, just like his nocturnal ramblings around town, the smoking is a sort of quiet rebellion, a private way of meting out justice for the unfairness of her rampages. Clearing the hill at the end of his road, he turns left towards the river and the old, abandoned mills. A car sounds in the distance, a low rumble from the Galway road. He wonders if that someone in the car has been driven from their home into the night just like him. He also wonders if he was older would he go for a spin instead of a walk to get away from the smothering feeling of a becalmed house.
He’s at the wide entrance to the vocational school and, past the Maid of Erin monument, catches the river’s glint in the odd shaft of moonlight that manages to dodge the near-total cloud cover. Suddenly, a movement to his left. A man — old, white-haired, bearded — is sitting on the steps of the school’s doorway. He fights the urge to speed up and pretends not to have seen the man.
“Hey! Young fella! Stop! C’mere!”
The boy thinks about running. The man wouldn’t catch him. Very few people could catch him.
He stops walking, turns, regards the man, takes a few paces beyond the school’s open gates towards the porch. He could always run later.
“Whatcha doin’ out this late? ‘Tis no hour for a young lad.”
The man has hopeless, bloodshot eyes and a red, bumpy face. There is a bottle of vodka on the step beside him. Before the boy can answer, the old man speaks again: “How old are you, kiddo?”
“I’ve never seen you before. You’re not out on the streets are you?”
The boy shakes his head.
“It’s a small oul’ town, d’ya see? I’d know you if you was sleepin’ out. We all know each other, us bums.”
The last word he enunciates without any bitterness or irony in his voice, as if he’d come to fully accept his station in life. He eyes the boy’s three-quarters-gone cigarette.
“D’ya have one o’ those for me?”
The boy proffers the open box of his mother’s Benson & Hedges and hands the man his lighter.
“You’re an innocent, kiddo!” laughs the man, not unkindly. “You never give the full box to anyone. Never let anyone know how many fags you got.”
His voice is deep. Scratchy. Throaty. He lights up and gives a chesty cough.
“Here,” he says, and hands back the box and lighter. “Whatcha doin’ wanderin’ the streets anywez?”
The boy ponders his reply.
“I needed to get out of the house for a while. Things were a bit . . . heavy tonight.”
The man sucks on his cigarette.
“Is your father a drinkin’ man?” he asks.
“Something like that.” The boy’s father is a drinking man, the boy thinks, but he’s not the problem. His father is a quiet man — a quiet drinking man. He turns the phrase “drinking man” around in his mind. Tries “drinking woman” for size. He smiles.
“I’m sorry for your troubles, kiddo,” answers the old man. “‘Tis an awful cross to bear, the drink. Me own father was a divil when he had drink on him. He used to beat us black ‘n’ blue. Black ‘n’ blue. I got outa there as soon as I was old enough to work. Then I got fond o’ the stuff meself. An’ look at me now.”
To illustrate his point he nods his head in the direction of the vodka bottle. He mumbles something, takes a drag on his cigarette, reaches for the bottle with the speed of a gunslinger and takes a swig.
“The best thing you could do, kiddo, is get him to stop. Get him off the grog. Talk to him, if you can. That’s what I wished I coulda done; talked to me oul’ fella.”
Later, coming home from the other side of town after trudging a long loop through the outskirts, he thinks about what the man told him. Talk to his mother? As if she didn’t know already that she had a problem? That her problem was also everyone else’s? Ha! You never mentioned, the day after, what had happened the night before. It only made the next rampage worse. Gave her extra ammunition.
“You don’t hand the enemy bullets,” said GI Joe in his head.
No, you cleaned up her mess and kept your mouth shut. And you kept the anger and hurt out of your eyes the next day when she came down the stairs and said “Good morning” at four o’clock in the afternoon.
But you could plant little booby traps and instead of words use actions to show someone how much their drinking was damaging everyone. You had to get them where it mattered. So, tomorrow she would search for her cigarettes and, not finding them, a look would come over her. The boy knew what she’d be thinking: “Was I so bad last night that I can’t remember what I did with my cigarettes?” And when she’d open her purse, the same expression on her face. “Could I have spent all that money in the pub last night?” And her brand new oak kitchen table, her Christmas present to herself, her latest pride and joy . . . The boy had had an idea after talking with the old man. When he got back to the house and the mess and the stale smell of drink, he stood almost ceremoniously before the table and raked its dark, shiny, new surface with a fork, giving it a nice, long, deep scratch. That might give his mother something to think about. The scratch would look up at her every day, like a scar.