Short Story: Marbles, Part 3

Both approaches had their advantages and their drawbacks. While deciding, at the risk of inducing indigestion, to spring from the tea-time table while the rashers were still literally sliding down your gullet in order to trawl through all the pubs in town in search of my errant grandfather may have seemed like the plain and obvious strategy to minimise the damage (both self- and collateral) likely to be brought on by his latest tear, this was not always the case. To start with, Ennis in those years had an inordinate number of pubs for its size. If we estimate the population of the urban district to have been circa fifteen thousand in the mid ’80s, then it may surprise you to learn that the town boasted (again, literally: Ennis dwellers, similar to the inhabitants of other rural towns, most famously Listowel, used to boast about how pubtorially well-endowed their town was) over sixty pubs. Close to seventy if you counted hotel bars and stretched the urban district boundary a little to include pubs like The Halfway House on the Clare Road.

Now, this fact, this snippet of trivia concerning Ennis’s recent past, would not have presented a problem to my parents as they zipped around town in our little chocolate-brown Ford Escort had my grandfather confined his drinking to one or two or even half a dozen of these establishments. But my grandfather was promiscuous regarding his choice of watering holes. While there were indeed pubs in which you were more likely to find him than others, his choice of hostelry followed no logical pattern or system that my parents could ever discern. Therefore, you could go looking for him in a pub he had spend the whole day in during one of his recent benders, only to find that he hadn’t set foot in the place all afternoon and, on top of that, neither sight nor sound of him had been logged in any of the neighbouring pubs either. On the other hand, you could, on a whim, stick your head in the door of an establishment which you had heard my grandfather grandly declare his resolution to never set foot in, only to spy him up at the counter surrounded by cronies and having a fine old sing-song or a discussion about the merits of a particular racehorse when the going was soft.

Add to the above my grandfather’s propensity for crawling from pub to pub when on one of his benders, and, once again, doing so in a seemingly scatty, non-linear fashion, and you have on your hands a topographical (and temporal) problem that puts Euler’s Seven Bridges of Königsberg in the ha’penny place. Thus, you could be stopped at the traffic lights in Carmody Street, having just come from a fruitless raid on the four bars at the top of O’Connell Street — O’Dea’s, Brandon’s, Moloney’s and D’Arcy’s. Your next target is the Banner Arms at the corner of Lower Market Street — a long shot, but you have a hunch. Unbeknownst to you, your quarry has just emerged from the still shadows of Fawls, opposite the cathedral, and as you hastily park the car in the market, is making his way towards O’Dea’s, now officially ticked off your list.

And so, you could have the situation where, after bolting your tea, jumping Batman-like into the old Ford Escort, racing around town like Basil Fawlty in search of Peking duck and zipping in and out of bars like Benny Hill in search of a very different kind of bird, you arrive home with a distinct lack of pickled granddad in the back seat. Worse still, you arrive home without said sozzled septuagenarian, a gut-wrenching sense of defeat, hopelessness and frustration tearing at you, only to find the prodigal OAP sitting cross-legged on the couch, nonchalantly watching the nine o’clock news, nicely (i.e., on a one-to-ten scale of inebriation, a two-point-three-three recurring), but not drunk. He looks up at you and smiles wanly. You’re fit to eat the head off him, rip it clean off, even with the kids watching, but he disarms you with a statement that is pitched perfectly between reasonable and pitiable.

‘I met a man. An old friend. The wife’s just died. Emphysema. ‘Twas a slow, lingering oul’ death. Sur’ I couldn’t leave him drinking on his own. Ah, poor, oul’ Billy. And Mags. Shockin’!’ he says miserably and takes the fight out of you completely. You imagine that the kids can see you deflate like a burst football.

In spite of the lack of 100% guaranteed success associated with the snatch ‘n’ grab strategy and the fact that, on the occasions when my parents did manage to hit the jackpot and catch the old coot in flagrante delicto, he tended to get ornery (creating quite a scene between bar stool and car), it was entered into far more often than the alternative laissez-faire approach. Beyond the obvious merits of dragging him out of the pub after just four or five hours’ drinking instead of double that, the seek and capture tactic had the extra benefit of helping preserve my grandfather’s dignity and safeguarding whatever remained of my family’s good name. On those occasions when my grandfather made it home under his own steam, the whole town (or at least those citizenry that happened to be at large on the town’s main thoroughfares as he veered and wound his way homewards while roaring singing at the top of his voice) couldn’t help but learn that he had been on the lash. Not to mention the neighbours! As strangled words and slurred phrases of ‘The Croppy Boy’ or ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’ rang out on our little road and reverberated off the chimney tops, windows and walls of the neighbouring houses, you could see the net curtains twitching, sense the mocking glee emanating from dimly-lit sitting rooms. ‘The oul’ fella’s been at the quare stuff again!’ you imagined them saying. ‘He’s a real feed of drink on him this time!’ Or: ‘Horsing back the pints in O’Deas’ again, the fool of a man!’ If, however, you got him out of the pub and into the car, he generally piped down by the time my father steered into the driveway so that only the most vigilant and nosey of neighbours would witness him being linked in from the car to the back door.

It was in the aftermath of one my parents’ failed missions up town in the Escort that I hit upon the idea of doing away with my grandfather. That fateful evening in late spring, they’d driven around town not once but twice, desperately hopping from pub to pub. As usual, when it became clear that the old man hadn’t merely gone up town for a few stamps, but had disappeared into Ennis’s parallel universe of pubs, lounges, bars, locals, taverns, watering holes, ale houses, ramblers’ rests, hostelries, drinking dens, boozers and shebeens, my mother had press-ganged my father, after a quick bite of tea for the working man, into turning round the old Ford with an alacrity that would fill the hearts of any Ryanair ground crew with pride, and flying up the Club Bridge towards the Square. An hour later they came home empty-handed ― OAP-less! ― my mother’s face a roadmap of worry and concern. For the next few hours, until we were skedaddled off to bed as the weatherman said Oíche mhaith, she was the very definition of ‘on edge’.

There was much pacing, repeated pulling back of the curtains to facilitate peeping out and similar openings of the front door (as if this would somehow speed the man’s return from whatever devil’s crossroad of a bar he happened to be making a show of himself in). There was chain-smoking and compulsive tea-making to accompany the smoking. There were sworn oaths: ‘If he comes home roaring drunk this time, I swear to Jesus, he’ll never ramble up that town again.’ There were threats: ‘I’ll feck all those rotten oul’ cowboy books of his in the fire if he doesn’t come in that door right now!’ And also firm resolutions about future conduct, with reference to my mother herself: ‘I’ll clip that oul’ buzzard’s wings for him. From now on he’s grounded, I’ll make sure of that’; to my father: ‘And you, Pat, you’re going to have to be tougher with him from now on; no more acting the eejit for him anymore’; and to my grandfather: ‘Oh, he’ll ship up or shape out after this, I’m tellin’ you!’


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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