Back at their hotel, having waved Ulick Delaney off into the night following a couple of rounds in an artist’s bar in Duke Street, Ciara and Justin sat at the bar enjoying a nightcap. They were both savouring the feeling of a job well done: Delaney had been impressed with Ciara, liked what he had seen of the prints, and had agreed to show a half-dozen of the Sea Sprite series in the autumn. His only stipulation was that Ciara change the name of the series to something less “tacky”.
“Since you’re from Galway, why not something Irish,” he suggested. “That always hits the right tone. More highbrow. ”
“It’s only a small price to pay for Ulick Delaney’s support,” reflected Justin, shifting his stool closer to Ciara’s. The bar was quiet, with only three other couples in low conversation among its leather and mahogany plushness.
“I know. It’s nothing,” she said. “But it’s the start, isn’t it? Compromising for the sake of marketability. Darragh would never do that.”
“In fairness,” said Justin, “his world and yours are different. Indie music isn’t the same as the grown-up — the very grown-up — world of art dealership. There are a lot more sensibilities involved in packaging a painter. The product comes with a greater financial commitment on the part of the consumer and—”
“Please,” said Ciara, raising her voice. “No more of that sort of talk. I don’t want to hear about it anymore this evening. The business of art. The art of business.”
Justin nodded. Ciara’s voice had drawn looks from the continental couple further down the bar counter. The woman, as raven-haired as Justin but with deeply tanned skin, drilled her eyes into him in what may have been a warning: Don’t upset the girl or you’ll have me to deal with.
“No business. All pleasure from now on, so,” he said, putting a jolly lift in his voice.
Ciara remarked that Justin seemed to know Dublin well, to which he replied that although he only came from the neighbouring county of Wicklow, the city had been a closed book to him until he began his studies at Trinity College. He spoke of the Dublin that awaited a wet-behind-the-ears boy from a small village in the Wicklow Mountains, and how the capital’s art galleries served as a magnet to his younger self. Ciara shared her own experience of moving to Galway from Clonree, and they swapped reminiscences of student days — Justin’s from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ciara’s of a more recent vintage. This happy conversation stretched out along the length of two whiskeys in Justin’s case and a couple of glasses of wine in Ciara’s. They were getting considerably merry and their laughter and tipsy enthusiasm spread out from their close huddle and brought some life to the dreary bar.
“So why did you move to Galway?” asked Ciara.
“Ah, a woman,” answered Justin with a smirk.
“Your wife? Jen?”
“Naw, naw, naw. Jen was much later. It was a wild woman of the west just like yourself. A barefooted Celtic queen. ‘A rambling rose with a musky smell’.”
“Steady on, Justin!”
“I won’t!” he said, getting into the run of things. “Ye’re a breed apart, ye women of the west. Free. Unfettered. Earthy. Pagan. Look at TG Ceathair : why do fellas like me without a word of Irish in their heads watch it? Why do fellas like me from the east of the country, Leinster, the west British wilds of Wicklow watch Irish language TV? Why do we flock to Galway, Westport, Doolin, wherever? What are we looking for? What draws us?”
“I somehow think you’re about to tell me,” said Ciara dryly.
“The natural, unaffected beauty. The strength. The wildness. The madness. The exotic dash of Iberian womanhood — haughty, proud, regal even.”
“Jesus,” Ciara gasped. The thought struck her that Justin was now far more merry than she, possibly drunk. The extra wine and large brandies he had had in the restaurant as well as the couple of pints in the pub in Duke Street were now taking their toll.
“And you,” he continued, “you’re like Queen Méabh. Or Granuaile. Strong. Beautiful. Fearsome. A Harry Clarke window come to life.”
He looked deep and long at her and gave a swish of his ponytail. Ciara felt uncomfortable. Justin’s body language, as well as the shift from the general to the particular in his eulogising of west of Ireland womanhood, suggested he was on the brink of making some sort of pass at her. Suddenly feeling very sober, she turned her body to face the bar counter. She reached for her glass of wine with the intention of draining its remnants and announcing her retirement for the night. Before her hand got to the stem Justin firmly took hold of her wrist and clasped her hand between his own. He brought the hand towards him and gave the knuckle of the middle finger a slow, delicate kiss.
“Artist’s hands. So soft,” was his breathless comment.
Gently, she prised her hand away and told Justin he was drunk.
“No I’m not,” he said. “Well, yes, a bit. But what the hell.”
He stepped off his stool and attempted to plant a kiss on Ciara’s forehead, but she was ready for this and slipped out of his reach in time. He grappled at the thin air she left behind her, and stumbled, so that he had to catch himself on her empty stool. His knees slipped slowly to the floor while he tightly hugged the cushion.
“Justin,” said Ciara firmly, “I think it’s time we called it a night. I’m going up to my bedroom, and I think you should too.”
He looked at her lasciviously, head resting on the blood-warm leather of the stool’s seat, and she saw a wicked grin break like a sunburst across his narrow face. She waited until he righted himself before speaking again.
“I mean, I go to my room and you go to yours . Goodnight.”
Avoiding eye contact with Justin — and the barman, who was taking everything in from behind the counter — she gathered her handbag and jacket and made swiftly for the lobby.
Justin seated himself and knocked back the remainder of his whiskey.
“Another one of these,” he said, and held the tumbler up.
When the barman took his glass from him, Justin smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “You can’t blame a man for trying, can you?”
The barman chuckled. “A pretty girl all right, sir.”
“I might have made a fool of myself tonight,” said Justin, “but I’ll crack that nut one of these days. What did Beckett say? ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'”
“Now, sir. Jura Prophecy, single malt.”
Justin diluted the whiskey with a drop of water and took a sniff. He raised the glass to his lips, but then, almost as an afterthought, tipped it in the direction of the dark-skinned lady down the bar and saidSláinte . She gave him a look of cold derision and turned her head away dismissively.
“No luck with the women tonight,” he muttered to himself.