He landed with a thud as his cheek hit the ground. The pavement was wet. They marched off together in unison, one-two, one-two, one-two. The man picked himself up, twisting his body so his heels hung over the kerb and his back was against the wall. There was blood on the dirty rag of his shirt sleeve.
It was one of those nasty Dublin nights, not quite raining, not quite dry. The rain hung in the air, uncertain whether to fall or not. People squealed and ran into pubs for shelter, cats crept back through their cat-flaps into warm rooms and buskers wrote off another day. Who stands around to listen to music in the pouring rain after all, especially on a Bank Holiday?
Pete did. There wasn’t much else to do and like the people in their cars and those riding the tram, who went home and listened to the radio or their iPod, music was his relaxation. Out on the street buskers stepped into his home and he liked to think they played for him; that it was all his choice.
Shit, he thought, feeling another cracked tooth at the back of his mouth. How many teeth can one man get smashed in a month? How many times can one man get punched in a day? Dublin had become a rough city.
Not like London or New York, nowhere near as dangerous as Johannesburg; it was more an undercurrent of violence which had started to sweep in, like an army of rats marching on the sewers. He wondered if it was true that alligators lived in the sewers of New York. Someone had told him that once, but it escaped his memory who exactly it had been. It must have been back in the forgotten days. It was easier to forget the snugness of a duvet, the warm curve of a body next to his, the springiness of a mattress, than to continue to long for it all. It was easier to forget everything.
Focus on the mess. That was what he told himself. Focus on the mess and it might go away down the sewers with the rat army, disintegrate because of a meaningless punch and wash away with Dublin’s rain. Mess never vanished that easily. It grew quickly and then just wouldn’t go.
His cheek was throbbing. He rolled his tongue around his mouth; his teeth were likes shards of glass now, all jagged and rough and the newly cracked one had torn the soft tissue on the inside of his cheek. The pavement had grazed his skin beneath the busy beard he wore for warmth, maybe protection. It would heal until the next time. Could you ever get used to beatings?
He was a street person; he knew what he was alright, and because of that, people - the successful, money-to-drink people thought he was a punch bag for their amusement. He hated Paddy’s Day the most. Temple Bar was full of people and full of drink, but neither were accessible to him.
His paper cup sat by his side, the rim torn away due to boredom, and he waited. A few cents tinkled into the pot. Mostly though, people stepped over him. Later a young boy vomited next to him. It splashed back slightly and an acrid, sweet stench rose in the air, fumbling with the hanging rain.
And then they punched him.
First they started winding him up, calling him an ‘old drunk’, ‘a fucking, stinky leech’, ‘a louse’, ‘a drain’. They shouted through gritted teeth that he should get a job, get a house and get up off the street. As if it was that easy.
Pete, trying to get away, lurched to his feet and headed for a side street, a quiet place, a place to put his head. Begging time was over. The crowds were too drunk, too loud. The boys followed. Not more than twenty years old, they were intent on a fight.
‘Old man, ye stink!’ They all laughed.
‘You piss yourself?’ shouted another and they all roared again. Pete checked his trousers and noted they were as dry as they could be sitting on the damp pavement. He wished they would let him be. After all the years on the street he still felt shame.
‘Oi, when was the last time you ‘ad a woman, old man? You wouldn’t now you stinky old beggar.’
One of the boys – podgy and short with coiffed hair despite the wet air – thrust his hips and pushed his tongue against his cheek.
‘Like that, do you?’ he hissed. He was too drunk to focus but his friends thought it was hilarious and they all joined in with the action.
They had him backed against a wall in the side street. Pete was shaking and thought he would be mugged again. He didn’t have anything, just his paper cup and there was less than two euro of change inside. He held it out to them; an offering to make them leave.
A spotty boy, with rough stubble, swiped the cup from his hand and stamped on it as it hit the floor. Pete heard the money spread across the ground like someone playing piano badly.
‘Dirty, begging, tramp,’ said one of the boys.
‘Go on, give ‘im a slap, Cill,’ said another and they all started cheering.
Pete wasn’t even sure whose fist hit him: only that one minute he felt urine run down the inside of his trouser leg and the next he was on the ground and his cheek hurt. The boys’ feet echoed as they marched away, one-two, one-two, one-two. He heard laughter. He wanted to cry.
‘Feck, that was a good night.’
‘And that bird, mate, she was fit. So, did ye get lucky?’
The tall skinny lad, perched on the arm of the sofa, laughed and lit the cigarette in his hand. He took a long draw and released the smoke.
‘Man, I wanted to, but we got outside right, and that’s when she starts all this shite about having a boyfriend and having to get a taxi home, blah, blah, blah.’
‘Shit, that sucks. So what happened to ye, so?’
‘Walked back here, you guys were still out. I watched a bit of MTV and then crashed in the bed. Didn’t even hear you get back.’
‘It was late, man, late. We went for food, then, oh crap, Jesus, ‘ere Cill, you remember that old dude? Didn’t you smack him? Yeah, I am sure Cillian smacked this old geezer, funny, I tell you. Jeez, we were pissed.’
From a bundle of clothes and sleeping bags, pizza boxes and cans on the floor a scruffy head emerged, already grinning.
‘Alright, lads. What a night! Yea-ha.’ He raised his skinny arm and beat the air with a whoop.
‘Alright, Cill. You remember smacking that old dude?’
‘Yeah, you did, some tramp.’
The lad on the sofa laughed between drags on his fag. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me. Cillian, man, you’re one aggressive bastard when you’re tanked.’
Cillian, sitting up from the mess on the floor, revealing a puny but hairy chest, scratched his stubble and the collection of acne on his chin and laughed. ‘Shit, yeah, there’s something hazy about that alright. Bollocks, I hope I wasn’t caught on camera or nothing.’
‘As if they’d even care; it was just some tramp.’
‘Yeah! God, my head’s banging. Wanna go get a fry in a bit? No college today, yes.’ Cillian punched the air again and let out the same whooping sound.
The boys lulled into silence, staring at the blank TV screen, lost in foggy thoughts of the previous night.
‘You get that one home, Sam?’
‘No, had a boyfriend and all that shite.’
‘Paddy’s day’s a disaster for girls. They’re all so drunk, they’d be useless even if you did get them home.’
The boys lapsed into silence again, tucking their heads against the sofa, a chair and even the floor. The musty smell of alcohol hung in the air; their bodies, sweaty and sore, oozed the same scent and their breath entered the room smelling of kebabs and chip grease with burger sauce.
‘C’mon, lads. Let’s get up. I’m starving, I need something to stave off this hangover for an hour or two.’ Cillian stood up and yawned then stretched his hands up above his head. ‘C’mon, get up you lazy bastards.’
The other two looked at him and groaned but got to their feet. Still dressed in the clothes from the previous night they pulled on runners, jackets and hoodies and left the house to find a cafe. Outside it was raining and the street was littered with broken bottles and cans, the flapping wrappers from kebab bars and the splattered patches of vomit. Dublin was still asleep: the city was in the midst of a collective hangover as they strolled down the road with hunched shoulders and tender minds.
The rain hadn’t stopped all night. It had gone from a fine mist to heavy drops that fell relentlessly. Pete was still in the side street. He’d been awake for hours but didn’t want to move. He had no where to go and he couldn’t face the hassle of trying to sneak into some restaurant toilets and past the robotic staff to freshen his face and examine the bruise on his cheek. He was hungry too but it was easy enough to find scraps after a Bank Holiday, especially Paddy’s day. At three in the morning the whole city went mad for kebabs and burgers, curry chips and Chinese; manners were discarded on the ground along with the dirty wrappers and leftover food. It saved him rummaging through bins. But today he felt like begging.
Folded in his pocket he had the paper cup and so he removed it and straightened it out until it rested at a tilt. He was shaky as he stood; his limbs were gradually becoming stiffer – the pavement did nothing for joints.
On the main street there were two categories of people: the stragglers still making their way home from the night before, which included girls fiddling with short skirts, their hair a mess and embarrassed smiles worn with smudged lipstick on their faces, and lads who swaggered down the road, grinning, thinking of stories to brag about to their friends, recalling their conquest and a night without inhibition; and then there were the survivors. The survivors were the people who had managed to crawl from their beds, the call of their stomachs too strong, and trundle into the city centre, retreading their steps from the previous night with pale faces and sore heads, to slip into cafes and order the full works, the big breakfast with coffees and hot sweet tea. Neither category was great at tipping, but still he made his way onto the street and sat down by a cash point, his cup in front of him, hoping at least a few would take pity, or that the paranoia of their hangovers might make them kind. Just a few euro would do, enough, perhaps, for a coffee and a sandwich or a one euro McDonalds’ burger.
It hadn’t always been like that for him; there had been a time when he had been a person, a face, not just a body to be stepped over, embarrassed by and ignored. He didn’t know where it had all gone so wrong. He wasn’t an alcoholic, never had been fully-fledged, nor was he a user, but he was a fuck-up and that was all it took. Just one fuck up and there you were out on your arse on the cold wet pavement.
‘Fuck this rain,’ said one of the boys, his head down as he wandered with the group of lads. ‘This is a shite day altogether.’ The rest laughed as they rounded the corner for the final stretch to the cafe.
The place was quiet with just a few people slumped over breakfasts, shovelling greasy eggs, bacon and sausages into their mouths.
‘Mate, I’m starving,’ said Cillian, as he pulled out a plastic seat and flopped over the table. The waitress brought over a couple of menus and they flicked through the pages without reading them. ‘Four full Irish when you’re ready,’ said Cillian, then he looked at the others around the table. ‘Have any of ye done that assignment for class tomorrow? I ain’t got the head for it today now.’
The others shook their heads. ‘I’m not going in, that solves that!’ said Sam, blinking through his long fringe, still messy from sleep. ‘I think I need a pint today, hair of the dog and all that. I’m dying here, lads.’
The others laughed and nodded in agreement.
Once their stomachs were filled and they had enjoyed their intake of sugary tea and black coffee they bundled out of the cafe. It had got busier outside as Dublin gradually woke up and faced the consequences of the night before.
‘Where you wanna go, so?’
‘Any pub. The first one, I just want a pint to sort me.’
‘Cool, so. Here okay?’ said Padraig, the youngest and fattest of the group.
Cillian looked towards the bright red bar, already accommodating a few early drinkers. ‘Yeah, go on ahead, mine’s a Heineken. I’m just going to grab some cash.’ The others nodded and walked into the bar. Head down, Cillian walked further along the cobbled road to the cash point.
He searched in his pockets for his laser card and pushed it into the machine. By his feet was a tramp with a paper cup on the ground in front of him. Cillian stared down and tutted. He couldn’t bear all the begging going on in the city. He lived on his slim student grant and he didn’t go begging no matter how broke he was. It pissed him off.
‘Any change, please?’ Pete looked up at the young boy taking his money from the cash point. He was tall and had bad skin. His hair was flattened under a hoodie. ‘Please, any spare change?’
‘Nah, sorry mate,’ said Cillian as he stuffed the money and card into his pocket. He looked down at the tramp before he walked away. The man wasn’t that old, maybe forty-something, and he had a filthy grey beard and hair wet from the rain. His clothes were dirty and torn: there were blood stains on the sleeve of his shirt and on his face a shiny bruise. He remembered punching a tramp in a show of drunkenness during his St Patrick Day’s celebration the night before. The lads thought it was funny, so did he. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and tossed a euro into the paper cup.
‘There you go, mate. Get yourself a coffee.’ He turned and walked off towards the pub to re-join his friends.
‘Thanks,’ Pete said, in a half wave. ‘Thanks.’ He watched the young man enter the pub and wished he could do the same without being removed by management. He’d been young once; he’d hung out with friends and chased girls. And then, back in those days, he wouldn’t have looked twice at some loser on the street.
He stared at the euro; it was generous. He picked it up and held it tightly between his fingers. What to have? Food or drink? His cheek hurt a little and with his broken teeth it would be hard to eat, plus there was lots of discarded food around the streets. Coffee would warm him. Like an embrace.
He longed to be embraced. He wrapped his skinny arms about his own body feeling the damp fabric with his fingers. He smiled looking towards the pub. A pint would be nice he thought. But he was cold, and euro was a euro after all. It had to be coffee, but a euro wouldn’t buy him even the smallest one. He pushed his empty cup further out but slipped the euro into his pocket. Another eighty cent would do it.
A woman approached the cash machine. She smiled at him, averting her eyes.
‘Change, please, any spare change, please?’ he whispered hopefully.
She turned away leaving the cup empty. Pete sighed and settled in further against the wall. He would have to wait longer for his lucky break.