Dave Duggan is a dramatist and novelist, living in Derry. The Guardian described his first novel, The Greening of Larry Mahon (Guildhall Press, 2004), as ‘an engrossing study of shifting rootlessness.’ His second novel, A Sudden Sun, was published by Guildhall Press in April 2012 and reviewed as ‘a powerful and heart rending story of the raw courage of a woman in the face of adversity’, by The Irish World. He wrote the Oscar nominated short film Dance Lexie Dance (Raw Nerve Productions, 1997) and was awarded a Major Arts Award by the Northern Ireland Arts Council in 2010.
Cleopatra of the Ashtrays
By Dave Duggan
Loss tastes like burnt toast. Black and crunchy, teeth-grating and grim, loss is overdone. Overcooked. Inedible. Sticks in your craw. You can scrape it with a knife, a blade honed by your best intentions, your plans for a new life, your commitment to making a future for yourself and, though you will manage to scrape off the outer flakes of the burned bread of life, you will never totally remove the sordid taste of it. Loss is a charcoal crust.
Burnt offering? Yeah.
When Ella left me I felt my insides ignite. Fires surged and raged from my navel to the tip of my nose so that my skin flushed and my stomach heaved. You could have fried an egg on my chest. Anger? Of course. But more than anger, there was a burning need for the answer to the question ‘why me?’ I never asked her. That’s part of the fuel for the fire. Impotence in the face of loss is legendary. At the core of it. How could I ask such a question? To even frame it made me perspire. ‘You mean that fat-arsed, baldy bastard makes you happy?’
I know she would have met that with a singeing look – an arching of eyebrows, a thinning of lips, a tweaking of eyebrows – that would have amounted to the response that his arse was pert and firm, that he was blessed with a full head of black curls, that he drove a Range Rover and that he owned six houses in Dublin’s flatland. I work as an architectural technician in Derry myself.
Ancillary trade? Yeah.
As a boy, I ran about with a gang who spent a summer flaying cats. All sorts. Tabby. Ginger. Mottled. Flecked. White with black spots. Pot-luck black. Cross-your-path black. Grey. Tails raised. Tails lowered.The sans-tail Manx. After we’d finished with it. Tied upside down on the scaffolding at the new-build end of the estate where we lived, their screeches cut short as one sure blow ended the mindless flurry of wild ones we launched. Clocked the beast behind the neck and severed the spinal column.
I always drink bottled stout. I know it’s uncool. A drink for old fellas and medicinal purposes. But I like the sombre tang of it. The ancient bitterness of original wells. I like the mock moustaches it leaves on my upper lip. I licked one clean away with a feline sweep of my ruby tongue the first time I saw her. I settled my breathing. I smacked my lips, settled myself on the stool and fixed my stare on her. There is always a first time. Even with the strong sense of déjà vu I was experiencing I knew this was the first time I had seen her. The dull gold sheen of the lamé dress. The burnt umber of her
tanned arms, bare to the strapless design of her dress. A face focussed by the rouge of her full lips, electrified by the near Oriental ovals of her eyes, luminously grey.
They blinked twice as she stepped forward. A cloth appeared in her hand and she slicked it across the ledge top, then skimmed it round an ashtray, which she picked up and emptied into a small metal drum. A brisk swirl of the cloth in the tin ashtray – a Guinness one, circular, black, slope-sided – and she moved on, cleaning more ashtrays as she went. Then only did I notice her hair, raven black and regular, boxed square round her head, cut clean at the neck. A clipped fringe. Golden beads glistening on strands as she moved.
Helen of the Optics?
Deirdre of the Draught Pumps? Cleopatra of the Ashtrays? Yeah.
After that first night, I made sure I was in before eight to get the stool that stood at the end of the ledge facing the bar. The ledge was fixed onto a partition that marked off one corner of the pub. On the other side of the partition, a cigarette machine doled out packets and it became my practice to nod at, even banter with the smokers. It was all worked out. I had an ashtray beside me. Every one who came to the machine had a cigarette they’d just finished in their hand. I’d make sure they saw my ashtray, so they stubbed their butts out there.
I was in the pub on the night of the big riot, stationed behind the partition. There weren’t many people in, but I had managed to find two stumpy butts under my stool and slip them into my Carlsberg ashtray. Chunky glass. Square. I knew I wouldn’t have a chance of getting many more that night.
Cleopatra did her rounds. Even more slowly than usual, as if putting off the moment when she would come to me. I sat on my stool, feigning nonchalance and ease. A torrent raged through me, making me cross, uncross and recross my legs.
I watched her ease and glide between the almost empty tables, her cloth swishing like a fly swat, her hair waving like a veil. Oh! my sorry heart!
Indeed it is, I thought. Wild. Quiet. Barricades being assembled outside. TV news full of standoffs, and stand downs, about-faces, baton charges. A sense of something imminent. Inevitable. But I was focussed on one thing: the blood red of her nail varnish as she clenched my ashtray, upended its contents into her drum, swirl-wiped it and put it back beside me on the ledge. Our eyes met and my throat clamped dryly shut.
“Wild quiet,” she repeated. “Do you think there’ll be bother?”
“Not from me,” I managed to blurt out.
She smiled at that, a fleck of gold flashing in her smile, the grey of her eyes glowing. Gorgeous? Yeah.
Long after closing time, I was in the huddle of people in the small porch of the pub, wondering how I would get home, transfixed by the riot on the street in front of me. Rioters lobbed petrol bombs from my left. Police fired plastic bullets from my right. Whoosh bang. Whoosh bang. Whoosh bang. I was an umpire at a tennis match. Eyes left, petrol bombs. Eyes right, plastic bullets. The petrol bombs exploded short of the police lines. Policemen, crouching on one knee, flames dancing in the visors of their helmets, picked off young fellas with deadly baton rounds.
A sheet of galvanised, corrugated metal came forward, shielding crouching figures, as a land-rover reversed. A man pushed past me in the huddle, dashed across the street and ducked behind the moving metal sheet. A baton round thumped against it. Then the land-rover lunged forward, the engine whining like a ferocious beast. The sheeting fell. Figures ran. An arm and a leg poked out from under the sheet. The land-rover mounted the sheet. The limbs flayed. Voices screamed and shouted.
I felt breadth on my neck. Smoky and tangy. Fingers gripped my arm and clenched. The grip tightened further and Cleopatra croaked “now”. She grabbed my hand, and we burst out of the porch, ducked low beside the pub wall and dashed towards the line of rioters. The tick-tack of her sling-backs sounded above the din. The roaring crowd. The dull thuds of the petrol bombs. The vicious revs of the land-rovers. The icy slap of the plastic bullets.
Whoosh bang? Yeah.
She released my hand outside the hardware shop. We were in the crowd behind the riot. The injured, stricken by plastic bullets, being carried away. Young men going forward once more. People trying to calm things down. Gawpers. We caught our breadth and smiled at each other.
A brilliant ball of flame lit up the sky and we looked back to see the roof the pub erupt in flames. “Good luck.”
That’s it. That’s what she said. Then she turned and walked away, the gold lamé shingles on her dress shimmering in the dull light, the left-right swish-swish of her hair keeping time with her steps, the tick-tack of her shoes dying in the din as she went further and further away. I lost sight of her behind a clutch of men carrying a boy, a ruby glow spreading across his smashed cheek.
Boys rummaged in the charred remains of the pub when I passed there on my way to work the next morning. Smoke still lingered in ghostly threads in corners, under beams and behind the molten metal of beer kegs. The boys turned up a horde of blackened pound coins, treasure hidden by the smouldering debris.
Fire consumed everything. Only the grimy-faced boys could find treasure, scraping off the tar and the crud to reveal the dull sheen of the coins. I walked a little way into the charcoal mess and came upon a Guinness ashtray, misshapen, discoloured, twisted around on itself.
“She’ll have to find another job,” I thought.
A black cat appeared on the wall bordering the blackened ruin. The sheen of its coat shimmered in the early morning sunlight. She strolled along the wall, sniffing the scene, her grey eyes scanning the gnarled beams, the blackened rubble, the scavenging boys. One of them spotted her, raised a shout to alert his friends and they began to throw rubble at her. She turned, lifted her tail and climbed away.
Ella phoned me at work. I was sharpening pencils and emptying the flaky parings from the little box that sits under the revolving blades, when the phone rang.
“How are you?”
I paused, letting the silence answer.
“Look.” Firm now. “I need to tell you something.”
Ella always prefaced statements in this way. I wondered if she did it with everyone or was it just with me that she acted so carefully.
“I….I mean, we…”
This was dodgy stuff. I sat up on my high stool and rested my elbows on my inclined drawing board and, in doing so, must have missed something, because the next thing I heard was
“…. the end of February. He wants a boy. I just hope it’s okay. I’m not young any more.”
Then a gushing laugh to finish. She was relieved to get it all out and I had enough gumption to say “Congratulations.”
“You don’t mind do you?” she asked.
And it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t.
“You were never happy with the idea of children,” she continued.
Not the idea, not the reality. I was required to acknowledge something deep.
“I’ve never been more than a child myself,” I said.
The silence this time seemed warmer. I started to smile into the mouthpiece of the phone. I imagined her smiling back.
“Good luck. With the baby and all.”
It was as close as I could go to wishing her well with him.
“Thanks. Everything alright with you? I saw there was a lot of bother.” “Ach, it’s all quiet now. Grand.”
Aye, that’s good. Ella being pregnant.
I told my mother about Cleopatra.
“You’re such a boy,” she said. “You never grew up.” “I’m trying.”
“ ‘Bout time.”
No messing with Ma.
“I heard Ella’s bars.”
My mother surfed her grapevine diligently.
“It’s what she wanted.”
“What do you want, son?”
Tough one? Yeah.
Helen of the Optics.
Deirdre of the Draught Pumps. Cleopatra of the Ashtrays. Moving on? Yeah.
© Dave Duggan