John Duffy comes from Ballina, County Mayo. He graduated from the National University Ireland-Galway in 2012 with an MA in Writing. He has previously been published in The Galway Review and has contributed to Abandoned Darlings, a group anthology of fiction and poetry.
An Encounter with Bingo
By John Duffy
After a night of fitful sleep I went downstairs, sat at the kitchen table and stared blankly at the box of cornflakes in front of me. The rooster on the box reminded me of a nightmare I had endured during the night. I was sunbathing at the edge of a cliff on the coast of County Sligo. Below, the ocean was polluted with blood and crude oil. Large waves crashed against the foot of the cliffs and swirled around, before retreating with the tide. On the cliff face hundreds of seagulls and gannets stood on ledges and nooks. They communicated with each other in Gaelic on a range of matters, from EU fish quotas to White-tailed Eagles and pollution. Along the coast, detached from land, great statues of Irish figures stood like sea stacks. I recognized four of them, Queen Maeve, Gránine Mhaol, Hugh O’Neill and Brian Boru. The female statues were crowned and skilfully carved with emerald. The male statues were made of Italian marble. The ocean swell rose up and down leaving a black stain to their knees.
I looked out over the ocean and saw a large, black winged creature gliding away toward the horizon. Then it pointed one of its wings to the sky and the other to the ocean, slowly altering its course, banking back around. It straightened and with one forceful flap of its wings it came toward the cliffs. A nameless dread passed over me and my fear was instantly communicated to the gannets and gulls, several of whom, in their panic to get away, bounced off each other and the cliff face. A flurry of dislodged feathers caught in the up draft and flew past my face and over my head, coming down to land beside the towel I had been sunbathing on. I attempted to flee but, as is always the way with these dreams, I was incapacitated with fear. The light from the sun was blocked by the creature. Its orange eyes honed in on me and two muscular legs lowered from its underbelly. At the end of its legs were sharp talons, similar to those of a Golden Eagle. Its feathers were oily, slicked back on both sides of its head. Its orange and white-tipped beak was hooked with three small holes in the side. It folded its wings slightly and hovered above me for a moment. Then, with outstretched legs, it delivered its talons into my chest. It tightened its grip, breaking several of my ribs like matchsticks. Then it flew away with me in tow to a fate I held no promise for. A number of valiant gulls attacked the predator from one side, but with one flap of its colossal wing it scattered them.
I took some deep breaths at the kitchen table. A pile of school books were stacked neatly at the end of the table. My final year of Secondary school had come to an end and the Leaving Certificate exams were two weeks away. The front door closed with a bang and I heard someone rummaging under the stairs. The kitchen door opened and my brother Gary came in and dropped his sports bag on the floor.
“Alright Gary, how are things? Are you training this morning?”
“No. We have a game today.”
“Who are ye playing?”
“Athlone Town, away.”
“Jesus H. You’ll be lucky to come home with your ankles. Have you strapped them yet?”
“No, I’ll strap them on the bus. How are you? Any craic last night?”
“Quiet enough, I had a few pints in The Horse, nothing major.”
“I heard you were in great form and you pulled a bird to boot.”
“Who said that?”
“I was talking to JC in the shop this morning and he gave me the low down. You’d want to watch your back now. Bingo’s a live wire and he won’t like that at all. She’s a stunning girl though, I’ll give you that.”
He passed through the kitchen and opened the back door. From outside I could hear him striking his football boots together. He came back in after a few minutes.
“For every action there’s a reaction JJ, that’s what the coach says anyway.”
“I hear you. I’ll give a fuck tomorrow. Good luck in the game today.”
“Alright, I’ll see you later.”
I made my way to town on my bicycle, weaving my way through cars that were stuck in traffic. It was the first day of the Mackerel Festival and the town was busy. In the Market Square, Travelers and farmers bartered back and forth with people at stalls. The Travelers sold fresh fish on ice from blue boxes; Mackerel, Fluke and Pollock. They had bags of Dillisk, Carrageen Moss and Oysters for sale on the side. A large red tent was erected in the middle of the square. The front of the tent was pulled back and a man stood inside with an array of power tools and hand tools spread on the ground. By the entrance, a middle-aged woman sat at a table with a collection of Country & Western music for sale. Big Tom played through a speaker attached to one of the tent poles. At the other end of the square local farmers sold calves, sheep and vegetables. The farmers wore caps and shit-coated Wellingtons. Above all the clamour and traffic the Cathedral bells tolled down town.
I left my bicycle in a lane way behind The Flying Horse and entered the lounge. The smell of chopped wood, stale beer and cider hung in the air. The barman was a young man named Murphy but most people called him Spud. He had a slight frame and black hair. He greeted me with a flick of his head as I approached the bar. The Flying Horse was decorated in the old world style. The furniture was comfortable and well-worn. A framed print for Mountain Dew Whiskey hung on the wall. It displayed a girl in a bonnet with a dreamy look on her face. There were advertisements made from flattened tin for chewing tobacco and Woodbine cigarettes. Another print depicted a man from Victorian times wearing a suit and cap, riding on the back of a pig.
“Alright Spud. What’s going on?”
“Fuck all. What are you having?”
“A pint bottle with a glass of ice please.”
I counted £2.60 from loose change and placed the coins in stacks on the counter.
“It was busy here last night, Spud. You were kept going I’d say.”
“Stop, I was flat-out the whole night.”
I poured the cider over the ice cubes and took a drink. Spud walked down the bar towards three old men drinking pints of stout. I made my way to the jukebox on the far wall. The choice of songs slid across the inside as I pushed the buttons. I chose ‘Black Hole Sun’ by Soundgarden. At the front of the smoky lounge the yellow and red stained glass windows were brightened by a burst of sunshine. From outside came the sound of traffic and the occasional shuffling pedestrian on the footpath. Spud rested on his elbow and faced the front as though in a daydream. He took a drink of coffee and lit a cigarette.
“I dread the creaking sound of that door opening,” he said.
“The amount of Clems coming in these days is unnatural.”
“You’ll be busy this week with the festival,” I suggested.
“Yeah, there should be a few around alright.”
“Are you all set for the exams Spud?”
“Am I fuck, I haven’t opened a book yet.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be lucky to pass them. I did a bit of study last week but then the weather picked up and I packed it in. You’d have to make the most of the good weather wouldn’t you? I was reading in the paper about this old lad down in Dromore West. He comes down once a year from the hills and predicts the weather. Nine times out of ten he’s spot on. He reckons it’s going to rain cats and dogs the whole summer. When I read that I said fuck it.”
“Ah here, that’s unreal.”
“Will you keep working here after the exams?”
He shrugged his shoulders and grinned.
“I might as well.”
He took a drag from his cigarette and blew smoke at an old man sitting at the bar, “That’s for you, you starved Fine Gael bastard.”
A bursting wave of coughs came over Spud and he had to keel over in order to meet them. The customer sang along with the music.
“Black ole sun,
Won’t you come?
And wash away the Spud,
Black ole sun,
Won’t you come, won’t you come?”
Spud stood upright, his face as red as a strawberry. He turned to the crooner with bitterness and replied,
“Go away you dirty thing.”
Bingo Helly sat at a table by the cigarette machine at the back. He was a strong, well built man with black, oily hair, slicked back on both sides of his bullish head. He picked up his drink and slapped one of the customers on the back,
“Alright Donald, how are things with you?”
“Hello Bingo, I’m doing well thanks. And yourself?”
“Not too bad at all.”
“Look at this buck that just walked in,” said Bingo, nodding in my direction. “There’s always a shady tan with a dagger stashed in his cloak Donald. Would I be known for telling lies?”
“Not that I know of Bingo, but I’d say you’ve been careless with the
truth at times.”
“Well that’s not bad Don, that’s not bad in my books at all.”
“Take it easy Bingo. It’s too early in the day for it. I haven’t even said the Angeles yet.”
“It’s alright Don, I only want to talk to him.”
He came over to me and left his drink on the counter. His big thick forehead was only inches from my face.
“Alright Bingo, ah how are things with you?”
“Things with me are none of your business fuck dog. Now, you’ve got some explaining to do so I suggest you start talking.”
“Ah, listen Bingo; I was in here last night for a few pints with JC. There was a band playing in the beer garden and the place was packed.”
“I heard that alright.”
“I was at the end of the bar there, trying to get Spuds attention. Next thing your ex slides in front of me to order a drink. What do you call her? Louise, isn’t it?”
“You know fucking well what her name is.”
“Louise slides in, all close, wearing this little summer number, small flowers on it, decent style.”
“You’d want to get to the point you doss fucker.”
She said, ‘Are you coming out to see the band JJ?’”
“I said, ‘Alright so, let’s see what their made of.’”
“We went to the beer garden and the place was rocking. OD had the grass cut earlier in the day, perfect weather for it.”
“I don’t give two fucks what the weather was like.”
“Alright, give me a chance will you? We’re talking about school and the festival, and then she said, ‘I’ve played my last game with Bingo, JJ. We’re not seeing each other any more.’”
“She’d say Mass with a few drinks on her.”
“Well, I didn’t know, I thought fair game man, this is fair fucking game.”
He reached toward me quickly and clasped my throat. There was malice in his beady eyes. He tightened his grip and I felt it, then he let me go and I thought it was over.
An exit door near the jukebox gave access to a garden lawn. I went outside, holding my head back to stop the flow of blood from my nose, but a mouthful slid down my throat and I swallowed it, an awful warm taste, eating away at myself. The drops fell steady on the grass around me, such a beautiful combination of colours, the green and red of Mayo. I turned on a tap by the side and washed my face. The diluted blood fell splattering on the path. I dried my face with my t-shirt and spat the remaining blood from my mouth. By the back of the garden a small brick wall enclosed a vegetable plot. I went over and sat on the wall. A spotted yellow Caterpillar crawled slowly over a head of cabbage; feeling its way around, not a bother on him. I let him crawl on my finger and held him up.
What’s it like to be a Caterpillar bud? Do you know what’s going to happen to you down the road? No? Well, soon you will have wings and you can fly away from this place. That’s good for you. But you’d want to be awful careful bud, because there’s any amount of hawks out there that would love to mess you up. Do you feel me?
I went back inside after a while. There was no sign of Helly. Spud stood with his arms folded and his eyes wide open.
“He’s gone, the Clem. What was that about?”
“I’ll tell you later Spud, I should go home anyway, do another bit, the exams start Tuesday week. I’ll talk to you.”
“Alright, I’ll see you later.”
I pulled my peaked cap down and left The Flying Horse. On the footpath outside The Savoy a dirty crow stood on top of a litter bin, picking at the heel of a French baguette. I clapped my hands and it flew away. It settled on a telegraph wire nearby, watching my movements, waiting for me to move along.