A Night at the Shelter
We decided the best place for us to drink that night was the shelter. In the rainy, winter months of Connemara, the beaches were no longer an option.
I had been kayaking down at my uncle’s house, which was built on a rocky cliff that over-looked the Atlantic ocean, when I saw my best friend Sean on the shore holding up a blue bag. Blue bags meant beer. I paddled in with a big dumb grin on my face thinking about what tonight would have in store for us. Also, it had been a while since we had all been properly drunk together, and that’s always a reason to celebrate.
“You crazy, man?” Sean asked me as I climbed out of my kayak and dragged it up on the hard, grey sand.
“It’s fucking freezing out.”
“It’s not so bad,” I lied. It was pretty damn cold. “How many cans you got?”
“Only had enough for 6 tonight,” he answered, looking at his cider with lustful determination.
“Only enough for 6, eh? That’s about five pints more than you can handle, pussy.”
Sean more or less ignored my comment because we both knew it was bullshit. I had proven myself the weaker drinker on many occasions.
“Listen, you got any money on you now?” Sean asked. “I already asked Mac if he’d get the rest of the take-away for us, and now he’s waiting at Leavy’s.” Leavy’s was the name of the pub.
“Hell no,” I said, struggling to get out of my wetsuit. “I don’t trust you with my money! I‘ll give it to him myself after I go home and have a shower.” This too was a lie, but I guess at the time I thought I‘d be a prick. In truth, Sean was one of the most decent friends I’d ever had.
“All right, Mac, I’ll give you a ring in a bit. Good luck”
It was a short walk from the beach to my house and I usually took my time. The air was thick with sea-salt. The sky perpetually grey, promising hard Irish rain. The bogs and the grass had the greenest shades of green a man‘s ever seen. I untied the cow-gate to my house and walked in to my father hunched over a hot stove preparing dinner.
“What’s up, Pop?”
My father. A man of few words.
“I can’t stay for dinner,” I told him, “I’m heading over to Sean’s. I’ll probably eat there.”
I was heading to the bathroom when I heard him respond. “You sure? I got good chicken right here…”
I tell ya, for a guy who didn’t care much for talking, he would have made a fortune in sales. And besides, I’ve never been one to pass up a hot meal.
“Ah, why not?” I said and sat down to a delicious dinner of roast chicken and mashed potatoes.
After my shower I headed over to find Mac in the pub.
He was playing darts with one of the lads and it was nearing ten o’clock. After ten those of us under 18 weren’t allowed in.
“Hey Mac!” I yelled through the crowd. He saw me, gave me a wink, and threw his remaining darts.
“How’s William tonight?” he asked, half shouting. Mac usually approached people this way. His booming voice came first, followed by what I call the “cologne of the Irish”—cider and body odor.
“He’s good, Mac, he’s good,” I said, trying to get him close to the door to make for an easy escape. “Sean said you’d be the man to get us the take-away?”
“Is that so?” he said, swaying like he was on a boat. “The little fucker is spreading rumors again, is he?”
I forgot that Mac liked to play these sorts of games with us younger lads when we needed his help. Trying to cut right to the chase, I told him that I had enough money for eight pints and that he could get one himself if he were to meet me at the shelter in twenty minutes with ‘em.
“Sound!” he yelled. “See you in 20!”
Now the beautiful thing about the village I lived in was how accessible the staples of village life were. I had a great big house down the road from the pier and our curragh. The pub was right across the road from me, and the shelter was just across the road from the pub. Must have been the Romans, I thought. Those boys knew about location. The shelter was not so very glamorous as you may have previously imagined. “The shelter” was just what we christened the two slabs of concrete and roof that stood about 8 ft. high. It actually was there for the little kiddies to play in, since it was connected to the primary school. The principal of that primary school that acted as a safe-haven for us budding drunks was none other than my father’s sister. Dear ol’ Auntie Mary. To this day I pray that she never finds out what went down at her school on those cold, starlit nights. Although one time she did ask me.
“Do you know if the lads have been drinking at the school? Every morning I find beer cans and cigarette butts all over the ground and I’m afraid one the children might get hurt with all that trash lying around.”
“It isn’t anyone I know, but I’ll ask around,” I lied. Again. I once read a story about a boy in New York who claimed he was a good liar.
I wrapped myself up pretty good in my coat and ran over to the shelter. The wind was really howling and you’d go deaf on the side it was blowing against. There in the corner of the shelter, huddled close together for warmth, was Sean, Andrew, P.J., and Michael John. Each of them was already on their third or fourth can by now.
“What the fuck, guys? Slow down. I didn’t even get my damned cans yet!” I shouted, but the anger I tried to project in my voice was muddled by the even angrier wind.
“You talk to Mac yet?” Sean asked me after a big slug of his cider.
“Yeah he’s gonna be here in a couple of minutes—anyone got a fag?” I asked, looking directly at Michael John. I knew Michael John was too nice to ever deny anyone a cigarette, and since he was the only one of our gang who could afford them, we lovingly dubbed him “fagman.”
A few cigarettes later we heard Mac and the bag of cans staggering towards us. He was almost twice as drunk now as he was when I talked to him in the pub. He handed me the bag, and I noticed right away that it was too light to be eight cans. Before I looked in it, I asked Mac if he treated himself to one of them like I asked him to.
“I’m sorrry, boy,” he slurred. “I think I maaay have haad twoo of them. HaaaHaHaa!” he declared, laughing like mad and drooling on himself a bit. I felt a little sorry for him at that moment so I told him it was ok. The truth is I half expected it so it really came as no surprise. I had six cold pints of cider right here to myself and the night was young.
I have this thought sometimes that life is just a series of continuous moments and that time as we know it is almost irrelevant, and if I dedicate my mind to living completely focused on the moment at hand, I’m almost sure to never have that bad of a moment. Holding that can in my hand. Admiring its abilities. Imagining how divine the first gulp was going to be, I had myself a few good moments. And life as I knew it up to this precise moment was divinity.
“Michael John,” I said, floating back to reality, “Give us another fag. I don’t want to remember tonight tomorrow.”
I kept saying that out loud to myself. I drank my first three pints within twenty minutes and they went straight to my head. I grabbed my fourth pint from out of the bag and told the lads I had to go take a piss. I walked out of the shelter and into the angry wind. There was another concrete wall that stood about 4 ft. from the ground and on top of it was a fence that prevented the kiddies from trotting into a field that lay beyond it. A family with about a hundred kids lived in a broken down house and that field was their land. All the time I would take a leak on the wall and look off into the field. In it were shabby tractors and other machines of the sort, sitting there completely neglected. In a way they fascinated me. The rust and the sadness of it all, I guess.
I must have stood there quite awhile because I heard P.J. from the shelter asking where I went to. I decided to turn back and rejoin them. When I got back I drank the last of my pint too quickly and my eyes watered and I let out a ferocious burp that made me laugh.
Michael John was pretty well in the bag by now and he started singing some old songs, as he usually did. I actually liked when he sang because not only did he have a good voice, but we would just sit there all drunk and quiet listening to him. The songs reminded us of what our fathers were probably singing when they were our age. I figured by now that my own father was probably in the pub drinking his Guinness and sitting, laughing with his brothers. Tomorrow he’d wake up early and head down to the pier to row out to the bigger aluminum boat which he and a few others would take to the fish farms to kill the salmon and prepare them for their doomed journey to the fish factory. Sean and I worked at the fish factory together. It was a good job and I got strong working there.
The salmon would come in from the tanker and we had stations in the factory where they’d be cut and gutted. Then they went down the conveyor belt where they were weighed. They were put in Styrofoam boxes according to their weight, and after the box filled up to its maximum capacity, it was carried to another conveyor belt where someone would weigh the box on a computerized scale and tag it with its final, official weight. My job was to fill all those boxes with ice and push them down the belt into the next room where they would be strapped shut and hauled onto crates. My brother was a crate man. He got strong doing that, too.
I finished my cans and we all joined Michael John in his singing. The songs were all basically the same. They depicted the rural life of Ireland when the black and tans dominated the land. If not the black and tans, it was the famine. We wailed these songs loud and proud and drunk. The old men smoking cigarettes outside of the pub would sometimes join in. Sometimes they yelled at us to shut up. We never did. They never minded. The night went on like this until P.J. finally piped in:
“Shit, man. My dad just texted me,” he said, holding his head in his one hand, the other holding his mobile.
“Well, what the hell did he say?”
“I gotta be up for work at half-seven tomorrow morning. We got a job in town.”
“Fuck it,” I told him. “Tell him you’re sick or something. He’s your dad. He won’t care. You’re only 16, remember?”
“You might be able to do that, but I can’t. He knows I’m not going back to school next year and now he’s making me work for him.”
I didn’t pursue the argument any longer because Michael John and Andrew had both quit school as well, even though they were just my age. Both of them were working for P.J’s father. Even though they told me that they hated school and were happy they quit, it was still a touchy subject and was hardly ever brought up.
“Ah. Well tomorrow when you’re laying mud all over those bricks, think of me in my nice, warm bed, sleeping until whenever I wake up,” I said, with a smug smile on my face, taking another slug out of the can.
“What do you plan on doing when you move back to the States then, Will?” Michael John asked.
“I couldn’t tell ya ,” I said. “I don’t have the faintest idea… maybe write or something.”
“Write what—like books?” Sean asked.
“Well ya, maybe. There’s good money in that, you know.”
“So I suppose you’ll be going on to college then, huh?”
“Yep,” I said, “but I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not going to be working the way you boys are for the rest of my life. There’s gotta be more to it than just labor.”
“What do you mean by that?” Andrew asked. I could tell he was slightly offended.
“I don’t mean nothin’ bad by it,” I told him. “I just want more out of life. I want to be able to make my own hours and travel and that sorta shit, that’s all.”
They still didn’t get my point.
“I don’t want to dread waking up to go to a job I hate every day until I’m too old to know better or change my circumstances.”
“Well, best of luck to you,“ Sean said, ending the conversation before it evolved into something worse.
“Hey, Michael John,” I said, trying to lighten the mood, “how about another song?”
We sang on, listening to our voices trailing off, across the black bogs. Our songs flowing out into the angry green sea.