A Loaf, a Pint and a Coffin

There’s not many of them left, the little shop at the front, bar in the back and the hearse parked outside. A place where you could get a loaf of bread, a pint and a coffin all over the same counter. During the week Johnny managed to run the place on his own. He could be found behind the bar, removing glasses from the glass-washer and placing them neatly back on the shelves. The air might be hazy and grey, even if only a couple of customers were smoking; the room was small and there wasn’t much in the line of ventilation. I suppose that’s why they put a stop to it.
               Anyway, Johnny would be there, pulling pints and pouring half-ones and keeping the couple of auld fellas in chat. Of course the bell on the shop door might ring and him in the middle of another tall tale, and loath was he to leave it. But he had a great loud voice and he could manage to continue the conversation as he passed through the plastic drapes and into the grocery section. He’d serve the customer – maybe a half-pound of ham, a packet of digestives and a litre of milk – take the money, give back the change and not miss a beat. The lads back in the bar would be smiling and nudging each other and all would be wondering what they could get him to talk about next.
               After all, there was nothing Johnny wasn’t an expert on. Whether it was pulling calves or managing teams in the Premiership or performing triple-bypass surgery, Johnny knew what was involved. London
was his town, after spending a long weekend there one time in the 80s. Dublin he knew inside out even though he never lived there.
               “The wife and me,” said Pat as another pint was set on the formica before him, “we climbed Croagh Patrick the other day. It’s a fair auld climb.”
               “Ran up it once at midnight,” Johnny stated, matter-of-factly.
               “Ah Johnny, sure you couldn’t do that. You wouldn’t be able to see where you’re going. You’d fall and break your neck.”
               “Six in the morning, then.”
               “You ran up it, Johnny?” Michael joined in from the other end of the bar, absentmindedly tipping the cigarette ash into the ashtray. “That took some doing.”
               “Aye, but you get your second wind, you see. Thanks to the training beyond in the park. Sure you can see I’ve been doing a bit.” He stood tall and slapped his giant hands on his ample belly.
               “You’re still playing the football,” Michael said as he raised the whiskey to his lips and took a sip. “’Tis a long time since you laced up your first pair of boots. You’re a great auld servant to the club.”
               “That’s for sure,” agreed Pat.
               “Everyone has to do their bit. That’s what makes it work. I’m in more of an advisory position these days. The young fellas need a bit of encouragement. And I’ve had too many injuries over the years, but I offered my services at the start of the season, in whatever capacity that might be. And you know you can still throw me in there with ten minutes to go and I’ll knock some fellas about the place. You don’t lose the auld head for the game.”
               “Oh indeed, indeed,” Michael agreed. “I see Sligo
won the Sigerson,” he continued as he signalled it was time for a refill.
               “Did they?” asked Pat. “Fair play to them.”
               “I had five hundred pounds on them at the start of the campaign,” Johnny announced as he turned with Michael’s glass to the optics. “Five to one.”
               “Christ, ye did well.”
               “There was three Leitrim lads on the team,” Michael said as he reached into his pocket and produced a tenner, the neglected cigarette sending a twisting column of smoke towards the ceiling.
               “The backbone of the team,” says Johnny as he lays the whiskey on the counter.
               The shop bell rang and Johnny strode out to find a middle-aged woman hunting amongst the far shelves. “How are you doing, Mrs Clyne?”
               “Good, Johnny. And yourself?”
               “Not a bother. How’s Frank?”
               “Ah, the blood pressure is high. Doctor Richards has been warning him.”
               “’Tis the cholesterol, Mrs Clyne. He’ll have to get off them eggs. The cholesterol makes the veins swell. The aorta is especially susceptible, the big vein going into the heart.”
               Back inside the bar the pair of men had their ears cocked. “He’s wasted here, that man,” Michael said. “He should be above in the Mater
               In the shop, the conversation continued. “Ah yes, Johnny, the blood pressure has him killed.”
               “What are you looking for there, Mrs Clyne?”
               “I need a drum of salt.”
               “There, above your head.”
               The door opened as another customer entered. “Johnny. Mrs Clyne,” he greeted as he headed straight through and into the bar in great long strides. “Pat. Michael,” he continued as he climbed onto a stool between the two older men.
               “Kevin,” both men replied together.
               “’Tis a grand evening.”
               They could hear Johnny finishing up with Mrs Clyne and a moment later he was back behind the bar. “Kevin, how are you?”
               “Grand. Pint of Smithwicks.”
               “And will you give me twenty Carrolls,” said Michael.
               Silence descended a moment. The clock on the back wall ticked. “They’re talking about a smoking ban in pubs,” Pat declared suddenly.
               “It’ll never happen,” Johnny proclaimed as he served the pint and the cigarettes. “They’re making far too much money off them. Every budget they put them up. You know it only costs twenty pence to make that pack of cigarettes; the rest is tax. No, you’ll never see a smoking ban in Ireland.”
               “Indeed, Johnny, indeed.”
               “Well even if they bring it in, they’ll not stop me having a fag with my pint,” Kevin stated as he lit one up himself.
               “Sure you spend a lot of time in the North,” Michael told him. “You can drink and smoke up there. There’s no talk of them bringing it in up North.”
               “Aha. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go back there again.”
               “Why’s that?” Michael asked.
               Kevin lifted the pint to his mouth and took a deep drink. Then he slowly rested the glass on the bar. “I was coming back across the border there at Blacklion when the RUC popped out of nowhere and waved me down. They got me out of the car and started asking all sorts of questions. But I was telling them nothing. And I kept backing up real slow, me with my hands in the air. Real small steps, the way they wouldn’t notice. I must’ve been two hours on that bridge but eventually I could see the white line behind me.” He stopped to take another mouthful and already the glass was three-quarters empty. “Well, when I was within a yard of the line I made a big jump backwards. ‘Aha,’ I shouted. ‘You bastards! You can’t touch me now, I’m in the Republic.’ They were sickened but there wasn’t a thing they could do.”
               “That’s a sight,” Michael marvelled. “And how did you get home?”
               Kevin raised the pint to his lips again and Michael could almost see the wheels turning. “Sure I had to stay the night in Blacklion and go and get the car in the morning.”
               With that he drained his pint and headed for the door. “Good luck, lads.”
               “Well did you ever hear the beat of that?” Michael asked.
               “In all my days,” Johnny said, “I have never met such a bullshitter. He’s the greatest lying bollocks around.”
               “Indeed, Johnny, indeed.”
               “You couldn’t believe the radio in that man’s house,” Johnny continued. “There was another time he told us he came second in the Circuit of Ireland Rally. And he’d have won it only for the radiator burst and he had to stop at a house and borrow a half dozen eggs from a woman and he used her poker to push the eggs down into the radiator and in all the excitement he forgot to take the poker out and he finished the race with the poker sticking out of the radiator.”
               “He’s some man for one man.”
               “And after the race he noticed the poker and he drove back and knocked on the door and said, ‘now missus, there’s your poker.’ He’d nearly tell you he was the Pope.”
               “Speaking of racing, the National is this Saturday,” Michael reminded them. “You’ll have a few pound on it, Johnny.”
               “I will of course. Tommy’s fairly confident this year. He has Bobbyjo running lovely. He could have done the job last year but I said then he wasn’t ready, and I was right. It’ll have to be a dry day though. The heavy ground doesn’t suit him. Tommy said to me the other day, ‘Johnny, if it’s dry put the lot on him. Guaranteed.’ He’s the finest horse Ireland
ever produced. He eats up the ground magnificently – a treat to watch. And Tommy’s young lad knows how to handle him. He’ll get the best from him.”
               “Who’s the young lad?” asked Pat.
               “Paul. Tommy’s son. The best jockey in Ireland
and England
put together. He’s a sound man. I do meet him often beyond in Mountbellew for a pint. I do be slagging him about going off and deserting his country to make a fortune over in England and forgetting about the poor people of Galway. Oh, but he can give as good as he gets. ‘You’re one to talk,’ he says. ‘Didn’t you head for London and leave your poor mother to run the shop and the bar all on her own.’”
               “Wasn’t it a sight he knew about it,” remarked Michael.
               “Oh, there’s no flies on him, that’s for sure. I do have good craic with him on the phone. He gives me a call to let me know when to hold off and not lay a bet on him. You know, he might be holding the horse back. I do give him a good slagging about that too.”
               The door opened and a few young lads entered. “You have the game, Johnny?” one of them asked as they all sat up at the bar.
               “Is it eight o’clock already?,” Johnny replied, turning to the back bar to look for the remote. As the lads shouted in their orders he turned on the television that was nestled in an alcove above the optics. He switched it to Sky Sports while the lads started giving him a hard time about not realising the game was on.
               “You’re some Arsenal fan. Wouldn’t you think you’d be watching the build-up.”
               “That shite on Sky? I don’t need to listen to that rubbish. Nothing but gossip and rumours.”
               “Indeed, Johnny, indeed,” Michael added his support. “You’ve a direct line to the boss himself.”
               “That’s right. And don’t let that tough guy act fool you – Arsene’s a gentleman. Much easier to deal with than George was.”
               The pints were placed on the bar and all settled in to watch the teams take the field. “Ljungberg’s out,” one of the youngsters announced. “Injured ankle.”
               “That’s right,” Johnny concurred. “He said at the weekend he was doubtful. You know full well if there was any chance at all he’d play. Freddie’s a real battler. Very nice fella. Very quiet. Wife’s a scream.”
               “I didn’t think he was married,” said Michael.
               “Very recent. Very recent. Lovely woman.”
               A latecomer arrived to join the young lads for the match. “You’re some whore, Billy,” Johnny attacked.
               “What’s wrong with you?” Billy replied, genuinely perplexed.
               “Why didn’t you tell me to back that horse?”
               “Sure didn’t I ask you to put the money down for me with Micky. And I told you then it was a good bet.”
               “But you didn’t tell me he was going to win.” This statement was greeted with roars and laughter.
               “Ah, Billy. Why didn’t you tell him the horse was going to win? You’re some friend.”
               “For Christ’s sake, Johnny. What part of put money on that horse did you not understand?”
               “He needed the jockey to call him,” Pat explained. “Let him know he wasn’t holding the horse back.”
               Johnny was saved by a shot that hit the Villa crossbar; everyone’s attention switched to the game. There was a fair bit of friendly banter between the Arsenal and Villa fans. Later, when Seamen blundered and almost cost his team a goal, the shouts and the laughter started. “He’s shite! Take him off.”
               “He’s under a lot of pressure these days,” Johnny explained.
               “How’s that?” asked Michael.
               “Family problems.”
               The door slowly squeaked open as a little man entered and carefully placed his plastic bags full of groceries in the corner. “Oh, look who it is,” Michael whispered. “I wonder which character he’s playing today.”
               “Good evening, gentlemen,” the newcomer announced, standing in the middle of the floor. “How are you all on this fine day?”
               “It’s Her Majesty’s subject,” Michael said surreptitiously. Louder, he continued, “Tommy, how are you yourself?” And the others added similar replies.
               “You’re all watching the football. Isn’t it wonderful that you’re all here together watching the football.”
               Johnny arrived with a glass of Guinness, not needing to ask Tommy what he wanted. Tommy handed over the money and Michael offered him the glass, leaning close to him and whispering, “There you go now, Tommy the Hitman.” The young lads were now only partly paying attention to the game as they eagerly awaited Tommy’s reply.
               The little man started. He took the proffered drink and said, in a reasonable attempt at a Belfast
accent, “You’ve obviously been talking to some very important people.” The English gentleman was gone.
               “Indeed, Tommy, indeed. Tell me, will the ceasefire hold?”
               “I was very close to finishing it last week.”
               “Is that right, Tommy? How come?”
               “I was in a pub on the Shankill Road
and these three Loyalist thugs dragged me outside and threw me on the ground and started kicking me. Then one of them recognised me. ‘It’s Tommy the Hitman,’ he said, real shocked.”
               “He was in awe.”
“That’s right. And they all were frozen with fear. They picked me up and dusted me off and were all apologetic.”
               “They were lucky men.”
               “They were. I had just about lost my patience when that fella realised who I was.”
               “They didn’t know who they were dealing with.”
               “That’s right. Blair and Bertie had better get a move on, or I’ll make the phone call. That’s all it’ll take. One phone call from me and we’re back to bombs and bullets.”
               Just then Villa hit the post and everyone’s attention was momentarily directed towards the television. It was all the time the man from Belfast
needed to depart. “I say, chaps, that was one fine shot. A terrible shame the young man failed to score.”
               “I saw you up at Doctor Richards’s yesterday, Tommy,” Pat said to the English gentleman. “Working hard.”
               “You are quite right, Patrick. I was tending his rose bushes.”
               “How long have you worked for Doctor Richards?”
               “Fifteen years. I’ve worked for Mister Doctor Richards for fifteen years. Hard to believe.” The little man stood back from the bar and raised his head slightly, reminiscing.
               “He relies very much on you,” Michael stated. “Sure you run the place.”
               “Very true, Michael, very true. I remember one time Mister Doctor Richards had a very important meeting in Dublin. The day before the meeting he broke his false teeth. There was no way I was going to see Mister Doctor Richards attending his meeting in Dublin with no teeth, so he borrowed mine for the day.”
               “That’s the type of man you need about you,” Michael praised. “A man you can rely on.”
               The young lads at the bar struggled to conceal their laughter. “These fine chaps are having some fun,” Tommy remarked, leaning towards Michael and nudging him with his elbow. “Is it ladies they’re talking about?”
               “Oh, of course. What else would young fellas the likes of them be talking about?”
               “You never got married yourself,” prompted Johnny.
               “No, I never did. Although once I nearly did. I had even arrived at the stage of buying her a ring. I was about to pay for it when I remarked, ‘I wonder am I doing the right thing.’ Well, she simply walked away and I never saw her again.” He suddenly drained the glass of Guinness. “I’ll bid you all good night, gentlemen.”
               “You’re not staying for another?”
               “No. I have to go catch my lift.”
               All bade him farewell. “Don’t forget your shopping,” Michael reminded. The little man retrieved the plastic bags from the corner and headed out the door.
               “God, he’s a sight,” said Johnny. “Do you think he believes the stories he tells?”
               “It’s amazing the stories some people tell, Johnny,” stated Michael. “Another one there, like a good man,” he continued, handing the empty glass across the bar.
               The game ended and the lads stayed on for just another couple of pints. Presently they began to disperse. “Are ye heading off already, lads,” Michael asked.
               “Some of us have work in the morning,” one replied.
               “Sure you lads wouldn’t know what a hard day’s work was. Isn’t that right, Pat?”
               “They wouldn’t have a clue,” agreed Pat. “All computers these days. Press a button and it’s done.”
               “A day’s work’d kill them,” Johnny quickly joined the older men, even though he was much closer in age to the young lads. “There a few weeks ago I had three funerals the one day and Eddie was away so I had no one to dig the graves. I got up at five in the morning and dug the three graves myself and was back here to open the shop. I ran the shop ’til my mother came back from Mass and then I took care of the three funerals, came back and was behind the bar ’til two in the morning.”
               “Indeed, Johnny, indeed. You were nearly twenty-four hours on the go. And I bet you were up bright and early the next morning.”
               “Of course I was. Who else would open the shop?”
               “You’d never get the likes of these fellas to do that,” Michael said as the young lads, smiling and laughing, were making their way through the door. “Try telling them about going to school in your bare feet.”
               “And you were lucky to have bare feet to go in,” quipped the last one through the door.
               “He’s a smart one,” Michael laughed.
               The night moved towards its end, Pat and Michael at each end of the bar being occasionally joined by locals, but it being a weeknight there was never any strain on Johnny behind the bar. A few more times he had to go out to the shop to serve a customer; people who suddenly noticed how late it was and remembered there was no milk for the morning. Then it was time for Johnny to close the front door. From outside, it appeared as if the establishment was closed for the night, but inside the two bookends were still present. They had been there for hours, slowly but steadily drinking stout at one end, whiskey at the other. Despite the amount of alcohol consumed, neither appeared too intoxicated.
               A little after midnight, the front door quietly opened and Johnny stuck his head out to look up and down the street. The town was empty and the only sound was the soft buzz of the streetlights. Two old men slipped out the door, bade each other and Johnny good night and walked off in opposite directions. Johnny quietly closed and locked the door and went back to the bar to shut the register and head for bed.