Brassby Helen Walsh
“In Brass, Walsh has created some of literature’s sexiest sex scenes, most out-of-it drug-taking . . . and imagery you won’t easily scrub off the back of your mind. It is spellbinding and utterly unique.” —The Independent
“In Brass, Walsh has created some of literature’s sexiest sex scenes, most out-of-it drug-taking . . . and imagery you won’t easily scrub off the back of your mind. It is spellbinding and utterly unique.” —The Independent
Upon its release in the United Kingdom, British Vogue said, “If you want to find out what it is like to be a woman in England today [read] Brass.” Since then it has sent shock waves through literary circles for its raw, unrelenting, poetic, and utterly compelling portrait of Millie, a promising college kid drifting into a deceptively inviting world of street culture, drug-induced adorations, and sexual hedonism.
Helen Walsh, at the age of twenty-seven, has produced a staggeringly alive debut novel that portrays a generation of youth—those coming of age in the ’80s and ’90s—through the prism of Millie. As she drifts, Millie craves something nurturing, authentic, and profound from her broken family and longtime friendships. Her descent is one toward either self-understanding or destruction.
Raw, poetic, sexually frenetic, and utterly alive, Brass is one of the most startling novels to come out of Britain since Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
“Seduces you with its sensitivity, then throws you down with unapologetic carnality and finally leaves you, cheeks hot, eyes darting to see who caught you enjoying yourself. . . . Walsh’s obvious intelligence and writing talent . . . earn her novel one familiar tag: a damn good read.” —Beth Greenfield, Time Out New York
“You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more ballsy, obnoxious, quick-witted, and lusty heroine than Brass‘s Millie. . . . She’s just the kind of character you’ll be drawn to like a magnet.” —Rachel Kramer Bussel, Bust
“Walsh’s sex scenes are indeed blunt and brave, but the real pleasure here is Millie’s voice. . . . The voices here are sharp and fluent, and Millie’s nightmare spiral into self-abasement clings to you past the last page.” —Taylor Antrim, New York Times Book Review
“Millie’s journey is a classic bildungsroman, a reckoning of her parents’ sudden separation and a thoughtful, if expensive, interrogation of sex and friendship. . . . Walsh’s prose is rhythmic and carefully judged, and her descriptions are convincingly tactile.” —The New Yorker
“Striking, rapidly paced . . . You can’t really even explain why the novel is so forceful. It just is. . . . A mesmerizing mess of a novel.” —Heather Logue, Seattle Weekly
“Millie’s caustic commentary on the electro-charged sexual and intellectual power of post-adolescent women heralds the arrival of a promising new voice from the darker fringes of anti-girlhood.” —Publishers Weekly
“Skillfully maneuvers between the friends perspectives, moving forward at a disturbingly fast clip that mirrors Millie’s descent. . . . Walsh doesn’t rely simply on the explicit edginess of her protagonists but also works to develop their central complexities.” —Prudence Peiffer, Library Journal
“Fast-paced, gritty . . . graphic, erotic, disturbing at once . . . Newcomer Walsh’s energy and language give an entertaining ride.” —Kirkus Reviews
“In Brass, Walsh has created some of literature’s sexiest sex scenes. She alienates herself from her best friend as she drinks, smokes, snorts, and fucks herself one step ahead of her demons. . . . It is spellbinding and utterly unique.” —The Independent (UK)
“Helen Walsh’s first novel, Brass . . . has the best—as in the most honestly and evocatively described . . . sex of any contemporary fictious sex I’ve read. . . . You forget how rare it is to find a heroine who acts the predator and not the victim, who gets to make the jokes rather than feed the lines to the joker.” —The Guardian (UK)
“Walsh’s confident, brash prose carves out a powerful picture of an aggressive but intelligent young woman in a way that has rarely been seen before.” —Time Out (UK)
We turn onto Upper Duke Street and the view sucks the breath from my lungs.The whole of the city is aglow and the Liver buildings, brightly drenched by the rising moon, reign magnificently in a cloudless sky. I snatch a quick glance to see if she too has been seduced by the vista but the eyes are paralysed by some chemical excess. She’s at least three or four years younger than me—a child in the eyes of the law. Yet she wears the spent constitution of a woman who has lived, breathed and spat these streets out all her life. There’s mixed blood in her face too, the dark complexion suggesting the Mediterranean while her narrowed eyes hint of the East. It’s a good face—awkwardly composed but pretty nonetheless. It doesn’t belong to these streets.
We head down towards the Cathedral which pierces the night like some majestic foreboding, and she lopes off ahead, creating enough distance between us to show we’re not together. At the graveyard gates, she swings round and instructs me with the flat of a palm to hold back.
I watch her elfin silhouette slide down some steps and without warning, dissolve into the petrol blue night. I doubt she’ll return and I’m pricked with a mild spur of relief. The effects of the beak and the booze are fast ebbing away now and there’s elements of the old me lurking in my subconscious, urging me to turn on my heels and flee.
The night spits her back into focus and she’s standing before me again. Skinny legs and fat breasts. Coal black hair pulled fiercely into a high pony. I swoon. She swings an arm in a beckoning arc and I follow, down a flight of uneven steps, through a dark stubby tunnel and out into a sprawling graveyard. For one lucid moment, a spasm of terror jolts my heart as I anticipate what looms ahead but as we veer down towards the right of the Cathedral which now towers high above us, the brilliance of the moon finds us and all danger is neutralised in the serum of desire. Randomly, she selects a grave, which is located at the remotest corner of the plot. It’s flat, wide and practical. She removes her clothes with a routine agility. She’s serviced a hundred other punters on this very slab of timeworn concrete though I guess I’m her first female punter.
“I don’t do fish,” she said in a coarse Toxteth accent, “Norra done ’ting round ’ere girl.”
And she was right. I’d scoured these streets, this city, relentlessly in pursuit of brass on many a drug-fueled bender and only twice had I struck lucky. However, once I assured her that she didn’t actually have to do anything. Just remove her clothes, all of them, and let me indulge myself, she began to crumble. I produced a fifty and she surrendered.
* * *
She lies back and the shock of the slab juts her nipples out and arches her slender back. Her breasts are large and intrusive. At odds with her pubescent framework. She has the hips of a twelve-year-old. I run a hand across the width of her navel which is hard and sticky and gleams in the moonlight as if lightly smeared in Vaseline and lower my mouth to her breasts, sucking hard at her dark nipples, manipulating them to solid black. Her skin tastes of stale, salty sweat. Cheap body lotion and spent chemicals. Pungent and almost unpleasant. It drives me on.
“Look at your tits,” I whisper, “Touch them.”
She does so, reluctant at first but wanting to be urged on. I slip an arm around her small back and flick my tongue across her flat young tummy.
“Do you like that?”
She doesn’t answer. I raise my head to find her eyes roaming in their orbits. Her mouth is slack, lopsided. A stream of spittle trails her chin. I prod her hard in the navel and she protests with a dilatory flinch.
Impatient now, I part her legs which are coloured with fresh bruises. I slide a finger inside. She’s dry and stiffens at my touch. For an instant, I feel I should stop, I should turn on my heels and run. But as my mouth falls upon her cunt and the smell of rubber smacks me in the face, I resume my role. Guiltlessly. As a punter. With a stiff tongue I press down hard on her clit and with short purposeful strokes, I slowly massage her to life. I feed in another then another finger and her resistance gives way to minimal yet compliant thrusts. My movements become more forceful and her juices gush freely onto my face. The body arcs upwards and outwards and holds up there as she strains against this pleasure.
I slide a hand in my trousers and seek my cunt.
The beak seems to have robbed its walls of all sensation but my clit swells beneath the clammy nest of my palm. I manipulate myself hard and selfishly, the whore becoming nothing but a body. A cunt in a magazine. My climax is powerful but as soon as those crackling shortwaves subside I’m overwhelmed by the impulse to abscond. I feel sober and awkward. I remove my hands from her body, which are lathered in our sweat and wipe them on my hips. She props herself up, fuck-faced and shining with the stench of her latest trick and stares into me. The face is no longer drug dead but wide open with questions. Her eyes stare out, large and frightened, giving me a glimpse of the girl behind the whore. She makes to speak but the words seize up on her lips. Half of me wants to take her in my arms, the other, despises her. Once more I take in the child’s eyes, the woman’s breasts. I force a valedictory smile and sprint off across the graveyard, spurred on by that unique tingling and euphoria that follows orgasm.
Back on Upper Duke Street, I feel the rush of the urban glow once more. It’s still early and there’s a whiff of excitement in the air as taxis bundle life into the core of the city. I love Fridays. There’s an infectious delirium that Saturday nights fail to deliver. Come 8 o’clock, the streets of Liverpool are heaving with studes, schoolies and nine to fivers, all drunk on the freedom of the weekend, trying to stretch the night out forever.
I’m meeting Jamie at 60 Hope Street, less than a hundred yards from the spot where I picked the whore up. The idea of walking through her patch again unsettles me so I take a circuitous route, down along Rodney Street and back up pulsating Leece Street, already writhing with bodies. The moon is behind me now, a big yellow balloon lingering on the skyline, slowly blinking the stars awake. Next full moon, I’m gonna perch myself on top of a hill—Frodsham or Wales. And get stoned. Just me and that big old moon. If I had a car and a smoke, I’d be tempted to fuck off right now, resist the lure of the city, but it would be impossible to mellow out with all this going on. Absolute torture in fact. The stifling heat of the day is only just cooling and it’s the start of the weekend and the excitement of it all is sweeping the city like lava. I love this feeling. I love it.
Shite! I’m late and that’ll be her on the mobie now so I’m just letting it run on to answer. Can see her now, by the way. She’ll be sat there at the bar with that half irate, half betrayed gob on her and she’ll be going:
“That’s thirty minutes he’s robbed me of. Thirty minutes I could have spent down the Blue Bar checking out the honey.”
Ah, I love her madly though I do, bolshy little waif that she is. She’s like a sister to us. Seven spanking years of history we’ve clocked up. That’s a third of her life and a quarter of mine. And we’ve been through some bad shite me and Millie. Oh aye. Stuff that would’ve slayed most friendships. But me and her, it’s only made us stronger. Invincible like.
Has to be said though, can be a nasty piece of work at times, lil’ Millie.
Aye, she can be fucken merciless she can. You don’t want to be getting on the wrong side of Millie O’Reilley.
This cabby’s pure doing my swede in now, though. Having a fully-fledged domestic on the mobie, he is. Mad fucken Somali accent screaming into this brick-sized mobie he’s got. Beads of sweat oozing from his shiny aul’ head. Fucken car stinks of dead animals. It does—whole thing reeks badly and I just want out, now. I winds the window down and thrusts my head out, gasping on the smoggy summer’s air as if it were an inhaler. He swings round and removing himself reluctantly from the brick-like contraption gives us this big mad glower.
“Put the fucking window up la! I’ve got the air con on.”
Air con, by the way! This shed must be twenty-thirty years old.He returns to the wheel just in time to see that the lights have turned red but crashes em anyway and carries on hurling obscenities into his phone. I ignore the cunt. The windows are staying down. But I don’t want to be getting into no nonsense with the Somalis, mind you. That’s one group you’re best leaving alone. Fight one Somali and you’re fighting the fucken lot of em. That’s how it is. It’s not so long since Sean had to bite that lad’s face off before he’d slap the floor. He’s a mad cunt Sean, used to box for England under 16s and that, but this Somali lad would pure not go down. Hit him with all sorts Sean did, but the lad just carries on and that. “That the best you can do?” and what have you. And then, once Sean loses it and bites a chunk out of his face, he’s got the whole fucken barmy army of em on his back. Tell you la, you’re best just avoiding it. He’s only an aul’ cabby, end of the day, but I’m not fucken rising to him. And the other thing is, I don’t want to be soiling my new Jil Sander kecks. Lil’ Millie is going to pure love these kecks by the way. Pure fucken class, they are.
We’re coming up past our aul’ flat now at the top of Parlie and this big surge of nostalgia lams into us. I’m like that, me you know. I’m proper sentimental. I fill up at things like that Buena Vista Social Club. Fucken too much that is—when that Ibrahim Ferrer’s walking round New York. Pure fucken gets you right there it does. Slays me, stuff like that. Always has done—good films, books, tunes that take you back, whatever. Dunno, la—I’m just like that. I still gets all dewy-eyed when I see that cobalt blue door and the mossy windowpanes and the skeleton of our Billy’s first car sat there in the yard. Amount of times I had to fucken kip in that car. It’s only a few years ago and that, but I can’t help myself—I already feel last about it. I feel like it’s gone all that. I feel as though we’ve lost them times for good.
It was happy days back then. Me, Sean and our kid, living like fucken kings. It were all down to Sean of course. Our Billy were signing on and I was spunking half my wages from Fords on that joke night school. But Sean, he were pure rolling in it and he made sure that we all enjoyed the fruits of his labour. The fridge were always jammed full with ale and classy grub from Tezzies and Marksies. Not that we ever ate none of it. Our time was split fair and square. Half the time we was getting high, the other half we was coming down. The perks of Sean’s new career extended to muchos class A, and in the two years we lived together, he must have plied us with enough gear to feed the whole of Garlands of a Saturday night. There were no protocols or anything where the consumption of gear were concerned. Oh no. And we’d think nothing of dropping one of a Monday avvy. Sean was the worst. Got so’s he’d have to snaffle a line or two ’fore he read the sports pages of The Echo. Pure dependence or pure indulgence la? It’s a miracle his liver is still intact after all that. And his head for that matter. There was hardly a morning back then that Billy and Sean didn’t wake up with the taste of old copper in their mouths and their hearts drumming in their ears. And if I hadn’t’ve spent most of my nights at college or up in my bedroom grappling with Keats and Hardy, I would’ve well gone under. Even then, though, I’d still come and find em when I was done, not wanting to miss nothing, still wanting mine like an idiot. Match nights, I was pure putty. Sean’d pop his head around the door around half-five-six, just as I was plunging into an assignment. He fucken knew it and all too, knew I didn’t want no distraction. But he’d be stood there waving a ticket and a bag of beak at us and that’d be that. I was putty.
* * *
He’s always been a lady’s man, Sean. Still is by the way, but more so back then. Fucken effortless and all. The flat were always chocker with exquisite fucken birds with flawless complexions and polished accents that he’d picked up over the water. Fucken loved him, they did. Thought he was the real thing. Of course none of em looked twice at myself and our kid. But I was just made up to sit with em and soak it all up and that. He had this aloofness about him Sean, which time seems to have diluted a little. I used to think it were manicured like, that it was all for show, something for the ladies and that, but maybe there was more to it.
He always has been a moody cunt, Sean, and we never really had any idea back then how deep he was getting in. Even when he were eckied up he kept his thoughts on a harness. Gave nothing away, Sean. Just used to sit there, mute. Them dark expressionless eyes of his impervious to the euphoria that would flush his cheeks and rattle his jaw.Looking back though, I was a pure hypocrite where Sean was concerned. I half knew how he was making his dough, but I would never let myself dwell on it. My mind just sort of overrode it. It was Sean, my mate, just a lad what I grew up with. And I was more than happy to help him spend it. Oh yes. But not now though. Now, I always go fifty/fifty with Sean, and I don’t accept freebies off him no more. Least, only the random line now and again, and even then I always feel obliged to buy him a drink and that.
So I knows full well what’s going down in Flynnstrasse. But did I put up a fight when he offered my Missus a job in one of his salons? Did I fuck. Why would I?
It’s a proper fucken legit business and she’s a beautician, end of the day. She’s doing what she’s always wanted to do. Happy as a twat down that salon of his, lil’ Anne Marie. Goes to work with a spring in her step and comes home beaming like a kid. I’ve said it. I’m a two-faced cunt. My bird works for Sean Flynn and I look the other way. I try and think of him, and us lot, how we were back then. How we was when we met Millie.
Magic times to be living through, they were. The club scene were raw and earthy. It had a lingo of its own and those who spoke it were bound by a shared secret that welded us together like glue. It went way beyond anything you’d known. Way beyond comprehension. It was more than a deviation from my working week. It was more than escapism or leisure. It was a way of life. When they closed down the State in 1991 after all that trouble with the Ungis, a part of us shut down too. It was only a matter of months before they reopened but it was gone la. All that energy, that arcane magic, gone. It were full of aul’ heads, desperately clinging on to a memory. Trying to make sense of it all. And they couldn’t. Tragic it was. I still see some of them faces, drifting round town. Casualties of their own youth that never recovered from the fact that history had robbed em of somet they’d devoted their lives to. And will they fuck let on? Blank us they do. Pure burns my head out when I sees some face from back then and they’re not having it. Fills us with the same kind of tristesse that I gets if I runs into an ex who really meant something. Pure madness that is. How you can get so close to someone and let em delve so deep into your soul. Take em to them far remote places and let em run amok and explore every little crevice and hollow ’til there’s nothing left to unearth and you’re pure spent and exposed. And then one day you’re just strangers. All that history and intimacy just hanging in there by a flimsy thread of memory.The State though la, gives us goosies just thinking on it. That’s where I met the little scamp. Lil’ Millie O’Reilley. Oh aye—that was her. Pure front, even then. Pushes her way to the front of the guezzie—no money, by the way, no I. D and no fucken patience or tact or manners, neither. Just bang at it she were. Proper trying to blag her way in. This bolshy lil’ waif. This beautiful fucken kid with rain-slicked-hair and big mad liquid eyes, trying to skank the doormen with that husky little voice of hers. Had it been a year before, then her looks alone would have guaranteed her the VIP treatment, but the club were under close scrutiny by then and a thirteen-year-old dying from an overdose would have been the final curtain.
So, anyway, when it dawns on her that her performance is getting her fucken nowhere, it’s onto Plan B and her eyes well up and she starts pleading with em, spieling em this rueful little number about how she’d dropped a pill half an hour ago and were coming up fast and strong and needed to be in there with the music. And if they don’t let her in, she’d have a bad E and pure go mental and end up in some loony bin and they’ll be bang to rights for fucking up a beautiful young life. What? Fucken hilarious la! Billy’s in stitches, and me, I’m half starting to well up. I’ve said it—I’m a sentimental cunt.Good as she is, Millie, there’s no way these fellas on the door are letting her in—not now she’s told em she’s on an E. And now they’re doing that thing that grocks on the door like to do. They’re having a shite night emselves so what they want best is to fuck someone else’s night up, too. Specially the young girls, weirdly. We all know what all that’s about, by the way. And these knobheads, they starts trying to grab her and saying let’s call the busies and what have you. So me and our kid says we know her from by ours and we takes her by the arm and all three of us bolts right off into the night—her grinning like a skate, me wondering what the fuck we must look like, sharking off with a bird that’s barely reached puberty. And I’ll tell it again. There was nothing shady about it you know, nothing that was in any way thingio. Pure spur of the moment it were. Spirit of the era and that. That’s what you’d do back then—Us and Them. The Billy Bunters and the doormen. And anyways, she was a kid, Millie. She was a proper little girl, right down to her braces and ponytail. And she had that nervous undefeated energy that unworldly teenagers have. She’d kill us if she heard us say that. Thought she was it lil’ Millie did. Even then—even with her braces.We don’t want to risk getting K. B’d from another club and we can see she’s slumping into a sledge so we starts walking back towards the flat. What we’re thinking is—we’ll play some tunes and make her a brew and that, sort her a Joe Baxi. But before we’ve even reached the Blackie, the three of us’ve glided into one of those gorgeous drug-fucked conversations which you never want to come down from. At thirteen and a half, she was lucid and funny and cynical as fuck. Full of fucken insight, lil’ Millie—way too clever for her own good. But she still saw the world with that kidlike simplicity, too. That unblinking naivety that stemmed from having good and protective aul’ folks. And growing up in a decent area. You could just see it from talking to her. She was from a place where bad things don’t happen. That stoic fucken self-assurance la, it don’t come from fear, that. It comes from never having to worry about nothing.
We stayed up and talked all night. I’ll admit it—we was buzzing off her, me and our Billy. And when Sean come in and seen how young she were, he just half nods and that, grunts and goes upstairs. He knows us too well. He knows there’d be no funny business going down.
We dropped her off the next day and she blubbed like a baby. Made us all swear that we wouldn’t write her off as some ecstasy cliché. When we woke up, we were going to remember this as something real, something good, not some strobe-lit fling. That the plans we made for the future would not perish before the crushing onslaught of the inevitable comedown. We all swore we’d meet for a drink at The Belvedere—mine and Billy’s local from when we was kiddies round there—that following Friday. Did she fuck turn up, mind you. And in fairness, even though we never said nothing, I think we was both that little bit relieved, me and Billy. What was we starting here, end of the day? Where was it going to go—a binding friendship with a kid? So for them six months, that’s exactly what she were—a strobe-lit fling but one which shone on in my head like a big bright fireball. Then, six months later, one November morning, she produced herself at the door, gurning her kite off and acting like she’d only been gone five minutes. Like she’s just nipped out the all-nightie for juice and Rizlas and that.
“Coming to catch sunrise at the Docks,” she goes, just like that.
And apart from the fact that dawn’s dissolved into daylight more than four hours ago it’s fucken teeming down! Big mad storm brewing out across the Irish Sea and creeping up on the city like some malevolent fog. I puts my coat on anyway and plunges out into that bitter winter morning, hungover and wretched but with my heart romping in its cage, happy as hell. You don’t think of friends in terms of chemistry but there’s something between us, la. There’s some powerful magnetism at play that’s got nothing to do with sex.
So we’ve sat in silence for hours that morning, just staring out into the sea with the wind slamming in off the river, bang into us, feeling it full force. We’ve sat there watching it conjure up a storm, teeth chattering to fuck, pair of us staring out in pure awe as the storm finally hits and lightning cracks that big black Mersey sky. I could’ve been swept away and tossed to my death for all I cared that morning. I was so fucken happy. That moment with her—that was the pinnacle of that whole eckie period. It was pristine and immovable and I knew that moment could never come again. And when I was falling asleep that night this lovely warm swoon crept over us—the kind you gets when you’re a kid, when dark nights start kicking in and you know there’s stuff to look forward to like Bommie night and Halloween and Crimbo. And for me, that special something was Millie. She’ll tear us to shreds when I do finally get there, tonight.
He’s fucking late. Jamie’s always late when he’s been at hers. She drops her knickers just as he’s walking out of the door, on the supposition that if she sends her man out sexually gratified, he can spit in the face of temptation. Cute, but incredibly naive. Doesn’t matter how big a grin your fella’s wearing as he walks out of the door—fresh fanny is fresh fanny at the end of the day. And she’s still nauseatingly paranoid about Jamie and I, or James, as she calls him, our man-and-girl friendship. This, I just can’t fathom, seeing as though the plaster of our friendship was cast four and half years before she lumbered onto the scene and started rationing the time we spent together. In the past, when Jamie’s had girlfriends, we’ve always remained as thick as thieves. We’re impenetrable us two. We can withstand anything and the reason for that, if she’d just open her eyes and see it, is that we don’t fancy each other. She should embrace it, the tube-bronze tart, but instead she’s trying to break it. Jesus! It’s not so long since the pair of us would suffer withdrawal symptoms if we let the day expire without speaking to each other. Now, days lapse into weeks. Months even. That conniving tip rat managed to keep us apart for the whole of June this year. Dragged him off to some two-star sunny scouse paradise in Marbella and drained him of all his savings.Jamie wears his emotions like a clown and I know he had a hard time that holiday. Even the prospect of sex on tap was but a paltry compensation and I’m sorry but no way in the world is that bint an imaginative lover anyway. I know for a fact that she doesn’t suck dick and boy did she lose the plot when she stumbled upon his stash! You don’t just stumble on Jamie’s stash by the way. It’s sandwiched between a pile of Auto Marts and old phone directories in a storage cupboard in the yard so she must have gone rooting which makes her fucking nosy as well as frigid. And because of that selfish bitch he had to forgo our annual pilgrimage to Amsterdam this year. He said it was a financial impossibility but I bet it was her jutting the bottom lip out. In her monolithic outlook, there is something sinister and threatening about friendships between men and women. Apparently we have “latent” desires for each other. Latent! She’s robbed that from Cosmo, the daft bitch. And I really hate the way he refers to her as a model. He always has to slip that little reference point in. As though staggering down the catwalk for a few poxy local fashion shows can somehow justify that she paints digits for a living.
Another twenty minutes lapse and I’m still loitering at the bar; sandwiched between two fat suits and silently debating my third JD which will either soothe or exacerbate this knot of anxiety wrenching my guts. Usually when I’ve a been a glutton with the beak, a couple of stiffs is all I need to calm my ticker down and stop my mind from rambling and lets face it, I’ve been here a thousand times before and I always pull through. There’s been occasions when I’ve done treble the amount I’ve done tonight and my heart has beat so violently that it’s felt as though it might smash through my ribcage and like I say, I always pull through. It’s nothing to get worked up about but I can’t deny that there is something sinister about the way I’m feeling. Maybe it’s just the austerity of the surroundings, all calculated minimalism, accentuating the need to feel and appear normal. Or it might just be that the gear was cut with speed. But there’s this nasty, negative feeling squirming through my system. No point dwelling on it though, best just to keep your head clean. Trouble is, you can’t pre-empt a blackout. Not when it’s drug induced. There are no alarm bells. It just whams you in one powerful sweep. Putting it into perspective though, I had three bumps before I left the house, a tiny one in the taxi on the way into town and a couple in the toilets about five minutes ago. That’s not even half a gram. Doesn’t warrant thinking about. People don’t OD on half a gram of beak. Fuck’s sake Millie. Get a grip. Order yourself another stiff and get a fucking grip!
I’m pulling up outside 60 Hope Street now and if the truth be known, I’m not that fussed on the gaff. End of the day though, it’s one of Millie’s favourites and I haven’t seen the waif in days. She practically lives in here. I can’t help myself though. I’m on okay dough at Fords and all that, I’m no worse off than any other wannabe cunt in here but it’s the same thing every time. I do—I half crap myself as I walks up these steps. Half feel like some cunt’s running his eye over us, finding us out. I would’ve much preferred the Eureka, the little Cypriot gaff up on Myrtle Parade. Friendly as fuck they are in there by the way, lovely little atmos they’ve got going. And it’s not that cheap either. There’s no end of professors and that from Millie’s uni, fellas from LIPA and all kinds. But it’s nice, end of the day. Down to earth. You can’t deny that the grub’s fucken gorgeous in here and that, but it’s a phoney’s paradise. I’m only doing this for her.
Can tell just by the way she’s stood there that she’s been caning it. Head lolled against her shoulder, hands clamped tight behind her back and her right foot jittering away. Pure keyed up body lingo that. Even before she comes bounding over, smiling brilliantly—which soon breaks into a scowl when she remembers how late I am, by the way. Even before I smell the whisky on her breath and wipe away a globule of beak-sodden snot from under her nose, I can tell you exactly what she’s had and how much of it, too. Just by the way she’s stood there. If the truth be known, I’m a tad disappointed that she’s gotten in this state all by herself without waiting for us. There’s nothing in the world like getting slowly, gloriously sozzled with your bezzy mate and your conversation flows seamlessly cos you’re drinking at the same pace and you’re on each other’s wavelength. I was looking forward to that tonight, but I’ll tell you exactly what’ll happen now. We’ll get past our starters and then she’ll casually suggest that we skip the mains and head straight into town and if I say I don’t fancy it, she’ll start sulking and acting up and I’ll give in cos I can’t be doing with the hassle. And then she’ll start demanding beak and note I says demanding cos that’s what she does when she’s done in like this and she’s on a mission and if I don’t deliver the goods she’ll say something ridiculous like:
“Ah well, I guess I’ll just have to get a taxi down Granby Street and go find my own then.”
Which’ll leave us no option but to drag Sean into town who won’t be too happy but’ll do it anyway and then she’ll start pleading with us to do a line:
“Oh please Jamie, just a tiny one? It’ll perk you up.”
And I’ll relent just to shut her up, but there’s no such thing as “just the one” with her is there? Which is why I do my best to avoid it these days cos next thing you know it’s ten o’clock next morning and we’re sat in Millie’s kitchen talking pure shite and everytime I make hints at heading off, she’ll go:
“Please, please, please! Just one more. One for the road.”
And then it’s three in the afternoon and I’m walking to the bus stop cos the taxi that she swears blind she ordered never materialised and my heart’s heavy with dread cos I know there’ll be a hundred answerphone messages from an irate Anne Marie who’s day/weekend/ life I’ve ruined and I always swear down on our kid’s life that I’m not doing beak again. Ever. And it’s a fucken miracle that our Billy’s still alive.
A skinny waitress guides us to our table. She has a pretty face and a delicate physique, but her arms and jawline are swathed in hazel down. A real friend would tell her—that’s just ugly, that is. You don’t want to be looking at something like that—not in a place like this. She places us at a window seat which looks right out onto Hope Street, the bleeding heart of the red light district. I make a clumsy attempt at steering us to a more central table but a sharp dig in my ribs summons me to silence.
“Best spec in the house this,” Jamie says when we are finally settled, “What you playing at?”
I shrug my shoulders apologetically and stare into the faded felt black of the street, where headlights are prowling along in full throttle, breathing a plume of excitement and fear into the already frightened night. A demented silhouette stumbles past the window, pausing to look in on us. Just a shape without a face. It could be her. It could be anyone. I avert my gaze to Jamie who is eyeing me intensely and gulp down the icy dregs of my JD. I slam the glass on the table with more force than intended and Jamie’s vision swooshes from left to right. He tosses a diffident smile to a couple who’s attention it’s caught.
“Chill out, for Christ sake—it’s Friday.” I say.
He opens his mouth in protest but the waitress materialises and hands him a menu. I place mine flat on the table, fold my arms and lower my head. The words swim in front of me, meaning my eyes are drunker than my head. Not drunk enough to let that hairy wrist swoop down and scoop away the empty glass, though. I’m half tempted to take her to one side and ask her if she’s aware of this fundamental defect. And how a simple course of lazer treatment would kill the problem forever and thus transform her from an unfuckable attractive lady to a fuckable stunner. I’d be doing her a favour. I hold her wrist while I double drain the glass. Maybe I will. Later.
The very idea of food causes my tummy to gripe. I forgo the starter and opt for a simple goat’s cheese salad. Jamie orders two starters and steak with fries. He flounders self-consciously over the wine menu then decides upon a bottle of Pouilly Fume—my favourite. He can’t afford this, but I don’t have the heart to tell him I’m beyond caring what I drink. From now on everything will taste the same. I order another JD. The downy waitress minces off and Jamie throws me a disapproving look. I feel about four.
“What’s that for?”
He thrusts a glass of water under my nose which I thrust right back.
“That,” he says through pursed lips.
I light a cigarette and pull a hopeless expression. The sort worn by good men married to vile fishwives.
“Eh now, don’t be looking at us like that. It was your idea to come out for a meal. And all you’ve ordered is a plate of rabbit food and enough whisky to sedate a gang of paraffins.”
I raise an eyebrow—my time-honoured taunt when Jamie tries to use words to impress me.
I roll my eyes dramatically and slip the jailbait sat opposite with her parents an impish wink. She drops her head and shifts uncomfortably in her seat. Jamie’s now frowning—or maybe he’s smiling. His face keeps shifting in and out of focus. I love his face. It’s bold and elegiac. Steeped in history. It dances when he talks.
“Come on now Millie, mate. You’re gonna get us kicked out if you’re not careful.”
“She’s gagging for it.”
“She’s a kid. And she’s with her Mam and Dad.”
“Still gagging for it though.”
“I’ll remind you of that when you’ve got a daughter of your own and you catch some fat aul’ perve leching her.”
“Somehow I don’t see myself as a mother. A fat old perve perhaps but not a mother.”
“Aaaahhh, see! That’s exactly what Anne Marie used to say! Not that she seen herself as an aul’ perve mind you. Just, like, she never had no maternal instincts and that. Now look at her!
“Oh dear. Wrong move, Jamie darling. Just when you think you know someone they come up with something so crass it can shock you. How can he even think like that? How can he begin to try to put me in remotely the same box as that tanned tart!
“Wanna see her, babe! Can not even walk past a pram without blubbing, that one!”
His face slips into focus and it’s all adoring. I feel sick.
“Yes, but I’m nothing like Anne Marie. We’re worlds apart.”
“Aaaah, no—you’re not that different,” he says, protectively.
“Oh yeah we are. The major difference being that when I see a mother and toddler in the street the first thought that flips through my head is how much easier my fist will slide in now that she’s been stretched by child birth.”
“Aarrrr-ey! You’ve put us right off my food now.”
“Don’t be getting all righteous on me, Jamie Keeley. You’re the one who implanted those kind of thoughts in my head in the first place. I was a good catholic girl before I met you and your Billy. It’s you guys that turned me into a pervert! You let me watch Animal Farm when I was how old, hey? Fourteen—that’s how old! Which is tantamount to child abuse is it not?”
I’m having fun with him, now. He’s biting on this one hook, line and sinker.
“I mean, did you not envisage how the exposition of such brutal filth would effect such a young and impressionable mind?”
“Now, stop right there. You stole that video from our kid’s room. And if you remember rightly, I was extremely concerned when you told us you’d watched it. Extremely concerned.”
“I noticed. You started locking your dogs up when I came round.”
He twigs and laughs hard. I love making him laugh. I can’t imagine her ever making him laugh the way I do.
Here we go. Miracle she’s lasted this long, in fairness.
“Jaaaay-meeeee,” she says with big molten eyes, “Are you hungry?”
“Fucken starving as a matter of fact,” I goes, “Wish they’d get a move on with my steak. Why?”
Her eyes wander sulkily around the room then fall south on the table. A short silence follows.
“Have you seen Sean recently?” she asks, dunking a piece of bread into her wine and making a little pyramid of the ash she’s spilt on the table.
“No, honey. Ain’t seen him. Not since training last week—which reminds us. How come I ain’t seen you in there for over a month?”
“I start back at Uni next week don’t I? And I’ve had to make a start on my dissertation.”
“What’s that all about then?”
“Duh! It’s like a very long e-ssay!”
“Kinell Millie love, I know what a fucken dissertation is! Jesus! I’m asking you what it’s about.”
“Oh ehhm, books. Queer theory, ehhm, deconstruction of stable identities in contemporary literature.”
“Liar.” She grins cheekily.
“Sounds good though doesn’t it?!”
“You haven’t even started yet have you? Come ’ead Millie! This is your final year. The end of the road is in sight and all that. You don’t know how fucken lucky you are, you!”
“Serious, girl! You live with your aul’ fella who pure fucken indulges you and gives you dough and I don’t know what else . . . You do what the fuck you want . . . You don’t even have to work by the way, it’s all so fucken easy to you. . .”
“I said alright!”
Her eyes flash with a glazed chemical anger. I change the subject, pronto.
“Knocked him out in training, by the way. Sean. Caught him with a beauty! Left upper and that.”
“Is he coming into town d’you know?”
“Nah, doubt it, girl—I do, seriously doubt it. Goes down to Kellys of a Friday, done he? Him, our Billy and that—they’re steering clear a town after that other thing. But you should’ve seen it Millie! Out fucken cold he were! Fucken O’Malley went fucken white, la! Was not happy about. . .”
“Do you fancy going up there after dinner?”
“You fucken wha’? Thought you fucken hated it in there. You said it were full of scum.”
“Still said they were scum. . .”
I’m having a laugh with her now. I’ve known the kid long enough. Course I know what her rap is, but anyway.
“What’s the sudden interest in Sean? Last time we all went out, the two of youse spent the night bickering like kids didn’t youse? And you told our Billy that you’d pissed in his drink.”
I stares into her long and hard, furrowing my brows and stroking my chin like I’m trying to solve some big fucken mystery. Then slowly, dramatically, I lets a knowing grin split my kite.
“Aaahhh, I see. Now I get it. You’ll be wanting a bit of the other, will you? Now listen here Millie. This is the deal, yeah? We’re gonna enjoy this lovely meal together right? And then we’ll maybe have a few cocktails at the Platinum Lounge? And then I’ll drop you wherever you want. Kellys, The Pod, Dreamers, wherever—but for me, it’s bed. I’ve got to be up at eight to take Anne Marie to work and I’m on overtime myself. So there’s no big mad beak bender going on tonight.”
I almost feel her heart hit the table. But that’s how it is—I’m not giving in to her. Can pull as many pouts as she wants tonight. I’m not relenting.
“Arrr-ay, Millie! Be fucken reasonable, will you? You saw how much earache she gave us last time. . .”
I pause. There’ll never be a better time. I go for it.
“. . .and I need to keep her sweet for next weekend, don’t I?”
“Why? What’s going on next weekend?”
I gulp. If I don’t spit it out right now, I never will.
“You know! I’m taking her to the Lakes aren’t I? The big one and that!”
“Er, hang on there, Jamie! The big one? What d’you mean the big one?”
“What we talked about, back at yours, after the Blue.”
“What? What did we talk about?”
All despondency leaks from her kite.
“Kinell Millie! D’you not remember anything from that night?”
“Jesus Jamie. I don’t even remember getting to the Blue that night, let alone being back at ours!”
“So? How could you forget something as important as that?”
“As what for fuck’s sake?”
I pause. I’m shitting it, here. Here goes, anyway.
“Anne Marie. I’m gonna pop the question aren’t I?”
My heart sinks way way down into the pits of my guts. I clutch my snatch involuntarily and swallow back a hot emotion threatening to erupt inside. His eyes are shiny, full of vim—and the olive hued skin of his face opens up like cracks in drying clay as he yields into one brilliant, terrified smile.
“Well? Say something will you!” he sparks.
I lean over and throw my arms around him and the warmth of his body radiates through me like a huge shot of Jamesons. I recoil a little, frightened that he might feel the thud of my heart which is pounding so fast that it’s almost a flatliner. He pulls me towards him again and squeezes me and when he releases me and I’m staring right into him, I realise how stone cold sober I am. His face is in focus, smiling and dancing with stupid, stupid happiness and he’s laughing his big hard laugh and I’m laughing too and swamping him with kisses and all the time I’m aware of this sickening sensation in my guts and throat and the painful hum of an organ threatening to shut down.