Four inches - that’s what it came down to in the end. Four lousy inches, no more and no less. Four inches is the space between the accelerator and the brake. I actually measured it. So: just a little turn of the ankle, a little dab on the accelerator, and everything would’ve been different.
The traffic light ahead was green too, I remember. Things might be coming apart at the seams but green was still green. Green didn’t mean stop here and do something stupid or dangerous, or both. So why did it happen at all? A bit of the old self-sabotage routine? Something to bring it up with the shrink, I suppose. Eventually.
But there I was, slotting my Golf into a parking spot a couple of hundred yards down from that café. Firenza. What kind of a name was that anyway? Tons of these places had shut down already. Maybe that’s why I picked Firenza: driving by the other day I was surprised to see it still open. I remembered Sonia mentioning that she liked the place. Well maybe when she got back… When she got back. Did I need another sign that I was losing it? There was a big glowing one announcing that already – me agreeing to meet the wife of a jailed gangster here.
I turned off the engine and let down the window. I had a few minutes yet. An opportunity to give that mindfulness thing another go. There had to be a reason the shrink kept pushing it at me. I let my mind into neutral, let it wander its own way. Right away, it snapped back to what it had been doing on my way here: wondering why and how the hell I had let myself be shanghaied into this. As if I didn’t know the answer to that one. It was the old story.
I was in the middle of Dublin Bay when Ma phoned. Literally in the middle of it, half way along the South Bull Wall. I’d been going there a fair bit since Sonia flew the coop, out for a slow, careful run. Slow and careful because of the top of the Wall being so uneven. Why wouldn’t it be, after a few centuries of tides and storms and the River Liffey battering at it. But between the bockety surface and the occasional, savage, out-of-nowhere gusts of wind, and the sun’s dazzle off the water, you could lose your bearings here at the drop of a hat. Next thing you knew, you’d be getting pitched arse-over-tip into the sea. All too easy to twist an ankle into the bargain – to out-and-out break one even.
So it was more shuffling I did than running. Which was just grand by me, actually. Why was because it was good training for the ring. No, I wasn’t great or anywhere near great back when I was serious about boxing, but at least I could hold my own. I wanted that back. After ten, fifteen years away from it? The shrink backed the idea, though. She’d be the type to come straight out and say so if she thought it was magical thinking, or something.
The Wall was most definitely doing its magic that afternoon. My head was full of that never-ending swishing and swaying of the sea and the sun had made an appearance, sliding in and out from behind the clouds to knock sparkles from the Bay. Northside, the Hill of Howth was performing its slow shimmy across the waves to keep pace with my progress along the Wall. Half-way to the lighthouse and I was in the zone. The whole walking-on-water illusion was complete. So, I wondered afterwards, was that a sign I missed? Not me, of course – Ma. She was the one imagining that I walked on water. Her son the newly-minted sergeant, the white-haired boy himself. The man who could do anything.
Her voice was reedy. I put it down to the anniversary. Seven years for Terry today. Seven. It was unbelievable.
“Ma, I can’t hear you. I’m out in the wind and everything.”
“I said, how come you didn’t ring me back. That text I sent you?”
I have to have a little talk with you ASAP. A very sad situation.
“I was going to, later on.”
She said nothing for a while.
“Well how’s Sonia, tell us.”
“Sonia’s in bloody China, Ma. Did I forget to tell you that?”
“Give over with that, would you. God but you’re cheeky today.”
“All right. Sonia’s grand. So far as I know, like.”
“Good. Give it time. It’ll all turn out to the good. I’m very fond of Sonia, Tommy – very.”
“Me too Ma.”
Her raspy laugh collapsed into a cough. Once, when I was eleven, I took all her fags and I mashed them up and put them in the bin. She was doing the office cleaning at the time. I’d sit at the bottom of the stairs waiting on her to come home. Instead of getting the clattering that I deserved, she cried and cried. I’d never seen her like that before. It scared the shite out of me, in actual fact. My shirt collar was ringing wet from her tears.
“Where are you anyway? On top of Mount Kilimanjaro, is it?”
“I wish. No, I’m out for a bit of a run.”
“Where, I said.”
“Poolbeg? You’re mad.”
“Yeah well we know that already don’t we. I come by it honestly, but.”
Too late. But you can’t take back words. If there was a name for that long road that led Terry to that laneway that night, it wasn’t ‘madness.’ Terry was never ‘mad.’ A twin would know. Twin - it’s like a magic word for some people. They think it’s two of the same person. Not so. Me, my temper issue aside, I was always more on the Ma side of the ledger. I liked things organized, settled. Terry, it had to be said, was more like our Da - fly-off-the-handle style. An easy mark for the dealers anyway.
Ma still saw Terry all over town. She knew it wasn’t him, of course. It was someone Terry’s size or with Terry’s walk, or with Terry’s hair. It was that way for me too for years. Like I had a Terry-model Sat Nav bolted into my head complete with a ghost map of Dublin. I’d catch sight of a hollow-eyed, ruined-looking head wandering into traffic or lying crooked on the footpath: Terry. Just because you don’t believe in ghosts doesn’t mean you won’t be seeing one. Maybe even bumping into one. Another thing I never knew? You can be fierce angry at a ghost. Broke a lot of hearts, Terry did.
Another cough from Ma.
“Ma? Them fags? They have got to go. OK? No two ways about it.”
“I know, I know. But it takes time. It takes time.”
She was quiet then. The big thing was waiting to be said. She knew I’d be heading over to the graveyard before dark.
“So give him my best. Will you?”
Her voice was quavering. I hoped to God she wouldn’t lose it because if she did, I would too. But Ma’s Ma. “Make sure and tell him, Tommy. Make sure.”
It was that same warning tone she used when we were young lads. I liked hearing it. In actual fact, I needed to hear it at the present time. It meant she’d be okay.
“Ma. I always tell him that. He knew it too, he always did. Always.”
It was cooler out here than I’d thought. I hadn’t noticed those whitecaps out toward the Kish.
“Listen, love. Before you go. There’s something else. I got a bell out of the blue. Bernie Cummins, it was. You remember Bernie? Sure you do.”
“I do and I don’t.”
“Ah come on, you remember poor Darren? What happened to him?”
Poor Darren. Darren Cummins was one of Crumlin’s more violent criminals – and that was saying something. Off his head basically. One of his quirks was using a nail gun to get his point across. Did that have something to do with Poor Darren encountering someone holding a double-barreled shotgun about eighteen inches from his face, intent on getting a point of his own across?
“Bernie’s a mother too you know, Tommy.”
“And that qualifies her to…?”
“God but you’re contrary today. What ails you, is it work?”
“That too. Listen, Ma –”
“- my point is, a mother loves her children no matter what.”
‘No matter what.’ Well I could hardly miss that one. But this from a woman who ‘married for love’ the dashing Frankie Malone? Frankie dashed, all right. Left her with two boys to rear.
“Ma. What are you telling me this for?”
“She’s trying to get in touch with him, but he’s not answering. In bits, she is, in bits.”
A cargo boat I hadn’t noticed earlier was moving into the Bay. Gary, I thought. So maybe he wasn’t cut from the same crazy cloth as Darren, but he was a bad article in his own right. I came across him years ago in a pub we were clearing. And my God, what a shaper. He was high for sure. He got into my face right away. Said he, say hello to good old Sheila for me will you. Good old Sheila. That’s what he called my Ma. I almost had a go at him then and there.
“Gary’s all she has left, Tommy. It’s awful, just awful.”
The gusts were getting stronger by the minute.
“What about Jennifer, the daughter? She’s there all to the good, isn’t she.”
“See, you do remember! Lovely girl Jenn! Didn’t all the lads have a crush on her?”
“Not this lad. Come here to me now Ma. Your pal Bernie, she has a husband, does she not.”
“Of course she does! But Tony got put away. Remember? A long sentence. Very long.”
Tony Cummins had a new barrister: my Ma.
“Ma, listen to me. What does this have to do with me, or you for that matter?”
“Who said it did? I’m not asking for anything.”
“Yeah you are. Or you’re going to.”
“It’s just that your name came up, Tommy. That’s all.”
“My name came up. Now how did that happen, I wonder.”
“Ah go away out of that. Look, Tony’s not the worst.”
“How do you know he’s not?”
“Well he’s nothing like what’s out there these days. Not by a long shot.”
A gust raced across the water and pushed me back on my heels. I looked out over the swells. ‘Not the worst.’ Ma wasn’t wrong. But there was a problem here. Ma knew right from wrong but her loyalties kept getting in her way. Tony Cummins had somehow managed to stay free of the feuding and the back-stabbing. No mean feat that. It’s gone completely mad here the past few years.
Memories tip-toed around in my mind. There were pictures at home of me and Terry at our First Communion. Gary Cummins was in them too, along with proud, smiling, young-looking mothers Bernadette Cummins and Sheila Malone. But try as I might, I just couldn’t remember Bernie Cummins’ face. I didn’t recall seeing Tony Cummins in them. As for our Da, he wouldn’t be making any appearance in any snapshots. Lazarus, he was not. Me and Terry were well into our teens before Ma let go of her tragic-accident-on-a-building-site-in-London line. Like they say, the past can be fierce unpredictable.
“The thing is, Tommy, it’s not just Bernie asking. You know what I mean?”
“No I don’t.”
“Don’t be like that now! Yes, you do know. Her husband I’m talking about.”
Everything around me - the sea, the wind, even the aggravation – went on hold.
“Ma. What are you saying.”
“You heard me.”
“What you said about Tony Cummins. Are you spoofing here?”
“What a thing to ask your own mother. Listen to me, Bernie kept telling me over and over again. ‘Be sure and tell that to Tommy now.’ She must have said it a half dozen times.”
I had been wrong about the tide. It was coming in. A patch of sunshine hit Howth.
“She mentioned a McDonalds there in Clondalkin, across from Dunnes. You know it?”
“Bad idea, Ma. Too many eyes out there.”
My feet had taken on a mind of their own. They were pawing the stones, like a dog,
“So where will I tell her, Tommy?”
“To meet her, what do you think?”
“Who said I was going along with this?”
Ma always had a lot of strong cards. Her measured pause was one. Eventually, she spoke
“Are you still there, Tommy?”
“Look, Ma. We’re mad busy at work and all - and I mean mad. OK?”
“Just ten minutes would do it. That’s all. Any place really.”
Some coffee place, was all I could come up with. Somewhere out of the way. One came to mind then, one that Sonia liked. Passing it last week and I was surprised it was still open.
“There must be a place you have in mind. Is there Tommy?”
“All right, there’s a café. Firenza it’s called. In Rathmines.”
“Fir what? And why did you pick Rathmines?”
“That’s the whole point, Ma. Firenza, OK? Ten minutes, tell her. Ten - not a second longer.”
And that was that. I stopped well short of the lighthouse and headed back to the car park.
Nothing registered with me on my drive back through that no-man’s land by the Pigeon House. Not the godawful stink of sewerage or the freaky sound effects from the generating station. Not even the huge striped-sock painted chimneys, Dublin’s famous two-fingered salute to the universe, looming up over the road like they were sizing you up to collapse on you. That conversation with Ma nibbled away at my thoughts. Tony Cummins making an approach to a copper? It just didn’t make sense. He’d be a goner if word got out, in prison or out.
Back at the apartment I put the shower to needle-power. To hell with the Cumminses, I decided, each and every one of them. I had an appointment this evening. Nothing was going to get in the way of it. Seven years had come and gone: seven years. It was unbelievable. We found Terry huddled in a doorway the back of Abbey Street. You’d have thought he was just nodding out. His face was still blue when we got to him. He couldn’t have been gone long. One of the first of the fentanyl overdoses; a distinction of sorts. People to say life is for the living and all that, but Terry had left me another distinction, one I didn’t want. I was now a Detective Sergeant in the Drugs Squad with a brother dead of an overdose.
I had three sausages left over from yesterday. They’d go with the spaghetti left over from the day before. I’d never been able to time a microwave right. Poking everything around to cool it, my eyes strayed to the IKEA packs stacked by the wall. Still in their cardboard coffins, still giving off that IKEA stink. Still waiting for me every evening. I pushed away from the table and took my plate to the kitchen counter. The notion of a second beer was fierce tempting. I finished the spaghetti and looked around for the bag with my gear for the cemetery. Unsurprisingly, it was where I’d left it this morning. It felt heavier this year, somehow.
I took my time driving to the graveyard. The end of the day is the time I aimed for, just before they close the gates. It was an obvious mental trick, of course. It let me off the hook: sorry Terry, I’ve got to go - they’re closing the place up. Half an hour did the job anyway. If the battery didn’t do something weird like last year, Pacman would take 3 or 4 minutes. It was the identical Pacman that we started out with a million years ago. I still had Avenger and Mario too. Mario was Terry’s favourite for ages. I usually brought the DS with me, for my backup. I could nearly donate it to a museum at this stage.
By the time I was parking next the graveyard that dull ache in my chest had turned sharp. I hunted around the glove compartment for paper hankies. A strong whiff of lilac mingled with the dusty, metallic smell you got before rain. The sight of fresh grave loaded up with flowers and wreaths gave me a jolt. Then came the usual doubts. This ritual of mine was just plain weird. How many more years would I carry on with it? But I pushed on.
I didn’t need to be a trained detective to notice the figure hanging around at a sensible distance. I’d been expecting it. But I’d ignore Mr. Christopher Cullinane until I was good and ready. It took time to work up a charitable frame of mind. The same Christy had nearly derailed the funeral. The minute I saw him, I lost the rag. The gall of that junkie bastard showing up? Talk about out of order. I remember Christy running like a starving greyhound; me sort of admiring the fact that he could run that fast.
We both knew there’d be no re-runs of that shemozzle, an outcome that was mainly Ma’s doing. The first Christmas after, Christy had left a box of chocolates and a card at the door and immediately and very wisely made himself scarce. I was not one bit impressed, though. I still wanted to burst him, in actual fact. Ma just stared at the window while I said my piece concerning where Christy could put his chocolates. Then she got up and walked away.
A most peculiar sight entirely greeted me when I came out to the house a few days after. Who was cocked up at the kitchen table, a grand big mug of tea in front of him and a plate of Mikados to graze on? And sitting where Terry used to sit? You could hear a pin drop. Ma executed a longish version of her staring at the window routine while I stared hard at Christy. Christy stared down at the table. And? And nothing. Later on, Ma asked me if I knew that Christy dreamt about Terry every single night. That he cried every time too? Did I know that Christy had thought of doing away with himself? And - did I think God didn’t care about Christy? These were not questions.
My mind was wandering. Nothing new there, alas. But I had to get my act together.
I made my way over to the big marble model next to Terry’s and perched on a corner of it. I tried not to notice the plaster angel with the rosary hanging off it and focused instead on the scent of lilac and the feel of warm evening air. I could feel Christy’s eyes burning on my back but I didn’t care. Out came the Nintendo. I turned the sound right down. I got my little miracle then: actually getting to level IV without it crapping out on me. As usual, I could barely get the words out.
“All right Terry. Your go now.”