‘Why don’t you take Luke?’ Eamonn said. ‘I was going to get the car washed.’

‘No. We said we’d take turns with his appointments.’ Breda rolled up the Saturday magazine and put it in her shoulder bag. ‘Anyway, I’ve booked into a yoga class.’

‘Nice for you.’

‘Nicer if I didn’t have to share the 16A with every gurrier heading into town on the lam.’

Ignore the dig. Although taking the bus was nothing to the slagging he got driving her Micra to work.

‘You could go to the park when he’s finished,’ she said. ‘For a kick-around.’

‘Will you, Dad?’ Luke asked.

‘We’ll see. Throw the ball in the boot if you want.’

Heading out the door, she called back. ‘The counsellor said you should spend more time with him.’

Driving across the bridge at Blackhall Place, Luke twisted in his seat to get a better view of the river.

‘Sit back, Luke.’

The Liffey was low, water barely touching the quay walls, green moss and debris exposed at each side, as if the riverbed was drawing the water in and downwards. Clouds scudded across the sky, seeming nearer to cranes and chimneys than was possible.

‘Could it disappear?’ Luke asked. ‘The river? Could the sky get sucked down? Because of gravity and tides together?’

‘For God’s sake,’ Eamonn said. ‘That doesn’t make any kind of sense.’

Did the kid really believe the sky and land would meet and the drizzle in between would get squeezed out? As he went to switch on the wipers his hand knocked up against some geegaw. All her accessories made him feel hemmed in – CDs attached to the sun visor, a cupholder on the dashboard, bells hanging off the mirror.

The health centre hosting Luke’s Play Up, Play Out group was in a rundown estate on the Northside. When they stood in front of the sliding door it stuttered half open, jerked shut again. Luke resisted Eamonn’s attempts to pull him through the gap. Barely on the other side, the door slid across noisily behind them, guillotining the air.

In the lift someone had scratched a series of X’s in the silver metal. Luke ran his finger over them, one after another. As the doors opened, he sped up. ‘I’ll finish them,’ Eamonn said, putting his finger next to Luke’s on the X. He waited until the boy disappeared into a room before he wiped his hand on his trousers. They needed hand sanitisers everywhere, including the lift.

The other parents sat together in the coffee dock, catching up on the latest; what some therapist said, alternative treatment options, health insurance. Eamonn went over to their table and offered to get a tea or coffee. No, everyone was sorted.

Two servers, a man and a teenage girl, chatted behind the counter, backs turned to Eamonn.

‘Well, anyway, it’s not that sister, it’s the one that’s adopted,’ the girl said, tying a dishcloth in a knot. ‘You know, like, her uncle?’

‘Do I?’ the man asked. Then, as he faced Eamonn, ‘And what can I do you for?’

‘I’ll take a black coffee.’

Sitting a styrofoam cup into the machine the man pressed the red button. Suddenly he said, ‘I have it. Eight letters. S-P-A-N-I-A-R-D. Spaniard,’ and went over to carefully fill in his crossword.

‘Is there not an i in Spain?’ the girl said.

‘In the land of the one-eyed man, the Spaniard is king.’

‘Anyway, you’re thinking of Martin, me Da’s half-brother,’ she continued. ‘This fella’s from Kerry. He trains horses.’

‘And what’s that got to do with the price of eggs?’

Eamonn waited for the coffee machine to start up but nothing came out of the little pipe.

‘Fuck sake,’ he muttered. As he worked over his chewing gum, the hinge of his jaw clicked.

The man looked up, opened a drawer and took out a bag of coffee. Rooting around, he eventually held up a large pair of scissors.

‘His horse’s in a big race today,’ she went on. ‘He’s a 14 to 1 which apparently is really good ’cos no one knows about him. Like, if you put a bet of a hundred euro on you’d get maybe . . .’

A space opened in Eamonn’s head; floodlights illuminating a vast empty stadium, every white line and blade of grass, razor sharp.

‘I know what it means,’ the man sighed, tamping the coffee down, tapping bits of metal. ‘A grand and a half. That’s if he won. Or nothing at all.’

‘Yeah, around that. Apparently, he’s a dead cert. I put a tenner on.’

‘No such thing, love, not in this life.’

After another bit of fiddling, dark liquid trickled out into the cup, filling it halfway.

‘Well, I’ll know in the next hour,’ she said, wiping a stain off her black top. ‘Even our Mags put twenty squids on. And she’s a Jehovah’s Witness. Pica Pie. Mad names they have. She’s going to text me.’

Eamonn paid for the coffee, went back to the parent group and tried to latch on to their conversation. He lasted about five minutes before he excused himself to go to the bathroom. Down the corridor he found a waiting area with some plastic seats lined up. He sat, took out his phone, opened the browser, typed in Paddy Power. A message came up, This device is protected by GamBlock ®, and the browser closed. The fucking blocker. Very first thing Breda had insisted on, five weeks back, when things blew up. She’d her research done before she had it out. The home computer, the phone, even Luke’s iPad mini, she had it all done and dusted the same night. Credit cards, bank accounts. Then, last week, his Audi.

His mind burrowed around for something – at the GA meeting on Thursday – to make your computer think you were a different person. Jimmy had been going on about it but he hadn’t really been listening; something about an IP address. He typed in IP address betting blocker. Scrolling down the list, he paused at the third one, a YouTube video, clicked on it and waited.

It was taking ages to load, then the sound streamed in before the image. From the black screen in his hand a voice said, Hi. Nick here from Guvnor dot com. This is the last in a five-part series on how to be anonymous online. First though . . . It froze. When it came back on Nick was in the middle of saying, As you can see, my IP address has changed from Barcelona to Bogota. Some of these addresses won’t work so just go through the list . . .

Eamonn felt steadied by Nick’s posh English accent bouncing off the scummy health centre walls; one man reaching out to a fellow traveller. Nick must have needed to be anonymous; maybe he had a wife breathing down his neck but he’d slipped the noose. The video froze again, and the Wi-Fi symbol disappeared from the screen. Shit. He could jam the phone in Breda’s face. Eamonn ground his back teeth together, wearing down the edge of a chipped molar.

Luke wasn’t due to get out for . . . what . . . another half-hour or so? He’d go see what they were at, maybe they’d finish up early. He’d sort something. This blocker shit only left him even more determined. Breda, I’ll match you and raise you one. Where did she get off, messing with his phone? And that dig she got in about the Luke situation. Not that she’d come out and blamed him directly, yet.

When the kid first started to carry on with the food thing, she was actually the one who went along with it. Giving him porridge every morning and then making another batch for lunch when he came in from school. She was the one who said, ‘It’s not the worst. He’s been perfectly normal for nearly seven years, that’s got to stand to him.’ But those years could have as easily rested on the head of a different child. Three bowls of porridge a day, chewing bits of paper in between, that’s what the kid had reduced it all down to. That’s where her bending over backwards had got them. The whole lot of them lined up now to start counselling sessions next week. Fuck sake. The thought of listening to a seven-year-old kid’s version of life’s difficulties, even if it was his own son, it wasn’t on.

He checked the time again. He could just about make it. There must be a Celtic, maybe a Boyle Sports, around here somewhere. If he popped out, could he be back in time? Luke was finished at . . . no, too tight. Through a glass panel in the door he spotted Luke holding some kind of hairdressing dummy head. A girl handed him curlers. Luke applied each one carefully, rolling the hair tight to the head. Both kids were ignoring a little boy jabbing himself with a toy dagger.

Eamonn knocked on the glass, got the kids’ attention and gestured to Luke. Marie, the therapist sitting cross-legged in the corner, looked up. He pointed at his watch and mouthed, ‘Emergency, sorry’. She went over, spoke to Luke. Taking the head gently from him, she helped him pull his rucksack on.

‘We’re supposed to tidy up,’ Luke said, without looking up at Eamonn.

‘We need to leave a bit early.’

‘I like tidying up. I’m the best at it.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Eamonn said, and wondered why the fuck they would make the kids tidy up. How was that even play therapy?

As soon as they got into the lift, Eamonn asked, ‘What did you do this morning?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Who’s that girl you were playing with?’

‘Angela,’ Luke said. ‘Aspie.’

‘What?’

‘Asperger’s.’

‘Oh, yeah. How do you know?’

‘Circle of sharing.’

‘What do you say, you know, in the sharing circle?’

‘You don’t have to say anything. You can pass the talking stick to the next person.’

Good man, Eamonn thought to himself. Say nothing.

‘What are you eating?’

‘What?’ Luke said, continuing on with very tiny chews.

‘Is it paper?’

‘What?’

‘Spit it out.’

‘I need to do seven. Seven more bites to thirty-five.’

The boy sped up, then took the ball of paper from his mouth.

‘Paper can taste like anything,’ he said, rolling the spitball between his fingers. ‘If I think it’s an apple taste. Or chocolate. It’s actually better than the real thing.’

In the car Eamonn switched the radio on to some talk show. He wasn’t really listening, just watching the clock on the dashboard. Still time.

‘Can I use your phone?’ Luke asked. ‘Angry Birds?’

Eamonn lifted the phone but the battery was nearly dead.

‘No, I have to charge it,’ he said, sitting it into the hands-free.

At the second lights he took a left into a side street. He sped up, then braked sharply. A man, propping a pub door open with wooden crates, paid them no heed. Next door was a tyre replacement operation with a car up on the rack and beside that, Ace Bookmakers. Bang on.

‘Where are we going?’ Luke asked.

‘Just a message.’

‘I don’t want chips.’

‘It’s not a takeaway. Just stay there, I’ll be back in a minute.’

He hopped out of the car. As he turned to zap the locks, he could see Luke climbing into the front seat. Eamonn opened the door abruptly and Luke, holding onto the handle inside, jerked forward.

‘What, Luke, what is it?’

‘How much air is in the car?’

‘Oh, Jesus.’

‘I can’t stay in the car by myself. In America you’re not allowed leave a dog in the car. It’s the law.’

‘OK. Get out, get out.’

When they got to the door of the bookies, Eamonn bent down.

‘Wait here. Wait in the porch. I’ll just be a minute.’

‘I can’t.’

‘It’s just a minute. You’re fine. I’ll get you a comic on the way home.’

He turned and went in. Two other punters were standing chatting; only one TV was switched on. Eamonn checked the form off the pages stuck up on the wall and found his horse – Pica Pie, 2.25, Down Royal. The odds had dropped back to 6 to 1; still all right. He took his wallet out, looking for a twenty. A fifty slipped into his hand.

The teller, a woman, exchanged his cash for a docket. She was wearing the kind of make-up Breda put on for a night out. Full-on eye shadow, a bit much for a day behind the counter. He caught a movement reflected in the glass divider; Luke walking across the shop.

‘Sorry,’ the teller said, ‘we don’t let kids –’

‘Yeah, I know,’ Eamonn said. ‘I know, it’s OK.’

With his hands on Luke’s shoulder, he began to steer him towards the entrance. One punter glanced over at the boy and Eamonn gave an apologetic shrug. Now the bet was laid, he felt a sureness in his touch. He was well able to manage the kid.

‘Relax, Luke, take a deep breath.’

Once he had the boy stationed at the door, he went back over to the woman.

‘Could we have a quick look? The race, it’s on in a few minutes.’

‘You can’t have children. Sorry.’

Now a man was over talking to Luke, using his rolled-up newspaper to make his point. Eamonn knew by the twitching of Luke’s fingers he was counting. He caught the man’s last sentence, ‘They’ll bleed ya, bleed ya, no mercy at the end of the day. Leeches.’

‘I need to go,’ Luke whispered loudly to his father.

‘What?’

‘Number two.’

Of course, he had issues in that department as well. He should have made him go at the health centre. But once that kid got himself settled on a toilet seat, you were in for the long haul.

‘Can you hang on?’

‘I can’t.’

Any father would feel sorry for their kid, but Luke pushed you to the edge. Eamonn pictured the jockey giving the horse a chance to stretch his legs, connect with the track. The going’d be soft enough today. Everything was in the balance. Breda never gave him credit for his ability to balance things. Fuck her. He was the one on the cusp of something, at the dead centre of real stuff, with his son in tow. First, sort out the toilet situation, catch the race, then back to collect.

‘Is there a jacks here we can use?’

‘He looks like he’s going to spew, he does,’ the man said.

‘He’s not,’ Eamonn said. ‘He’s good.’

‘There’s no facilities here,’ the woman called out. ‘Even for customers.’

‘What about the pub?’ Eamonn asked.

‘I don’t think they’re open,’ the man chipped in.

‘Well it’s nearly half bloody two,’ Eamonn said. ‘They look open.’

‘Dunno,’ the woman said. ‘Dawson’s. The son. They’re not the better of it.’

‘He wasn’t right for years. If it’s closed,’ the man continued, ‘there’s a lane just past it. He’ll spew, I’d say.’

Grilles were down on the two porthole windows of Dawson’s Lounge but the door was wedged open with a stack of crates. As Eamonn walked towards the entrance, he saw a movement in one of them. He thought straight away of a rat and pulled Luke to the far side of him.

‘All OK, Luke boy, it’s OK.’

Then, he heard cooing and realised there were pigeons pressed together in the bottle crates. You could see, through the slats, a flash of orange beak, the gleam of a rolling eye. Luke had a grip of his hand and walked close beside him, chewing rhythmically.

Through the porch they stepped into a dark space. The stained glass of the door bled reds and yellows across the floorboards. A tasselled lightshade attached to the wall glowed, enough to show scraps of things everywhere: scrunched-up newspapers, cardboard boxes stuffed with rubbish, a half-built cupboard. An odd-shaped, wooden panel painted as a seascape, maybe a stage prop, leaned against a woodwork bench. No tables or chairs.

Nearly the last thing Eamonn noticed was the old man sitting up at the bar, on the only barstool. What had he been doing before they came in, no newspaper in front of him, no drink?

‘Excuse me,’ Eamonn said. ‘Could we use the facilities?’

The man exhaled, the fatal blow he had been expecting.

‘Are you here for the birds?’ he asked.

‘What? No, the lad’s been caught short.’

A door behind the counter opened.

‘What is it?’

‘Nothing, Lena,’ the man said.

‘Is he going to take them?’ the woman said. She was tall; a cockscomb of stiff grey hair added another few inches.

‘Just to use a toilet,’ Eamonn said, appealing directly to the woman.

‘Is the child sick?’

‘No,’ Eamonn said. ‘He badly needs a toilet.’

The woman came out a bit further and pointed to a door marked leithreas, tucked away in a corner. There was a pressure on his hand; it surprised him. Between the constancy of the grasp and the chaos of the place, he had nearly forgotten Luke was there.

‘Ah, no,’ the old man said. ‘That’s an abortion of a jacks. Blocked solid.’

‘Let him through here, Jim,’ she said. ‘He’s just a little lad.’

She lifted the counter and Eamonn and Luke followed her through the door into a cluttered sitting room. A crocheted throw on the couch competed with patterned carpet and wallpaper.

‘It’s like the bat house,’ Luke whispered.

‘What?’

‘Like the zoo. The smell.’

As they emerged into a hallway, the woman opened a door under the stairs and stuck her arm in. She pulled a string for the light, then retreated, only as far as the door of the sitting room.

Luke said, ‘Can you come in?’

‘It’s too small,’ Eamonn answered. ‘I’ll be right here.’

He took the kid’s rucksack and waited outside the door. The woman stood at the other end of the hall, watching him. Luke began to make a low, guttural noise. It went on. The door of the toilet was painted blue and cut at a slant across the top to fit in under the stairs. Eamonn stared at the grain of the wood so intently he felt the noises were originating from the door itself.

‘I smell pig pee,’ the door said in a strained voice.

‘What?’

‘If you eat rashers your pee smells like pig.’

Eamonn looked away from the door to the woman. Her big, loose sandals had the look of open-mouthed fish with black toes for a tongue. She took a drag from a cigarette. Cupping the glowing butt, she shoved her fist in the pocket of her housecoat.

The door spoke again, ‘Jewish people can’t eat an animal if it has a broken leg.’

‘Who’s Jewish?’

‘I’m just saying.’

‘Is he religious?’ the woman asked.

‘No,’ Eamonn said, looking at his watch. A few minutes to go. No rush. Maybe they’d still catch the race somewhere, see how things panned out. He hadn’t had a flutter in weeks, not even a lottery ticket, not since the shakedown. It was cleansing though; taking a break, it cleared the mind.

Luke opened the door.

‘What’s the burning smell? Is something burning?’

No, just a cigarette. Don’t worry about it.’

‘There’s no paper,’ he whispered.

‘You’ll be all right.’

‘Do you not have the tissues? Mom brings wet tissues.’

He opened the front of the rucksack and found a mini-pack of baby wipes.

‘Here.’

Eamonn thought the woman was having a coughing fit. Then he realised she was laughing at him.

‘He’s a little prince, isn’t he?’ she said. ‘He’ll have you wiping his bum when he’s fifty.’

The toilet flushed and Luke put his head out again.

‘There’s no soap.’

‘Just rinse off. You’ll be fine.’

The woman stepped forward. ‘What do you want now, son?’

‘Soap. Please.’

She turned, went in to what must have been a kitchen, and came back out with a bottle of washing-up liquid.

Eamonn squeezed the liquid onto the boy’s open hands.

‘More.’

He squeezed it again and green globs squirted out.

‘More. Please.’

‘No, that’s enough.’

Luke washed his hands in the manner of a surgeon preparing for a heart transplant. Sleeves rolled up, he soaped up to his elbows, back down his thin arms, twisting his fingers together in one direction, then the other. He started to rub each finger on his left hand individually with the fingers on his right.

‘That’s enough, rinse them off. They’re clean.’

The boy sped up, splashing water on the floor. Eamonn had really tried not to rush Luke. They’d been told not to rush him, not to put him under pressure, but Jesus there was a limit. And cleanliness wasn’t even Luke’s issue, so why give it oxygen? His lower back started to pull tight, as if Luke had attached himself there – a leech sucking out of him, sucking the life out of his marrow. They’ll bleed ya, bleed ya, no mercy. ‘Come on. Hurry up.’

As they filed back through the sitting room, the woman went over to the corner and lifted up a cage with a pillowcase over it. She put it on the couch. A strong smell of bird droppings hit Eamonn.

‘He was stone mad for birds,’ she said.

‘Is that right?’

She took off the cover and a small parrot, standing on a perch, regarded them with an inquisitive tilt of its head. The bars of the cage splayed out at the end from hardened shit, the bottom was caked in droppings.

‘What’s wrong with his feathers?’ Luke asked, scrunching up his nose.

‘They moult,’ the woman said.

The bird had a vivid green patch above its beak and crown. A few feathers formed a wing but its body was bald, pecked down to raw, pink skin. With a lunge, it threw itself onto the side of the cage and clung there. A couple more feathers – blue and green – appeared, the remainder of a tail.

Opening its beak slightly, it said, ‘Roberto.’

Having spoken once, the bird couldn’t seem to stop. ‘Roberto, Roberto, Roberto,’ it squawked and flapped its wings.

‘Roberto your son?’ Eamonn asked.

‘No,’ the woman answered. ‘Anthony. Anto.’

‘Does it say Anto?’

‘No, it says Roberto.’

The woman put the cover back on the cage and the bird was silent again. Luke tugged at Eamonn’s sleeve.

‘Is there anywhere in the vicinity we could watch a bit of sport?’ Eamonn asked.

‘Oh, there’s a television here. He kept up with the Sky bills all right,’ the woman said, tipping her ash into a massive Heineken ashtray balanced on the arm of the couch. ‘In there with his friends all night, up to all kinds. Used to lock me and Jim in here, barricade the back gate with the van.’

Eamonn mouthed silently over Luke’s head, ‘Just the one race.’

They made their way from the kaleidoscopic sitting room through the door to the dim bar. The man was in the same place – sitting on his high stool, staring at the broken shelves. Scattered along the counter were glasses coated in varying shades of dried blue paint, paintbrushes sticking out like swizzle sticks.

‘Could they look at the television, Jim?’

‘There’s no remote,’ the man said.

Eamonn looked around and, sure enough, he located a television resting on a red-covered banquette.

‘It works?’

‘There’s all the stations,’ the woman called out from the doorway.

‘Only obliged to serve one day a year,’ the man said.

‘For the licence,’ she added.

‘That’s all right,’ Eamonn said, going over and switching on the TV. ‘We’ll be out of your hair in a tick.’

Even when it came on, he still couldn’t believe it would have any kind of meaningful reception. But flicking around, it turned out she was right; it had all the stations. He found the horse racing. Luke moved in front of the screen as Eamonn stood back from it.

‘I’m thirsty,’ he said, holding tight to the strap of his rucksack. ‘I want to go home.’

‘Have you water in your bag?’

The boy took a water bottle out.

‘There you go,’ Eamonn said, twisting the top off. ‘We’ll only be five minutes. Relax.’

He found a stool upended in a corner, set it at the bar and lifted Luke onto it. With his sleeve he started to clear the filthy counter. Then he remembered the wet wipes and used a bunch of them, rubbing quickly and hard. He caught sight of the woman watching him, rolling her head from side to side, laughing silently. A flush rose up his neck but he finished his cleaning.

Spotting a stack of beer mats still in their plastic wrapper on a shelf, Eamonn asked, ‘Can I?’

‘If he doesn’t come today,’ the man said, ‘I’m going to wring their necks and fuck the whole lot into a skip.’

Eamonn used the car key to tear the plastic off. His hand swallowed up Breda’s key ring, a pair of pink flip-flops.

‘Look, Luke, you can build stuff with these,’ he said, fanning out the beer mats. ‘We’ll just be a few minutes.’

Luke took the top beer mat from the stack, put it on the counter, placed a mat on top of it, unevenly, so four tiny corners appeared.

The woman held her position, leaning up against the doorjamb. She seemed more comfortable the far side of the threshold but she stuck her head out. ‘You’re a betting man.’

‘The odd time,’ Eamonn said, taking the docket out of his pocket, flattening it down on the counter ceremoniously. ‘Might be on the right side of luck today. Pica Pie, that’s our one.’

The old man swivelled around to face the TV and with that, the 2.25 from Down Royal began.

The bar filled with the hypnotic intonation of the commentator.

And they’re off . . . as they make their way toward the first, it’s Drivetime with Cause of Causes on the inside . . . champion jockey, Ruby Walsh, just took a nasty tumble off the hot favourite –

‘Well thank Jesus for small mercies,’ Eamonn said and winked at Luke.

The woman came out then with a couple of glasses. She took a shoulder of Powers from her housecoat pocket, poured two large measures. Pushing one in front of Eamonn, she held on to the other.

‘That’s something now,’ Eamonn said, his eyes cutting briefly from the TV. ‘Cheers.’

He saluted the woman with his glass and knocked the shot back.

His horse was well placed, five back on the inside. He glanced at Luke; the boy was glued to his beer mat project.

‘Luke, look,’ Eamonn said. ‘Yellow cap, red stripe.’

. . . Jaggery is the back marker . . . and racing past the half-way point and swinging into the back straight it looks like Red House has taken up the lead, with Pica Pie and . . .

Then, as the horses turned into the final stretch, ‘We’re in with a shout,’ Eamonn said.

. . . Davy’s Locker trying to make ground, but coming strong and jumping into the lead is Pica Pie, with Red House . . .

It was close, but Pica Pie took off on the home straight and won by a head. Eamonn turned and chucked Luke on the shoulder.

‘It’s all good.’

‘Do you get the prize now?’

‘Yeah, I’ll get it before we go home.’

Eamonn looked at his son and felt something like respect for the child’s self-absorption, his completeness. He wished Breda were there to see this – Luke, the same as any other kid on a Saturday afternoon, watching a race with his Da. A race where he scooped three hundred quid. Wasn’t it possible the mental shit would leave the kid’s brain, cell by cell, just by doing normal stuff?

‘Crisps for the little fella?’ the woman offered from the door.

‘Luke?’

Dodgy territory, junk food.

‘I don’t eat salt.’

‘He likes the smell of himself,’ she said.

‘Cheese and onion’d be great,’ Eamonn said. ‘Thanks very much.’

The woman disappeared, came back out and handed Eamonn a packet of Tayto.

‘A bag of crisps for your highness.’

Eamonn tore the crisps down the side and laid the pack out between them. Luke was as well able as the next person to eat if he put his mind to it; his mother needed to stop the molly coddling.

‘Crisps have bad fats,’ Luke whispered.

Fuck it. Why did the kid always put a fucking damper on everything? On the TV the trainer was carried shoulder high. Eamonn tried to lock into the man’s joy, the man who had the generosity to pass the tip on to what, his adopted niece-in-law or something, in the health centre.

The commentator was talking of the Gold Cup.

It’s dreaming time now for Michael Heavey.

‘You probably want something special to celebrate.’ The woman had appeared with a squat bottle of honey-gold drink. She twisted it around so the label faced Eamonn – Kilbeggan 15 Year Old Whiskey.

‘Well, that’s a new one on me,’ Eamonn said. ‘Kilbeggan.’

‘They had a tornado in Kilbeggan,’ the man said. ‘Now it’s bypassed completely with the motorway. The River Brosna.’

She didn’t open the bottle, just angled it to catch the light. He wasn’t sure did she expect him to pay. He would, obviously, under the circumstances. But you’d have to say having Eamonn and Luke here probably added a bit of spark to their day. Whatever the fuck was going on for them. Eamonn felt the good fortune of the race spreading out of his body to encompass these people. He took his wallet out, put a twenty on the counter. She took the note and unscrewed the cap.

‘Not every day you come out on top,’ he said.

From the first mouthful, he could tell it was far superior to the Powers. Nice. Something different from what he’d ever have at home. She put the twenty beside a little cash box that was on a shelf before she poured herself a small measure. Luke looked up from his beer mat project, stared over at the twenty.

‘Dad, you said you’d get me a comic.’

‘Yeah, I know. I’ll get it later.’

‘Don’t forget.’

The little so-and-so, Eamonn thought. He’s doing all right on three bowls of porridge a day.

‘Have a crisp.’

‘I don’t eat potatoes.’

‘What are you eating now?’

‘Nothing. Can we go home?’

‘Fuck sake.’ Could they just forget about home for one minute? The child could suck the energy out of the national grid. He knocked back the whiskey and wondered about another quick one for the road. He pictured going into the bookies, to that little jobsworth behind the counter. He’d get Luke to wait inside the door, to watch him. He wouldn’t say a word, but she’d see he had taken care of his boy and now he was here to collect.

‘What does he want?’ the woman asked.

‘Don’t mind him, he’s grand.’

The pain in his arse going to the play therapy with Luke, and now look how it had turned out. 6 to 1 and what had inspired him to go with the fifty note instead of a twenty? Three hundred euro. It’s not as if he was going to keep the money for himself. The original fifty back in the wallet, then a bit towards the credit union loan. Breda didn’t even know about that and if this kept up, she’d never need to. Maybe put one fifty aside for another winner. Bit by bit, he’d build up a pile, until they could all head off somewhere, maybe Euro Disney.

‘Would you like to go to Euro Disney?’ he said to Luke.

‘I don’t like people wearing big heads.’

‘Jesus Christ, Luke. It’s only Minnie and Mickey Mouse.’

Luke was using a broken paintbrush to peel strips of paper off the bar mats, fitting each cardboard square together to look like contrasting tiles. He’d added little paper balls to the corners. That was all right too. He seemed settled enough, as far as Eamonn could see.

The woman arrived out with a pile of old calendars.

‘They’re all prizewinners,’ she said, giving 1998 to Luke. ‘Show birds.’

She refilled Eamonn’s glass, leaving the bottle beside him. He kept an eye on the next couple of races but he wasn’t even tempted – although he picked a winner in one, the favourite admittedly. During the ads, the man started some convoluted story about a racing pigeon. Famous race from Rome to London. In the middle of a sentence about hawks, he stopped dead and didn’t speak again. Eamonn was only half-listening, imagining to himself what might come good next.

The woman, up the far end, was occupying herself with the other calendars, discarding them one by one on the floor. Eamonn could see there were months where red X’s marked a few of the dates. She ripped these pages out and put them aside.

Each time his glass was empty, she didn’t shift herself, just gave him the go-ahead with a nod or a wave of her fag.

At some point in the proceedings, Luke must have gone over and changed the channel because they ended up catching the end of a war film, then a nature programme with two kangaroos ripping into each other. The fight went on and on, neither animal willing to concede.

‘Some belt yer man is giving with the hind legs,’ Eamonn said.

‘Powerful creatures,’ the woman said.

‘He has him on the ropes now.’

He started to tell them about the fight, Bernard Dunne, 2007 or was it nine? Anyway knockout, big win for Dunne, big big win and Eamonn –

‘Fuck sake. That shitehawk’s not going to show,’ the old man cut across him.

Eamonn had just poured himself another drink; he couldn’t remember did he pay. Was it his fifth? Or fourth? Whatever, he’d cover it. He pulled a twenty out of his wallet and pushed it down towards the woman. But it floated off the counter, fell in behind the bar.

Whether in reaction to this Eamonn wasn’t sure, but the man got off his stool, muttered something, ‘I may shift these fuckers meself,’ and moved towards the door. For a moment Eamonn thought he was talking about himself and Luke.

When the man opened the pub door, Eamonn saw past him to the darkness outside. He watched the man pull the crates out onto the street. Birds got panicky, fluttering and cooing.

It was deceptive in the bar with no phones going off or clocks anywhere. What time was it? No Breda checking up on him. Very fucking odd. He’d text, say they were on the way. As he went to put his hand in his pocket, he remembered the phone charging in the car.

‘Let’s go, Luke,’ Eamonn said. Hungry now, light-headed with hunger. Just pop in to the bookies first, maybe get an Indian on the way home.

‘Say thanks for the hospitality,’ he added, although he noticed Luke hadn’t touched the crisps. Luke didn’t reply but his jaw was moving.

‘Don’t tell me you’re chewing a beer mat,’ Eamonn said.

‘I’m not.’

‘Where’s the docket?’

‘What?’

‘The docket, it was on the counter.’

He caught the shift in the boy’s expression, an animal picking up a scent. Then the vagueness returned, the slackness.

‘It’s mixed up,’ Luke said, cutting his eyes to the paper spit balls on the counter.

Eamonn grabbed the front of Luke’s hoodie, lifted the kid off the ground with the force.

‘Spit it out.’

‘Nine more to fifty-five.’

He was twisting the sweatshirt around Luke’s neck, shaking him.

‘I’ll kick the living daylights out of you, you piece of shit.’

Eamonn’s first slap caught Luke on the ear; the second around the back of the head. The boy staggered, knocked up against the wooden seascape and remained there, hunkered down. He might have been on an ocean bed, mindlessly filtering rubbish. A current went through Eamonn’s body, separating out long fronds of dark seaweed in his chest.

‘Shit. Get up Luke.’

‘Leave it out of here.’ The old man, standing in the porch, jerked his thumb, ‘Out.’

‘Luke, get the fuck up.’ Reaching out his hand, Eamonn’s mouth filled with a metallic taste, as if his own jaw had received the blow. Something solid lodged under his tongue, a broken tooth. He spat it out.

‘Let’s go.’

‘Too late when they’re towering over ya,’ the woman said, taking quick pulls of her fag.

The man went over, switched the TV off.

‘Out to fuck now, out,’ he growled, as he herded them to the door. Luke walked ahead, gulping, rubbing his ear.

They were barely through the porch when Eamonn could hear the bolt being pulled across. How had everything turned around – out here on the street in the full darkness of a November evening; behind them any shred of brightness locked away in the pub. He fumbled the car keys out of his pocket. He had parked it here, right here. Or was it further down?

‘Fuck . . . the car.’

There was nothing parked at the kerb.

‘The fuck is the car?’ He tried to remember what colour it was, but all he could see was the bright pink of Breda’s stupid fucking flip-flop keyring.

‘What colour is your mother’s car? The fuck colour is it?’

‘But there’s no cars here at all,’ Luke said.

He gave Luke a dig in the back, pushing him down the street past the bookies and the garage – all closed up now – right to the end and back. The empty crates from the pigeons were thrown on the path. He kicked them out of the way.

‘It must be around the corner.’

He kept pushing Luke in front of him, made him turn the corner first. There was a car parked further down near the builder’s yard, but it was nothing like hers.

‘What colour is it?’ he shouted at Luke. ‘You fucking eejit. Say a colour.’

They crossed the road and came back around. As they passed the pub again, the woman stood out from a side gate holding a white decorative birdcage, all curlicues and wrought iron. The cage swung wildly, three canaries inside lurching from perch to mirror, trying to get a grip.

‘You forgot these,’ she said.

‘The fuck are you on about? The fucking car’s been lifted.’

The canaries began to trill loudly, like water pouring into a barrel from different heights. It flooded Eamonn’s ears. He heard something else, submerged – stones click-clacking, pushed together by the tide, his teeth, wearing each other down.

 

Photograph © Chris White

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