This afternoon, when John Riley comes into the bar, a peculiar kind of silence is created. If you're a journalist working for a local tabloid, you will call it deafening. It is this soundless clamour produced by every object inside the room, from the drinking glass to the piano stool. If someone throws a dart, it will miss the target and go through the wall and hit a dog sleeping on the pavement.
It's curious what your eyes will do in a situation like this. The million ways they will travel on a windless afternoon in late August. When one sense is blocked, completely shut down, you begin to see things you are not even supposed to see. Like the blue shirt John Riley is wearing. There has to be a million things wrong about this shirt, but by far the most disturbing part of it are the two tiny buttons at the top. They are undone.
I look at the four spiky, Goth-coloured teens crouched at the table by the window and gesture them to get lost. The teens look hurt, but they soon realise that nobody cares one way or the other, abandon the beer and leave through the back door.
John looks around the room. We look back, a bunch of mannequins from a department store across the street, with eyes that can wink. We are supposed to say something quiet and tragic and obvious, but instead I keep wondering about the two buttons at the top of John's blue shirt. The fuckers are undone, and you cannot exactly blame that on a windless afternoon in late August.
'Why is it so quiet in here?' says John. 'Is it supposed to be so quiet in here?'
'A glass of beer?' asks the Sailor, by way of a reply. Which is either rude or exactly what we need in this situation.
John doesn't say anything. He turns his head around, intensely, as if looking for someone. The Sailor repeats the question. Basically, the man has no nerves.
'Yes, thank you. The usual'.
At which point the clock strikes three, and I start thinking of Randy who is supposed to be in Bermondsey Street by now. It's a thought which sticks, like all those thoughts you are not even supposed to have. In the meantime, John Riley sits at the table opposite ours and looks in our direction the way you look when you have a story to tell. From two metres off, I smell shampoo on his hair. If anything, I smell too much of it. For all the world, it's a Tuesday afternoon like any other.
'John', says Peter and I recognise the jittery intonation, I recognise the sentiment. I touch his hand, begging him to stop. In fact, I'm thinking of calling Randy and telling him there may have been a terrible mistake.
We are looking at John, three pairs of lips disfigured by something quiet and tragic and obvious. A slow dirge in the distance could prove fatal, but in the meantime we are improvising, we are playing along. Two days ago, when John dropped in here on the way to the hospital, he just sat there at the table opposite ours and we talked about the bad sides of Spanish cuisine. Now it’s the silence and it's past three in the afternoon and we can't even resume the conversation we were having five minutes ago.
'Can I have cognac?' says John.
'I thought you said the usual', says the Sailor, looking not in the least confused.
'Yes. But can I have cognac?'
'Certainly', says the Sailor and removes the glass from the table.
'Hey, could we have cognac too?' I ask. Peter and Collum are looking at me and I know full well none of us have drunk cognac in years.
John takes a sip and says nothing. The vague promise of a story gives way to the bittersweet taste I recollect from the day when Connie said she had a splitting headache that only a glass of Courvoisier could cure. This was the first day of our honeymoon. It's bizarre how you always remember the time and the place where you drank cognac.
Slowly, we are dragged back into the small talk that presently never rises above a whisper. The Sailor is cleaning the glasses, and I wonder if anything can break the guy.
'Remember Hank?' asks John, shutting us down, shutting everything down, and all I can hope now is for Randy not to come back in the next half hour. 'Hank Flanagan? Antique dealer? Remember that story about how he died?'
The Sailor, all confidence and rude authority, steps outside the counter, walks up to the door and shuts it. John is looking at us with that quizzical confidence of someone who he is trying to figure out if we are worthy of the story. If we have the guts and intelligence to grasp it. We shake heads: no, we don't remember. We've heard about it but we don't remember the story. Because we were young at the time and because you can't trust a rumour in this town. Also, people talked about a thunderstorm, but when you are young you don't notice. Or else you do notice and then one day, one night you stop caring about anything you had once given your heart to. Friends, girls, even deaths.
'He died in that freak accident in the field’, says the Sailor.
'No, before that', says John, his eyes fixed upon the three of us like the Sailor is not even in the room.
'What do you mean, before that?' I ask.
'So you don't know', says John. He seems to be satisfied with our ignorance like any story-teller should be (not that he is – in fact, this could well be the first story we hear from John Riley). There's a rush of blood to his cheeks which dilutes the tension and even the walls heave a sigh of relief. For a second, there's a feeling that Molly got it wrong when she burst into the bar yesterday evening and if I now excuse myself for a second and ask the right question, we could appreciate the black humour and maybe even laugh about the whole thing. 'Well', John continues, 'this happened three years before the so-called freak accident. Hank shot himself'.
This sounds like a statement for a Tuesday afternoon, and there's a sense that the Sailor has stopped wiping the glasses.
'It happened on the 22nd of August'. Oh my God, I’m thinking, this is awful: the cognac tastes like medicine. 'I remember exactly because I was keeping a diary at the time and I diligently wrote all my cases in it. I was young'. John Riley says it like we are making a judgement. We are not. We are listening. 'Sarah and I were having dinner when the phone rang. Back then, I thought I could recognise from the way it rang what the trouble was. I swear I could tell from the sound if it was internal bleeding or a sore throat. This time, it was different. It was long and fitful and it had this anxious twang to it. Sarah paled and put her hand over mouth and right away I knew this had to be something I had never dealt with before. When I took the phone from Sarah, I heard the visceral scream of a desperate woman. Mary. Hank had shot himself'.
John Riley finishes off his drink, and the Sailor fills up his glass for the second time. 'We are fine,' we nod in unison, and I'm trying to call Randy under the table.
'I took a cab and I came to Hank’s place in just under ten minutes. He was lying on the floor, cold and heavy, and I was ashamed of how unsteady my hands were. I was afraid to touch him! I was the doctor, but I was also young and I had known Hank and Mary since early school. In fact, I used to date Mary for a short while – but that was no more than a fling. It was before Hank’s time, too’.
We need time to process all that as John’s speech is getting soaked in pace and alcohol. And it’s like John senses that, for suddenly he stops, and all four of us (the Sailor is beyond my field of vision, my eyes are fixed on John Riley) exude a short-lived yet intent curiosity. It’s like we are trying to hear something in the distance, maybe a mile off, but it appears to be nothing and John continues.
‘This was my first suicide, and my fingers were trembling. I remember tapping on his wrist for pulse instead of squeezing it. Also, why would I be doing it when the death looked so obvious?.. In medical terms, there was nothing for me to do. You have perhaps read that not every shot in the temple is successful. There's a nerve in your head that you shouldn't hit. If you hit it, you will end up blind and paralyzed and facially disfigured for the rest of your life. Well, Hank made no such mistake. He served in the army, remember, and he knew exactly where the bullet was supposed to hit. A tiny pool of blood and the minute hole in his temple: death had come immediately. American Remington Model 51, his pride and joy he had sworn to never sell, was lying by his right foot. When my stupor subsided, I finally heard the sound that had been all over the house since I’d arrived. Mary was hysterical'.
John takes out a cigarette and lights it the masterful way of someone who holds your attention by the pull of seven strings. Smoking isn't allowed in here, but it's not like the Sailor is going to do anything about it.
'So what about the freak accident three years later?' asks Collum, and I want to strangle him right there. Some people have no concept of timing.
'Freak accident?' says John Riley, lost in reverie. When he is finally jerked back to reality, it’s as if through some wild jostle from inside his chest. 'Funeral was two days later, because it had been a suicide and the police had been involved briefly. It began after three o'clock, like it had always been in this town: the hearse, the music, Mary and the two little daughters who could not quite understand what was going on. It was an eerie experience. Everyone was still talking about the reasons for Hank's taking his own life. Someone mentioned his financial situation and someone mentioned a military incident that I knew had never actually taken place. And then there was also the case of Hank’s dog which had run away three day before he shot himself’.
We all hear stories of runaway dogs, and there’s a moment of reflection lasting less than a second because of what we might hear if we pay attention and listen up. John Riley is a first-class storyteller.
‘I remember the flowers and how when we got to the graveyard Father O'Brien said a few words and then I remember how some kid I had never seen before, possibly Hank’s Scottish nephew, kept scratching the lid of the casket and it was driving everyone insane. I remember the kid for the overzealous fringe that certain protective mothers were so fond of. I dragged him away, rather rudely, and then he just vanished and I never saw him again. Not that I paid much attention to it, mind. All I was hearing was the music and all I was thinking about was Hank'.
'What did you think?' I say. I feel like we all need a short breather before whatever comes next. 'Why did he do it?'
'It was remorse‘, says John, rather absent-mindedly, turning his head to the counter so as to negotiate his next drink. 'It wasn't about the army and it certainly wasn’t about the money. Antique-trade is fairly safe. It was about Mary. He hadn't been faithful to her'.
John Riley is on his third glass of cognac while we are still cringing and puffing and wincing at the first one.
'And then, when I threw a handful of earth on the casket after it had been lowered into the ground, there was this sound. This crude thud from within. I screamed. In fact, I wailed – if you can actually wail for no longer than two seconds. The dread was primordial, absolutely physical, and it was far from over. Because the lid was flung open, and he emerged'.
'Fucking hell, John!' says Peter. 'Who emerged?'
'You mean he was alive?'
'Yes, with just a scratch on his temple'.
'Fucking hell, John', whispers Collum.
'And then he gets out of the hole in the ground, without anyone's help (we were hardly able to move, it was like the air became solid matter for those thirty seconds), and walks up to Mary. They embrace, and she calms down straight away. It’s like a miracle, and the four of them, Mary, Hank and two daughters leave the graveyard’.
‘And then what?’ asks Peter. ‘What next?’
‘What next? What do you mean – what next? Life goes on, right until the freak accident in the field'.
'And what did everyone think about it?' asks the Sailor. ‘I mean the whole thing?’
'Nothing’, says John, and there’s a certain weariness to his voice now. ‘At first, there was this awful sense of confusion – but then we got used to it. It’s an old town, it digests any kind of oddity and perversion. It’s like the stomach of a pigeon. Ever tried to imagine the stomach of a pigeon?’ John Riley finishes up the dregs and looks around. It isn’t that he is interested in how we took the story, it is more like he is trying to figure out where he is. And then, suddenly, it’s as if he knows. ‘Hank was a quiet man, and he seemed to be back to his old ways. Reading newspapers and selling antiquities. We did not communicate much after his suicide but a few times I was summoned to treat his two daughters who suffered from peculiarly poor health. Well, they are both married now, living in America. And Mary, well, you know about Mary'.
But we have no time to reflect on the fate of poor Mrs. Flanagan, because at this point we listen up and hear the slow dirge in the distance, about a mile off, and it's all over. John Riley rises from the table, leaves a few coins and walks out of the bar. Slowly, mournfully, as if the music is for him. But it isn’t. We all tiptoe to the window to see where he is going – and he is indeed walking towards the funeral procession. I turn around and see Randy standing by the Sailor with a beautiful bunch of flowers. It looks like he has been standing there for quite some time now, having no doubt entered through the back door. I’m looking at that overzealous fringe which has minutes ago been featured on the head of a non-existent nephew from Scotland. I'm thinking of the story we've just heard and I'm thinking of the flowers and how lucky we are that Randy never picked up his phone.
'Randy', I say, 'You got the inscription?'
'Yes', he says, and shows me the black ribbon. The ribbon says 'It's for Sarah'.
'Good. Now please follow that man. And when it's all over, put the flowers on the fresh grave of Mrs. Riley. And hold your cap! The wind has picked up'.