If you’re standing halfway along O’Connell street in Dublin, you’re never more than two minutes away from a bullet-hole
The last place I ever took Sally to lunch was Barnacle Bill’s seafood restaurant. I ordered for both of us, and handed over $12.75 in exchange for a folded piece of plastic that shows your table number. Sally liked being outside, so we sat in the al fresco area overlooking the carpark. I got the battered fish with oven fries, and a blob of tartar sauce squeezed into a scallop shell. Sally got the seafood platter and ate the whole lot with her fingers, including the salad. Then she lit a smoke and waited for me to catch up.
On this day we were on our way to pick up an orphaned Irish setter. Sally was part of a group of people that care way too much. The thing they did was look after pets whose owners had died, until they found them a new home. What this meant for me was that I shared a house with neurotic cats and dogs in various stages of mourning. I was always coming home to a new and interesting problem. Like an obese angora rabbit with low self-esteem and a thousand-mile stare, or some grieving poodle stuck in Stage 1: Denial; howling into dark cupboards and the spaces under beds.
We found the Irish setter in good spirits, despite the fact that she was heavily pregnant and has just spent two days locked in a two-bedroom flat with a dead man. For the trip home, Sally wound the windows down an inch or so, so the setter could take in all the smells of small-town Saturday. This it did with a frantic intensity, back and forth across the seat, trying to put its nose out of every window at once.
“Five minutes”, I say “is all the time you’ll need in Dublin to get a coffee and a blowjob.”
Sally opened her mouth wide and tried to look surprised, because she knew that’s what I like her to do when I’m telling these stories.
Then she laughed.
And feigned a shocked expression.
And lit her smoke
And glanced into the back seat.
All at the same time.
Then something terrible happened.
Sometimes you ask a question and it leads to more questions. My neighbour Kevin is a documentary film maker. You may have seen his stuff on TV. While he’s asking freedom fighters if they think they’ll ever seen their families again, I’ll be feeding his cat and emptying his letterbox. To get good footage, he’ll eat, sleep and bathe with them for a week. He’ll get inside their lives. Then when they’re used to him being around, they’ll put down their M-16s and brush their hair and tell the camera about the day their wife was raped and shot by government troops. The next day he’ll come home and spend a slow Saturday picking weeds out of his lawn and making the edges neat with a spade.
I ask him how he does it. How he walks away from all that madness and just slide back into suburbia.
“If I wasn’t cleaning the gutters and mowing the lawns, I couldn’t do what I do for a living. After I’ve been away I have to get my mind clear. This is what I do to reset myself.”
“What do you mean?” I push.
He pulls off his gardening gloves and scratches his neck.
“Do you remember the tsunami? At Christmas”
“Sure. The Boxing day thing.”
“Well, we were travelling on foot with some people from the Red Cross. We’d hiked into this village in West Sumatra, and there was this young girl just standing there watching us approach. She’s separated from us by piles of household furniture. Chairs, mattresses, tables. Things you just shouldn’t see out in the street. It was quite a surreal moment. Anyway, one of the Red Cross nurses walks up and asks the girl, where are her parents. The girl raises her arm and points, and there they are. Just arms and legs just sticking up out of the mud. Without a word, my sound guy puts down his boom mic and walks for a day and a half out of the jungle. Then he hops on a plane and goes home. That was it for him. When I got back I went to see him. He was totally destroyed. He just couldn’t reset any more. I think in the end he was defeated by his own humanity.”
When I was seven, our cat crawled into my sister’s unmade bed and spat out four greasy, writhing kittens into a wet bloodstain on the sheet. It was both disgusting and amazing, watching her licking them all over, her tongue poking an uncomfortably long way out of her mouth. The amazing part was that she knew exactly what to do, like she was born to do it. The kittens rocked back against the rhythm of her licking, like they were born to do that too. All of them dancing in unison to a beat no one else could hear.
Watching the Irish setter give birth wasn’t like that. When I woke up, she was lying next to me on the road, and they were just sort of leaking out of her. She kept trying to sit up but her back legs didn’t seem to be working. I couldn’t make my legs work either. After a while she stopped trying, and I reached across and put a hand on her until she lay still.
Standing barefoot at the tideline, I skip a tennis ball across the hard sand towards the dunes. Tess pelts into a wide, pre-emptive arc behind it, catching it effortlessly mid-bounce. I tire of it before she does and sit down in the sand, waiting for her to pad over and drop next to me.
Waiting for the sky to grow orange.
Waiting for the gulls to say something wise.
Waiting for I don’t know what.
Stage five maybe.
Tess is getting too big for my lap but when she’s tired she'll try to sit on me anyway. So now I’m wondering how strange we must look. A lanky man with a buzz cut sitting on a beach, with a gangly Irish setter squeezing into his lap.
What happens to us next is that the tide reaches up and spills cold water into the hollow that we’ve made in the sand. This surprises me and I don’t know why. I probably should have seen it coming. Things can only ebb and flow for so long before something breaks the rhythm. The sun goes up and down. A dog runs East and West across the back seat of a Holden Astra, trying to smell the whole world moments before it disappears.
Two minutes later, an impossibly small Irish setter wakes up on a cold road.
Breathing in. Breathing out.