That same night I boarded the yacht Synkro moored off Abersoch as part of its crew for the weekends race to Dun Laoghaire. After a few snifters of the Jamiesons with Bob and Jack, the brain was soon out of gear and the cares and woes lost out to sleep. A phenomena less to do with the whisky than the peace I've always felt being at sea.
Next morning it was Jack, Police Inspector Graham, bachelor, in the other world, clattering pans to conjure up a fry up while gamely denying his hangover that woke me. Bob, Synkros owner and proprietor of a food processing empire, was thankfully screened by the bulkhead from sight if not sound. Between that and the smell left nothing to the imagination and survival urged me to get up and on deck. This was the Saturday of the May Day holiday. We needed some decent points from this race to get back into contention for the series and Synkro was a heavy-weather boat sitting in a oily sea, without a whisper of wind and only a wash of cloud shrouding the sky. I’d been hoping for a fast crossing. Enough time to get into Dublin find a pub and contact a bloke that was supposed to use it. So I was pissed off and asked. 'Anybody get the forecast?'
A chorus of, ‘No's,’ came back.
'All right. What's the barometer saying Jack?'
Bob shouted, 'I think it's knackered. Don't think it's moved all winter.'
I could have gone below and got the forecast off the coastguard, but I hate the smell of bacon in the morning. Don't mind eating it, but, between the competing odours and Jacks culinary chaos in the galley, it made sense to stay topsides. ' It’ll take us all weekend to ghost across, never mind getting back.'
'Got to be back midday Monday.' Bob's reply gurgled through toothpaste.'
'You finished in the heads yet?'
'Almost Brian. Finished the teeth, just summoning the final push.'
Jack added a laconic 'Dirty bastard' before asking me, ' Any sign of those two buggers. This breakfast's ready and we're getting tight for the ten o'clock start?'
Turning, I saw the tender heading towards us with Mick and Martin aboard to complete our crew. I smiled and called down to Jack, 'Serve it up, they’re coming alongside now.’
It was two a.m. on Sunday before we fumbled our way through the moorings in Dun Laoghaire. All we wanted to do was hitch-up and crash out. The day had crawled, with the fleet struggling for airs and space until four in the afternoon. By then the grumbles for heading back in were gaining momentum until the first puff of breeze cracked the sails. Within minutes we had the boat shouldering water and the race had regained priority. By eight o'clock, under a double reefed main and number four jib we were in a hauling battle with a fully-fledged gale just South West of our nose. It was a rampant sail with everything on edge and your attention chained between you and the boat.
Sunday morning and the gods were smiling on me. The wind shrieked through the rigging, rattling halyards into a frenzied percussion amplified and orchestrated on hundreds of moored yachts. It was for me an Ode of Joy though I pretended to sympathise with the others. Hanging the radio mike back up I relayed the news to them. 'Race is off. Forecasts a storm force ten, possible ninety-mile gusts. Ferry's still running, or at least the next one is. After that I doubt it. So it's decision time; grab the ferry or hope it blows over by tonight.'
'Sod it Brian, there's no way this'll blow over.' Jack looked at the others for support.
'All right Jack, I'm just spelling out our options.'
Martin at twenty was on his fourth training course. 'Can't stay here with five correction three quid in my pocket. So I'm with whoever pays my fare.' Smiling at Bob he got a nod in response. Mick, there was no question, he had to get back to help his mother run their clothing business. Jack was already packing for the ferry.
Bob, who'd known me before and since my bankruptcy asked. 'What about you Brian?'
'I'm easy, if it's all right with you I'll stay till the weather clears then bring her back. If I'm still here on Friday I'll give you a ring to see if you want to bring her back with me.'
Bob shook his head. 'Don't bother. Alice has some bloody horse thing on and I've to drive the horse box. She’s terrified of reversing it.'
Good on Alice, that meant I'd almost two weeks.
An hour later I'd the boat to myself. We’d run in the lee of a jetty for the rest to get ashore. I was sipping a coffee and watching the ferry begin to roll as she left the shelter of the harbour when I felt rather than heard the visitor. Like most, if not all of the racing crews we'd forgotten to hoist our Q flag, the yellow flag used to indicate entry to or from a foreign port. It had been pretty well ignored in the recent past until the drug scene had them tightening up. Hypocritical concern, as always, was trying to stop the supply instead of correcting the system that created the need.
My custom man was only too glad of the chance to do something without having his arse soaked in a tossing dinghy. Waving away my apologies and explanation, he plonked himself down on the berth fished a damp entry form out his jacket, thanked me for the half filled glass of whisky, and drew out his cigarettes. I joined him with a whisky, and filled in the form assuming my role as Bob’s omitting all reference to myself. It probably meant nothing, but it might cause some confusion if a connection was ever made. I even decided to quit smoking but that went out the window with the second whisky. Trying to create more than the one flimsy lead I had, I asked, 'Do you know of any pubs in Dublin that go in for folk music? The traditional stuff not country and western.' I remember cynically thinking, ‘brilliant,’ as I watched his mind roll into gear, then the slow shake of his head.
His glass was tipped and its emptiness contemplated. 'D'ye go in for that sort of thing yourself?'
'Hobby of mine, collecting traditional songs and the lore behind them. Manage another?'
'Sure, it's a miserable day after a sod of a night and I'm off in half an hour. Too much of that in this country. Lore I mean.'
I laughed, more through relief than anything. My knowledge of Irish folk music started with Danny Boy and didn't get beyond the chorus. 'That'll be a change. Usually the song's easy enough to get it's the story behind it that's difficult.' It was obvious I'd be getting no leads from my custom man. What I did get were direction to the only shop open in Dun Laoghaire on a Sunday and the assurance that it sold everything from doughnuts to Durex. So listening to the rain blast across the deck I waited for him to finish his whisky before accompanying him back down the jetty and made my way into town.
The shop was par for the course on a council estate. Comprehensive in necessities with only the fluorescent tubes fighting the gloom of its shuttered exterior. It supplied all my needs, including a bottle of Bushmill from under a counter, and I have to admit to feeling a bit theatrical when I inspected the results. The dye had certainley blackened my mousy hair. What was strange was the face; one I hadn't seen for close on twenty years without a beard. I always knew it was there but was never sure what the ravages of idiocy and time had done to it.
It was still raining at 7.30 that evening when I caught the Dart into Dublin and boarding a taxi at the station rank, interpreted the drivers grumble as being 'Where to?'
'You want the Grail?' He asked, leaving me to wonder if it existed. Or he was referring to the degree of mystical difficulty in finding such a thing in Dublin, or merely querying my sanity. Twenty minutes later I had the answer, definately my sanity. The Grail Pub was replica Rembrandt. Sombre browns flowed into debased whites, while treacly reds struggled for supremacy over both. The customers could, at best, be classed as a sprinkling and there seemed little contrast between them and the décor. None looked like a brother of Paddy McGahern.
Paddy was an ex- foremen of mine who, having handed out the mens redundancy notices, was having a drink with me after I'd given him his, and had volunteered the services of his younger brother Mick to sort the bastards out.The nose was tapped. Provo and the Grail whispered and the whisky downed, while his eyes twinkled with the promised hell in a basket. I'd bought him another drink, thanked him and filed it under ‘forget it.’ But here I was, looking for a miracle from a molecule. The barman had the look of a man waiting for nothing to happen and knowing he always would. Ordering a double scotch I ignored the fact I was served Irish and tried my lead. 'Mick McGahern due in tonight?'
'Mick McGahern. I'm a friend of his brother Paddy.' Not too clever when you think about it.
'Never heard of him.' Then turning to the rest of his customers, 'Any of ye know a Michael McGahern?' The response was muted, if shrugs, shakes and mutters can be muted. Somewhere to my right the bloke playing the fruit machine didn't even break his rythm. 'No. You got the right pub?'
'Unless there's another Grail in Dublin?'
The barman snorted. 'Wish t’fuck there was, he could pay my bills.'
Buggered I went for the subtle approach, 'Do you get any of the I.R.A. in here?'
The barman stopped, shook his head to confirm his hearing then turned and gave me a look that would have turned honey into battery acid. 'Sure dozens of em on alternate Thursdays and Saturdays.' Turning to the till he realised it was an English twenty he was changing, 'What's the exchange rate on these things?'
I shrugged and said, ' Usually it's around ten percent,' then watched him struggling with the arithmetic until he decided he'd win and gave me change for Irish.
'Are you serious?' he asked.
I smiled, hoping it would indicate I could understand his reaction. 'I'm a writer looking for some background on the role the I.R.A. will adopt now the situation’s confused.'
'Its always been bloody confused.'
'True, though it seems this recession has united the people more than all the political ploys. You could say hunger and hopelessness has flattened Irelands b's.'
The barman gave this a moments thought, 'Oh yes? and what are they.'
'Boundaries and bureaucracy.' Diplomacy I thought was better than honesty at this stage so I left bigotry to linger. 'I want to get a line on a couple of fronts. How much of the mob stuff is really north versus south, not just a question of drug domains or frustration with miserable living. I want to know where the activist would fit in if Ireland were united. You know, is the cause an excuse? Are they patriots or criminals? That sort of thing.'
I'd to wait while the barmen served a pint to the bloke who’d moved from the fruit machine to the stool next to me, then went off to satisfy the needs of a rapped glass at the far end of the bar. I thought over the line I was using. It was crap and bloody chancy. But that was something I'd already weighed up and decided to try whatever occurred to me.
'Why don't you try the offices of Sinn Feinn?'
I used the ordering of another double and one for himself to find a answer to the barman's suggestion, 'They're no use, too structured. All I'd get would be the propaganda that suits them against the establishments. I want something more gutsy than that. An activists personal view of things. What would he do if his role was finished? Would he hang up his gun, dump his Semtex and sign on the dole?'
The barman gave me a nod that had all the hallmarks of dismissal. Going over to his till he opened it and studied its contents before slamming it shut and began to polish glasses. There were five customers round the bar, two at the table below the window. Since I'd came in he'd pulled two pints. Perhaps I was being over sensitive but I'd the distinct feeling he was thinking of another b - bankruptcy and that was a scab still too tender to stand probing. I decided to call it a night. I'd played a poor hand and got nothing from it. Now, the best I could hope for was to get off with it. I asked the barmen if there was any chance of him ringing for a taxi.
'Where d'ye want to go?' This was from my bandit playing neighbour before the barman got a chance to react. I told him, then wished I hadn't. Wit should have warned me to give him the name of a hotel, then get another taxi on from there.
'Did'ye get a taxi here?'
Telling him I was told, 'I'll take you back for the same.'
'Pat', the driver offered his hand as I tried to find a comfortable spot in the collapsed seat of a venerable VW Golf. 'Must do all right from writing to have one of those fancy yachts.'
'My only vice.' I clipped it hoping it would signal the end of conversation. The day was beginning to tell on me and I'd a feeling this bloke wasn't as dense as he was making himself out.
'How long are you here for?'
I'd obviously failed. 'Don't know. I'll stick here for a while and see if I get a story-line. I know exactly the type I want to meet. It's finding him without going through the publicity side of it that's difficult.'
'What if you don't get it?'
'What's new? I'll probably swan around till I'm convinced its not on then I'll dream up another idea and find its littered with similar obstacles.'
'Your accent, is it Scottish.' Then, 'What part?' showing it wasn't a question.
I told him I came from a place called Huntly, which wasn't true but I knew enough about it to answer questions if by some freak his mothers cousin five times removed had came from there.
‘Was it for work you moved to England?'
'I never said I'd come from England.' What the hell was this - guess my line?
'Sorry, thought you had. It's the English money you used.'
I got a bit twitchy then. I couldn't remember this Pat being around when I bought the first drink and I’d left the Irish change on the bar to pay for the next drinks. Besides he'd looked taller than me when we made our way to the car and he seemed to be taking up more of it and remember I told you I'm no hero. So I decided not to tell him to shut it. 'My parents moved down south and I joined them when I'd finished my schooling, then went back to university.'
'D'ye like the place?'
My laugh got a quick glance that didn't seem to threaten. 'Christ how do you answer that? I suppose its like anyplace. Like or dislike depends on whether you feel you're winning or losing.'
That got a nod, 'I thought of moving to the Midlands some time back. Work on building the power stations. Lots of money being made then.'
'There's lots floating about now but it's in smaller circles.'
Pat didn't seem to hear my answer, his interest was focused on his rear view mirror. I’d noticed this before and put it down to the car not being taxed or some other irrelevance. Yet he seemed totally unconcerned when a Guardia car drew alongside at a set of lights. The cars that had created the interest looked normal to me, two had been at road junctions and one other reversed into a private drive. I decided to try a little probing. 'I notice the police are out in strength. Any particular reason for it?'
'No reason. That lot are called the Terrorist Response Force.'
'Rough justice are they?'
'Right with the first, the second doesn't apply. Few of them will ever make out a charge sheet or stand in a witness box. It's swift and sharp, then left to the regulars to sweep up or sort out what's left.'
I knew I'd hit a nerve and I wasn't sure I wanted to know why. Besides we were at the harbour and bunk was beckoning. I pulled out some money. He put his hand over mine and pushed it back to me.
'Be here at ten tomorrow morning and I'll pick you up.'
Pat shrugged, 'You want to meet one of the boyos. Don't you?'
That night I lay listening to the shriek of the wind. Day one and I'd got off to a start better than I'd dreamed possible. To be honest I didn't want to query my luck too hard. I was snug in the cabin, treating myself to a large malt and mulling over a future. A luxury I hadn't enjoyed for a long time.
© under the author's copyright
Chapter 3 will be published next Sunday evening.