“I’LL TELL YOU something for nothing, Johnny. Two women and a man is an awful combination to try and sell anything to. Nine times out of ten, when you see two women coming in here shopping with a man, you can be sure they won’t let him buy so much as a pair of underpants.”
Tony Brennan spoke with the voice of bitter experience. He returned his attention to cashing up for the day, and allowed the world a moment to consider his words.
“They were a pair of fussy oul’ hoors all right,” Johnny agreed. “Your man would’ve bought that jumper off you, if they’d only left him alone.”
Johnny Maher was a pimply lad of eighteen, new to the intricacies of the menswear trade, but quick-minded and eager to please. He looked up to his boss, agreeing wholeheartedly with Tony’s every utterance, and laughing at his witticisms no matter how often they were repeated. Tony, in turn, increasingly suspected the boy of having a brilliant mind.
“Sure it wasn’t a bad oul’ day, for a Tuesday,” Tony resumed, shutting down the till with a grunt of satisfaction. He unknotted his tie and shrugged a leather jacket over his spare shoulders. “D’you want to come across to Bergins’ for a pint before you head home? ”
Johnny hesitated, a good man torn between difficult choices. “I dunno, Tony. I said to the girlfriend I’d call round to her place after work. Her parents are away for the night.” He sensed even as he spoke that he had displeased the oracle.
“Don’t mind the girlfriend,” Tony said, dismissively. “That young wan has you rightly under the thumb. T’would do her the world of good to be made wait half an hour while we get a couple of scoops inside us.”
“I s’pose it won’t do any harm,” Johnny conceded, unhappily. He sighed and reached for his coat.
Tony watched approvingly as his protégé took another important step toward manhood. He set the alarm, shut the lights down on the little menswear store he managed, and the pair stepped out into the muggy September evening.
Thurles was subdued that evening. Rain billowed over the Tipperary town, cold and penetrating enough to keep most of the population gratefully indoors. The two men hurried across the town’s central square, heads down and shoulders hunched against the wind and rain, and arrived presently at the welcoming yellow-lit doorway of Bergins’ Pub, a cosy establishment which Tony had been frequenting for years.
It was not yet six o’clock, but Bergins’ already had a share of customers; men in suits and loosened ties reading the Tipperary Star with an evening pint, a quietly conversing couple, a morose drunk getting in a sneaky drink before closing time in seven hours. Tony shook the raindrops from his jacket, somewhat theatrically, and hung it up by the door.
“Evening Tony,” the young barmaid greeted him. “You’re giving the new lad a few bad habits, I see.”
“Sure he might as well learn his bad habits from a professional, Dawn. Two pints of stout and two small Jamesons’ please.” Tony clapped his young companion on the back. “Will you have a drink yourself, Johnny?”
Johnny laughed dutifully at the tired joke, inwardly groaning as the whisky chasers were poured. They pulled up a pair of high stools and waited for their stout. Tony sighed appreciatively as his pint was handed across the bar, and saluted his assistant before drawing on the black, creamy-headed liquid.
Tony Brennan was twenty-three that year, a tall, skinny, tousle-haired man with deep-set, piercing brown eyes and a cheeky, boyish charm, both of which features had always stood him in good stead in his dealings with the opposite sex. He was, outwardly and presumably inwardly, a man contented with his lot; manager of the shop he had started working in four years ago, as much money as he needed, popular, nice car, nice flat in a town he had always been fond of. He had grown up some fifteen miles to the south of Thurles, in the pretty village of Buckaun, a place that had defied all probability by becoming more boring with the passage of the years. He spent little time there now; visits with his parents, the occasional pint in his erstwhile local with one of his ever-diminishing circle of boyhood acquaintances. Most of the Buckaun boys with any get-up-and-go about them had long since got up and gone. A few old schoolmates remained, saluting him self-importantly from the cabs of bouncing Zetor tractors on the narrow roads, and having the same discussions about milk quotas and silage that they had been having five years ago, and would doubtless still be having in five years’ time. The thought that he might ever have become one of their number was enough to bring the normally insouciant Tony out in a cold sweat.
Johnny’s enjoyment of his drinks was hampered by his eagerness to be elsewhere, as well as his strong dislike of both stout and whisky, but he concealed this manfully from Tony. Having seen off the last of the Jamesons’ with only a small shudder of distaste, he thanked the older man graciously and began to turn toward the door.
“Jaysus, Johnny, you had a thirst on you,” Tony remarked, impressed - he was not yet half way down his glass. “Dawn, get the young fella another Guinness, he’s downing it at an awful rate here.”
“Ah no, Tony,” Johnny protested. “I’d want to be going now. Bernie will be wondering what’s happened to me.”
Tony laid a staying hand on the youth’s shoulder. “D’you hear that, Dawn?” he chortled. “The young lad’s pure mad for a ride. Have another pint, and don’t worry about Bernie. Sex is all right, but you can’t beat the real thing, ain’t that right, Dawn?” He winked at the barmaid.
“’Arra would you go away, and don’t be talking muck!” she snapped, but she was laughing as she pulled Johnny’s second pint. He accepted it miserably, reflecting as he drew on the Guinness that if you could liquidize wood it would probably taste like this.
“You might as well let that young wan know early on that the lads come first,” Tony counselled. “Don’t let her get the upper hand too early or you’ll regret it.” Tony considered himself an expert on relationship troubles, all of his past relationships without exception having run into terminal troubles within the first few weeks.
The door at their back swung open, admitting an unwelcome blast of cold, damp air and a trio of well-dressed young women. Tony let his eye fall over them and treated them to a lazy smile, because it would not have been in his nature to do otherwise.
“Well,” said the tallest girl, returning his smile faintly as she walked past. Her companions, a plump redhead and a pretty blonde with a rather bohemian cut about her clothes, ignored him. Tony realised immediately that he knew one of their faces, but struggled to put a name with it. Had they been in school together, something like that? The girls had paid for their drinks, and, chattering animatedly, were retreating to a table in the corner, before the identity of the little blonde clicked in Tony’s head.
“Sinead!” he called out. “Sinead O’Brien, isn’t it?”
They turned around simultaneously, the blonde eyeing him dubiously, even with hostility. Tony knew then that he had not been mistaken.
“Yeah,” she said. “Who are you?”
“Tony Brennan. You remember me. I was a good friend of Barry Delaney’s.”
Her expression softened at the mention of Delaney’s name, which was not unexpected either.
“I do remember you,” she said with a nod. She remembered, presumably, that Tony Brennan had taken an obvious shine to her on their first meeting, years earlier, at a party at Whoever’s house that Barry had dragged all the gang to. She had eyes only for dashing young Delaney, but the fact that she and Barry had gone on to become an item hadn’t stopped Tony eyeing her up all the time or making shameless suggestions that they get to know each other better. He had always known how much he got under her skin, and it was pleasing to him to see that he hadn’t lost his touch. He suspected that no matter how greatly he irritated her, her desire for news of Barry would overcome that.
Sure enough, Sinead hesitated, glanced quickly at her friends and told them, “I’ll be down to you in a while, girls.” She looked Tony in the eye. “Mind if I join you for a bit?”
“Not at all,” Tony smirked. “Haven’t you somewhere more important to be, Johnny?”
“Well…I…” Young Johnny had been observing the exchanges between the two with great interest. Conversations with his mentor had left him with the impression that Tony was an accomplished ladies’ man the likes of which the world had not seen since Giacomo Casanova, and he was intensely curious to see what would happen next.
“Go on, finish up that pint,” Tony told him sternly. “Poor oul’ Bernie will be disgusted with you, and you going round there late with the smell of drink on you.”
Johnny knew better than to protest. He left his drink nearly untouched on the bar and slinked out, having thanked Tony once again for his generosity and cast a final inquiring look at Sinead.
“He’s a good lad, really,” Tony remarked, in the tones of one who has seen the world, and knows enough to be a little blind to the faults of the young. He drained his pint, reached for Johnny’s, and patted the vacated barstool at his side. “Sit down there, love.”
Sinead did so, after moving the stool a little further from him.
“Nice to see you round here again,” he told her. “You finished at school now?”
“University,” she corrected, primly, and quite unnecessarily. “No, I’ve still got two years to go. Should have my BA by summer of 2001.”
“Good girl. Sinead O’Brien, Bachelor of Arts, eh?” Despite himself, he was impressed. The somewhat earnest, out-of-place schoolgirl had grown into a young woman with considerable poise and self-possession. She seemed slimmer, straighter, the small amount of make-up skilfully applied. The eyes were as dreamily cornflower blue as ever, though, the lips the same perfect cupid’s bow.
“That’s the plan. I’m taking a couple of weeks off to catch up with everyone back here - I’ve been in the States all summer - and then I’m heading back up to Limerick at the end of the month.”
“Well fair play to you. And here’s me still selling socks and tee-shirts in Thurles.” Tony did not actually sound particularly distressed by the hand that fate had dealt him. Because he knew she hadn’t, he asked, “Have you heard from Barry recently?”
She gazed into the depths of her vodka and coke. “Not unless you count over a year ago as recently. And that was only a page of a letter, going on about horses and hunting. I don’t even know where he is now.”
Tony rightly interpreted those last words as a question. “He’s in London now,” he informed her. “Teaching Brits how to ride horses. He’s the head honcho at some posh stables there. Hasn’t been home since Christmas. Out hunting in Lismolin, every Stephenses’ Day, that’s the only place you’re nearly guaranteed to run into Barry. That was the last time I saw him.”
“How was he?” Sinead asked quickly.
There was a new light in her eyes. Tony shook his head, bemused. After all this time, with no communication from Barry, the old flame evidently still smouldered within her breast. He felt that she was owed a candid answer.
“He’s not…he’s not the same easy-going Barry Delaney you knew, I think. He pretends to be, but he’s not. Me and Barry and Jack Russell were all the one, in the old days. It shook us all up when Jack died, but it seemed to change Barry most of all.” He paused, gathered his thoughts. “If you’d told me before Jack died that Barry would up sticks and leave Tipperary, I’d have laughed at you. Barry seemed to have more reason to stick around than any of us - eldest son of the high-and-mighty Delaney family, all that land, Caherconnell House. But leave he did, and the few times I’ve met him since, he’s been like a stranger. There’s something a bit distant about him now. He don’t entirely come across as a happy man.”
Tony had other theories about what had caused the transformation in his old friend, but saw no good reason to voice them. He felt an unaccustomed melancholy settle over him, and suddenly found himself wishing that Sinead had chosen another pub to catch up with her cronies in. She should have stayed in the past, with the old laughing, devil-may-care Barry Delaney, and poor dead Jack Russell, and Linda Doheny, and Andrea. Tony had a framed photograph of them all at a hunt ball in Clonmel, less than two months before the car crash that had ended Jack’s life, in dinner jackets and long evening gowns, grinning faces crowding into the picture. There was big, cheery Jack, red-faced and missing his bow tie, his arm around his girlfriend Linda. Tony was in the middle of the picture, obviously sozzled, deliberately looking down the front of Linda’s dress to add colour to the photograph. Barry, tall and blue-eyed and handsome, looked as entirely at home in evening dress as only Barry could, and standing beside him was his kinswoman and the belle of the ball, the beautiful Andrea Delaney, leaning close to Barry in a way that wasn’t entirely cousinly. Linda had moved down to Waterford, just another friend he had lost touch with. Andrea had chosen to remain in England after graduating from university, was involved in the equestrian property business now, and rumoured to be doing well. She had not been seen in Buckaun since Jack’s funeral, since the five of them had had their carefree friendship so suddenly, violently shattered. Tony was very glad he had that photograph, that record of a moment in time when they had all been so completely, untouchably happy. Whatever had happened afterwards, he had evidence that that moment had been.
Sinead had fallen into a ruminative silence, playing with her near-empty glass. Eventually she said, “He was a bit like that the last time I saw him, just before he left home. A bit of him seemed to have gone away already. I always thought I could have been very good for Barry, but he didn’t seem to want to let me in.”
Tony smiled at her, the usual gentle mockery absent from his expression. “So it goes,” he said, consolingly. “You could always marry that younger brother of his. Darren Delaney strikes me as a more dependable prospect altogether.”
“I remember Darren. Quiet lad. What age would he be now? Eighteen?”
“There or thereabouts. He’s going across to England next month, starting off at Andrea’s old college. He was meant to go last year, but the father wasn’t well; he had to run the show at home for a while. The Delaneys always had one foot in England. They were kind of what passed for the gentry round Buckaun.”
“Yeah. Barry always considered himself a bit upper class, with his foxhunting and his cigars,” Sinead reflected. “I don’t suppose I was ever good enough for him really.” She swiftly downed the remains of her vodka and coke, and asked for another. “Look, it’s been nice catching up, but I’d better get back to the girls. We don’t get to see each other much any more.”
Tony glanced at her two companions, seated in a corner. The taller of the two, a bespectacled brunette, winked at him, which was unexpected but flattering.
“D’you recognise her?” Sinead queried, with a grin.
“Susan Hennessy. That first time we all met, you spent the whole night trying to get off with her. You didn’t get anywhere; you were langered.”
Now that she mentioned it, Tony vaguely recollected that Sinead had been there with a friend that night, but not in a million years would he have remembered her face. He winked back at her anyway, as Sinead slipped off the high stool and began to move away from him.
Impulsively, he reached out and touched her arm. She turned round again. “You were plenty good enough for Barry,” he told her, surprising both of them. “The big eejit never knew what he had, that’s all.”
She shrugged, smiled wanly. “It’s nice of you to say so. I suppose none of us know what we have, till we don’t have it any more.”
She walked away. Tony drained what was left of Johnny’s pint.