Jim coughed again, a hard, tight bark from the top of his chest. His head jerked forward when Connie’s big hand landed on his back and he gulped for breath, waving her hand away. Connie grinned and hit him again anyway. His chest hurt; his eyes watered and tears sat in the long creases in his cheeks.
The beer tasted sweet going down and he took a long suck, wondering if Connie would let him have another one. He looked at her glass and measured the last of her pint. Connie gave him one of her half-smiles and he knew she knew he wanted another drink. He set down his glass as if he didn’t care and glanced with pretended interest around the bar.
The usual trio sat on stools, their heads together, Eugene Curran and the Brothers Grimm, and Jim thought that if Connie wasn’t with him he might walk over and say hello, what are you having boys? He tried to imagine that . . . they would talk to him about sport and ask his opinion.
A shout from the corner drew his attention. He thought there was a fight starting but it was only a crowd of young fellows, a whole gang of them, shouting and laughing, and pushing and shoving at a slight, fair-haired one in the middle. He looked like he couldn’t stand up for himself and Jim’s heart beat sore for him.
“Birthday party,” Connie said in his ear.
Jim looked again and saw the huge gold key on the table. The fair-haired boy wasn`t being bullied; his friends were teasing him and Jim could see that he was full of drink. The hair was stuck to his head and his face bloomed in the dark corner.
“That boy’s not twenty-one.”
“You have to be twenty-one to get the key.”
“No you don’t. That was years ago, it’s eighteen now. You know nothing.”
“He’s not old enough. Look at him.”
“Time!” Charlie roared, rattling a spoon against a glass. “Come on now.”
Barney Madden started picking up glasses. He’d lift it from under your nose, finished or not. Jim held his on his knee.
The crowd in the corner stood up and pulled the birthday boy to his feet, shouting at him to make a speech and he began to talk, leaning on the back of a chair. He seemed to be nearly crying and he shook everybody’s hand over and over.
The trio at the bar pocketed their change and went out, leaving the doors to swing behind them, letting in great gusts of cold air.
“Come on now, Connie,” Barney said. “Get that into you. Jim, can you do nothing with that wife of yours? Take her away home to bed.”
He laughed when he said that and clattered glasses onto the counter.
One by one the young men got up. With the fair one in the middle carrying the huge gold key they pushed through the swing doors and then they were gone.
“Now, Barney,” Connie said, and handed over her glass.
Jim nodded and said goodnight and waited for Connie to button up her new brown duffle-coat. It is a man’s coat, he thought again, looking at the long sleeves of it and the breadth across the shoulders. Whatever she says, it is a man’s coat. I’ll say it to her later, get her going. His own grey tweed was threadbare but he was attached to it. Connie wouldn’t let him have a new one anyway. She belted the door open and Jim ducked as it swung towards his face. Barney winked at him and locked the door behind them. They wriggled deeper into their coats, turning their faces from the wind, and then Jim pointed:
The fair-haired boy was crouching at the corner, his arms hugged over his thin chest, and him bare as a baby. He turned when Jim and Connie came out and moved towards them with his knees close together.
“The b-b-b-bastards left me.”
He sniffed hugely and wiped his face.
“I thought they were going to throw me in the sea! I’m fuckin’ freezin’ . . . give us a jacket for God’s sake, will you?”
Jim looked at Connie. She was laughing, her eyes going up and down the pale, shivering figure.
“Is it your birthday?” she asked. “Where did they go, your friends? God you’re a hoot, isn’t he Jim?”
“I’ll get my fuckin’ death out of this, an’ me ma’ll be waiting and I’ve no phone.”
The boy’s voice went up and up.
“Oh Jesus God I’ll kill the poxy bastards. Give us something to put on for fuck sake!”
He began to dance around like a boxer, swinging his arms, and then he remembered to cover himself. Connie turned to Jim and he backed away from her, shaking his head. His chest hurt in the cold air and he coughed. She can’t make me, he thought. I’m not going to. For a moment the three of them stood there, until bolts were shot in the door behind them.
“Quick,” Connie said. “Charlie’s still around, cleaning and that. Go on, knock the door.”
And then she turned and knocked it herself.
“What’s your name, boy?” she said.
“Frankie Pankie,” Connie laughed. “Isn’t that right, Jim? Frankie Pankie! God, he’s a hoot . . . Charlie!” she roared, banging on the door.
“There’s a bare-assed bird out here. Let him in. Come on, we know you’re there, we know you’re not gone yet.”
There was no sound from behind the door and then the lights went out. The wind rose with a cruel nip; the sea rolled black and oily beyond the wall and the first drops of rain were blown over Frank. He ran against the stout door of the pub and shouted for somebody to fucking well open up, and then he ran up and down the street listening for a car, for his friends to come back. Connie watched him and Jim stood well behind her, his coat clutched tight.
“Poxy bastards! Frank screamed into the wind.
“Make your man let me in,” he said to Jim and Connie. “Yous know him better than me. He must have heard us knocking – they’ll have put him up to it, the fuckers. How am I to get home? Lend us the taxi-fare will yous?”
Jim felt the rain on the back of his neck and turned up his collar. Poor bugger, he thought. He looked at the boy’s thin legs, white as milk in the dark night, and his arms like strings wrapped around his chest. Jim was cold himself; he wanted to go home to his quiet bed and lie against the warm bulk of Connie’s back.
And then he saw Connie taking off her own coat and his breath puffed out in a snigger. What was she at now? She threw it around Frank’s shoulders and he seemed to sink under it, bending his knees, trying to get his feet into it too.
“Come on now.” Connie marched him quickly away.
“You come home with us, boy. We’ll mind you, won’t we, Jim? Sure you’re only a little chicken. Are you sure you’re eighteen?”
She belted Jim’s ear and he staggered.
“Some husband you are,” she said.
From “We All Die in the end” – Now with three 5 star reviews on Goodreads