New fiction by Roddy Doyle

Few writers capture the attitudes and eccentricities of modern Ireland as vividly as Roddy Doyle. But this stunning new short story, 'I Understand', shows that his beloved homeland can also be a cruel and alien place
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This morning, I stand at the bus stop. I have been in this city three months. I begin to understand the accent. I already know the language. How do you do? Is this the next bus to Westminster? I have brought my schoolroom English with me. There is no Westminster in this city but I know what to say when the next bus goes past without stopping.

—Fuck that.

People smile. One man nods at me.

—Good man, bud, he says. —Making the effort.

I smile.

I understand. This word, Bud. It is a friendly word. But I cannot say Bud to this man. I cannot call him Bud. A man like me can never call an Irish man Bud. But I can say, Fuck that. The expletive is for the bus, the rain, the economy, life. I am not insulting the bus driver or my fellow bus-stop waiters. I understand. My children will learn to call other children Bud. They will be Irish. They will have the accent. If I am still here. And if I have children.

It is spring. I like it now. It is bright when I stand at the bus stop. It is warm by the time I finish my first job. Early morning is the best time. It is quiet. There are not many people on the footpaths. I do not have to look away. Eyes do not stare hard at me. Some people smile. We are up early together. Many are like me. I am not resented.

I polish floors in a big department store. I like pushing the buffer over the wooden floor. I am used to hard work but every machine and tool has its own pain. With the buffer, it was in my arms. It was like riding an electric horse. My arms shook for a long time after I finished. I felt the buffer every time I closed my eyes. I heard it. Now, I like it. I control it. It is my horse now and I am the cowboy. This morning, I push the buffer too far. The flex becomes tight and the plug jumps out of the socket. I have to walk across the big floor to insert the plug. It is a correct time to say Fuck that. But I do not say it. I am alone.

I like this job. I like the department store when it is empty. I like that I am finished very early. I wear my suit to the store and I change into my work clothes in one of the changing rooms. I carry my work clothes in a bag that I found in my room. It is a bag for Aston Villa. It is not a very good team, I think, but the bag is good. It is grand. I understand. How are you? Grand. How's the head? Grand. That's a great day. It is grand.

One time, the supervisor was outside the changing room when I came out.

—Make sure you don't help yourself to any of the clothes, she said.

I saw her face as she looked at me. She was sorry for what she had said. She looked away. She is nice. She is grand. She leaves me alone.

Every month, the window models are changed. This morning is a change day. Pretty women and men with white hair are taking out old models and putting in new ones. The new ones have no heads. I wait to see them put heads on the models, on top of the summer clothes, but they do not. One day, perhaps, I will understand.

I change into my suit and I go home. Today, I walk because it is nice and I save some money. It is warm. I walk on the sunny sides. It is not a time to worry. I eat and I go to bed for a time. The room is empty. My three friends are gone, at their works. Sometimes I sleep. Sometimes the bad dreams do not come. Most times I lie awake. There is always some noise. I do not mind. I am never alone in this house. I do not know how many people live here.

I get up in the afternoon and I watch our television. I like the programmes in which American men and women shout at each other and the audience shouts at them. It is grand. I also like MTV, when there are girls and good music. They are also grand. Today, I watch pictures of people, happy in Baghdad. A man hits a picture of Saddam with his shoe. He does this many times.

I get dressed for my second job. I do not wear my suit. I do not like my second job but it is there that my story starts.





****



My second job takes me to the place called Temple Bar. I walk because the bus is too slow, when other people are going home from work. The streets are busy but I am safe. It is early and, now, it is spring and daylight.

Temple Bar is famous. It is the centre of culture in Dublin and Ireland. But many drunk people walk down the streets, shouting and singing with very bad voices. Men and even women lie on the pavements. I understand. These are stag and hen people, from England. Kevin, my Irish friend, explained. One of these people will soon be married, so they come to Temple Bar to fall on the street and urinate in their trousers or show their big breasts to each other and laugh. Kevin told me that they are English people but I do not think that this is right. I think that many of them are Irish. Alright, bud? What are you fucking looking at? But Kevin wants me to believe that these drunk people are English. I do not know why, but Kevin is my friend, so I do not tell him that, in my opinion, many of them are Irish.

Here, I am a baby. I am only three months old. My life started when I arrived. My boss shows me the plug. He holds it up.

—Plug, he says.

He puts the plug into the plug-hole. He takes it out and he puts it in again.

—Understand? he says.

I understand. He turns on the hot water.

—Hot.

He turns on the cold water.

—Cold. Understand?

I understand. He points at some pots and trays. He points at me.

—Clean.

I understand. He smiles. He pats my shoulder.

All night, I clean. I am in a corner of the big kitchen, behind a white wall. There is a radio which I can listen to when the restaurant is not very noisy. This night, the chefs joke about the man in Belfast called Stakeknife. The door to the alley is open, always, but I am very hot.

—How come you get all the easy jobs?

I look up. It is Kevin, my friend.

—Fuck that, I say.

He laughs.

Food is a good thing about this job. It is not the food that is left on the plates. It is real, new food. I stop work for a half-hour and I sit at a table and eat with other people who work here. This is how I met Kevin. He is a waiter.

—It's not fair, he says, this night, when he sees my wet and dirty T-shirt. —You should be a waiter instead of having to scrub those fucking pots and pans.

I shrug. I do not speak. I do not want to be a waiter, but I do not want to hurt his feelings, because he is a waiter. Also, I cannot work in public. All my work must be in secret, because I am not supposed to work. Kevin knows this. This is why he says it is not fair. I think.

The door to the alley is near my corner, and it is always open. Fresh air comes through the open door but I would like to perspire and lock the door, always. But, even then, it must be opened sometimes. I must take out the bags of rubbish, old chicken wings and French fries and wet napkins. I must take them out to the skip.

And, really, this is the start of my story. This night, I carry a bag outside to the alley. I lift the lid of the skip, I drop in the bag, I turn to go back.

—There you are.

He is in front of me, and the door is behind him.

—Hello, I say.

—Polite, he says.

I understand. This is sarcasm.

—Did you think about that thing we were talking about? he says.

—Yes, I say.

—Good. And?

—Please, I say, —I do not wish to do it.

He sighs. He hits me before he speaks.

—Not so good.

I am on the ground, against the skip. He kicks me.

I must explain. The story starts two weeks before, when this man first grabbed my shoulder as I dropped a bag into the skip. He spoke before I could see his face.

—Gotcha, gotcha.

He told me my name, he told me my address, he told me that I had no right to work here and that I would be deported. I turned. He was not a policeman.

—But, he said. —I think I can help you.

He went. Three times since, he has spoken to me.

Now, this night, I stand up. He hits me again. I understand. I cannot fight this man. I cannot defend myself.





****



I am alone again in the alley behind the restaurant. The man has gone. I check my clothes. I am no dirtier than I was before I came out here. I check my face. I take my hand away. There is no blood.

He will be back. Not here. But it will be tonight. I know exactly what this man is doing. I am not a stranger to his tactics. I go back into the restaurant. I work until there is no more work to do and it is time to go home. Every night, this is the time I do not like. Tonight, I know, it will be worse.

I walk with Kevin to the corner of Fleet Street and Westmoreland Street. He has his bicycle.

—Are you alright? he asks.

—Yes, I say.

—You're quiet.

—I am tired.

—Me too, knackered. Seeyeh.

—See you.

I will buy a bicycle. But, tonight, I must walk. It is later than midnight. There are no buses. I walk across the bridge. I walk along O'Connell Street. I do not look at people as they come towards me. I cross to the path that goes up the centre of the street. It is wider and quieter. And, I think, safer. But never safe. It is a very long, famous street. I do not like it. All corners are dangerous.

This night no one stares or spits at me. No words are thrown at my back. No one pushes against me. Once or twice, I look behind. I expect to see the man. He is not there. This, too, I expect. It is his plan. Then I think that I will not go home. I will hide. But this is a decision that he would expect of me. He is watching. I keep walking. I do not look behind.

The last streets to my house are narrow and dark. Cars pass one at a time, and sometimes none at all, as I walk to my street. I walk towards a parked car. It is a jeep, made by Honda.

A cigarette lands on the footpath.

—I'm giving them up.

He is alone.

—D'you smoke, yourself?

—No.

—Four years I was off them. Can you believe that?

But he is not alone. Two more men are behind me and beside me. They hold my arms.

—In you get.

A hand pushes my head down, and protects my head as I am pushed into the back seat. I am in the middle, packed between these two big men. They are not very young.

The driver does not drive. We go to nowhere.

—Have you had a rethink? he says.

—Excuse me? I say, although I understand his words.

—Have you thought about what I said?

—Yes.

He does not look back and he does not look in the rear-view mirror.

—And?

—Please, I say. —Please, tell me more about my duties.

The men beside me laugh. They do not hit me.

—Duties? says the driver. —Fair enough. That's easily done. You go to another place, here in Ireland, sometimes just Dublin. You deliver a package, or pick one up. You come back without the package, or with it. Now and again. How's that?

I cannot shrug. There is not room. I do not ask what the packages will contain. The question, I think, might result in violence. And I do not intend delivering the packages.

—Do you have a driver's licence? he says.

—No.

—Doesn't matter. You'll be getting the train.

The men laugh.

—All pals, says the driver. —We'll take you home.

It is a very short distance. The men at my sides talk to each other.

—So the doctor, says one man, —the specialist. He said, Put your fuckin' finger on that.

—Were you not out?

—Out where?

—Knocked out.

—No.

The driver turns the last corner and stops at my house. He opens his door and gets out.

—There's a 99 per cent success rate, says the man at my left.

—Well, the wife's brother died on the table last year.

—But he was probably bad before he went in.

—That's true.

The big man at my left gets out. I follow him. The driver hits me before I straighten, as I get out. The other man is right behind me. He also hits me. The driver tries to grab my hair but it is too short. He pulls my shoulder.

—None of this is racially motivated. Understand?

I nod. I understand.

—Grateful?

I nod.

—Good man. And, come here. There'll be a few euros in it for you.

—Thank you.

—No problem, he says. —And, by the way, I know your days off.

There are no more blows. I am alone on the footpath. I watch the jeep turn the corner.





****



My next day off is Sunday. But I know that, in fact, the man in the jeep will decide. My next day off will be any day he wants it to be. I must wait. I must decide.

It rains this morning. I do not like the rain but I like what it does. It makes people rush; it makes them concentrate on their feet. It is a good time for walking.

I must think.

I can run.

I can run again.

I am very tired. The buffer controls me this morning. I follow it across the floor.

I will not run. I decided that I would not run again when I came to Ireland, and I will not change my mind. I ran away from my home and my country. I ran away from London. Now, I will not run.

It still rains.

But what will I do? What is my plan?

I stand at the service entrance behind the department store. The lane is one puddle.

I wait for the plan to unfold in my mind. I look, but the lane is empty. Perhaps the man in the jeep does not know about my early-day life. I do not believe this. The plan stays folded and hidden.

—God, what a country.

The supervisor has opened the door. She stands beside me. She looks at the water. She judges its depth.

—What made you come to this feckin' place?

Then she looks at me.

—Sorry.

I understand: she sees famine, flies, drought, huge, starving bellies.

—I like this, I say.

—You don't.

—Please, I say. —I do.

—Why? she asks.

I do not want to make her uncomfortable. But I tell her.

—It is safer when it rains.

—Oh.

I have not told the men who share my room. They have their own stories, and I do not want to bring trouble to them. I do not know what to tell them.

She has not moved yet. She looks at the rain.

—Busy? she says.

—Excuse me?

—Are you busy these days?

I shrug. I do not wish to tell her about my other work.

—Have you time for a coffee? she says.

I am stupid this morning. At first, I do not understand. Then I look at her.

—Please, I say. —With you?

Her face is very red. She is not beautiful. She laughs.

—Well, yes, she says. —If it's not too much bloody trouble.

She is, I think, ten years older than me.

—Forget it, she says.

—No, I say. —I mean. Yes.

—You're sure?

—Yes.

—Come on.

She tries to run through the rain but her legs are very stiff and her shoes are not for running. She stops after a few steps and walks instead. I walk beside her. We go down a lane and then it is Grafton Street. I look behind me; I see no one. We enter the café called Bewley's.

She will not allow me to hold the tray. Nor will she allow me to pay for two cups of coffee and one doughnut. She chooses the table. People stare, others look quickly away. I stand until she sits. She takes the cups off the tray. I sit.

—Thank you.

She puts the doughnut in front of me. I feel foolish. Does she think I am her son? I did not ask for this doughnut. But I am hungry.

—People smell when it's been raining. Did you ever notice?

—Yes, I say.

Again, I feel foolish. Is she referring to me?

She lifts her cup. She smiles.

—Well. Cheers.

—Yes, I say.

I lift my cup but I do not smile. The coffee is good but I wish I was outside, under the rain. I think she is trying to be kind – I am not sure – but I wish I was outside, going home. It would be simpler.

—Any regrets? she says.

—Excuse me?

—D'you ever wish you'd stayed at home?

She tries to smile.

—No, I say.

I do not tell her that I would almost certainly be dead if I had stayed at home.

—I like it here, I say.

It is the answer they want to hear.

—God, she says. —I don't like it much and I'm from here.

I look behind, and at the queue at the counters.

—Am I that uninteresting? she says.

I look at her.

—Excuse me?

—Am I boring you?

—No.

—What's wrong?

—Please, I say. —Nothing.

—What's wrong?

I do not want this. I do not want her questions. So I smile.

—Fuck that, I say.

But she does not laugh. She cries. I do not understand. And now I see the man in the jeep. He is here, of course, without the jeep, but the keys are in his hand. He walks towards me. I hear the keys.





****



The man stops at our table. He picks up the remaining piece of my doughnut.

—Tomorrow, he says.

He looks at the supervisor.

—Breaking your heart, love, is he?

She looks shocked. He laughs. He turns, and his car key scrapes my head. He goes.

She no longer cries but her face is very white, and pink-stained by anger and embarrassment.

—I am sorry, I say.

—Who was that? she said.

—Please, I say. —A friend.

—He was no friend, she says.

I look at her.

—Sure he wasn't?

—No, I say. —He is not a friend.

—What is he then?

—I do not know.

I stand up now. I must go.

—Thank you, I say. —Goodbye.

I am grateful to her, but I do not want to be grateful. It is a feeling that I cannot trust. I have been grateful before. Gratitude unlocks the door that should, perhaps, stay locked.

—Fine, she says.

She is angry. She does not look at me now.

—Goodbye, I say again.

I go.

I go home. My three friends are gone, at their works. I lie on the bed. I do not sleep. I watch our television. American men and women shout at each other. The audience shouts at them. On the programme called Big Brother, a man washes his clothes. He is not very good at this. His friends sleep. I watch them.

I understand. I will see the man before tomorrow. He must let me see that the decision is not mine. I must know that there is no choice. I will see his violence tonight. I know this.

I know this and, yet, I am still hungry. I might die but I want a sandwich. I was hungry some minutes after I watched my father die. The hunger was welcome; there was no guilt. It made me move; it made me think.

I want a sandwich and I make a sandwich. In this house the choice is mine, as is the cheese. The bread, I borrow. I eat, and watch the Big Brother people sit.

It is time to go.

It rains. I walk. A drunk woman falls in front of me. I do not stop. She is very young. Her friend sits down beside her, in the water.

I walk through the restaurant. There are not so many customers. I go to the back door. I look out. There is no one there. I shake the rain from my jacket. I hang it up. I fill the sink. I start. I welcome the heat of the water. I welcome the pleasure, and the effort that the work demands. I scrub at the fear. I search for it. The work is good. I am alert and useful. I have knives beside me, and in the water. I can think, and I cannot be surprised.

—Great weather.

It is Kevin. He is very wet.

—Fuck that, I say.

—I have a new one for you, he says. —Ready?

—Yes.

I take my hands from the water.

—Me bollix, he says. —Repeat.

—My—

—No. Me.

—Me. Bollix.

—Together.

—Me bollix.

—Excellent, says Kevin. —Top man.

He dries his hair with a tea-towel.

—Please, what does it mean?

—My balls.

—Thank you.

—You're welcome. I'm meeting some people after. Want to come?

I answer immediately.

—No. Thank you.

He sees my face; he sees something I feel.

—Sure?

—Perhaps, I say.

—Good.

He puts the tea-towel on my shoulder.

—Later, he says.

—Me bollix, I say.

—Excellent.

I resume the washing. The restaurant starts to fill. I am glad of this. I am very occupied. There is an argument between the manager and one of the chefs – the radio is too loud. A pigeon walks into the kitchen. I go out quickly to the skip with full bags, but there is no one waiting for me. It is a good night, but now it is over. I take a knife. I put it in my pocket.

—Are you coming? says Kevin.

—Yes, I say.

I do not want to bring trouble to Kevin, but I do not want to go home the expected way, at the expected time.

—Excellent, says Kevin.

Outside, it rains. The street is quiet. I walk with Kevin. He pushes his bicycle. We hurry.

We go to a pub.

—It is not closed? I ask.

—No, said Kevin. —It opens late. It's not really a pub.

I do not understand.

—More a club.

Still, I do not understand. I have not been to many pubs. The men at the door stand back, and we enter. It is very hot inside, the music is very loud, and it is James Brown.

I talk; I shout.

—James Brown.

Kevin smiles.

—You know him?

Now I smile.

And I see her.





****



I see her, my supervisor, but she is not among Kevin's friends. She is standing at a different table, with other people. She sees me. She nods. I nod.

I am introduced to Kevin's friends. The music is loud. I do not hear names. There are five people, three women, two men. All shake my hand vigorously; all offer me space at the table. I stand between two of the women.

I look. She is looking at me. She looks away.

Kevin shouts into my ear.

—What are you having?

—Excuse me?

—Drink.

—Please, I say. —A pint of

Guinness.

He moves to the bar.

The woman at my left side speaks.

—Guinness, yeah?

—Yes.

—Nice one.

I nod. She nods. I smile. She smiles. She is pretty. Her breasts and teeth impress me. I hope that she will say something else. I can think of nothing to say.

She speaks. It is exciting.

—You work with Kevin, yeah?

She shouts.

—Bollix to it, I say.

I shout.

She laughs.

—Yeah, she says.

She nods. I do not really understand but, looking at her smile at me, I am quite happy.

One Guinness is placed in front of me. A white sleeve holds the glass. I look. It is not Kevin. The man, a barman, nods at the next table. The supervisor is there. She lifts her glass. She has given me this Guinness.

She smiles.

I do not want to touch it.

The other woman speaks.

—You've an admirer, she says.

She is smiling.

So many smiling women.

—You'll hurt her feelings if you don't drink it.

I pick up the Guinness. I smile at the supervisor. I drink. I smile. I look away.

Kevin's friend, the other woman, is no longer looking at me. No more smiling women. Kevin comes to the table with another Guinness for me. He sees that it is not the first, and is confused.

—What's the story? he says.

His friend, the woman, turns to us.

—He has an admirer, she says. —Amn't I right?

—Fuck that, I say.

I now have two pints of Guinness.

—It's good to be Irish, says Kevin.

She laughs at Kevin, and she smiles at me. I do not know which is more significant, the laughter or the smile.

—What's your name? she asks.

Perhaps the smile. I hope so.

—Tom, I say.

I have many names.

—Oh, she says. —I was expecting something a bit more exotic.

—I apologise, I say.

I smile. She smiles.

—Is Thomas more exotic? I ask.

She laughs.

—Not really.

I like this girl's teeth, very much. I like her smile. I like the sound of her laughter.

I have many names.

—And yours? I say.

—Ailbhe, she says.

—Oh, I say. —I too was expecting something more exotic.

Again, she laughs. Her open mouth is beautiful.

—Please, I say.

I shout.

—Spell this name.

Her mouth is now close to my ear. She spells the name, very, very slowly. If she does this because she thinks that I am stupid, for this time only, I am most grateful.

—Please, I say.

I shout.

—Does this name have a meaning?

Yeah, she says.

She shouts.

—It's Irish for the Slut Who Drinks Too Much at the Weekends.

She sees my shock. I see hers.

—Sorry, she says. —It's an old joke. Friends of mine. We made up silly meanings for our names.

She holds up her glass.

—I'm drinking Ballygowan.

I understand.

—And I'm only a slut now and again.

I think I understand.

—And it is not the weekend, I say.

—Well, yeah, she says.

I am grateful for the Guinness. I can hide behind it as I drink. I can think. I can decide. I like this girl. And I like her sense of humour.

It is a thing I had forgotten: I, too, have a sense of humour.

I smile. And she smiles.

—Out for the night?

It is the wrong woman who now speaks to me. It is the supervisor.

—Thank you, I say.

—Ah, well, she says.

She shouts.

—This morning was a bit weird, wasn't it?

It was just this morning that we drank coffee in Bewley's? I am surprised. It has been a very long day.

I shrug. I am afraid to speak, but must.

—It was nice, I say. —Thank you.

—Ah, well.

I think that she is drunk.

—That guy, she says. —This morning. He was a bit creepy, wasn't he?

I do not want to talk about the man. I do not want to talk to her about him.

—D'you not think? she says.

I will leave. I must.

—Do you need rescuing?

Ailbhe's mouth is at my ear. She whispers.

—Please, I say. —Yes.





****



—God, she says. —You came a bit fast-ish.

—Please, I say. —You are very beautiful.

—You're good looking yourself, she says. —But I'd planned on making the most of it.

—I—

—Don't say you're sorry. I'm only joking. Will we get into the bed?

I have not seen a bed.

—Yes, I say.

She stands. I stand.

I pick up my shoes. A bus passes. The headlights race across the wall and ceiling. She closes the hall door.

—That's better, she says.

She turns on the light.

I follow her.

I cannot remember her name. This is very strange. I want to run away but I also want to follow this woman. I like her. But, even so, her name has disappeared.

The hall light clicks off suddenly. It is dark but I see and hear her unlock a door.

—You do not live in the entire house? I ask.

—No, she says. —Just this place.

So, we made love in a public hall. Again, I want to run.

The door is open. She turns on the light. I enter. It is the room of a woman. I am glad that I am here.

It is not a big bed. We lie beside each other.

I like this woman. I wish that I could remember her name. She remembers mine.

—Dublin's a bit of a dump, isn't it, Tom?

—Please, I say.

And I remember.

—Avril.

—Who the fuck is Avril?

—You are not Avril?

—No, Tim, I'm not Avril.

She sits up.

—But call me whatever you like.

She leans down and whispers into my ear.

—Avril.

I like this woman.

I wake up.

I know where I am, but I am surprised. I slept. This was not my plan. The man with the jeep expects to meet me this morning. But I am here; I am not at home. I look at the curtain. There is strong daylight at its edges. I am not at the department store, at work.

She is beside me, asleep, this woman whose name, I am sure, is almost Avril.

I get out of the bed.

She wakes.

—Get back in here, you.

—Please, I say. —I must go. To work.

—You work nights, she says.

—I have two jobs, I say.

—Poor you, she says.

She notices that I hesitate. She sees me fumble with my shoe-laces.

—Give work a miss, she says.

I would like to do this, very much. I would like to take off my clothes and stay. I would like to touch this woman's warm skin and stay close to it.

But I cannot do this. The man might know where I am. He might be outside, waiting. He is not a patient man.

My laces are tied. I stand up.

—Goodbye, I say. —Thank you.

I open the door.

—Ailbhe, she says.

—That is your name? Ailbhe.

—That's it, she says. —See if you can remember it till tonight.

—I will remember, I say.

—We'll see, she says.

—My bollix.

It rains and, this morning, I do not like it. I am too far away to walk, so I must wait for a bus. I see no jeeps, parked or coming towards me. But I think that I am being watched. I want to move, to run away, but I wait.

The bus is very slow. It is full, so I must stand. I cannot see through the windows because of the condensation. But I do not need to see to know: the bus is not moving. I will be late. I will be late.

I am very late.

The service door behind the department store is locked.

I knock, and wait. I try to hear approaching feet. I knock.

A hand is on my shoulder. A hard hand, grabbing, pushing me to the door.

—The very man.

The door opens as my head hits it. My face falls into the supervisor's jacket.

I get free, and see her face. She is looking at the man and she is angry. She does not seem to be surprised.

—Go away, she says.

—I was just talking to Thomas, he says. —Wasn't I, Thomas?

He looks at me. He smiles.

—Yes, I say.

—He's doing a bit of work for me, he says.

He smiles at her.

—You know yourself. No questions asked. No visas needed.

He winks.

—I told you once, she says. —Go away and leave him alone.

And she stands between me and the man. The door is narrow. I cannot pass her. I do not try.

—And what if I don't? he says. —Will you call the Guards?

He laughs, and winks again.

—No, she says. —I'll do better than that.

He stops laughing.





****



The supervisor stares at the man. He tries to understand her. I can see it in his face: this woman must be taken seriously. And I can see him fight this fact. He would like to hit her. But he is worried. He is no longer sure.

I am ashamed. The woman stands between me and the man – he continues to look at her. And I do not feel safe. For now, he cannot reach me. But she cannot stand in front of me for ever, for more than five minutes. And I do not want her to stand there. I am not a child. I am not a man who will hide behind a woman. Or another man. I will not hide.

—Please, I say. —Please.

I realise now; I understand. I say Please too often. The word is not often understood in this country. I am not weak.

—You must leave me alone, I say.

They look at me, the man and the woman. She turns. He already looks my way. They both look pleased, surprised, uncertain. They wonder: is he talking to me? They had forgotten, perhaps, that I am there.

The man moves. She blocks his path.

Again, I say it.

—You must leave me alone.

She knows. I am talking to her. He knows. I am talking to him. She looks puzzled, then angry. He steps back. He knows that he will get me soon.

—I'm trying to help, she says.

—Yes, I say. —Thank you.

—He's dangerous, she says.

—Yes.

He is dangerous and he is a fool.

—I know his type, she says.

I nod. I also know his type. I have been running from his type for too many years. I will not run now. I will do this myself.

He is a fool because he has not seen me. He has not bothered to look. He sees a man he can frighten and exploit, and he is certain that he can do this. The men who made me fight when I was a boy, they too saw fear and vulnerability. They made me do what they wanted me to do; they made me destroy and kill, for ten years. I am no longer a boy. This man frightens me but I, too, am a man. I know what a hard man is in the language of this city. Tough, ruthless, respected, feared. This man looks at me and sees none of these qualities. He sees nothing. He is a fool.

The supervisor shrugs.

—Sure? she says.

She is a good woman.

—Yes, I say.

Her mobile phone is in her hand. She holds it up.

—I can make a call, she says. —That's all I'd need.

—No, I say. —Thank you.

She shrugs again.

—You know best. I suppose.

—Yes, I say.

She steps aside. He doesn't move. She walks behind me. He doesn't move. She walks away. He doesn't move. He stays in the alley. I am in the department store corridor. The door begins to close. I stop it.

He speaks.

—Come on out here till we have a chat.

I step out. I let go of the door. I hear it close behind me; I hear it click, shut, locked. I do not look back.

—So, he says. —What's the story?

It is not a question. It is not a real question. An answer does not interest him. I see men to my right. They have entered the alley; they were there already. Two men. I have seen them before. They were with him the night he forced me into his Honda jeep. I do not look at these men. I concentrate on the important man.

—So, he says, again.

Still, it still rains.

—You're a bit of a messer, he says. —Aren't you?

—No, I say. —I am not.

He looks at me.

Carefully. For the first time.

Too late.

—Right, he says.

It is as if he shakes himself, as if he has just now woken up.

He must take control.

But I will not be controlled.

I walk away.

I walk. Past his colleagues. They move, prepared to grab, to hit – unsure. I walk. I do not look back.

I will walk away from here. Because I have decided to.

If he shouts I will hear but I will not listen.

If they grab my shoulders I will feel their hands but I will ignore them. I will feel their blows but I will not stop or turn around. I will fall forward and refuse to look.

If he shoots me I will die. I will be gone. He will gain nothing.

He knows this. Now.

He understands.

—Hey! Hey!

I walk away.





****



I walk out of the alley. To a narrow street that is always dark. I do not look behind. I do not hurry. I hear no one behind me. I do not think that I am followed.

I am now on Grafton Street. I am not a fool. I do not think that the crowds will bring me safety. If the man wishes to injure me, if he thinks that he must, he will.

I walk.

If he decides to hurt me, or kill me, because I have humiliated him in front of his colleagues, he will wait. He will not do it here. There are too many people, and too many security cameras. If he wants to teach me, and others, a lesson, he might do it here: nowhere is safe – do as we say.

I do not think that he will attack me here. Perhaps he knows: he can teach me nothing.

I am a fit man and I enjoy walking. Just as well – as they say here. I must walk all day.

Fuck that.

I know that I am smiling. It is strange. I did not know that I was going to. It is good. To find the smile, to feel it.

I pass a man who is standing on a crate. He is painted blue and staying very still. When somebody puts money into the bucket in front of him, he moves suddenly. Perhaps I will do that. I will paint myself blue. I will disappear.

—Fuck that.

A man looks at me, and looks away.

I am the blue man who says Fuck that.

I must walk. All this day.

I cannot sit. I cannot stop. I cannot go home. I must be free. I must keep walking.

I walk. Through Temple Bar. Along the river, past tourists and heroin addicts, strangely sitting together. Past the Halfpenny Bridge and O'Connell Bridge. Past the Custom House and the statues of the starving Irish people. I walk to the Point Depot. Across the bridge – the rain has stopped, the clouds are low – I walk past the toll booths, to Sandymount. No cars slow down, no car door slams behind me. I am alone.

I walk on the wet sand. I see men in the distance, digging holes in the sand. They dig for worms, I think. They look as if they stand on the sea. It is very beautiful here. The ocean, the low mountains, the wind.

It is becoming dark when I cross the tracks at the station called Sydney Parade.

I will go to work. I will not let them stop me. I will go to work. I will buy a bicycle. I will buy a mobile phone. I am staying. I will not paint myself blue. I will not disappear.

It is dark now. It is dangerous. Cars approach, and pass.

I walk the distance to Temple Bar. I walk through crowds and along parts of the streets that are empty. I pass men alone and women in laughing groups.

I am, again, on Grafton Street, where my wandering started this morning. I walk past the blue man. It seems that he has not moved.

I arrive at Temple Bar. A drunk man steps into my way. His friends are behind him. His shoulder brushes mine.

—Sorry, bud.

I make sure that there is no strong contact. I walk through his friends. I do not step off the pavement. I do not increase my pace.

I reach the restaurant at the same time as Kevin. I wait, as he locks his bicycle.

—Did you get a good night's sleep last night? he says.

I understand. This is called slagging.

—Yes, I say. —Thank you.

—Does she snore? he asks.

I surprise myself.

—Only time will tell, I say.

He laughs. I also laugh. I know now what I must do, where I must go. But, first, there is something that I must know.

—Please, I say. —Kevin.

It is later. The restaurant is closed. I cycle Kevin's bicycle; it is mine for tonight.

I remember her corner. I remember her house.

I ring the bell. I wait.

I look behind me. No jeep, no waiting men.

I hear the door. I turn. She is there.

—Well, she says.

—Good evening.

—So, she says. —Do you remember my name?

—Yes, I say.

Kevin told me. I wrote it on my sleeve.

—Yes, I say. —Your name is Ailbhe.

—Ten out of ten, she says. —Enter.

—Please, I say.

I look at the street. I look at her.

—I might be in danger, I say.

—I like the sound of that, she says. —Come in.

© Roddy Doyle 2007. "I Understand" is included in The Deportees by Roddy Doyle, which is published on 6 September (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). To order a copy for the special price of £15.50 (free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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