The locals at the The Castle are not afraid to tell you what they think of you, and I know of a good few people who won’t even go in there. You won’t see many women drinking in this scruffy pit, but you will find plenty of bucks from back across the water who wrongly praise this hole to be as close a thing to a pub back home as they are ever going to find in this city. They spend most days sat squat and haunched about their drinks with backs bent forward to such a wild degree that their shoulders press tight against their drunken Irish earlobes. These lads can go through a dozen pints of porter like no one you have ever seen and it will make you feel messy just to watch them do half it. The drink is cheaper here than in other neighbourhoods and there is a man who comes a few times of a week with a wicker basket full of jellied eels, cockles and potted shrimps. He sells them to anyone with shrapnel to spare and a remembrance that someone, long gone, used to eat those kinds of things. The pub do their own food, but even at your most hungry, you wouldn’t want to order any of it. There was a raid by the police on the squat above the pub a few years back and were found all manner of suspect and contraband materials. Items were seized and the appropriate incarcerations made. For such a thing to happen was never beyond consideration. Tacked to the lounge walls are signs to remind patrons of the now frequent and unannounced police visitations. All exits are under 24 hour close circuit surveillance, and there is a note written on foolscap A4 and taped to a front window that warns:
“No recording or flash images to be taken in the pub. Children and minors use this public house. Any person doing so will be barred and reported to the police. They only deal in cash and under no circumstances will they accept cards.”
The Christmas lights are kept up all year and on Saturday night the stench in the men’s bathroom is unspeakable. They have made a point of displaying bottles of wine behind the bar. Nobody has ever ordered so much as a half-glass. All the big sports events are screened here, but if you’re not a local, they will charge you an entry fee. The decor is sparse but hanging on one wall is a framed print of a painting by J. Lincoln Rowe showing the SS. Politician running aground off the north coast of the Outer Hebrides, Scotland on 5th November 1941. She was an 8000-ton freighter owned by the T & J Harrison Company of Liverpool, England and left the Alexandra Dock on 2nd February 1941. After a night on the River Mersey, she weighed anchor bound for Jamaica and New Orleans with 28,000 cases of malt whisky in the hold. Two days at sea and she stranded on rocks off Rosinish Point on the island of Eriskay. The island’s inhabitants looted most of the wreck’s cargo and the ship was declared a total loss. A witty sort, Rowe called his painting “Scotch on the Rocks.”
When I have somewhere to be I might stop in for a quick half and a gawk around before jumping on the train, but I try not to stay any longer than I need and never try to chat around. The barman knows you are paying for a drink and not a conversation. Nobody is in there to make new friends. The trip in mention took place on a cold Friday night in January. I was to meet an old friend who was running late on account of some outstanding business he had to settle in the city. It wasn’t to take too long, he told me. It should be wrapped within the hour. I went into The Castle against all better judgement with intentions on a quick pint, a short wait and a swift exit. It was a busy night, but not so engaged that you had to worry about any kind of elbow knocking or side stepping. There was no hassle toward finding an empty nest at the bar. In the corner, a couple of middle-aged skin-heads were sinking vodka neat and talking to each other violently. They were wicked looking specimens with tattoos and fools-gold teeth, but they were no harm. No mind to anyone in there.
The barman was a loud beast of a thing with slicked hair and an overgrown pike of a beard. His facial hair such an entire and sprawling mass that it near-on engulfed that gargantuan cannon ball head of his and was as red as the hot iron. He wore soaked patches of sweat under the arms of his striped-blue shirt with indifference and stood proud as an oversized satyr at the tap like some kind of bastardised nightmare born of a thousand compounded pagan mythologies. His cologne was cheap, with a smell like boiling vinegar, and he was missing two of his front left incisors. It is difficult to discern as to whether they’d been lost to poor dental hygiene or on account of his big mouth. He cussed at the television and served every pint with a slander to its claimant. However, he was never an offence to those he did not know well.
Sat in modest clusters, the old gents were well into the evening’s drinking. A few had brought their wives. Together they sat without a word between them. Nothing left to learn from one another and no stories to share. Every man in there was waiting for something. For some, it was an already long postponed and futilely desperate opportunity to start something, everything, again. Others were looking for some kind of a relief from their disappointing lives. Then there is that rare breed of person who is always in wait of the next chance to ruin themselves and everything around them. That was the lot of us.
His first appearance, a reflection in the mirror behind the bar. An obscured glimpse at the object of the terrible stood beside me. He’s an angry man, it’s in his eyes. Mad, crazy eyes. Two stars set deep above hollow, incruent cheeks. Like the kind who is all smiles at the table but will meet you later in the alley with a pulled knife and no reason. A wild kind of madness that should never go overlooked, even for a moment.
“Now,” he gestured to the barman.
“What are you after, horse?” The strawberry bull flinging a grubby hand towel over his broad shoulder as he approached.
“Don’t call me horse. I’ll have the same again.”
He was a thin man, but quick and tense.
“Alright, horse, no problem.”
“I said don’t call me horse, you mutt’s cunt smelling shite of a fool.”
He lifted his drink and pulled up a stool beside me and we got to talking. We talked about the Irish and our counties and nothing in particular. With words slurred on whiskey breath, we toasted Saint Peter as the rain starts outside. To the SS Politician, may she rest in peace. To the Mariners. And the mothers. Glasses clink and salutes are lifted above bowed heads. He buys a round for the two of us and says he has things to tell. He has known a prison cell as home for many years of his life. He remembers hard drugs and vicious crime as intimates. Haunting visions of the terrible. His madness, no act. Even his few virtues containing the abject. There is a daughter somewhere, he tells me. They don’t talk. She’s grown up now. The mother wants nothing to do with him.
“One Ireland, united unto itself. What do you say to that?”
It was serious business on his mind but I was in no mood for that kind of talk and little notion as to why he would want to bring any of it up.
“It’s a very complicated one. I don’t think I’m equipped to comment.”
“But you’re no Englishman. Not from the sound of you. The Irish is branded on your tongue.”
“I was born in Liverpool.”
“A plastic Paddy, that’s what we call you. Of course, you can tell by the gimp of you.”
“That’s what they call us.” I told him he was right.
“Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?”
“I won’t go into that now. No religion or politics.”
“They’re two different kinds of the same rubbish anyhow,” says he. “Nothing did more harm to Ireland than the Church.”
“I can’t say that I believe in anything.”
I was in no mood for fabrication and I thought he would appreciate the honesty. As coarsely as it may have been delivered. He nodded in understanding and leaned closer toward me.
“With the things I have done. If there is a lake of fire,” he said “I’ll sink straight to the bottom.”
What he had to tell me next was to provoke a chill that stays with me still. As if all the goodness had been pulled out of the air between the two of us and only the horrible remained. He told me about the job of killing and what it’s like to hold no want for redemption. His response to life, an immersion in the mindless. His was privy to an acquired familiarity with the brutal. In another age, they could have found a use for him. This man who laughs like he cries. He would be marched in the direction of the opposing camp and ordered not to return until he had a scalp from every one of them. A task he would have completed with the vigour and facility of a man chopping wood on an autumn afternoon. His was a business carried out by few. That a creature such as sits beside me can make it into old age is a demonstration in the miraculous. However,it is not a sight to behold long. I won’t be the one stood listening to him. He asked what I thought of him.
“There’s a great roll to that pavement outside,” I said “It has a fine slope to the road about it. An absolute pleasure to walk on.”
He follows my pointed finger to the curtained window – my betraying mention of a world outside. Caught in a confusion, his eyes searched the room, hoping to find some kind of explanation for what he’d just heard. Finding nothing in the air between us, he gazed back at me in a disappointment. He swiped his paw and turned away. He’s not interested anymore. We won’t be friends after all. My friend called to say he wasn’t to get away. That we wouldn’t be meeting after all. I was about ready for my cot anyway. The maniac got up in a lurch toward the bathroom. I put money behind the bar for his next drink, not to owe him anything, and stepped out into the rain. I hope we’ll never meet again.