THE PARTING GLASS
By John Steele
The first time I knowingly kissed a Roman Catholic I was 20 years old.
It was at university up on the North Antrim Coast, a bleak and wind-calloused knuckle on the north east corner of Ireland. She was from Andersonstown in West Belfast, diametrically opposed in more ways than one from my home in Orangefield, East Belfast. Now here I was in the Dublin House Bar on Upper 79th and Broadway, talking to Kerry from Washington DC about big, bad Belfast in 1995. Kerry was fourth generation Irish American Catholic, which is to say she was about as Irish as a Big Mac. But she was pretty, and she looked vaguely like a young Famke Janssen. She loved my accent. No, she’d never been to the homeland but granddaddy visited back in the Twenties. Kerry’s daddy hated the English for all the atrocities and persecution they’d inflicted on dear old Ireland and, as it turned out, he really hated Protestants too. I thought discretion was the better part of valour on this one.
‘Alright Sam? We'll move on now, yeah?’
Donal had stayed at the same backpackers’ hostel as me before I got a place in Greenwich Village.
‘Donal, this is Kerry. Kerry, this is Donal, from Dublin,’ I said.
‘Alright Kerry? Are
you coming with Sam and us?’
‘Thank God, you’re really Irish!’
‘Really Irish?’ asked Donal.
Donal scowled. ‘Ah,
go and fuck yourself.’ He shot me a broad smile, ‘C’mon, big man.’
* * *
outside, feeling the drink more now that I was up and off the barstool. We
started with four that night: Donal, Dram, Hugh and me. Dram was a quiet and
hard-working Glaswegian. Hugh was ex-British army: Royal Irish Rangers. Since
getting out when the regiment was rebranded in 1992 he’d been working his way
around the world. He was a hard bastard. He was also from East Belfast, which
was enough common ground in his eyes to bond us in booze, craic and
brotherhood. Dram, Hugh and myself were sharing an apartment in Greenwich
Village after meeting up while working illegally at a moving company on the
Upper West Side. Donal was still staying at a grimy backpackers’ hostel on the
Upper West Side.
The Dublin House
had been a stop-off on the way to Tailor’s Bar and Saloon in the Garment
District. They had an all-you-can-drink deal on piss-weak American lager until
2am on Tuesdays down there so, three hours after slapping the first bills on
the counter in the Dublin House, Hugh bellowed, ‘Let's go, for fuck’s sake!’
And we did.
* * *
A ten minute
subway ride later and we were on West 42nd Street. 42nd Street was a hell of a
place in 1995, and I mean that literally. During the day it was thronged with
commuters, Nation of Islam preachers, fire-and-brimstone evangelists and people
getting from Port Authority to anywhere-the-fuck-else as quickly as possible.
There were gawking tourists, hawking drug pushers and the usual human debris of
failed big city life, all on the doorstep of the Marriott and the commercial cathedral
of Times Square.
But now, a
little after midnight, it was a derelict urban theme park of peep shows and
porn emporiums, all viewed through a miasma of neon and the farting gases of
the subway system erupting through the sidewalk. It was pretty far from the
darkened; sodium lit terraced streets of Belfast. Like Belfast there was a
sense of danger, but this was intoxicating, full of the potential of something
illicit waiting just out of sight; almost an expectation.
‘I'm away for a
piss,’ said Hugh.
‘Can't you have a slash in that parking lot?’ I asked, pointing across to a shadowy slab of chain-link-ringed concrete on the corner.
‘I’d a bit of bother with a cop the other week for having a piss in Christopher Park,’ Hugh answered, ‘and I don’t want to take any chances. And there might be an attendant somewhere.’
We all understood. Donal had a Green Card; the rest of us were illegal, so altercations with New York’s Finest were a no-no.
Dram chimed in, ‘I
wouldn’t mind a piss myself. There’s a toilet in that cafe at the subway
entrance. If we buy a can of Snapple, yer man’ll let us use it.’
The delay in our
plans was enough to slap a little sobriety back into Donal.
away,’ he said, ‘I’ve to be up early the ’morrow.’
rooms in the hostel where he stayed for the money to ride the subway around
town, scouting for work tending bar here and there. Hugh, Dram and I may have
shared a one-bedroom dump, but the irony of the fact that the only one of us
who could legally live in the country, never mind work, didn’t have an apartment
or regular job wasn’t lost on us.
She was wearing
skin tight white jeans wrapped around legs you usually see on Pirelli calendars.
The tight sweater proved they really did do everything bigger and better in
America. And, of course, she was blonde. She was the living embodiment of every
Hollywood bred fever-dream of the American, corn-fed sexbomb you could imagine.
And she was walking alone on West 42nd St after midnight on a Tuesday.
It was pretty
obvious she wasn’t on her way to the office and it was the first time I’d ever
seen a ‘working girl’ in the flesh. Belfast had revealed many of the more
debased human weaknesses to me in my score of years but prostitution wasn’t one
of them. The RUC regularly risked a bullet in the back or a bomb under the car,
but years of sectarian violence and assassination had kept the vice squad
counting paper clips for the last couple of decades.
As she got
closer I could see she was attractive and strong-featured. Not beautiful in a
classical sense but a face with character, her skin flawless, and she was a few
years older than me. She held a cigarette in her long, manicured fingers.
‘You got a
light?’ The voice had a smoky timbre.
She cocked her
head, a mass of blonde curls cascading down one cheek. ‘Where are you from? Are
you British? I love the London accent.’
In my defence, I
was drunk, young and intoxicated by the seedy glamour of the moment.
And I was sick to the back teeth of the fucking Irish. Their prejudices and open wounds from hundreds of years ago, cultivated and filtered down to their offspring on the other side of the world. I thought of Kerry and her ignorance; and I was angry that I cared. Just for that moment I didn’t want to be Irish – Northern Irish – at all.
So I did my best
Dick Van Dyke and answered, ‘London born and bred Darlin’.’
‘Darlin’! I love
went on, ‘I ’ave to tell ya, we don’t get many girls like you in London.’
definitely don’t have many girls like me in London. So what’s a cute British
boy doing out here at this time of night?’
‘I’m waiting for
my friends. They just nipped off to go to the toilet. Sorry, I mean bathroom.’
She looked at me
askance, her lips buckling into a lopsided grin with one slim eyebrow following
suit. Of course, not many of your average tourists would be out here at this
time of night.
I said, ‘So,
what’s a beautiful girl like you doing out here alone at night?’
‘Well I’ve got a dick, so what else am I going to do?’
She followed this revelation with a dramatic sigh.
I was clouted
back to sobriety – I've never been
good at hiding my thoughts or emotions – and
hated myself as her face crumpled at my reaction. Then a steely resolve glazed
over her blue eyes and she set her jaw.
‘Not your kind
of thing, huh?’ The intonation was flat and already bored. No business to be
answered, feeling wretched, ‘were you a boy and you want to be a girl, or a
girl and you want to be a boy?’ To my own amazement, I’d maintained the faux
‘I was a boy. I
got hormone treatment,’ she glanced down at her breasts and then her crotch, ‘but
I need money for the operation to complete the change. So here I am.’
I said, ‘It’s
just not my cup of tea,’ and then, even more pathetically, ‘good luck though.’
She smiled one last time, a combination of pity and irony, and walked off into darkness.
* * *
Tailor’s Bar and
Saloon was a cave. Hugh, Dram and I had walked the five blocks south to the
club. They hadn’t seen the girl and I hadn’t seen a point in relating the
story. There was a heavy student presence and a heavier stench of weed in the
far corner of the bar where a selection of bean bags strewn with bodies were
scattered across the floor. The boys were sinking beers with aplomb, but I was
on a real mission.
Standing a few
metres away with a beer in his massive hand was a huge Native American –
like The Chief from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest’ –
staring at me. We’d locked eyes a while ago and his malevolent glare had been
boring into me ever since. I didn’t know the guy from Adam but he sure seemed
to have taken exception to me. I was necking the rounds as fast as possible in
an effort to get my beer buzz back and take my mind off him.
When you entered
Tailor’s they gave you plastic glasses –
never a good sign – and every time
you wanted a refill you took them back to the bar. We’d had a few rounds
already, taking it in turns to go up with the glasses. Now it was my turn
again, and Hugh lit on a bright idea.
‘Here, Sam,’ he
said with a sloppy grin, ‘don't take the glasses with you. They’ll give you
three more and then we can have six per round from then on. And what’s wrong
with ye? Your face is trippin’ ye.’
‘It's yer man
over there, the big Indian fella. He’s been staring at me for the last twenty minutes
and it’s freakin’ me out.’
‘Ach, fuck him!
He’s just another head bin. You should be used to it by now in this city.’
I shrugged my
shoulders and made my way, glassless, to the counter.
Oh shite, I
thought, I do not need this. Fuck it, the beer was all-you-can-drink. It was
technically free anyway, let him have it. The barman came back with the other
two glasses and placed them in front of me. I leaned over and covered the beers
with my body, shielding them from The Chief and pulling them in tight to
And that's when he punched me.
* * *
It wasn’t much
of a punch, more a glancing blow. But the next one had some real meat and
potatoes behind it, snapping my head forward. And the next.
attack couldn’t have lasted more than seven or eight seconds, but it felt like
he was pounding a berserk rhythm out on the back of my skull. I heard a scream,
shouts of, ‘Hey! Hey man!,’ ‘Security!’ and then it stopped.
I looked up to
see the barman, obviously stronger than he looked, holding The Chief’s arms.
Then two bull-necked bouncers, having bulldozed their way through the crowd,
wrestled my attacker away, presumably to administer a good hiding outside.
My new friend
behind the counter looked at me with some concern and asked, ‘Are you okay?’
Then he handed me the bills I'd placed on the counter for the cigarettes and
said, ‘On the house.’
I gave him a shaky smile and slipped the bills into my pocket, reassured him I was fine, and made my way back over to the lads with the miraculously unspilled beers. It was five past one.
* * *
Five to three
and I was walking back up to 42nd St. Hugh and Dram had started out for our
place in the Village with the mission of getting a few hours of sleep before
dragging their carcasses out of bed in the morning. I had to work too, lugging
some punter’s prize possessions out to the Boroughs but, thankfully, not
driving the moving truck.
I’d told the
boys I needed a bit of air and would make my own way home, but they’d insisted
on checking to make sure The Chief wasn’t waiting for me outside first. The
fact was, I had a nagging desire to see the girl once more. I wasn't kidding
myself that she was the whore with the heart of gold and I didn’t want to be her
friend. But I knew I wouldn’t sleep that night without trying to see her again
(as it turned out, I didn’t sleep anyway). Strange what gets into your mind
when you’re so young, raw and far from home. I felt guilty. Guilty for lying to
her and faking that stupid accent and then wounding her when she revealed who
she truly was; rather than who I wanted her to be. I’d seen her desperation,
selling her current body to get the one she wanted. The one she needed. I felt
like a voyeur, like I’d cheated her somehow.
So I made the five block pilgrimage to 42nd St and 8th Ave and found the section where we’d met cordoned off and a brace of cop cars scattered across the intersection. Another poor soul had been taken by the violent moods of the city. I smoked a couple of cigarettes and had a nosey around but after half an hour I took a deep breath of fetid air, then the steps down to Times Square station and the subway below.
* * *
There was a riot
of noise in the kitchen in the morning. Burping, farting, hawking up tobacco
phlegm from the night before. There was me, sitting at the Formica table in
silence with my coffee and Cheerios; Hugh swearing and muttering as he searched
for the keys to the truck; Dram moaning about work with a
skinfull still coursing through his system; and Fox 5 News, with their ‘New
York Minute’ and OJ trial updates.
‘Where the fuck
are them keys?’
“...Judge has declared the trial could continue
for another six months...”
‘You had them in
your black jeans pocket yesterday. And keep the noise down, will ye?’
‘I’m not going
to keep my fucking job if I don’t pick up the truck in the next hour!’
“...and in Metro News this morning...”
Irish American. You could shit on his floor and shag his missus and he’d slap
you on the back and still tip you.’
“...at Tailor’s Bar and Saloon in the Garment
District, a Native American man, who had been ejected from the bar earlier in
the night for brawling, returned at two o’clock a.m. with a handgun and shot a
bartender and two security staff dead...”
air from between his teeth.
“Police report several injured. The man fled
the scene and is still at large...”
There was a
moment of silence.
Then Hugh said, ‘Well
there’s hardly many Native Americans knocking around Manhattan. It must have
been yer man in the bar. Lucky you left when you did Sam.’
Dram said, ‘He must
have been looking for you.’
‘Are you alright
nothing I could say.
What could I
say? I was alright, but didn’t feel I should be. People were murdered back home
but there were rules. Catholic kills Prod, Prod kills Catholic. It was
tit-for-tat, and it was soul-destroyingly, grindingly predictable. But this was
random. A guy, who’s a girl with a dick, sells her body so she can
get a new one, and some poor fellas are shot to death by a homicidal
maniac for breaking up a scuffle on a Tuesday night.
Hugh stamped on
a cockroach and said, ‘C’mon, mate. Another day, another dollar.’
Dram, ever the optimist, added, ‘Another day closer to the grave.’
* * *
Ten hours and a
day’s hard graft later Hugh and I were sitting out on the apartment’s third
floor fire escape overlooking Bleecker Street. We were having a couple of beers
and watching a couple embracing in front of the Little Red Schoolhouse
directly opposite. All told, I’d had better days but Hugh had been on a big job
out in Brooklyn and the punter had tipped big. Hugh had stood me a couple of
bottles of lager in celebration.
his beer. ‘I heard on the radio they found your mate the Indian from last
night. You can breathe easy. Turns out he topped himself.’
actually starting to sound like a Yank, do you know that?’
don’t be arsing about.’
overdose in his apartment. Heroin. You wouldn’t of thought it, looking at
him, but he was fucking gay; lived in the fucking Village. Turns out he had a
Hugh went on, ‘He
topped him – her – last night as
well, before he went back to Tailor’s the second time. The tranny was a
hooker and he didn’t know – went ballistic.
His drinking buddy was on the radio talking about it.’
My guts were
churning and my legs felt hollow.
Hugh went on,
'The buddy said the Indian fella suspected something was up with his boy – girl
– friend and followed her last night.
Cops think he saw her talking to a punter near where we had a piss. There was
an attendant in that parking lot on 42nd and he told the cops he’d heard
the big lad having a row with someone about half past twelve. Must have been
close to where Donal left us.’
I took a swig of
lager to steady myself and whispered ‘Jesus, he saw us.’
hear. He was too engrossed in telling the story.
He continued, ‘Then
later this attendant hears screaming. That must have been when he went back to
42nd and killed her.’
I asked, ‘Did
the attendant see anyone else? Maybe the punter she’d been talking to?’
‘Not that the
radio said. They reckon he killed her sometime after one. The theory is he had
the fight with you in Tailor’s, got chucked out, found his tranny again and
topped her, and then went to get a gun before he went back to Tailor's. You are
one lucky bastard to have left when you did.’
I looked at the
street through the slats of the fire escape at my feet and mumbled, ‘Yeah,
‘The cops were
looking for the guy he had the fight with, but now everybody had a decent look
at you is dead, you’re probably off the hook.’
‘Did they give
out any names?’ I asked.
‘For who, the
bar staff? The Indian?’
‘I don’t think
so. Doesn’t matter, does it?’
With 16 million
souls living in New York City, I supposed it didn’t. Not in the grand scheme of
things. But it had mattered last night when I’d stood on the corner of 42nd and
8th, chaining Salems and jawing with the parking attendant from the empty
‘A hooker,’ he’d
said, ‘some working girl prob’ly pissed off the wrong client.’
exactly a rarity in the area and I had shrugged and lit a smoke. Then I felt my
‘I say girl,’ the
attendant had said, ‘but she was a he, if you know what I mean. At least
partways. She used to bum a smoke off me some nights.’
It had mattered
when the attendant had mentioned seeing a large, heavy-set man running south on
8th Ave after hearing a sharp scream. It had mattered when he hadn’t known the
name of the victim. And it had mattered when I had fingered the ID in my pocket
that had been handed to me by the barman, with my bills, earlier. The Chief
must have dropped it when he was busy pummelling the back of my skull. A faded
picture, but it could only be him, and an address in West Village a couple of blocks
from the Hudson River. I’d walked in long, swift strides to the home of a
killer without a moment of hesitation.
Was I drunk?
perhaps. It’s amazing what New York will do to you.
I hadn’t had the
faintest what I was going to do when I took the stairs in the brownstone two at
a time. Not even when I hammered at the door of apartment 297. The wood had
been slashed and pitted. It had skinned my knuckles when I’d knocked. There was
silence. The peephole betrayed a dim light inside and little other sign of
life. I punched the door. I kicked it with all the power my drunken legs and
Doctor Martin’s finest could muster. And then a shadow swallowed the pin-prick
of light in the peephole.
I said, ‘What
was her name, eh?’
darkness gave a heavy breath on the other side of the battered wood.
‘What was her name? What was her name you bastard?’
came in shorter, hurried breaths. But the door stayed fast.
was,’ I said, fatigue beginning to weigh me down, ‘I hope they get the right
one on her headstone. The one she wanted; not the one she had before.’
done I turned. I said, almost to myself, ‘If she even gets a stone.’
I had one last
glimpse of the black abyss of the peephole, a sightless eye staring into the
emptiness of the corridor, as I descended the narrow stairs. And I’d thought my
confrontation with a cracked and blistered wooden door hadn’t mattered.
I shook my head
and raised the beer bottle to my lips, Hugh giving me a look, then let my hand
drop again. First it was just her. Then the poor bastards at the bar. Now The
Chief himself. Five people, and I sat drinking with my mate on a fire escape. I
was safe as houses. And 16 million kept on going slowly crazy all around me.
I thought of
Hugh’s question – Doesn’t matter, does it?
I looked across
the street at the front of the schoolhouse. The couple had moved on and life
was hurrying to and fro in front of the brightly painted little door.
‘No, I suppose
it doesn’t,’ I said.
I took another bitter pull on the bottle.
John Steele was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland and has lived wherever they’d take him ever since. He writes mystery and thriller fiction and currently lives in England.
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