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CITY OF BOHANE
By Kevin Barry
Copyright © 2011 Kevin Barry
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Nature of the Disturbance
Whatever's wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city's air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we're talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin' wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.
He walked the docks and breathed in the sweet badness of the river. It was past midnight on the Bohane front. There was an evenness to his footfall, a slow calm rhythm of leather on stone, and the dockside lamps burned in the night-time a green haze, the light of a sad dream. The water's roar for Hartnett was as the rushing of his own blood and as he passed the merchant yards the guard dogs strung out a sequence of howls all along the front. See the dogs: their hackles heaped, their yellow eyes livid. We could tell he was coming by the howling of the dogs.
Polis watched him but from a distance – a pair of hoss polis watering their piebalds at a trough 'cross in Smoketown. Polis were fresh from the site of a reefing.
'Ya lampin' him over?' said one. 'Albino motherfucker.'
'Set yer clock by him,' said the other.
Albino, some called him, others knew him as the Long Fella: he ran the Hartnett Fancy.
He cut off from the dockside and walked on into the Back Trace, the infamous Bohane Trace, a most evil labyrinth, an unknowable web of streets. He had that Back Trace look to him: a dapper buck in a natty-boy Crombie, the Crombie draped all casual-like over the shoulders of a pale grey Eyetie suit, mohair. Mouth of teeth on him like a vandalised graveyard but we all have our crosses. It was a pair of hand-stitched Portuguese boots that slapped his footfall, and the stress that fell, the emphasis, was money.
Hard-got the riches – oh the stories that we told out in Bohane about Logan Hartnett.
Dank little squares of the Trace opened out suddenly, like gasps, and Logan passed through. All sorts of quarehawks lingered Trace-deep in the small hours. They looked down as he passed, they examined their toes and their sacks of tawny wine – you wouldn't make eye contact with the Long Fella if you could help it. Strange, but we had a fear of him and a pride in him, both. He had a fine hold of himself, as we say in Bohane. He was graceful and erect and he looked neither left nor right but straight out ahead always, with the shoulders thrown back, like a general. He walked the Arab tangle of alleyways and wynds that make up the Trace and there was the slap, the lift, the slap, the lift of Portuguese leather on the backstreet stones.
Yes and Logan was in his element as he made progress through the labyrinth. He feared not the shadows, he knew the fibres of the place, he knew every last twist and lilt of it.
Jenni Ching waited beneath the maytree in the 98er Square.
He approached the girl, and his step was enough: she needn't look up to make the reck. He smiled for her all the same, and it was a wry and long-suffering smile – as though to say: More of it, Jenni? – and he sat on the bench beside. He laid a hand on hers that was tiny, delicate, murderous.
The bench had dead seasons of lovers' names scratched into it.
'Well, girleen?' he said.
'Cunt what been reefed in Smoketown was a Cusack off the Rises,' she said.
'Did he have it coming, Jen?'
'Don't they always, Cusacks?'
Logan shaped his lips thinly in agreement.
'The Cusacks have always been crooked, girl.'
Jenni was seventeen that year but wise beyond it. Careful, she was, and a saucy little ticket in her lowriders and wedge heels, her streaked hair pineappled in a high bun. She took the butt of a stogie from the tit pocket of her white vinyl zip-up, and lit it.
'Get enough on me fuckin' plate now 'cross the footbridge, Mr H.'
'I know that.'
'Cusacks gonna sulk up a welt o' vengeance by 'n' by and if yer askin' me, like? A rake o' them tossers bullin' down off the Rises is the las' thing Smoketown need.'
'Cusacks are always great for the old talk, Jenni.'
'More'n talk's what I gots a fear on, H. Is said they gots three flatblocks marked Cusack 'bove on the Rises this las' while an' that's three flatblocks fulla headjobs with a grá on 'em for rowin', y'check me?'
'All too well, Jenni.'
It is fond tradition in Bohane that families from the Northside Rises will butt heads against families from the Back Trace. Logan ran the Trace, he was Back Trace blood-and-bone, and his was the most ferocious power in the city that year. But here were the Cusacks building strength and gumption on the Rises.
'What's the swerve we gonna throw, Logan?'
There was a canniness to Jenni. It was bred into her – the Chings were old Smoketown stock. Smoketown was hoors, herb, fetish parlours, grog pits, needle alleys, dream salons and Chinese restaurants. Smoketown was the other side of the footbridge from the Back Trace, yonder across the Bohane river, and it was the Hartnett Fancy had the runnings of Smoketown also. But the Cusacks were shaping for it.
'I'd say we keep things moving quite swiftly against them, Jenni-sweet.'
'Coz they gonna come on down anyways, like?'
'Oh there's no doubt to it, girl. They're going to come down barkin'. May as well force them to a quick move.'
She considered the tactic.
'Afore they's full prepped for a gack off us, y'mean? Play on they pride, like. What the Fancy's yelpin'? Ya gonna take an eye for an eye, Cuse, or y'any bit o' spunk at all, like?'
'You're an exceptional child, Jenni Ching.'
She winced at the compliment.
'Pretty to say so, H. O' course the Cusacks shouldn't be causin' the likes a us no grief in the first place, y'check? Just a bunch o' Rises scuts is all they is an' they gettin' so brave an' lippy, like? Sendin' runners into S'town? Why's it they's gettin' so brave all of a sudden is what we should be askin'.'
'Meaning precisely what, Jenni?'
'Meanin' is they smellin' a weakness, like? They reckonin' you got your mind off the Fancy's dealins?'
'And what else might I have my mind on?'
She turned her cool look to him, Jenni, and let it lock.
'That ain't for my say, Mr Hartnett, sir.'
He rose from the bench, smiling. Not a lick of warmth had entered the girl's hand as long as his had lain on it.
'Y'wan' more Cusacks hurted so?' she said.
He looked back at her but briefly – the look was his word.
'Y'sure 'bout that, H? 'nother winter a blood in Bohane, like?'
A smile, and it was as grey as he could will it.
'Ah sure it'll make the long old nights fly past.'
Logan Hartnett was minded to keep the Ching girl close. In a small city so homicidal you needed to watch out on all sides. He moved on through the gloom of the Back Trace. The streets of old tenements are tight, steep-sided, ill-lit, and the high bluffs of the city give the Trace a closed-in feel. Our city is built along a run of these bluffs that bank and canyon the Bohane river. The streets tumble down to the river, it is a black and swift-moving rush at the base of almost every street, as black as the bog waters that feed it, and a couple of miles downstream the river rounds the last of the bluffs and there enters the murmurous ocean. The ocean is not directly seen from the city, but at all times there is the ozone rumour of its proximity, a rasp on the air, like a hoarseness. It is all of it as bleak as only the West of Ireland can be.
The Fancy boss Hartnett turned down a particular alleyway, flicked the cut of a glance over his shoulder – so careful – then slipped into a particular doorway. He pressed three times on a brass bell, paused, and pressed on it twice more. He noted a spider abseil from the top of the door's frame, enjoyed its measured, shelving fall, thought it was late enough in the year for that fella, being October, the city all brown-mooded. There was a scurry of movement within, the peephole's cover was slid and filled with the bead of a pupil, the brief startle of it, the lock clacked, unclicked, and the red metal door was slid creaking – kaaarrrink! – along its runners. They'd want greasing, thought Logan, as Tommie the Keep was revealed: a wee hairy-chested turnip of a man. He bowed once and whispered his reverence.
'Thought it'd be yourself, Mr Hartnett. Goin' be the hour, like.'
'They say routine is a next-door neighbour of madness, Tommie.'
'They say lots o' things, Mr Hartnett.'
He lit his pale smile for the Keep. He stepped inside, pushed the door firmly back along its runners, it clacked shut behind – kraaank! – and the men trailed down a narrow passageway; its vivid red walls sweated like disco walls, and the building was indeed once just that but had long since been converted.
Long gone in Bohane the days of the discos.
'And how's your lady wife keepin', Mr H?'
'She's extremely well, Tommie, and why shouldn't she be?'
A tautness at once had gripped the 'bino's smile and terrified the Keep. Made him wonder, too.
'I was only askin', Mr H.'
'Well, thank you so much for asking, Tommie. I'll be sure to remember you to her.'
Odd, distorted, the glaze that descended for a moment over his eyes, and the passage hooked, turned, and opened to a dimly lit den woozy with low night-time voices.
This was Tommie's Supper Room.
This was the Bohane power haunt.
The edges of the room were lined with red velvet ban quettes. The banquettes seated heavy, jowled lads who were thankful for the low lights of the place. These were the merchants of the city, men with a taste for hair lacquer, hard booze and saturated fats.
'Inebriates and hoor-lickers to a man,' said Logan, and it was loud enough for those who might want to hear.
Across the fine parquet waited an elegant brass-railed bar. Princely Logan marched towards it, and the obsessive polishing of the floor's French blocks was evident in the hump of Tommie the Keep's back as he raced ahead and ducked under his bar hatch. He took his cloth and hurried a fresh shine into the section of the counter where Logan each night sat.
'You've grooves worn into it, Tommie.'
Logan shucked loose from the sleeves of his Crombie and he hung it on a peg set beneath the bar's rail. The handle of his shkelper was visible to all – a mother-of-pearl with markings of Naples blue – and it was tucked into his belt just so, with his jacket hitched on the blade the better for its display. He smoothed down the mohair of the Eyetie suit. He picked at a loose thread. Ran dreamily the tip of a thumb along a superstar cheekbone.
'So is there e'er a bit strange, Tommie?'
There was a startle in the Keep for sure.
'Strange, Mr H?'
Logan with a feint of innocence smiled.
'I said is there e'er a bit of goss around the place, Tommie, no?'
'Ah, just the usual aul' talk, Mr Hartnett.'
'Who's out for who. Who's fleadhin' who. Who's got what comin'.'
Logan leaned across the counter and dropped his voice a note.
'And is there any old talk from outside on Big Nothin', Tommie?'
The Keep knew well what Logan spoke of – the word already was abroad.
'I s'pose you know 'bout that aul' talk?'
'What talk, Tommie, precisely?'
"Bout a certain ... someone what been seen out there.'
'Say the name, Tommie.'
'Is just talk, Mr Hartnett.'
'Is just a name, Mr Hartnett.'
'Say it, Tom.'
Keep swivelled a look around the room; his nerves were ripped.
'The Gant Broderick,' he said.
Logan trembled, girlishly, to mock the name, and he drummed his fingertips a fast-snare beat on the countertop.
'First the Cusacks, now the Gant,' he said. 'I must have done something seriously fucking foul in a past life, Tom?'
Tommie the Keep smiled as he sighed.
'Maybe even in this one, Mr H?'
'Oh brave, Tommie. Well done.'
The Keep lightened it as best as he could.
'Is the aul' fear up in yuh, sir?'
'Oh the fear's up in me alright, Tommie.'
The Keep hung his bar cloth on its nail. He whistled a poor attempt at nonchalance. Tommie could not hide from his face the feeling that was current in the room, the leanings and nuance of the talk that swirled there. Logan used him always as a gauge for the city's mood. Bohane could be a tricky read. It has the name of an insular and contrary place, and certainly, we are given to bouts of rage and hilarity, which makes us unpredictable. The Keep tip-tapped on the parquet a nervy set of toes, and he played it jaunty.
'What'd take the cares off yuh, Mr Hartnett?'
Logan considered a moment. He let his eyes ascend to the stoically turning ceiling fan as it chopped the blue smoke of the room.
'Send me out a dozen of your oysters,' he said, 'and an honest measure of the John Jameson.'
The Keep nodded his approval as he set to.
'There ain't no point livin' it small, Mr Hartnett.'
'No, Tommie. We might as well elevate ourselves from the beasts of the fields.'
Chapter Two The Gant's Return
That hot defiant screech was the Bohane El train as it took the last turn onto De Valera Street. The El ran the snake-bend of the street, its boxcar windows a blurring yellow on the downtown charge. The main drag was deserted this windless a.m. and it was quiet also in the car the Gant was sat in. There was just a pair of weeping hoors across the aisle – Norrie girls, by the feline cut of their cheekbones – and a drunk in greasy Authority overalls down the way. The El train was customarily sad in this last stretch before dawn – that much had not changed. The screech of it was a soul's screech. If you were lying there in the bed, lonesome, and succumbed to poetical thoughts, that screech would go through you. It happens that we are often just so in Bohane. No better men for the poetical thoughts.
The Gant took a slick of sweat off his brow with the back of a big hand. He had a pair of hands on him the size of Belfast sinks. The sweat was after coming out on him sudden. It was hot on the El train – its elderly heaters juddered like halfwits beneath the slat benches – and the flush of heat brought to him a charge of feeling, also; the Gant was in a fever spell this season. The tang of stolen youth seeped up in his throat with the rasping burn of nausea and on the El train in yellow light the Gant trembled. But the familiar streets rushed past as the El train charged, and the pain of memory without warning gave way to joy – he was back! – and the Gant beamed then, ecstatically, as he sucked at the clammy air, and he listened to the hoors.
'Fuckin' loved dat blatherin' cun' big time!' wailed one.
'Fucker was filth, girl, s'the bone truth of it,' consoled the other. 'Fucker was castin' off all o'er the town, y'check me? Took ya for a gommie lackeen.'
He was back among the city's voices, and it was the rhythm of them that slowed the rush of his thoughts. He had walked in off Big Nothin' through the bogside dark. He had been glad to hop the El train up on the Rises and take the weight off his bones. The Gant was living out on Nothin' again. The Gant was back at last in the Bohane creation.
Down along the boxcar, he saw the Authority man mouth a sadness through his sozzled half-sleep, most likely a woman's name – was she as green and lazy-eyed as the Gant's lost love? – and the city unpeeled, image by image, as the El train screeched along De Valera: a shuttered store, a war hero's plinth, an advert for a gout cure, a gull so ghostly on a lamp post.
Morning was rising against the dim of the street lights and the lights cut just as the El screeched into its dockside terminus. The train locked onto its berth – the rubber jolt of the stoppers meant you were downtown, meant you were in Bohane proper – and the El's diesel tang settled, and died.
He let the hoors and the drunk off ahead of him. The Gant as he disembarked was fleshy and hot-faced but there was no little grace to his big-man stride. A nice roll to his movement – ye sketchin'? The Gant had old-time style.
Excerpted from CITY OF BOHANE by Kevin Barry Copyright © 2011 by Kevin Barry. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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