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Since the 1920s Finbar's Hotel has stood proudly on Dublin's quays, but its glory days have long since passed it by. Now it is the haunt of surreptitious priests, prostitutes, and bewildered tourists. Soon its rock-star owner will tear the building down, but not until an astonishing array of guests-a barman on the make, a paranoid art thief stalking the corridors, a grieving woman who dreams of red-haired men, a desperate, middle-aged man out for one wild night, and other habitus of Dublin's nightlife-pass ...
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Since the 1920s Finbar's Hotel has stood proudly on Dublin's quays, but its glory days have long since passed it by. Now it is the haunt of surreptitious priests, prostitutes, and bewildered tourists. Soon its rock-star owner will tear the building down, but not until an astonishing array of guests-a barman on the make, a paranoid art thief stalking the corridors, a grieving woman who dreams of red-haired men, a desperate, middle-aged man out for one wild night, and other habitus of Dublin's nightlife-pass through for one last night within its seedy walls. From room to room, and from tale to tale, we encounter the dazzling cosmos of Irish life as told by seven of Ireland's most famous storytellers: Roddy Doyle, Colm To'b'n, Jennifer Johnston, Hugo Hamilton, Anne Enright, Joseph O'Connor, and Dermot Bolger. A smash bestseller in the U.K., Finbar's Hotel is an extraordinary interwoven work of fiction, pulsating with humor and suspense.
BENNY DOES DUBLIN
Ben Winters was looking for the minibar. He looked along the skirting board, followed it to the far corner. Minibars were a great invention; he'd seen them in dozens of films. He loved the size of the little bottles, the number and variety that you could pack into so neat a space. And crisps as well, if you wanted them. He'd always wanted to get down on his knees and have a good root around in one of them. But he'd been searching for ten minutes now and he couldn't find the fuckin' thing.
This was Ben's first time in a hotel room. He was happy enough. But the minibar's game of hide-and-seek was beginning to annoy him. It was one of the things he'd been looking forward to. He opened a drawer, the bottom one, the same one he kept his knickers and socks in at home, knowing full well that the minibar wasn't going to be in there. But he opened it anyway. And it wasn't.
He went back over to the bed and sat on it. He bounced once. Not bad. And again. Good spring, no squeaks. It was a good bed for riding in. Not in, on. On top of the covers. And not just riding; making love. With the curtains open. And the minibar an arm's stretch away. It was in here somewhere. He could have phoned someone downstairs at the reception desk and asked: `Where's the minibar?' But he'd have felt like an eejit; he'd have heard them grinning as they told him to take two steps to the right and look behind the picture of the racehorse. He'd looked there already. Worse, they might have told him that there wasn't one. And where would that have left him? With his dreams in tatters, before he'd even brushed his teeth and put his shoes back on. No. It was in here. Somewhere obvious. Somewhere he hadn't thought of looking. Staring him in the face.
`I know you're in here,' he said out loud.
Then he listened. He was only three steps from the door and the corridor. Anyone going by would have heard him. So what, though? There was no one he knew out there. No one he'd ever see. He could do what he wanted. But so far what he'd done was: he'd sat on the bed and taken off his shoes, he'd gone hunting for the minibar and come back to the bed. He was having a wild time, all right.
But it was early days. The night was young. He'd shake himself in a minute, make decisions, put his shoes back on. In a minute. He liked the room. It wasn't bad at all. As good as home. He'd expected it to be a bit bigger, maybe, a bit more exotic -- a bowl of fruit, maybe, or one of those white towel dressing gowns at the end of the bed or, better yet, two dressing gowns. But he was happy enough.
He'd never done anything like this before. And, God knew, it wasn't much. He'd only booked into a hotel for the night; that was all. But, all the same, he felt guilty. He felt like there was someone watching, waiting to catch him. He often felt that way. He'd lived chunks of his life in front of an imaginary camera. At home, he always put on a T-shirt going from the bedroom to the jacks in the middle of the night, in case there was a stranger on the landing, waiting there to stare at him. Or if he forgot about the T-shirt, or couldn't find one in the dark, he sucked in his gut and walked across the landing to the toilet door with a swagger that made his mickey hop, and he shoved the door open with his elbow and pissed loudly enough to entertain anyone who was still awake -- and looking at him. When he was younger, he often carried his kids on his shoulders, even when they fought to stay on the ground, because he wanted to prove that he was a good father. And when he was younger than that he'd tried to get caught shoplifting -- because no one would ever see him not being caught and it had seemed like a terrible waste of wildness. And now, at his age, he was still at it. Sitting on a hotel bed in a room all by himself because he was afraid to move in case he did something wrong.
His first night in a hotel room. He'd told his wife that he was going to stay the night in his brother's house, that they were both going to an old school chum's funeral in the morning. That was the excuse that had allowed him to walk out the door with his suit on. She'd even done his tie for him, and asked him if he was upset because someone he knew and his own age had died.
`Ah, a bit,' he'd said. `I hadn't seen him in years, though.'
`Still,' Fran had said. `It's terrible.'
`We sat beside each other for a while,' he'd said. `In fifth class.'
She'd hugged him.
And now, here he was.
He got up off the bed and went over to the chair beside the television. He looked behind it. No minibar. Just a pile of flexes climbing over each other to the socket. He turned on the television on his way back to the bed. The RTE news. Your man, their western correspondent, was interviewing some chap in a cap who was complaining about the noise his neighbour's ostriches made early in the morning. Ben looked for the remote control. He found it on the bedside locker -- no minibar in there either. It was attached to the wall, with a length of curling plastic wire. A very short length of curling plastic wire. Ben had to lie back on the bed to point the remote at the telly. He lowered himself and felt the static tying him to the bed. The remote didn't work. He pressed the buttons that would have given him BBC 1 and Network 2 at home but nothing happened; an ostrich looked over a hedge at the mucker in the cap. He dropped the remote on the bed and started to get up again. Something slid away, across the bed. Ben skidded onto the floor. 'Christ, Jesus!' It was a fuckin' rat or something. He got his face well away from the edge of the bed and looked. It was the remote control; the plastic wire was claiming it back, dragging it towards the locker.
Ben wished he was at home. It was Thursday. He usually met his friends in the local on Thursday nights; he always enjoyed it. He was depriving himself. No one knew he was here. In a hotel room three miles from home. In his good suit, sitting on the floor, scared shitless by a crawling remote control. He didn't know why he was here. If Fran had walked in now, he couldn't have explained it, even if he'd wanted to be honest.
`What are you doing on the floor?'
`The remote control moved.'
`What are you doing in the hotel?'
That was a question and a half. He squirmed just thinking about having to answer it. He'd never been in a hotel room before. He wanted to see what staying in one was like. He was curious. All of these were right, honest answers. But why alone? Why so close to home? Why alone? Why alone, Ben? Why alone? Fran had never been in a hotel room either. As far as he knew. Why alone, Ben?
What would he have told her? He was unhappy. That was true too; he was unhappy. But how could he explain that? He had a job he was good at and liked; he had a wife he loved and who loved him back, who was in better nick than he was; he had three kids who had clear eyes in the mornings, who still kissed him goodnight if they went up to bed before he did; he wasn't as fat as most of his friends. All things to be grateful for -- and he was. But he was still unhappy. If he'd been younger, he'd have said he was bored. `Browned off' didn't capture it, or `pissed off'. `Suicidal' was too strong but sometimes, he felt, it wasn't too far off the mark. He was just unhappy.
He didn't know why.
He got up off the floor and went over to the telly. Walking to the telly; that was something he hadn't had to do in years. He turned it off. There might have been satellite channels he didn't have at home, the Playboy Channel or pornography from Poland and other places where they didn't have laws but he didn't care. He hadn't booked into the hotel to watch telly. That was one thing he was certain about.
The time had come for action. He'd put his shoes on. And, anyway, the telly would still be there when he came back.
Ben was forty-three. He could measure his life in decades. He'd been married for two decades. He'd been following Fulham for three and a half. He'd done his Leaving two and a half decades ago. He'd met his best friend and best man, Derek, thirty-one years ago. First Communion, thirty-five years ago. First sex, twenty-four. He had a house that himself and Fran would own outright in ten years. He'd retire in twenty years. He'd die in thirty.
Fuckin' Fulham. That summed it up, really. That got close to explaining why he was here. Thirty-six years ago, when Ben and his friends were deriding which teams to support, making their own minds up or following in the steps of their brothers and fathers, Ben had chosen Fulham. The others had gone for United, Liverpool, Leeds, even Chelsea. But Ben had believed his brother, a United supporter. `You can't have two people in the same house following the same team,' he'd told Ben. `It's not allowed.' Ben remembered his eyes watering; he'd really, really wanted to follow Manchester United. He waited for his brother to grin and tell him that he was only codding him. 'You should follow Fulham,' said his brother. `This is going to be their year.' And there followed three and a half decades of misery. Misery without end or pauses. These days, Ben's friends brought their kids to Anfield and Old Trafford. But Ben's youngest, Niall, had phoned Childline when Ben had suggested that they go to Craven Cottage. Niall -- named after Ben's brother.
And it wasn't just the football. The football didn't matter. It was everything. He didn't mind his job, but he'd been putting new life into car engines for twenty-five years. He did it well -- they called him Yuri Geller; they often handed him bent spoons in the canteen and asked him to straighten them -- but he'd never done anything else. There were other things he could have done but it was too late; he'd never know. He loved Fran. He did. But that meant that there were dozens, hundreds, millions of women that he could never know and love. He knew that the thought was very unfair to Fran, that it was even ridiculous -- the idea that the world's women had been deprived of him because he'd married her. But he loved looking at women and he wasn't a bad-looking chap and he had a good sense of humour and, Jesus, there were times when he could cry. (He remembered once, maybe ten years ago, he'd got talking to a woman on the bus. The bus had slowed and swerved around two cars that had smashed into each other in the middle of the road. `God,' said Ben. `Anyone hurt?' They'd both looked out as the bus passed. `There's no one in the cars,' said the woman. `That's good, anyway,' said Ben. `The Mazda's only new. That's a pity.' `Nice colour,' she said. And they'd talked on from there. She was nice looking; he couldn't remember details. She was older than him. There were wrinkles that suited her. They'd chatted away till the bus got to Marlborough Street and Ben remembered how sad he'd felt, how lost as he realized that he couldn't really talk to her. He couldn't allow himself. It wouldn't have been right; he was married. And she probably was too. That was how it went.) Promises hadn't been kept, chances had been missed. One job, one wife, one house, one country. All the world out there and he'd seen none of it. That wasn't quite true. He'd seen Tramore -- seventeen times. They'd a mobile home down there, with the wheels taken off it. And his father had died a month ago. Sixty-seven years of age and his heart had exploded while he was shaving, and he was dead before the ambulance got there, before his mother phoned Ben.
The time had come. He sat on the edge of the bed and shoved his feet into his slip-ons. Ben had been wearing the same kind of shoes since he'd started buying his own. Because he wasn't very good at tying laces.
`Stop,' he said.
Just last week Ben had been dialling his parents' number, to tell his father the news that Raymond, his eldest, was being given a trial by Bohs, when he remembered that his father was dead. He had to remind himself every day, all the time. He was going to have to get used to missing him. He was going to have to stop crying every time he thought of something he wanted to tell his father.
He ran his tongue across his teeth and decided to brush them. He didn't want to send out the smell of his dinner every time he opened his mouth. Lamb chops on his breath and any woman would know immediately that he was married and out hunting. He'd brush the teeth till his fillings screamed for mercy.
He went into the bathroom. En suite. Right beside the bed. The lap of fuckin' luxury. He could nearly piss without having to get out of the bed. He switched on the light and the fan coughed awake.
He was disappearing. Just for one night. He wanted to see what happened. That was why he was here in Finbar's Hotel, to experience what he'd never had, to see what he'd been missing. Something would happen. That was what hotels were about -- people left their real selves down at the reception desk and became whoever they wanted when they stepped out of the lift upstairs. The hotel would show Ben what life could have been like. Then, tomorrow, he'd go home. And live happily ever after.
He looked at himself in the mirror. Fran was right; he wasn't a bad-looking man. He looked well in the suit. Charcoal grey. Fran had pointed him towards it, said he'd look good in it. And he did. Although it was a bit tight under the arms and the waistband curled over when he sat down. She'd done a good job with the tie; the stripes slid perfectly into the knot. Fran had a thing about ties. She'd tied one around her waist, hiding her fanny, with the knot at her belly button. On their honeymoon. In a B&B in Galway. With the jacks miles down the hall, beside the landlady's bedroom. `I heard the flush. Will you have your breakfast now?' At five in the morning. With Fran back in the room, waiting for him, standing on the bed with his tie on and nothing else. `No, thanks,' said Ben to the darkness beyond the landlady's door. `I was only having a piss.' And then he heard Fran. `Hurry up, will yeh. I'm bloody freezing.' And he ran back down the hall, charging to get to the room before he started howling. They got under the covers and laughed till they'd no air left.
He wished he was at home.
He heard a cough. He thought he did. He turned off the cold tap and listened. A voice. Was it? He couldn't make out words or gaps. He stepped into the bath. Slowly, so his shoes didn't cause a clatter. He put his ear close to the wall. Another cough. Definitely. A woman's cough. Was she in the bathroom? Just behind this wall? Standing in the bath with her ear to it? He got out of the bath. He could hear two voices now. Two women in the room next door. Room 102. With a double bed like his? He listened. Still no words, but one of the voices had an English twang. Definitely. There was an English woman in there. With another woman. They were having a row.
Someone upstairs flushed a jacks. The pipes rattled behind the ceiling. He stopped at the bathroom door. Someone upstairs, maybe the same person straight off the jacks, was having a shower now; Ben knew that noise. A woman? Was she using the little bar of soap that you got with the room or did she have one of those yolks of shower gel that smelt like a mango's fart when you squeezed it? Or was it a couple? With shower gel?
It was time to go. He had a look out the window first. It wasn't raining, anyway. That was the Liffey down there. A room with a view, but he couldn't get worked up about it. It was only a river and too straight and narrow to get a gasp out of Ben. He looked for a way to open the window but there wasn't one. When he pressed his face to the glass he could see the corner of the train station, lit up. It looked good, a lot better than it did in daytime. Kingsbridge. Heuston Station. Named after one of the lads that was shot by the Brits in 1916. Ben would have liked that, to be executed for his country. `Do you want a blindfold?' `Shove it up your hole, Bonzo.' He let the curtain drop. He watched the dust diving around in the light and settling back onto the curtain. The place was actually dirty.
He tapped his chest and felt his wallet.
He was off.
He shut the door behind him and checked that he couldn't open it again. He didn't need to check that the key was in his pocket because the big keyring with the room number carved into it was biting into his leg. He'd leave it in at the reception desk. Because, where it was now, if he crossed his legs too fast it would cut the bollix clean off him. And he didn't want to put it into a jacket pocket because that would leave it hanging lopsided on him. The sleeves, up at the shoulders, were digging into him. It hadn't been tight when he'd bought it, he was sure of that. He gave himself a good shake. Loosen the threads, disperse the fat.
The corridor. A row of closed doors. And a tray on the floor outside one of them. Someone didn't like their crusts. There was a whole, untouched triangle of toast on the plate. And, look it, a little pot of jam with the seal still on it. And not a sound anywhere. Ben looked under the napkin for a knife. Bingo. He had the lid off the pot and the knife in the jam when--
Oh fuck! One of the doors was opening. 102. The lezzers!
`After you, Cecil,' said one of them, the one that sounded English. He didn't hear the answer as he jumped away from the tray and tipped over onto the floor. He was back on his feet and staring at the carpet, looking for the cause of the accident, tapping it with the toe of his right foot, when the women walked past.
`Mind yourselves,' he said.
`Are you all right?' the smaller one asked, as the other one dashed past.
`I'm grand,' said Ben. `The carpet's loose or something.'
He examined the floor again.
The women kept going. After you, Cecil. What had they been up to in there? Cecil wasn't one of those names that could be used for both men and women, like Fran or even Gerry. They were definitely lezzers. The one who'd spoken was a sour-looking specimen; she looked like she was carrying her loose change up her hole. And she was wearing those shoes, the black ones that his mother always called Protestant shoes. They didn't look like lesbians. The English one didn't, anyway. They stood at the lift doors. Ben heard the lift climbing. He wouldn't get into it with them; he'd wait. The Protestant one looked and caught Ben staring at them. And he was suddenly aware that he was still holding the toast. He dropped it into his pocket and turned. He pulled the door key from his trouser pocket. It dragged the lining with it. He heard the lift bringing the women downstairs as he got the door open. He'd wait a little while, then try again. He'd take the jacket off for a minute.
* * *
The public bar was big. Lots of wood and glass. There were a few couples at tables, one pair obviously in the middle of an argument; Ben could tell from the way she was stabbing the lemon slice in her glass with a blue cocktail sword. And a couple of loners, all male, up at the bar. There was some sort of a do going on in a far corner, lots of broken cheering and laughter, but it seemed like a long way away, way over there. Over a wide and empty carpet. Ben got out before he had time to be disappointed. He'd try again later.
`Anyway, what d'you mean you're sick of me sweating on you?' said the man to the woman with the sword, so loudly that, for a second, Ben thought that he was talking to him. `I haven't been on or near you in fuckin' weeks.'
Ben kept going.
And the reception area wasn't exactly hopping. It was crowded all right, but most of the armchairs were full of old Americans in shiny clothes, most of them looking like they'd spent years in a freezer and were only now beginning to get back the use of their arms and mouths. They huddled around bowls of soup and cups of coffee. The good-looking girl with the Aideen badge on her waistcoat was still behind the reception desk, looking calm and busy. Above her, to the right of a painting of some pompous-looking gobshite, there was a clock and, under it, a bronze plate with DUBLIN on it. To remind the Yanks, Ben supposed.
He kept going. He'd seen a sign for the residents' lounge, past the reception area. He liked the sound of it. Privacy, privilege, nice pints after closing time. He found it, past the restaurant and around a corner. It was quiet. If the two Yanks in the corner died, it would be empty. He nodded at them and went to the bar. The barman was stuffing a tea towel into a glass.
`I'm only staying the one night,' said Ben. `Can I still come in?'
`Certainly, sir,' said the barman. `What'll you have?'
Ben knew himself. If he had a pint here he'd stay put for the night and end up talking to the Yanks about violence and the weather.
`I was just checking,' he said. `I'll be back later.'
He'd go back to the public bar.
He liked the look of the restaurant but he'd had his dinner before he left the house and he didn't feel like having another one. Anyway, he hated eating in public. That was the great thing about drinking: you didn't have to use a fork
The lezzers from 102 were coming!
He jumped into the restaurant. Too late. He was trapped now if they came in. He was blushing; he could feel it. He knew what he looked like -- he was the world's worst blusher, a tomato with ears. He was burning. And he didn't know why. They were only women. Who liked each other.
They went past, down to the residents' lounge.
That was close.
`Would you like a table, sir?'
`Eh, no thanks.'
The house at home is full of tables. He'd have loved to have thrown that answer back over his shoulder, but he didn't. He just went back out, and made his way back to reception and through the thawing Yanks to the public bar. The rowing couple had made up. She was patting his cheeks and rubbing her nose over and back, across his forehead. And his hands were under her jacket. Ben could see his fingers crawling up her back. He was happy for them. The place was fuller now. There were fewer wide open spaces at the bar and a greater variety of people. The loners looked less alone and, over there, the office party, or whatever it was, was in full swing. Ben was suddenly sure that he was in the right place.
He ordered a pint and it was put in front of him before he'd his arse properly parked.
'Grand. How much is that?'
'Two twenty-five,' said the barman.
Ben was delighted. It was twenty-five pence dearer than it was in his local. He was living it up. He was in the company of people who didn't mind being robbed crooked. There were different rules here. Money didn't matter. And it wasn't a bad pint either. He looked over at the party. There was a chap swinging his jacket and singing 'Hey, Big Spender'. 'Sit down, yeh gobshite.' There was a woman with a flower in her mouth. Another woman stood up and roared, 'Public relations!' and fell back, laughing, into her seat. They all cheered. A man stood up, toppled and got back on his feet. 'Roads, streets and traffic!' They cheered again, laughed and lifted their glasses. He thought about going over. Bring his pint with him and just go over. But he couldn't. He didn't have the neck. He wouldn't have known how to get into the gang, how to be calm, the right thing to shout, the right time to laugh. If he concentrated hard enough, maybe one of the women would come over for drink or crisps and start talking to him while she was waiting. He just had to concentrate. He stared at his pint till it swayed come over, come over, come over, come over.
'Ken is the name. Ken Brogan.'
There was a man standing beside Ben, a man in some sort of a Temple Bar T-shirt, so close beside him that Ben nearly fell off his stool to put a few safe inches between them.
His hand was out. He wanted it shook
'Ben,' said Ben.
And he felt his fingers being crushed, then released.
'Ken and Ben! That's a good one.'
Ben said nothing. It wasn't a good one at all. And he was still too dose to Ben. He had that gel stuff in his hair. Ben could smell it. The bathroom at home was flail of half-empty jars of it. It was like pink axle grease; Ben had put some on his chest hair once. And now, this guy was so dose, Ben was afraid that it was going to drip on him.
'Come here, Ben,' he said. 'Do you think people in Ireland talk too much?'
'I suppose so,' said Ben, and he got his face away and tried to look as if he was searching for someone. Gel-head kept talking but Ben wasn't listening. But he had to turn back to him when gel-head started tapping his shoulder with, Ben saw, a phase tester.
'Do you ever listen to Liveline?' said gel-head. 'Marian Finucane?'
'What?' said Ben.
'It's some programme, that,' said gel-head. 'I can take any kind of junk, but not Liveline. I mean, I listen to it nearly every day. But she drives me crazy. All this "Oooh" and "Aaah" and "Oh my" and "Mind you..." It's all so fucking self-righteous. What do you think of her?'
'She's all right,' said Ben.
He'd have to get away. This bollix wasn't going to leave him alone. He should never have answered.
'D'you listen to her?' gel-bead asked him.
'No,' said Ben.
He did, every day, and he thought Marian Finucane was great but he had to get away. He'd be stuck with this down for the rest of the night if he didn't move. He might even have been a queer; he was much too old for the gel. Ben had nothing against queers but he had plenty against boring queers. He put down the rest of his pint.
'D'you know what I think?' said gel-head.
Ben was going.
'I've to meet somebody,' Ben said.
'She should keep her nose out of other people's business,' said gel-head.
Ben stood up. But gel-head was holding the back of the stool. Ben pushed back. Gel-head let go and the stool fell onto the floor behind him. 'Jesus!'
A woman skipped over it, through its legs, her hands holding up three fall glasses. She was laughing and she managed not to spill anything. A good-looking woman in a black dress. Ben could have been talking to her instead of this prick. She'd have squeezed in beside Ben to get the barman's attention if bloody gel-head hadn't stuck himself there first. There she was now, back in the middle of the party. One of the other women stood up as Ben got to the door.
'Electricity and public lighting!
They cheered and clinked glasses. Something smashed.
Posted November 2, 2008
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