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He is sitting in what they now call the beer garden. Before the smoking ban came into force it was a concrete yard, a skanky area at the back of the pub that was all stacked crates and kegs and empty cardboard boxes. But with a little outdoor furniture—decking, benches, tables, pole umbrellas for when it rains—they’ve transformed it into a "space," a haven where smokers can congregate, light up their Players or Sweet Afton and give out about the excesses of the nanny state. There has even been some confusion, not to say tension, over etiquette. If a nonsmoker occupies the last available seat, as might happen in summer or on an unseasonably balmy evening in winter, is he obliged to give that seat up to the next smoker who comes along?
Well, in this establishment, yes actually, because if you don’t smoke—the logic runs—what are you doing out here in the first place and what kind of a fucking baby are you anyway?
But tonight the question doesn’t arise. It’s a cold and drizzly Monday, just right for the season, and only five people, hard-core smokers, have come outside with their cigarettes and lighters (plus pints, vodkas, whatever) and settled themselves under the various umbrellas.
"Poxy night," he says, and laughs. This fat, pasty-faced twenty-six-year-old then stares across the beer garden at the young couple who are sitting opposite him. After a moment, he stares at the two old-timers sitting next to them.
One of these old-timers, Christy Mullins, nods his head in agreement. He reckons it’s better than doing nothing. He reckons that the fat, pasty-faced man in the denim jacket and white shirt over there isn’t someone you just ignore. He reckons that life is short enough as it is.
Still grinning, the fat, pasty-faced man nods back. He then takes a long, serious drag from his cigarette, gazing up at the illuminated, slow-falling drizzle as he does so.
He’s a regular here, but not everyone knows who he is.
Christy, for example, doesn’t know who he is—though he’s certainly seen him from time to time, and even remembers, now that he thinks about it, a specific incident that happened some months back. However, he couldn’t give you his name or tell you anything about him.
Which is exactly the way the man himself would like to keep it, because he’s not into any of this celebrity crap—talking to Sunday World journalists or going on Liveline. He doesn’t consider it good for business.
"Poxy Irish weather," he then says, half to himself now, and not looking at anyone in particular. "Poxy Minister for poxy fuckin’ Health."
Christy manages to ignore this, getting lost for a moment in a minor coughing fit. He then raises his pint with one hand and taps his cigarette against the ashtray with the other. That incident he does remember happened late one summer evening out here in the beer garden. The place was crowded, and the fat, pasty-faced man was sitting with a group of other—what were they—twenty-five-, twenty-six-year-olds? They were all drinking pints, smoking, digging each other in the ribs and laughing. Suddenly, out in the street, a car alarm went off—a high-pitched brain-piercing wail. The immediate reaction around the tables was a collective sigh of exasperation, and then, as the wail continued, a loud "Ah Jaysus" from someone near the door leading into the main part of the pub.
It was obvious that the offending car was parked very close by, and possibly even right outside the pub. But something else was becoming obvious, too. As the general hubbub gave way to the mute frustration of shaking heads, one of the fat, pasty-faced man’s co-drinkers put his pint down and said, in everyone’s hearing, "Isn’t that yours?"
Isn’t that yours, Noel.
That was it. He called him Noel. Christy remembers now.
"Isn’t that yours, Noel?"
At which fat, pasty-faced Noel shrugged his shoulders. "So?"
"Well, don’t fucking just anything."
"Shut up, right?"
Noel then reached for his glass, and as he took a sip from it, staring ahead, not saying a word to anyone, an almost complete silence, icy and incredulous, descended on the beer garden, with only one sound remaining—the ceaseless, demented wail of the car alarm.
Christy threw his eyes up. People were obviously afraid of this young pup, and it sickened him. Who was he anyway, one of these gangland thugs you read about in the papers?
Noel took another sip from his pint, and a drag from his cigarette. Minutes passed, or what seemed like minutes. Eventually an elderly woman at the next table piped up. "Ah here, love," she said, "come on, I’m getting an awful headache."
It was only then that Noel stubbed out his cigarette and got up from the table to leave. He was huge, Christy saw—not only fat, but tall and broad as well. A barman appeared in the doorway just as Noel was approaching it. The barman’s eyebrows were raised, ready for a confrontation.
"All right, all right," Noel said, strolling past him, "keep your fucking hair on."
Less than a minute later, the car alarm stopped. Noel didn’t come back, and noise levels in the beer garden gradually returned to normal.
Now, of course, it is much quieter—later in the evening, later in the year. Darker, colder. The young man and woman, huddled close together, are more or less whispering to each other. The two old-timers, in contemplative mode, have barely exchanged a word since they came out here. Noel himself has been the most voluble, finding it unnatural to be sitting alone, not talking to anyone. He would rather annoy strangers, roping them into any conversation at all, than sit in silence.
"I was watching that fucking Discovery Channel the other night," he says, lighting up a cigarette. "Apparently there’s over two hundred types of shark in the sea."
The young man and woman both look up, startled. Christy glances over as well.
"Tiger sharks, hammerhead sharks, pigeye sharks, Ga-fucking-lapagos sharks."
With his cigarette in one hand, Christy puts his other hand up to his chest and coughs. He is retired now, but for fifty years he worked as a barber, and in that time he had plenty of what you might call "characters" in his chair. He recognizes this Noel across the way as a distinct character type himself.
Unstable, unpredictable, dangerous.
"The great white is the only shark that sticks its head out of the water to look around. Amazing, isn’t it?"
Again—though he’s barely listening—Christy nods his head in agreement. All he wants is a quiet smoke.
"I love those names," Noel says, flicking ash to the ground. "They’re mad. Fucking hammerhead, what?"
The young couple have turned back in toward each other and are whispering again.
"I said they’re mad, aren’t they?" He is staring directly across at the young couple now, but they don’t seem to have noticed. Christy rests his cigarette in the ashtray.
"Love!" Noel shouts.
The young woman looks up.
"The names. I said they’re fucking mad, aren’t they?"
She doesn’t say anything. Christy can’t tell if she’s nervous or annoyed.
"Well?" Noel says.
"Well what?" the young woman says, definitely annoyed. Her boyfriend hasn’t looked up yet. He’s definitely nervous.
"What do you mean well what? Don’t fucking well what? me, you frigid little bitch."
Christy throws his eyes up.
The boyfriend exhales loudly and slaps the palm of his hand on the table.
"What’s your problem?" Noel says. "You bleedin’ ponce."
"Stop it," Christy says. "Enough of that."
Everyone turns now and looks at Christy.
"Who asked you?" Noel says.
"You’re nothing but a bowsie," Christy says. "Do you know that?"
Noel holds up his cigarette. "See this? I’ll stick it in your fucking eye if you don’t shut up."
There is a long silence.
Christy wants to say Go ahead, I’d like to see you try, but when he opens his mouth to speak, nothing happens. He’s seventy-three years old after all. He’s thin and wiry and actually quite frail. He has more or less permanent bronchitis from decades of smoking unfiltered cigarettes.
So what does he think he’s doing?
The man beside Christy, nudging him in the elbow, whispers, "Leave it, Christy, leave it."
But with his heart thumping, Christy makes another attempt, and this time he manages to get it out.
"Go ahead, fatso," he says—the "fatso" coming out of nowhere—"I’d like to see you try."
"Whoa," Noel says, sliding along the bench to get out from behind the table, "what did you say?"
For some reason, as Christy stares over at Noel, all he can think about is the newspaper headline this is going to generate. More specifically, and like a knotted synapse in his brain, it’s the wording he can’t get past: Vicious Thug Assaults Pensioner. Vicious Assault on Pensioner by Thug. Thug in Vicious Assault on Pensioner.
Noel gets to the edge of the bench, and pauses. He takes a drag from his cigarette.
The young woman, meanwhile, stubs hers out. She picks up the lighter and pack of Silk Cut from the table and stuffs them into her bag. Slouched next to her, the young man is trying to look casual, unconcerned.
"Come on," she says to him, "we’re going."
Pensioner Viciously Assaulted by Thug.
With the cigarette now dangling from his lips, Noel glares over at Christy. He brings his hands together, intertwines them, stretches his arms out and then cracks all of his knuckles simultaneously.
As Christy glares back, a part of him doesn’t believe this is happening. He glances down at his half-finished pint on the table, and at the pack of Sweet Afton beside it, and at the smoke rising slowly from his cigarette in the ashtray. It’s a familiar, comforting scene, almost like a still life, and he doesn’t understand how it can be about to change so radically.
But then, unexpected as this whole thing has been, something even more unexpected happens.
Just as the young couple are getting up from their table, and as Noel is getting up from his, a figure comes rushing through the doorway of the pub and out into the middle of the beer garden. Tall and reedy, he is wearing a dark-colored anorak and jeans, and—it takes people a second to realize it, to process what they’re seeing—he’s also wearing a ski mask.
Like with the impact of an explosion, there is a recoil from this around the garden. What follows it, though, isn’t panic. Instead, rapid calculations are made, probabilities are looked at, and soon it’s clear—at least to four of the five people out here—that all any of them can do now is hold their breath and watch.
The young man and woman remain frozen. The man beside Christy remains frozen, and Christy himself, stifling a cough, remains frozen.
Noel certainly isn’t resigned to watching this happen, but he remains frozen too, only his eyes darting left and right. There isn’t much else he can do in the circumstances.
The tall, reedy man, his anorak glistening in the rain, appears to hesitate. But then he turns a fraction and is suddenly face-to-face with Noel—four feet away from him, five at most.
Noel shifts his weight to the edge of the bench.
From where Christy is sitting, he can see the man in the anorak raising his right arm and stretching it out. The gun in the man’s gloved hand is metal gray, almost black, and looks like an extension of the glove.
Noel is trembling all over now. He feels a sudden stream of warm, beery piss making its way down his leg. He seems to have no muscular control left. All around him he hears a voice, high-pitched and whining, and he even manages to feel contempt for it—before realizing it’s his own voice.
Then there is a loud crack. It is followed immediately by another one and another one after that.
Christy starts coughing. The air is damp from the rain, but it is smoky and acrid now as well.
The man in the anorak runs to a wall at the rear of the garden and jumps at it. Grabbing hold of the top, he pulls himself up and swings a leg over. In a second, he has disappeared. A few seconds after that, Christy hears a motorcycle revving up and taking off. He looks over at the others. The young woman, only half standing up, is clutching her boyfriend’s sleeve. The boyfriend is sitting down again. People have started pouring out from the main area of the pub.
Christy remains seated. He looks over at Noel, who is still at his table, but slumped forward now, his head at an awkward angle. He looks like someone who has drunk too much and passed out. From the angle Christy is at, and before his view is closed off, he is able to make out a bullet hole in Noel’s forehead. There is a small trickle of blood coming from it.
Christy looks down at his pint, and at the cigarette in the ashtray. Smoke is still rising from the cigarette. He lifts it up and takes a drag from it. In all his decades as a smoker, no cigarette has ever tasted as good.
Pensioner’s Racing Pulse Returns to Normal.
He glances around. A lot of people are just standing in the rain now. They are in shock, waiting for something to happen. Most of them are talking—to each other or into mobile phones. Some have umbrellas; others are huddled into their jackets.
The man beside Christy nudges him again in the elbow.
"Jesus," he says, lifting his pint, "it’s all go here tonight, what?"
Excerpted from Winterland by Alan Glynn.
Copyright © 2010 by Alan Glynn.
Published in February 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.