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Cushla wrapped her handbag in her coat and pushed it into the gap between the beer fridge and the till. Her brother, Eamonn, was bent over the counter with a stock list. He looked up at her and his eyes narrowed. He inclined his head at the mirror that ran the length of the bar. Cushla leaned in to check her reflection. Father Slattery had marked her with a thick cross an inch wide and two inches long. The rub of her finger raised the piney, resinous scent of whatever blessed unguent the ashes were mixed with and blurred the cruciate shape to a sooty smudge.
Eamonn slapped a wet serviette into her hand. Hurry up, he hissed.
Most of the men who drank in the pub did not get ashes on Ash Wednesday or do the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday or go to Mass on Sunday. It was one thing to drink in a Catholic-owned bar; quite another to have your pint pulled by a woman smeared in papish war paint. Cushla buffed until the skin on her forehead was pink, the serviette blackened, flittered. She tossed it in the bin.
Eamonn muttered something under his breath. The only word she could make out was eejit.
The regulars were lined along the counter. Jimmy O'Kane, the single egg he bought for his tea bulging in his breast pocket. Minty, the school caretaker, who got through so much Carlsberg Special Brew the pub won an award for having the highest sales in Northern Ireland, even though he was the only customer who drank the stuff. Fidel, in his khaki cap and tinted glasses. By day he measured mint imperials and clove rock in his mother's sweetshop; by night he was brigadier of the local branch of the Ulster Defence Association. A fitter from the shipyard called Leslie, who didn't speak until he was drunk and one night told Cushla he'd love to bathe her. Another man. Middle-aged, with a whiskey in front of him. Dark-eyed, faintly jowly. He was wearing a black suit and a stiff white shirt from which the collar had been detached, clothes that were conspicuous among the overalls and drip-dry fabric. His hair was flat to the ears then wavy at the nape of his neck, as if it had been sweating under a hat. Or a wig.
Cushla climbed onto a stool to turn up the volume on the television. When she climbed down, the man with the whiskey was flicking at the filter of his cigarette with his thumb, as if he had just looked away.
The news started the way it always did, with a montage of short scenes. A riot. A boy of six or seven climbing up the side of a Saracen personnel carrier to poke a stone into one of the slits from which the soldiers pointed their guns. A march on Stormont, thousands moving up the long avenue to the parliament building. They had added a new one. A single parked car on an empty street. It looked like a photograph until the car bulged and exploded into a great ball of smoke and fire and its doors somersaulted away from it, glass from the surrounding buildings falling like hail onto the tarmac. The segment finished where it always did, on an image of Mary Peters holding up her Olympic medal.
She won that three years ago, Eamonn said.
It's the last thing that happened here we can be proud of, said the man. His voice was deep, almost rough, despite his refined accent.
Right enough, Michael, said Eamonn.
How did Eamonn know his name?
Fidel inclined his head at the newsreader. Barry's had the beard trimmed, he said, looping his own brush around his thumb and teasing it into a long, tapered point.
The news. A country road; a police Land Rover parked sideways across its white lines, a pair of legs draped in cloth protruding from a bald whitethorn hedge. Men in balaclavas behind a Formica table, woolly faces pressed to a row of microphones, lit sporadically by camera flashes. A pub with no windows, damp smoke wheezing from a crater in the roof.
The last item on the news was a human interest story. Everyone liked this part because it was usually something nonpartisan they could comment on. A reporter had been sent into the city center to ask people what they thought of streaking. It's ridiculous, said a woman in a knitted hat, sure it's far too cold. There were sniggers around the bar. A tiny man slick with Brylcreem said he'd do it if somebody paid him enough. The next man barked "it's obscene" and walked off. Then they stopped a girl with long dark hair and big eyes. She was wearing an Afghan coat, the collar fluffed up around her face. I think it's fantastic, she said, something different. She seemed stoned.
She has the look of you about her, Cushla, said Minty. Would you be up for a bit of streaking yourself?
Leave my sister alone, you pervert, said Eamonn, smirking. Normally she would have had a reply that would shut them all up, but she was aware of the man with the neat whiskey and tidy nails.
Eamonn told Cushla to do a sweep for empties. She went onto the floor. Three men with crew cuts were at a corner table cluttered with soapy-looking tankards. As she reached for the last, one of them placed it on the carpet. You forgot one, he said, his Adam's apple bobbing in his neck. She bent to pick it up and he laid his hands on her hips, just above her arse. She eased herself free of him and went back to the bar to the sound of their laughter.
Did you see what that soldier did? Cushla asked Eamonn as she dumped their glasses in the sink.
No. He said it without looking at her and she knew he had.
He frigging groped me.
What do you want me to do about it? he said, only it wasn't a question. He couldn't do anything.
They lived in a garrison town, although it had not felt like one until 1969, when the troops were sent in; not that the soldiers ever patrolled the streets there. The Laverys met them across the bar, when they were out of uniform. The first few regiments were all right. Then the Paras arrived. They liked to leave reminders. Cigarettes ground out on the carpet, tiles they had peeled from the wall lying broken on the floor of the gents'. The day after Bloody Sunday, a group of them came into the bar. Even Fidel and the boys were uneasy in their company and soon there was just Gina and Cushla and the soldiers; her father was too sick to work. Gina sat on the stool, pushing her glass under the optics, watching them. She managed to ignore them until one took a bite from his beer glass, the others egging him on, and spat splinters and blood into the ashtray. Cushla had watched as if it was a horror film as her mother strode across the floor. What English jail vomited you lot up? Gina said, before phoning the barracks; she had rung to complain so often she knew the commanding officer by name. She told him in her telephone voice to remove his men, that they weren't welcome anymore. The military police took them away, but the sight of squaddies in the pub still made Cushla uneasy. Gina had shown her hand.
When she could bear to raise her head, the man gave her a smile. His eyes were kind. He had heard everything, and she was ashamed, more for Eamonn than herself, and set about tidying the shelves of bottled beer.
Nice view, an English voice said. She glanced in the mirror. The groper was standing at the counter, a banknote in his hand. Behind her, the beer tap gasped as Eamonn pulled pints for him.
She's pretending she can't hear me, the groper said.
Perhaps because you are humiliating her, said Michael. Cushla felt herself turn. He had swiveled on his stool and was facing the soldier, the whiskey resting on his left palm.
Come on, mate. I'm having a laugh, the soldier said, so shrilly he sounded like a whining child.
Humor is most effective when it's mutual, Michael said.
The groper leaned forward, paused, then drew his neck back in, as if he'd thought better of it. He picked up the three glasses awkwardly and went back to the table, beer dribbling across the floor. Eamonn was staring implacably at the television, but she knew by the set of his chin he felt emasculated. Fidel and the others too looked as if nothing had happened. Who was this man?
She busied herself, wiping, tidying, trying not to look at him. The door banged. The soldiers' table was empty, a couple inches of lager left in the bottom of each glass.
The regulars began to slope home. You should get out of here for an hour, Cushla told Eamonn. See the kids before they go to bed.
I don't want to leave you on your own.
I'll be fine now.
OK then. Give me a ring if you've a problem, he said, and then he was gone.
Michael lit a cigarette and blew the smoke down his nose. Throw another in there, please, he said, sliding his glass at her.
She glanced in the mirror as she was pouring his drink. He was watching her. She was emboldened by having her back to him and didn't look away.
She put the whiskey on the counter. Cushla, isn't it? I'm Michael. Would you like one yourself? he said, closing his fingers around the tumbler. The room looked better with him in it. Behind him, the shabby lanterns that were fixed to the walls were casting circles of warm light on the teak tables, and there was a squalid opulence about the jade-green tweed that upholstered the banquettes and stools.
I'm teaching in the morning. Thanks, but, she said.
Where do you teach? he said. It was one of those questions that people asked when they wanted to know what foot you kicked with. What's your name? What's your surname? Where did you go to school? Where do you live?
I teach P3s in St. Dallan's.
So the children are seven or eight? That's a nice age.
It is, she said. I had P1s for the first two years. Spent most of my time bringing them in and out to the toilet.
You brought the children to get ashes this morning, he said.
He must have seen her removing them. Eamonn's irritation with her. Yeah, she said.
I lived in Dublin in my youth, he told her. It's wall-to-wall Catholics down there, you know. It was said lightly, but he was looking at her so keenly it was a relief when he took his eyes from hers and drank.
I got ashes this morning myself, said Jimmy O'Kane in a loud whisper.
You made a better job of getting rid of them than I did, said Cushla.
A wee taste of Lifebuoy on a dishcloth, said the old man.
Cushla glanced at Michael. His eyes were creased in amusement.
She made a cup of tea and pulled the stool around to face the television. A drama had come on. Helen Mirren was lying on a settee stroking a white cat, while her husband was confronting Malcolm McDowell about sleeping with her. Cushla didn't know why she would go next to or near McDowell, who was skinny and cruel looking and wearing a prissy blue jumper, when she was married to Alan Bates, who was thickset and brooding. Helen Mirren got up and walked around the room. She was wearing a white shirtwaister. She looked classy. Cushla had on a pink cheesecloth shirt and jeans with a patch that said "Push My Panic Button" sewn on one of the back pockets.
Jimmy finished his pint, bottom lip working at the rim to catch every drop, and patting his breast pocket gently, shuffled out the door.
Michael ordered another drink. He told her the drama was Play of the Year in 1960. He thought Mirren was put to poor use and that McDowell had been pigeonholed by doing A Clockwork Orange. Cushla told him she couldn't finish the book, never mind watch the film. Oh, but the film was beautiful, he said, even its violence is exquisite. He said he knew the man from Armagh who played the cripple. He wrote a bit himself. A couple of documentaries, short plays. Barristers are frustrated actors, he said. He talked as though he was used to being listened to.
When Eamonn came back he pinched Cushla's cheeks as if she was a toddler. Thanks for babysitting, he said to Michael.
I'm twenty-four, Cushla said. Eamonn regarded her with his usual blend of disdain and indulgence; Michael with an expression she couldn't read.
He left when she did, holding the door to let her walk out ahead of him. Her arm brushed his as she passed. He felt solid, substantial.
The pub was down a slip road at the end of the main street, overlooked from behind by the clock tower that stood in the grounds of the ruined priory and, from the front, a low-rise block of council flats. She crossed the dim car park to where she'd left her little red Renault, near the underpass that ran beneath the new dual carriageway to the lough shore. There were voices bouncing in the concrete tunnel, cigarettes sparking in the dark. An acrid smell from the water, the hum that came before the tide rose, oily and muddy.
Good night, Cushla, called Michael. He was beside a big brown car near the entrance to the pub.
Cheerio, she said. When she turned on her headlights he was still standing there, a heaviness about his shoulders that made him look older than when he was sitting at the counter.
The police had made a Control Zone of High Street and it was desolate. As she approached the bank, three men spilled onto the pavement from another bar. The soldiers from earlier. The groper stumbled in front of her car and Cushla had to press the brake to the floor to avoid hitting him. He clapped his hands on her bonnet and peered through the windscreen. When he saw it was her, he flicked his tongue out and wiggled it, an obscene gesture made ludicrous by the youth of him. Headlights lit up her car from behind and she checked her rearview mirror. It was Michael. He raised a couple of fingers at her and waited, engine idling, until the boy's friends pulled him away. Cushla set off slowly, leaving them laughing on the curbside. Michael trailed her home and, flashing his lamps once, continued out the road toward the hills.