Zither Music – Short fiction by David Butler

We’d been to the Gate to watch Barry McGovern do his Beckett thing. A character whose proportions might’ve been dreamed up by Alberto Giacometti. McGovern’s, not Beckett’s. Then across to Conway’s for pints.  This is before they shut the place down. Before the smoking-ban kicked in, and everything became euro. 

Ruthie was giving it ‘What was the story with that story, anyhow?’ Throaty Monaghan accent, like everything is a big joke.

‘Which story?’

‘That malarkey about being attacked by a family of weasels.’

‘A tribe of stoats,’ sighed Johnny D, lenses flashing in my direction.

‘Are they not the same thing?’

‘Fucked if I know,’ I say.

‘I don’t get it, but. How can you guys say he’s funny?’

Funny? He’s fucking hilarious!’ And that is Johnny all over. Whatever Ruthie said, John D was bound to take the opposite tack. Only this time he wasn’t stirring it just for devilment. I know him on this one. But now Ruthie’s looking to me like I’m meant to adjudicate between them. Which would be grand, except for on the one hand I’m with Johnny, I always found old Sam not exactly hilarious, but funny. Droll, you know? Deadpan. And on the other hand, I have the serious hots for Ruth McArdle. I never let on. As if I needed to. She’s one smart cookie. 

So I’m ‘Well he’s not exactly Billy fucking Connolly.’ Which is about the worst thing I could’ve said. Because now I’m caught between Johnny D’s antenna eyebrows twittering oh yeah? and Ruth McArdle’s not-one-bit-impressed puss, which looks like it’s had about a dozen injections of Botox it’s that immobile. 

Maybe a change of tack? ‘I’m not sure he got it either. Left off writing it by all accounts. Notes from an unfinished work.’

‘Abandoned would be the mot juste, Maguire.’

‘Whatever. My point being, maybe ole Sam got bored of his stoats.’

But Ruthie’s having none of it – my sitting on the fence. ‘So is he? Pause. Hilarious?’

Now here’s the crux. Johnny can be really fucking annoying. When we were over in the Gate, he’d been doing that thing of the extra-loud guffaw, showing off how he got the gag and all. And Ruthie’s unimpressed-look is telling me that if I take his side of the argument it’ll smack to her of betrayal. But then, I don’t want to betray Beckett. Which I realise sounds Looney Tunes. The way I’m caught in their pincer stares, I’m not going to be let let it drop, either. It’s what you might call a nice dilemma. Bar everything else, it’s Johnny’s round. And he has no intention of moving from the table before the matter is put to bed. 

‘Is he hilarious?’ I consider the flier from the Gate. ‘Can I phone a friend?’

No one budges. The pincers tighten.

Another tack, running downwind. I iron the flier flat on the wet table. That black and white photo you’ve seen a dozen times. ‘Ever strike either of you how heraldic Beckett is? Like a griffin out of a bestiary. Or a seagull, say, to Yeats’ heron. Which would make Jimmy Joyce what…an owl maybe?’

No-one bites. Now, a cartoon angel is whispering into my right ear how if I play it wrong, I’ll be stuck all night in the supercilious company of Johnathon Dowling esq. Reason is screaming to hand Ruth McArdle her little victory. Hilarious is not the mot juste where Beckett is concerned. But, not for the first time, my left ear is assailed by the seductive whisper of the Imp of the Perverse. ‘Nah,’ I say, slapping the empty glass gavel-like on the wet flier and disarticulating Beckett’s forehead. ‘He’s pretty damn funny. Dark. But yeah. Funny.’ With the result that all through the next round Ruth won’t look at me. Is all over Johnny and every inane witticism he fires out.

Fast forward a couple of hours. Ruthie’s long gone. Didn’t even wait for her last DART. And myself and Johnny D are somewhere along Capel St trying to figure out the next play of the evening. Funds are low. We’re barely into term two and what little of my grant remains in the ATM will just about stretch to the next instalment of rent, like one of those either/or duvets that either covers your head or your toes. Johnny’s tank is running on empty. Nothing beyond the shrapnel in his pocket, if the fecker can be believed. 

There’s meant to be a party out in Stoneybatter, some of the IT crowd. But you don’t like to arrive out empty-handed and besides it’s only recently gone midnight. You get to an IT party early, you end up having to talk to the early-birds. And believe me, that’s not something you’d risk twice.  A scoop on the way, so. Maybe Sin É, or the Cobbler.

Jump cut to pub interior. ‘Tell us this now, you,’ goes Dowling, phlegming up into an accent that’s more John B Keane than Ardal O’Hanlon, ‘would you say now, Maguire, that Ruth McArdle is hilarious now, would you say that?’

‘Leave it go Johnny would you do that for me?’ It’s about his fifth time having a pop at her. Or at me would be nearer the mark. Bad enough that I have to stand the fucker another pint. But of course he doesn’t let it go. Keeps circling about it, the way a tongue keeps touching on a sensitive tooth. And whether it’s the pints or the hour or the supercilious eyebrows, or whether it’s that I’m still mad at myself for crossing Ruthie, suddenly we’re down on the floorboards, scrapping. Rolling over cigarette butts and sputum in a forest of truncated legs amidst which his glasses have gone skittering. 

He’s not much of a scrapper, Johnny. Almost at once my fingers are locking his jaw, his face all gargoyle and indignant. I’m digging my kneecaps hard into his shoulder joints. And as a dozen hands hoist me off him I taunt, ‘Would you leave it go now, would you, now, you bollox?’ 

Where all that came out of I do not know.

The upshot of course, not twenty minutes later I’m on my Jack Jones. He’s skedaddled like a scalded thing, hands shaking so bad it took him two goes to pick up his glasses. Last words I hear, hoarse and high-pitched, ‘You really fucked up this time Maguire.’

Yeah. Probably.

So I’m alone, somewhere down around Smithfield or the back of the Four Courts. Terra Incognita, and not exactly friendly at this hour. Stoneybatter, I’m thinking. That party. Only I haven’t picked up a take-out. Too bad I don’t have my guitar with me, to bang out a few chords by way of a quid pro quo. My steps are being directed by some tentative internal compass. But the orange alleyway I’ve strayed into has the melancholy of a cul de sac. Not a sinner to be seen. Not so much as a cat.

By rights I should just turn around. But no. The Imp of the Perverse, once again. ‘Maybe,’ she goads, ‘there’ll be a way through. It’s just you can’t see it yet.’ So I persevere, each streetlight shrinking the shadow before me then reeling it about until it’s stretched into a Giacometti figure. There’s no sound but my own reverberate footfall. I’ve been down this nightmare before.

End of the road. And sure enough, there it is – the opening. 

It’s a narrow passage, a solitary bollard thrust up from its jaw like a yellowed tusk. I even recognise the cavity down one side. Closed in by blind walls the laneway has an evil air. Brick and concrete brambled with graffiti. Bottle shards. A honk of cardboard and stale piss. I’m about half way along when I hear the approach. A gravel voice speaking foreign. Shadows large and angular. Cue the zither music. 

They’ve blocked the exit. One short, behatted. One huge as a bear. Making yours truly the eponymous Third Man.

The skinny one has a folded-up cane in the crook of one arm. Hook nose, eyelids closed but animated by the tiniest flutter. The tall one carries a huge accordion slung over one shoulder. Head as round and blank as a traffic beacon. Seeing me his mouth opens, a piano dropped down a flight of stairs. These guys, I’m thinking, have climbed out of the shallow-end of the gene-pool. ‘Gentlemen,’ I nod, making to pass.

The trouble of course, the laneway is so godawful narrow.  At the best of times I’d have been hard pressed to negotiate the circumference of the giant with the accordion. Whether out of malice or ignorance, the foot-wide gap between instrument and wall is plugged by the blind man. A desiccated face, not without cunning. It’s him I address. ‘Do you mind?’

He does, it seems. 

Why don’t I turn round? Why don’t I retrace my steps? It’s not too late. There’s nothing quite like sightless sockets to give you the willies. The grinning companion might’ve stepped straight out of a late Goya. So what’s holding me? All I can think, the whole scene is glazed with the giddiness of the ludicrous. Not exactly hilarious. But yeah. Funny.

Could it be they haven’t any English? Impossible to be certain in the fickle light, but there is a swarthiness about them. The snatch of language could’ve been anything – Romanian, Ukrainian, who knows, maybe even Sheltie. Or Gaelic for that matter. But it wasn’t as if my present intention wasn’t blindingly obvious. Keep it light, I think. ‘Scusi. Entschuldigung. ¡Por favor!’

‘You have maybe cigarette?’

A toll to pass. Seems fair. Only I don’t smoke. All the same I go through that pantomime of tapping every pocket from coat to breast to trouser, which is doubly pointless seeing how the guy in charge can’t see. The one who speaks. Sancho Panza’s mouth is still flashing its keyboard missing a few keys. ‘Look gents, I’d love to parley…’ My instinct is to simply push on past. But you don’t want to go laying hands on a man’s accordion, especially not a giant’s. And you can’t just barge through a blind man like he was a saloon-door. ‘You after money? You’re out of luck my friends. I’m a poor student. I haven’t a kopek.’ Which wasn’t a mile off the God’s honest.

‘You think we are thiefs,’ states the blind man, more in disgust than indignation. ‘We are no thiefs.’ And this has me wrong-footed entirely. I hadn’t meant to insult the man. Even the BFG has shut the lid on his piano grin. I’m racking my brains. That accordion. That trilby on the small guy. He’s in a cheap pin-stripe, something out of the 40s. The other’s greatcoat, unbuttoned. Had we come across them one night, busking off Wicklow St? That night we’d been upstairs in the International, the three of us. We’d gone to see Huis Clos, on Wee-klow St (Ruthie’s gag).

The way is still blocked. But I’m beginning to think that’s out of carelessness. The blind guy can’t see where he’s standing, and the man-mountain is maybe too slow to realise his girth. All of a sudden I’ve a plan. ‘Say, do you gentlemen want to come to a party?’

‘A party?’ Voice like a grating hinge.

‘Sure! Maybe you could liven it up. Blast out a few tunes.’

His mouth turns down, as though he’s literally chewing it over. ‘A few tunes?’

‘Only if you feel up to it. Hey, it’s your call.’

‘Where is this… party?’

‘Not far. You know Stoneybatter do you?’

The upshot, I set off with Little and Large. A few wrong turns. A few cocking ears at the debouchment of street and alley. It’s a bizarre odyssey. Large is a dummy for all I know, and Little is not much given to talking. I make a few wry comments, try a couple of wisecracks. Neither gives any indication they’re paying the slightest heed. At last we hear the low thrum, the smash of a bottle, the white noise of voices through an open door.

In the hallway my co-travellers are accosted by an anorexic with beard and glasses. Shane, I think his name is. It’s his gaff. ‘Look Shane, they’re with me. Ok?’ He has a superior smirk you’d love to smack. ‘Ok?’ He scans the hall for allies. Whatever, he shrugs, and subsides into the clamour of the living-room. Tea-lights. A fug of excess males. We make for the kitchen. It’s more sparsely populated. A wincing fluorescent light, unpleasantly forensic. Carnage of dips and crisps. There’s a punchbowl at low ebb in which wine-stained fruit tarnishes. I dribble the dregs into a trio of plastic cups, salvage a round of cheese and cracker. I even manage to bum a cigarette for shorty. 

The few hanging out in here are the social rejects, which is saying something.

Fast forward a couple of hours. Earlier I’d clocked Ruthie’s plaid skirt and knee-high boots on the stairs, Toby Wilkins sitting real close in behind her, a guy I cannot abide. Arrogant individual. Essex. I’d melted back into the kitchen before she clocked me. When at last I made up my mind what I’d say to her en passant there was no sign of either of them. Not on the stairs, not in the front room. I’m hoping to Christ they’ve gone. The alternative, that they’re in the bedroom beside the smaller one where all the coats are dumped, is too unpalatable. It has my gut clench up any time I can’t distract it.

The party is beginning to thin. But the more it does, the more of a crowd precipitates into the kitchen. To hear the performers who, it turns out are Bosnians. Banja Luka. Been living here since things went crazy over there. When he’s not rasping out lyrics like a beardless Ronnie Drew, shorty plays something halfway between a kazoo and a harmonica which he cups in his hands. I do my best to pick out the bones of each Balkan chorus and parrot along. The crowd joins the merriment by clapping out the rhythm. Then, once in a way, the mood shifts. There’s a lament, or a love-song. The bear, it transpires, has as sweet a voice for harmonies as you could wish for. At such times shorty leaves him get on with it.

Past four. Anorexic Shane is giving a look both smug and world-weary. For my benefit, he makes a slow show of checking his watch. Which of course only encourages yours truly to keep the concert going. More and more riotously I wave my arms, cajole the listeners to join the raucous chorus, which they do. Syllables all zeds and vees which could mean anything. The bear is loving it, and waltzes his accordion about the kitchen. Each time we think it’s over he kicks it off again, to a big laugh. 

Then I clock Ruthie. 

She’s sat on a windowsill, having a good ole tête-à-tête with the blind man. Or she’s listening to him, enrapt. Leaning in. A dark tale of his dark land, could be. How I lost my eyes. Or maybe not, the frown she has is light, almost amused. 

No sign at all of the English prick. 

I’ve picked up that she’s picked up that I’m behind this intrusion of rowdiness into the party. And as she’s leaving she fires me a look. One of those looks that goes on just that second longer than it needs to. Not quite Sally O’Brien, but near enough. 

And I know I’m forgiven. And that is enough for me.

Learn more about David Butler on his website, here

About the contributor

David Butler's third novel, City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, 2015. His second poetry collection, All the Barbaric Glass, was published in 2017 by Doire Press. His 11 poem cycle ‘Blackrock Sequence’, a Per Cent Literary Arts Commission illustrated by his brother Jim, won the World Illustrators Award 2018 (books, professional section). Arlen House is to bring out his second short story collection, 'Fugitive', later in 2019. Literary prizes include the Maria Edgeworth (twice), ITT/Red Line and Fish International Award for the short story

Related Articles

More Like This