They began in Neary’s. Christmas was two days away, and Dublin was brimming with shoppers marching along the damp streets. John Kelly climbed the tartan-carpeted staircase and removed his black wool overcoat after entering the lounge.
‘A coffee, please,’ he said to the barman who held a pint glass in his callused palm.
‘Are you sparing yourself?’
‘At least for another twenty minutes,’ he replied and glanced at a wood-encased wall clock.
‘One of the waiters will bring it over.’
John sat at a corner table overlooking Chatham Street through the long bay window and scratched the crown of his short, dark hair. It was a dim twilight with clear gaps in the grey sky. He wrapped his trembling fingers around the white mug waiting for the filter coffee to cool down. He stared at the door during unanswered phone calls to Matthew Cronin who had kept him waiting for their entire friendship.
They first met at University College Dublin and were paired together in a history module to present on the foreign policy of King Charles I. Matthew had skipped the tutorial but rescued John from the private school scene and took him to drama society parties in terraced houses along the Grand Canal.
‘I live in John’s shadow,’ Matthew would say to pairs of country girls and sometimes let him kiss the prettier one.
They both moved to New York after earning respectable degrees and shared a walk-up apartment on an East Eighth Street brownstone. The bedrooms had thin plaster wall with icicles dangling from the rusting fire escape in winter. Matthew was accepted to Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts acting program, and John’s uncle secured him a job at Bank of Ireland’s Manhattan office. They conquered downtown over four years with their accents and jaunty demeanors.
Matthew would approach the girls, then lean in over their earlobes when repeating their names. John sometimes went home with the prettier one. Regulars from their local bar, Scratcher’s, came back to the apartment for drinks and stayed until the dawn’s blue hue filtered into their narrow living room.
‘What was your girl’s name?’ he asked in the Kitchen Sink diner on Fifth Street with filter coffee churning his stomach.
‘Lauren, I think,’ Matthew answered, covering his bacon with Tabasco sauce. ‘Let’s try Brooklyn tonight.’
‘You’re more relentless than this city.’
Matthew started picking up roles, and John attended the closing night parties where he was set up with understudies who forgave the fact that he was a banker. The soupy evenings bled into pleasant autumn nights, and they lived in anticipation of the next party.
John’s boss told him on a Friday afternoon in May that he was being moved to the London office. Traffic crawled through the early evening sunshine, and he stopped at Third Avenue bars on the way home to numb his deflated soul. They drank in Scratcher’s all day on the cusp of summer for his final Saturday in Manhattan and watched the sunrise ascend the tall buildings from their rooftop.
‘It will never be the same, Matt,’ he said and tossed his cigarette butt.
‘Even princes grow up.’
John met Samantha at a party in Hoxton three months after arriving in London and swilled white wine to pluck up his courage. Her freckled shoulders were bare in a sleeveless red dress, and her brown eyes shined waiting for the words to spill out of his dry mouth.
‘Are you an actress?’ he asked.
‘That’s a weak line considering you’ve been staring at me all night,’ she said and gave John her number when she was leaving. She kissed him in Highbury Fields on their first date, raising her pale heels to meet his lips, and they smiled between pecks with a cool breeze rustling the oak trees’ leaves.
‘You’re actually rather gentle,’ she whispered and stroked the nape of his neck with her index finger. John moved into her townhouse nine months later and reverted to his old gang of friends who had formed paunches and drank themselves into a stupor at weekends.
Matthew’s tight pink lips were fixed in a smile when he emerged through the crowd in Neary’s packed lounge and waved John over to the bar. His wavy golden locks had grown past his shoulders since their last meeting, framing his chiseled face, and his blue eyes penetrated John as he stepped across the room.
‘London Town’s finest as I live and breathe,’ Matthew said and opened his arms. John patted the back of his navy duffle coat, wishing they shook hands like men.
‘Are you this late for rehearsals?’ he asked once they were seated at the table with two pints of stout. ‘You know punctuality becomes an issue when you turn thirty.’
‘Sorry, I ran into an old flame last night in Portobello.’
‘Actors are so predictable,’ he said. ‘I like the hair.’
‘Thanks, it’s for a role,’ he said and pushed his fringe behind his ears. ‘How’s Samantha?’
‘Grand, she was sorry to miss you.’
‘I’ll be over to London in April anyway,’ he said.
‘Yes, I read the feature,’ he said. ‘Matthew Cronin – a Broadway phenomenon on the West End.’
‘You’re too kind,’ he said. ‘Drink that pint down and I’ll buy you a whiskey.’
John’s hangover eased after two pints. They smoked outside and turned up their collars standing under the hanging lights.
‘Do you miss New York then?’ Matthew asked after he handed him a double.
‘Of course,’ he answered and sipped his whiskey. ‘London has turned me into a complete bore.’
‘You’re missed in the old haunts.’
‘Well, all good things...,’ he said, ‘…let’s go to Mulligan’s after these.’
The whiskey swirled in John’s chest. Moonbeams caught the frosted treetops and steam rose from the carriage horses’ coats, their muscles shivering under the white leather reins. They went to McDonald’s and ordered Big Macs. John shook his head at Matthew when a group of men at the next table broke into school chants.
‘Cretins,’ he said. ‘Did you get any chicken nuggets?’
‘Help yourself,’ Matthew said. They ate in silence; a gloss of curry sauce formed on their lips.
‘I have some news,’ Matthew said. He poured whiskey from his hip flask into their foam cups. ‘This producer I was seeing in New York is pregnant.’
‘Keep that news to yourself,’ he said and sucked on the straw with his pursed lips.
An illuminated Dart crossed the river as harsh gusts swept along Burgh Quay. Mulligan’s mahogany cavern was packed with men sweating in their overcoats, who spilled their drinks trying to advance on a group of girls sitting in the corner. John waited at the bar either side of a thickset, balding man removing snuff from his tweed jacket.
‘I ordered two rounds,’ John said after he was served and handed Matthew a pint of stout.
‘Good plan,’ he replied, then swallowed his entire drink in a single gulp. The creamy head flowed down his cheeks and seeped into his stubble when they went outside to spark cigarettes.
‘Hello, Matt,’ said a tall, rakish man in a quilted denim jacket with fair hair and hollow cheeks.
‘Des Kiely as I live and breathe,’ Matthew said. ‘Are you still living in London?’
‘The paper actually moved me to the New York bureau, so we must meet for dinner some evening once I’m settled.’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Have you two met by the way?’
‘Not that I recall,’ he said with his left hand extended.
‘We’ve met a few times,’ John said, a dwindling cigarette falling off his bottom lip.
‘I struggle to remember all of Matthew’s friends,’ he responded. ‘Listen, there are people waiting for me inside but I’ll give you a call,’ he said and vanished into the crowd.
‘That lad was always very satisfied with himself,’ John said.
‘If you say so,’ he said. ‘It’s more important to be held in high esteem.’
‘Piss off,’ he said and took a pace towards him. ‘You know nothing about being normal.’
‘Drop the sad act,’ Matthew said, drips of saliva escaping his mouth. They bit on their filters while staring at the ground.
‘Let’s go inside.’
They drank neat whiskeys at the bar. Matthew beckoned to the barman at last orders, and they staggered outside at two o’clock. Matthew dragged him eastwards on a blustery City Quay to finish his flask. Ridges of black water splashed against the concrete slabs. They leaned on the railing to share a cigarette with stars glinting through the veiled clouds.
‘Is she keeping it?’
‘No idea,’ Matthew answered.
‘You’ll be fine either way.’
‘That depends on work,’ he said. ‘What have you planned for the next few days?’
‘I’m meeting the school lads on Christmas Eve,’ John replied. ‘My friends insist on clinging to the past.’
‘Is that what tonight was?’
‘It will be.’
They left it at that, hugged, and were driven home to their childhood bedrooms on quiet roads that flickered through the night.
(c) Conor O'Sullivan