Swimming with the desperate Drumshanbo pike


I WAS LOOKING for a newspaper. That’s the only reason I was in the bar at lunchtime. But I met a friend sitting on his own with a pint and looking glum. He lit up when he saw me. “I’m in town for the Mooney School,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you later for some tunes.”

“You might,” I lied, because I didn’t intend going out.

The sky was watery grey and purple over Drumshanbo but the dinners were hopping off the counter in Scollan’s and the Mart was on, so the streets were jammed with horseboxes as well as musicians. There was a long queue at the checkout. Teenage girls with fiddles slung over their shoulders and a Japanese man with three take-away dinners in silver tinfoil, and a big hairy Galway man dragging an accordion like a bale of briquettes.

It’s always like this during the Mooney School. The musicians come out of workshops at lunchtime and there’s a sudden rush for dinners. Everyone was having chicken curry.

I was standing behind a French girl in short trousers and I couldn’t keep my eyes off her legs. They reminded me of sunshine, and days I spent in Paris. I used to love the shops in Paris because everyone had good manners. The shopkeepers always said “Bonjour” and “Au revoir,” even if you didn’t buy anything.

One time I went into an equestrian shop for a little hood that goes over a horse’s head, because my daughter wanted one for her pony. A fancy item that goes over the horse’s ears and eyes and makes them look elegant at shows. But I suppose I didn’t look like a man who was ever up on a horse in my life, so when I walked in and picked up the little horse’s hood and brought it to the till, the lady behind the counter raised an eyebrow.

She had lovely trimmed eyebrows and a black dress and slender fingers with which she handled the item for a moment. She then eyeballed me suddenly and asked me did I realise it was for a horse. She may have thought that I had confused her store full of bridles and whips for a sex shop and was buying the item for myself. So I said, “Yes, I know it’s for a horse,” and she smiled ever so politely and ran the numbers through the till, dropped the hood in a brown bag and wished me “bonjour” as I left.

My friend the drunk was still sitting on the same barstool that evening when I arrived for the session, but he didn’t seem interested in me any more so I sat on my own in the corner with a bitter lemon and left him alone with his pint.

Most people were huddled in circles around the musicians. There was a dainty tin whistle player and the hairy Galway man with his box and an American woman on a banjo. Sometimes they played too fast and furious, like a battalion of Singer sewing machines, and at other times they threw up such beautiful slow airs that I thought I would cry. My friend remained at the bar, brooding and self-absorbed, apart from trips to the toilet, or to the outdoors for a smoke, on which occasions he scanned the room carefully for women.

Two women from London arrived with long hair and fiddles and sat shoulder to shoulder, and as they played they leaned in on each other and their hair got entangled in the fiddle strings. I allowed all the tunes to wash over me, and be a balm to my grief, and I waited until closing time before going home.

Then I had a bag of chips on the rain-swept street. I saw a few people putting instruments into cars, and the French woman with the short trousers was sheltering in a doorway, hugging a bodhran case and looking at the sky.

And my friend appeared from nowhere. I presumed he was coming for me to see if I knew where he would get more drink. But I was wrong. He stepped into the door where the French woman was sheltering.

“Where are you playing tomorrow night?” he asked her. “I’m just arrived today,” she replied. “I have no plans for tomorrow.” “And tonight?” he wondered, his eyes bulging like a pike who has spotted his supper. “Where are you staying tonight?”

But I didn’t wait to hear her reply. I turned the ignition on and drove away.

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