Natterbean, a short story by June Caldwell

Book Club: From ‘Room Little Darker’, a Dublin taxi driver handles a tricky fare

He knew he smelt like a sardine but that’s what Polish beer does to a man on a low wage. With names like Tatra, Tyskie, and Zywiec, he may as well have been downing fermented donkey piss the night before. The smug knotty face on the bent cop who ran the off license on a privately paid-for unflappable hip made him madder than a hacksaw. To top it off he woke to Gina screaming blue butchery as he forgot the green lentils again – on a wholefood buzz since her arse went all weather balloon - he still hadn’t got around to sorting out the monkey business with her. Burrowing in his chest hair for six torturous weeks. But today it was the thoughts of Natterbeans that was pushing him comprehensively into the dark place. Swarming the roads and cycle lanes. Using his waxed bonnet at traffic lights as a fat walking stick to get them to where they didn’t remember they had to go on the other side. If he’d half a brain or a quarter of a heart he’d feel sorry for the fuckers, but they were a type of celestial cabbage he loathed. When he passed Fanagans Funeral Home with the overflowing bottle bins slumped at its gates, bits of torn brown tights flying from the tangled railings of an aulone’s wet dream, one of them hopped in all lickety-spit.

‘Alright bro! You and me are mates aren’t we? Yer nor gonna give me no jip cos I’m having a fuck of a day like? I’ll pay ye goodo, yeah. I’ll see ye alright when I get me glasses as me old ma used to say but I never really knew what she meant. Ma’s are stone fucking mad aren’t they? You know what I’m gerrin’ at, don’t ye? I’ll shut me trap now, we’ll probably get there quicker. Isn’t that the way bud? You from around here?’

‘Where are we off to?’ he asked. Knowing that to politely remove the plank from the back seat after he’d already pressed the fare button would be undue hassle. ‘Just tell me where we’re heading to so we can make a move.’ The roads ahead slippy and slimy. He’d have to drive slow and meticulously, sunk stupid in Natterbean’s backdoor trots splattering from his gob.

‘Well I tell ye what, I’m natterbean up at the clinic and they was fucking me around cos they says I ain’t got a prescription or that I did have a yokedymadoo in anyways but I don’t no more so I’ve to head to this other gaff up around Meath Street and talk to Mr Doherty who’ll sort me out at another clinic till the Finglas one get word of where their prescription went to … One hand doesn’t know who’s scratching the nebs of the other … bunch of bleeding jokers.’

‘Look, where are we going to?’ he asked again. Not so politely this time, adding that he wanted to see the cash. ‘Out with the spondoolies, I need to know if you can sort the fare.’

‘Stall the ball there bud. Don’t be going all Donald Trump on me. Think I’m just another dopey trackie don’t ye? But here, c’mere, I’m natterbean up at the cash machine so we’re good to wangle. I’m not fucking dense. I can answer most questions on The Chase. Do ye watch dat, do ye? Fucking love that programme. Gas the way greedy bolloxes say they’re going to buy a gaff, then they go home with fuck all when them fat chasers ram them up the hole.’

He’d been stung too many times lately by the likes of him. The last Natterbean, he had to reef him back into the car through the front window by the scruff. So far gone, so wasted, so emaciated, he would’ve been able to do a runner through a cat flap if he’d had his jimminy bits about him. That particular night he drove like a gazelle with a rocket up its shitepipe, through the Port Tunnel, up past the airport. Out into the spuds and strawberries-for-sale countryside with its vulgar pretend Tudor houses and Breaded Chicken Breast With Pineapple pubs. Dumping him in a field without his Nikes or bubble down jacket. A few hard farewell slaps. Took his social welfare and medical cards just so he’d forget forever who he was supposed to be. Left him there at the hem of humanity for the dawn to deal with.

‘It’s nice to be nice, you know? Don’t be all rough bud like one of them bleeding leg breakers. Didn’t I tell ye we were going up as far as Meath Street. I’m natterbean in two Jo Maxis and they were like, the same as that. I’ve plenty of paper on me so I have. I’ll give ye extra if ye wait for us. I’ll give ye a tenner up front now, alright bud, even though yezer clock only says a fiver so far, how’s that for a bargain bucket?’

‘Do me a favour,’ he said, this time pulling the taxi over to the side of the road before they headed further into the cesspit. ‘Will ye try to shut your hoop on the way? I can’t concentrate if someone’s nattering constantly. Trying to keep me mincers on the traffic. Nothing personal. I’m sure you’re a nice fella, blah blah blah. But we’ll get on much better if we can get there as quickly and as peacefully as we can.’

He adjusted the mirror to take a closer look. Natterbean had the same mushroom pallor and knee-jerkiness as the others, but with a thin pointy face that was extra alert. Morning fox in an industrial estate looking for crane flies. His uneven shoulders and busted nose were typical. Teeth yellow as corn on the cob. Stinking of Lynx over dirt and cherry bubblegum. As he drove past Glasnevin Cemetery, he was reminded of the tour guide who supped the pints in his local boozer. He’d be beating on about how the bodies of the rich were interred in fancy private tombs but in recent times Natterbeans were breaking in in the dead of night pricking themselves and the ghosts with heroin needles. The ornamental pathways planted with Lebanon cedar, red sequoia, oak, beech and yew, were spattered with blood and empty Tayto bags. Soon they’d be in sight of the quays and he’d be rid of him, circling back to grab sure-fire fares from the airport.

‘Yeah yeah yeah yeah, what did I fucking tell ye? He’s a poxy messer. Fucking headwreck. Don’t be minding him. Total spacer.’ Whining into his blower. ‘I’m natterbean up there with Natalie this morning and she says it’s sorted. I’ve to go here first on a message, gizza buzz back in an hour.’

He was glaring at the mobile, pressing on the buttons like a reflexology tosspot would on a scabby foot. ‘Here, bud, will ye pull over there for a sec. There’s me old homey at the corner, I owe him a note.’

Homey was a fat man on one leg with a squeegee of green hair you could wash a pile of dishes with. He could hear the Honda 50 drawl of both their voice boxes building up at breakneck speed into an ambulance siren, ‘warrrhhh warrrrhhh warrrrh warrrr’, before he jumped back in the car again. Better not be messing him around. The meter was up to €14 already. He wasn’t about to bring him on a round-trip of inner city Dublin dealers in creepy car parks and lurid laneways strewn with needles, plastic cartons, banana skins, blood-soaked knickers. The one yesterday, a good-looking dolly, had the wool rightly pulled, taking him to five different chemists for ‘phy’ while robbing them of expensive wrinkle cream.

‘I’m only trying to make an honest living like you are,’ she’d said, jumping back into his car. ‘I’m natterbean in prison four times already and I’ll never go back, so relax the cacks.’

His reg was taken on CCTV and traced. He had to call into the Guards and explain himself. It’s not his job to ask questions as long as the punter pays up, but he got a fine from the carriage office regardless.

‘Can ye turn down here for a minute bud,’ he said when they hit the grey bulk of Christchurch. ‘There’s me mate Bottler, just want to say howayea. His missus had a sprog a few weeks back. They’d to sew up her piss bag an all, she’s in an awful state.’

Bottler staggered out of a doorway looking like a grade-A psycho who’d crack your toes off and use them as ear plugs for nights he was slumped under the motorway bridge unable to crawl to anywhere else. Natterbean gave him a man slap on the shoulder and limped his way back to the car.

‘That fella looks like a bit of a header if you don’t mind me saying.’ He wanted to draw his attention to the clock. ‘Just letting you know with the few stops already, it’s up to €22 now.’

‘No bother bud,’ he said. ‘Here’s another Lady Godiva. I’ll give ye the rest when we get there. He used to be a brilliant house breaker, but the Hungarians have it wrapped up so they do. Put fucking broken glass outside bedroom doors. If ye hear clatter in the middle of the night, right, ye smash yer feet right up if ye gander to see what’s going down. Filthy stuff that is. We never did nothing like that. Always straight in and out. It’s not on. Some poor oldie prick cutting his feet to ribbons. You don’t do shit like that but the Hungarians and Poles are bonkers. No bleeding respect.’

At the corner of Meath Street and Engine Alley a red hoodie made a run for the window. ‘There ye are ye mad cunt!’ he roared in. ‘I’m natterbean talking about you to Skittles and the lads!’ He held onto the boot as the lights turned green, falling over on his arse and rolling towards the drain. Natterbean was punching more digits on his mobile as the chemist came into view. He thought of Gina and her constant trips to McCabe’s for fake tan. Except she’d gotten the mangy Egyptian one, looked like runny dog shite slipping down her pins. It didn’t strike him as odd at the time either that she’d started getting her fanny waxed into a Brazilian landing strip, whatever the bejaysisfuck that was, saying that it stopped her getting itchy. ‘It’s €28 on the clock, I’ll need paying as soon as you come out.’

He’d accidentally seen her Tinder chat a few weeks before. Gina left her pink iPhone in the newly built utility room thrown on top of some dirty duvet covers ironically enough - he hadn’t even heard of dating apps for phones - a kind of Hailo for getting your hole. It might’ve only been a series of narks with this Paul but he doubted it. She was a right goer when she could be arsed putting it out. Up to three times a day when they met first. His knob the colour of a pit bull’s nose. ‘Bonobo’ he’d called her. Always wanting it rough from behind. Hurt like fuck to know she could’ve been that lonely or desperate after twenty-two years. He’d decided not to tell her he knew but the knowing had done his snot in. Didn’t sit pretty thinking what he could do to her if she continued messing him around. He could harm her so easily. Breaking her neck like a Brazil nut. Pushing her down the stairs when she was doing her aulone’s trick of hauling two baskets of washing. Sticking ethylene glycol in her skinny mint hot chocolate to fuck up her kidneys. Now this knucklehead of a Natterbean was bashing digits just like she does with Candy Crush when she wakes in the mornings full of beans whiffing of boiled mackerel. There was probably a junkie app as well. Swaying thumb tacks on Google Maps for those desperate for a hit.

‘You can pay me what you owe and get out of the car.’

‘Don’t be freaking the beak,’ he said. ‘Jaysis I’m natterbean in a queue the size of a black man’s mickey. Fucking mayhem in there! They’re making everyone down it in front of the nurses on account of wackos keeping it in their gobs. They do be spitting the phy out into plastic cups to sell outside. Here’s a thirty spot. I need one more Cheesy Quaver over in Ringsend.’

Is this what she’d been doing too, sending him off on ‘little jobs’ as she called them? All over the grid while she got herself nice and slinky and reeking of Beyoncé Heat upstairs. Cut-price curtains in Debenhams. A parasol in Woodies. Under-the-bed shoe boxes from a boutique in Louth when they have them in Clearwater for a tenner … while yer man was messing with her plumbing controls at home? Playing with her faucets, bursting her storm drain. Her in some lace corset or other he hadn’t seen or noticed from years ago. He wondered if any of the neighbours noticed him sidling up the driveway or if he had the smarts to park around the corner and stroll around casually. Grabbing Gina’s tits in the hall. Shoving his hand up her skirt and calling her a dirty slut. He imagined himself around the back on the decking looking through the kitchen window down into the hall. Grabbing a baseball bat from the shed. Tearing through the door, zapping the fucker with one huge belt so his head split like a melon. Her screaming, leg still cocked, about to take him deep up the fandora. He liked the idea of making her clean his blood afterwards. Making sure she took her knickers off first. He’d sniff the crotch while he watched her swipe with the J-cloth, not even near spongy enough to soak up the clots. Crying like a zany bag at a pope’s funeral. ‘Wait until you see what I’m going to do with you next.’

‘Are you dealing skank and using me as a muppet to drive you around?’ he barked at Natterbean, who was, once again, slapping the shit out of his mobile phone.

‘No way, no way, I’m no scummer, not like that, no way.’

He could see him now in the mirror pulling at a sausage shape in his crotch. He’d heard about heroin making them extra fertile and methadone making ye mad horny. Endless cycle of new drugs and new bellies full of babies. To think that him and Gina planned their kid right from when her ovaries were steaming. Up to the Camengo Lollipops & Animals wallpaper he’d ordered from France as a surprise after she’d done the big heave-ho. Didn’t even wet the baby’s head so he’d be there, bolder soldier by her side. Waited till the stitches healed to let her home in his taxi laced with cerise balloons chasing all three of them through the cobbles of Dublin. ‘I’ll suck the snot out of her hooter if I have to,’ he promised Gina. ‘When she gets on a bit I’ll collect her in the work limo from school so she’ll feel like a rap princess at her first gig down the O2.’

Natterbean pulled out a wad of notes, spilling a bundle over his feet. At least a couple of grand. A mate of his, Breezer, a real good spud, a dad, a brother, a footballer an’ all before he kicked into the smack, was gonna get it in the head tonight from a knackbag worse than the Nidge. Wasn’t even an IOU involved in this one, no. Refused to put lead in the head of another junkie who rode one of the dealer’s pole tarts. Like he was an innocent fucker this bloke. Only got into the skank when his Ma died of tit cancer leaving him to look after six youngfellas, cooked his head big time. That’s where they were heading now. He’d done a dip around to get him on the boat to Britland. ‘I’ll give ye a hundred to collect him at Ringsend and bring him safe to the boat in East Wall. We gorra deal bud?’

He wasn’t expecting anything like this from the likes of that. ‘What age is his nipper? Look, it’s no problem, no harm to help a bloke out in a proper jam. This town is gone rough as a nun’s moustache.’

‘Son is eight, lives out of his ankles, you never see them apart, follows him around the town like a bleeding shadow, he’s gutted so he is, poor cunt.’

Gina’s bloke probably had a little bollox the same age. When he took his regular beached whale politician who smelt of egg mayonnaise from the Dáil up to the Blackrock Clinic to get the jab in her swollen gam, he’d squat outside with the engine off thinking of where the brat might go to school. Shifting up to the bushes near the gates. ‘Here d’ye want these Pringles, I’m stuffed stupid, g’wan there’s more than half left.’ The greedy twit would stroll straight over, a thick fuck like his Da, trusting as the days goes by. He’d grab his small head, ramming the window closed on his snotter, hearing his high-pitched scream. Pulling the fucker’s ears, giving him a few hard smacks. ‘Tell your dirty aulfella that’s what he gets for porking my wife.’ Watching him in the mirror as he drove off, spinning on the path, an upside-down beetle.

Eyes wide open when they reached the docks. It wasn’t that long since Nulty had his licence swiped and car impounded by Special Branch for helping Cocaine Crispin drop off a load set for the UK jog into Europe. Matters piggery shite if the cops know you’re just a cog. More likely to go after the deputies than the mofos who can afford water wheels and brass dragons outside big dirty gaffs in Meath and Kildare. Nulty’s missus shut the door and kept on power walking when he could no longer pay the mortgage. Never got over it, though he got back on track as a security guard after. ‘That’s it for me,’ he told the lads in the Come On Inn. ‘No more fish in the fryer when ye marry your first and pray she’ll be the last. I wouldn’t know what to do with a new bitch’s wet bits. I’d fucking brown meself.’

The docks had a sheeny buzz since they’d done them all up on Fine Fáil chips. No more rust bunks sitting on giant metal plinths. Through civil wars and world wars and the IRA’s gun-running gobshites on the run from themselves, they’d all hid down here, heads low. First batches of heroin were holed up in derelict warehouses full of pigeons. Prozzies from Eastern Europe were brought in through the sea gates. Young lives spent sucking on office peckers dreaming of getting out in a footballer’s convertible before being shot in the head as a favour to a crack baron in Cabra for a write-off of a few quid or other. He could imagine the scrawny famine families dressed in linen sacks carrying malnourished mites onto ships here. Mooching back through history to see Gina and yer man up on deck staring down with grotto faces hoping for a fresh start in New York. Knowing they’d never be back again but being sure they’d starve to death on the way. He’d like to throw her back to the roaring famine and shove a pile of typhus down her gullet for good measure. Not in a million fucking years did he think she’d put out for anyone other than him. That had been the Majorca promise. Nothing but the egg smell of seaweed had stayed the same since those rotten times. There was even an apartment block now in the shape of a cruise liner for those twats that worked in Google and the likes. At night you could see the neon fish swimming up their walls as far out as Howth.

‘There’s the cunt there!’ Natterbean said, pointing to a bloke in a grey duffel coat. Slumped up against a wet wall with black anchor chains, arguing with a seagull. ‘Breezer, over here, c’mere, ye fucking queer!’ He froghopped before the car had properly stopped. They wobbled towards each other. Slap slap, mind yerself, where’s me gym bag, take care, no you take care, I’ll take care, but will you take care, let us know. Stay under wraps until he heard of them getting de chop. All of them ones ended up sucking fat worms before they were thirty.

The way Breezer hugged yer man as if he was a warm marshmallow. Never seen anything like it. Sad bastard would be on the ferry in an hour thinking of his nipper he’d never fudge eyes on again. ‘I need a hundred now before we go further,’ he told Natterbean when he slumped back in. ‘The clock’s been off over an hour.’ He drove slowly, snakily, ignoring the fact that he was crying. Junkies don’t cry, he thought. They wouldn’t know what it meant. He’d looked at the two bozos clouting about in the wind and felt in his guts they’d end up on the shite side of fate no matter how much they scrambled to look after themselves. Him and Gina hadn’t done too bad all been told. They were on top of the bills, even with the insurance hikes on the motor in the last year. They always managed a big sloppy carvery on a Sunday. Got out for at least a few riproars in the month. Always made sure they had a right laugh. Sure hadn’t he done a few slappers when they didn’t have the dosh, instead of taking them to the Guards for the proper fare. Banged them over the leopard-fur front seats without giving Gina a thought. He tried not to think of that too much. Men had different needs to birds but it didn’t have to mean anything sinister. Gave her at least two holidays a year, taking Cindy to Disneyland Paris for her sixth birthday, Gina begged him for months. She wanted for nothing and he said fuck all when she got the paint slopper in every Christmas to magic the walls cacky green.

No matter what she'd be moaning the toss when he got back. Ye forgot this, ye didn't pick up that. Didn't he get a right laugh out of her nagging him with her eyes going all big and hyper and mad? 'Where's me poxy lentils? Didn't I say no matter what bring me back the green lentils.' He'd be in no mood for a long ear-lashing with the night shift a few stinking hours away. 'Ah here, would ye ever give me a bitta space.' He'd give her the mucky glare alright. Always got a trouser twitch after driving for hours. She'd be wearing her vampire slag purple lippo. There wasn't a woman in Ireland who looked as scorchingly horny with it lathered all over her big gob, the dirty minx. 'Love, I'm natterbean out all day grafting, the least you can do is shut that sinkhole and put the kettle on.' Then he'd smile like a donut and tell her she'd a nice ripe arse.
Room Little Darker by June Caldwell (New Island; Head of Zeus) is March 2018's Irish Times Book Club choice. Readers are invited to come along to the free Irish Times Book Club podcast with Room Little Darker author June Caldwell and Irish Times Books Editor Martin Doyle at the dlr LexIcon Level 4 in Dún Laoghaire on Sunday, March 25th, at 7pm, part of the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival. Admisison is free but booking is essential.