Author Sinead Crowley is Arts and Media Correspondent for RTÉ; her debut thriller, the bestselling Can Anybody Help Me? (2013) and Are You Watching Me (2015) were shortlisted for ‘Crime Book of the Year’ at the Irish Book Awards.
I knew I was heading in the right direction when I saw the goat. Tethered to a pole and chewing happily on the patch of scrub grass at his feet, he looked so content it was as if the rope around his neck had been placed there at his own request, to save him having to make bothersome decisions about where to wander. As I stared at him, he extended his neck and took a lazy nibble from the handwritten ‘HELP WANTED’ sign that had been sellotaped to his hitching post. Then he gave me a look that seemed to ask what exactly I was waiting for.
I had visited the Greek islands before, of course. There had been a sodden week in Kos with the lads following our Leaving Cert exams, from which we returned as white as when we left, and, more recently, a fortnight in Rhodes with Darina to celebrate our engagement. The fact she had spent more time worrying about cake-toppers than appreciating the beauty of the Old Town should have been a warning of things to come but still, neither experience had put me off the country itself, and when I found myself suddenly both unemployed and disengaged, I booked a flight to Athens and took a ferry to the prettiest-sounding island I could find.
For the first while I stuck to the tourist areas. My heart was still pretty sore about the whole Darina thing and I needed a decent swimming pool and an air-conditioned bar to help kiss it better. But after a week or so, when I discovered I could prod at my bruises without wincing, I decided to spread my wings and, ignoring the dire warnings of the hotel reps, hired a moped and took to the road.
It was on the third day that I saw the goat and his sign. Curious, I killed the engine and walked over to take a closer look. The midday sun was beating down on me but after a lifetime spent in various degrees of Irish rain I was still finding the Greek climate exotic rather than uncomfortable. If anything, the heat seemed to have a cleansing effect on me and, as I scoured the landscape to see what help was required and where, I could feel the whole damn lot of it, the nastiness at work, the split with Darina, all the shite being sweated out of me, trickling down my back and seeping into the dust below. For the first time in a long time I had nothing to worry about other than what factor sun protection I should be using, and the liberation was intoxicating. The goat snickered and tossed his head upwards and, as I followed his gaze, I noticed that the pole he was tethered to was topped with a wooden sign bearing the legend ‘Bill’s Bar’. I didn’t need to be asked three times.
I pushed the bike down the dusty track, past rows of the ubiquitous and appealingly ugly olive trees. Beyond the horizon the sea sparkled the colour of Paul Newman’s eyes, but as I walked closer to the squat grey building at the end of the lane it became obvious why there were no mini-markets lining the path and no brightly coloured signs promising a ‘Full English’ to go with that night’s big game. Bill had chosen a location with spectacular views but, unlike the bars and restaurants along the main strip, his establishment had no direct access to a beach and faced instead onto a cliff, with a sharp drop onto the rocks below. This was not an area to which the tourist hordes would be drawn and for a man like myself who wanted to control-alt-delete the events of the previous year, it seemed as close to perfection as I was going to get.
The wooden door to the bar had been wedged open with a wad of yellowed newspaper and I stepped inside, blinking for a moment while my eyes adjusted to the dim interior. All was calm. There was no television regurgitating hourly headlines, no tape recorder feeding out a loop of sanitised bouzouki tunes. Just a stone-flagged floor, wooden tables and a window, its shutters flung open to allow in the salty sea air.
In one corner an elderly, bearded man, cup of ink-black coffee by his elbow, scratched answers in a newspaper crossword. A second chap, in his mid-fifties maybe, stood wiping glasses behind a broad wooden counter. Although his uniform of rolled-up shirt sleeves and black trousers was standard attire for waiters on the island, his caramel-coloured complexion, freckles and reddish, receding hair told me that his first name probably wasn’t Dionysus and I wasn’t very surprised when he greeted me in an accent that owed more to Athlone than Athens.
‘What can I get you?’
I offered him a friendly, if slightly sweaty smile.
‘I’ve come about the job.’
The man grunted, and continued to polish.
‘The boss isn’t here today. Have you worked behind a bar before?’
I paused for a moment, considering the many ways I could answer the question. I could start with my days spent collecting glasses in the pub down the road, move on to my degree in Hospitality Services that had seen me manage a suburban super-pub by the time I hit thirty-five. It would probably be best, however, to leave out the fact that I’d walked out of that pub a month before without giving notice, frazzled beyond repair by the rocketing staff turnover and the constant questions about cappuccino machines and pre-prepared focaccia that had little to do with the beer I wanted to serve. But all that seemed like too much information so instead I just smiled and extended my hand.
‘Yeah. I’ve a few years put in, all right. Name is Paul, by the way.’
After taking a closer look he returned the handshake.
‘Raymond. Nice to meet you. Come around here so and we’ll give you a try.’
After two days I stopped asking Raymond when the boss was due back and on the third got him to admit that there was no such person as Bill and that he himself was the owner, manager, keg changer and toilet cleaner of all he surveyed. The deception didn’t bother me. Raymond said he’d rather try someone out for a few days than give them the job on the strength of an impressive interview and I, having been duped by many shiny and utterly false CVs in the past, couldn’t argue with him. Besides, by then I had fallen in love with the bar and wasn’t going to say anything that would risk changing his mind. The place was perfect. It wasn’t too quiet, almost every day we were visited by couples or young families anxious to explore a little of the island beyond the central tourist zone. We also hosted quite a few locals, mostly older men who had spent their lifetimes running the bars and restaurants on the main strip and were now content to let their sons prepare vast trays of moussaka instead. But we were never frantically busy and there was time in every day to have a coffee, flick through a newspaper, or simply stand at the door, looking out and wondering why anyone would live anywhere else on earth but here.
The guy in the corner was a permanent fixture and after a few days I knew his routine as well as I knew my own. He came in every day at eleven for a Greek coffee and one of the delicious flaky pastries that were delivered daily, then headed off without a word. He came back in at lunchtime for a beer and a look through the paper, but his main visit was in the evening. Every night at seven o’clock he’d walk in wearing a crisply ironed shirt and take up a position at the centre table, close enough to the window to get the benefit of the air but with his body angled towards the centre of the bar so he could take full part in whatever was going on. He chatted to everyone, tourist and local alike and he could spend an hour or more having the crack with toothless oul lads who didn’t speak a word of English. I loved watching them take it in turns to jab at pictures of local football teams in the paper, miming wins and losses with gusto and throwing their heads back in delight at it all.
He was Irish too, the customer, although he never spoke about home. But his presence in the bar intrigued me and I made my mind up that, as soon as I felt my feet were firmly under the table, I’d ask Raymond how the hell yet another Paddy had washed up on such a faraway shore.
My chance came on the Thursday morning of my third week. The bar had been unusually quiet the night before, meaning we had very little prep to do the following morning, and by half-past ten we were open and ready for customers who looked like they were in no rush to drop by. A typical Irishman, Raymond didn’t go in for organised conversations, so instead I gave the bar counter a final unnecessary wipe, jerked my head in the direction of the now empty corner table and asked, ‘So who’s your man, anyway?’
Raymond didn’t reply. Instead, he pulled a couple of glasses of the local beer, carried them to a table and set each one down on a fresh beer mat. Realising this was the closest I’d come to an invitation, I grabbed the seat opposite him and took a sip.
‘I ran a place back home for nearly twenty years,’ he began, then named a pub in inner-city Dublin whose name I immediately recognised. I’d only been there once, years ago on a pub crawl with a mate who was dating a student in the college across the road, and as soon as we’d stuck our heads in the door we’d realised it wouldn’t be wise to stick around. This was not a pub for passers-by. Even now, despite the salt air streaming through the window of Bill’s, I could still remember the smell of it; a mixture of stale beer and cigarette smoke that remained trapped in the curtains years after the smoking ban had been enforced. That was assuming, of course, that they had implemented the ban in the first place, because this was an establishment where most of the clientele were, in the phrase beloved of journalists, ‘known to Gardaí’. Shaven-headed hard chaws sat at the counter sporting tattoos that definitely weren’t the Chinese word for ‘water’ and, on small seats around the edges, grey-haired men sat pouring over betting slips and treacly pints. In fact, the more I thought about it, the easier it was to imagine our customer fitting right in.
Raymond saw my look of comprehension, and nodded.
‘Yeah, Eamonn was one of our regulars. Him and his mate Dessie. They came in every night at seven, you could set your watch by them. Dessie used to say it was how the missus kicked him out then so she could watch the soaps in peace and Eamonn – well, Eamonn was a single man, the pub was his whole life. They’d sit there every night, 7 p.m. ’til closing, and I used to think there wasn’t a happier pair in the whole world. Like a married couple only better, you know? The picture of contentment. Anyway—’
He took a large slug from his glass and I thought it must have gone down the wrong way because he coughed several times before continuing.
‘Where was I? Yeah, Eamonn wasn’t married but Dessie’s wife was from – how will I put it? – one of the better-known families in the area.’
He tossed out a surname that immediately brought to mind television pictures of Garda checkpoints and stern-faced reporters talking animatedly into cameras about ‘an escalation in Gangland activity’.
Raymond was warming to his story now, and continued.
‘I never really knew Dessie’s missus, she didn’t come to the pub very often. But one morning when I opened up there was a couple of Guards at the front door and a clatter of journalists a few steps behind them. Turned out there had been a shooting on the estate the night before, a lad was in hospital and a whole pile of money had gone missing too. You can imagine the type of thing, one gang was dealing and the other lot reckoned they’d gone in on their patch. Nasty stuff. Anyway, it was said around the place that Dessie’s wife’s family was behind the shooting, and that they had taken the money too.
‘The pub wasn’t right for the rest of the day, people were jumpy, you know? On edge. Dessie arrived in as usual at seven but he was on his own and then, about an hour later, Eamonn fell in the door, drunk as a lord. In all my years serving him I’d never seen him jarred but he was steaming that night, in a bad way. He started yelling at Dessie, saying he knew he had the money, that it was ‘blood money’. He said he should hand himself over to the Guards and be done with it. Called him a scumbag, and all sorts, said he was as bad as the rest of them. I’d forgotten, or maybe I’d never been told, but Eamonn lost two nephews to drugs, years before this happened, and one of them was only fifteen years old.
‘Anyway, I let it go for a bit but then Eamonn started to get dangerous, he even picked up a bottle and tried to smash it on the counter, so I had to call the Guards. They took him down to the barracks to sleep it off. The next morning there was even more cops crawling around the place. Dessie’s car had been found on Howth Head, and a witness made an anonymous call to say he’d seen him jump into the sea.
‘Dessie’s missus turned up in the pub that night, crying and roaring and saying he was the love of her life and she’d be lost without him. I don’t know about lost but she was in deep shit alright. Turned out Eamonn had been right all along, she had given Dessie the money to hide but he’d gone off with it himself, and ended up in the sea for his troubles.’
I drained my glass and looked out the window to where white foam was dancing on top of the greenest of waves. Raymond finished his own drink and shrugged.
‘I lost interest in the pub after that, couldn’t get out of there quick enough to be honest with you. I sold up, found this place and started again. And then one day Eamonn turned up at the door. Dublin’s a small place, someone must have told him I’d opened a bar out here. So here we are! Two oul fellas seeing out our days in the sun. There’s no more to it than that, really.’
He pushed his chair back from the table, ready to start work again and for a moment, I was tempted to do the same. It was a beautiful day, I had nothing more stressful ahead of me then a box of paper napkins to fold and an ice machine to clean. But I didn’t like being taken for an eejit, even by someone as pleasant as Raymond, so I looked at him, and shook my head.
‘And what about the rest?’
Raymond returned my gaze, calmly.
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
I grinned at him, trying to let on we were all in it together, but I wasn’t falling for his story and I couldn’t pretend otherwise.
‘Come on, man. Eamonn took the money off Dessie, he must have done. It’s a great scéal, Raymond, and you tell it well, but don’t tell me you just happened to find a pub with an address that might as well be ‘Number One Paradise Lane’ and your old segotia Eamonn just happened to turn up a few months later and ordered a half pint and a whiskey chaser? Come on, pal. I can’t buy that, and I don’t think you’d expect me to either. Eamonn found out that Dessie had the money and he fecked him off Howth Head, he must have done. Maybe he thought he was doing it for the best, I don’t know. But there’s more to this than you’re telling me.’
Raymond settled back into his seat again, and shrugged.
‘You won’t find his name on any title deeds. This bar is mine, one hundred percent. And it could be yours if you like.’
I frowned, and then looked at him again and took in what my eyes hadn’t initially let me process in the gloom of the bar. The yellowing of the skin that owed more to illness than a lack of sun-cream. The sagging of the flesh around the face, the slight tremor in his hand. I’d seen my own Da go the same way and there wasn’t any disguising it once it got to that stage.
‘I’m sorry, man. I didn’t realise.’
Raymond shrugged again.
‘That’s how it goes. I’ve had six great years here, but it’s time to go home now. The sister says I can stay with her until – well. For a while anyway. But the bar needs a manager and you’re the first chap I’ve met who I think could be up to the job.’
I turned my head towards the window and inhaled, feeling the salt tickle the back of my nostrils as laughter from a boatload of tourists wafted up to me. Number One Paradise Lane. And then I shook my head.
‘I can’t do it, man. There’s a man dead – Jesus. I couldn’t have it on my conscience.’
Raymond gave a broad smile.
‘You’ve forgotten one thing. Eamonn was banged up the night Dessie disappeared. The Guards talked to him, of course they did, but there was no question of him being next nor near Howth that night, he was sleeping it off in a cell with his jacket under his head.
‘He had him killed then, whatever. Either way, this isn’t for me.’
Raymond frowned, suddenly serious.
‘You know, Eamonn was right about one thing. That cash that went missing, it was blood money. Earned off the backs of the walking dead, stumbling around Dublin mugging tourists and shooting poison up their arms. You won’t find Eamonn’s name on any deeds but I’ll tell you what you will find in this little village. A new school down the road. A party every year for the locals when the season is over and they’ve earned a night on the town. A new house for the doctor who suddenly found a reason not to move back to the mainland again. There’s been a lot of good done around here, these past few years.’
I could see how sincere he was. And for a moment, I was tempted so hard I could feel my hand tremble, aching to shake his, to seal the deal. This was some life he was offering me. Mornings on the beach, afternoons in the bar, nights spent exploring the island, maybe learning a little Greek, getting to know a few people. No heating bills and no hassle. But Jesus, no. No. A man was dead. That wasn’t—
My thoughts were interrupted by the creak of the bar door. It was Eamonn, fifteen minutes late for his breakfast, and he wasn’t alone. Raymond jumped up from the table.
‘Ah, how’s the man? Good to see you up and about anyway.’
The newcomer gave an exaggerated groan.
‘The hip is as sore as bejaysus, to be honest with you, but I was doing my nut up there in the house on my own.’
‘Sit down there so and I’ll get you some breakfast.’
While Eamonn clucked around his friend I followed Raymond back to the bar, mouthing silently.
He grinned, then beckoned at me to follow him through to the small kitchen, where a door stood open facing the sea. He lit a cigarette and pointed the jet of smoke towards the cliff edge.
‘A witness said he saw him jump, but they never found a body.’
He took another drag before continuing.
‘She gave him a hell of a life, you know, Dessie’s missus. They married young and he wasn’t happy when he found out who her family was, where all their money came from. But sometimes it’s hard to get away, unless you make a total break.’
I shook my head, and then another thought occurred to me.
‘Are they – are they together?’
‘Eamonn and Dessie?’
Raymond didn’t laugh at the question but shook his head gently.
‘Nah, not like that. But there are many ways to love a person, you know? Many ways to be happy.’
I took a step forwards, looked out into the body of the bar where the two old men were now arguing happily about 14 Across. A bird shrieked, freestyling across the clouds, and I thought about decisions and choices, and how maybe everyone deserves a chance at happiness, no matter how they arrive at it.
I give the goat a bowl of water now, in the mornings before I open up. He never looks at me, but I think he appreciates it.