Posted on June 05, 2015
Victor kept Madeleine in a small brown purse that had belonged to his grandmother. It had pictures of different sized hard-boiled eggs all over it. His grandmother said she had bartered with a man in Mozambique for it. What had she given the man? Victor had asked. ‘Lipstick’ she had replied. He hadn’t thought to ask her how she came to be in Mozambique.
Victor had a short, slight frame and walked quietly. He also had a fleshy, womanly arse which was unfortunate because at least twice a year some lascivious old man would take a good hard pinch of it. Mainly when he was on the number 123 bus when it used to be imp-sized and they were more tightly packed in. They had the double-deckers on that route now so he felt safer. There was that time too when he was collecting his mother’s prescription in O’Rafferty’s. It was OAP special day and some codger used all the power left in his thumb and forefinger on Victor’s arse. Victor had turned around, but the pincher was a pro and each old man behind him had that I’m-in-the-chemist impassive look on his face.
He tried to make sure he didn’t mix up his mother’s money purse with Madeleine’s purse. Madeleine was shy in crowds and preferred the shelter of Victor’s bedroom where she could hear about his adventures when they were alone. He had mixed them up once and poor Madeleine had nearly crumpled in shock. He’d been caught off-guard by a man who used to be a regular in the pub where he worked. A lovely man he was, very fond of peanuts. Victor knew him as Two-pints-and-a-chaser-at-closing, but thought maybe his real name was Billy or Mick or Peter. He came across him on the Halfpenny Bridge, which is what threw him; Victor didn’t like meeting people outside of their usual surroundings. Two-pints-and-a-chaser was sitting there in the middle of the bridge, begging. And it had been raining. Victor had been so addled by the situation that he had fumbled in Madeleine’s purse for change, almost crushing her. She had screamed, but couldn’t be heard over the wind. Two-pints wouldn’t have minded a chat, but all Victor could think about was getting Madeleine home and putting his mother’s hairdryer on her. Some rain had gotten in and if she had one fear, it was of water.
Madeleine loved to hear Victor’s stories from work; she thought he was great the way he could chat so easily with all the customers. She told him that she had nearly burst her creases with pride when he won the ‘Best Lounge Boy in Rialto’ award. Though Victor privately thought that he should be called a ‘lounge man’, given his age and experience. He himself was proud of the fact that he could remember a ten-drink order without having to come back and check with the customer like some of the young ones did. His boss Gerry always said to them, ‘Why can’t you be more like Victor?’. He didn’t know if Gerry knew about Madeleine; in the early years when he used to bring her into work, he’d been caught talking to her in the toilets a few times. Mostly after someone had been especially rude to him, like that time a fella had tripped him up and his tray of empties was sent flying and nearly had Mrs. McNamara’s eye out. Gerry saw it all and had barred the tripper-upper. It took weeks for Victor’s bruises to heal. Madeleine was always helpful in those situations. She had a level head on her tiny body.
When Gerry caught pneumonia, Victor didn’t know what was happening. Madeleine said he should go visit Gerry in the hospital. So Victor made his way to St. James’s and found his boss not looking his usual jaunty self. He was small in the bed. But he told Victor that he was on the mend and not to be worrying. He said that his daughter Breda would be returning from London to run the pub. She’d never liked it over there anyway Gerry said. Victor had met Breda a few times, but on Madeleine’s advice, had steered clear of talking to her.
But once Breda took over the running of the place, Victor had to talk to her. Every day. She never seemed to break a glass or get cross and she pulled a lovely pint. All the regulars said so. And she had a giant smile, it really was just like a giant’s, Victor thought, like if that friendly green giant from the peas ad on the TV was a woman, that’s what she’d be like.
He’d tell Madeleine that Breda had taught him how to change a keg and another day, when it had been quiet, she’d even let him pull a few pints. Just the cider and lagers, but next time it would be the Guinness. That day he’d come home with a head on him like a Young Scientist winner. But Madeleine had turned whiter than usual when he told her and didn’t even comment.
He stopped telling Madeleine his stories from work and just told her about his bus journeys instead. She pretended not to notice. She still laughed, but it seemed more high-pitched than it used to. He didn’t have as much time as usual to think on these changes because Breda had cleaned up the old function room out the back and they were now having weddings, birthday parties and all sorts there. Victor had never worked so hard or so late in his life. At the end of the night he’d be sweating and it would usually end up being himself and Breda the last to leave. There was one night they couldn’t get a taxi and had to walk the same way home. In the rain! They should put their heads up to the sky, to taste the raindrops, Breda said. Victor craned his neck back, and for the first time realised just how sweet the rain could be.
From then on Victor started collecting ice-cream sticks from the ground or from bins. He liked the ones from loop-the-loops and orange splits the best. On his next day off, he brought Madeleine’s purse into town. He showed her the new buildings along the quays. She was chattier than she had been for a long time. They walked down Eden Quay until Victor could see the ‘North Cider or South Cider?’ ad he liked so much.
He climbed down the granite steps leading into the Liffey just in front of Butt Bridge. He took Madeleine from her home and put her in his right hand. With his left, he carefully produced a tiny wooden ice-cream-stick boat from his coat pocket. He placed her inside the boat.
She looked bewildered and started to scream. He lowered the little boat onto the ebbing current and waited for the first small shudder of water to wash over it. He watched as Madeleine disintegrated into a pulpy mulch, then he put the purse back in his pocket, climbed up the steps, and got his bus home.