The Shortest Day, The Longest Night
A HOT wind blew. All about there was the chatter of the macaws. From somewhere upriver came the tom-tom rhythms of the natives. Mr Lenihan, in his khakis, raised an iced gin to cool his cheek. He lounged heroically in the seedy bar — the ceiling fans churned, the lizards raced the walls — and he took a smoky glance from the one-legged chanteuse as she rose to sing. A Frenchie, in her 40s, a woman with a past and a Gitane rasp. Mr Lenihan swayed gently as she sang. No regrets…
By Kevin Barry
Someplace the likes of the Belgian Congo, he fancied, and he opened his eyes.
The hot wind was from the blow heaters mounted above the department store’s entrance. No tom-toms sounded from the river out there. It was an evil wind that lifted from the river; it took the skin off people, and his blow heaters drew the people in. Ah but not enough people. It was December, the last run to Christmas, and Mr Lenihan’s store was failing.
Would they have macaws in the Belgian Congo, he wondered?
He paced the threadbare carpets of the store. Gum on the carpets, he noted; it was peasants he was dealing with. A tape on a loop played all bloody day this weather — ding dong merrily on high, it sang, and Mr Lenihan worked his jaws on their hinges as he paced, hosanna in the highest. He was headed for the basement. There was trouble with the elves.
He passed first through Mascaras, and Mascaras weighed heavily on him. He had loved Ellie, in Mascaras, in the spring — those torrid weeks had brought life to April. But it ended badly; a filthy scene outside the Stella bingo one wet Tuesday. Now she threw daggers as he passed. Now she wore the wounded look.
“If the wind changes, that’ll stick, Eleanor!” he cried, and she hissed at him, like a snake in the tall grass.
The elves were robbing from children. He was determined to get on top of the situation. Down the marble stairway to the basement he went. It had a touch of class, the stairway, and Mr Lenihan danced its steps. He heard a quick-time jazz, and either side of him, a line of dancing girls fanned out, in clingy red velvet and fishnet stockings, high-stepping and twirling batons, and Mr Lenihan turned a smile for the camera, a smile to light a small city.
The basement wasn’t long knocking the jazz out of him. A dreary space, given over usually to garden supplies, it was where the plywood grotto was erected — Santa’s Den. A queue of children, in sibling pairs and threes, sweated in dufflecoats. They chewed the mouthstraps of the dufflecoats. It was Mr Lenihan’s opinion that children were kept too warm. Was it any wonder the fevers and the flus? The glazed mothers had Valium eyes.
Mr Lenihan examined again the woodland idyll depicted on the plywood. He had his doubts about the fawns. The young fellas from the art college he had working as elves had painted the grotto also, and the fawns had a rude demeanour. The fawns looked as if they were about to have a go off each other.
Peace on earth, can it be, wondered David Bowie, on the loop, and Bing provided tenor accompaniment, and Mr Lenihan noticed the mothers watching him, quietly, as he examined the fawns.
“Charming!” he cried, but too loudly.
The young one of the Hegartys from Carey’s Road was on tickets. Was it the mother had thrombosis? Big, this girl, a blusher, and dreamy. He’d had trouble with the dreamy ones, always.
“Latest on the elves, Joanne?” he whispered. “Any more complaints?”
The ticket girl shook with chubby hilarity.
“Eclairs gone off a small fella not ten minutes since,” she said. “Toffos, Chewits, Sam Spudz. You name it, Mr Lenihan, the elves is robbin’ it.”
“Right,” said the manager, squaring his shoulders. “They inside?”
“Gone for their smoke,” she said. “Delivery bay.”
He made for it.
“Mr Lenihan?” she called. “About the Santa …”
“Don’t, Joanne!” he cried.
In back of the basement, a concrete incline led to double steel doors: the delivery bay. On tip-toes, he went and eased the doors gently open. Took a peep outside. There were the elves, in the alleyway, in the wet grey air of the city. Half three in the day and nearly dark, the Kermit green of the elf costumes so vivid against the drabness. They leaned against a wall, in twirly-toed shoes, and smoked their roll-ups, and gazed to the scarlet wash of the evening sky. A strange herbal waft from the roll-ups.
“Hey,” said one elf.
“Hey there?” said the other.
Their smiles were slow and easy; their dreadlocks were pinned beneath elfin caps.
Mr Lenihan tapped his watch.
“Lads,” he said. “In all fairness, there’s a queue of children inside, four pound a head and they’re not paying it to get robbed of sweets.”
“Yeah, right, get you,” said one elf.
“Cool, we’re there,” said the other.
The elves chuckled, and drew on their roll-ups, and gazed again to the skies. Generations of elves had worn the same costumes. They were kept in a box in the storeroom marked ‘Elves’ in Mr Lenihan’s careful hand. He sighed, defeated again, and went back to the grotto. He put his finger to his lips as he ghosted past Joanne Hegarty. He went down the dark tunnel and crouched to hide behind the great folds of black crepe paper.
Santa was about seven stone in weight. Drawn-looking, with a chicken’s neck beneath a mangy fur beard; Santa looked as if he was in the last stages of TB. They say in the final days of a terminal illness, the patient can suffer a terrible, forlorn lust, and Santa looked as if he might have a dose of that as well. Santa had a young mother clamped to his skinny knee, her child was all but ignored.
“What’ll I bring ye at all, hah?” Santa breathed to the mother’s ear, her smile was petrified, and his skinny fingers roamed.
Mr Lenihan had a mute in from Rosbrien to do the photos. The mute worked cheap, you could say that for him, but all he was capable of was a terrible, high-pitched squeal, and this he sounded now to indicate smiles were required. As much as three streets away, dogs’ heads turned, and takings were down at Santa’s Den. Not a child didn’t come out of it roaring, and the mothers were left badly shook.
He made for the elevator. It creaked its slow decades as it climbed. It dispensed him to the third floor, where his office was hidden by hosiery. Greta, in hosiery, had given his life glow in 1978, and they were easy with each other again, the awkwardness had gone — as it tends to go, if you wait it out, Mr Lenihan had found. She smiled for him as he passed. He threw his eyes up as though to say: is this more of it, Greta, still more? He went to his office and locked the door after him. He sat at his desk, opened the drawer, and took out the bottle. He pored a drink and lit a fag. He read again the notification from headquarters. The store was to close after the January sales. History out the window, thought Mr Lenihan, have they no regard? He had yet to inform staff. Was he supposed to go around the place like a ghoul, on Christmas week, with the bad word? Mr Lenihan glanced over the latest in a line of missives from the ESB. The fact it was printed in red ink didn’t seem auspicious. He put it to one side. Mr Lenihan beseeched through fag smoke the portraits on his office wall: John F. Kennedy, president of the United States, and Bob Paisley, manager of Liverpool football club. JFK — a clear head all the way through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bob Paisley — not one European Cup, not two, but three. Leadership was certainly required. He poured another drink. He lit another fag. Appetite stirred.
“I’d nearly eat,” he said it aloud.
Bound for the staff canteen, he again passed through hosiery. Two young ones weighed fine hose in the palms of their hands. Nylons in silver, nylons in gold. They must have a debs coming up. January was the start of the debs: strapless gowns and goosepimply shoulders. But for now they were in their jeans and anoraks, weighing the feather-light hose; they looked clammy in the store’s heat. He couldn’t but notice one of the girls had a bite mark on the side of her neck. Gnawed on, he thought, by some half-wit of a young fella. They were eating each other alive out there. The sort who hung around on walls.
He passed through Mood Lighting.
“How’re we today, Beatrice?” he called to the Mistress of Moods.
“Not so hot,” she said.
“What’s wrong with you, Beatrice?”
Her fingers rose and clutched at her throat; a native gesture.
“Might have a cyst,” she said. “You’d get a cyst from a draught.”
“Go ’way?” said Mr Lenihan.
“Touch of a chest infection and all,” she forced a cough. “Heeeughh!”
“I’m sorry to hear it, Beatrice.”
“The veins not great either,” she said. “All the standing you’d get a clot.”
“You’d want to watch a clot, Beatrice.”
“A clot can travel,” she said. “You ever hear of travelling clots?”
“Would have an unpleasant ring to it.”
“A clot can be below in a calf and decide it’s going to light out,” she said.
“Where would it go, Beatrice?”
“Might hit up for the brain altogether,” she said. “Next thing you’re outside in the Regional, a priest waving incense.”
“We’re hardly at the travelling clots stage, Beatrice.”
“You wouldn’t know,” she said.
“You’re twenty-four years of age, Beatrice,” he said.
The elevator brought him to the staff canteen. The lunchtime rush was done and the canteen was empty but for Mairead, at the hot plates, with her ladle. All that was left was stew. The canteen’s side window looked down to the city’s winter-dim streets. Busyish, as it would be, and the people of a particular gait: butty little fellas with heads like bullets and raging big-armed women. Beyond, the surge of the black river, ever moving. The gulls were blown about by river wind. The gulls ate chips around here. The carlights on already to cut the gloom. Busyish, yes; they were piling into Roches Stores. They had to bate them away from Todd’s.
“Am I a leper?” cried Mr Lenihan, with his canteen tray in his hand. Mairead shushed him and ladled a bowl of stew. He took it with a whisper of thanks, reverential, and held it to his face to savour.
“Would you ever be taken, Mairead,” he said, “by the similarities between an Irish stew and a Moroccan tagine?”
“A what?” she said.
“A tagine,” he said. “Lamb meat, broth, spuds. That’s all it boils down to.”
He took a table by the window. He wiped crumbs from it. Pigs at a trough they were like in this place.
Enter Cantillon, of tiles and flooring.
“A few spices,” said Mr Lenihan, his eyes rising. “That’s all it’d take and I’d have a tagine in front of me.”
“Mr Lenihan? Men to see you at the delivery bay.”
“Are they men with a van, Eric?”
“Excellent,” he said, and made for the elevator.
A ray of hope flickers in the sky, sang Johnny Mathis, a tiny star lights up way up high.
And in the alley, by the delivery bay, there were three men and a white van. Night was falling beyond them.
“The very boys,” he said. “Just this way please.”
Mr Lenihan had not slept in six days. He’d been all hours at the store, with a wheelbarrow from garden supplies, ferrying products to the basement, and he’d stored them all beneath black crepe paper. Kenwood mixers. Sanyo music centres. Jouef train sets. Toasters, lamps, towels, rugs.
The men were hardchaws from the county — he’d made contact at a low bar on William Street. They carried the goods to their van. They breathed hard. They complained.
“Realise you’ve us stood out there waitin’? Like brass monkeys?” said one.
“Cold gone through us? Stood there like statues,” said another.
“Stood around a dirty auld lane like hoors,” said the third.
Percolators, Scrabble sets, golf clubs, as if a conveyor belt was going past, clock radios, casserole dishes, car seat covers, and Mr Lenihan was Bruce Forsyth on Sale Of The Century.
“Didn’t she do well!” he cried.
The hardchaws shook their heads. Finally their van was loaded, and one of them fished out a roll of greasy notes, handed it over.
“No gold? No frankincense? No myrrh?” asked Mr Lenihan.
They were gone, scowling as they drove into the dark streets, and Mr Lenihan was easeful now as he strolled his fiefdom, the bankroll turning in his hand. Tenerife, he was thinking.
He took a jaunt to Waxy Trax on the first floor. He liked to pass the time of day among youth. Danny chewed gum behind the counter. The pale young, drugged with adolescence, flicked dismally through the 12-inch sleeves. Long coats, pale faces, eyeliner.
“Boys or girls?” Mr Lenihan enquired.
“New Romantics,” said Danny.
God only knew what screech was being played behind the counter. Mr Lenihan reached in for the sleeve. A dusky chap with a tasher wore a pair of black ladies knickers beneath a trench coat. Prince his name was.
“A New Romantic, Dan?”
Danny shook his head, and sighed at the ignorance, and impatiently flicked his fringe.
Mr Lenihan passed through Soft Furnishings. He passed through Menswear. He passed through Modes For Night. He saw two big guards descend to the basement, the damp of the city glistening their overcoats. Cantillon, of tiles and flooring, appeared again:
“Complaints made,” he said. “It’s the santa …”
Mr Lenihan shook his head and walked away. He saw Terence Healy, his enormous store detective, wedged conspicuously behind a display of corsetry. Terence Healy beckoned.
“Are you watching, Mr L? Over! Watch? A Quinlan.”
“Look! The small one. At the bracelets!”
It was a tiny girl in wine leather boots with Farah Fawcett hair.
“She a Quinlan, Ter?”
“Youngest of ’em. Quick hands.”
“Not a Quinlan with slow,” said Mr Lenihan. “Has she anything slipped?”
“No but I’m on it, Mr L.”
“Not a move till she has something in the pocket, Terence. Else I’ll have the solicitor into me again.”
“The runt of the litter,” said Healy. “Them Quinlans have my heart broke.”
Mr Lenihan sighed.
“Runts live forever, Terence,” he said.
He ascended again to hosiery — oh the stations of his life — and Greta gestured with a sharp nod towards his office; a warning. There was a gentleman brooding there. Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now at once leapt to the Lenihan mind.
“Are you my assassin?” he lisped.
“Ted Halpin from the ESB,” said the man.
“A pleasure, Ted,” said Mr Lenihan. “Please, sit down, take a drink? Festive! Get the nip from the air?”
“Mr Lenihan, I wanted to give you the word in person.”
“Word, Mr Halpin?”
“It’s not something we feel good about it. But I’m afraid all reasonable efforts have been made and there’s no more time. Today is the day …”
Mr Lenihan sipped reasonably at a large whiskey.
“I quite understand, Mr Halpin,” he said. “You’ve no other course left open to you.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
Left alone, again, Mr Lenihan poured another drink. He lit a fag. He decided to stretch his legs. He slipped the naggin of whiskey to an inside pocket. He blew a kiss to Greta of hosiery. The elevator had not for years stopped at the fourth floor, so he took the back stairs. Mr Lenihan had the only key for the entrance to the fourth. Once it’d been the grandest of the floors, and you could sense the grandeur still in the dusty fittings. La belle epoque, in Limerick, in 1923. Presences, still; he was sure of it. Happier days, when people had dressed themselves properly. Mr Lenihan stood beaming to welcome in the quality. From the great houses of the county they came, for picnic rugs and sporting goods, to outfit their domestics, and Mr Lenihan’s kind had served them always. He strained to hear horse hooves on the cobbles far below. God be with the days of the Protestants, he thought. Now it was all anoraks, lovebites, and clammy skin.
Mr Lenihan ascended to the rooftop carpark. He huddled against the cold inside his thin jacket. The shortest day — it was dark at ten to four. The Christmas lights of the city came on and glowed against the cold air. Busy down there, with people nipping into the pubs early, the offices breaking up. Midwinter. The roasting of fowl. The drinking of spirits. Pagans, essentially, thought Mr Lenihan.
A drag on a cigarette hollowed his cheeks. The rooftop carpark was the last of the store that was profitable. The rest would now be turned to the same purpose — a multi-storey. What would become of his staff, his people? Leadership was required.
A hand on his right shoulder — he turned.
Bob Paisley smiled, and he passed to Mr Lenihan the golden chalice of the European Cup. With tears in his eyes, Mr Lenihan turned to the throb and happy murmur of sixty thousand souls, and he held the trophy aloft to the surging terraces of the Kop.
A hand on his left shoulder — he turned.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy smiled, not as president yet but as college boy, as quarterback, and he danced nimbly backwards, he sought the perfect pass, and he sent the ball in a high arc through the dark sky. Mr Lenihan ran hard for it, with hawk-quick turns of his head to track it, and he leapt into the air, and took the pass, and he held the ball one-handed in triumph.
“Would you watch you’re goin’, would yuh?”
“Sorry, lads!” called Mr Lenihan.
Angry driver, an angry wife beside, their angry kids in back. Mr Lenihan took a pull on his naggin. He lit a fag. The lines of headlights below were broken now by a weaving ambulance — it was headed for the bridge and the Regional Maternity; new life coming through.
“Peace on earth,” he whispered, the voice quaking. “Can it be?”
The river darkly surged, ever moving. The store’s rooftop display for the Christmas of 1983 didn’t amount to much. Two silver reindeer strained and kicked at the sky, and dragged a silver sled behind; a silver santa waved. The store’s name was spelled out in silver bulbs above. The hum of the store he felt beneath his feet, a pulse, a throbbing. But now the circuit was cut, and with it the pulse, and all of the silver quietly darkened.
nIn 2007 Kevin Barry won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for his short story collection There Are Little Kingdoms. In 2011 he released his debut novel City of Bohane, which was followed in 2012 by his latest short story collection Dark Lies the Island. This year he won The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award for his short story ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’.
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