In those days, the Viking Pub stood on Crampton Court, right next to the Olympia Theatre. Innocent on the outside, but inside, a land of milk and honey where you could walk with your head held high. Being in proximity to the theatre, it had a kitsch atmosphere, and when you went through the door, right away you were cocooned in wall-to-wall music. There was a tiny dance floor, I recall, with mirrors and strobe lighting, where the queens strutted their stuff for the butches at the bar. The first night I walked in was a themed night; Village People clones were lining up in their leathers. They hovered around the bar, swinging their skinny hips to the thumping beat of YMCA. Meanwhile, a blonde with a hard face was serving drinks behind the bar counter. She checked me out good and proper. Likewise, I checked out the red nails that went with the red basque and the red lipstick complementing the nails. Without the hard face, she reminded me a little of K, the same voluptuous shape and top-heavy bosom. I strolled over to a far corner of the room, away from the dance floor, where I could suss out the clientele. I began feeling shy and awkward, so when a fella asked if he could join me at the table I was relieved to have the company. He was a mummy’s boy, or so I thought, in his check shirt and corduroy pants. Turned out he lived around the corner from my parents’ house; another one of those weird coincidences considering what happens later on.
The first thing out of his mouth, are you gay or straight? I said I could swing both ways to which he replied, me too, I’m ACDC. I was launching into the story of K, and how she did me wrong when the barmaid showed up at our table. She sat down without introduction, talking a mile a minute. The fella – his name was Sean – went to buy a couple more drinks at the bar. Then the barmaid left to serve again.
When Sean came back with the beers, I related the conversation. “Your woman says there’s a gay disco happening around the corner, fancy going?”
“On’y I never been to a gay disco before.”
“Me either, first time for both of us. Where is this place anyway?”
“It’s off Temple Bar.”
“What’s it called?”
“What time’s it start?”
“Around nine the barmaid said.”
The barmaid came back over to our table.
“Are we going?” I asked.
“Relax yourself, love, it doesn’t start hoppin’ till about eleven, stay here and have another drink. I know the organisers, I’ll get yous in for free.”
We stayed and knocked back another pint. Motormouth worked on, firing questions at me like the Gestapo. True to her word, when the bar closed at eleven, she took us over to the centre. Drunk and giggling, we followed her up the main thoroughfare and into a small side street. The cobblestone path was deserted, no tourists or heteros, just us would-be queers. Near the red-brick entrance to the club, we could hear Grace Jones in her soaring Diva voice belting out La Vie en Rose.
Blondie told us to wait while she spoke with the organisers about letting us in for free. We stood around like a couple of spare wheels watching all the other lesbos and gays going inside.
I got bored watching the crowd cantering up the stairs. “Come on let’s go.”
“Best to wait ’till she gets back,” Sean said.
“No way. That bimbo left us standing out here like a couple of eejits.” I said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m going in.”
We tramped over to the entrance door, and we had one foot on the step when a raven-haired lesbo appeared, acting as if she owned the joint.
She stood in the doorway blocking our passage to the sanctum of hidden delights. “Whoah, Ms straight girl, where d’ye think you’re goin’?”
“I’m gay,” I said.
“Yeah, and I’m the Queen of England. Go home, this disco is for gays, not straights.”
“You can’t stop us going in,” I told her.
She gave me the hairy eyeball. “By the way, what were you doing chatting up my bird earlier on?
“You heard. Why were you flirting with my girlfriend?”
“Me flirting with her?”
The harridan narrowed her eyes. “So, are you calling my bird a liar?”
Sean pulled me aside. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
I shook him off. “Who does she think she is? The Prime fucking Minister?”
The lesbo kept stepping aside to let the other queers enter. Then she opened a pack of Rothmans. “Here, have a fag, you look like you need it.”
I accepted the cigarette and was starting to feel a sly satisfaction at being the object of the she-wolf’s attention when Blondie showed up again at the door. “Hey guys, you can come in now.”
“Like hell they can,” screamed the crazy bitch, still blocking our way. Without warning, she whipped a knife out of her back pocket and with a single whoosh of the blade she sliced at my left hand. Blood spurted from my hand, painting the stones red and smearing the cuffs of my Army surplus jacket. The sight of the blood gave me the urge to fight. I ran toward my attacker, but Sean dragged me backwards, pinning my arms to my side. We fell in a heap on the ground.
Scrambling upright, I yelled, “Let me go!”
“Don’t be stupid Alex!” Shouted Sean, hauling me up through Temple-bar toward Dame Street where a taxi lurked on the kerb with its side lights blinking. He opened the door and shoved me inside.
The driver looked at us in the rear-view mirror. “What’s wrong with her? I’m not having anyone throwing up in this cab!”
“She’s diabetic, and she needs insulin in a hurry,” Sean said. “Take us to Jervis Street Hospital.”
As we sped through the city streets, I saw my pale reflection in the car windowpane. The fingers were hanging out of their sockets and blood dribbled on the seat of the cab. All the way along, the driver was glancing in his mirror. When we got out at Jervis Street, he inspected the back seat. Sean and I raced toward the hospital entrance, with the driver yelling behind us. “You ruined my seat you dirty bastards!”
The venerable old Georgian hospital at Jervis Street was full of the sick, the wounded and the dying; drunks shouting obscenities, old leches ogling the nurses, babies who had swallowed buttons or coins, kids with cracked sculls, pregnant women with black eyes. I waited my turn in the echoing hall under the hot white lights. An old lady sat next to me smelling of pee and Steradent. She kept staring at my fingers. Sean sat on the other side, holding my good hand and offering words of encouragement.
“If I die,” I told him, “You can have my Motown cassettes and my Walkman.”
“I’d sooner have your makeup and clothes,” said Sean.
Sitting there, with plenty to see going on around me, I forgot about the pain in my hand, but the shock of being stabbed, whilst on the gay scene, still reverberated within. I felt as if I had earned my stripes. Sean went off to fetch coffee from the vending machine, sidestepping a pile of vomit on the floor by the loo, and when he was gone, my name was called out. I went into a small box like cubicle where I was told to undress and put a paper gown on. I did as I was told.
When the doctor showed up, dressed in her white coat, she examined my hand real carefully. “What have we got here, oh my dear, nasty, very nasty. What happened?”
Just then Sean came back with the coffees. “The desk clerk told me where you were.”
I was relieved to see him, because I didn’t feel like answering any questions, and his presence gave me courage to say what I needed to say.
“Nothing happened, I fell on some broken glass that’s all.”
I looked over at Sean. The nice lady doctor caught the glance between us and asked, “Is that all, really?”
“That’s it in a nutshell,” Said Sean.
The doctor wouldn’t accept that. “This looks like a knife wound, did someone cut you?”
“No one cut me,” I said. “I fell on a broken bottle.”
“This looks a bit more serious than that.”
Sean and I kept silent.
“Very nasty,” the doctor said again.
“What’s the verdict? Will my hand be okay?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Well, I’m afraid your tendons have been severed, we’ll need to sew them back on for you.”
I looked down at my shaky hand, the bloodied fingers hanging down towards the ground. “Does this mean I’m crippled for life?” I asked.
The doctor laughed. “No, of course not. You’ll have the full use of your hand, but your tendons will be a little bit shorter than before.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Only that you won’t be able to lift your pinky finger so high when you’re holding your teacup,” Sean said.
“That’s about it,” said the doctor. “There’ll be some ugly scars, but you’ll be as right as rain once it’s healed.”
We went back home on the bus and crept to the front door of my parents’ house, mooching about under the yellow light of the porch and talking about what had happened.
“What a night.”
“It was shite.”
“Hey listen, I’ll call on you tomorrow.”
“Okay, and thanks for everything.”
A car curved into the road, it’s headlights searing the solitude of the tiny cul de sac. In the darkness opposite, the leaves of the branches rustled, as if those stately poplars were observing us. Sean hugged me goodnight, and I could feel his heart beating nervously in his chest. Then he went off up the road, receding further and further into the distance. A door handle rattled in the wind, and I glanced over at the small bay window of my mother’s bungalow. How the hell was I going to explain the bandages?
The next morning when I awoke, Ma was boiling the kettle. I lay on the sofa listening to the sounds coming from the kitchen. I heard Ma making the tea and taking it into the bedroom.
She and Da mumbled together for awhile; then Ma went back into the kitchen. She pulled the grill out and then there was the scraping of the knife as she buttered the old man’s toast. Eventually, she came into the front room, went over to the fireside chair and sat down in her dressing gown. Without her dentures, Ma’s top lip was slightly sunken inwards.
I coughed, and Ma turned around. “Oh Alex, I didn’t hear you coming home last night, what time did you get in?”
“How late?” Ma asked.
“Not too late.”
Ma said, “Your father tells me you’re moving back home for good, is that right?”
I bottled out of showing her the bandage.
“I was thinking about it,” I said.
“What happened with the flat?
“K moved out.”
“Could you not get another one of your butties to move in?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be out of your hair soon.”
“Ah Alex, don’t be like that,” Ma said, backtracking. “It’s on’y I thought you were happier living away from home.”
Ma looked good and guilty. It seemed like the right moment to show her my wounds, so I prised my arm out from under the blanket.
“Jesus Christ! What happened your arm?”
I had my half-truth ready and went into my spiel, changing gays for straights. K and I were in the N bar on Nassau Street, minding our own business when this head case comes up and starts having a go. She says I’m looking at her fella, which I wasn’t Ma, honest. She went for me with a knife.
I used my good hand to re-enact the slashing movements. Ma stared at me in horror. “Alex, what sort of a place is this you do be going to?”
“It’s a nice place Ma, but this girl was from Ballymun, a real head banger.”
“I know the sort you mean.” Ma said, looking down at her hands. Her pearl pink nail varnish was chipping. “Did anyone call the Gardai?”
“What would be the point? She legged it right away after she did it.”
“What hospital did you go to?”
“Who took you?”
“A friend Ma, nice fella, lives around here funny enough.”
“Is this the fella of the girl?”
“No Ma, of course not.”
“What was he like?”
“The fella you were looking at.”
“Oh, him. Horrible greaseball.”
“What happened to him?”
“He ran off.”
“So everyone just ran away, and no one bothered calling the cops?”
Ma looked skeptical. She inspected my hand, peeling back the dressing to gaze at the torn and bloodied fingers. “Jesus Mary and Joseph!”
“Don’t worry, they’re gonna fix the fingers back on today.” I told her.
Ma turned and stoked the ashes in the grate. “You should have rung the police, Alex.”
At Jervis Street, the anaesthetist was a big country fella with a soft Irish accent.
“Have you ever been under the knife before?” He asked, which, under the circumstances I found a tad ironic. I told him it was my first go at having an operation.
“It’s very quick, you’ll feel a small prick, and then I’ll count you down and you’ll fall into a nice deep sleep.”
“Like dying,” I said.
“Yeah kind of, but you won’t die, you’ll wake up and you won’t remember a thing.”
The anaesthetist started counting, five, four, three, two …
So, that guy could rape me in my sleep, and I’d never even know, I thought, before descending into darkness.
Later that evening, I swam back out of my groggy state. Ma was standing next to the bed, stiff in her black skirt and white blouse. I was glad to see her there.
“I spoke to the doctor, you should be able to leave in a day or two,” Ma said.
“Good. The room service in here is lousy.”
I cast a glance around the ward. A boy with a bandaged head was gawping at us from across the aisle. He looked like he had had a lobotomy.
Ma sat down on a little round stool next to the bed. “Alex there’s something I want to ask you.”
I felt dismayed. Was she going to interrogate me again?
“I want you to keep this from your father. You know what he’s like, he’ll on’y blame me.”
“But why should he blame you Ma? It wasn’t your fault.”
“It doesn’t matter, Ma said, he’ll find a reason.”
“But Ma, I can’t very well hide the bandages.”
“Tell him you were knocked off your bike, say you fell on some broken glass, but whatever you do, don’t say you were attacked in a bar late at night.”
“Ma It could happen to a bishop.”
After I had said it, I realised how ridiculous that sounded. What bishop would be at the Hirschfield getting beat up by a lesbo who looked like The Bride of Dracula?
“Just trust me, Alex,” Ma said.
I didn’t get my mother. Why was she so intent on covering up the half-truth? Between the two of us, we were sliding deeper and deeper into a dark hole of deception.
“I have to get going now Alex. Your Da is waiting on his tea.”
I watched Ma disappear through the double doors of the ward. It’s all I ever seemed to do. Watch people go.
A week later, I was back at the Hirschfield for another go at getting in, this time with my arm in a sling. I walked straight up the stairway to a landing where an oul wan was sitting on a fold-up chair, smoking a cigarette. I handed her the three quid entrance fee, and she stamped my good hand with ink from a pad on her table. At long last, I entered the hall of forbidden fruits, feeling nervous but defiant. Inside the room, a lone disco ball cast rays of coloured light across the dance floor. It hung there, slowly spinning while two lesbos smooched underneath. An older woman was at the bar counter sipping a glass of red wine. She watched me saunter across the room in my plaster of Paris elbow; a sardonic look chiselled onto her haughty features. At the bar, a Sinead O’Conner lookalike served me a pint of lager while the older woman checked me over. In return, I spied on her through the bar mirror. She looked like an accountant in her well-cut suit; forty if she was a day. Smoke from a cigarette billowed under the neon lights, giving her a strange, spectral appearance.
She stared at my bandaged arm. She asked what had happened. Suddenly, I felt the urge to talk about the incident, so I related what had happened the Saturday before.
“You had a lucky escape. That girl is a terrible brasser.”
“As a matter of fact, she was out that night to do in some poor sod who owed her money.”
“You mean… ”
“Slice him up she was going to,” said the girl behind the bar.
A chill went up my spine. What sort of world was I getting myself into? “Well, if it’s any consolation, you won’t be seeing her around here again,” said the older woman. “I have banished her from the Hirschfield for life.”
“Are you one of the organisers?” I asked, impressed with her credentials.
“Yes, I’m on the committee.”
She leant in closer, and I caught a whiff of garlic on her breath. From the lines around her eyes, she was even older than she had first appeared under the neon lights of the bar. “So now, tell me this, did you report this unfortunate incident to the police?”
“Good girl. We can do without the scandal.”
She began kissing me, parting my lips with her tongue, slipping it inside my mouth and gluing our faces together. I didn’t know what to do with my tongue, should I tongue her back or just let her do all the action? So I kind of waited until she was done. A good ten seconds later, she beamed at me as if I had just received first prize. Finally, she introduced herself to me as ‘M’. I stayed with M, sipping the red wine and listening to her stories about the Hirschfield, back in the ‘good old days’ when the Dublin feminists ran the hall. She told me about her ex-girlfriend, R, and their cat, Sonya. At around midnight the music ended abruptly and someone switched on the overhead lights showing up the scars on the wooden dance floor. She offered me a lift home and I accepted. I considered the kiss to be a step in the right direction, but the timing was all wrong. It had come too soon in the evening.
She turned and waved her hand in the air, motioning to the barmaid.
The Sinead lookalike came rushing toward the counter. “Another glass of wine M?”
“No love, just get me my bag, I’m taking this young woman home.”
“Nice one,” the girl said, grinning. I saw the furtive look that passed between them, and it made me feel uneasy. It felt as if I was crossing a line, and there would be no turning back.
(To be continued)