Seamus was famous in the Drogheda Arms for his constitution. A typical Friday: “Arright, Jimmy! How’s yerself? A pint of plain t’ease the pain, wi’ a tiger’s head!” He slaps a tenner on the bar and knocks it back. “Another!” He knocks it even further back. “Keep ‘em comin, ma man! Ye know I warm up after ten!” After ten, the barman is stammering. “To b-be sure, that’s e-enough now, Seamus.” “Ah bugger off! I haven’t even warmed up yet!” Around the fifteenth, a crowd of rubbernecks descend. “My Lord, his blood must be 90% alcohol!” “He’ll kill himself, the gobshite!” “I could put away a hundred in my day!” At twenty he’s downed a week’s wages and put-aside for his special Sunday lunch. The rubbernecks buy him more. “Yer gonna kill him!” “Bloody lightweight!” “Blessed Lord Jesus, save his soul!” At thirty he stands, the bar a haze of squiggles and cheers and thunder in his ears. He stumbles. His moment of victory lost to the foaming sickness in his gut. Tomorrow he’ll awake in a fart-funk outside the butcher’s feeling like a corpse dragged through a burning hedge. He’ll wish very hard he was dead. “In a month ye won’t need t’wish, Seamus Healy!”
Shirley tested her worth as a nun by how well she abstained from the smallest pleasures. Last month she cut down on her biscuit intake from two Rich Teas to a quarter shortcake per trimester; showered once a fortnight; and drank only at a stage of partial dehydration. She believed living a truly ascetic life showed her undying love for God and kept her pure for her eventual passage into paradise. On weekends she worked in the shelter outside St. Helen’s Church, helping the sick and the lost escape from sin and madness. New arrivals included Pete the Prince who worked for the Corkpoppers mob pulling teeth from victims, who had decided to convert after a painful molar extraction without anaesthetic. Also Dennis the Angel, an Ulsterman who helped arrange bombings in Dublin Town Square and felt that blowing up people doing their shopping was sort of probably bad. And Laura the Lovely, a prostitute who drowned her baby in the River Boyne after a pimp cut her face up and took her money and told her to fookin drown herself and her brat bastar. It was Shirley’s duty to offer these people restitution from moral decay. To save them from the Devil. Greed and evil and sickness got to everyone. Not her. She had to stay pure for the Lord. If she didn’t, who would?
Seamus was blind. He couldn’t hear or see or feel his fooking legs. An hour later he found his fooking legs and walked into what felt like his usual weekend Hell, only much darker and louder and painful. The Drogheda morning crackled like the fires of his usual Hell, though in truth he had walked into the shelter behind St. Helen’s Church, where he vomited four separate lunches upon the habit of Sister Shirley MacLune.
— Oh, not you again! We have an incident here! Julie, get a towel, will you? Right, Seamus, calm yourself down.
— Sit down, sit down, Seamus! Try to keep it in until we get a bowl. Don’t worry, you can clean up after.
— Sit still, would you? You silly man! Sister Lucy! Could you help hold down Seamus, please?
An hour later, after Seamus had fought off a goblin and tightroped across the Styx, he opened his eyes and with surprising clarity saw the habit-hole face of Sister Shirley before him with a cup of tea and a look of contemptuous sympathy. The nun shook him back into the land of the living and placed the tea on a stool beside the dried vom. The room was coldly grey, or greyly cold, those being the only two suitable words to describe the Shelter in that miserable town.
— Oh Seamus. Lord bless you. You’re in and out of here like ships in a harbour. Do you think this is what God wants?
— Oh I can’t feel me head, Sister. I can’t feel me bones. It’s like someone pulled out me bones.
— You’ve only got yourself to blame, Seamus. You’re going to kill yourself, you know.
— I know, I know. But don’t you . . . Sister, don’t you ever get the urge to get pissed out yer head?
— Ha! Certainly not. What would the Man say about that?
— Not even once, Sister? For sure, you must get an urge now and then?
— I certainly do not. Now, will you clean your act up, Seamus Healy? Throw yourself at His mercy?
— Have one drink with me, and I will. I promise.
Shirley drew up a legal contract. If she downed one pint of the Lord’s best Guinness, Seamus would commit himself to a clinic where he would work at making himself fit for purgatory and—at a push—paradise. He scribbled on the contract his name, or near enough, and took Shirley to the Drogheda Arms. The locals watched in shock as Seamus led the nun to his usual booth, a few regulars calling over ‘Is this the new girl, Seamus?’ Shirley, making a show of her presence, smiled and said ‘Seamus here’s buying me a pint.’
— I’ll buy ye a pint, Sister! Oakley shouted. He never washed.
— Thanks, Oakley, got one. Say, were you at mass on Sunday?
— Er . . . something came up, Sister.
— Well, I’ll expect to see you there this week. Wouldn’t want God to catch you sneaking down the pub instead of worshipping, would we?
— I worship the great God Guinness, Sister!
Shirley took her coat off and studied her dark, foamy pint. She thought of the Orangemen who took in a few drinks before the froth of violence in Belfast last year. To be sure, one pint wasn’t the devil. She wasn’t making some Faustian pact drinking this stuff if she helped Seamus find his way to God. She sipped the liquid, felt it creaming on her tongue.
— That first tang is the man, isn’t it? Seamus asked.
— Certainly very strong.
— That’s yer man. Get it down ye.
Shirley took a second gulp to the amusement of the regulars, spurred on by the boys raising their pints. She found herself warming to the malty cool of the liquid as it oozed down her throat.
— Good, eh?
— Yes, um . . . quite satisfying.
— As good as God, eh? Good as God.
— I hardly think so, Seamus.
She wasn’t eligible for incapacity benefit because drinking four pints an hour and wavering in and out of consciousness like a plane through a cloud wasn’t a disability. When she woke up on Christmas Eve it was like a river ran through her from head to cunt and she wished she could break her leg or something to get the extra money because she needed it now, with the kiddies wanting stuff and she shouldn’t have drunk the money but she’s always thirsty. Always thirsty. She’s. She. She was in her house, a house, someone’s house, and she reached for a drink—reaching and grabbing and swiping the air—there’s always a drink in armsreach, but not. This time. Instead she touches leather and runs her hand along the hem of a basque. There’s a man inside the basque and it looks like your man Father Bryce, but it can’t be since she’s no longer part of that world and anyway, the man’s dead.
It doesn’t get brighter in the room so it must be the afternoon or two o’clock or something and she can’t seem to move because there’s another man in there too in leather, and he’s not dead. (Not as far as she can see). She can see (as far as she can) his blue bulging eyes and the burned skin with the crossbow slashes between each eye and she can tell she’s in Hell because Hell is anywhere with crossbow slashes, she can tell. She’s in Hell. Reaching and grabbing and swiping the air she tries to move but the room is there and isn’t there, passing through turbulence, falling into clouds. Maybe the man has her children or maybe the man will break her legs so she can get incapacity benefit. If he hurts her children and breaks her legs she won’t need the money because the kids’ll go into care and she’ll spend the benefit on drink. The man swings a chain over his head and she is too awake to cry.
— What do you?
— Who did you?
— Which man?
— Did you?
— In the river.
— Where are my?
— Safe, for.
— What if I?
— Oh God.
It is six o’clock now and she is trying to find £20,000 lying around somewhere in the house that is not hers. The walls are rimmed with dry rot and the ceiling gummed with nicotine so the chances of finding this denomination are slim. Unless. Unless what? You can’t give up hope when your children are locked up in warehouses too terrified to breathe and. There’s a bottle of wine on the table. Or sofa. Or ceiling. There’s an answer and a question on the table. Sofa. Ceiling. And beside the bottle is the number of a phone number she can call on the phone with a number.
— Hello, is that . . . Seamus?
— Yes, ‘tis the infamous Seamus. How can I—
— You have to help me.
— I was about to say that.
— These men they want money lots of money oh God.
— Sorry, who is this?
— This is Shirley.
— Oh God, Shirley? Sister Shirley? It’s yourself, is it?
— I’m not a Sister anymore. We swapped numbers in case you—in case I—in case of emergency.
— Well what seems to be the trouble, Sister?
— Do you know any tough lads?
— Beg your pardon?
— Really tough lads. I need to know if you know any tough lads coz I need tough lads to help save my children please help me.
— I haven’t mixed with those people in a while, Sister. You got me out of that, remember?
— Is there anyway you could call them up or anything it’s quite important please.
— I don’t know them anymore, Sister. Sorry.
— I’m not a Sister. I’m sorry too. You. You ruined me, Seamus Healy.
— I don’t quite follow you . . . hello?
So it wasn’t a rainy day and it wasn’t a hot day. But Shirley wouldn’t forget a single detail about the day no matter if she lived or died on her way to the warehouse with a bag of nothing. She thought about the pint of Guinness she drank that day in the Drogheda Arms and felt the thick soup of beer work itself into her blood like a slow-acting cancer. She often wondered how those people who came to the Shelter lived their lives and now she knew, but this was two years ago, two years after the first drop and two years after the time she tried taking off the habit to see how they lived, to get a better understanding of the people she helped, the people she loved, the people she hated, the people she became. So it wasn’t a rainy day and it wasn’t a hot day but as she walked to the warehouse with her bag of nothing she knew she would never disobey God ever again and when she went to Hell she’d be happy that she’d made her penance to God, and that God still loved her in spite of what she’d become, what she’d done to her children.