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New Irish Writing - Scene From a Bar: Remember Giselle?
By Simon Henderson

THE tail curled over the cat's back, a black snake extending, cautiously curling as the thing looked at me, paws frozen mid-walk, marble eyes and needle-point teeth showing through a smile, then off behind my breath and gone. Was it good or bad luck I could never remember.

- Is my nose red? Christopher said.

I thought it had looked right at me, perhaps even recognised me if that were possible, though there were four of us and its owl-eyes were too small or far away to be sure.

- It feels purple.

A glance, a glimpse of some hidden emotion, a reflection of an intelligence incommensurate with my own.

Can you really feel colours? Can cats?

Inside the pub a fire threw its arms wildly in red and dark shadow, prickling my skin as its heat saturated goose-flesh. Voices warbled unevenly over a baritone hum. I felt, despite the old-time aura of the place, like ordering a martini.

- Four Guinness John, Martin said with his hand out with money in it for once, turning to us, Guinness for everybody?

- Yeah/Yes/No bother, I just nodded, my eyes off to the left where a girl behind the bar I hadn't seen before performed enchainement the normal routine. I wanted to cancel mine and re-order.

- Who's the new girl? I shouted across the mountainous soundscape so that she might hear me. Who's the girl? I asked again.

- Oh, he smiled, that's Crys-tal, his enunciation a double-bark. Crystal. Was it Dallas or Dynasty (secretly viewed grown-up programming), glitter and gold and shoulder pads, oh and Joan Collins sex appeal; a fugazi name - a simulacrum for the whore in that decade. She doesn't look like a Crystal, I almost said, oh I didn't mean, oh well.

We took a table with my back to the fire, although I preferred the firelight on my face instead of silhouetted and made faceless by it, and the heat, Sweet Jesus, though at least I had a panoramic view of the heads not in nooks or crannies. Smoke whistled silently from cigarette to cigarette, loping blue tendrils weaving a sinuous fabric between tables.

- So, Crystal?

- Well at least she won't meet too many with the same name.

- I knew a girl called Crystal, I mean I knew of her, Christopher said, dramatically blowing smoke all around me like a jazz-trumpet-player. I tore up my beer mat and picked at a second one.

- Cheers (four times), and we clinked glasses, each glass eventually greeting each glass and one or two glasses bowing butting heads a second time.

I followed the new girl at an angle as she moved along my periphery, able only to trace her, her bleeding watercolours shadows in my watering eyes. It was Sunday. Sunday always felt peculiar, it had that pleasant dream-feel that comes after a heavy night (our eyes were wide and rubbed-red; my ears seemed stuffed with cotton wool). Two long-looking men with Aran jumpers and considerable features played music on diminutive, French instruments (and I imagined their whispered "Bonsoir" seductions) with knowing European fingers. A mild rush of resentment, inexplicable and bordering on xenophobia made me momentarily queasy but I banished it quickly, their sounds tottered around pleasantly enough to knee claps (in time or all to their own tunes), and the handful of wannabe eccentrics egged them on, sometimes in French, sometimes in Gibberish. It was pleasantly distracting, the music and the dancing light invisibly symbiotic.

- You know her don't you Thomas?

- Who knows who? I asked, looking around.

- That girl, the one I like. I pointed her out to you at the phone box earlier.

- Oh her. I do, I said, but honestly, I wouldn't get too excited, nice enough girl but Jesus she'd bore you to tears. I said this not because I meant it although I did, but because in a strange way I didn't appreciate Marty's interest in her. I felt slighted by it, despite having no real interest in her myself.

- Aye well, you know some people take time to get to know. You know, if it doesn't jump out at you, well, it's like some of us like to dig beneath the surface is all.

- That's right, I said, agreeing though no longer listening, you're into your fine wines and all, you've some refined palate on you alright.

In the corner to my diagonal right at a dark table against the wall, a woman not less than 35 glanced at me and I stared lazily back at her. I have often noticed that in the company of men, women are more inclined towards flirtation, though of course in a much more subtle way than if single or in the company of the same sex.

I had always thought the reason for this was that a single woman might with just two or three glances seek to brave the apparent situation and intrude upon the slow, fermentative pace I believe such encounters require. Each glance, lids thrown back in mimic hair-toss, then those immeasurable moments when each pupil pours across to meet the other, a grope a priori.

- Would you ever listen to the shite some people talk, and sure we were roaring and laughing then, Marty nodding his head sideways at a table of surly lesbian-looking women.

- Rabbitting on about some aul pig or another going with some other aul donkey, not worth two shites boy.

- Look at the cut a them too, Christopher mused, then more roaring and laughing, my own titter tottering around in bad company but really, the cut of them indeed, although maybe not a bad bunch of girls at the same time. I thought about saying that, that they might be nice and we shouldn't laugh, but - - Probably all lesbians, I said.

- saying something else just as I thought it.

I felt eyes on me then. I knew, for certain I had thought, that this time she had been watching but had recoiled just as I noticed, continuing with plies and releves wiping table into bucket and replacing the ashtray all in one dainty fouette of a move.

Mid-move, half-bowed, her eyes found mine and set as the rest of her swirled around those points like mist around headlights. But I couldn't stop smiling (at the cut of the lesbians) and reflex broke the hold and the moment (was there a moment? ) was gone.

- We're near ready or I am anyway, Kenny showing me his glass just to prove.

- You always are, I said, amberKenny but never green eh?

- Less of that and more of this, he said waving his hand in a magician's half-circle that might have filled the glasses for me but didn't.

- Go on then, Christopher said with his glass half-full, I'll not refuse another one. Gerard gulped, nodding with hamster-cheeks and trying to speak before he had swallowed.

- Guinness? I asked. Marty?

- Yeah/Yiss/(gulp, smack, sigh)/awye Tommy, cheers, they all answered and Christopher cracked the glass still not empty onto the table.

As I got up to find Crystal a familiar face took shape amidst the shoulders, smoke and shadow, although it took a customary moment for it to register. She smiled with thin nolips but wide and all eyes and I made my way, my hands front-crawling through the bodies, towards her.

- Rachel.

- Thomas.

We kissed on cheeks and we were so close I could almost taste her familiar taste and her hand was warm, her touch penetrating against the convex of my side. The perfume was dry and earthy; she had changed it since, for my insides stayed where they were despite their rumbling threat, provoked it seems by the mere sight of her. She was attractive yet unusually and thus strikingly so;

not obviously feminine except for long hair and feline eyes, tom-boyish in fact under clothes drooped like old skin looking somehow like one of the band ("Bonsoir"), and a walk I remembered that was all shoulders.

Naked, without the rigmarole I remembered, I remembered her, perfectly gendered.

- Can I get you a drink? I asked her, the two of us with mannered smiles on.

- I've ordered, Thomas, thanks.

Her voice was ticklish and I remembered the first time we met thinking that she was Australian, instead of an Inishowen girl and asking - are you Australian? - and she thought I was teasing. I offered the drink again anyway making time for myself to think of something to say, because sex between two people, well it's like you can't see the person for sex, the camera-flash memory of it exposed between you while you try to erect sentences that don't sound castrated.

- I haven't seen you, and that sort of thing I said, bits and pieces separated by silences.

- Nor I you, except her bits and pieces drifted on the gentle sway of her inflections, warm, familiar like the scent she no longer wore, and against which my voice droned monotonous.

She took two slim glasses from Crystal and said - "Au Revoir" - our lips to cheeks, then "Bonsoir" to her wavy-haired lover in the corner, (no) lips to his lips. I turned and faced the bar, where the concurrence of cascading thought was arrested; a channel-changing of sorts.

- So you are Crystal? I asked and I think I blushed but I was flush from the fire anyway.

- Crys-t'alle, she corrected, say it like you're French. The sharp stretched vowel and side-open one, separated by the incendiary 't', complicated the aural architecture of her name. It was pleasant to say too I discovered, as it rolled and sparked off my tongue; Crys-t'alle I said, savouring this new elocution.

- What can I get you?

Up close, her portrait only improved aesthetically, fore-grounded in the deep russet and whisky colours of the bar. Her eyes were azure, narrow little boats drifting at downwards angles, her lips pale and full and parted in a half-smile, and a fringe heavy and fair carried only by the strength of the halfoctagon of her lower face. I mumbled something, scanning the spirits then her again.

- Is there something you want that you don't see? She asked, her nebulous eyes not quite looking, nervous, sensitive to my anthroposcopic attention.

- No not really, four Guinness will do I suppose, the thought of martini having left me altogether. I waited on an elbow at the bar. The music changed pace, quickening. She set the pints up and I took them nervously. Navigating a path through the crowd, imagining her eyes following me and listening to the music I felt like a jigger returning to my seat.

- Four Guinness boys, I said sitting down, dense spume skin-coloured as it spilled, piles of devastated card littering the table. Here, will you take them please, I begged, a chorus of hands intervening before it was too late, and I swept the mess to the floor to make room.

- Jesus she's really lovely, I said, licking foam from upper-lip stubble and looking for her again with a dull erratic thud in me like I had just sat up or down too quickly, and full expecting the predictable responses that barked around the table at me like - one of them's more up your street, Kenny says pointing with his eyes and a nod of the head to the table of lesbians.

I remembered then from nowhere her soft voice and gently tickling fingers and how funny she was when we lay on my bed and her old-scented, comforting smell. My stomach knotted then and I thought I might have to use the toilet, like it was a bad dose of nerves or vertigo I had, though I remained at my seat and waited for it to pass. I looked good in tights she had said, seriously, lying on her elbow with a photograph of me 'English National Ballet Class of '03'.

She could tell I did something athletic or so she had said. It wasn't something I offered up too quickly, though my friends often would do it for me and though the photograph had been lying face down, I had shown it to her without prompting. She was a writer, she had said and I knew it by the way she spoke. I was a dancer, and she knew it, she had said, by the way we made love. We lay for hours, listening while the other spoke, speaking while the other listened, reciprocating, comfortable. I remembered her explaining to me about someone called De Selby, and how he had all the answers that we would need, although her smirk said it was repartee and his theories were much too amusing. I said I could be Nureyev and she Fonteyn, for a few hours, anyway, and her thin lips curled in recognition, enjoying the analogy.

And "Au revoir, " was all I had said.

- Cheers (four times). Cheers but my back roasted and I could barely see shadows now, only the faces around me, carnivalesque, lips pulled back over teeth mouthing something-or-other, and I wondered what the hell they were saying and to whom.

Then Crystal plucked the empty glasses from in front of me, with one hand a little miniature pas de quatre (Gerard held onto his, not quite finished, the head on his fresh pint already crusting like a yellowed toenail), only a nervous murmur from us.

- So Crys-t'alle's French then? I asked, for something to say and she stopped and her eyes, oh God.

- No she's from Dingle, as far that way as you can go, she said smiling, pointing a thumb to the floor, chiaroscuro shaping her features further and her forehead curtained all the time by that thick fall of blonde.

- Sorry I meant your name, is your name French?

- I don't know, is it? It's just a name, a noun, though I suppose maybe an adjective too. My parents probably thought it sounded better in a French accent, you know the way of it, it still means the same thing if you're French or Irish or Chinese. It's just my name.

The other voices introduced themselves and me then; I was Tommy - Thomas I assisted, as if it made a difference and, Armagh, when she asked.

- I like the accent.

- Thanks, I said, burped out as a bubble of air escaped. She hadn't waited however, and I watched her as she moved across the bar with a pillar of glasses cradled in her arm. I flushed in my own private bends.

- Do you know they pronounce Houston Street in New York Howston Street, one of the mouths wondered?

I hardly listened although I answered in the negative, my mind consumed by the fire at my back and its heat all through me. It's weird, he went on, it shows you how complicated like language is because you need to see the word and hear it to understand what it means, which place the word refers to.

- What the word means? Someone asked. Did you ever hear of context Gerry? And whoever named that New York street pronounced it wrong and it stuck, that's all.

Sure wouldn't it be brilliant if Dublin was pronounced Dooblin just because it breaks the rules of pronunciation. What are you on about Gerry?

- What bloody rules, I put in, and who the hell made them up anyway?

And sure there's plenty of idiots in Dublin who pronounce it that way - isn't that the polite way to talk?

- I just think that it shows us something interesting about language, about the possibility of interpretation, about its flexibility, or maybe just its arbitrariness. The voice, it was Gerry's I think, continued to talk but the other two drowned his enthusiasm with Siamese gestures of indifference.

I have no interior monologue Rachel told me that night as we lay underneath the covers and violet light submerged the room in hallucinatory, underwater stillness. Just a jumble of conundrums all vying for clarification, which is why I sometimes say stupid things, she said.

But then how did she know, she only knew what she saw and what we show to other people is just one long performance over which we have sole artistic control. Rachel and Crystal and Aisling and Sarah and Geraldine and all of them, they are all just words for names for faces anyway;

first letters on a couched anagram in the smallest of all conundrums. I have no interior; well she was right in a way - none that she could access.

We are all only matter and moving images to each other.

I was restless and I thought about switching to lager and went to the bar before finishing my pint, deciding belatedly it was too warm for warm stout. Crystal flashed a smile though disinterestedly with only a glance of her eyes; I suppose I had been watching her without knowing it. I went to the end of the bar she was standing at but she came back past me and served someone else, who I decided must have been there before me.

- Same again Thomas? John came across past her and took my order.

- No John just a Heineken. I read with feigned interest an old festival poster on the wall.

I nodded at Rachel as her eyes seemed to find mine or mine hers through a long and crowded stretch smiling the way they did and I smiled back and we smiled at each other and held each other's eyes for what seemed like an age, until she nodded once, a distancing acknowledgement.

- Thomas.

- Rachel. We spoke in silence to each other from across the bar, still with a superficial formality. I felt dizzy.

At my legs then, like a large fish blackened under feet of water, a cat brushed past, its tail snakelike, the same one, perhaps, that I'd seen before and a feeling close to d�j� vu flushed through me, before it turned and flashed its tiny headlight eyes at me. Who was it that said the eyes are the windows of the soul, or was it that the face is the soul of the body? Rachel? Her De Selby, perhaps? I struggled to determine the right way of it although I figured that the problem was as much about syntax as it was about meaning. I settled on the second variation for I liked the sound of it better. I took my pint and sat down with a sigh, the thin frothy foam dribbling like spit down a chin and sweat like tears clouding my eyes.

- Cheers (one time). Smoke whistled from cigarette to cigarette.

The faces bled to one and I had to blink, to see it all again, differently.

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