Mulligan pushed on his eyes with the heel of his palms and sifted, amidst the sparks and detonations, the shards from the night before. Lights. Voices. Grins. The electric rush of a DART. Svetlana Petrovna tossing pinched breadcrumbs at his glass from across the table. The burn of a spliff. The wet towel that struggled underneath his jacket.
Hard to make it cohere. Any of it.
Another dry ebb of pain threatened his head. Eyes swaddled, he breathed in, breathed out. A hand tapped blindly for the coffee. Its clumsiness all but upset the contents over the keyboard. Just in time he righted the mug, saved the spill, raised it. But the mere thought of having to swallow brought on a dry-retch.
He eased his lids into a squint. Office lights, forensically bright; one on the blink, wincing off and on. Even with eyes clamped he couldn’t escape its insistent tinnitus. He sat up, swallowed dryness, then tried to focus again on the letter he’d found on his desk.
…we understand that high spirits often…
Ah lads! He massaged the balls of his eyes, peered again about the unheated office. He was, for once, the first of them to have made it in.
Try again. …that high spirits often lead… He blinked hard against the trembling sterile light. Dear Mr Mulligan, … But the type blurred as though he were looking through a cloud of fireflies. Only the masthead in bold print remained solid.
The Lobster Pot Seafood Emporium, Ely Place, Dublin 2
Cartoon of a lobster in chef’s hat. The sudden memory of wine it brought up was almost a belch. The wet towel crawling across his belly. Dun Laoghaire harbour’s enormous claw about blackness reflecting boat lights, red and green.
He rubbed his eyes, prised each of them wide open between finger and thumb.
While we understand that high spirits often lead to high jinks…
Mulligan panted, swallowed.
…you’ll understand that such behaviour as yours…
From the moment he’d woken to the clamour of a hangover a bare half-hour ago, Mulligan had been vice-gripped by guilt. A conviction, unshakeable if unspecified, that he’d embarked on something disastrous the night before. There was nothing unusual in that. Indeterminate shame increasingly lurked like a hermit crab in the dregs of every binge. Feck sake, he’d be thirty come April. He was getting far too old for this aul’ craic.
He’d rinsed an armpit mouth clammy with saliva; he’d splashed a bag-eyed reflection; he’d dressed hurriedly, almost carelessly. But it wasn’t a day to risk carelessness.
He’d arrived in just before ten to an office as empty as the one they’d erupted from the previous evening. Xmas cards and decorations hung under the blinking fluorescence, unreal now as the rain-torn posters after a circus has decamped.
The door to the boss’s office was mercifully shut. He’d slowed as he passed, held in his breath, but he’d heard nothing. See you all in the morning, people, at not-so-early o’clock. Dinner for fourteen at The Lobster Pot Seafood Emporium, no less. A free bar, till ten. Whatever else you might say about the boss with his interminable whims and figaries, you had to give him that. He wasn’t the man to stint.
Of course it’s too bad I can’t be with you all, have to wait on a damned Skype conference from the folks over in Boston, business eh what?, what’s it all for if a man daren’t leave his own damned office for one single night, eh what? wish to God I could be raising hell among you all, but you have a fine night, people, you’ve earned it, and I’ll see you in the morning at not-so-early o’clock, oh, meant to say, their Nuit St Georges ’98 is particularly salubrious, I can heartily recommend…
In his jovial absence, there’d been high jinks about the table, so impeccably set out. Hard to imagine still less remember it now. Three hours (it must have been three hours) gone in the breadth of three minutes. A lot of clinking of glasses and impromptu speeches, a plethora of nudges and elbow-prods and off-colour jokes. Laughter, raw and raucous, under the brittle indulgent smiles of the staff, how much of a tip had been laid on to keep them on board? The wine had flowed freely, needless to say. Not Nuit St Georges ’98.
At one point, though, he must have tasted the tail end of a spliff. He must have! He recalled the jacketless street, the cold air, the orange traffic, the taste of burn on the tip of his tongue. One of McWilliams’s roachless bastards, no doubt; McWilliams, his smoking confederate. Had the lovely Svetlana stepped outside with them? She’d been known to roll a joint herself, one memorable evening.
He did recall throwing a bread-roll at the same Ms Petrovna that had skidded out under another table, tut-tut-tut. She’d started that lark, a pinched crumb that had plopped into his wineglass. At first he hadn’t been sure it was she. A minute later a second, bigger, wetter, had caught him on the cheek. When he looked, she was waving a lobster claw as though the creature itself had thrown it.
…while we understand that high spirits often lead to high jinks…
One other incident he did, definitively, remember; one other image. That was the challenge. McWilliams’ upside-down grin, hovering over the fish-tank like a malevolent moon. He’d been going down to or coming back up from the toilets, negotiating the treacherously steep stairs to the basement. Svetlana Petrovna must have been behind it, too. Why else would he have risen to the bait? Momentarily he imagined a seafloor, the lightless depths, the terror of the monster that had moved too far inside the trap. Was there a moment before it became too late to reverse out of that contraption?
The next memory was so vivid that his skin relived it. When all but the three of them had gone out amid whoops and confusions and deferential smiles, the sudden plunge of his hand and shirtsleeve into the tank. It had happened before he had the time to think himself out of it. Once out in the new element, the dribbling beast was hefty and spanner-handed, cumbersome as an articulated gauntlet.
After that the memories lost all coherence, shivered by the hangover’s hammering into vivid single fragments. The charge from the restaurant, coats bundled over arms. Then the quick towel (or was it a napkin?) and the slowly squirming wetness pressed against his shirt. The fumble at the ticket machine at Pearse St, coins spilled across the concrete. ‘Grand Canal Dock, yeah?’ And McWilliams’ guffaw, ‘It has to be salt water, you gobshite!’
The mad DART ride itself was gone, all but their giggling stares at the perplexed smile of the pensioner who sat opposite. But he clearly did see again the great pincer of Dun Laoghaire; the boat lights scribbling under the tinkering of stars. He remembered the marble water with the graveyard smell, the planking of a woozy marina.
He remembered, too, crouching low with McWilliams and Svetlana Petrovna, coaxing the lobster’s dazed inertia towards the saving precipice. It was she who, mocking their manhoods, had pulled the rubber bands from its claws.
Dear Mr Mulligan,
While we understand that. at this festive time of year, we all enjoy a good laugh, and while high spirits often lead to high jinks, you’ll understand that such behaviour as yours as you left our emporium last night cannot be simply ignored or passed over in silence.
D4 Media is a valued customer, and we have no wish to take the matter further, always provided that you’ll cover the cost of the theft, for unfortunately, high jinks or no, that is how the authorities would naturally view such an incident.
A simple reimbursement, then, along with a simple apology, and we’d be quite prepared to let the matter go at that.
We look forward to your timely response,
Sorcha Fitzwilliam, Ms
He stood up, too fast. Best do it now. On the spur. Certainly before the others arrived in, any of them. Or before the boss’s door opened, Christ, anything but that!
He pulled out his wallet with clumsy hand. It fell. Stooping, he collided head-on with his hangover, had to pause and steady himself and wait for it to recede. Eyes still coping with the wall of pain, he groped for the fallen wallet, located it, and slowly recovered the upright. His mutinous fingers moved gingerly through the contents. Three tens. He hesitated, checked the clock, made a calculation. Thirty euro would surely cover the…
The theft! he whispered viciously, fists clenching and unclenching. For God’s sake…
Would thirty cover it, though? Forty, at a pinch… There was always the credit card.
Outside. Air fresh, breezy. But every footfall pounded his temples as hard as the pavement. God why do you do this Mulligan? Thirty years of age this April. Thirty.
Briefly he smiled, thinking of the lobster. The derisory plop, after McWilliams had finally coaxed it over the edge with his toe, into the night water that filled the harbour, down to the lenient silt. Would it stay there, crouched and terrified? How would it know, in all that darkness, which way the mouth lay, and the open sea? And if it did at last get out, what would it do the next time it encountered one of those coarse contraptions baited with whatever it was they put into them? Twenty to one it’d be caught again before the year was out and served up on a plate!
The Lobster Pot was setting up for lunch. It was still too early for customers. Best do it now, get it done with. In front of the aquarium’s lethargic effervesce, a spaniel-haired waitress was scurrying back and forth until his hand at last detained her.
‘Sorry, is there a …Ms Fitzwilliam about?’
‘The eh… the Maitre D that was on last night, at a guess?’
‘Oh! She doesn’t comes in till evening.’
Spanish? Had she been there last night, charging their glasses, enduring their raucous patronising? Circe’s swine, arranged about a trough decked out in silver service. Mulligan’s eyelids shut and, to steady his sea-legs, he leaned back against the aquarium. ‘Can you possibly get me the floor manager please?’
When he opened them again, a young lassie was standing before him. Pursed lips but cheeky eyes. Grey. Those grey eyes had surely witnessed their ‘high jinks’ of the previous night.
He opened his mouth but couldn’t formulate a sentence. It was as if all words had left him. So he thrust the letter into her unsuspecting hands. All the basic details were there. He pulled out his wallet, fixed his gaze there, and with palsied fingers extracted the three tens.
But when he held them out, the grey eyes were alight with mockery. He looked at the letter, to where her nail-polish tapped the childish logo: a lobster in a chef’s hat, and in one hand, in one claw, a tiny, smoking spliff.
‘I think, Mr Mulligan,’ she spoke, not without consideration, ‘that some of your workmates have been pulling your leg.’
Featured illustration by Delaney Davis.