Sister of Mercy
“Last Orders, PLEASE!”
Donald Reilly reached into his wallet, extracted the remaining note, a fiver, and caught the barman’s eye. Seconds later he reached over for his glass. He’d ordered a double; no change from that so he’d better make it last more than a couple of swallows. When it was gone he’d be on his own, nothing between him and the wave of self-loathing that would engulf him once he stepped out into the cold night air. With that certainty in mind he swallowed hard, turned and made his way back through the tables into the shadows from where he had emerged. Taking his first sip he surveyed the crowd, many of whom were taking hurried gulps from a fresh round of drinks, conscious that the barman would soon shout “Time, please.”
This was what might be euphemistically called a “no frills” establishment, he mused. The punters came here for one reason only, for the drink, and in large quantities. This was business, the grim business of insobriety, of taking the edge right off reality. At this stage in their lives, they could hardly aspire to drunkenness since most had lost that option with years of acquired immunity. Socialising, Reilly contemplated, never entered their heads; they hadn’t indulged in social drinking for years. They’d drunk themselves into the shadowlands of their own lives, stumbling from place to place, drifting from one seemingly random event to the next, with no attempt to map a course, change direction or communicate in any meaningful way with themselves or each other. Even now there was only minimal acknowledgment that they were indeed on the same planet as other human beings with a language of gestures and grunts, liberally peppered with obscenities. Whether anyone understood or was even listening was seemingly immaterial. It was dismal.
Reilly took another sip, suddenly becoming mindful of his mood. How dare he moralise. At least these wretched specimens were here on a mission of self-destruction whereas he, as if he needed to be reminded of it, had destroyed an entire family. Nothing and nobody could erase that. All those messages of condolence, the sympathetic pats on the back and words of support were meaningless, worse they were hypocritical. They blamed him. Of course they blamed him. How could he not know? That was the question that nobody had the balls to ask him. The signs were there, only he hadn’t seen them at the time. He’d been too busy looking elsewhere, looking after the business, looking after his bloody geraniums, looking out for a bit of skirt. Looking out for Number One.
Just then Reilly stopped scanning the crowd. A tall straight-backed young woman caught his attention. He’d seen her before, in the hostel a few weeks ago. It was easy to remember her, she had presence. Her looks were unmistakably Mediterranean, definitely not
. Talk about anomalies. Reilly slid back into the gloom of the recess without taking his eyes off the woman, intrigued as to what had brought one so fresh-faced down to these depths. Paying closer attention he noticed that her dark eyes had a shadow under them that seemed to slow her gaze, which seemed to be focused nowhere in particular. The minutes passed and Reilly observed that from to time she checked her watch, but in a very casual and unhurried way that led him to suspect she was just marking time, as opposed to waiting. The woman didn’t seem self-conscious or concerned that she looked out of place or that she had attracted the attention of a few of the younger men, now boorishly elbowing each other and nodding in her direction. Manchester
Reilly took another sip and began to wonder how long it would be before one of them made a pass at her. The scenario unfolding in front of him was familiar; it would either end in a scene because one of them had groped her, a fight, or worse. It seemed as if the plot had already been decided, the characters typecast and the lines written. Of course, nothing had happened yet, but it would if she did not get up and walk out of the door soon. This was clearly not going to happen; she appeared to be out of sync with her surroundings, oblivious to the omens. Unless he made a move for the door he would become an unwilling witness to the sordid drama he had been entertaining himself with.
And it was at that precise moment, just as he was about to empty the dregs of his whiskey, that Reilly became aware he had the power to choose. He could exit and miss the unpleasantness; he could watch idly or step in and prevent the course of events from reaching the foregone conclusion he had been musing on. The clarity of the choice startled him, revealing that this was more than indulging in people watching, idly weighing up options and outcomes that would decide the fate of others. He could intervene, take an active role in determining the events of the next few minutes, make sure they passed off into the anonymous murkiness of an infinite number of nights spent in this hole. For a moment he wondered if he was suffering from delusions of grandeur, as if he personally were responsible for everything that happened, everything bad, that is. Once again he felt repulsion at himself and, sensing that this could lead into another bout of self-loathing Reilly stood up, picked up his whiskey, and made his way toward the woman.
“You’re from the hostel, aren’t you?”
She shifted her gaze unhurriedly toward him and smiled,
He gestured toward the empty chair to her left and she nodded her approval. ”So, you know me then?”
Reilly replied that he had seen her on one of her evening shifts. Mercy, that was her name, explained she had been hoping to catch up with one of the older residents who’d been missing for a few days. Probably on a bender.
“On a mission of Mercy, are you?”
Reilly couldn’t resist the retort and she didn’t seem offended. In fact, she laughed and admitted that this was way beyond her duties as receptionist but she wanted to help find the man. The last time she saw him he had been in a bad way, six years on he was still grieving over his son’s death. One of his mates at the hostel mentioned that before he drank himself stupid by the grave, he would start the night here. In any case, she admitted she was curious to see what went on in the last port of call on the road to ruin.
“There’s plenty more like this, and they’re all the same,” Reilly remarked, “Let me assure you of that.”
He sipped the remains of his whiskey, noting that the stares and nudges had ceased.
“So maybe you’ll tell me your real name then.”