Stale, rickety, haphazard, mean-spirited — coiling through bum after student, temp after hack worker; careerists, defeatists, unemployed bozos — Nina McKeown bundled ahead, blasting the sorry-showered cunt-vermin employers of which she’d suffered a string lately.

Fuck the lot of them. They can bump away but me on the other hand I’m not available. Or allowed, rather. Not even a cheeky line to push through the shift.

As Nina thought of bartenders and their propensity for cocaine, her phone buzzed and her quadriceps did too. The trenchant zzrp carried news from her landlord; a little note to let her know that her rent was due, which she might have forgotten, but was late all the same.

She was aware she was behind on her rent. That she had been fired from her third waitressing job in three months. For being coked off her nut at work. Again. Yet these tidbits didn’t currently concern her.

No, what bothered her more was that Dublin no longer looked like Dublin. It resembled, she felt, a more eastern, exotic city. A Beijing, a New Delhi, a Dubai — though she had never been to these places. In her near-three decades of existence she’d barely left her home county, slotting away time from Baile Athá Cliath on two occasions, and only then to visit Salou.

Dublin, she was convinced, had lost itself. It had gotten ensnared in the coils of something for which she hadn’t the name — something she wanted to call greed or forgetfulness — as it became to her a land of alien people and alien buildings. In fact, now that she studied it more closely, it was not eastern at all: it was of another planet. The Liffey was not a river along whose bridge-linked banks lovers first held hands — it was a trough of black soup, garnished with fag-butts. Behind those thick Diageo gates Guinness was no longer brewed, but instead humans boiled.

Wheels of all sorts shot around her — 04-G Ford Mondeos, 171-D Audi A6s; MyTaxis, Dublin Buses, mini-vans, bicycles, scooters, motorbikes, bangers. Wheels under which she yearned to throw everyone. To light a schoolboy on fire and ram him up an exhaust, so the city would ignite and, in a whirl of flames, raze everything in Ireland. Munster redolent of burned hair, Ulster awash with rubble-rid streets. Leinster and Connaught a catalogue of pyromanic woes. All from a termination and a slim bank balance.

Need coke want coke some coke be grand.

She hadn’t always lived this precarious a life. Before her parents died six years ago in a freak accident — snorkelling in Salou — Nina was relatively comfortable. She had adequate savings, a waitressing gig, plans to emigrate to Australia. She was content in her relationship: she’d moved into a Glasnevin apartment with her boyfriend Chris, a surly bartender whose permanent scowl was among his more admirable qualities.

That’d been a while ago. In the intervening time she saw Bank of Ireland repossess her parents’ house — on which a substantial amount of the mortgage had yet, at the time of their death, to be paid off — and her love life immolate. Three years into their relationship, Chris began shamelessly sleeping around with other women and men. Additionally her career plans went to shit. Gone were any notions of Australia or a vocation as a primary-school teacher.

Soon for Nina there became only cocaine and work. But cocaine, by extension, meant alcohol. And lots of it. Her problem, typically, was not so much the comedown as the outrageous hangover that followed her binges. After a shift in Argyle, she’d hit another bump, usually straight out of the bag on a fifty cent coin, and head home to consume three bottles of wine, or, depending on the mood, a litre and a bit of spirits. She’d wake in the afternoon with a bastard-fuck of a headache, imbibe something strong, then dart to work for another twelve-hour grind.

She pounced up Ellis Quay. For perhaps the first time in her life, split-ends whipping her eyes, she considered whether she’d hit a dead end. She almost laughed. Should she run out of funds, there was no longer a parental coop to which to fly. Or a couch to crash on. Years ago Nina’s friends tried to steer her off the path she was on, but the further she pursued its hedonistic contours, the further they drifted away from her. Before long she was an island, moored to her wretched sense of kismet and fatality.

This, of course, was why she drank and took coke. She couldn’t bear to be alone with her thoughts and current life circumstances. The routine she employed offered a means by which to submerge herself, however momentarily, in a welcoming slosh of amnesia. She had hoped, at first, that it would be akin to a baptism. That she’d be cleansed of her qualms after a line or two. As it happened, this was not how it turned out.

At the traffic lights she paused and looked up Queen Street to Smithfield, past Frank Ryan’s to the corner of the Probation Services. Once more she remembered Argyle, and the perpetual smell of vomit that hid within its walls on Benurb Street. The stench, masked in Ultra Klene and Ultra San, carried a tincture of Barry’s Tea and the faintest trace of weed to boot. It was as if the dishwashers hooked up to the ventilation system and all about the pub clung the feel of a fetid swimming pool. The smell, Nina inferred, came from the bar’s warren of a basement — from its deathly heat, rotten vegetables, blocked pipes, flooded keg room.

Had she never begun bartending, her alcoholism would not have come to its magnificent peak. She remembered the first day at Burns’, when she was shown the liquor room. Were the bar low on spirits, someone would come down, grab a bottle and its particular neck-seal — black for well spirits like vodka, rum, gin; burgundy for premium labels like Jameson, Morgan’s, tequila; gold for the likes of Johnnie Walker Black and Hennessey — perforate their centres, slot them over the bottles, blast them with a heat gun. At two in the afternoon, smooth-skinned Kevin filled her in on this part of the job and, with a blank face, proceeded to take three large gulps of peach Ciroc. She was surprised, if a little frightened. Kevin looked no older than twenty, and yet the ease with which he consumed the vodka suggested he was twice that. Nina declined a drink that day but soon was following suit. What else, she’d later reason, could get you through this line of work?

At the corner of Lincoln Lane she made a left for Bow Street.

Fitzgerald & Company Solicitors.

Jim Eustace & Company Solicitors.

Michael J. Staines & Company Solicitors.

The Courts Service.

A doughnut stand.

The Jameson Distillery.

All of it a deathly glow of what she deemed wrong with the world. There was no microcosm of contemporary life that couldn’t be resolved by some scrote who’d passed the bar, some gimp singularly ambitioned to find a career in which a suit was part of the raison d’être of his coffee-clad and pastry-filled morning discussions. And meanwhile I, a single snot-trail away from poverty and degra-fucking-dation, can’t draw the dole for six weeks cause I’m unemployed only from to-fucking-day.

Nina almost stopped when she came to Friary Avenue. She’d been on auto-pilot since leaving Argyle and now wondered where exactly she was going. She wasn’t heading home; there was no coke there. It occurred to her that the one place where she could have been bolting was The Glabrous Fox, a quaint-yet-scaldy drinking dungeon on King Street North. In this cavern of bohemia it was not uncommon to find hipsters among real Dubs, junkies among hen groups, priests among businessmen. More to the point, it boasted one of Dublin 1’s cheapest bags of charlie, at sixty quid a gram. (Provided Conor was working.)

Nina opened her purse. She had enough. For a bag and a shoulder. Of Smirnoff, preferably, but definitely Huzzar. Tucking her hair behind her ear she resumed her march.

She looked around. Fellow nobodies, likeminded serfs, scuttling to and from their exchanges of time with various coin-providers and bank-account plumpers — caught between where they were and where they’d never arrive. In spite of her lifestyle, Nina found little comfort in being a zero. When her friends left her, she devised a new outlook: like everyone else she would strive — only she wouldn’t climb the social ladder, but maintain a position on one of its lowest rungs.

As she saw it, one was involved or engaged in society only if one earned an income. The homeless, the unemployed, students living off loans and parental funds, the inheritors, the wealthy who no longer worked, retirees — none of them counted. The scale for her was determined whether one worked, and what she wanted, or believed for a while she wanted, was to survive at the bottom. To represent the zealous nobody yet burned-out everybody.

The allure of this dream had since lost its sheen. She no longer knew why she had considered it an aspiration in the first place, or where her romantic notions of near-minimum-wage living had come from. She thought it was honourable to live day-to-day on meagre pay while subsisting solely on a diet of Lidl pizzas and stimulants.

Briefly, however, she glimpsed it for what it was: neither fun nor sustainable, productive nor fulfilling. She was fed up by the degree to which she’d deceived herself. Ultimately zero-hood, if not for anyone, was certainly not for her.

And yet, despite the acquisition of such knowledge, onwards she drove. The Fox was now in sight. But on the corner opposite the bar was a street preacher she recognised from near the Spire: a willowy senior who stood usually on an amplifier at the corner of O’Connell and Talbot, pronouncing dour injunctions about humankind’s folly and consequent fate. She wondered what he was doing here, at such a pedestrian time, and on a weekday no less.

Nina laughed at his sign, which read: “Let the day perish wherein I was born — Job.” While she didn’t quite understand the spiel your man was spouting, she equated the sign’s message not with a singular person called Job, but with a job or the idea of work more generally. The image was someone cursing the day he was born. The reason, conversely, was work.

That’s me, she thought.


All zeroes unite.

Living and dying for work we have and have not.

Off being on call, off shifts that will or won’t happen.

For the sake of a gram, the want of a rush.

For tips, maintenance, and not getting smarter.

To let die any plans we once tentatively had.

To look out at the world and see no wonder.

To ask forevermore:

“Anything to start with?”

“Another beverage, gentlemen?”

“A look at the dessert menu?”

“Is that everything, folks?”

The whole thing a tidy game with concise instructions. Make frequent eye contact; converse sensibly with customers; pretend that the exchange of time, money, and commodities isn’t bound up with anything other than work; trust in the economy, that somnolent deity who holds our hands and leads us not astray; and remember always that we’re all aboard this worldly whirl of a ride from which we don’t want to get down — the crux being, naturally, that we don’t want to get down, though we may feel ourselves let down.

“Yet trouble came!” the preacher screamed, his voice now yards behind Nina. “And trouble will come! And as with Job, the things we greatly fear will one day come upon us!”

“Oh, fuck this,” she muttered, shouldering into The Fox for a gram she wasn’t even sure was there.

Declan Toohey

Declan Toohey is from County Kildare. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southward, The Dublin Review of Books, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and Stone of Madness Press, among other outlets. He is currently based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

All contributions from Declan Toohey

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