I had been at University six months when I got the call to tell me my old school friend Eamon Donovan had died. Drug overdose. He wasn’t the partying kind; it was a different kind of drug overdose. An entirely intentional one. Eamon was from the north of the city, like me; The Bone. That particular stretch of hopeless home-front had given rise to a nasty habit of suicide. In the years I had been out of my working class no-man’s-land I’d stopped counting the amount of associates who had taken the off-ramp. It had become so frequent that it had been dubbed the North Belfast Green Card.
I met the other five members of our magnificent seven and tried not to acknowledge that we were one light. Out of the six of us, three had gotten out of The Bone; the other three had doubled-down already and started spunking out little heirs in an attempt to make it all mean something.
Buying a round with my first student loan instalment I carried them past the slot machine, into the back room of the Henry Joy’s; the local inn nicknamed “The Suicide”. The last time I’d drained a glass in this bar was at my uncle’s wake. My kid brother was too young to drink but did so anyway, met himself a girl; the wrong kind of girl… the wrong kind of girl from Ligonel (as if there’s another kind) and damn near punched his own North Belfast Green Card.
‘I swore to Christ I’d never come in this fucking bar again.’ I spat at myself. I’d learned in film class that was known as sotto voce then felt embarrassed for having that kind of knowledge in a place like this.
‘You reckon you’re too good for this place, huh?’ poked Barry ‘Now that you’re off at University. Reading your books and wanking on about Chancer.’
I look him over from toes to teeth. What the fuck was he talking about?
‘What the fuck are you talking about?’
‘Chancer… you know… that fuckin’ bloke with the nuns on the road and that… we did him in English. Chancer! Chancer!’
‘Chancer… you’re the fucking Chancer.’
‘Remember the time you tried to bang Mickey’s ma?!’
That brought the laughs in. Suddenly the two years since we’d last seen one another and the four years since we really last spent any significant time with one-another had folded in on itself. One of the neighbourhood guys used to reckon a good laugh insulated you from winning the Green Card. He was still topside, and I was inclined to believe that there was something to it.
‘Turns out you weren’t too fond of that. Were you Mickey?’
‘Having this melt as my new daddy?’ Mickey said, punctuating his rhetorical with a poke in Barry’s side. ‘No, I was pretty far from fond. Anyway, I’ve seen this little bitch in the locker room and to be honest I’d want more for the old lady.’
Oh the laughs were raining down.
‘Had anyone seen Caesar recently?’
I had forgotten Eamon had been nicknamed Caesar.
‘Oh yeah!’ Chris sang.
‘I’d forgotten we used to call him Caesar.’
‘Because he ate a tin of the dog food for a bet.’ I added over the foamy white head of my pint of noir. ‘You always fucking ask why’s he called Caesar. Just getting it in there early.’
‘That’s not it.’ added another. I had my head in the contents of my pocket, calculating whether I could afford another round when it came back my way. Steve W returned to the table with a fat tray of drinks. Steve C along on his coat-tails with one of his own. So it was like that, huh? We were here for a good time and a long time. I’d need a bank machine but the last one that had been installed on this, my childhood road, had been dug out of a red brick wall by a god-damn drunk in a JCB.
‘That’s not it either.’ Barry sat forward. A tall tale was peeking over the low-rise rooftops of the Oldpark. ‘Caesar was called Caesear because he jizzed in a salad when he worked in the Spar.’
‘I heard he fucked a dog.’
‘He didn’t fuck a dog… he only wanked it.’
‘He didn’t wank off a dog for Christ’s sake.’ I said. That story, that story I knew the origin of. ‘I told you that story.’
‘Did you wank off a dog?’
‘I wouldn’t call your sister that. I mean she’s a butter-face, but…’
The back room was getting rowdy; which was saying something for a pub with bars on the outside of the windows.
‘I told you the story about the guy who worked with me at the Grey Hound track who used to tug off the runners before a race.’
‘Did it work?’
‘Made money hand over fist.’
Barry spat the guts of a mouthful of Harp from his nostrils. ‘See that’s a University joke. You have changed you cunt.’
The good humour died to a trickle. We all looked to one another. All with the same thoughts at the forefront of our nostalgia riddled grey. I’d known Eamon since I was nine. I’d thought myself to be one of his best pals. Certainly good enough to have been asked to carry his coffin from his house to the church. Yet my god-damn stupid head, the same god-damn head that remembered sotto voce, and the name of the girl who showed me my first vagina, or the third three lines and the last four lines from Post Office but this was a fact too far. What kind of son-of-a-bitch did that make me?
‘We need to find out.’
‘Caesar. We need to find out why he was fucking called Caesar. The fat fucker’s been dead what? Two days? Two days, and we’ve already forgotten the origin of his god-damn NAME!’ Steve W snapped. He hit the table on its sweet spot and sent two rounds of medicine on to the piss stained carpet.
‘That’s it. Enough of your shit, Stevie.’ the owner snarled. ‘You six geniuses into the front where I can keep an eye on you.’
As we pushed through the swing doors into the main body of the Suicide an artificial wave of hush pushed its way across the ailing barflies. It took me a moment to twig why. Mags lingered over a vodka, three fingers and neat. Her skin was the colour of cheap supermarket chicken with the only slither of life darting across her eyes when she saw us.
She had been Eamon’s beau since we started sprouting whiskers. On again, off again. With Eamon, with someone else… with anyone else. Then back to Eamon. She’d played the emotional bout of pitch ‘n’ toss for almost a decade, and it was this that Barry took exception to.
‘What’s that cunt doing in here?!’ he spat. A motor-oil stained, nose-picker pointing her way.
I stepped in front of his daggered finger. ‘Don’t.’
‘She’s the one, Doug. She’s…’
‘Grieving. She’s grieving. There’s plenty of other people in the fucking city you can give your shit to. So don’t go giving it all away up front. They won’t respect you.’
‘Now you see that’s a University joke you fucking dick. Get outside.’
The group took to the curb to smoke. Chris stopped as he passed Mags.
‘Why’d everyone call him Caesar?’
‘Caesar. We all… why did we call him Caesar?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Wasn’t it something to do with his middle name?’ Mags’ sidekick added.
‘No. Wasn’t it Augustus?’
‘He took Augustus as his Confirmation name. That was because we called him Caesar. Sorry about Barry, he didn’t mean it.’
‘Yes, he did. But it’s nice of you to say that.’
I nodded my best to Mags and held the door open for Chris. Six minds together and not one of them had any answer to our Caesar conundrum. I lit my first Marley Red in three drinks and it tasted so damn good. Like a sickly lover.
‘You staying over with your mum tonight?’
I confirmed. The instant I’d moved out the kid brother nabbed my room, meaning I was bunking in the box suite normally reserved for crates of VHS cassettes and the Christmas decorations.
‘Me and Chris are heading up to Barry’s place for a few more if you fancy it, Doug.’
‘You got any rum?’
‘Probably. I work in an office licence… and if I’m honest, I shoplift a lot!’
The wind was spiteful and it blew right down through our souls. The cancer sticks all burned down one side. Between that and walking it was a bleeding waste. Suddenly Barry stopped, and I realised where we were. Before I could coax my tipsy torso to drop tobacco and stop him he’d knocked on the door. The black ribbon twisted on the end of the brass knocker as the door opened and Mrs. Donovan stood before us; drained. North Belfast had rinsed every last drop of life from her before sticking her back on the line to fade in the elements.
‘Boys.’ she said through a full head of snot and tears.
‘Me and the boys were talking about Eamon, Moe.’
‘We were wondering if you remembered something… we used to call him Caesar. Do you remember why?’
I prayed three times it had nothing to do with pounding or pulling off hounds.
She chuckled. I took that as a good sign. ‘Oh those god-damn stupid sandals.’
His first day at school he had rocked up to Assembly in a pair of Roman sandals his old man had brought him back from a Christian Brothers football trip. Perfect white socks, pube-thick curly black hair and the biggest tits we’d see on someone our own age for a few years.
‘Hail Caesar!’ I shouted, gesture et al.
Steve W followed.
Then Barry and Chris.
Mickey fell into line before finally Steve C flipped the hand towards the Gods.
‘Hail Caesar.’ he said, making Moe smile.
‘Caesar is dead, go home boys.’
Banner Image: North Street Belfast Albert Bridge [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons