Morning, Porter, Quirke said.
The porter laughed. You know the names not Porter, Mr. Quirke, he said. The way that tuft of dry brown hair was brushed back fiercely from his forehead gave him a look of permanent, vexed surmise. A querulous mouse of a man.
Thats right, Quirke said, youre the porter, but youre not Porter. Behind the Four Courts now a dark-blue cloud with an aspect of grim intent had begun edging its way up the sky, eclipsing the light of an as yet unseen sun. Quirke turned up the collar of his jacket, wondering vaguely what had become of the raincoat he seemed to remember wearing when he had started drinking, many hours ago. And what had become of his cigarette case? Have you a cigarette itself to lend me? he said.
The porter produced a packet. Theyre only Woodbines, Mr. Quirke.
Quirke took the cigarette and bent over the cupped flame of his lighter, savoring the brief, flabby reek of burning petrol. He lifted his face to the sky and breathed deep the acrid smoke. How delicious it was, the days first searing lungful. The lid of the lighter chinked as he flipped it shut. Then he had to cough, making a tearing sound in his throat.
Christ, Porter, he said, his voice wobbling, how can you smoke these things? Any day now Ill have you on the slab in there. When I open you up your lights will look like kippers.
The porter laughed again, a forced, breathy titter. Quirke brusquely walked away from him. As he descended the steps he felt in the nerves of his back the fellows suddenly laughless eye following him with ill intent. What he did not feel was another, melancholy gaze angled down upon him from a lighted window five stories above, where vague, festive forms were weaving and dipping still.
drifts of soundless summer rain were graying the trees in Merrion Square. Quirke hurried along, keeping close to the railings as if they might shelter him, the lapels of his jacket clutched tight to his throat. It was too early yet for the office workers, and the broad street was deserted, with not a car in sight, and if not for the rain he would have been able to see unhindered all the way to the Peppercanister Church, which always looked to him, viewed from a distance like this down the broad, shabby sweep of Upper Mount Street, to be set at a slightly skewed angle. Among the clustered chimneys a few were dribbling smoke; the summer was almost over, a new chill was in the air. But who had lit those fires, so early? Could there still be scullery maids to haul the coal bucket up from the basement before first light? He eyed the tall windows, thinking of all those shadowed rooms with people in them, waking, yawning, getting up to make their breakfasts, or turning over to enjoy another half hour in the damp, warm stew of their beds. Once, on another summer dawn, going along here like this, he had heard faintly from one of those windows a womans cries of ecstasy fluttering down into the street. What a piercing stab of pity he had felt for himself then, walking all alone here, before everyone elses day had begun; piercing, and pained, but pleasurable, too, for in secret Quirke prized his loneliness as a mark of some distinction.
In the hallway of the house there was the usual smell he could never identify, brownish, exhausted, a breath out of childhood, if childhood was the word for that first decade of misery he had suffered through. He plodded up the stairs with the tread of a man mounting the gallows, his sodden shoes squelching. He had reached the first-floor return when he heard a door down in the hall opening; he stopped, sighed.
Terrible racket again last night, Mr. Poole called up accusingly. Not a wink.
Copyright © 2006 by Benjamin Black. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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