A drop of rain trickled down his neck causing Paul O’Farrell to shiver. It was not just its icy touch that filled him with unease, but the encounter with the driver of the red car. He had seen that look before, countless times, and it was hard to forget. In a way, it mirrored how he felt. It spoke of sadness, loneliness and an absence of hope. Cursing under his breath for not being quick enough to note her registration, he climbed into his car. The interior felt damp and he turned on the engine and waited for the heater to warm up. Sighing, he adjusted the rear-view mirror, and shook his head in disgust at the face staring back at him. The bags under his eyes were put there by lack of sleep and over-familiarity with the whiskey bottle. Though never a heavy drinker, like so many of his colleagues, who used the alcohol to deaden the pain of things they were forced to witness, it had become a companion of sorts over the past eighteen months.
Losing Maura, his wife of thirty-eight years to cancer hit him hard. While his days were filled with emptiness, he still had a job to do, but the nights…At first, he had tried to fill the endless hours cleaning the house, copying the chores he had once taken for granted, but he soon gave up as the repeated monotony of the work started to get him down.
Now the furniture lay under a cloud of dust, and clutter had begun to accumulate. The truth was he didn’t have the heart for it, and other than the greasy, stodgy meals he ate in the staff canteen he never bothered to cook at home. These days his dinner consisted of peanuts and crisps, washed down with copious amounts of whiskey. Sometimes the gods were kind, and the effects of the alcohol, added to exhaustion, meant he got some sleep, even if he woke stiff and sore in the chair the next morning. Mostly it went to the other extreme and he became hyper and wandered the house, cursing his luck and the emptiness of his life.
His two sons, married with families of their own, had little time for him. Other than a card at Father’s Day and Christmas, he never heard from them, and the reassurance they offered on the day of the funeral, that they were only a phone call away, meant nothing. If only they had a daughter, things might have been different. Girls were caring and not as quick to abandon those they loved.
Blinking and wiping his eyes, he put the car in gear and headed out of the forecourt. As the only sergeant in the station meant he had to muddle in with the men on the beat, and since crime in the village was of the petty type, he faced days of reruns, as he interviewed the same old faces for the same old crimes. The small council estate spawned its fair share of criminals, and this was where he was heading now, to answer a report of domestic violence. With a bit of luck, they’ll have killed one another by the time I get there, he thought, as he steered the car down the main street and up the hill.
As usual the roads were littered with beer cans and broken bottles. Bedraggled horses, tied to fence poles, stared back at him, sodden manes clinging to their necks and long faces looking as glum as he felt. Steering from left to right, he managed to avoid most of the potholes and the odd hooded figure that ran across his path, before pulling to the curb. The sound of battle could be heard as soon as he opened his door, and he walked, shoulders slumped, down the weed-covered path. The handle had fallen off the letterbox and, as there was no doorbell, he rapped with his fist on the wood. His first knock went unanswered, as the noise inside drowned it out. He waited a moment before balling his hand into a tight ball and pounding with all his might. The sound was enough to bring the screaming inside to a sudden halt. Taking a deep breath, he waited as fumbling fingers struggled with the lock.
“You took your fuckin time,” the harridan who threw open the door roared.
Her beery breath mad him draw back a little as she tottered towards him, and he placed a hand against her shoulder in case she fell.
“What seems to be the trouble?”
Always one to go by the book, he winced, as he asked the same, stupid question. Mona and Pat Cusack were famous for their rows, and had the weather been more clement, would by now be keeping most of the street entertained. As it was, no one had braved the rain and the cutting wind, not even for a laugh. Those who lived within hearing distance of the couple had little to laugh about themselves. Paul knew most of the residents were drawing unemployment and subsidising this with shoplifting and petty thievery. The only shop in the estate was forced to close because of this, the stock disappearing as quickly as it was placed it on the shelves. Though no one would have described the owner as a clever man, he soon realised his accounts did not tally, and as any attempt to stop this mini crime wave was met with threats of violence, he soon shut up shop.
“Are you fuckin listening to me?”
The question brought him back, and he stared into the blood-shot eyes of the woman who had spoken.
“Yes, Mona,” he shooed her back inside the house, and stepped into the stale-smelling hall.
The linoleum on the floor was torn, jagged-looking tufts stuck up here and there. Dirt gathered on its surface, provided a sort of Velcro effect, and he lifted his feet from its pull with a resounding squelch. The stairs were plain boards, the wood stained from countless encounters with drunken hands and feet. The banisters, which someone had attempted to paint white, were peeling, and he was about to follow the woman into the front room when a small sob from overhead made him look up.
Two small children stared down at him, their eyes bright with tears and terror. Though he realised the little boy and girl were of school age, it would be useless to protest their absence from the classroom, and any suggestion on his part would only serve to antagonise the battling couple. It was afternoon, but the children were still in pyjamas, and the girl’s hair stood on end in a rat’s nest of knots.
“It’s all right,” Paul motioned them to go back to their rooms.
“We’re hungry,” the boy whined, and his sister nodded in agreement.
The sound of battle started again and he left them, promising something to eat when he was finished.
The heat in the front room was stifling in contrast to the hall. A huge fire roared in the grate, and intensified the stench of the stained carpet and chairs. Pat Cusack sat in one of the chairs a beer can resting on the arm, legs stretched out in front of him.
“This is all I fuckin’ need,” he snorted when he saw Paul, and brought the can to his lips, taking another deep swallow, before tossing it on the floor and replacing it with another.
“Your wife made a complaint about you.” Paul tried to ignore the burning dryness of his throat, and the hiss of the bubbling foam.
“So, what?” Pat sneered. “She’s always fuckin’ complaining about something, stupid bitch.”
This comment was aimed at his wife, who sat opposite him, and for a woman in such inebriated condition, her aim was accurate. The beer can she was holding caught her husband on the forehead. His roar of rage, more at the waste of good liquor than the assault, sent him springing from his chair. Only Paul’s hand on his collar saved Mona from a beating, as her husband was dragged back to the chair.
“Give it over,” Paul roared, looking from one to the other. “Any more of this and I’m taking you to the station.”
“Fuckin’ bitch,” Pat was too busy wiping his face with a seat cushion to notice what was said.
“I mean it,” Paul pulled the cushion from his hands. “I’m sick and tired of coming here to break you two up. If you can’t get on with one another, why don’t you part company?”
“Listen to him,” Mona sneered. “Mr fuckin’ know-it-all. Why don’t you fuck off back to the station and leave us alone?”
“You called me here, remember?”
“Yeah, well, now I’m telling you to fuck off,” she struggled out of her chair and made a swipe for him.
All her anger was transferred from her husband to him.
“Give it over,” he caught her arm, twisted her around and threw her back into her chair.
“Hey, that’s not on,” her husband roared, but made no attempt to come to her rescue.
“No, and all this is not on either,” Paul no longer controlled his temper. “I’m sick and tired of acting as referee between people like you.”
“People like us,” Mona laughed. “Listen to his fuckin’ lordship. Who the fuck do you think you are?”
“Shut up and listen.” Paul’s bellow stunned her in to silence. “The next time you ring for assistance you won’t get it. You can kill one another for all I care, but there are two young children up there,” he pointed at the ceiling. “They need feeding and it is your job to do it.” He glared at Mona.
“There’s plenty of food in the kitchen,” she retorted. “They know where it is, if they want it.”
“Really?” Paul asked, before heading down the hall to the kitchen.
This too was freezing, but the cold was welcome after the stifling heat of the front room. He tried not to think of how cold the bedrooms the children slept in felt. He drew back at the stench wafting from the fridge when he opened the door. The wire shelves were removed from inside, and other than a small mountain of cheap beer, a half carton of out-of-date milk and some dry, mouldy carrots, there was nothing. The presses that lined the walls were the same, and his attempt at foraging did little other than disturb the colony of ants that swept over the packets of spilled sugar and gravy mix.
The children’s eyes searched his face as he emerged from the kitchen. When they saw he was empty-handed, the boy’s lip trembled, but his sister shushed him and waited.
“I’ll get you something to eat, okay?” Paul asked.
Both nodded, and he smiled at them before going back to the front room, where their parents now sat in stony silence.
“There’s no food in the house,” he looked at Mona.
“Well, we’ve no fuckin money,” her husband answered for her.
“You have enough money for beer.”
“Fuck you,” he turned his attention to the fire and the leaping flames.
“I’m going to get the children something to eat,” Paul said, before walking from the room. “Back in a minute,” he promised the huddled forms on the stairs.
As he drove down the hill to the takeaway, he smiled, remembering his wife’s teasing. “You think you can change the world single handed,” she always said, and she was right, especially when it came to children in need. Before he got out of the car, he made a note to contact social services. Those children needed proper food and schooling, and they were not going to get it where they were.
The smell of the two white bundles pervaded the car’s interior as he drove back to the house. While the vinegary aroma on the chips was appetising, he had no stomach for food. His insides felt raw from the whiskey, and a sharp pain in his side told him his liver was also feeling the effects. Pat opened the door and snatched the bundles of food from him.
“They’re for the children,” Paul warned.
“Yeah, whatever,” he closed the door before Paul could protest further.
He listened a moment for the sound of footfalls on the stair boards, and when there was none, inched his way along the small path to the window of the front room. The couple were sitting exactly as he had left them, but the glare of the white paper spread across both their laps incensed him, and he pounded on the glass.
“Those were meant for the children,” he roared.
Pat picked up one of the hamburgers and wiggled it at him, before stuffing it in to his mouth. Mona dropped the bundle on to the floor and staggered over to the window. Lifting the latch, she opened it just enough so that he could hear.
“If you are so fuckin’ worried about children, why don’t you find the one that’s missing?”
“Yeah,” her husband joined in her taunts. “You didn’t do such a good job there, did you, you cunt?”
He heard them laughing as he walked back to the car. His hands shook as he tried to place the key in the ignition, but despite the coarseness of their words, he knew they were right. He was a failure.