The wind rushed across the ocean, curiously lifting the flaps of Bran’s jacket and swiping at his face. His footprints ran even, measured, straight along the beach behind him, crossed occasionally by a smaller pair. His son wandered ahead, bending now and again to examine a rock or piece of debris. The small figure of the boy was disproportionately swaddled in a woolen coat on the top, the sleeve of which the boy often wiped across his nose. Bran remembered this beach from the twinkling evenings of his youthful summers when, on a spare day before the term started, someone would suggest a ride out to Sandymount. Surrounded by high shrieks from the young ladies who teased the waves, he sat contentedly as the sun cast a final golden kiss over the party of earnest youth. No sun was apparent now, the steely sky dipped into equally matte water. Ahead the coast turned left and across the water Pigeon House huddled on the point.
The boy was cold but did not say anything. He dutifully peered at the small puddles left in the sandy ridges by the tide. There was nothing in the eye-shaped inversions except shallow water and his rippled face. They were the sole figures on the beach save for a man propped against the sea wall, whose shaggy eyebrows arched into equally shaggy hair. A faint breath moved his chest and marked him as among the living, dispelling any possible excitement. The boy stopped to wait for his father.
—Mhmph, Bran’s head jerked up as he came upon the boy. Oh... Oh there you are...Have we missed lunch? Can you wait until we get home? Good. There should be a cab in town. Bran turned up the beach and onto the road, the boy hurried behind.
He closed the door quickly, but a puff of the evening air slipped through, and the two of them stood for a moment in the silent cold.
—Take off your coat and shake out the cold, Bran said, without removing his own.
—Oh is that you? Annie appeared from the kitchen, pinning up a wayward strand of mahogany hair. The boy ran to her, still in his coat. She deftly removed his jacket and sent him into the kitchen.
—It’s a good thing I told Mrs. Mullins to start the potatoes when I did or they wouldn’t be near ready now. Did you have a good time? You forgot to mention when you would be back, dear. Are you coming in? Her smile accentuated the faint creases that converged at the corner of her eyes. Bran looked down the dark expanse of his coat, he was just beginning to feel the warmth of the house creep under the thick wool. The domestic rhythm chafed him tonight. Sitting down at the dark table to potatoes and perhaps beef or pork was too familiar and tame. For six years now he clerked at a bank on Baggot Street and dutifully came home at night. Even the holiday break he spent with Annie, attending social functions. She insisted he stay connected, but when the same people talked of the same subjects at each one he did not see the point. He was established as a clerk and referred to as such. He did not delude himself with some grand break from decorum. At the end of the night he would ride with Annie in weary silence back to the house. Tonight, however, fresh sea air permeated his lungs and he felt too stirred to sit at a glossy table and listen to the lush sweep of Annie’s skirts on the ivy-patterned carpet as she carried their son up to bed.
—No, actually. I think I will go out. Mahoney is around... Yes, yes I will go see Mahoney. He turned abruptly and plunged into the cold.
As Bran pushed into the crowded air of Mulligan’s, a small cluster of companions blossomed into easy laughter. Mahoney was central in the group, his bulbous face already red and shining in the dim light. He beckoned jovially as Bran approached through the thick bodies.
—McLory! Bran, it is good to see you, he said heartily, knocking Bran on the back. You made it out from the books I see. Ha ha. I never know how you spend all that time among those tomes, digging your own grave I say! Mahoney punctuated his wit with a generous laugh, turning to clap Dougherty on the back with ample appreciation.
—Welcome Bran, Jim Wallis grinned wanly. We’ve all bought our rounds. I say it’s your turn now. You’ve got catchin’ up to do.
—Another round! Mahoney’s voice crashed above the din of lesser conversations. Now I was just recounting my days as a young ruffian for these fine men. Ha! I was a spirited tyke. You can tell them Bran, yes, you were there... What fun we had!
Bran fingered the whisky glass deposited in front of him. The times Bran was now being called upon to recollect he had long ago sequestered to the ill-used tracts of his mind, deeming them unavailing in his life. Mahoney called again for a story. Bran began to tug at the distant times, pulling them into focus. He sipped the whiskey, letting the fiery spirit settle in the hollow of his stomach.
—Well now, there were those games we played... sieges, right? We’d storm the castle, shrieking and all...
—Ah! cried Mahoney. The Indians! What fun, oh it was great fun. He slapped the table emphatically, sloshing whisky.
Bran smiled with ill-ease, preferring to let Mahoney pick up the narrative. The men standing around the tall table were Mahoney’s cohorts, men he knew only from the few times a year when Mahoney was in town long enough for word to reach him. Mahoney traveled around the country picking up crates of old books and silver platters. He was employed by a retired banker trying to build a collection of some importance, but as Mahoney put it, the old man was just filling his house with crumbling odds and ends and tarnished bits of old Ireland.
Bran embraced the raw air, stumbling forward as the company expelled themselves from the pub. He was warm with the heat running through his veins confronting the bitter air on his skin. The others disbanded but Bran tripped along behind Mahoney, who wove his way between the trembling light of the street-lamps.
The street was stiflingly silent as the low clouds began spitting snow. Mahoney scuffed his boots along the walk, kicking at the desultory flakes that puffed and settled again. Bran snorted at this puerile assault upon the snow. Mahoney grinned back in his unaffected manner and, glad of the audience, waltzed ungracefully to the corner.
—Well good friend, ha ha, we’re at it once again, Mahoney’s thick lips parted and his face shone even in the minimal light. What’d ya say we go to the docks again, search for a ship to take us to sea, eh? Mahoney did not wait for Bran’s answer and charged down the road. Mahoney’s breath soon became shorter and began to grate against his throat, emerging as a soft wheeze as Bran dug his hands deeper into his pockets, feeling the raw air licking at the warm haze in his body. Mahoney finally stopped, spotting the red glow of a bar half way down a small alley.
—Ah friend, I see where my fate pulls me, ha. His gaze was distracted, anticipating the warm spirits offered within. He turned back to Bran with a sideways smile, causing bunching in his right cheek. Come, friend, there’s more to this night yet!
Bran stood a moment, feeling the cold settle on his shoulders, daring him to break the embrace. He shuddered to dispel the numbing tendrils inching past his coat collar as Mahoney trotted across the street with renewed purpose. Bran did not follow. Instead, his gaze caught on the murky distinctions of the last buildings on the street. He glanced at Mahoney’s happy welcome into the bar and then hurried down the remaining solitary stretch as much to build heat as to quell impatience. He had presumed correctly and emerged on Wharf Road, walking slowly across the boulevard, devoid of activity at the dark hour. On the other side Bran stood above the Liffey. He watched the sable waters run to the right, to the harbor where the alluring ships lay, and beyond, to the point where no land could be seen. Little ripples jumped tamely into the glistening reflections of the few lights along the river, and his eyes traveled along the slender ridges of shadow. The icy cold encased Bran as he stood rooted on the bank. The heat was long gone from his fingers when the cold finally reached his core, expelling the last warmth. Grey tendrils began to filter between the buildings and he turned away from the river. Bran curled his collar up against the wind at the back of his neck and walked home, weary.