The weathered wood sprite danced towards the door, shouting over a tweeded shoulder at someone unseen.
“I’m away on now. Sure, I’ll see you through the week”
If Richard Burton had been from Belfast, this is how he would have sounded: vocal chords toughened by cigarettes and soaked every day in whiskey. Like Richard Burton, the wee man declaimed as though to a packed auditorium. He was, in fact, in a quietly comfortable, reasonably upscale restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush where I was peaceably enjoying mushroom risotto and a glass of red wine.
“Where are you from?” I raised my own voice to match his, guldering from my seat in the corner. All heads in the restaurant swivelled from him to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I half-saw the restaurant owner shake his head.
“The Ormy road” he said.
“C’mere” said I, gesturing that he should join me. “What part of the Ormeau Road?”
I knew the road of course, and an enjoyable, roisterous conversation ensued about the Ormeau Park golf course, the Nazareth convent, the bakery and the gas works. The wee man was in full voice–no volume control.
“What brings you here?” I said, after we had exhausted conversation about the Parador and the Errigle Inn, the Curzon cinema and the Oriel Pharmacy.
“Ah sure I just came in to get a drink off a friend who works in the kitchen” said my new best friend. “He lives below me, just up the street a bit”
“You didn’t eat here then?”
“Dear God no. Far too effing expensive. Not for the likes of me. I hardly eat anyway—stick to the whiskey” A phlegmy laugh. “No I just called in to see Stephen. I was on my way home when you shouted.”
Behind him, the restaurant owner came into focus. He was sorrowfully polishing a glass with a look of a man who knew the night’s business was done.
I looked more closely at my table companion, and could see the puck was down on his luck. His head was the size a coconut, and similarly rough and whiskered. Under his tweed jacket he wore a jumper of patterned acrylic. It had been some time since he’d visited a dentist. But his Belfast-Burton eyes burned bright. He was dapper in a derelict kind of way.
“Are you working?” I asked.
“I’ve a wee job at the convent doing maintenance” he said.
My ears pricked up. “You could maybe help me find someone to get rid of a wardrobe with a smashed glass door?”
“Just effing buck it out on the street. Let the council take care of it. Get a friend to help you at night—effing hurl it out. That’s what I effing do. Say you know nothing about it if anyone effing asks. That’s what I did with my boiler. Just effed it effing out.”
He was on a roll now. Around us, tables emptied.
“They’ve my gas off. Effing disconnected it. I can do without it. Eff them. Bucked it effing out.”
“Cold in winter though” I murmured, noticing that the last family in the restaurant were gesturing for their bill.
“Cold? Cold’s no bother. I have no glass in my windies in the flat. Have them covered with chicken wire to keep the pigeons out”
I air-scribbled for my own bill. It arrived with speed.
“I’m sure it’s dear” said the wee man, looking as I pulled notes from my wallet. I felt a stab of shame.
“Here” I said, proffering a fiver.
“Ah, you don’t need to do that” said Jono, for we were now on first name terms. He pocketed the note.
“Get yourself some chicken wire.”
“I’ll probably get some cigarettes”
“Awfully bad for you…”
“Ah sure, the harm is done”
At the bar in the now empty restaurant, the owner nodded ruefully. The harm was indeed done.
“Sorry” I mouthed at the owner as we left. He didn’t say to come back soon.
On the dark, wet pavement Jono shook my hand, eager to get off to the off-licence. .
“If you’re ever passing the convent just come in and ask for me. If they don’t know me just say you’re looking the man in the white overalls. I’ll be up a ladder somewhere. I might not remember you, but sure I’ll know you when I see you”.
That’s where we left it.
Behind us, the lights went off in the restaurant. It was 9pm.