– 4 –
A wave of music, conversational noise, and hot, smoky air greeted Hunter when he pushed open the oak and glass front door of the Harp and stepped inside from the snowy street that evening. He looked around for a moment, blinking in the haze, then saw Miki waving to him. She sat with her brother Donal at a small table just at the edge of where a dozen or so musicians were playing, the session led by a red-haired woman playing the uillean pipes who seemed familiar, but Hunter couldn’t remember her name.The other instrumentation was mostly fiddles, flutes and whistles, but there were also a pair of mandolins, a guitar, bodhráns and the inevitable tenor banjo playing too loud above it all.
The Harp was in the Rosses, once the predominantly Irish part of town, north of the Market in Crowsea. The oldest Irish pub in Newford, it had been a Catholic stronghold, and meeting place for homesick emigrants and IRA sympathizers, but its partisan loyalties were no longer in evidence. As the make-up of the neighbourhood took on a more international flavour and the clientele had come to encompass all nationalities, religious and political differences among the pub’s Irish patrons had mostly been set aside in favour of the craíc—an Irish term that encompassed the shared enjoyment of good company, good drink and good music. Even the musicians were no longer exclusively of Irish descent. As Hunter made his way to the table where Miki and Donal were sitting, he noted a black man playing tin whistle, a Jewish woman on the guitar, a young Asian man on fiddle—all three playing with the sensibility of having just stepped off the plane from Ireland.
The popularity of Celtic music didn’t surprise Hunter. There was something universal in its infectious dance tunes and mournful slow airs. He could hear echoes of it in everything from old timey and bluegrass to classical and the indigenous music of many other cultures. There was a purity in its cadences, a timelessness with which contemporary music couldn’t compete. He sometimes thought that the difference between the two was like the difference between North America and Europe: the landscape of each was as old as the other, but it felt older in Europe where churches, castles, even a cottage, could easily be six or seven hundred years old. As far as Western culture was concerned, North America hadn’t even existed until the last few hundred years and there were few pieces of architecture that could claim to be much more than a hundred years of age.
“You made it,” Miki said as he squeezed through the last dense press of bodies and tables and sat down in the chair she’d been saving for him. She grinned at him, obviously pleased.
“I said I would, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, but you’ve said it before.”
Hunter nodded. But that was before Ria had dumped him. She’d never cared much for Celtic music or the noisy sessions in the Harp—perhaps that should have rung a warning bell, he thought now—so he’d stopped coming to them. “You go on ahead,”she’d say when he’d suggest they drop by for a pint, but he never did. It didn’t feel the same going out to them on his own, leaving her behind.
Don’t go there, he told himself.
He was supposed to be trying to forget his problems, not brood on them. Yeah, right. But he could at least make an effort. So he turned to Miki’s brother.
“How’s it going?” he asked Donal.
The family resemblance wasn’t pronounced between Miki and her brother, though that had more to do with the sorts of people they were than genetics. Where Miki was a cheerful punkette, Donal had the look of an old, serious hippie—never mind that he couldn’t have been much older than three and still living in Ireland during the Summer of Love. He was dark-haired and had a full beard, his long thick hair pulled back in a ponytail. His features were broader than Miki’s, though he wasn’t much taller than her.An often earnest gnome—or rather a leprechaun, perhaps—to her impish punk.
“I’m doing well,” Donal replied. “Sorry to hear about you and Ria.”
Hunter shrugged. So much for trying to forget, he thought.
Donal grimaced suddenly and Hunter realized that for all her innocent smile, Miki had given her brother a kick under the table.
“It’s okay,” he told them. “I can talk about it.”
Miki shook her head. “Not tonight. Tonight we’re not going to think about depressing things. Only fun things.”
“What’re you drinking?” Donal asked.
“Anything but Guinness,” Hunter told him.
Donal shook his head and gave a deep, theatrical sigh.
“To think you can say that without a hint of guilt,” he said mournfully.
He was up and out of his seat before Hunter could reply.
“Now I feel like I should apologize to him,” he told Miki.
“Oh, don’t let him guilt you out. The stuff’s way overrated, anyway. Or at least what we get on this side of the Atlantic. Now the last time I was in Ireland….” She got a dreamy look on her face.“Sure,” she said, affecting a brogue, “and didn’t it have the flavor of the very nectar of life?”
“I’ll have to try it if I ever get over myself.”
“I think I lived on it the whole month.”
“You probably could,” Hunter said.
“Well, not Guinness alone. There was also the soda bread and jam. My gran’s soda bread melts in your mouth like a scone.”
She licked her lips at the memory and Hunter had to smile. He nodded towards the musicians.“How come you’re not playing?”
He’d noticed her accordion case tucked under her chair.
She shrugged and lit a cigarette. “Because,” she told him, eyes twinkling, “I plan to get feet-trippy drunk and have fun hanging with you instead.”
“Go ahead and play a few tunes,” he said. “I haven’t heard your accordion in ages.”
“Consider yourself lucky,” Donal told him, returning to the table. He set a shot glass of whiskey and a pint of Smithwicks in front of Hunter and waved off Hunter’s attempt to pay for them. “You wouldn’t be so thrilled if every night you had to listen to a few hours of her teaching herself Coltrane solos on that box of hers.”
Hunter raised his eyebrows. “Why don’t you just learn to play the sax?” he asked.
“I don’t have one,” she said and stuck out her tongue at her brother.
Donal ignored her. “She probably doesn’t even remember how to play a decent Irish reel on her box anymore.”
Hunter took a sip from his pint, the foam moustaching around his lips. “Go ahead,” he said. He tapped his pint glass with his index finger. “Give me a chance to catch up to you.”
She hesitated, obviously torn. “Well…maybe just one or two tunes, if you’re sure you don’t mind….”
“Really,” Hunter said.
The piper had just started up “The Bucks of Oranmore”—a favorite of Miki’s, Hunter remembered—and he knew she wouldn’t be able to resist. Moments later she had the button accordion out and strapped on, her chair pulled closer to the musicians, and she was happily playing away with them.Hunter drank some more of his beer and tapped his foot in time to the music.
“Drives me mad,” Donal said.
Hunter turned to look at him. “What does?”
“The punters,” Donal explained. He indicated the noisy crowd with a wave of his hand. “They’re so busy talking they don’t hear a note, but you can bet that before they leave they’ll be telling the players how grand the music was.”
But that was the whole point of a session, Hunter thought. It wasn’t for the audience. It was for the musicians, a chance to share tunes and play with each other.Unlike a concert, they were playing for themselves here. The audience could listen to the music or chat with their friends as they pleased.
“Oh, I know,” Donal said. “It’s not like a gig, but still. They’re so bloody loud I wonder why they don’t go someplace where they don’t have to compete with the instruments to be able to hear themselves talk.”
The crowd was loud tonight, Hunter thought. Or maybe it was just that he hadn’t been here in such awhile and wasn’t used to it.
He tried a sip of his whiskey, chased its warm burn down his throat with a swallow of beer, and looked around the room. There were people two-deep at the bar, all the tables and booths were full, everyone talking and laughing and paying no attention to the music except for a group of men in one booth who seemed somewhat out of place from the rest of the crowd.
In some ways, things hadn’t really changed since the days Hunter had been a regular patron of the Harp. There were the usual older men nursing their drinks, Bohemian types up from Lower Crowsea, a gaggle of university students who appeared to be too young to be legally drinking, a handful of yuppies drawn by curiosity who’d probably leave after they finished their first round to be replaced by more of the same.
But there was something different about the men sitting in the booth. For one thing they were completely attentive to the music, dark gazes fixed on the musicians, no conversation passing between them at all. Their table was littered with pint glasses, mostly empty, though each had a Guinness he was working on in front of him. The lighting was no different where they sat, but shadows still seemed to pool in their booth.Or perhaps it was simply a darkness they carried with them—swarthy-skinned, black haired, their dark suits shabby, shiny at the elbows, but clean.
Hunter nodded to them with his chin. “They’re listening,” he said.
Donal followed his gaze. He looked quickly away.
“The hard men,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
Donal shrugged. “That’s just what our da’ used to call men like them. Moody, hard drinkers, always ready for a fight—though Thomas won’t let this lot start trouble in here. It’s because of their kind that the Irish still carry the stereotype of being nothing more than hard drinkers and quick-tempered fighters.”
“They don’t look Irish,” Hunter said, thinking they were too dark-skinned.
“They’re more Irish than Michelle or myself, and we were born there. They still speak the Gaelic—some of them can barely speak English.”
“How do they get along over here?” Hunter asked.
“Who knows? But they’ve always got the money for their drinks and they’re here every Tuesday night when Amy’s hosting the session.”
As soon as Donal said her name, Hunter realized why the red-haired woman on pipes had seemed familiar when he’d first noticed her coming in. Amy Scanlon was something of a fixture on the Newford Celtic scene, playing with any number of bands over the years. Her musical partner Geordie was in the store at least once a week, always trying to convince them to open up and play this or that new release for him.
“Funny thing, though,” Donal said. “They’re never here the other nights, but let an impromptu session start up and they’ll come drifting in with the half hour. It’s like the music calls to them and brings them in.”
He touched Hunter’s arm. Hunter’s gaze had drifted back to the booth where the men were sitting.He returned his attention to his companion.
“Don’t stare at them,” Donal said. “They’re quick to take offense. I should know.I did the same as you one night, kept looking at them, and later, on the way home, they were waiting for me, shouting in Gaelic.”
“What do you think happened? They thumped me something terrible and then went on their way.”
“Didn’t you call the cops?”
Donal shook his head. “That would just have made for more trouble. Men like that, they don’t forget a wrong. Jaysus, I’ve seen enough of them back home. The pubs are full of them, brooding over their pints, remembering every hurt, imagined or real, that was ever done to them.”
Hunter felt his gaze being pulled back to the men’s booth, but he managed to overcome the impulse.
“Have they bothered you since?” he asked.
Donal laughed. “No. Now they think we’re grand pals—always have a nod or a smile for me when they pass by.”
There was a brief pause in the music and Miki turned in her chair to have a drink from her pint. She shot Hunter a happy smile.
“You doing all right?” she asked.
He nodded. “Donal was just telling me all about the hard men.”
Miki’s gaze flicked to the booth, returned.
“Oh, them,” she said. “He tell you how they beat him up?”
“Mmhmm. But now they’re friends.”
Miki shook her head. “You can’t be friends with their kind. You have to be one of them.” She smiled at her brother. “But there are those they’ll tolerate more than others.”
“If you’re willing to go through the initiation,” Donal added.
“I think I’ll pass,” Hunter said.
“Good idea.” She had another swallow of her beer. “I’m just going to sit in on a few more tunes.But let me know if Donal goes all morose on you.”
“And you’ll do what?” Donal asked.
“Cheer you up, ever so sweetly.”
She turned back and joined in as the tune the musicians were playing shifted into a high-energy version of “The Earl’s Chair.”
“Is she like that at work?” Donal asked.
Hunter nodded. “Relentlessly upbeat.”
“You’d think she’d been taking lessons from Jilly,” Donal said. He raised his glass. “God save us from the excessively cheerful.”
They clinked their glasses together, finishing the beer in them. Hunter got up and bought the next round.
“She fancies you, you know,” Donal said when Hunter returned to the table.
Hunter blinked. “Who? Miki?”
“Who else? The Queen of bloody Sheba?”
Hunter didn’t know what to say. He’d never thought of her along those lines. But then he’d been comfortably in what he’d thought was a long-term relationship when he’d first really gotten to know her. Before that she was just this amazing little accordion wizard who’d sneak into the sessions when she was still too young to legally have a drink.
“Don’t worry,” Donal told him with a smile. “I’m not going to turn into some mad hard man to protect the honour of my little sister.”
“Well, she’s a bit young for me….” Hunter began.
“Ah, but she’s an old soul.”
Hunter shook his head. “So now what? Are you turning matchmaker?”
“‘Course not. I’m just looking out for the best for both of you. Don’t tell her I’ve said a word or she’ll have my bloody head.”
“I won’t,” Hunter told him.
So far as Hunter was concerned, just the idea of it made everything feel far too complicated to think about, never mind talk about. But of course, now he couldn’t notthink about it.
“How’s work going?” he asked to change the subject.
Donal sighed. “You know that new gallery down the street from your store?”
“Le Grand Corbeau Bleu,” Hunter said with a nod. “I’ve seen they’re hanging some of your work.”
“And that’s just lovely, except they’ve sold three pieces and I’ve yet to see a cheque from them.Now I’m as patient as the next man, their being a new business and all, but Jaysus, a man has to pay his own bills—do you know what I’m saying? It wouldn’t be so bad if I thought they were trying to put me off, because then I could go in and shout and carry on and all. But they’re so bloody earnest and broke….”
* * *
Donal left before either Hunter and Miki were ready to go. By twelve-thirty, the crowd had thinned considerably, though Hunter noted that the hard men were still in their booth. The music had changed now—not quite so frantic and showy. There were fewer musicians, the ones remaining being the better players. The music they drew from their instruments was as likely to be tender and heart-wrenchingly melancholy as uptempo, the tunes all much more intricate and twisty than what they’d been playing earlier. Miki would have had no trouble keeping up, but she’d put her box back in its case and the two of them had moved to a bench near the fireplace, close to where the musicians were playing. It still left them out of the circle of players, but they were now near enough to be able to listen to the music without the distracting noise of the pub’s remaining patrons.
They’d been sitting there for a while when Miki slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and gave him a contented smile. It seemed an entirely innocent gesture, but Hunter remembered what Donal had told him and an immediate awkwardness came over him. He could feel himself tense up and Miki was quick to pick up on the change.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. She leaned closer to him, keeping her voice low.
“Oh, right.” She squeezed his arm. “The muscles of your arm feel so tight it’s like you think you might catch a disease from me or something. So ‘fess up already. What’s the problem?”
“It’s nothing, really. It’s just….” Never mind what he’d promised Donal, Hunter decided. “Only Donal was saying….”
His voice trailed off but Miki shook her head and finished for him.
“That I have a crush on you.”
“Bloody hell. He’s doing that all the time. It’s his way at getting back at me for making his life miserable with what he calls my incessant practicing.”
Hunter knew an immediate relief. It wasn’t that he disliked Miki. Far from it. He simply wasn’t ready for any more complications in his life at the moment. Not when the ache Ria had left in his heart was still so raw.
“So you don’t….” Hunter began.
“I didn’t say that.”
He looked the question at her, but she only smiled.
“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she said.
“Shh. Listen. Isn’t that a beautiful air?”
It took a moment for Hunter to switch gears and pay attention to what the musicians were playing.He didn’t recognize the piece, but he loved the way one of the flute players interwove the sound of his instrument with that of Amy’s pipes.
When the musicians began another piece, a complicated jig, Miki gave Hunter’s arm another squeeze.
“About this business of who fancies who,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. Donal was only teasing you because he can be such a git and he wanted to get back at me.”
“And if I was teasing you, it’s only because you can get way too serious.”
She leaned back against the bench to listen to the music then, leaving Hunter to realize that she still hadn’t really answered anything. To confuse matters even more, he found that, as though the whole conversation had been a catalyst to make him focus on her and see her in another light, now he wasfeeling an interest in her. The borderland between friendship and something more had suddenly gotten all hazy and undefined, and he wasn’t quite sure where he stood in it anymore—or even where he wanted to stand.
The idea of being with Miki seemed to ease some of the hurt that Ria had left lodged inside him when she walked out of his life, but he couldn’t tell if this new attraction to Miki was real, or had come about because he was feeling lost and on the rebound. Perhaps it was part of both because, right now he was in a place where anybody, the first person he happened to meet, no doubt, could hold the roadmap he needed to lead him back to a place where it was possible to feel good again.And that wasn’t exactly the most positive thing upon which to base a relationship.
Hunter stifled a sigh. Donal owed him big time for starting up this whole complication in the first place.
He glanced over his shoulder and found his gaze drawn to the booth where the hard men were sitting. One of them caught his gaze, his eyes narrowing, and Hunter quickly looked away.
He supposed there were worse things that could happen. He could have those hard men decide to beat the crap out of him. Or the store could go belly-up and he’d have to declare bankruptcy.Instead all he had was an ache in his heart and this forlorn sense of confusion.
Miki gave him a little poke in the side.
“You’re doing it again,” she said.
“Thinking too much. Brooding. Trust me, I’m like a doctor. I know all about this sort of thing and it’s really not good for you. Tell the little voice in your head to shut up.Have another drink and just listen to the music.”
“Easier said than done.”
Miki sighed. “I know. But it’s worth trying because what’s your other option?”
“Just being depressed.”
She gave him a smile. “Exactly. And where’s the fun in that?”
“None at all,” Hunter agreed.
He looked at her for a moment, wondering what it would be like to kiss her, to feel the press of her body against his, to wake in the morning and have her impish face on the pillow beside him, smiling that smile. He almost leaned in towards her to taste that smile, but the moment passed. He reached down and plucked his glass from the floor at his feet. Taking a sip, he leaned back on the bench and tried to concentrate on the music.
Extract from Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint
Published by Tor Books, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by Charles de Lint
Reprinted by permission of the author.