Photo by Tony Webster (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Exberliner and The Reader proudly represent the second of three runners-up in our Berlin Short Fiction Award – James Carson's "Barry’s Big Moment". Each week, expect a new summer short story for your enjoyment. The winner, "This Story Is Probably Not About Coffee" can be found in our July/August double issue.
Barry Duggan jiggles his buttocks on the mattress and looks up.
He’s not sure what the night will bring; he’s not sure where he might end up. But he’s sure of one thing: aubergine is no colour for a ceiling.
He jiggles again. It’s not a bad bed. And it’s not a bad room. A bit on the small side, and the décor wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. But it’ll be grand, for just the one night.
And, who knows? If he gets lucky he might not even make it back to bed. Or, at least, not to this bed.
He certainly won’t be bringing anyone back. How would he explain himself to the one downstairs? Nice enough when she was checking him in, but he’s sure there’s a cold, hard bitch behind that smile. One wrong move and she’d turn him over to the Gestapo.
He starts to cough again and has to sit up. He reaches for the cough bottle and takes a swig.
"Ah! A very fine bouquet and not a hint of oxidation on the nose!"
He’s dying for a ciggy, but there’s been a mix-up with the booking, so he has a No-Smoking room. He can’t risk the wrath of Mrs. Hitler if he sets the smoke alarm off.
He considers dinner. If Eileen was here, she’d be insisting he eat something. But his appetite’s not been great. That Italian place on the corner looked all right, although he’d have to look up the German for pizza.
He reaches over for the little phrase book he bought at Dublin Airport. On the flight over, he’d been studying the section called "Getting to Know You". It seemed to cover every eventuality:
Hi, how are you, what’s your name, would you like a drink, what’s your star sign, shall we get some fresh air, you have a beautiful body/personality/eyes/hands/laugh, kiss me, I want you, take this off, touch this, don’t touch that, stop, don’t stop, do you have a condom, I can’t get it up, this is not going to work, I never want to see you again, piss off.
He looks up the index for gay. "Schwul," it says, which is nothing like gay. Schwul. He tries the word in his mouth.
He looks towards the cardboard door. Anyone going past could have heard him. But, sure, what would it matter? Isn’t he his own man here? Can’t he say whatever the feck he wants, do what he wants? And hadn’t it said in the Gay Community News that Berlin was an anything-goes kind of town?
He looks over at his reflection in the wardrobe mirror.
"Looking good, kiddo!"
He has his best rugby shirt on. Eileen had ironed it for him, which had felt a bit weird.
"It’s a stag do, Eileen, not a feckin’ fashion parade."
He’d felt bad after he’d said it. He hated lying to her. Especially when she’d been so good about him just taking off at short notice.
God love her, she’d even made him sandwiches for the flight. When she came through to the front room, she’d asked Barry did he want a yoghurt as well, and how long had he known the fella getting married?
"What fella? Oh, you mean, er, Phil?"
"Phil? I thought you said his name was Gerry."
He’d turned off EastEnders and told her it was definitely Phil, and they both went way back.
"Way back. Long before I met you. Long before I started working on the taxis, even."
She didn’t remember hearing about any Phil.
"You do! Remember I told you about the time he broke his arm after his coat got caught in the toilet door after he’d had too much to drink after his sister died. You must remember that!"
She didn’t. And why would she? It was all a load of old shite. It was just fortunate she was preoccupied with looking after her mother. Otherwise, she might have smelt a rat.
Anyway, she was happy he could get away for a bit. Sure, wasn’t he always too tired these days, what with driving the taxi all hours?
"Why don’t you call Leo," she’d said. "Tell him we’ll take him up on his offer."
"I will," he’d said, "As soon as I get back from Berlin, I will."
He will on his arse! Dubai? Jesus, he wouldn’t wish that on anyone. The heat would be ferocious. Insects the size of helicopters. And Leo showing off his big house and his three cars and his perfect kids and his Versace swimming pool, or whatever. No way was he ever setting foot in that feckin’ kip.
But his brother kept hounding him.
"Come on over," Leo would say, "And bring Eileen," he’d say.
Barry knew he was only calling to show off that he could afford to ring from Dubai.
"Come on over, Barry. I’ll cover the cost."
Barry was running out of excuses, though: Eileen’s mother not well, the taxi business going like a fair. Anyway, with a bit of luck, by the time he ran out of guff it would be too late altogether.
He thinks of Eileen again, making the sandwiches. God love her. She’d raised no objections to him going. He half wishes she had. He wishes he was at home now watching Fair City and eating his dinner.
He bolts off the bed.
"No I feckin’ don’t! Tonight is Barrytime! Tempus edax rerum!"
One of his Da’s sayings. A great man for the Latin.
‘Tempus edax rerum, son. Time devours everything! And don’t you forget it!’
And then, as if to underline it, as if to make sure Barry got the bleedin’ message, hadn’t his old man got lung cancer, not three years ago? Diagnosed at Christmas, dead by Valentine’s. Not that he knew, thank God. His mind had given up the ghost long before his body.
Barry swipes the cough bottle off the table, and using it as a microphone, he shimmies across the room.
"If you like my body and you think I’m –"
He stops abruptly as his gaze falls on himself in the mirror. When his Da bought it for him, just after Ireland won the Grand Slam, the rugby shirt had been a bit tight under the arms. But now it’s hanging on him. Eileen was right: he does look like a ghost.
He switches the television on and flicks through the channels. It’s all in German. And there’s no porn. He could do with a bit of porn to get him in the mood. He remembers the time when he really did go on a stag night, in the days when you could fly to Amsterdam for a fiver. Bongo Roche had taken them all to a club showing dirty movies. Then, after only five minutes, Bongo said,
"Right, lads, time to move on."
Barry was not impressed.
"Will you hold on? I want to find out how this one ends."
For some reason, they all seemed to think this was hilarious. What was so funny about wanting to find out what happens at the end?
He starts coughing again and heads for the bathroom.
There’s more blood tonight than usual. Or, maybe it just looks more in this little basin.
He looks at his face in the mirror. He doesn’t need to wait. He knows how this one ends.
It’s great to be outside. Just gone ten and still warm. He’s managed to dodge Mrs. Hitler on reception. He scuttled past while she was registering another inmate. No harm to the woman, but, Jesus, she’s hard on the eye.
He waits in the middle of the dual carriageway. The grass on the traffic island has been allowed to grow, and there are wild flowers scattered around the place. It’s like being in a summer meadow.
It’s really nice, this part of town. The apartments all have little balconies with lovely scrolls and pillars. And they’re painted in pinks and lemons, like Battenbergs.
And what a change from home. This time on a Friday night in Dublin was fuckin’ mental. It could be raining like a bastard and the young ones would be on the streets and off their faces: young fellas pissing up the wall, fat birds falling off their heels into the gutter, and everyone mouthing off like sailors on shore leave. Not here. Quiet as the grave. There’s not even a fella trying to bash a bookie’s door in with a dustbin. In fact, not even a bookie’s. How do they get by without a Paddy Power on every corner? It’s a queer town, all right.
He checks the little map on his phone. The bar is just round the corner. Of course, he’s been to the gay bars at home. But only to pick up fares; English tourists mostly, flootered after a night out in Dublin’s fair city. But he’d never go in for a drink. You never knew who you might see. Eileen’s sister’s cousin – Barry has always had his suspicions about Lorcan, especially after he started wearing pink socks. Or, somebody who knew somebody who knew Barry: Fergal at the butcher’s, Mattie the postman. Or – Jesus Christ – Father Lynch!
It was only after that fella had left a Gay Community News in the back of his taxi that Barry had even considered Berlin. "Ten Places To See Before You Die", was the headline. And this just a day after Barry got his diagnosis.
The window of the bar is all blacked out. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but the internet said if you were looking for a place to go for what Barry was looking for then this was the place to go. And wasn’t the internet right about most things? That hoover was still going strong three years after Eileen got it off Ebay.
Barry inhales and lets out a breath, and starts coughing again. When’s he’s composed himself, he presses the buzzer. Right, so. Here we go. A big moment in the history of Barry!
It takes a while to get used to the dim light. The place is not exactly salubrious. There’s the floor for a start. Sticky, like it’s harbouring Ebola. And overhead, a web of rusty chains and filthy camouflage netting. Just as well he wasn’t expecting cocktails at the Ritz.
He orders a beer from a grumpy barman and takes the bottle to a corner of the bar. Not without difficulty, he mounts a rickety barstool to observe the scene.
In the opposite corner, a young lad is playing a video game. Next to him, another guy is fingering his smart phone. There’s a clot of fellas at the bar, but they’re just looking at their phones as well. Everyone seems oddly subdued, as if they’ve been blasted with animal tranquilisers. Still, early days.
A figure emerges from the darkened doorway next to Barry. He looks about a million years old. As he shuffles past, Barry can see the man’s wrinkly arse is hanging out of the back of his leather trousers. Barry stares after him. Jesus, you’d need to be desperate.
On the video screen, porn is in progress. Barry’s arrived in the middle of it, and the sound is off, but he’s able to pick up the story. An insurance salesman in a midnight blue suit is entreating a potato-faced lad in a beetroot thong to consider the benefits of critical injury cover. Beetroot Thong is leering awkwardly. He seems to be unskilled in the art of making his face work. Midnight Blue is sweating, a condition amplified when Beetroot Thong seizes his crotch with his mouth. Within seconds both are naked, all thoughts of financial services discarded with their clothing.
"You know, I sometimes wish they’d take their time."
Barry looks round. A smiling guy is positioning himself on the neighbouring barstool.
"I like a bit of narrative, you know what I mean?" the man continues. "Something a bit more," he pauses to invoke the right word, "finessed."
Barry nods. He judges the man to be in his thirties, about two decades younger than himself. Barry smiles back.
"My thoughts exactly. I mean to say, two lads don’t just meet for the first time and get their kit off, do they? That’s just stupid."
Barry extends his hand.
"The name’s Barry. Do you want to get naked? Haha, only joking."
The man laughs and shakes Barry’s hand. "Nice one, mate. I’m Adrian."
English, by the sound of things, and that’s a strong grip he’s got. Barry reaches into his pocket.
"Oh, I really shouldn’t," says Adrian, and accepts the cigarette.
On the screen, Beetroot Thong is releasing the contents of an evidently full bladder on to Midnight Blue’s animated face.
"Now, that’s exactly what I mean," Adrian says. "I mean, can you imagine if I’d just said hello to you, and then you started pissing on me head?"
He pauses as a man in scummy jeans emerges from the dark room. His long, straggly hair is pasted into a matt, and he’s muttering to himself in German. He finds a place to roost at the bar, beneath an unflattering pool of light. He’s clearly wet himself.
"Jesus!" Barry nudges Adrian. "If you ever get to that stage, it’s time to take your marbles and get out the game."
"First time is it?" says Adrian. "You get all sorts in here. There’s a naked man roaming about downstairs. Watch out for him." He gestures towards the darkroom. "And brace yourself before going down there. It’s a bit... aromatic."
Barry takes a swig of beer. Adrian seems like a nice enough lad. If Barry invited him back, maybe he could smuggle him past Mrs. Hitler.
"So, tell me, Adrian, what line of business are you in?"
"She’s a trolley dolly," interrupts another man, who’s appeared from nowhere. He threads his arm through Adrian’s.
Adrian gives the other man a friendly punch.
"What have I told you! It’s space waitress." He leans into Barry, as if disclosing a secret, "Or galley dragon, which is my personal favourite."
"Galley dragon’s good," says Barry. He hasn’t a clue what the fella’s on about.
"So," says Adrian’s companion, ignoring Barry. "Has Cinderella forgotten we’re on the 6:40 to Dusseldorf?" He levers Adrian down from the barstool, "Come on, Cinders, time to hit that pumpkin."
Adrian turns and delivers a scorching kiss to Barry’s lips.
"My life is a fairytale."
Before Barry can respond, they waltz off towards the exit.
Downstairs, the first thing that hits Barry is the smell: a dank, clammy stench blended with something chemical.
As he becomes accustomed to the darkness, Barry senses he’s at the top of a slope, in a large, densely populated space. In the pit below, figures are moving in and out of Barry’s line of vision. It’s like Connolly Station at rush hour, only more... aromatic.
Sonic skirmishes are competing with the smell for attention. Snorkelling noises and grunts escape from behind closed doors. And at the centre of the space there are sounds that Barry cannot put a name to. This, he thinks, is more like it, and he plunges into the pit.
As he feels his way around, there are collisions and conjunctions, there is groping and fumbling. There are encounters too fleeting to be called brief. Eye contact is made and then unmade, a brush against becomes a brush-off. Behind a leather curtain there are threesomes, foursomes, moresomes. The heat and the stench are unbearable, and Barry loves it.
And then, a hand is on his arse. He feels the silky touch of a man reaching under his shirt. The hands struggle with Barry’s jeans, and then he feels his nutsack being tickled. Last time he had sex was with Eileen in 2004. Barry pushes Eileen from his mind. He closes his eyes and tilts himself against the wall. For a second, there is nothing. For a long moment, there is nothing. When Barry opens his eyes, he is alone with the stench of sweat and piss and stale beer and God knows what else. He’s philosophical. Plenty more fish, etc, etc. Jesus, but it’s warm down here.
Upstairs, he orders a beer. The bar has busied up and there’s more of a buzz to the place. "Zwei Euro fünfzig," says the barman, whatever that means. Barry reaches into his pocket for his wallet. There’s a stomach-sinking moment when he thinks it’s gone, but then he locates it.
Empty. Not a single note or coin. And his phone’s gone too. And his hotel key.
"The bastard! The evil, fucking –"
The barman is pointing to an overhead sign in five languages. ‘Beware of pickpockets’ Which is stupendously unhelpful to Barry.
He goes back to the rickety stool. His first bottle is still there. He takes a swig and starts coughing. It’s the same cough his father had.
He didn’t know what he was saying, especially towards the end. His mind had gone, and his eyesight followed it. But that last afternoon had been lovely. He’d read to his Da, one of his favourite westerns. Then they’d listened to some Sinatra. The sun was streaming in and lighting up the bedroom. And then, his Da had taken his hand.
"You know I love you, son. You know that, don’t you?"
"I do, Da, of course I do."
He’d squeezed Barry’s hand so hard, Barry didn’t know where the strength had come from.
"And I’m so proud of you, son. All you’ve done. You’ve made your old Da so proud."
"I know, Da. And it’s all thanks to you."
"No, son, you did it yourself. You’ve made yourself a life. You’ve gone out there and made something of yourself."
"Not like that waste of space of a brother of yours."
"Ah, no, Daddy, please don’t."
"He’s a little gobshite, do you hear me, Leo? Are you listening to me, Leo?"
"Da, it’s not..."
"He’s done nothing. Ended up in a shitty council estate with his useless wife. She couldn’t even pump out a grandchild. Not like you, son! You made your old Da proud. You know that, Leo!"
He didn’t know what he was saying. His mind was like porridge at the end.
It’s quieter downstairs now. The crowds have cleared and there’s just a few desperate stragglers hoping for a sympathy shag.
Barry sits on the edge of a sling.
And then, a skeletal figure has appeared, standing silently beside Barry. Barry’s about to say thanks, but no thanks.
"What is your fetish?" says Naked Man in heavily accented English. Barry shrugs.
"What is your fetish?" says Naked Man, and moves towards a cabin.
Barry looks after him and shakes his head. Jesus, but you’d want to be desperate.
Inside the cabin, Naked Man slides a boney finger down Barry’s face. He removes Barry’s shirt. There’s a bit of business with Barry’s nipples.
And then he has Barry by the throat. Barry’s choking, struggling, but Naked Man is strong. And Barry realises how far the cancer has gone. Back in the day, he could have taken this little shit. But now, he’s running on empty. He never thought this was how it would end.
Barry feels the man’s grip loosening.
"Tell me!" says Naked Man, "TELL ME! WHAT IS YOUR FETISH?"
It all makes perfect sense. Eileen, the cancer, the crappy nights driving drunken bastards home, Leo and his Taj Mahal house, the blood in the basin, his poor old Da. Barry releases a scream.
"Yes!" says naked man, "Again!"
"Again!" rasps Naked Man, "AGAIN!"
"TEMPUS EDAX RERUM, DA! TEMPUS EDAX FUCKIN’ RERUM!"
Outside, it’s almost first light. Always darkest before the dawn. Another of his Da’s stupid sayings. On the corner, there’s a napping taxi. Barry thinks about appealing to the driver. Brothers behind the wheel, and all that. But he knows he’d be on to a loser.
He rifles in his pockets for a ciggy. Nothing. His lighter’s gone as well.
When he looks up, he sees leather and fishnets and blonde and...
"Jesus, Mrs Hitler!"
"Mr Duggan? Has something happened to you?"
Barry considers how long it might take him to answer this question. He just wanted to try it, just one time. He just wanted to –
"Schwul," he whimpers.
She takes his hand and leads him towards the taxi.
"Why don’t we go somewhere more private and we can have a nice chat."
She pats his arm. "And, please, let us not be so formal. I will call you Barry."
She opens the taxi door. "And you must call me Markus."
A second of uncertainty is swept aside by a sweet surge of understanding, and Barry steps into the taxi.
James Carson is a writer from Glasgow. He was born next to an abattoir, which perhaps accounts for a lifetime spent butchering the English language. James has a masters degree in creative writing from the University of Glasgow, and his work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies. Last year, his story “A Monkey on a Horse” was included in the The Reader Berlin’s Streets of Berlin anthology of short fiction. James now lives next to a brewery, which perhaps accounts for his cavalier approach to punctuation.