We’d passed Neary’s millions of times. It was about halfway between me and Tobin’s place outside our village. We’d often cycle by, either on the way to his house or mine, we loved a good talk about tractors, hay or turf, local football matches on Sunday afternoons. We’d be deep in these chats, freewheeling down the gentle slope alongside the old house, sometimes we’d let go of the handle-bars and hold hands just for the craic, I’d look over the gate where the path had once been, but you couldn’t see the track of it anymore.
There was no garden, the whole field surrounded it now. Some kind of plant had grown out of a chimney pot. The windows were all boarded up with stained plywood, the roughcast plaster was covered in patches of moss. The front door was rotten black near the base.
An electricity cable had been attached at one stage to the corner of a gable at the top of flat cornerstones which were speckled white on the grey. The original entrance gate was still hanging, almost covered with briars from the hedge on either side, they’d grown wild over box hedge. The gate had been white once. Through the thorns, I could see all that was left were scraps of paint on the flaking frame.
To the right of the rough hedge, a galvanised gate and concrete post had been installed by Slattery, the farmer who owned it now, for cattle access. Tobin told me Slattery had bought the place cheap at auction when the old man died. Tobin’s father had reckoned Neary and Slattery were great friends when they were younger but had fell out.
There’d probably been a path around the house, but that was gone too. At one end, a concrete tank was connected to the house by a long rusting channel which was designed to run water off the roof gutters. The channel was twisted from years of shaking wildly in the wind, it often rattled as we passed, now it was turned sideways, its days of collecting water long over.
Once, the water that flowed into the tank was used for washing. Through a big gap in the front, you could see it was almost empty, there was just a green scum of algae along the bottom. Part of the sides had fallen away, plaster had come off in lumps, crumbling clusters of stone and weakening concrete hung to the exposed edges.
Neary’s was in the corner of the field, beside a short line of tall thin trees. I didn’t know the name of them, they were probably some kind of palm.
Nobody knew much more about Neary, but Slattery was reckoned to be cross. He reared up on Tobin and his brother Johnny when he found them going through his land once. It was Tobin’s idea to go in and have a look around.
It was Sunday evening and I was broke again. I’d been on the session the night before and I’d every penny from the Saturdays in the mart cleaned out. I’d only got up an hour before, the hangover was just starting to clear. I’d came to McCoys with £3. I said nothing to the crowd drinking along the counter as I got the one pint I could afford. I went straight up the stairs to the games area.
It was set on a mezzanine floor, which overlooked the main bar. McCoy had renovated the whole place a few years ago, opening all the living quarters when he’d moved to his new house. He’d stripped away all the old plaster, polished up the stones and pointing. He’d decked the place out in antique posters, ads for drink and tobacco from decades ago, and loads of ancient ornaments, like a cloth bellows at one of the huge fireplaces, a pedal operated Singer sewing machine at the entrance and a gramophone perched on a shelf by the door out to the toilets. People reckoned he’d ran out of money near the end, because the bar counter and doors were all cheap factory stuff, and the stairs and railing around the games area were as shaky as hell and creaked anytime anyone went near them.
Upstairs, there was a pool table and a battered fruit machine in the corner which made a beeping noise every few seconds. The usual shams were around the table, Daley, O’Hara, Langan and a few other younger players. I’d just enough money left to buy into the Killer game that was starting up.
The lads down at the bar, the Tobins, O’Malley and few others, never came up to play pool, they stayed drinking at the counter all night. They wouldn’t fancy the risks of Killer. Winner took all. It was a pound in at the start. You don’t pot a ball, you’re out. There were no buybacks or second chances. There was £14 in pound coins in the pint glass on the edge of the table.
Seven lads got knocked out before the first rerack, including Langan, who sulked as usual. He’d had a fairly easy shot on a yellow, and he’d just snapped at it, she wiped her feet, but would go no further at the pocket. To make it worse, he’d left a soft one for O’Hara.
When Langan got sick of the fruit machine, he hung around me as the game went on. I knew he was hoping I’d make a mistake and we’d both be out. He was funny like that.
There were some great players still left in the mix, including the prodigy Moran, only twelve or thirteen, but very hard to get off the table playing one-on-one. It was no wonder, he went with his father all over the country to football matches and got to play pool all night every Sunday of the year. We cleared the table and took another 20p out of the pot for the next round.
‘You were lucky with that last one,’ Langan said, leaning against the railing. He took out a small plastic comb from a back pocket and carefully straightened his hair before slipping it away again.
‘It’s all pressure, whatever about luck,’ I said. ‘You want to watch yourself there, that railing he put in looks fair dodgy.’
Daley broke off. You were allowed an extra shot off the break, if you needed it, but he sank two yellows, making the field that bit narrower for his opponents.
‘She’s getting closer to me,’ Daley said, nodding at the pint glass of coins as he passed it.
Corrigan, one of the weaker players, was kissed on a red. He didn’t come to the pub that often, or play football even, he went to music or drama or something instead. There was no obvious shot. He was going out of the competition. He talked to one of the other younger lads about options and then just rammed it. It was the basic hit-and-hope, but there were champions of Killer made like that. One of the reds lifted in the air for a second, but none went down the pocket.
‘Hard luck, Tom,’ Langan said, but he wasn’t able to keep a big smile off his face. ‘You were in a bad spot there.’ Langan would have been as happy if the game was called off altogether for some reason. O’Hara took the cue from Corrigan, who blankly turned away and went downstairs.
We hid our bicycles behind the hedge and went around the back. Tobin and Johnny pulled off the plywood that had been tacked over the doorway. The door was long gone, only a few hinges remained, screwed to bits of blackened wood.
The smell of must came from inside. Langan took the lead, turning on the flash lamp he carried everywhere with him, shining it around the inside. There was a shuffling noise somewhere.
‘What was that?’ I said.
‘Probably rats in there,’ Langan said, stopping at the doorway.
‘Rats? I’m not going near any rats,’ Mary said. She often tagged along with me on Sundays when I’d meet up with the lads. She was a bit of a tomboy.
‘There’s no rats in there. There’s no food or heat. It was probably birds flying out. Come on!’ Tobin pushed past Langan and we all went inside.
‘Careful,’ Johnny said. ‘The joists under the floorboards might be rotten.’
It didn’t take Langan long to find out where the rotten timbers were.
‘Ouch!’ His foot had slid underneath the floorboards. ‘The floor is fecked. I could have busted me ankle! Ow!’ He slowly pulled his foot out, wiggling it carefully. He peered at it.
‘That’s just where the roof was leaking,’ Tobin said, looking up. ‘The rest is sound.’
The room had one window front and back, a low timber ceiling painted brown, which was still in fairly good condition, apart for the damp patch under which Langan had slipped. There were side doors at each corner. Light came through spaces in the plywood, and around the edges of the windows. It was still fairly dark, but the opening of the back entrance threw a bit of the day around. To our right, there was a huge fireplace, with three big kettles tossed in the hearth. Near the front window, there was a long narrow table and a few chairs.
Mary was there, looking through dockets, pictures, rags, jugs, ceramic cups, a frying pan, a pair of spectacles.
On the walls, there were layers of different patterned wallpaper, in some places the bare plaster was exposed, other sections near the bottom were rippled in brown bubbles.
A cracked mirror hung over the thin mantelpiece beside a stained Sacred Heart portrait. The red light in front hadn’t been lit for a long time. The shelf didn’t have much on it, a short thick candle, part of a butcher shop calendar, an empty box of matches, one half of a small scissors.
There were clothes, a pair of corduroy trousers, long johns, a blue suit jacket, a long beige coat and numerous boots strewn all over the floor. There was also a shovel, some broken picture frames amidst shards of glass, a few battered wooden fruit crates, stacks of dusty cards, letters and torn newspapers.
I went straight to these last piles, finding a notice from the Health Board dated thirty years before, approving an application for a hearing aid. There was a driving licence, an electricity bill, a herd number card.
Johnny looked at the three kettles, while Tobin and Langan went around the other rooms. Two were flooded and one was locked. They were in the fourth room, beside the front door. Langan came out and came over to the pile in the middle of the floor. He picked up a docket. ‘Marital status: Single. He was a single man,’ Langan said. ‘Did you find any money yet, Malone?’
I went over to the room Tobin was in. It was brighter, the window was intact and not boarded over. The floorboards had all collapsed. Tobin looked up at me, standing on the subfloor. I stepped in carefully. The remains of a mattress were jammed into a narrow wireframe bed. Half of the foam was eaten away, decaying springs pointed upwards. ‘What happened the mattress?’
‘Mites,’ Tobin said.
‘This was his bedroom.’
‘A long time ago.’
The walls had peeled away like in the big room. There was one brown tinted photo of an old woman hanging on the wall. To the left, there was a small fireplace with a black hearth, the grate looked in fairly good condition. ‘We could light a fire in here.’
‘Bird’s nest in the chimney probably,’ Tobin said.
Tobin rubbed his hand along the window board, which was glossed white. The paint hadn’t peeled. At one end, there was a small photo in a round frame, lying flat. Tobin took it up. The pic-ture was of a young woman and a boy, black and white with an oval border.
‘Must be part of the family,’ I said.
‘Not anymore. Hey−,’ a large black insect ran along the window board. Tobin rapidly lifted the picture and banged the end of the frame on the running creature, squashing it. He hammered the remains repeatedly, until there was just a black stain on the white gloss.
Daley was out of the game. He’d tried a tricky cross table, coming from the bottom left to double a tight cushioned yellow into the left middle, but he’d gotten the angle all wrong. O’Hara had left him with little option, he’d had a fairly simple red and deliberately hit it with pace to leave the white ball down the empty end. Most people were happy enough to pot and stay in the competition, but O’Hara was tricky.
Daley wasn’t too happy with how he’d been knocked out, but there was nothing he could do. He put his hands in his pockets and went over to the fruit machine, where Langan was again, now making out he was ‘cleaning up’, although I hadn’t heard the jackpot chime or seen any money coming out of the tray below.
I had a simple red to the middle. I stroked it home handy enough, careful with the cue ball, if that went down, you went down with it. There was one second of relief after you potted to stay in the game, and then it was straight back to worrying about what kind of shot you’d be left with next time, if any.
I sipped my pint, there wasn’t a lot left of it now even though I was drinking a good bit slower than usual. The pressure of the game was getting worse.
Next thing I’d gotten to the final, me and O’Hara were all that was left. Everyone that had been knocked out had cleared off downstairs, except Langan and Daley. There was a good crowd now in the bar below. I saw Mary and her girlfriends had arrived. I knew they’d have a mineral before getting the bus into town and the disco, with most of the others downstairs. I was relying on the Killer pot to keep my night alive.
Things looked good at the moment. O’Hara was facing a fairly difficult shot, a long distance, slightly off-line yellow, to the bottom right corner. He’d probably get it, but I had some hope. He chalked the cue slowly, as he discussed strategies of pace with Daley. They checked the angle a few times, holding the cue in a line over the yellow to the pocket to try and figure out the best part to hit with the cue ball.
I held my breath as O’Hara took aim. I hoped the yellow would bounce back out of the pocket, and the pound coins bounce into mine.
But he stroked it home neatly. I felt my body get heavy again. There was nothing on, two stupid reds lay away up at the top, tight to the cushion.
‘Hard luck, Malone.’ O’Hara smirked, as he headed toward the pint glass trophy of pound coins.
‘Hang on, he’s to take his shot first,’ Langan said.
‘Some chance,’ Daley said, but O’Hara, still smiling the winner’s grin, stood back from the table and waited.
‘Sure I’ll give it a lash,’ I said and carelessly took aim, smashing the cue ball at the red, a vague notion of putting side on the white to somehow double the red into the bottom left corner. But it just bounced all over the place, before dropping into the top right.
‘You said your prayers this morning,’ O’Hara said and groaned.
The wild shot had knocked out the other difficult red, which O’Hara slotted away in the centre. It was time for another rerack, another 20p out of the pot, but I was just glad to be still in the game.
‘You got lucky there,’ Langan said, as O’Hara racked up.
‘You need some luck. O’Hara was lucky himself a while back.’
Daley went to the top of the stairs, then looking back at the table, leant against the creaking railings and awaited my break off.
‘Knock just one ball out and leave him with nothing,’ Langan whispered to me. But that was a strategy I’d seen go badly wrong before. You could end up with the loose ball along the cushion in no-man’s land, and you the same.
I put the cue ball on the centre spot of the semicircle at the top of the table. I took aim and smashed the pyramid of balls open, the reds and yellow zoomed around the green cloth, each one on their single path.
Three reds found their way down a pocket. But O’Hara’s shot was easy and now it didn’t look too good for me. There was nothing on. Daley smirked.
Langan stood over a red tight at the cushion below the right middle.
‘You’ve a cross table there.’
‘That’s never going to drop. Look where the white is. It’s just like the one Daley missed before.’
‘He got the angle wrong.’
The white was again near the bottom right corner, this time also quite close to the cushion.
‘Hit it straight on, I saw that working before,’ Langan said.
O’Hara and Daley stood back, near the beeping fruit machine. The red was the only option. To make it that bit more awkward, when I tested the cueing action, the cue ball was so near the cushion that I had some problems getting the tip of the cue to reach the exact centre of the white.
I tested the angle sightline with the cue. I took up the cube of blue chalk and chalked the tip. My hands were sweating as I took aim. I pointed the cue at the centre of the white, then looked straight at the red. My throat was dry.
I stroked the cue ball through. It slowly hit the red straight on. The red sprung across the table, somehow dropping sweetly into the middle pocket. I couldn’t believe it. I’d got the angle perfect.
‘That’s what I should have done,’ Daley said.
O’Hara shook his head slowly. I handed him the cue. He took it as though it was poisonous. He dried my sweat off it with his jumper. There was nothing on. The white had finished up the table, beyond the semicircle, the remaining balls in a useless cluster down the bottom. He talked with Daley for a few moments, but no strategy could save him now. O’Hara had been Killed.
Eventually, he just jammed the cue ball, maybe hoping for some of my luck, but this time it lifted from the force, just grazing the balls, rising higher, banging against the stone wall behind, bouncing on the wooden floor, rolling through the railings and down to the bar below.
We began to tidy up. Tobin had found a brush under the blue suit jacket and had started sweeping, while me, Langan and Johnny put everything into the fourth bedroom. Mary was filling the fruit crates with small items to speed the job up. ‘Ugh!’
We ran over to her. There was a rabbit in between two of the crates, lying still in the arms of a torn white shirt. The animal was caught in a triangular shard of glass, probably from one of the broken picture frames. There was a pool of blood around it.
‘See, I told ye. I knew I heard something,’ Langan flicked on his flashlamp again, shining it on the scene.
‘He’s not there long,’ Johnny said. ‘He must have tried to run when we came in.’
‘Yeah, straight into that piece of glass,’ Tobin said.
‘You mean we killed it? Oh no, that’s awful. Poor thing,’ Mary said.
‘Is it definitely dead?’ I said.
‘As a doornail,’ Tobin said. He took the shovel and scooped up the carcass. The blood dropped on the floor as he went out the back. He tossed the rabbit far into the field.
They started cleaning again. Tobin gathered the bloodied shirt up with the shovel and dumped it into the bedroom.
It didn’t seem right to leave the rabbit to rot outside, especially seeing as we’d caused it. I took the shovel and went out the back. I dug a small hole near the water tank and buried the animal, patting down the scraws over it. I said a quick prayer.
‘What are y’at, Malone?’ Langan said, his head between two sheets of ply over the broken back window. He shined his flashlamp at me, it looked weird in the daylight.
Inside, everything had been dumped into the old bedroom. Johnny finished off the sweeping, tossing the last of the dusty debris into the hearth. He picked up one of the kettles. ‘We’ll make the tea!’ he said, and laughed. Langan and Tobin straightened out the long table, dragged it into the centre of the room. We fitted the few chairs around it.
The cue ball bounced high on the counter below in front of the Tobins and O’Malley. Tobin grabbed it as it rolled by them. They all looked up at the railings.
‘Ooops!’ O’Hara said. He came around the table and shook my hand.
‘I better go and get it,’ Daley said, heading for the stairs.
‘Do you want to get me a pint while you’re down there, McCoy is a bit iffy about serving me more than the one these days,’ I said, as Langan poured the pound coins into my sweating hand.
Langan wanted to play now. He’d already dropped 20p in the slot and was loading the yellows, reds and lone black into the wooden triangle. ‘Where is Daley with the cue ball?’ he said, as he positioned the rack a little up from the base cushion. I looked over the railing. Tobin held the cue ball aloft and was talking to O’Malley. Daley stood in front of them, waving his hands about. McCoy passed Daley my pint, saying something and pointing to the railings.
‘Oh look, there’s a spare here,’ Langan said, pulling a white ball from the tray at the top of the table.
I chalked the cue and broke off, the pyramid scattered. A couple of reds dropped.
‘Your luck is in tonight Malone,’ O’Hara said, putting 20p on the side cushion. He would play the winner. A few young lads came up, hearing the Killer game was over. Some put coins on the table. If you kept winning you could play for free all night.
‘This is a way better, a normal game, that Killer is too much pressure,’ Langan said, as he took the cue after I missed a long red. ‘You can’t beat a black ball finish.’
‘You have to be able to handle the pressure,’ O’Hara said.
‘Hmm. I’m on yellows? Let me see…,’ Langan chalked his cue.
We sat at the table in the centre of the room. There were just enough chairs. Me and Tobin were the oldest, we were at the top. Langan and Johnny were next, with Mary at the end. It was Langan’s idea that we all carve our names and the date into the surface. We passed his penknife around as we chipped them out.
We agreed we’d hold weekly meetings in Neary’s, make plans about day trips, football matches, sports days, whatever. We’d bring sandwiches and flasks of tea on Sunday afternoons. If we could clear the chimney, we might even light the fire. It was our house now.
‘They won’t give me back the cue ball. And McCoy wasn’t too happy about it coming down on top of him either,’ Daley said, returning with my pint. ‘Here’s your change, he said he hoped that wasn’t for you, one’s your limit after last week.’
I sank a third of the cold black stout, fresh against my dry throat – lovely. I warmed. It’d be a good night now.
Langan had settled on a long and difficult yellow. The Tobins and O’Malley arrived at the top of the stairs as he cued.
‘Ye are a bit rough with the cue ball,’ Tobin said, bouncing the white around in his hands. He and the others had a few on them already, I could see.
‘It’s not hurling, girls,’ Johnny said.
‘Fair dangerous, like.’ O’Malley stopped near the beeping fruit machine.
Langan stood up from the table. He still hadn’t taken his shot.
‘Are you playin’ or posin’ Langers?’ Johnny said.
‘Posin’ I’d say,’ Tobin said. ‘Look at the comb in the back seat. Some excuse for a man, hah?’ He tossed the white on the table, it hit two reds, messing up the game.
‘Hey.’ Langan stood the cue beside him.
‘What’s up with ya?’ O’Malley stood over Langan.
‘You nearly hit us with the cue ball,’ Johnny said behind Langan.
‘I didn’t…,’ Langan said.
‘It was my fault. It was an accident. Sorry, lads,’ O’Hara said.
I took another swig of my pint. ‘You didn’t need to mess up our game,’ I said, walking along the railings toward Tobin. Tobin turned to me, took a step, dragging his hand along the table, through a cluster of reds and yellows.
‘Oh, sorry, sorry. It was an accident.’
‘Ye’d want to cop on a bit.’ I stood in front of Tobin.
‘Hey Langers, you’d want to bring your friend home while he can still walk,’ Johnny said, coming behind me.
‘I’ll mess up more than your game…’. Tobin palmed me hard in the mouth.
Everyone was pushing and shoving, the pool cue hit off something, the wood split, I threw fists blindly, I heard McCoy shouting down at the counter, I lost my footing, I swung towards the railings, leant against them. I was sure they’d give way and I’d fall to the bar below.
‘Killer’ was first published in The Crazy Oik. Issue 30 (Summer 2016): 64-69 & Issue 31 (Autumn 2016): 53-59.
‘Killer’ also appeared in The Rainy Day, Penniless Press, 2018.
To learn more about Martin and find his other work, check out the Contributors Page.