Fiachra stepped off the packed commuter train and into the flow of commuters as they threaded their way through the barriers into the station. Even here on the platform the crowd was almost as tightly packed as the train had been.
He pushed the feelings of constriction and anxiety back into their box as his therapist had taught him. “Don’t let your emotions control you,” she had counselled. “Acknowledge them, embrace them and then put them away again.” Fiachra did this ritual each morning as he negotiated the space and time between the relative safety of his front door and the office cubicle where he spent much of his working day.
Today the crush of the crowd threatened to overwhelm his carefully prepared psychic defences. He pushed the surge of anxiety down into the pit of his stomach again as the compression in his chest threatened to constrict his breathing.
His heart raced as he passed the ticket barrier and exited into the open concourse beyond where his breathing began to return to normal. He heaved a huge sigh of relief as the exit appeared through the thinning crowd and the city beyond beckoned him into the steady grey drizzle of a November day.
His destination, a jumble of modern office buildings that cluttered the narrow streets near the Grand Canal docks. It was here that many hi-tech American multinational corporations made their homes. They crowded into the narrow streets one upon the other, each jostling to contain the vast matrix of finance and data that flowed beneath the burnished surfaces of steel and glass. Each one a tuning fork sending a signal across the city and the world, to other towers of glass and steel half a world away tuned to the same frequency.
It was here each morning that Fiachra joined thousands of others as they filed through the revolving doors and the metal detectors into the great concrete guts of the modern high technology business machine.
Fiachra’s job was found here, deep in the inner linings of the machine. Here he tended to a series of software algorithms as they pursued their mathematical endgame with relentless machine intelligence. Cold and impersonal the algorithm filtered and sorted, searched, partitioned, took the images and words it found and placed them in categories and taxonomies and so on and on down into the deep molecular level of language.
Fiachra tended to them as a shepherd might. Pushing them here and there to graze upon the vast shoals of krill-like data that welled up continuously through the digital channels and tubes designed by the company to harvest the web. It was an unending cycle kept afloat by the mass tithing of data extracted each day from its denizens. If he thought about it Fiachra would probably say he liked his job on the whole. Mostly it meant he did not have to interact with other people, who he found in the main to be confusing and unpredictable. Speaking with others often made the constriction in his chest so bad he thought he might black out.
Fiachra pushed through the crowds that gathered about the squeeze points heading into the building where he worked; a tall imposing black tower of frosted glass and steel. It rose out of the tight-packed streets, towering over the artisan cottages built for the canal and dockworkers in days past.
Today there was a commotion at the entrance. Overnight a homeless man had made his bed in the lee of the building, creating a makeshift den of cardboard and plastic to ward off the bitter cold of the November night. This sort of was common now. Not a day went by when Fiachra didn’t step over a sleeping form huddled in a doorway, or a lost soul crouched against the cold, a paper cup or other receptacle held out in solicitation. These men and women were almost invisible now. Unreal citizens who had once slipped between the cracks and washed up upon the lonely shores of the lost. No place, no home, nowhere to go, piled up against the city’s edges in untidy, unknown numbers.
Security was tight here at the Tower. Twenty-four-seven surveillance. No rough sleepers, no folks allowed to stay in, or around the curtilage of the buildings, no exceptions. Fiachra had never seen a homeless person here, until now. Today something was different. This old guy was someone new. Fiachra hadn’t seen him around before. He had a different look in his eyes. They weren’t downcast, there was fire there, and something else. Fiachra recognised it as fear.
Frank, the head of security and two of his burly cohorts were edging around the man as he stood half clothed, clutching a threadbare Lidl bag to his emaciated chest. The shock of his pale skin against the grey winter light was disturbing.
“Get away from me!” the man shouted in alarm, his arms waving in agitation.
“Take it easy now auld son, the guards are on their way. Just get your stuff together now and move along. There’s no trouble to be had here.”
“Leave me alone!”
One of the security men made a move towards the Lidl bag.
“Leave it!” screamed the man swinging it in a wild arc.
“No need for that. Calm down now,” said Frank opening his palms outwards with practised ease and distracting the old man for a moment.
The two other men took the opportunity to rugby-tackle him to the ground. The old man went down in a jumble of stick-thin limbs and ragged clothing, screaming all the time in a hoarse voice strained and cracked from lack of use.
No place, no home, nowhere to go, piled up against the city’s edges in untidy, unknown numbers.
The crowd shuffled passed nervously, eyes downcast, not wanting to bear witness to the scene unfolding before them. Intent on getting to their workstations within the building. Fiachra went with them, willing himself to be lost in the crowd of souls. He was almost past the distressing scene when a stick-thin hand snapped out from beneath the two security men and fastened itself around his ankle like a band of steel.
“Jesus!” Fiachra leapt backwards, but the hand held fast. The old man was looking up at him, imploring.
“Help me sir. Don’t let them take me away. Don’t let them get me.”
“Up you get now and no more of your messing,” said Frank, hauling the man to his feet. He turned to Fiachra.
“Sorry about that sir,” he said, gently pushing Fiachra out of the way, “I need you to go inside now so we can deal with this gentleman.”
“Yeah, sure no worries,” Fiachra mumbled as they bundled the old man away towards a Garda van that had materialised by the entrance.
Fiachra went inside and watched as they handcuffed the old man and placed him in the back of the Garda van. It was only as the doors began to close that he realised he was holding the plastic Lidl bag in his hands.
Fiachra looked at the bag in horror. God almighty what was he doing with this thing? He thought of the filth and stench of the man downstairs. The indescribable smell of him, piss and garbage and human filth. He shuddered and looked around, but no one in the elevator was looking at him. He’d take it straight back down when the elevator stopped and give it to Frank, or the guards, but a glance at his phone told him he was already late for the morning stand-up meeting. Lunchtime, he’d bring it back down, or send a message down to Frank in reception.
Lunchtime came and went. Fiachra ate at his desk as usual and spent his day deep in the weeds of some obscure part of the algorithm that was not behaving itself in a logical fashion. It was only when the day was done and the sun was long sunk behind the rounded backs of the Dublin mountains that he brushed his foot against the bag he had concealed under his desk.
It was late, the office was deserted, still Fiachra knew he would be a fool not to think they were not being monitored in other ways covert, or otherwise. He packed up his laptop and took it and the bag into the bathroom. There in a stall he sat with the plastic bag on his lap. It was fastened at the top with a piece of twine. He was surprised to find that it did not smell bad, in fact, apart from a strange aroma of mustiness and tobacco it did not appear to smell of anything much at all. He felt his fingers itch at his sides.
‘No. This does not belong to me. I should leave it at reception, or better yet throw it in the trash bin on the way out. That way no one would know.’
His reverie was broken by the sound of the twine peeling away from the bound handles of the bag. He realised with horror his fingers had untied the knot of their own volition. He stared at the hands that had betrayed him. Then he felt the bag move. He screamed aloud and was out of the stall faster than a scalded cat, where he promptly slipped on the the newly mopped tiled floor and knocked himself out cold on the edge of the sink.
Fiachra came to on the bathroom floor feeling like someone was pushing his eyeballs out of his head from the inside. His head throbbed with a painful pulsing motion. He raised a hand to his forehead to inspect the damage. A lump the size of an egg now resided on his temple. Fiachra groaned and wondered if he could reach his anti-anxiety medication from his current position. He couldn’t and crawled into sitting position where he was noisily sick into the wastepaper bin. In another couple of minutes leveraged himself into a standing position using the sink. When his vision cleared he caught sight of himself in the mirror and screamed.
Instead of smooth freshly shaven cheeks his face and chin now sported a thick black beard obscuring much of his features and reaching down his chest to the nipple line. Screaming aloud he grabbed handfuls of the thick hair and pulled at it. Pain blossomed on his cheeks, the hair was real and the hair grew straight and true from the follicles of his face. Panic constricted his chest and he could not breath.
He tore frantically at his face ripping handfuls of the beard hair out by bodily force. The pain was excruciating, but he was in a full-on panic attack now. The handfuls of hair fell into the sink and clogged the drain. He gasped in relief as he saw the familiar curve of his own features appear beneath the clumps of torn-out hair. Then with a growing horror he saw the hair began to rapidly return until the beard had regrown to its former length within seconds. He tore at it again and again until blood ran down his forearms and the sink filled with hair. Still each time the hair regrew within seconds. Finally he collapsed against the hairdryers and weeping, sank to the floor.
It was much later when he zipped his hooded winter parka about himself and collected his belongings, including the now-empty Lidl bag, and left the bathroom.
He found Frank in reception, lounging against the front desk and chatting to the night security man.
“Ah, yes? Is that yourself Fiachra? Cold tonight are you?”
“Um, yeah. Listen the old guy from this morning what happened to him?”
“The auld lad? The guards held him for awhile until the ambulance lads got here. I expect he was sent over to the Mater to sleep off whatever he was on.”
“Right, yeah. Do you know, er, do you know where I could find him now?”
Frank raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Why do you want to do that now?”
“Ah, just you know, I wanted to give him this back,” he indicated the Lidl bag now crumpled under his arm.
“How’d you get that?” said Frank, serious now.
“Give that here now. The guards will be looking for it.”
“I thought they let him go?”
“What? No. I mean yeah. Listen I need that for the report. Give it here now there’s a good lad.”
Beneath the parka Fiachra felt the beard thing on his face rise up like the hackles of a dog. He felt a chill of ice in stomach. The panic was there again, as always, threatening to come on. He opened his mouth to speak and to his horror heard himself say: “No, I think I’ll hang on to it all the same and bring it back to the auld fella myself.”
“Don’t be silly now son,” said Frank, stepping towards him with his hands outstretched.
Fiachra was wise to that trick now and stepped to the side as the night security guard barrelled past him into the potted plants. Adrenaline poured into him as he turned and sprinted from the building ignoring the cries to stop. He was sure he felt the beard thing growl with delight as they ran on into the darkness and the steadily falling rain.
Finding the old man proved more difficult than Fiachra expected. There were homeless everywhere when you were trying to avoid them, Fiachra thought, but now he was trying to find an individual he didn’t know where to start. Figures huddled in doorways swathed beneath heaps of blankets and sleeping bags, or beneath makeshift cardboard coffins. The rain fell endlessly, turning the world into a dismal wet fog.
Fiachra could not bring himself to disturb the sleeping figures, if sleeping they were in these unbearable conditions. Their solitude then, interrupting their private pain and solitude was a bridge too far for him. Besides he felt hungry now after the adrenaline rush. Famished in fact. A gut-deep hunger had settled into his bones, one that made him feel like a great hole had formed in the pit of his stomach and was pulling in the surrounding organs to consume them.
“Jaysus I could eat a nun’s arse through a convent gate,” he exclaimed and clapped his hands over his mouth in horror.
A passerby looked askance at him. He mumbled an apology and stumbled through the door of the nearest establishment, a chip shop.
“What’ll it be?” said the cheery-looking older gent behind the counter.
“I’m feckin’ starvin’, gimme a cod and chips, a batter burger and a battered sausage.”
The older man raised an eyebrow.
“Food for the working man. Give us a minute then.”
To his intense embarrassment Fiachra found himself salivating profusely at the sight of the steaming pile of food placed in front of him.
“That’s A one boss,” he said and ploughed into the burger with a vengeance, slurping it down in a matter of moments. The chips went next slathered in vinegar and enough salt to cure a ham. He belched loudly and wiped a greasy hand over his beard.
“Do you want try a spice bag before you go?” said the gent behind the counter.
“Spice bag, it’s a new thing we’re doing.”
“What’s in it?”
“A bit of everything.”
“Sound. Give us two then.”
The man served up two bags full of deep fried scrapings from bottom of his fryer. Fiachra’s eyes widened at the sight of the brown bits of crispy grease, potato and burnt burger odds and ends that poured into the bags, liberally “spiced” and handed over.
Beneath the parka Fiachra felt the beard thing on his face rise up like the hackles of a dog.
Fiachra grabbed a handful of the fried mush. The taste was incredible. Like the deep-fried tips of God’s tears. His eyes widened again and pupils dilated as the “spice” began to do its work on his arteries.
“Jesus, Mary and St. Joseph,” he gasped. “It’s amazing.”
The chipper man looked on in wonder as the bearded man covered in grease and eating handfuls of spice bag staggered out into the night. The full moon often brought them out he mused.
Fiachra arrived at the shelter as it opened for the night. A line of men and women huddled against the cold waiting their turn to enter the nondescript building in front of them. A building he had passed a hundreds times before on his way to work. He worked his way along the line searching for the old man without success. He wasn’t in the line. He approached the man at the door.
“Back to the end there son,” said the kind-faced, but weary man at the door.
“I’m looking for someone,” said Fiachra barely registering the man had thought he was homeless himself.
“It doesn’t work like that, queue up like everyone else, there’s good fellow.”
“No, I have something for someone, I need to find them.”
“Back to the end of the queue,” said the man, anger in his voice now.
Fiachra gave up and decided to try a more direct tack. He started at the head of the queue asking each person if they knew of the old man with the Lidl bags who slept up by the Grand Canal docks. He’d almost given up when a small mousy-haired young woman, with tired eyes too old for her age spoke up.
“Whatcha’ want with Cappy?”
“Cappy? You know him, is that is name?”
“Cappy, The Captain, yeah, that’s what we call him. Auld fella with a beard, lots of bags.”
“That’s him, I think. Do you know where I can find him?”
The girl considered for a moment and then seemed to think better of it.
“Why?” she said, suspicion clouding her voice. “What you want him for?”
“I have something of his, I’d like to give it back to him.”
“Give it here, I’ll get it back to him.”
Fiachra unconsciously clutched the bag closer to his chest.
“No, it has to be in person.”
The girl’s features clouded over.
“Well I ain’t seen him then,” she said, turning away.
Disheartened Fiachra began to trudge away into the rain. The next shelter was over the other side of the city. He might make it there in twenty minutes of hard walking.
“Hey mister, I know that fella you’re looking for.”
Fiachra turned to see a short youth in a dirty hoodie and the same tight, wary expression Fiachra had come to recognise.
“Can you take me to him?”
“Yeah, sure. I know where he sleeps most nights.”
“Where’s that then?”
“What’ll you give me?”
“A thank you?”
“Can’t eat thank yous.”
“Yeah, fair enough. Take me to him and I’ll give you twenty euro ok?”
The youth wiped the back of his hand across his dripping nose and nodded.
They set off into the rain, the youth’s head bobbing back and forth scanning the street for threat or opportunity. Fiachra’s attention was so intent on the boy before him he did not see the two men peel off from the queue and follow them into the rain.
The boy led him on a circuitous route through back alleys and streets unknown to Fiachra in his train and bus journeys traversing the city. The boy moved quickly across the urban landscape, at home in his surroundings, but always on the alert. “I don’t know this way,” he said as he puffed along trying to keep up.
“It’s not far now, just down this street. We’ll cut across the courtyard here and be there in a minute.”
He took Fiachra down a narrow road set behind two blocks of flats forming a natural wind break and blocking out the illumination from the street lights. It was then Fiachra heard the sound of approaching footsteps behind him.
“Give us what’s in the bag mister,” said the youth, stepping away from him in the weak sodium light to reveal the gleam of a knife blade. The two other men arranged themselves on either side of Fiachra. They were older, with the dead eyes and grim expressions of professionals. Fiachra realised they had done this before, many times. This was work for them.
He touched his beard nervously and found it calmed him. The touch of his hand caused a little spark of static to leap between the tendrils of hair.
“You don’t want to do this lads, believe me.”
“Yeah, we do mister, now hand over the bag and your phone.”
The first man stepped forward brandishing a short-handled blade. Fiachra felt the static charge in the beard surge and a great hairy fist burst out of the centre of it and struck the man in the face. He let out a terrified yelp and dropped the knife. The other two took a step back in fear, unsure of what had happened in the half light, then with a glance they both came at him together.
Fiachra felt the beard suck inwards as if drawing breath and felt his muscles and sinews tense in response, his diaphragm and belly tight as a drum, then with an explosive sigh the beard struck out in both directions at once bowling the two attackers over and sending them sprawling into the road. They bounced up immediately, howling and took off into the night.
“Let that be a lesson to ye ye little bollixes! I hope ye die roaring!”
“That was magic,” said a voice behind him.
He whirled around fists up, but the beard stayed put. The careworn girl from the queue stepped out of the darkness.
“Yeah, it’s something isn’t it. I haven’t really got the hang of it yet. Do you know those guys?”
“Yeah, they do this a lot to the new fish.”
“There’s new folk in the queues every night now. They bring them down here and steal whatever stuff from them they can.”
“Right,” said Fiachra, feeling there was nothing more he could say.
“Cappy, you’re really looking for him then.”
“Yeah, this,” he indicated the beard, “is his, I think? At least, it was in his bag.”
The girl nodded, as if it was a perfectly normal thing to keep a sentient beard in a Lidl bag.
“He sleeps down behind the Supermacs off O’Connell street most nights. Try down there.”
“Thanks, and listen if there’s anything I can do.”
She shook her head.
“Just look after him ok. And open your eyes more often.”
“Oh, and the beard…”
“It suits you.”
Then she was gone and Fiachra was alone again in the dark with his beard. It appeared to be ‘asleep’ now, or whatever magic beards do in their off time. He pulled his parka closer against the rain and headed towards O’Connell street.
It was late when he got there, the streets thronged with revellers leaving the pubs and bars seeking solace for their fearsome hunger in the greasy embrace of batter burgers, chips and kebabs doled out from the many fast food outlets lining the wide boulevard.
Fiachra threaded his way past the throngs finding himself weirdly unconcerned by the crowds. Drunken crowds would usually push him closer to the edge of panic than the normal workaday commuting crowd, but tonight he felt different. Confident, the crowd seemed to part before him, as if it sensed his purpose. Also there was the beard. He could feel it now, giving him a sense of direction, an imperceptible tug toward a particular direction. It knew this part of town, it wanted to get somewhere.
The crowd parted before him like a shoal of fish before a larger predator. No one met his eye. Fiachra felt himself swell with confidence. He could get used to this. Perhaps he would grow his own beard when he got rid of this thing on his face. He passed the crowds and headed down the alley behind the restaurant. The smell of human piss was strong here and streams of it ran down the hotchpotch of cobblestones and tarmac that made up the patchwork road surface. It was cold here too, much colder than the main street. His breath frosted in the air and a thin rime of frost lay upon the rubbish dumpsters and the metal fire escapes of the buildings. It was then he heard a high scream in a familiar thin, hoarse voice. The beard sprang to life dragging him towards the sound.
He ran towards the screams, rounding the corner to see a dark figure hunched over the inert form of Cappy. The beard seethed with life, tendrils formed a halo about his head snapping with sparks of static.
“Get away from him!” shouted Fiachra.
The figure paused, then stood up quickly rising a head and shoulders above Fiachra. It was Frank, or at least something that used to be Frank, maybe.
“Jesus wept,” said Fiachra. “Frank is that you?”
The thing that was not Frank was pale, too pale to be human. In the moonlight its skin looked yellowed, like curdled milk, mottled and sick looking. Its arms, too long to be a man’s, extended downwards beneath the shredded remains of Frank’s security uniform to rest above the knee joints where the hands curled into large claws. It cocked its head to one side and regarded him with eyes that were all black, like a bird about to eat an insect. Then it opened a mouth lined with hooked teeth and spoke in Frank’s broken voice.
“Out late tonight little man?”
Fiachra felt the terror well up inside, panic clawed at his chest threatening to choke him. Darkness frayed the edges of his vision. ‘No, not tonight,’ he thought. ‘Not this time.’ He swallowed hard and placed a reassuring hand on the beard.
“I said, get away from him!”
The Frank thing leapt on him, clawed hands reaching for his throat, but the beard was faster. A great hairy fist smashed into the creature’s pale features. It cried out in pain and rage and scuttled backwards across the road.
Fiachra crouched beside the inert form of Cappy, never taking his eye off the thing scrabbling in pain across the cobbles.
“Cappy are you ok? Can you talk?”
“Oh God and baby Jesus.”
Fiachra almost wept with relief.
“You’re the man from the Tower.”
“Yeah, that’s me. I have your beard.”
“No time. The key. Have you got the key?”
“In the bloody bag with the beard.”
“What? No it’s empty.”
“Oh God we’re fecked then.”
“What does the key do?”
Fiachra felt a cold hard lump being pushed against his hand, he looked down to see the beard using a tendril of hair to deposit a brass key into his hand. The key was large and heavy. It looked like it was made to open a very large lock. It’s surface was tarnished and pitted with age.
Cappy sighed with relief and sank back against the wall.
“Oh, thanks be to Jaysus you’ve got it.”
“What do I do with it?”
“Do?” Cappy was incredulous. “You point it at him,” he indicated the nightmare Frank thing shambling towards them across the alleyway.
Fiachra suddenly knew what to do. He drew himself up and pointed the key at the approaching creature like a wand.
“Begone demon!” he commanded in his most imperious voice.
“Oh for God’s sake, what’s that supposed to do?”
Fiachra looked at the man lying behind him in the alleyway. He looked at the beard arrayed about his face and chest like a shield against the darkness. He looked at the key in his hand and the creature now ten feet away from him, triumph in its eyes. He remembered the games of his childhood, and the history of his city. He flipped the key around in his hand and pointed it straight out like a six gun.
“Bang, bang,” he whispered.
The creature stopped.
“No,” it croaked, and there was fear in its voice.
“That’s it son, you’ve got it!”
“Bang! Bang!” he said again, louder this time. The thing flinched like it had been shot and took a step backward.
Fiachra stepped forward and extended his hand to its full length.
“BANG! BANG!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.
The creature was flung backwards by an invisible force. Great ragged holes of daylight were torn through its centre. A smell of sulphur and rotten eggs poured from it and it screamed in agony, curling up like a moth in a flame. Within moments it was reduced to a foul-smelling black lump on the road, just another badly filled pothole.
“Well that was a turn up for the books,” said Cappy, “I see you looked in the bag.”
“Yeah. What’s happening to me?”
“It’s a long story kid, but you were bit by Ronnie Drew’s beard and I think it likes you now.”
“You’re in the web now son. The city has you and wants you kept close by. She’s hurtin’ right now, along with all the rest of us. She needs some special folks to help her out. Sometimes a city can’t wait around for folks to sort it out themselves. Sometimes she has to get “pro-active” like. Has to get back on her feet so she can help the rest of us. The city needs a champion. I couldn’t be that person, maybe you can.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Do? Just look around. There’s plenty to do, don’t wait to be told. Get stuck in.”
He looked up, the smoke-grey streets of the city spread out before him, a great patchwork of living stone. The rain drummed against the cobblestones from Templeogue to Temple Bar and he smelled smoke and diesel in the air. The distant chimes of the Luas bells rang the changes of the guard. This was his city, now more than ever. Time to get stuck in.