Martin Jackson

Our different useless ways


One of the strangest things about the Irish pub was the collection of brass and tin and pewter tankards dangling from its ceiling, hundreds of them, all their handles held by screw-in hooks. When there was a through-draught, the street door opening when the door to the scrappy yard out back was already open, or when the singing and bar-thumping and foot-stamping rose on one of those nights an Irish folk band played, or when construction trucks thundered past on their way out to where the Olympics would be, you’d see them all move, shimmering and tidal, both graceful and dangerous looking.

It had another name but we called it the Irish pub because the owners, Pat and Ciara, were from Donegal, there were framed clippings about the Troubles and hurling on the walls, the Guinness was good, Taytos were 40p. It was near the Regents Canal, not far from the Stag’s Head where we’d played our first gig.

For a couple of years, we told one story involving the Irish pub more than any other. It wasn’t really about the pub, though what happened probably wouldn’t have had we been anywhere else that day. We told it – Stu especially, he told it the most – because we knew it would get a laugh.

Stu tripped his way through this one I can’t guess how many times, and that’s just when I was with him. That was Stu: he spoke fast and he stuttered, a lot. That he was called Stuart seemed deliberately cruel. His parents had died when he was seven, an upturned boat in the Dodecanese.

If we were already in the Irish pub, and Stu was telling it again to some of us who hadn’t been there that day, or to others we’d not met before whose drinking had overlapped with ours, you could just point or nod at things, or people, like Billy, the son of the owners. Billy was mid-forties, lived upstairs, out and flirty when Pat and Ciara weren’t around, an altar boy when they were.

Or he might be telling it in another country, which meant we’d have more work to do, needing to fill things in for him when he went for a drink or a piss, never seeming to get it when people weren’t following along in Baltimore or Anderlecht, Dresden or Glasgow. We did alright, had a few good years.

Once the scene was set, Stu came to the bit of the story where he’d angle for the first peak of the laughs. Kenny had been chatting with Billy at the bar for a while. Billy was taken with Kenny. Most were. Men, women, straight, gay, your mum, your gran, TV presenters. The fans, of course. Kenny was lead singer, guitarist, wrote the lyrics. Most times, I’ll be communing with the coastlines, because the land on which I stand, seems like a bad joke without a punchline.

He sang like no one else. American in how he went about it – mature, that big perspective – but the accent was pure London. He’d grown up on the Golden Lane Estate, dad Antiguan, mum white-Irish. He had skin, as one reviewer somehow thought to put it, ‘you want to lick’. We sent that reviewer a pair of Kenny’s well-worn underwear gaffer-taped to the licked-clean wooden stick from a Pistachio Magnum. He had the mind of a sewer, the patter of a stand-up, a gentler man you could not meet.

We’d been in the Irish pub a fair few times the weeks prior to what happened, waiting for the new album to come out, and that day Billy was more lost than usual in whatever Kenny told him, pouring him a whiskey every time he went to order, just to keep him up there a minute or two longer.

Early-ish, sun not yet down, late summer, I’d been trying to get some ideas for new tracks down on Modafinil before we met, so wasn’t quite able to feel drunk. Then Kenny spotted that the whole lot of us were at or near the bar: the four from the band, our closest friends, no one out smoking, or around the pool table, or in the toilet. So Kenny asked Billy to get everyone a whiskey, rambled a little speech about how good it was to see us all there together. It was no one’s birthday, no other kind of occasion, but he was right, it was good to be there, in the city we all lived, nowhere else for us to be. It felt rare, lucky.

I was next to Stu at the bar, Kenny next to him, we agreed on nine Laphroaig including one for Billy, who started pouring as we dug for money. The bottle ran out just before the last, so Billy wheeled out his little stand, the kind you see in bookshops or libraries – we’d met studying American literature together, we used to read so much – and reached up for the top shelf. As he came back with the full bottle he frowned and, looking where he was looking, there was Kenny grinning at or through us, all the glasses in front of him empty.

You daft fucker, I said to Kenny.

What? Kenny said, what? the drink already glimmering across his blue eyes. And here’s where we get the incredulous nooooos, the he-couldn’t-haves, and fair play, because we could barely work out how he’d done it. But he was always moving, Kenny, touching your arm as he spoke, pointing at things he’d noticed, sparking his Zippo, tapping out rhythms, strumming dusty light beams, picking at the frayed edges of the idiot fabric of the world he’d landed in, so we’d just not noticed his darting hand, his ducking head.

Not knowing what else to do, Stu and me agreed on another round, handed over some amount that was too much but would have been more if it hadn’t been Billy.

Where’s your man gone then? Billy asked as he came back with our change. Oh, he said, looking down.

Kenny hadn’t fallen, we would have heard him hit the ground, but he was on the floor. Conscious, just lying on his side on the floorboards. Not foetal, not straight. A dreamy look on his face, chuckling about something.

Get up, Kenny, we told him, laughing too. Get up mate, come on.

He couldn’t, or didn’t want to. It was a state of bliss he was in. He’d found that place we were all looking for, in our different useless ways. Where it was he went grasping for those nights when Neesha would message each of us, then call, asking if we were with him, where we’d last seen him, hours after we’d all gone home.

It was the white noise of grace he was after, he told me once, those nights and mornings he spent wandering. Sometimes he remembered where he’d been, sometimes only glimpses. The ticking engine of the parked car he crawled under to hide from the rain. The bench overlooking the wetlands where he and a stray calico watched the sunrise. The night buses he’d ride from end to end. Speaking to everyone along the way, offering goes on his Beck’s, his Appleton, giving away money and rollies, his jacket a couple of times, his boots and socks one February morning. Neesha was forgiving, loved him despite and probably because of who he was, they’d been looking at pinscher puppies on Gumtree. It wasn’t that he was broken, or depressed. He was a clown, I think, in the old sense, nothing derogatory meant, far from it. One of those tricksters or seers who drift from village to village, bedazzling, revealing, then upsetting and having to move on, because there’s only so much truth people want.

I thought of a kid hiding behind a curtain, looking at him down there on the floor, stifling his giggles. The thick drape of gravity resting against the skin of his face and arms, lost in a world of one.

Billy leaned over the bar, had a word with Stu: we had to get him out. I tried lifting him but he was heavy as a human. We discussed a taxi, decided the three of us should get him down the road to Stu’s sofa.

Kenny seemed to offer consent when we crouched and told him what was going to happen. Though I could see that, if there was a way for him to agree to or sign something that meant he could stay down there on the century-old wooden floorboards of the Irish pub, with too much whiskey in him but not all of it yet run through his blood-brain barrier, he’d have given it all away.

He was nowhere near unconscious as we lumbered him down Kingsland Road, was quite chatty, in a way, but most of his body was no longer part of him. I think maybe he thought he was floating. Then, just after the bus stop for Geffrye Court, he went from barely helping us – legs marionetting under him as we held him by his armpits and waist – to deadweight. Down he went, that same sideways pose, but this time his bottom half was in an inch-deep, grey-brown puddle.

A grown man in a puddle, it was pure slapstick, and by this point, as we’re telling the story, people are loving it, laughing along, just about believing us, trying to guess at what happens next, because they’d see we weren’t done yet, that we’d one more reveal, one big laugh still to come.

We heaved him upright, our canvas shoes soaked in the puddle too, and it seemed like he’d be okay to carry on. Then his jeans came down. The heaviness of the water, he’d lost some weight, I’d never seen him wear a belt, they dropped right down to his ankles. He reached for them, even though he was, with our help, standing almost upright, as if all it would take to go beyond the limits of his limbs was trying.

And we laughed, fuck me did we laugh, because we were half pissed, because it had started to get stressful lugging the useless sack of shit towards Stu’s, because the others would be back in the pub, drinking and playing pool and going to the toilet and we’d be able to tell them all this when we squelched back there. And because it was Kenny, one of the funniest men we knew, a man idolised by thousands of people we’d never meet, with his jeans around his ankles, that same brand of underpants – still, thankfully, up – we’d mailed to the journalist, rhyming out something about how he wanted to see or was already seeing the ghosts of his long-dead grandparents from Saint John’s city.

I’ve no idea how he hadn’t heard it already but a couple of years later – it was winter, the latest album hadn’t gone down well – we told the story to our publicist, Raúl. Raúl liked to be thought of as canny, contrary. You’d know he’d thought of something smart-seeming to say when his mouth started o-ing like a parrotfish, itching to barge whatever it was into the conversation. When one of his opinions was as provocative or funny or annoying as he’d hoped you’d see it on his Twitter within the hour. But somehow he hadn’t heard the Kenny story, so one night in the Bricklayer’s Stu told it to him, us chipping in.

We got to the puddle, the trousers, and Raúl didn’t laugh. Stu backtracked, repeated a few lines, but he just looked from one to the other of us. This is one of the worst stories I’ve heard, he said, one of the saddest things I’ve heard all year. Fucking hell, you guys. He walked off to the bar, shaking his head.

He was exaggerating, we knew that, but I don’t think we told it again.

And we haven’t drunk in there for years now, the Irish pub. Someone bought it, turned it into a private members’ club. They didn’t touch what can be seen from the outside. Kept the broken wooden Venetian blinds hanging inside the windows, the tattered purple curtains behind the doors, the hand-painted sign on the curved corner of the building, flaked gold letters on green: POOL & DARTS – All sports on BIG SCREEN – SKY SPORTS – ALL GAA GAMES on SETANTA SPORTS.

Inside, it’s something else. Sally from our studio installed their sound system, sneaked me in there with her one night. There are lions in there, full-sized lions and tigers, a reared-up polar bear, mounted antelope and giraffe heads. Every one of them real, stuffed. The fur of them dry but soft to the touch. They got most of them off the black market, Sally told me.

The ceiling had been cleared of all the tankards, painted a sticky-looking burgundy. I looked up, closed my eyes, was on stage again; one of those gaps between songs when Kenny would spend too long tuning his guitar. A thousand sweat-dripping faces gaping up, shouting B-side song titles, our given names, each one of them craving rescue from whatever it was that haunted them, something we knew we’d never be able to give.

And in that taut unspeaking crackle between us the four-count for the next one starts up, we crouch over ourselves, we drop to the floor.


Martin Jackson is a UK-born, Berlin-based writer of fiction, poetry, and art texts. His story, Compositions in Black and Red, was published by The London Magazine this year. Two recent stories can be found in Hotel magazine. His poetry received an Eric Gregory Award, and a pamphlet, I find I felt, was published in 2022 by If a Leaf Falls Press. He collaborates with artists around the world on exhibition and catalogue texts.

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