Meself and Chips were down the Blind Ref one night when this young head-the-ball walks in. A young lad he was, a right looking head-the-ball. “Ay ay,” says Chips, sucking the stout out of his mustache. “Here comes trouble.” He was a man of few words was Chips, so when he said something, you’d prick up the old ears, and as I recall this remark of his now, I wonder did part of him know what was going to happen—though if it did, you’d have to say the rest of him didn’t, or else it wouldn’t have, if you follow me.

Your man sails past us and orders himself a pint and truth be told at that point we thought no more about him. It was Christmas Eve and the pub was in an uproar of seasonal cheer and so forth. There was tinsel around the cigarette machine, and holly poking out from the picture of Sir Alex Ferguson; Leonie the lounge girl was wearing a Santy hat as she dropped round the drinks and Wayne was sweating behind the bar and he with a row of pints waiting in front of him. “Is there any chance, I wonder,” says I to Chips, “of a Christmas pint?”

“It’ll be a cold day in hell before you’d get a Christmas pint out of Wayne,” says Chips.

I shook my head. “If Martin was here,” says I, “it’d be a different story.”

“If Martin was behind the bar you wouldn’t put your hand in your -po-cket all night,” says himself. But Martin was over at Anfield for the Arsenal game. “It’s bad enough he’s a Liverpool man,” Chips commented, “but then he leaves us with the Prince of Darkness here on Christmas fuckin Eve.” He directed a black look at the aforesaid Wayne. “That prick would water down water,” says he.

The night was wearing on and every few minutes now you’d have someone’s missus charging through the door and scanning the crowd till she found her oul fella and dragged him off to the eight o’clock Midnight Mass. Mrs. Chips knew better than to try and pull his nibs out of there, though. Christmas Eve, Easter, the Day of Judgment itself—they could be dropping the atomic bomb and you wouldn’t budge Chips. When his day’s work was done he was into that pub and that was the end of the story.

Shortly after young Head-the-Ball comes in anyway Leonie arrives at our table in her Santy hat and asks if we wanted to buy a ticket for the Christmas raffle. She’s a gorgeous girl, Leonie, I was always after Wu to ask her out. “You ask her out,” Wu’d always say back, with a face on him—that’s Wu for you, a brilliant handyman but not a million laughs, probably because of being from China where the Communists took a tough line on jokes. I bought a ticket and Wu bought five, but of course himself had to raise an objection. “What kind of prize is a ice-cream maker,” says he, “and it the height of bleedin fuckin winter?”

It was a fair point, and this machine in particular looked as though it’d been gathering dust in Argos for quite some time. In its defense I remarked that the raffle was only for a laugh and to raise money for Larry Byrne’s young lad who had cancer of the head up in Beaumont. But once Chips had a bee in his bonnet there was no shifting it. He said that it was a disgrace of a prize, and that furthermore the dogs on the street knew that the whole raffle was a fix.

“How is it a fix,” says I.

“That cunt Wayne has it rigged,” he says. He added that they should be selling tickets for a go on Leonie, because he’d buy up the whole lot.

Well, he took a bit of a slagging as you can imagine when Leonie pulls the ticket out of the hat and who’s won only Wu! But his nibs would not recant. “It’s a pretty pass we’ve come to in this pub,” says he, “when the Christmas raffle’s won by a godless Chinese that wouldn’t know our Savior if he kicked him in the hole.” He also made a comment about it being a waste of a good ice-cream-making machine, giving it to Wu who’d probably try and stick a dog into it. As he said this he gave Wu a long look that I have to say was not the friendliest.

If he was trying to get a rise out the youngster he was wasting his breath. Young Wu was a man of few words, even fewer than Chips—truth be told, you’d often forget he was there and he sitting right beside you. I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall and watched the pair of them working, a right old hooley it’d be I’d say. While he wasn’t a great man for the crack though, no one could deny Wu was a smashing worker, and never a word of complaint out of him even when Chips slipped off to the bookies or found
his way into the boozer around lunchtime and forgot to go back and pick him up.

There’s the three of us anyhow, and our friend Head-the-Ball meanwhile is up at the bar with a pint in front of him, minding his own business and reading the Star, and as I say after that initial moment of unease or even dread you might call it he’d gone clean out of my mind. By the looks of him he was just a young bollocks of the kind that are ten-a-penny in these parts and nothing to be getting exercised about. We’ve all been young lads at one time or another. Take himself. He wasn’t always the hard-working family man and pillar of the community as was holding court tonight in the Blind Ref. Before Mrs. Chips got hold of him and Gerard Jr. appeared on the scene, Chips feared neither God nor man. Built like a Titan he was and a natural athlete—they still tell stories in the Matt Talbot of the night he drank six pints in eight and a half minutes. But he’d an awful knack as well for getting into bother. At one point he’d got himself barred not only from the Talbot, but also the Blind Ref, the Confession Box, the Blue Lion, and Life O’Reilly’s as well as a welter of pubs you wouldn’t send your dog into and it with its tongue hanging out for a pint.

That was a dark time for him and no mistake. For a couple of months he had nowhere to drink at all except the ma’s back garden. I’d go over of an evening and sit out with him on the step, and there wouldn’t be a word out of him from one hour to the next. Not a word! I brought him a dartboard but he never used it. Taking stock, he was. That’s when he decided he was going to do the right thing by Mrs. Chips, or Miss Rattigan as she was then, a spotless radiant paragon and a gorgeous thing like a flower you’d see in a flower shop. After they were hitched her da lent him the money to buy his first van and got him his start in the fix-it trade. So the point is, we’ve all had our bowsy moments in our youth.

God knows we had other things to worry about besides some young head-the-ball anyway. Earlier that night I’d had a very alarming conversation with Wayne the barman concerning Ronaldo. According to Wayne, the talented youngster was getting itchy feet at Old Trafford and talking to Real about a transfer. Chips however gave this short shrift.

“Wayne’s talking out his hole,” says he. “Ronaldo wouldn’t go to Real, the place is falling down with spics.”

“Isn’t he a Spic himself,” says I.

“True,” admits Chips. “And God knows if it came down to it I’d rather be stuck with the Spics than a whole country full of Brits.” What you might call a pensive look crossed his face, but then it passed and he said, “Ah he can fuck off anyway, the poof. Here, though, that reminds me,” and he takes an envelope out of his pocket and gives it to me.

“The Fund, is it?” says I. He looks over his shoulder left and right, then he gives me a single nod. Every job he did, Chips would put a bit of money by so as to pay for his trips over to Old Trafford after he’d retired. This Red Devil Reserve Fund, as he called it, had to be kept secret from his wife, other-wise she’d have the whole thing spent on sofas and what have you before he saw so much as a kick of a ball. He couldn’t put it in the bank, even, because she read his statements, so he kept it in my house, in a special shoe box. It was a scheme worthy of the master strategist himself, Sir Alex Ferguson, and he’d managed to collect a decent sum in the fund over the years. I was tucking the envelope safely away when he let out a cry.

“O!” says he.

“What is it?” says I. “Is it the piles?” He had fierce trouble with the piles.

“What time is it?” says his nibs.

“It’s eight-thirty,” says I.

Well, this provoked a storm of cursing and swearing as would make a navvy blush. He had a fierce temper on him, did Chips, and when he lost the head there was only one way to get it back. I signaled to Wayne to get a pint over to him quick. “Fast-forward” a minute or two, and there he was a bit calmer though still looking none too pleased.

It seemed that he had neglected to buy Christmas presents for the missus and Gerard Jr.

“I was going to go up to the shopping center,” says he. “I lost track of time.”

It’s easy to see how that might happen. Chips didn’t have a watch and generally marked the passage of time by the number of pints he’d drunk. This “internal clock” so to speak usually served him very well, but on a night like tonight, when there were pints flying around the place, flaws appeared in the system. The Polish lads from the tire place had sent over a round, then the bookies came in and bought another—I’m not complaining, mind, I’m just saying it was very disorientating to a body’s internal-clock system. It was the type of thing could happen a bishop, but at the same time I knew his missus might not see it that way and his nibs was in a right lather. What made matters worse was that last year hadn’t he done do the very same thing. He’d had to sneak off to the petrol station on Christmas morning while herself was cooking the turkey, and all they had left by way of presents was a rake of low-sugar chocolate for diabetics. For the young lad he just went to the ATM and took out sixty quid.

Well there were ructions that Christmas Day, you may be sure. Mrs. Chips was no fool, and furthermore quite a highly strung individual as very beautiful women often are. His nibs had had more than a few low-sugar diabetic chocolates thrown at him and that was getting off lightly. This year he mightn’t fare so well, particularly as the house was already up in arms after the dog went missing.

Rudy was the name of the dog, after the brilliant footballer Rudy Gullit. Like his famous namesake Rudy the dog was black, though the similarities ended there as he was no great shakes at football, or at least he had no more than the usual dog-level of skills. Still he was always ready for a lick of the hand, and as Chips would say, if dogs could drink, you knew Rudy’d be the kind that would always get his round in. A week ago, however, he had disappeared. Myself and Wu had done a search of the whole neighborhood—posters on the lampposts, the lot—and not hide nor hair of him could we find.

It was a real mystery, and it was also a tragedy, because by that time Gerard Jr. had developed a very close relationship with the dog. Gerard Jr., though he was named for his da, took more after his mother, in terms
of being a delicate, sensitive sort. He wouldn’t be the type of young fella you’d take to kick a ball around the park, I mean, because if you did what’d happen would be that on the way he’d see a pigeon with a manky foot,
or get splashed by a lorry, or Spar would be out of Maltesers, and then the waterworks would start. That lad did his fair share of crying. The -slightest -provocation and he’d be in floods. Rudy though had clicked with
him -instantly, and through palling around with the dog and taking it for walks and so on Gerard Jr. had started acting a bit more normal recently, which was a real relief for his da, who had been worried as you would yourself
that the lad was going to be some sort of mentalist or a poofter. Now
with the dog gone the lad was in a state. That’s why it was so important Chips find the lad a thoughtful present that would cheer him up and stop him crying for a bit, except now of course he couldn’t, because the shops were shut.

All around us songs were being sung and rounds being bought, but our little corner was under a real cloud. I was damned if I could see a way out from it either. And then I look up and who’s there standing over our table but your man Head-the-Ball.

Close up he wasn’t as young as he’d seemed at first. The ends of his mouth turned up, as if he was secretly having a laugh to himself, and he had these eyes that were as pale now as to have for all intents and purposes no color at all. Or, I’ll tell what color they were, they were the color of those mints, Fox’s Glacier Mints, a kind of a very pale yellow-green—a grand -color in a mint, but when you see it in a chap’s eyes it’s another matter entirely and it gave me the willies. He stands there a minute still as a statue, staring at Chips with the minty eyes and the laughy face on him. And then he says, “Any of youse lads interested in buyin a bike?”

 

Now perhaps it was the excitement of the Christmas raffle earlier had me nerves jangled, but when I heard this I swear my heart skipped a beat. Because it was as if your man had been listening in to our whole conversation—though how could he have heard us and him sitting a way over at the bar?

Chips however had no such qualms. “A bike?” says he, screwing up his face like your man’s trying to sell him a Rangers jersey. “What would I want with a bike? Do I look like Sean fuckin bleedin Kelly?”

“A kid’s bike,” says our friend with the laughy face. “For a young lad.”

“Get out of it,” says Chips, waving him away, but at the same time I could see the old noggin cranking up. I didn’t like it, and by Wu’s expression I knew he felt the same. I’ve always held that lad was a bit psychic. When you think of the Chinese, you imagine factories making plastic robots and lads that all look the same in a giant army. But they have their mystical side, too. Think of fortune cookies. The Chinese eat them every day. If you ever want to know what’s around the corner, keep an eye on the Chinaman, that’s what I say.

Chips though was ever a man to march to the beat of his own drum. He heaved a sigh, and as if he was doing your man a favor he says to him, “How much?”

“Fifty quid,” says Head-the-Ball.

“Fuck off out of that,” says Chips. Inside though I could tell he was thinking, Oh. Because last year of course the ATM cost him sixty quid and small enough thanks he got for it.

“No worries,” says Head-the-Ball. “Compliments of the season to ye, gents.” And he makes to move off, but Chips with another sigh puts down his pint and calls him back. “You might as well give me a goo at the fuckin thing, I suppose,” says he.

Wu and I look at each other and without a word we get up, too. “Is it the twelve fuckin apostles I have with me,” grumbles Chips, but we follow him out anyway and down the street and up a lane and round a corner and I don’t know where else. There wasn’t a sinner in sight and the cold would skin you. Finally in the pitch-dark our friend comes to a stop. We’re in a lane with a load of lockups and a skip.

“This your office, is it,” says Chips.

“That’s right,” says Head-the-Ball. He pulls a bit of old plywood off the top of the skip and there underneath it is the bike.

Well. A lovely looking thing it was, brand spanking new by the looks of it and you’d have to say that fifty quid was a bargain for a bike like that.

“It belonged to me little nephew,” says Head-the-Ball, lifting it down so we could have a proper look. “But he never rode it.”

“Why’s that now,” says Chips.

“He got cancer of the head,” says Head-the-Ball.

At this Wu let out a long kind of a gasp. Chips looked around at him, annoyed. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” says he to the young lad.

“Ah, he’s a brave little soul,” says Head-the-Ball. “But he can’t bear to look at his lovely bike now, you know yourself.”

“I do,” says Chips.

“I’m hoping to raise a few bob to send him to Lourdes,” says the young lad.

“No better place—will you stop that?” This last part he says to Wu, who had let out another of his sighs. “He’s Chinese,” says he to Head-the-Ball by way of apology.

“No harm done,” says Head-the-Ball.

“Thass a girl bike,” Wu says.

Well as I’ve mentioned before, Wu only speaks when he’s got something to say, and here as on so many occasions he’d got right to the heart of the matter. It was a girl’s bike—you could tell by the crosstube or whatever it’s called that went down instead of across. Also it was pink with Barbie written in sparkles on it.

“It’s unisex,” says your man, but he was on the back foot. If there’s one thing the Chinese know about it’s bikes, their leader Mao having had a bit of a thing for them. (This would be a different Mao to the fellow that was in the Three Stooges.) The cat was out of the bag and our friend here knew it.

Chips however was still stroking his mustache. He knew it was a girl’s bike as much as anyone, and no doubt he saw the danger in giving such a bike to Gerard Jr. God knows the young lad was a far cry from what you’d call a “macho man” as it was. A pink bike with Barbie written on it might push him over the edge altogether. At the same time, if he came home with nothing at all for him, there was a real danger, what with this funny
mood the missus had been in lately, that she might finally do what she’d
been threatening and up stakes to her mother’s with Gerard Jr. and the turkey in tow.

He jammed his thumbs in his belt and cleared the throat. “The fact is,” says he, “and no disrespect to your nephew, but that is a girl’s bike, and there’s no getting round it.” Head-the-Ball took this in somberly. “Still and all,” says his nibs, “it’s Christmas, and you’d need a hard heart not to feel for that youngster of yours with the dicky head. So I’ll give you twenty quid for it.”

“Twenty-five,” says your man.

“Done,” says Chips. He took the money from his wallet and handed it to the young lad, who tucked it away inside his tracksuit. Then he turned and bowed to each of us, which at the time I thought very courteous of him. “Happy Christmas to you all,” says he. “I hope yiz get what’s coming to you.” He let out a laugh—it seemed like the one he’d been storing up all along. Next thing you know he was gone. It was like he’d vanished. I could still hear his laugh, though, ringing in my ears, which struck me as unusual.

Job done, we hotfoot it back to the pub, where if you’ll recall we’d left three pints with hardly a sup gone from them. God bless her, who was there standing guard over them only Leonie. Chips showed her his new purchase and asked her if she fancied a ride. “And afterwards you can have a go on the bike,” says he.

“It’s a bit small for me,” says she.

“Better not show her yours, so,” says his nibs to Wu. Then he told Leonie she was a lovely girl and gave her a twenty euro tip.

“So all you have to do now is find something for the missus,” says I by way of a reminder.

Chips was watching Leonie’s backside wiggle its way through the crowd and said something about a one-way ticket to the North Pole.

“Ah, you don’t mean that,” says I.

“I do,” says he, “and I’ll tell you this, that’s something these boffins might bear in mind if they’re worried about the glaciers and what have you melting. Send my wife to the North Pole and—” He stopped. “That’s it,” he says, and he turns to Wu. “Give us a look at that ice-cream maker.”

“You wah mah ice-cream maka?” says Wu, who could see where this was going.

“Just give us a look at it,” says his nibs. Without a word Wu picked up the ice-cream maker from under his stool and plonked it down on the table. Chips gave it the once-over. “Perfect,” says he.

“But is my,” says Wu.

“Ah, for the love of Jaysus, Wu, what would you want with a bleedin ice-cream maker? Come on, I’ll give you twenty quid for it.”

Well, Wu to his credit held firm, but his nibs was not to be denied. “Don’t be acting the bollocks on me, son,” he says, lowering the voice in a warning sort of a way. “This city is falling down with Chinese that are crying out for a job like yours, crying out so they are. Don’t you forget what side your noodles are buttered on, my friend.”

At that Wu surrendered. “Good man,” said Chips. He explained that he didn’t have the twenty quid on him right this minute because he’d given it to Leonie for a tip, but he’d definitely have it next time he saw him. So everything had turned out for the best, and we all went home happy and looking forward to the big day tomorrow, except for Wu of course.

 

I always like to get up early on Christmas morning-—-remembering the old days when I was a young one, going to look at my presents, or the latter years when I’d make the ma her breakfast and then get her into her Sunday best and wheel her down to Mass. Even after all this time it was strange not to hear her beating on the floor with her crutch to let me know she was ready for her fry.

After the bit of grub anyhow I put on me coat and walked over to Chips’s house. It was the missus who opened the door, still in her dressing gown and looking a bit sleepy but none the less radiant for that. “Compliments of the season,” says I.

“It’s eight in the morning,” says she.

“And a fine morning it is,” says I. “Is himself about?”

He was indeed. I found him in the living room, large as life, sitting in an armchair and drinking a can. “Happy Christmas,” says I, handing him his present, a ten-pack of Tuborg. His nibs just grunted. He was not a man for the mornings, Chips. It made him uneasy to be going about his business before the pubs were open, and he with no recourse should the thirst strike him. Today though he’d obviously been roused from his bed by young Gerard Jr. By all appearances the young lad was delighted with his gift. “Look what Santy brought me!” he says to me when I come in.

“Look at that!” says I back to him. “Isn’t that gorgeous altogether?”

“It’s the best bike in the world!” says he.

“Miles better than some oul dog,” says I.

Well, this was clearly the wrong thing to say, because the young lad’s face fell and his nose began to snuffle.

“Ah, Jaysus, Gerard Jr.,” barks his da, “don’t be at that crack now for God’s sake.”

“I miss Rudy,” sniffled the youngster, and now the tears began in earnest. At this Chips’s countenance grew thunderous. “That bloody dog!” he exclaimed. “That bloody fuckin turncoat, we’re well rid of him!”

“The one thing that poor boy loved,” hissed Mrs. Chips, who’d appeared in the doorway. “The one thing he loved, and you drove it away!”

“Get out of it, you witch!” roars his nibs back at her. “I’d drive away meself, if you hadn’t bled every penny I earned out of me!”

It seemed to me we were in danger of losing the festive mood, so to get things back on track I gave Gerard Jr. my own present, an entire box of Tayto crisps I’d bought off a chap from the North. “Mind you eat them before the end of the week or they’ll go off,” says I. The youngster forgot all about his crying, and in no time at all he was back riding his bike, or rather, as the living room was a bit small for that purpose, sort of shunting himself backward and forward.

“A brilliant present,” I pronounced.

Mrs. Chips said nothing to that but I was aware of a certain tension remaining in the room between herself and his nibs. Nothing new there, the course of true love does not run smoothly, as the man said. On their wedding day itself didn’t they have a huge argy-bargy, when his nibs arranged for a massive delivery from the chipper at a late stage in the evening. “You couldn’t lay off them things for one effin day!” said his new wife. “I should’ve to come to the church in a brown paper bag, with a grease stain on my arse!” Oh, she could give as good as she got, could Mrs. Chips! But although he often referred to her jokingly as “the medusa,” “the iceberg,” “Myra Hindley,” “the gallows,” Chips adored that woman with every atom of his being. How could he not adore her, a woman like that?

Anyhow, as I say I detected a little coolness, so seeing the ice-cream maker on the couch I went over to look at it even though of course I knew what it was. “What’s this at all now?” says I. “An ice-cream maker, by jingo! Isn’t that a marvelous contraption? What’ll they think of next, I wonder?”

Not a word from the missus to that, but as I spoke a thought struck me. Turning to himself, I said, “Wouldn’t it be a gas thing now if you could get beer into that yoke? Guinness ice cream, wouldn’t that be a sight to behold?” It seemed to me that the idea had what they call “legs”—but what Chips made of it I never found out because at that moment Gerard Jr. ran his new bike into the table and knocked over his da’s can. With a great roar his nibs leapt out of the chair. The young lad squealed and pegged it around to hide behind his ma, where he remained quivering, and you’ll take my point now about him not shaping up to be what you’d call a man’s man.

“Gerard Jr., you bloody twit!” shouts Chips. “I’ll take that fuckin yoke off you and throw it in the canal!”

“Back where you found it, is it?” shouts his missus. “Stop persecuting the boy! Why don’t you get out of my hair the lot of you so I can start this bloody turkey!”

We took the hint and set out with young Gerard Jr. down the street. The youngster had taken to that bike as if to the manner born, and he scooted off into the distance like a streak of pink lightning. “Ah, he loves that bike all the same,” says I to Chips. “All he needs now is a skirt and a bonnet,” groused his nibs. “And what are you doing bringing up that shaggin’ dog?”

I’d dropped the ball there right enough and I held my hands up. “What did the missus mean though when she said you drove him away?”

“Who knows what that bloody woman’s on about,” says his nibs.

I shook my head. “I don’t understand it,” I said. “Why would a dog like that, with a happy secure home, run away?”

Chips made no answer to this.

“And if it was a dognapper behind it on the other hand,” says I, “how would he manage to overpower a biggish dog like Rudy?”

Chips made no answer to this, not at first, but then he said, “Unless it was an inside job.”

“An inside job?” says I. I was gobsmacked. “You mean Gerard Jr.?”

“Not Gerard Jr., you fuckin eejit, how would he kidnap the dog and him living in the same bleedin house as him,” says he. “I mean, someone that knew the dog, that would be able to gain his trust and lure him outside.”

“Have you someone in mind?” says I.

“I do,” says he, and he looks off into the distance a moment. “Wu.”

“Wu?” You could have knocked me down with a feather. “What would Wu be doing dognapping Rudy?”

“What do you think?” says himself. “Don’t his lot eat them as a delicacy?”

I’d heard of such things before right enough, but I’d never credit them of Wu. “He’s a good lad, is Wu. Even if he was prone to eating the odd dog now and again, he wouldn’t take Rudy. Sure the streets are full of dogs, why would he take Rudy?”

“Spite,” says Chips.

“Spite?” says I.

“That fellow’s getting mighty uppity lately,” says Chips. “Where’s me overtime? Where’s me social insurance? Where’s me Christmas bonus? Christmas bonus! What would he be doing with a Christmas bonus and he a godless Communist?”

“You think he took the dog because you didn’t give him a Christmas bonus?” says I.

“I’ll say no more,” says he.

Well, I don’t have to tell you that I found this conversation deeply -unsettling. The theory of the “inside job” made a certain amount of sense, as a dog wouldn’t wander off with the first Joe Bloggs that approached
him. Still I thought Chips was on the wrong track. Wu could be inscrutable at times and his English wasn’t the Mae West, but he was an honest youngster who’d come over to our country for liberty and work and I didn’t
see him eating Rudy. Yet why would a happy, well-looked-after dog just up and leave?

“Well, you’re back in the good books with herself, anyway,” I said, to change the subject. “What with that lovely ice-cream maker.”

“She’d have me knackers in that thing if I took my eye off her for a minute,” says himself.

“Ah no!” says I with a laugh.

“There’s no love in that woman,” says he, “no love.” He shook his head.

“Ah, Chips,” says I.

“You’re the wise man as never put his head in the noose,” says he dolorously. “You could take off with Leonie tomorrow and spend the rest of your life in the Canaries getting hand jobs. I’m trapped in a shell. A shell, is all it is. I’d be better off livin in me bleedin van for all the warmth and affection I do get in that house.”

I hadn’t heard him speak this way since the dark days when he was barred from all the pubs. I did my best to cheer him up by telling him the truth, which was he was the envy of many people, having a successful business, beautiful wife, and a fine strapping son.

“I’ve a dognapping Chinaman and a fine strapping pansy,” says he. “And as for the beautiful wife—all that glitters is not gold, I’ll tell you that for nothing.” There was a catch in his voice as he spoke the words. “There’s no one can bring a man low like a woman can. When she closes those doors, he’ll find himself doing things he never thought he was capable of, just out of sheer . . . sheer . . . ”

He fell silent and we walked along like that for a minute or two. Then clearing his throat as if to introduce a new topic of conversation, he said to me, “Would you ever fuck a dog?”

The question caught me on the hop, I have to say. I’d never had feelings of that kind for the dog species, though it could be I just hadn’t met the right one. I was still mulling it over when we heard a high, girlish cry. Gerard Jr.! We hurried around the corner to find a small girl with what you’d call an implacable look on her and a great big gorilla of a bloke, and the pair of them bearing down on Chips’s youngster.

“What’s this now?” says Chips. “What’s this palaver, Gerard Jr. What have you gone and done now?”

“She says it’s her bike,” says Gerard Jr. between sobs.

“That’s because it is,” says the small girl, implacably.

“It’s not! Santy gave it to me!”

“Hold on, hold on, shut up for a minute, the pair of you, so I can hear meself think,” says his nibs. “Now who’s saying what, exactly?”

At this point the gorilla steps in. “That’s my Sally’s bike,” says he.

“I think you’ll find it’s not,” says Chips. “I think you’ll find it’s my Gerard Jr.’s.”

“She had a bike the exact make of that robbed from our front garden only yesterday,” says the gorilla. “She stopped in to her ma for a glass of -orange and some desperado ran off with it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” says Chips. “But I don’t see how it affects us.”

“It affects you because that’s the very bike right there,” says the gorilla—he was fairly implacable himself, you could see where the young one got it from.

“Now hold on,” says Chips. “The fact is that this bike belongs to my son—”

“It’s a girl’s bike!” says the gorilla.

“It’s unisex,” says Chips.

“There’s one way to settle this,” says the gorilla, and he takes out a piece of paper from his pocket. “This is the serial number of my Sally’s bike. If you don’t mind, I’d like to compare it with the number on yours.”

Chips drew himself up to his full height. “It so happens that I do mind,” says he. “As a matter of fact I mind very much. So I’m warning you now, touch that bike and you’d better be ready to face the consequences.” And he rolled up his sleeves to show he meant business.

The gorilla took a long hard look at him. “Well in that case I’d better warn you,” he says slowly, “that I’m a member of An Garda Síochána.” And he takes his badge out and shows it to us, though we might have guessed because who else only a guard is going to go round with serial numbers of bikes in his pocket.

Well at that news Chips’s eyes sort of goggled and his face, which was red already, turned a shade redder. But he said not a word, and the gorilla hunkered down and squinted at the underside of the bike. Then he got up again. “They’re the same,” he said quietly.

“What’s going on, Da?” says Gerard Jr. “What does he mean?”

“Quiet, Gerard Jr.,” says Chips.

“I’m taking this bike back,” says the gorilla. “It’s a stolen bike and I’m taking it back. Only that it’s Christmas I’d be taking you in, too. Stealing off a little girl. Shame on you.” And he put his hand on the handlebars.

“Da!” wails Gerard Jr.

You could see Chips was close to blowing his top. But what good would that do? His guard-punching days were long behind him. So out of the corner of his mouth he says, “Gerard Jr., get off the bike.”

The noise that Gerard Jr. let out of him fairly made my blood run cold. It was more like the howl of the mythical banshee than the kind of sound you would expect to come out of a young lad. But he did as he was told. The girl grabs the bike off him and plonks herself down on the saddle with a triumphant air—a right little battle-ax she was. Her da meanwhile lifts his finger and wags it at Chips. “You keep your nose clean if you know what’s good for you,” says he, and with that he turns and walks away.

 

It was a sorry sight we must have made as we turned back to the house, with Gerard Jr. in floods and Chips cursing the Guards up and down in a paroxysm of fury as you might call it. Not a word of this to your ma, he kept telling the youngster, but he knew that there was no way he could keep it under wraps even if the lad stopped crying, which he showed no sign of doing.

As we came up the street, though, a strange thing happened. I felt a sort of a tingling come over me, a queer kind of chill. At first I thought I just wanted a gasper, and I was searching about in my pockets for the pack when I glanced up—and there he was. Head-the-Ball, large as life and twice as ugly, leaning on a lamppost on the far side of the street. He’d his hands in his pockets and a big wide smile plastered across his chops, for all the world as if he’d come to crow at his handiwork. Well, at first I thought I must be seeing things. But then beside me I heard his nibs let out a roar.

Now I’ve never been on the receiving end myself, but I’ve seen Chips with a head on him and I’ll tell you this, it is a fearsome spectacle. I’d rather face an SAS Marine or one of them fish that shoots poison out its eyes. I remember the day the clampers tried to clamp his van in Inchicore—three grown men fell to his hands that day, and it might have gone worse for them only that he had a job on in Kilbarrack.

Our friend Head-the-Ball, however, didn’t move. Even with himself charging across the road at him he remained rooted to the spot. I thought he must be paralyzed with fear, but then, just as Chips got within an inch of grabbing hold of him, he took off up the street like a hare out of the trap. Once he was a safe distance away, he stopped and looked back, with that laughy head on him that would make the Holy Blessed Virgin herself want to give him a dig.

“You little bollocks!” shouts Chips, “come back to me out of that, I’ll rip your mickey off for you so I will!” And he belts up the road after him again, but again the same thing happens, namely that just as he’s about to catch up with your man doesn’t he hare off and reappear on the far corner. He was taunting Chips, was what it was, like a matador with a bull. Chips though wasn’t a man to quit, not when the blood was up. He charged back and forth, back and forth, every time getting a little bit closer to catching hold of your man—until all of a sudden he stopped. A hush fell over the street and there was Chips stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes were wide open and his mouth, too, and from myself and Gerard Jr.’s point of view it looked like he’d had a brilliant idea, like a way of keeping Ronaldo at Old Trafford. Then he toppled to the ground.

It was the young lad Gerard Jr. who was first to move. “Da!” he cried and ran over. I followed after. His nibs’s face was purple as a plum and his hands trembled like an old lady’s. A shocking thing it was to see him in that weakened state. “Da!” cries the young one again. “What’s wrong?”

“Bleedin . . . little bleeder . . . ” Chips said, or rather gasped. I looked over my shoulder. Head-the-Ball was nowhere to be seen. “Don’t you worry about him,” says I. “You just rest up there, we’ll take care of him again never you fear.” That’s what I told him, but I didn’t feel so sure. It was the old ticker had gone, that’s what it looked like to me. The youngster was crying to beat the band—and you wouldn’t blame him, only the tears were dripping down his nose and splashing onto his da’s face. “Ah Jaysus, Gerard Jr., for fuck’s sake,” said Chips. And those were the last words he spoke.

 

The wake was in the Blind Ref. Martin was back behind the bar thank God, but a sad occasion it was all the same. Mrs. Chips in particular was in a bad way with the grief.

“They broke the mold when they made him,” says I to her. “But he’ll live on in our fond memories.”

“He will,” says she, twisting the hankie round in her hand. “He’s enough people looking for money out of him that he’ll live on a good long time.”

“Yourself and Gerard Jr. were the apple of his eye,” says I. “Many’s the time he’d say to me, If it weren’t for the missus and Gerard Jr., where would I be? Those were his very words.”

Now this was bending the truth a little as his actual words were that if it wasn’t for the missus and Gerard Jr. he’d be in Tenerife with some young one. But I thought that putting it this way might have a more consoling effect. It didn’t, though. Instead Mrs. Chips got very distraught—in fact she grabbed my arm. “It’s grand for him,” says she, staring at me with a wild expression. “He’s safely off in a box in the ground. But what about us? What about myself and Gerard Jr., that he left without a penny to our name?”

Well, I felt a bit put on the spot, if you know what I mean. “Ah no,” says I again, in the hope of smoothing things over. “He wouldn’t see you starve.”

She looked up at me with hard, bright eyes. “That’s exactly what he has done. Do you not understand? That’s exactly what he has done.” And she buried her face in her hankie, sobbing.

It was clear all the grief had got the better of her and made her lose sight of the great devotion himself had had for his family. I was trying to signal to Martin to bring her a Bacardi or something as would set her to rights, when something caught my eye. It was the picture of Sir Alex Ferguson, standing proudly at the gate of the famous stadium of Old Trafford. I looked at Sir Alex, and then I looked over at himself in repose in the box by the bar. His words to me still echoed in my ears: Never a word about this to the missus. God rest him, he wouldn’t be going to any matches now! He never did get the chance to put his feet up, the poor man. Yet to know that his beloved family had been looked after would surely bring him more happiness than a football match ever could. And they were bound to have Sky Sports in heaven or some similar package.

 

There was enough in the Red Devil Reserve Fund for Mrs. Chips to pay off all of his debts, and with what was left over she enrolled young Gerard Jr. in a fancy school for interpretive dance. Shortly afterward she sold the house and took herself off to an apartment in Marbella. Too many memories in the old place for her, no doubt. She comes back often enough and stays with her sister; she’s brokenhearted still but she looks very well with the tan I must say. As for the van, she passed that on to Wu.

That young head-the-ball as sold his nibs the bike we never saw again. I went into the guards just the other day to see if they had any leads. “Leads?” says your man behind the desk, as if I had two heads. It was the self-same gorilla as took the bike off Gerard Jr., though if you think there was a hint of remorse about him think again.

The strange thing is that no one remembers Head-the-Ball from that night in the Blind Ref. I can’t imagine how you’d ever forget those eyes once you’d seen them—still it seems as though everyone has, even Wayne who served your man his drink and was standing right there on the other side of the bar from him while he read his paper.

One night in the pub Wu told me about a legend in his country of a spirit that does appear on certain nights of the year to cause malarkey and generally act the bollocks. This chap’d play tricks on people on the order of knocking things over, switching signs around, that kind of carry on.

“That must be fierce annoying,” says I. “A good kick up the arse is what a yoke like that needs, if you ask me.”

“But spirit have no arse to kick,” says Wu. “Try to kick him, end up kicking yourself. Try to grab him, end up grabbing yourself.”

“Most vexing,” says I.

“In China we say, man who catch himself has small handful,” says Wu. “Catch Tao, you must open your hand.”

That was enough for me. Between ourselves a night down the pub with Wu felt like a jail sentence, what with him hovering over the same pint all night and not a word out of him only to give you some guff about Tao or Mao or what have you. He meant no harm, I knew. It was just that—when you’ve see a man cut down in his prime, there doesn’t seem much point to anything. I went home early, and the next night I stayed in watching a program about a chap who had termites. 

It was the day after that the doorbell rang and there was Wu. For a minute he just stood there without speaking a word. Then he says to me, “I find dog.”

“How’s that?” says I, but before he could reply the question was -answered by a black, furry shape that jumped in through the door and started licking my hand. Who was it only Rudy! “Well hello there!” says I, bending down and giving him a rub between the ears. It was Rudy all right, large as life and not a bother on him. “Where did you find him?” says I to Wu. Wu just shrugs. “Dog go, dog come back,” says he. I gave him a look, but he was at his most inscrutable. “Well, well,” says I. “That’s a bit of good news, anyway. Gerard Jr. will be over the moon.” As I said it, though, I remembered Gerard Jr. was in boarding school now, and Mrs. Chips was off in Spain. “What are you going to do with him?” says I.

Wu just looked at me. He could be a bit of a dim bulb sometimes. Then I had an idea. “Here, why don’t I look after him for the time being? I can keep him here till the dust settles and we see where we are.”

Wu shrugged again and went back out to his van.

Well, things picked up with Rudy around. I’d almost go so far as to say it’s a bit like having himself back, except with the dog of course I’d do the bulk of the talking. He comes down to the pub with me most evenings—Martin doesn’t mind, and Wayne might give him a dirty look, but he keeps his mouth shut. Whenever there’s a match on the box, you can tell he -understands everything that’s happening. If he sees Ronaldo’s unmarked he’ll bark like he’s saying, Get it out to Ronaldo! And when Leonie got married to Martin he came along to the reception and sat under the table.

You do get new heads coming into the pub these days, from parts of the world you might not have heard of before. Their accents are strange, but nine times out of ten you’ll find they’re decent skins. They’ll come over to pat Rudy and if the mood takes me I’ll tell them about the great man whose legacy lives on in this dog. “He could be a hard man to those that loved him,” I’ll say, “but beneath it all there beat a mighty heart.”

“A mighty heart that saw its fair share of chips,” Wayne’ll add if he’s nearby.  

That’s Wayne for you. Don’t pay him any notice. He’s not the worst in the world—though if you’re looking for a Christmas pint off him you’ll be waiting a while, I’ll tell you that for nothing.