The Bowl By Miki Lentin

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Rob had five rules for a decent Saturday night out at south Dublin’s Dundrum Bowl, the scene of many tragedies. Win at pool, get digits, snog and get served. And importantly, you had to stay on his wavelength.

These evenings were unpredictable, but they were an escape from drinking sherry from the bottle, while sitting on the wall by the Texaco garage with suicidal Jayo, or smoking joints in the back of Deco’s car while he pulled hand-break turns on the gravel of the church car park, waiting for Father Doyle to ring his bell at them “feckin’ lads in the car.”

This particular Saturday, Rob was wearing his latest purchase; a copper-tan trench coat that reached his ankles, and hung like a canvas tent over his squat body. Steel toe-capped Doc Martens stuck out from his feet like swollen tubes of liquorice. His hair was slicked back with fudge hair gel, and he kept two curls dangling like slinkies over his forehead, which he frequently blew onto his head after he’d sucked them dry. A pair of jet-black jeans clung to his rugby-sized thighs and plump arse, which he tried to conceal by stretching his jumper down over it every few minutes.

The 43. We’d waited many an hour in our teenage lives for the 43, a single-decker bus with worn cushioned seats that smoked with guff. Another rule, we had to get the right bus at the right time, otherwise we’d late, and there’d be less time at the Bowl, and less time to score.

“43!” I shouted, as we turned the corner from Rob’s street onto the main road. We legged after it, coming to a breathless stop as the bus sped past into the smog.

“Fuck,” Rob shouted, his breath smoking in the cold night air, “it’s already eight fifteen.” Another rule, rule number seven, don’t be late. Broken. Not a good start.

“How much do you have?” he asked, as we continued towards the bus stop.

“Tener,” I said.

“Tener? Is that all? Not enough to get a taxi then,” he said, jabbing me in the shoulder.

“I’ll get cash,” I said, rubbing where he’d thumped my arm.

“I’ll get cash,” Rob sneered. “Come on, let’s walk. My sources tell me that Aishling O’Reilly’s gonna to be there.”

Rob set off, pounding the pavement, his oily hair shining like freshly laid tarmac under the street lights, his coat flapping like a flag in the wind against the backs of his legs. I followed, always two steps behind, feeling stiff in my denim jacket, jeans and Converse boots, a cool sweat misting my forehead.

Bounding onto the fetid 43, Rob sat next to an elderly woman with a few shopping bags next to her. I stood. Always the charmer, and to make space, Rob helped the woman move her bags. She thanked him, but he spent the rest of the journey smirking, making faces and nodding his head towards me, as if the whole situation was hysterical. I didn’t find it particularly funny; she was just an old woman with some shopping bags, but for some reason, I joined in, making eye contact with him, pretending to laugh, giggling at nothing.

Looking out of the bus window as we passed the psychiatric hospital in Dundrum, I wondered why I endured these nights with Rob. A tempestuous bastard; his father was the kind of dad that had a go at Rob in front of his friends, the kind of dad that played more with his dogs than his son, the kind of dad that showed me how to pour a pint while telling me that I’d was doing a much better job than his son, the kind of dad that left Rob duty-free packets of M&Ms on the doorstep of his mum’s house from business trips. Maybe I felt sorry for him, I don’t know, but there was a mystery about him that intrigued me, and as I also didn’t have anything better to do on these Saturday nights, I willingly tagged along, wondering if this night would be any different to all the other nights at the Bowl.

“Did you like her?” Rob asked, as we stepped down from the bus.

“What?”

“I saw you…”

“Yeh, she looked like your mum,” I sniggered.

Rob pulled down his jumper and stomped across the car park towards a flashing neon bowling bowl that was attached to the side of the warehouse-like building. The Bowl.

“How are ye?” Rob nodded to the bouncers.

“Any I.D lads?” one of them wearing a high-vis jacket asked.

We took out our fake I.Ds, which the bouncer examined with a torch, turning them over and feeling the plastic with his chubby fingers.

“Anything on ye?” he asked.

“Negative”, Rob said. The two bouncers glanced at each other bemused.

“No,” I followed.

“Here you, negative boy, quick search.”

The bouncer beckoned Rob’s arms up and stretched his hands around the inside of his trench coat. Soon the bouncer was covered in the cloth of Rob’s coat, before he emerged a few seconds later, stood up and smoothed his hair as the blood returned to his face.

“OK, no messin’ lads,” he said, letting us pass.

We entered into a dark reception under flickering strip lighting, a smell of boiled sausages filling the air, our shoes sticking to the squidgy carpet. The sound of bowling bowls cannoned against the walls like rolls of thunder, and the incessant tinkly sound of slot machines and arcade games reverberated around the low-ceilinged building.

“Two pounds entry,” a girl with braces on her teeth and blond hair tied in a bun said.

We paid, headed over to the bar and ordered two portions of chips and two pints of lager.

“Any I.D?” a skinhead with a frayed shirt asked.

We flashed him our I.Ds.

“Not tonight lads.”

“Wha?” Rob said.

“Look, they let you in, but I can’t serve ye, alright?”

“But we come here all the time,” Rob insisted.

He shrugged. “Nothin’ I can do.”

Another rule broken.

Rob sat at the front of the café that overlooked the pool tables still wearing his trench coat, as if he was holding court. I looked at him, his head moving from side to side, surveying his domain as he dunked his crinkly fries into blobs of ketchup and threw them into his mouth. Sliding down a plastic chair I slurped my drink and shook the ice around the hollow cup. We didn’t talk.

Rob theorised that this was the most important part of the evening. If we got it wrong, we’d be stuck with the wrong girls or even worse, no girls at all. It was all in the waiting, he said. We had to wait, watch and see who was playing on which table, and then, at just the right moment, make our move.

“Shall we?” Rob asked.

“Yeh, I’ll get the cues.”

“Game of pool,” I said to the barman.

“How many?” he asked.

“Two.”

“Table four. Two fifty.”

I sensed Rob’s eyes on me and turned to meet his gaze.

“Which table?” he mouthed.

I held up four fingers.

He strutted over to the bar eyeballing me.

“Not four, you dip shit, we need five, or even better seven.”

“What? They’re not here.”

“They are.  On six… come on.”

Beyond the slot machines, I spotted Aishling O’Reilly and a friend giggling as she bent over a pool table, took aim with her cue and fired the white cue ball towards a colour.

We got two cues, balls and a square of blue chalk. Rob unzipped his trench coat, twisted his cue ju-git-su style around his back, and carried it like a sword in front of his body. He pulled his jumper down and walked towards table seven. He was ready.

“I’ll break,” I said.

“No you won’t; I’ll do it.”

Rob walked around the table smiling broadly, and just before he broke, he paused and stretched back his shoulders, looked over at Aishling and her friend. They didn’t look up from their game. Aishling was tall and skinny and her permed hair sat stiffly on her head, like frizzy dry pasta. She was pale and freckly, had a hairy mole on the side of her nose, and was wearing an unzipped white hoodie that showed off a cropped t-shirt.

Rob broke and spun around on his heels, the balls clattering against each other like tiny comets, before cushioning against the sides and coming to a stop on the green felt table.

I started to play, getting lucky every time I struck the ball. After a few minutes I’d cleaned up. We started a new game. Rob didn’t get a look in. I wondered at some stage if I should let him win one, to make him feel better, but something in me wanted to test his nerve. I broke, and once again potted most of the balls, before he faulted and accidentally potted the black. My game. We continued for the next ten minutes. He stopped half way through game three, put down his cue and took off his trench coat, carefully folding it and smoothing it onto a banquette.

Frustration steamed off him like a boiling kettle. As I played, he poked me in the arm with his cue in an effort to distract me. I didn’t respond. He poked the back of my cue just as I was about to take a shot, making me miss, so I set the balls up again. He did it again, so I stared at him for a few moments. He did it again, and then burped in my face, before jumping aside, leaving a waft of vinegar lingering in the air.

“Fucking prick,” I said, under my breath.

Rob played a double, potting a red, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed.

“Nice shot, Robbie,” Aishling said, sauntering over.

“Learnt all my tricks from him,” Rob said.

“Game of doubles lads?” she asked.

We left table seven and headed over to six. I purposefully chalked my cue, eager to play.

“You break Murph,” Rob said, now playing the nice guy.

I lined up the balls, removed the black plastic triangle and broke. The cue ball lifted lightly off the table before accelerating at speed, careering onto the spots and stripes. I stood admiring my break and watched as the balls came to a stop.

“Your go,” Rob said to Aishling.

“Here Aoife, you go, I’m rubbish,” she said.

Aoife stepped up and potted two stripes in quick succession, pivoting in her dirty Adidas trainers, and high-fiving Aishling after each shot. She had a widow’s peak and dark hair that swept down over her black denim jacket, and dark red lipstick that made her lips shine against her white powdered face and black eyeliner, giving her an intriguing Goth look.

“Where did you learn to play?” I asked.

“Holiday,” Aoife said.

“Where?”

“San Diego,” Aoife said with an American accent.

“Oh, I’m half-American you know,” said Rob, listening in. Aoife ignored him.

“Yeh, it was cool, I have cousins there,” she continued.

“Cool, did you go to Hollywood like?”

“No, that’s LA,” she said, “but yeh, we went all over, and they play pool everywhere, so you just pick it up. Here, I’ll show you.”

She showed me how to bridge my fingers on the table, holding my hand with her nail varnished fingers, and stood behind me to demonstrate how to position the cue accurately and visualise how to strike the ball.

“My secret weapon,” Aishling laughed.

As Aoife and I played, Rob sat next to Aishling on the banquette, flicking his oily curls every so often with his head, his knee jerking up and down, up down, up down, up down. He inched closer to Aishling and turned to look at her, before resting his head on her shoulder like a needy child and closed his eyes. Aishling let him rest there for a few moments before abruptly standing up and headed to the bar, leaving Rob alone sucking his ringlets of hair.

“How did you get served?” Rob asked Aishling incredulously, as she placed two pints onto the wooden edge of the pool table.

“Sure I know the bar staff,” Aishling said.

“Are ye done yet?” Rob asked standing up. Aoife and I ignored him. “Here. Give us the cue,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“Give us the fucking cue!”

“It’s not your go…”

He snatched my cue, spun it aggressively, walked over to the table and started to fire the balls randomly in all directions, licking his lips.

“Did you see that?” he asked. No one responded.

“Look at this, my secret weapon,” he said, as he tried a shot behind his back, which failed to connect, the tip of the cue digging into the table leaving a blue skid mark of chalk. We all laughed. Rob continued, belting the balls against the padded cushions, like thoughts rebounding inside the cell of his crazed mind.

“Rob get off, will you, it’s not your go,” Aoife implored.

“Did you see that?” he continued as he potted the white ball, took it out of the pocket, replaced it on the table, arranged the balls and broke again. Drips of sweat covered his forehead, his hair now shower-wet, his chest heaving.

“Jesus Robbie, will you stop…” Aishling shouted.

“This is fucking brilliant,” he said, his eyes now wide open with amazement, as he ripped the threads of his jumper while pulling it further down over his legs.

“Rob, will ye…” I went over and put my arm on his shoulder and neck.

“Fuck off,” he brushed my arm out of the way, and spinning his cue around his back he caught one of the plastic pint glasses, knocking it onto the table, letting the frothy lager slowly sink into the felt, leaving a mossy puddly mess.

“Come on Murph, let’s go…” he beckoned to me.

“I’m not leaving,” I said, moving my eyes towards Aoife.

“Well I’m not staying in this place, see ye later.”

Aishling, Aoife and I stood still as Rob downed the other pint, unfolded and lubricated himself into his trench coat. He rolled his head from side to side until his neck clicked, felt into an inside pocket and took out one of his ‘call me’ cards that he’d recently had printed at his local stationers, and passed it to Aishling using both hands. He hesitated, looked at the three of us, sweat dribbling down the side of his stubble and marched towards the exit.

“Jesus,” I said, “see ye,” and ran after him.

“Night lads,” the bouncers said in unison as we left the Bowl into drizzle and walked towards the bus stop, our shoes squelching on the pavement.

“Did you see that? She was all over me…” Rob started up.

“What?” I asked.

“Suppose you like Aoife then…”

“Yeh, she’s interesting.”

“… she’s interesting,” he repeated mockingly.

I shook my head.

This was how it always ended with Rob, in disappointment and accusation, but his self-destruction somehow made me feel alive, as if I was playing the role of co-star in a performance that he played out every time we went to the Bowl. But watching his tragedy play out suited me, as I knew that next time I’d meet Aoife, she’d remember me, the normal friend, the one who tried to tame Rob, the interesting one.

I froze at the bus stop waiting for the last 43. Two girls walked up and started talking to us. I moved away, uninterested. Rob shared a cigarette with one of them, before she slowly disappeared inside his trench coat that he wrapped around her. The other one left them to it, as I slowly began to walk home.

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Miki Lentin

Miki took up writing while travelling the world with his family a few years ago, and this year was a finalist in the 2020 Irish Writer’s Centre Novel Fair. As well as writing his first book, he writes short stories, the most recent of which achieved second prize in the short story memoir competition with Fish Publishing. He has also been published by Momaya Press and Village Raw Magazine, and writes book reviews for MIR Online. He’s represented by @taffyagent

· @mikilentin – https://twitter.com/mikilentin

Image by GooKingSword from Pixabay

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