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"The Birthday Party" by Ken Foxe

The eyes of the two brothers met across the crowded room; each glancing briefly at the other, an unbridgeable chasm of two lives gone in different directions.

Michael, the elder of the two – or Moriarty as everyone knew him – smiled at his younger brother. Martin – who nobody ever called Moriarty, almost as if the name did not quite belong – returned the compliment. Each returned to what they had been doing before. Both were feeling a little bit sorry for the other, though there was a smugness to it too.

Martin Moriarty's young son was pulling at his father's trousers, tears streaming down his face, a small rip in his pants, a fresh graze to a knee that was always after hitting something.

He and his new best friends had been playing outside when the boy had taken a tumble. Martin picked him up; and with his gentle words, the bawling began to subside.

“Count to ten,” he said softly, yet with a quiet authority. “One, two, three, four …”

On the other side of the room, the other Moriarty raised his voice a little to drown out the racket his nephew was making. A man he had just met was explaining to him how the widget in a can of Guinness worked. The man was a scientist of some sort and told him how liquid nitrogen was added to the device just before shipping.

'Liquid nitrogen? And that wouldn't poison you, No?' Moriarty said as he looked suspiciously at the half-full pint glass clutched in his right hand.

The man continued; a tiny sphere, nitrogen, liquid nitrogen, pressure building in the can, the nice creamy head that would then form as it poured.

'Fascinating,' said Moriarty, as he took a deep slug from his drink, his suspicions already forgotten.

A stray child came thundering by, almost sending the two men's drinks flying. Moriarty was on the verge of admonishing the youngster but remembered that it was his nephew's birthday party. On days like that, you had to be willing to make allowances.

'Still nothing compares to a real pint,' the scientist said, 'but I have to make do with these most of the time these days. You know the way it is.'

'I do indeed,' said Moriarty, philosophically, 'I do indeed.'

Where would he go that night? To Baggot Street or to Camden Street? Maybe a quick one down in Briody's or the Oval first. He had just enough for a taxi but might need refinancing from his friends. Maybe the brother will drop me in, he thought. No, not on the child's birthday. Pity. He'd had a bad day on the horses and could do without the extra cost.

'I don't suppose you take a cigarette, do you?' asked Moriarty.

The scientist looked around furtively, seemed to see what he was looking for as his wife approached, and said: 'I used to like them. But not so much anymore really.'

'Fair enough,' said Moriarty, 'I don't smoke myself either, unless I'm having a drink.'

'I used to be the same,' the scientist said, again scanning the room. 'And there's nobody stopping me walking out with you anyway.'

The two men headed for the patio, Moriarty trying to remember when exactly it was that every house in the country become a no smoking zone. He recalled house parties not so long ago with ashtrays sequestered from pubs, brimful with ash, butts, and matches, the occasional cigarette standing around left to burn out – balanced upon its filter, almost a work of art. It seemed like everybody used to smoke back then, whether they liked it or not.

'Amazing the way you can never smoke indoors now,' said Moriarty.

'Suppose it was the smoking ban,' the scientist said.

'I don't recall them banning smoking in houses,' he replied, with a little more harshness than he had intended.

Moriarty stood by the back door contentedly puffing on the cigarette, gentle pulls like a man out rowing up by the Strawberry Beds on a leisurely Sunday afternoon. It was his first of the day, would not be his last. The scientist looked on longingly, his eyes almost imploring, like a dog watching a man eat sausages and bacon.

There were few things Moriarty pitied more than an emasculated man. Had he been dealing with a dog, he might have petted him on the head, stroked his fur, and slipped him a quarter of a sausage. Instead, he held out the packet, sliding out a single one.

'What harm will one do you?' said Moriarty.

'Sure, I'll have just one.'

'A man needs to unwind.'

The scientist sparked up the cigarette and smoked it so feverishly it must surely have set his head spinning. When he had about a third of it left, he stubbed it out on the ground, looked around, seemed relieved that his luck had held, and dropped it in an empty can, which

Moriarty had was using as an improvised ashtray.

'I thought you were going to eat it at one stage,' said Moriarty. 'I don't think I ever saw a man smoke one as quick.'

'If you knew the hassle if she saw me,' he replied.

Moriarty nodded thoughtfully. Pathetic, he thought; no, not pathetic – that was unduly harsh on a fellow. Sad, he thought instead; yes, sad – that was more apt.

Moriarty took a pack of chewing gum from his packet, surveyed the area, and ushered the scientist to take one.

'Just in case,' he said.

The scientist reached over, took one, unwrapped it from its foil and popped it into his mouth. And to all the world, the men – by their appearance and heightened caution – may as well have been passing a bag of heroin. Their conversation continued.

His wife popped her head out the French doors.

'I hope you haven't been smoking,' the scientist's wife said.

'Of course not.'

'Ah sure I know you wouldn't do that with the kids around.'

He nodded guiltily.

Moriarty looked at some of the kids; it wouldn't be long before they'd be off sneaking cigarettes themselves. He noticed his glass was getting perilously close to its end, and the prospect of it going empty was not something he wished to entertain for very long.

'I suppose we might have another drink,' he said.

'Why not?'

The two men walked back inside. Moriarty had hidden his remaining Guinness cans behind some lettuce and a large tub of yoghurt in the fridge, just in case anyone else might take a fancy to them. He was happy enough to share one more – just one more – with this chap. After that, he was on his own, Moriarty thought.

He certainly wasn't expecting them to be gone already. He pushed the lettuce aside, upended the yoghurt, then rifled through every drawer.

He stepped back, considered his options for a moment, tried to think of how much he had

already drunk; and was sure it was not much yet. He buried his head back in the fridge, checked the freezer box above it, thinking that was no place in which to store porter.

He stepped back again. Not only was the fridge cleared of what rightfully belonged to him, there was nothing else to pilfer either except some bottles of Budweiser and Miller Light and it would be a frosty day in hell before he would be reduced to that.

He considered his options again, knew this was something to do with the brother's wife Penny. There were few things she hated more than seeing a man like Moriarty enjoying himself. Should he say something to her? Ask her what she'd done with them or just be done with it and go to town.

His brother walked by.

'Looking for something?' he said.

'I was just wondering where a man might get a drink,' Moriarty said, feigning calm. 'I was almost sure I had a few cans of Guinness left in there.'

'They're in the cool box.'

'The what?'

'The cool box. Out in the porch, Penny put them out there with the other six she got for you.'

'Oh, did she indeed?' said Moriarty.

She wasn't a bad sort Penny, thought Moriarty. She could be a hard woman at times, but sure maybe that was what his brother wanted. There were some fellas who needed that, needed a bit of discipline brought to their life. Moriarty didn’t need it but he understood – although understood was a strong word – that there were others with different requirements.

'I'll be back presently,' said Moriarty. 'Hope this cool box lives up to its name,' he whispered to himself as he made towards the porch.

'I nearly forgot,' he said turning back to his brother, 'do you want another?'

'No thanks, I've had a few already. That'll do me.'

On the short walk to the porch, Moriarty recalled the old days when his brother would drink all night; when a few pints meant six or seven and not two or three. Hollow Legs, they used call him. Good days, long gone. His brother’s main ambition in life now seemed to be getting an early night.

Moriarty pulled two cans from the icy water, was surprised at how cool they felt and wondered if he shouldn't buy one of those boxes. No, he thought, the fridge was the right place for a beer, either that or a keg. He returned to his companion.

'I was worried it might be warm,' said Moriarty, 'nothing I hate more than warm beer. Very English.'

'I don't know,' said the scientist, 'some of those ales and bitters can be very nice.'

'No,' said Moriarty, 'I prefer to stick with what I know. Mind you, if I was stuck, like in Cheltenham or that, they’d have to do.’

'Cheltenham, eh?' the scientist said, 'I've never been. Would love to go.'

'I go most years,' said Moriarty, thinking of the horses he might back that year, pondering odds and remembering the twenty-five to one winner he had had the previous year. That had kept him in high spirits right through March all the way to mid-April.

Contented times, he thought, then turned to his new friend: 'Tell me,' he said, 'how exactly do these cool boxes work?'

Moriarty always found adult parties that involved children a little confusing. They had all the signs of a normal party; finger food, drink, reasonably good, if slightly distracted, company – but it was very difficult to judge when they might end.

Were it an old-fashioned party, you could be sure it would keep going until the early hours but this type of affair was much less clear. At some indeterminate time after the RTÉ six o’clock news, one set of parents would announce they were leaving as a mystical 'bed time' was approaching.

Now, that in itself was not unusual but it was the way in which it seemed to set off a chain reaction. Next, everybody would start checking their watches and phones and before you knew it, the house was empty, except for the parents … and perhaps one remaining stranded interloper. Moriarty had been in that awkward spot before and he knew Penny would not be slow in letting him know the festivities were done.

There was also the small matter of getting into town; was there a chance some of these parents lived that way? That would avoid the taxi fare. Then again, being stuck in the back of a car with some snot-nosed kid – who wasn't his own snot-nosed nephew – had very little appeal either.

The scientist's wife made up Moriarty's mind for him as she came over to tell him about 'bed-time'.

'I'd best be going,' he said.

'Yeah, it's getting to that time,' said Moriarty, looking at his wrist, then remembering again he'd lost his watch. He checked his phone but it was gone dead. Another by-product of the night before; there was little point in plugging your mobile into a charger if it was not attached to the wall, he recalled bitterly.

'That reminds me, I left the present in the back of the car,' the scientist said.

'Present?' said Moriarty.

'For the young lad.'

Moriarty looked momentarily perplexed.

'Your nephew,' the scientist said.

Moriarty knew he had forgotten something.

'I'd better go out and get it,' said his companion.

Moriarty pulled out his wallet, and checked inside. There was a twenty euro note inside and a few betting slips, all losers. Pay day was a few days away still, and his account was already overdrawn. He rifled his pockets in the hope there might be a spare note lurking from the night before. No luck – six euro in coins exactly, the remaining shrapnel deposited in the poor box earlier in the day in a fit of charitable madness.

Then, lo and behold, a folded piece of paper in his pocket, the feel of a note. Alas, it was just the cloakroom ticket he had lost the previous night; its disappearance had nearly caused a row.

A taxi to town was at least fifteen euro, he thought, that leaves five, and the six in coins, but how to break the twenty for two tenner’s. And besides, a tenner as a present is pretty mean.

The scientist returned, gift under his arm, and handed it to young Jack, who carefully placed it in a pile of unopened presents. It was not actually his birthday until the next day and his mother had issued strict instructions on when the gifts could be unwrapped.

Moriarty was becoming dispirited. I’ll be on the f**king bus, he thought.

He drained his remaining half pint of Guinness in one gulp and shouted: 'Jack, come over here to me.'

His nephew came over. Jack had no particularly strong feelings about his uncle, which was fine because his uncle felt more or less the same about him.

'Here you are,' said Moriarty, handing him the twenty euro note as he ruffled his hair. 'Buy something nice with that.'

'Thanks Uncle Michael,' the boy said, a genuine glow on his none-too-innocent face.

Moriarty turned around, saw his scientist friend being ushered out the door by his wife, their boy in tow, being pulled along reluctantly by the left arm. Moriarty waved him goodbye and went to seek out his brother.

'I'm going to hit the road,' he said.

'Are you sure you won't have one more?' said Martin.

'Ah, I think I'll leave you to it,' he replied remembering vividly the time the one more with his brother turned into three more, before Penny came and rudely turfed him out with a stern warning about leading her husband astray.

'Have you a coat with you?' asked Martin.

'I think it's in the study.'

Moriarty went off up to the front of the house and into the study. There was a pile of jackets draped across a computer desk in there and he searched around for his.

Penny came in the door, brandishing the twenty euro note: 'What’s this Michael?'

'A present for the young lad,' he said.

'Twenty euro?' she said

'That was all I had, and I'm on the bus because of it.'

'Could you not have put a bit more thought into it. For your godson? You know, an actual present; with wrapping paper and a bow. Did you even get him a card?'

'He seemed happy enough with it.'

'Jesus Michael,' she said, 'will you ever grow up?'

He wondered if she might at least return the money. She did not.

Ken Foxe is a freelance writer and transparency advocate in Ireland. He has written two non-fiction books based on his journalism and when not working or minding his two kids, enjoys writing short stories and speculative fiction.


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