Derek grabbed the microphone. He smiled a gap toothed smile, his skinny frame enveloped by his teddy boy drape coat, a black curl from his black Ducks Arse hairstyle falling down his leathery, wrinkled, skeletal forehead.
We all watched. The bar was only half full. Young people did their partying in town. Jamie's was on the outskirts- built in a small industrial estate- a bar the locals came to from the Housing Executive estate across the way. We called it, "Cheers," because it had that kind of vibe. Regulars propping up the bar and discussing lives and scandals and minutiae the rest of the world would not see as important; offering solutions to world problems we saw as obvious- others might have isms or analysis that would box us into a container to be placed on their "unforgivable" shelf. Who was going out with who; Who had been seen pissing into the orange hall letter box, who was found sleeping it off in the church; Banter, slagging, singing, laughing.
The bar snacks, made by the owner for the clientele to make us thirstier than we already were, had come down from the kitchen earlier. We hungrily ate from the trough, cheap sausage rolls, ham sandwiches, cocktail sausages. Derek had been at the end of the bar, a place he stood every week when he drew his dole. A shadow of a man known; famous; for his drinking. Someone who didn't mind being laughed at as long as someone bought him a drink or two.
Paul said, "watch this."
He picked up a handful of cocktail sausages.
He turned towards the other end of the bar and quickly flicked a sausage. I watched as it skewed across the room, through the small crowd and hit Derek squarely on the nose. He flinched and looked down at where the sausage landed. He looked around, smiled and bent down to pick it up. Paul nudged me and laughed as Derek pocketed the snack.
Paul repeated the flick. Derek again watched where it fell and pocketed it.
It was difficult to hold the laughter in. In my head I thought this was dreadful- Paul was laughing openly at this man who was obviously ill. Derek was obviously an alcoholic. Obviously drinking himself to death. Obviously drinking himself into further poverty.
None of us in the bar were well off- except for the owner. All of us liked a drink. All of us slagged each other off, found vulnerabilities in others around us and stuck the verbal boot in, but there was something poignant about Derek. This was the late 1980's and Derek was still dressing in his teenaged years clothing- all well kept, ironed, cleaned. He took pride in this image of a teenaged rebel- but the once weightlifter, soldier, father, boxer was a pitiful figure, still living that rebellion, that want for exotic late 1950's America, from the straight jacket the world around him in mid-Ulster had been. His rebellion now looking like nothing more than a drunken defeat to anyone looking in.
He was actually a very quiet man, but liked a laugh, and when he drank he was really difficult to understand. He mumbled. But everyone knew him. Like they knew Cecil, who had what we now know as post traumatic stress and who walked from morning to night around the town, covering every street and a lot of the country roads surrounding it, shaking his hands rhythmically by his side. And who, when we were teenagers, when we spotted him we would suck the last draw from a cigarette, and throw it in a bin to watch him rummage for it. Or Sweet, who twice stood in front of speeding trucks because he believed he was a God who could never die. And twice ended up in intensive care, now walking, in his late twenties, with the aid of a walking stick. And like "Darkie," the only Pakistani drinker in the town. Or The Meg, who was just known for her poverty, her smell and her place at the end of the bar in town. Or Sammy who was apparently very rich, but who wore the same suit day in day out- stuffing it with newspapers and hay during the winter.
By the time the karaoke came on, Paul and I were well oiled. His wife and my girlfriend were back in his house, probably livid by now- but we were contactless- back in the days without mobiles, texting, messenger, Facebook or any other social media we can use to buzz someone's pocket.
But the craic was 90. We all laughed and bantered and slagged and felt like Monday morning and the factory was far, far away in the future. A different world from here, from this dimly lit place where everybody forgot your name and went for your weak spot. This place in which if women came in, we fell silent like wee boys.
"You can sing," Paul said to me. I could hardly talk after the vodkas and pints we'd necked in the couple of hours we'd stood there laughing at Derek, putting the boot into those not as quick at the insults and verbal stick poking.
"Na!" I smiled and shook my head.
Paul ambled to the stage and said something to Eddie the karaoke man, and took the mic. The bar hushed and Paul, all 19 stone, 5' 5" of him, sang the most beautiful rendition of "Daniel" an ex-biker, full of beer and vodka has ever sang. The bar clapped and back slapped the big man.
"A bit of Elvis, now, we hope!" Eddie shouted down the echoing mic.
Derek set his golden short on the bar, as the other domestic escapees, some who were drinking the childer's dinner money; some who could only find solace from whatever pain life had thrown at them; some of whom whose glory days were, in their years young, hopeless heads, behind them; and some, like me, who loved the wisdom and the togetherness and the confidence and the paradise found in smokey, alcohol washed floors, and stories of self abuse dressed up as heroic deeds told by gravel rinsed throats laughing, shouting and whistling as Derek took to the stage.
"Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!" We shouted.
He took the mic with one hand, the head fell down, he wobbled into an Elvis pose with his other hand aloft, finger pointing into the air, a knee thrust forward and his skeletal figure lost in his blue coat.
Where do you GET brothel creepers nowadays, I thought?
I look back on Derek, and nowadays I see many Derek's, old punks, Morrissey fans, Goths and people just lost in the past they didn't escape from and I don't judge anymore. My youthful feeling about these old people stuck in their past was informed by my years- my feeling I would never get old- my feeling that I would grow older much more "coolly" in my post punk style; my wiser ways and much more modern indie music... What had they seen in their lives, encountered, suffered that had/has them using a bar as their living room, their rebellious youth as their present? There- only by way of my choices, my odd choices supported by a great network of family, - could be my present. My love for alcohol and in fact it being a huge part of my identity for many years could have trapped me easily in a world of my past. At times I still escape into my past, in my head; in what I wear; in the music I listen to. But I love the new. I wanted to experience beyond the smokey walls were I left some of my friends who still sport the hairstyles (some of the lucky bastards still HAVE hair!), who still have the love of the banter driven by the booze and the poverty and the camaraderie of "Cheers," where now empty stools sit were other comrades left empty, early in lives full of the goings on of a small town I still love, but only visit. From the position of a better life? I don't know. Certainly a more sober one. Certainly one bereft of the laughter alcohol can bring. And the pain. But not painless; not without its misspent hours and selfish days.
The jangling opening bars of "That's alright mama," rang out around the bar. Derek missed his cue. We laughed. Eddie rewinded and counted him in.
And when this time the melody was to begin, Derek did his all time best Elvis impression. The hero who he loved and lived, possessed him. The exotic world this shadow of a former weightlifter and joiner and ex-soldier had yearned for, seen only in technicolor in the Iveagh Cinema, he curled his cracked lips and from deep in his chest came the best Elvis "Uhuhuh!" we had heard. We roared and cheered and laughed and Derek looked up and smiled and for the next two and a half minutes he was that star, on stage, rattling those bones and "Uhuhuh-ing," from deep, deep in his chest; from deep, deep in his mind and soul and being.
And the drinks were on the rest of us escapees until we had to go back to, as Paul said, "broken tellies- all picture and no sound."