Never Go Backwater

Kerry TD Michael Healy Rae recounted this week how, while filming ‘Far and Away’ in the county in 1991, Tom Cruise visited a bar and “nearly had his arm broken” with a walking stick by a short, elderly customer…


It was Jack Reacher’s first visit to Ireland, and he was finding it quite an experience.

As usual, just four days earlier he had gotten off a bus in a small sleepy town that he had chosen at random, and had been regarded with suspicion by the locals. As usual, he had uncovered nefarious activity (in this case clover being passed off as shamrock and being exported to Irish expats for St Patrick’s Day) and had decided to interfere. As usual the proceedings had ended with beaten-up thugs, a dead ringleader and a factory just outside town burning to the ground.

That was where the similarities with his normal life had ended. In small towns in the States he found diners where he got black coffee and good burgers. Here he found only a pub, where he got black Guinness and ham sandwiches. In the States he had run-ins with the local police. Here there weren’t any, the nearest police station being in a bigger town thirty miles away.

In the States he didn’t do laundry, buying a new shirt and chinos every three days and throwing the old ones in the bin. This was why he was now wearing a woolly Aran jumper and a pair of trousers that, remarkably for a man of Reacher’s size, were too big for him and necessitated the use of string as a belt. And a tweed cap.

Now, with the bus out of town not due for another three hours, he decided to wait in the pub. He crossed the street, with its pall of smoke and strong smell of burnt clover, opened the door and went inside.

The pub was empty, with no customers and nobody behind the bar. He felt his skin prickle, always a warning sign, but in this case he put it down to the woolly jumper, which was irritatingly scratchy against his bare chest. He sat though, as he always did, on a stool that had its back to the wall and faced the door, so that he could see any danger approaching.

He didn’t.

There was a loud crack and he felt a sharp pain in his right forearm. Instinctively Reacher stood, raised his right elbow and flung it out and backwards, intending to catch his assailant full in the face, and got another sharp pain when his funny bone crashed against the wall behind him.

He spun in surprise, though it took half a second for his trousers’ waist-band to follow . There was an old man standing beside him, having come unnoticed out of the toilet door further along the wall. He was wielding a walking-stick and was barely five feet tall, which was why Reacher’s elbow had passed over his head.

“Think you’re a big man, do ya?” snarled the old man.

“Er, well, yes, to be honest,” said Reacher.

The old man looked him up and down. “Tis my stool you’re after taking,” he said.

Reacher looked around the bar. “There are lots of stools,” he said, calmly.

The old man whacked him across the shin, causing Reacher, for the first time in his life, to actually yelp in pain. “Maybe so,” he said, “but that one is mine. Tis the stool I’ve been sitting on, man and boy, since I took me first drop of porter.”

The bar-owner emerged from a door behind the bar, and took in the scene. “What’s going on, Michael Joe?” he asked quietly.

“He took my seat, Jim Pat,” said the old man, and Reacher, who had no middle name, felt curiously envious for a second.

Jim Pat looked in sorrow at Reacher. “That’s Michael Joe’s seat,” he said, in hushed tones.

“Exactly,” snapped Michael Joe. “Would you steal my grave as quick?”

Reacher, who had no way of knowing that this phrase is thrown into every Irish dispute over possession, was nonplussed. “Er, steal it?” he said. “You mean dig it up and take it with me?”

The stick swung again, this time at testicular height. Reacher caught the end in his right fist. A simple flick of his wrist would now splat Michael Joe against the wall like plaster off a trowel, and it was clear from the shocked silence that the other two realised this.

The feral, streetfighter part of Reacher wanted to do it. His aching forearm, elbow, shin and now right palm wanted him to as well. But his Military Police discipline, his sense of fair play and his basic decency all fought against the idea of hurting a man twice his age, half his height and with more fingers than teeth.

Reacher let go of the stick. “I’ll sit over here,” he said, moving to a stool at other end of the bar. “Jim Pat, get my friend here a drink.”

Owner and customer visibly relaxed. Michael Joe asked for a double brandy, which Reacher guessed was not his normal drink, but he paid for it without comment. The old man climbed up onto his stool, an act that looked like King Kong trying to scale the Empire State Building. Reacher found himself fighting the urge to pick him up and plop him down on it.

Michael Joe eventually settled himself with a great deal of wriggling, took a huge gulp from his drink, then could not resist one last outburst of hubris.

“Tis lucky you are,” he said, “that I’m a reasonable man.”

Reacher smiled at him. “Tis lucky you are,” he replied, “that I’m not Conor McGregor.”







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