Jimmy Fahey wasn’t my best friend in London, that was Pat from Cork. Nor did he keep in touch once I followed my wife back to Ireland, though he promised he would. But he was the most memorable of my London friends; I imagine because of what he and his family had gone through. Course, for all I know, he might have moved home himself since I left the city but I doubt it somehow. Jimmy had never anything good to say about Ireland.
It wasn’t difficult, in the end, for me to go home. My wife inherited a house, we had the four kids and what was I at in London? Still fucking around Gospel Oak and Queens Crescent, that’s what. So I had to move back, really. In time, the children did well at school and my wife became less pensive than she’d been in England. I didn’t put up a fight about the move, though I do still have a fondness for my London days – even the worst of them, the most lonely and desperate. They were a lot more interesting than those I’ve had in the dour small town I ended up in. But I can’t do much about it all now that’s for sure.
Jimmy I met at the Dogs in White City. He was from Limerick, which he’d left when he was fourteen, though you wouldn’t have guessed this from the freshness of his accent. An emerging star in the world of building contracting in London, he was known for two other things besides his building skills: his towering presence, and for having every one of his siblings living beside him in Cricklewood. In fact, one of them, I believe, lived in the same street. No need to go home, Con, he would say, not when the whole lot of them are here with me now. His love for his siblings was such that he set them all up with jobs and places to stay upon arrival in London, so that there wasn’t a day they had to struggle, not at first anyway. And there were six or seven of them I think. Anyway, when I first met him, I knew he was unlike me and the rest of the Irish lads we hung about with. The rest of us were not at all settled; we had dreams of one sort or another, usually of going home (of course when I did return to Ireland I wanted to go straight back to London; that is how emigration works, it seems to me ). But Jimmy was determined and steady, and very settled. His family was close by, or near enough, and he loved London. He wasted no time with useless dreams of leaving it. However, everything changed after I knew the man five or six years.
His sister Carmel’s eight-year-old son Joseph went missing, and after a month looking for the boy (I myself went out on trips with Jimmy to parks all over the capital), the child’s body was found in a canal by King’s Cross. Let’s just say, he’d not fallen in. The bastard who did it was eventually got and sent to prison. The whole business cast a shadow over Jimmy for many years, as it did everyone in the Fahey family; he lost his business and soon left Construction altogether. At some point, a kind of acceptance came over him, so that those who met him years later could not believe there was this horrible story in the man’s background, though they would express their shock to me, or others, rarely to Jimmy himself.
As the years passed, Jimmy would look out for my own children – sensitive as he was, I suppose, to their fragile presence in this world. Always sweets and toys he bought them. And as a cab driver for many actors performing in the West End he would often be given free tickets to shows, and once, he personally brought my eldest to Aladdin On Ice, and she was never to forget Jim’s kindness. Then, twelve or so years after the arrest of little Joseph’s killer, I began to see another change in my friend. He became this time markedly sullen, withdrawn. I thought it might have been the nightshifts he was working in his cab.
‘What’s up Jimmy,’ I said.
‘Ah, it’s McHugh. He’s getting out in the summer,’ he said, his face ashen.
‘Fuck,’ I said, and put my hand on the man’s shoulder. The power of his strong frame was palpable beneath my fingers.
For months then, whenever I would meet him at the Dogs or in the Black Star - the bar I worked at in Kilburn - he would have the same depressed look on him, as if Joseph’s disappearance was happening all over again. He was not just morose but distracted when he’d talk. He became strangely precise in his habits. Only one pint when in the past he might have had three or more. He looked firmer in his body, too, wiry, as if he’d been working out. I began to think that this mild-mannered giant, for he was over 6ft 6 inches (in another life, or some macabre story perhaps, Jimmy might have been something of a circus attraction), was planning something. I went straight for the jugular:
‘You’re not thinking of doing anything to that McHugh are you?’ I knew by him that he understood perfectly what I meant.
‘Can’t talk about it, Con,’ he said. ‘Less you know the better.’ Which, as far as I was concerned, meant he was planning something. Possibly in cahoots with members of his own family. His brothers maybe. I can’t say I blamed him at all. I would have joined them if he’d asked me.
‘They will be watching you,’ I said. ‘The Police. They’ll know you’ll be wanting to do things to the bastard. Don’t be stupid.’
‘Say no more,’ Jimmy said.
Around June then, just before McHugh’s release, Jimmy came in to see me again in The Black Star. He sat upon his usual stool. This time he was more vivacious, the colour returned to his fat dimpled cheeks. It was a joy to see him this way after all the pain he’d gone through, especially of late, no doubt having to revisit in his mind the time of his nephew’s disappearance and vile demise. I thought perhaps he’d made some kind of peace with the news of McHugh’s imminent release.
‘What’s up now, Jimmy,’ I said.
‘Ah you won’t believe me.’
‘Come on. I hope it’s nothing to do with you know who.’ Jimmy shook his head.
‘No Con, nothing to do with that. I’m driving a Hollywood star around the place for the next few weeks. She asked especially for me as I had her in the cab once before and we hit it off that time.’
‘Who is it,’ I asked, ‘Marylyn Monroe?’ Jimmy licked his lips and pulled forwards across the bar.
‘No. Actually, it’s Lauren Bacall. And she’s working on a film in London, and I’m her driver.’ I can be the jealous type; always a bit bitter about my wholesale failure in that wonderful city I’ve long since left but I was not bitter about, or jealous of, Jimmy’s news. He had often celebrities in his cab, though I did not remember him telling me about his earlier stint with Bacall. I would have remembered that. So this was good news indeed. Some excitement and glamour (if only reflected) for the man at last. If anyone deserved a boost it was he. I’ve often thought since that had circumstances been different, Jimmy himself might have done well in Hollywood. A handsome enough man, he was always drawn to theatre and musicals, and loved and had great knowledge of the old black and white films, the movie stars of old, so this gig was right up his street.
‘What’s she like?’ I said.
‘So far, she’s a sassy one. Gives me the low down on all the actors she’s working with. Vanessa Redgrave, Albert Finney. Adores the director.’
‘What’s the film, did she say?’
‘Some Agatha Christie story. Murder on the Orient Express, I think it is.’
‘Does she ask you about your life?’
‘Did you tell her about Joseph?’
‘I did. And she went all quiet when I told her.’
‘A real life murder that’s why. These celebrities are shielded from that you know, real life.’
‘Aye,’ Jimmy said, returning to his stout.
‘I suppose you didn’t tell her about a certain plan you seemed to be cooking up back there?’
‘Course I fucking didn’t,’ Jimmy said.
Over the next few weeks, whenever he came into the pub he’d be glowing. He’d tell me about what new star he’d met at Elstree, who else had been in the cab with Lauren Bacall, who, he said, had booked him to chauffeur her to shoots, interviews and restaurants for the period of three weeks around London. He said she had a great sense of humour and talked politics with him non-stop, and that Vanessa Redgrave and she had hit it off, were two rebels, two peas in a pod. Both women, he said, had ‘a compelling sense of justice.’
‘I let her smoke in the car, too. Maureen says I reek,’ Jimmy said. ‘And you know, you were right, Con.’ I looked at him, quizzically. ‘I did tell her - Lauren, that is - what we were planning to do to McHugh.’ He seemed unfazed by the revelation.
‘So yez are doing something. What she say to that?’
‘She said I don’t blame you but it isn’t smart.’
‘Well she’s right.’
‘Course she is. She’s Lauren Bacall.’ Jimmy smiled as he dove his lips into the black of his pint. I should have suspected then that some other plan was afoot, but I let it go, stupidly perhaps. I don’t know why I should have suspected this, except that Jimmy seemed so particularly unruffled, more cocksure than his usual quietly-confident self – the spectre of McHugh no longer haunting him as plainly as it had. When I’d originally envisaged the Fahey family taking revenge, I thought it might be a case of roughing McHugh up. But the Faheys were not really fighters, let alone killers, so I decided not to fret unduly about my friend’s intentions, which, he insisted, he no longer had.
By the end of July, of course, McHugh was dead. He’d been hit at high speed by a car, which had driven over his body several times, and with such brutal force, the man had been decapitated. It had happened at night on a leafy street in Muswell Hill, and the car was not seen or reported. The police went to see Jimmy immediately, knowing he was a cabbie, knowing he and the other men, and women, of the Fahey family had a serious gripe with McHugh. But Jimmy had a cast-iron alibi, which the police had double-checked more times than was needed, no doubt to glimpse again the smoky-voiced goddess of “Old Hollywood” and of films they’d grown up with: Lauren Bacall had confirmed that at the time the hit-and-run was supposed to have happened, Jimmy Fahey had been driving her from a late-night cigarette and whiskey run. He was her driver after all.
Before I left London, finally, to go back to Ireland, the greatest regret of my life I must say, I met with Jimmy one last time. We shared a pot of tea in Venus Café in Kilburn. Jimmy seemed aloof; he looked out constantly at the new rowan saplings being planted on the verges of the Kilburn High Road. When I told him about my wife’s inheritance he passed no remarks. I didn’t feel easy enough with him to mention the dead McHugh. I tried to give him money I owed him but he wouldn’t accept it. Jimmy said he would visit me in Ireland, but he, like Pat from Cork, and most of my London friends, never did. Though he did tell me he’d quit cabbing, that after driving Lauren Bacall around for three weeks he could hardly go back to teenagers vomiting in the back of his Mercedes on Saturday nights. Though I heard he did eventually go back to it, and I believe was hired again by Ms. Bacall.
We shook hands when we left each other, and I realised then it was the first time we’d ever done that, touched each other’s skin sort of. His hands were gentle and soft, I noticed, his shake limp, which, I remember thinking, from a powerful big-boned man like Jimmy was unexpected. Everyone I knew, including my own wife, thought it was Jimmy who’d ploughed over McHugh, but once I’d shaken the man’s hand I was not so sure. Though, over time, I’ve come to understand that there are people in this life who are capable of putting aside their own nature, good or bad, for something they perceive as more important, such as love, or family perhaps.