Pawel slowed and pulled onto the kerb as the girl hailed him down. It was half-twelve on a chilly Friday night and a little lonely along Wellington Quay. She was alone and had very clearly been out with friends for the night, but did not seem too drunk. Donned in a simple pair of skinny jeans, a leather jacket, and Doc’s, she seemed in control of herself.
'No risk of her throwing up in the cab', he thought to himself.
Times had changed. The Dublin of old was slowly turning into a sinister sink of crime. Taxi drivers like himself had to take particular care when approaching girls at lonely hours of the evening. There was always a risk of a crippling accusation after a misinterpreted word or gesture. However, it was often the truly depraved individuals who worked the indubious office jobs that posed a real threat to young women. They were the ones who managed to endow all middle-aged men with the reputation of potential boogeymen. Pawel liked to think of himself as decent and strove to prove this fact in his daily encounters.
"Hiiiya!", she sang as she slid into the front seat beside him, her strong perfume pervading the car. "I'm Daire."
"Okay, so not too drunk but perhaps just annoyingly happy." he grimaced.
"Hello", he muttered.
Pawel allowed his natural shyness to take over, switching to autopilot in an attempt to keep the conversation to a minimum and get through his fatigue. Lately, he hadn't been sleeping well.
"Can I just take down your deets?", she asked, pointing at his driver registration. "It makes my friends feel better if they know who's driving me."
"Of course. You don't have the app?" he asked. "Kids always use the apps now."
Daire rolled her eyes sheepishly.
"I still haven’t gotten round to paying for data," she admitted, a frown beginning to crease her brow as she squinted through her round glasses at her phone. "Ha! Do you know Natalija Bartko?", she pointed to his second name on the plate.
Pawel sniggered. The Irish always thought that every other community was as small as theirs.
"No," he grinned.
"Your Polish though, yeah?"
He nodded, "Where are we going?"
The girl laughed sheepishly again, "Sorry, I'm always so nosy. Do you know Mountpleasant Avenue?"
Pawel nodded. "Past the canal on the Southside."
"Yeah, that's it. I couldn’t get around the city without GPS but I find it amazing how you taxi drivers know loads of places around the city, just like that! Like, I know some of you use sat navs but still!"
The driver grinned again. With a few drinks in them, young people really were like children again, so bubbly and uninhibited. Ewa, turning four in a few months, was always on his mind whenever he saw the young students out on the town. He wondered what she would be like when she reached this age.
"How long have you been here? Like, how long did it take you to learn where to go and everything?"
Pawel never liked to converse much when he was working and whenever he did, he did his best to adhere to small talk. He did not embody the archetype of taxi men in this country very well. His fingers tapped out a quick, rhythmic beat on the steering wheel, as he guided the vehicle to a stop behind a Deliveroo driver.
"Sorry, I can be really annoying," the girl reddened.
He contemplated reaching for the radio but decided against it. He indicated left and started towards Parliament Street. Pawel sighed softly and answered her as they made the turn.
"It's alright, I was just thinking of my daughter, she asks many questions like you. I came here fifteen years ago. It was the thing to do back then because things were good here."
Daire raised her eyebrow. "Yeah, but now it's the place that everyone wants to see the back of.", a hint of cynicism in her voice.
"I’m pretty sure I’ll be leaving after I finish next year."
Pawel shrugged. It wasn't the first time he'd heard that.
"Where do you study?"
"UCD. I do Psychology."
"You like it?"
Daire made a non-committal sound.
"I don't really know what I’ll do with it, to be honest. I mainly just did it to get the degree."
"Education is good. The problem is not having any."
"I suppose. I like current affairs, though. I might do journalism or something later on."
Pawel kept his eyes on the road. They spent a while lurching along behind traffic until they reached George’s Street.
"Do you read the papers or just Facebook?" He dared a small smile.
"Well, I think social media is just as important as any other kind of media, do you not think?"
This seemed to be something she was particularly passionate about.
Many heated conversations had taken place between late-night party goers in his cab. Some were those that ended friendships, others verged on the ridiculous, some were political and often catalysts of the other two. The driver prepared for another enthusiastic vocalisation upon something he was sure he had no interest in.
"I mean lots of big issues are diffused through social media. Like that, for example," she gestured expansively, albeit erratically, to a vivid red 'Repeal' mural embellishing a brick wall, one of many dotted around the city.
Pawel exhaled. The subject of the eighth amendment had aggravated the country like a rotten tooth for almost a year and like such, many believed it needed to be isolated, routed out and cast away.
"Without social media, people wouldn't be able to organise and come together to fight for women's bodily autonomy."
He felt quite uncomfortable when faced with this subject and could not imagine that a personality like his daughter’s, one with funny little quirks and mannerisms reminiscent of both himself and Zaneta, could have been erased with one procedure. On the other hand, what would have happened if his wife had become pregnant as a result of her childhood abuse? She would still have been allowed to abort but they would not be where they are now. Knowing her as he did now, she would have married the first boy she came across to please her family, despite them never having believed her when she told them all she had suffered No, life had taken care of everything as it always does. He and Zaneta had met in a bar in Gdansk when they were 23. Two years later they were married and her Uncle Wladek had been found stabbed to death under a bridge in a town two hours away.
'Perhaps he had made more enemies than he had realised,' thought Pavel coldly, his eyes like slits at the memory.
He caught sight of himself in the rear-view mirror and shook himself silently to attempt to bring himself out of his past.
He heaved a deep sigh.
"In my country, it is also a difficult problem. The Law and Justice party split because of this question a few years ago.", Pawel admitted.
He did not admit, however, that he’d been an active supporter of the Polish pro-life faction.
Evidently, it would do no good to talk about his political affiliations, particularly now as he was no longer sure what they were anymore.
In some ways, death seemed easier and life seemed harder.
That’s what Zaneta, his wife, used to say when she sobbed herself to sleep in those hard days. Pro-life? Pro-choice? Were the two not irrevocably joined?
"Yeah that's right, Poland wants to ban abortion altogether, right?"The girl asked, seemingly spellbound.
"Some do, some don’t", he muttered, becoming increasingly tense. It was proving more difficult just now to shake off the memories.
"Well, what do you think of it all? What's your stance, as a man?"
‘As a man?’, He almost sniggered. ‘It wasn't about men’s bodies, so men should naturally feel more detached to the prospect of losing a child?’
She must have felt like quite the ‘journalist’ for asking that like she was gaining a never-before-heard-of opinion for her article.
He tried to remain patient.
He’d learned to control his short fuse but sometimes it burned quick and bright.
He gripped the steering wheel a little harder and turned to face her for the first time, his movements careful and precise. Her eyes were slightly shocked, she hadn't been expecting that.
‘Careful’, he thought, ‘Don’t become aggressive. You’re at work after all.’
"I don't really want to talk about this, is that alright?"
His voice deeper than before, bearing the weight of the memories that had been dredged up.
They had reached Portobello, turned right along the Grand Canal and had started to slow down beside the water. and had suddenly hit him blindside in the face. This seemed to unnerve the girl more and her body language was shifting between being defensive and fearful.
Pawel took another deep breath and softened his voice this time.
"I'm sorry. I understand for women here, right now, it is very important but...
Pawel was cut off by the girl's scream and he jumped as a pair of hands slammed down on the car bonnet.
"Help! Help us, please!"A panicked voice pleaded.
"Slow down. Stop!"
Pawel squinted to see a grey, tracksuit-clad individual with gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes. His hair was matted to his head and he looked to be around forty-five but may have been much younger. Telltale signs of a chronic drug user.
The driver's eyes darted around quickly. It was uncharacteristically dark and lonely along the canal.
"What is it?! What do you want?" he demanded.
"Come quick, come on will ya!" The painfully thin man-made to run up along the waterside but mainly limped his way to his destination.
This was a trick, Pawel thought, he wants my cash or my phone or something, they always did.
"Oh God, don't follow him," Daire croaked.
Pawel kept his eyes on the frantic man as he saw him shout across to a figure on the grassy bank opposite him.
The figure was in an unmoving sitting position.
Someone was hurt.
He drove cautiously along the road until he could see properly.
There was a young man on the other bank and he was shivering, no, he was crying. Something was tied to his foot.
"Oh my God, I know him," the girl gasped. She immediately shot from the car and onto the pavement beside the gaunt man.
"Don't!" Pawel shouted but he wasn't quick enough.
"Claudio!" she shouted across the water. "Claudio! I know you from the shop! Do you remember me? Daire?"
There was no response.
"I always buy five Redbulls and a packet of jam doughnuts every other day from you! Do you remember, Daire?"
The man looked up, still sobbing.
He didn't show any particular recognition at first but eventually nodded.
"He works in the newsagents across from my digs," she explained frantically. She had well and truly sobered up now.
"What are you doing?!"
"Ah Jaysus, poor youn' fellah said he's gonna top himself. I seen someone do that before, I couldn't watch it again. Get d'amb'lance or somethin' will yas?!"
The thin man's skeletal face was strained with fear, eyes wide and darting.
"He has one o' dem weights that ya get outta the gym tied to his leg, he’s gonna throw heself in!"
"No, no don’t!" The girl entreated.
"Everybody, keep calm. Have you spoken to anybody else?" Pawel demanded of the man.
"Me? No, sure I just saw youse comin’ up there and I stopped yas."
"I want to get across to him," Daire said.
"Are you crazy? We have to make sure he doesn’t move. How well do you know him?"
"Well enough to talk to him and be on a first-name basis, enough to know where he’s from."
"Where is that?"
"São Paulo. He hasn’t had it easy, I don't think."
"He’s from where?!"The thin man asked.
"Leave me alone!" Claudio himself shouted across, his voice catching.
"Don’t move, please! I will call the emergency services!" Pawel called over.
The young man shook his head vigorously and edged a bit closer to the edge, the dumbbell wobbling a little.
"Don't call anyone! I will jump now if you do!"
Daire spoke then.
"Will you talk to me? Please, Claudio! I remember you telling me about your home, about your mother. Remember that day when I was talking to my Mum on the phone while you were on the till? Will you talk to me if we don't call anyone?!"
"Kurwa! This is insane, this is crazy! We have to get other people!" Pawel raged.
"Could you take me over to the other side?" the girl pleaded.
"Please! That way you can call an emergency hotline and still watch him, we can’t do anything over here. Please do something!"
Her last words ripped through him.
In that second he saw Zaneta's face warped with pain, tears streaming down her face, eyes bulging. "Do something!" She had screamed at him as she had dug her nails into his chest and soaked his shirt with her crying.
He was paralysed for a moment, unable to move with the effect the flashback had on his brain.
"Get in the car. Now."
His face like thunder, Pawel returned to the driver seat and found that his hands were shaking when he went to turn the keys in the ignition.
"Don't move please!" he shouted out of the car window.
The thin man followed.
"What are you doing?" Pawel asked.
"Ah please, I don’t want to be left. I fell comin’ up to stop yous." He lifted his tracksuit pant leg, revealing a bloody gash across his calf and shin as if he had, in fact, fallen hard.
The driver sighed hard and waved at him to get into the back seat.
"Don't touch anything," he warned.
"Ah no I won’t, I won’t," the man assured.
The girl gave Pawel a strange, hard stare.
"My name is Martin, by the way." The man stretched forward to extend a bony hand, evidently eager to make introductions, with himself and his odour.
Pawel took it and so did Daire.
It was all almost too surreal.
There was hardly any traffic on the road strangely enough, and so they managed to get the young man quickly. His shoulders were quivering under his hoodie, his head in his hands. The three of them emerged from the car.
"Claudio?" The uncertainty rang out in the girl's voice.
She approached him and looked as if she might crouch down beside him.
"Don't get too close!" Pawel warned but he was ignored.
"Ah here, mind yerself," Martin whined, looking on as a confused child.
"Why are you here? What’s happened?" The young man barely glanced up at her but started to mutter.
"Nothing. Everything is nothing. I can’t stay here."
"Stay here? Why do you want to do this?" She persisted.
"I’m calling emergency services," Pawel announced.
This was far too dangerous for all of them.
They didn’t even know if they could help this person.
"No!" Claudio shouted, making them all jump. "Call no one! I have no one, I know no one. I hate it here!"
"Ah, he’s upset, he’s upset," Martin whispered, his hand held out in a conciliatory gesture. His unease with the situation was that of a child, unable to control his surroundings.
'Why was he still here?' Pawel thought.
"What do you mean, you have no one?"
"I am only," said the young man, evidently trying to convey that he was in fact completely alone. His head bent down towards his chest and he started to sob infant-like sobs. The dumbbell stood mute on the edge of the water.
"Can I move this?" Daire asked. She slowly wrapped her fingers around the handle and hoisted it further up the bank.
Through his tears, the young man spoke.
"I cannot live as I live anymore. I wanted to come here to make a better life. In my country is not good. Everyone has no money. I thought to learn English, live a good life."
"But maybe you have to give yourself a chance?" Daire tried.
Pawel pursed his lips. Everyone making a life in a foreign country felt like this sooner or later but it wasn't a reason to finish life.
"Death is not the answer," she continued.
"But I cannot live as I live! I wish to go home but I cannot."
No longer the confused ghost dancing on the outside of the situation, Martin spoke. "Yis can go home. I do see loads like you comin' in and outta the country, up and down the streets. Most of youse are in on the game, buyin' and sellin' us all ou' of ih'."
"I have not done the drugs! Never! I never buy or use them ever in my life, I come here to live a better life!"Claudio was almost incoherently upset.
Daire attempted to make soothing noises and to make Martin stop.
"Yeah yis are living the better life, alright! Retirin' off of it, yis brown bastards."
Both Daire and Pawel shouted at him to stop. He kept muttering to himself, "Wouldn't've bothered me hole if I'd'a known."
Pawel crouched down on the bank beside the young man. "It is hard, so very hard to stay when you feel you have nothing. My wife and I, almost separated when we came here. It will get better, you meet people, things change. There is always a way out."
Claudio looked up at him and for the first time, Pawel saw his eyes. They were filled with sorrowful, unshed tears.
"My mother is dying," he whispered, "and I cannot see her."
Pawel exhaled sharply.
"Why not?"Daire breathed, her voice gentle.
"No money," the young man almost laughed through his tears. "I worked every day when I first arrived but I began to spend, gamble sometimes. Now I owe a lot. My girlfriend, she came with me, now she is gone." Tears chased each other silently down his cheeks. "My fault. No good. I sometimes miss work and now I will lose my job."
"How did you start gambling?" she asked.
The young man shrugged, his face pinched with distress. "I don't know. I was lonely. I met others I knew from home and play with cards, bet online, anything. I liked it. Later, I did it to go away from where I was living. They said I would live with six others but I live now with thirty-eight. I have no space, it's hard to wash."
"They didn't tell you?" He shook his head. "That's not legal in any way, shape or form. When is your lease finished?"
"There is none. But someone can verify."
Daire was in complete disbelief. Pawel was not entirely surprised. He'd known of such arrangements.
"You need to get out of there. I know people that can help, it's not healthy no wonder you're in this state!"
Claudio peered at her from under his brow for a while, then wiped his sleeve under his nose.
"Why are you here right now? I didn't think you know me."
Daire nodded. "I remember you. Sure, I see you every other day. I know you loved your Mother, you told me her name was Fernanda," she smiled. He gave a sob and smiled back but it faded fast.
"I can't see her."
"You need to get to a hospital yourself. Your life is precious too."
His eyes glistened in the dusky light of the Georgian street lamp behind them on the bank.
"It isn't," he whispered.
To Pawel's slight surprise, tears made their way down Daire's face too.
"Who else will sell me Red Bull for essay season?" That brought a small, chokey laugh from Claudio. She took his hand.
"Please come to A&E and untie this," she gestured to the small dumbbell lying brazenly on the downhill curve of the grass.
"Don't leave," he croaked without looking at her.
"I won't leave."