Dial Zero



Dial Zero


While it’s a pity that the en-suite doesn’t have a bath the balcony is a definite plus, I decide, surveying what will be my universe for the next fourteen days. Childhood memories of my parents’ stories of their emigrant aunts and uncles bring a wistful smile. Back then, the journey to New York had meant anything from seven to eleven days at sea; my return from JFK has taken less than seven hours, even if it will be another fourteen days before I can travel the final fifty miles to my interim destination – my sister’s home in the midlands. The joys of quarantine! What price progress? I wonder, recalling my visit to the Ellis Island Museum about fifteen years ago. Post-Famine immigrants to the US had also faced confinement on arrival, not to mention a barrage of medical checks and, judging from the range of primitive surgical instruments on view at the museum, I have to admit that a Covid-19 swab test scarcely qualifies as a minor inconvenience. As for those unfortunates who were quarantined in Ellis Island, I shudder to think how their accommodations might have compared with my present quarters. I know I’ll be paying for my stay here but relative to the cost of the fare to America in bygone days, it’s a bargain.

I browse through the printed list of dos and don’ts on my bedside locker. It’s more or less the standard hotel list – but with the relevant Covid-19 restrictions. Not noticing any great conflict with what I might have expected following my pre-booking research, I test the quality of the broadband with a quick video call to my sister. She is busy at work, so I arrange to have a proper catch-up with her and Mam after she gets home. I unlock my smallest trolley case and after spreading a few items of clothing across the bed, grab my wash bag and head to the shower.

Refreshed, dried, and dressed in jeans and white sports shirt, I notice that the clouds have parted and my balcony is bathed in bright sunshine. I try the balcony door; it’s locked, and there is no evidence of a key. As recommended in my printout, I dial zero for reception; there is no reply. I disconnect and retry; still no reply. I open the zipped pocket of my large trolley case and locate my wallet of lock picks – an essential part of every locksmith’s kit. Yes, I did once train as a locksmith and, even though I’ve mainly worked in personal security in recent years, I’m still certified on both sides of the Atlantic. Following the loss of two of my major clients, a couple of very narrow escapes, the dissolution of a disastrous marriage, and reaching the grand old age of fifty, I decided to tender my list of clients to my colleague and return to the auld sod in search of a more mundane pathway through life. Ironically, there was little I could have done to prevent the demise of either client: while both mogul and mobster had paid top dollar for protection from each other, they had been equally defenceless against a new, invisible assassin – Covid-19.

            I suppose few of us go through life without sacrificing some scruples at the altar of Mammon. It’s a basic fact, it’s universal, and it’s probably as old as mankind itself. After all, I was simply striving to keep both parties alive; not enabling either to kill the other. I will long remember my sense of relief the first morning I left my Bronx apartment without my Arcadia .38 Saturday night special strapped to my lower calf. My legally held weapon, a .38 Glock, I continued to carry in its shoulder holster until surrendering it on the eve of my departure from The States.

            I shiver at the thought that what had been the norm for over a decade of my life should instantly seem so absurd on my return to Ireland. Was that person really me? Had I become so seduced by New York life that I could no longer differentiate between right and wrong? I know I’ve saved lives, but to what degree was I culpable when an individual whom I’d protected subsequently caused the death of another? No; I mentally scream and shaking my head as though to dislodge the thought, turn my attention back to the balcony door.

            The lock offers little resistance and in less than a minute I am breathing the north Dublin air. My nose tells me that somebody nearby has been mowing grass; it’s an aroma so different to what I’d experienced in New York’s parks and suburban lawns. Even five floors above ground level Irish city grass has that elusive moist earthiness that I associate with the carefree innocence of childhood summers, one of the many things we don’t realise we’ve missed until we stumble across them in later life. Like silence – not total silence, but the absence of intrusive industrial and traffic noise. Instead of revving engines, honking horns, screaming sirens, and the incessant hum of air conditioning systems, my ears are filled with glorious birdsong: everything from the sweet trilling of robins and the warbling of blackbirds, to the harsh grating of squabbling corvids. Even the lofty gulls sound pleasantly melodious, wheeling and soaring beneath a backdrop of azure sky, still thankfully devoid of lopsided grids of polluting vapour trails.

            It’s as if my spirit has somehow soared free of my quarantined body, and my thoughts are already drifting towards the weeks and months ahead. While I don’t have a definite plan for the future, I am assured of a roof over my head and I also know I have no immediate worries about where the price of my next meal might come. New York may have left me morally bankrupt but it had worked wonders for my financial wellbeing. Of how I might adjust to life in the rural village of my childhood, I have no idea. My sister was thrilled when we reached agreement on our old family home, which had become hers ten years ago when Mam went to live with her following Dad’s death. Mam is still in good health, and bright as a button, and has promised to be my first visitor just as soon as I’ve made her old home habitable again.

            It’s a useful way of passing the time, I decide, trying to visualise the refurbishment of the old homestead from a blueprint of rose-tinted childhood memories. I am, however, somewhat conflicted: while my head wants the domestic mod-cons I’ve become accustomed to Stateside, my heart craves the simple, homely security of a more innocent time. Should I reclaim my childhood bedroom, or assert my position as owner by moving into my parents’ room? No; I couldn’t banish Mam to one of the two smaller rooms on her very first visit; I should keep her room as close as possible to what she remembers. Besides, there will be many other tasks requiring more immediate attention. It’s a good time to take on such a project; even after completing my quarantine I will still have most of July to get things in motion. Short of any serious hiccups, I would hope to be reasonably comfortable before the onset of winter.    

            I am somewhere between insulating the attic and designing a new sunroom when I hear it: the hesitant tapping of metal on glass. For a fanciful moment I imagine a future neighbour tapping on the glass of a wall not yet constructed. The tapping grows louder, more insistent; even demanding, and I then realise that it’s coming from the adjacent balcony. There’s a young woman waving frantically from inside her French door; I vault the dividing rail and approach. She flourishes a pack of Marlboro lights cigarettes, her pretty face contorting as she presses fruitlessly against her unyielding door handle. I nod my understanding, raise a pausing index finger, and rush back to my room to retrieve my lock picks.

            The yielding lock and her Zippo lighter sound in unison. She bursts past me, dragging furiously on her cigarette. Conscious of social distancing, I reverse a couple of steps.  She waves an apology, her long, dark hair partly obscuring her features as she exhales.

            “Thanks,” she sighs; “you’re a lifesaver…” she double-pumps on her cigarette.

            “You’re welcome, but I don’t think the Surgeon General would agree,” I jest, wondering why she looks so eerily familiar. Perhaps I had noticed her on my flight…

            “I’ve been locked in there for nearly eight bloody hours…even though my test was negative…You?”

            “I’ve just arrived…from New York…” I say, realising that while she hadn’t been on my flight, our paths may have previously crossed in the Big Apple; that would explain why she looks so familiar.

            “Geneva. I’d gone there on a six-month contract, but ended up having to stay another twelve – thanks to travel restrictions. Luckily for me, as my replacement wasn’t able to travel either, my contract was extended. I suppose things could have been worse.”

            “Geneva? Wow, the financial capital of the world. That must have been a blast.” She doesn’t seem impressed. Shrugging dismissively, she takes another drag of her cigarette.

            “I’m a sous chef: I was cooking food; not books.”

            “An army marches on its stomach…” I quip, instantly regretting my remark as her narrowing eyes silently scream seriously; are you for real? I guess she has already heard that cliché more than once too often.

            “Thanks again,” she says, deadpan, and takes a final drag before stubbing out her cigarette. “I hope you won’t get in trouble over picking that lock,”

“What’s the point of having a PSA licence if I can’t assist a damsel in distress?”

“A PSA licence?” She asks, pausing in the doorway

“I’m a licensed locksmith.” I explain. Eyeing me oddly, she slides her door shut.

Hours later, her parting look continues to haunt me. I’m certain I’ve seen those penetrating dark eyes before; but when…where…who? I hear her balcony door slide yet again but decide it might be wiser to remain indoors rather than risk another disapproving look from my intriguing neighbour. As a distraction I browse through the TV channels, finally settling on a CNN report on the disappointing uptake of Corona vaccines in several US states.

            “Sorry…” Her voice jolts me back to reality. I spring upright on the bed. She leans against the jamb of my open balcony door; a smile tugs at the corners of her perfect mouth. “I mean for earlier…I was really stressed; I’ve chilled a bit since…you shouldn’t miss out on the use of your balcony because of me…”

            “No, you’re grand,” I gasp, feigning nonchalance, “these are trying times…”

            “I’ve brewed some coffee. Bring a cup if you’d like to join me…and milk and sugar if you use them. We’ll observe social distancing, of course,” she says, vanishing just as magically as she’d appeared. 

            After a quick check in the bathroom mirror, I grab one of the hotel’s courtesy cups and go outside to find her already seated on her bedroom pouffe beside the rail that separates our balconies. Wordlessly, she takes my cup and pours a steaming dark liquid from a stainless steel flask. Instantly hit by its exquisite aroma, I inhale deeply as I raise the cup to my lips. My eyes widen at the first sip; I’ve never tasted better coffee. She seems pleased at my reaction.

            “This is amazing,” I breathe; “is it from your hotel in Geneva?”

            “No, it’s from much closer to home.”

            “You mean this is Irish? Wow, I’ve never tasted anything like this; what’s it called?” It seems that Ireland’s coffee standards have improved greatly during my exile.

            “It’s Ciarona. Remember the name…” Basking in the intensity of her gaze, I savour another sip and nod animatedly. I decide not to mention that I’d consider the name more appropriate to a model of automobile, a medication, or a luxury confection.

“I will,” I affirm; “it has something special…in the flavour…I can’t quite pin it down. Do you know what it is?” Her smile broadens; again, a finger of deja-vu tingles up my spine.

            “I do, but if I told you I’d have to shoot you.” I stifle a shudder: for too long I’d been dicing with the possibility of a surprise bullet. She seems oblivious to my flashback. “It’s my Mum’s formula…I…she…we have a little hotel in…”

            I can’t be sure if I nod, shudder or gulp, but I have a vague sense of my mouth opening and closing. If ever an answer had raised more questions; this one has; she continues speaking, unknowingly answering another question.

            “Mam named it Ciarona: my sister is Ciaragh, and I’m Bronagh. Although we’re nothing alike physically – I’m dark like Mam; Ciaragh is a blue-eyed blonde – we both love the hotel game.” She pauses to light a cigarette; I feel my dormant tobacco craving scream more loudly than at any time in more than a decade. “So,” she exhales; “what’s yours?”

            “What…how do you mean?” I meet her enquiring gaze with a blank stare.

            “Your name; I can’t spend the next two weeks saying hey you…”

            “Oh sorry; I’m Kieran…Kieran with a K…” I add, and then wonder why I’ve emphasised the K. The ensuing silence is mercifully shattered by a businesslike rapping on my room door. Waving an apology, I slip back inside and slide the balcony door shut behind me.

            The dinner trolley is already some way along the corridor when I open my door. I pick up my tray and bring it to my dressing table. I’m not averse to an occasional chicken and ham salad but right now I would have liked the option of steak and fries. I tuck in, nonetheless, and even as I chew I find myself having imaginary discussions with the hotel’s chef about possible menu choices. Perhaps I should get Bronagh onboard; she’s a chef, while my knowledge of food has become limited to side street diners and TV ready meals. Besides, there is so much more I need to know about Bronagh, about her family, their hotel, and her coffee-blending mother. Feeling suddenly jetlagged, I remove my shoes, stretch out on the bed and close my eyes.

            At the ringing of my bedside telephone, I awaken to semi-darkness. Was somebody finally responding to earlier attempts to contact reception? Bronagh’s voice sounds in my ear. 

            “Sorry,” she breathes; did I wake you?”

            “It’s OK,” I croak. “What time is it?” I ask, fishing in my trousers’ pocket for my iPhone.

            “It’s almost midnight.” I hear her lighter rasp; a deep inhalation. “It’s my birthday…”

            “Oh, happy birthday…happy birthday to…” I begin my best Marilyn Monroe impression.

            “OK, OK, I get it. Thanks, but I think I’d rather have you drink with me than sing to me. I have champagne…and proper glasses!”

            “I have Jameson.” I counter. “Meet you at the usual place in five?”  

            “What if we combine your whiskey and my coffee? I also have some aerosol cream.”

            It’s undoubtedly the finest Irish coffee I’ve ever tasted; the most exquisite fusion of whiskey, coffee and cream I’ve ever experienced; and she’s served it in authentic Irish coffee goblets.

            “Here’s to your birthday,” we clink.

            “And here’s to the shortest night,” she grins; “happy solstice…” While I’m well aware of the actual date, its solar significance hadn’t occurred to me.

            “Wow; you were born on the solstice? How fantastic is that?”

            “And my sister Ciaragh was born on the autumn equinox: She’ll be twenty-three in September…Hey, aren’t you going to ask me how old I am?”

            I wasn’t; I’m thinking of another person’s age.

            “It’s not your twenty-first; is it?”

            “Yes, I’m a real millennium baby…”

            We dispense with the coffee and cream after a second round, and then trade anecdotes from our contrasting careers until finally dragging ourselves off to our respective beds to the first hesitant notes of the dawn chorus. I don’t suppose Christmas features very prominently in the minds of many people on the summer solstice, but one particular Yuletide totally dominates my thoughts throughout my first morning of isolation.

            In December ninety-seven I was the junior of three technicians dispatched by our Dublin-based company to update the security system of a recently-burgled computer warehouse down the country. Already booked for a two-night stay at a nearby hotel, we arrived on site early on Monday morning and got straight to work. The job went well, so well that by midmorning on Tuesday the boss was confident that we’d be heading for home well before dusk. Our optimism looked well-founded until the final test, when one-by-one a series of junction boxes began to sparkle like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. When we still hadn’t located the short by eight-thirty, the boss called a halt and suggested we resume on Wednesday morning – Christmas Eve.

            We identified the fault within the hour and by noon everything had been rewired, tested and retested within an inch of its existence. My colleagues departed straight away in their Transit van, leaving me the use of the smaller Renault over the holiday period.  I knew that I too should have headed home right then, before the storm, before the power cut that set every bell of our new alarm system jangling with cacophonous abandon – but I simply had to see the gorgeous young daughter of the widowed hotelier one last time.

            I had just parked after resetting the alarm when a huge pine tree fell, narrowly missing the van but totally blocking the only exit from the hotel car park. With the storm intensifying throughout the afternoon, the kindly hotelier insisted that I should remain at the hotel for another night as his guest rather than risk the fifty-mile drive home.

            Yes, Bronagh is the image of her mother, but I can’t help wondering if Ciaragh might look anything like me…  


Neil Brosnan


From Listowel, Ireland, Neil Brosnan’s short stories have appeared in magazines, such as Ariel Chart, print anthologies, and in electronic format in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the USA. A winner of The Bryan MacMahonThe Maurice Walsh, (four timesand Ireland’s Own, (twice) short story awards, he has published two short story collections: ‘Fresh Water & other stories’ (Original Writing, 2010) and ‘Neap Tide & other stories’ (New Binary Press, 2013)

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