Ray’s leaning out on the footpath in his usual spot but instead of holding his folded, chewed paper cup he’s holding a sign in one hand and a thumb in the other. The sign’s big enough and has “BARCELONE” in black marker across it. I ask him what’s up.
“Cold’s coming in,” he says. “I’ve decided to head south, with the birds. Need money for Ryanair.”
“This a new idea?” I say. “You’ve done it before?”
“No. But sure I may as well try it, now that Mammy’s gone. And Cowen fucking up the country.” Ray’s been living in the alley behind my house for as long as I’ve been here. An accepted exception in a village with few homeless. He doesn’t usually beg, he just gets a quiet hand from locals passing by, and conversation. We’re friendly enough. He regularly apologises for the other drunks, and I pretend not to see him shitting into a plastic bag in the lane-way.
“Have you a passport?”
“No. I don’t need one for Europe, I thought. Barcelone’s in Europe.”
“Yeah, but you need something. Have you a driver’s license?”
“Not this long while, no.”
I haven’t much on. “We can get you a passport, if you want.”
“How much would that be? I hadn’t done a passport in the sums.”
“I think the forms are sixty quid, about. Administration.”
“No problem, Ray. If you can make the money for the flight, I’ll help with the passport.”
I bring him to my gym to clean up. Early Tuesday and the place is empty. I pay him in as a guest and the girl on the counter raises the place where her eyebrows once were. “He’ll be clean in ten minutes,” I whisper. “It’s grand.”
The dirt doesn’t come off in the shower. That’s the first thing I notice. He scrubs clean, but there’s something ragged looking about his cheeks and eyes. Like carpet burn. Sleeping indoors kept me young in a way that seems natural but really Ray is the natural one. He cleans up but he’ll never look too clean. The drink too, I guess. I can’t tell if it’s the cold or the drink that makes him so ruddy.
He shaves slowly and then cleans the sink carefully with toilet paper. I hand him the shirt and jumper we got in Dunnes and he unpacks them, gripping the shirt pins in a row between his teeth, pointing outwards.
We stop at a chemist on the way to Pearse Street. A woman stands Ray against a clear spot on the wall and points a camera inexpertly. She strips the film out of the back and shakes it before tucking it under her arm. We hash out the weather. Up at the desk she hands Ray the four pictures in a white envelope, and he checks them and pockets them. I watch his face but he’s showing nothing.
In the General Register Office we take a ticket and a form. It’s like thirty years ago in there. Dusty seats and wooden panelling. Ray writes in his birthday and hospital and name, and when they call our number we hand over the form and get a clean, fresh birth certificate two minutes later. “That’s your dad?” I say, pointing at the name on the sheet. “So I’m told,” quips Ray.
The passport office is on Molesworth Street. They do it on the spot if you just turn up, but it takes a few hours. After some humming, Ray sticks down his mam’s old street as his home address on the green form. Everything goes in another envelope with the photos and birth cert and through the hatch. I hand the fee through after it. We’re told about the wait and find a bench.
“Nothing but forms today.”
“You’re sure you’ll be happy in Barcelona, Ray? You know it’s still cold enough in winter.”
“Ah, yeah. But warmer still. The way I hear it, all you need is a roll of cardboard and a cloister to lie under. And bottles of red for a euro.”
“What about food?”
“There’s always food.”
“Will you be back?”
“I think so. I’m not made for hot summers. We’ll see how it goes.”
We get out a half hour later, Ray tucking the maroon booklet into his back pocket. “It looks real as anything,” he says.
“It is real, Ray.”
He nods heads off towards the canal. I see him a few more times over the next fortnight. He tells me the ticket’s bought in an internet café but he had to book a few weeks off to get it cheap. He used someone’s card, I suppose. Then he’s gone. A few neighbours take issue later. Blame me for allowing him off like that, into the unknown. Where anything might happen. I shrug. I say he’s a grown man. They envy him, I think. We all envy him.