Sean or Ian or Augustine or Eustace or Keith or whoever he was: until I met him, I would not have believed such people existed in our little country. Back in my flat I knew I had a sketch for a story, this despite almost none of the man‘s statements being of use to me. His heroes were Vladimir Putin, Lance Armstrong and Adolf Hitler, but these details were not relevant, except in what they revealed of his private self. There was something about his character, about his manner, and about the way his convictions seemed to slap through him head to toe like a steel cable in the wind, straightening him, that gave me an idea for a person. First thing to decide on was a name. Sean it was.
The story would begin with a summary of Sean‘s daily routine. Perhaps he would travel a short car ride to the harbour to collect the first kippers of the morning from the most radioactive sea in the world, although these would come via a deformed peacock in a concrete shed at the end of the pier. As a legacy of his survivalist training he would have a small gas stove in the car that on mild mornings he would use to cook his fish outdoors. A typically strained ‘normal‘ conversation with the peacock woman in the shed would be:
‘They must have hit a shoal of crab/monkfish.‘
‘I‘ll have some of those.‘
I was pleased with the story I would write. Sometimes it‘s hard to write without having an experience and now I had an experience I could use. I thought of poor raging ramrodded Sean out there in the night not knowing the good he had inspired. It would please me to use phrases like ‘limpid and aqueous‘. I considered the money that certain publications paid for stories and decided to check my bank balance online. This was hubris, I concede, and therefore you may laugh at me for thereafter followed the largest backward bound in a recent series of backward bounds in my life.
I was aghast with what I saw: my bank account was empty. Not a single penny wheeling round the plughole. I knew straight away what had happened. Shock subsided to anger at how naïve I‘d been. Back in the café, Sean had shown me his website on my laptop and, in the couple of seconds before it appeared, a million pop-up windows came and went, one after the other, like a strobe.
All right, I said (and I was frozen like a sphinx and still saying, Idiot, idiot, idiot). In the morning I would ring the bank and cancel my account. That way Sean could not violate me again and again. The way it was now I had only lost €1,400, and it was fine. It was bad, yes; but it wasn‘t the end, no. I went to sleep on the floor and gathered my draught excluder to me.
Two hours later my eyes snapped open and I was eating the draught excluder and I had a greater worry. What if Sean used my money to help fund a far-right militia in America or in his beloved Russia? What if the money could be traced back to my computer? Would it look like I was funding these far-right militias?
From my window I observed weak orange lights on tarred wooden poles barely illuminating anything around them. I imagined in the blackest crevasse of darkness a snake of pencil lights moving towards my building.
Who was this Sean?
Basically, what happened next was that I completely spazzed out. My thoughts came in short little sparks. Anyway, the details are humiliating, but I present them here, all of them.
Here was the quandary: I needed to find out about this guy, okay? Maybe I was thinking: I would be the hero. He had got me good, hats off, so, I thought, well, I‘ll steal a march on his exit. But the quandary, anyway, was that the only way I could find out about him was on the internet. Time was of the essence: that money was being wired somewhere. The quandary, though, was that time was against me in other ways. What if those pencil lights came? See, I was really panicking now. I knew I had to look him up on the internet but, also, that I had to get out of the building. So early hours found me running towards the ringroad because of some notion that it was a border. Meanwhile to get to the ringroad you had to run around other roads, and everywhere was roads, roads, publically accessible space, a dangerous place to be. So another notion: there‘s that river that runs essentially in an invisible valley. At that point I wished I could drive. If I‘d been able to drive I would have stolen a car. But that river: it was down through shrubs and garlands of litter. My feet splashed into the water, went down in silt. Now, okay, I was away from underpowered human eyes and safe to take up my search. By the light of my phone I made out a culvert in the structure of the bridge. It was a pre-cast concrete pipe, about a metre and a half in diameter. Terrible evil. I turned off my phone. I flipped open my computer. My breath flared up in blue before my face. Nondescript alphanumeric name after nondescript alphanumeric name. All locked behind security passwords. Another thought came to me: this was the stream that flowed around the back of Drum Road, and the backs of the houses hard up against the bank. How many homes, how many routers left whirring for the night? I slooped on, beneath the canopy of trees, below the houses, my eyes on the Wi-Fi signal. ‘Satanism Behind Oligarchy and War‘: I chuckled a mocking laugh to myself, remembering an item on Sean‘s website. Wait‘ll I find that one in my History.
Sean was also the name I gave to the police. Certainly there were two adjacent vowels in his name. Certainly, too, the name on his website was Iridium Media. I was absolutely, absolutely, certain of this, I said to the female garda officer. Also, he wore a baggy copper-coloured T-shirt with the Nike logo faintly embroidered on it, and his hair was in a neat indistinctive style and of an indistinctive brown hue. There was a yellow rubber band on one of his wrists. Not a rubber band like an elastic band, no, but a fashion band, a wristband, for a charity.
‘Can you show me this website?‘ said the officer.
I raised my laptop from my knees and held it weakly with one hand. My tentativeness caused a wave to transfer to the sheet of water within, which in turn made the computer list. A little green string of slime spilled out of the lower side. I righted, with both hands, the machine to more or less the horizontal position, whereupon a perfect explosion, of metallic orange and with black variegations, and about the size and shape of an avocado stone, blew out of the other side.
‘When I say a copper-coloured T-shirt I mean to say copper that‘s turned green after the rain has got at it.‘
The female garda officer remained slumped over her jotter. As with many rural women, her forehead was a tremendous wax panel. The sundry-item clock on the wall behind her said it was ten past two. Its twelve o‘clock-to-six axis was dramatically unaligned with the vertical axis. I knew it to be much later than ten past two. A buttery smudge of dawn had even appeared near the clock.
‘What did you say was the name on the website?‘ she said.
‘Epididymis Media,‘ I said initially.
I leaned back in my chair. These people. They were like the victors in a civil war turned oppressors, which they were when you stopped to think about it. All fittings and fixtures in the room were from the War of Independence and the front of the station was even pockmarked from gunshot.
I corrected myself:
‘No—Iridium Media. I‘m absolutely, absolutely, certain of this.‘
She clicked the button on her pen twice and lifted her eyes, but not enough so that they connected with mine.
‘Spell,‘ she said.
‘I‘ll have to look it up later. I can ring you.‘
A sighing sound came from deep in her chest, bypassing her mouth. She ran a straight line across her piece of paper. At this point another officer arrived to bring her a mug of tea. She lifted her eyes fully to this man‘s. I got the sense that she hadn‘t been taking me seriously from the start, and that she resented me because near the beginning I had said to her, ‘I haven‘t seen you on the beat.‘ I waited until the man went back to his detail, then leaned forward with my elbows on my laptop.
‘Tell me: have you heard of the Drum Road Shrove Tuesday Carbon Monoxide Disaster of 1965?‘
She took a long sip of her tea. The mug had ‘Clare‘ printed on it—either the county or her name.
‘It was a little before my time.‘
Through gritted teeth, and with equal emphasis on almost every word, I said:
‘On Pancake Tuesday evening 1965 at the Methodist church hall on Drum Road four people died of what was reported as carbon monoxide poisoning owing to the build-up of gas from the slow burning of yew branches for the following day‘s Ash Wednesday, but those people did not die from carbon monoxide, those yew branches had been burning in a shed the far side of the church. Do you want to know what those people died from? Those people died from hypnosis.‘
She had stopped writing but her head remained bowed and her face completely untroubled.
‘They were hypnotised to death,‘ I continued. ‘One of them was Diffident Means, a friend of the British military attaché. Or, rather—this is important—an ex-friend. Do you know what I‘m talking about here? Were you aware that that church hall could be hired for non-church activities? Are you even aware of a Methodist church, or a Methodist church hall, on Drum Road?‘
She glowered at me as if I were a Methodist, or British.
‘What‘s any of this got to do with your money disappearing from your bank account?‘
‘Nothing,‘ I said. ‘I‘m reporting two separate crimes.‘
Not that I cared particularly about the British military attaché, or the British. My great grandfather had fought against them, and eventually against the scum who would become the Garda Síochána. It was from his letters that I learnt many things including what measures to take upon being shot side-on at close range in the eye.
My mother, later that morning (but still early for her), expressed confusion at the idea that I could have inherited my great grandfather‘s politics.
‘But why not?‘ I said.
‘Because I was never like that, and neither was my mother.‘
‘Maybe I didn‘t inherit those politics. Maybe I came to them myself, through bad experiences with the police.‘
‘I didn‘t raise you to annoy the police, or to be an IRA terrorist.‘
My mother was completely apolitical, therefore a conservative. She was definitely a non-intellectual, along with my father. There were only ten books in my parents‘ house, among them a Readers‘ Digest anthology; a kind of gazetteer called My Jewel and Darling Dublin; David Niven‘s autobiography; and a child‘s atlas.
My mother looked terrible this early. She was a tiny tanned person but in the mornings the tan in her hollows was swampwater green as if the rot had pooled, and her tininess was especially marked in a huge yellow towelled dressing gown. Pre-breakfast was cigarettes. Even though the law had long ago changed regarding smoking in public places and most people had taken the injunction into their own homes, my mother carried on, continuing to brown her own ceilings, which actually I respected. Her guts made the sounds of the deep jungle and I said to her:
‘You should make yourself some toast.‘
‘You should make yourself some toast.‘
I was unable to sit still, or sit at all. I went through the presses in the kitchen, banging through them. Somewhere in my mind I was looking for things I could not stand to live with, such as cups with cracks in them, lazy stuff like food a year out of date, if I were to live in this house again.
‘I‘ve got a sack full of glass in the boiler room if you‘d like to take it up to the bottle bank.‘
‘Mother.‘ I stopped—slammed a press. ‘I can‘t go to the bottle bank.‘
‘Go on. Bring the bottles to the bottle bank. You love taking the bottles to the bottle bank.‘
This was true: it was a special treat to lay a bottle in the hole as if it were a torpedo and to thump it in against the bar.
‘I‘m a thirty-one-year-old man. A man. I can‘t be going to the bottle bank.‘
This was not the reason why I didn‘t want to go to the bottle bank.
‘As a favour?‘
‘Mother,‘ I said again.
‘What‘s the matter?‘
‘Mother,‘ I said, and finally dragged a seat out from the kitchen table. I sat down and rested my head on my forearm. ‘I was somewhat dishonest with you about why I was at the station, and at what time.‘
‘Oh flip. Not again.‘
‘No, not that,‘ I said.
I could feel a tearful episode coming on, like all my gas condensing.
‘Well tell me!‘ said my mother.
‘Early this morning I thought I was being chased. It was horrendous. I actually felt I had to go on the run.‘
My ducts opened and tears dropped directly to the table as my shoulders— I couldn‘t help it—convulsed. My mother winkled at the lump at the bottom of the back of my skull.
‘Who was chasing you?‘
‘Pack dogs belonging to the police.‘
‘Then why did you go to the police?‘
‘When I realised pack dogs weren‘t chasing me.‘
‘So… why can‘t you go to the bottle bank?‘
‘Because I‘ve become inadvertently associated with neo-Nazism and the enemies of neo-Nazism may be chasing me.‘
My mother stopped stroking me.
‘Perhaps not strictly neo-Nazism,‘ I said, ‘but certainly small-government freaks.‘
Sigh and harrumph! What was the point? I swatted my mother‘s hand off my neck and sat up. This terminology was wasted on her. My mother would never understand anything that was not the sex lives of soap stars.
‘Oh god, mother,‘ I said, and was overcome with another cloudburst.
She took my hand on the table and stroked my knuckles instead.
‘If anyone wants you they‘ll have to get through me first,‘ she said.
I withdrew my hand and, sagging, sighing to let the heat out, composed myself.
‘Mother, can I move back here? It‘s safer.‘
‘But petal, you don‘t even need to ask. For how long?‘
‘Just for a while. On top of everything else, I have to save some money. Actually—do you think father will give me another loan?‘
‘I‘m sure he will, I‘m sure he will. He‘ll be so glad to have you back. And I can get you to do your rock buns from my Home Economics book. And Uncle Peter will be so pleased to have you back too. You can do his hair. He‘s got very strange about me cutting his hair. He‘s been watching a series about hairdressing and now he won‘t allow any woman to cut his hair.‘
Uncle Peter was strange about many things, but then wouldn‘t any man be if he was one of Europe‘s three remaining iron-lung residents? And it wasn‘t as if he had a say on what he could or could not watch—his television was bolted to the ceiling and his hands were for ever locked away. That would probably be one of my new duties too—to change the channel after the tenth time of Uncle Peter screaming for it.
Whenever I told Uncle Peter my news, good or bad, I got the sense he was vitalised, but I wondered now how he would take this latest backward bound. I went to his room, which was the saddest sight in the world: to stand on the threshold looking in depressed you to the extent that there was no tension left in your body. In the centre of the floor he hovered. His iron lung was painted greyish-yellow like an over-boiled egg yolk and had a small Union Jack and the words ‘made in Wednesbury, West Midlands, Great Britain‘ printed on it in the same font as in the old logo for Granada Television. Two long windows extended down the length of the iron lung. The inside of the glass was encrusted with ten-, twenty-, fifty-year-old jizz, cracked into hexagons.
The news would have to wait, as he was asleep. I took a damp golf towel from a stool. I hadn‘t seen Uncle Peter in three weeks. His hair was long and, though rarely cleaned, was silken and fine and flowed off the plate that his head rested on. The curtains in the room were still drawn, but they were made of thin wool, so light easily broke in. On beige walls hung framed pictures of Uncle Peter with celebrities: former US President Ronald Reagan, Brazilian inspiration guru Paolo Coelho, snooker player Steve Davis, Falklands War burns victim Simon Weston and crooner Emile Ford. Then there was the parade of pop groups that came in the same week in the 1990s: Boyzone, the Carter Twins and OTT. It was thrilling to think that Ronald Reagan had stood in this very room. Only in the Steve Davis picture did Uncle Peter‘s faded pale face look pleased.
‘What are you going to do for money?‘ he asked me.
‘I‘ll continue to draw the dole, Uncle Peter. But I‘m ever resourceful and ambitious and am always looking for ways to support myself.‘
‘That‘s good. It‘s good for the head. That‘s what my head man says. Think independence.‘
‘Yesterday I had a new idea: that I‘d become a writer.‘
‘How did the idea occur?‘
At no stage did Uncle Peter ever make eye contact with you, although the rubber brace around his neck was not restrictive and it was possible for him to turn his head.
‘It came from outside. I probably wouldn‘t have thought of it myself. But when I mentioned my education and reading to someone he suggested that I could write his memoirs and his thoughts for him. He turned out to be this crazy lunatic who robbed all my savings, but still, he gave me the idea.‘
‘To write his book?‘
‘No, no. I don‘t think I could have written his book. His thoughts, maybe, but not his memoirs. I have problems writing about the past.‘
‘All those pasts within pasts. The had hads that build up on your ear. What do you call those things?‘
‘Don‘t know. No—auxiliaries.‘
‘All those things at your ear like fists.‘
A twitch of the head on the plate told me that Uncle Peter had readjusted his body.
‘Can I tell you something?‘ he said. ‘I‘ve wanted to be a writer for years. I saw a programme on it. Obviously I‘m in no position to write but maybe I could tell you my sentences and you could write them out for me.‘
‘What sort of writing?‘
‘I have a story. It‘s classic science fiction. There‘ll be a lot of sex in it too. An admiral on a space battleship dies. The custom with these things is that the admiral gets put in a plastic coffin and fired into space. He‘s buried, if you can call it that, with his cap and uniform, his stripes, full space-naval honours. His crew watch the coffin get smaller and smaller out in the dark until it disappears. Then it‘s back to business on board. Over time the coffin travels through a black hole. It‘s revealed at this point also that the admiral was in fact murdered by a rival. The coffin absorbs energy and explodes, flinging the body through several more black holes, with the upshot that the admiral becomes a kind of super-strength superhero. Where he lands is a planet populated only by beautiful women—‘
Meanwhile I took out my bits of a story and started reading them.
As a result of the biting cold Sean normally takes his breakfast back to his flat. This comprises the en-suite room of a house in a recently built estate on the far northern outskirts of town. It is all he can afford with his dole money, which kills him to have to receive, but the way he justifies this is that he paid enough taxes while he had a job. The flat does not leave much room for home contents. His possessions these days largely consist of reading material: books by long-term prisoners, certain books on political philosophy, cryptozoology magazines, books on the occult, the Fortean Times.
Mostly, or if he can summon the spirit, he gets out of the house. Another part of his routine involves visiting the same two petrol stations: one found anticlockwise around the ringroad, the other on his way home, that is, going clockwise. Sometimes he mooches in either of the station cafés; other times he‘s happy just to pull up in some unobtrusive spot near the air pump or briquette locker and sit in his car. Just as long as he gets his free Wi-Ii is all. He keeps to the one coffee a day, which he takes in his favourite coffee shop, a converted brick barn at the far end of the C of the ringroad, with mezzanine level of pine and glass inserted, and he always drinks a bowl of latte and has a bottle of water on the side. His repeated demand of the waitress is to not put fucking mint in the water.
On rare occasions he has an attack of conscience, and on one occasion he even phones all of his family members to canvass what they think of him.
‘Do I come across as bitter?‘ he asks his sister.
‘Well . . .‘ she says. ‘You don‘t come across as un-bitter.‘
His family these past few years think of him as strange, which is fine, because he thinks of his family as mediocre. He is not without hope for some of them, however. At his son Dirk‘s First Holy Communion ceremony he is reminded, throughout the liturgy, of the Christian precepts, which he has abided by all his life, and watches, from his pew deep in the block of seats, the boys advance up the aisle. He thinks of all the Masses that Dirk will attend in his life, given the right direction, and looks for the distinctive Belgian back-of-head of Dirk‘s godfather Crazy Robb on the bench where Lydia sits, but Crazy Robb of the Waffle SS of course is not there. The windows of the church on this bright May day are the farthest open he has ever seen them; he wasn‘t even aware that they were hinged in that way. The church is also full of lilies, white roses, white gladioli and white ribbons, and so a limpid and aqueous light bathes the place.
He takes a notice from his inside pocket and zones out of the sermon. The notice reads:
‘History: In the 1980s my brother Henry, Navy, waiting on aircraft repairs at Shannon, Ireland, was told a man named Murphy came in once in a while from out east. My brother Patrick and sister Kathy with spouses visited Ireland in 1988 and talked to a Pole(??), son of Seamus, while researching in Dublin. They were referred to parish churches in Dublin and Kildare. They brought back several pages of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths in the 1870s timeframe. They were looking for my great grandfather Nicholas. Patrick provided me with copies. I researched several ancestry records as well as the Galveston Catholic Family History Center. No luck getting an Ireland connection. I solicited Murphy ancestry information from some 1,000 addresses in a world book of Murphys. I had 300 replies with some data but no connection.‘
He looks to his left. He is five people from the side aisle and excuses himself while trying not to cause angst. Outside in the car park he gives the number on the notice a ring. He asks Denis Murphy if he is still in town, and luckily he is. He picks Denis up from his guesthouse. As Denis ducks into Sean‘s car, Sean notices a US Army pin. Sean recommends that they go to the converted-barn coffee shop at the end of the ringroad. Sean holds the steering wheel one-handed in silence the whole way and he knows he is freaking Denis out.
Almost immediately they are settled in with their coffees Sean starts to spill his guts:
‘My second marriage lasted a little longer than the first. She‘s Belgian, probably my life‘s love, though I don‘t respect her now, and probably never did. My first wife, well, I only revealed my problem to her too late, after we were married, and she got an annulment. I‘m a true Catholic like you, Denis, see. We‘re a rare kind nowadays. “Young people, pleasure of the eyes of Jesus, are you determined to resist any attack on your chastity with the help of the grace of God?“ So said Pope Pius the Twelfth at the canonisation of Maria Goretti. But I was determined, when it came to my second wife, not to repeat the mistake of not exposing myself until it was too late. I waited, however, until I knew we were in love. I worked at that. So that by the time I exposed myself to her, it didn‘t matter, because we were in actual love. Enough to have a child together.
‘But it wasn‘t comfortable for her. The process, Denis. The process of making the child. I have a bifurcated penis, Denis, do you hear me? Denis, that means that my penis forks. It splits in two from the base, like a cheese string. This is the cause of me making every choice that I have ever made.
‘History: From the earliest I was aware, I knew that it, or I, wasn‘t normal. My father understood my childhood would be full of stigma and distress, and so he tried to make my deformity seem heroic. He told me that he belonged to a South African warrior tribe whose male children all underwent an initiation rite in infancy whereby their penises were sliced lengthways with leaves as sharp as paper. By about the age of ten I had accepted that my father was the whitest most Irish man on earth and that his story was lies, but a hatred of black people had been instilled as a result of my earlier belief in what these tribespeople had inflicted on me. I am sure, indeed, that my antipathy towards Jews and Muslims, and to other races and creeds that compel injury to junior genitalia, originates with this belief.
‘Life only became harder. On the first day of secondary school, the boys were given a tour of the gym facilities. In the shower block, in front of all the other boys, I asked the PE teacher if it would be acceptable to wear swimming togs in the shower. The other boys laughed at me. Thus was seeded a hatred of every person of my generation. And harder still: my first wife‘s initial reaction to my cleft member was to laugh, then vomit. I began to hate women. My second wife eventually could bear no more the discomfort of penetration, which she likened to being tickled with beansprouts, and left me for an intact man, taking my son with her. This calcified my hatred for permissive society, with its disposable values.
‘And naturally I hate homosexuals too, because they‘re disgusting.‘
He stretches out a hand for Denis Murphy to shake.
‘Allies?‘ Sean says.
Denis Murphy stares at him, his lips bubbling.
‘You are darned nearest the most offensive most uncultivated motherfuckball it has ever been my displeasure to drink a beverage with.‘
‘Enjoy the rest of your trip,‘ Sean shouts at his back, as the entire mezzanine level creaks from the American‘s thunder.
That night, a desperately sad scene played out in Uncle Peter‘s room. It was a scene reminiscent, I would say—being absent, in mind at least, for most of it, and therefore being strangely in a position to observe—of when the surviving members of Boyzone kept vigil in an empty church around Stephen Gately‘s corpse. To one side of Uncle Peter‘s head sat me and my mother. On the other side sat my father and a Garda Community Liaison Officer.
The officer was the least of it, and even at the end, when getting up, said, ‘There‘s grants, you know, you can get, to put towards a new computer.‘
‘Really?‘ I said.
My mother and father perked up when they saw me perking up.
‘Ah yeah,‘ he said, his voice rising. ‘Ah yeah, the county council have a scheme for people transitioning back into work, lads like yourself. We have a batch of leaflets down in the station. Come down in the morning and we‘ll have a look for yee. Anyhows, take care.‘
My father, a Dublin man to the bone, could not resist saying, ‘The big fucking biffo neck on him‘ after he‘d gone, and even as he prepared to launch into a howling jeremiad on me.
‘Why the fuck can‘t you get in trouble in a normal way, like get a girl up the duff or something? Have you ever even seen a fanny? Do you know what a fanny smells like? It smells like Christmas.‘
My mother was far too gentle for all this. I looked at her, and if anyone could have seen my eyes, they would have seen them look like I don‘t know what.
Now my father was loosening his belt. ‘I‘m gonna do something I never should have stopped doing.‘
My mother put two hands on my father‘s upper arm, which he easily shook off. ‘Don‘t do something you‘ll regret,‘ she said.
He pushed her back, until she was sitting on the chest of drawers.
‘Ouch,‘ she said.
Good old Uncle Peter, always the one to speak up for me: ‘Leave the boy alone‘, although his habit of calling me ‘the boy‘ seemed to have resurrected itself.
My father‘s whole body was gyrating: the lower half like a disco dancer, the upper like a gaucho from the Pampas. He cracked his belt buckle-end out. It clanged off the iron lung as I ran the other side.
‘The boy! The boy!‘
My father and mother were standing beside each other. Their hands were on the iron lung. My father was full of rage, my mother full of mediocrity, and with a look on her face that said, ‘Run, boy! Run like the wind!‘
I took them both in.
‘I hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhate you,‘ I said.