Minding the gap they climbed out at Piccadilly, Crilly deftly threading his way along the thronged platform, Burnside trailing behind like some bemused innocent up for the day from some end of the line stop such as Cockfosters, Upminster or Ongar, and he was still pondering what life must be like in one of those deadly suburban outposts when once outside the station his guide darted straight ahead through the traffic and across to the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue.
There he stood waiting for him, a heavy-set, florid-faced figure in an open-necked white shirt and suit of old-fashioned cut, and in that instant as the cars and double-deckers roared past Burnside felt a sudden shock of recognition of something as though seeing the other for the first time, able to place him in some sort of cool, distancing perspective. Wondering what it would be like to simply turn about and dive back into the Underground again, there he dithered. The choice was his, he told himself. He could do it if he wished. He could.
But then Crilly waved across to him and the moment passed. Out of all that milling mass of humanity he, Burnside, had been singled out with a friendly gesture, and because of it he found himself crossing to the other side and the drab, facing entrance of Ward’s Irish House, for, of course, he now knew where he was being taken, where else but here in the heart of the city where a frozen Eros took aim at the world and two expatriates like themselves could find the familiarity of faces far from home.
Burnside had supped in this basement den in the past, a place to catch up with those visiting writers and artists over to cadge a publisher’s or a BBC cheque whilst keeping up a studied front of insolence and free-loading disdain towards their benefactors. The last time he had headed down these dark stairs a bristling duo of young Belfast poets on the literary up and up had ignored their editor to spend the entire afternoon challenging one another as to who possessed the more authentic ‘Ulster voice’. Seated in the corner nursing his pint Burnside felt glad he had bailed out when he had from a place where cockerels like these two crowed over the same tiny, well-trodden cultural dungheap.
On this particular day descending the stairs he was met by the smell of bacon and boiled cabbage and remembered the Thursday lunchtime ritual of it being served to soak up the pints of stout already crowding the bar like so many dark, creamy-headed sentinels.
The place, as expected, was full, the seating arranged in four strictly designated areas around the walls of the moss-green, Art Deco-tiled room, each with the name of a Province outlined above it in curling Hibernian script.
Crilly was waving to him from the Munster section which Burnside took to be a possible clue as to his actual birthplace. But on second thoughts that sort of national sentimentality would cut no ice with his new-found buddy. No, he’d simply chosen it because that was where he’d arranged to meet ‘the man’, or ‘the man himself’, as he referred to him, as though he were some sort of demi, or semi-religious figure.
Behind him the horseshoe booth held its full complement of drinkers, thighs touching in a kind of enforced huddle, and all with the air of men with careful control of their bladder, anxious not to lose their place even if the moment arrived for them to go seeking the Gents.
‘Blair! Over here!’ came Crilly’s breezy call, and as Burnside made his way across the uneven, flagged floor he felt conscious of eyes homing in on him from all four Provincial corners of the room, the sheer concentrated intensity of that stare unsettling, so that by the time he was halfway to the haven of Munster he was already sweating, pulling out a handkerchief to mop his brow.
Now this particular nose rag happened to be a red spotted one of the sort sporting gents of the superior classes often wear tucked into the top breast pocket of their slope-shouldered hacking jackets, or in more bohemian cases allow to limply overflow. Normally Burnside kept his thrust in a trouser pocket to anchor his change, yet nevertheless in that moment it appeared to act like a rag to a roomful of resentful bulls, branding him as someone with a tendency towards affectation, even foppishness.
Squaring his shoulders with what he hoped was a stern and manly expression he managed to join Crilly who had somehow found him a place in the snug, its table covered with pint glasses and empty plates bearing the residue of the establishment’s famous traditional bacon, spuds and boiled cabbage.
‘Meet Blair, everybody,’ said Crilly, introducing him to the circle of stern-faced strangers. ‘Runaway and refugee from the oul’ sow that devours its own farrow, just like the rest of us here.’
Keenly aware of those same glances converging on him, but from close range this time, Burnside was still thinking of that accursed handkerchief, safely stowed away, of course, now but as he saw it the defining, damning image by which he would be remembered in this company. In his imagination he even heard the echo of a nickname, Blair The Hanky, or even Mister Hanky Panky, knowing how these same characters with their narrow-eyed, rural tendencies took such relish in pinning a label on somebody, for life, if need be.
And the more Crilly expanded on his credentials the more counterfeit he began to feel.
‘Makin’ this grand documentary, he is, for the British Broadcasting Corporation on people like ourselves over here on the mainland.’
Growing more flamboyant by the second, even his stance seemed to have taken on a larger than life dimension, unbuttoned jacket flung wide to reveal his bright red and green braces. Legs spread, thumbs tucked into those same magnificent galluses, he beamed at his listeners as though to be here in this symbolic corner of the homeland with him, Gus Crilly, had to be the ultimate privilege.
‘Come, take the weight of your legs, young Blair,’ he commanded and one of the group, a tousle-haired, romantic looking youth in a heavy overcoat despite the mild weather dutifully pressed himself into a corner of the booth giving him a sideways, nervous grin as he did so.
Squeezing into the space Burnside experienced a sudden warm rush towards the young guy, visualising that tattered, much-submitted manuscript burning a hole in an inside pocket of his trailing old Crombie. Once upon a time, not so long ago, either, he, too, had been like that, same embarrassed smile, reacting too fast, too gratefully to every quip and comment, no matter how boring or banal. But then some things, certain personal traits, never change. He felt like telling the young lad that and if he’d had more drink on him almost certainly would have done, slipping into the role of this wiser, much older man who’d been around the block a few times.
Then he heard Crilly enquire, ‘Has T.J. been in, the man himself?’ and for the first time an animated tremor seemed to ripple round the company, Burnside almost convincing himself he could feel it travelling from thigh to thigh.
One of the men said, ‘I heard tell he was in town sure enough.’
‘That’s right,’ another concurred. ‘ Sure if it’s not London then it’s Nashville or Detroit these days. Has that many irons in the fire he can hardly keep up with himself.’
Looking at the last speaker with an air of pitying condescension Crilly informed him, ‘Mister, let me tell you no matter where T.J. O’Brien happens to find himself he’ll always make time for an old pal.’ He tapped his watch.
‘Just keep an eye on that door over there, for if I know the same gent he’ll be shootin’ through it right on the button, pressing business or no pressing business.’
Then turning the full beam of his persuasive powers on the eager young disciple in the heavy overcoat he said, ‘Dermot, ever be an angel would you and fetch a couple of oul’ pints for meself and Blair here. And while you’re at it get a mineral for T.J.’
‘Him and that feckin’ Pioneer pin of his. Only man in the entertainment game known to wet his whistle with nothing stronger than a Club Soda. But I suppose somebody has to have their wits about them when everybody else is out of their skulls, right?’
At this a tiny tremor of mirth ran about the gathering followed by a solemn nodding of heads as the great man and his foibles were mused upon, Burnside forming the impression a lot of this was for his benefit, for if Crilly had been the principal flag-waver to start with now the others were doing their bit to keep the parade moving smartly along. Outwardly he tried to display some enthusiasm for his coming encounter with the mighty T.J., yet still couldn’t help feeling sceptical that one man, no matter how influential or charismatic, would be able to turn his fortunes around.
‘If there’s one individual who’s the face of the comin’ Ireland then T.J. is your man.’
They were on the Tube earlier and Crilly was briefing him.
‘Myself now I’d put him up there alongside Eamonn Andrews, although he’s far too cute to go courtin’ the headlines. Somethin’ of a low profile, mystery man in his own way, especially when it comes to his home life, although I have met the missus, nice homely class of a person you’d never associate with the showband or ballroom game. But then when people meet T.J. for the first time they’d never see him as a Brian Epstein or a Colonel Tom Parker figure.’
After their eager young gofer had returned with the drinks, for which Crilly made no move to pay as though the privilege of providing them with refreshment was reward enough, everyone sat staring into their glasses taking care not to allow their eyes to drift towards the entrance where their visitor was due to appear like some descending archangel in a shiny suit, mohair, possibly, even one of those lightly flecked, three-button, narrow lapelled, Italian creations.
And it did seem as though a lull had fallen over the entire place, a pensive interlude when the waves of banter and good fellowship ebb and recede, the assembled drinkers retreating into their own private worlds. Even Crilly appeared to have lost much of his customary verve.
As Burnside sat trapped there like a mute at a wake, and the hands on the Powers whiskey clock above the bar jerked inexorably towards afternoon closing-time, he started feeling more and more restless. A cramp had developed in his left calf. He felt it slowly hardening there, the size of a tennis ball. He wondered how long it would be before he cried out with the pain of it so disgracing himself and making his ignominy total.
One of the men at the table sighed deeply, tragically, and instantly the others glared at him as though he had somehow betrayed the corporate mood.
Unable to bear the atmosphere a moment longer Burnside rose to his feet, enquiring, ‘Toilets?’, young Lochinvar by his side pointing towards a doorway in the facing wall between Ulster and Leinster.
Making his way there Burnside couldn’t help but allow his eye to lightly graze over the customers, huddled, almost conspiratorially, it struck him, in the corner dedicated to his own province. Would he recognise some of his own there, perhaps, some sort of facial familiarity striking a chord? But, alas, no, for there was that same preponderance of ‘Irish skin’ again, like Annabel’s in Light Ent., all native Celts and G.A.A. followers to a man.
Sometimes, he reflected sadly, living over here felt as though he belonged to an endangered species, only Northern Protestant left alive, like one of those Korean pandas in Regent’s Park Zoo. Perhaps they would have to import a mate for him to keep the line going, some solid, down to earth Gwen, Elsie, Netta or Roberta, with a passion for home baking and Sabbath church-going. Looking back on it he might have done a lot worse for himself instead of being drawn by the lure of those Home Counties vowels and the lingering aroma of saddle soap and tightly stretched jodphurs.
Just how predictable can one get, he was thinking in the bogs, which he had all to himself, for those first blissful, bladder-relieving minutes anyway, for suddenly the door came flying open and a figure in a ferociously stained rainproof several sizes too big for him lurched in, flapping sleeves rolled back showing reddened, emaciated wrists. To Burnside’s consternation he headed for the urinal next to his, even though there were at least a dozen others to choose from. Closing his eyes and willing his own flow to accelerate, Burnside listened to the spattering noise made by the creature at his side.
But what he dreaded most was being addressed midstream. Even a comradely nod, or the merest sideways jerk of the head, was purgatory. But mercifully silence persisted and just as he was beginning to think that this time he might have managed to escape the dreaded intimacy of the pissoir, he heard his companion mutter, ‘Don’t remember me, do you?’
Against all his better, wiser instincts Burnside glanced sideways at the man.
‘Pardon?’ he said as if accidentally he had broken wind. At least it came out like that, sounding more like an apology than an actual query.
‘Said you’d read my play, but never did. But then what can you expect from somebody who works for the biggest broadcasting organisation in the world?’
‘Look here,’ said Burnside attempting a show of authority now that he had finally managed to relieve himself, ‘you seem to be confusing me with someone else, someone in the Drama department, possibly. I don’t handle or deal with scripts.’
Raincoat Man appeared now to be shaking his member with more force than was customary, necessary, even, although in Burnside’s own personal, out-of-the-corner-of-one-eye, across-the-porcelain divide experience, that particular finishing touch could vary from a perfunctory waggle to something infinitely more drawn out, obsessively hygienic, even, aimed at getting rid of the last distilled golden drop. Having such thoughts run through his head right now made it hard for him to concentrate on his own routine, a quick shake followed by an equally rapid zipping up.
The man in the other stall most definitely was rubbing the relic by this stage, he was, impossible to ignore it, his features having taken on an intense, almost rapt expression.
Christ, get me out of here, thought Burnside, for what could be worse than being trapped alongside some embittered scribbler jerking off? Could it be perhaps some sick new gesture of reprisal he hadn’t come across before, the ultimate in critical contempt?
As he was backing out from between the walls of the old-fashioned urinal the deviant in the trailing, all-enveloping raincoat—surely another give away, a cliché, almost—muttered, ‘Never bothered sendin’ it back either. Or the reply coupons. Nice little earner hangin’ on to peoples’ few shillin’s then dumpin’ their life’s work in an out-tray, or more likely a waste paper basket.’
In spite of everything his instincts were telling him Burnside felt he simply had to say something.
‘Well, I’m really sorry you’ve had an unfortunate experience, but take my word for it you’ve got the wrong person here. I do, as it so happens, work for the Corporation, but believe me: you and I have never met before, and your script must have ended up in some other different department.’
Which is when his tormentor turned to face him, right hand buried still in the folds of his rainproof but, mercifully, at repose for the moment.
‘Don’t recall recordin’ me a couple of months back in The Load Of Hay in Holloway, do you? Me and a bunch of the other lads? Some radio programme or other? None of us could make out what the feck it was about, somethin’ about workin’ on the M1, or somethin’. Never got a make for it, either, not even the price of a jar. And afterwards I gave you this big brown envelope with my play and my name and address on it, Vincent O’Malley, Flat Fourteen, Peabody Buildings, Darby Street, Lambeth. Ring any sort of a bell, does it?’
Aghast, Burnside stared at him, the entire episode a complete blank, that’s if it ever existed. But why should Mackintosh Man lie about a thing like that? Holloway, he’d said. Certainly it had the right ring to it, the sort of area he might have trawled for his contributors. Victims, he almost caught himself thinking.
But all that seemed such a long way off now, all those captured voices circling in some sort of electronic limbo, and, of course, he had to face the fact, almost certainly now lost forever except in the memory of the actual people involved, like this demented creature confronting him and, it would seem, playing with himself once more under his terrible old Burberry.
But then in a development chilling in the extreme, this, well, this wanker, moved rapidly across the tiled floor to the door blocking his, Burnside’s, escape.
‘Listen, listen,’ he hissed, ‘there’s these three country fellas in a bar, right? As well as the landlord bloke. Out in the West some place. Sligo, or Leitrim, maybe. A dark and stormy night, and they’re tellin’ each other stories, ghost stories mostly, and then this young woman comes in, a stranger from Dublin, just bought a house in the area. Well, of course, your boul’ lads are all out to impress the same blade and maybe scare her as well, and the yarns get more and more outrageous and eerie, fairy bushes and graveyards and knocks at midnight, stuff like that.
But here comes the clincher, the young woman has a story of her own, and this one happens to be true, you get me, about her own daughter and a terrible drownin’ and a warnin’ beforehand, and it shuts the lads up full time.
And, well, that’s about it. Maybe the end could do with a bit of polishin’, I don’t know, but I’m open to suggestions. You might say it’s about people lookin’ back and wonderin’ where it all went wrong. But it’s not all tragedy and gloom, I’ve put in a few odd laughs as well.’
There followed a lengthy pause broken only by the hiss from the water cistern high up on the wall. Burnside’s brain had temporarily shut down while the other rattled on, his gaze drawn instead to the back of the door and the biro and penknife art-work there on display from others with their own message like the man now holding him captive, the mildest, least offensive being Up Tipp and God Bless Dev, although there were a couple of lovingly executed renderings of Fuck The Queen and a deeply incised Ian Paisley Is A Cunt which made him feel even more like some innocent bystander who had somehow wandered into a foreign war zone.
‘So what you reckon then?’
An almost plaintive note had entered the other’s voice and suddenly Burnside felt an unexpected trickle of compassion. Sad, sad bastard, he thought, hugging that hopeless play of his like it was his firstborn—most probably, it was, too—oblivious, or not wanting to see it for the poor deformed defective it truly was.
But just as he was on the point of perjuring himself, saying something like, ‘certainly there’s some dramatic potential there,’ or, ‘I’m sure with the right cast, you just never know,’ the door swung in, banging into the would-be playwright, who stumbled forward, a look of shock and desperation on his face.
Behind him, framed there, stood Crilly grinning knowingly as though taking in the situation at a glance.
‘I hope, Vinnie, you’re not botherin’ my friend here with your usual oul’ bollocks. Can a bloke not have a piss in peace without you tormentin’ him?’
Retreating to the sanctuary of the wash-hand basins the man in the raincoat stared at him, all his earlier bravado replaced by an expression of dread.
‘You know if you keep trailin’ blokes into the bogs people will maybe start thinkin’ you’re just, well, a wee bit on the, well, you know what I mean…’
Then, turning to Burnside, he briskly announced, ‘T.J.’s just been on the blower. Change of venue, but we’re definitely on. Ready to roll, are we?’
Absolutely, Burnside was thinking in a relieved rush, making his delayed move for the door with its record of God knows what festering spites and rancours, most of it aimed personally at himself, he had decided, for daring to enter this citadel of resentful Irishry in the first place. And ushering him back along the dark, damp-smelling passageway beyond, Crilly appeared in agreement.
‘That bunch of literary losers back there’ll be goin’ on about Kafka or Kierkegaard any feckin’ minute. All with a novel or some kind of a book inside them. Where it’s goin’ to remain, believe you me. Like that poor eejit in the jakes. I suppose he button-holed you about his masterpiece, did he? Ever hear such a load of oul’ tripe in your puff? Three blokes and some dozy bird in a bar tellin’ one another ghost stories. I ask you, who in their right mind would ever want to pay god money to go to see the like of that? No, you don’t want to go recordin’ any of that crowd. Only brought you here to meet T.J. Anyway, not to worry, we’re off to catch up with him at Kilburn Park. Some class of a publicity shoot for his new group. I did mention he’s a big band promoter, didn’t I, among a lot of other things?’
But if he had, the information had coursed over Burnside like a breaking wave leaving no trace save the sensation of being buffeted by a succession of more and more conflicting instructions and commands.
‘There’s a quiet back way out of this place not a lot of people know about.’
Being led along another passage even darker and more dust-laden than the first Burnside felt grateful he hadn’t got to brave all those stares in the bar a second time. Like being scrutinised on your first day at school and found wanting. Still he did feel a trifle apprehensive at the prospect of meeting and recording the legendary T.J., sounding, as he did, like someone used to steering any interview his own way. And he suspected it might well turn out to be an ‘interview’, as opposed to the kind of free-wheeling encounter he was used to.