fiction extracts

The Passion of Jamesie Coyle, Fortnight Publications 1984

Stooky Mullen and Willie Nash joined Jamesie and in turn led the group to the Ancient Order of Hibernians in search of Brendie Carlin. They ascended a dark grimy staircase smelling of stale tobacco and urine, the landings bearing evidence of frequent use as toilets. The snooker hall was a long narrow room with a row of tables down the centre and crowded benches along the walls. They proceeded down the side to a chorus of greetings.
‘How’re ye doin’, Scranner? Still ridin’ away?’
‘Hi, Stooky, gimme fifty up and Ah’ll play ye for half a sheet.’
‘Pick any winners, Willie?
‘Sure that man couldn’t pick ees nose.’
Jamesie’s appearance aroused considerable comment. Not only tall and thin, he was dressed in ‘the best of stuff’, quality garments carefully chosen by Mrs Coyle in Spears.
‘Who’s the big nancy boy?’ was a typical question, followed by whistles.
‘Hi, Scranner, wannay know who’s turned fruit? Give us a kiss and Ah’ll tell ye.’
‘Pay no attention to that crowd,’ Scranner growled, gazing impatiently about him. ‘Brendie must be in the fridge.’
They descended another flight to a low back room with a smell overpoweringly rank despite a stiff breeze from several broken windows. Brendie Carlin was spreadeagled across a table, supported on one leg and grunting uncomfortably as he lined up a shot.
‘Get yer trousers off and get on it,’ Scranner called out in encouragement but Brendie could manage only a squeaky mis-hit, the ball trickling a few inches to stop well short of the pocket.
‘Hasn’t the legs,’ Willie Nash sympathised.
Scranner was more scathing. ‘If there was hair round it ye’d have got it in.’

Jamesie spent the night in McNab’s and awoke excited and refreshed, undaunted by the chaotic and hysterical surroundings in which Mrs McNab was preparing breakfast, manipulating the cooker controls with a pair of pliers (all the knobs were missing) while screaming instructions at the partially dressed children who wandered in and out of the kitchen eating slices of bread and jam.
At the kitchen mirror a teenage girl was brushing her hair and talking to several older brothers eating in churlish silence. ‘Yese missed the crack in McCourt’s last night. Ah called for Brenda an’ they were startin’ the family rosary. Ah haddy join in – ye know the kinda Mrs Mc Court. But anyway, waity ye hear. Somebody let off and never let on … one o’ those quiet ones, ye know? Came out on its bare feet. Mrs McCourt nearly went mental … she nearly hadday be worked with. Stopped the whole thing tay find out who done it. Musta been one o’ the fellas – but no one would say. She had our heads deeved listenin’ tay her. Right enough, it woulda turned yer stomach.’

Behind gently wreathing pipe smoke, Norman was enjoying a slow ruminative sip of beer. ‘I remember one night with Dicky McGowan. There was myself and Dickie humping these two nurses out the racecourse road, going at it hammer and tongs, and this big B-man comes along and shines his torch in the window.’ Norman paused, obviously deep in the past. The others waited respectfully. ‘Dickie was a character. Before your time of course. There was one night we were drinking in The Nineteenth Hole … the big lounge out by the golf links. It’s The Haven or something now. Anyway we were having a drink and Hazel Brown was behind the bar. Her father owned the place then and she was a bit of a tearaway … they used to call her The Twentieth Hole. But anyway Dickie says to me, half a sheet she’s wearing no bra. You’re on, says I, so up Dickie goes – my friend and I have a small wager … and so forth. I thought she might answer him, being a bit of as flyer – but doesn’t she go one better … pulls up the jumper and shows us. It cost me half a bar but it was worth every penny.’

‘Do yese mind Sticky Rooney?’ Scranner’s question drew a chorus of protest – the man was a legend. ‘But did yese ever hear about him and the hot water bottle?’ Scranner took a long sip and sat forward on his seat. ‘Sticky always said the hot water bottle was the best. Do ye know what he’d do? He’d take one to bed with him … and burn ees lad with it.’ There were cries of disbelief but Scranner demanded a further hearing. ‘No, wait. Wait. That wasn’t it. The best part was this. Ees lad would come up in blisters and he’d spend all next day bursting them. Absolutely fantastic, he said.’
Scranner sat back to enjoy his applause and when it died down Stooky took up the tale.
‘Did Ah tell yese about meetin’ him in the street? I met him one time on the Strand Road with a wee terrier on a lead and a terrible face on him. Says I, what’s the matter, Sticky, ye’re in awful bad form? Ah hold yer tongue, says he, it’s that auld vit. Ahm after takin’ this wee terrier to him to get its teeth out so it could gobble me ... ye know? But says he, Mister Rooney, this animal has perfectly healthy teeth. The auld shit.’ Stooky sat up straight and in a pompous tone imitated Sticky Rooney imitating the vet. ‘Mister Rooney, this animal has perfectly healthy teeth.’

Jamesie and Scranner carried their drinks down to the youth.
‘How’s she cuttin’?’ Jamesie enquired.
‘Ach …’ Paddy grimaced. ‘Ahm hangin’ taygether.’
‘Would ye take somethin’?’
Paddy sighed in seeming reluctance. ‘Alright,’ he said at last. ‘Same again … and a Mytee Bar.’
‘A Mytee Bar.’ Paddy jerked his head towards the confectionery counter.
When this item was fetched he removed the wrapper with relish. ‘First, tay feed the hungry … eh?’
‘And second, to give drink to the thirsty,’ Jamesie said, presenting him with a fresh pint.
In silence they enjoyed their refreshments.
‘Yese’d be from the town,’ Paddy sighed at length. ‘Ah suppose there’s a fierce bit a ridin’ up there.’
‘Not as much as you think.’
Paddy would not be convinced. ‘Ah Jaysus, sir, that place is full a big rides. Not like out here. Ah bet youse boys are gettin’it steady the whole time.’
‘It’s not …’
‘Ah but sure youse have the style, sure.’ Paddy studied Scranner’s bumfreezer suit in weary envy. ‘Youse boys have the style.’
‘Style?’ Scranner cried. ‘Burton’s for Chrissake.’
Paddy ignored this. ‘Ah Jaysus it’s desperate. Ah can’t get a weeman at all, sir. Ahm down at the Mecca every Friday … Ah’ve a van and everything … and Ah still can’t get a mare.’ He seemed beyond consolation. Jamesie and Scranner sipped discreetly at their drinks. ‘Know somethin’’? Ah cannay understand weemen, sir.’
‘Sure who can?’
See if I was a weeman …’ Paddy appealed to each of them with passionate sincerity. ‘If I was a weeman Ah’d be givin’it tay everybody.’ Shaking his head he took a long despairing pull on his pint. ‘Everybody.’

The Road to Notown, Blackstaff  Press 1996

I went back for more chess, intrigued by the street, the house, the family. A matriarchy (show me the Catholic family that isn’t), Mrs Herron set the standards and wielded the power, her theory refreshingly easy to grasp if not to accept that the Herrons were true aristocrats, those of the spirit rather than birth, an innately and effortlessly superior breed who would bestow upon a grateful world the gift of their sublime contempt. Apparently immune to social and religious inferiority, they seemed to me a mythical race, half brute and half divine, sprung from some legendary mating of god and beast.
Betty, the eldest sister, was in America. The other four were all superior and contemptuous, though with individual variations. Hugo had been brutalised by working on a building site whereas John had been mellowed by the education process. Rebecca, known as Reba, was devoted to slagging in a benevolent way softened by two illusions that it was all merely fun and that you were free to reply in kind if you had the talent and the nerve. With Frances the contempt was unmitigated and undisguis¬ed. It was as though Mrs Herron, sensing that it was her last child, had injected into the egg all her reserves of ferocity and venom. With Frances there was no pretence of humour or equal rights. Frances manacled you to the wall and viciously flayed your hide off.
What attracted me to such a household? Certainly not John Herron or the indifferent chess. Perhaps the fascination of virile women, the intoxication of contempt? Or the need to atone for my own disgraceful upbringing? Imagine, if you can, that to the shame of being an only child in a culture of fecundity was added the ignominy of growing up in a house of women ruled by an aunt lacking the reassuring appearance of a male but with a prodigious and implacable virility possessed by no biological father I knew.
I fed the Herron girls the shameful details and they punished me with zest.
’So Lily wore the trousers in your house,’ Reba said.
’Yes ... except she didn’t allow women to wear trousers.’ And I told the story of a niece’s farcically involved manoeuver¬ings to avoid being seen in golfing slacks. ‘She didn’t let me wear long trousers until I was fourteen.’
’I bet you were a real creep,’ Frances said viciously. ‘A real nancy boy.’
’Oh yes. Only the best of clothes from Brownlows.’
This was the outfitter to the Protestant gentry. There was a chorus of horror and revulsion.
‘We got everything in The Black Man’s,’ Frances said with pride.
‘Or Paddy Canning’s,’ Reba corrected. ‘Until he drank heesself out of it.’
‘Vyella shirts,’ I said, to groans. ‘Brown brogues.’ More groans. ‘Crombie coats.’ Yet wilder groans. And still the catalogue of shame was not complete. In an ecstasy of self flag¬ellation I handed them the most humiliating detail of all. ‘Remember those ties with permanent knots and elastic neck bands?’ They most certainly did, a memory vivid and poignant enough to draw from even these hearts of stone a profound sigh of pity and compassion.
Such was my willingness to testify that I was granted the astounding privilege of an invitation to eat with the family. Not even an Academician freshly elected could have felt so honoured.
Happy to lose yet another game to John, I lay back on the sofa to watch ‘Top of the Pops’ and await the diners first Frances, then Reba, then, last and extremely late, Hugo with his empty lunch box.
‘The dinner’s burnt to nothin,’ Frances accused. ‘Where were
Hugo, with more of the brute than the divine, did not take kindly to being questioned.
‘Up a dog’s arse pickin gooseberries.’
‘Ye missed Pan’s People,’ John informed him, shivering at the memory of a vibrant carnality.
Hugo was typically terse and dismissive. ‘Six big rides,’ he replied at once.

In a student magazine I published an article that turned out to be the first on Kyle’s work as a whole. It would never have occurred to me to get in touch with an author but as soon as the article appeared a long, friendly letter arrived. I seemed to have lively ideas on fiction was I at it myself? I sent him a few stories and the response was instant and electrifying. Excited by ‘the number of talented young writers springing up in the North’, nothing would give Kyle more pleasure than to help with encouragement and advice.
Unfortunately his home is deep in the Protestant heartland. I am heartily glad to draw into the driveway of Altnagarvin. Yet the arrival is disturbing in a different way. In a lifetime of reading, both voluntary and prescribed, I have never found anything directly related to my own experience. Even the history and geography I studied concerned different countries. Now the word is made flesh, the scene before me corresponding exactly to the description in a lurid covered paperback in my bag. A big two storey grey stone building with many extensions and out¬houses, Altnagarvin looks out over a gentle slope which falls to a little lake with a dilapidated boathouse and rises on the other side to a densely wooded hill.
Surely this is not meant to be mistake mistake mistake mistake. But then Kyle himself is jumping down the steps laughing and waving. Despite the baggy cords and torn sweater he is as handsome as his jacket photographs, dark complexioned, with classic French features and straight black hair, Alain Delon style, through which he continually drives his hand and which always falls back into the kind of stylish disarray I try in vain to create in front of the bathroom mirror. You have to be born with such naturalness. Go home now, back to the Fenian world of rotten teeth and puffy blotched skin. But Kyle is pumping my hand and hugging me in the warmth and solidarity of fellow soldiers in the war against repression, fellow preachers in the ministry of truth. At the top of the steps he suddenly jumps into the air and kicks his heels together.
‘We gonna have such a time,’ he cries. ‘Such a time. Such a time.’
And why not? Kyle is the Zorba of the North and will surely change my life for ever. Zorba, teach me to dance!
Straight away there is a challenge. Approaching across the hall is a woman with black hair and dark skin, obviously related to Kyle, but with nothing shabby in her appearance. Blouse of fine, light, expensive, semi transparent material, buttons open to the shadow. Expensive knee length leather boots, Levis packed as a Sonny Rollins coda. Above the waist all feminine and below it all masculine. No her head combines the sexes. Feminine the bobbed hair, makeup and silver earrings; manly the twin grooves from nostrils to mouth like ancient Heidelberg duelling scars.
Never have I experienced such disturbing virility and glamour in a woman. A sense of profound unworthiness possesses me.
But instead of horse whipping the presumptuous Fenian she turns calmly to Kyle. ‘Can I have the car keys? I have to go into town.’

At last the Little Theatre was moving into purpose built premises. Here the community could come to terms with itself, marvel and groan at past iniquities and learn a new spirit for the future. The opening was a great day for The Friends of The Little Theatre, from those who had bought a brick at £1 through the purchasers of silver and gold bricks (£25 and £50) to the Life Associates like Kyle who had donated £100 or more and had their names engraved in stone in the foyer. But above all it was a personal triumph for Deirdre Mannion, the handsome and forceful founder of the company, sustained in twenty years of dedication by the dream of her own theatre.
Deirdre was the celebrity of the moment but in absolute terms Tom McKenna was the brightest star. Poetry lovers thrill to an atmosphere of menace and as a result of obscure but reverberant warnings in his early work McKenna was considered a prophet of the current unrest and had a growing international reputation (‘His are the most sensitive antennae’ New York Review of Books). Poets are often thought to be solitary creat¬ures but McKenna’s natural habitat was the crowd. It was a privilege to watch him move around The Little Theatre foyer winning hearts and minds everywhere but never letting himself be detained. First he remembered not only who you were but the date and location of the previous encounter and the names of your children and spouse. Then, leaning too close, he would seize some part of your person, look round as though in fear of eavesdroppers and finally, inclining a head to yours, address you out of the corner of the mouth in a conspiratorial whisper. The sensation of privilege was overwhelm¬ing. Only your company was a pleasure, that of the others a duty. For them polite conversation, for you confidences and intimacy. Beneath such a benign sun who would not blossom? Then a joke for the getaway. As you leaned back to roar with laughter he nodded and winked and was gone.

The producer, Martin Patterson, asked me to meet him in the Arts Club. Despite my period of celebrity I had never been there and I was shocked by its atmosphere of relaxed and comfortable venality, of mutual favours and accommodations and deals. Whatever went on here it was nothing to do with the arts.
Patterson arrived late, all apology and solicitude. The hours he had to work were a scandal. He could never get away. This elaborate courtesy was disturbing. Not only my age, I was sure he was also a Fenian. Of course it would have been unspeakably vulgar to mention this. The Ulster professional classes like to pretend that you can play golf with someone for years without being aware of religion. In practice the knowledge is instinctive, immediate and always there below the surface. ‘Martin Patterson’ is a neutral name but one look and the radar said ‘Bourgeois Fenian’. Pale, soft spoken, clever, fastidious, plump in a less materialistic age the youth would have made a lovely priest.
He invited me to join him in a meal. I declined, feeling obscurely but strongly that I could let him buy me drink but not food. How do we evolve these bizarre codes of honour? Patterson called a waiter, an elderly man with a perfect death mask of servitude.
‘A sirloin, medium rare, and a salad. No dressing.’ He glanced at me.
‘Gin and tonic.’
‘Gordons and Slimline Schweppes for me,’ Patterson said.
For ‘priest’ substitute ‘bishop’. No, not exactly. Too vulgar, too flagrant. He was more the power behind the throne. A Monsignor, that was it! Monsignor Patterson will see you now.
Ignoring the sparkling Gordons and Schweppes placed at his elbow, he leaned earnestly across the table and addressed me in a tone - soft, humble, almost supplicatory - I had often heard from those of the Ulster professional class too intelligent and fastidious to display brutal arrogance. You had to be careful with this apparent humility. What it eschewed was vulgarity not power.
’That piece,’ he began, shaking his head in wonder, ‘that piece about the Little Theatre it just has to be the best thing you’ve ever done. One of the funniest things I’ve ever read in fact. I mean, I almost fell out of my chair laughing.’ He leaned across to lay his hand on my arm as though for support in case of another laughing fit. Suddenly noticing his g&t, he seized it and drank half. ‘I’ve been showing it round to everybody ever since. They think you must have exaggerated but I tell them it’s cinema verité, it’s documentary realism. I mean, I was there. I know.’ Seeing my glass almost empty he waved for another round. ‘You know what you should do?’
‘You should write a satirical novel tearing the shite out of the whole crowd.’ Somehow his precise enunciation robbed the coarse phrase of power. ‘Have you ever thought of that?’
‘It has crossed my mind.’
‘You should do it. Seriously. I mean, this place is ripe for it. Crying out for it. That bitch Deirdre Mannion for instance. My boss is on the Little Theatre Board so I get the whole inside story. The woman is impossible. Practically insane.’
Fresh drinks arrived along with the steak, which absorbed his attention for a while. ‘You’re sure you won’t have one of these?’
‘No no no no.’
‘Or even some of mine? It’s really not bad. The food here is awful stodge the vegetables always cooked to mush, Irish style but they do a reasonable steak if you warn them not to char it.’
‘No no no no.’
It was obvious that Patterson was in the course of rejecting the Deirdre piece and we were now in the personally I don’t give a damn stage. Next would come the interesting part the justification. I thought he would simply say it was too long but this was to underestimate the ingenuity of the Monsignor.
The thing was this, he explained, leaving his meal unfinished in his enthusiasm for truth. It was not that he or his colleagues disapproved of Deirdre baiting. On the contrary, they would have to drop the piece not because of any objection to the content but because they agreed with it all too well. They detested Deirdre themselves and so numerous and intemperate had been their recent attacks they were now scared the public might think they had embarked on some kind of totally insane vendetta.
Fantastic casuistry! Not hands off Deirdre because we protect public figures but hands off because we’ve already almost beaten her to death.
Wonderful complexity of power in our time! No longer can you shout: Chop his head off and have his woman brought to my bed. Now you have to convince yourself and your underlings that decapitation and rape are just what the lucky couple need. Occasionally a bright underling will convince himself first. This is the one you must immediately promote.
I was fairly sure there had been no attacks on Deirdre perhaps an occasional mild reservation. But Patterson wanted me to accept his argument.
‘You see our position?’ he said. ‘You understand what I’m saying?’
‘Yes. Yes. I understand perfectly.’
‘And of course this is not a rejection, just a postponement. It’s a terrific piece. We’d be delighted to use it ... after we’ve had a breathing space. Of course I could understand if you insisted on taking it back ... ‘
‘No ... no ... ‘
‘I’d like to hang onto it ... ‘
‘Hang onto it.’

At home on the leather sofa I was able to catch up on Joyce and Proust, appropriate heroes for the death of imminence. In fact I got through so many novels I had to write to Kyle for more books were hideously expensive in the South, the Dublin libraries hopeless after generations of censorship. Often I had to give in and go to bed but stamina could be handsomely rewarded by spin off in the early hours. You never knew how the girls would be hyperactive or comatose or both in turn.
A hyperactive night. The girls burst in and regard with surprise and compassion this morose other worldly creature in a leather armchair.
‘Did you miss us?’ Liz cries.
Hard to be merry after a solitary small hours vigil. ‘I’ve been communing with the Void.’
‘What did you tell it?’
‘That I oppose to its icy malevolence the terrible lucidity of self knowledge.’
‘And what did the Void say to that?’
‘Keep believin it, Shit for Brains.’
Liz laughs dutifully but, tired of this badinage, goes to the radio in the corner.
Swaying in the doorway, Reba produces a Free State tenner from the pocket of the denim jacket. ‘Didn’t spend a penny. No one would let me buy a drink.’
The radio plays Kung Fu Fighting (those cats are fast as lightning).
‘Get up!’ Liz shouts at me, adopting a stern martial arts pose and making vicious chopping motions in the air with her hands.
‘You’re wanted on Planet Earth,’ Reba says.
‘The sad hospital. Our monotonous and unworthy fatherland.’
‘Are ye gonnay talk like this all night?’
‘I have resigned myself to eloquence.’
‘Hah!’ Liz shouts, taking a martial spring forward.
Reba proposes a more Irish approach. ‘Get ees trousers off!’
I fight like a tiger not out of modesty but because the back of my shorts may well reveal a disgraceful stain. How do regular stickmen cope with the perennial male problem of russet gusset? Even Kyle, frankest of reporters on love, has nothing to say on this vexing issue. Once again the commentators fail us.
A comatose night. Late late late late. I hold out on the sofa, exhausted and ashen. What keeps me awake is the manuscript of Kyle’s latest novel. All of his life with Olivia is there affairs, rows, degradations, humilia¬tions, departures, returns. Apparently Olivia too has had her flings. Every page is engrossing. O blessed rage for ordure, the dirt that reveals the truth behind the public mask! This is the foul fertiliser from which wisdom grows. But not easy to come by, especially in the cosy blandness of Irish fiction. I read avidly, appalled by the frequent misspellings (Catholic education warps you for life but by Christ you can spell) and electrified by the frankness. Don’t tell them that, Kyle! I can take it but can they?
What are misspellings and gaucheness compared to honesty like this? We must acknowledge excellence where we find it even among our friends.
The world is silent apart from the return of the teenage daughter next door. Her father is waiting in the hall. Violent door slam. Blows and shrieks. Get in outa that, ye shaggin bastard ye!
Eventually Reba and Liz roll in, comatose. I haul Reba upstairs first. Dropping her onto the bed, I take off the denim jacket, white bootees and pink jeans. When I try to remove the tee shirt she starts throwing punches.
Liz has passed out on the sofa. As I support her upstairs she falls against me murmuring endearments: ‘You’re ... so good. So ... tolerant.’ Pause to kiss sickly sweet smell of booze.
In her room the sofa bed is still a sofa. Liz collapses onto it. After a time she unzips her skirt and falls back.
‘You want the skirt off?’
Liz grunts. Interpreting this as assent, I take hold of the hem and draw the skirt down. She grunts again and lifts her legs to let it pass. Beneath her black tights are faded blue cotton pants with the elastic of one leg detached from the fabric. Life in its heartrending beauty has no need of artifice. A little whimper of compassion escapes my stern self control.
The problem is this all the Herron girls are prone to thrush and permitting Liz to sleep in her tights is tantamount to giving her a dose. And of course removing them would raise another spectre necrophiliac incest.
Long terrible pause. It is the hour of the wolf when the moral imperatives of the hunter are in abeyance and the resist¬ance of the prey at its lowest ebb. Now the goon squads burst in on terrified suspects. Pitiless moonlight. Terror and madness. Burials in unmarked graves.
Reba is in a coma. The Catholic State is profoundly silent.
Whiff of fragrance from the skirt in my hand. The terrible rigid member, pent. I start to shake fever of the tomb robber given an opportunity of violation, lusting for gold but scared of a frightful curse on his life and the lives of the generations to come.

Under cover of the hubbub, Kyle slipped back in, alone and almost unnoticed.
’Good sport fucking, Kyle?’
He winced: ‘These outlandish phrases.’
I had hit on another anti mantra i.e. a word or phrase which produces, instead of wellbeing, acute discomfort or even pain. Discovering these appears to be a natural talent. Of course I would rather have been a concert pianist but we have to use the gifts God gave.

Reba too sought me out, touching, appealing, establishing and holding deep eye contact. ‘Aw ... honey.’ It was the wild extravagant generosity that possesses women at times but can neither be predicted nor induced. All we can do is accept it gratefully when it comes. She started to laugh. ‘What a night, eh? You know when we were out for the drink Sean asked me to hold his cock.’
Of course the initial reaction was surprise. After this came more tranquil emotions empathy, wonder, compassion, tenderness. If a woman would handle Sean’s brutal fillet there was hope for us all.
Full technical details would of course be required. For the moment one question. ‘What did he say?’
She sighed, reliving Sean’s fervent sincerity. ‘Aw Jesus Reba hold me lad a wee minute.’
In the end no one could keep up with the Herron girls. The revellers fell back and left them the floor. For once Kyle too was content to watch, chuckling happily, knowing he was not up to dithyrambic frenzy on this occasion. Even being a Life Force is subject to the tedium of habit.
Liz swept across the floor, executing sinuous arabesques with cool Mozartean elegance, presenting to us her bare back, shoulder blades rippling beneath the skin like the wings of some great exotic moth. Reba too was compelling though not as mobile, preferring to stamp the floor, flamenco style. The Carmen of South Circular. Mistress of Comtumely. Madonna of Scorn.
Yet the performance of these two, for all its fervour, was marred by the poisonous taint of professionalism. The frenzy was practised a competence. Frances was more of an athlete than a dancer but her frank bumptious leaping had the authentic wild innocence. Like Billie with Lester or Bird at the birth of be bop, you could tell at once that the lyric joy was fresh.
We stood back and watched them, applauding and cheering. These three sisters did not long for Moscow. Wherever they were, that was Moscow.

So now Kyle is looking for any excuse to come south. In spite of the Catholic hysteria generated by the Pope’s visit. In spite of the nationalist hysteria generated by hunger strikes in the north. Undeterred, Kyle drives south to his love on roads lined with black flags and gigantic photographs of the dead.
On our quest for the soul of the south we turn into Nassau Street, where Joyce met Nora coming from Finn’s Hotel in 1904. The name of the hotel is supposed to persist on a facade but I have never seen it. Here it is now, faded but legible, high on a gable end facing into Trinity.
’Kyle, you jammy bastard! You make everything happen.’
In fact the legend is visible because a tree in front of the gable is bare I must always have looked when it was in leaf but Kyle laughs as happily as if his cosmic life force has really brought this to pass.
’Where Nora worked as a chambermaid. A domestic servant. The sort of girl you exploited, Kyle.’
’Don’t be so quick to condemn. Certainly there were girls who had to call me Master Kyle even when I was a child. It’s easy and fashionable to sneer at that now. But why deny the satifactions of the faithful servant? Many had their best moments in that context. You know ... the servant genuinely wanting to please a good master ... ‘
Ooooh scooby do bop! Lay it on me, liberal humanist!
’The slaves adore their servitude! Eternal justification of the masters.’
’No no no,’ Kyle insists. ‘A few years back I ran into one of our old maids in London. That seedy area round Kings Cross. God knows what she was doing for a living. In bad shape anyway but really glad to see me. We bought a half bottle and went back to her place one room in someone else’s flat, fairly sordid and over the whiskey she said the time she had to call me Master Kyle was the best of her life. That seemed to me a sincere statement not just the drink.’ He falls silent, brooding on the memory.
‘Did you dick her?’ I slyly enquire.
He draws back, as at some obscene advance. ‘These grotesque expressions. You know I’ve developed a theory. You’re profoundly afraid of sex and try to neutralise it with this American argot.’
‘Very likely. But did you burp her?’
The marvellous thing about Kyle is his inability to refuse a direct question.
She was a bit too far gone for that.’
Arriving at Merrion Square it suddenly occurs to me that engrossing conversation has banished all thought of lunch. I meant to have smoked trout and tabouleh in Kilkenny Design.
‘So Nora should have appreciated her servitude? Stayed in Finn’s Hotel instead of running off with Jim.’
‘Joyce was as hard a taskmaster as any. Have you read those letters?’
‘Coprophilia and so forth? That’s all standard for Fenians. Shite has always been a Fenian obsession, Kyle. Though more as a weapon of course. Think of the dirty protest.’
We consider the elegant enclosed green of Merrion Square. Kyle frowns in concentration, furiously probing to the heart of the Southern experience.
‘I know what’s different about Dublin,’ he suddenly exclaims. ‘It’s the old iron railings. In Britain and Ulster those were all pulled down for the war effort. We Protestants took the war very seriously you know.’
I point across at Sir William Wilde’s house. ‘That’s where they were supposed to meet on their first date. Nora stood him up and Jim was in a bad way.’
‘He really did fall for her.’
‘Love at first shite?’

Getting Used To Not Being Remarkable, Blackstaff Press 1998

They begin in Start Rite, the quality shoe store presided over by Mr Cunningham, a profoundly serious older man, dark¬suited, soft of voice and grave of mien, without a trace of the impertinent joviality of the newer sales staff. Indeed he is more like a senior consultant in a prestigious teaching hospital. Falling on one knee, he deftly squeezes each of Martin’s feet in turn, murmuring significantly but not yet revealing his diagnosis. First he verifies it with the latest technology, solemnly ushering the boy towards the X ray machine, an impressive piece of equipment possessed by no other shoe shop, operated by no one but Mr Cunningham and housed in an alcove like a private side chapel. Martin climbs the two rubber covered steps and pushes his feet through an aperture covered by a small green curtain. On the other side Mr Cunningham bends his wise head to the rubber lined viewer.
’You can see where the toe cap is too small.’ He offers Martin a look. The boy stares without interest at the bones of his feet but when he makes to step back Cunningham holds him in place. Mrs Ward must also confront the consequences of inadequate footwear. ‘You can see where they’re pinching.’ Cunningham sighs at human folly seduced by bargains and glib sales talk. ‘Not at all a good fit.’
’They’re only cheap ones for school!’ Mrs Ward brokenly cries. ‘You couldn’t keep him in good ones every day. He has the toes out of everything kickin’ stones in the street. They’re only a cheap pair for school and kickin’ football in the street.’
’But young feet can be easily damaged. There’s a lot of shoddy workmanship on the market, Mrs Ward.’
’They weren’t all that cheap.’ She bridles at being rebuked by a tradesman. ‘I mean, I didn’t get them in the Black Man’s or anything.’
Maintaining his air of sorrow and regret, Cunningham goes to the store room and returns with a stack of boxes containing monstrous leather brogues. Martin submits to fitting with an express¬ion of violent disgust (‘Bah! Let us make every imaginable grimace’ Rimbaud).
’Will ye get that old face off ye,’ Mrs Ward hisses. ‘Anyone would think to look at ye, ye were havin’ teeth pulled.’
Cunningham fetches yet more boxes but as always Mrs Ward is unable to choose. ‘Could we take a few pairs out on appro?’
’Certainly, Mrs Ward.’
’And if we kept two pairs ye’d knock a bit off it, wouldn’t ye? What would ye make it if we kept two?’
Martin turns away in horror (‘Oh! Curses on commerce! What shame!’ Flaubert).

At the bottom of the hill they linger in front of the Palace, Ward scrutinising the stills with the intensity and concentration of a scholar. As always, return is proportional to investment. From a few sets of stills he can extract as much as the average cinema goer from a lifetime of films.
Today stills for The Vikings teem with warriors, weaponry and ships. To be ensconced in soft plush, far from the nullity of town and age in the luxury of Technicolor mayhem and carnage (‘Exceptional beings retrace their steps down the centuries and, out of disgust for the shameful promiscuities they are forced to endure, throw them¬selves into the abyss of the ages, the tumultuous spaces of nightmare and dream’ Huysmans).
’Wouldn’t it be just great to go in?’ Ward cries out in rapture.
’Seen it,’ Shotter answers indifferently, glancing about him with an air of impatience.
Ward transfers his gaze of wonder to the face of his friend. ‘When?’
’Last night.’
It is difficult to know what to ask first. ‘Where’d ye get the money?’
’Ah do a Pools round every Friday.’ With a twisted grin Shotter withdraws from his pocket a fistful of silver. ‘And afterwards Ah go to the shows.’
’On your own, ye mean?’
’On me own.’
Eternally seductive combination autonomy and fabulous wealth.
’And what was it like?’
’Brilliant.’ But his tone has the carelessness of surfeit. ‘Ye see Kirk Douglas gettin’ ees eye put out and Tony Curtis gettin’ ees hand chopped off.’

Inhabited by the spinster sisters Greta and Jean, with their nephew Pascal and niece Mairead, this tiny semi detached embodies the style of civilised living to which all the married sisters aspire. Central feature of the style: suppression of the rectilinear and hard. Every surface meant for contact yields luxuriously to the touch; there are velvet curtains and uphol¬stery, shagpile overlaid with hirsute rugs, padded suites lined with cushions, pink marshmallow beds piled with pillows. Fire¬places, walls and furniture of course preserve the notion of firmness but straight lines have been almost completely elimin¬ated. Fantastic whorls and curlicues pattern wallpaper and carpets and adorn mirrors, plant holders, lamp standards, vases, jugs, clocks, picture and photograph frames. Filigree, scallops, tassels and fringes border all material. Furniture edges are rounded and fluted; legs curve like Matisse nudes. Every trace of harshness or utility has been banished or concealed. Daylight is softened by lace curtains and scallop ¬edged blinds, artificial light by shades farouche as Ascot hats; curtain fixtures are invisible under velvet covered pelmets; the grate is shielded by a heavily embossed brass fire screen and the coal bucket hidden in a heavily embossed brass container; even the newsprint of The Radio Times is concealed in a leather folder with a cover as intri¬cately worked as the Book of Kells and the function¬alism of the television set itself is subdued by a plant¬ holder, a lamp with a velvet shade and trim and a silver framed photograph of Pascal in his First Communion suit.

Next to the great mahogany table strewn with books a paraffin heater breathes and flutters, emitting heavy fumes which permeate the unventilated room. Slamming shut the lab book in which he has just entered another banal account of a tedious experiment, Martin Ward sighs with pleasure and opens Inter¬mediate School Geometry. At last he is free to exchange drudgery for the joys of election. If mathematics is the language of God (and who would deny this self-evident truth?), then those who can speak it are His only legitimate representatives on earth. Ward closes his eyes for a solemn moment of gratitude and worship. Now the paraffin fumes are his incense and the flame in its window his votive lamp (‘To what benevolent demon is my soul in debt for being thus surr¬ounded by silence, mystery, fragrance and peace? Baud¬elaire).
As for any sacrament or rite, devout and scrupulous prepar¬ation is necessary. Taking a ruler and a compass from his pigskin briefcase, he draws in his exercise book a neat pencil diagram of a problem in which several triangles overlap a circle. Dipping the nib of his Conway Stewart in the Stephens Blue Black he slowly raises the gold lever that expels air from the tube. When the pen is full he removes excess ink by drawing the nib across the top of the bottle. Finally a scribble on rough paper ensures that the ink is flowing smoothly and is not likely to blot. Then he carefully labels the diagram in ink and underneath lists the additional given data and what has to be proved.
Now the private moment of doubt and reluctance known to even the most illustrious and committed adept. From the street come the cries of confident energetic rowdies. By his side the heater suddenly flutters as though assailed by a gust from the void. Yet once again grace is forthcoming and the solemn mystery is accomplished. As soon as his Conway Stewart touches the paper elegant syllogisms flow from its golden nib as freely as Stephens Blue Black.

Suddenly calm and purposeful, Martin Ward goes to his bookshelves (the one place where his mother does not ferret and pry) and from its hiding place withdraws the terrible instrument of retribution and cleansing which he has fashioned with loving care from the finest of materials (‘I love grace and elegance even in the instruments of death’ Lautréamont). A serious conduit of purification, this catapult’s metal frame and heavy elastic are similar to those of Shotter’s weapon but its ammunition holder is made of leather instead of cloth and the ammo box contains not stones (too misshapen for accurate ballistics) but (heavy, symmetrical and devastating, ideal for anti personnel use) a box of the extra-large marbles known appropriately as ‘shooters’. Today even these will not suffice. He selects a silver ball bearing, magnum load for a one shot stop.
Thus armed, he ascends to the attic workshop which is never used by the father but is the sanctuary and den of the son (‘Locked in an attic from the age of twelve I illustrated the human comedy and understood the world’ Rimbaud). Here he throws himself on the floor and, working with infinite delicacy, gently raises the window a few inches. To instill a proper sense of terror it is necessary to separate an indiv¬idual from the security of the herd. There are still five in the group.
Dusk, accomplice of the assassin as well as the lover, gradually falls on the street.
One by one they depart until only Shotter and McAnanney remain but when these two go off together Ward is sure that fate has robbed him of his quarry. Displaying the infinite patience of the natural hunter, he remains at his post and is rewarded by the sight of Dessie McAnanney not only returning alone on the opposite side of the street but hurrying in the dusk with an air of apprehension that belies the assurance of his public persona. Hands electric with latent power, Ward draws the terrible metal missile to its furthest limit but, with scarcely a tremor, awaits the perfect moment (‘Every¬thing should be done coldly, with poise’ Flaubert), allowing his quarry to go a little way past in order to line up not merely a head shot but a hit in the medula oblongata (for the rigorous assassin’s goal of a no reflex kill).
Finally the moment of purification. As McAnanney reaches the end of the garage Ward fires the ball bearing into the wooden door a few inches over his head, flinging himself flat on the floor and shrieking in hysterical exaltation at the thund-erous impact and Dessie’s scream.

At this time no quartier was more louche than Camden Town, the principal meeting place for New Wave initiates with raggedy dark urchin clothes and spiky neon coloured hair like the bristles of a worn-out lavatory brush. (Devotees of the Baudelaire legend claim that their man invented the tactic of shock locks when he dyed his hair green to outrage café society. Demystifiers, fortunately as persistent as the fabulists, point out that the green so-called dye was actually a common treatment for dandruff.) Here almost everyone had the look of an unregenerate miscreant. Among the New Wave young moved the previous generation of alienated settlers rural Irishmen with adolescent hunched shoulders and secretive smirks, absorbed in evasions and dodges and scams, confident of putting one over on the world even as it bore down to crush them.
There is a possibility that Rimbaud visited Cork as a merchant seaman and Villiers may have come to Dublin in pursuit of an Irish heiress but, of the Seven, only Baudelaire had strong links to Ireland. This is obvious from his work (‘To feel no more the horrible burden of time it is necessary to make oneself ceaselessly drunk’, ‘There are but three beings worthy of respect the poet, the warrior and the priest’) but it is startling to discover a connection on both sides of the family. Not only was his mother educated by Irish nuns but General Aupick, his stepfather and crucial influence, was himself the son of a man born in Ireland and had the forename Jemis, a French version of Seamus (the surname possibly also a Gallicised version of O’Peake) . To the long list of Irish glories that might-¬have been there must now be added yet another that, had the general appeared on the scene a few years earlier (he married Mme Baudelaire when Charles was six), he might have given the boy his forename and the legendary father of modern literature would have been Seamus Baudelaire.

’Mount Pleasant!’ Colette, bringing tea things, finds the idea ill-advised for opposite reasons. ‘Och Josephine ... sure the whole town’s in Mount Pleasant now.’ And she laughs gaily at her sister’s misguided notion of exclusivity. ‘Sure haven’t we the Chinese even.’
’Two houses up,’ Eugene explains. ‘The crowd that own the Crystal Garden. Kinsella was telling me about the old fella. Doctor Kinsella, you know. The old fella’s a patient and says he to Kinsella, No breeze! No breeze!. Meant he couldn’t breathe the English is not very good, ye see ... though the same fella’s not so slow, seemingly he’s opening a new restaurant in Limavady ... ‘
’Kinsella was good value about him. Had him off to a tee. No breeze! No breeze!’ Laughing, Eugene slaps his chest in imitation of Kinsella imitating his patient. ‘But English or no English, he was cute enough at the heel o’ the hunt. Managed better than us, Josie. Because he couldn’t climb stairs he got a grant for an extension with a downstairs toilet.’
’They got a grant!’ Mrs Ward cries wildly. ‘They got a grant for an extension.’
’Oh he’s cute enough when it comes to it. And this business of the sons going to school in Glasgow there’ll be some reason for that too. They’ll be claiming something for that too some way or other.’
’They’ll be claiming something for that,’ Mrs Ward grimly agrees.
’Though he’d be decent enough at the same time, like. He sent us over this big duck at Christmas ... cooked some special way, with all the trimmings ... the way they do it, you know. I’d have tried it ... but Colette ... ‘
’Oh ... Eugene.’ Colette finds it absurd to have to explain such a basic point. ‘You only have to pick up a paper to know what they put in the food.’
’Colette wouldn’t touch it so we gave it to the Vincent de Paul.’
Another limitation of the ideal husband is a heavy handed way with an anecdote.
Colette applies her light touch. ‘I rang Fonsie Burns of the Vincent de Paul and says I, Fonsie, do you know of some family that would like a Chinese duck? Says he, Look no further, Colette.’ She pauses to look round at them. ‘Fonsie has six boys.’ This time her pause is to allow the laughter to subside. ‘Right enough, he rang back to say it was gorgeous.’

Already apprehensive about his first visit to the Ward home and its grand front room, Tony Shotter shrinks back in his armchair as Martin approaches angrily waving a long brass poker (‘O human creature, here you are naked as a worm faced with my diamond blade’ Lautréamont).
’What do you think this is?’ Ward shouts, aggressively brandishing the article. Shotter shrugs at the redundancy of the question. ‘What do you think this is?’
’It’s a poker for Crissake.’
’Wrong!’ Ward cries in fierce satisfaction. ‘It looks like a poker ... yes. It’s long enough to be a poker. It’s heavy enough to be a poker.’ He hefts it suggestively, as though preparing to smite the philistine. ‘It appears to be a poker but in fact it’s not a poker at all. I mean, you can’t actually poke the fire with it. If you want to poke the fire you have to tramp out to the yard for the real fucking poker. What you see here is an ornament ... like everything else in this room.’
As he turns towards the china cabinet, chaos and carnage flame in his eyes and he raises the sham poker as if to shatter the delicate glass structure and all its precious contents (‘My entrails burn me; the violence of venom twists my limbs’ Rimbaud).
’China tea sets that never hold tea, silver toast racks that never hold toast, Waterford glass fruit bowls that never hold fruit, crystal goblets that never hold drink, a decanter that never decants ... could never decant, it’s sealed shut.’ With a wild swing he takes in the rest of the room. ‘Brass candlesticks that never hold candles, barometer that never measures pressure, clock that never tells the time ... and of course a shovel that never shovels to match the poker that never pokes.’ Passion almost spent, he lets the weapon hang by his side, ‘Find me one functional item in this fucking room.’
Shotter looks about wildly. ‘The table?’
’No!’ A fresh paroxysm seizes Ward. ‘It’s a dining room table, yes ... but one on which no one has ever dined or will dine. Even to eat at the table in the living room, you have to lay down a rubber sheet, then an old table cloth, then the good table cloth, then the English hunting scene place mats; only after all this may plates of hot food be set down. But under no circum¬stances would it be possible to eat at this table. Not good enough, I’m afraid. Try again.’
Turning, Shotter peers desperately. ‘The piano?’
Ward throws back his head to release a terrible shriek (‘To laugh is satanic and hence profoundly human’ Baudelaire). ‘You’re a clever boy, Tony. No wonder you passed the 11 plus in spite of being a slag. That is definitely a real piano that can be played.’ Ward demonstrates by flinging open the lid and bringing down his spread left hand to produce a jangling discord. His right hand once again raises the poker, causing Shotter to flinch but Ward contents himself with laying the point on his friend’s chest. ‘The catch is that no one ever does play it. Since the day I was born and probably well before, not a note has been played on that instrument.’

’But you know I’m too drunk to do anything.’ She regarded the engorged organ with a look of infinite compassion and regret, like a mother consoling a beloved child for a cancelled birthday trip to the circus.
Then her tender countenance slowly began to descend, triggering a new cause for alarm.
’It may not be too clean down there, honey.’
Whether she did not hear or chose to ignore the warning, the gentle descent continued until comforted and comforter were one.
As with all major pleasures the physical sensation itself was only part of the experience. Equally important were the notion of being serviced and the ability to observe all the service details. (For we incorr¬igible viewers the mission¬ary position has become less attractive because it makes it so difficult to participate and watch.) No wonder cock¬sucking features so prominently in contemp¬orary American fiction. For passive consumers in a service economy fellatio is inevitably the king of pleasures as well as the pleasure of kings. (Probably a French intellectual has related the growth of the oral obsession to developments in late capitalism.)
Already the exquisite imminence was upon me. I groaned out a warning but, instead of sparing herself, Clare made the commitment irrevocable, drawing more deeply and purposefully on the shaft while reverently hefting the scrotum like a miner’s sack of gold dust.

Apparently the bishop had just come from a nearby Catholic boys’ school and discovered that its past pupils included the leader of the most notorious New Wave band. Not only that, he had been shown a report which lamented the boy’s lack of progress but suggested that he might ‘do better in a small group’. At this there was a fresh outbreak of laughter in which Sister Joseph gladly joined. I wondered if she fully understood but the joke itself was not important. What excited her was the bishop’s success with the joke. Not a dull remote figure but a hip today guy in touch with a happening scene.
’Actually he’s Irish,’ the bishop said now, methodically milking the story in the efficient way of the raconteur.
’Ah go way!’ Joe cried, her new joy immediately tempered by dismay.
’Father from Galway, mother from Cork.’
’Isn’t it dreadful, Mr Ward?’ The saddened nun turned to me. ‘That one of our own should come to that?’
’Concentrate on the good Irish, Sister,’ Father Kemp coolly advised. ‘The best example of all. Jesus Christ was Irish.’
Joe gripped my arm. What were they going to come out with next? Who needed New Wave when our own clergy were masters of outrage and shock?
’There are three proofs that Jesus was Irish,’ Kemp began, lowering his voice so that we had to draw closer. ‘First, he had twelve drinking companions.’ As though reminded of his own glass, the priest took a quick sip. ‘Second, he did not leave home until he was thirty.’ The bishop could not suppress a chuckle and Kemp drew back until order was restored. As we bent our heads forward again Kemp brought his own head into the circle. ‘Thirdly and lastly, his mother thought he was God.’

There is an incredible rumour that, finally shocked by the half¬ crazed brutes it is sending out into the world, the college has hired an elocution teacher to convert its older pupils into passionate debaters and eloquent after dinner speakers. Stranger still, it is said that this stupendous task of animal training has been entrusted to a woman.
Not even the most credulous believe the second half of the story. Nevertheless there is a full turnout for the opening class whose membership is as novel as its subject matter, arrogant demigods of science mingling with arts riff raff. Scarcely has Ward got used to the novelty of sitting once more beside arts man Shotter than he is astounded to see enter the room a middle aged woman with a perm and tweed costume in the style of his aunt Colette but wearing high red stilettos which Colette would find impossibly common and exuding an aura of vestigial glamour resisting surrender to the nullity of age.
He is not surprised when she reveals that she has been on the stage and intends to teach them how to enunciate and project, her own speech another revelation rich, honeyed, precise and detached, with none of the och sure now familiarity and ingratiation of local women her age (‘Like diamantine pearls the notes of her voice welled from her resonant larynx and resolved their personalities into a vibrant aggregate’ Lautréamont). And for those in the front rows there is the further alarming perturbation of an elusive and sophisticated scent. Her presence in the shabby classroom is like that of a sailing ship in a bottle no one can imagine how the feat was achieved but the incredible reality may not be denied (‘Neither I nor the four flippers of the sea bear of the Boreal Ocean have been able to solve the riddle of life’ Lautréamont).
However novelty and an exquisite speaking voice are not enough to subdue brutes. Already she has made the fatal error of permitting a third of the class to loll in postures of provocat¬ive indolence. Instead of snapping at them to sit up straight like Christians she distributes brochures with speaking exercises and leads the group in a chant:

The early bird shall get the worm.
This proverb always makes me squirm.

She looks pointedly at Shotter. ‘Not squuurrrum ... squirm.’
’Squirm,’ Shotter repeats in a high piping tone with a skillful light patina of impertinent parody.
A low chuckle goes round the room but again she takes no action.

The early worm, for being first,
Does not deserve to be so cursed.

Now there is open laughter. Ignoring it, she gets each of them to read. When it comes to Ward’s turn Shotter kicks him under the desk. Suppressing a snigger, Ward begins, ‘Two tired toads trotting to Tewkesbury,’ then, at another kick, breaks down into laughter immediately shared by the rest of the group.
By the end of the period everyone is sprawling in near¬ helpless mirth.
Yet there is also much anger. The scientists, confirmed in their scorn for the arts, are furious at this waste of precious time. And the arts men are furious at being associated with absurdity and pretention.
In the storm of contempt and abuse it is difficult to acknowledge tender emotions.
’But she’s not all that bad looking,’ Ward suggests diffid¬ently to Shotter. ‘For her age, like.’
’That auld puke!’ Shotter sneers. ‘Fuckin’ cobwebs on it. And no wonder. Be like pushin’ a chippolata up the fuckin’ Mersey tunnel. That auld sickener’ll never see fifty again.’
’Ah but ... not bad legs ... ye wouldn’t keek her outa bed.’
Shotter composes his disgusted expression into a grimace of terminal rejection. ‘She couldn’t give a hard on to the Boston Strangler.’

Drury Lane, where Villiers attended Mozart’s Don Giovanni with his Irish heiress, Anna Eyre Powell (one of the Eyre Powells of Clonshavoy). Marriage to an heiress was always Villiers’ preferred way out of poverty and he was put in touch with the girl by a dubious matrimonial agent, one Comte de La Houss¬aye, whose previous business ventures included involvement in piracy and the slave trade. Villiers gave this character a promissory note for two hundred thousand francs, payable in the event of a marriage but otherwise null and void. In return La Houssaye provided the nobleman with a fur lined overcoat, repeating watch and false teeth. However, since Anna had little French there was also a major language problem. Villiers took English lessons from his friend, Stephane Mallarmé (‘Since it’s a matter of a wedding I’ll learn only the future tense of the verbs’).
He won his Irish heiress the way Rimbaud made his first million. Instead of pursuing a cynical campaign, the excitable writer immediately fell head over heels in love and terrified the girl with passion¬ate recitations of his work (perhaps the love scene from Axel: ‘Do you want to trouble the stars reflected in the Bay of Naples or in the lagoons of Venice when you trail in the gondola’s wake some exquisite fabric from Samarkand? Shall we let reindeer draw us across the ice or ostriches carry us over the sand?’). To whatever lyrical options were suggested, Miss Eyre Powell declared that she would prefer ‘eternal celibacy and even the convent’. La Houssaye repossessed the overcoat and watch, leaving Villiers, humiliated, heartbroken and penniless, to make his own way back to Paris where, abandoning the dream of an heiress, he took up with his illiterate cleaning woman. The episode was one of his most severe disappointments but it was not entirely without reward. He was permitted to keep the false teeth.

’You’re Martin Ward? The Martin Ward? The Martin Ward with great exam results?’ At last he is the chosen one, the honoured guest. ‘I’m Angela Neville. My daddy Frank taught with your daddy ... God rest him. You must know Frank. He’s teaching your mother to drive at the moment.’
Finally his caste is providing an appropriate reward - a dazzling creature in whom, to the petite and slight frame of the convent school girl, have been added the heavy breasts currently prized by the material world. As they move out to dance, Ward casts a fierce glance of triumph to where Tony Shotter presides over the record player at the far corner of the party. However Shotter, eyes screwed up against his own cigarette smoke, concentrates frowningly on record sleeves in the search for music that transcends the vulgar taste of the herd. Having for some time rejected the triteness of song lyrics, indeed the very idea of song itself, he now restricts himself to the purity of instrumental pop music. Even within this limited subdivision he is fantastically selective. The record he plays is not a hit but an American obscurity: Pipeline by The Chantays (‘It is good to teach the contented of this world that there are happinesses superior to theirs ... more sophisticated, more grand’ Baudela¬ire).
But since the music is impossible to dance to, the throng on the floor cry out in protest. Angela glares at Shotter in vexation. ‘Who is that character? Why doesn’t he play something decent? Why doesn’t he play The Swinging Blue Jeans records I brought? I had to search the whole house for them tonight. And it was just crazy in our house.’ Distracted by the memory of commotion, she turns animatedly to Ward. ‘We were all up to high doh in our house tonight. I was running round trying to get ready and looking for The Hippy Hippy Shake and my sister Anne was going to her college dinner dance. Malachy Armstrong was taking her ... you know Malachy, the solicitor’s son? Och ... the Armstrongs from Mount Pleasant ...ever so ever so ... very awfully awfully. Anyway it’s the custom for the boy to bring the girl a box of chocolates ... and didn’t Malachy turn up at the door with a thruppenny packet of fruit gums. A thruppenny packet of fruit gums! Of course he had a big expensive box in his car the whole time. But he didn’t let on for ages. We were all having kittens. We were having canaries.’

Ward has a technique for asking a girl out to dance. Approaching with a countenance entirely devoid of interest or warmth, he stops a few feet away, touches the point of her elbow with the tip of his middle finger and, when she looks at him, briefly raises his eyebrows the merest fraction of an inch (‘That ease of bearing, that sureness of manner, that simplicity in the habit of command, that calmness revealing strength in every circumstance one of those privileged beings in whom the formidable and the attractive so mysteriously combine’ Baudel¬aire).
Equally expressionless, she follows him onto the dance floor and, tossing back her long hair, moves into his arms.
It is some time before he speaks. ‘Like the band?’
She shrugs briefly. ‘They’re all right.’
Assuming an expression of profound disgust, Ward lays his left index finger along the left side of his nose and with his right hand makes the motion of pulling down a toilet chain (‘If what is sublime in man is three quarters madness, then his wisdom is three quarters contempt’ d’Aurevilly).
’A sarky type.’ She studies him for a moment. ‘You have a sarky face.’
Despite himself he smiles, pleased that she can she see shining on his brow that mysterious sign which reveals those who despise the ritual fatuities of the herd. ‘Actually they’re not as bad as they sound. They have to play crap for dances but they’re really jazz musicians.’ He pauses respect¬fully. ‘Like jazz?’
They dance.
’What music do you like?’
Frowning a little, she offers her favourite response the shrug.
After they have danced for a time. ‘Are you from the town?’
She shrugs and grunts, then adds in a pungent dismissive tone, ‘That famous city.’
Now Gregory raises his mike with a meaningful grin. ‘Thank you. Thank you. We continue dancing with ... The Bold O’Donoghue!’
As the crowd cheer a bucklep, Ward frowns in distaste. ‘I hate this Irish crap. Like it?’

‘Oh I’m the boy to squayze her, I’m the boy to tayse her
I’m the boy to playze her ... and I’ll tell you what I’ll do’

The dancers shriek with delight and kick out. Already some enthusiastic men begin to ‘swizz’ their girls (‘The savages dance ceaselessly in the festival of night’ Rimbaud). Grimacing, Ward looks about for a refuge.

‘I’ll court her like an Irishman with the Irish blarney too
It’s the hulligan mulligan hulligan mulligan Bold O’Donoghue!’

’How about getting outside for a while?’
She shrugs. ‘All right.’
After the noise and heat they are struck dumb by the cool and silent immensity of the night. Beneath a sky teeming with stars the dance hall is revealed as an ugly excrescence, a crude concrete cuboid hastily flung up in a field on the out¬skirts of the town. Clad only in a short sleeveless minidress, the girl suddenly clasps herself, as though in involuntary self defence against the mercenary expediency of man and the pitiless indifference of the universe.
’I’m all right.’
Still holding herself, she walks by his side around the corner of the building, placing her high heels carefully on the rough uneven ground and as carefully averting her eyes from the couples at intervals against the wall. Entranced by the grandeur of the night and thirsting insatiably for the infinite, Ward throws back his head to the heavens where he would like to soar aloft with the powerful wingbeat of the Andean condor, exulting in freedom and space and a blackness as hideous as man’s heart, emitting wild piercing cries which make the dogs of the farflung farms of Ulster snap their chains and rush in circles, foaming with frenzy.
’I suppose you’re at the college,’ she says suddenly, with a hint of resentment and bitterness.
’What have you got against college boys?’
’Oh ... ‘ she glances quickly at him, attempting to plumb the mysterious plenitude of the brow and the gleaming eyes beautiful as suicide ‘they fancy themselves.’
There are no spaces along the side wall. Still apparently strolling at random they turn the corner at the back.
’And what do you do yourself?’
’I work in a sweet shop. Canning’s.’
’Like it.’
She laughs bitterly. ‘Canning’s a bad animal. A hateful pig. Cares about nothin’ but money. And he hates me like poison. Maybe because I’m bigger than him. I must be a foot bigger. Or else because I don’t suck up to him or the customers. He’s always telling me not to have such a face on me.’ Another one incapable of learning the banalities which appease the herd! Ward glances at her in sudden approval but she is too absorbed in her story to notice. ‘And he’s always giving the other girls rises and telling them not to let on to me. Of course it always comes out. There’s this one ... Gloria ... she gets the most because she’s always lickin’ up to him.’ Pause for a harsh bleak laugh. ‘And the best of it is this, Gloria’s robbin’ him blind the whole time. Hands out free fags to everybody belongin’ to her.’
This unexpected bitter eloquence rouses Ward from his detachment. He studies her perceptively. ‘And Gloria isn’t tall either?’
’A midget,’ she spits out in violent contempt, turning suddenly and, in a single lithe movement, bringing her body against him, placing her arms about his neck and lifting her parted lips to his which receive them in gratitude and pleasure (‘Stranger, permit me to touch you and let my hands, which seldom consent to touch the living, venture forth upon the nobility of your flesh’ Lautréamont).
When he draws her closer to him she shifts, not to evade the lower grossness but to arrange its comfort¬able accomodation, moving her legs to permit him to grip one of her thighs between his. After a time he moves his hand to the top of the zip at the back of her dress but squanders the coolness of the experienced libertine by fumbling hopelessly with the catch.
’Havin’ some trouble there?’ She draws back her head to regard him, mischief glinting in veiled eyes like a sliver of moonlight on a somnolent canal. Then, to his astonishment, she reaches back herself and swiftly undoes the catch. As he draws down the zip, two things simultaneously slip out of place the front of her dress and his indifferent mask of surfeit.
’Like what you’re lookin’ at?’ she tartly enquires.
’Very much.’
But when he feels for her bra catch she firmly removes his hand. ‘No.’
And when, shortly after, he attempts to raise his hand along her inner thigh, she brusquely seizes it and flings it away.
Although he would never admit it, Ward is secretly pleased by this allowance precisely calculated and strictly policed, well above the miserly norm but with a clearly defined upper bound. As unsatisfactory as total denial would be total surrender now. For the small are as incapable of receiving as of giving. The gift of her arcanum would be too overwhelming.
By the time they return the dance is over and Shotter is signalling impatiently from the stage door. Something in Ward’s careful gait makes Shotter grunt knowingly.
‘Did ye fire?’ He casts a swift glance at the girl who waits a few paces behind. ‘She gave ye a dry ride, uh?’
’So called. It’s actually one of the wettest experiences I know.’ Gingerly Ward slips a hand in his pocket and detaches his trousers from the soaked underpants.
’But dark trousers don’t show.’ Shotter grunts disparagingly at his own biscuit mohair. ‘These fuckin’ light suits are desperate.’

Clare now found her own history as strange and perplexing as I did mine. ‘I was totally innocent, Martin ... so innocent. You know I never understood why you suddenly went limp. And I used to think the stain on your trousers was because you’d peed yourself a bit.’
For once we pondered the same memory beneath a dark Sacred Heart picture a youth in a three ¬piece suit falling asleep on a sofa on top of a half dressed girl, a pocket watch and silver chain hanging out of his waistcoat, a dark stain slowly spreading on the front of his pants.
’You know I was crazy about you, Martin. You have no idea.’
Blind youth, that never knows the value of what it gives or receives. Or that the time of the gifts is soon over and that henceforth everything must be earned.
’I would have done anything for you, Martin ... absolutely anything.’
The first wild extravagant love of a young girl so absurd and wearisome at the time was now revealed to me as the greatest gift life has to offer, the one human glory surely envied by the Gods.
’It could be like that again,’ I suggested, not even believing it myself.
’No no no no ... it could never be like that again, Martin.’
We sat for a long time in silence. I finished most of the new glass of gin.
’But surely I made you laugh sometimes?’
She looked up quickly and saw that the question was anything but flippant. ‘Well ... sometimes, I suppose.’ Compass¬ion beckoned for a moment. Then Truth drew her back to its cold steely breast. ‘Sometimes ... but not very often.’

Clare was sitting back on the sofa with a furrowed ruminant expression. Now she leaned forward and sideways and her frown modulated into a grimace as she grunted and released a long, sputtering, disgraceful, luxurious fart. ‘Ah God,’ she sighed in profound relief and gratitude, ‘that’s one good thing about a husband ye can let off whenever ye like.’ And immediately she availed herself once more of the privilege, this emission brief and succint but apparently more potent. ‘Oops!’ she cried, desperately fanning the air. ‘Sorry!’
The advantage she had conferred on me was scarcely ideal but I was not about to reject any form of preferment.
’Zephyrs from Heaven, my angel.’

Not only does Clare now come to the flat every half day and day off, she even suggests that, on the nights when Rapunzel is imprisoned in the Nurse’s Home, her prince should scale the back wall of the hospital grounds, approach the Home under cover of the rhododendron bushes, wait in these bushes for the prearranged signal and finally effect a tryst in her bed¬chamber via the opened corridor window.
’Wha ... ?’ Ward cries, aghast. ‘What dye think Ah am fuckin’ James Bond?’ (‘Beware of the moon and the stars, beware of the Venus de Milo, of lakes, guitars, rope ladders and love stories’ Baudelaire.)

One Friday afternoon Ward returns to find Clare on the doorstep with her only female friend Emma Bovary. At once she springs up to explain that she has realised every nurse’s dream that of concatenating the day and a half from successive weeks to create a stupendous three day weekend break.
’I thought Patterson would never allow that.’
’I’m on a different ward now geriatric.’
But something in her demeanour suggests that the tyranny is not at an end.
‘Isn’t it good to get away from Patterson?’
‘Aw wait till I tell ye, Martin.’ Laying a hand on his arm, she lowers her head and leans brokenly into him. ‘The first night I was on the new ward Sister told me to collect all the false teeth and wash them.’ Her grip on his arm tightens and her tone becomes tremulous. ‘And didn’t I collect the whole bunch and throw them into a sink in the sluice.’
‘Isn’t that what you were supposed to do?’
She shakes his arm in despair at trauma compounded by obtuseness. ‘Didn’t I mix them all up? They couldn’t tell whose were whose. Sister was ready to kill me. She was fit to be tied.’ Worn out, Clare falls against Ward and lays her head on his shoulder.
Dutifully patting her hair, he frowns impatiently down the street. ‘OK but I have plans for the weekend.’
At once her face darkens. ‘You have another girl.’
’The last thing I need is another girl.’
’You’re seeing someone else. I know it. That’s why you don’t want me around.’
They mount the stairs and go along the landing, now more easily negotiated since Clare has been reducing the rubbish mountain by several bags a week. In Ward’s room she throws her case onto the bed.
’You don’t know what I had to do to get this weekend. Swop my offs with everyone. Agree to do their bowel days.’
’Their what?’
’Every Monday. On Sunday night all the patients get Dorbanax a laxative.’
’Why a laxative?’
’Why do you think? They never get exercise. Some are totally bedridden. And on Monday morning they get a suppository.’
’Which you ... ‘
’Not for all of them,’ she says. ‘Not all of them make it that far.’
’So for one half of the patients you administer ... and for the others you have to ... ‘
’It makes Mondays even more popular than usual.’
To reach him she will swim across an ocean of geriatric shit.

What I sought was evidence against my own atrocious theory. According to this, each of two peasant familes had pushed a child up the social scale by means of education, then looked around for a mate at an equivalent level. Having been found ‘good enough’, the man and woman would lie down together, not for pleasure but to form the next layer in the Pyramid of the Living Dead, a tyrannical long term project whose ultimate goal was to lift fortunate descendants into the bliss of professional fees and an ivied mansion in Mount Pleasant. Everything I remembered seemed to support this theory. But memory is essentially caricatural it selects, exaggerates and condemns. I wanted her to tell me that there was something more human, that they had also been sweethearts, at least for a time. And suddenly I thought of Clare and experienced a wild surge of longing. Goddam it, we all need a sweetheart.
’It doesn’t sound terribly romantic,’ I suggested now, with the utmost mildness.
This succeeded in stinging her into a response. ‘Well you have to remember that this was during the war. Times were hard ... people had very little ... and parents were stricter in those days.’
Blame the parents, blame the age the tactics of every generation. My own excuses were no different.
My mother was brooding with a harried violated look. And then, with the desperate ingenuity of the hunted, she suddenly gave her pursuer the slip and headed back to familiar terrain. ‘What I do remember is that your father and I had very little at the start. We certainly didn’t have it easy. That’s why I want to see you and Brian set up.’
’We are set up.’ Now it was I who felt like screaming. ‘I could buy a house anywhere. I could buy a house in Mount Pleas¬ant.’
But our filthy age had sullied even the paradise of the private park. ‘Och Mount Pleasant. Sure I’m only back from there and Colette was saying she wanted to move. She was saying the whole town’s in Mount Pleasant now.’
In the silence we slumped on our seats like exhausted boxers between rounds. Her dodging and weaving and counter¬punching were wearing me down.
I had the energy for one last attack. ‘Daddy has a full head of hair in this photo. Did he lose it all at once ... you know, quickly ... or was it a more gradual thing?’
Surely the physical inheritance at least could be explored? No, the familiar defensive grimace immediately formed. ‘Your father had a wonderful head of hair, Martin.’ She consented to take the photo again. ‘He always said it was using someone else’s comb.’
I allowed her a few moments to relish his hirsute glory. ‘But did it happen quickly?’ I was terrified of my own hair suddenly falling out. ‘Like over a year or two?’
The grimace became a look of persecution. ‘Nooooo ... like, it wouldn’t have been ... ‘
’But at what age did he go bald?’ Losing patience with gradualism, I put a straight question and immediately regretted its double harshness.
She too was weary of indirection. ‘But your father wasn’t bald,’ she suddenly screeched. ‘Your father wasn’t bald, Martin.’
I tried not to look but it was impossible to desist. Inexorably my gaze was drawn to the photograph on the china cabinet, the top of Hugh’s skull agleam like a dining room table after a polish.
But though the skull shone like polished mahogany, the features no longer seemed wooden. In the eyes there was a hint of amusement I had never noticed before. Amusement and other common human emotions sadness, yearning, disapppointment, disillusion and reproach.

And so it is that the four of them sit together in the living room at that hour of the Sabbath when a zealous God’s grip on the province is most unremitting and close. Now nothing stirs in the silent streets and sodden parks. It seems that the entire city, including even its rabid and tireless assassins, has succumbed to fatalism and failure of will. Shuttered houses withdraw into themselves. Above, the sky is a sullen immobile grey wash. Even the rain appears to be paralysed, suspended over the empty pavements in a saturated emulsion.
Can it be that potential and imminence have passed forever f¬rom the earth? Without interest or enthusiasm they turn the pages of newspapers. Curiosity, born with the universe, is dying of inanition in the Ulster gloom. (‘Those provinces which are the analogues of death there the sun only obliquely kisses the earth and the slow alternations of light and dark suppress all variety, increasing instead that monotony which is the twin of Nothingness’ Baudelaire).
Shotter flings down his paper. ‘Why don’t we go a run somewhere? Now that we have a car for once.’
Even Angela’s vibrancy is muted today. ‘Tony, I have to drive back to Omagh tonight. And with all the trouble recently I don’t want to be on the roads late.’
’You have your own car?’ Clare is deeply impressed.
’Daddy bought me a Mini when I started the teaching pract¬ice.’
With a heavy sigh Clare throws down the colour supplement and begins transferring the contents of her old handbag to the new one, desultorily examining receipts and scraps of paper, trying old makeup tubes on the back of her hand.
It comes to Ward that what is required is a wild, redemptive sovereign gesture. Instead of cowering in submission he should rise and drive his titanium cock through the blood stained sphincter of the universe, smashing the very walls of its pelvis with powerful and impetuous thrusts. His soul can still be redeemed by an act of defiance so sublime it transcends all the categories (‘Are not good and evil one thing by which we furiously acknowledge our impotent passion to attain the infinite by even the maddest of means? Lautréamont).
’Do you need your old bag, honey?’
’I’m dumping it out in a minute.’
With a single bound Ward has reached her side and seized the bag. ‘Now listen.’
Arrested by his brilliant transgressor’s voice, all three look up and are transfixed by a countenance, cold as the marble slab on a sarcophagus, in which eyes blaze like stars in a firmament they illuminate but leave cold. ‘All four of us shite in this bag’ his eyes transfix each in turn ‘then we close it up and leave it out on the pavement across the street.’ When he jerks his head towards the window they follow his gaze but are immediately drawn back to a visage irradiated by Divine Lumen. ‘Then we pull our chairs to the window and wait.’ He himself illustrates this by pausing. The Lumen blossoms in a terrible effulgence. ‘We wait for some greedy fucker to come along and pick it up.

’Don’t talk to me about the troubles.’ Eugene suddenly enters the conversation from the other end of the table. ‘I had my windows blown in again this week. Third time in six months. Haven’t even had the compensation for the first time yet. And burgled twice for good measure.’
Here is another challenge for Colette whose genius can create from the most lumpen ingredients the most exquisite of soufflé¬s.
’The thing about the bombs,’ she begins, immediately commanding the table’s attention, ‘is that every time there’s a loud bang these days everyone thinks it’s a bomb. Eugene’s poor mother nearly had head staggers last week when the dining room ceiling collapsed on top of the table. Nothing to do with bombs but it really put the heart across her. She was in the house on her own and she ran out into the garden screaming, Jesus Mary and Joseph where’s Fergus and Nuala?’
’Destroyed the table completely.’ Eugene turns significantly towards Colette, another attribute of the ideal connection husband being the ability to act as straight man for the wife. ‘We haven’t had much luck with tables. That’s the second we’ve lost.’
’The first table was beautiful,’ Colette sighs, expertly pacing the anecdote. ‘But the centre section fell in.’
’Oh, Colette!’
It is obvious that the best is yet to come but Colette compels them to wait, maintaining a perfectly deadpan expression. ‘With all our Waterford glass sitting on it.’
While the listeners wince and wail the actual victim of the catastrophe seems to become more composed.
’I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a lot of Waterford glass breaking¬.’ For the first time she permits herself a laugh, light and rapturous, as of one ravished by exquisite Mozartian grace. ‘But I can tell you now that it makes ... the most superbly musical sound.’

Beyond, Blackstaff Press 2002

In her sister’s house later she disposed her body on the sofa in a comfortable abandon which revealed, like the cream at the top of the milk bottle, a band of sumptuous naked flesh above a stocking top. All about us was the ineluctable verity of a Glengormley living room - imitation brushed-velvet suite, shagpile littered with toys, framed photographs of children on the television, over our heads the groans and sighs of an overweight and disgruntled middle-aged man and wife. A setting which repeated an old message: life is banality, boredom and burden. Yet here at its centre was the crème de la crème, apparently offered without inhibition or artifice. It was too much for one so inexperienced in love. As soon as my trembling body touched hers I shot off violently and copiously in my pants.
Then an even more profound wonder - Marie seemed to accept ignominy as part of the fun. When, in the hope of avoiding a tell-tale stain, I surreptitiously pulled out my trouser front, she issued a laugh that was high and ringing but entirely without malice.
‘That’s your good suit ruined.’
It may have been just at this humiliating moment, trapped in my seeping congealing shame, that I fell in love with Marie. For it was surely now that charm would evaporate and the disguise of the masked ball come off. Yet there was not a trace of impatience, disgust or scorn.

My American masters had decided to build a second plant and I was assigned to the planning group. The project leader was a beefy Protestant from Culladuff but he had been to the US headquarters to train and, like so many of the born-again, had developed a zeal even more fanatical than that of the original hierophants. Above a Bri-Nylon shirt of dazzling whiteness his eyes blazed with visionary fervour as they anticipated creating the temple of a second synthetic-fibre facility (this was a time of strange new pagan Gods - Orlon, Vincel, Vyrene, Crimpline, Terylene and Courtelle). Behind his head as he expounded his dream was an icon he had brought back from the States, a framed print of a magically snow-silvered tree with the inspirational message: Snowflakes are among the most delicate and fragile things in Nature - but just look at what they’re capable of achieving when they cooperate with each other.

Celia clapped her hands in rapture. ‘Father Harry’s great value. He’s real with-it. He’s real mod. What’s this he said about marriage, Lexie?’
Without looking at his wife or indeed at any of us, Lexie leaned forward to flick his ash into an ashtray on a glass coffee table, an incongrously modern item among the ponderous old pieces (later we learned that it had been a wedding present from Celia). Then he paused to study his cigarette and when he finally spoke it was in the curtest and most grudging of tones. ‘He said, A lot of people are putting in oil-fired central heating these days ... but marriage is still the best central heating of all.’
Celia cried out in renewed admiration. ‘And the best man was great crack too. You should have heard him about the groom.’ Apparently oblivious to her husband’s reluctance, she turned to him once again. ‘What did he say about Liam Boyle?’
For a long time it seemed as though Lexie would fail to reply - or indeed respond in any way. He was rigid and still as the bust of a Caesar. Only when the silence was becoming unbearable did he finally relent. ‘He said, Liam’s very frank and earnest with the girls ... when he’s in Portstewart he’s Frank and when he’s in Letterkenny he’s Ernest.’

Celia waited till the door closed behind her children. ‘Una Casey’s that way.’
‘What?’ Helen’s acuity deserted her - but only for a moment. ‘She’s not ...?’
Celia nodded. ‘It was a question of have to.’
‘No!’ Finding Celia’s grim countenance without hope, Helen turned so wildly to Lexie that even this stern devotee of the taciturn was obliged to respond, albeit laconically. ‘Shotgun job.’
‘But Una Casey?’ Sorrowfully Helen rose to her feet and turned to explain to us her shock. ‘Una lived just down the road from us. She’d be a daughter of Doctor Casey’s ... you know Doctor Casey? And she was in Celia’s class at the convent. Mind you, I wondered why she was marrying one of the Boyles. They’re not ... you know ... But if you knew Una you would think she was just the last one ... the last one to ever ...’ Renewed disbelief caused her to trail off in mid-sentence.
Celia, her face a turbid storm cloud, glanced instinctively towards the kitchen, as if even there her daughter was imperilled by the rampant depravity of the age. Then she turned back to the room. ‘Sure it’s love on the doorstop nowadays.’

‘Did I tell you the crack about Gerry Brady, Helen? The photographer at the wedding? Oh he was desperate. Took over the whole thing, bossed everybody all day. But anyway when we were driving from the church to the hotel he takes a notion of doing a group portrait on this wee hill ... you know, just past the old slob road before you come to the new bridge ... gets out into the middle of the road like a B-man and starts stopping cars and ordering everybody up this hill. And, like ... elderly people ... most of the women in high heels. But nothing will do Gerry only get us all up this hill. Though, right enough, it was a lovely day and a gorgeous spot ...’
Celia’s unhurried progress recalled my mother’s protracted leavetaking from relatives - the interminable series of lingerings, first at the sitting room door, then at the front door and, last but longest of all, at the front gate (the agony in the garden).
‘So anyway Gerry takes the snap ... I’m sure it’ll turn out lovely ... and when we’re going back down Mrs Casey stops and shouts out of her, Where’s Mrs Boyle? Where’s Mrs Boyle? God of Heaven, we’ve missed Mrs Boyle. I was behind her and she grabs me by the arm.’ Celia seized Helen to demonstrate the intensity of the grip. ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph, Celia, she’ll think I left her out on purpose.’
As the departure moved to its final stage at the front door of the house Marie and I retreated to allow the sisters a private moment of valediction, though Celia appeared to have no need of intimacy. We could hear her clearly from inside. ‘See you during the week, Helen ... d. v. ... ,’ she shouted, ‘and if I don’t see you through the week I’ll see you through the window.’

It was time to go home - but the dim rundown living room was encompassingly seductive. As caressingly as a lover, the gas fire suspired. Easeful shadows offered balm for the afflicted spirit and commodious armchairs support and rest for the weary bones. Helen extinguished the main light and switched on a tall standing lamp with a scallop-edged shade of pleated beige and maroon velvet trim. Circumambient dark cradled a soft core of light. At its heart Helen kicked off her shoes and climbed onto the sofa, tucking up her legs and leaning an elbow on Neil’s shoulder.
We sipped gin in ruminant silence, entranced by the breathing plaque of fire and the lamp with its endearingly dilapidated shade - several pleats were undone and the mouldy velvet trim was hanging loose in two places.
Here was the analeptic peace many seek but few find. Each of us was in touch with the deep still self beneath the fretfulness of daily life.
‘Monday’s my worst fucking day.’ Neil was first to break the spell.
Helen punched him with fond lightness. ‘Neil.’
‘Not only have I two fourth-year classes ... fourth years are always the worst ... but I’m giving up a free period to cover Tommy Peoples. Cover him so he can go and screw this woman in the Congo.’
Helen rolled her eyes at us. ‘This is the way with Neil. Can’t say no to anyone. But then complains about it to me. Why didn’t you tell this character Monday’s your worst day?’
‘He needs a free period after lunch to give him enough time. Has a wife and children of his own of course ... so it has to be during the day. He kept on and on at me. What could I do? The male organ must be satisfied, that’s Tommy’s motto.’
Helen turned on us a wondering expression. ‘My husband knows ... the most charming people ... has the most charming friends.’
‘Tommy has genuine claims to distinction.’
‘Such as?’
‘He says he’s the only man in Northern Ireland to ride a woman with his nose.’

A provincial town will often betray itself by obsessive use of the word ‘city’. Here it featured in the titles of the soccer, rugby and golf clubs, in the widely-used sobriquet ‘Maiden City’ (‘Matron City’ would have been more accurate) and in the names of many local businesses - the tiny town centre had a City Hotel, a City Café and a City Picture House.
All these metropolitan aspirations were forgotten in the torpor of a damp October Saturday morning. The old buildings seemed to hunch defensively into themselves, as if to forestall any summons to awaken, and to shrink from the sky that turned above them, a turbulent kaleidoscope of grey. In contrast to the rigidity of everything below, the sky here changed ceaselessly, almost frenetically, and seemed at peace only when it achieved darkness and rain. Though today’s rain was also indecisive and vague. Every now and then a barely-perceptible drizzle would commence, the moisture appearing to emerge from pores in the air instead of falling from the clouds, and then as suddenly cease, like a tentative thought that can never progress.

Morelli’s was full of women shoppers tucking into banana longboats, knickerbocker glories and cream fingers heavily coated with sugar. The town’s tongue was acid but its tooth was sweet.
On the Journal’s front page the lead story was a report on the latest speech by the Lord Bishop. ‘In matters pertaining to domestic government,’ His Lordship informed us, ‘the wife is, as a rule, to yield. To claim for completely equal authority is to treat woman as man’s equal in a matter in which nature made them unequal.’ A swift scan of the female customers revealed no obvious desire to yield. And behind the counter Signora Morelli, a ferocious tiny woman with a perm tight and white as a cauliflower floret, was violently berating in Italian a big hapless sack of a man who slumped over the counter and hung his white head. Signor Morelli did not appear to have enjoyed his sojourn in the Maiden City.
Inside the front page The Question Box answered the tricky queries with which pseudo intellectuals love to goad the True Church. ‘Are there not too many relics of the True Cross?’ one such smart aleck enquired. ‘In fact enough to make over three hundred of the original?’ Rev. Bertrand L. Conway responded with impressive erudition: ‘In 1870 Rohault de Fleury made a careful study of all the relics and found that they would make two fifths of a cubic foot out of the six and five-eighths cubic feet of timber required for a full cross.’

‘Dominic’s a wild case altogether.’ Barry first shook his head, as though overcome by wonder but reluctant to share the evidence, then leaned close to chuckle confidingly, ‘He had a whole crowd of us in stitches the other day doin’ Doreen Tinney. Doreen’s a grand lookin’ big girl - but she has a wee bit of a lisp. So Dominic leans back with his eyes shut and goes, Ye’re not gonnay ttthhsquirt in me, Dominic, ttthhsure ye’re not now.’
‘What’s the secret of his success?’ In the end it was impossible not to ask. ‘Certainly can’t be his looks.’
‘He explained to me once. If ye tell women ye’re in love they cry and then ye can ride them.’ Barry chuckled, though with a touch of perplexity, as of one for whom this simple strategy had not been effective. ‘But you need the nerve as well. Another time he says to me, Ye need to walk right up and grab them by the lapels o’ the cunt.

Marie was unprepared for the impact of a contemporary department store. What she saw is now so commonplace that it is difficult to communicate her awe. But at that time she had never encountered the ‘walk around’ concept of open access. And hitherto women’s clothes had been in drab browns or greys or ladylike pastel shades. Now there stretched before her row upon row of racks ablaze with the new ‘heatwave’ colours - as though the vastness of the American prairies had been filled with the teeming brilliance of the tropics. Stranger still, this exotic plumage was cheap. The store lived up to the promise prominently displayed in the window: Fashions Ride High But The Prices Stay Low.
Marie lost her mind and ran about with wild broken cries, tearing open racks, yanking out and holding up items in a potentially limitless astonishment curtailed only by the sight of even more dazzling raiment further along. ‘Stay with me!’ she commanded in violent impatience, even though it was impossible to keep up with her darting zig-zags, as abrupt and disconcerting as those of a demented house fly.
After an hour of this madness she had bought a skinny-rib sweater, three blouses, two skirts and, at the blazing peak of frenzy, a minidress in glowing tangerine (most hectic of all the heatwave colours) with dramatically cut-away armholes and a circular keyhole on the back of the neck.

Like the Jesuits, sexual fetish seizes its innocent victims early and makes them its creatures for life. Formative experiences in the fifties had left me forever in thrall to stiletto heels, pencil-line sheath skirts and elasticated girdles. At our first meeting Marie was wearing all three, the girdle immediately apparent as we moved out to dance and, in ritual exploratory trespass, my left hand drifted down to rest at a point well below her waist (but not so low as to give the impression of blatantly feeling her ass). Most girls seized the transgressive hand and yanked it up with a furious ‘N ... O ... spells NO’ look - but Marie permitted it to remain so that, as we shuffled round to Brendan Bowyer’s crooning, I thrilled to the feel of the taut integument encircling her hips. The glory of girdles was the mixture of elasticity and stiffness, their creaky, arcane complexity, like the canvas and rigging of old sailing ships.

Today Barry was in a navy blue two-piece, of soft rich material that may well have been cashmere, set off by a blue shirt, a blue silk tie with red polka dots and, in his breast pocket, a handkerchief matching the tie. ‘Isn’t the handkerchief in the pocket a bit old-fashioned?’
‘A folded and pressed hanky looks like fuck all. The natty way to wear it is just roughly stuffed in.’ Abruptly he whipped out the accessory, crumpled it with stylish authority, like a stage magician prior to conjuring a dove, and shoved it back into the pocket, tugging out one of the loose ends to complete the casual effect. Then he chuckled delightedly - an awareness of the absurdity of contrived carelessness was an interesting part of the attitude.

Sexual captivation usually operates on a win-lose basis; homage to the new is at the expense of the old. But the current situation appeared to be miraculously win-win. My attraction to Helen enhanced desire for Marie - and Marie’s involvement with Neil seemed to have a similarly tonic effect. On Sunday mornings Marie and I would lie late and indulge in astonishingly-effective foreplay - discussing the shenanigans of the previous night. After one such intense engagement Marie made the sweetest remark I have ever received or am likely to receive. Now in late middle age and regrettably disposed to dismissiveness and disgust, I have only to recall her words then to know that I have been illuminated by glory. ‘Ah God that was lovely,’ she groaned, ‘I was sort of half coming for ages before I came.’

At a desk behind the counter Helen was poring over figures, her upper body leaning forward with intense concentration while her lower half twisted sideways to profit from the space by the side of the desk. For work she had remained in turquoise mode - a dark turquoise pleated skirt and a lighter turquoise blouse with a bow, the very panoply of dootsiness - and yet the sight was deeply affecting. Men are presumed to prefer frank or coy sexual display but infinitely more moving is unconscious absorption, the primal innocence of limbs and features concentrated on a task. Even when the tableau came to life it did not destroy the effect. With her left hand Helen abstractedly pushed her hair behind her ear, allowing the hand to linger on her head in enchanting absentmindedness. And then there was an exquisite final touch. The heel of her raised right shoe came away from the foot so that the shoe - a dootsie black court shoe with a small leather bow - was held only by the toes. Even the grim God of Calvin would have issued a sigh. My buried stone heart was exposed, melting, liquidly full - a cherry brandy liqueur chocolate on a warm open palm.

She had many of the conventional attributes of beauty - regular features, large liquid eyes, dimples, almost waist-length blond hair - and was fashionably dressed in one of the new tent-style mini dresses and high-heeled knee-length suede boots; on the chair behind her was a mini-length fun coat in which bands of black leather alternated with fake fur. And yet, as so often with career beauties, the effect was entirely unattractive. Perhaps it was her smirk of superiority and dismissiveness, her certainty of always creating an impression while never herself being impressed. This was an overpowering disincentive to acknowledging her charms. Beauty, like goodness, must never declare itself.

Marie understood that fashions change constantly and that the voluptuous female body must always need new forms of adornment – but what she could not accept was that voluptuousness itself could go out of fashion and large breasts become a dated vulgarity, an embarrassment. So she was suffering the agony of the fading exemplar who sees a popularity taken for granted slowly but surely ebbing away. In vain did I reassure her that, however tyrannical the fashion for paucity, there would always be secret admirers of plenitude.

Neil’s need to talk must have been intense (‘He was past himself,’ was how Marie put it) for the shop at this period was intimidatingly feminine. Not only were most of the clientele women but female cosmetic products and advertising dominated the display space. And Marie favoured the new assertive strain in marketing for women. On one wall, next to the counter, a placard showed lipsticks in ‘eight fabulous shades, any one of which could lick any man in the room’. On the opposite wall was a giant ad for false eyelashes in which the life-size head of a menacing blond with a white face, glistening pearly lips and cavernous dark eyes glowered at the waiting customer over the disturbing legend: Bring Back the Lash. (However it could have been worse for Neil because Colm O’Kane had ordered Marie to remove her favourite poster, the one which explained a dolly girl’s insouciant pout: Annabella isn’t wearing panties today. No! She has something much better. She’s wearing Charnos Hold-me-Tights).
Marie did not notice Neil until he was standing before her at the counter. ‘God save us!’
‘I had to see you,’ he whispered brokenly.
‘Colm’s in the back dispensary.’
‘I have to explain.’
‘We’re really busy now, Neil.’
‘But I have to explain.’
‘You don’t have to. It’s all right.’
‘It’s not all right at all,’ he hissed. ‘You don’t know what it’s like for me. You don’t know what it’s like to be mad about someone for ages ... and then when you get the chance not to be able to do anything. You just can’t imagine what a torture that is. To have a hard-on all the time except the one time you need it.’ He paused, bitter, distraught. ‘I get hard-ons for you all the time. Really ferocious ones.’ He paused again to master his dark drives. ‘I have a ferocious one now.’

Convention urged me to distract and reassure. ‘Still drivin’ the big Zodiac, Lexie?’
Immediately his pucker of concern relaxed. ‘Aye,’ he sighed with the local studied indifference to coveted possessions, achievements and status. Contentedly patting his pockets for fags, he gave a dismissive shrug. ‘Need the big boot ... and room in the back for the weans.’
‘She’d be sore on juice though?’
It was obvious that Lexie had never thought me capable of such insight and shrewdness. New respect flared in his canny eyes. ‘Drinks it.’

Mrs Nelis was another enigma, a bizarre blend of submissiveness and obduracy. She talked in a listless defeated tone and moved in an apologetic sidle, body held to one side and head averted and lowered, furtive eyes always sliding from contact like mercury globules from an importunate thumb. Yet she had a powerful will which she frequently imposed. A favourite strategy, immensely effective, was to appear to accept defeat when resisted and then, when the apparently-settled issue had been long since forgotten, suddenly return to the attack as though there had never been a debate, so that the opposition, appalled at the prospect of endless wrangling, would frequently yield with a sigh.
The Guinness saga was a perfect example. One of her axioms was that all male visitors must be given the Journal and a bottle of Guinness. After the first few visits I asked Marie to mention discreetly that I suffered from a deficiency shocking in a Paddy - I was not fond of bottled Guinness and would be happy to drink tea with the women. On the next visit Marie preempted her mother by saying, ‘No Guinness now, Mammy’, and indeed I was offered only tea. But on the occasion after that, when I was absorbed in a Journal report on the court appearance of an after-hours car-horn blower (Mr D.A.B. Lawler, defending: ‘Hagan is not one of those harum-scarum people’), I suddenly looked up to find pressed into my hand a bottle of stout already opened and partly poured into a glass.

Marie had a curious relation to truth. She was a chronic liar though totally honest. Her lies were attributable, not to her core personality, but to the difficulties of enjoying youth in a society where the generation gap was two centuries wide. With her peers she was shockingly frank but with anyone older or in a position of authority she lied glibly, instantly, almost unconsciously. Some of the whoppers she told her mother made my hair stand on end.

‘Aaaaaahhh ...’ Helen laid a tender hand on Marie’s sleeve. ‘Isn’t Rene just gorgeous?’
Marie rolled her eyes in a mock swoon. ‘A big dote.’ Then a sigh ... and a smothered laugh. ‘In fact I had a dream about him the other night.’ Again she laughed. ‘Too embarrassing to tell.’
This further inflamed a curiosity already fierce. Tribulations forgotten, Neil brought close to Marie a countenance avid, insistent, on fire. ‘Tell us. Tell us. Go on.’
‘Tell us,’ Helen demanded.
I too had yet to hear the story. ‘You’ll have to tell them.’
Marie pondered impishly, enjoying the attention. ‘All I can say is that I came in the dream.’
Already Helen was astounded. ‘Women can’t come in dreams.’
‘They do in mine,’ I said - but the Quinns were concentrating on Marie.
‘All I know is that it happened. And what’s so strange about that? It happens to men all the time.’
Neil shook his head in what appeared to be regret. ‘I’ve never had a wet dream in my life.’
Marie nodded in my direction. ‘Your man here has them all the time. Clatters me completely if he’s facing the wrong way.’
Still attempting to absorb the revelation of oneiric orgasm, Helen received a fresh shock. ‘You mean you don’t wear pyjamas?’ she cried at me. ‘Neil always wears jammies in bed.’
Calmly I shook my head. She continued to gaze on me in speculative wonder. ‘But what is it like?’ Neil was murmuring with empathic tenderness to Marie. ‘I mean, to come in a dream. Is it different?’
‘Different,’ she agreed, thinking hard. ‘In some ways better ... and in some ways worse.’
‘How ... better?’ No doubt Helen was feeling deprived.
‘Well ... because there’s nothing actually in there you feel it more ... really pulsing ... you know?’ Raising her right hand, Marie formed her fingers into a cone and made abrupt lunging grabs like those of a hungry snapping turtle.
‘And in what way worse?’ Helen again.
Marie’s expression was perfectly sober. ‘There’s nothing actually in there.’

Worshipfully he inclined his face to hers, presently taking hold of her shoulder the better to draw her close to him. After a time the hand on her shoulder dropped to her breast. Then he applied both hands to her blouse - but could not even undo the top button.
Marie observed his vain fumbling. ‘Speedy Gonzales.’
Neil began to look cross. ‘Fuck.’
Throwing back her head, Marie released to the ceiling a mischievous peal of merriment. Then she finally revealed the secret. ‘Those buttons don’t open. It’s sewn shut.’
Since the worn slack buttonholes had no longer been capable of restraining her abundance, the front of the blouse kept popping open and eventually Marie had to sew it shut.
‘Bitch!’ murmured Neil - but never was an insult uttered more fondly. Marie loosed off another wild peal. ‘How the fuck do ye get it off then?’
‘Like this.’ Marie suddenly stood up and, in a single lithe movement of startling fluency and speed, pulled the blouse out of her jeans, whipped it up over her head and flung it away across the room.

Unusually convivial and jocund myself, I described to the party my last major obligation for some time to come - the AGM of the City Golf Club this very Saturday morning. The annual accounts had been distributed to members and one peevishly demanded to know why expenditure on toilet rolls had doubled in a year.
‘So what did you tell him?’ Above exuberant bubbles mischievous light danced in Helen’s blue eyes.
‘That the members were obviously taking more roughage and we ought to applaud their new health consciousness.’ Her laughter was gratifyingly immoderate. ‘But I know what I should have said to the bastard.’ My calm impassive pause forced the question.
Helen looked in my eyes. ‘What?’
‘Because members like you are full of shite’

This was before the West of Ireland had attuned itself to the tourist trade. As yet it lacked restaurants with Seafood Symphony, Coffee Shops with carrot cake, municipal flower displays in old rowing boats, Heritage Trails, Venture Fun Parks with child-friendly environments and Famine Experience Interpretative Centres with multi-media displays. It was not that there was no change but that change was driven entirely by local concepts of sophistication. For the publican, this meant neon-fronted lounges with leatherette benches; for other services, the substitution wherever possible of K for C (The Kute Korner, The Kottage, The Kosy Kafé); for householders, white stucco bungalows with a panel of crazy paving on the front wall, glass animals on the mantelpiece and plastic fruit in the sideboard bowl.

The village offered a classic choice - Owney’s Dew Drop Inn, a temple of neon and leatherette, or the traditional austerity of the Ideal Bar. The clientele in the new lounge would probably have been nearer our age group - but the recent horror of the hotel made us favour the old. The latter establishment was so aptly titled it could well have been renamed the Platonic Ideal Bar. In its tiny wooden-framed window a prodigious litter of dead insects surrounded a pair of empty Guinness bottles symmetrically positioned on either side of a cardboard John Powers box as empty and bleached as one of the cattle skulls littering the strand. The interior had a dark wooden counter and wooden shelving with tiny compartments containing cardboard confectionery boxes, then a wooden partition and a door which led to a little bar where the only relief from sombre dark was a single high window of frosted glass and two brass signs nailed by the spirit bottles - Free Beer Tomorrow and No Bloody Swearing Please.

Like many of those who go into business, I intended to spend a few hectic years building a fortune and many relaxed years enjoying it. But, as so many of the many discover, the second part of the strategy may be more difficult than the first. To begin with, the pleasure of wealth accumulation is hugely addictive and the reasons for making money easily forgotten in the intoxication of the process. Then the trappings, acquired temporarily and perhaps even with contempt, are suddenly discovered to be indispensable. Finally, if the will to escape still survives there are children who have grown up accustomed to affluence but without the ability to provide it for themselves. Perhaps it is always so with deferment. One thing leads to another in a casual progression that seems as though it could at any time be effortlessly reversed. But when we try to retrace our steps the way back is lost or cut off. The path of least resistance leads to the point of no return.

We were both back in the past now, enchanted afresh by the rustles and slithers, the murmurs and sighs of ravishment, the dazzling effulgence of youth unveiled. Youth can never see itself - but how it blazes in retrospect! The dingy cramped bar, the late hour - time and location fell away. We had stumbled on paradise - the only paradise attainable, paradise lost. Certainly there is none in the future. No shining threshold beckons us to the light. Only darkness and silence lie beyond.