France on a field trip

France on a field trip

1984

March

On the night of their arrival in Paris, Quirke closed the door that led onto the dark balcony. Other boys were grabbing beds in the large room. The evening in the fourteenth was calm and quiet, with a spring chill. He gazed at the city lights and inhaled the foreign air. He listened to distant traffic. Hands on the railing, he peered down on an empty, inviting back street before looking around again. Nearby rose the beautiful bourgeois apartment blocks that surround Place Denfert-Rochereau. Beyond them lay Montparnasse and the neon of its cinemas.

As Quirke, CP and several of the girls on the trip walked down the boulevard there, two chancers appeared out of nowhere and spoke to a couple of the girls in perfect English. The casual, assured manner in which they did this took Quirke aback at first. Did they look like they were just off the boat? The girls were embarrassed and kept walking. CP was looking in windows. He hadn’t noticed. The women turned their heads away but persistence dragged some kind of answer, eventually. The pair took this as a sign of success and veered to the door of a bar but, on looking back, looked surprised to see everyone still walking. One of them held the door open a moment. Then they gave up and disappeared in the crowd.

Tina was the eldest, a mature student, but she was the one charged eight quid after foolishly ordering a gin and tonic in a bar. The rest of them settled for glasses of beer. An Arab band did a sound check. They had a dangerous-looking girl singer who stood near the door, signalling to the musicians. As the place filled up she went up to sing. They covered Baby Jane and her English wasn’t great. Some of the lines were gibberish.

The waiter who served their table seemed under pressure. A group of young Parisians sat in the corner, buying nothing, and he started to hassle them. One of them was almost too good-looking. She had a pair of expensive horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. She kept taking them off and putting them on again. She was only semi-vain.

The girls had duty-free bottles of spirits in their room back at the hostel but a mixer was in very short supply so they all stopped off at the hostel’s reception desk. Quirke was told to ask for Coke in French but the corporal on night duty wanted to know why. Tina mentioned “mixer” behind Quirke and he grasped that too but threw a little fit. No alcohol is allowed here. I will confiscate the bottle!

They said no more but withdrew to the room. The orange-walled corridors were very hot because the heating had been turned up to eleven. Tina opened a bottle of Bacardi and poured out six large measures. Whatever Coke they had left, the women got it. The boys drank the rum straight. Quirke was still a little wary of them, especially of dark-haired Ciara. He was sitting on the end of an empty bed and she reclined on an elbow on the one across from him. She looked a bit intense. She leaned her head on one shoulder but he relaxed a bit when she offered him a cigarette.

The spirits of the night were hurting in the morning. Breakfast was missed and it took the cleaners to rouse the boys. The group got on the bus again and the tour began. Down by the river cruise dock, a group of schoolgirls that had already come over to Quirke on the ferry happened to turn up at the same time. They started to wave and shout. “You’re big in France,” observed CP.

The cold breeze on the Seine made Quirke feel a bit better but he and CP sat huddled in their coats while a lot of the other field trippers leapt around, clicking their cameras, craning their necks and laughing like idiotic children. Spindly white human figures had been painted on some of the riverbank walls so he looked at them and at some pretty Italian girls who were also on the boat.

On the dust and dirt under the trees on the Champs Elysées, Tina asked Quirke the French for ‘Where is…’ so he told her and she went up to a cop. “Où est McDonalds?” The policeman shrugged. Quirke didn’t know about le McDo, which might have helped. He wasn’t in honours French, or any French, anymore. Quirke and CP got frankfurters from a stall instead. Quirke took one bite from the sausage, swallowed it, then threw the rest away and ate the bread roll.

In the afternoon he and CP slipped into the Jeu de Paume, almost by default, having grown bored sitting outside. The Impressionists were housed there in 1984 and they made for them because they hadn’t much time and those paintings were the most familiar. The number seemed endless as they walked up and down the varnished floor. The pictures that stood out most for them on that floor were Van Gogh’s Eglise à Auvers, five of Monet’s goes at the cathedral at Rouen, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Le Lit. “I like them too but we’d better go,” warned CP. Quirke made him wait a little longer, already thinking he should treasure this. It was an unexpected, accidental element to a drinking holiday.

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That evening the coach took them to Brittany, to a hotel outside Dinan. At dinner they got some long white blobs as the main course. Quirke asked a waitress what it was but he didn’t know the word she used. CP guessed it was octopus. It didn’t matter, there was bread and other bits and pieces and the hotel had a bar.

Nick Rhodes has reflected on the (real) video for Girls on Film by saying that if they had the chance again they would ease off on the porn. A strange French couple arrived that night with a tape the guy was anxious to put into the recorder under the lounge TV. The more sociable members of the Irish group already lounged there with their drinks. They watched him kneel and get it going. Among the dodgy cartoons and clips, the tape contained the chef d’oeuvre version of Girls on Film. Had the following phrase existed at the time it would have summed up the context-driven review. This is the sh*t.

In the morning, outlines of farm buildings could be made out less than a stone’s throw behind the hotel and a tractor engine was running in the cold fog. The bus was waiting. A quick purchase of jus d’orange for two in the bar was accomplished while CP took some left-over bread rolls from the dining room. Then they were away.

The professor had decided to split the party into small groups and one was dropped off in each town and village. Tina, Jess and Quirke were left in a village called Pleugueneuc. They had lunch in its one restaurant. Then the women didn’t want to do anything. They walked around the quiet village for a while before the girls told Quirke they were going to stay in the only bar, which was also the restaurant. He wasn’t really keen on bothering people either but he wanted to have something to relate at the seminar that evening.

There was a funeral in the afternoon. The church bell rang in the middle of the village and sombre people appeared silently out of doorways and side streets. He wandered off and came back to the church when the service was over. Groups of men were still standing in the churchyard. Quirke had sheets of paper with lists of products and animals in French and he approached one group to explain what he was doing there. One gruff old boy spotted donkeys on the list and jerked his thumbs at his chest. Des ânes? C’est nous.

Back in the bar, it was crowded with mourners, a lot of whom had red, peasant faces. The girls were sitting next to the mayor; a powerfully built, white-haired man in his sixties. The mayor asked Quirke the girls’ names. It turned out he was an ex-marine commando. His polite, relaxed, half-interested manner was a bit different from that of three Irish army thugs on the ferry, where the down-to-earth Jess, with the boyish hair, had wisely advised the boys not to wind them up. They’re on about communism. Just stay quiet. They’ll kill you.

When the bus came back, Ciara was lying on the back seat, in shock, having been attacked by an alsatian on a farm. The left-hand side of her face was cut and the earring had been torn from the lobe. She had bent down to pet the dog. The wife of the farmer sat her down in her kitchen and put some iodine on the cuts. To her it was an unfortunate nuisance. Quirke asked CP how his group had got on. Where they had been, le maire had received them in his nightshirt.

Back at the hotel Ciara was put to bed and a doctor was called. He tidied up her face and gave her a sedative for the night. She was given the next day off. At the seminar that evening Quirke watched a shy young man get so tongue-tied when delivering his report that he could not form whole words. It was uncomfortable but bizarrely fascinating. He seemed to be almost choking. This happened just as the rest were yawning and watching the time. Some were desperate to get to the bar.

A number of Iraqi pilots were also staying at the hotel. They were training at a nearby airbase. They carried bottles of whiskey around with them at night and liked to talk and share their drink. Every night their girls from the town and those Irish who stayed up into the early hours formed a strange kind of party set with them.

The bus meandered along the north coast the following day. It went through Dinard, which had been a haven for rich Brits in the nineteenth century. Their villas and mock chateaux remained on the heights above the town and the bay. When they reached St. Malo they walked around the damp, narrow streets of the walled old town.

In the afternoon they went to Mont St. Michel. The bus stopped on the causeway so those with cameras could get a vantage point. Some descended the bank to get a better picture. Quirke and CP went down too, to stretch their legs. A girl tried to squat at the mud’s edge to take a picture but she fell in. It was like a signal. The boys started to wrestle. CP was always a bit too beefy and awkward and, in trying to knock him in, snapped the remaining good arm of Quirke’s glasses. After calling him a f*cking this and a f*cking that, Quirke got some selloptape in one of the trinket shops up at the Mont.

FRANCE-HERITAGE-TOURISM

The trip’s chief interpreter, a postgrad, had a breakdown that night. Quirke had been talking to her at a dining table after the evening meal and when he stood up to leave she looked as if she was going to burst into tears. She’d been complaining about the lack of understanding the department had of the difficulties. They expected her to function like a computer and didn’t seem to grasp the bus driver was just a driver, he wasn’t an expert on the geography of Brittany.

Seven of the Iraqis left the next morning and their luggage was piled on the patio outside the front door. They were saying goodbye to the rest and all the faces were glum. The Irish were waiting for their bus at the time, in order to go to Rennes. No one needed an interpreter to get dropped off in the middle of Rennes. CP and Ciara had asked to be put with Tina, Jess and Quirke for the day. Their appointed task was to get some information on the regional bus services but the station corporal was a little bastard who ignored their existence, apart from throwing a few timetable sheets across the counter at Quirke. The girls took care of carrier bags of wine bottles, while CP had an idea and tried to copy a route map from a wall. Old women looked on sternly whenever bottles clinked or fell over, while some gorgeous little tarts hung around the photo booths.

Across the street in a craft shop, Quirke bought a black metal bracelet for Sharon, his first college girlfriend, his first any girlfriend. Another girl had bought the same bracelet for herself. On the bus back to Dinan, Tina turned and asked him if he’d bought Sharon a present.
“I just got her a bracelet, that’s all.”
It was wrapped in turquoise paper and he handed it over for inspection.
“Oh that’s really nice. It’s lovely.”
She handed it back and he smiled. The other buyer then turned and said,
“Yeah, I got one too.”
Half an hour later the latter called across to him.
“Hey Quirke, the black stuff is coming off mine.”

She had been scraping it with her fingernail. Quirke had a go at that too. She was right, it looked nice but it was shit. It was their last night at the hotel and CP’s map received great praise from the department. The Iraqis were walking around with whiskey again. Quirke had got to know one in particular. M. was a big, beaming young man with a broad moustache. They spoke a mixture of French and English. At home, long before, he’d been been taught English by an Irishman, a “Mister Ma-gow-an” who’d cried on his last day as he said goodbye to the class. M. also explained that they knew their women were in it for the money and the good time. Nonetheless the lads were far from home and had the money, so it didn’t matter. When Quirke eventually asked him about the war, in connection with the boys who had just left, he expressed natural regret but added that Saddam Hussein was a man who made no distinction between rich and poor, which was good enough reason for him to fight.

SADDAM AMERICAS VILLAIN

The interpreter had recovered enough to walk around in a bathrobe and she came up with the idea of a makeshift disco in the dining room. The tables were cleared away and the Iraqis had a pile of disco records which they were ready to put on once they had rigged up some kind of sound system. The professor wanted to keep the local women out of it, muttering something about impressionable girls being under his care. He went over towards the Iraqis and said, “Just keep your prostitutes out”, at which point Tina, Jess and Ciara were horrified, even though the Iraqis hadn’t understood his accent. They urged him to go over to Quirke and CP at the bar counter and ask them for a second opinion.

The two boys, both nineteen, explained to their professor that it would be taken as an awful insult. M. wanted to know if there was a problem but Quirke told him it would be OK. Don’t mind him. Il est fou. To prove it, he went over to the part of the bar where the French women had gathered defensively. Mesdames, vous êtes très, très bienvenues à entrer. After this enchanté moment that avoided a diplomatic incident, CP and Quirke were rewarded with extra whiskey from department funds.

On the way back to the boat at Le Havre they stopped in Bayeux, where Quirke skipped the tapestry to get a café ham sandwich from a kind old lady with an aggressive little dog. He told her it was their last day and she asked was he the bus driver. Vous êtes chauffeur? Non, étudiant.

In Le Havre they went into a hole of a truckers place before catching the ferry. The last things Quirke saw were the cliffs of chalk and the obelisk and the guiding lights of the harbour before the fog came in. None of them relished the boat journey. There was a storm at sea. The ship was heaving. In their cabins they tried to sleep but the storm and the sound of the engines acted in unison and, as the vessel rose and fell, Quirke twisted and turned and finally lay miserably still.

In the morning he felt a bit better, walking around the decks. The storm had gone. To him at least, it was regrettable to overhear English spoken again. His group decided against the greasy cafeteria with its hundreds of burgers heaped against greasy glass and instead went into the proper restaurant. The waiter recommended the beef so CP and Quirke took his word for it but it was raw. The women had more sense.

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The Stamp

The Stamp

Photo (c) Paris Match

A parable of Irish unity, with apologies to Félicien Marceau…

After spending two years behind a bank counter in Drogheda, his home town, Victor had just been transferred to Belfast for further training at head office. This meant he could be initiated into the secrets and all the other ins and outs of high finance. To all appearances he was a serious lad with a future and perfectly capable of one day becoming at least an assistant manager.

We don’t need to dwell on describing his happiness. Although he was, as we have said, a serious worker, capable and appreciated by his superiors, and therefore a person of some standing at just twenty-three, he had until now lived with his parents and, in some way, lived in their shadow. It wasn’t that he’d suffered from this arrangement. Besides, he loved his parents. As we’ve said more than once, he was a serious boy.

The cinema every Saturday and a café bar every Sunday afternoon, these were enough for him, socially. For the rest of his free time he spent all his evenings between his father and mother. In summer, he’d be on the doorstep chatting with the neighbours or looking at the cars that were going down to Dublin. In winter, he’d either be reading or arranging his stamp collection that was supplemented with the help of his uncle who was a driver on a bus that regularly crossed the border.

But in the end, of course, freedom is another thing altogether. On leaving Drogheda, Victor was still only a lad, overwhelmed with advice, woolly socks and vests. On his arrival in Belfast, under the big roof of Central Station, he was no longer a boy. Something of the adventurous soul of his uncle had just awoken in him. Proudly, he took a taxi, the first such trip on his own in his life. This taxi was the wave goodbye to his childhood.

The same day he busied himself with finding a studio. The first place he viewed didn’t please him. The owner clearly had a big mouth. The second didn’t tickle his fancy either. At three in the afternoon the owner was still in her bathrobe and, from Victor’s point of view, she looked like she wasn’t into keeping the building clean. He chose the third place he saw because there he was met only with indifference. Victor had already figured out that the indifference of others is linked to freedom.

His stuff put away, he went out, impatient to inspect the charms of Belfast. After a blip when he took the wrong bus that thankfully didn’t take him to any parts where his southern accent wouldn’t have been appreciated, he strolled along wide avenues, well built but otherwise undistinguished, and ate two sandwiches in a neutral city centre bar before returning to his new place.

His room was immersed in the night, in the silence. For a minute he missed the peaceful chit-chat of his mother and the outbursts of his father, a religious man who couldn’t read a newspaper without getting angry. This homesick feeling only lasted a moment, though. Lying on his narrow bed, he felt himself still lifted by the hubbub that had welcomed him when he left Central Station.

Eight days later, as soon as he had got to know his way around, he was in love. It’s a constant: free a man and he thinks of love. Until now, Victor had always shown himself shy around young women but the fluttering wings of freedom tend to lessen one’s timidity. At the bank he often joked with some of the female staff. They liked his southern accent and remarked on it. One of them told him she was going to a nightclub with some friends on Saturday.

There he made the acquaintance of a girl called Iris, a cousin of the fiancé of the lady who’d invited him along. Iris had dark hair and big dark eyes and her long lashes fluttered when she spoke in what he soon recognized as her sharp, assured manner. She spoke a lot but during their first dance, Victor complimented her eyes. Next it was her dress. By the third dance they were practically in love. She told him she didn’t drink but was learning the tango. In general, serious boys are made for the tango.

He suggested a visit to the cinema. “It’s an idea,” replied Iris, deliberately. Wednesday was fixed. Iris wore a lovely sandy coat with a wide belt; the film was funny; and she laughed. It relaxed the normal composure of her face. The next cinema visit took place on a Tuesday. Love is impatient.

Soon he was invited to meet her parents, out in Holywood. She said she’d told them about him and they wanted to meet him. He had almost a week to think about this visit. He loved Iris. They would get married. They would live happily ever after.

Both her parents were dressed in black on the day. The mother spoke more than the father, who was an accountant. It was a rainy afternoon and rather than go out anywhere they looked at photo albums. Mother and daughter talked about shared memories. The men said nothing. It would have been difficult for either to get a word in. By the end of the meeting, Victor had been invited back for dinner the next week.

When they got engaged, Iris’s father expressed a desire to get to know Victor’s parents. To that end, he requested that Victor ask his own father to write him a letter. To Victor it was just a tad formal, if not odd, but in a spirit of conciliation he said he’d take care of it. He sent a text about it to his father, adding, “These people are from the North, please humour them” and his father’s reply gave an immediate assurance on the matter.

The next time he called round, though, he was met with parental long faces. Iris herself was not to be seen.

“Your father wrote,” said Iris’s father.
“I know.”
“A very nice letter,” he continued.
“He’s very happy.”
“Mmm. So how is it, young man, that it came without a stamp?”

He held out the envelope, for which he’d evidently had to pay the postage.

“Oh. It’s a miracle it got here at all. Here, I’ll give you the price of it.”

The elder man lifted his hand to indicate stop.

“I’m not rich but nonetheless I can cover the postage.”

Embarrassed, Victor said “Of course” and then tried to explain that he only wanted to make up for the nuisance. The other man lifted his hand once more.

“It’s not about that. It’s more serious. I know the people of the South. When they don’t want something and they don’t want to say it, they write that they’re in agreement but they don’t bother with a stamp.”
“No stamp?”
“No stamp,” the other repeated gravely. “The way they look at it, a letter with no stamp doesn’t mean anything.”

The mother here interjected a quiet sob. Victor woke up.

“But that’s absurd. I’m from the South and I’ve never heard of that habit.”
“That does you credit, young man, but the habit is dishonest. When people disagree, it’s better to say it openly, like we do in the North.”
“That’s what my father would have done,” retorted Victor.
“Then why didn’t he put a stamp on this?”
“He must have forgotten.”
“Forgotten? For a letter of such importance?”
“Or else the stamp fell off.”
“Young man, I’m fifty-three. There are two things I no longer believe in. Letters that get lost and stamps that fall off.”
“But suppose he did forget the stamp. His letter remains the same.”
“No, that changes everything. He doesn’t want to be involved. The people of the South are like that.”
“What if he writes you another letter? With a stamp, of course.”
“The message remains the same,” came the solemn reply.

Then the mother intervened. Allowing for her husband’s feelings, she still suggested that a new letter just might make for a new start. In this way she talked her husband into agreeing with a few silent nods. Then Iris made an appearance and she and Victor went out for a walk. When Iris observed that a stamp cost very little, Victor got angry and so they parted on rather bad terms. When he got home, though, Victor immediately got in touch with his father.

Unfortunately Victor’s father was one of those men who are happiest when life gives them an excuse to get up on a high horse and wrap themselves in their pride. He wanted to know what right people in the North had to suspect the integrity of people in the South. Moreover he was sure he hadn’t forgotten the stamp and thought it must have fallen off. Anyway, he had written once and he wouldn’t give his honest opinion twice. His dignity forbade it.

Victor began to be worried. He pleaded with his father to write again and, in the meantime, assured his prospective father-in-law that the new letter was on its way. The latter remained quietly sceptical, while Iris just became sarcastic about the price of a stamp and how busy Victor’s father had to be, given the delay with this second letter.

Victor was beginning to be turned off. He thought of writing to the letters page of the Irish Times to ask if anyone knew of a tradition in the South of omitting a stamp to convey displeasure. There was no immediate feedback and still no second letter. The next time he visited his parents he found his father still put out over it.

“These people up North, I know them. He doesn’t want you to marry his daughter. He’s only looking for an excuse.”
“If he hadn’t wanted it, he’d have told me.”
“Is that what you believe? Anyway, I wonder if it wasn’t a sign. You’d be unhappy with people like that.”
“It’s not the father I’m marrying. It’s the daughter. And he only wants a letter.”
“He got his letter.”
“But without a stamp. He thinks it’s a slippery custom down here.”

Then Victor had a brainwave. He posed the hypothetical situation that the other father hadn’t received the letter. When his own protested that he had, Victor pointed out that he didn’t know that, as there had been no reply. In that light, it wouldn’t be undignified to send the same letter again, on the presumption of the loss of the first one. Grumbling at first, his father agreed, secretly pleased by the astuteness of his son. He wrote another letter and this time it got posted with two stamps affixed.

In Holywood, Iris opened the door to Victor without any obvious show of warmth or tenderness. Her father then appeared with a copy of the Irish Times in his hand. He was upset.

“You have me insulted in the press now.”

He showed Victor the letters page. Somebody had finally replied, basically urging Victor to tell his future father-in-law that he was an ass and insisting that there was no such custom in the South as had been proposed.

“But sir, if you’d read my letter, you’d have seen it was completely respectful.”
“And this reply? Who provoked this reply? I’m an ass. In the paper. Me.”
“Nobody will know it’s you.”
I’ll know. Now you’d better leave, young man.”

Iris went to the window and looked out on the street.

“Iris…,” said Victor.

She didn’t even turn around. There would be no wedding. A year later, back in Drogheda, Victor married a local girl who was nice, voluptuous and not inclined to lay down the law. At the reception, his father leaned over to him at the top table.

“No need of a stamp here, eh?”

Victor smiled. For a moment he heard the sharp voice of Iris. No, he wouldn’t have been happy with them but that destiny wasn’t meant to be.

Journey to the End of the Bed

Journey to the End of the Bed

London

1989

The flat was like a menagerie. Quirke looked up from Viz and saw the furniture couldn’t seat everyone present. He was squashed in at the kitchen end of the couch, up against a conversation driven by Terry, a harmless goblin leaning forward from an armchair between the couch and the kitchen doorway. Terry had come on a scooter. It was one of his periodic visits to W10 to collect his post. His scuffed white helmet lay at his feet. Up against Quirke sat Dec, blond in a brown tweed jacket. At Dec’s feet lay a matching brown timber box that contained his bagpipes.

Dec and Terry were talking about taxis. In fact, Terry was raving about them and he’d been doing this for an hour since Dec had mentioned the subject. Terry’s brother drove a black cab and it seemed Terry’s ambition in life was to drive one too. The rigorous requirements for a black cab licence might have meant an interesting ten minutes but the monologue on The Knowledge was unbroken and unending, apart a brief blip when Quirke sniggered at something in Roger Mellie. Dec thought he was laughing at Terry, while Terry was unsure but he wasn’t going to be put off that easily.

Rogermellie

Behind the armchair in which Terry sat, the steamy doorway and the hissing and bubbling indicated Simon was still monitoring the dinner in a tiny kitchen with red floor tiles. Simon had been the only one in the flat when Quirke got there after dark that evening, the first of February. On hearing the buzzer pressed, out on the street, he answered through the intercom. Then he opened the front door by a switch on the wall and appeared in the doorway of the ground floor flat. Quirke transferred his holdall to his left shoulder with a final effort.

The bare concrete floor of the common hall was scattered with junk mail and a phone book or two. I’m sorry about the mess. Most of it belongs to upstairs. Simon then led him through a carpeted tunnel, past a couple of bedroom doors, a bathroom door and a broom closet. Down a step, the living room had a battered couch flanked by a pair of armchairs. They were arranged in a rough line by the inner wall, on the left. A velvety brown, extendable armchair, shaped a bit like a dentist’s chair, sat by a window on the right. Outside the window, in the dark, lay a small, enclosed patch of concrete. That’s the patio.

Simon paused his dinner preparations in order to make the new arrival a mug of coffee. Quirke dropped the bag and sat down. He expected to feel a bit bewildered for a few days. The television and VCR sat at torso height between the window and the first doorway. A dusty stereo sat underneath it, on the lower shelf of the stand. Simon asked him what his plans were. At twenty-four, Quirke intended never having no money again. He also intended taking no more shit. Those were his twin resolutions.

“I’ll see if I can get an office job and avoid the sites,” he ventured.
“The sites are a trap,” was all Simon observed.

One by one, the other people came. In the crowded room, farther up the couch, sat Chris, barefoot in a tracksuit, reading the Independent. An ex-policeman, he was working as a crane driver in Watford. Just before he’d left for London, he’d turned to Quirke in a bar, on his last day at home, a hot day in June. The calendar suggested it was only months before.

“Will you travel with me?”
He was by no means the first to ask. Maybe people were trying to tell him something.
“What?”
“I’ll be on the boat tonight. Will you come?”
“Ah…”
“I have money, if you need it, if that’s all that’s stopping you.”
“Ah no, I don’t want to.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sorry.”
“You’re sure? What’s keeping you here?”
“Sorry, Chris, I just don’t want to go over there.”

He wasn’t ready then but it was only a matter of time before a change of speed and a change of scene. Instead, the next day he’d merely headed home, down the country, on a packed bus with the hot sun shining in the windows. Wrecked and flat broke, as usual. Nothing changed. Sweating, unshaven, he thought he must have looked like a junkie, if anyone noticed.

A young woman with green eyes and dark red hair sat on the remaining armchair, in a long cream skirt and a soft green turtle neck. She was talking to an eleven-year-old girl who stood in front of her. The child was one of the offspring of Irish parents who lived in the flat upstairs. It seemed this kid often came down, away from a family of headcases, to talk to this girl, whom she looked up to and who listened to her and gave her some of her time.

The child had approached Quirke earlier, when the room was not quite so crowded, to say she’d heard about him coming and that he was the one who would be staying for a week, to find his feet. She said Kim had told her that. The timescale was the first economy with the truth. In his letter he’d said he wanted to stay there for a week, alright, but Quirke had only ninety quid in his pocket so he wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry.

A voluptuous thoroughbred, Kim hadn’t yet acknowledged Quirke except for a bare hello and a fleeting smile when she got home from the office. There were only two bedrooms in the flat. She and Simon had one and Chris had the other. Quirke’s eyes fell upon the chair like a dentist’s by the window. So this was truly his best option when it came to London addresses? Then Simon produced the first big English dinner of meat pie, cauliflower and potatoes. He knew how to work the wonky grill.

As Quirke reclined in his sleeping bag on the dental chair in the early hours, the only light came in a glare from a streetlight through the window of the living room. All it really needed was the faint sound of jazz but nearby Dec was lying on the floor, reciting one of his poems. He was proud of the line “Vivaldi plays on hired contraption” and that stuck in Quirke’s head by virtue of the contrast with the records playing upstairs.

The room was hot because the tenants were in the habit of leaving the radiators on all night. This only added to the claustrophobia. Dec had a stately squat in Greenwich in which he left an electric heater on twenty-four hours a day but it was a bit lonely so that was how they both happened to be crashing in the living room. The glare and the heat helped keep them awake. The window was open almost a foot. Quirke wasn’t too keen on sleep either because bad old dreams were coming back. Dec kept talking and Quirke was trying to keep his head together between anxiety and a peculiar sense of exhilaration. He had never been to London before. He had no money, no work and just a chair to sleep on.

Help was sure to come in the form of Richard, whom he was due to meet at the weekend. The girl whose existence had crept up on him like a tropical disease was in bed with another man at the same address but he had this good-humoured headcase right beside him, reciting verses. Vivaldi plays on hired contraption. Instead of Vivaldi, the music they had to listen to consisted of Doris Day records. The child’s parents were having a party upstairs and shouting voices could be heard erupting intermittently, over Doris. If it meant he really had to listen, then Quirke waited for Move Over Darling.

He slept on and off and had the dreams. You don’t want me, says she. I don’t want you, she means. He slept alone on the chair in the flat during the day too and had the same helpless hallucination.

Friday night they all went out, to Club Dog in the George Robey in Finsbury Park. A black and white film of the Eastern Front ran backwards silently on a screen in a corner. Two chaps were meanwhile moving around through the crowd with woks upturned on their heads, each drumming on the other’s wok helmet, each with a pair of chopsticks, incessantly chopping, chopping. Feeling the surge of a silent rage, Quirke glanced at her and thought she only made him despise himself, resurrecting his weakness, his impotence. Yet he intended to make it there, if he could keep at least a part of his head together.

With Richard, Quirke was stuck in Bethnal Green Tube station on Sunday morning. Some old geezer was leaning out of another carriage, roaring permutations of the same pair of points. The first was a general sort of query.

“What the fark is wrung eah?”
How was anybody on the train expected to know? Quirke and all the rest could nonetheless agree with his other repeated remark.
“Get this farking tube moving!!”

It was hot; the tube was packed, for some reason; people were standing, holding the bars; but at least the doors were open. Finally, when he was standing on the platform, the geezer roared at the train again.

“Fark this, I’m farking off!!”
It was only then that a younger, deeper voice rolled out from another carriage.
“Do us oll a fayvah!”

Richard’s energy was at least in part the result of a worse trauma than Quirke’s, though similar in nature to it. This white-haired Irish boy had been blindsided by a sudden, deathly revelation of unhappiness and hadn’t even had the time for anxiety, as he’d moved his stuff out in a daze the next day. The rest of it was natural roguery. The night before, he’d brought Quirke to meet his friend Kevin in the St. James Tavern on Shaftesbury Avenue.

1

The bar was a ring in the middle of a timber floor. A tall young man with long hair and a long coat walked up to the newcomer.

“I hear you like poetry.”
That had evidently been Richard’s effort at establishing some sort of context. Quirke shook his hand.
“Eh, yeah, I do.”

Just to be polite. Quirke liked some poetry but usually the chopped-up prose, like most “Poems on the Underground”, would make him curse under his breath. There was more poetry to be found in the Socialist Worker. Nonetheless it was safe to say that he and Kevin hit it off immediately and on Sunday night the three of them went to Covent Garden, to the Punch and Judy, where Quirke looked around him. This city wasn’t like being in any particular country, with the mix of cultures and the lingering looks from the Nubian queens and the lip-licking blondes. Quirke thought he could blossom there, maybe. It would be like life in the afterlife.

Soon, though, he was afraid. Afraid of no exit. Afraid of being heard calling out a name in his sleep. In the daytime he slept for an hour on the dental chair in an empty flat and the siege lifted. Next he helped Dec bring his gear to Heathrow. With Dec was a curvy and quite attractive Irish girl called Liz. Quirke wasn’t sure what her presence meant. Dec had come back to the flat to borrow luggage. When he left the living room to struggle to zip up cases in a bedroom, she sat up and put her hands on her knees and told Quirke she was really into guys who wore glasses.

Quirke pushed his own up on his nose. This was a bit intense – he’d only just got there – but he made no intelligible comment. Then the three of them went to the airport. Dec got on a plane home to Ireland and the other two went to an airport bar. Quirke asked for her phone number after she bought him lunch and a few pints. Liz gave Quirke a work number. She wrote it down for him. She said she presumed he wouldn’t lose it.

A beautiful but overweight young blonde across the bar looked to be under pressure. She wasn’t listening to the conversation at her table. Dressed in black, her body was on the no-brain side of the erotic-aesthetic continuum. In other words, the gorgeous, sophisticated head and the flabby, asset-rich figure were incongruous. The others there looked like stubbly musicians or media types but they might just as well have been film caterers.

Back in the flat, the heavily scented bathroom had a noisy ventilator. Windowless, the enclosed space intensified the claustrophobia. The most vital things to have in London seemed to be a Tube pass and a phone card. There was a faint smell of burning rubber down the Tube and sometimes he liked it, at least when it and the distant echoes smacked of anticipation and a chance for observation, but it was more important to have money for the caff. Always conscious of trying to get used to everything, Quirke didn’t even know what he was doing with the girl’s number. Simon mentioned that she already had a boyfriend but then he just shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

Richard brought him to the Brahms and Liszt wine bar cavern in Covent Garden. He couldn’t see anything in the crowd under the brick arches but he just stood there patiently, sipping red plonk, listening to the band and watching his friend and Kevin get in among the girls on the dance floor. Richard had promised to go to a party later.

In a crowded Battersea kitchen, Richard introduced him to Rachel, who sat on a high stool by the worktop. The look was vaguely Molly Ringwald, vaguely Mimi Rogers and she was immediately friendly. He was soon talking easily with her, at least until she discreetly beckoned to his friend to come back, whereupon Quirke didn’t want to be a gooseberry and slipped out of the kitchen.

The stereo was playing low. He put on Funny How Love Is and decided he felt as forsaken as a leading man in the Bible, namely Job. Playing the song over and over, he was the only one up and he had a nervous hangover, sitting in an armchair and looking up at the grey window and a Battersea morning. He was sad but again somehow felt inspired by revelation that there was no more mystery or hope. Back in W10, the divinity was sleeping in another room.

Some site beckoned to Quirke inevitably when no office job worth even ten grand looked on the cards. Up in the Portobello Road market to look for work boots, he couldn’t find any. The market stank of rotting fruit and vegetables in the evenings as old people and pigeons searched through the rubbish, when men and birds mingled as equals. He was in the grip of a cold by then. His cheap shoes burned the soles of his feet. He was running out of excuses. He couldn’t control his moods. He asked himself was it even a neurosis. Playing The Cure’s The Head on the Door on the old stereo, he, too, felt, like the last track, that he was sinking.

Through a feverish night he couldn’t think straight. He didn’t know what to think. He went down to Hammersmith and bought insoles. For a whole day at least, he felt he was having a nervous breakdown but the next he finished a story he called The Retrial, along the theme of the sleeping beauty.

https://johnflynn64travel.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/the-retrial/

Richard then got him a job with a rough Irish crew on a site near Mile End, to start Monday. That much was settled then. He’d been warned often enough at home to stay away from the Irish, that they were the worst, but he had to start somewhere. He found a pair of old boots in the broom closet, not knowing they would practically cut the feet off him.

His sinuses felt chronic. He just couldn’t shake his illness. Varieties of the common cold seemed to have grown more virulent. Then he let himself be trapped on the patio during a party in the flat. She admitted her unease, when he asked. She said she hadn’t meant to hurt him. He just told her to be herself. He told her to do what she wanted. The night air looked clear. He was out, so to speak. But at least she’d talked to him more like the way she used to. He then got drunk and started mumbling about politics, this time to a thoughtful, teetotal Glasgow Rangers fan who was the last person who’d have wanted to hear his thoughts on Irish freedom.

The worst thing about the first day of work was the old theme of people being strange. Quirke just wanted to be left alone to vegetate, down in the basement, pulling nails out of boards with a nail bar, which wasn’t exactly doing the business. The thought of each thirty-five quid was the main thing to get him through each day. Obviously, but it was a nice figure.

The competing IRA and SAS graffiti had to fight for space with inscriptions outlining the regional rivalries of Britain. Quirke was making a list in his head of ethnic occupations he’d already noticed in London: Irish (building sites, pubs); Asians (small shops); Italians (cafés); blacks (low-paid public service jobs).

He studied the magnificence of cranes. Tower cranes. He watched fist-thumped tables in the climax of card games in canteen huts. They broke a table two days into the week. It just couldn’t take any more punishment. As the week wore on, at break times Quirke sat resting his cut feet in a hut mostly populated by the English. He found them more interesting – less depressing – to listen to than the Irish. They didn’t ask each other if they’d ever played GAA in Drumcolloher, for instance.

Not long after midnight, on the dental chair, he was having a coughing fit when he was sure he could hear the rhythmic sound of a bed creaking in another room. Each breast must have felt the rhythm of the bed creaks, resurrecting his weakness until they’d had all they could take. Little miss loves it. Let me eat cake. It was friction for a wound to weep. He was too wound up to sleep. Then the coughing ceased. Influenced by the bad thoughts of fatigue and work in the morning, he became possessed by an idea of mindless cruelty, of a child who disregarded the consequences of her actions as of nature. Well, when he thought the creaking had stopped, he coughed a few more times before finally falling asleep.

Just when the morning fry-up had begun to be the highlight of his working day, though, Quirke got the boot. Nine in all were let go at the end of the week but at least he got almost one hundred and ninety quid for his trouble. It reminded him a bit of a good old grant day. To change the cheque, he had to go up to the Archway Tavern at the western end of the Holloway Road, where a hand took four quid out of it, appearing and disappearing through a small hatch. Whatever happens he wasn’t going back to Ireland, running back into the arms of the dole. The day was mild and, wanting to have more of a look around, he took his time and walked all the way down the Holloway Road with his money in his pockets. With the fingers of his right hand he rubbed some compact pound coins together, while the left felt the small wad of notes in the other pocket.

This was the way Quirke remembered being born. He was on the edge of a cliff or some other precarious height before he was cast down by some sudden, irresistible, invisible force. He zoomed downward but just before he hit the ground the flight stopped suddenly and he landed and survived. The strain of the pain, the pain of the strain on his neck was always there, in the dream. At other times he dreamt his head was stuck to his shoulder. Thirty-six hours it lasted, originally. To that day he’d found it hard to get a hat to fit him.

Kim didn’t go to the office on Monday. After dropping his laundry in for a service wash at Ladbroke Grove, Quirke wandered up Portobello Road and bought a Triffids tape, Calenture.

In the daytime, Portobello smelled of hippie veggie and exotic foods, where English was like a minority language behind the likes of Polish and Spanish. So many beautiful women went to and fro. When he got back to the flat, she sat on the edge of an armchair and told him he was freaking her out.

“You’re the most selfish person I know. Not selfish in small, everyday things, but in an emotional sense.”

She had a point. His own happiness was evidently more important to him than hers – he was in her place – but the eventual detachment that allows people to think of someone else’s welfare first, if necessary, also allows them to think of the right kind of person for that regard.

She asked him to stop using her. Who’d been using whom, he wondered. Why couldn’t she have just left me alone?

Prick_up_your_ears

They watched Prick Up Your Ears on video in the afternoon, alone in the flat together, talking to what real purpose? If she saw a monster in him then he’d let her feel its power. He was freaking her out.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.
“You mean, what’s my goal?”
“Yeah.”
“Out of here, that’s my goal.”

She didn’t go to work the next day either. He had to be a model prisoner. It was the agony in the box garden. They watched Scanners, with the bad psychics exploding the others’ heads. It was like what he’d been doing to her since he’d got there. He thought of making a joke about that but decided against it.

scannershed

Simon said he’d try to get Quirke a job on one of the sites where the company he worked for, in a white collar, was one of the names on the billboards. The site in question was an office block called Beaufort House, on the site of the old P&O building beside Petticoat Lane. Quirke asked about the firm that owed Simon a favour and he said they were English, dry-liners, from Nottingham. Shoes would suffice indoors, it was good to hear, as he still picked scabs off his feet after the old boots.

On the first of March, Quirke took a tube to Liverpool Street to meet Simon for lunch and discuss it further. Quirke said he’d do it for a few weeks, to get on his feet. Raising his eyes as far as the end of the carriage on the tube back, he fixed upon a striking, dark young woman, dressed to match, standing at the other end. Then he noticed she was really stacked, in black. Then he saw she was Maria Whittaker. Then she got off.

His first celebrity had been spotted, the reigning queen of page three. Stardom seemed more tangible, more real around London, in the shadow of the stars. It waved itself under a person’s nose. He longed to thump his fist on the table at home and say, “I told you I could do it!” If visions of world destruction were characteristic of schizophrenia, then, in a world of fifty thousand warheads, he just assumed the conditions were there for mass psychosis. Quirke’s proposed solution was to pick a subculture and make it within that.

Mile End had been a dirty site. This one was merely dusty. More than that, it was surreal. The lifts caused chaos, breaking down or meeting trolley gridlock at the groaning doors on every floor. He didn’t know how anything got done but it was nice to be able to look out from a high floor and see the city without cars or people. The soundproof windows presented a silent skyline. The greyness made him think of the Sixties but he wished it was Paris or Rome.

He wondered was it always going to be a dawdle but of course the very next day was hard, with lots of deliveries. Quirke nearly did serious damage to an old chap when the weight of a wheel made a hole and he allowed a trolley of plasterboards to go over the side of a wooden ramp, down on the basement-like ground floor. It was his teenage colleague, Martin, who shouted a warning just in time but all trolleys tipped over, all floorboards broke.

Pushing another trolley of boards, Plug the ganger and his nephew Martin managed to detach the water pipe to the portable toilet cabins, thus flooding a large part of the same floor. Martin was only seventeen. The site was full of pretty boys but this lad had a snaky, zigzag scar down one side of his face. He told Quirke he’d got it when he “went under” a car at home in Dublin. The Geordies with the firm nicknamed Quirke “Shadwell” after Rob Brydon’s Welsh caricature on Naked Video. It was because he wore an old pair of glasses held together by masking tape, to save his good pair. The tape only made him look like another headcase.

Chris and Simon went out on Saturday night but, just to do something different, he didn’t join them. Neither did Kim. She wasn’t much of a drinker. Even in their short time together she’d let him go to the pub on his own more often than not. They sat watching TV and, clean and properly bespectacled, he drank a bottle of whiskey. Kim gave him a bottle of Southern Comfort she didn’t want. She looked at him after it and said she hadn’t thought he’d be able to drink it but he had, with enough of a mixer mixed in, admittedly. She watched him walk from the living room. She reluctantly acknowledged his composure, even though he’d become too skinny for her, for one thing. Plus he drank too much. But she was young and Irish too and she never told him to stop it.

Back on the job, skin irritation grew from rock wool, gypsum and general dust but at quarter to five he was thinking that when he looked out from a gathering in a hotel suite on such a high floor, then he’d have made it. Then Martin then started throwing things at him, just for a laugh, and they very nearly came to blows but in the event merely came to pushing. The kid didn’t understand how irritating it was to Quirke, that schoolboy rough stuff. It upset his mellow late afternoon. Maybe it was just fatigue that made him react so quickly but, anyway, he apologised the next day. He had to work here. At least Martin didn’t throw anything at him again. To pass the time in the afternoon the two of them then sneaked into the finished marble halls in the centre of the block and invented a new sport – racing the lifts up and down the floors.

A new girl then turned up in the flat, to make them five. Eileen knew Simon. She looked all right: slender with bright brown eyes. She started to sing along with Love Street on a Doors tape. She held the tune. Quirke liked that. His inner turbulence subsided a little. Many ideas came to him before going to sleep. He thought he had a novel in him, a green liquid circulating in genesis, as in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.

In the meantime he roughly broke the corners off nine heavy, pink, fire-line boards and discovered that he and Martin had damaged a load of thin pipes covered in special paint by flinging them aside in a heap. They had been told to shift them out of the way and they had done this task while it noisily pissed down outside. The clang of the pipes had peppered the dull roar of the rain.

He skived off twice, another day, for six pints in total. He’d been working on a quiet floor with two Tonys when one of them mentioned St. Patrick’s Day and asked if he had any plans for the night. Then the other revealed that he wanted a pint right then, so the trio slipped away to the Archers. Of these two Tonys, the London one had a ponytail and was rather quiet, while the Leeds one said the only people he’d ever met who were like him were people from Leeds. He also wondered why he was bothering nailing up plaster boards when he had an order from Leeds for 4,000 E’s, if he wanted to fulfil it.

The second skive was with Plug, who claimed to have been the driver for some stick-up artists at home in north Dublin, where they had to share the proceeds with the IRA.

On Saturday afternoon, Quirke went up the Portobello Road to buy a Roy Orbison compilation, in honour of a man who’d recently died for joy at being back in fashion. There he ran into Eileen so they went for a few drinks. They sat in the Elgin in Ladbroke Grove with the sun in the windows above their heads and the fruit machines blinking, across the carpet. She confidentially claimed Simon had told Chris he was trying to get away from Kim. It was a twist but he decided not to swallow that one right away. It was inconceivable. He swallowed his drink instead.

In the night, though, thanks to some crossed wires about where people were meant to be meeting, it transpired that just he and Kim met in the Lonsdale, near the top of Portobello Road. There they had a couple of drinks before going down later to Shepherds Bush to catch up with the others. They sat at a table in the large porch beside the beer garden. Somehow they did love each other. Even though, as the Man said, It’s Over. When, for effect, he said he needed a good f*ck, Kim told him he needed to make love. Her suggestion was impractical, his suggestive, but the fact that his talk seemed to make her happy for the evening, which seemed to be her maximum, gave him a strange if fleeting feeling of gladness.

If Chris was going to persist with Eileen after that weekend, though, Quirke knew it would be yet another dangerous liaison for him to consider when manoeuvring to preserve and advance his position; to preserve, protect and defend his constitution. A third girl had turned up in the flat, to make them six and to crash either on the couch or the floor of the living room. Katie knew Kim. Katie’s temporary occupation consisted of hanging around the Shepherds Bush TV studios, waiting to be called in as an audience member for Kilroy Silk, where she could look solemn and interested in what other people were saying, at least until her face got too familiar in the crowd.

A new Dublin kid on site, Robbie, seemed a bit of a nutter. He lifted weights and did press-ups on the job. He was hyper. He and Martin soon crossed words up on a scaffolding tower and Quirke saw how natural such aggravation was to them. He wondered about what kind of selection of criminals had come over. They were like wild animals.

After spending enough time in the Archers, Quirke realized the EastEnders soap was real but he found he couldn’t cash one of his cheques there after an ingenious little scam had come to the attention of the staff. There was a loch of water in the cigarette machine. The usual transaction toll was a fiver from each cheque but, for any and every dud, there proved to be a more constant source of annoyance for the governor in the form of bits of ice frozen in the shape of fifty-pence pieces and dropped into the money slot, to melt at the bottom. He never caught anyone so he had to impose a sort of collective punishment.

Eileen then made a cuckoo move into Chris’s room so she got more threatening. Quirke wasn’t averse to firing a shot across her bows because she had a neck as long as her arm but she’d only have been a scapegoat. It was only the hassle of chess. He needed success quick, he felt, but then Chris turned around and informed Kim that a Scottish blonde was moving in, that he was moving her in. He gave Eileen no explanation except to serve notice in advance of a return to the living room. Simon put his hands to his face and observed that this was all getting out of hand.

Quirke retreated to a bench in the park. His life had consisted of college, dole and unreal jobs, as opposed to having a ‘real’ job. Once upon a time in Ireland it had been possible to have a ball if you got into a college – presuming you could lay your hands on a few quid for a drink – because with a degree you could walk into a job afterwards. That’s if you were lucky in that, economically, you got on one of those last choppers out of the Sixties. In the Eighties, in contrast, student types thought they might as well enjoy it too, prolong it as long as they could, because there were no jobs outside, unless one had pull or had earned a first. Thus college, dole and ‘unreal’ jobs kept the rest going before they left the country.

There were now candles in the bathroom to be lit for the sacred rites after Chris had dried his hair too vigorously with a towel and smashed the light fitting in the ceiling. While the sturdy ventilator was still booming, no one inside could hear a thing from the rest of the flat, no matter what was being said about him or her. While Quirke was newly clean and resting briefly in the dark on Chris’s bed, though, someone might have advised Kim not to talk so loudly when the living room window was open, across the patio. When she in turn went for a bath, he and Katie started bitching in return but later, with just the two of them there, his hostility melted away again and he tried to reach out, to help calm her evident distress. He didn’t like to see her in visible distress.

While Quirke was waiting for Chris to get out of the bath the next evening, Katie came back from a venture out of the flat and sheepishly confessed to Eileen that she’d got her card swallowed at an ATM, after Eileen had given it to her in a manner of lending her a few quid.

“How did you manage that?”
“I, eh, got the number mixed up, or something. I…”
“I told you to write it down.”
“I…”
“You just kept pushing buttons, didn’t you?”

Three strikes and you were out. Buttons were being pushed all over. Kim got up off the couch without a word and squeezed into the kitchen to see how Simon was getting on with the steamy dinner. Katie then turned to Quirke, as if for support or sympathy, but got none.

“That wasn’t the brightest thing to do, now, was it?” he shrugged.
She turned back to the exasperated Eileen, who had her head and her hair in her hands.
“I’m sorry.”
“Jesus,” she sighed. “Do you know what a nuisance you’ve caused me, now that I have to go and get that back?”
“I’m sorry.”
“Jesus.”

Then Simon got even more stressed, collapsing at work but managing to gasp Kim’s name and work number to his colleagues. He had to have his appendix out. The day was unusually warm when Quirke walked up towards the Harrow Road to visit him in hospital. In his pyjamas, the patient described the post-op pain, of being unable to speak, while lying at night in a shady corridor, on a trolley, silent and helpless. He’d managed to lift his arm a little but it only fell back again. The heat of the day was like summer, deadening. Tell me about it, thought Quirke, as he looked out over the grounds via the nearest window. At least Simon was out of the flat for a few days.

The job was a dangerous joke at times. Martin opened up on him with a fire extinguisher in the plant room, up on the roof. He could have fried them both, apart from causing millions of pounds worth of damage. That was the verdict of the suits that later appeared up there to do an inspection. Two of the company’s tradesmen, while nodding and listening to the gravity of the incident, waved Quirke away, behind the backs of the suits, when he appeared again at the top of the ladder to see if they needed anything.

Getting dressed after a bath was still wonderful, though, even if there was even less illumination in the bathroom after Eileen had stayed so long in it that the hot candle wax that filled a glass ashtray on the upper of two glass shelves by the wall inside the bath caused a cracking, crashing, flaming cascade into the bath and she screamed through her Psycho moment.

Quirke made a call with a card, from a box across the street. Needing an outlet, he got invited to go out and meet Richard again, in the West End. Rachel was among the people with him. Rachel was likeable. Intelligent, educated North Americans tended to be more open-minded than their European peers because they had fewer intellectual prejudices. Plus her manners were impeccable.

The group they were in went off to a house in Kent where, in the course of the night, Quirke went through another bottle of whiskey. He was the last up, finishing it and listening to REM and The One I Love, when he joined in forcefully and repeatedly on the one-word chorus. Fi-err! With his eyes closed in concentration, he heard the door open in a rush. It was Richard, bursting in.

“Jesus Christ, I thought there was a fire! Why were you shouting “Fire”!?”

Quirke moved the CD onto the next track. Back at work, he just wanted to kill Robbie. He saw him as a real moron who didn’t know what he was dealing with. None of them did. It was when Robbie and Martin were together that they started to take the piss. Quirke tried to avoid them when possible. Then he hurt his back again. He was never going to lift plaster boards after this. The two kids reminded him of his teens. That’s what he didn’t like most.

In the Aldgate Nag’s Head at lunchtime, a black stripper focused her attention on Quirke, partly because he was sitting next to the stage, where the only space remained, but also because she’d wrongly hassled him over money and was only trying to make it up to him. “Come on love, we all have to make a living,” said the stripper, having forgotten that he’d given her a couple of pound coins at the other end of the bar. The suits congregated back there while the builders sat and stood up front. Though he thought the women had to be dead while they were up there, her remorse seemed genuine when she realised her mistake, but then again he saw more of her arse and vagina than her face. All the while the roars drowned out the music – the strippers having brought their own tapes –

“Shadwell! Shadwell!”

Late that afternoon the driver of a company van down from Nottingham arrived to take gear away and he looked shocked to find all their people drunk on site. It was like several simultaneous re-enactments of The Plank, with each man improvising with one or more lengths of aluminium, all wobbling like seesaws on their shoulders. Ends were rising, ends were falling, ends were swinging and crash banging on their way into the van but Quirke didn’t care. He was about to give his notice anyway. He wanted to get away from there.

plank-1

One of Katie’s friends had a typewriter and he brought it to the flat in W10 to sell it to Quirke and Chris for fifty quid. It was the business. Then Quirke was brought off with Richard, Rachel and Eileen to the Wag Club in Chinatown. It was seven quid a head for an acid house type of racket. Bollocks, he duly noted, but Richard paid in. Eileen was pissed and she cut up Kim. She’ll not take me on because of her, Quirke thought, though she kept asking him if he found this or that woman there attractive. In the end, though, he gravitated to spending most of his time comfortably talking to Rachel, leaving the other two to converse as they saw fit. The four stayed up by the bar while some sort of orderly attempt at a rave went through the motions in the background. Only Kim noticed, after that night, that Quirke spoke of this American in a way she hadn’t heard him speak of any girl, over there. It was in a positive way she’d hoped to hear, to take the heat off her, but it was just a pity that Rachel already had a boyfriend and couldn’t solve her problem.

Up on the roof the day was wet and then the rain gave way as the breeze chilled his chin. He thought he did his best thinking at such a height. The vast city set him going. He imagined a voice-over as a camera swept across it. He had set his heart on quitting the job. A London skinhead complained that nobody was willing to do anything about the shit in the corner, behind the company hut.

In the canteen, Robbie and Martin spent over an hour talking about their past lives of Dublin crime. In a feud, Martin’s granny had got shot in the eye with a pellet gun while his grandfather “got” an axe over the head.

He left the job early on his last day, in case they stuck him to the ground with a Hilti nail gun. He’d either go home in a month or, then again, maybe temping might be easy. As they walked up to Sainsbury’s to do some shopping, Chris must have read his mind or else he just wanted to be rid of him. He asked him out of the blue was he going home. The answer was still a bit uncertain.

It was late when Quirke went out alone for a walk in the damp night. How could a child really be blamed? All it boiled down to in the end was lust and pride. How galling it was not to have had her. But if that was all that remained, it meant he was pulling out of something. He was only affected by her presence, no longer her absence. That’s how it had been, before the summer, but there was a huge difference at that age between understanding something and bringing it home to oneself.

The next time she pestered him with her point of view, he manoeuvred her into an argument about sadomasochism, where he could try to baffle her with references, but she staked out her ground on how and where and when.

“I decide.”
“How selfish you are,” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I should know.”
“But nothing like that is black and white.”
“Like what?”
“As in what’s between us.”
“Us?”
“I know what you’re saying.”

She got up then and left the room for the sanctuary of her own, leaving Quirke more bewildered than ever. He sat in the little park, nearby. Earlier he’d been at a book stand up at the market and felt the warm tangibility of the book he was going to write. Then he’d moved on to the stall where the classical music played. There, Kim growled in his ear. She was with Simon. Tears weren’t a million miles away. He’d never wanted more to be on his own. He’d never wanted less to see them. To see her. He thought he had to go home. He felt he’d learnt some lesson there but later she just said she didn’t believe he’d go. Usually, when he was with her, he felt no hostility, only to brood later, on his own. She should have left me alone.

He and Simon went out for a long walk, late. Simon said he too didn’t think he should go home. Quirke crashed out a couple of times on the chair the next day before he and Eileen went out to Ladbroke Grove. He didn’t want her. That’s what he thought, he knew. Kim and Simon joined them there later that evening. If he’d met her in other circumstances, it might well have been different. The first two were twisted on the walk home because they’d had little to eat but he still resented Kim trying to encourage them to get together. It was not on, not least because of that. He wouldn’t let her cool the mark out.

Chris, in contrast, simply decided that he was going to America. Quirke guessed that they’d both be leaving this monstrous regiment of women. Saturday saw a lot consumed in the Lonsdale, around a table in the back lounge where Richard too was quietly egging him on to take on Eileen, but where again he found himself deep in conversation with Rachel, before it all got a bit hazy and the group found itself outdoors in Hammersmith.

Quirke got separated from the rest by tripping on and getting tangled in some wire in a building site into which he’d slipped, through a hole in the hoarding, for a leak, on the way to a party. By the time he extricated himself and returned to the street, there was no sign of the others and no one had noticed he was no longer with them, so he had to walk home. The sites were indeed a trap.

After some more time had elapsed and Eileen arrived back at the flat, on her own, Quirke had nothing left to lose and he decided he hadn’t walked home for nothing so he climbed into Chris’s otherwise empty bed beside her. The Scottish girl hadn’t moved in and she was lucky but Eileen took on a new dimension horizontal. Not for the first time, he noted the previously unimaginable healing power of touch, leading to an altered state of mind, for however long.

He was a bit sad that Chris was leaving. His moods were swinging. Looking at the cards in the slots, he felt almost faint in Ladbroke Grove job centre. A desire to flee from struggle seemed overpowering. He’d have loved just to f*ck off in the morning, if he’d had the money, but he had to keep his head.

With a spring in her step, Kim breezed down into the living room in the morning. He sat on the couch with a cup of tea and asked her why she was so happy. “I’ve a great sex life,” she volunteered, just in case he needed to know. “Good for you,” he answered and took a sip of the tea. His hatred of her idiocy, her cruelty, welled up in familiar silent rage and pain from which he wondered if he’d ever get a break. He hated that delicate phrase “sex life” too but still he didn’t fling the cup at the wall or at her head.

A proposed month’s work in a dole office then fell through. He’d put on a tie and all. He went home and crashed and felt a bit better when he woke. It was as if his will to work was broken. He was lacking in nourishment too but his college experience as regards hunger artistry was standing him in good stead. Then Eileen kindly cooked him a couple of meals. He’d had ugly premonitions of what it would feel like to be in London. These had come horribly true yet he told himself not to worry.

Quirke confidentially told Richard what had happened with Eileen, only to be told in turn that he’d already had a discrete encounter with her, before the Hammersmith trek. Whether or not it was an exaggeration or a wind-up, this latest episode of feeling the floor move beneath him was really all Quirke needed at that moment in time. Did the world know something he did not?

Before he went back down to Hammersmith to do some photocopying, the sight of Kim in the flat – the way she was lightly dressed, virtually exposed – made Quirke realize he was the coyote and she was the roadrunner. He just had to have her sometime. It was an existential thing. He then went down to Ryman’s on a sunny day but something went wrong with the photocopier and the people in the queue turned to each other in diffident, smiling uncertainty.

In front of Quirke stood a middle-aged transvestite, with plucked eyebrows and bright red lipstick. The guy behind Quirke then asked him what kind of script he had before adding quickly that he was in the film business. This man’s name was Stanley and in the course of their conversation he said he’d help him. He had tight black hair receding at the temples and looked like the type of chap who’d be involved in some expensive, minority sport. He didn’t seem gay.

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Chris was gone. Quirke had given him the tape of Calenture and in turn the departed had waived a debt of twenty quid and left him the typewriter. Kim then announced that she and Simon were kicking everybody else out in two weeks. Out of there, that was his goal. Rooms were switched, walls were washed, in a flurry of spring cleaning that Quirke participated in by helping with some furniture lifting, fearing Kim’s wrath if he didn’t.

Katie moved out first, to a flat in Shepherds Bush. Then the typewriter ribbon gave out. It never rained but it poured. The sun went down in the park. It probably went down broader, down by Wormwood Scrubs. Very nice but he wanted to be home.
In the same weather, Richard promised money. Maybe, thought Quirke, he could relax, just a little. He read that Welsh pigs wouldn’t drink London water at an agricultural show and he flogged the typewriter in Notting Hill Gate. It cost him a lot of effort to lug it up there. He lifted the machine onto the shop counter. A grey t-shirt with greasy black hair plastered across his head moved forward to inspect it.

“So, wot have we eah?”
“Will you buy this typewriter off me?”

The grey t-shirt leant forward and peered into the works. There he spotted the loose ribbon and wiggled the problem with a suspicious forefinger.

“Wot’s this?”
Quirke then stated the obvious.
“Er, the ribbon’s given up.”
The t-shirt gestured with both hands at the machine, like he was pushing an open till closed.
“Well, fix it.”
“I can’t.”
“Why not? How do I know it’s your typewriter, then?”
“Er, I’m a writer. I’m not very technical.”
A second’s pause for thought evaluated the plausibility.
“Oh, OK then. How about fifty quid?”
Just like that.
“Deal.”

He saw a Slattery’s bus ad on the Tube – only fifteen quid to get to Dublin – but just for a change he spent a Saturday night in Eric’s place, way out east in Dagenham. Eric was Kevin’s landlord and they lived in Gay Gardens. It was like an address in a sitcom. Quirke had asked if there was possibly any room there for him, so Kevin invited him out to test the water.

There was a guy called Mac staying there too, along with a canary called Harry. Mac had done a runner out of the North in 1971, when the Brits had piled in through his mother’s front door and he’d dived out the bathroom window, pulling his pants up as he jumped into a car waiting in the back lane to take him over the Border.

Mac and Quirke went to the pub, then to the off-licence. Mac’s fair comment on Irish ‘entertainment’ in places like the Archway Tavern was, “If they love it so much, why don’t they go back there?” With the hot sun forcing its way through the net curtains in the window and the whiskey and cans on the table, he provided images of the Southern border town of Dundalk (“El Paso”) in the early 1970s: people who’d never set foot on a farm used to walk around with bags of fertilizer over their backs, while the locals stayed indoors. It was like the Wild West back then but, by this time, 1989, he believed the IRA were only wasting their time.

Playing table football in the house with Eric reminded Quirke of a diversion from lonely bar extensions as a new student, when he’d had no one to talk to. Eric’s Irish impression consisted of saying, “Where’s me fucken shovel?” and it was decided that Quirke would move in, to the empty room at the back, off the kitchen.

Back in W10, the woman upstairs had stitches over one eye. It was evidence of a backhanded compliment from her other half, Quirke guessed. She wanted Quirke to get some things in the shop across the street. She gave him coffee and kept him talking upstairs. He told her he was moving out in a few days. She said she was glad people were moving out downstairs, that Simon and Kim were like a married couple down there and needed their space.

As the good weather survived, he might not have wanted to be in London any longer but he wasn’t moping or panicking. He had an attitude like that of Micawber. Things kept turning up. He had a job for Monday through Mac’s boss but there was some kind of war going on upstairs again. He was down to his last fiver. Then Kim said something that surprised him, after all that had happened.

“There’s a bed here now, if you want it.”
In ways, though, he was still sane.
“No, I think it’s for the best that I go.”
“Yeah, I think so too.”
“Anyway, I feel like a safecracker when trying to light that grill.”

On leaving he forgot to say thanks. He knew he’d go crazy altogether if he stayed there. What did he think about the reality of London, in the end of the day? He couldn’t starve to death or be executed. It was highly unlikely he’d be put in jail with the newsworthy Irish. These facts had to count for something.

July

The phone rang and it was Kim. He agreed to go and see her that same evening. He simply couldn’t refuse that voice at the other end of the line. Simon was away and they had a good time, relaxed and yet urgent, in the pub on the corner before returning to the laboratory conditions of the flat. Two of Simon’s brothers were crashing there in his absence so she brought Quirke into her room to continue the chat. She sat up on the bed, leaning on the pillows. She was in one of those moods again. She’d cause havoc wherever she went. He took the other end.

“Right now I feel like crawling over there and nibbling your ear,” she said.

It was a journey to the end of the bed. Either take your clothes off or keep your hands off, he thought. God we are stupid c*nts, us, in different ways. He not long twenty-five, she not yet twenty-two. Was there something the world knew that he did not? At his age, he wondered sometimes.

“But you can’t, you know that.”
He felt a little unwell but he had to tell her now.
“Have you any idea at all how much I wanted you, from the beginning?”
When it had been just the two of them, there might have been a double date with Adam and Eve.
“But darling, you never gave the slightest sign of it,” she answered.
“I thought you were… you know… you hadn’t…”
She sat up a bit.
“I had.”

To him she’d seemed a childlike angel, with a body to confuse all the numskulls down below, what with all the false alarms. She may have seemed a kid back then but all hadn’t been quite as it seemed. It never was. That had only been a spell that lasted a month, before travels on her part intervened for the first time.

When she came back the first time, she soon said the thrill was gone but the dust between his teeth didn’t infest his emotions, at first. She’d told him back then that he was up in the air, like a man tied to balloons in an art shop print they both saw, on one of those Dublin afternoons where there was always a bus or a train to get, but he didn’t understand what she meant. Now, in the room, she was quiet for a moment. Then she spoke up again.

“But wouldn’t it be a mistake for us to make love now?”

He thought of three things at that instant: the knot of bitterness and the pair of righteous brothers outside the door. The bitterness could have been overcome but, like Wilhelm Reich, he at least understood the crippling effect of a lack of privacy on human relationships. He muttered an answer instead of breaking something. He mumbled that it would.

One of the righteous brothers entered the bedroom to give her a little lecture while Quirke was in the bathroom. A blast of flashback occurred before he returned to her room. The heavy scent of the windowless bathroom with the noisy ventilator. The claustrophobia. Astral projection. The conversation died away, drained after that talking cure. He left the room soon after she said she was tired. There was a somewhat upbeat conclusion on her lips. We’re only beginning. I’m not letting you go.

In the course of falling asleep again on the extendable chair, it seemed to him the emotional coast was clear. No noise came from the flat upstairs. Presumably they still blared Doris Day, occasionally. Our lips shouldn’t touch, I like it too much.

The strange birds that strayed down from the heights had to be grabbed and thrown into sacks but knowing just when to make the lunge seemed the art. Ask the coyote. Waking up was like the relief after an operation. Then the patient leaves the hospital, thinks he’s healed, but the scars are tender for a long time and finally leave their mark.

The next day a girl friend of hers called to the flat and the three of them went down to the park, Wormwood Scrubs. The way Kim was dressed, in light pink shorts and matching tight top, with sandals with heels, helped explain the looks she got from the chaps sitting drinking outside the couple of bars on the road. Jaws were dropping away from the pints, at the tables, across the lively traffic. He saw them. He understood them. As for the feeling in the park, he felt like tearing up tufts of burnt grass instead of contributing to the conversation. By then it felt like a Mediterranean climate.

Another feeling was one of wondering if the emotional coast really was clear. The prison stood in the distance. What prisoner, had he known, would have swapped places with him at that moment? The common or garden psycho would have had no problem with that.

November

He went to meet Katie in the Station Tavern on Latimer Road, where a blues band was resident on Sundays. Kim came in later, a bit shaken after spending the night in the modern eternal triangle, stuck in a room that wasn’t her own, with a couple bonking. Quirke just had to laugh at this reaction and squeeze her arm.

Simon brought him down the road from the flat for some late ones. The pub landlord ejected two identical twins for refusing to drink spirits instead of pints, after closing time. Simon said they looked like undertakers. “Bound to be villains of some description,” answered Quirke. Simon kept saying things like, “Isn’t this great?” and in truth it was really enjoyable despite the moment of on-looking horror at the sickening state Jim McDonnell was in when knocked out in the final round of his televised fight against Azzuma Nelson.

They talked about Kim, and Quirke, sounding as sober as a judge, was quietly satisfied with what he saw as his honest, clear and just appraisal of their situation and what needed to be done. He was calm and even-handed, that was all. It was like looking at a sibling in the throes of a childhood illness, like measles, from which the observer had just emerged.

1990

April

In the morning he woke up there on the dental chair. The living room was empty otherwise. Simon was banging on a locked door in the tunnel beyond and shouting Kim’s name. Then he could be heard muttering to himself before he left the flat, slamming the door to the street. Quirke sat up and the back of the electric chair sat up with him. He didn’t like the sound of this and he pulled on his jeans.

He dressed fully on hearing a crash of breaking glass. It had to have come from the street side. Simon had put a bottle through her window because she was in bed with another man, in revenge for Simon previously getting off with some girl, when Kim had been like a hen with an egg, trying to prevent that happening.

The other guy vamoosed in a trice, having perhaps first peered through the broken window to see if the coast was clear. Then she entered the living room, alone and scared. Next Simon came back into the flat and started screeching at her. Quirke even thought he was going to hit her. Well, he wouldn’t have let that happen. He stood between them, calming the situation, protecting her to the end. But he knew he’d be finally fully cured and healed. He’d just never have reacted with such overt passion. Simon stormed out again, this time for the day, and when the dust cleared Quirke asked her if she was all right. She said she thought so and he said OK and confessed that he didn’t want to hang around any longer.

The Snows of Prague

The Snows of Prague

2018

Having had to cancel a visit to southern Bohemia in January due to the death of a relative, I soon booked a replacement trip to Prague for a couple of nights in early March, thinking it would be simpler just to go there. Three friends of mine then decided to come along and I found us a hotel in the Malá Strana district below the Castle. This was the Hotel Čertovka, named after a finger of the Voltava river (‘Devil’s Stream’).

I also bought the Pocket Rough Guide to Prague and continued to learn some Czech off the web, such as:

Velké pivo, prosím (‘A large beer, please’);

Už jsem zaplatil (‘I’ve already paid’);

podvod (‘scam’);

Došlo k nedorozumění (‘There was a misunderstanding’);

and

Přišel jsem sem kvůli Švejkovi (‘I came here because of Švejk’).

Unlike in Budapest, the Czechs haven’t followed the Hungarian example of making their money-changing kiosks a state monopoly but instead they allow a free-for-all that is open to blatant fiddling. Some of the taxis remain dodgy in both places. Anyway, I’d carry a card and, apart from the beer, there were several of the pretty and historic locations I particularly wanted to see.

These included the buildings in which the Thirty Years War was hatched, both in the planning and attempted execution of the Catholic imperial messengers who were shot out a palace window, and also the balcony where, on a snowy morning in 1948, Klement Gottwald emerged to emcee the communist take-over for a massive crowd below.

The latter moment provides the anecdote of the un-purged hat that opens one of Milan Kundera’s philosophico-sexual entertainments, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Gottwald was later voted the worst-ever Czech in a TV poll, part of a light entertainment format imported and licensed from the BBC.

I wasn’t too pushed about taking in the Kafka museum, as it happens. The insect fancier Vladimir Nabokov once spent an entire essay wondering exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into in Metamorphosis but the real answer lies in the equivalent of the birds-of-a-feather proverb in the Irish language. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (‘A beetle recognises another beetle’).

23rd February, Friday

All day it felt a bit like snow. There seems to be Siberian weather on the way. I picked up my order of Czech crowns at the bank (2,500 of them for €104). The lady asked me was I was going to Prague. Two of my travelling companions were in a nearby café. P. mentioned a story about an inebriated NGO type crashing his new NGO jeep into a Bosnian brothel in a snowstorm.

25th February, Sunday

An east wind has been blowing for days and there’s no frost tonight but they seem to be promising us some kind of repeat of White ’47 for the coming week. At the moment Thursday looks like the worst of it but we’ll see. A lot of snow may be under the bridge by then.

26th February, Monday

The worst of it is forecast for Thursday evening to Friday morning and I’m hoping we can get up and away before that. So far, it’s cold out but nothing drastic. Plenty of people in town this afternoon went bare-headed.

27th February, Tuesday

A flake or two swirled as I arrived to pick up my father from the day centre at half past three but it was an hour later before the first sprinkling of snow. Around six there was a real shower of it that left the roofs and plants white for a starry night.

28th February, Wednesday

Still starry at half past five this morning but by half nine a thin blanket had fallen. The sun was shining then, as it did on and off, between snow showers, or during them. Sights of the day and night:

(1) empty wine shelves in Frank’s supermarket (N. told me one woman went off with a crate of it);

(2) a snowboarder down the quay, towed by a car (a fall didn’t deter him).

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I knew our hopes of travelling were snookered. I went into town tonight so I could take photos, including one I have of the old bridge, even though it’s not Charles (Karlův Most).

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1st March, Thursday

Half past six, it was snowing in the dark. Up at half eight, I knew we’d be going nowhere but looking online was still a formality. On the south coast, we just couldn’t risk a 400 km round trip in this weather for a likely flight cancellation.

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I emailed the hotel again to confirm we would not be needing the taxi at the airport in Prague. In reply, regret was expressed that we would not be travelling on this occasion. The greedy owner is still determined to charge all four of us for both nights, thus ensuring that we won’t ever be back to give that hotel another chance.

A large green tractor noisily swerved in at Frank’s but a bank girl emerged from the shop (“They have no bread or milk in there!”), whereupon the tractor roared off down the road again. There was no milk in the local Spar either.

Our scheduled 13.40 Ryanair flight got away from Dublin after all, at 16.27, thirteen minutes inside the three hours needed for a delay refund. It may have been the last of the few planes to get off the ground today. Before dark I walked to town and took more photos.

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2nd March, Friday

An awful lot of snow has fallen. I don’t remember anything like it before. Some of us may never see it again.

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Those cheeky Czech chappies are not only charging us for both nights plus an extra little cut of three euros – city tax, I guess – but now they have also told Booking.com that we were a no-show after I’d flagged a weather problem a day in advance and then emailed early yesterday to let them cancel the airport taxi pick-up in good time. Kipling has an answer for countries that claim they are not in Eastern Europe. East is east… Anyway, I was out photographing more of the best of our snowy settlement. This place here really should market its old town, its Altstadt (or Staré Město), snow or no snow.

 

 

Then I slipped into Downey’s for an hour or so. The young chap who was the sole customer there before me said he had left one of the pubs on the town square when the messing got too much (“lads dancing… fellas firing snowballs in the door…”). Then it turned out that he too should have been away in Prague this weekend, with a stag party.

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Lucca, June 2013

Lucca, June 2013

17th June, Monday

Going commando in the shorts was a good opening move for the trip to Lucca, where the heat was intense.

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On Piazza San Michele, I fell for the buccellato bullshit (€18 for two grande loaves). They weren’t even fresh. My mother and I later stopped at a café outside the Puccini house.

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She’d mentioned leaving (the Puccini house) first but I have to wonder if working there with the constant piped music in the background would lead to undying hatred of the maestro.

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A German sat down beside us with a Middle Eastern guy and the latter’s kid. When we said Cork, the German knew of Ryanair but then he said that he was only the driver and the others were off a cruise ship at La Spezia. The client’s (American?) wife had f*cked off – shopping – but he and his kid were kind. The boy offered some of his Pringles to my mother. The man then said, “What about him?” He meant me.

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