A Short Story: Psycho

Brother M had been an unpopular teacher from the moment he arrived to our school. Those of us in class 2b had the dubious privilege of being the first to welcome him, and, in what was a source of pride for us, within hours our nickname for him — Psycho — had spread like wildfire along the corridors. He did not look unlike Anthony Perkins; the trim, oiled-down hair, the narrow, unsmiling mouth, the thin skin, pulled to tautness over sharp cheekbones and along a high forehead. And, just like the Hollywood actor, he was small in stature and rake-thin. But it was not his appearance that had inspired our sobriquet.

As well as being stern and frostily aloof, Psycho was by far the most cynical and world-weary teacher we had come across in our school careers. His every word and gesture let it be known that he disapproved of us boys, thought us foolish and unintelligent, and that his futile efforts to instil in us the merest trace of learning and civilisation were being offered up to God as penance. It did not help his case that he had replaced a young, dynamic and popular teacher who was so liked by us that we had never got around to anointing him with a wry or vulgar nickname, he being known simply by his first name.

With the full assurance of adolescent wisdom, we surmised that our new teacher was well into his sixties. A handful of my nerdier and more neurotic classmates, worrying already about such distant horizons as honours physics (Psycho’s métier), the Leaving Cert and college entry points, fretted that Psycho would reach retirement age midway through senior cycle, requiring the difficult adjustment to a new teacher’s personality and pedagogic methods just as exams were breathing down their necks. The rest of us looked at his collar and soutane and feared for the worst: a Christian Brother of advanced age was a creature who inspired equal measures of terror and respect.

Brothers of Psycho’s age were the product of a system geared to the formation of zealous, unwavering, unyielding, disciplined (and disciplinarian), Irish nationalist Catholic soldier-teachers. These men showed zero tolerance to a long list of what us students regarded as great things: girls, pop music, soccer (English soccer in particular), films, television, dirty books (i.e. ones not written by Daniel Corkery, Walter Macken or Frank O’Connor), modern hair styles, fashion, computer games, music magazines et cetera, et cetera. Anything that was not to do with Catholicism, school or finding a decent job when you walked out through their gates for the last time at eighteen years of age was categorised as nonsense and eejitry. The only frivolities allowed were hurling, Gaelic football and traditional Irish music, and the only students ever shown a measure of respect by these old Christian Brothers were the heroes of the school teams or virtuoso fiddle players.

In many ways, brothers such as Psycho who had been ordained in the 1940s or 50s must have been in culture shock in our world of the early 1990s. How were men cloistered off from society by their celibacy and belonging to a holy order meant to process such modern phenomena as “Vogue”-era Madonna, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the movies of David Lynch, Paul Gascoigne or the KLF? It would have been too much to expect our adolescent minds to make allowances for these men’s harshness and occasional cruelty towards us. We were just glad that they weren’t allowed to hit us any more. I still remember that winter morning in 1982, walking to school with my friends with the only topic of conversation being the banning of corporal punishment in Irish schools. “If they hit us, we can tell the police,” was a common observation among my peers. But our teachers still continued to hit us, perhaps not with the abandoned relish of earlier times (my uncle had a tooth knocked out by a Christian Brother’s efforts to underline the importance of punctuality). All of my friends received the odd slap or dig on our way up through primary and secondary school. Some more than others. And some teachers were more heavy-handed than others. I cannot remember the brother we had in fifth class raising a hand or bata to anyone. A lay teacher who taught us the following year, however, gave my desk mate a bloody nose. I was slapped in the face by a teacher who is now, peculiarly, a Facebook friend. I still feel a sense of outrage at the incident.

Unlike a brother we had christened “Tuck”, who after leading a Hail Mary upon entry into class would rampage up and down the rows of desks pucking and prodding, and pulling at boys’ locks, Psycho was not a hitter. He had no need to rely on physical violence to control his classroom. Emotional and psychological bullying worked just fine for him. He would marshal sarcasm in the same way the brothers who had taught my father deployed rod and leather. A verbal cutting down to size delivered in Psycho’s papery voice (never raised and slightly tinged with a northern accent) tore closer to the bone than one of Tuck’s rulers across the knuckles. In truth, the incidents where Psycho would single out a student and wither his self-esteem before his classmates were the highlights of the long, joyless, sterile minutes we spent in his physics lab — as long as that student didn’t happen to be you. He had these demolitions of character down to a fine art. After a couple of months under Psycho’s tutelage we had become as much connoisseurs of the rapier and cruzeta as veteran aficionados of bullfighting.

In between the scolding and threats of extra homework and reminding us how lazy and useless we were, he would introduce us to grand concepts such as magnetism or ionic bonds or osmosis. Standing rigid at his lectern or stretching to fill the farthest corner of the blackboard with his copperplate, he seemed unmoved by the ideas he was transmitting, and, in spite of teenage boys’ innate fascination for science, we were equally uninspired. He drained all enthusiasm for the subject from us, to the extent that attendance at class became all about avoiding his ire, while the point of homework became less about the challenge of beating a tricky physics or chemistry problem and more about staving off criticisms.

We did not even receive the compensation for being Psycho’s students of getting to perform experiments. Across the country and set down by the national curriculum for general science and the individual science subjects, a pair of classes were always scheduled back to back in order to provide time for experiments. Up until Psycho’s arrival, for many, double science, along with PE, had been one of the highlights of the week. Even the most unenthusiastic students of chemistry or biology or physics could look forward to a break from bookwork for two classes a week. Bunsen burners would be lit, glassware laid out, reagents distributed and plant or animal tissue arranged on bevelled glass dissection trays, and for two hours we were free from the chains that normally tied our bodies to our desks and our minds to attention to a teacher or textbook. But Psycho did not do experiments. And, thus, with his arrival, double science was transformed from a great pleasure to a terrible pain — and we had another reason to dislike him.

We speculated at length as to why Psycho did not do experiments with us. Did he think us that immature or untrustworthy (or downright bad) to deny us free reign with fire, chemicals and combustible materials? Or was he waiting, in true Dead Poets’ Society style, for that perfect moment when we would reach the required readiness to measure the rate of transpiration of Canadian pondweed or set up a Torricellian vacuum? Or was he somehow anti-experiment? Did he believe that two hours of his uniquely stimulating educational technique and razor-sharp insights into both science and the adolescent mind were superior in instilling in us the principles and nitty-gritties of science to actually doing science? Or was it the miserly, sadistic curmudgeon in him who delighted in our suffering by depriving us of one of the few happy points of the school week? Was Psycho keeping away from the test tubes out of meanness?

The deeper among us wondered if there a more adult reason.

“It’s about insurance,” one of us knowingly said. “Something happened in his last school. An accident. A fire or whatever. And now he’s not allowed to do experiments.”

“Maybe a kid died,” someone else piped up.

“An explosion.”

“Or poisonous gas.”

“Maybe it’s not about insurance. Maybe Psycho just can’t do experiments. The trauma of whatever happened. The boy dying. He can’t face labs now. Gets the shakes. Faints. Like that film about air traffic controllers.”

 

It is ironic that a man who was not known as a hitter, and who had never laid a finger on his students during his time with us came to leave the school because of an incident in which he raised a hand against a boy. What happened that day saw Psycho leave our school as unexpectedly as he had arrived. One moment he was a member of staff, one of our three science teachers and the only physics teacher, the next he was gone, not seen nor heard of nor mentioned (at least by his former colleagues in our company) ever again. It had a fitting symmetry that Psycho’s final class in the school was given to 2b.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in mid February, one of those still, grey, cold days when the coming of spring seems as far away as it had in November. The penultimate class of the day, with the school’s central heating running at its stuffiest full blast, us students were sluggish, eyelids heavy and circulatory systems directed towards the digestion of lunch rather than the carriage of oxygen to the cerebral cortex. The last thing we needed or desired was an hour of being harangued and worried by Psycho. There were certain classes one could doze and daydream through without incurring the teacher’s wrath, where the odd nod towards the blackboard or pretend taking of a note would trick the figure behind the lectern into thinking you were more awake than you appeared. But these bagatelles never worked with Psycho. His long years of experience had taught him to recognise the drooping eyelids, faraway looks and lack of fidgeting and bottom-shifting for what they were. So a sleepy class would be tormented by a hail of questions, demands to define this law or that and challenges to our logic and understanding of the topic under consideration. It was an interrogation in reverse — by the one of the many — and tougher than any conducted by Crockett and Tubbs on TV.

On that particular day, after half a class spent ruffling drowsy feathers, Psycho’s attention came to rest on a boy from whom he quickly extracted the information that he had not fully completed the previous day’s homework. The man was predictably outraged. After spending a good minute or two chiding him (and during which time the words “lazy”, “óinseach” and “good-for-nothing” were repeatedly employed) he commanded the boy to stand up and go to the blackboard.

“You’ll do the homework now, in front of all of your classmates, you lout,” said Psycho.

He handed the boy a stick of chalk and read out the first of the questions that had not been done. It was a problem based on calculating a material’s elasticity. My unfortunate classmate began an uncertain scratching of chalk on slate. As one of the tallest and broadest in our year he towered over Psycho, who stood angrily beside him at the blackboard. After a few lines of error-ridden reckonings, Psycho pulled the chalk out of the boy’s hand.

“You eejit,” he erupted. “You lazy, blackguard. The very boy who needs most to do his homework is too wicked and foolish to do it. Try the next question.”

The boy was once more given the stick of chalk and just enough time to demonstrate his ignorance of elasticity before Psycho interrupted his stuttering efforts: “Nonsense! Rubbish! Dross! Give me that, you pup!”

Psycho took the chalk and corrected and completed both problems. The boy stood watching without interest, awaiting the command to return to his seat. But Psycho was not finished with him.

“Now. You will tell me why you saw fit not to do the homework I gave you.”

The boy looked towards us plaintively, as if searching our faces for a reasonable excuse. After an awkward pause during which the opening and closing of his mouth signalled deep cogitation, he came up with a classic in the area of homework-dodging obfuscation.

“I forgot, sir,” he said. His voice was flat, absent-minded, veering towards pathetic — attempting to hit that sweet spot of credibility.

Psycho looked from the boy to us.

“Do you hear that?” we were asked. “He forgot. He forgot! He thinks I was born yesterday!”

The diminutive man returned his attention to the boy.

“Do you think I was born yesterday?”

Now. The correct answer to this question was a firm “no, sir” which would lack any trace of sarcasm or mocking, and convey the sense that not only is the student wholly certain that the master was not brought into this world the previous day, but also that the teacher’s time-earned wisdom is an unassailable surety. Our classmate’s answer did not meet these criteria.

“What do you think, sir?”

The boy may have been frazzled, or angry at being humiliated and called names, or had had enough of Psycho’s making an example of him. If his answer had been intended to call a halt to the show that was being made of him, then full marks to the boy — because bring an end to it it did.

Roaring “you cheeky devil” and displaying surprising speed and agility for a man who had been born at least sixty by three hundred and sixty-five days ago, the Christian Brother launched himself at the student. He gave a jump worthy of an inter-county Gaelic football player, and, with the reach of a champion boxer, overcame the difference in height between him and the boy to land a series of cuffs on his near-side temple and cheek. The assault on the boy may only have lasted five or ten seconds, but such was the shock among my classmates and I that these moments seemed artificially stretched in a slow motion sequence that could have come straight out of a Bruce Lee film. There may have been involuntary gasps from among us as the first of the blows rained down, but after these not a muscle was moved as we watched the action at the top of the class. The only sound to be heard was that of the hard flesh of Psycho’s hands against the fresh skin of the boy’s face — a damp, scuffling sound like that made by a large summertime moth flitting against a windowpane.

We will never know how long Psycho’s attack on our classmate would have continued if let fizzle out by itself. Would the five, ten, perhaps fifteen, seconds of frantic slapping that we witnessed have continued for another ten or fifteen seconds? Or another thirty? Or a minute? Would Psycho have stepped away from the boy, red-faced from the flurry of activity, ordered him back to his seat and taken up the lesson where he had left off as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred? Or would the violence be sheepishly brushed off: a mumbled half-apologetic witticism referencing his short temper; or maybe a warning to other absent-minded students to fully complete their homework? Would we have detected shame in Psycho’s demeanour for the rest of the class? Or the attempt to conceal shame? Or defiance?

We will never know, because Psycho’s beating of the boy was not brought voluntarily to a halt. Of all the boys in our class, Psycho picked the wrong one to hit. I would guess that most of my classmates would have taken the slapping handed out to them by Psycho without retaliation. Most would have taken the beating and returned to their seats displaying a mixture of humiliation and burning anger. Some would have been holding back tears, some openly crying, some their nostrils flaring and their body language telling us that they had barely managed to restrain themselves from returning Psycho’s blows with interest. But this boy did hit back. Or rather, push back.

That the boy was red-haired can mean nothing or everything, depending on how credible you find the myth regarding red-haired people. But this boy did have a temper. He was one of those who had never been bullied or picked on: those who drew pleasure from teasing and tormenting others had always left this boy alone. He would explode, it was known, if pushed far enough. And he would not relent. Mess with him and you had a fight to the death on your hands.

Thus, ten or perhaps fifteen seconds into Psycho’s assault, the boy had decided that he had had enough. If Psycho’s setting to the boy had astonished the class, then the boy’s reaction flabbergasted us. He swept a strong, long arm across Psycho’s reaching forearms, caught both of the small man’s thin wrists in his hands and pushed.

“Get the fuck off me,” was what we heard as Psycho fell backwards towards his desk in a black blur of swishing soutane. There was a clatter: his backside hitting the desk’s front panel. Then, he slid to the ground. For another one of those time-through-treacle moments the class was treated to the sight of our tormentor reduced to the pathetic likeness of the winos we would see up town on dole day if we strayed from the main streets into the alleys; as well as having the appearance of using the desk as a support to keep him upright, Psycho wore the same expression of bleary hopelessness as those men who poured bottle after cheap bottle of wine down their throats. There was also something comical about the scene. Psycho’s short legs peeped out from under his soutane with strange immodesty, his hair had become ruffled during the tussle and his glasses hung crookedly. No one laughed though. No one moved. No one even dared to breath.

After what seemed like an age it was Psycho who moved first. After pulling himself up, he ordered the boy to the principal’s office.

“Tell him what you did, you blackguard,” he said to the boy bitterly.

The boy, feeling, I imagine, a mixture of exhilaration and shame at his actions, left the room without a word or a glance back at his friends. Before the door had shut behind him, Psycho was continuing the lesson where he had left off, and for the remainder of the class, teacher and students entered into a conspiracy of silence. We ploughed into elastic points, newtons, Hooke’s Law and acceleration due to gravity, pretending that we had not seen the brother who was now strafing the class with questions splayed on the ground through the actions of a student who was fending off a beating. But while we may have raised our hands to provide an answer in kg per metre per second squared, and while we may have copied notes diligently into workbooks, our minds were on the drama we had just witnessed.

Would our classmate be expelled? we wondered.

Would he ever again sit among us through double science or freeze alongside us on frosty Monday mornings when the PE teacher took us out to the playing fields? Or would he merely be suspended? A week? Two weeks? Or would they go easy on the boy? Would a letter of apology to Psycho and a mea culpa before teacher and classmates suffice to keep the boy in the school?

Where none of our speculations roamed concerned the possible consequences to Psycho himself of his own actions. It was, in our experience of schooling, simply beyond the bounds of all likelihood that a teacher would be punished for hitting a student. While we had never seen so vicious and vigorous a beating handed out as that by Psycho, it was by no means unusual to see a teacher hit or poke or pummel a student. Down through the years not a single teacher had ever got into trouble for this, though. A code of silence concealed this illegal use of corporal punishment: while us students spoke of this beating or that teacher amongst ourselves, word of it never trickled upwards to parents or other teachers. We had no reason to believe that this omerta would be broken on this occasion or that Psycho would face any sort of reprimand for his actions.

It was all the more surprising, then, that the next day our red-haired classmate turned up for first class as if nothing had happened the day before. He was instantly surrounded by a gaggle of the curious and baffled.

“Why aren’t you suspended?”

“Or expelled?”

“What’s going on?”

“What did the principal say?”

“The principal said,” the boy told us, “that Psycho was wrong to have hit me and that everything is grand and no more will be said about it.”

This was unprecedented. The principal giving the right to a student above a teacher — and a brother to boot. We were in new territory here. We asked the boy about whether he thought anything would be done about Psycho.

“The principal called him an eejit. He used that word — eejit.”

It was during morning break that wild rumours began to spread around a school which was already abuzz with stories of what had happened in second science the previous afternoon. Psycho had not taken his physics classes that morning. The principal had been waiting for the fifth years as they filed into the lab, and without further elaboration had told them that Psycho was no longer their teacher and that a replacement would be found immediately. They could use the class to quietly study.

We had confirmation of the rumour ourselves after lunch as we quietly studied under the principal’s watch.

We wondered what had become of Psycho. Had he been packed off to another Christian Brothers’ school at the far end of the country? Or been forced to retire and sent to one of those homes for geriatric brothers that we had heard of? Or was he in the monastery under a type of house arrest until they worked out what to do with him?

Even for months after the incident there were students who swore that they had caught glimpses of Psycho behind the monastery’s net curtains. Or we would hear that so-and-so had passed by the school on Saturday morning and had seen a small figure in a cassock moving about the physics lab. Or Psycho had been seen at an early morning mass in the Poor Clares’ by a second cousin’s great aunt next-door neighbour. The truth was that none of us ever saw Psycho again. The wisdom of years tells me that the old brother was most likely moved out of town as quickly as possible. He may have been forced to go on holiday; perhaps to one of the order’s outposts in Britain. And then, a new position would have been found for him beginning at the start of the next school year.

Whenever this episode comes to mind I can never avoid feeling sorry for Psycho. I now understand that he must have been a very unhappy, unfulfilled and lonely man. He clearly derived little joy from teaching and had no love for his students. His life must have been suffocating in its sterility, parched of all those things that make it worth living: friendship, laughter, hope, humour, to name but a few. His loss of control in front of his students must have been a stinging humiliation. And his furtive packing off to a new school must have been an extra source of burning shame. He may have ended his days feeling himself to be something of a black sheep among his fellow brothers — a man who was shifted from a school under a cloud of controversy and secrecy.

As for our red-haired friend: his stock soared after the incident and remained high for the rest of our secondary school careers. As we moved up through the ranks, you could see fresh-faced first years nudging one another as he passed by and you knew what they were thinking: there’s the boy who got the brother sacked.

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Posted in Fiction, Ireland, Short Stories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Gearóid Iarla and Ennis

In Inis an Laoigh in mid-bay,

in Clonroad of the kings,

listening to the gurgling of streams,

I have been for two months.

 

These were my three kinds of music:

the playing of O’Brien’s harp while drinking beer,

the bell of Ennis on my western side,

the sound of saltwater lapping the stones.

 

The above pair of quatrains, translated from Irish, were written in 1370 by one of the most powerful men in late fourteenth-century Ireland. They are among the few verses written about Ennis, County Clare, and must certainly be amongst the oldest, given that the town was only founded in 1240*. They have a lyrical quality and existential air which one does not expect to find in medieval poetry, but everything about this short poem is surprising — from the author to the circumstances of its writing.

The author is Gerald FitzGerald, affectionately known in Irish as Gearóid Iarla (Earl Gerald), and who as the Third Earl of Desmond commanded a vast swathe of the province of Munster — taking in much of what are the modern counties of Cork, Waterford, south Tipperary, Limerick and Kerry. The king of England, Edward III, nominally Lord of Ireland, but in reality the figurehead of a patchwork of near-independent Hiberno-Norman and Gaelic kingdoms, acknowledged Gearóid Iarla’s power by appointing him Lord Justice of Ireland. The king also unwittingly provided much source material for Gearóid Iarla’s poems by obliging him to take Eleanor Butler, daughter of the Second Earl of Ormond (Gearóid Iarla’s sworn enemy), as his wife: Eleanor was Gearóid Iarla’s muse for much of his poetic career.

Gearóid Iarla was so prolific and highly regarded as a poet that he was also referred to as Gearóid Filid (Gerald the Poet). The bulk of his oeuvre was composed in Irish, but he also wrote in Norman French, in all probability his native language. That he acquired both the proficiency in the language and the interest in and respect for the native culture to compose poetry in Irish is one of the least surprising aspects of Gearóid Iarla’s story: by his time, the process of the Hiberno-Normans becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves” was irreversibly underway. So alarming had the Gaelicisation of the Norman invaders appeared to the English crown that a series of laws called the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed in 1366, forbidding everything from Hiberno-Normans’ use of Irish laws, language and dress to engaging in the Irish pastimes of “hockie” and “coiting” (the latter may refer to either a horseshoe tossing game or one resembling curling). Most of the Hiberno-Normans studiously ignored the statutes.

Much of Gearóid Iarla’s Irish poetry is collected in a work from the fifteenth century called Duanaire Ghearóid Iarla (the Poem-Book of Earl Gerald). In modern times the Duanaire has been published by Gearóid Mac Niocaill in Studia Hibernica (3[1963]: 7-59). There are also orphaned poems of his scattered here and there, for example in the Book of the Dean of Lismore. There was always a minority of poets and scholars who maintained that Gearóid Iarla hired the fourteenth century equivalent of a ghostwriter to pen his poems. The practice was so common in medieval Ireland that there was a term for such a poem: duan indlis (an unfaithful poem). On the other hand poems whose authorship were true were dílis. I will bow to noted Irish scholar Professor James Patrick Carney’s take on Gearóid Iarla‘s poetic output; it was kosher, he pronounced. They contain a consistent whimsy and depth of confidence in the verses that they could only have been penned by the very earl himself.

The surprising context of the writing of the above-quoted poem comes from Gearóid Iarla‘s darkest hour. During a series of battles with the O’Brien clan who ruled some of the parts of Munster that he did not (the kingdom of Tuamhain, Thomond in English with means “north Munster”), the earl was captured and taken to Ennis, the O’Briens’ capital, where he was imprisoned for a year. With much time on his hands while waiting for his family to stump up a ransom for him, Gearóid Iarla turned to poetry for solace. It was in Ennis, in Brian O’Brien’s Clonroad castle by the river Fergus, that the Earl composed his most celebrated poem “Mairg adeir olc ris na mnáibh” (“Speak not ill of womankind”):

Speak not ill of womankind,
‘Tis no wisdom if you do.
You that fault in women find,
I would not be praised of you.

Sweetly speaking, witty, clear,
Tribe most lovely to my mind,
Blame of such I hate to hear.
Speak not ill of womankind.

Bloody treason, murderous act,
Not by women were designed,
Bells o’erthrown nor churches sacked,
Speak not ill of womankind.

Bishop, King upon his throne,
Primate skilled to loose and bind,
Sprung of women every one!
Speak not ill of womankind.

For a brave young fellow long
Hearts of women oft have pined.
Who would dare their love to wrong?
Speak not ill of womankind.

Paunchy greybeards never more
Hope to please a woman’s mind.
Poor young chieftains they adore!
Speak not ill of womankind.

In terms of astonishing us, Gearóid Iarla kept the best until last: he didn’t just die of consumption or battle wounds like any ordinary medieval warlord. In 1398, at the age of 63, he disappeared. Legend has it that, far from meeting a grizzly end at the hands of one of his many enemies and being tossed down a mine shaft or the like, the earl travelled to the Otherworld, and to this day slumbers in a cave beside or beneath Lough Gur in County Limerick, from which he will emerge at his country’s hour of need. Since the early Bronze Age, Lough Gur and its surroundings have been considered a magical, liminal spot — a location bridging this world and the Otherworld of the sídhe (fairies) and the Tuatha Dé Danann (a god-like race). The largest stone circle in Ireland, Grange, consisting of 133 standing stones, is a stone’s through from Lough Gur, and the lake itself is associated with the pre-Christian Gaelic goddess, Áine. Before his disappearance, rumours abounded that the Earl was enjoying liaisons with the sun goddess, mirroring ancient tales of a dalliance between her and the king of Munster, Ailill Aolum (who died circa 235 AD). These legends that sprang up around Gearóid Iarla place him firmly in the role of Gaelic poet-priest-king and shows how after two centuries in the country the usurping Cambro-Normans had gone a long way towards being assimilated into the native culture.

For those of you interested in reading more of Gearóid Iarla (and who might have a reasonable command of Irish), I would recommend Scéal Ghearóid Iarla by Máire Mhac an tSaoi (Leabhar Breac, ISBN 978-0-898332-53-7 [2010]).

 

*The other great poem set in Ennis is Paul Durcan’s “Nights in the Gardens of Clare”, which I will get around to writing about another day.

Posted in Ennis, History, Ireland, Language, Mysticism, Poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Indignation in Ikea

I was dragged along to Ikea the other day to buy a super-dee-duper Swedish-designed suitcase which has people who are into such things all of a tizzy. Well, I wasn’t dragged along just to buy the said suitcase, but also to poke and prod and open and close and grip and grasp and haul and heft and wheel and weave the confounded thing prior to its putative purchase — to give the thing as thorough a road test as possible without actually packing toothpaste and underwear into it and loading it up on to an airplane. Because in our household we don’t just waltz out of a luggage shop with the first suitcase we set our dewy eyes on: we do our research. We go on-line. We join forums. We seek out third, fourth, fifth opinions. Then, when we decide that the piece of luggage is a likely candidate, we carry out a series of preordained tests in the shop, and based on whether or not the case passes muster we may or may not buy the unfortunate case. BTW: in all of the above, when I write “we”, I really mean “the significant other” (SO). And furthermore: it would certainly not be me doing the road-testing. My job is to grin and bear the shame and disturbance of my highly cultivated aura of cool while the SO acts the first-day-in-the-city hayseed, tearing into suitcases with grim zeal, unzipping this, velcroing up that, and expressing wonder (or an expert’s disapproval akin to the tut-tutting and frowning of a judge at a dog show) at this feature or that. Oh, and my other role is to pass sly (and what I consider witty, but what the SO has let me know are unhelpful) comments while the she slumps to new depths of unselfsonscious backwoodswoman baggage blackguarding.

I usually do not mind going to Ikea, but, not sharing the SO’s thing for luggage (and handbags and all manner of objects to do with the storage and/or transport of personal items), on this occasion I would have preferred to be almost anywhere rather than padding the solvent-smelling, soft-LED-lit aisles of everyone’s favourite Scandinavian home store. I had been bribed into coming along, though. At the end of the long and winding trail of baggage rustling I was to be granted a furlough into Ikea’s own promised land of milk and hygge — or, rather, of meatballs and lager. Because, as everyone knows, Ikea does both food items splendidly. The meatballs are better than your mother would make, unless your name happened to be Junior Lawson or Baby Oliver, and the lager is almost as good as lager gets — like a smoother, more delicate, more floral Grolsch. And together, the lager and meatballs are the definition of sybaritic symbiosis. They go together like horse and carriage, Thelma and Louise, Hall and Oates, Kylie and Jason, Jim Reid and Hope Sandovall singing “Sometimes Always”. You get the idea.

A large part of the indignation referred to in the title of this piece stems from the stymieing of my desire to fill my gut with meatballs and lager. (Otherwise the piece would have been entitled “Indigestion in Ikea”!) In short, after having comported myself like the SO’s shiny-shoed best boy before, during and after the Calvary that was the locating, road-testing and purchase of the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious suitcase, I was denied my culinary reward in the Valhalla of Ikea’s cafeteria.

“What?” I hear you ask. “The SO broke her word? Instead of taking you by the hand and leading her good little man to his deserved treat, she pulled you scowling and red-faced to the car park amid sobs of ‘I want my meatballs’?”

No.

My path to Odin’s house was thwarted by those vilest of creatures — the self-important and obnoxious security guard.

Here’s how things went: after navigating Ikea’s tricky gigantic revolving door, we high-tailed it upstairs to the Family Section, where we knew the luggage was on display. The marvellous suitcase was found and put through the hoops. It was given the green light by the SO. Suitcase in hand, we wended our way through the lighting, bathroom and bedclothes section, mooched desultorily around the bargain bins (just in case, you know?) and proceeded to the checkout. While waiting in line and resisting the temptation to buy scented candles, fancy napkins and fake plastic flowers (even though, as is typical for a visit to Ikea, I began to believe that my life would be more complete — edgier, hipper, more here-and-now — with these items) I looked across at the little Swedish supermarket at the other side of the cash registers and suggested to the SO that we pay it a visit prior to going upstairs for my date with meatballs and lager.

“Why not?” says she.

We cough up for the case and make our way over to eyeball a selection of salmon, unrecognisable preserves, odd-looking rhubarb-based drinks and even stranger-looking hard-boiled candies. I get some lager for home consumption, smoked cheese and a family-sized bag of squishy chocolate-covered vanilla and god-knows-what sweets — on the off-chance they are nice. I feel, while not complete, that my life has taken an upturn. I am part of the cool, Swedish-cheese-and-rubbery-sweet-eating set. Next stop one of those swingy rope chairs for the balcony and a collarless shirt, and I will be able to change my name to Sven (a name which always lends the cover of a book extra gravitas).

At this stage, knowing that the meatballs and lager are only an escalator ride away, I am salivating. The SO hands the case to me while she packs our purchases into a canvass shopping bag. I extend the case’s lightweight alloy arm and begin wheeling it towards the escalator, feeling for a moment that I am in an airport. I am happy with expectation. I step onto the first slowly rising step of the escalator wearing the smile of one of the more serene Buddhas, feeling a Zen-like harmony with a universe that is about to stuff me with processed meat, gravy and lightly hopped, malted and fermented barley. I imagine that to strangers I either look smugly self-satisfied or a brick short of a load. Then, one yard into the air my serenity is broken by a gruff “you there”.

Before I can turn to see the issuer of this vulgar salutation, the voice barks: “You can’t go up there with that!” I see that I am being addressed by a security guard, who is about ten yards away as the crow flies, but growing increasingly distant as the escalator moves me towards the first floor. He is a short, dark man wearing the brown militia-like uniform of one of Spain’s largest security firms. His oiled hair shines from my vantage point. I see he has a belt which holds a gun, truncheon and a pair of handcuffs. Things must get pretty rough here in Ikea — meatball mania, flat-pack frenzy, cushiony craziness, lampy lunacy. Momentarily confused and not wishing to hold a conversation with someone who is growing smaller by the second, I try stepping down the escalator.

“Excuse me?” I say, walking against the tide of expanding steps. Despite my efforts I am still rising. I wonder if my voice carries to him with a Doppler effect. I also wonder if I should run down the steps in order to make ground. Or should that be unmake ground? At this stage the SO has reached the bottom of the escalator (I had left her behind me in my enthusiasm to reach my meatballs), and seeing what’s going on is making a beeline for You There. Reckoning that I look like Jimmy Stewart during one of his sillier cinematic moments, I give up trying to trot down the escalator and leave negotiations with You There to the SO.

I watch the discussions from an atrium from which access to the restaurant or the living room section can be gained. The SO’s face is smiling and placating in the wake of the mini-security guard’s expression of thunderous mistrust. It is here that my indignation begins to bubble to the surface. You There’s body language screams contempt, and it is my beloved SO to whom that contempt is directed. I can see her explaining to the diminutive Guardian of Flat-Packs and Soft Furnishings that we are not shoplifters. We just came to buy a suitcase and eat some meatballs. And I can see that You There is having none of it. If anything his hostility increases. His little barrel chest bulges outwards and he starts to point: at the exit, at me and the suitcase, at the restaurant. He then makes a Hitleresque gesture with his right arm, rapidly drawing an imaginary diagonal line between the SO and himself with a stubby index finger.

“Under no circumstances”, the gesture says, “can you go upstairs with that suitcase. For all I know you’ll trek through the store secreting into the case items for which you have no intention of paying.”

I can see the penny dropping with the SO that there is no way in the wide earthly world she’ll convince You There that we are innocent customers, who after a twisting and thirsty tour through part of Ikea’s labyrinth are crying out for refreshment. She flashes him a final smile as if to say that no matter how ignorant or fascistic You There might be, he’s not going to kill her post-luggage-purchase buzz. And she’s not going to let her manners slip either. She thanks him and tells him she understands his position before slipping on to the elevator to join me in my atrium of indignation.

“Little prick,” I spit, and then proffer some other four letter words. “I’m gonna go down there and stuff him into the suitcase. Prick.”

“Don’t bother,” I am told. “Let’s just forget about your meatballs and get out of here.”

You There glowers at us all the way as we take the downward escalator and make our way to the exit. Even while we’re packing our new suitcase into the boot of the car I still feel like giving this jumped up jack a piece of my mind.

“We broke with protocol,” says the SO, thinking out loud. “In Ikea you’re meant to spend a couple of tiring hours wending your way around the displays. Then pop up to the restaurant for your meatballs. And then, and only then, mosey downstairs to pick up — and pay for —everything you’ve decided to buy.”

“Well. There’s no excuse for ignorance,” is my reply.

I’m not sure if I ever want to go back to Ikea. We have been regular customers. A hefty proportion of the furniture in our house is from there. We have usually made a couple of trips a year to our local outlet to pick up sundry items. Our girls love the place. Their imaginations are fired by walking into the display kitchens and bedrooms and pretending that they are walking through their other parallel lives or the lives of invented friends and relatives. Trips to Ikea have always been fun. But now the heavy-handed, bad-mannered attitude of one outsourced employee and a glimpse into the inflexibility of this multinational’s look-eat-purchase policy has left me with a sour taste in my mouth. As of writing this my indignation has not yet worn off.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 32 of 32

Luke reached An Chéim Bhriste planning to do violence.

If I can’t have her by hook, I’ll have her by crook.

A screwdriver jammed into the lock of her French door would provide easy access. He would break in when she and that night’s pickup were sleeping, give the man a bang on the head with a rock from her heather bed, and then have some fun with Máire. He would tie her up afterwards and be gone to England on the boat by the time the alarm was raised on Monday or Tuesday.

As he waited in her dark and silent garden, thinking about the consequences, his desire for immediate revenge cooled. There was no point in being hasty. In the bushes behind her house a plan came to him — a better plan, one which did not involve giving up everything to flee. A plan where pleasure would be maximised and risk minimised.

There would be no third party. Just him and Máire. He would break in on a Friday night wearing proper gloves, a balaclava, shoes and clothes he would dispose of afterwards. He would have some fun with her into Saturday morning, tie her up good, lock down the house, and return after work on Saturday evening for a whole day with her. Then she would disappear. He knew lots of places along the tracks where a body could lie undiscovered for years. Her car could be driven to any number of lonely coves along the mouth of the Shannon to make it look like she had ended her own life. He could even wear the wig he had bought for Farrah while he drove her Subaru, in case anyone spotted him.

It would be a busy weekend with lots of details to get right — exhausting, but exhilarating. If planned and executed correctly he would get away scot-free. If the gardaí suspected him at all, he would be far down the list. Would they not go after the string of men she had slept with in the last few months? The only worries were Senán, Trish and Farrah. They knew he had been following Máire. But their silence could be guaranteed by the usual method. He had something on all of them.

The cut of the man Máire brought home that night added insult to the injury of her rejection. He was what Francie would have described as a “butty little man” — short and overweight. It gave Luke no pleasure to watch him cavort with Máire on her couch. She clearly found him to be a wonderful lover, and hilarious to boot. He had never seen her laugh so much during foreplay. She screamed with laughter as the little fat man tickled her with tongue and lips, and when he performed cunnilingus and she climaxed he could hear her screams through the French doors.

In the bedroom the man was much more passive than any of her other lovers. He lay on the bed and let her do what she pleased, the coup de grâce being her straddling him and screwing him slowly until he orgasmed. It was out of habit rather than arousal that Luke masturbated as he watched this. His ejaculation into her flower bed was done with disgust instead of the usual feeling of triumphant relief.

Afterwards he walked quickly down the Peafield Road feeling cold and tired and looking forward to getting home, having a warming cup of tea and collapsing into bed. He would have a lie-in until mid-afternoon — there would be no visit from Farrah, after all — and not leave the house all day. He would watch a box set while his grandparents were out, review the new videos of Máire and think about what he was going to do.

He was deep in thought when he arrived at Walsh’s car park, and between this and his tiredness he wasn’t as wary or alert as he normally would have been. The other car in the walled-in space did not attract his attention, and as he opened his boot to put his rucksack inside, it was far from his mind that he might be jumped. But before he knew what was happening, a pair of men had grabbed either arm and were dragging him roughly to a small graveyard up the road from the pub. Protest was made impossible by a sharp punch to the solar plexus from a third man.

As he struggled for breath and the men clamped his arms to his sides he heard a voice, male, deep and husky.

“What have you been doing in that woman’s garden?”

Luke’s silence earned him another punch in the gut.

“Now,” said the voice. “Too many punches like this aren’t good for you, so you’d better start talking.”

Luke didn’t know the voice, but he knew the accent. Country. Tipperary. A bit like Senán’s accent, with a lilt at the end of each sentence.

“Senán,” he gasped to his left, guessing that he was one of the silent men holding him. “Senán.”

Another punch came.

“Shut the fuck up, Peeping Tom.”

Luke saw blue flashes dancing over the glow of the city’s lights. He retched.

“Listen. I’ll save you the effort. We know you’ve been stalking that woman. Looking in her windows. And pulling your wire.”

The man paused for effect. Luke looked up, squinting, and saw a Donald Trump mask. He had sold quite a few in the shop at Halloween. The man’s breath smelled like cigarettes.

“We have it all on candid camera. Here — take a look.”

The man took a phone out of his pocket and played a video for Luke. It was a high-quality night-vision recording of Luke masturbating outside Máire’s bedroom window. He knew from his attire that it was from that very night. Someone must have hidden a streaming night-vision camera in the garden.

Senán, he thought.

“You’re fucked if we send this to the police. We’ve a whole week’s worth of these. You do a lot of wire-pulling, don’t you? You’re fond of the aul’ wanking?”

The man to his right sniggered. This man was definitely not Senán.

“The penny’s dropped with you now, Lukey boy. You know we’ve cameras in her garden. And we’re watching the other girl you’re stalking too. You know who we mean.”

It has to be Senán, he thought, it has to be!

“So your stalking days are over. D’ya hear me?”

This time the man gave Luke a dig in the groin. His legs collapsed from under him, but the other men held him up. His interrogator lit a cigarette and smoked through the air hole in the mask while he waited for Luke’s rapid breathing to subside.

“Now. We know you’re not a stupid young fella. A twisted pervert, maybe. But not stupid. So you’ll listen. You’ll stay away from that woman up there and you’ll stay away from the other young one. Forever. Got it? No more sniffing around them.”

The man waited until Luke grunted an affirmation.

“This,” said the man, holding up and tapping his phone, “is our insurance policy against Lukey-Luke misbehaving himself. Got it?”

Luke managed a yes.

“Good man. Now. What does behaving yourself mean?”

The man looked at Luke awaiting an answer. Luke couldn’t get any words out.

“I know you’ve problems speaking so I’ll tell ya.”

There was another snigger to Luke’s right.

“You never show up around here again. If you’re seen in that woman’s garden or even on this road, the cops are getting these videos. And the world wide web as well. Also, if you bother the other young one in question, you’re in for the same treatment. And as well as the guards getting involved, the three of us will give you a good seeing-to into the bargain. Got it?”

“Yes.”

“Sure?”

“Yu-yu-yes.”

The man threw his cigarette to the ground and shot a hand towards Luke’s throat, which it gripped with ferocious strength. Luke instinctively kicked out at the man and received a punch to the temple for his efforts. The man squeezed for ten or twenty seconds before letting go.

“You deserve to have seven shades of shite beaten out of you, you sick fucker, but we’ll leave it at this. Drop him, boys.”

The other men released their grip on Luke and he fell to the ground, his hands arriving too late to save his face from banging into the gravel. He lay prone, listening to the footsteps retreat. He pulled himself up after he heard the car engine die away.

When Luke arrived back to his car, walking woozily and with a sick feeling in his stomach and cold throbbing in his groin, the boot’s hatch was still aloft. Gingerly stretching an arm up to close it, wincing from the pain in his diaphragm, he saw that his rucksack was missing. He cursed Senán and the other two men. He would have screamed if he had the strength, would have pounded on the glass of the hatchback and roared into the night. As it was, he barely whispered.

“I’ve lost everything,” he said to the cold night air.

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Gu-Gu-Geoghegan — Chapter 31 of 32

Luke bent down to look under the stall doors and craned his neck around the half wall which hid the urinals. When he was sure he had the place all to himself he stood in front of the mirror and took a long look at himself. He was still unsure about the beard. Almost three weeks’ growth of brindled hair ran from his locks to the mouth to below his chin. He had trimmed it according to the instructions of a YouTube male grooming “guru”. Sometimes it looked good to him — made him look older — and other times he felt ridiculous. He ran a thumb and forefinger through its hairs and wondered was it too short and thin. He had heard Debs refer to it as “bumfluff”, but it didn’t matter what she or anyone else in Francie’s thought about his new look. All that mattered was whether it impressed Máire or not. If it put a few years on him and made him seem more manly it will have done its job.

“Too-too late to do anything about it now,” he said to the mirror.

He was talking out loud to himself in the shop now when no one was in earshot. It had improved his stutter, he was certain.

“How’s your speech tonight, Luke?” he said to the bearded man in the mirror.

“Gu-good,” he replied. “Good. Good. Good. Great. Fan-tas-tic.”

He straightened his jacket and fixed the collar of his River Island shirt. He hadn’t gone for a waistcoat after all. He thought the garishness of the paisley shirt spoke for itself. Between it, the beard and the mustard-coloured drainpipe trousers, he felt he had pulled off the hipster look successfully.

“The old Luke is dead,” he said, with an actor’s diction.

He checked his shoes — one-hundred-euro Kurt Geiger brogues from Brown Thomas. The right one showed a small scuff mark, so he moistened some toilet paper and gave the shoe a careful rub.

“That’s better,” he said. He looked himself up and down.

“Are you ready?” he asked the man in the mirror.

“Never more ready.”

“Go for it Luke, boy. You’ll be buried up to your balls in Máire Ní Mhainnín by the end of the night.”

“Too right!”

 

On returning to Dazzlers’ main bar, Luke looked to see if Máire was still by herself in her usual place. With relief, he saw that she was still sitting alone. She wore a plain black party dress he had seen her wear once before. No embellishments or ornamentation were needed beyond the beauty of the wearer. Her hair and lips pulsed in the lights from the dance floor, and her skin glowed an alluring kaleidoscope, a silent song ringing out to all the men in the club. Luke drew a deep breath and moved in answer to a call he had felt for weeks.

The walk seemed to take an age. The soles of his new shoes slipped on Dazzlers’ buffed wooden floor, and he became self-conscious of his stride, thinking that he may be looking foolish as his shuffling feet sought traction.

“Come on, Luke, take it easy,” he whispered to himself. Butterflies danced in his stomach, swooping and pullulating the closer he got to her table. By the time he reached Máire, his heart was pounding and he was certain his face had reddened and that a sweat had broken out on his brow.

I’m roasting in this fucking jacket and with the beard and all.

He stood beside Máire’s table, watching her from closer than ever before. It took her a short while to register his presence and change the focus of her gaze from the dance floor. Her big, bright eyes looked him up and down, and when finished with their interrogation of his appearance, locked onto his own in a bold enquiry of his desires.

He tried to get out his practised line of asking her if she wanted a drink, but all that came from his mouth was a gurgle. Her eyebrows arched and her gaze seemed to intensify. Luke felt it burning his face. He took a panicked breath and blurted out the first thing that came into his head.

“You look beautiful.”

The words were bullet-fast. He almost winced.

“Thank you,” she said, only her mouth moving.

“I’ve been watching you.”

The line didn’t seem as funny as it had in his bedroom.

“OK,” she said.

“You’re beautiful.”

Luke could have kicked himself. He needed to get his act together or he’d blow it.

“You said that already.”

“Can-I-can-I get you a du-drink?”

Keep it simple, Luke. Keep it simple.

“Can you get me a drink?” She smiled. It washed over Luke like fairy dust. The tense muscles of his face managed a half smile. “Well, you’ve to sell yourself a bit more. I’m very picky about who I let buy me a drink.”

Luke realised that she had opened the door a crack, and it was up to him to push it back fully. There was a chink of light, a possibility. The next few moments would be his elevator pitch. He was being auditioned.

“I’m Luke,” he said. “I like bu-bu-beautiful women. I like fucking. I want-to-want-to go home with you.”

He guessed that she would like the direct approach. No beating around the bush.

Máire blinked slowly, but kept her eyes trained on Luke when they reopened. The smile spread further along her smooth cheeks.

“You’re pretty forward, aren’t you? I usually get at least some filler before men get onto the subject of fucking and taking me home. You’ve no spiel for me? You’re not lonely or in search of a soulmate or someone to share your heart with or any of that baloney?”

“No,” answered Luke, his own smile broadening.

“No hobbies you want to tell me about? Or give me the low-down on your job?

“No.”

“That’s novel, anyway.”

She took a sip of her wine and re-crossed her legs. After putting her glass down she caught Luke staring at her thighs.

“So. What would you do to me if I left with you tonight?” she said, with a curl of her lips.

She was challenging him. It was like a game. Luke had never been spoken to like this before, but ideas of what he would do to her were never far from his mind. He thought of what she had got up to with the hipster, that first night he had followed her home.

“I’d-I’d strip you off. I’d-I’d tie you to the be-bed and then lu-lu-lick you all over, slu-slu-slowly. Thu-then I’d fu-finger-finger you hard until you screamed. And then fuck you hard.”

He had watched these events multiple times on his computer, enough to know that what the hipster had done to Máire had driven her wild. She had not faked the pleasure. If she had not been tied up, she would have writhed off the bed.

“Been there, done that,” said Máire. “Have you anything new for me?”

“Nu-nu-new?” Luke, trying to think on his feet, put the videos out of his mind and thought of his own fantasies. “I’d bend you over backwards and fu-fu-fuck you up the arse while I sh-sh-shoved a vi-vi-vi-vibrator up your gowl. Then I’d make you suck my balls.”

“Ooh, forceful.”

She looked him up and down, letting her eyes rest on his crotch before they returned to his face.

“Are you hard?” she asked him.

“Yu-yes.”

She laughed. “Well at least one of us is getting something out of this.”

“You mean-you mean—” he began, but Máire didn’t allow him finish.

“I don’t mean to be cruel, but you’re just not doing it for me. How old are you?”

“Twu-twu-twu-twenty-six,” he lied.

“You look like a boy. I like mature men. Strong men. And you’re neither. I like a good tussle with a well-built man. Sorry.”

“But-but-but . . .”

Luke shut his mouth. Máire had already turned her attention back to the dance floor.

“Nu-nice talking to you,” he said and backed away. She didn’t even look up as she said goodbye.

 

He left Dazzlers immediately. Outside the club, as he stood in the rain, the street spun around him. He felt nauseous, sick with disappointment and rejection. That was it. His chance with Máire gone.

“Fuck,” he said to himself. “Fuck.”

His youth and weedy body had blown it for him. For the umpteenth time in his life he wished he were someone else, anyone but Luke Geoghegan.

“Well-built man,” he said, walking with no destination in mind. “Fuck well-built men.”

He thought about the optimism that had driven him over the last few weeks. A feeling that if he could smarten himself up, put on a show of confidence and control his stutter, he would have a good crack at getting the woman of his dreams, giving his life a spark it had always lacked. There had been a happiness, a joy, a bounce to his step that he had never experienced before. He had begun to see himself in a different light, to see a space for himself outside of the shadows and his darkened Sunday afternoon bedroom. His life had opened up beyond stuttering, skulking and working for Francie. He could be like Senán if he wanted it badly enough: sure of himself, happy in his own skin, gliding easily and unselfconsciously through life.

But Senán was well-built, handsome, not cursed with the body Luke had had to manage with. Mr Universe, he had overheard Trish calling him once. He also knew they called him Gollum behind his back. And that they mocked his stutter. Funny thing: his stutter had been all right when he had spoken to Máire. After the initial stalling he had been OK. More than OK — the best he had ever been talking to a stranger. She hadn’t mentioned his stutter or even seemed to notice it. Nor did she seem to remember him from before. He had half expected her to ask if they had met, but no. She had not remembered him.

He suddenly became conscious of where he was and pulled up. He had walked up Mallow Street almost as far as the train station. He turned for Perry Square, near where he had parked his car, nose facing Monaleen and a cottage called An Chéim Bhriste.

I’ll give her something to remember me by.

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