But I cannot deny my past to which my self is wed,
The woven figure cannot undo its thread.
As that hypocritical old Russian Christian-Socialist millionaire-peasant ascetic-boozer-groper-and-father-of-bastards-beyond-the-counting-of-‘em (don’t laugh, your great-granda could’ve been one) Leo N. Tolstoy, serf-Count and author of W&P and Anna K., never said to the missus over crackly plump sausages, black bread of the holy steppes, thick cream from the sleek cows of Yasnaya Polyana, foamy sweet Caucasian kvass, and/or vodka (certainly not in English, anyway):
Oy! All happy marriages are alike, but each unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way. (Springs onto table, dances the kazachok.) Hey! Hey!
But he might have. And he’d have been right.
Just take the peculiar case at hand, that of Ferdia and Shirley Quain, inhabitants of the faux-Edwardian pebbledash bungalow at No. 15, Cretino Crescent, Killoyle City, in the lush, verdant, nonexistent southeasternmost of Ireland’s 32+ counties. The Quains’ marriage had a tendency to hit the rocks with the regularity of smokers’ bronchitis in an Irish winter1, usually as the result of no obvious cause beyond tempers on the simmer for a day or so beforehand, Ferdia’s layabout indolence (now that he was officially retired as Chief Archivist of the Provisional IRA, Northern Command) and Shirley’s time of the month. But once they went off the rails dramatically, even for them, and it took a trip to America, and Interpol, and a sensational court trial to bring them back together again—sort of. Wait till I tell you.
It came to a head for the first time one night in front of the telly (Bao Dai Days on Channel 4, with special guest stars Lee Bum Suk and Nicolette Tedman). All the aforementioned elements necessary for a grand old bust-up were swarming about in the ether when Shirley, who’d been sneaking sneaky little sidelong glances at Ferdia’s great-dinosaur profile, came to the epiphanic realization that her man was a) “a bloody ex-terrorist” b) “a moron” and c) “bone bloody idle.”
Glaring boldly at him now, she summarized her emotions in a terse exhortation.
“Jesus. You’re as bad as a Unionist,” he spluttered.
“Well, I am a Unionist, as it happens. Funny you never asked. Ex-IRA indeed. Silly bastard. Go on, ‘op it.”
Well, that did for it and all, as John Braine, or even one not Braine, or brainy, might have said. But this was the way of it in the marriage of Irish Ferdia Quain (of the Quain clan, long since reduced by circumstances) and English Shirley Soup (of fine old Yorkshire stock).
Ferdia moved out to his cousin Finn’s place, swearing never to return, at least for a good few days.
Or several hours, at least.
“I’ll teach her, so I will.”
In earnest of his seriousness he took his books (23, not counting magazines)2 with him in his old Rah duffelbag, the one with the Easter lilies on one side, “Poblacht na h-Eireann” on the other; but a week later he moved back in again when Shirl was in less of a wax.
“Sorry, ducks,” she murmured on the phone. “It was my time, you know.”
“Ah sure the hell,” he said, open to anything, even the old game of forgive and forget.
But from the depths of the following month’s monthlies she struck at him again, this time ostensibly on the subject of his hypochondriacal consumption of vitamin tablets and her discovery of a secret cache of four vitamin bottles—containing gelcaps of C, D, E, and a hitherto unknown vitamin named T+, said to be excellent for the gall bladder and the cartilage of the foot area—hidden in the heel of his seldom- (indeed, never-) used Runbucko running shoes, a Christmas gift from his mother-in-law, who’d no use for them, or him.
Shirley held the vitamin bottles high, triumphantly, her eyes glittering.
“What’s this, then?”
“Go on, what the bloody ‘ell is it?”
Ferdia sat up. He’d been dozing: colourful dreams of, for no apparent reason, China, or Japan. Tatami mats, chopsticks, pagoda roofs. (Or possibly Korea, Land of Morning Calm.)
“Oh them. Vitamins, you know, darlin,’ to offset the effects of the fags and the drink and that. Otherwise I’d have to do God knows what.”
It was a red flag to a very angry bovine.
“Oh, you mean like actually get off your arse,” screamed Shirley, “for a start? And take a walk from time to time? Instead of turning into some whinging gaseous old bedridden pill-popping impotent hypochondriac wanker? God, I can’t believe it, I’m the one who has the real job and all you can talk about is that styew-pid wine and cheese shop of yours that’s no nearer reality now than it was six months ago, meanwhile all you do is stagger from sofa to bed and back if you’re not down the pub with your awful IRA chums, God you are a cretin, aren’t you? Cretin cretin cretin. God you look like a gargoyle, did you know that? I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you.”
Ferdia knew it was her time of month again, but even so he reckoned this was a bit over the top.
“Now you listenna me,” he spluttered.
“Go on, ‘op it.”
Later that night he found himself once again, vitamin- and book-heavy duffel bag in hand, at his cousin Finn McCool’s door on the second floor of Lord Thomas Maher Towers, the luxury housing estate on Oxtail Place.
“This time it’s permanent,” he said, glumly.
“Ya never,” said Finn. “Women. Sure they’re a bunch of gacks, so they are. You wait. She’ll come round.”
They entered. Ferd flung himself at the wine rack, stocked by him during his previous sojourn for just such a contingency.
“She’ll come round?” he echoed. “Yes, but will I?” rhetorically inquired he, as the double-jointed fingers of his left hand closed around the neck of a bottle of Chateau-Jaffrey ’98 while with his right he sought the corkscrew.
“Ah yer arse,” commented eloquent Finn.
“Fup,” declared the emergent cork.
* * * *
“No, no buses here. Try a bus company. Goodbye, and don’t call again, or I’ll be really cheesed off—no, really, know what I mean?”
Donal Duddy replaced the handset, his face mottled with angst and high blood pressure as, impatiently, he explored his hollow torso in search of the tell-tale bulge somewhere in his shirt pockets of a packet of Turf Accountant Imperial Ultra-Lite Dual Hyper-Filters3 . . . Eureka! He found one, but only one, and a poor specimen at that, wrinkled and slightly curved downward, like a limp dick, he thought; or the trajectory of his life. (It never occurred to him, Donal being Duddy and vice versa, to turn the fag around to produce instead an upward-yearning symbol of hope, as in a bland United Nations brochure of eternally mindless optimism and beaming black faces with Crest- (or air-) brushed teeth.)
“Buggersods,” he muttered. “Shiteballs.”
Chewing the air with an obscure and nameless fury, Donal stuck the cigarette in his gob, lit it, inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, and proceeded in like manner repetitively for some two to three additional nerve-racking minutes, expertly alternating inhalations, intermittent expectorations, and deep-voiced exhalations (“RRRRRRnnnnnnnahhhh”) between mouth and nose whilst all the while contemplating (for approximately—no, precisely—the 25th time that day) the not-so-great outdoors, Duddy’s corner of which embraced not sun-dappled uplands nor sweeping vistas of the sea nor mighty herds of eland on the veldt; rather, a grey stone wall across the way adorned with moss, the streaked remnants of an old pop concert poster or two and (the main attraction) ineptly-painted renderings of Northern hunger strikers Sean Pease, Petey Partridge and Oinsias “Socks” MacPayne. The wall was a magnet for tourists of a republican persuasion and a subject of total indifference to Duddy, who was of no particular persuasion except neo-alcoholic. Immediately to hand, in the forefront of his vision, was a sight of greater significance to him: a carpark littered with cars, all for sale, or if not, for hire. The place had a sad, even poignant gestalt for Killoyle-born Donal Duddy. Laid off temporarily as an assistant lecturer in “Anglo-Irish and -Saxon Literature Studies or Whatever 101” at Downstairs State College in New Ur of the Chaldees, Ohiowa, he had come home again upon the death of his aged (81) father, known as “Dad,” ex-president of the Southern Counties Bank long-ill-esteemed by all; and, what with the subsequent windfall (the family house plus £70 large, give or take), Donal had soon made numerous evanescent investments in a bad marriage with Jen, a woman with the thighs and buttocks of an Aphrodite Callipygos but (in Donal’s words, screamed by him that final night in the doorway of Mad Molloy’s Poteen and Wine Bar, the new hot spot down on the Strand) “the mind and morals of Himmler—yes that Himmler, do you know any others? In Torremolinos, eh? Well, it’s Heinrich I’m talking about, not Nico”; adulterated drugs, impelled by the hope of seeing phantasms of the eye drawn out by the fierce chemistry of dreams into insufferable splendour (no go, just heart palpitations, a touch of eczema, and a bad case of the jigs); striped fur coats afflicted with moth-mange; fast but unreliable cars, all of British manufacture; sagging real estate in and around Big Sinkhole, Fla.; and finally a Manx divorce from Jen and a long sojourn in the confines of a Co. Meath detox clinic (Dr. Matthew Mole’s, The Larches, near Navan4).
Oh it was the bit of an old slump lifewise, you might say, but:
“Right, then,” had been Donal Duddy’s can-do response, as soon as he found himself outside Dr. Mole’s gates, watching the ceaseless traffic of the Dublin-bound down the Navan road. “Cars are the men, me butty.” As a result, after tugging the odd Dad-inherited connection, he was soon assistant under-manager of a used-car business owned by a mostly absentee chap named Byrne up in Dublin. The business was named Heartland Autos, which name Donal took to be a good omen; for did it not seem at first blush to be a fortuitous homage to his former (and future, he hoped) home in America’s heartland, the great Midwest? The woods, the barns, the luminous prairie…and aah the purling waters of the mighty Wabash? Whereas in mundane fact it paid homage to nothing of greater consequence than the previous owner’s favourite pop group, Basil, Heartland and Snicks, whose 1999 hit single “I’m in Sync With Your Hips” had topped the charts for nineteen weeks running and had swept the Gobbovision awards the following year5.
In any case, the place was conveniently located for potential customers, being just off the Uphill Street extension in the northern district of Killoyle.
“WAAAAWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW yummm,” yawned Donal, hippopotamianly. Desperate in the midst of his enforced idleness he picked up his well-thumbed copy of Bookhead, the lit-crit mag, and turned to the agony column.6
“Dear Bookhead,”wrote T. T. in Athlone, Pennsylvania, “I had a crush on Vincent Altomonti, the deconstructionist. I e-mailed him verses from a. a. lemmings and Thom Bunn and Sylvie Plank and even tried to call him up on the phone, all to no avail. He hung up on me, with a very rude noise that sounded like steam escaping from a radiator—you know, the kind you get in old tenement buildings in like New York City? Anyway, I felt really spurned, as if I were an HIV carrier, or a Republican. Then, on his birthday (the 22nd: he’s a Virgo, just like me) I sent him flowers, c/o the English Dept. at Jeffersonia University. One day—one terrible day—I went to the front door and a police officer was standing there, and before I knew it there I was, spreadeagled face down . . .”
The possibility of further perusal of this fascinating tripe was negated by the phone, which rang, or rather, hooted, again, binding Donal tightly in the agony of having to a) answer it and b) communicate with strangers. He was, after all, the only potential phone-answerer on the premises, what with the total number of staff at Heartland Autos PLC having temporarily shrunk to one—himself—after Declan and Nasir, his two colleagues (assistant manager and head of sales respectively), had got themselves arrested for cocaine and heroin trafficking, the silly sods, and been sent off to serve one to three-and-a-half without the option in Shelton Abbey. It had been a tense few days. Donal himself had been subjected to questioning and, as a former drug addict, over the course of a week or so he’d been a bit roughed up round the edges, not to say manhandled verbally, by a nasty specimen named Sherlock Neame (the bastard), Inspector or something of the local Gardai Siochana (the nasty fuckers).
“Drugs, eh?” Neame had growled, making a fist. “Drugs, eh, you narky Yank?” Donal shivered at the memory.
The phone continued to importune in its mindless way—HOOOOOT [pause] HOOOOOOT [pause]— and seemed capable of emitting identical double-hoots until the Day of Judgment unless picked up—HOOOOOT [pause]—HOOOOOOT . . .
“HELLO THANK YOU FOR CALLING HEARTLAND AUTOS WE ADVANCE CREDIT DONAL DUDDY SPEAKING HOW MAY I HELP YOU?”
Actually, this time, once he’d got started, Donal responded with surprising fluency, even courtesy.
(It was a female voice, you see.)
“Yes, madam, each vehicle is thoroughly tested and valeted before being sold,” he awoke to hear himself saying by the tail end of the conversation, the beginning of which he had missed entirely, or already forgotten. Such on-the-spot blackouts were common among former drug addicts, he’d been told, although personally he put it down half the time to plain old mind-blowing boredom with whatever was being discussed . . .Vans? Saloons? Two-door dropheads? For the life of him he couldn’t remember, but whatever it was, she wanted it now.
“I’m going away on holiday with my fiance,” she explained. “Do you have a Web page?”
“Ah. Working on it. Up soon.”
“Well, are you open today?”
“Of course I’m bloo . . .” Donal reined in his traditional Irish ire, not to say irascibility. “Yes, madam, yes indeed, open as can be, open to one and all. Until nine of the p.m, or twenty-one hundred hours. First left after you turn off Uphill Street. Thank you, madam. Do drop in.” (The bleary bloodshot image of a bar named the Dew Drop Inn on the south side of New Ur of the Chaldees, Ohiowa, wobbled in front of his red-rimmed mind’s eye.) It sounded promising, right enough, and there was the faintest hint of a purr in the gal’s voice that sent shivers of a different sort elsewhere than the spine... too, Duddy reminded himself sternly, a deal would be good for business. He might end the day by actually selling a car.
. . but then, as an ex-drug addict and all-round failure in everywalk of life inclusive, what didheknow about anything at all, at all?
“Sweet Fanny Adams,” he muttered to himself, “is the truth of it.”
Brooding, he witnessed with abating pleasure the fading light of the gloomy gloaming leeching away the colour from the Hunger Strikers’ faces, which slowly faded but for incongruously toothy smiles that lingered briefly in the shadows like those of three Cheshire Cats. Twilight drew in its cobalt cloak (metallic-grey actually, just like the
colour of that almost-new Spratt-Mondale GLX with twin turbochargers he’d been trying to move for a fortnight already) and got Donal to thinking wistfully of places and things he remembered, like the covered bridges of western Ohiowa and the fat sluggish galleons of Midwestern thunderclouds bellying across the Ruysdael skies and the towering stalks of maize marching to the horizon in the slanting Raphael sunlight (or was that corn? Never could tell one from the other, or t’other as they said quaintly in the alluvial plain of the Wabash River and environs)…and yet Ireland, home of the meandering boreen and the clay pipe and the Little People, and an absolutely sickening surfeit of twinkling-eyed flute-tootling stout-quaffing anti-nuclear free-loving long-legged red-haired folklorists (and by the way, just to set the record straight, Donal Duddy was not then, nor had he ever been, prejudiced in any way, shape or form against the redheaded—but then he’d never known a single gingernut in all his born days, had he, especially not in Ireland, so there)—Ireland, as we were saying, was a much more modern country than the States, for all her Neolithic passage graves and even more ancient shite!7
“True for ya, bugger,” mumbled Donal. He masticated nullity, negatively. His thoughts had swerved well away from the great unsold mass of automotive metal on his lot—not to mention the insufficiently-updated e-account books and so on (he could barely figure out how to turn the bloody computer off, let alone on)—and were even now plunging inward to his own soul—spirit—ka—harmony—yin/yan—mental rubbish tip, etc.
So yes, Ireland, Marbella-visiting, Mateus-bibbing, satellite-TV-watching software haven, was undoubtedly way ahead of the States, and the longer the inhabitants of that great isolated landmass stayed isolated and clued-in to bugger-all bar not eating (or scarfing down) red meat, saving (or shooting) the road runner, shaping (or letting go) their abs and pecs, driving a car with zero (or 100) m.p.g., building defenses against the Federalist-Zionist conspirators (or the Arabs), etc., the more nineteenth-century they were likely to remain in the extremes of their quasi-religious preoccupations, whereas Ireland, as a full-fledged European nation and duly paid-up charter member of the Treaty of Rome, was becoming far more secular, fashionably skeptical, relativistic, sex-obsessed (while pretending not to be), nouvelle-cuisine-eating, in a word: Eurochic.8
Not that that was all good, mind you.
“Not that that’s all good, mind you,” Donal repeated, this time aloud, preparing to resume his interactive discourse with Bookhead but inadvertently addressing:
The gal, whose arrival had been as silent as that of the first snow (an infrequent visitor to rainy Killoyle).
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Terpsichore. I called earlier? About a roadster?”
From the male perspective—and that would be Donal’s, entirely—she was a knockout: red haired (at last!), clear-skinned, green eyed and appropriately willowy and well-shaped for one who’d blathered on the phone about instant purchases and debit cards and Mediterranean night clubs (he remembered now, he’d recommended one in Ibiza called Paco’s, God knew why, he’d never been near the place, he’d only read about it in some silly glossy mag called Gloss or Glam or something while he’d been sitting in the Garda anteroom, sphincter puckering with ill-ease, waiting to be summoned by Neame (the bastard)) and holidays with fiances and the tan she sported on the exposed parts of her arms and legs was decidedly unIrish in hue. Her teeth, too, gleamed overmuch for a Celt. And look at the hoop on her. Big enough to get a grip on but without the hint of a sag in either hemisphere, as firm and contoured as a pair of conjoined canteloupes, straining against the imprisoning denim of her Lewis jeans. Surely to God she was wearing falsies fore and aft.
Because if she wasn’t, Donal was a goner.
Well, she wasn’t, so it’ll come as no surprise to either of us that Donal was, in fact, a goner, in love instanter he was, the gawm, starting with her arse and spreading up and out, like.
Anyway, to business: It was indeed a roadster she was after, no surprise there either, the afore-mentioned red Tortuga being pretty much her line of country. Donal feigned delight.
“Five speeds, oh aye. Short throws, brakes like hammerlocks (four-wheel disks fore and aft with antilock on all four wheels you’ll not be surprised to learn), a real pleasure in the twisties,” brayed he outside on the lot, with mawkish and utterly false good humour fighting the rising morass of self-disgust and misery in his soul as desperately as a drowning man fights the sea. “Just a few old quid down God bless ya and you’re away. Oh God,” he muttered, turning aside from his own unbearable mock-cheeriness, mine hearty host with the shadows of despair etched under his eyes. The hunger strikers twinkled at him from the deepening darkness. It was the time of day that was always hardest to take. In the twilight he’d usually get a touch of the shivers, even a quick reel or two of the “movies,” as the ex-drug fraternity called the hallucinations, coincident with a sudden fierce longing for extinction that had to be fended off with, say, a visit to a pub.
Donal pledged a grin, shakily.
“Ah. Yes, yes. Narrow highways that effect sudden or abrupt curvature left or right frequently with deleterious effect on mental concentration and/or physical well- being, as in Co. Kerry, say, or the Alps. Highly prized by the boy racers among us as ideal venues to put an automobile’s performance capacities to the test, madam.”
“Well, as a girl racer meself I suppose I’ll have to take ‘er for a spin, yeah?”
“Of course. Mind you, we’ve a nice Spratt-Mondale GLX over there, always garaged, driven round the block infrequently by two nonsmoking old ladies, or were they gentlemen, a right pair of old dears anyhow.”
“Nah. The roadster’s the one.”
Donal bowed, hands poised for clasping, like those of an overly unctuous chamberlain at the court of the Dowager Empress of China (Ming Dynasty); then, suddenly aware of his obsequious demeanor, he put his hands in his pockets and scowled. He’d never quite sussed out the right balance of servility and amour propre you needed in a job that depended completely, after all, on the goodwill and willingness to splurge of total strangers who, being people, were apt to be flattered by handwringing attentiveness and equally likely to take umbrage at its absence, as well as at foolish things like the tilt of your eyeglasses or the cut of your anorak or the lingering afterpong of the fags you smoked—or the fact that you never took your hands out of your pockets, or never put them in, or wore eau de cologne instead of aftershave.9
“Of course, madam.”
“Don’t you ‘madam’ me. The name’s Terpsichore. Terpsichore O’Hanlon.”
“From Killoyle, are ya?’
“Muse of the ah? Dance, is it?”
“Yeah.” She gazed at him intently. “You aren’t Italian, are you?”
“Italian? Good God no. Irish as. Well.”
“Colcannon and boxty with a pint of stout on the side and a fag after.”
Glad that was settled, yet somehow deeply unsettled, Donal handed over the keys.
“I’m Donal,” he ventured boldly, heart fluttering like a caged sparrow. She gave him a tight smile by way of acknowledgment, as if to say “Watch your step you pathetic sex-starved galoot I know what you’re after.” Or words to that effect, such effect being that of a swift kick in the family jewels followed by a slap across the gob. Reminding himself that this was not, after all, the movies, where her character—likely portrayed by some beauteous and excessively-famous lamebrain like Marge Bryan or Lettie Hobsbawm (or Nicolette Tedman, whom she slightly resembled)—would have broadcast hints of absurd future writhings ‘neath tangled bedsheets with a lash-batting comehither and chirpy “Hi, Donal,” Donal stood back, aside, and down, attempting thereby to efface his existence completely from the radar screen of her perception; but Terpsichore O’Hanlon, seemingly (although not, in fact) oblivious, got into the car and proceeded to display her considerable girl-racer capabilities. She shifted and handled the car adeptly, looking all the while like an advert for the blooming Syndicat d’Initiative of St. Tropez or some other Cote d’Azur hot spot (Duddy’s idea of earthly paradise was situated somewhere more or less equidistant between Marseille and Nice: he’d been once, as a laddeen, and always longed to return), right down to the long auburn hair flowing in the brisk breezes of March as the car hugged the corner and she was away at an accelerative rate equal to that of, say, Michael Schumacher at the wheel of a Ferrari on the Westphal straight at the Nürburgring . . . away?