Monday, February 10, 2020

The Cross: Chapter Three

Here is the third chapter of my unfinished (and most likely never-to-be-finished) novel The Cross.

Re-reading it, I've realized that this chapter owes a heavy debt to Roger Buck's novel The Gentle Traditionalist-- to be specific, this very excerpt which Roger published on his blog. All I can say is that it wasn't intentional, and that I only plagiarize from the best!

Chapter Three

Outside, Dean’s sense of unease at the Mormon’s words began to dissipate, and another of the strange waves of excitement he’d lately been feeling took hold.

He’d always hated the early hours of evening. He thought of it as the bottleneck of the day. As a child, he’d come to dread it as the time his father would come home tired and cranky from work. His mother would be irritable because his father was cranky. And he would be the butt of it all. After his father had showered and eaten, however, his mood would be much improved. The atmosphere of the whole house would lighten.

Dean is played by Dirk Benedict

In Ireland, the Angelus bells were played at mid-day and at six o’clock in the evening on RTE, the national public service broadcaster. It had been like that for all Dean’s life, though the God-bashers were pushing harder and harder to have the practice discontinued. It was sectarian, they said. It was an infringement on the right of the non-religious, they said. Of course, Dean was all in favour of the practice. Never agree with the God-bashers, that was his principle. But the truth is, he didn’t like the Angelus bells at all. They reminded him of this hated time of day.

Even now, with his parents in their graves, he hated the early evening. Everybody seemed tired, worn-out, worn-down, for those interim couple of hours. Some people loved spectacular sunsets, but Dean detested them. He liked early morning and he liked night, but he hated the in-between time, when the colours of the sky seemed to be running into each other like melted ice-cream.

He pondered this for a moment, as he looked around the street. A man and a woman were passing on the other side of the road, the woman on the man’s arm, both of them obviously heading out for a night of enjoyment. They were dressed to impress. The woman had obviously spent a considerable amount of time on her make-up, hair and clothes. Her high heels went clack-clack-clack on the pavement. Dean had to stop himself from staring at her. She was a vision of femininity, and she strode down the street like a queen..

Dean liked that. He liked women to be feminine. He liked to see a woman on a man’s arm. He’d listened to so many talking heads, on TV and in lecture halls, trying to convince him that androgyny, gender-bending and the various new forms of sexual identity were exciting and interesting and full of potential, and that all the old gender stereotypes were dull and stultifying. But the sight of a woman on the arm of her chevalier made all that seem like so much hot air.

Yes, he liked things to be fully themselves. Day or night, but not half-and-half. Man or woman, but not something in between. There were exceptions to this rule, but not very many.

He followed the couple down the street, since he was heading the same way, savouring the sound of the high heels clacking on the pavement. Other sounds of the young night excited him; a young man calling down from an upstairs window, to his friend on the street; the theme music of a popular chat-show floating from a living room window, conjuring thoughts of a family around the goggle box, of cups of tea and slippers and all things comfortable; the sound of a car pulling out of a driveway, further along the street. After the evening doldrums, the city was coming to life again, getting its second wind.

He wondered idly if the snazzily-dressed couple were heading to the Comet, like him. But they turned down a side-lane, and he walked the rest of the way by himself. He thought about the Mormons. Were they still hard at work? Would their conversation with him be the most memorable part of their day’s evangelizing? He rather vainly hoped so.

The Comet wasn’t busy. It was very rarely busy. This was the main reason why he went there. People said busy pubs had “atmosphere”. Dean didn’t see the appeal in fighting for a seat, battling to get the barman’s attention, and using a filthy bathroom (in his experience, most bathrooms in busy pubs quickly became filthy). The Comet was plush, quiet and clean. Even when he wanted voices and life around him, as he did tonight, he didn’t want too many voices or too much life.

He spotted that his favourite place was available-- a cosy nook, just underneath a decorated pub mirror. As usual, he spent a few moments staring into the pub mirror, admiring its florid and ornate decorations. He liked the golden glow of the pub lights in its glass.

He left his copies of Erin’s Pride, along with the pamphlets the Mormons had given him, on the table, to mark his place, and went to the bar.

“Evening” said the woman at the bar. He didn’t know her name, but they sometimes exchanged small-talk. She was a tall, dark-haired young woman with a sharp expression. Dean always assumed she was doing a PhD somewhere.

The girl at the bar is played by Kate Beckinsale

“Hello” said Dean. “Hot chocolate, please.”

The woman laughed. “I think we serve you more hot chocolate than everybody else put together. Lots of marshmallows, right?”

“You got it”, said Dean, in a feeble American accent. “Well, it’s no surprise I keep ordering it. This place has the third best hot chocolate in the city.”

“The third best?”

“Yes, the third best. The Sandwich Shack in Glasnevin has the best. And Doherty’s hotel in Pearse street has the second best.”

“You should write a guide to hot chocolate in Dublin. Anything else?”

“Not for now. Thanks.”

He carried his hot chocolate back to his nook, walking slowly. Dean was afflicted with the compulsion-- which was partly a habit, and partly a principle-- of ‘drinking in’ his surroundings wherever he went-- especially when he had seen them many times before. It had started in school, when an art teacher had been teaching them about the Georgian architecture of Dublin city centre, showing them slides of brickwork and plasterwork and lintels, the projector screen glowing deliciously in the darkened class-room. “So next time you’re waiting for a bus in Parnell Square”, she’d finished, “actually look at the Georgian buildings around you, and don’t just moan about the bus being late.” Dean had felt an extraordinary stab of shame at the words. He’d pictured a glassy-eyed slob standing on the bus-stop, whinging about the lateness of the bus, completely blind to anything around him. How despicable!

So now he walked slowly through the pub, stopping to look at the framed pictures of the wall.

He paused before a framed copy of the 1916 Proclamation, the document which had been issued by the rebels against British rule in Ireland in the Easter Rising of that year. Patrick Pearse, the leader of the Rising, had read the document aloud to the small crowd gathered outside Dublin’s General Post Office, which had just been occupied as the headquarters of the rebellion, on the first day of the rebellion. It was Ireland’s own Declaration of Independence, its ringing phrases constantly quoted in editorials, speeches and opinion pieces. Around the margins of the text, black and white headshots of the seven signatories had been inserted. The pictures were so familiar that Dean couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t seen them; seven men, unsmiling, serious, frozen forever as Posterity would remember them. They had the look of stern patriarchs, even though most of them had died young.

He moved on. Here was a sepia photograph of Puck Fair, one of Ireland’s most famous agricultural fairs, in some distant year. Here, a small watercolour landscape showing the Burren, a rocky area in the west of the country. After these, a series of caricatures, culled from some newspaper, showing Dublin eccentrics of the twentieth century. There was Johnny Fortycoats, a tramp from the middle of the last century who was known for his many coats. There was Bang-Bang, a harmless crackpot who would pretend to shoot passers-by in the street, with the words, “Bang bang! You’re dead!”. There was Sergeant “Lugs” Brannigan, the large-eared sergeant of police who had become a legend for his non-nonsense approach to policing, as well as his rapport with the ordinary people of Dublin. Dean always liked looking at these pictures, although it made him rather sad that there were no Dublin ‘characters’ in his time-- unless gangsters, junkies and aggressive beggars might be called characters.

Back at his table, he sipped his hot chocolate, and looked at the pamphlet the Mormon had given him. The cover showed a group of smiling young adults, representing several different racial groups, and bore the caption: “Is There More to Life?”. He opened it. It read: “Career. Shopping. Holidays. Television. Sport. Hobbies. We fill our lives with these things, but is it enough? Don’t you find yourself thinking you were made for greater things?”

Dean sighed and put the pamphlet aside. Its blandness offended him. Where were all those wonderful Mormon pictures of a pale-skinned Jesus standing against a spacey, intergalactic background? Or a picture of the angel Moroni appearing to the young Joseph Smith? Why did everything have to be soft-soaped these days?

He opened a copy of Erin’s Pride at a random page, rejected the first article, and the next, and then stopped at an article about Patrick Pearse, the leader of the 1916 Rising. He had always been interested in Pearse; a poet, schoolmaster, and Irish language enthusiast who had been executed at the age of thirty-six.

The article was several years old. It was written before the centenary of 1916 had been celebrated, the year before. It read: “In only a few years, we will be commemorating the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Doubtless, there will be much debate over how it should be commemorated; whether it should be celebrated for its idealism, acknowledged as the birth of the modern Irish nation, or deplored for its violence. The anniversary will also bring more attention to the life of Patrick Pearse, the leader of the Rising and the President of the Provisional Republic the rebels proclaimed.

“Pearse’s paradoxical and enigmatic personality has fascinated biographers for generations. He was mysterious even to himself, and seemed fascinated by his own character. He was a shy, introverted personality who ended up leading a violent rebellion and being executed by firing squad. He was well aware of this dichotomy in himself, expressing it in these memorable words: ‘Two things have constantly pulled at cross-purposes in me: one a deep homing instinct, a desire beyond all words to be at home always, with the same beloved faces, the same familiar shapes and sounds about me; the other an impulse to seek hard things to do, to go on quests and fight lost causes. And neither thing, neither the quiet home life nor the perilous adventure, has ever brought me any content.’ “.

Dean looked up from the page, excited. It was not the first time he’d read these words, but encountering them unexpectedly gave them an additional power. To seek hard things, to go on quests and fight lost those words stirred his blood, filled his soul with vague but powerful yearnings, with a hunger to go on some quest and fight for some cause!

Once again, he felt the sense of excitement that had been welling up in him lately, the strange feeling that something new and wonderful and terrible was around the corner. It was hard not to be carried away by the notion.

He looked around the pub, which was no fuller now than when he’d come in. There were five or six groups sitting at different tables, along with a handful of people at the bar. Their voices drifted towards him, relaxed midweek voices. Voices in the air had always been Dean’s favourite sound. He looked at one particular group-- two middle-aged men and a woman, the two men dressed in cosy sweaters, the woman wearing a robin-red cardigan. They had kind eyes and looked completely comfortable with each other. Above them, a silent television was showing the chat-show whose theme music he’d heard earlier. All around Ireland, in thousands of living rooms and pubs, people were watching the same chat show, as though the country was one big family.

The scent of hot food from the kitchen, the golden glow of the lamps, the relaxed murmur of conversation, the comfortable thought that there were hundreds of other pubs like this all over the country; all this filled Dean with a deep sense of….what? Joy? Peace? Something in between them?

Was modern Ireland really so bad after all? Didn’t the great tide of ordinary life-- childhood, school, friendship, romance, marriage, children, sickness, all the rest-- surge on, much the same, year after year, generation after generation? Was his nostalgia misplaced, after all?

He looked up at the television screen. Now a man in a colorful dress, with fake breasts and extravagant make-up, was talking to the host. Dean recognized him as Miss Marbles, the drag queen. He seemed to be everywhere these days. Although the sound was down, it was obvious that he was engaging in his usual sexual innuendoes. It was obvious from the effeminate hand gestures he was employing, and the faux-shocked expression on the host’s face.

Dean looked back at the group he’d just been watching. The woman was watching the screen. She had a smile on her face, an amused smile. But was it Dean’s imagination, or did she seem uneasy?

Was Miss Marbles a Dublin eccentric of today? Was he the Johnny Fortycoats or the Bang Bang of this era? The very idea depressed Dean. There was an innocence about Bang Bang pretending to be a cowboy and “shooting” people in the streets. There was no innocence about a man with fake breasts making smutty puns.

“Hey, man, do you want to buy a book of poems?”

Dean looked up, startled. A man in a battered pair of jeans, an open leather jacket, and a rumpled striped shirt was standing over him. He looked to be in his thirties or forties, and had a weather-beaten appearance. His tousled hair was a dark brown, and he sported a heavy moustache that seemed to belong to a different time, though Dean wasn’t sure what that time was.

Paddy Crean is played by John Cusack

He was holding aloft a pamphlet with the title Kiss the Darkness, and an inky drawing of a woman kissing a shadowy figure on the cover. The name Paddy Crean was written in bigger type than the title. In one hand, he carried a shopping bag, doubtless with more copies of his collection.

“Sure”, said Dean. “What does it cost?”

“It costs whatever you want to pay me”, said Paddy, laying down his shopping bag and taking off his leather jacket, much to Dean’s dismay.

“No, no, I hate that”, said Dean, surprising himself by his own outspokenness. He was rarely outspoken. “Just give me a price, and I’ll pay it, or not.”

“How can I put a price on my poetry?” asked Paddy, with surprising earnestness. His voice was deep and rough, but still rather melodious.

“Well, why do you expect me to put a price on it, then?”, asked Dean.

“Tell you what”, said Paddy. “Give me a tenner.”

“Fine”, said Dean, taking out his wallet. He handed over a ten euro note, which Paddy casually laid on the table beside him. He laid the pamphlet on the table, opened the first page, took a pen out of his pocket, and asked: “What’s your name?”


“This is the one hundredth copy I’ve sold”, said Paddy, scribbling an inscription.

“I’m honoured”, said Dean, not knowing what else to say. For a moment, he thought his light irony would sound like sarcasm, but Paddy seemed to take it as nothing but his due.

The poet handed the pamphlet to Dean, with a ceremonial air. At least there was nothing bashful or thankful about his manner-- Dean hated to be embarrassed by overdone gratitude

“This is my fifth collection. I wrote it in Pennsylvania, London, Madrid, the Orkney Islands, and Indonesia. Three broken hearts-- one of them mine, two of them other peoples’. One arrest. One bike accident. Two riots. My major themes in this collection are human freedom-- well, that’s a theme in everything I write-- the prison of convention, the need to be yourself, the pain of love, the love of pain.”

Dean was fascinated. Who volunteered conversation about the themes of their own poetry, to a complete stranger? Well, obviously this chap did. He opened the pamphlet, flicking through it till he came to a poem called “Father Gerry”. Paddy was gesturing to the barmaid. Dean read:

God speaks to me through you, oh Father,
Oh man of God and man of men.
You shower God’s love like incense on
The good, the bad, on everyone;
And in those deep dark eyes, oh Father,
What galaxies are in those eyes!

“Drink?”, asked Paddy, prodding Dean on the hand with his finger.

“No, thanks.”

“One Bulmer’s then, sweetheart. Ah, I see your reading “Father Gerry”.

“Nice to read something positive about a priest, for a change”, said Dean, looking up. The poetry was no worse than he’d expected.

“Priests have a hard job”, said Paddy. “I have a lot of time for priests. I’m not going to hold them responsible for all the sins of the Church.”

“What do you mean, the sins of the Church?” asked Dean.

Paddy looked taken aback. Dean was used to seeing that look, whenever he defended the Catholic Church. “Oh man”, he said. “Where do I even begin?”

“I don’t know”, said Dean. “Where do you begin?”

“Raping children, and burning heretics, and supporting the Nazis, and persecuting queers, and having all that obscene wealth when there’s people going hungry in the world.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah”, said Dean, taking a sip from his hot chocolate to hide his irritation. Should he launch into a debate with this guy? Was it worth it? The man was so self-confident, self-righteous. His own timidity made such clashes excruciating. “I don’t believe all that stuff. The Church is no worse than any other institution, and better than most.” Even in his own ears it sounded feeble.

“I agree with you, buddy, I agree with you”, said Paddy, leaning forward. “I’m against all institutions. They’re all as bad as each other. Get rid of them all, that’s what I say. Thanks, sweetheart”. This last was addressed to the barmaid, as she placed his cider on the table. The poet watched her walk back to the bar, openly ogling her.

“What are you, an anarchist?”

“That’s just another word”, said Paddy, before taking a deep and appreciative draft of his cider. He wiped his mouth. “Anarchism. Communism. Fascism. Liberalism. Catholicism. Buddhism. they’re all just words. I’m into revolution.”

“That’s a word, too”, said Dean, beginning to enjoy himself, now the spotlight was off his own beliefs. “And I thought that a poet would like words.”

“A poet knows that words are mysterious”, said Paddy. “You can’t define them. You can’t limit them. They leak out all over the place. That’s the whole beauty of poetry.”

Dean didn’t say anything. He had to admit it was a good point. He’d already made up his mind that the poet was full of hot air, and he was somewhat taken aback.

“Well, poetry is poetry”, he said, eventually, when he realized Paddy wasn’t going to speak again. “Writing a poem and running a country are two different things. You can’t write legislation in poetry.”

“Why not?”, asked Paddy, quite passionately. “Why not? You’re wrong, man. Government is poetry. Religion is poetry. Sex is poetry. Everything is poetry.”

“The world would fall apart if everybody thought like that.”

“No, it wouldn’t, man. You’ve just been brainwashed. Brainwashed all your life. Sold all these rules. Go to school. Go to college. Get a job. Get a house. Get married. Have two point four children. Watch TV. Have a heart attack aged sixty-four. Pay your insurance, vote for some politicians who’s just the same as all the others, read the newspapers--”

“What’s wrong with all that?”, asked Dean. “Sounds OK to me.”

“You may as well be dead!”, said Paddy, banging his fist on the table. A group at another table looked up. “We’re sent into this world to live, man. To make the most of every day, every moment. To give the finger to convention. To burn brightly until we’re burned out.”

“You mean you want everybody to be like you”, said Dean. “That sounds boring to me.”

“I want everyone to be themselves”, said Paddy. He seemed to have no idea that Dean was playing with him. He was taking the exchange deadly seriously. “I don’t want them to be slaves to convention.”

“Are you not a slave to convention?”, asked Dean.

“No, man, I’m not.”

“Well, how aren’t you a slave to convention?” We’re all slaves to convention. Why shouldn’t we be?”

Paddy stared at Dean for a few moments. He had deep, dark eyes. Right now they were full of emotion.

“Watch this, man”, he said.

He finished his cider in several long gulps. Dean watched him, curiously.

When he’d finished the cider, Paddy stepped on his chair and then onto the table. He waved his arms and began to shout, “Hello! Hello! Everybody! Everybody!”

Dean was gripped by alarm. What the heck had he done? This was going to be mortifying, that was sure. Already everybody in the pub was looking at Paddy.

“I have an announcement to make!”, shouted Paddy, holding his cupped hands to his mouth like a loudspeaker. “You are being lied to! You are being lied to by the government! You are being lied to by the Church! You are being lied to by big business! There’s more to life than this!”

People were laughing now. A few people were cheering ironically. The dark-haired girl at the bar was making her way towards them.

“Life can be beautiful! Life can be free! Life can be poetry!”.

“You forgot to take your tablets, mate”, somebody said. Everybody laughed.

“Alright”, said the barmaid, tapping Paddy on leg. She was smiling.“Fun’s over. Public announcement is over. Get out.”

Paddy climbed down from the table, took the young woman’s hand in both his own, and planted a lingering kiss on it. “Anything you say, my sweet little blossom.” The girl didn’t seem displeased by the gesture, though she continued to point towards the door.

“OK?”, Paddy asked Dean. “Is that unconventional enough for you?”

“Bravo”, said Dean.

“Well, are you just going to let me get kicked out on my own, or are you going to come with me?”

“Where are you going?”

“Who knows? Wherever my feet take me.”

Dean looked at this cup of hot chocolate. There was a little bit left in the bottom. He took a long swig. “OK, then”, he said, rising up from the table.

Maybe this would be his adventure.

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