By sean mcnulty
What one would do for a bit of peace and quiet.
I enjoy my walks to the library each day, tremendously. Stopping to buy that morning’s paper, then walking along the stream and watching the ducklings bob peacefully in the water behind their mother. Everything seems right with the world. But once inside the library there is that restlessness again, the vigilance, the need to avoid What’s-his-face, the literary man, the bore. For I am loathe to listen to him yet again jabbering about the arts. And I have yet to finish the book he loaned me two years ago. Started it even. What’s it called. Or listen to him bang on about his distaste for realism in Irish novels, or about his own continuing attempt to translate the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum into Irish to curry favour with the Gaelic League (who are forever asking for larger and more venerable volumes rendered as gaeilge – but who might I ask would ask for what What’s-his-face was cooking up). Or listen to him use the word humdrum all the time. Humdrum this, humdrum that. I personally like humdrum. And I know that many of us in the town do. You can see it in our faces. How we dip our heads when passing each other, perform a smile only when absolutely necessary. How we look away from the nee-naw of emergencies, pray for the best, but sidestep the worst. Humdrum means no drama, no heartache, no human contact, if humanly possible.
Avoidance is a skill one endeavours to master in this town. We know we have been damned by the national prescription to be hospitable all of the time, when really we are racked with misery, every last one of us, the only joy we derive from others is that which comes in those random moments we allow ourselves to voice a complaint and have it zinged back at us. Not all of us though. Not What’s-his-face. Nor that other town across the county from us that apparently fulfills the national quota for friendliness – but the less said about them to be honest.
After the library I go around the side behind the next-door museum where there is a little cafe with a terrace, and it is the greatest place to hide from the town as nobody knows it exists except for the people who work there and a few of us who time our visits in such a way to avoid the other. It’s twelve-fifteen. I’ve timed it so I am ahead of my normal schedule. What’s-his-face is probably gone by now, so time for me to go there. I order the usual what’s-it-called and sit down and spread out my newspaper so it covers the whole table. Something you wouldn’t do if there were people around.
But my heart soon sinks. For all of a sudden someone is around: What’s-his -face.
What one would do for a bit of peace and quiet.
He pulls up a chair at my table and starts into the customary salutations. I try my best with him. Though inside I am devastated.
How’s your what’s-it-called coming along? I ask him.
Oh, the translation, he responds. Yes, it breathes in fits. Currently I’m at an impasse. It is often difficult to find the best Irish words to interpret the Latin phrasing. Particularly when dealing with the black arts.
Gaelic too humdrum a language, is it?
On the contrary. Some hexes sound better in the old language, believe you me.
Well, the Gaelic League will be pleased.
I take a drink from my what’s-it-called and look down at the paper. Initially it doesn’t occur to me that this move could be seen as impolite. I have no interest in speaking with the man. And I would prefer it if he acknowledged my desire for personal space, but I fast recognise how disagreeable this is, and glance back up at him smiling.
Realism was fiction’s last end, he says. Everything’s humdrum. We need to get back to the fantastic.
Oh, here we go again, I think to myself, but nod as if agreeing. This is how most of us get by in the town. Stay agreeable against the odds. But I can’t help myself and look down at the newspaper once more.
Have you finished it? he suddenly asks me.
Finished what? I say.
Ah, yes. No, I haven’t. I’ll get to it.
You haven’t even read it yet? Two years you’ve had it.
My apologies, I say.
I return to my paper, but noticing a longer silence from him, I look up again and see antipathy in his eyes. It’s like nothing I have seen in him before. It is quite like nothing I have seen in any set of eyes before. Not in this town. We may be unfriendly, but we are certainly not bad-intentioned. He lifts his head gently and glances into the cafe, checking to see. I turn to check and see what it is he’s checking for but as I do this he lunges over the table and thrusts me onto the ground. His fingers are like thick ropes around my throat and I feel the edge of a palm crushing my Adam’s apple. My eyeballs swell but in their widening I see only that face on top of me, ferocious and inhuman, with his teeth showing, and spit falling, his eyes burning like a regular inferno, and my arms reach out, hands slapping the ground wildly, rapping the concrete for attention, hoping for aid, and wondering where everyone is.
I have not envisioned the devil before, except for those images drawn up in our culture to scare us, but it seems clear to me I am looking at the devil now as that fear from the imagination is palpable and alive.
A dimness falls over me . . . then voices . . . a nee-naw . . . and darkness.
A bit of peace and quiet indeed. And all this for a book? What’s it called. If only I had remembered.