Once A Husband Almost
By sean mcnulty
It was my half shift, thank Christ, so if I could slip out the door quick, I’d be spared any further hassle this day. The protestors would probably leave me be if they thought I was just running across for a sandwich. I would indicate to them that I’d be back in a minute and they could harangue me all they wanted when I returned, and this would be all the more gratifying for them since they would be disrupting my lunch break, even though, unknown to the bastards I would not be returning at all, would instead be skedaddling for the rest of the day. Before leaving I dropped into Arthur’s office to let him know I was off, but he wasn’t to be seen there. He was probably hiding out the back or something waiting for it all to blow over. Wouldn’t surprise me. He was a fine one for shovelling guff but spineless at the other end of it.
The Carrickphelimy Examiner was founded in 1879 by Seamus Hannaway (same as the ale – practically an empire that family), but in recent years ownership had fallen to Arthur Lavery (no drink to his name but plenty of rep). Lavery was an abrasive individual. One needn’t bother objecting because someday there’d be legends about him he would tell you and time would be kinder to him, surely. He liked to think he represented an older style of newsman and this was his reason, or excuse, for behaving rather badly in the office; those elders still knocking about took exception to this characterisation of their era as one permitting of assholes.
Some might say Arthur Lavery’s personality warranted the present scandal, though there were many who sang his praises for reinventing the publication. The Examiner had changed considerably under his stewardship. In days gone it was known for taking a ferociously nationalist editorial stance, but in the 50s many in the Free State were prone to patriotic negligence and the paper was one such victim which lost its political edge and became nothing more than a public notice-board, made up almost entirely of ads and notices, the usual obits and pieces. It went on like this for several decades. With the occasional contribution from a regional rhyme-maker. To be fair, there were many who believed that this was all a local newspaper needed to be – being the paper of record. When Lavery came along in the 80s, he introduced a more tabloid feel, making greater space for the crime reports with catchier headlines above them, and most importantly and crowd-pleasingly, by increasing the number of snapshots, for half the paper consisted of the readers smiling in photos, or try-smiling, or inner-smiling: competition winners and small business owners and college graduates and weekend revellers; and you’d see them pictured at wedding receptions and deb balls and opening nights and communions and confirmations and launches and lunches, you name it. And now the paper was well and truly loved by one and all, thanks to Arthur Lavery, and purchased by everyone, young and old. Admittedly, even I appeared in it a few times, and was first in the shop on print day to get my copy. It was great to have a picture-record of a grand old time you had. And even better than seeing yourself was seeing people you knew. Doing what they did and what you didn’t, or hadn’t, or wouldn’t, or absolutely would next weekend.
Kerley was out there now photographing the protestors. As I was leaving, he glanced at me with a knowing irony. Lavery would publish the photos regardless and the screaming Deanes would no doubt be glad of the publicity the paper gave their cause.
The signs I could see read: FAKE OFF EXAMINER; DONE WITH CARRICKFELONIES; and OUT THE TOUT.
Here you, squawked Mary Deane, when she saw me sneaking out the door.
I pointed to Costcutters across the road and mimed eating a sandwich.
Fine, she said.
After grabbing a cheese sandwich and a bottle of red wine in the store, I hopped off down the street away from the Examiner offices and the town centre. As it was still early in the day, about two, there were people coming towards me on their way in to do shopping and I noted in their faces something strangely deflated and contemptible. They could blame the Tout all they wanted but there had to be more to their despair. Like God had let them down or something. Despite belonging to the town, I didn’t have this despair in my face. At least I hadn’t seen it when viewing myself in the mirror. For one thing, I no longer sufficiently believed in God to feel let down. But to be frank I didn’t understand the hunger within them at all. And now the backlash they gave for all the balderdash they craved. When the Roving Martlet, the paper’s previous ‘prestige’ columnist, vanished a few years back, with rumours of him perishing, quietly in his sleep, of causes natural and rather uninteresting, the Scouring Tout was the replacement the paper needed, and the region thought it deserved, for not many claimed to enjoy the Martlet’s reports, which never braved beyond the island’s fences. They asked a bit more for their buck.
Although I sensed malaise, Carrickphelimy was all the same a quiet and inoffensive town (when they weren’t out protesting something or other). I was even more aware of this as I came onto Forgall Terrace. Not a single soul about. I imagined everyone was inside their houses angrily typing out their letters to the editor, or more ambitiously epic screeds, or on their phones sharing their bitterness with fellow cranks.
When I got to No. 15, I rang the doorbell but for the first time (I believe ever) I didn’t hear the muffled buzz, nor feel the accompanying little shock in the tip of my index finger. The bell must have come to a blunt end in the week since I’d been there last so I lifted the rarely used knocker and let it fall hoping the low thud it made would be heard. Luckily, it was. And Assumpta opened the door.
Oh, I’m killing a mouse, at least I think it’s a mouse, she said, and turned back into the hallway leaving the door wide for me to enter.
This was my weekly appointment with the Newlodges, Assumpta and Gerard (that last syllable pronounced like the word hard – I knew not to call him Gerry for doing so tended to upset him), the housebound brother and sister responsible for these Scouring Tout pieces, though they were purportedly the brainchild of Gerard in the main. Since the Roving Martlet column folded, I had acted as go-between, and as a result had the controversy aimed squarely at me, with even Lavery suspecting now it was all my doing.
Gerard and Assumpta had been living at No. 15 Forgall Terrace since their parents passed away, an event which had occurred years before I was even born. Rumours of incest between the two were out there and though I could not refute them entirely I was inclined to disregard as neither sibling showed any interest in sexual matters at all, let alone an attraction to the other. Never in my company anyway. From our conversations, I’d come to understand that in Assumpta’s case there had been once a husband almost. This ex she’d had, a hotelier by profession, eventually gave up everything to become a priest, she told me – she had always had a hunch he swung the other way. I heard Gerard regularly tease her saying it was her refusal to give the man a child that scuppered her chances and she had mentioned on one occasion to me her aversion to having children. That she wouldn’t want the bother. But it didn’t seem to play on her mind at all. Besides, Gerard himself had no excuse. If you slagged him for his own bachelorism he would just huff and dip his head. (Gerard was similar to Arthur Lavery in many ways. Except without the wealth. Or wife and kids.) I cannot lie that I saw in the unmarried misanthropy of the Newlodges my own hang-ups reflected and knew it was one of the reasons I had begun my association with them. For being unattached in this town you might as well have been an outlander. Although a great divestiture of faith seemed to have occurred, one thing the people of Carrickphelimy had not thrown out was conjungal alliance. It was all husbands and wives and those in the process of becoming that. So I saw in the unwedded Newlodges something I could relate to.
But that was as far as it went. For there were things about them I related to less.
The past, for instance, didn’t get a look-in with them. This was evident when inside No. 15. Bizarre for a brother and sister in a long-possessed home to own or display no heirlooms. Or family pictures. I trusted they existed somewhere in the house, perhaps in an album tucked away in a drawer, or loose in one of the numerous biscuit tins on top of the cabinets. Still, I enjoyed looking at the other stuff they had, even if it was all a bit too messy for my liking. Under the biscuit tins were many shelves with many books. The dust on these shelves had settled to perfection as though it was artificial dust on a film set. Though it unnerved me somewhat, I enjoyed also the creepy painting of the wild sika stag they had in the front room. F. Noel Montescu, 1923. Face on it would scare a lion off. And there were videos and DVDs everywhere. Stacked high against the walls (because the shelves were already overcrowded with books) or scattered around, chaotically, laid down in unexpected places. First thing you saw when entering was a Jack Nicholson box-set and Series 1 of The Good Life on the table in the hallway beside the landline telephone.
The bell doesn’t work, I said to Assumpta when in the front room. She had a brush and pan in hand and was probing the floor for darting rodents.
Why the wine? she asked, eyeing the bottle of red I’d brought. That’s not normal behaviour out of you.
Well, the news I have isn’t good so I thought this might wash it down. Lavery’s decided to axe the Tout column. With all the rancour it’s caused.
About time, I’d say, she said.
I thought you’d be upset about it.
Shithead will. It’s his hobby horse. Sure I’m working on my play now. I’ve no time for your provincial rag anymore.
Funny. I always had a sneaking suspicion Assumpta was behind the whole thing. She felt like the real writer to me, having only met a few in my time. Gerard didn’t have the same tone. The same self-assurance. No harm to him, he was my friend, but he was infested top to bottom with pretension. I had met many like that. Sure wasn’t I one myself!