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Developing talent: Harry Crosbie is building a reputation as a writer

Developer Harry Crosbie started writing fiction because, ‘my wife Rita said, ‘every time you have your nose in a book, you say, ‘I could do that’. Well, stop spoofing and do it.’ I called my chums Banville and Colgan to ask about writing lessons. They both said, ‘just do it’. So, I did it.

Here, we publish Rattle, from Crosbie’s short story collection ‘Undernose Farm’

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Harry Crosbie. Photo: Damien Eagers

Harry Crosbie. Photo: Damien Eagers

Flush Harry – Crosbie has donated proceeds from the book because “homelessness is the greatest tragedy to befall any human; we have a moral obligation to address it

Flush Harry – Crosbie has donated proceeds from the book because “homelessness is the greatest tragedy to befall any human; we have a moral obligation to address it

Undernose Farm, by Harry Crosbie

Undernose Farm, by Harry Crosbie

Gay Byrne, Harry Crosbie, John Banville, John Boorman, and John Shevlin. Picture by David Conachy

Gay Byrne, Harry Crosbie, John Banville, John Boorman, and John Shevlin. Picture by David Conachy

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Harry Crosbie. Photo: Damien Eagers

Vantastic. No. Van Ordinaire. No. One Boy One Van. No. Boy Meets Van. No.

I was going into the removals business. I needed a catchy name. I believe in starting at the top. School finished, beginning of summer. I needed work, I needed money. Serious money.

At seventeen, a motorbike, three girlfriends, drink, fags, party every night — it mounts up. My financial standing would not suit Mr Micawber.

My father said I could use one of his small vans to look for work at the weekend. Perfect. Cut out interviews.

Suited me grand, as I am crippled with shyness and crushed self-esteem. I am not a natural employee. I see myself as management.

In those days, antique dealers put their furniture outside their shops on Saturday mornings. Georgian furniture was cheap, there was no shortage. Big houses were selling up all over Ireland.

I printed my first flyer: Across the street, around the world. Modest, understated, my style. It set a tone, I thought.

Another one: We will do anything for a fiver. Not classy, too needy, a bit clingy. And: Let us handle your drawers (snigger). No, of course we did not use that one. Well, ok, a few times in the Bailey, my new office. Mixed results.

Saturday morning, sunny. An old Georgian Dublin street. Shops open, gear outside, lined up. People, mostly women, middle-class women, viewing. My assistant, not the sharpest knife in the box, it’s hard to get good staff, handed out our flyer (Special Saturday Offer).

Bingo. Within minutes, a knock on the window of the van.

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“Young man, will you bring my new table to Ranelagh, please?”

“Of course, madam, glad for the bit of work.”

A bit of cringing and forelock-tugging is always an earner. Posh ladies like it.

Table into the back of the van in jig time. Clean white sheet over it. Upmarket, as were our clients. The clean-white-sheet scam became our trademark, after I had robbed every sheet in my mother’s house. I got caught and had to buy dozens of them in Guiney’s in Talbot Street. Overheads can kill a young business, you know.

Into the gaff.

“I’m a collector,” she said, la di da.

“Our house is Regency,” she said. “Derek is a barrister,” she said, “he likes nice things.”

Poor Derek.

“Put it over there,” she said. “What do you think?”

“It would be better under the window,” I said, “and lose the ornaments. Declutter.”

We moved it.

“You’re right,” she said. “You’re a clever young man. What did you say your name was?”

“Cedric,” I lied.  

There’s a taxman behind every sofa. I trade in cash only; tax was what you put on your car. Maybe.

“Cedric what?” she said.

“Cedric McGinty,” I said. I liked the sound of that, I might use it again.

She paid me £5 and gave me a £1 tip.

“What do you think of our collection?” she asked.

“Love it: taste, sophistication, in keeping with your beautiful home,” I said.

She glowed. Guff central. Lying bastard.

“What a lovely thing to say, Cedric, you really are a clever boy, you will go far. I’ll book you again, see you next week. Can I have a card for a friend?” she asked.

I gave her one with a flourish. She gave me another tip, another pound. Note to self: bigger cards.

And so it began, business boomed, I was run off my feet. Middle-aged posh women everywhere. I had a queue.

“I booked you first, Cedric. My sister is waiting to show you her pieces, we’ll book you for the rest of the day.”

Remember, I was a spoofer, a blagger’s guide, thirty years before blagging was invented. But I learned fast.

An old dealer saw I was bringing buyers into his shop and in one hour gave me a crash course in Georgian furniture.

“When in doubt, say ‘Everything after the Regent lost its purity.’”

It means nothing but stops questions. Perfect. I used it for years.

In one month, one short month, I was rich. Loaded. I had a wedge, wonga, folding, spondulicks, Nelson Eddies, bees and honey, Johnny Cash.

I drank only cocktails with little red umbrellas, Indian takeaways for twenty people, free poppadoms for all. Boots for the footless childer, fur coats for the homeless. Spend, spend, spend. 

Then I met the two famous old gay dealers from London, and my real education began. They greeted me on the street. They had diamond earnings, flares, bouffant hair. They came to Dublin to buy good Irish furniture. Antique-trade royalty. They nicknamed me ‘Irish’.

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Flush Harry – Crosbie has donated proceeds from the book because “homelessness is the greatest tragedy to befall any human; we have a moral obligation to address it

Flush Harry – Crosbie has donated proceeds from the book because “homelessness is the greatest tragedy to befall any human; we have a moral obligation to address it

Flush Harry – Crosbie has donated proceeds from the book because “homelessness is the greatest tragedy to befall any human; we have a moral obligation to address it

They booked me for the day. They were going to a big house auction down the country. I said I would follow their taxi. They said no, they would come with me in the van.

I sang for them most of the way and they recited dirty poems. We stopped twice for drinks. I watched them at work that day. A masterclass, no blagging here.

Deep knowledge, sophisticated taste, authority, work the room, formidable skill. I soaked it up, steeped my feet.

As they got to know me they told me if I saw anything I liked I was to phone them and describe it to them in detail. They sent a cheque when I bought for them. All the time I was learning, listening, asking, turning things upside down: why is that? when was that? who made that?

On one of their visits there was a big reception in the city. As always, I brought them everywhere in the van; they just liked it.

They phoned me later to collect them. They were a bit drunk. They said a rich heiress had invited a large group back to her house for drinks. A big mansion, gardens lit up, servants at the door, a line of limos. This was fur coat and knickers territory.

I dropped them at the gate. They said, come in. I said, no, it was not my place, they were not my people, I was too young. They said, wait. They came back out, and said the lady had invited me in.

The huge house was dazzling, blazing with lights. Great wealth has its own light, its own seductive pull. Smiling servants.

“Champagne, sir?” asked a young girl of my own age, and then asked with her eyes, what are you doing here?

“I’m with them,” I said, pointing to the two gays. They were wearing matching lilac satin suits.

“Oh,” she said.

“No, no, no,” I said. “I work for them.”

“Whatever,” she said. She left with her bubbles and false smile. You can’t win them all.

A senior government minister asked over the noise and music if he could see the famous collection of miniature elephants.

Big shots and VIPs everywhere, all asked the same. They all wanted to see them. The lady wavered, but said yes. She also was a little drunk.

She opened the base of a tall bookcase and took out a large square tray with a dark-blue velvet cushion with indents. It held about thirty tiny, jewel-like objects, which burned when the light caught them. This was a world-famous collection. Like all great beauty, it caused a silence to fall and gathered to itself all light.

The lady set out to tell us what each thing was. The best was last.

A thirteenth-century Indian elephant, solid gold, four inches long, tiny filigree red pattern across its back.

The howdah (saddle, to you and me) in diamonds, glittering diamonds, hundreds of them. A little mahout (driver) seated with lapis-lazuli-blue turban. Each elephant foot encrusted with precious stones.

Those are pearls that were his eyes. The tusks were of ivory tipped with silver. It stood on a bejewelled crystal cushion with pearl tassels all around.

People gasped when she held it up to the light. It was dedicated to the loved one of an Indian king. It spoke of a time when there was no limit to labour or measure of cost.

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Gay Byrne, Harry Crosbie, John Banville, John Boorman, and John Shevlin. Picture by David Conachy

Gay Byrne, Harry Crosbie, John Banville, John Boorman, and John Shevlin. Picture by David Conachy

Gay Byrne, Harry Crosbie, John Banville, John Boorman, and John Shevlin. Picture by David Conachy

The tray was passed along the extended polished table. Pools of silence followed it. Drinks were served. Finger food. The hubbub started up again. Dancing, people crowding around the trays of food.

A ragged sing-song started. Some minutes later the tray came back down along the table on the other side. When it got under the light one thing was missing. The main one. The lady of the house said it was too valuable and fragile for a joke.

“Put it back, please.” Nobody moved, nobody spoke. She said it again, then again, then again.

“Stop the music,” she said, “turn on all the lights. Put the piece back, now.”

Servants froze, smiles gone. Deadly silence, no one moved.

“Put it back now, this is not funny,” she said. A drunk started singing on the sofa.

She snarled at him to shut up. Silence again. After half an hour all were asked to turn out their pockets. Senior barristers, politicians, leaders, no one refused. All done in stony silence.

“I will call the police if this does not stop now,” the lady said.

No sound, no movement. The police came, took a look at the VIP guests.

“This is a civil matter. We’re not getting involved.” They left.

A couple of women were weeping on the sofa. The minister said he had to go as his driver was off shift. Quietly, he left. Two other couples also left. I was told to go and get the van, which I did. The dealers came out and we drove home in silence

The elephant was never found.  

I worked a few years for the two gays. They retired and sold the huge stock of their big Chelsea house, shop and stores. They sold every single thing they had ever owned, every single beautiful thing. Forty years of the best the world had to offer. It made millions. They kept nothing except a little Elizabethan child’s silver rattle.

It dated from the year when the plague was raging in London. Shakespeare closed his theatre and went touring in that same year.

They bought a big, simple stone Renaissance house in the square of a rough Italian fishing village. They stripped out everything, down to the plaster walls. It was bare and empty, no possessions.

Painted in white, filled with light. In the local shop they bought a modest sofa, a table and four chairs and a couple of beds. They would never own anything again. They asked me and my wife to stay with them.

They often rang me. They had breakfast each morning in the square with the locals. They went to the market and bought fish every day as the boats unloaded.

They never left the village; it was their home. They bought a tiny second-hand Bambino, which they used to collect their wine from the famous local vineyard, which they owned.

Years passed. I heard from them less, they were old now. One summer morning I got a small box in the post with a beautifully written note. It contained the Elizabethan child’s rattle, which had survived, in its innocence and beauty, five hundred years of man’s madness.

The last thing they owned. They told me I was the son they would have wanted, had they been straight.

They died within weeks of each other. I went with my family to both funerals. They were buried in the small local churchyard.

I asked that the rattle be buried with them. They gave the house to the village as a social centre.

There was a small photo on the wall, I’m in it with them in the van. That day we were singing The Beatles.

 

‘Rattle’ appears in Undernose Farm by Harry Crosbie, published by The Lilliput Press, available online €12; www.lilliputpress.ie and Kenny’s Bookshop. All proceeds go to the Peter McVerry Trust.


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