Extract from Joe O'Connor's new book: Read the riot act
Robbie Goulding, the Irish-born narrator of Joseph O'Connor's new novel, 'The Thrill of it All', moved to Luton at the age of 10 with his family: Dubliner father, Jimmy, Co Clare mother, Alice and elder brother, Shay. Jimmy works as a keeper at Whipsnade Zoo. In this extract, music-addict Robbie, now 18, a mediocre student of sociology and English at the local polytechnic, has recently advertised for a drummer to join his fledgling rock band. Here we find Robbie, the worse for drink, trying to creep into the house at midnight without attracting the ire of his dad.
By the time I got home that night, Jimmy was in a state of what used to be called, by him certainly, 'high dudgeon'. With the chilly summons 'Oi, Bollocky Bill', I was beckoned to the kitchen as I tried to creep up the strangely reversing escalator that my drunkenness made of the stairs. His visage appeared at me kaleidoscopically, revolving in quartet, like the faces of Queen in the video for 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Alcohol is a terrible thing.
Not only had he opened the electricity bill, the monthly arrival of which he feared and detested, blaming me for turning on the immersion deliberately for no other purpose than to enrage him (largely true), but the phone had been ringing like that of 'a whure-house in the Vatican'. Telephones, in those less advanced days, used to ring when they rang, not bleep, chirp, play the riffs from 'Dancing Queen' or 'Gangnam Style' or recordings of Simon Cowell disappointing a child.
He was angry, tired, hungry, vengeful, and scarlet as an aroused baboon's arse. Bad enough that I should treat his home 'like a fukken hotel' but now I was treating it 'like a fukken office for daisies' and he wouldn't stand for it, did I hear, no he wouldn't. Who did I think I was? Colonel Tom fukken Parker?
The image of 'an office for daisies' was threatening to make me laugh, Quentin Crisp dusting the photocopier, Oscar Wilde typing invoices, the noted female-impersonator Danny La Rue high-kicking about the works canteen in taffeta.
And it was always hard not to laugh when Jimmy gave out to you if he was wearing his zookeeper's uniform and when he used the noun 'daisy' in that way. But I tried not to. To him, the word meant directionless layabout rather than effeminate person, not that these categories were mutually exclusive in what he often called his way of thinking.
'Some daisyboy, aren't you? Clueless O'Reilly. The varsity man in my hole.'
With no small effort, I managed not to chuckle.
'Backchat me, Mister, and I'll put you on that road! You may up and pack your bags and away to some gin-shop with my foot up your transom as you go.'
Again, I suppressed any bleat of mirth. I was afraid I might befoul myself if I surrendered at all. There was a technique I had perfected of grinding my fingernails into my palms and staring impassively at the wall behind him. The small pain produced by the grinding I had found a way of translating into a steely-faced, sullen, shark-like coldness, an unreachable Arctic of teenaged contempt with igloos of malice in its glare.
But I was hoping to Holy Jesus that he did not address me as 'Bridget', a thing he often did when in the windstorms of his annoyance. It could reduce me to bawls of uncontrollable laughter, and I didn't want those to happen.
'A nice gentleman I am after raising in this misfortunate house and the whiff of drink off you enough to floor a fukken racehorse. Chomping Polo Mints, were we, beyond on the bus? Well, the jig is up, Bridget. I know that game. When's this do you think I was born?'
I was going to say '11 bc' or something easy like that. For the moment, I held my powder.
My fukken tea was fukken ruined, he continued, accusingly. My parents were of that Irish class and generation that had its dinner at lunchtime and its tea at six o'clock in the evening following 'the Angelus bells' on the radio. Point out that they were 'pips', not actual bells, and Jimmy would warn you not to upset your mum by further displays of smart-arsery. If you hopped the ball by telling him that 'dinner' was a repast taken in the hours of darkness, he accused you of fancying yourself a member of the British Royal Family, an entity he disparaged while being magnetised to its marriages, its comings and multiple goings.
The word 'supper' would have got you veritably flogged by his mockeries. I knew. I had tried it out and was building up to 'luncheon', saving it for a wintry Sunday when amusement might be needed in the house, one of those sad little windswept cabin-fever Sabbaths when 'Only Fools and Horses' wasn't on.
He yanked open the under-sink bin to show me the congealing or coagulating remains of my meal. It was, had once been, beans and a rasher. There were hungry souls in the world this night, he thundered.
'Send them that, so.' I nodded.
That was lovely talk now, God forgive me for a reprobate. Had he dared to disrespect his own father, Lord have mercy on the same, 'the c**t would have killed me stone dead'. It was down on my ignorant knees I should fall, for the mercies of the Deity and His providence. The peoples of Ethiopia would give their every graven idol to be me, fed by caring elderly parents of martyric unselfishness whilst I dandied about the town like a playboy. To awaken in 57 Rutherford Road would be the summit of their dreams. Gratefully they would clear a table to earn their board-and-lodging about the place and would not assume the words 'dishwasher' or 'chimneysweep' meant his wife. If male they would take out the rubbish or mow the fukken grass and would sometimes bring the dog for a walk. They would go to Mass when told to and not be shaming the household. Unlike my brother and me, they would shrink from belief in a supernatural presence called 'Captain Daz' whose purpose was to gather besmirched garments or bed-linen from a reeking clump in the wardrobe and convey them to the laundry basket. These unfortunates would use the antiperspirant and foot-powder my mum had bought for them in Boots and be thankful for the insole deodorant. The bedroom charitably provided for them would not be 'a slag-heap' or 'the County of Bedfordshire Dump'. But what had he and his espoused saint received by way of appreciation or acknowledgement? (A slap in the kisser for their troubles.) What was it a mortal sin to waste? (Good food.) Where and when would I burn? (In Hell, one day.) Who, precisely, did I think I was? (Depends how you're framing the question.)
Jimmy was such a good-natured man that seeing him lose his temper was ridiculous, like watching the Dalai Lama do the Twist. My 'comeuppance', his favourite word, was coming soon. When was I last to Confession?
'I don't believe in Confession.'
Here I had the Jimster rather against the ropes, because I knew he didn't believe in it either. But it was interesting to see how he'd fight his way out.
'Oh, he doesn't believe in Confession. Wonderful, tell us more. What else do you not believe in, Mr Daisy?'
Any symphony of Jimmy's fury would include this allegro spiritoso passage, where he'd repeat your most recent utterance of daisyfication to some invisible magistrate in the room. I listed some of the other things in which I didn't believe: deep-pan pizza, the likeability of the seaside, the posthumous apparition of holy virgins to pubescent girls in grottos, the fretless bass guitar, the too-frequent cutting of my toenails, the capitalist system, hummus, optimism, Western civilisation, Spandau Ballet. Some daisies believe Miss Piggy will eventually marry Kermit, I expounded – generally the more imaginative of the flora.
Sooner or later, we got around to the immersion heater, as sooner or later the Arabs and the Israelis get around to the borders of Palestine. Clearly the fukken immersion was something I did believe in, since my devotion to it was fukkenwell frenzied. He produced the electricity bill from the pocket of his epaulette-gilded tunic as though it were a piece of revolting pornography he had found beneath my mattress. Mum didn't have a pair of pincers among the accoutrements of her kitchen. Had she had them, he'd be using them now.
His glower was fierce and avenging as he twirled that gruesome document, evidence of my lizard depravity. 'Love does not rejoice in the wrong,' the Good Book tells us. In the case of Jimmy Goulding, it did.
How many baths a day did I think I needed? (Five, I said. No more.) Was I of the view that his money grew on the trees? (Did it not?) I must be the cleanest fukken student in the greater Luton area. (Not hard.) Did I think him a fool? (In which sense?) How often did I think he had bathed when a boy back in Dublin? (Biannually.) What had he done to deserve this abuse? (Difficult. Maybe blame it on the boogie?)
That was nice talk indeed I had learned at the college, an institution he imagined as conducting seminars on insolence and perversion before everyone 'minced off for a coffee'.
Mrs Burchmore across the road had witnessed me 'spitting in her rockery'. I had given 'a funny look' to Mr Prior down the newsagents. Where would the infamy end?
This led back by no circuitous route to the question of the telephone, my overuse of same, for no Christian purpose, but for organising my indolence and debauchings (if only), now for auditioning drummers. Well the gravy train stopped here. I must reckon him 'a tool'. The piss would no longer be taken. I was treating him as the PAYE department of the Inland Revenue treated him, viz, a muggins mcbride to be soaked. Well I'd milk him no more. He was 'nobody Rosie'. The milk truck done shut down.
I pointed out to the several Jimmies assailing me that someone ringing the house did not cost us, i.e. him, any money, but as always when confronted by rational opposition he insisted this wasn't the point. After a day spent hefting carrion into the vultures, chasing an escaped tapir throughout the immensity of Whipsnade Zoo's bus park and shouting at disreputable Scousers in the penguin enclosure, he was entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his home. The telephone his labours provided was not my individual property.
My mother, he continued, was being driven out of her mind.
'And she doesn't have far to go!'
'I . . .'
'Tell you this, Mister Lip, there's a new sheriff in town. Your daisying days are over.'
'But . . .'
'Don't you answer me back! Enough of your smartness, my gosser. Am I running a fukken employment exchange for your daisying friends, you twittering impudent maggot? I'll give you fukken drummers. Up your sainted idle hole! Do you know what I was doing tonight while you were fannying around like a Mary? I was bottle-feeding a poor little pygmy marmoset whose mother abandoned him. Imagine what he'd give to be you and your brother. Get up to that sty of a bedroom and study.'
'I did a lot of study today,' I countered when I had finished gnawing my lips. 'I wrote an essay on William Blake's imagery.'
'Oh Jaysus, stop the lights. You poor lamb.'
'There's no need to be sarcastic about it,' I said, deliberately riling him. Jimmy was a large man in those days and had a tendency to sweat a lot when angry, and this, combined with his cue-ball baldness, could sometimes produce the remarkable effect of the perspiration on his scalp being evaporated by the heat of his ire, resulting in what looked like smoke pouring from his head. When this happened, and it happened not infrequently while Shay and I were in our teens, it was a sight for which queues would form. Jimmy when angry went stark, staring loco. Shay termed it 'in loco parentis'.
'An essay on Blake's imagery. Boys oh boys.'
Notwithstanding that it didn't mention sociology, a study Jimmy defined as 'the science of destroying society', the phrase encompassed everything he found suspect in third-level education, a system he felt had only been put in place to give bigamists something to do for a living. Every time he repeated the sentence, he vocally italicised another of its hated words.
'An essay on Blake's imagery. An essay on Blake's imagery. It's exhausted you must be. Rest your brains.'
'I'm a little tired, yes,' I said, cunningly. I had seen that Shay had entered the room clad only in ill-fitting underpants and was silently urging me on. Jimmy did not look at him but continued to regard me as I rubbed an eye and pretended to yawn.
'Sure lie down, would you not? Will I pull off the young master's wellingtons? Would he like a cup of tea in the bath?'
'I'd prefer cocoa. Or maybe a coffee?'
The finger that had comfortingly stroked a runt pygmy marmoset's belly was extended in my direction, shaking.
'I'll coffee you, Mister Bucko. You see if I don't. An essay on Blake's imagery. And they call that fukken work. And you wonder why the English laugh at us.'
'I don't,' I said.
'Oh they laugh at us in England. They are breaking their shites laughing. And why wouldn't they laugh? An essay on Blake's imagery.'
I will spare the reader the Second Movement of his Wagnerian denunciation, but blasphemies were many and sacrilegious oaths plentiful, as were impracticable suggestions of a picturesque nature touching the late William Blake (1757–1827) – surely a strong candidate for High Queen of Daisydom – as well as myself, the college authorities and my associates. Jimmy's own imagery was vivid and pungent, if sometimes contortedly expressed. It was clear that he didn't feel a grounding in the literature of the English-speaking archipelago would have many practical applications in the marketplace. In this, of course, he was not entirely wrong.
'Damn the essays on Blake's imagery I ever wrote in my day, I'll tell you that, Your Majesty.'
'I'll read it to you if you like? Want to pull up a chair?'
'Oh terrible smart, aren't you? Prince Fucky the Ninth. And you arsing your way through the world like a – like a –'
'Daisy?' I suggested.
At this point, perhaps mercifully, Mum entered the kitchen, looking weary and glancing conspicuously away from my brother's investigations of his southerly person, to say there was an individual calling himself 'Bongo' on the phone in the blessèd hall – 'blessèd' was the nearest she ever came to a curse-word – and he had recently departed a group with a name of almost libellous unpleasantness and he was only one of a profusion of drummers to have telephoned that night and for the love of the Living God and Our Holy Virgin Mother could I not make it stop and where had I been till this hour?
'In the library, writing an essay,' I slurred. 'On Blake's imagery.'
'I know what library you were in,' Jimmy said coldly. 'A library called Sheerin's pub.'
'I have never been in Sheerin's pub in my life,' I responded, lying in the sake of the cause.
'A library with a "discotheque" going on in the basement. And an abortionist handing out contraceptives to schoolgirls.'
'I don't go to discotheques. Whatever those are.'
'My hairy sainted aunt you don't. You forget I have friends.'
It was easy enough to forget, since he didn't have any friends at all, but Jimmy in supervisory mode liked to conjure up the spectre of himself as commander of a legion of zoo-keeping spies that was tracking you through the sulphurous alleys and opium dens of Luton and noting your every judder.
'You were seen,' he would say, as he did on this occasion, and the more ardently you replied that you could not have been seen, unless perhaps by some unfortunate wretch suffering the delusional effects of paranoid schizophrenia, the more he would assure you that you had been.
'You were seen.'
'Never you mind by whom.'
It was cruel making him say 'whom', a word no Irish person ever uses unless giving an impersonation of a gobshite. I made him say it a few more times but then I felt I should stop because Shay's attempts not to laugh by stuffing a tea towel into his mouth were beginning to frighten me a little.
Jimmy whipped around and glared at him, like an owl in a mood. Then slowly he revolved the orb of his head back towards me. It was by now a hellacious shade of red that no English adjective could describe. Ensanguined and fierce, it was redness itself. I felt I was being observed by a huge Japanese flag on to which some vandal had crayoned a scowl.
'Go up and get the bible, Alice,' he commanded my mum.
'I will in my hat,' she said.
'I am going up that fukken stairs. And I'll be back with the bible. I swear to the living Jayzus, I will get that bible, God forgive me. Are you telling me you will put your filthy paw on it and swear before Almighty God that you were not in a pub this evening?'
'I won't swear on the bible, no.'
'Hah!' he exclaimed. The dog woke up, startled, and began doing to itself what my brother's then girlfriend reportedly refused to do to my brother. Mum looked a little uneasy as she toed it.
'I have quit the Catholic Church and become a Quaker,' I told Jimmy, a bit of a tongue-twister when you're sloshed out of your tits and trying not to look at an auto-fellating greyhound whose showbiz possibilities are occurring to you.
'My people do not take oaths.'
'I'll Quaker you in a minute. With the tip of my boot. Do you know your trouble, Fellow-my-Buck?'
'Yes,' I said, to disconcert him. But it didn't work.
'Idleness. And ingratitude. Oh go on, that's right, laugh. You're good and able to swig Guinness and talk shite by the yard, I'll give you that. You and your brother there. Shay Guevara himself. A nice pair of intellectuals I'm after raising in this gin-shop. Laurel and fukken Hardy, only you wouldn't know who was who.'
'Whom,' my brother interjected.
'If there was doctorates in bollocksology and scratching yourself in bed, the two of you'd be professors by now. Pair of loafing, idle thicks. You couldn't find your arses in a dark room.'
'Jimmy, love,' said Mum, in mildest admonition. 'Don't be too hard on the boys.'
The remark, though gently spoken, stirred a poker in his coals. Jimmy adored and respected his wife as the personification of all goodness, his and everyone's moral better by a distance of furlongs, and to receive her disapproval would always send him scats, as it did on this occasion. The eruption of Mount Goulding was close, one felt. He blamed me for his shaming but continued what had caused it, bad words raining on the corner of the room in which I tried not to snot myself with laughter. I was the daisyest fukken daisy in the bunch, he assured me, 'a daffodil', 'away with the fairies'.
Please call me a violet, I was silently beseeching. I wanted to hear him say 'voilet'.
'I'm vay shorry, Shimmy,' was the best I could manage. 'Vay vay shorry indeed.'
A sudden charade of penitence could make him pause and rev the engines. But he opted to accelerate at the speed bump.
'Oh, he's teddibly sorry. Oh, lardee-dar-dar. He's teddibly, fraightfully soddy.'
It was his practice when angry to falsely imitate my accent as though it belonged to one of the actors in the televisualisation of 'Brideshead Revisited', a programme that both enraged and beguiled him.
By now I was quacking back hot tears of mirth, low honks bursting forth from my nose, as he flailed me with a florilegium of fucks.
Well, there followed his lament on the recession then besetting the kingdom, but how none of her people should be worried. Their days of tribulation were numbered, thanks be to God, for the international bond markets would rejoice at the tidings that my brother and I, when eventually we deigned to enter the workforce, would go armed with a knowledge of poetry. Lesser nations had committed the grave error of educating their young persons in skills that might prove of some remote use. Pity the poor Germans with their clattering factories. How they must be envying us nowadays.
'Hallay fukken looyah. A degree in readin pomes.'
He shook his head in what he must have thought was a gesture of abject astonishment, like a lawyer resting his open-and-shut case.
Kindly woman, my mum remarked on the excellence of the college library staying open until midnight on a Monday and could she poach me an egg on toast.
'Would you not get him a fukken lobster and a drop of champagne, no? I can send the fukken butler out for chips.'
'It's you I blame! You should have reddened their arses. Look at him. Fukken daisy can barely stand up. Streeling into my house stocious from some pub full of whures.'
'He was writing an essay on Blake's imagery,' she continued placidly. 'And that's a very nice thing to be doing.'
'I know damn well what essay he was writing,' Jimmy said. 'An essay on the imagery of MY HOLE!'
'That would certainly make an interesting theme,' I said.
'Especially for a sociologist,' my brother added, crucially.
Moments later, smoke. And goodnight.
'The Thrill of it All' is in shops now, RRP €14.99. Joseph O'Connor talks to Olivia O'Leary about his new book, his love of music and his teaching of creative writing on June 15 from 2-3pm in Borris House in Carlow. See festivalof writingandideas.com