Saturday 24 March 2018

Molly Bloom and me... Fionnuala Flanagan

Actress Fionnula Flanagan, a legendary interpreter of Joyce both onstage and onscreen, recalls the steamy Spanish night when she channelled Molly's impish spirit to woo her very own matador

Actress Fionnuala Flanagan, whose connection with Molly Bloom began in her teens
Actress Fionnuala Flanagan, whose connection with Molly Bloom began in her teens
Fionnuala Flanagan, playing Molly Bloom, perched on her chamber pot, on stage

Buenas Dias, Senora Bloom...

Although brought up in Gibraltar, where Spanish was spoken around her every day, Molly Bloom would have hesitated to respond in Spanish to such a simple greeting as she lay in bed in Eccles Street on the night of June 16, many years later.

She has difficulty recalling much of the Spanish of her girlhood. With the exception of 'horquilla', which means a hairpin.

As I write this, I am looking at a poster across the room, a photograph of Molly in her tattered lace peignoir, sitting on her chamber pot. Taken, on stage, I think, during a dress rehearsal for James Joyce's Women either in Dublin for the Joyce Centenary or during the making of the movie of the same title, or else much earlier on Broadway during Ulysses in Nighttown. I don't recall and it's not important. She and the other women, real and imagined, from Joyce's life and pen, occupied more than a decade of my life. Hussies all, they brought me great joy and I am grateful to all of them.

But my connection with Molly began in my teens. I cannot claim to have read Ulysses by the time I was 14, since I skipped most of it and only read, nay, devoured, Molly's soliloquy because here at last was so shockingly, candidly, truthfully, identifiably my own inner sexual canvas. I identified with her completely.

Many years later, when I began to really work on the soliloquy, I came to realize that, apart from memories of some girlish laughter, Molly had no sense of humour whatsoever about herself and of course that makes her so funny. And human. Lonely too.

But I digress. Back to the hairpin. For that is where my deepest connection with her began and how I came to know we were sisters under the skin.

In my 20s I took my mother to Spain for a holiday. My father, Terry Flanagan, had fought for Republican Spain against Franco in 1937, and Franco having won and being still in power there, my father was not allowed entrance to that country and so did not come with us. My mother and I stayed in a very small, very cheap hotel which had a café/nightclub attached.

One evening, my mother had already retired to her own room and I retired to the dimly lit nightclub, where a charming and dark-eyed young Spaniard in his 30s introduced me to a Greek drink which tasted like honeyed pine needles, after which we slouched around the dance floor, with him holding me deliciously close, his hand moving ever closer to my backside.

He had no English whatsoever and my Spanish barely extended to pointing at items on the breakfast menu. However I managed to tell him I was an airline stewardess, which I was not, but it was the most glamorous legal occupation an Irish girl of my generation could conceive of then, and conveyed to him furthermore, that I was engaged to be married to a Spanish airline pilot (shades of Molly's recalled girlish pretense about being engaged to a Spanish nobleman).

He conveyed to me in hand signals, while quickly replacing his hand on my backside, that he was a bullfighter! A bullfighter! I didn't approve of bullfighting and was always on the side of the bull. But oh, how I wanted him to be a bullfighter!

We repaired to a dark corner of the courtyard, which led onto the street and necked passionately, the thought of being discovered only adding to the excitement. At that time, Spanish law being so governed by the Catholic Church, one could be arrested for kissing in a public place - and tourists frequently did and were!

There was no question of being able to walk him past the desk and up the corridor to my room since Spanish law also forbade the presence of a male and a female in a hotel bedroom unless they were married - and to each other.

The rather simple plan was that I should go to my room and open the window and mi amor of the dark and smoldering eyes would then be, as the vernacular would have it, 'in like Flynn'.

But the best-laid plans of girls and matadors do not always run smoothly. I reached my room door only to find I had no key. I return to the hotel desk. Lacking Spanish I try French and when that produces no results, I mime attempting to unlock a door and throw up my hands indicating that I have lost my key.

The grim-faced virago on desk duty, a former employee of the Inquisition I feel sure, pretends not to understand me and seems to want me to understand that she does not have nor will she produce another key for my room.

I demand to see "el jefe", mistakenly believing that this will produce her boss, the hotel manager. It produces only a torrent of rapid Spanish invective spat across the desk at me, then without breaking stride she points dramatically and draws my attention to the lobby's sole adornment, a photograph of el Presidente Franco.

He is in uniform, togged out with more decorations than a Christmas tree and is staring rather contemptuously into the middle distance. I have no idea why she is doing this. All I want is a key to my room. She ends her tirade by leaning across the counter, smothering me in garlic breath as she hisses, "Thees ees El Jefe". It dawns on me that I have demanded to see the Generalissimo himself.

There is nothing for it but to lay my arms down on the desk and wail. I look like a mad woman. My hair is wild around my head - mostly from the courtyard necking - and attempting to smooth it into place I suddenly realize what I need and remember Molly Bloom's one word of Spanish.

I draw myself up to my full five foot two, and look straight into the eyes of the woman who, whether she knows it or not, is trying to deprive me of what is most probably my only chance of bedding a Spanish matador.

Taking note of the tightly wound bun at the base of her neck, I grasp my unruly locks in one hand and extend my other towards her. In a quiet and most polite voice I request of her "horquilla, por favor?" She scowls at me but draws the hairpin slowly from her head and hands it to me.

I wish I could tell you that I successfully picked the lock with the hairpin, which had been my intention, but after 10 frustrating minutes and a broken fingernail, I abandoned a task which can really only be realized in the movies.

I raced back along the corridor and out into the courtyard. Surely he had given up and left. The courtyard was in inky darkness. Even the streetlight had quit.

Then I saw the glow of a cigarette and there he was, lounging against the wall, as only a true bullfighter can lounge, smiling and shrugging disarmingly as I rushed towards him. I produced the hairpin and tried to explain but we were beyond words.

He kissed my mouth for a long time and oh, Molly and Joyce were right - there is nothing like it. He took the hairpin in his nimble fingers and reached up to my window and inserted it in the window lock. The moon came out and I could see he was laughing as he silently drew the casement open and we entered to all the delights of the night.

It happened a long time ago. The memory still makes me smile. Of course he wasn't a matador, as it turned out. But then I wasn't an airline stewardess nor engaged to anyone.

We were young and full of lust and could lie like bandits. Joyce would understand. And so would Molly.

Irish Independent

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