Grace, a short story by Sam Coll
12 Stories of Christmas - Day 3: A cover version of James Joyce’s short story from the collection Dubliners 100
James Joyce and Sam Coll, right, who has reinterpreted his short story, Grace
To mark the centenary of James Joyce’s Dubliners, myself and Tramp Press asked 15 Irish authors to write ‘cover versions’ of Joyce’s stories for an anthology titled Dubliners 100. While we wanted the collection to be a celebration of Joyce’s work, we also wanted it to be a showcase for established and emerging talent. The ‘emerging’ aspect was especially important: after all, Dubliners was Joyce’s prose debut and he wrote almost all the stories before the age of 23. We were delighted, therefore, when the unpublished, 24-year-old, Sam Coll accepted the invitation to write a cover version of Grace. I had read – and was blown away - by Sam’s as-then-unpublished 600-page novel, The Abode of Fancy, and it seemed utterly fitting that such a brave and linguistically adventurous writer should feature in our Joyce-inspired anthology.
A piece of prose lives and dies in its sentences, and in Sam’s work the sentences positively pulsate: they are lovingly detailed, crammed with adverbs, and probably wouldn’t go down too well in a creative writing workshop. But it’s the verve and flair of his prose that is so exciting – and there’s so much more to the high style than fine adorning. There’s a purpose to the repetition, the alliteration and the sometime-rhyme. Put simply: there are certain people and certain energies that can’t be captured by a conservative prose style. And in Sam’s elasticated sense of a sentence we encounter moods and currents of feelings that are rarely portrayed or captured on the page. Encountering his work, one acutely feels the pulse of life – the joys and the miseries – in each and every line.
In Sam’s version of Grace, the Dublin depicted is distinctly modern, but the references to modernity never feel gratuitous. The internet, for example, is woven into the fabric of the story, and the characters are as adept and perplexed by technology as people actually are in real life. And yet at its heart, the themes of Sam’s Grace are timeless: it’s a story about loneliness, and the ways in which this particular set of characters attempt to abate it. Inevitably, therefore, it is also a story about addiction, and the ways in which these people attempt to deny its pull.
I don’t mean for this introduction to become an essay, and there are people far more qualified than I am to tease out the connections and overlaps between Sam’s version of Grace and Joyce’s original. But Sam’s story is a glorious thing, which – in addition to being read alongside Joyce’s – deserves to be read and understood on its own terms. So I’d like to just draw attention to one sentence, which for me, underlines the quality of the writing. Or rather, it’s just a half a sentence. When the central character, Vernon Crumb – having imbibed cannabis with some friends – sneaks away from the Workman’s smoking area to go to the bathroom, we’re told:
Unhinged, untethered, he floated unnoticed away from the company of his unheeding friends…
Yes, the sentence is rhythmic and pleasing on the ear but more than that, the language itself engenders the themes of the work. The Thomas Hardy-esque use of ‘un’ captures the breakaway from the things that bind us (the notice, the heed); and the word ‘away’ is itself a verbal relief, a flight from the narrow-mouth confines of ‘unhinged, untethered, unnoticed’. And further, those ‘uns’ are also echoes and a little nod perhaps to the line in Joyce’s original: ‘His collar was unfastened and his necktie undone.’
There are delights likes these to be found everywhere in Sam Coll’s Grace. Language aside, I love the characters, the brilliantly-evoked scenes, and the many strands of humour than run throughout. And yet, for all the laughter, there is something very sad about the story. As with all the best writers, Sam knows to let the comic and the tragic into the mix and then leave the two to do their magical and mystical bidding.
Before you read Grace, I recommend listening to the excerpt of Sam’s exquisite reading from it. It is often said of new writers that they’re a “voice to watch”; well, Sam Coll’s voice is one to watch, yes, but importantly, his is also a voice to listen to.
Nobody could quite tell where Mr Vernon Crumb came from. Ostensibly Irish, and doubtless a longstanding Dublin resident, such surmises would be belied whenever he opened his mouth to speak. He spoke in a quick and rapid voice, fast emitting clipped vowels of no known geographical provenance (though the dominant notes were either Welsh or Pakistani). His quicksilver speech was often muffled and indistinct, and much of his incoherent converse could thus pass over the listener like a cloud. And his fluttery movements, augmented no doubt by the gallons of free liquor he daily imbibed, were jerky and unstable, making him seem like an unsteady puppet on the brink of collapsing when denied Gipetto’s friendly guiding strings.
Courtesy of such a liquid diet of which he was vampiric adherent, his face was indeed very ruddy, the scarlet cheeks puffy and the flabby neck jowly, but more alarming still were his popping eyes whose roving gaze was furtive, their brows beetling, half hidden under lank strands of his greasy black hair, whose roots disclosed the silvery beginnings of grayness. A natty dresser whose dapper apparel recalled vanished days as a bygone dandy, he wore the same double-breasted suit and tartly glitzy tie for all occasions, such seeming sartorial elegance undermined by the seediness of his garments, unwashed and unkempt and wearing down to the very cloth. There was a rumour that he once had worked in RTÉ as some sort of sound engineer way back in the seventies, though if he had, that hardly mattered nowadays.
For jobless sixty-something Mr Vernon Crumb now firmly belonged to that class of persons known as ‘liggers’, an admirably resourceful stratum of society who chose to combat the city’s mounting prices and the scarifying cost of living by frequenting reception after reception, and reaping bounteous fruit from this plentiful harvest. A kind of underground club had formed over the years, of which Mr Crumb was a founding father, though when it came to rallying the troops and planning the assaults, he admitted to being too scattered a personality to ever undertake such a responsibility, and so had yielded in superiority to one Conan Kelly, late of the Department of the Marine, an enterprising sort who had taken it upon himself to act as the freeloading army’s ringleader. This Mr Kelly was ideally suited to his post, for he possessed an exhaustive knowledge of the town’s freebies, and knew exactly where and when everything was on, courtesy of his privileged access to secret knowledge from undisclosed sources.
He had a select little list of his choicest friends, of whom the venerable Vernon was one, to whom he sent out daily bulletins of the latest book launches, or exhibition openings, or gala receptions, or inaugural lectures, right down to the afters of a college debate, keeping his comrades informed via a deluge of emails, somedays numbering in the tens of dozens. And it was a brave habit of theirs to constantly play the party’s spares, sidling opportunely in just when the fun was about to begin, riffling some crackers and cheese from the plates, ignoring the angry eyes of the event’s overseers as they stumbled forward with a wineglass for a fourth or fortieth refill, affecting not to notice the superior glances of sniffy disdain bestowed upon them by the snootier set who felt themselves better placed to be present.
Such familiar looks of subdued loathing greeted Mr Crumb this misty Thursday evening as he entered the college grounds and shuffled up the TCD Graduate Memorial Building’s steps, whereupon he infiltrated the Philosophical Society’s Common Room, where the bevy of tuxedos postured and milled, holding forth and keeping court in the wake of the weekly debate, which today had been all about abortion. It was a debate which Mr Crumb had had every intention of attending upon awaking that morning, but the earlier opening of an artistic exhibition on Leinster Street had in the end commandeered the greater share of his attentions. Several glasses merrier and his eyes were glassier as through swarms of students and senators he now snaked and trod and made straight for the table of treats on which were enticingly strewn many large and fulsome platters. And the maturer interloper calmly ignored the disapproving eyes around him as he greedily surveyed the plates of cocktail sausages, of smoked salmon and spiced beef, of oily olives and sweaty cheese; if anyone asked, he was merely a loyal graduate recently returned for a bit of ‘fourth level education’.
And as he pilfered some crisps and pocketed some chocolates to line his stomach before the next mouthful of Merlot, an unsteady hand on his sleeve bid him turn to greet a younger member of his cortege, the tall and gangling Dermot O’Connor, looking splendid in his military jacket and Jamaican bolo, part-time plasterer and occasional landlord who was letting out his lodgings to a pair of Poles. With a stoned expression he embraced his elder friend, who shook him off and grinned.
‘How was the debate?’ grinning Mr Crumb inquired.
Dermot O’Connor could not answer this question. Mr Crumb didn’t care. In any case, Dermot was much keener on boasting about his recent success in gatecrashing a press screening for the forthcoming film Albert Nobbs; he had claimed, picking the name of a random periodical right off the top of his head, that he was with Totally Dublin, and was chuffed to find that the Lighthouse cinema staff did not demand any ID from him to bolster his phony claim, and so thus did he swagger inside to enjoy a free glass of bubbly, plus the bonus of a free film into the bargain.
‘Bravo. What was the film about?’ Mr Crumb warmly wondered.
Dermot O’Connor could not answer this question. Mr Crumb didn’t care. In any case, the eager Dermot O’Connor had a fresher fund of important information to relay: he had just received a textual tipoff from their chairman Conan Kelly, who said that the next opportune port of call tonight would be the Workman’s Club on the quays, where upstairs a prestigious book launch was soon to commence, with a free bar and various other edible or drinkable amenities for the gang to enjoy.
‘Sounds splendid. What is the book about?’ asked kindly Mr Crumb.
But Dermot O’Connor could not answer this question. And Mr Crumb didn’t really care. Instead, he passed the dithering pothead a weighty bottle of beer and asked after the condition of Dermot’s tenants, who had apparently of late been giving Dermot much grief, which happy topic roused Dermot to vociferously vent his spleen on the score of his lodgers, spitting forth vicious flecks of beery froth from his flapping wet lips as he energetically cursed them, employing numerous unprintable expressions in the course of his eloquent castigation, manfully accepting Mr Crumb’s muttered sympathies, token drops of empathy cursorily slipped in between pauses in his sips.
‘Fucking polecats!’ Dermot O’Connor spat. ‘They have me by the
‘This is it,’ murmured Mr Crumb, demurely sipping his wine and licking his purpled lips.
And Dermot O’Connor angrily chugged and emptied his beer bottle he flung down with a snort and a belch. Staggering slightly on tipsier feet, he suggested they make tracks to their next location – for the present joint was becoming, as he said with a gesture to the timid crowd, ‘a fucking drag’. And Vernon Crumb was only too happy to come, rapidly downing his glass with a final slurp and gasp. And so through the revelers they wove to the door, their departing backs enduring a last round of eyeball rolls and slighting shrugs as they hurriedly exited into the night.
As they quickly marched and felt the bracing breeze crashing upon their parched pair of drinker’s faces, the swirling quayside air exhilarated Mr Crumb, moving him to attempt a twirl by the bridge’s parapet as they waited for the traffic lights, gruffly bid desist in this potty pursuit by mortified Dermot, who remembered only too well a recent occasion when old Vernon had disgraced them all by repeatedly stabbing his madman’s finger into a painted Adam’s oily navel, rousing the wrath of the irate National Gallery guards who cared only for the precious condition of the desecrated canvas, and were in no mood to endure excuses of temporary insanity made on behalf of jabbering Vernon the crazy Crumb – they were bloody lucky to get off that time without a hint of litigation.
‘Behave yourself!’ Dermot O’Connor growled as they sidled into Workman’s when her doors and gills were beginning to heave with the impending nightclub’s throb, greeting the towering bouncer’s scowl with lopsided smiles and flutters of flopping wrists. Grasping Vernon’s elbow lest he should stray and give them away, Dermot steered him toward the stairs up which they unsteadily climbed to the fabled book launch, arriving in time to catch the very end of the publisher’s speech, which mainly consisted of an invitation to partake of the booze and the biscuits, a gracious offer the pair of newly arrived inebriates were only too happy to gracefully take up with gusto. After each was armed with a wineglass, they swaggered to the bar and tapped the counter in command, and whiles their free and foaming pints were pouring, Vernon admired the wallpaper which was crimson and the lighting which was dimming, and was amused to note the name of the launched book in question – My Father, My Brother, My Sister, My Mother, a darkly comic deconstruction of the Irish misery memoir, as penned by a promising young author called Robert Cox. Dermot raised an arm to hail a distant stager lurking in a farther corner, none but Conan Kelly himself, squashed into a tight spot by the jostling flock who bought their books, looking squat and dumpy in his yellow raincoat on which his blue drool was drying, who saw Dermot wave, and awkwardly pushed through the crowds to meet his messmates.
‘Hjgghj jngdrc …’ Conan Kelly slurred in salutation.
‘Glad to see someone started earlier than me!’ Dermot gaily beamed, lifting his glass to toast.
They drank, they supped, they downed, they sipped, they quaffed and laughed, they slurped and burped some more and further, between wine and lager and spirits and stout and ales alike they drunk like lords or judges. When heads were reeling and eyes were blearier, Dermot beckoned all out to the smoking section, into one of whose tighter recesses he lodged himself to roll a succulent spliff, which freshly smoking joint he gallantly offered to share with his colleagues, with the gentle proviso that they exercise discretion while passing around their prize to partake of furtive puffs, enjoying the mild elation offered by the crinkled weed, the queasy balm of soothing the gentle drag afforded, mingled at times with a soft qualm of worried regret over all the dross one wished to forget, beset by the fearful melancholy of all in life undone one always failed to do, the whisper of conscience that fretted the nerves and cast a frowning downer upon their superficial piece of peace.
Vernon Crumb was especially affected. His mind grew dizzier and his sights were swimming. Unhinged, untethered, he floated unnoticed away from the company of his unheeding friends, having a mind to go to the toilet, grasping hands pawing the brickwork as he swam through the dribbling rabble all around him whose clutches barred his jellied progress, groping through space in his wavering quest for the downstairs jakes, locating with strain the tenuous stairs down which he descended to the building’s bowels, where the darker air grew colder and his bones were chilled. In the murk he was pointed to the pisser by a leonine lout, the path of whose scaly finger he followed until the toilet door swung wide open to admit his cautious passage, whereupon – he slipped.
He slipped and fell. He fell heavily, face first. The floor was wet; the attendant had been negligent. Vernon Crumb fell heavily and felt his face explode as he hit the toilet’s tiles. His jaw made the hardest impact, feeling as if it were broken off. His dim sights filled to brimming with nothing but redness as bloody spumes blossomed from the wreckage of his crunched front teeth, and in a rapidly pooling circle of blood he lay and groaned and writhed helplessly on the damp tiled toilet floor, useless limbs quivering as cubicle doors were unlocked and a few spare sods at the urinal turned round to stare. And they gawked and they groaned and they roared in their rough pity.
‘Ah man, had a few too many, eh? Jaysus, wooja look at that? Fucking ay!’
The hapless boys raised the alarm, and a trudging bouncer soon bound in, swiftly bending to roll the wretched man over on his back, suppressing a wince at sight of the crimson damage before producing a snowy handkerchief he clapped to the victim’s mouth, gently easing him up and mumbling condolences as he struggled to stem the flow which showed no sign of ceasing. Dazed, Vernon Crumb attempted to speak but found speech impossible, having lost so many teeth in the accident that articulation was accordingly hindered. Dully he withdrew the stained handkerchief and marveled at the mottled imprint the discharge had left on its whiteness: it looked as though it had been dipped deep in ketchup, ketchup sprinkled by a cosmos of crystals of salt particles or sugar cubes, the cracked shards and disintegrated remains of onetime canines and smashed molars.
The bouncer laid a hand on his shoulder. The bouncer asked him his name. The bouncer asked him was he in much pain. The bouncer asked if he had any friends nearby who could help. To none of these questions could Vernon Crumb reply, reduced instead to a wetly incoherent flapping of his tongue, a low gurgling issuing from his throat. The sighing bouncer hoisted him to his shaking feet and propped him against the wall as he applied some searing bottled disinfectant to the emptied bleeding gums with dripping roots, gruffly snarling at the ogling boys to desist from their tactless sniggering scrutiny. In the meantime, his sympathy was soured when his nostrils caught a suspect scent emanating from the injured man’s gaping mouth, an illicit hint of hashish such as enraged him.
‘Listen to me now,’ he said, pocketing the disinfectant and jabbing an admonitory finger in the wheezing victim’s ribs, ‘You’re fucking lucky I’m not calling the guards. Now if you know what’s good for you you’ll just get the fuck out of here right now and don’t ever dare come back.’
Vernon Crumb, his mind a fog and senses smarting from the stinging pain, yet had sense enough to comply with this suggestion. Wiping and mopping the ruins of his gums which still were leaking the last of his blood, with the glaring bouncer menacingly strutting at his stumbling heels, he painfully crawled upwards from the toilet’s depths to the exit, staggering outside to embrace again the quayside air and cock a dull eye at the bright stars winking high above the chilly river. Some smoking strays took pity on the injured man who seemed so confused, and further questions were asked as to his identity and his destination and the location of his companions if indeed there were any, to all of which queries he gave the same impenetrable response with sad imploring eyes.
‘Hong Hane!’ he repeatedly hooted in mounting agony, his tongue tapping his lower set of surviving teeth, struggling to do the elocutionary work once done by his recently departed dentures.
An unknown young man in black stepped forward. He lived on Clanbrassil Street, and so may be said to have some knowledge of the surrounding terrain. Gently tapping Mr Crumb’s shoulder, he asked if it was Long Lane the poor man meant. And his suspicions were confirmed when the enthused older man warmly responded with a stream of bloody spittle, accompanied by a few affirmative wags of the head, topped off by an attempt at a smile (no easy feat when the stock of smiling teeth was so depleted). This settled, the young man hailed a taxi, sharply directed the driver to Long Lane, and stuffed a wad of notes into Mr Crumb’s hands, for all his mute protests.
‘It’s nothing. You just go home now and get some sleep, and go see your dentist at the nearest opportunity, y’hear? God bless and take care of yourself. Good night!’
The taxi beeped and sped off and the small crowd thereafter dispersed, the drama done.
While upstairs within Workman’s, Conan Kelly and Dermot O’Connor were disgusted to discover that the bar’s supply of free beer had run out, and the usual exorbitant prices were henceforth prevailing. And only then, as in a stormy huff they prepared to leave, did they pause to wonder over what had become of their poor vanished chum, the benign but batty Mr Vernon Crumb.
Margaret Magee preferred to be called ‘Maggie’. She was a mousy old lady with stringy hair and little skinny limbs, warm hearted and placid, a love of wine being her one weakness. She had been a beauty once, a beauty confined these days to her eyes, and even they had begun to glaze with a whiskey’s mist – no wonder she was on the fabled ligger’s list. On Friday morning she checked her email only to find her inbox crammed with the customary thirty or so forwarded messages from Conan Kelly, strewn with umpteen invites for openings and announcements of upcoming events. Promptly, she texted Vernon Crumb to see to which one of these he was planning to come – for she could not be seen to freeload alone – she was something like the glamour girl in their boozy gang – and poor old Vernon was her especial favourite among the males – rumour had it that they had been an item once, way back in boozy days of lover’s yore. Whether or not this was hearsay, the extra degree of fond affection existing between them today could not be denied – and so she was suitably alarmed when his illiterate reply gave her to understand that he was grievously ill and could not go to anything. Wary for her beau’s welfare, she took herself to his house at once, resolving to be nurse.
He answered her knock with reluctance, unwilling for her to see the state to which he was sunk. With burbling tentativeness he opened the door a crack and saw her waiting on his doorstep, and his beady bloodshot eyes met her own dewy lovelorn gaze awash with concern, and he hummed and hawed before stepping back to admit her into his desolate Long Lane lair. She gasped at the sorry sight of him, haggard in his bloodstained pajamas with his face in a swollen mess, purple cheeks purpled further by a medley of greenish tinged bruises, chips of dried blood flaking off amid the grizzle of his stubble, opening his mouth ajar in a leer to display his empty row of nibbled gums, toothlessly grinning in wordless reply to her flurry of worried queries, raising a palm to entreat her be hushed, before miming a slip and a crunch through the gruesome pantomime of his witty fingers.
Sam Coll reads an extract from Grace
‘O Vernon!’ she cooed in concern as she swooned, ‘You poor thing!’
Manfully he shrugged it off, indicating with a sweep of his hands that it was all as nothing, hinting with a wave that she need not be worried, but she wouldn’t hear of it: she would be mother. She put him to bed and tucked him up, fluffing his pillows and brushing his hair and tending to his cuts with ointment and plasters, eyeing with maternal disapproval the disarray and squalor of his seedy bachelor’s bedsit, tartly tut-tutting at the dust and the dirt she took upon herself to sweep and scrub. She tore apart his curtains and opened his windows to allow inside the sun and the air, sprayed washing up liquid on all the stains of his stove, then lit up the fusty hob to cook him up some soup, a gelatinous compound of whatever ingredients were to be found in the cobwebbed chaos of his cupboards. The broth cooked, she poured the steaming slop into a bowl and ladled it all into the gaping mouth of the bedridden invalid, wooden spoonful by messy spoonful, wiping his dribbling lips as he drooled and mumbled attempts at gratitude that she pooh-poohed.
Then she rang round the gang’s other members to share the gruesome news and try piece together the sorry chapter of last night’s cockup, remarking on the wonder of how the poor man ever succeeded in getting home on his own while hotly berating Conan and Dermot for the negligent attentions they had shown him, not that they much cared or remembered. Finally she demanded that all come over for a conference in his digs, and decide how best to attend their fallen friend. He had always been erratic they agreed, but had of late been on a steady downward spiral, spinning out of control and indulging in outrageous public displays and whatnot, and this latest incident could mark but the beginning of the final descent. Clearly some sort of great lifestyle change should be put in motion; such an accident could well happen again, and next time he may not be nearly so lucky. And she implored them all to think over on how they could help, and to come armed tomorrow with sober plans and politic stratagems.
That evening she stayed on at Vernon’s, sitting in an armchair by his bedside and comforting him with gossip, retiring to the couch to rest when he napped, awaking once or twice in the night upon hearing his muffled calls for assistance. And as a final reward for her matronly efforts, she indulged herself in a measure of spirits in the dullest early hours, a bottle of which she found secreted in a pouch beneath his bed. The stricken man’s eyes lit up at the sight of the liquor, but she sternly admonished him to be a good boy and stay dry, for another drop was the very last thing he needed, as yesterday’s mishap had shown all too clearly. He looked downcast, but kept quiet, content instead to watch with longing as the good lady poured herself a tumbler and enjoyed.
Conan Kelly was the first to arrive the following Saturday morning, looking shamefaced and sheepish for the part he had played in the debacle, yet also wobbling unapologetically on account of his breakfast beer, whose tang hung on his breath and gave Maggie to wince as she greeted him. As she took his coat and invited him to wipe the mud off his shoes, she warned him to be discreet when broaching the topic of temperance – the last thing they wanted was for Vernon to suspect a conspiracy, for he would never cooperate if ever he felt plotted against.
‘Hyyhrj ggr,’ said Conan Kelly – by which she understood that he would be tactful. To further assure her of the soundness of his aims and of the thoroughness with which he had thought things through, he dipped into his satchel and produced a pamphlet he passed to her with a meaningful glance: a disclaimer about AA meetings in Findlaters Church on North Frederick Street.
‘O no, no, no!’ Maggie Magee groaned, ‘That’s far too blatant. He’d be spitting. Really!’
Conan Kelly, his stratagem thus dismissed, shrugged and passed on in.
The patient sat up in bed and hailed his visitor with a throaty garble that really was no more inarticulate than Mr. Kelly’s customary slurred gargle, his habitual mode of discourse. Pulling up a stool, Conan Kelly sat down by Vernon’s bed, and pressed his arm and punched his shoulder, by way of bucking him up. Conan Kelly gave Vernon to understand that he was sorry that they had led him astray on Thursday, and expressed his hope that Vernon was in the process of recovery. Conan Kelly also assured Vernon that he was in very good hands. Conan Kelly also thought to inform Vernon of the gallery opening to which he was going that night, but then remembered that such a topic was taboo. In short, the company was warm but conversation was tough; Maggie was relieved to hear the bell.
Dermot O’Connor was the next to arrive, bowing his head and accepting Maggie’s greeting remonstrations, bearing the chief burden of the blame on his own stoned shoulders, yet artfully omitting to inform her of the fateful joint he had rolled that night. He lumbered into the bedroom and slapped Kelly’s shoulder, mournfully blanching at the sight of Vernon’s injuries.
‘Ah man, you’re like a car accident!’ he said jocularly. The victim simpered.
But after a warning glare from Maggie, Dermot O’Connor next chose to keep the mood determinedly light by recounting the latest sins of his resident Poles, the term of whose tenancy he was sorely tempted to terminate. All warmed to the subject, and for a time the matter of what to do with Vernon Crumb was put on hold. Then Dermot recollected his own contribution, and promptly took a card from his breast pocket and passed it across to Vernon, who accepted and squinted.
‘My cousin,’ said Dermot helpfully, ‘Excellent dentist. Based in Swords. Really gentle, soft touch. Very high reputation. He’ll kit you out with a new set in no time, mark my words.’
‘Is he pricey?’ Maggie anxiously asked, inadvertently squeezing Vernon’s troubled shoulders.
‘Oh well,’ said uncertain Dermot newly crestfallen, ‘Er, that’s, uh, a good question … I’m sure he could, uh, do a discount or something if I put in the word … cousins are cousins, y’know …’
‘Pprhg hugh,’ said Conan Kelly darkly. All agreed, none more so than Vernon.
The doorbell rang again after some more minutes of painful banter, to Maggie’s greater relief. The latest and last arrival was Mr. Martin Graves, a courteous and genial presence: Maggie’s heart positively lifted when she first caught sight of him standing in the doorway, kindly smiling and crinkling his wrinkled brow as he offered her his hand, clasping her wrist with a feeling grip.
‘Maggie,’ he said warmly, ‘How is he?’
‘O Martin! It’s a bad business …’
‘We’ll see what we can do,’ said Martin Graves. And Maggie thought he sounded like a man who knew what to do. Mr. Graves, a well read and erudite man, was one of the later additions to the club, a former civil servant who had retired on account of high blood pressure and supplemented his pension by renting out his Phibsboro lodgings to a female couple who kept some cats. He had just returned from his annual autumnal stint on the continent, where he taught English for his keep and for his pleasure crooned elegies at the funerals of spinsters. For he had a fine pair of lungs and a tuneful voice that caressed the ranges both baritone and tenor, and in his heart of hearts he had always wanted to be a singer full and proper – it was through frequenting musical events that he had fallen in with Kelly’s crew and had his email address appended to the grubby list. But though not impartial to a drop, he was a moderate man who seldom imbibed to excess; his friends among the freeloaders considered him something of the scholar of their set. They trusted his judgement and looked up to him for approval, often deferring to his opinion when debates erupted, whose outcomes he would chair. It was often remarked that his face looked very like that of Colm Tóibín.
‘God bless all here,’ he waggishly remarked upon entry into Crumb’s dingy bedroom, Maggie following eagerly behind with yet another chair she set down by the bed. The atmosphere warmed as he lent distinction to the scene, resplendent in his tweedy suit and tie, and all around the bed shifted their seats to make room for the newest arrival, who casually accepted his natural preeminence in their circle. Vernon Crumb, who by dint of repeated efforts was now succeeding in stringing together tangible sentences, perked up to remark that Martin was looking very well.
‘I thank you,’ said Mr Graves, ‘But I wish – no offence – that I might say the same of you!’
‘Ah well sure, thish ish it,’ said Mr Crumb.
‘Now now, we’ve all been there,’ said Dermot O’Connor.
‘Please God but we have,’ said Mr Graves with a chuckle, reaching back into his memory cabinet for the story he had concocted en-route for the occasion. ‘Sure haven’t we all overdone it at one time or other. Did I tell you the time about how I fell down some stairs in Spain?’
‘You did not, Martin!’ said Dermot O’Connor.
‘Few years back. I’d had a good few on board, and, as you can imagine, I was a bit rough …’
‘Why!’ cried Maggie, ‘I never would have thought it of you, Martin!’
‘… and I was coming home in the dark or something, dropped my key I must have, and in bending down for it I bloody well went head over heels down the steps. Cut open my arm, split my thumb and all – and it’s lucky I escaped with just a slight bump on the head. I tremble to think what way it could have panned out. But as you can see, I’m still here. Not much to look at, but heh …’
‘O Martin!’ cried adoring Maggie.
‘That’s a fine tale to be telling,’ said Dermot O’Connor.
‘Fj,bflk,’ said Conan Kelly, wiping spit from the sleeve of his jersey.
‘My thought exactly,’ said Mr Graves, ‘It’s a dreadful habit and it will be the death of us all. But as the playwright says, it’s a good man’s failing. And from what I hear tell, old Vernon here has been behaving as badly as I did. You overdid it on Thursday evening I believe, did you not?’
Vernon Crumb reddened and shrugged. Mr Graves, weary of the inquisition, took pity.
‘But it’s no great sin to be merry. Sure what else would you do in the evenings, I ask you? Could one not go to the cinema? Or read? Or eat? Or watch the telly? Or even go on the internet?’
‘There are lots of films on the internet these days,’ said Dermot,
‘Which is very helpful when the fucking TV is so useless. Nothing but the X Factor and fucking Fair City.’
‘Ah, I like my bit of Corrie,’ said Maggie fondly.
‘There you go!’ said Mr. Graves, ‘There’s always the internet when the telly fails. And it also makes sense when the cinema is so expensive. Like everything really. If I may make a grand statement, downloading is only an extension of the freeloading instigated by our friend Conan here.’
‘Ah now, but downloading is of dubious legality,’ said Conan Kelly, unheard.
‘There’s a great website called Putlocker which I recommend highly,’ said Dermot.
‘I’m sure it’s great,’ said Mr Graves with some steel, keen to keep on course, ‘But I suppose a point I might make is that we can’t always be looking at screens in the evenings. We need to get out, have a bit of fresh air, get exercise! But, for that matter, that needn’t always mean go to the pub.’
‘Sure it’s too expensive too!’ Dermot said petulantly, ‘Just why these gigs are such a godsend. Dunno where I’d be without Conan’s list. Gives you something decent to look forward to.’
‘True, these events are decent. They are free. They are very instructive sometimes, especially if one arrives for the speeches and you don’t just pop up at the afters. I’m not in any way disputing that. But a change of habits is good sometimes. That’s all I’m saying. For instance, when were any of you last in the countryside? When did you get a chance to cut loose and leave the city?’
‘Oh, not for yonks,’ said Maggie Magee wistfully.
‘Saw the sea last summer,’ said Dermot vaguely.
‘Kjjhl,’ said Conan Kelly, detaching a chip of snot from his nose.
‘Dunno now,’ said Vernon Crumb glumly.
‘Isn’t it a crying shame!’ said Mr Graves, ‘I’m a country man myself by birth, as some of you may know, and it would kill me to be always stuck in the city night and day. A bit of country air really does the soul some good. Just think of it – a woodlands retreat, to live like a hermit and get back in touch with nature. To wake up to the sound of birdsong and not the fecking traffic.’
Vernon Crumb looked thoughtful. While insightful Maggie started to see where Martin was heading with this tenuous thread, and she silently applauded the subtlety of his strategy.
‘Just think,’ said Mr Graves dreamily, ‘To be as St Kevin in Glendalough…’
‘Bah!’ Dermot snorted, ‘They have loads of them fucking hippie retreats going on all over the place. Full of wankers pretending to be mystical with their jingling bells. Not for me.’
‘No, not for you, Dermot,’ Mr Graves conceded, ‘You’re something of a young man still and you couldn’t live without the bright lights and the noise and the variety. But when you get to my age, it’s a real soother. For instance, my brother-in-law has a country house out in Kildare, small little place, very cosy, big thick stone walls, high trees all around, and the nearest village is half an hour away. It’s a lovely place but he doesn’t often get a chance to go down since he’s so busy. But he sometimes lets me stay there since I’m a light guest and don’t have a family attached with a lot of bawling brats making a mess all over the
place. Great chance to escape when the going gets rough.’
‘Getsh worsh before it getsh better,’ Vernon Crumb remarked softly.
‘And in fact, now that I think about it,’ said Mr. Graves, raising eyes to the ceiling and stroking his chin (a flawless impression of a sudden inspiration, giving an air of spontaneity to the carefully contrived scheme he had hatched overnight), ‘such a retreat could be exactly what …’
He stopped, wary of over-egging the pudding before it baked. They waited, ever more eager.
‘What what?’ cried eager Maggie Magee, leaning forward. ‘Come out with it, Martin!’
‘Yeah man,’ Dermot chipped in, ‘Don’t leave us hanging here!’
‘Well,’ said Mr Graves with a slow smile, ‘… it struck me just now that such an escape could do wonders for our friend Vernon here. Place to put his feet up and really convalesce. Hm?’
In the succeeding silence that followed, he turned to each of them in turn with encouraging eyes, looking lastly upon the bedridden Vernon, whose rasher face wavered between wary and keen.
‘What d’you think, Mr Crumb?’ said Mr Graves. ‘I’ve got a set of keys right here. Just need to put the word in to my brother-in-law and the place is all yours. And I’m sure you’d be a good houseguest. If you play your cards right, why, you could stay indefinitely. What d’you say?’
‘O Vernon!’ Maggie Magee cooed, turning to her lover and nudging his ribs, ‘It’d be the making of ye!’
‘Not to be sniffed at,’ Dermot sniffed, feeling thirsty, ‘If you can stand the fucking solitude …’
Vernon Crumb considered. Mr Graves took out a set of keys from his pockets and jangled them enticingly in front of his nose, laughingly dropping them before him on the bedspread. Vernon Crumb looked at them, one short, one long, silver and golden, well cut, ready to lock and unlock.
‘I can drive you up myself as soon as it’s arranged,’ Mr Graves added, a droll eyebrow uplifted. ‘Think of it as a package holiday without the ticket price attached.’
‘Once Dermot’s cousin has fixed his teeth, of course,’ said Maggie Magee seriously.
‘Can be easily done,’ Dermot murmured, scratching an armpit.
‘First things first,’ said Mr Graves.
‘Jghtd bhft,’ Conan Kelly joked. Everybody laughed.
Vernon Crumb thought. Everybody waited. And then, with ceremony, with deliberation, the invalid stretched out a shaking arm and scooped up the keys deposited on his bedspread. He held them to his ear and listened to their jingle as he gently shook them. And then he smiled and nodded.
‘Soundsh good to me,’ he whispered.
Everybody applauded and the mood was merry. To clinch the deal and tentatively celebrate this sagacious course of action, expectant Dermot produced a hip flask and offered its contents to the company.
This motion was initially deplored until finally they agreed that a final sip would do Mr Crumb no harm – so long as his measure was expressly compounded more of tea than whiskey. No harm done, mature Mr Graves conceded, rubbing his palms.
‘Sure isn’t it medicinal anyway,’ Conan Kelly muttered. But nobody heard him.
Dermot was as good as his word; his dentist cousin, a lovely lad who often gave to charity, offered a knockdown bargain price that was well within their price range: and in any case, they all chipped in together for the toothy cause, so firm were they in one. Within a week, Vernon Crumb was freshly equipped with a shining new set of polished dentures that lent a sparkle to his smile, and indeed he smiled more often as a consequence. Maggie bought him a new suit, so loving and tender a soul she was, and she did so want him to look his best now that a new leaf was being turned over, and she even went and supplied him with some
sturdy wellington boots for walking the mucky boggy roads.
And meanwhile Mr Graves held a careful consultation with his cousin, a banker who was frequently abroad in order to avoid the domestic turmoil it was his partial shame to cause, an incompetent banker who was nonetheless of a kindly disposition at heart, who, after some demurrals, agreed in the end to generously allow his neglected country property to be occupied by an eccentric friend-of-a-relative-by-marriage. Mr Graves encouraged him to think of it as a housesitting exercise – for heaven knows, the place might freeze or fall apart if it was left unattended all the lengthy year long – someone had to be there to sweep the cobwebs and turn on the heat at least, lightweight tasks well within Crumb’s capabilities. This angle won the banker over.
And when all was settled and the time was right, Mr Graves acted as chauffeur, pulling up his Lexus at Long Lane and honking his horn to spur on the departing resident, who came ambling out with a lopsided grin, dragging his stroller bag and sack of groceries while fending off the kisses and last minute suggestions of Maggie Magee (who swore to keep a watchful eye on his bedsit in the interim, secretly resolving to give his kip a makeover), dumping his belongings in the boot and hopping inside by the driver’s side, waving a last goodbye to his college sweetheart as the car beeped and spluttered and tore away down the lane toward the promise of the west. (Conan Kelly and Dermot O’Connor failed to emerge to wave farewell, for they were boozily incumbent within, having cheekily polished off the contents of reformed Vernon Crumb’s capacious cabinet.)
Within an hour of leaving Dublin, they pulled up outside the countryside sanctuary Mr Graves had promised. The Kildare residence was a modest lodge on the corner of a vast estate where horses and cows were reared and milked, the former dwelling of a lonely gatekeeper or sentry in centuries past – the older section was some two hundred years old, consisting of a cosy study complete with erratic internet access, and a chilly kitchen topped off by an antique chimney-pot bedecked with carved vines and stony garlands, with a fine and ravishing view of a nearby roadside river whose constant gush was soothing, and the modern extension entailed a bathroom and a bedroom as well as a baby’s room (the one area out of bounds to the caretaker, Mr Graves carefully informed heedful Vernon), and all was surrounded by a large and airy garden enclosed by a high and imposing wall, shutting out the world and preserving the peace. And Vernon Crumb beheld it all and was enthralled, wandering around the garden and admiring the decorative well, breathing the air and blissfully stretching his arms as his saviour Graves filled his fridge and stocked his shelves. And Graves clapped his hands, and announced that he would leave him to it.
As he watched the car speed away, Mr Vernon Crumb briefly regretted the course of action he had taken, and suddenly felt that he had been set up – thoughts of all the receptions he was missing flooded him of a sudden – should have stocked up on booze before coming here – might make the long nights more cheerful – feeling desperate, he searched the house just in case a dusty bottle had been left by accident – but the place was dry as bone. He contemplated the thirty-minute walk to the village where presumably there would be the relief of an off-licence – but then was appalled by the thought of the long walk back with laden arms. And so he sulked and mourned.
But soon, having no alternative, he dismissed his futile woes. He settled in. He ate an apple. He sat at the patio table in the garden and drank a cup of tea. He watched the sun’s rays and the shadows that were cast. He looked up at the clouds and admired their breezy passage overhead and the dots of flocks who passed and flew. He listened to the songs of birds and the faraway barking of hounds. He threw crumbs to the robins and smiled upon the frogs. He enjoyed the scuttle of the squirrels who swung from the swaying boughs, hotly disputing their claims on the nuts. He listened to the rustling leaves and the nearby gush of the gurgling stream. He cooked a modest dinner of eggs and beans and felt full. He took a book from the shelves and read deep into the night. And he slept well that night and did not dream. In later ensuing days he walked the winding roads where puddles were scattered, surveying the hilly vistas graced by the light. He saw scarcely anyone, save an occasional jogger, and he scarcely missed society.
For recreation, he read every book that filled the shelves, of which there were many, and he had all the time in the world to read them. Sometime later, feeling curious, he checked his email (hating the grinding sound of the awaking laptop that was an obscene stain upon the silence), and found it loaded with some hundred messages all from Conan Kelly, announcing this and that. Without a moment’s thought, he deleted the lot and smiled.
A month later and they had not heard from him. Anxious, they drove down just to check up. Only to find him lying dead in his bed, a handmade crucifix clutched in his cold hands. So if nobody could quite tell where Mr Vernon Crumb had come from, they could certainly tell where he had arrived.
This story is taken from Dubliners 100, edited by Thomas Morris and published by Tramp Press, at €10