Hennessy New Irish Writing winner: August 2017
Women and Other Anthropoids by Pat Nolan
My mother sent me to the Christian Brothers because she didn’t trust lay teachers to do the business with their charges. Academically, I mean. And she was right. They made me the scholarship boy she wanted.
Though I didn’t forget where I came from. I didn’t forgo my accent. At work, I’m up the food chain but I can down nine or ten pints with the rest of the lads. I can eff and blind with the best of them but with more creativity. Mind you, I’m careful not to talk down to them. When one of the younger lads got Tiocfaidh Ár Lá, misspelt, tattooed on his arm, all I said was, “That’s a nice bit of ink you have”.
My ex, when she was being ratty, which was often enough, used say to me, “You don’t need to wear your social origins on your sleeve”. But what would she know?
And now I was on my way from Benalmadena for a lunchtime rendezvous with destiny, or a woman anyway. We met online, as you do. Pilar, she’s called. Or Nelson, as I think of her, to remember her name. A mnemonic, as they call it in the serious crossword. She’s from Gibraltar, of all places, so she writes proper English, nearly. And she talks in a funny way, like a Premiership footballer. Her pictures remind me of Carmen Proetta, a fine older bit of stuff who I recollect witnessed the SAS taking out an IRA hit squad in Gibraltar.
I took the bus because I didn’t want to be arsed finding parking for a car, assuming Pilar and I got on and got it on. After lunch, of course. No gent jumps a lady before treating her to lunch. Or even dinner.
And there she was at the bus station in the nondescript Spanish place on the border, as arranged. In all her glory. And I mean all. No wonder I could just see her head when we Skyped. I thought maybe she didn’t know how to use the camera properly, or possibly was flat-chested. Now I see she understood the camera all too well. I needn’t have bothered taking seven years off my age.
I don’t mind a bird with a bit of mileage on the clock. It’s yardage on the waist I draw the line at.
She was vast. Carmen squared. I don’t mind a bird with a bit of mileage on the clock. It’s yardage on the waist I draw the line at. But first find your waist, as they say. “Shit”, I thought, “if I’m feeding her we had better find a menú del dia or ‘an all you can eat’ place.”
I pride myself on my conversational skills but it was a bit like pulling teeth. The usual, “What’s the weather like here/there”, “Do you come from a big family?” (not to be confused with “Are all your family big?”), “Did you ever smoke?” When you’re making your real time debut you don’t discuss awkward issues like current marital status, progeny, or exes, until you know each other better, or at least know each other in the Biblical sense. Etiquette has changed a bit since Jane Austen’s day but still “rules is rules”.
So we walked down the street to the border, and over the pedestrian crossing on the runway into the promised land. By this stage it was getting hot and she was puffing a bit as she toddled alongside me, though I’d slow my pace every now and then. It was a relief to clamber on board the downtown shuttle bus. It was 50p each and I didn’t have any sterling so at least she did the decent thing and paid our fares, after a bit of scrabbling around in her handbag for a £1 coin.
So there I was. Between a Pilar and a Rock. To be honest, the Rock seemed to offer marginally more promise than Pilar. Beyond the Rock, below the Rock, Gibraltar is an oddity. Downtown is as downtown does. An ostentatiously British place with tower blocks and a high street of lacklustre chain stores. A smattering of pound shops and the odd upmarket jewellers. But overall more Sunderland than Souk. More Croydon than Côte d’Azur.
We repaired to a former barracks, now converted, not like Collins Barracks into a receptacle for dusty, fusty artefacts, but into an outdoor mall of interchangeable pubs and tea shoppes. All offering full Englishes and live Premiership matches. Most of the clientele had the air of someone you wouldn’t look crooked at in a late night chip shop. Squaddy Central. Tattooed fore and aft. Possibly tagged.
We had our lunch – the special, roast beef. And I had a couple of pints to wash it down. Not much purpose in being match fit for Pilar. In the event, though, she was the first to bail. Even as she chased the final crumbs of her sticky toffee pudding around her plate with a dainty cakefork, she announced, “My mother’s Shih Tzu is having a phantom pregnancy so I must take her to the vet. Now.” “Can you get that on your NHS?” I asked – I’m known for my repartee. But she ignored the joke. “Thick, as well as fat,” I thought. She gave me a peck on the cheek and scurried off. You didn’t need a Ph D to recognise “adios, amigo”.
She left me to settle up for lunch. A bit presumptuous, if you ask me. I mean, I would have paid anyway, but what did she bring to the party? A hormonal dog! And not even a real one. For all I know, an avatar or whatever.
So there I was. Not exactly sure if I was dumper or dumpee.
So there I was. Not exactly sure if I was dumper or dumpee. But with an afternoon to spare. So I took the cable car up the Rock of Gibraltar to the viewing platform. I didn’t fancy the exertion of climbing up after my lunch. “I might as well look over Africa,” I thought, because I’m never going there. Not with all those diseases that jump species from our monkey cousins.
Between me and Africa there was a row of people, gobsmacked by the panorama. And it was a real “top of the world” experience. You felt you could see as far as Cape Town while staying within hailing distance of proper plumbing.
Unless distracted, like me, by the quartet of monkey guerrillas with artful dodger fingers and wild dog faces, slyly opening the backpacks of the gobsmacked. The barbarous Barbary apes – natural-born pilferers. I mean, I was expecting them. Apes are big in Gib. Well, not literally, they’re the size of a mid-sized dog, but they’re iconically huge, like The Fields of Athenry. As I think I made myself clear, I don’t like monkeys but if these ones’ forebears were too slow to cross the landbridge to Africa before it disappeared, at least they were insulated from HIV and Ebola. As was I, should I be bitten or scratched.
The warden, who’s kind of like their social worker, told us the tribe of apes is a matriarchy. All of them are tagged too and we see Matilda, the current mother, and mother-in-law, of all. A dowager, if you like. Lady Violet with violet private parts – not that I watch Downton Abbey.
In a British colony, however faded a remnant of Empire, the dynastic analogy strikes you – Matilda has a limited range of expressions like the Queen, a fair bit of scowling and an occasional baring of the teeth in what could be a smile. She doesn’t carry a handbag though, preferring to dip into other peoples’.
Apes are drawn to androids like teenage girls are.
The monkey raiders are not interested in dull old things like wallets. They prefer junk food, the junkier the better. However, it turns out they rather like mobile phones with sparkly covers. Apes are drawn to androids like teenage girls are. Suddenly, a howl. I jump. But it’s from my own species. “He’s got my mobile”, the girl at the front of the platform wails, piercingly, bitterly regretting Africa momentarily distracted her from social media. The ape perches on the rail scanning the shining back of the phone with great interest. I could swear that’s a frown of concentration, just like I’ve seen on some of the operatives at work.
The Africa-gazers are flummoxed. I’m wondering myself how to respond to this crisis. I have to admit I’m tempted to shout out to the monkey on the rail – “I had the same problem at first with the f***ing android. Remember, it’s ‘slide’, not ‘press’.”
Or should I take the longer view and give Matilda a lecture. “Just look at your grandson there! A waste of opposable thumbs! How is he ever going to evolve if all he uses them for is playing with himself?”
Maybe I should just mind my own business. But after my bruising encounter earlier – imagine being rejected by someone you wouldn’t touch with a bargepole – I need to reassert myself and show those leadership competencies they keep asking you about in interviews.
So I lean in (how’s that for management-speak?). I lob the monkey my last, my emergency, pink Snack. He fields it, one-handed, with the ease of Rob Kearney. He looks at the android in one hand, sniffs the chocolate in the other, and casts the phone aside. On the seaward side of the barrier. It sails into the void, spinning iridescently, bouncing a few times off the cliff before disappearing.
The platform party turn and glare at me. In their blinkered view I’m not a first responder but a frenemy, as they say now. I assert, a touch indignantly, “I was only trying to help the poor girl”.
I videoed the whole thing. She can upload it to her Facebook page.”
But a teenage lad steps forward and drawls in his laidback way “I videoed the whole thing. She can upload it to her Facebook page.”
The girl turns to him, tremulous, “YouTube and Twitter as well?”
“I’ll sort it rightaway.”
“And maybe Pinterest? It’ll last longer there.”
“I can add a Board for you. Let’s get a few more stills.”
She utters an awed sigh and poses, loss alleviated by the dream. The face that launched a million hits.
They all thank the hero of the hour. It’s a sickener. You do your unselfish best to rescue the situation – I had that Snack for at least 6 months and they’ve ceased production – and you are gazumped by some little smoothiechops of a dude. They were now looking at him in awe, like metrosexual was a turbo version of Homo sapiens.
“I’m going for the early bus,” I mutter through gritted teeth. I slope off, and in my haste tread in a Matilda dropping. What a day, shit both real and virtual!!
Mind you, that reference to Pinterest sets me thinking – could the crafty way to a woman’s heart be via her crafts portfolio? On the bus back I check out Pinterest on my mobile phone. Jesus, 80 per cent of users are women. And their core age is 33-44. Sounds like a bear market. I could be that bear. My interests? Home decoration, that’d be a good one, lots of potential for Venn overlaps. And haven’t I just painted the bathroom. What was that colour, some poncey name? Eileen Grey?
I tell you, it’s Tiocfaidh Mo Lá.
Pat Nolan (@pannalot) is a jobbing academic and freelance report writer. Since retiring from the Civil Service in 2012, he has developed his interest in creative writing. He has contributed pieces to RTÉ Radio’s ‘A Living Word’ and was shortlisted for Institute of Technology Tallaght Short Story Competition 2016. He is a member of the Inkslingers Writing Group, based at the Irish Writers’ Centre, in Dublin