A Gathering that Vinny had not expected


AGAINST THE ODDS:Vinny’s little house gives welcome shelter to an old acquaintance, writes RODDY L'ESTRANGE

As he closed the hall door gently, it struck Vinny Fitzpatrick as odd that he was about to spend the final hours of the year, as well as his 55th birthday, with a cluster of folk, most of whom he had never met until a few days ago.

At this wonderful time of the year, life was about the warm embrace of family and ensuring old acquaintances were not forgotten. It wasn’t for clinking glasses with a cluster of strangers, who had fallen on hard times.

The Gathering, as Vinny labelled it, in the old Fitzpatrick family home in Causeway Avenue, had grown in the past week and each night Vinny popped in, armed with provisions, blankets and toiletries, it seemed a newcomer was sitting in a corner.

They were all male, of all ages, and each had a story to tell, none more pathetic than Tubby Quinlan, who started it all.

Vinny had run into Tubby, or rather walked into him, on Christmas Eve after being caught short leaving the Capri chipper. Aware he would never make it home, Vinny had skipped into an old viewing shelter on the coast road and had just started to unzip when he heard a voice below him. ‘Do you mind?’

Startled, Vinny looked down to see a figure huddled by the entrance, which provided refuge from the chill sea breeze.

Vinny had apologised, wandered off to the bushes to complete his business before returning with the offer of a half-eaten bag of curried chips.

Watching the destitute figure hungrily shove the Capri’s finest into his gullet, Vinny caught a glimpse of a face he recognised. “It’s Tubby Quinlan, isn’t it?” he asked. “I’m Vinny Fitzpatrick. We were in St Joey’s. You were a year behind me.”

The man pulled a hoodie around his head, and growled. “I don’t know what you’re on about. I’d appreciate it if you fecked off.”

But Vinny hadn’t fecked off. He had not only stayed but had insisted Tubby went with him to Causeway Avenue where, over a nightcap, the story of how a pillar of Sutton society became a homeless down-and-out came to light.

Algernon ‘Tubby’ Quinlan had it all; the glam wife, sons in Belvo, holiday retreats in Kerry and Cadiz, golf in Portmarnock, sailing in Howth, bridge in Fitzwilliam.

He’d flown so high he felt he could touch the sun. And then, in 2008, he was burned. “I put everything into Anglo Irish Bank shares and didn’t have the sense to cut and run when the crash came,” explained Tubby.

“Bit by bit, I lost my wife, custody of the boys, the houses, the cars, the boat, even my prized Calloway irons.” For the past month, Tubby had been kipping in the homeless shelter run by the Vincent De Paul near Christchurch since his return.

On Christmas Eve, Tubby had walked to Sutton Cross, past his old home, and had been so overcome by emotion on the way back that he’d crashed in one of the many seaside shelters lining the Clontarf Road.

“I was looking for a sign, any sign, when you stopped by for a pee,” he said as they drained a bottle of Glenfiddich.

Vinny insisted Tubby stop over in Causeway Avenue which had been refurbished after the dreadful September fire and would be let out in the new year.

Vinny had dropped by on Christmas Day with a full dinner, and when he returned on St Stephen’s Day with a cold meat platter, he found Tubby wasn’t alone.

“This is Jimbo,” explained Tubby. “He was laid off from the motor factors in Baldoyle after 35 years. A week later, his missus threw him out. I met him today. Is it okay if he stays a while?”

Day by day, the numbers living rough in Causeway Avenue grew. There were two bankers, a property developer and a former garage owner, ex-white collar chaps who had fallen on lean times.

Not all of Vinny’s guests were hard-luck Harry’s. Vinny had read of Plum Perkins in the Clontarf Courier. He was a local criminal of ill-repute, who was out on remand from the Joy and had bunked in because “I was getting grief at home”.

It was well after ten bells on New Year’s Eve, when Vinny slipped away from Angie and the kids. As the last day of the year was traditionally a quiet one in Mount Prospect Avenue, no one had protested at his disappearing act.

Half an hour later, Vinny arrived at the refuge with a dozen singles of chips and battered haddock from the Capri. He’d also smuggled a bottle each of whiskey and gin from the Christmas left-overs.

“Here yiz are lads,” he said to his guests. Raising a glass, he hailed the motley crew. “May next year bring ye blessings,” he said, looking each of them in they eye. Only then did he notice there was someone missing: Tubby.

When Vinny asked his whereabouts, no one knew. “He went out a few hours ago. Said he was nipping around to the shops for some fags,” shrugged Jimbo.

Vinny left the little house on Causeway Avenue and hurried towards the seafront. It was a wild night, the wind was howling and spitty rain stung his cheeks.

Within a few minutes, he was at the shelter. It was empty. He looked around him. Something caught his eye. There was writing on the wall. He took out his mobile phone which threw enough light for him to make out the words. Instantly, his blood chilled.

Someone had daubed “Tears are round, The Sea is deep, Roll them overboard – and sleep.” Vinny twigged what the message meant and shuddered.

He thought of his late friend Collie Beardmore, who’d taken his life all those years ago because he had no one to talk to. He thought too of something Tubby said to him when they met on Christmas Eve, something about “looking for a sign”.

Tubby had seen the quote. Had he taken that as a sign? Vinny prayed he hadn’t.

He clambered on to the flood wall and stared into the white-flecked abyss. “Tubby! Tubby! Can you hear me? Are you out there?” he bellowed. In the near distance, Vinny heard the chimes of St Gabriel’s. It was midnight on the last day of the year. Vinny slowly eased himself down off the wall. Salty snots dripped off his fleshy nose and his eyes were watery.

As he trudged past the shelter, a figure emerged from the rear. “Excuse me. Any chance of a light?” Even in the gloom, Vinny knew the voice as Tubby Quinlan’s.

Bets of the week

1pt each way Giles Cross in Welsh Grand National (12/1, Coral)

1pt each way Brandt Snedeker in Hyundai Tournament of Champions (16/1, Paddy Power)

Vinny's Bismark

1pt Lay Liverpool to draw with Sunderland in Premier League (7/2, Boylesports, liability 3.5pts)