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Maybe it was Riverdance. A bootleg video did the rounds of the rooms and the shanties of Lagos and, moved to froth by the sight of that long, straight line of Irish and Irish-American legs — tap-tap-tap, tappy-tap — thousands of Nigerians packed the bags and came to Ireland. Please. Teach us how to do that.
I suspect it was more complicated. It was about jobs and the E.U., and infrastructure and wise decisions, and accident. It was about education and energy, and words like ‘tax’ and ‘incentive’, and what happens when they are put beside each other. It was also about music and dancing and literature and football. It happened, I think, some time in the mid-90s. I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one.
That was how it felt, for a while. It took getting used to. I’d written a novel, The Van, in 1990, about an unemployed plasterer. Five or six years later, there was no such thing as an unemployed plasterer. A few years on, all the plasterers seemed to be from Eastern Europe. In 1994 and 1995, I wrote The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. It was narrated by a woman called Paula Spencer, who earned her money cleaning offices. She went to work with other working-class women like herself. Ten years later, I wrote Paula Spencer. Paula was still cleaning offices but now she went to work alone and the other cleaners were men from Romania and Nigeria. In 1986, I wrote The Commitments. In that book, the main character, a young man called Jimmy Rabbitte, delivers a line that became quite famous: –The Irish are the niggers of Europe. Twenty years on,there are thousands of Africans living in Ireland and, if I was writing that book today, I wouldn’t use that line. It wouldn’t actually occur to me, because Ireland has become one of the wealthiest countries in Europe and the line would make no sense.
In April 2000, two Nigerian journalists living in Dublin, Abel Ugba and Chinedu Onyejelem, started publishing a multicultural paper called Metro Eireann. I read an article about these men in the Irish Times, and decided that I’d like to meet them. Three or four years into our new national prosperity, I was already reading and hearing elegies to the simpler times, before we became so materialistic — the happy days when more people left Ireland than were born here; when we were afraid to ask anyone what they did for a living, because the answer might be ‘Nothing’; when we sent our pennies and our second-hand clothes to Africa but never saw a flesh-and-blood African. The words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ were being flung around the place, and the stories were doing the rounds. An African woman got a brand new buggy from the Social Welfare and left it at the bus stop because she couldn’t be bothered carrying it onto the bus, and she knew she could get a new one. A man looked over his garden wall and found a gang of Muslims next door on the patio, slaughtering an Irish sheep. A Polish woman rented a flat and, before the landlord had time to bank the deposit, she’d turned it into a brothel, herself and her seven sisters and their cousin, the pimp. I heard those three, and more, from taxi drivers. I thought I’d like to make up a few of my own.
I met Abel Ugba and asked him if I could write for Metro Eireann and, while we talked, the idea for the first story came to me. An Irishman’s daughter brings home a Nigerian boyfriend — enough to get me going. Abel suggested 800 words a month; the paper was a monthly. (It’s now weekly.) I had the title, ‘Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner’, before I got home. Since then I’ve completed eight stories. There’s a love story, a horror story, a sequel, sort of, to The Commitments. Almost all of them have one thing in common. Someone born in Ireland meets someone who has come to live here. The love, and the horror; excitement, and exploitation; friendship, and misunderstanding. The plots and possibilities are, almost literally, endless. Today, one in every ten people living in Ireland wasn’t born here. The story — someone new meets someone old — has become an unavoidable one. Hop on a Dublin bus, determined to sit beside someone who was born and bred in Dublin, and you’ll probably be standing all the way.
The stories are all written in 800-word chapters. It’s a restraint, and a good deal of the fun. I once read abouta character in a U.S. TV daytime soap who went upstairs for his tennis racket, and never came back down. No one missed or asked about him; daytime life went on. The stories in this book have their tennis-racket moments. Characters disappear, because I forgot about them. Questions are asked and, sometimes, not quite answered. The stories have never been carefully planned. I send off a chapter to the Metro Eireann editor, Chinedu Onyejelem, and, often, I haven’t a clue what’s going to happen next. And I don’t have to care too much, until the next deadline begins to tap me on the shoulder. It’s a fresh, small terror, once a month. I live a very quiet life; I love that monthly terror.
Dublin — December 2006
Guess Who’s Coming
for the Dinner
1 Larry Linnane Loved His Daughters
Larry Linnane liked having daughters. He got great value out of them, great crack.
The second kid had been a boy and that was great too, having a son, bringing him to the football — Under-7, Under-8, Under-9, all the way up until Laurence, the son, told him he thought he’d play better if Larry stayed at home.
And that was grand too, the rejection, part of watching them grow up, even though he pretended he was a bit hurt and, actually, he was a bit hurt. But it had all been fine because Mona, the wife, had bought him a Crunchie to cheer him up and they’d even made love in front of the telly because the house was empty for the first time in years.
And it became a habit — the sex, not the Crunchie — every time Laurence had a match, especially an away match, and especially enjoyable if it was raining out and he could think of Laurence getting drenched in Finglas West or Ballybrack while he lay on the couch with Mona under him or, on the really good days, Mona on top of him.
–Not bad for forty-five! Larry shouted once, just before they heard the door slamming, and they were sitting up, fully zipped and dressed, and doing the crossword by the time the lounge door opened and three of the four daughters trooped in.
And they refused to tell the girls why they were laughing and why they couldn’t stop laughing.
–We’re just thinking of poor Laurence out there in the rain, said Mona.
But it was the daughters who really made Larry laugh.
They said that girls were supposed to be the quiet ones but, whoever they were, they hadn’t a clue. His gang, Jesus, there hadn’t been a minute, not a second’s peace in the house since the eldest, Stephanie, was born, but especially since the other three came after Laurence. Tracy, Vanessa, Nicole, one after another, each one madder and louder than the last.
–Wagon yourself, yeh bitch!
Screaming, roaring, flinging each other down the stairs, tearing each other’s hair out. The best of friends, in other words. And Larry loved every minute of it. The fights and reconciliations, the broken Barbies, stolen hairspray — Larry watched it all, sat in his corner like a ref who’d been bribed by both sides and soaked up every wallop and hug.
Larry was fifty now and the girls were women, fine, big, good-looking women and in no hurry to leave home, and that suited Larry just fine. Because they spoilt him crooked.
He knew there was a kettle in the kitchen — he’d bought it himself, in Power City — but, honest to God, he couldn’t have told you exactly where it was.
–Would you like a biscuit with that cuppa, Da?
–There’s only plain ones left.
–Not to worry, said Larry. –I’ll manage. Give us two, though, love. To make up for the chocolate.
They were always ironing and they never objected if one or two of Larry’s shirts accidentally ended up on their pile. He loved the smell of the house — fresh clothes, all sorts of spray fighting for air supremacy. Larry could fart all day — and he did, at the weekends — and no one ever noticed or complained.
But it wasn’t really about tea and ironing and the freedom to fart with impunity. What Larry really loved was the way the girls brought the world home to him. Every morning at breakfast, and when they came home for the dinner, before going out again, they talked and shouted, all of them together, and Mona in there with them.
–He said it was the Red Bull that made him do it!
–So I said, ‘D’you call that a pay rise!’
–The strap was killing me!
–I’m thinkin’ o’ buyin’ shares in Esat, did I tell yis?
–Nicearse.com. Have a look at it tomorrow.
Their voices reminded Larry of the Artane roundabout — mad, roaring traffic coming at him from all directions. And he loved it, just like he loved the Artane roundabout. Every time Larry drove onto and off that roundabout he felt modern, successful, Irish. And that was exactly how he felt when he listened to his daughters. He’d brought them up, him and Mona, to be independent young ones, and that was exactly what they were. And he trusted them, completely. He was particularly proud of himself when they were talking about sex. That was the real test, he knew — a da listening to his daughters talking about their plumbing — and they did, not a bother on them — and about their sex lives, confidently, frankly and, yeah, filthily. And Larry passed the test with flying colours. Nothing his daughters said or did ever, ever shocked him.
Until Stephanie brought home the black fella.
2 A Black Man on the Kitchen Table
It was June, the first really decent day of the summer. Nicole was eating her dinner with her legs sticking out the kitchen door, grabbing the bit of sun before it was hijacked by next-door’s wall. All four of the daughters had sunglasses parked on top of their heads. Laurence, the son, had sunglasses as well, like the ones Edgar Davids, the Dutch footballer, wore. On Edgar Davids they looked impressive, terrifying, even sexy. On Laurence they looked desperate — he looked like a day-old chick that had just been pushed out of the nest. Larry’s heart went out to him.
And that was why he wasn’t tuned in to the girls’ chat that evening. He was trying to come up with a nice way to tell poor Laurence to bring the glasses back to the shop. So he’d heard none of the usual prying and slagging, the good-natured torture and confession that he loved so much.
He was wondering if Laurence still had the receipt for the goggles when he heard Vanessa asking, ‘What’s he do for his money?’
–He’s an accountant, said Stephanie.
Larry sat up: no daughter of his was going to get stuck with a bloody accountant.
–At least, he would be, said Stephanie, –if they let him work.
–What’s that mean? said Larry.
They all looked at him. The aggression and fear in his voice had shocked even him.
–They won’t let him work, said Stephanie.
–I don’t know, she said. –The government.
–Because they haven’t granted him asylum yet.
–He’s a refugee?
–Yeah. I suppose so.
–Where’s he from?
Larry waited for the gasps, but there were none, not even from Mona. He wished now he’d been listening earlier. This mightn’t have been a boyfriend she was talking about at all; it could have been someone she’d never even met.
But Vanessa put him right.
–You should see him, Da. He’s gorgeous.
And all the other girls nodded and agreed.
–Dead serious looking.
So, it wasn’t that Stephanie actually brought home the black fella. It was the idea of him, the fact of his existence out there somewhere, the fact that she’d met him and danced with him and God-knows-what-elsed with him. But, if it had been an actual black man that she’d plonked on the table in front of Larry, he couldn’t have been more surprised, and angry, and hurt, and confused.
He stood up.
–He is not gorgeous! he shouted.
Nicole laughed, but stopped quickly.
–He’s not gorgeous or anything else! Not in this house!
He realised he was standing up, but he didn’t want to sit down again. He couldn’t.
He looked at six faces looking up at him, waiting for the punchline, praying for it. Frightened faces, confused and angry.
There was nothing he could say. Nothing safe, nothing reassuring or even clear. He didn’t know why he was standing there.
–Is it because he’s black? said Mona.
Larry didn’t let himself nod. He never thought he’d be a man who’d nod: yes, I object to another man’s colour. Shame was rubbing now against his anger.
–Phil Lynott was black, love, Mona reminded him.
Phil Lynott had been singing ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ when Larry and Mona had stopped dancing and kissed for the first time.
And now he could talk.
–Phil Lynott was Irish! he said. –He was from Crumlin. He was fuckin’ civilised!
And now Stephanie was right in front of him, tears streaming from her, and he couldn’t hear a word she was screaming at him. And he couldn’t see her himself now, his own tears were fighting their way out. And he wished, he wished to Christ that they could start all over again, that he could sit down and listen and stop it before all this had to happen.
It was Mona who rescued him.
–We’ll have to meet him, she said.
This was just after she’d hit the table with the frying pan.
–No, said Larry.
–Yes, Larry, she said, and he knew she was right. If he kept saying No they’d all leave, all the girls. It was what he would have expected of them. ‘Stand up for your rights.’ That was what he’d roared after them every morning, on their way out to school. ‘Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight.’
The house was empty now. Mona had imposed a ragged peace. Larry and Stephanie had hugged each other, yards of brittle space between them. The girls had taken her down to the local. They’d be talking about him now, he knew. Racist. Bastard. Racist. Pig. His cup was empty but he hadn’t noticed the tea.
–It could be worse, love, said Mona.
Larry looked at her.
–He could have been an estate agent, she said.