In the end, I abandoned my new life, along with the people who had helped me to put it together, and I returned to the world of strange games and secret systems they had saved me from. The summer after I left the cult, everyone was initially pleased with my progress in adjusting to everyday living: I was set up in a flat in town with my oldest friend, working part-time doing data entry in a bank and all set to go back to Trinity in October and repeat the year I had lost. But I had never really taken to the temping which had controlled the days since my rescue, and in my idle moments I let my mind turn back to the dangerous questions and mysteries, to the vanished actors and intrigues that I had promised to forget for good.
My return to the cult occurred on a warm evening, halfway through the summer of 2004, as I sat alone waiting for a text message from my new lover. I was distracted and nervous; the flat oppressed me with its spoons and cushions. I stared at the unlit phone, willing the message to arrive while there was still time. But when it did beep, buzz, and glow, instead of picking it up and reading the message, I walked, as though instructed, into Patrick’s room and stood in front of his bookshelf. In a single, illuminated instant, like the flash and tinkle of a lightbulb blowing, I knew that that fresh life, brief and safe, was over. I stood for a short time in feigned resistance, glancing now and then out the window at the cars moving regularly by on Baggot Street, following flawlessly upon one another, like the days, the minutes, the years. But I was not being persecuted or hunted down against my will; I was not suffering from love, exhaustion, ornerves. I was voluntarily lost, I was long gone.
I switched on Patrick’s reading lamp, illuminating the titles on the bookshelf.
By the time I pulled the first forbidden volume down, the traffic, the hum of the fridge, the homeless couple fighting outside, the tick of Patrick’s alarm clock—even, perhaps, the ring of my phone—had already woven themselves into a fine fabric of sound, the inevitable and dangerous Latin singing that had seduced me first and would now lead me away again:
ecce enim veritatem dilexisti One
incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi
Asperges me hyssopo et mundabor
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
For behold you loved the truth
And you revealed to me the hidden secrets of your wisdom.
You will purge me with hyssop and I will be cleansed:
You will wash me and I will shine whiter than snow.
But to begin with, all words. For a long time I used to lie, and say that words had "always" been my "trade," while in fact mine is just the rude tongue of my homeland, the bourgeois suburbs on Dublin’s southern side, a Levantine country reaching from the tree-hushed redbrick of Ranelagh, Rathmines, and Donnybrook, on the edge of the city centre, stately places of canals, cornices, and quiet burghers, extending east and southbound along a glittering Mediterranean coast. Amphibious green trains run along its foamed edge, sliding back and forth between the heart of the Hibernian metropolis and the deep south, through the litorally bounded civilisations of Glenageary, Blackrock, and Killiney, through Dalkey, Seapoint, and Bray. The Stillorgan dual carriageway cuts across the middle of this land, a spine laterally transversing the wild darkness of Foxrock and Leopardstown, stretching through countless lonely valleys and plains all the way out to the western edges, the foothills, the ends of the earth, the literally fantastic tracts in Three-Rock’s solemn shadow. These are the boundaries of my home, and my language consists only of its bland Neapolitan vowels, its middleclass maritime cadence and its uncertain refusal of tense.
An unremarkable swottishness and a cheap, almost corrupt knack for exams had got me easily through secondary school at the Jesuit Gonzaga College, and covered me with the scalps and headdresses of local competitions. And then in my last year of school (nine months, that is, before that evening in Patrick’s flat), these mediocre gifts, in combination with a modest flair for foreign languages, had brought something more exciting my way.
It took the form of a new Trinity College scholarship, only two in Ireland, the Beckett Foundation Fellowship, to study French and English literature. It entitled me to "Commons"—dinner in the huge Dining Hall every evening at six—and, more importantly, to rooms (which means a room) in Trinity, a fact which enabled me to move out and leave, after nineteen years, the draughty Victorian house of my parents and of my childhood, atop the sad swell of the sea at Dún Laoghaire.
I left home in early October, walking to the DART station through dead leaves and night rain and most likely a big orange harvest moon. The final goodbye to my parents had taken place in the worried blue light of the television, where I turned down their offer of a lift. They fussed about money and food and told me they were proud of me. I said I loved them and left.
I would have been more aware of this as a rite of passage, the extreme unction of my childhood, setting off into the city to seek my fortune, but my mind had room only for Ian O’Neill. He had returned more than a month before from interrailing around Europe, and despite near-daily calls to his mobile and messages left on the family landline, I had only seen or spoken to him once in all that time. A few days before he was to embark on his degree in Commerce at UCD, I had turned up unannounced on the doorstep of the O’Neill family’s semi-detached house in Dartry, driven not even by affection or love so much as a rabid, carnal desire to feel the press of his flesh in our initial handshake. His girlfriend—Laoise, I think her name was—was there in the sitting room. He hadn’t invited me in, he had kept me there on the porch for the few minutes of our conversation, but I could sense her moving round inside, like a mysterious royal prisoner in a tower. Ian’s manner was friendly, what’s the craic, how’s the man, but his dead eyes betrayed a new knowledge of the true nature of my feelings for him, a full-on recognition, at last, of the cannibalistic fervour which had characterised my interest in him. I sensed right away in his voice that he had finally penetrated the veils of deceit I had woven around our friendship over the last two years in school, two endless, mad years when I wandered like Lady Macbeth among the darkened rooms of our house every evening, hoping he would phone, sick with worry that he was out meeting girls or— worse—founding new confidences with other boys.
Our association was a strange one, between a quiet, mildly unpopular swot and an affable, confident, blond-haired rugby player. In the ordinary course of school events, our paths would hardly have intersected, and so our friendship was carefully and calculatingly set up by me, through a series of apparently innocent and random encounters at bus stops, class religion retreats, and queues in the newsagents of Ranelagh. Through these devices and designs I had become the closest friend of the object of my sexual obsession, and if he was confused by my mad jealousy with regard to the social life he maintained independent of me, with his old group of friends, he had accepted it as a quirk of my personality, a sign of real friendship.
However, everything had changed in the summer after the Leaving Cert, the months between school and college, which I spent on walks on the seafront in Sandycove with my parents and sister, and he inter-railing around Europe with a mad crowd of lads from school. During these continental adventures, the distance from Dublin and the time spent with friends who didn’t tearfully accuse him of insensitivity or neglect, must have caused him to rethink our strange friendship. One afternoon, drinking beer from a plastic glass on Wenceslas Square or chatting, maybe, to a group of Australian backpacking girls at the harbour in Bruges, he had been arrested by a sudden, retrospective vision of me at home on those weekend nights in Dublin when he had been out with his other friends. As he slid stoned, perhaps, down the cobbled slope of the Piazza del Duomo in Siena, or ran to validate his ticket in the Hauptbahnhof in Munich, he had been halted in his tracks by a first clear sense of how it had really been, skidding, losing his balance, and falling over a suitcase trolley as an image flared up in his mind’s eye of me on a Friday night, wandering miserably from room to evendarkened room in our big old house beside the sea waiting for some sign of him, a despondent Bernadette in a rainswept Lourdes waiting uselessly for a divine apparition to burst with a ring from the silent phone.
But now, walking across the cobbles and brown leaves through Trinity to collect my keys from the porter, these recent memories fell away. I signed for my keys, and the porter pointed me in the direction of my new address, House 16, the corner entranceway in a nineteenth-century granite complex known as Botany Bay. My third-floor room was large and bright, furnished with a desk, single bed, and bookshelf, a sink in the corner and two old windows looking out onto the tennis courts and the gothic Graduate Memorial Building. I looked at the bookshelf and the bare walls, and up at the high, white ceiling, and I thought, I will furnish this room with a life.
I was disturbed from my unpacking and the pleasant thoughts that accompanied it as a bell in the room gave two long, loud rings. It was my doorbell, a shrill old-fashioned mechanism above the door. But it was impossible that I could have callers, since I myself had just found out which room I had been assigned when I collected my key. I hadn’t put my name on the bell-panel at the side of the entranceway. The bell rang twice more, and I remained standing in the middle of the room, frozen in a musical-statues pose with a pile of boxer shorts in my arms. I dropped them on the floor, went over to the window, opened it and stuck my head out into the darkness. Behind me, the bell rang twice, confidently, again. Standing on the steps of the door to House 16, looking up at my window as he took his finger off the bell, was a young man. At first I took him for Ian, and then for Patrick, before realising it was neither of them, nobody, in fact, that I knew. He was a little older than me, with curly blond hair and a brown leather jacket.
"Hello?" I called down. He jumped down from the steps, walked over to stand directly beneath my window, and looked up, hands in his pockets.
"Hi," I called again.
"Niall? Niall Lenihan?" he shouted up cheerfully.
"Yes, yeah, that’s me, hello," I said.
He laughed, then took a few steps back, and cupping his hands around his mouth sang up at me:
"Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clements."
He laughed out loud and sang it again:
"Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clements."
I looked back at him, speechless, trying to imagine what it could mean.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"Pablo Virgomare," he said, in a perfectly Irish accent, "delighted to make your acquaintance."
"Strange name," I called back, accusingly.
"Stranger than yours anyway, Niall Lenihan," he replied. "So few letters, all repeated and rearranged."
"What do you want? How do you know who I am?" I shouted. He laughed.
"All repeated and rearranged!" he said again.
The Dining Hall bell struck the half-hour. He called up:
"There’s Saint Clement’s calling. Take care. And look, if you need me, you know where to find me. Send me a song."
He blew me a kiss, then ran off along the edge of the tennis courts towards Front Square. I stared out the window into the wind and leaves on Botany Bay, hopelessly looking for a clue, the line of song ringing away in my head. Eventually I pulled my head back in, sat on my bed, and racked my brains, wondering if I knew him from somewhere, from school, a friend of one of my cousins, what kind of in-joke the song might refer to. Maybe just a local crazy doing knick-knocks. But he knew my name and had found out what room I was in.
I jumped with fright, heart still pounding, as the bell rang again. I sat, terrified, until it stopped, and remained there waiting stiffly for it to start again. After a long pause it did, two short rings. I gathered my courage and went cautiously to the window. I couldn’t bring myself to look down, so I just called blindly and firmly up at the stars:
A girl’s voice replied, in the singsong accent of northern Ireland: "Niall? Niall Lenihan?"
I looked down to the doorway. She had shoulder-length dark blond hair, and was standing with her arms folded in front of her chest.
"Who are you?" I called out.
She walked over, like the last caller, and stood beneath my window.
"I’m Fionnuala Shiel, I’m the other, you know, Beckett scholar. I got your room number off the guards in Front Arch. I just called over to say hello."
"Oh," I called down suspiciously.
"Is this a bad time?"
"What? Oh, no, not really. I mean, well, no. Hi."
"Do you want to have a cup of tea or something?" she called.
I hesitated. It still seemed quite possible that this was a trick, part of the last caller’s arcane plot. Then it seemed to me that anything at all would be preferable to sitting alone in my room waiting for him to call again, so I threw down my key and invited her up.
As her slow footsteps came up the stairs I pulled my duvet from my rucksack and spread it on the bed, with the idea that a bare bed was somehow unmannerly to show a guest.
"So, you’re the mysterious Niall," she said when I opened the door to her, "congratulations on your scholarship."
"Likewise." I smiled. "Why mysterious?"
"You weren’t at any of the orientations. I called for you a few times over Freshers’ Week."
"I skipped it," I said, ashamed of myself for lingering at home for the sake of the completely improbable possibility that Ian would phone the landline or call over to the house. "I’ve literally just moved in."
Fionnuala had big green engaging eyes, and she wore real person’s clothes, co-ordinated and modern, selected not with the purpose of getting noticed, but rather the embarrassed teenager’s goal of remaining as invisible as possible. I invited her to come in, and we sat on the chairs on either side of the gas heater, which I turned on as she looked around my room.
"Nice room," she said.
The heater finally lit, I sat down opposite her, and we inhaled a faint odour of unlit gas. I enjoyed the sound of her northern accent, the little trill at the end of each sentence, the vibrato vowels.
"You’re from the north . . ."
"From Belfast, yeah. You . . . ?"
"Dublin. I’m from Sandycove, just outside Dún Laoghaire, you know, where the boat goes to Holyhead."
She had met our French class, and said they seemed mostly nice, she had been out dancing with them in a nightclub behind Grafton Street. Break for the Border. She asked me if I’d heard of it. I had, a distant whisper on the breeze which had blown around the cold sidelines of Ian’s private social world of rugby players and their girlfriends, the one from which I was miserably excluded, condemned instead to drift like the white lady of Hampton Hall through our house in Sandycove, the distant noise of the television which my parents and sister were watching not any more audible than the phantom sounds of club music and slowdances to whose rhythms Ian could have been moving with some lucky girl from Mount Anville or Muckross, sounds that would come to me across vast, unnavigable distances of the imagination, broken only by the muffled laughter of the television audience from the sitting room, or by a dull phone call about homework from one of my classroom acquaintances, boys who swapped computer games, read fantasy novels, and were afraid of their mothers.
"So anyway, some of our French class are heading to the pub tonight, do you feel like coming along? It’s what, half-seven now, we can sink one before they show up."
I was feeling sensitive and unsociable, but my nerves were badly jangled by the previous caller and I didn’t want to be left alone, so I said I’d be delighted.
"They’re meeting in O’Neill’s, do you know where it is? I don’t."
"I do," I said, pleased with myself.
Although in many ways the city centre was a strange place for me, still washed in the amniotic waters of Sandycove, Dún Laoghaire and Dalkey, years of desultory Saturday afternoons wandering around town with Patrick and his friends, as well as the second-hand knowledge of pubs and clubs which was part of Ian’s legacy, had left me with a decent, if largely theoretical, acquaintance with the layout of its streets and drinking places. I relaxed with her as we walked through Trinity, across the traffic on College Green and up past proudly buxom Molly Malone to the pub, and was pleased I had gone. We added each other’s numbers to our phones, a pleasant gesture of investment in the future, a fun anticipation of when our names would be flashing up on one another’s screens, heralding student parties and gossip about tutorials. O’Neill’s was quiet when we went in, and we took a large table near the door so the others would see us easily.
"What are yous habing?" The loungegirl was Spanish, but, rather comically, used the demotic Dublin second person plural. "A glass of Carlsberg," Fionnuala said, "actually no, fuck it, a pint."
"A Guinness, please."
Fionnuala put her purse on the table and sat back. "In Belfast they think you’re a slag if you drink pints. I’ve come south to liberate myself."
I paid for the drinks over Fionnuala’s protests and we drank to happy undergraduate days. As we drank, things took on a happy, fuzzy blur, and, forgetting about my weird Oranges and Lemons caller, I had a surge of affection for my first new friend. We talked about our families. She was adopted, the eldest, with three younger siblings, all adopted too except the last one. She didn’t know a thing about her natural parents and it didn’t interest her at all ("Sure I have a Mammy and a Daddy already, Niall"). The conversation came around, of course, to sex, and I was trying to formulate a response which would be neither entirely untruthful nor a coming-out. I opened my mouth, but was saved by Fionnuala suddenly waving to a young woman walking by our table.
"Oh. Hello, Fiona."
She was older than us, probably a little under thirty, with a ghostly pale face and two huge staring grey eyes. She had messy brown hair, swept to the side in a rather masculine-looking parting. She was holding a battered brown handbag in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She ignored me and addressed Fionnuala in an urgent tone.
"Do you know my friend John? Have you seen him?" She asked in a low, mannish voice.
"Neither, Sarah, I’m sorry . . ."
"Well, confound the things!" she exclaimed in frustration. "Damn liars!" She took her coat off and moved to throw it on the bench. I shifted over towards Fionnuala to make room and she sat down.
"Damn liars!" she exclaimed again, and then called: "Waiter! Waiter, over here!" She looked at Fionnuala and said: "That’s not what you’re supposed to say, is it . . . remind me how you’re supposed to say it." She had a slight trace of a provincial accent, almost neutral, but not Dublin.
"Niall, Sarah, Sarah, Niall," Fionnuala introduced happily. "Niall’s the other Beckett scholar."
Sarah’s big eyes looked me over in a brief but dramatic grey roll. I thought I saw in them the hint of some other colour, a funny effect of the light, and I stared at her quite rudely. She turned back to Fionnuala.
"This is O’Neill’s, isn’t it? I was supposed to meet a friend in O’Neill’s pub, he’s not here."
"Why don’t you text him?" Fionnuala asked, and nodded to our phones lying on the table.
Sarah ignored her and ordered a vodka and orange with a slice of lemon from the loungegirl.
"Sarah’s the one I was telling you about, Niall," Fionnuala said, "the Ph.D. student who lives upstairs from me."
"What do you work on?" I asked her. "I mean, what is your doctorate in?"
"What is it in. Do I have to tell you? I suppose I do. Old Irish." She gave the term a kind of disbelieving emphasis. "I mean, very old."
"Wow, interesting," I said.
"Do you think so? Really? Old Irish? Wow, interesting," she echoed absentmindedly under her breath, then looked away and began rummaging in her bag until her drink arrived. She paid, took a gulp of her drink, and picked up her cigarette pluming away in the ashtray. "I hate a dry cigarette. Wow, interesting," she repeated again, as if weighing its meaning.
"Not long now till they bring in the smoking ban," I suggested, to general silence.
After a few moments Fionnuala made another attempt:
"What’s the craic anyhow, Sarah?"
Sarah was looking distractedly round the bar. Not finding what she wanted, she sighed and pulled a paperback book out of her handbag. She flicked through it, stopped about halfway through, and placed her finger at a point on the page. She read for a little bit, then closed the book and threw it back on top of her coat. She stood up, looked around again, then sat down abruptly. "It was definitely O’Neill’s, definitely. But he’s not here. Not a sign. What time is it, Fiona?"
"Where is he . . ."
"It was definitely O’Neill’s of Suffolk Street?" I offered.
"Well, O’Neill’s O’Neill’s. Where else is there?"
"Is there another O’Neill’s, Niall?" Fionnuala asked.
"Pearse Street," I told them, proud, for once, to be a repository of local knowledge, a wise aboriginal tracker.
Sarah thrust the book into my hands. "You," she said, "flick through this, read me out any sentence."
"Any sentence at all?" I stole a look at Fionnuala, who winked at me across the table.
"Yes, quickly," Sarah said looking round nervously.
"Um . . ." I opened the book towards the end and picked a sentence. I started to read but stopped in shock when I saw the words under my finger. My head spun and I closed the book. "What’s wrong with you?" Sarah asked, with an odd look. "What does it say?"
"I . . ." It was too strange, I couldn’t read it. I gave her the book and pointed to the passage I had chosen.
" ‘Oranges and lemons say the bells of Saint Clements’ . . ." she read aloud. "What does . . . ? What’s wrong?"
"Just a weird coincidence," I said, "really crazy."
She studied my face intensely, searching my eyes for something specific.
"What kind of coincidence?" she demanded sharply.
"Just . . . a phrase, repeated, you know, out of context. . . . The phrase came up earlier, and it’s here again. . . ."
She was visibly taken aback. She left her eyes to linger on mine, hunting for an answer, and as I stared back I felt I was about to see something concrete, something like writing, emerge from the grey depths of her pupils. She snapped her eyes away from me, stuffed the book back in her bag, and stood up decisively.
"I have to go now, I’ll . . . I’ll try O’Neill’s on Pearse . . . I have to go. Bye."
I half stood up to try and call her back, but by the time I had formulated a question, she had already stridden through the crowd and was out of earshot. I sat back, dazed.
"What the hell was all that about?" Fionnuala asked, leaning in. I opened my mouth to begin telling her, but, for the second time that night with her, words failed me.
"Oh . . . you know, just déjà-vu kind of thing. Freaked me out."
"She’s off her rocker, isn’t she?"
We were interrupted once again, this time by the arrival of our French class. There were five of them in all, and we stayed drinking together and introducing ourselves until closing time. I was not used to meeting people from outside Dublin. The last time I had mixed with the national pool had been years before, in Irish language college with Patrick, when for three weeks we breakfasted, dined, played sport, danced at céilithe, and spoke pidgin Irish with other fourteen-year-olds from Limerick, Thurles, Arklow and Bunclody. Just as I had clung to Patrick in the language classes, sports, hikes, and reels at that time, now, among this small group of departing pilgrims meeting for the first time in O’Neill’s of Suffolk Street, I gravitated towards the only other traveller from my world, an expensively dressed and rather self-centred girl from Foxrock called Andrea. She did most of the talking at the table, extravagantly proportioned tales of suburban adventure, with a cast, bewildering in its scale and intricacy, of friends, cousins, ex-boyfriends, classmates, occasional bitplayers from other generations, and a category of adventurer she referred to disparagingly as "randoms." It was impossible to tell who was going to end up the protagonist of a story or sub-plot ("This friend of mine, right, Jen, she got attacked by this Spanish guy in Paris one time, I mean like a knife and everything. So her cousin, right, the one who used to work in The Hairy Lemon with Feargal . . ."), nor which of the subplots would turn out to be the centrepiece of any given cycle. I could even see Andrea, like all true storytellers, mentally transforming the present night with us all around the table in O’Neill’s into a future story to recount to her friends. She seemed to be one of those people who, like a seanchaí in a village of a hundred people, have a supernatural ability to spin the straw of uneventful passing time into narrative gold. It gave this night around the table in O’Neill’s a kind of glamorous shimmer about it, a feeling of history being made. Andrea was grateful to have another south county native in this new world, and was clearly comforted when I knew of, knew slightly, or pretended to have heard of some of the characters in her thousand and one nights. And for me too, amid the accents and customs of people from the four dark provinces beyond Dublin, and especially with the terrifying clanging of my visitor and his jingle constantly at the back of my mind, I felt an ex-pat’s relief at Andrea’s presence. Our dual carriagewaycrossed land was only a few miles distant, but felt as remote from the world at the table in the pub now as any holding in the Golden Vale, any chip shop in east Galway.
Apart from her there was Harry, the only other guy. He was redhaired and nervous, I think from Monaghan or somewhere. He bit his already-chewed nails, drank Coke, and went red whenever anyone spoke to him. Andrea whispered to us all with hilarity after he had clambered awkwardly over us to go the toilet that she had "never" met anyone so strange. ("What is he like?" she screamed, slapping the table with hilarity. "I mean, what’s the fucking story?") Also present, but mostly silent listeners, were Therese from Wexford, nunnish and bob-haired, wearing a white cardigan and a sad floral skirt, and Eileen, sharp and curly-haired from Carlow, who kept picking up her single glass of Ritz and observing it from different angles as if hoping to read auguries.
When closing time came round, Fionnuala, following on a text message, suggested that we go on to Hogan’s on Georges Street, where a crowd were gathering to go along to Rí-Rá, a nightclub I had heard of so many times but never even seen. Harry, too traumatised by the evening to continue, mumbled mortified excuses. Therese also blankly announced she was retiring, and promptly erased herself not only from the subsequent but also the preceding section of the evening. Andrea, Fionnuala, Eileen, and I made our way down Dame Street together.
Across the road from Hogan’s, lights, music, and dry ice spilled from the George, for a long time Dublin’s only gay pub and still the unrivalled centre of Dublin’s homosexual world, a name I had heard only in knowing jokes from the most worldly boys in my class making fun of one another, or from occasional articles in the Irish Times about attacks or drugs or gay rights (". . . in an altercation outside The George on South Great Georges Street, a pub popular among Dublin’s gay community . . ."). I looked over my shoulder at the steady stream of men, young and old, going past the bouncers with Mossad earpieces at the door, and wondered if I’d ever cross its threshold. Hogan’s was packed, full of people our own age, rugbyshirted guys with wise nodding smiles, jovial girls, everything a smell of designer scent, cigarette smoke, and beer. On the upper level, squashed against the rail, I saw Ian’s older sister Catherine—who had always been kind to me in the days I used to go to their house, when her polite chat would save me from the surly silences meted out by her younger brother—laughing loudly in the middle of a group of friends from her law class. Fionnuala went to buy me a pint and I stayed talking to Eileen, who was bored by me and kept drifting off mid-sentence and looking round for distraction. Fionnuala had an excited look when she came back with the drinks.
"So can you guess who just texted me to say he’s here?"
"Not that crazy post-grad with the books?"
"No, no, not Sarah, the guy I snogged in Break for the Border last week! He’s here somewhere. Hang on for me while I go and find him."
"Of course, good luck," I wished her, wondering what on earth I was going to talk to Eileen about. I shouldn’t have worried —two minutes later, she saw her chance with a group of girls she knew from Carlow standing nearby. She politely offered for me to come and join them and could barely hide her relief when I said I thought I would go after Fionnuala instead.
So there I stood lost and drunk on my first ever time in a real nightclub, surrounded by masses of laughing coevals, making friends, flirting, and communicating, full, joyous participants in the verve of Dublin’s nightlife. I felt like I was wearing my Gonzaga school uniform, standing shyly with my lunchbox and new copies while bigger boys who knew their way around pushed past me, laughing and horseplaying. In the blurry distance, in a cluster of people near the bar, I saw Fionnuala with her snog. He was tall and big, in a check shirt and jeans, could have been any one of Ian’s friends, standing with feet planted widely apart, nodding and smiling silently as Fionnuala talked to him energetically, leaning in towards him, touching his sleeve for emphasis. She turned, clearly to find me and bring me over, but I felt shy and out of place, so I turned away, drained the end of my pint, and left the pub.
The cold night air in Georges Street was a shock to my system. I was unsteady on my legs, so I leaned against the wall and texted Fionnuala:
Tired gone home. Enjoy rest of night!
I looked down the road to the flashing lights of the George and the little groups of men disappearing inside. Outside Hogan’s, where I was still standing, a group of guys sporting tattoos and football jerseys were drinking cans of cider, bantering back and forth in strong working-class accents (what we southsiders always called a "Dublin" accent, as though we were not Dubliners but expatriates living in an international compound, familiar with the customs, streets, and weather of our adopted city, but still smiling at the speech and habits of its natives, while clinging to the displaced, genteel dialect of our nameless old country). One of them, the one standing most directly opposite me, at the kerb, caught my attention because he looked like Ian, a bit. He had light brown hair, darker than Ian’s blond, but the same soft, babyface skin with a slightly honey-coloured tint. I saw that he noticed I was staring at him and I looked away quickly, but when I looked back again he was looking at me, instead of the other three guys telling jokes. I looked away again, and again when I turned back he was looking at me. He moved away from his friends, a couple of steps nearer to me and leaned in over his cupped hands to light a cigarette.
I was seized by something foolish, maybe a desire for the reality of another body, and I walked nervously over to him. The lighter glowed in the cavern of his palms. I had bought a packet of cigarettes at the DART station when I had arrived in Trinity, thinking they might come in useful as a way to bond and make friends. I pulled off the plastic and took one out. "Sorry . . ." He didn’t hear me, but when he looked up, exhaling the first brief puff of smoke, he saw me. "Sorry . . ." I said again, "do you have a light?"
"Do you have a light?"
"Oh . . ." he pulled his lighter out and lit it for me. I leaned in with my cigarette, but the wind blew the flame out. Irritated, he lit it again, and I rested my cupped hands on his to shelter it. The end of the cigarette glowed red, smoke came, it was lit. But his hands were warm and soft like Ian’s, and I let mine linger there just the shortest fraction, a gentle, bedwarm moment of past or imagined tendernesses.
He jerked it away and pushed me back:
"You’re a fuckin faggih, aren’t you? You’re a fuckin faggih! I knew you were fuckin lookin at me!"
I stared at him in horror, the cigarette smoking away in my hand. His eyes were alight with rage, the blonde fuzz on his upper lip moved angrily as he flung his fricatives and glottal stops at me. His friends had gone quiet and had moved up to stand behind him, facing me. He turned back to them, laughing incredulously.
"I swear to yous lads, he’s a fuckin arsebandit! He’s a fuckin queer!"
A commotion of movement and sound, too fast for me to comprehend, was followed by a sudden, physical shock in my stomach. I had been punched, for the first time in my life. I saw my cowardly cigarette roll away on the pavement and extinguish itself with a little suicidal hiss in a puddle by the kerb. I doubled over, holding my stomach, fell down and crouched on the pavement, waiting for him to start kicking me, but there was noise and the voices of other people around me. I could see the runners of my assailant in front of me, blue and white spotless Adidas, get into motion and run off up Georges Street away from me.
"Fuck off and leave him alone," I heard from behind me, though they had already gone. Someone knelt down beside me with an arm round my shoulders. Ian, I thought for a crazy moment.
"Are you all right?"
I nodded. The punch had not been very hard: more of a push, in fact, than a punch. I was a bit winded, a state of affairs which, in combination with my panic and the alcohol swilling round inside, made me want to vomit. I did. Without warning, I keeled over to the side—the wrong one, my helper’s shoes, not the kerb—and emitted a satisfying wave of watery puke. The shoes jumped back before the second gush. Big, new-looking square-toed black shoes, flecked with little orange and yellow lumps of my gastric remains. I retched, gurgled and rasped for a little while, then, as I wiped my mouth with the back of my hands, the person who had intervened put his arms behind me, under my armpits.
"Come on, I’ll get you up. One two three." He hoisted me up and I stood leaning against the lamp-post. He was a little taller than me, dark hair, pale skin, brown suede jacket. He brushed his hair out of his face and looked at me, not with kindness, but with the weary, obligatory concern of the civic-minded stranger. A small crowd of onlookers had formed behind him at the door of the pub, crowding forward while barmen prevented them leaving with their pints.
"You all right, love?" a girl called to me.
"He’ll be fine in a little while, don’t worry, he’ll be grand," the guy answered her, without looking over.
"Fuckin pricks annyhow," she said, and there was a general murmur of approval.
I tried to express my gratitude to the crowd, but my throat was full of vomit and I just started coughing. The guy put a limp hand on my back and said:
"Take it easy there." Then, turning to the people standing outside Hogan’s, "Go in and get him a pint of water, someone, would you?" "Thanks a million."
"Don’t mention it," he said, somewhat coldly. "Here’s your water."
"Is he okay?" the bearer asked my rescuer.
"Yeah, he’s grand. He wasn’t really hit at all. I think he’s puking from drink more than anything."
The water was lovely and cool, a slice of lemon floating absurdly in it. I swished the first gulp round my mouth and let it flood into my nose to rid myself of the stink of puke, then spat it out into the gutter. The rest I drank slowly and awkwardly before handing the glass back half full and leaning forward, hands on my knees. The guy began to pour the rest of the water on the back of my neck. I leaped with the cold.
"Stay still, it’ll stop you feeling nauseous," he said. Wincing, I let him pour it on my neck, dribbling down my back and through my hair.
"What’s your name?" I asked him.
"I’m John. Where do you live?"
"Sandycove. No, Trinity. Botany Bay."
"Well, which is it?"
"Trinity, Trinity, Botany Bay, I’m just after moving—"
"Fine, I’ll help you back there. Can you walk?"
I told him I could, but my legs were a bit wobbly, a combination of drink and nerves. I heard him curse under his breath.
"Right, come on, put your arm around me, yes, there, okay."
He put his arm around my shoulder, mine was around his waist. "Okay, let’s go."
We walked slowly and it was some time before we arrived at the gates of Trinity, where John leaned me against the railings. "Listen, thank you for . . ."
"Okay, fine. So long," John said, "I’m away. Will you be okay?"
"Oh, yes," I said. A clever line floated into my head, like a text message, and I spoke it out loud. "Don’t worry. A plurality of bottles has often induced this in me."
John snapped his head suddenly around to me again and put a hand on my shoulder.
"What? What did you just say?"
"Nothing, nothing. Drunk talk."
"No, what was it?"
"I can’t remember," I said, which was the dizzy truth. He released his grip.
"Thank you . . ."
"That’s fine," he said. "Goodbye."
"It has been a pleasure, really," I said.
John looked at me strangely and paused as if he was about to say something, then changed his mind. I held out my hand and he shook it, brief and firm.
The Dining Hall was striking two.
I pushed the tune from my head as I showed my key to the security guards and walked across Front Square, the white light from under the Campanile shining on the cobblestones. Front Gate creaked and clicked closed after me, but as I walked, I heard footsteps just behind me under Front Arch. I stopped and turned around, wondering who had slipped in so quickly after me, Fionnuala perhaps, returning disappointed from her tryst, or worried after hearing of my altercation. There was no-one there, but in the echo of the Dining Hall bell I thought I heard the faint strains of a song about London churches.
I shuddered and hurried across the square to Botany Bay and House Sixteen. My mind swirled with the encounters and events of this first day: my simple life was truly over. Oranges and Lemons, Fionnuala, her friend Sarah with the book, the man who had picked me up and brought me home. But I was drunk and sick and sad and nervous; I would go inside, climb the four flights of stairs to my room and sleep all of this off, leaving Pablo Virgomare, like John, Sarah, Fionnuala, and everyone else as just another dark shape among countless others here in the Trinity night, lying invisibly in wait for the day to come again and divide them off legibly from one another.