The parallel lives
[ fiction - november 05 ]
“Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me, oh-OHOHHHHHH? Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me, oh-OHOHHHHHH?”
When he was allowed sit in the passenger seat as a child, Conall MacGerailt liked to open the door slightly, to see the tarmacadam speed past. How close the tarmac was! The hard black surface studded with raised pebbles looked dangerous; you could almost feel what impact with it was like. It made driving feel more like you were actually going somewhere, actually covering a physical distance rather than gliding over the road in a car. For the same reason, Conall used to roll down the car window, no matter how cold or rainy the day. When glass came between passenger and apparently speeding landscape, there was always a sense of distance between the inside and the outside of the car. This distance was abolished, at least for a short while, by the window being rolled down.
Now, as he drove beyond Errigal, as the radio played the traditional Irish music of the Human League, Conall was experimenting with a new, and slightly dangerous, way of reinforcing the physical reality of car travel. He focused his vision on the small patch of tarmac immediately in front of the car. This road never stayed straight for very long, but Conall still managed some exhilarating moments; when the road took a long curve around a lake gradually being grown over by rushes, a long straight relatively flat stretch perpendicular to the turn towards Muckish. Combined with singing to the Eighties songs on Today FM, it was not perhaps the safest driving style, but Conall gave in to the easy, only slightly dangerous pleasure.
As Glenveagh National Park approached, he decided he wanted to try and see a treecreeper. He had not had this in mind when he’d left Gweedore. The thought came to him as he passed the straggling stream beyond the turn for the road behind the flat mountain of Muckish. He slowed and turned into the Park. It was out of season, and no one manned the kiosk for the car park. He drove in to one of the many spaces, walked down the driveway to where the minibuses left for the castle. There he crossed the road to the gate that lead to the nature trail.
In a minute he was surrounded by Scots Pine. Conall could never enter a forest without an agreeably primeval sensation. This held true even in the days when he saw them largely as an anonymous resource, not for wood or paper but as a necessary habitat for the birds. At the time he saw them as items on a list, to be ticked. Often simply entering a wood, like walking in the mountains and losing sight of the road and the little cars driving on it, provoked not entirely disagreeable fantasies about some kind of massive disaster devastating mankind, aside from Conall and a few desirable women, leaving Mr Conall MacGerailt the well-known author and sometime broadcaster to reluctantly do his duty and repopulate the earth. Recently Conall had been keeping such misanthrophic reveries in check.
His father was a Gaeligoir who spoke not a word of the national language. Coming from a family who’d lived in Rathfarnham for four generations, he adopted Gweedore as a native soil despite no connection with the place. As well as allowing Conall open the car door while driving, he introduced him to birdwatching. He was taken to Booterstown Marsh, to Bull Island, and as far afield as the Wexford Slobs and Hook Head. As a child he exulted in his hobby, unembarrassedly sharing his discoveries with all. Even the slightest expression of adult interest would be greeted by the production of the little notebook, with its neat pencilled drawings of divers and petrels and indistinguishable passerines.
As adolescence took hold, he publicly clammed up with embarrassment about his hobby, yet he continued to watch birds with as much fervour as ever. It wasn’t until his final year of Zoology in UCD that he began to lose his teenage self-consciousness about his hobby. At the same time he began to realise that rather than the scientific study of nature, carefully drawing research protocols and setting out aims and applying for approval for projects, he preferred the more immediate gratification of writing articles about them. Since the age of sixteen, he had written pieces for various birding magazines and freesheets, at first for the photocopied newsletters left around major birding sites, later for a pittance - though he was at an age when any money was good money - for the more established magazines. He began to appear in the birdwatching press more and more. After a forgettable year temping he took a job as a staff writer with British Birder, based in Manchester.
Now he no longer considered himself a birdwatcher, or even a birder. He did not know how to describe himself to the fewer and fewer non-birding people he met. He had become to some extent the archetypal 'twitcher’ - one who amassed a collection lists and lists of 'ticks’ - country lists, county lists, lifetime lists, year lists, monthly and daily lists. Yet other twitchers still felt some connection with the birds they saw, still felt an elemental oneness, a transcendence when watching birds. They would also become attached to the countryside they travelled through, to the pubs and hostels and guest houses that became a sort of constellation of twitcher colonies across Britain.
For Conall, there was no such pleasure. Other twitchers respected him, but few liked him. For Conall, a bird seen existed only in how it enhanced those lists - a snipe which might cause great excitement on a Tuesday would cause total indifference on a Wednesday.
Conall travelled to the Scillys and the Leewards, to the Outer Hebrides and to the Seychelles, travelled with a look of boredom, feeling nothing but a vague disdain for the hostels, the flights over highland mountains and sea-girt crags, the fellow twitchers - all but the new ticks. This went on for the guts of ten years, as he later told people at parties, with a relish for the phrase “the guts of.” “The guts of ten years,” the phrase made him feel like someone who has lived a great deal, who has had ten years to have the guts of.
It was in Scotland that the change came. He had yet to see an osprey, and at a loch in Caithness hoped to rectify that. It was a small loch set into a compact valley - the hide a little up the sloping bank had the aspect of a royal box in the natural amphitheatre of the loch. After an hour, an osprey swept in and seized a fish from the water, right in front of the hide. As it swooped Conall felt a thrill, a lightness that felt like the blood draining from his heart for an instant. There was something fated and pre-ordained, and yet utterly unexpected, about the osprey’s swoop. It was the thrill of art, the thrill of something transcendent, the thrill of contact with the infinite. It was, Conall later decided, greater than any thrill from art or literature or music - it was not only unexpected but unrepeatable.
That evening he burnt all his lists. He began to seek in birdlife neither the satisfaction of a checklist nor a sense of mastery but rhapsody. Back in Glasgow, he looked at pigeons - seriously looked at them - for the first time ever. He saw innumerable patterns and uncrackable codes in a flock of starlings, unutterable joy in a rookery.
He worked for British Birds still, but the whole emphasis of his writing changed. He wrote a book called Downsizing Your Life, a how-to for those trying to switch to the slow lane. His trip back to Dublin from Gweedore was for a series of interviews - radio and print media - to promote his latest book, Well Enough Alone. Since Freud, as the blurb put it, human happiness has been seen as resting primarily on sexual relationships. Any attempt to claim an alternative focus has been seen as either dishonest or a symptom of repression. In this book Conall MacGerailt, bestselling author of Downsize Your Life, tries to bring comfort to those who feel they are failures because they are alone. He outlines the benefits and joys of solitude, the great work done by the solitary, and the possibility of a happy life alone. It was to promote this book that he was making this journey, that he had interrupted to see a treecreeper.
“Two-to-one on blue, Evens on Red. Two-to-one on blue, Evens On Red.”
They had gathered on a ridge just hidden from the N11. There were about two hundred, Freddy guessed. Maybe a little less. Freddy found it difficult to estimate crowds. He counted ten people, and tried to multiply ten by roughly how many ten-person sized chunks there were in the field. There must be more than two hundred, he thought, maybe three.
The ridge formed a sort of natural amphitheatre, looking down into an area of flattened grass. Today it was covered with the mock grass one saw in a greengrocers. On it sat an octagonal cage, about ten feet in width. On opposite sides of the cage, there were two cubes of wire mesh sticking out of the structure. A board, looking like plywood or some other light wood, separated the wire mesh cubes from the main cage. This was the cockpit. Two weeks previously, Freddy had seen two cocks rip each other to death, or near to death, in that cage. And then it happened again, and again, ending in an endless bout in which cock after cock was fed through the wire mesh cubes into the cage, two organisers lifting the wooden dividers with precision, with the owner of the last cock breathing. (How do they know? thought Freddy) receiving the grand prize of the evening.
Months of work had gone into this afternoon. It took little to discover the cockfighting underground existed, but much to infiltrate it. At point-to-points, at private coursing meets, Freddy had stood around unobtrusively. Through Tim Paul O’Connor, he had been introduced to some cockfighting identities, most notably John Joe O’Connor. He had put some money down, not an awful lot but enough establish himself as a sound fella. He would laugh at any joke, even the ones about Ethiopians and chocolate bars. As he laughed at these he would curl his toes or clench his buttocks, and think how awful this job was.
Freddy did not like hunting - he thought it was stupid and wasteful, and rather a sinister thing to actually want to do - but he did not object to its existence. If asked, he would have found it difficult to articulate, but he felt there was something right about hunting. It was, at least, part of the life of the country for a long time. He also knew how much knowledge of husbandry, of craft, of the nature he loved, came from the hunters. Hunting suited his vision of man and nature in a sort of harmony.
What he really hated was the destruction of animals that involved forces crueller, more arbitrary, more industrial. There was one case that always stuck out in his mind, occupied his nightmares. One day the Gardai in Meanus in Co Limerick, about ten miles from Limerick city, called about a case near Lough Gur. By the shores of the lake, where once Neolithic men came and hurled their metalwork into the lake to please its god, person or persons unknown had shot a mute swan with a bow. A bow, Freddy always wondered. Who uses a bow now? It wasn’t a bow used in competitive archery, but something cruder - he saw the arrow used to injure the swan. It was a shaft of brown metal, one end whittled to a point.
In any case, the arrow only injured the swan. The person or persons unknown then walked up, cut the swans legs off, cut off half his left wing as well, and left the swan. This had all taken place very early on a Saturday morning. Beercans were strewn on nearby ground. About 9 am, a local man going for his constitutional found the swan, flapping its wing and a half desperately. Its two legs lay beside it. The local Gardai had to call a local vet who they knew owned a gun to kill the bird.
That, Freddy had always thought, was the worst thing he had ever heard of. When the appointment of three full time Wildlife Protection Officers was announced, Dickie Brady had gone on a radio call show only to get a lambasting from the callers. How can taxpayers money be spent on this when there’s children and women and old people suffering in the hospitals, and schools with rats running around in them, and how much good could the money do for them? Dickie had thought fast, and come up with a pretty good one. “Well, cruelty against animals is a sign of cruelty against humans, Joe. They say that there are three things that are signs of serious violence in later life. One is firesetting. The other is bedwetting. And the third is cruelty to animals.”
Dickie never had to say who “they” were, but it seemed to placate the outraged phone-in listeners complaining about the waste of public money. Instead it provoked a wave of outraged phone-in listeners complaining about the concern Dickie had caused parents of children who wet the bed. He said it was a known psychological fact. The “homicidal triad” it was called. Such was the outrage that Dickie caused that the next day the show had a psychologist on to reassure listening parents that, even if their child wet the bed a little, it didn’t mean they would grow up to be mass murders.
Nurses and doctors had seemingly endless claims on public sympathy, teachers had a fairly strong case. They could go on and on about the great public importance of what they did for society etc. etc. Yet the Wildlife Protection Officer never got that respect. Freddy had noticed, and had been a bit shocked, the negative public perception of his job. It was as if, by their mere existence, the Wildlife Protection Officers were keeping someone sick, or keeping a child uneducated. Dickie Brady’s rationalisation - that preventing animal cruelty helped prevent cruelty to human beings - was the only thing that seemed to placate this kind of hectoring taxpayer.
Freddy, if he was asked, would have said that was one of the most important aspects of their job. The Lough Gur incident, for example. The people who perpetrated that, no matter how drunk or high they turned out to be (especially so, as Freddy believed firmly in the principle of in vino veritas) - what wouldn’t they be capable of to another sentient being?
And yet Freddy found the Lough Gur incident - and the many others like it - distressing far more than just because it meant that someone might be hurt later on. It was horrible in its own right, and Freddy found it more horrible than some of the drunken rows that ended in manslaughter, or the random deaths in road accidents, that he read in the paper. There was a quality of barbarism to it that Freddy, again if he could articulate it fully, would compare to the vandalism of a work of art.
And now he was on the ridge on the hill by the N11. He had not enjoyed the spectacle two weeks before. The cockfights had been instant and vicious. This was knife fighting, with long, sharp blades glued on to the cocks’ spurs. There was a longer, slower form of fighting called gaff fighting, in which heavily, boxing-glove like appendages lead to epic bouts. This did not exist in Ireland, as far as anyone in authority knew. Freddy hadn’t been able to say which combatant had actually won in any fights, aside from a couple of clear cut instant victories. Restraining the anger and disgust that he felt on watching the bout, he had whooped and cheered with the best of them. Both had spluttered on the ground, bloody, probably both dying from the blade which flashed for a second.
He winced, and his mind went back to Lough Gur. The swan rolling around on the ground, the two legs beside it, the plastic that held the six beer cans in place around its neck. This was the stuff of horror for him, and whenever fresh horrors threatened to confront him his mind raced back to it.
Conall had never lost the old twitchers’ patience. Watchful, anxious, he waited for a treecreeper.
He wondered if it was right to publish Well Enough Alone. In writing Downsize Your Life he had been trying to help people. He saw his own switch from Glasgow to Gweedore, from reasonable pay as a British Birds staffer to unreliable pay as a freelance, as exemplary. In a world fixated not so much on material gain as with the endless accumulation of more things to be absorbed in, distracted from the real business of life. Life became a matter of having the right possessions but also the right attitudes, the right experiences, the right socialising. Nothing was ever done for its own sake anymore, and that was the reason the world was in such a state. So Conall thought.
He had come to believe that a fixation on romantic love, on life lacking something if lacking in that regard, had equally potential to hurt and enslave lives. Thus Well Enough Alone.
Yet he worried about the publication. Might it confirm the lonely in their loneliness, rather than consoling those who, for whatever reason, were without companionship that they were not necessarily weird or pathological?
He wished at times he had stuck with the Zoology. Perhaps it was unglamorous, all those tables to correlate and journal articles to read and publish-or-perish worries. But it was something. It was an achievement in the world. What did he have to show? Words. Various articles, pontificating on this and that. Two books, both giving advice he felt unqualified to give. Words. Paltry things, really. Nothing to creating, really creating, something new under the sun.
Freddy was wishing he could be a man at quiet, without having to stare into so many horrors. The moment was coming. When the first cockfight began - when the two cocks actually engaged each other in fighting - that was when the signal was to be given, and the Gardai would come in and arrest John Joe and the other organisers, and as many others as they could really.
The tension seemed to stretch his guts. He always felt stress in the belly, a strange light nausea. A longing for this to be over. He had felt close to some of these people, and the course of infiltrating the cockfight was made easier by becoming friendly with Tim Paul.
Tim Paul O’Connor was a figure on the fringes of the cockfighting world. His brother, John Joe O’Connor, was one of the main organisers on the circuit; he was a man whose menace-laden presence filled Freddy with fear. Tim Paul, however, was friendly, placidly interested. He looked on the cockfights with the same guileless enthusiasm that he talked with anyone who bought him a drink in the Anglesey Lodge, the pub near Gorey where Freddy went a few times to meet him. He had been identified as a potential entry point into the cockfighting world by Dickie Brady. How did Dickie Brady know this? Dickie Brady seemed to know everyone in Ireland, or at least know someone everywhere in Ireland who knew everyone in their part of the country. Unobtrusive, placid, unshowy, Dickie was the ultimate schmoozer and player; you never knew you were being schmoozed or played, never thought anything out of the ordinary about this pleasant, quiet middle-aged man.
There had been many long afternoons, drinking pints in the Anglesey Lodge, going back to talk to Dickie on the phone in the B and B he was staying in. It was February, and he would walk carefully on the road back. He never drank more that two pints of lager, Heineken or Carlsberg, he didn’t care which. This was about his upper limit alcohol-wise.
The Anglesey Lodge. Freddy could still feel the uncomfortable leather of the couches, still recall trying to balance a newspaper on the sliver-thin tables. It was not a pub that aspired to trendiness.
It was a strange three weeks. Nothing else seemed to occupy his time during those weeks, and he was able to wait for Tim Paul. Some regular, he thought. Hasn’t been near the place in three weeks. Then one day a large bear of a man, who might have had a powerful body but for years of pints and chips with burgers afterwards, came in. This was Tim Paul O’Connor. Freddy knew him from the photograph.
“Tim Paul,” said the barman, “How was Lanzarote?”
So that’s where he was, thought Freddy. Dickie Brady didn’t quite know everything about everyone. Or maybe he did, and having Freddy hang around Gorey was a convenient excuse for some reason. Once you worked with him, even Dickie Brady’s mistakes became fodder for paranoid ruminations.
Tim Paul began to buy pints all round him. It was easy, a half hour later, to fall into conversation with him, to casually say he was a gambling man, and while he liked a flutter on race meetings and on the football like anyone, there was nothing compared to being there live for some real action. A coursing meet, say.
“Are you a hare coursing man too? I’m a great man for coursing. There’s a meeting tomorrow I’m going to, a private do, but sure my own brother organises it so you can come along.”
It was that easy. Freddy was in.
A breeze blew from the lake, and Conall shivered. Suddenly he wanted to cry. He had a picture in his mind of a lonely woman, adrift in Dublin or London or some other city, going from bed to work and back to television, longing for something more. And then she picks up “Well Enough Alone”, and she decides her longing is stupid. And rather than enhancing her life, this decision diminishes it.
His thoughts were straying far from treecreepers. He wished he could be a man of action, of deeds. He had always hated the old playground saying about sticks and stones breaking one’s bones, but words will never hurt. How untrue. Words hurt far longer, and words misused corrupted and appalled. And how terrible it would be to have written entire book, to have constructed this edifice of words, and for it to go forth and do harm in the world.
How much better to be a man of affairs! To do things for a living - Conall had only a very vague idea what he meant by “things”, but wanted something real and permanent, something with a solid result at the end of the day - and to go home in the evening, secure in the knowledge that work was finished and the rest of the day was one’s own. Your words weren’t busy labouring away somewhere, setting traps for the unwary.
By now, he found himself in a pitch of deep sorrow at the way his life had gone. At the same time, he felt this was absurd. He was enjoying life, had been singing to himself in the car not long ago. With this realisation of the absurdity of his recent train of thought, his mood lightened. Yet still the desire was there, the wish that life was somehow different.
Tradition. Tradition! Tradition. Like the villages of Fiddler on the Roof, all the crueller bloodsports still clung to tradition as an excuse. Badger-baiters, cockfighters, whoever.
Freddy hated the phony talk of tradition. Yet he was also rather susceptible to it. The cruelty on display made him retch, and he would desperately try not to show it. But he did sometimes think of the cockfighters of Bali, of the Philippines, the cockfight witnessed by St Augustine and described in his Confessions, the cocks owned by royal houses and imperial dynasties. It had a history.
Through Tim Paul, Freddy had managed to get on the informal text message network that informed the recipients that a cockfight would take place. It all took place in secrecy; the text two weeks before had read “Party the usual place Friday the 23rd”, and then Freddy had to ring Tim Paul to find out where exactly the bout would take place
Freddy had an easy manner, and a lot of charm when he needed it. He had genuinely got on well with Tim Paul. Looking over at him now, wearing a peaked cap as he grinned - stupidly, childishly, guilelessly - at the cockpit and the two owners putting their charges into the small mesh cubes, Freddy felt guilty. Tim Paul was one of the more outwardly respectable patrons of cockfighting. It was evident that he had come from a very poor background, and had made some success in life. One day he had talked about his daughter, who was a Garda, with great pride. Freddy knew that he was someone who would not take the ministrations of the law well.
How did he end up this way? Living like this? The fear, the betrayal. What had happened? It was a long way from the young man who had hated the idea of deliberate cruelty. Now his life was a series of small betrayals, of wearing a prepared face to meet the world. Somewhere along the way, Freddy had betrayed himself.
He still believed in what he was doing. Still felt that this was right, that he was helping to defeat a great evil. At the same time, a strong, almost overwhelming longing came over him. He wished he could simply turn around and live alone, harmless, not interfering with anyone. Simply reading books, and going for walks, and thinking, and talking to good friends. Get married to a nice girl. Settle. Enjoy life.
He felt like vomiting. This is what life had become, this is what it was amounting to. All around him last bets were being taken. The owners were bringing the cocks to the pit. Right up until the moment the fight started, Freddy had to restrain himself from pressing the button in his pocket. Once, a defendant successfully managed to claim that he was exhibiting the cock for auction, and along with various other pieces of legal chicanery, the cockfighters walked free.
As he held the button in his pocket, Freddy was trying to concentrate only on the moment. The portals of the cockpit were opened. The two owners held their birds, already squawking and pecking the empty air, waiting for the signal to hurl them in. The referee blew a whistle, the cocks flew together into one blur of feathers and kicking legs. Freddy pressed the button, and as he did so wished as hard as he could that he could turn life around. He had never felt anything as strong as this wish that life was somehow different.
Both Conall and Freddy felt exactly the same thing. There was a sudden sense of disconnection, as if they had jerked awake after beginning to drift into sleep. This was followed by a realisation that they were in very different places. Freddy was alone in a forest, with tall Scots Pine above. A breeze shook the tops of the trees, and as he adjusted to this strange development Freddy noticed a treecreeper directly in front of him.
Conall felt detached from the melee in front of him. At first it just seemed an undifferentiated mass of men wrestling in front of him, it taking what seemed an age but was only a matter of seconds to resolve into some Gardai trying to apprehend various ill-dressed men, At first the cockfighters and the aficionados of the pursuit all tried to escape in different directions, but as he adjusted his perception to the scene in front of him, the crowd began to flee, by some instinct, in the same direction. There was a Garda with a video recorder standing just in front of Conall, in the empty space formed by the fleeing men.
A man to his right, with a peaked cap and an expression of simple anguish, looked over at Conall. Their eyes met. Conall knew in an instant that he had betrayed this man, although he also knew that the man felt guilty, like a child caught in the act.
There was confusion everywhere. One of the Gardai came up to Conall and clapped him on the back.
“Well done lad, we got some bad bad fellas today.” Conall thought he must have drifted off to sleep and had been dreaming, but the curious sense of reality precluded that. This was no dream, he said to himself, as the situation resolved itself further. This was no dream.
This was the place, Freddy thought, walking to the car park. Freddy wondered where he was. He felt he was in Donegal, he had been there a couple of times and something in the ambience of the mountains was different from anywhere else in Ireland.
Approaching the road, he realised that it was Glenveagh. Once he had run a training seminar for some of the Park Rangers. He walked to the car, knowing it was his, knowing the unfamiliar keys in his pocket were his. He opened the door, sat in, turned the ignition and began to drive, out of the Park and towards Dublin, wondering where his new destiny was taking him.