Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born essayist and fiction writer living in County Kildare. He has previously been a runner-up for the Fish Publishing 2020 International Short Memoir Prize and his short stories have been long/shortlisted in various competitions. His writing has featured in various anthologies, journals and blogs (Fish Publishing, Henshaw Press, The Dillydoun Review, Fictionjunkies, Books Ireland, The Writers Bureau.)
By Phil Cummins
The whole place had the look and feel of a hotel with its patterned carpets and potted plants and soft furnishings. Not that I’d want to check into this particular hotel myself. It reeked of regrets and spent youth. As I entered his room, his daughter, Áine, acknowledged me with a nod. He lay there in the bed, a tattooed bag of sticks in a string vest sprouting a scrawny neck and hairless buttery-coloured head. A plastic tube snaked out from the back of his hand, another looped under his nose. The rusty tang of piss hung in the air. He didn’t look as bad as I thought he would, in fairness, considering the amount of grog he’d power-hosed through his poor liver, cirrhosis having finally surrendered to cancer. I’ve heard people say that jaundice can sometimes give you a healthy-looking glow and they’re half right.
“So,” I said, “how is he?”
“Himself.” She rose and reached for her handbag, my arrival her cue to leave.
“Can he talk?” I asked.
“Unfortunately. A lot of it’s maudlin ‘oul shite.” Áine never held back, just like her dad. “The drugs they have him on can send him a bit doolally. He drifts in and out. He was rambling on earlier about some bloke you both knew growing up. Sounded like Gerry-something-or-other. Ring any bells?”
I shook my head. After she left, I sat staring at him for a time, his mouth stretched into a great O as he hauled the breath in and out of himself. Reaching into the carrier bag at my feet, I extracted the few token offerings I’d bought from the corner shop across the road, when a gruff voice spoke up.
“What did you bring me, Maguire?” I looked up with a start to see him staring at me, eyes like two piss holes in the snow.
“Jaysus, Flann! You scared the shite out of me.” A drowsy grin split his lips disclosing a mouthful of coffee-coloured teeth.
“Well?” he slurred, his voice straining against the gravitational pull of his meds.
“The shop didn’t have any grapes, so I brought you some Maltesers and a bottle of Lucozade.”
“Lucozade!” he said, eyes widening. “Your only man for gettin’ over a bad dose. The mother swore by the stuff. Think I’m beyond the Lucozade stage now though, Henry.”
“Well, I considered smuggling in a naggin of Bushmills for you – figured it couldn’t do you any harm at this stage – but I didn’t want to get you into trouble with Áine.”
“Ahh feck it, sure I couldn’t get into any more trouble with that girl if I tried.”
“I’ll leave them here for you,” I said, placing them on his bedside locker next to some cards and a white plastic vase accommodating a cheerless bunch of carnations. “Anyway, Flann, are they looking after you in here?”
“They are,” he said. “And just as well. I can do nothin’ for meself anymore. Can’t even wipe me own arse.”
“That’s a hard one to take, right enough,” I said, trying to affect an understanding tone.
“But their tea is like ditch water,” he said. “I’d murder a short one. Are you sure you didn’t bring that naggin?”
“Alcohol probably wouldn’t be the best thing for you, Flann,” I replied. I needed to steer the conversation away from drink. “So, how are you sleeping?”
At the mention of sleep, his jaded eyes widened. “You won’t believe who I dreamt about last night, Henry.”
Now there was a name I hadn’t heard in a long while. “Mister Mannion?” I said. “From St. Fiachra’s?”
“Yeah. The Jelly.”
“Jaysus, Flann. That was a lifetime ago.”
“I was rememberin’ how I ran into him in a pub in England about 10 years ago,” Flann said, his eyelids drooping downwards again.
“You never told me about that. You’re sure it was him?”
“Poshitive,” he lisped, before his consciousness retreated behind another rolling fog belt of medication. Áine was right, I considered, as I strolled back down the corridor a while later to get some fresh air; the poor man really was gone doolally. I sat outside for a time and watched the hospice lights flicker on as the May evening drew in, thinking upon Flann’s words and wondering at the murky stuff the mind fetches up when it knows its days are numbered.
“Fucking Jellytots,” I murmured, shaking my head and smiling.
We all stood gawping at the RX-3 as it roared into the school car park, a canary yellow Mazda two-door with polished steel radials and chrome wing mirrors projecting from either side of the bonnet like twin rocket launchers. He’d always give the engine a good loud rev before stepping out, a reminder that we were just mere mortals compared to him. Mannion would strut across the school yard towards the staff room, Chelsea boots clacking off the tarmac, briefcase in hand, Polaroids and neck chain glinting in the sun. A handsome moustachioed man of around 30 with chestnut hair falling in lustrous waves to his neckline, he wore dark brown slacks and paisley-patterned shirts with wide collars that tapered out over the lapels of his tan sports jacket. To our prepubescent minds he seemed to be moving in slow motion, a bestial combination of Roger Moore, James Hunt and that mysterious guy from the Milk Tray commercials on telly.
“There he goes, lads,” Flann’d say to us. “What’s the bettin’ The Jelly was busy again last night, what d’ya think?” He had a captive audience in us as he held forth on the lurid details of how Mannion had a regular bevy of big-breasted lovelies ridden into the mattress every night. Given her uncanny resemblance to the blondie bird from Abba, sometimes he even included the remedial teacher, Ms. Quinlan, in this lusty equation. Not that I’d understood much about sex or fannys at age 12, but Flann – one year older on account of having had to repeat second class – was an acknowledged expert on such matters. When he wasn’t describing his own prowess with the wanking, he was smoothing his fingertips over the soft red fuzz dusting his upper lip as he outlined his plans for growing in his own fanny tickler just in time for the birds in secondary school.
Mannion had his good points as a teacher, it had to be said. We’d finish most days with a few games of hangman on the blackboard. Whoever correctly guessed the secret word was then invited up to take a sweet from the bowl on his desk, its sugary delights varying from week-to-week depending on his mood. That same bowl also rewarded running errands to the principal’s office, cleaning the blackboard, and watering the classroom plants among other things, jobs invariably reserved for the usual half dozen or so class brown-nosers. During our two years with Mannion it had dispensed liqorice allsorts, cola bottles, blackjacks, toffos, pear drops, fruit pastilles, love hearts and bullseyes. On special occasions a box of Quality Street or Cadbury’s Roses was upended into the bowl – sometimes even a handful of curly wurlys – an agonizing distraction for us. On one occasion, two jumbo tubes of jellytots were tipped into the bowl and Flann had Mannion labelled for life.
“I hope you washed your hands,” Flann said as I doled out an opal fruit into his waiting palm one afternoon, having snagged two from the bowl earlier after calling out the winning word: Gorilla.
“I saw that little bollox pickin’ his nose at lunchtime,” muttered Tommy Farrell, who sometimes walked home with us. (He was clearly miffed that I didn’t have a spare opal fruit for him.) “Sure, it adds to the flavour,” said Flann, popping it into his gob and flicking the wrapper at Farrell.
Mannion was also a great man for the reading, taking us down to the school library every Tuesday, a dim musty-smelling place I secretly adored. It was on one such occasion that I discovered The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
“You’ll never read that shite, Maguire,” said Flann, whose literary preferences rarely strayed beyond the Beano or Roy of the Rovers annuals. Ignoring him, I took to reading it with gusto that evening and it consumed me. Rarely had I been so transported by a story. Trapped indoors for lunch the following day because of bad weather, I broke out The Wizard and got stuck into the second half. That was when Mannion spotted me during one of his slow circuits of the classroom. Seeing that I was nearly halfway through, he goggled in amazement. I felt every eye in that classroom on me then as he sat down opposite.
“So, tell me Mister Maguire,” he asked aloud in that poshy voice of his, “who’s your favourite character?” Before I could speak, Mannion promptly volunteered his personal preference for the great and powerful Oz himself. With a beet-red face on me, I mumbled a preference for the cowardly lion.
“And why’s that?” Mannion pressed on, clearly intrigued.
“Well, sir, I think he’s funny. He’s sort of show-offy, but he just wants to be braver.” Mannion pursed his lips at this, nodding his head slowly in approval as if I’d passed some secret test. Well, I’ll never forget the crescendo of slobbery lick-arse sound effects that followed me out the school gate that day.
All too often, however, Mannion’s eccentricity yielded to cruelty, a mean streak that seemed to ebb and flow like a rogue tide beneath the man’s handsome veneer. He kept a special bamboo cane for dishing out punishment, rarely a day passing that it didn’t lift skin. With little provocation he’d often grab you viciously by the wrist, the sweaty heat of his grip scorching you like an iron, and lay four of the best across your open palm with an extra lash thrown in for attempting to pull your hand away. His face would turn fire engine red as he noisily jetted air and spittle out from between his clenched teeth in perfect synchrony with each flake of the rod. Sometimes he’d eschew the bamboo in favour of lifting you out of your chair by the ear and following it up with a vicious clout to the back of the head. He also specialised in gripping that delicate lock of hair on your temple and tugging it upwards with agonising slowness until you were balanced on the balls of your feet, the tears streaming from your eyes as he verbally filleted you in front of the class. Wizard of Oz, my arse. Mannion was pure Jekyll and Hyde.
Central to law and order in Mannion’s classroom was The Prefect, a position of high honour reserved for his chosen few. A week-long role, the Prefect would list the names of anybody acting the maggot whenever Mannion stepped from the classroom, all but assuring them a dose of the rod upon his return. Clearly impressed with my reading credentials, he decided to promote me to the role for the first time.
My reign lasted all of three days. By the Wednesday afternoon, Flann and I were taking a whizz in the toilet located at the back of the classroom, when he decides to redirect his aim towards my urinal. “Ahh, feck off,” I hooted, instinctively punching him in the shoulder. A sword fight with our respective piss streams ensued as we drenched one another’s urinals and the bathroom floor, the pair of us like two hyenas. All giddiness evaporated however, when we turned around to find Mannion glaring soundlessly at us from the doorway, a face on him like a thunderclap, moustache quivering with malicious possibilities. We stood there like two complete gobshites, quickly zipping ourselves up, not sure what to expect. He stalked towards me then, winding his right hand back over his left shoulder as he went, and delivered a backhander that somehow missed me and connected with Flann’s cheek, a vicious slap that sent him reeling sideways to clatter his head off the side of the urinal. I stood there in complete shock as Flann staggered to his feet rubbing his temple.
“Get out!” he spat, his flinty-blue eyes shrieking their betrayal at me. We didn’t need to be asked twice, the pair of us scuttling red-faced back to our desks.
It was a week or so later, walking out the School gates, when we observed Mannion and the school principal, Mister Brasil, pacing around Mannion’s car in the company of two Gardaí scribbling into notebooks. The Mazda appeared to have sunk into four little tarry puddles, the tyres on his beloved RX-3 slashed to ribbons. Flann was hauled out of class the following day and confessed after a dozen licks of Brasil’s strap, his poor hands the colour of raw mince as he was manhandled into the passenger seat of his father’s van to begin a two-week suspension. When he finally returned to School, Mannion took every opportunity to hop off him with cane and fist. He never let him forget.
By the time I got back to his bedside, Flann was awake. He was surprisingly alert and full of chat.
“So,” I reminded him, “you were telling me about running into Mannion…”
“It was when I was on a buildin’ job over in Shepherd’s Bush back in 2006,” he began, smiling. “There was this boozer we used go to, me and the lads, just off the Goldhawk Road near Ravenscourt. The Crown and somethin’ or other.”
“Go on,” I prompted him.
“We rocked up there one Friday afternoon right after gettin’ paid. I was up at the bar gettin’ a round in. That’s when I heard him, that toffee-nosed voice of his calling out for a whiskey on ice from the snug at the end of the bar. And not just any whiskey, mind you. Glenfiddich.”
“Eventually he came out to use the toilet and I managed a sneaky look at his face as he passed by. He was older, mid-sixties or thereabouts, but he hadn’t really changed all that much. And he still had the tash.”
“It was definitely him?”
“Unmistakable. I used to see him the odd time around the parish after we moved on to secondary school. I’d have spotted that bastard in a fog. Still, I asked the barman who he was, very casual like, said he seemed familiar to me. He told me his name was Roger Mannion, a retired teacher, came in at the same time most days. Anyway, I decided then and there that I was going to sort the fecker out.”
“And did you?” I asked.
“It was about a week or so after that. I dropped in for a pint after work. The place was fairly quiet. Sure enough, Jellytots arrives in with the paper under his arm, orders his whiskey and goes into the snug. A minute later, he heads down to the toilet. That’s when I took me chance.”
“You followed down after him?” An image of Flann thumping Mannion’s head off the side of a urinal flashed through my mind.
“No. I moseyed down to the snug when the barman wasn’t lookin’ and took a nice gulp of his whiskey. Not too much. Just enough. That single malt’s lovely stuff by the way. Have y’ever tasted it?”
“I don’t drink, Flann,” I said. “Go on. Then what?”
“Then I topped up his drink from a little screw top jar of piss I’d filled up earlier.”
“Well it’s basically the same colour,” he said. “I gave his drink a stir with me finger and snuck back to me perch at the other end of the bar.”
“You’re having me on.”
“Not a word of a lie,” he said. “Jellytots came back in and I figured he’d take one sip and spew it all over the place. I would’ve been happy with that.” Flann smiled then. “But no…”
“Ah, Flann, no, tell me he didn’t…”
“He did… every last drop. It was about 20 minutes later, he comes out from the snug and plunks his empty glass up on the counter, this sour look on his face like he’d swallowed a bag of lemons. When the barman comes over he hands him the empty glass and gets him to smell it, starts complainin’ that there’s somethin’ not right with the Glenfiddich and so he switches over to Johnny Walker.” Flann’s eyes lit up then, his laughter huffing out between breathy gurgles, and I laughed hard along with him.
“Did you say anything to him?” I asked.
“No,” said Flann. “I went outside for a smoke and nearly died laughin’. I didn’t see him in the pub again after that. The job I was on finished up about three weeks later and I came back to Dublin.”
His tale told, Flann said nothing more for a bit and I figured he’d nodded off again, until he piped up. “Jaysus, but he loved his flash car, didn’t he?”
“Sure, we all thought he was shit hot driving into school in that sporty little Mazda,” I said.
“We did,” Flann agreed. “It was his pride and joy, that motor. And do you know what the funny thing is?”
I shook my head.
“I never laid a finger on his tyres.” And the look he gave me then was one filled with knowing and I was 12 years old again and wondering about the half-life of suspicion.
“I know you didn’t,” I finally said, my face burning.
And with that he just winked at me.
“Do you want me to stop here for the rest of the evening with you, Flann?” I offered. “To keep you company.”
“Thanks, Henry. That’d be very decent of you.”