Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born academic and writer living in rural County Kildare. His short stories and essays have been long/short-listed in various international competitions, including honourable mention (2020) and shortlist (2022) for the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize. His writing has featured in various anthologies and literary magazines including The Galway Review, The Dillydoun Review, Fictive Dream, Books Ireland, and Storgy.
Man From Atlantis
By Phil Cummins
- a person, animal or thing that growls
- a small iceberg
- a container for draught beer
One of my favourite TV shows back in the late 70s was Man From Atlantis starring Patrick Duffy. Running for just one season, its main protagonist, Mark Harris, was an amphibious guy with webbed hands and feet who could breathe underwater and swim faster than a dolphin. He also boasted superhuman strength and could withstand the extreme pressures of the ocean floor. During the pilot episode he bravely helps Dr. Elizabeth Merrill to destroy the underwater habitat of Mr. Schubert, an evil maniac employing mind control bracelets to force kidnapped scientists to assist him with his dastardly plans for global nuclear destruction. At the end of the episode, just when you expect Harris to return to the ocean in his yellow swim trunks to go frolicking with the mermaids, he instead returns to shore, proclaiming, “I have not yet learned enough,” a clear reference to his desire to better understand human nature. And with these words many new aquatic adventures with the good doctor ensue.
To an impressionable nine-year-old kid this show had it all: vicious criminals, a superhuman hero, lots of underwater action and, of course, the delightful Belinda Montgomery as Dr. Merrill, whom I’d secretly decided would one day be my real life girlfriend. I liked the show so much I even decided to bone up on my Atlantean swimming skills in the bathtub one night, lying tummy down and arse up in about six inches of water as I butterfly kicked just like Mark Harris, displacing at least half the contents of the bathtub around the floor and walls. Having forgotten to lock the bathroom door, it was at this point that my older brother wandered in and spotted me in action, a big grin creasing his face. After much pleading, Dave promised to spare my blushes and keep my Flipper impersonation a secret. Toweling off and putting on my pyjamas I strolled into the living room about 10 minutes later, at which point my older siblings all stood up with their arms down rigidly by their sides and started gyrating their bodies rhythmically like eels. The ground couldn’t open up quickly enough to swallow me. Some secrets, I guess, are just too juicy to keep under wraps.
This little incident like so many others that defined my youth, would, much to my embarrassment, be resurrected again and again over the years during family get-togethers, usually when the booze starts to flow and loosen tongues.
“Do you remember the time Philip did the Man From Atlantis in the bathtub?”
“Do you remember the time Philip swapped his new glasses with Wally Ward for a bag of marbles?”
“Do you remember the time Philip hid under a cardboard box in the middle of the street and was nearly run over by Mr. Brophy’s car?”
“Do you remember the time Philip had his undies accidentally yanked down during a game of rounders and everyone saw his willy?”
“Do you remember…”
The list goes on and on. This is my gift to them, I’ve decided: to take one for the team and wear the mantle of family clown every so often, much to the amusement of gathered nephews and nieces. To allow my mortification to become a catalyst for levity and fond remembrance. I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Jaysus, Philip, but you gave us some great laughs when you were growing up,” my mother likes to remind me. “Do you remember the time you were sitting on the toilet and Noel demolished the bathroom around you?”
Now, how could I ever forget that one.
“Can I still use the bathroom? I really need to go,” I said. A dour ruddy-coloured face looked up slowly from behind the Daily Star, a face economically furnished with cheer at the best of times, its solemn eyes locking firmly on mine. Plucking a cigarette from the pack sitting next to his mug of tea, Noel lit up and took a long pull. A regular visitor to our home and a builder by profession, he’d been drafted in to relocate our downstairs bathroom – the same one in which I’d performed my Mark Harris impression just a few years earlier – to a room off the upstairs landing of our Dublin council house in order to extend our tiny kitchen.
“I thought I told you to make sure and use it half an hour ago if you needed to take a crap or a pump,” he snarled.
“But I’m bursting,” I said, my legs crossed as I strained to keep everything in.
“You better make it quick, Grump,” he replied, his warning conveyed along an exhaled plume of smoke, before returning his attention to the sports page.
“Sure, I’ll only be a few minutes,” I said, ducking into the bathroom.
Sitting on the toilet bowl, pants pooled around my ankles, not 60 seconds had passed before I was shocked out of my reverie by an unmerciful BOOM! that sent a shudder through the entire bathroom, as if an asteroid had hit the side of the house. Several more BOOMS! followed in rapid succession.
“What was that?” I squawked, the defecatory process now on full pause.
Moments later a chunk of brickwork the size of a shoe box landed with a resounding thud on the floor just inches from my sneakered foot, dust filtering down from above. A hole had materialised in the brick wall to my right, through which a familiar face now appeared with a lit cigarette dangling from the corner of its mouth.
“Howya, Grump,” the face said. “I told you to be quick.”
“What the hell are you doing?” I bawled at Noel, my hands instantly shielding my privates. “I’ve only been in here for a minute. I’m not even finished yet.”
“Well then you’d better fuckin’ well hurry up,” he drawled.
“You said I had time. This isn’t fair!”
Ignoring me, he set to work with the lump hammer on the other side of the wall with an almost Thor-like vigour, pounding at it with all his might. A smart lad would’ve promptly yanked up his drawers and scrambled out the door to avoid being bludgeoned to death by falling masonry, but being a stubborn kid, I continued on with my business before quickly grabbing several handfuls of toilet paper to complete my ablutions. Fragments of brick and cement rained down around me as I hurled curses at him, decrying the unfairness of it all.
“Holy Jaysus, the fuckin’ stink in here,” said Noel, entering the bathroom after I’d finally scarpered out the door into the hallway, my trousers still at half-mast. “I hope you flushed that bog after you, Grump.” He stood there theatrically flapping his hand in front of his nose.
Rinsed red and pouring sweat, I promptly zipped myself up as he chuckled away to himself, in rare good humour at having put one over on me. In the years since, I’ve made peace with this amusing little incident by reasoning that it was all meant as an innocent joke. Standing on the cusp of teenage adolescence at the time, however, had primed me to take offence. Having been on the receiving end of many a classroom jeer, not to mention regularly clattered and caned from one end of primary school to the other by overzealous school masters bent on exercising the full scope of state-sanctioned corporal punishment, one would think I’d have been sufficiently immune to embarrassment by that point. But as they say, humiliation is where the real growth happens and so, like jello, there’s always room for more. In this case, it cemented (no pun intended) my family clown credentials by affording me the dubious honour of likely becoming the only lad of his generation to have a bathroom deliberately demolished around him as he raced to evacuate his bowels.
Realising the solid gold reactions he could milk me for, it was pretty much open season on me after that all the way through my teens. I became the perfect mark for Noel’s mocking potshots and bristly Dublin humour as he regularly wound me up over anything and everything.
“He never leaves me alone. He’s always having a go at me and calling me Grump,” I complained bitterly to my father one day. I was 15.
“Well, then you just call him Growler,” said Dad, winking at me. It should be understood that permission from my father to openly name call one of his best friends in this manner was about as rare as rocking horse shite. This, after all, was a man with whom Dad shared a perfectly synchronised pub schedule, two friends who considered it their joint patriotic duty to keep Arthur Guinness in business by necking down as many pints of stout as possible from Monday to Sunday and who quite literally finished one another’s sentences when it came to armchair commentary on all matters pertaining to sports, politics, marriage and the endless burdens of the working man.
“Howya, Grump,” Noel said to me one day shortly after that, looking to poke me for sport.
“Howya, Growler,” I replied, looking him right in the eye.
He stared back at me then, his eyes narrowing, and he grinned at such barefaced cheek, realising in that moment that I had become someone he had to box clever with. Not that this would turn out to be a game-changer for me or anything, but it did give me something to parry with. Navigating the confusingly choppy waters of my teens, I likened him to an iceberg deliberately seeking out ways to collide with me. This man, I decided, couldn’t possibly be my father’s best friend. More likely, Dad had secretly recruited him in the pub one night for the sole purpose of baiting me and taking every opportunity to poke fun at me – and callow temperamental lad that I was, I’d rise to the bait every single time.
Of course, being a short, scrawny, sports-averse bookworm in possession of a consistently crap haircut did make me something of a magnet for slaggings, prompting other family members to regularly get in on the act.
“Who in the name o’ Jaysus did that to your hair?” became a favourite taunt of my Dad’s whenever I returned home from the local barbers. “They must’ve used a shaggin’ lawnmower.”
“There’s nothin’ wrong with me hair,” I replied, running a hand defensively over my freshly trimmed head, feeling any possibility of ever getting a girl to take notice of me evaporate.
“That looks like one of them ANCO haircuts,” he continued, referring to the council-run workplace trainee scheme in operation at the time for unemployed local youths to learn a skill like barbering as an honest alternative to vandalism or joyriding. “How much did they pay you to let them do that to you?”
“Ha, ha… very funny,” I said, but he was usually too busy cackling away over the cleverness of his ANCO jibe.
Having a face that could’ve been a walking advert for pizza also didn’t do me any favours. “A blind man could tell a great story off your face,” Janet, my older sister, sometimes quipped in reference to the Braille-like consistency of my cheeks.
No stranger to self-pity, such needling frequently sent me moaning to my mother. “I’m sick and tired of being treated like a child,” I’d whinge at her.
“Sure, you can’t put an old head on young shoulders, Phibbles,” was her typically sage response. “And anyway, I think you’re gorgeous. If I was young again I’d run away with you.” Mam was always fairly reliable on the flattery front, knowing full well that teens needed praise like flowers needed sunshine. That said, I still spent most of my teens yearning to get beyond them, desperately wishing for a time when I’d be allowed to pull up a chair at the big table and join the adults. To be included in the conversation. To be taken seriously. Adulthood I would come to learn, however, didn’t arrive with a mighty bang the day you turned 18. Rather, it tended to creep in the door and subtly make its presence known in the way people regarded you, as it did a few years later when my father passed away.
Following Dad’s wake at our house and his subsequent removal to the local church the evening before his funeral, my older siblings invited me to remain behind with them in the church after the priest and mourners had departed, to sit vigil through the night beside his coffin. I was 19. It had been an emotionally draining few days and I recall Mam hinting strongly that I should come home with her and leave the older ones to get on with it. “Sure, I’ll be grand, Mam,” I said, waving her off. I wasn’t sure what the evening held but I was determined to be part of it.
Our local church was one of those modernist 1970s suburban pyramidal constructions, a draughty high-ceilinged space designed to cage several hundred souls. I’d spent countless Sunday mornings skulking near the end pew, bored to sobs by the mind-numbing drudgery of the mass and tallying the seconds to escape. I’d often bunk off at the halfway point once I’d gotten the main gist of the priest’s sermon and felt confident enough to answer any probing follow-up questions from Mam. Realising that I had a mind that could never embrace such religious pageantry, I decided that as soon as I was allowed to choose for myself, I’d only ever set foot inside a church for the occasion of a wedding or funeral. But on this particular evening I was strangely content to be there, secretly pleased to have been asked to join ‘the big ones’, and we chatted pleasantly as the large echoey space swallowed up the sounds of us.
Noel joined us a short while later. With hands stuffed deep in his pockets and his shoulders gathered up in a hunch, he walked silently past the coffin and sat down facing us on the steps in front of the altar, his eyes red-rimmed. Clearly elsewhere in his mind he took out his cigarettes, lit up, and blew a long slow plume towards the skylight.
“Ah, Noel,” Janet said, “Put that out! That’s very disrespectful in the church.”
Eyes widening, Noel turned and gestured defiantly towards the large crucifix and its occupant hanging above the altar and said, “Ah, for Jaysus sake, He wouldn’t mind! Sure, He knows I was best mates with Christy!” And with that he took another rebellious drag.
The residual odour of incense was soon smothered by the acrid whiff of cigarette smoke. It was a smell I’d come to loath, never having fallen prey to the allure of smoking myself, and yet in that moment it was the perfect antidote to piety and accompaniment to the light-hearted and occasionally rude banter that followed. The irony, of course, was that cigarettes had brought about the untimely end of the poor man in the coffin and, given Dad’s strident Catholicism and unquestioning deference to church etiquette, he’d almost certainly have turned in his grave to witness such irreverence transpiring in his honour had he actually been in his grave at that point.
We talked then for a time and Noel gradually loosened up as we recalled poignant and at times hysterical memories of our Dad. And as the night wore on it felt as if I was being silently invited to step out of my teenage skin and try on my adult self, years of adolescent ribbing now replaced with grown-up inclusion. When people invite you to share stories with them and allow you a glimpse of their vulnerable side, your relationship with them changes and finally begins to equalise. It was a tiny instance of becoming for me, one I’ve occasionally swum back to in my mind’s eye to mine for fresh insights when I feel I have not yet learned enough. Peeking back in through the church skylight I see a dimly lit space with my older brother and sister sitting near a flower-draped coffin, thoughtful expressions on their faces as they occasionally laugh along with the middle-aged man brazenly sprawled over the altar steps, chain smoking as he mourns the loss of his best mate. And stretched out along a church pew nearby, a 19-year-old lad now fast asleep under his coat, completely worn out from playing at being grown-up.
I awoke the following morning shortly after dawn to find myself somehow lying in my bed, the smell of cigarette smoke lingering on my t-shirt. I had no memory of arriving there and given the difficult day that we were all facing into, what with the funeral and everything, I never thought to ask. Thinking back on it years later, I supposed somebody must’ve gently woken me during the night and sleep-walked me home.