“You’re not from around these parts, are you, Señor?”
“On the run from the authorities and living in Cork.”
“Died in the arms of a rent boy from a methamphetamine overdose.”
“Lost his house in a poker game, went insane, now raising llamas in Monaghan for gladiatorial combat.”
“Locked herself in a cellar in 2005 and refuses to come out.”
“Jailed for treason.”
“Fired for impersonating a gynaecologist.”
“Caught cheating at Russian roulette. Told to leave the country within 24 hours. Training for the priesthood in Clare. Still impersonating a man.”
A decade is a long time in journalism. It is nearly ten years. That is my joke about journalistic accuracy. And also it is difficult to drum up any sympathy for the plight of the average hack among the general public, who these days regard journalism as the first refuge of the scoundrel, a once-noble profession now reduced to regurgitating press releases, writing puff pieces for the local businesses who effectively pay their wages by deigning to advertise in their paper, or else rifling through the rubbish bins of minor Irish celebrities-all Irish celebrities are minor-in the hope of finding proof of sexual peccadilloes, infidelity, or drug abuse. They know precisely what to look for thanks to their own tawdry, sordid, sad, sorry lives.
I was hoping that at least one of my contacts would still be keeping it together after all this time, however. When I was working for Spanish intelligence in Ireland back in the 1980s and 1990s, I frequently had cause to liaise with members of the Irish press in order to help them put the requisite spin on stories about Spain, whether it was to suggest connections between the IRA, ETA and Colonel Gadhafi, cover up details of Spanish government involvement in helping Nazis on the run, or promoting Enrique Iglesias’s latest single. Irish journalists were always very accommodating and co-operative, as you might imagine, in exchange for a box of Cohibas, a meal in the Four Seasons or Roly’s Bistro, a massage and happy ending at Miss Whipcream’s establishment in Dun Laoghaire, a day at the races with 500 punts to spend, or a weekend away at the Loughrea Hotel and Spa, all of which can now be won in competitions on TV3. Journalists once upon a time had a reputation for longevity, for the capacity to endure, to type out nine types of shit, 12 hours a day, on two bottles of Paddy and 40 Carrolls, and still make it out of Doheny & Nesbitt’s before the wankers from Department of Finance came in after work. Unfortunately, the hard-bitten cynicism and contempt for authority once a pre-requisite of the self-respecting journalist has now been replaced by hard-bitten cynicism and contempt for oneself and the once-respected job of reporter, with the consequence that no-one can last in the job any longer than five years without becoming a parody of themselves, a mindless keyboard-banging monkey inebriated only to enable them to look in the mirror each morning without asking themselves how it came to pass that someone with a Master’s from DCU and a 2.1 in English Literature could be pretending to have a shit in the bogs of Toner’s just on the off-chance of overhearing a conversation between Eamonn Dunphy’s daughter’s nanny’s brother and that bloke who does the cider adverts.
I had been hoping to drum up some publicity for my very important state-of-the-nation tour of Ireland by roping in some of my old friends and calling in a few favours, also known as blackmail. I am by no means a miserly man and can admit to a small fortune, on paper at least, if you count my retirement home, shares in Miss Whipcream and Jane Bondage’s highly lucrative business, and the gold ingots that my neighbours the Mengeles back in the Canarias have stowed away for me, but paper money butters no parsnips, or as we Spanish say, “God will look after the blind driver. Those who can see must look after themselves.” Therefore it was incumbent on me to try to find alternative sources of funding for my trip, and what better way, I thought, than to take advantage of the hospitality of the Irish, to exploit their reputation for welcoming strangers and milk the sow of human kindness, a kind of pig/person hybrid which came about through xenotransplantation rather than bestiality.
There being not one of my former journalistic contacts still capable of generating goodwill towards my endeavour-who, in any case, would trust a journalist these days?-I retreated to the nearest barbershop for my morning hot towel shave and a well-deserved haircut to reflect on my available options. I ought to point out here, perhaps, that this was no spontaneous, ad hoc decision. I am a particularly hirsute individual who requires a minimum of two shaves a day, sometimes three, and a haircut at least once a week, and experience has taught me that time spent on this unavoidable chore is the perfect opportunity for reflection and inspiration. In addition, barbers, at least in Spain, are the best source of underworld rumour, commonplace wisdom, arcane lore, and local gossip. Also they know 15 different ways to kill a man with a comb.
Gerry* the barber from Bray, for this is where I was on my tour so far by now, was a chunky balding middle-aged Londoner with sideburns who manipulated his blade and towel with a panache and bravado that would have put the great matador Enrique Ponce to shame. Barely was I in his chair and the razor disinfected than he had deduced my foreign origins and elicited from me the nature of my quest.
“We used to get journalists in here all the time,” he told me, the flash of the morning sun sliding down the cutting edge of his blade as he scythed it through the air. “Once upon a time they took pride in their work, in their appearance, in their vocation.” He paused to look me straight in the eye. Via the mirror.
“Not any more. Too ashamed to be recognized in public. These days they cower behind beards-even the women-and let their hair grow long and lank like . . . I don’t know . . . greasers.”
“What is greasers?” I asked, without dropping my gaze.
“You know. People from Greece. Moustaches, beards, lots of hair, unkempt appearance, smashing plates.”
“Ah yes, I know this,” I said. “Plates of meat: feet. They have smashing feet.”
“No. Not rhyming slang. They smash plates. On the restaurant floor. When they dance.”
This was a cultural stereotype that had passed me by, someone who generally prides himself on being able to compartmentalize and pass ready-made opinions of foreigners, but I took his word for it that this was something journalists do. I had often seen them standing on the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel urinating into one another’s mouths, but smashing plates on the restaurant floor . . . why would anyone do that?
“I’ll tell you what, though,” he went on, “if you’re stuck, you should try . . . wassername . . . the Delaney woman down near Greystones. She’s always in the papers.”
“She is who?”
“Delaney. You know. The writer woman.”
I had no idea who he meant, having failed to stay au fait, au courant or au naturel with the world of literature, so it was with some embarrassment that I had to confess my ignorance of Ireland’s most famous writer of chicken literature, Carol-Anne Delaney, author of the world-renowned “Irish Hearts” trilogy-Hearts and Carrickmines, Clonskeagh to My Heart, and Heart of Greystones-as well as countless other blockbusters that have remained on the New York Times Foreign paperback romantic fiction list for the better part of this century: Killiney and Tigers, A Celbridge Too Far, I Stepaside for No Man, and These Boots Were Made for Walkinstown.
“I can make a call for you, if you’d like,” said Gerry. “I have a mate in the . . erm . . . legal profession who knows her well and owes me a favour. He can have a word and see if she’d be willing to meet you, mention you in one of her columns, book reviews, fashion pieces, interviews, that sort of thing.”
“You could do that?” I said, turning my pristine, shiny face up in awe. Gerry just shrugged.
“Sure. I’m the barber.”
And thus it was not two hours later that I found myself at the ivy-bordered front door of Rosacea Cottage, just outside the small village of Delgany, not a stone’s throw from the Carmelite convent, where tradition has it that Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to the local children, who threw stones at her, and were consequently melted by her laser vision, whence the recipe for crème caramel. The door was opened by a purple-haired giant of a woman with a snub nose and what I assumed were shoulder pads, even though she was wearing a halter top. Her smile was a gleaming, brilliant, bluey white, the result, I later found, of chewing biros and Mint Imperials all day, habits that Miss-NOT Ms-Delaney had acquired early in her writing career.
“Much of the surrounding land is of no agricultural value,” she informed me off-handedly as she guided me into the conservatory for afternoon tea. “I would rent it out to farmers, of course, even though they can be such cute hoors that most of my time would be spent keeping an eye on them, so instead I’ve had it all landscaped and called in one of the top Italian designers to give it that cultivated but louche look.”
It reminded me that County Wicklow is known as the Garden of Ireland, an eminently suitable title, particularly given that it is indeed in Ireland. Calling it The Garden of Austria would be bound to cause confusion. Or worse, the Garden of Japan, since the Japanese Gardens are in Kildare, as everyone knows. But I was not prepared for the vast size of Miss Delaney’s holdings. During the Celtic Tiger years, she explained to me, the Irish public couldn’t get enough of chicken literature. They were flying off the shelves. Like chickens. At the height of the boom, she told me, there were 300,000 chicken literature books being published every week in Ireland, which meant that each individual member of the public had either read or written 16 novels. “And that’s not including poetry,” she said, “although there’s no money in that. Only idiots write poetry.”
After tea she gave me a quick tour of the public areas of Rosacea Cottage (she has an open day once a year during which she poses for photographs with her adoring fans, signs copies of her novels, accepts gifts and tithes, and gets through two packets of Solpadeine; she used to stockpile Kaolin and Morphine and let the ingredients separate, but Boots have stopped selling it). We then retired to her study/writing room to discuss business. I must confess that I had anticipated an airy, cheerful, well-lit room overlooking the extensive gardens, but Miss Delaney prefers to work (“and it is work, don’t forget”) in an underground bunker, lined with mahogany panelling and bookshelves, featuring not her works, as one might expect, but photographs, some of the author herself, but most of them of her inspirations: Mother Theresa, Dame Barbara Cartland, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Harney, Ayn Rand. “All strong, powerful women, Manuel, you will notice,” she explained. “All of them knew what they wanted and pursued it single-mindedly, regardless of what anybody else thought of them.” She caressed the frame of a picture of Mary Harney strangling a goose. “In women such qualities are invariably frowned upon, whereas in men they are considered honourable. Just think. Michael O’Leary, Jeffrey Archer, Michael McDowell, Gordon Ramsay. All of them admired, nay, worshiped and fawned over for their strength of character and determination. Women who exhibit those qualities, on the other hand . . . ” Her voice trailed away and she shook her head dejectedly as she stroked Barbara Cartland’s cheek. I felt it best not to express my personal feelings on the matter of the weaker sex and the emasculating nature of liberal society, bearing in mind that I had not yet been able to take advantage of her.
“It must nevertheless mean a life of loneliness,” I ventured, a speculation that suggested empathy when in fact I felt that it served her right for taking away a man’s job. But Miss Delaney had no time for mawkish self-pity. She quickly bucked up.
“Let’s get some tea and biscuits and discuss your itinerary,” she said.
Over the next 20 minutes or so I outlined my plans and offered suggestions for how Miss Delaney might help me: a direct donation into my account, going onto the airwaves and telling everyone to give me free food and accommodation, mentioning me in the opening lines of her next book review for the Irish Times (“The correspondence between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, skillfully edited and annotated in this volume by Martin Golightly, put me in mind of the fearless, handsome, and pious but humble Manuel Estímulo, currently making a tour of this benighted nation of ours . . . “). At most turns, she demurred, not contemptuously but firmly explaining the shortcomings in my proposals.
“You must understand, my dear Manuel,” she said, “the emphasis in the phrase ‘publishing industry’ falls upon the second word. These days publishing is exclusively a business enterprise, and unless you are already a well-known public figure, publishing houses have no interest at all in attempting to sell your wares. The publishing world is a very conservative place-”
“-I am pleased to hear it.”
“Good. But a consequence of this is that it is near impossible, especially in times like these, for outsiders to break in. Even those of us who are successful must write to a formula, giving our readers exactly what they want. I do not exaggerate. I can give you the precise breakdown of the plot, character, and storyline requirements for the novels of any of the top 50 novelists alive today. And that’s before you begin to consider the tie-ins: film rights, product placement, toys, spin-offs, location cachet, newsworthiness. There’s no point writing a book today about leukaemia or Alzheimer’s. They’ve been done to death. Or autism. Or the Holocaust. You have to look at what’s going to be in the news in 12 months’ time. Who’s likely to be dead by then? Is there a centenary coming up in 2014 that you can exploit? Or else make up a new illness. Growing old backwards, for instance. That’s a good one. Or growing a new cock. How about that?”
I was crunching my Hobnobs with abandon by this point, making furious notes in the margins of the Daily Mail which I’d taken from the pile of newspapers Miss Delaney told me she was throwing out. But at the mention of the word “cock” I must confess that my knee jerked with surprise (and a brief experience of déjà vu as I recalled the first day in the showers at school). That jerk catapulted my tray of half-eaten Hobnobs to the floor, where the plate smashed and the biscuits crumbled. I looked up at her in horror. She rose from behind her desk.
“Not to worry, Manuel. I’ll go get a brush from the scullery. I’m sure the maid will have something like that.”
She crossed the study to the door but turned as she opened it.
“Of course, there is one other way of breaking into the business, you know, Manuel. You could have sex with someone already on the inside.” She gave me what I thought must have been a meaningful look before disappearing up the stairs and into the daylight above.
Now, I am not fool enough to imagine myself to be a sophisticate, with all the worldly wiles of, say, an American. And Heaven knows that I have done my best to disdain and dismiss all material goods and pleasures as trivia, mere gew-gaws and trinkets of temptation by means of which Satan lures us into the maw of Hell. But even I have the presence of mind to be able to spot an opportunity for career advancement when it is presented to me on a plate, as it were, winking at me over its shoulder with its arse raised in the air. And therefore you will not be surprised when I tell you what I did next. As quickly as possible, I relieved myself of my clothings so that I would be ready and waiting for Miss Delaney when she returned to the room, having no doubt washed herself down there and put some lippy on (I splashed some gin from the drinks cabinet on my cheeks and gave my penis a quick spritz too just to take the daily stink off it). I then climbed up onto the Miss Delaney’s desk, attempting to look magnificent, masculine, magisterial, and another word that begins with an m but I don’t know what it is in English. And while I stood there waiting, I did some dynamic tension exercises I remembered from Charles Atlas that would make me looked pumped. Also I masturbated a little.
I was therefore a little disappointed when Miss Delaney returned not only still fully dressed and with no apparent lipstick on her mouth, but also wielding what I can only describe as the thickest, longest, knobbliest broomstick I think it has ever been my misfortune to lay my eyes on. “Unless I have seriously misread this situation and the next half an hour is going to involve some rampant sex, I can’t for the life of me imagine how she is going to incorporate a broomstick that size into proceedings,” I thought to myself. However, and possibly fortunately, I had indeed misread the situation. Upon seeing my virile form standing erect upon her workstation, Miss Delaney at first screamed with terror, an emotion that soon took a backseat to violent, incandescent rage, which manifested itself in the way she charged at me waving the broomstick above her head.
“Aaaaaaarrrrrgggggghhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!” she yelled, channeling a million banshee howls, her huge shoulders now generating serious purchase through the broomhandle. I leapt from the table, the first swipe missing me by inches, and clambered onto the nearest bookshelf, hoping to scramble high enough to be out of her reach.
“Get down here, you vile man!” she screeched, swiping again at my behind, which hung down like a forbidden fruit as I clung to the rail protecting her first-edition Atlas Shrugged. I inched along as best I could, she still swiping with her broom, photos of Harney, Thatcher, Sarah Palin, crashing to the floor.
“Help me! Help me!” I implored, before realizing that there was nobody in earshot and that anyone who did happen upon us would simply imagine that we were re-enacting the final scene of the movie The Fly, my pink shaven head lending the scene a particular veracity. There was nothing for it but to jump and make a break for the door.
“There’s been a big mistake,” I said, trying to placate my assailant in order to improve my chances of escape.
“I’ll say there has,” she replied as I landed on the floor on all fours. “Get out of my house, you monster.” She attempted to scuttle me off with a final swish, but I was already halfway up the stair before the broom’s trajectory was complete, leaving my clothes behind, and I refused myself the luxury of looking back until I was at least a half-mile up the road. At least I’d had the foresight to leave the ignition key in my scooter.