John O’Leary’s 1977 Hennessy Literary Award winning story


Luckily the Teachers Conference coincided with the softest week in April.

Slattery was a delegate. He was sick but he was getting better. It was almost teatime and some shuffling among the audience predicted the imminence of food. Somebody was speaking about “education”. He would eat a good meal and drink two glasses of milk. Then he would get very drunk again. McGrath and O’Donnell his friends and fellow delegates, sat by him. They inclined towards one another, swapping innuendoes in whispers.

Slattery remembered the previous night when McGrath, opening his hotel window, sang to the distant sea and announced that he was about to commit suicide. They held him by the shoulders, speaking to him gently, told him they loved him, ineluctable kinship, to cool it, for Christ’s sake to cop on. When he was quiet they listened to the ocean, to them came the exhalation of a breaking wave, and a human voice, wavering and discordant, singing “Seoithín Seo Lu Lo-Lo”.

The last speaker ended to scattered applause and the delegates began to dribble out. Slattery was looking for McGrath when he noticed a man at the door, saluting the delegate in an unctuous way, interposing himself sometimes between a group and singling out one with whom he would attempt concourse. He could not have been a teacher but Slattery was not sure. He was elderly and unshaven, tall with a stooping angular frame, and he wore a grey suit, the coat of which was reinforced on both elbows with leather coifs. His shirt was unironed and crumpled, bearing several brown stains on the collar: his shoes, black suede, old.

“Watch yer man,” McGrath said.

The three of them stopped and observed the man try with a variety of intimate expressions, to gain the attention of a lady delegate. He swept out his wrist and bowed grotesquely as though inviting her to converse in some deserted corner. She would not, and foiled his advances with a smack. She hurried on to join her companions who had been watching.

She was a large girl with strong round shoulders. She wore a blouse frilled with silk ribbing, of indecisive verdigiris, and open at the neck revealing a necklace and cross.

“Of all the cheek . . .” they heard her say.

She pursed her lips and flounced in a fashion towards the dining hall. She turned once, suddening jerking her body into a chaste vertical. But there was no bounce under the faint bulbs of her brassiere. The transparent silk held no secrets. Her breasts, if they were, Slattery thought, need not be. If they were not, she betrayed nothing. She was like a defective parachute. He held too the memory of her huge tinted glasses, and the curious innocence of her tights as they gathered in folds around her ankles.

“Dia dhuit,” the man greeted him as he passed, gripping him by the left arm. His hand, though lean and skinny, was strong and held Slattery like a forceps.

“Focal id’ chluais . . . ”

McGrath and O’Donnell slipped on, chuckling under bowed heads. McGrath turned at the dining room door and showed Slattery two fingers expressing an inverted V. He was happy.

“My [name]is Bartley Drolan. How are you? Was the Conference of interest? Come over here . . .”

The man’s eyes had a fakir’s intensity which enthralled Slattery. He felt trapped. Their glittering meshed him in electric lariats and he was frightened to find himself weaken like a child. He wanted to go away and eat his dinner but could not.

For the love a’ God, boy, don’t get excited about education. It’s unfair to yourself. It stimulates the adrenalin. Then you have to flog all round you to get it out of your system.

“I want to talk to you,” continued Bartley Drolan. He steered Slattery toward the toilets, halting him on a tiled corridor outside the Gents. There by a hand-basin jutting like a cup from a wall, Drolan placed him. He took the butt of a cigarette from his coat pocket and put it into his mouth. He never lit it. They would be serving the soup now. Slattery was annoyed.

“Look, if you don’t mind!”

He was gripped again by the arm.

“Take your hand for Chris- . . .”

“Take your ease, boy.”

They paused. He was staring at Slattery again. His eyes. Those eyes. Slattery thought momentarily of St Sebastian.

“Listen.”

He felt the grip relax. He was listening.

“For the love a’ God, boy, don’t get excited about education. It’s unfair to yourself. It stimulates the adrenalin. Then you have to flog all round you to get it out of your system. Otherwise you come out in spots and you begin to breathe through your nose and you can’t sleep at night . . .”

He stopped, looking at Slattery fixedly in the eye.

“ . . . provoking an atavistic response to the wrong stimulus . . . ”

He pulled on his unlit butt and seemed to be thinking intensely.

“. . . and the feckin’ Department won’t sanction bows and arrows . . . for the poor bloody teacher, I mean. Sad. The contemporary dilemma . . . ya follow me . . . Mr . . . Mr??”

“Slattery,” said Slattery.

“Mister Slattery . . . A good Corkman if I’m not mistaken. We’re everywhere, God knows.”

He bruised the butt of his fag over the round grating at the base of the sink, flattening the tip into a rectangle. His fingers were black with ash and he cleaned them on the leg of his trousers.

“Fags are the divil,” he said, dividing the judgement by a quick glance between Slattery and himself.

“And I’ll tell you another thing!”

He was holding up an index finger and revolving it slowly in the arc of a single sunbeam. The light had slipped through a chink in the frosted window above the Gents. It was weak and yellow with evening.

He compressed a chrome lever and a jet of water arched out from a spout at the lip of the hand-basin. It swirled the wet ash around for a few seconds until both were drawn with a strangled gurgle into the drain. Drolan released the lever and wiped a finger savagely under his nose. Slattery looked down. He saw water in the hand-basin well up slowly, discoloured with ash and fibres of drowned tobacco.

“Minnie Plowden was a very foolish woman . . .”

“Minnie Plowden?”

Drolan did not reply. He was holding up an index finger and revolving it slowly in the arc of a single sunbeam. The light had slipped through a chink in the frosted window above the Gents. It was weak and yellow with evening.



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