Debt and the malamute (a story told in kitchen talk) By Jamie Lynch
Text Copyright © James Lynch 2015 All rights reserved HOVEL PRESS:
“Anything worth crying can be smiled.”- Kinky Friedman- “Ride ‘em Jewboy”
It was 2005; the height of the property boom and much of the country was engaged in a massive pagan ceremony of credit.
The idol was false, as they all are but the joy was real, as it always is. Ask the man nailed to a cross in a passion play if he would swap places with the bodies of the polite congregation of an Anglican service melting slowly with the years through cushions on the church benches into a lump of bad posture and fat. Of course, pagan ceremonies run until the participant’s collapse with exhaustion and passion plays spill a lot of blood.
They bought the house directly off the plans and paid far too much for it but that was what everyone was doing then. They were not worried about it; in fact they felt light-headed, giddy; swept along on a wonderful, joyous, mindless, wave of liquidity.
The whole country of Ireland was discovering that endless credit was the greatest joy of all. Huge amounts of money being created from the nation’s collective imagination; huge amounts of money being spent, a credit card between it and you and anyone could dance on the thin, plastic edge. Something about poverty brought shame and something about large amounts of money liberated you from that shame. The national religion and the national culture had been revealed to be empty and here was something, or many things, to fill that hole. house Valuation of 54 Bellegrove Park-
1999- 195,000 punts 2005- 600,00 euro 2012- 320,000 euro
The address was 54 Bellegrove Park. The house was a three-storey, terraced, red brick building and the development was walled and gated. There was parking for their two cars. The mortgage was 100 per cent but that was no problem for Jack and Sophie Murphy.
Back then Jack worked for O’Sullivan’s, a company that supplied furniture to the building trade. The firm had started in the 1950’s as a department store, mostly dealing in furniture but with lines in clothes and household goods. In the style of the times it also ran a money-lending arm to its business. You could borrow money in the form of vouchers which could only be redeemed from the store. A man would call on a weekly basis to take repayment and perhaps interest other members of the family in taking a loan themselves, thus building up a ‘loan book’ for themselves.
Jack’s uncle worked for the store in that capacity and it was through his recommendation that Jack got the job. Since the early 90’s the firm had been born aloft on a great wave of global economic growth that saw the company expand with the property boom and specialise in providing furniture en mass to the building trade.
Jack was a salesman but he didn’t have to do much selling. He needed to be friendly, to maintain good relations with manufacturers and clients and to keep the products moving as fast as possible.
It was not possible to meet the demand so his performance was judged simply on a ‘how much’ basis, how much he could move down the chain and how much the clients liked him. He scored highly on both of these measures. He was a naturally friendly and likable man. He enjoyed his job and it showed. He worked long hours, driving form site to site, shaking hands, slapping backs, looking at pictures of foremen’s children, keeping people happy, keeping people confident and it was easy for him. He loved the money, he loved the lifestyle, he loved his wife.
Sophie Murphy worked in public relations. She loved her husband, her job, her Mercedes, her friends, her lifestyle. Eight months after they moved into Bellegrove she gave birth to their first child, Aoife, and she loved her too. Aoife came with endless opportunities for the consumption of brands. Bugaboo and Stokke made not just prams but ‘travel systems’; Petit Bateau, Mamas & Papas, Jojo Maman Bebe, Trotters, for which you had to go to London, but then trips to London were common as were trips to New York. London, in fact had become cheaper than Dublin.
They considered buying a second home abroad but decided against- they were sensible people. Jack sold his Audio A4 to get a larger Audio 4×4 as was necessary to accommodate the ‘travel systems’ that were necessary to move Aoife from place to place safely.
Everything was new all the time. The old was displaced and replaced constantly. No shame from the past and no fear of the future leaked in- this was truly living in the present. Aoife was fat and happy and easy to manage.
Sometimes they received post addressed to ‘.. Castleknock, Dublin 15’, in which case their postman would cross out those last three words with such force that his pen would slightly tear the envelope and he would write in large characters, ‘Cabra West, Dublin 7’. All this meant nothing to the Murphy’s; they found this attachment to the local funny, this out-dated obsession with old social snobbery and inverted snobbery. They genuinely felt like citizens of the world, their central nervous systems keyed into global markets.
Jack and Sophie didn’t send as much time together as they would have liked and sometimes, when he had been working particularly hard, Jack found that his eyes hurt, his vision was strained and he became slightly uncoordinated, but this was a normal price to pay for success.
Jack’s mother, Patricia, helped with Aoife. His father, John, had died in a car crash in England when Jack was five. Luckily, there was life insurance. Patricia lived in a small terraced house in Killester, she never quite got over the luxury of the three toilets in Jack and Sophie’s house. More than that though, she never recovered from the joy she felt at the birth of her granddaughter. She would have lived with that child on her hip.
Sophie could be touchy about any perceived comment on her housekeeping so Patricia would thread carefully around her. When Sophie used bad language in front of little Aoife it made Patricia very uncomfortable but she held her tongue and hoped that Sophie would pull back from that as the child got older and more likely to mimic her mother’s language. Sophie and her mother didn’t get on, maybe they were too alike so perhaps she wasn’t used to getting on with mother figures and she was never quite able to reconcile her self-image as a mother and a career woman.
Mary, Sophie’s mother, had been forced somewhat into being a career woman herself. She had married Bill when he was a sharp young thing on the up and his drinking was charming. She had been an air hostess, been let go when she married, moved form Irishtown to Dalkey as her husband’s fortunes had risen and moved to Walkinstown and back into work as his fortunes had fallen in inverse proportion to his blood alcohol level. Her father was an amiable but useless drunk who needed care more than he could provide it.
Sophie loved her husband but didn’t expect much of men other than being boys grown bigger. She was happy though and too busy most of the time to think about things of that nature. Her life was like an article in a glossy magazine and the good thing was that she knew it and could enjoy it while it was happening.
They didn’t know their neighbours well but they didn’t have any arguments over parking and that was priceless.
When Jack and I spoke about it later he couldn’t remember the first time he noticed the dog. Once the dog was in his consciousness it was impossible to imagine that he had ever not been there.
The dog was a malamute. He lived three doors down from the Murphys. They never knew much about the people who owned him. They were a couple. She was foreign, maybe Italian, maybe Spanish, maybe.. They decided she was probably Italian.
He was Irish, from the country, maybe somewhere up a little north. They were very unfriendly. She might have been shy; he was definitely rude. They didn’t know their names or what they did. He was capable of completely ignoring you if you said ‘hello’ so after a while you stopped trying. A baby arrived in their house too and then his mother made appearances. She always seemed a little embarrassed.
A malamute is a striking dog, something like a giant husky, and this was a striking malamute. Jack and Sophie thought of him as a ‘status dog’. The way that young men in the eighties in some parts of Dublin had German Shepards to show that they were tough and people sometimes have bull terriers now; in the new Dublin people were buying beautiful and totally inappropriate dogs like huskies and malamutes to show how well off they were and what good taste they had.
All over cities like Dublin there were people buying dogs that would need hours of exercise a day and taking them out of twenty minutes to shit. A generation of insane sled dogs was being abused into life.
This dog was often left outside the house, alone, for hours. The door would open, the dog would be guided out by a hand and forearm, the door would shut. The dog would sit quietly, beautifully erect, for a while, or he might find himself a stick, or a pizza box to throw from himself like a Frisbee. A dog that big, with so little attention and exercise you would expect to be bored and badly behaved but this dog was a model of maturity and self-possession, he just seemed to have been born wise, rooted, anything near to him was within his gravitational field.
Still or in motion the dog had an aura of power held lightly, power in repose that you can feel form large animals with peaceful temperaments or heavyweight wrestlers relaxing.
The Phoenix Park was on their doorstep and sometimes when Jack was tired and stressed he would go for a walk in the park. If the dog was around he would follow Jack and they would go for a walk together. Jack liked the dog’s company, he was easy to talk to in the way dogs are and he was possessed of a quiet dignity which was calming to be around. There was one road to cross between the estate and the park. The first time they walked together Jack had reached down to hold the dog at the back of his neck, he wore no collar, to make sure he didn’t run into traffic. The dog sat and looked up at Jack with a look of such offended dignity that he immediately removed his hand and apologised to him. The look had simply said, ‘If you threat me like this, how can we be walking companions.’ Jack understood that to be true and the apology that spontaneously issued form his mouth to be the correct and gentlemanly thing to do.
In the park the dog would range ahead of Jack but always come back to just outside of arm’s reach if he felt he was in danger of leaving Jack behind. Jack was never sure which one of them choice the routes they followed but he instinctively trusted the dog in a way and to an extent which he could not have explained.
Sometimes when they meet other dogs Jack would become nervous as the malamute approached the other to say hello. He was an imposing physical presence and Jack feared that the other dogs and their owners would be frightened or aggressive in their response to this creature the size of a small bear moving towards them. Jack worried that another dog might snap at the malamute and that perhaps the big fella might retaliate and tear something in two. It never happened. Any time a dog reacted negatively to him the malamute simply went his own way, shaking the dust from the pads of his giant paws but leaving a blessing in his wake.
Sometimes when Jack saw the dog outside his door he would open his own door, sit on his own step and wait for the malamute to come to him and lay his huge head on his lap. Jack would stroke his head and talk and look down at the rough, tightly patterned greys and black of the animal’s coat. At these times Jack could feel his own breath slowing to match the dog’s and sometimes he even felt tearful though he couldn’t think why. The dog had one blue eye and one green eye, like David Bowie, and although that was not, as you might think, the most striking thing about him; Jack found that there was something both compelling and soothing about the way he held your gaze with those eyes.
Times were good and time moved quickly. In 2006 the Murphy’s had a second child. A son they named Eoin.
Jack was not the kind of man who had held his breath waiting for a son. He had experienced a slight sense of relief for which he had not been prepared when Aoife was born. He didn’t feel that he needed to teach Aoife to be a woman. He just needed to support her and give her love. Now, with the birth of Eoin, he realised that it was his responsibility to show his son how to be a good man and he wasn’t entirely sure that he was competent to do that. Things, however, move quickly when you have a new baby and Jack slid along on the general activity, moving faster than his anxiety.
Aoife was walking as long as she had adult fingers to hold onto like a baby ape. Aoife was never still. Eoin was not a good sleeper. Jack was often tired. His vision was affected at times and sometimes his hands shook or trembled.
Sophie, who could always be sharp in temper, became a little sharper after Eoin’s arrival. She felt the tension between family and career more acutely than ever and it wore her thin both in body and spirit. Jack was more and more often tired and as he had been the one who spent most time with the children she felt an unspoken demand to be more domestic that she resented. She ate less and exercised more. She became thinner. For both Jack and Sophie the need to eat and to feed the children became a sort of silent strain.
Eoin slept less. He cried a lot. There was a lot of fussing and discussing regarding his temperament and character, much reassurance that he would settle into a pre-programmed, greatly desired and imagined homeostasis in due course of time. There was fretting over the missing of milestones of development, a great deal of swearing off, and swearing about baby books.
Then Eoin had his first fit. Even if you had been filming him and then played the result back in ultra slow motion it would have been impossible to pinpoint the moment when the crying became fitting such is the infinite subtly of biological processes but it was easy to see the moment when Jack realised what was happening- the moment when the terror hit him.
The first thing that signified was Eoin’s skin. Its texture changed and his chubby pinkness became like a half-inflated rubber bicycle inner tube- a much paler, unnatural red. He was in Jack’s lap and it was as this change reached its apex that Jack felt the first hit of panic and Eoin became stiff and screamed. His tongue was peeled and scarlet. The child’s extremities rippled as if some parasite of energy was trying to escape through his fingers and toes.
Jack called for Sophie as he watched his son being pulled apart as he held him. Jack and Sophie instinctively knew what was happening and Sophie called an ambulance while Jack held Eoin and prayed to a God he did not believe in.
Jack held Eoin in helpless terror as Sophie called Patricia and she drove to them in a haze from which she too would never recover. Something had changed in an instant inside her and her body would swell with painful oedema for the rest of her life, her soft tissue radiating heat and inflammation in a constant physical panic.
By the time the ambulance came the fit was over. Jack couldn’t speak as he wiped sweat from Eoin’s body.
Patricia stayed with Aoife while the others went to hospital. In the hospital there was a lot of anxious waiting for nothing much to happen. The fit was over. A doctor simply had to confirm this and then it was a question of advising Jack and Sophie to take the child to their GP and arrange to have a series of tests done and to have the child examined by various specialists in order to begin the process of understanding what was causing the problem.
The next day Jack drove through a red light on the way to work. It was early and he was lucky traffic was light and no accident was caused but Jack could not accept the fact that he had simply been oblivious to the light’s existence until he had gone through it. He could not let it go.
He spent the day thinking of his son and of what could have happened if a car had been coming the other way. How he could have been hurt, how he could have hurt someone else, of how much Eoin would need him and how he could have killed himself or someone else just at the moment of his family’s greatest need.
By the time he reached his first appointment he already had a headache.
There was a strong after-image of that red light visible to him every time he closed his eyes. With his eyes closed he could still she a ghostly trace of it floating near the top right of his field of vision.
The events of the previous night played over and over in his mind. Between the red light thing in his vision and the image of Eoin being tortured by some unseen thing. He was trapped between two invisible barriers- when he tried to look outside he saw the traffic light, when he tried to look inside himself there was that horror movie playing on an endless loop.
He found that he was blinking and wincing. He hoped that his clients didn’t notice and believe he had developed a strange facial tic. He did his best to act as he normally did, to speak as he normally did but it was impossible for him to tell if he was succeeding or if he was presenting an obvious pantomime of his usual self.
There was no one to ask for a review of his performance but it was the first time since he had started working at O’Sullivan’s that he doubted his own effortless suitability for the job.
In the days that followed Eoin was subjected to a series of tests. There were visits to the hospital and to the GP, Dr. Brophy.
Dr. Brophy had been Jack’s family GP his whole life. He was a small, dark-complexioned man with sharp eyes and a matter of fact manner. He had grown smaller with age and lately his habitual neatness was slipping. Today his white shirt was protruding from his waistband and it seemed to Jack that there was a small dot of dried blood near the breast pocket. He still expressed his kindness bluntly.
“Mr. and Mrs. Murphy,” the doctor began from behind and, Jack thought, slightly below the desk that was clearly now too tall for him, “we have a very good idea of the reason for your son’s fit. The symptoms led to certain tests and the tests we performed show that Eoin has a condition called Neurofibronoilitis. This is a genetic condition which affects the nervous system. Eoin’s body is producing knots of a sort on his nervous tissue. This can result in various types of symptoms that can show with various degrees of severity. You can see that Eoin has some very small black spots on his skin. This is a sign of this condition. They are small now but they will grow and they will spread. How much they’ll grow is something we can’t predict. They could be no problem but they may become painful and some people will need to have some of these growths removed in time. ‘Noil’ refers to the affects on the nervous tissue and to the growths on the skin. It’s an old French word for a knot in wool or some other fibre, well that not important. Depending on how severe it is he could have developmental problems. It can affect the growth of tissue in the legs and the back. So he could have problems walking but you know, he may not. He may never have another seizure but we would have to believe that, having had one so young, that he probably will. He could have learning difficulties, problems with his eyesight, with the nerves at the back of his eyes, headaches, migraines..”
At some point Jack and Sophie had stopped holding hands. To Jack the doctor seemed to be moving slowly away from him down a tunnel. As he got harder to see his voice became louder and ironically less comprehensible.
“Can you say that again please?” said Sophie.
The house was silent. Jack and Sophie were not talking in the kitchen. Patricia was watching the children in the living room. Sophie started to make coffee and Jack was going through the motions of cooking. Then Jack opened a bottle of wine and the pretence of the other activities ceased. There were leaflets on the table. They already knew that there was a society for people with Neurofibronoilitis and they had a website.
I’ve heard it said that there is no reason to believe that our consciousness is created inside our skulls, it could be produced in our feet or even in the house next store, perhaps in that small shed in their back garden.
This might explain why Jack was thinking about how small the kitchen was in relation to the house as a whole. How strange it was that people were not really meant to cook there. It was a kitchen for show not for function. This felt something close to a revelation as he downed most of his glass of wine in one and refilled it.
“You drink too much,” said Sophie.
“You drink too much.” Her inflection was flat.
There was a pause while Jack drank some more.
“What are you talking about?” The words came out with some pressure, “We need to talk about this.” He fingered the leaflets on the table.
“Drinking isn’t going to help that,” insisted Sophie in the same tone.
“I can’t believe you could pick a time like this..”
Jack didn’t know how to finish. They had never been good at arguing. Sophie in particular would shut down, believing talking solved nothing. The cycles of their anger ran out of sync, which didn’t help. Jack become angry quickly and cooled of just as quickly. Sophie would grow angry slowly so that when Jack was becoming conciliatory she would be just reaching the peak of her anger. Jack’s attempts at making up would therefore be immediately flung back in his teeth so that he would get angry again and so the cycle would go on…
Jack decided to avoid all that this time, finished the wine and stood up.
“I’m going for a walk.”
“I thought you were going to cook.”
“You can cook,” he thought about it for a second but still couldn’t stop himself, “for a change.”
– Some extracts from the leaflet: “The Newly Diagnosed Child with Neurofibronoilitis, A guide for parents and carers” – by The Neurofibronoilitis Association, Great Britain and Ireland.
What is Neurofibronoilitis: Neurofibronoilitis is a genetic condition which affects roughly one in ten thousand people. Some have a mild form of the condition and may not realise they have it. Others will develop serious issues which will affect their health. The condition affects both boys and girls and is seen throughout the world.
How diagnosis is made: In order to make a diagnosis of Neurofibronoilitis one or more of the following must be observed.
Dark patches or lumps on the skin known as Neuronoilites which may appear like birth marks. The size and frequency of these marks varies with the severity of the condition.
Bony changes or abnormal bone development particularly in the lower body and around the sockets of the eyes.
Swelling of the optical nerves.
Epilepsy, which is usually only seen in severe cases.
A parent with Neurofibronoilitis.
Why does my child have Neurofibronoilitis?
Neurofibronoilitis is a genetic condition. Genes contain the instructions within the cells of our bodies that tell our bodies how to develop and work. The condition is caused by a change or mistake in the structure of one gene.
The genetic mistake can be passed from a parent to a child. A parent with the Neurofibronoilitis has a 50/50 chance of passing the condition on to each child they have even if the other parent does not have the condition.
Where no one else in the family has the condition the genetic change that causes it has likely occurred by chance. There is no known reason for this.
The condition varies in the ways in which it affects different people. Even members of the same family with the condition will be affected in different ways.
Possible affects of Neurofibronoilitis in childhood: Most childhood complications are rare however the condition can cause any or all of the below health problems:
Some eye problems are likely even in mild cases of the condition. Inflammation of the optic nerve is seen in almost all cases. This can lead to symptoms of headache and migraine as well as vision problems ranging from moderate to very severe.
Rare and seen only in severe cases of the condition. It is usually the bones of the pelvis and the legs which do not develop in the normal way.
The marks on the skin are seen in all cases of the condition, however, the extent to which these mark will cause discomfit and/or pain will vary with the severity of the condition.
High blood Pressure:
Unusual and seen in moderate to severe cases of the condition.
Rare and seen only in severe cases of the condition.
Rare and seen only in severe cases of the condition.
Outside the early evening was turning late with that dusky light peculiar to that time of day that makes it difficult to see. Jack almost fell over the malamute who was sitting peacefully outside his own front door.
‘Hey big fella,” Jack said as the dog raised his big eyes, “you want to go for a walk?”
Jack was always nervous when he went out with the dog until he turned the first corner. He didn’t want to be seen to ‘steal’ his neighbours’ dog but then he didn’t think much of how they looked after him either. The man had become indifferent and the woman actively hostile since they had reproduced so why shouldn’t Jack go for a walk with the dog, as a friend. After all, a dog is not something you can own like a car, it has a life, it is an individual not just one unit of a species. Animals never got enough credit for individuality he thought. Humans always considered that what happened to individual animals didn’t really matter as long as the general treatment of the species was humane. For some reason these thoughts brought tears to his eyes.
Inside the park gate there was a strange and impressive tree, shaped like a slingshot. Beyond it was a path through trees which was always a little scary as the light fell. Jack normally walked on the pavement but today, as he stopped to looked at the tree, his eye was drawn to the path through the trees and he decided to walk that way.
That way seemed more comforting than frightening this evening.
Within the line of trees the light fell a little more. I imagine that walking into the wood that evening was a but like entering a children’s story but that might well be more reflective of my way of seeing the world than Jack’s. I do know though that the light felt better to him in there. The malamute trotted ahead gently, sniffing at various clumps of grass and bits of broken branches, orienting himself in the invisible world of scent.
Coming towards them on the path they both noticed a big, old Alsatian dog approaching. It wasn’t possible to see far down the track behind him but it seemed to Jack that he was on his own, taking the evening air at his leisure. The two dogs became aware of each other and stiffened with attention for a moment before moving forward directly to greet. They stood with their noses almost touching and took each other in, then they abruptly broke off and went their separate ways.
The Alsatian and Jack passed, acknowledging each the other with their eyes. As they processed the malamute slowed down to allow Jack to catch up to him and fall in time with his steps and Jack started to talk.
“Well big fella where do I start. Oh, I don’t know, the thing is I guess I’m in trouble. My boy is ill, he has a disease or a condition and I think it’s very serious and I’m worried, I’m scared. I’m not sure what’s going to happen and the other thing is that I’m sort of to blame. I mean not really but you see it’s a genetic condition, it’s passed down to children from their parents and one of the signs, one of the symptoms that show you that you have this condition is these little marks, these marks on your skin and I have them. I always kind of thought they were little birth mark type things. I don’t.., well I have them. So it’s because of me that Eoin has this thing. I didn’t know. I never had cause to thing about it. No one, I can’t remember anybody in my family being really sick with the kind of things that Eoin’s already having..”
The malamute remained close.
“But I’m having trouble now. I’m having trouble, I’m having headaches, shakes, problems with how I.. with my vision and and.. I, I need to work, I need to, I need to keep working. But if things keep going, if my vision gets worse and worse I won’t be able to drive and if I can’t drive I won’t be able to work, not at the job I do now and if I can’t do the job I do now I can’t. .. We have a big mortgage, a big, big mortgage and I need a good job, I need money, I need to be making the kind of money that I’m making now to keep us in that house you know, keep us being neighbours.. and then Eoin’s going to need a lot of help. You know, I think Eoin’s going to need an lot of help and it’s not going to be cheap and he going to need me healthy too and I’m scared, so I’m scared and I don’t know what life is going to be like for Eoin. I’m scared what his life is going to be like, what he’s going to suffer and if I’m going to be able to help him and I’m scared because I don’t want to see him in pain more than anything. I don’t want to see him in pain..”
When he got home Sophie was still angry. There were things to be done to get the children ready for bed, good routine tasks that eased the anxiety somewhat.
Most of us live our lives in cycles that run from the novel to the routine like the eddies in a fast flowing stream. We try something new, scare ourselves a little, and then pull in our familiar things around us like a nest. A process continuously moving from intimidation to boredom, the cynic might say. Then we do it again…
They went to bed in silence but they both knew they would talk in the morning. Jack knew he would tell his wife what he had told the dog and that she already knew it all anyway.
Often the things that we fear don’t happen and we find ourselves sucker punched by miseries, misfortunes and disasters we never gave any attention to before. This is why though we often worry and are frequently anxious we seldom experience dread. Dread requires the underlying realisation that the thing you fear is doomed to come about, must come to pass. Soren Kierkegaard, surely one of the most perfectly named of the existential philosophers, connected the concept of dread with the desire for the thing one fears to happen in much the same way that it is said that vertigo represents the fear of the desire to fall, that seductive pulling feeling experienced looking down from a great elevation which gives momentary rise to fantasies of flight, rather than the fear of heights.
That was the feeling Jack was unburdening himself of that evening as he walked with the great dog in the dim evening light in the Phoenix Park. He had experienced the dull miracle of knowledge of his own future- through a blossoming headache darkly.
That night, as he slept he scratched the small black marks on his thigh till they bled.
Over the next three years Eoin’s illness showed itself to be painfully severe and Jack himself had the fact confirmed to him that he also had the condition.
In Eoin’s case the disease fulfilled every terrible promise it could with a cruel consistency. He had trouble walking, the bones of his legs and hips did not develop fully and his gait was painfully laboured and difficult. His sight was poor and he was sensitive to light and prone to debilitating headaches. His skin was further and further marked and spotted and began to be painful and irritating, a constant low-level torment for the child.
Worst of all he continued to suffer from fits. The memory of all the fits he had suffered and the spectre of the next and the next were set in a constant loop in his parents’ minds. It seemed that nothing effective could be done and that nothing could be experienced separate from this never-ending horror. They did not learn to live with it, they simply lived with it. Eoin’s little body was a battle ground for the forces of disease and medicine over which none of them had any control. They did not feel brave, they felt ground down by the constant attrition, physical and mental from which there was no hope or promise of escape.
In Jack’s case the disease affected his sight, caused severe headaches and caused a significant level of tiredness. He squinted and blinked in a way which he knew looked strange and was off-putting to clients.
And so the day came when he could no longer drive. They put him in the office at O’Sullivan’s for a while.
His economic and career descendant mirrored the fortunes of the Irish economy. The celtic tiger did happen in the mid to late 1990s but largely by chance. The nation caught up a little to its neighbours in Europe and was influenced by the boom in the American economy of the same period.
That was the real boom and we had very little control over it. The property bubble was a fiction built on top of that. Most of the 2000s the Irish economy was in actual decline as the prices of properties rose and rose in a game of pass the parcel played with debt where the person left holding the parcel when the music stopped owed all the money. Of course, as this game was rigged, the big players got out at the top and the little people, the mortgage holders, were left to pay the price.
I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet but I recognised most of this at the time and in a brilliant personal economic strategy, stayed poor.
Jack, on the other hand, had a mortgage and a family.
Eoin’s disease was just as expensive as it was painful so Jack tried to deal with office work as best he could, hoping for an improvement in his own condition, but he couldn’t hold his place there and he didn’t want in his heart to stay in this diminished capacity which constantly remained him of what he had lost. By 2009 the property boom that had feed the expansion of O’Sullivan’s was not only dead but its death could no longer be hidden and when Jack left the company, though he was terrified of how he was going to find the money to keep up the mortgage and they were personally sorry to see him go, both parties were also relieved.
Jack and I became friendly because of his eyes and my teeth- and a shared love of bagels. Well, it’s too early to tell you that. To put things in their proper context then:
Firstly, you will have noticed that I haven’t been telling you everything. You may be composing a review in your mind and thinking that there is a lack of psychological detail or depth in my descriptions. That’s true. It’s because I don’t know the detail and the depth. I learned about this story in conversation with Jack over a period of only a few months. We knew eacth other. We worked together. We liked each other. I was fond of him a the way you can get very fond of a work collegue very quickly when both of you feel embattled or alienated in your work place.
You form an alliance. Most of this though is what my mother calls ‘kitchen talk’. In your own kitchen you can tell a story without needing to be entirely objective. You can say things that you wouldn’t say in other places. In many ways ‘kitchen talk’ is like ‘pub talk’, but it results in fewer broken noses.
“Circumstances alter cases; broken noses alter faces” as my grandmother used to say.
So, to continue the story, Jack lost his job with O’Sullivan’s in early 2009.
“’So tell me Madam,’ said Chichikov, ‘have many of your peasants died?…
You could always let me have them, you know’.
‘Let you have what,’ said the old woman. ‘The dead souls,’ said Chichikov. ‘I might
even buy them from you.’”
“Dead Souls”- Nikolai Gogol
Jack was left, in 2009, without a job for the first time in his adult life, with a golden handshake which would not pay his end of the family’s huge mortgage for more than six months, and very little in the way of prospects due to his failing health.
For a month or so he kicked around the house. He enjoyed looking after the kids and walking with the neighbour’s giant dog when he got the chance but he knew that couldn’t go on. He would have to start bringing in some money some way, if his marriage, his dignity and his sanity were to survive. He started to spend the majority of his days in front of the computer (one of the computers) looking through jobs websites. There was nothing available that would bring in even half of what he had earned in his previous job but he continually reminded himself that he couldn’t return to that past, best viewed now as a different life, and he needed to move forward in any positive way he could.
It was particularly disheartening when he was turned down for jobs which he considered he had lowered himself to apply for as ‘over-qualified’ or for no specific reason at all. He was in a since a lion waking to discover that he was, in fact, an ant.
He answered an advert in the newspaper for ‘production assistants’ at a publishing company called Oak Tree Press. He was invited for interview rather quickly and found himself hoping that this meant they were desperate for people. How strange to find that in the course of just a month or so he had rethought himself as someone fit only to be employed out of corporate desperation. Well if they needed bodies, he had one. It wasn’t functioning so well he would have to admit, but he definitely had one.
The company was located on the second floor of a grey concrete building at the end of Beglinn Street just off the south quays. It sat atop a labour exchange. “Just to drive the point home,” Jack thought as he arrived for his interview.
He walked up the stairs and through the door of Oak Tree Press for the first time-
It was essentially a large, open plan office with small sections of desk each with a phone and a computer terminal, the type of thing Douglas Coupland once dubbed ‘veal fatting stations’.
There were four smaller rooms along the right side of the office that had their own doors bespeaking the presence of important people behind them.
He asked the nearest person for Mr. Lynch, head of the Production Department.
Ronan Lynch was about the same age as Jack. He was also about the same height and build. They both had the same peculiarly Irish combination of dark, curly hair and blue eyes.
Turned out they had more than that in common. They were both Christian Brothers educated (though that was true of pretty much every Irish man), with similar backgrounds and attitudes.
They got on easily and the interview went well.
Ronan explained how the job worked-
“The sales people contact clients and get them to take out ads, then they pass the client on to you to confirm the details of the ad. You pass that onto the art department. They do up an ad and you fax it to the client to get them to sign off on it.
“Sounds simple enough but there are one or two other things to explain. The sales people work on commission so sometimes they may exaggerate just how ‘sold’ an advert might be. So you are here as much as anything to check the client has really said yes. You can expect some friction from sales if you send the client back to them and you can expect more friction from the higher ups if you send too many ads back as, after all, that is how the business makes money.
“Also, you need to understand the kind of stuff we publish here…”
Ronan explained Oak Tree’s business plan-
What the company’s founders had done was to approach various organisations and offered them the opportunity to have a magazine produced for them for free as long as they could sell a little advertising to “help support the publication”. The money from the advertising all went to “cover the costs” of production.
These were magazines for organisations within say- the emergency services, the police, ambulance service etc. It might be reasonable to assume that when businesses large and small were contacted by phone to help support something for the ambulance service they may not have realised that all the ambulance service got was a magazine while there a very healthy commercial company was bringing in hundreds of thousands of euros on this and similar publications.
It was surprising just how much support these magazines seemed to need. Movies have been produced for less money.
Perhaps a salesman might use a voice and a name that might suggest to the listener that he may be a member of the emergency services but that was never explicitly stated. If the person listening made that assumption, well.. .what can you do.
In short there was nothing illegal going on in the offices of Oak Tree but the sailing was always close to the wind.
Weeds grow strong in ruins and businesses like Oak Tree thrive in a failing economy.
A word about the owners of the company-
Paul and Garoid were a classic combination, one small and thin and one huge and round. Garoid loud in every way- loud voice, loud chalk striped suits, the very picture of the arrogant businessman. Paul not so obviously nasty but mean to the bone, the Cassius type.
“Our job, ” said Ronan seriously, “is the keep this all honest and that’s not always easy.”
Jack was offered the job at the end of the interview and because he needed the work he said yes. Ronan was clearly in the same boat.
At that point I had been working in the PA department of Oak Tree for a couple of months. There was a bagel place across the road (bagel places were all the rage back then) and Jack and I would often get our lunches there. We got to know each other in the queue for cajun chicken bagels and coffee and sharing complaints about the behaviour of the sales team.
Jack, Ronan and I became genuinely friendly. I learned about the pit of debt that Jack and his family were drowning in. Jack could not make enough money to kept up with the mortgage. They made a deal with the bank to just pay the interest. The money owed just kept building. There was no point in selling the house (or the ‘property’ as everyone seemed to like saying instead of house or flat) as its value had dropped so very far below the sum the Murphy’s owned for it.
A lot of folks were in that situation then and I was sorry for Jack but it seemed like that sort of trouble was all around.
As time passed Jack became more and more pale. Everyday seemed to be taking a little more out of him than he could get back with a broken nights sleep. Every day that passed made him a little weaker and a bit less substantial. As his debt grew his actual physical presence seemed to fade a little more and more, as if he were disappearing.
Except the dark marks on his skin, they got bigger. Not dramatically. Subtly but nonetheless definitely.
And then one morning he was gone. Of course, I did not know this on that morning. That only became clear as more time passed and Jack just didn’t come to work. Ronan called his phone of course, no answer.
In the end we stopped trying. In truth we didn’t try that hard, it wasn’t our place I suppose. I had functionally forgotten about Jack really until just the other day when something happened that got me interested in telling this story.
I was leaving work two days ago turning onto Beglinn Street to get to my bus stop when I nearly fell over something. I looked down, not too far down because the dog was huge. He had a strange hybrid quality; he was insubstantial as a ghost and massive as an old wrestler in repose. He seemed like a friend I hadn’t yet made, a good guy to hang around with.
We decided to go for a walk.
Debt and the malamute- the end comes..
“Everything I’ve ever lost now has been returned”- “The Miracle of Joey Ramone”, U2 (yeah, that right, U2- deal with it.)
That day Jack Murphy didn’t go to work. That morning he awoke and for the first time in his life he didn’t see the point. He felt as if he had taken the wrong door on his way back from sleep to consciousness and he found himself now in a dull and muzzy place, a dimly light place, a place of squinting and headache. He had been living half in and half out of this world for sometime but this morning he was completely there.
When we say we are completely exhausted, most of the time it is not truly so. That morning, at least for a time, Jack’s exhaustion was complete. Nothing was propelling him forward and there was no direction in which it seemed useful to travel. He might as well stay exactly where he was, waiting for his neck to get stiff so that there would be a reason to move his head.
The form of the thing precedes the thing itself says Nabokov and who am I to argue but sometimes the form of the thing is only clear to us after the thing itself has died. The ghost is at least as real as the idea. The ideal and the phantom are distinguished only by our position relative to them in time.
For the first time Jack could see clearly that he been on a path, that promises had been made, both to him and by him but also that all of that had been BEFORE. He was realising too late. He had accepted a promise that he would work hard for a certain number of years, that he would retire with a decent pension and with a house with the mortgage paid off. That the capital of his life would have value. He had promised to play the game and the reward he would receive was fair and clear.
At the highest level, without Jack or others like him being told, the game had ceased to be played years ago and Jack had continued playing in a vacuum of meaning.
An hour after waking he got out of bed. Sophie had been up and out since before he woke, he was late for his morning routine with the kids. An alarm went off somewhere through the fuzz in his skull, if that didn’t affect him, nothing would. But it was a weak alarm and easily diluted into the dull throb of his headache. He could no longer focus on his old path and he could no longer feel any passion about broken promises.
How was it that he was so defined by something so vague as debt? What did he owe and to whom? What remained to be owed to him? A picture entered his mind, a small pond in the park called ‘the Dog Pond’ that he often passed on his walks with the malamute. He looked out the kitchen window, up and down the road, no sign of the dog.
He got the kids ready and told them they weren’t going to school that day; they were spending the day with their Granny. He sent a text to his mother letting her know he would be dropping the kids off for a few hours. He didn’t wait for the reply. He packed the kids into the car and drove mechanically to his mother’s.
He drove back home but didn’t go inside, didn’t even look at his house and walked straight to the Dog Pond, looking around him only to see if his large canine friend was to be found but he was alone. dog pond The Dog Pond was not far from Jack and Sophie’s home. It was a small, pretty pond in a hollow and easily reached despite its being enclosed behind some wrought iron railings. There were some beer cans around but not too many.. and no condoms, Jack was surprised to see.
He removed his shoes, socks, trousers and t-shirt- keeping his underwear on for some reason he would never have been able to explain. He put himself in the water. It came up to his hips and he walked towards the centre.
God the water was cold. A piercing shock and a shaking along his limbs. Blood rushing to the centre of his body, his nervous system shorting. And then a feeling of peace, or just numbness. Jack hadn’t realised just how angry he was; he could feel the anger now, leaving his body. He was crying, though he couldn’t see the point. Something was crying out of him and he felt dizzy and unstable. He had no intentions at all. He could feel the black knots on his thighs becoming sensitive and then dumbing. If he didn’t look at them they might have been gone.
He was only a little light headed now and there might be nothing wrong. Just right then, the last couple of years of his life might not have happened. He was floating; not just his body, all of him. And there might be nothing wrong. ‘There just might could,” he was thinking in exactly that strange little arrangement of words, “There just might could.” The water was touching his chin.
There was a large, out-of-focus grey form on the bank. He had to blink hard to bring it into near focus, to make it real. The dog, the big malamute was looking at him. Jack, or something like Jack moved towards the dog and some thing of the dog moved towards him.
When Sophie got home dinner was nearly finished for them. The kids had already been fed. Jack sat at the kitchen table looking at job listings on the web.
“I thought it was time for a change,” he explained to Sophie.
Sophie was a little shocked but something about Jack right then, something calm and large made her pause before questioning him any further. She forgot what she was going to say and just patted Jack on the head and tousled his hair a bit instead.
Reading something on the screen, Jack turned his head a little to the side.