Dermot O’Sullivan has been writing fiction and memoir for a number of years. One of his stories, A Little Journey, was the winner of the 2017 Bryan MacMahon short story award at the Listowel Literary Festival. Another story, Witnesses, was short listed for the Hennessy New Irish Writing short story prize. Originally from County Limerick, Dermot lives with his family in Dublin.
Why Scobie picked me I’ll never know. I wish he hadn’t. It would have been late 1971 I think, certainly no later than early 1972, when Scobie arrived at our ‘commune’, to put a fancy name on it. He just turned up one day, not that there was anything unusual in that, people were coming and going all the time; the place had become a kind of a clearing house for new arrivals in London.
Scobie was small in stature but all there nonetheless; compact, well-built, dark curly hair, good looking even, but there was also an oddness about him, a furtiveness that bordered on the untamed. He usually ate on his own, sitting hunched in the corner with one hand around the plate while he forked food into his mouth and when he smoked it was always with short rapid pulls while keeping the cigarette shielded inside his cupped fingers. His clothes were undistinguished but then one evening he turned up in a finely tailored overcoat, a different class to the funereal black coats we got on the cheap down the Portobello Market. Scobie could surprise you at times. He shied away from dope and would try to make himself scarce when the joints started going around. If he couldn’t get away one could tell he was pretending to inhale.
Several chickens had come home to roost for me and I was suffering from what may be described as a psychosomatic illness. I was off work so I ended up spending more time with Scobie than anyone else. I enjoyed his company as it gave me a taste of home, something that I only realised I missed when I got in touch with it again. There was something elusive about Scobie, something that I knew nothing about. Even in our world there was conformity of behaviour, but Scobie wasn’t one of us, not really.
He would disappear in the evenings, just to avoid the smoking ritual I supposed, but it may have been for entirely different reasons come to that. I can’t remember if Scobie had a job; there was rent to be paid and food to be bought and it would have come to light if he wasn’t contributing. In my memory he seems to have been with us a long time but it may have been just a few weeks – back then a few weeks was a serious slice-of-life episode.
We were chatting away one day as usual when Scobie casually mentioned that he had a brother in an Irish regiment of the British army. He looked me straight in the eye as he said this, as if watching for some kind of reaction. The Troubles in the North were gathering pace and although they may not have reached the peaks of Birmingham and Guildford, they were beginning to give a distinct colouring to the reality of being Irish in England. Bloody Sunday was but weeks away. According to Scobie his brother was a great guy, the eldest son who had helped their mother raise his younger siblings while his father was away in the army or down in the pub. Not only did Scobie tell me all about this fantastic brother but he then suggested that we go and visit him – somewhere off in the arsehole of Somerset. I had nothing better to do and it sounded like a bit of an adventure; maybe some time out of the Big Smoke would do me good; we wouldn’t need much money as we could hitch down and stay with Scobie’s brother. That was the long and short of the plan.
A few days later we set off, taking nothing with us but the clothes we were wearing, Scobie in his fine overcoat, me in my undertaker’s gabardine. Of course it wasn’t exactly the crack of dawn when we set out and after taking the bus, as well as various trains, we finished up somewhere at the other side of Mile End. It was already beginning to get dark and we still hadn’t quite left London behind us. When it looked like we might have to head back to Westbourne Park Road a car stopped and got us as far as Basingstoke and that was when our first unplanned for episode kicked in. As we stood at the side of the road, my nose started to bleed heavily and it just wouldn’t stop. We both got a bit of a fright and Scobie eventually suggested that we should go to a hospital. Basingstoke is a commuter town, constructed originally to take the overspill from London; an awful place really, utterly depressing in winter’s darkness, but it did have a spanking new hospital. We made it there by foot, me with a bloody handkerchief stuck up my nose. We traipsed through a seemingly endless series of roundabouts and it was well into evening by the time we got to the hospital’s emergency department.
I was seen to by a doctor who checked me out and assured me that there was nothing seriously wrong. By this time the bleeding had subsided to a trickle and he gave me some cream and asked me to wait outside for a short while to confirm that the bleeding had stopped. I went back to the waiting room. Scobie shuffled up to me and whispered that it was late and we should try and get the hospital to let us stay overnight. I gave him a look of admiration; the thought wouldn’t have struck me in a hundred years. I was the one who had to make the request of course but it went fine. Other than a raised eyebrow and a few questions, we got the okay and the staff put us up in an empty common room, where we used cushions and rugs from the settees as makeshift beds on the floor.
Being a hospital, things got moving at an ungodly hour the following morning and we hardly seemed to have bedded down when we were woken up by the early shift. In fact we were woken up several times by the nurses, but we would drop straight back to sleep as soon as they left the room. On their third or fourth attempt, they came in with cups of tea and a few biscuits and told us that the room would be required by patients and so we moved off.
We had to retrace our steps back through the roundabouts before we were back on the main road west, where we had another long wait for a lift and as we walked along the road Scobie began to reminisce on the Sunday walks he and his siblings had to endure with their father.
‘Always walking, the auld fella, bloody Sundays, walking, walking.’
Our first lift was from a spic and span guy with tightly cut hair. The car was a left-hand drive and he told us that he was back on army leave from Germany. When he found out where we were headed he told us he had done service in Northern Ireland and that it was ‘good.’ We mumbled something in response. The fact that we were heading to Scobie’s brother in the army probably helped keep us in the ‘good Paddy’ category. He brought us through the Salisbury Plain; a gaunt landscape of furze, sheep, army buildings and a scattering of trees. When I asked him if it was difficult to drive with the steering on the wrong side, he replied, ‘Not really, just makes the overtaking a bit more exciting,’ and his comment made us that bit quieter for the rest of the journey.
We got as far as Taunton, or at least the outskirts of the town. A large pub caught our eye and, hungry as we were, we went in for a Ploughman’s Lunch and a pint. When I came back from the toilet I noticed that Scobie had helped himself to a second pint. It was a cold bright day and we were seated right inside a large window with the sun shining down on us. It was great to have our bones warmed and after a while I started to sweat and had to take off my jumper. We were deep in western Somerset when I noticed I had left it behind and there was no going back.
We reached the barracks that evening. Apart from scattered pools of light, the place was in darkness; however it was well lit up around the fenced entrance and we were greeted by a young sentry who appeared delighted to be talking to two Irishmen; I suppose he was pleased to be talking to anyone who would relieve the boredom of his shift. He made enquiries for us and after a long wait in what was turning out to be a bitterly cold night the message came back that Scobie’s brother couldn’t come out just then and that we were to make our way to the family quarters which were located on the periphery of the barracks proper, just a few hundred yards away. We did as directed and came to the door of a tidy little house in a row of tidy little houses.
We were elated of course, having at last reached our destination and with the prospect of warmth and home comforts awaiting us, but things went downhill pretty much immediately. Scobie’s sister-in-law was not delighted to see us and who could blame her? Here in the darkness of a late winter’s evening were two bedraggled men she had never met – at least she didn’t seem to know Scobie. Then there was myself, a total stranger, with long, fuzzy and unkempt hair, encased in a coat of mourning; I cannot have been a reassuring sight, even if I was as dangerous as a mouse. She took up a proprietary position in front of her door and did not invite us in. It wasn’t clear to me whether she hadn’t got a message from her husband, or whether she had got one and was on guard from the moment we knocked.
‘I have two young children in here,’ she said in her clipped accent, ‘and I can’t have strangers in my house,’ while she purposely ignored my presence. We looked around not sure what to say or what to do. Fortunately it wasn’t long before Scobie’s brother came along the path. Scobie’s eyes lit up when he saw him and a look of relief, indeed something approaching hero worship, spread across his features. Pleasantries were exchanged but these quickly petered out, to be supplanted by a more stilted conversation between the brothers. There was still no sign of an invite inside and the sister-in-law had quietly disappeared back into the house while we remained standing in the cold. It was becoming clear – at least to me – that we would not be staying. Scobie’s brother was smart looking and clean cut, with epaulettes on his shoulders, but it was the warm olive-green jumper which took most of my attention, reminding me as of what I was missing most in the January night.
Scobie was missing something too and it was a lot more serious than a jumper. He did not take the ‘welcome’ at all well. His brother was doing his best to smooth things over, repeating the fact that his wife was alone in the house and casting silent nods in my direction, as if that explained everything, even though I didn’t hear any offer to put up his Scobie on his own. Scobie had gone dead quiet and kept pawing the ground long after his cigarette butt was extinguished. I could see anger welling up inside him, anger that looked like it would have lashed out if it had something to lash out at. He darted a look at me and I saw a strange smile which couldn’t disguise the hurt snarl underneath. He was trying his best to control himself and he suceeded to an extent, but all he had done was to postpone things as I would find out.
I couldn’t tell if Scobie’s brother was embarrassed or exasperated, perhaps a bit of both. Was it the first time that Scobie had been in this situation, I later asked myself? There was something about the brother’s caginess that hinted at previous episodes. By now Scobie had accepted the inevitable and he bid a muttered and resentful farewell to his brother, whose eyes flickered with fatalistic regret. We had no choice but to turn around; there was no room at this particular inn.
We went back down along the road we had come in, dispirited and tired, the bedraggled and scattered remnants of a failed expedition. It was way too late to get a place to stay that evening and when we came across a bus shelter we did our best to get some sleep on its narrow bench. Images of my scarlet woolen jumper flashed in front of me as I shivered in the freezing cold.
We got even less sleep than we had on the hospital floor and were out thumbing again at first light. Despite our unkempt appearance, lifts came at fairly regular intervals and with our early start we were heading in toward the London suburbs while it was still bright. Scobie was withdrawn and silent, as indeed he had been since the previous evening’s encounter and he skulked in the rear seats of the cars leaving me to do the talking with whoever picked us up.
Our last lift dropped off at an underground station when we reached London. We hadn’t had a proper meal since the previous afternoon in Taunton but Scobie, bearded and worn out, insisted that we first go into Finch’s for a quick one. The front bar was quiet and he started laying into pints, throwing a few shorts down for good measure. I wasn’t able to keep up the pace and he had a good three or four more drinks than I did. I had never seen him so determined or single-minded about anything. He was heading somewhere and wherever that was he wanted to get there in a hurry. Eventually, after persistent trying and famished with the hunger, I persuaded him to leave and we headed down the now darkened streets to the Star of Bombay.
I knew the restaurant; it was a bit formal in manner, with pristine white tablecloths and linen serviettes and there was a sort of reverent hush about the place, but it was neither expensive nor exclusive. We must have been some sight though as we slumped into our seats and ordered a couple of Madras curries. As the waiter left the table, Scobie leaned over and whispered to me, ‘We won’t pay for this,’ followed by a drunken wink. Basingstoke was not a one off and something other than hunger rumbled in my stomach. ‘We’ll do a runner,’ he slurred, just in case I hadn’t got the message.
Unsurprisingly, Scobie’s state – and I was not very far behind – had alerted the staff to trouble. We waited and waited but no food came our way. Other guests who came in after us – or who we thought came in after us – were getting served. I was nervous and kept trying to catch Scobie’s eye but he was preoccupied with something behind me. I looked around and saw a huddle of waiters, nervous and hostile, staring at us. In the meantime Scobie had been slipping cutlery off the table and into the pockets of his overcoat and then a few minutes later, without warning, he stood up abruptly and started to hurl insults – thank God only that – at the waiters. His exit was a mixture of muttered warnings and defiance. Next thing I knew we were all out in the street, Scobie, myself and three or four waiters, shouting and pointing at each other from a safe distance. I had sobered up and had to resist laughing as I watched Scobie gesticulating with one the restaurant’s forks, but it was over as soon as it started and we were cute enough to get out of there before the fuzz arrived.
I had to get Scobie back to our place somehow and I managed to bring him as far as the bus stop on Ledbury road. He was still agitated and then out of the blue he wanted to buy cigarettes and started to head across the road to the newsagents. I followed him over, hanging on to his precious coat and preventing him from barging into the traffic. There were two elderly women behind the counter and I watched stunned as Scobie let fly again with another barrage of insults and threats. Both women stood there in stunned silence. He snapped a few bars of chocolate from the front counter as I pulled him outside. I was seriously worried by this stage, knowing our luck could not last.
‘Here’s the bus,’ I shouted, and indeed the 31 was above at the junction, waiting for the lights to change. The traffic was stationary at our side of the road and I weaved through the cars, thinking that Scobie was behind me, but as I reached the bus stop I heard a squeal of brakes, then a dull thump, followed by a deep moan which I never want to hear again. Everything dissolved into silence. There was no sign of Scobie, only the stink of burning rubber and the scattered silver-plated cutlery shining in the street lights.
© 2018 Dermot O’Sullivan