When I first moved to Dublin, I thought there were a lot of out-of-shape athletes living in the city. I later learned that my misconception was the same as the basis of a joke that had been topical fifteen or twenty years before I got there.
The joke was about a politician opening a shopping mall but not having been properly briefed by his PA first and thinking that he was opening a gym. I was never told the proper wording. But when I made known my little athletic observation one time to George Sexton, that’s what he told me: “Oh, that’s the same as this joke about the Square in Tallaght.” It wasn’t like him to be dismissive like that, so it emerges from time to time out of the settled silt of the memory of our less remarkable share of moments.
I’d come to Ireland for my Junior Year Abroad, in the early years of the new century. My explanation for going there was simple: I wanted to live in the city of James Joyce’s Ulysses. That’s what I told myself at the time. In retrospect, I know I was looking for love.
I preferred the works of William Faulkner to Joyce but Faulkner’s city of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County don’t exist, so Joyce’s Dublin seemed like the perfect alternative. I made my application and was accepted at Trinity College.
I arrived in the rain in late September and as I struggled to figure out the best means of getting into the city I felt the full and cold lonesomeness of solitary travel. Eventually I found a big blue bus, which took me right to campus, where I’d be staying for the year.
It was on the bus ride in that I first saw the athletes. So, this is Dublin, I thought, looking out the window at the people in the brightly coloured shell-suits, ambling round O’Connell Street looking to score drugs; and I was feeling ever more confused and lonely.
After getting settled in my room, I set out that evening to try and find some of the local character for which Dublin is famed.
The next day, the school had organized an orientation day for us American Juniors and our European equivalents. It wasn’t the kind of thing I’d normally have gone to but when the time came, I was quite relieved. My bar-hopping adventures on the first night had not exactly gone to plan – most of the people to whom I spoke seemed surprised that I would try and make conversation with them.
And when I arrived at the lecture theatre, there they all were: my fellow Americans. It wasn’t so much that I thought I wouldn’t like any of them, it was more that, that wasn’t why I’d come over. I’d declared that I was going to Ireland, to live amongst the Irish. I was looking for something different. Determined though I was, for almost the first three months I spent there, I hung around almost exclusively with two of these orientation-day Americans: Dave and Eddie.
They were there that first day, at the library, like me, looking conspicuous amongst the sensibly dressed Europeans and kids from the Mid-West.
“You guys about ready to bail too?” I said on our way out of the introductory talk, when I saw them diverge from the tour.
They were roommates it turned out and so had met already. Dave, from Southern California, had even managed to source some weed too, so we went back to their room to get high.
A lot of our time there was spent like that, smoking weed – back in my place usually – listening to old jazz records and discussing literature. Often, as evenings wore on, Eddie, who was a Whitman nut, would end up declaiming impressively lengthy sections of Song of Myself; be it in a bar, a party, or even back in one of our rooms. I always felt a little embarrassed, but Dave encouraged it with such seriousness that I never dared reproach or make known my uneasiness. All this was before Eddie lost his marbles and his father had to come get him.
It was the week before we were due to break for Christmas that we first met George Sexton.
George? It seemed so strange a name for an Irishman – it still does: George. But he was Irish all right, that’s for sure.
The name of the bar was Doyle’s, if I recall, a dive joint not far from the college. George was there wearing a cravat with funny little dogs on it, which themselves were wearing cravats and his eyes had that wild look they got sometimes. Eddie had met George in a class once, which prompted him to come over.
“I remember you from that tutorial I went to,” he said by way of greeting as he sat down. This surprised us, as it was unusual for any of our Irish classmates to initiate engagement. That evening we were there with a mixture of English kids, which may have had something to do with him coming over, I guess.
The four of us talked a while on the edge of the group. He asked a lot of questions – interesting ones – his brow stern with thought throughout.
He was silent for a time then and I’d almost forgotten he was there when all of a sudden, he leapt up and roared in this guttural Pan-American brogue, “Butter up my eyes, Shove tin-foil in my Ears, Tell me lies about Vietnam!”
It sounded like those old recordings of Nixon, oddly.
Dave said, “That’s the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen!”
And then he was gone.
Three days later I was on a plane back home for the holidays. Two weeks of family and snow. But all I could think of was George Sexton. It frightened me a little. I would have to meet him again when I got back.
Which was easier said than done. On my return, I called Dave. He and Eddie had stayed in Ireland over the Christmas period. Dave sounded a little out of sorts when I spoke to him but glad to hear from me nonetheless.
As soon as I met them, it was clear that Eddie was unwell. Dave hovered about nervously, looking to me for a reaction. I tried to suggest to Eddie that he’d maybe had enough to drink as he went to refill his tumbler again. He became angry immediately, spitting poison at me.
His drinking got worse as the weeks went by. He became increasingly messy and had completely given up going to class. Dave, who was quite a bit upset by the whole thing, kept apologizing, saying he hadn’t seen it coming, that suddenly one day he was just like that, drinking whiskey out of his pocket, like a secret, eyes like an injured dog.
They’d spent a deal of time while I was away hanging out with George Sexton, but nobody had seen him much since I got back. Then out of the blue one day, he appeared. He’d heard about the hospital, he said, and tried to visit Eddie but had been told that Eddie had skipped out already.
Things had gotten completely out of hand and of course, Eddie’s father had to come for him in the end. Dave and I were unable to say a word to the man as he looked from us to what had become of his son.
George called by that evening. He was unshaven by a couple of days, which served to accentuate his lips, which were full and red like an open wound amid all those shocking black bristles. I felt repulsed but couldn’t look away from it either – George’s mouth.
“Hello again,” he said to me quietly before asking after Eddie. Eddie – who had already left my thoughts, like all he’d been was a portent of George.
The three of us sat up a while then, trying to remember signs or indications which might have warned us about our friend’s decline. By turns it seemed obvious, then not at all, that things would wind up the way that they did.
“We should meet again,” I said as he got up to leave late on.
“Sure…” he replied, his eyes indecipherable. The thought seemed to impede his ability to put his arms through his sleeves; he stood still, his shoulders pinned back by his heavy coat. “Yes,” he answered finally, poking his hands free.
After that, we saw quite a bit of each other. We’d meet daily at coffee shops, and talk, sometimes for hours. George studied French and Art History. He knew what he liked when it came to literature but it was Art about which he felt most strongly. He dressed impeccably but not just like an old-school dandy or flâneur, learned from a book. He had genuine style, consistent and inimitable. And he moved with such effortless grace. I never felt as oafishly American as I did when I was with George.
He had come out of a relationship just before Christmas time, having broken the poor girl’s heart seemingly. He had no interest in getting tangled up in something like that again, he kept saying. And the offers were always there: it wasn’t just that he was handsome, people just generally wanted to be around him. Always. Everybody loved him. I’ve never met anyone since who had the same effect on people as George had then.
He could be generous and good-natured and had a capacity for asking piercing questions which had a way of making you feel that he already knew you better than anyone else you’d ever met. He was perceptive, in a way that people took personally – almost as a point of pride. But there was something else too. A certain fatalistic fearlessness which made him frightening from time to time. In moods like that, he could disappear for days on end.
I’d ask him where he’d been and he would just smile and say, “No-where,” hiding a bruised knuckle or even a limp. And he’d be back to his normal self then, buying drinks and generally being the object of everyone’s attention.
“Delicious to see you George,” they’d say.
George’s response was always non-verbal. He’d smile his mischievous smile, full to the brim in his eyes, while his mouth danced around between smirk and genuine delight.
It was just after exam time. Which, of course, meant a party. It wasn’t the very last time I saw him, but it was nearly so. My heart was heavy with the knowledge that I would soon be leaving but I remember feeling dizzy too about that night and what it might entail. The sense that my time was coming to an end made it exciting – an end-of-days feeling.
The afternoon was warm and mostly dry. George suggested that we have a barbeque at this perfect little beach he knew about before going to the party. Just the two of us. We locked our bikes at a nearby Dart station. George led the way and between the two of us, we managed to secure our haul of beers and charcoal to our destination.
The sun went in and out behind the clouds, like it was in a ritualized dance of courtship with the sky. George lit the fire: he was practical like that, yet he always had such neat hands and dress. He went down to the shore then, to wash the coal off, and after, suggested we go for a swim. “It’s nice,” he claimed. I was reluctant, I remember, and pointed out that we’d already lit the fire and that I was hungry.
We ate, and drank beers cooled by the sea, lying on the grass.
The sky cleared after a time and George was adamant then, as it warmed up: we had to swim. We stripped to our briefs and went in search of a spot from where we could jump straight in, neither of us courageous enough to wade in from the sand.
“Here will do,” George said, standing on a rock above the placid sea. It didn’t strike me as being terribly safe but I didn’t say so, I just followed George’s leap into the blue.
I was completely unprepared for the shock of the cold. I thrashed madly, gasping and looking all around me for the quickest way out. George just floated and laughed at the sight of my antics. The relief of being out of the water was enormous.
After a quick swim, George got out too – rather more graciously than I – laughing still and shaking his head.
We sat quietly then, smiling and watching the sea as we dried out in the sun. The delicate make-up of his features was echoed in the neatness of his torso; his taut narrowness glistened.
When the sun weaved its way in behind the cloud cover, the cold air touched our skin all over and I remember all the while that I was all atremble. It was the most exquisite feeling and it’s then that it happened. That’s when George said to me the thing that I’ve thought about ever since. It was so silent by the sea, I could have willed that moment to last forever. When George whispered to me, “Phillip, we’re all alone now, you know? It’s just the two of us.” It had been just what I was thinking, and it made me stop dead. George was looking at me expectantly and for a second, I couldn’t be sure whether he had said it or if I had just imagined it. I froze. I didn’t know what to say, I was so full of longing and dread. I could feel my heart thump like it was trying to escape.
“George, I know…” I started to stammer, considering his confident gaze as he edged closer to me.
“Why are you trembling Phillip?” he asked.
I closed my eyes.
And then my phone rang.
I answered it.
It was my older brother, Paul, calling to say that he’d pick me up from the airport in a week’s time.
When I got off the phone, George was looking at me still. But I looked away then.
“It’s getting late,” I said. “We should get going.”
“Whatever you like Phillip,” George smiled back. “Whatever you like.”
The party was at a run-down, three-story house on Leinster Road, with the whole place rented as one. We arrived at around nine or ten and it was alive already. We were quickly separated in the throng of chit-chat about summer plans. Everybody oozed that invincibility which flares so brightly towards the end of college life before reality snuffs it out. Everyone had something to say. And more than ever, I wanted to speak only to George.
Dave was there. He seemed happier than I’d seen him in a while. Round about midnight we fell in to talking about our wild first term. Eddie was doing better, he told me. I said I was glad and we discussed what our respective Senior Years held in store for us and what we might do afterward.
A guy he knew passed then and he introduced us, explaining that his friend, John, played the trumpet and that he thought I’d very much enjoy hearing his band play.
I tried to put George out of my mind for a while as John and I got caught up in conversation. We had the same obscure records and he talked about music just the way I felt about it. Dave left us to it, saying he’d see us later. I wanted to ask him to look out for George but didn’t know how.
John, from Connecticut, was over in Dublin full-time, studying music and math. He’d had a band called the Ice-Cream Men the whole time he was there. He tried to keep the band members as American as possible, for authenticity, he said.
It was getting late by then and I was worried about where George had gotten to. An urge to rush out and find him, to see him before morning at all costs, washed over me. I had to ask him about what he’d said on the beach earlier, and thought that if I could, it might all still come right.
I didn’t know how to abandon John, while he rummaged in his bag, looking for an eighth of whiskey he had. He re-emerged excited, showing me a record he’d bought earlier that day.
“I completely forgot! We have to play it!” he said, his eyes aglow, “There’s gotta be a record player here somewhere.”
“I’ll go search the place,” I said, jumping at the chance to look for George. John followed after me.
We bled back into the party, pushing through the other bodies. Hunters in a wood of flesh, John bearing his LP; me, seeming to be searching for a record player, while really I searched for George.
Nearing the top of the building, I’d pretty much given up hope.
There were two rooms off the top-floor landing. It seemed utterly pointless at this stage but we persevered nonetheless.
John made for the room on the right, so I went to the one on the left.
I reached for the door-handle and out popped George.
“Hi,” he said shyly, a little breathless. A girl, smiling, stood behind him.
“…Phillip, this is Cathy.”
His face had that same inscrutable smile as it had on the beach earlier, like he knew just a little bit more than everyone else.
I don’t remember what album it was that John was trying to play.
The week after the party, I went to see The Ice-Cream Men. That’s where I met Trudy. We were married the following fall.
Donal Flynn was born and grew up in Limerick. He lives in Dublin and works in retail. He has a story in the current edition of The Honest Ulsterman.