Origins, the first chapter from Hyber-Nation a novel in progress by Peter O’Neill.
Peter O’Neill is the author of six previously published collections of poetry, but he has also published a book of translation (The Enemy, Transversions from Charles Baudelaire, Lapwing, 2015) and a short book of fiction (More Micks than Dicks, a hybrid Beckettian novella in 3 genres Famous Seamus, 2017). He has also edited two anthologies of contemporary Irish writing, held writing festivals and chaired readings in his hometown of Skerries in north county Dublin, where he has been living for the last ten years. He is currently working on a novel Hyber-Nation, which is a kind of homage to the American crime writer Raymond Chandler.
7:20 pm. Deep roll of thunder, as if God were ransacking the heavens. Then darkness, and the clouds moored onto one great transport, hovering threateningly above the earth. A scream then, overheard, breaks the silence. From the car it sounds like some female simian who’d over done it on the vodka. A short film projected quickly in Maher’s mind, features involving, and in random order: stilettos, G-strings and micro-skirts. Title – College Green on a Friday Night, deep in November. The final scene involves images of spent condoms strewn in parking lots, dog faeces, vomit and shards of broken glass, glittering in the asphalt like imitation diamonds.
Maher bolted from the DS. The front door was solid Georgian, with the singular distinction of bearing a pediment just above the arched fanlight which exuded a warm orange glow illuminating the columns on either side of the portal. Egypt, Rome and ancient Greece all being signalled to him from out of the oceans of time, and on which he seemed to cling to as if upon a raft; his only sense of freedom then being confined to the boat which was being pulled forward, this way and that, by the monstrous tides.
A young woman answered the door. She was monumental, damnation incarnate by her very nature. Maher’s eyes felt drawn to her svelte, feminine limbs, which were all the more accentuated by the opaque jet- black jogging tights, which she was wearing. The Lycra clung to her form accentuating every slightest curvature and indentation. A phrase from Lucretius, learnt painfully at secondary school, entered furtively into his mind : Voluptatem praesagit muta cupido…it seemed to fit so perfectly the indelible image of the woman who was presented before him. She stood with one hand gently supporting the weight of her slender body on the door, whilst placing the other squarely on the hips.
The tone was confrontational, immediately checking Maher’s blatant male gaze. For Maher, solely at that moment representative of his sex, it was a no- win situation. So, he did what any member with anything at all significantly qualifying as supporting equipment representative of the male sex would have done. He laughed a deep bellyful laugh, and then recoiled. Not from the languorously svelte demonic apparition which had appeared and was now so enchantingly illuminated standing before him in the portal, but rather at the grotesque situation they both now seemed to find themselves in. Culturally they were both held hostage, it seemed. The elephant seemed to be rubbing its great ass up against their faces, and they both couldn’t help but look away from the appalling apparition, not to mention the stink.
“What, may I enquire, is so funny?” The apparition spoke again.
The tone was suitably moneyed and honeyed, hinting at tertiary level schooling. Trinity, or that other place in Donnybrook. One as bad as the other, in any case, both having been severely relegated in world ranking only just that week. Should he bring it up, Maher thought? Perhaps later.
“I heard a scream…” He offered.
“And you thought that you would play the gallant knight, come to save his damsel from distress?”
Her look was now withering. Looking him up and down as if he were nothing human, but perhaps rather the aborted monolithic slime which had somehow been compounded into significant comprehensible human shape, after having first been scraped off the ocean’s floor having arrived there from out the containers of radioactive waste.
“Well, actually, the real purpose of my visit is to speak with your father who invited me to come here and speak with him tonight.”
And at this, Maher handed her his card.
John A. Maher, it read, Private Detective. Discretion assured. This was followed by his office address.
That made her look at him again. He seemed to have gone up in her estimation, despite his previous misdemeanours. Everyone in Dublin knew the Lafayette Building. It had recently just sold for a cool 3.5 million. Maher’s office, however, remained intact, despite the sale. It had been left to him outright by a particularly satisfied client thanks to whom he now had a particularly fine panoramic view of O’ Connell Street from the Neo- Gothic tower. They knew how to build buildings back in the late 1800s, all Baronial excess, little realising that the Empire, upon which the sun never set, was soon to shatter and to split apart, after two world wars.
“You’d better come in then, I guess.” The Glamazon bid him enter with a more than fanciful bow.
“You’ll find my father in there.” She was pointing to a room which broke off to the right. But, Maher was in no hurry to leave the hall, just yet. He stood there on the bare wooden floors in his leather heels taking his time to study the detailing.
“Can I take your coat?” She asked. Was that genuine warmth in her tone? It threw him, perhaps even more than her body had previously thrown him metaphorically onto his Flying Dutchman. Their eyes were now connecting. Hers were olive green. Her smile, slightly forced, could disarm any amount of Hitlerian henchmen. Maher took off his raincoat which she took from him before hanging it on an old traditional freestanding coat and hat rack. Retro was back baby, and with a vengeance and Maher’s whole persona, and occupation, were just a natural extension of it. The truth is, Maher was cashing in. Who wouldn’t? After Putin had annexed the Crimea, it was all going back to the 19th century. Besides, Źiźek had said it, and that guy was seldom ever wrong.
On entering the reception room, the first thing that struck Maher was the voluminous amount of space and light which appeared to so plainly interplay due to the foresight of the architecture. There was a great big period fireplace, the kind which estate agents fantasise about on long cold winter afternoons, but it was the space which appeared above it which caught Maher’s eye. Clearly a painting had been removed, and this particular absence signalled to Maher almost immediately that this was perhaps the reason why Terry Maguire had summoned him to his house, that particular night. He was sitting in an easy chair in the light of the great bay window which was overlooking Killiney bay in all her splendour. A bottle of single malt Irish whiskey rested on a small side table beside him, and beside it a crystal tumbler where a generous measure of the caramel coloured liquid had been poured. There was a second chair pulled up, milk chocolate brown polka dots on an olive- green design. Maher liked it. He liked the space. He liked the light, and he happened to particularly like Edmund Burke, there was a photograph of College Green with the statue of the philosopher standing staunchly on his plinth, king of all he surveyed.
Goldsmith reads as Burke observes,
And the genesis of the world coolly unfurls.
The lines entered Maher’s mind from god only knows where.
“Maher!” the man’s voice called out. “Please, take a load off, and pour yourself a drink, while you’re at it. There’s a bucket of ice on the drinks counter there, if you should want it.”
Maher knew it was a good idea, a little ice awoke the flavour. But, he liked it slightly hermetic, or in plain man’s terms; neat.
“Do you have any idea why I asked you up here today, Maher?”
While pouring the drink, Maguire looked up. He was a man in his sixties, Maher noticed. His skin was tanned from a Mediterranean lifestyle. How many times over the years had he seen Terry Maguire’s photograph in some newspaper or magazine? Enough to get a sense of his lifestyle of privilege, and like any rich man he’d met, Maher kind of resented him it.
Terry Maguire had been the poster boy of the now almost mythic Celtic Tiger, or Boom years. He had started his property holdings as far back as 92, and in the space of the next 25 years he had built a property empire and had consolidated his position in the top ten -most- richest people in the country for at least the last 15 or so years. There were, of course, rumours of scandal. Links with his name connected to Anglo-Irish, the bank which had almost single-handedly toppled the Irish economy in 2009. The press, and the media, had published rumours of speculation on unpaid loans, which had been later financed by the state when the toxic bank had finally been nationalised. But Maguire, like many of the others who had links with the bank, had survived. He had gone for cover and had just recently resurfaced this time in connection with vulture funds and the American company Prairie Star, and NAMA.
“Would that perhaps have anything to do with it?” Maher nodded to the empty space above the fireplace.
“My my, but you are an observant fellow, aren’t you?” Maguire returned.
Both men faced each other smiling, it only lasted a fraction of a second. A silent abyss separated them, only their mutual antagonism united them.
“Here is a copy of the original.”
Maguire handed Maher a reproduction of James Barry’s painting Ulysses and Polyphemus. Maher new it well, having seen it before hanging in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. Maguire, it soon transpired, had been the benefactor of the loan, which he had only recently called in, much now to his apparent chagrin.
The painting depicted Ulysses in the foreground debating with one of his captains before the cave of the Cyclops, who was pictured standing in front on his cave while he savaged one of Ulysses’s men. The scene which the painter depicts is when Ulysses devises the plan to blind the giant and escape by strapping each man to the belly of the Cyclops mighty sheep, in an attempt to escape from the cave later that night. Ulysses would offer the giant some of Maron’s wine, which was deeply potent, and while he slept off his night of intoxication Ulysses and his men would blind him with the smouldering olive stake which they had sharpened, so it now had the appearance of a great lance. Homer’s tale was familiar to most school children, still today Maher thought with amazement. Seeing his wonder at the artistry of the work, Maguire began to tell him why the painting meant so much to him.
“Ah, yes. Home sweet home! You know, according to Homer and Plato, the cave is the origin of all human civilization. And yet, it is based on criminal acts. The giants being our original fathers. Ployphemus here being perhaps the most famous of those savage ancestors. They robbed, murdered, raped and pillaged, bringing back their plunder with them to their secret caves where they stored their ill-gotten gains. Such is the real origin of the phrase, “Home sweet Home!” I am sure that you, of all people Mr Maher, can appreciate how such a fabulous work of art came to be among one of my most prize possessions?”
Maher looked up from the image, in order to fully study Maguire’s face.
“Apparently the artist modelled the figure of Ulysses on the philosopher Edmund Burke,” Maher continued, giving a cursory nod to the image of College Green which he had been appreciating previous to their discussion.
“You don’t miss a thing, do you?” Maguire uttered, his contempt noticeable.
“Kind of you to notice.” Maher smiled. He always enjoyed fencing, so long as he felt the handle of a trusty sabre in his palm.
“I must admit that I had absolutely no idea that one of my former employees would be so bloody foolhardy as to run off with the damn thing!” Maguire said, with a certain amount of self-pity.
“You mean, you already know who the thief is? Why don’t you go to the police? Why come to me about it?” Maher asked, becoming more interested in the case as the moments passed.
Maguire went to his desk, picked up a magazine and tossed it over towards
“His name is White. He has an article published somewhere in there. Have a look. It may give you some idea into the kind of person you are dealing with.”
Maher looked down at the magazine on his lap. A New Ulster it read. He opened the almost plain white cover and went to the contents page. my brother the fly – Flies Buzzing their way through the works of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.
“White worked here for me in the capacity as my personal assistant.” Maguire continued as Maher put away the magazine.
“He was also doing a line with my eldest daughter Lucretia. So, to answer your question, this matter needs a bit of discretion. My daughter does still entertain some feelings for the young man, and while he has behaved rather abominably, I too feel somewhat bad about the whole thing. If we could get the damn fool to simply hand the bloody thing over.”
Maguire looked to Maher to see if any of what he was saying was getting through to him.
“Now, he’s holed up in a hotel in Athens, while he attempts to sell the painting to some irreputable dealers there. Can you believe the little shit! After everything I did for him…”
At this Maher motioned slowly to the door which he had come through.
“Was that Lucretia?”
“God no! That was my youngest, Eimear. Didn’t you two introduce yourselves? Young people today!”
It came as a shock to Maher to hear his own daughter’s name being uttered. Still, it was a pretty common enough name among Irish families. Like Lucretia, it too evoked power and noble birth, which you would suppose is what perhaps everyone would wish for a daughter of their own.
“No, Lucretia isn’t home yet. She lectures freelance among the universities and some of the private schools in town. She was supposed to be home by now, and I was hoping that you two could meet up later. Unfortunately she has had to fill in for someone at work, and won’t be able to join us here. But perhaps, if you were willing, you could possibly meet up with her yourself? I’ll give her a ring and see how she is fixed for later, if that is okay? ”
It was a mere formality, Maguire posed the question out of respect. But, he wasn’t really expecting to receive an answer in the negative. People like Maguire, Maher mused, didn’t typically like to be answered in the negative. Although it amused Maher to imagine how Maguire might react if he’d had said no!
“Yes, of course. I’m good. But, I’ll be billing you for it!” Maher relished saying it. He liked talking money with the rich, as there was usually hardly ever any confusion. It was the only language they really understood, when you came right down to it.
“Of course, of course….” Maguire motioned with hands, brushing some invisible annoyance away.
“You are hired. Delighted to have you aboard Mr Maher, I have heard great things about you. You came highly recommended, you know.”
“It’s so nice to be appreciated.” Maher smiled. He was enjoying himself now. He could relax, work had been a bit slack of late, and the thoughts of tracking down a famous painting apparently taken by some former lover of Maguire’s daughter, who was also a published author did sound kind of intriguing. It beat the usual run of the mill surveillance job, at least. And there was the possibility of a trip to Greece too! This was more like it, he thought.
“Listen Maher, why don’t you relax here. Help yourself to another drink, while I go and ring Lucretia and see if she can meet you later. You’ll dine with me here tonight. Steak alright?”
Maher was a bit thrown at how rapidly Maguire operated. The spontaneity and informality were a welcome relief. He was going nowhere. He looked out the great bay. The Irish sea glistened back to him like rich treacle in the shimmering lights coming from the houses and streetlamps shining along the coastline. The Vico Road. It was one of Dublin’s more affluent and picturesque suburbs. Some even compared it to Sorrento. That was typical Irish hyperbole. But it was quaint, in a kind of Agatha Christie way. All those period houses, and the leafy streets. It was a change from the turmoil he was used to overlooking O’Connell Bridge. He could always get the train back if he had too much to drink, he considered. It wasn’t worth losing some points over, points he could hardly afford to lose in his line of work. Mobility was everything.
Yes, Maher thought, sitting back into the chocolate coloured polka dots on the deep green and gold reading chair, he could afford to have another few single malts, and a prize sirloin while they discussed further the crime.
© Peter O’Neill