Two Little Clouds  

Dublin, 2004

A decade or more had passed since I’d seen him. But here he was, in the ample flesh, through the glinting window of a real-estate agency on Fownes Street, a hallucination in shirtsleeves and crumpled suit trousers. Forty pounds heavier and just about bald, but it was him right enough. I almost wanted to keep walking. Holy Christ. So Ruth had been right. Eddie Virago back in Dublin, flogging flats for a living. He grinned and mouthed my name as he clocked me through the window. But he didn’t look delighted to see me.

‘How’s tricks?’ I asked, when he came out and shook hands.

‘Bleedin state of you,’ he beamed. ‘Victor Mature.’

Eddie was the kind of guy I used to attempt to latch onto, back in my early days in London. Hip, facetious, indifferent to convention, he’d shape into the Bunch of Grapes in his shabby denim jacket, in his tattered leather jeans and Sex Pistols T-shirt, his brothel-creeper shoes so utterly grubby it was impossible to picture them having once been clean. Saturday nights, the place would be heaving with yuppie Irish -- I suppose it was a home-away-from-home. Posters of Killarney cottages and Patrick Kavanagh. Agricultural tackle hanging on the walls. A regiment of southside émigrés storming the bar. One glance from Eddie and his pint would be put up. Not even a glance. A raising of an eyebrow.

There was gossip in my crowd that he managed a band, that they’d signed to one of the majors and were about to record an album. I don’t know if it was true, but he never dampened the talk. He’d just smile this studiedly unassuming grin -- think Bill Clinton only with cheekbones, you’re not far off -- and say he couldn’t go into the details. ‘For contractual reasons. You know how it is.’

I don’t know that I ever talked to Eddie for longer than a few minutes. He was just always around, chewing it with some wannabe model; slumping against the brickwork like he was propping it up. To be honest, I thought myself too uncool for him to like me. (You’re twenty-one in London, you want everyone to like you.)

I’d spent two years after the Leaving Cert studying to be a Jesuit, and even after I’d jacked it in, I still felt that people saw me as a priest. They’d watch their language -- infuriating stuff like that. They’d tell me their sins when they’d had a few jars. Eddie never confessed, and that was inspirational. He’d take you on your terms. He didn’t judge.

I’d see him at gigs: parties; clubs. He’d pitch up at the odd poetry reading, but he rarely stayed to the end. For a while, I was kicking around with this girl who did the London publicity for U2 and one time she got us tickets for a Dylan gig at the Hammersmith Odeon. At the backstage party afterwards, there was old Eddie: in the roped-off area for VIPs, one arm around The Edge, the other around Tom Paulin, his fag-ash being flicked into an empty champagne flute held by a onetime member of Bananarama. A face like a Michelangelo, someone once said of Eddie. And a neck like a jockey’s bollocks.

It was rumoured around the pubs that he had an on-off girlfriend, who was said to be from smalltown Donegal and not much of a rock-chick. But that didn’t seem likely, and I certainly didn’t ask him. He was one of those Irish males you don’t ask questions: the type with an ectoplasm of elusiveness around him. Often, if you were jarred, you’d have the impression of him looking out at you from inside his head, through this swirling fog of ambiguity. Eddie Virago, the king of cagey, wearing his Mohican like a crown.

Now the Mohican was gone but his eyes were still bright. We stood there on Fownes Street and he pumped my hand. He hadn’t heard tell I was back the ‘hood; if he had, he would have belled me about hooking up for a scoop. Nah, he didn’t see much of the old crew any more. Too busy with the job, man. Working his langer to the bone.

‘Skinny bastard,’ he chuckled, jabbing me lightly in the gut. ‘What’s your secret? The old liposuction, is it? Course I wouldn’t mind gettin it all sucked out m’self. Dependin on who was doin the suckin, says you.’

It was after five by now; he was about to knock off work. So he invited me down to the Clarence for a bev. I said I was pressed for time -- we’d do it again. (I’d promised to be home by six to bath the baby, but for some reason I didn’t tell him that.) ‘Come on for the one anyway,’ he said, and he grinned. ‘Let’s chew the old fat. Plenty of it to chew, right?’

It was of those Dublin summer evenings that smells of fresh linen; pale golden light was spilling into the streets and it seemed to make even the shop windows seem magical. There were couples strolling around; one or two stag parties. A punk with a guitar was singing ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’. Two delighted-looking tourists were taking snapshots of a pub front. Helmut and Helga getting down with the natives. You could almost fall for Dublin on an evening like that.

He’d always been self-assured, but there was brashness in his talk now. Oh yeah, the old property bizz was treating him grand. Dublin was lousy with heads wanting to get on the ladder. It was gone completely mad. It was losing the plot. Like London in the eighties, but even more of a head-wreck. Guy with a line in bullshit could rake in a few sovs. ‘And you know me,’ he said. ‘I speak bullshit fluently.’

We turned down towards the quays, to where his car was parked. He wanted to feed the meter. (‘Nightmare, these wardens. They’d clamp the shaggin popemobile.’) And I suspect he also wanted me to see the car. It was an 04 BMW, metallic black, with a Bob-the-Builder sunguard on the back left-hand window. Yeah, he was a dad now, he quietly laughed. A boy and a child. ‘Kurt and Courtney.’

He took a photo from his wallet and showed me the kids. They were happy looking toddlers, strong and pink. Lucas and Emma were their actual names. A beautiful dark-eyed woman was dandling them on her lap. She was smooth and cool, wearing sunglasses and sipping a Perrier. I knew her to see. Audrey Harrington. She’d worked back in London as a sub on a current affairs magazine. The picture had been taken in some place like Glendalough -- you could see a round tower and ancient gravestones.

He started showing me various gadgets on the car, but I was thinking about his children -- the strangeness of that. Eddie Virago was somebody’s father. It was like being told the Queen Mother was secretly a trannie. I said I hadn’t even heard he was married. ‘I’m not right now, to be honest,’ he said. ‘Didn’t work out. We’re still good buds.’ He shrugged and glanced away. ‘I don’t talk about it much. Stuff happens, that’s all. It’s prob’ly for the best.’ He stuffed the coins in the meter and pucked me a little too hard on the shoulder. ‘So it’s you and me tonight, Homes. Just like London times. Young, free and single and out on the razz.’ He locked the car with one of those beeping remote controls and we hiked off again in the direction of the Clarence.

‘So anyways,’ he goes. ‘How’s tricks with yourself? Ever see that mott -- what’s her name? Ruth O’Donnell? She was one of your posse, wasn’t she? Awful looking minger. And mad as a snake. Bit of a slapper, they always said.’

‘Actually, Eddie -- ’

‘Went through more hands than a Playboy on a building site. Gave her the rub of the relic myself once or twice -- when the beer goggles were on.’

‘I’m actually -- married to Ruth,’ I said.

He chuckled at the idea. ‘Bloody sure you are. You’d need a license to keep that troll in the house.’

‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘We’re married six years now.’

He stopped walking. ‘Fuck off,’ he said.

‘Nearly seven,’ I said.

‘Fuck off, you fuckin messer. Before I bate you through that wall.’ (I had forgotten how some Irishmen talk to each other.)

He was blushing so deeply, I was almost going to lie. But you can’t really lie about the person you’re married to. It might be bad karma, or bring down some curse. So I confirmed it again -- I was married to Ruth -- and by now he had the grace to at least look perplexed. He started humming and hawing about some other Ruth. ‘Ruth Murphy, I meant. Used to hang around the 100 Club. You know the one I mean. Pierced clit and a crucifix.’

Some kind of event was going on in the hotel lobby. There were press photographers and cameramen wandering through the crowd. Chinese waiters in white jackets were handing out glasses of wine. Bono and Seamus Heaney were standing near the reception desk, chatting quietly with the Tanaiste, Mary Harney. ‘How’s the men?’ smiled Eddie as we made for the bar. ‘Fine, thank you,’ Mary Harney said. Her two companions looked confused.

The bar was jammed with beautiful people. He ordered two double Bushmills without asking me what I wanted, drained his glass in two long swigs and ordered another. ‘So what are you at yourself?’ he asked me, then; and when I told him journalism he rolled his eyes and laughed. ‘Still at that crack. Will you never get sense? You want to make a few sponds, man, and pretty bleedin quick. You might hatch out a sprog one of these days, you know.’

‘We already have three,’ I said.

He nodded. ‘My point exactly. Reproduction costs big-time. You’d wanna suit up for it.’

I thought he might at least manage to ask me about the kids, maybe enquire as to their ages or names. But instead he started into a sermon on the financial cost of parenthood, which a columnist in the Irish Times, so Eddie informed me, had recently calculated was half a million Euro per child. ‘You’re not gonna rake in half-a-mill churnin out ballsology for the papers. That’s just feckin negligent. Surprised at you, dog.’

‘I suppose you’re right,’ I said. For the sake of a quiet life.

‘You want to get into the property game. Money’s obscene. Seriously, man -- you’re wastin your life. Brave new frontier just waitin on you, pal. All it takes is a couple of goolies and a mobile, you’re blingin.’

A house in southside Dublin cost a couple of million yo-yos. Two per cent commission on every sale. Selling a place in Dalkey could buy the estate-agent a yacht. Even a halfway decent apartment, you were talking four-fifty. ‘Course, we all make our choices.’ He tapped his abundant belly. ‘I coulda bought Kinsealy with what I spent gettin that.’

He ordered more drinks, again without asking me. He was downing the stuff fast; way too fast for my taste. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I was feeling edgy anyway. Being back in Dublin always makes me edgy. Another round was ordered; then another, and two more. Soon we were on pints; things started getting woozy. High-jinks were remembered; old acquaintances disparaged, albums and bands nostalgically recalled. He rarely went to a gig any more. All that sweat on the walls; puddles of lager on the floor. And he found standing up for two hours an effort. ‘Adorin’ some muppet, like Nazis at Nuremberg.’

He was sorry if he’d been shifty on the subject of his marriage; he just found it difficult to talk about now. I said there was no problem, I hadn’t meant to be nosy. ‘I just find it better to let the crap go,’ he explained. ‘You talk and talk, it only brings it back up.’

‘We won’t say another word about it,’ I said. ‘I understand.’

‘Everyone says that, but they don’t,’ he sighed. I was getting the ominous feeling a confession-session loomed. ‘You don’t understand till it bites you in the hole. You’re yakkin and belly-achin, but where does it get you? It happened. It’s over. Get used to it, yeah?’

I nodded.

‘Exactly,’ he went. ‘That’s my point. You don’t want to be carryin it around for the rest of your natural. It isn’t like it’s the end of the fuckin world.’ He gave a bare laugh and peered into his glass. ‘Mind you -- the way I felt when she walked out with the kids, even the end of the world wouldn’t have been the end of the world.’

A silence descended over the table. It was as though some uninvited bore had sat down between us. By now the drink had begun to get hold of him. Not that he was slurring -- his eyes just looked a bit damp. He loosened his tie, unbuttoned his collar; it only occurred to me now that I had never seen him wear either.

‘You look mighty,’ he said. ‘I’d ride you meself. So what do you reckon to the old town? Dear auld durty Dubbalin, wha’? Can’t smoke in the pub but you can buy a rubber johnny with your cornflakes.’

I said I was surprised by how Dublin had changed. Too right, Eddie said. He leaned in close and began to speak furtively, checking over his shoulder to make sure nobody was earwigging. He wasn’t a racist or anything. No bleedin way. Hadn’t he picketed the South African embassy in the bad old days? (The only problem with the ANC was they weren’t socialist enough for Eddie.) It was just -- you know -- these immigrant fellas. They were different somehow. Not like us bog-gallopers. Their culture was different; their music; their food. Nothing wrong with it, of course. All very colourful. But these Nigerians, for example -- what could you say?

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well -- hackin off each other’s mickies for havin a ride outside of marriage? That’s just not on, man; in all fairness.’

‘I don’t think they actually….’

‘Shariah law, they call it,’ he interrupted. ‘You don’t want that crack catchin on over here, pal. Rastas in Leitrim. Stuff like that.’

‘Maybe Leitrim needs Rastas,’ I said.

‘So does my hole,’ he answered bleakly.

A girl wandered in wearing a DROP THE DEBT sweatshirt. She was talking into a mobile and looking at her watch. I was beginning to regret coming to drink with him at all. Really, I was wishing I was anywhere else. You don’t see someone for twelve years, there’s usually a good reason.

‘So where you livin?’ he asked, and he glugged at his glass.

‘Westbourne Grove,’ I told him. ‘Up near Notting Hill.’

He looked at me confusedly. ‘I thought you were after movin back?’

‘No, we’re only over for a break. Just a couple of days. Ruth’s mother isn’t the Mae West, since the Da died last year.’

He nodded blearily. ‘Well, you’re welcome to London. Armpit of a place anyway. Best thing I ever did was take the old banana-boat home.’

‘London’s home for us now,’ I found myself saying. ‘It’s been good to us both. The kids feel at home there.’

‘I dunno how you stick the kip. Fair balls to you, man.’

‘Ruth likes the theatre. I like the football.’

He said nothing.

‘It’s been good to us work-wise. She’s lecturing now. She’s a book coming out next year. On Boucicault.’

He gave a jaded smirk. ‘Whatever you’re havin yourself, I suppose.’

‘We’re gone fierce boring now. Real suburbanites I guess. Mowing the lawn and giving out yards about the neighbours.’

‘And buyin the Sunday papers on a Saturday night, man.’

I laughed. ‘That happens, yeah.’

‘Wouldn’t suit me, pal, tell you that for real. Been there, done that; have a nice life, good luck. Out of it like a snot from a headbanger’s nose. Once bitten, twice bite: that’s young Edward’s motto now. I’ve more of the range to ride before I jam the old nads in the mincer again.’

‘You never get lonely?’

‘Do in me gicker. Out every night, and twice on Sunday.’

Matter of fact, he was heading to a party later. At Eddie Irvine’s new gaff, out in Killiney. Several Corrs would be there; so would ‘Good Old Van’. Of course he knew the Corrs: he’d sold Jim a house. He’d sold a lot of houses to Irish celebrities -- his company specialised in the quality end of the market -- but Jim Corr was probably the soundest he’d met. Terrific guy, Jim. Unsung hero, in many ways. He’d be dandering along to Irv-the-Swerve’s later. Elvis Costello would be spinning the discs. Samantha Mumba was flying in from the Apple. Yer man out of Boyzone. Maybe Colin Farrell. Good Old Van might bring his harmonica. I said it sounded like a night to remember. He winked surreptitiously. ‘You peeled the right banana there.’

More drinks were ordered before I could stop him. I couldn’t even get away to go to the gents, never mind tell him I was upping to head home. My head was reeling. I was suddenly famished. The place felt lurid -- I don’t know: like a nightclub. I was busting for a leak but he was going off at full-steam -- talking at me like I was interviewing him at some public event. It was the one thing he missed about London, he said; the diversity of social life in the big city. ‘Man, that’s a party town. I’ll give you that. London’s grand for a rasher and a ride. But Christ, I couldn’t stick livin there.’

It was at one such London party, a reception in Soho for the launch of some documentary, that he had met and hooked up with Audrey. On their first night together, they’d had sex five times. He’d been in entire relationships where that didn’t happen.

‘We really don’t have to talk about it, Eddie,’ I said.

He was up to his nipples in trouble when she’d met him first. Broke, despondent, with nowhere to live, several failed careers and an urgent need for fillings. Evicted, dejected, fuckin rejected, his beaten-up car had been repossessed (‘by the devil.’) His overdraft was gargantuan, his self-esteem subterranean. Some people had baggage. ‘Me, I had cargo.’

‘This must be hard for you talk about,’ I said.

‘Call that waitress over, man. I feel a tequila slammer coming on.’

They had moved back to Dublin, rented a duplex in town. It was only a short hop from Temple Bar (‘twinned with Sarajevo’) but the cultural quarter was not all it was cracked up to be. They used to stroll there sometimes, if strolled was the word -- rather skidded or slithered or, late at night, ran. The baby came along; another a year later. But Temple Bar was not the kind of place you would take a baby. There had been talk back in London -- booze-fuelled, brave talk -- of the civilised evenings they would share in Temple Bar: a tranquil cappuccino, a play at the Project, a saunter around an exhibition of abstract photography. But this glittered Hooligania seemed to him a symbol of why they should never have come home. London was a kip, but an admirably large one, the kind where true happiness was not possible, but a higher quality of misery was. Dublin was turning into Disneyland with superpubs, a Purgatory open till five in the morning.

I tried to laugh, but it came out sounding dutiful. We were drifting, I felt, into the realm of the morose. Like I said, I’d often endured drunken fessing. But this was new. This was strange. It was as though he was talking about himself in the third-person: spinning me lines he had learned by heart.

Eddie Virago and Audrey Harrington. It had started as the relationship for which he had yearned. It had ended as the emotional equivalent of a groin-strain. Monday nights, they watched the soaps like a couple of zombies. Like on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Saturdays and Sundays. On Thursdays she went to a Yoga class run by a feminist nun in a former seminary -- ‘Unleashing the Goddess Within: Beginners’ Level’ -- leaving Eddie to scrub out her ashtrays and empty the nappy-bin. The nappy-bin terrified him. He had nightmares about it. How could such a tiny being produce this Croagh Patrick of shit? By the time he was finished, she was usually back home -- all Goddessed up like a Pagan in leggings, and ready to get into the bath with a bottle of organic Beaujolais. He was invited to share neither bath nor beaujo. Some nights they did a crossword. Most nights they didn’t. Every Saturday morning they sat down together to do internet shopping on the Tesco’s website. He always forgot to remind her to buy razors. (For her legs.) And every time he forgot, she spread his balls on toast.

That was the type of girl she was: the kind who could screw your head right off and hop it around your duplex like a basketball. Fabulous mother -- but as for volatile? It was like being married to Roy Keane in a frock. He sometimes wondered if they’d called the feeling between them ‘love’ in order to save a lot of trouble. ‘But as I say, I don’t like to talk about it much. Trying my best to get closure. Put it behind me. I hope I’m not boring you.’

‘I have to go to the jacks,’ I said.

In the gents, I looked at the clock on the wall. It was ten past eight. And I’d promised Ruth I’d be home by six. I dunked my head in the sink a few times. There was a roaring noise in my ears, like a plane taking off.

When I got back to the bar, he was flirting with some girl who was describing his shirt as ‘pure knackeragua’. I grabbed my coat and my bag of books.

‘What’s the crack, Horse?’ he said. ‘I thought we were gonna have a drink?’

‘I’m really late.’

‘Jaysus, these big-shot London bollixes,’ he said to the girl. ‘Going for a drink means going for a drink. Afraid of their lives they might have a good time.’

He walked me out to the lobby and embraced me warmly, as though the bar of the Clarence was his country retreat and I was a beloved younger cousin about to emigrate to a warzone.

‘Well -- keep the old faith now. And say a decade for me.’

‘I will.’

‘You know yourself, man -- if arseholes could fly, Dublin would be an airport.’


‘You look deadly,’ he said. ‘It’s great you’re so thin. I’d happily shag your brains out. But I see somebody’s beaten to it.’

He clutched at my buttocks and started humping my leg. Mary Harney, passing by, gave us a perturbed look.

‘You should come home,’ he said. ‘It’s a great town these days.’ He gestured around himself with a magnanimous wave. ‘Just think, man -- we could be doin’ this every night.’

I said I’d think it over, but I had to go now.

‘Pram in the hall, huh?’

‘That’s it.’

‘Smug bastard. Still, we wouldn’t want to keep the boss-lady waitin. Keep in touch, you skinny freak. Be lucky now, yeah?’

I left by the back door and staggered over the cobblestones, up into Dame Street and past the Olympia. It was still quite bright, the evening was hot. My temples were pounding. I was thirsty; dry-mouthed; in need of a cool shower. That bloody awful feeling of being drunk by sunlight.

Down towards Trinity. No taxis on the rank. Up into Grafton Street. My shirt was damp with sweat. A fire-eater was performing by the Molly Malone statue, spitting out globes of fat orange flame. Nearby, two refugee women were begging with babies.

And that was when I bumped into her.

Almost literally.

She was looking magnificent, smartly-dressed and elegant, in a stylish black jacket and a dark green dress. Jesus Christ. It was Audrey Harrington. But to see her like this, so soon after talking about her -- it was an aspect of Dublin life I had almost forgotten, and one I didn’t miss: at least not very often.

She asked about Ruth, various old friends in London; a Sean Scully exhibition she’d been meaning to get over and see. She missed London now; with the kids it was harder to get away. Her mother said children were little rays of sunlight, but there were times it seemed to Audrey that they were little clouds too. She made a point of never missing my stuff in the Guardian. It was fantastic I was doing so well, it really was. Eddie was a keen reader of all my stuff, too. He loved finding a spelling mistake or a factual error. It made his Saturday. He’d be happy as a baby. He’d email all our old mates to tell them what an ignoramus I was.

‘I was sorry to hear the bad news,’ I said.

‘What news?’

‘Well, y’know -- about yourself and himself.’

She looked at me quizzically.

‘Your divorce or whatever,’ I said. ‘That’s terrible.’

Her face did something strange. ‘Divorce, my arse. I’m on my way in to meet him now.’

‘You’re -- ?’

She laughed a little uneasily. ‘Yeah. We’re going to a pregnancy class. For couples. He didn’t tell you? I’m having bambino number three in November.’

A busker started into an old Thin Lizzy song. A Garda who was watching him began to tap his foot. The roar in my head grew louder; deeper. I had an image of Eddie cackling like a bastard: him and Van Morrison, howling with glee.

‘Oh, that,’ I managed. ‘Yeah, of course he told me. I must have -- got confused about the other thing. Sorry.’

‘Jesus Christ. That’s a hell of a confusion.’

‘I’m just -- not used to drinking any more.’

‘Are you -- okay?’ she asked. ‘You look a bit weird. Do you want to get a glass of water or something?’

‘I’m grand,’ I told her. ‘But really, I have to go.’

‘Well -- give us a bell when you’re over again,’ she said, uncertainly. ‘We’re in the book. Virago in Ranelagh. Come for dinner or whatever. Meet the kids. Eddie’s just great with them, you won’t believe it. Course, the size his tits are after going, he could breastfeed the new one.’

My mobile started to ring as I walked away, but I didn’t want to answer it, so I switched it off.

The taxi-driver said the traffic was only wojus. Rush-hour got longer and meaner every day. Longer in the mornings, longer in the night. What kind of country could stand for traffic like this? They were laughing at us in England. They were breaking their holes laughing. You wouldn’t see it in Africa, traffic like this. Going over the northside was torture now. As for the southside -- don’t be talking. Luas, how are you? Port Tunnel, my hole. One of these days it would be rush-hour all the time. And they said we were a civilised country.



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