Episode 11: Trouble with the C-word in San Francisco

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After all the sex and bad language of my previous posts, it was a relief to be in San Francisco and just going around looking at the old houses and walking the steep streets and riding the cable cars with their cheery bells and shopping at Macy’s where we encountered this striking back-lit poster in Womenswear —

Novel romance

The poster seems right to me, the right order of things, and the wonderful colours. More importantly, the poster reminded me of my own novel, which I’d not been working on at all of late.

I decided on the spot it was time to do some literary homework. I announced to my partner I was leaving her alone to do her shopping and heading off to the literary heart of the city, the City Lights book store and publisher —

City Lights out front

I have to admit that I hadn’t really known about City Lights until our Airbnb host told us about it. Our host was a larger-than-life figure who referred to San Francisco as his town. We’d asked him what places we should see. Near top of his list was City Lights: “Man, you gotta go there!” — “We will! We will!”

City Lights, I learned in more detail on the Web, was opened in the early fifties and blossomed in the sixties, and became internationally known as the literary place for protest, progress, the counter-culture revolution, and sexual liberation. As you can see it’s pretty groovy —

City Lights groovy

That brightly coloured laneway is named after Jack Kerouac of On the Road fame —

Kerouac lane

Yeah! And in the pavement outside the store is this plaque —

Ferlinghetti plaque

Now I don’t really get this since I do my writing in the daytime, but the name Lawrence Ferlinghetti is important. Ferlinghetti co-founded the store and famously published Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and other Poems in 1956, the publication of which attracted a charge of obscenity.

Ferlinghetti successfully defended the charge, and consequently he and City Lights, and Allen Ginsberg and his poem Howl, became iconic in modern American publishing and culture.

I had a vague recollection of reading Howl years ago. But to know all these facts and to be in the actual place where it all happened, was to feel something pretty incredible. Here is the entrance of City Lights. The counter, it might be clear, is right near the door —

City Lights counter

I walked in and stopped near the counter, taking it all in, breathing the air, smelling the smell of genuine writing and literary history.

And that’s when all the trouble began.

“Can I help you?” He was a twenty-something bright-eyed slim hipster in a pale T-shirt that looked too tight for him.

“I don’t know,” I said, spreading my arms wide. “Just let me say it’s amazing to be here in this historic place, with all its…history.”

“It’s all happening,” he said.

“To think that this is where Allen Ginsberg and the other Beat writers actually stood and where Ginsberg’s Howl was actually published and defended!”

I then gestured up at a picture which, with my glasses off, I took to be of Ginsberg himself, who was a very hairy man —

Hairy man

The Hipster turned around and looked up at the picture I’d indicated, then turned back to me looking a little puzzled.

Fearing I’d made a mistake, I continued on by congratulating him and the other staff for working at such a fine establishment.

“You’ve come to the right place,” he said. “We’ve got cutting edge as well as the old pathfinders. Did you want some Ginsberg?”

“No, no,” I said, suddenly on the back foot, because actually I didn’t want anything. But it was no good to appear like that in such a place. I said, “Hmm. I want something contemporary, but edgy, like…” I couldn’t think of anyone or anything, then something did come to mind. I said: “I’ve read that Fifty Shades of Grey book, or rather I’ve dipped into it, and I must say I wasn’t exactly tied to my seat in suspense or anything.”

“Forget that shit, man,” he said.

“In fact I found it to be rather conservative,” I went on, glad to have found agreement with this young man.

“Dude,” he said, “this is San Francisco. Very feminist here. Very queer. OK? Very pansexual, if you know what I mean.”

“I’m hip to it,” I said

“OK. We’re on the same page.”

I leant forward. “Brother, we’re two great writers on the same dreadful typewriter.”

(The line, which I’d committed to memory when doing my research the day before, is from Ginsberg’s Howl.)

The hipster cocked his head, perhaps not recognising the line but clearly suspecting a significant quote.

“You’ve come a long way,” he said. “From Australia is it?”

“Uh-huh.”

He paused, looked around, and I looked around with him, then he leant in close to me and said, “Listen, I wouldn’t ordinarily do this for someone on their first visit but…you seem to be keyed in all right. Would you like to see the inner scrotum?”

“I’m sorry?”

“The inner scrotum. That’s what we call it. AKA the inner sanctum. It’s where we keep our edgiest stuff and some of our less than legal stuff, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure thing,” I said.

“Wait here.”

He went and got someone, a young woman, to replace him on the counter, and then with a single curl of one finger got me to follow him.

He took me down a narrow staircase, its walls completely filled with old photos and posters of literary heroes, and we emerged into the basement level, which was smaller than the ground level but still chock-full of books. My guide led me past the shelves to this —

Door

Clearly a door of significance! — what exactly, who knew, but it was exciting. I am the light and the door, I said to myself. Or maybe it was an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and indeed to Jim Morrison and The Doors? Come on baby, light my fire. Try to set the night on – fire!

He pushed it open and we entered into what was merely an office-cum-storeroom, but to the right there was another door; the hipster held this second door open and ushered me in.

It was a smallish room with dim lighting. Tables in the centre were covered with piles of books, and projecting from the walls left and right were bookcases with dark narrow aisles between them.

“OK,” said the hipster, “the more recent stuff is on the tables.”

He led me over to them.

“OK,” he said. “You want edgy? You might like this.” He leaned over to a neat stack of books and picked up the top-most one and handed it to me.

I looked at the cover —

Cunt Norton cover

I thought I was misreading it. Perhaps the title was a person’s name like, I don’t know, Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian writer who wrote that novel Hunger about a miserable underfed little man who spends his days ingratiating himself with other people…

But, no, I wasn’t misreading it, as I discovered when turning to the Contents page —

Cunt Norton contents

“Dodie Bellamy,” said the hipster. “A local writer.”

“Right.”

“She’s out there, man,” he said in admiration. “Oh, she’s really out there. See, you gotta know how to read it. You don’t judge the text, OK? You listen to it.” He took the volume from me, pointed to the Contents page. “These are the canonical writers. Right? The Norton Anthology of Literature, man, 1975! OK? So she takes these guys’ poems and splices them with anonymous pornography.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. She calls it ‘cunting a text’.”

“I see.”

“But it’s not just sex for the sake of it. OK? It’s not indulgent or anything. It’s political. It’s transgressive. It’s gender-bending, fuckin’ putting a weed up the ass of patriarchy. It’s like feminized raunch on steroids but really true and loving too.”

“Hmmm.”

He handed it back to me. “So just lay it cool, lay it back, dig it. It gets good to you, it really does.”

“I see.”

“You all right?”

“I’m good.”

“All right, my man, I’ll leave it with you.” He clapped me on the back. “When you’re done, come back up to the counter, I’ll be there.”

He closed the door behind him.

Now alone I scanned down the contents page. All those great literary figures…I turned to the Foreword, which says the book was in fact the author’s second c–t book. The first was called C–t-ups which

I heard a noise and looked up to find myself not alone after all! In one of the shadowy aisles was a small young man, maybe even a teenager, with a thin neck, badly cropped short black hair and huge round-rimmed black glasses. He was staring at me with a bland yet intensely suspicious and even fearful gaze, like Harry Potter on ice.

I nodded hello; he stared back, then whipped his gaze back to his book and curled his shoulder around in crab-like self-protection.

Strange! Perhaps this space, this sacred scrotum (as they called it), was a safe place for him to explore ideas and be himself. I couldn’t argue with that.

Still I felt a little uncomfortable. I took myself, with Bellamy’s book in hand, over to stand under the only source of natural light: a narrow basement window.

Seeing the difference the light made to the clarity of the text before me, it occurred to me to take out my camera and photograph (surreptitiously) part of the book, beginning with the two images above.

I still had not looked at any of the actual text, because I was realising I was experiencing a bit of a weird coincidence.

Recently I happened to be cleaning out an attic in Dublin and found a few boxes of old musty books, and in one box was this —

Trial of Lady Chatterley

I’d read it many years ago. It’s a gripping read, documenting the charge of obscenity brought by the Crown against Penguin Books UK for their publishing D. H. Larwrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I sat down in that dim attic and began to read chunks of the transcript, including this page where literature academic Graham Hough (a supporter of Lawrence and his novel) is cross-examined by the Crown prosecutor —

Lady Chatterley transcript

Despite this one instance of agreement between prosecution and defence, the prosecution lost the case, and when you get to the part in the transcript where the jury submits its verdict of “Not guilty, your Honour!”, and the bombastic toffee-nosed Crown prosecutor collapses into his seat in abject failure, and Penguin is let free to publish Lady Chatterley, you can’t help but give a cheer —

Judge Judy

The attic experience was interesting also because I’d already been thinking about obscenity in writing and in particular the use of the C-word. Why? Because using the C-word, like breaking other taboos, is becoming increasingly popular.

The chief offender here, I feel, is HBO’s Game of Thrones. In it writer and producer George R. R. Martin uses the C-word willy-nilly, reaching its climax in the following scene:

Ser Bronn of the Blackwater: The little King’s backed-up. Clogged from balls to brains.

Tyrion Lannister: You think dipping his wick will cure what ails him?

Ser Bronn: There’s no cure for being a cunt.

The exchange has gone viral:

Cunt exchange

You can get the text and the image on T-shirts, mugs, pens…Not to mention the hatred the King has aroused —

King Cunt

It’s a license to print the word! — But in my view it’s all too much. I think a lot of the use of the C-word is indulgent, to say the least. A kind of, look how cool I am, I can use the C-word without a care. Personally, I want to put the C-word back in its box.

And yet despite my opposition to the C-word, there I was happily rooting for Lady Chatterley in the attic in Dublin, just as I was standing here now, proud to be in the basement of City Lights, the bastion of free speech in all California, with a book in my hands that had more c–ts in it than I’d ever seen before, perhaps more than anyone had ever seen.

What to make of all this?! I began to flick through C–t Norton. I don’t have photographs of the poems to show you, for reasons which you will presently see. The C–t Shakespeare poem, however, if I remember rightly goes something like this:

O Shakespeare, you’re such a c–t.
Prithee, let me count the ways,
Thou art like the sacred organ,
The holiest of holies,
The furry feathered front bottom.
For one, thy ruby curtains part
With each performance and
Close when the Act is done.
Two, there is what my partner says
Whenever we are out:
“To pee or not to pee, that is the question.”
Third, you gave birth to myriad
Characters, your children all,
Who came out fully formed —

 Vagina dentata

Vagina dentata! O mouth of the world!
A tale to get your teeth into! —

And on it went. Not bad, I thought. I turned back to the Contents page and scanned down the list. C–t Cummings looked interesting. But then I saw, third from the bottom, that even Allen Ginsberg gets a guernsey.

Why would that be? I wondered. Why would Dodie Bellamy need to ‘c–t-up’ Allen Ginsberg, an openly gay man and the great icon of sexual and textual liberation whose libidinous lines run freely through —

“What the hell are you doing?”

I swung around. The hipster was standing in the doorway, at his side was the thin-necked Harry Potter guy.

“What?” I said.

“What are you doing with that camera?”

I hid it behind my back. “Nothing.”

“Bullshit. He says you were taking pictures of that” — he was pointing to C–t Norton open in my hand.

So Harry Potter had seen me and when I was preoccupied had ducked out and dobbed on me! I felt I was back at school and was about to be taken to the headmaster for a caning.

I began to speak but the hipster marched towards me. “Right,” he said, “you take pictures of that, you gotta pay for it.”

The mention of money brought me back to myself. “I don’t think so,” I said. I slid the camera into my trousers pocket, and closed the book and handed it over to the hipster.

He wouldn’t take it.

“No!” he said, holding up his hands. “It’s copyrighted. You gotta pay for it now.”

“I’m not paying — what?” — I turned to the back cover for the price — “$28.95 US for this.”

He shook his head in a big show of disappointment and disbelief. “Man, I trusted you. Fuck!”

“OK, look,” I began. “I was just curious. I’m interested in the book as an artefact, not in the text per se.”

At that moment another man entered the room. He was tall, strong, very serious-faced, used to solving problems quickly and effectively. The manager, I assumed.

“Caught him taking photos of C–t Norton,” said the hipster.

“A misunderstanding,” I said, as the “manager” stared at the book in my hand. “I apologise. I’ll leave.”

“Who you working for?” said the hipster, rounding on me. “The feds?”

“Don’t be absurd!” I said.

“He’s working for someone,” the hipster said, turning back to the manager. “No one could be that cheap.”

The manager, his face utterly grim-set, came towards me. The hipster stepped aside. I felt my posture go very stiff. If anything happened in here it’d be my word against theirs.

“Stop,” I said, holding up a finger.

This had no effect. He came right up, reached towards me and took the book from my hand and examined it, presumably for damage or signs of wear. Then he clicked his fingers and indicated he wanted to see inside my backpack.

I obliged him: I had nothing to hide.

He scrabbled inside it a moment before handing it back.

“Show him out,” the manager said, with a cold expression. But as I went to step by him he stopped me with one heavy hand on my chest, and said: “You’ve lost your City Lights privileges. You can never come back.”

“This is all an overreaction,” I said but nevertheless followed the hipster, avoiding the manager’s cold gaze.

I stopped at the doorway where the Harry Potter guy was lurking.

“Traitor,” I hissed.

His eyes went fierce and malevolent, and he formed his mouth into a tight nasty little sphincter.

I followed the hipster back through the magic door into the shop proper. Before we got to the narrow staircase the hipster pointed up — there was another picture of the hairy man.

“And that,” the hipster said, “is not Allen Ginsberg, you freaking dufus” —

That's not Ginsberg

That is Allen Ginsberg” —

Real Ginsberg

“Or don’t you mean to say C–t Ginsberg?” I said.

“Watch it, buddy,” he said without looking back.

“Hey, I’m merely quoting your own treasured author.”

I followed him up the staircase and through to the counter area. There were a few people standing here, young women mainly.

“Out,” he commanded me.

“For the record,” I said, stopping for effect, “I think Ginsberg is overrated.”

“Oh yeah?” he said. “What the hell would you know?”

“I know plenty. That’s right, Jack. Pretentious American windbaggery.” I cast a damning gaze over all present. “Howl my backside!”

“Oh, you’d be so lucky!” the hipster cried, wide-eyed and shaking his raised finger.

I scoffed and headed out the door, the women smiling uncomfortably.

As I stepped onto the pavement and began to stride away, I heard the hipster cry out behind me: “You Australians! You never tip, and you never buy!!

I didn’t look back. I walked for two blocks and turned right. I knew where I was going: the Caffè Trieste.

I joined the queue and ordered a large double-shot flat-white then took a seat in the corner and held my head in my hands. Presently I sat back and surveyed the room —

Caffe Trieste

I’d been looking forward to coming here. This café has hosted artists and writers and filmmakers for decades, many of them coming here after visiting City Lights.

Francis Ford Coppola wrote most of his script for The Godfather here. I wondered if his picture was amongst those on the wall in front of me. He too is a hairy man —

Coppola

And thinking about Coppola, I thought of him in the Philippines Jungle filming and writing Apocalypse Now, how he risked everything to make his movie, how he plunged all his finances into it, mortgaged the house, how he kept throwing the script away, how like Colonel Kurtz he wanted to tear his teeth out in an agony of frustration.

And here I was refusing to fork out thirty bucks for C–t Norton — a book that whatever doubts one might have about it was a genuine attempt to do something original and progressive. And after all, it was a woman using the C-word, not some fat old white fantasy guy in dire need of a good editor.

By the time I’d finished my coffee I’d resolved that I would go back to City Lights and buy Bellamy’s book!

I headed back. I approached the entrance and looked in and saw the hipster manning the counter, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it — I don’t know why exactly, maybe because there’s only so much abuse one can take, or maybe it was the threat in the manager’s words to me. I kept on walking and didn’t stop till I was on the train going back to our Airbnb home.

Feeling absolutely miserable, I got off the train at our stop and made the long walk up the main street, which is filled with great restaurants and shops and cafés and a good class of people.

Not that any of that was making me feel any better — until, that is, I came to a bookshop. I’d passed this shop a couple of days before but had not been in it. What drew my eye this time was the display of books in the window. A display of banned books.

The Irish hero had the prized position —

Ulysses burned

Ulysses, says the text in the ‘flames’ below: “Burned in the US (1918), Ireland (1922), Canada (1922), England (1923), and banned in England (1929).”

Next: Dr. Seuss

Dr Seuss

“Remember (says the flames text) the time when Sam I Am tried to seduce his friend? Neither do we. But the book was banned in California on account of ‘homosexual seduction’.”

And E. B. White —

Charlotte's web

“Banned in Kansas in 2006 because talking animals were considered an ‘insult to God’.”

And Oprah Winfrey’s classic —

Colour Purple

Challenged in Oakland CA in 1984 for its “sexual and social explicitness” and its “troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history and human sexuality”; banned in a US school in 1992 for being “smut”; banned in another in 1999 for being vulgar and “X-rated”.

This was more my kind of store. None of that City Lights pretentious oh-I’m-so-revolutionary stuff.

I marched straight on in and put my fists on the counter. A woman, perhaps in her late thirties, short red-tinted hair, stylish glasses and in a neat suit dress, served me:

“Can I help you?”

“Yes. I would like to buy Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt…Ah, Bellamy’s Cunt…Ah…God what is it?” — I was having one of those brain freezes I sometimes get when people are scrutinising me. “Jeez, for the life of me I can’t — Norton! Cunt Norton! That’s it. Thank God! I thought I was losing my marbles there for a moment.”

The woman blinked back completely startled.

“You don’t have it?” I urged. “Dodie Bellamy. A local writer. Her first volume was Cunt-ups, which I gather was very popular too. You haven’t heard of it? No? The cunting method? You know, Cunt Shakespeare, Cunt…Dr. Seuss, Cunt Color Purple…?”

“I think you should leave.”

“I know how this sounds.”

“Sir!” She’d recovered herself and was looking very strict, raising her palm in a stop sign.

“You don’t understand,” I went on. “This is a real book.” I noticed behind her that our exchange was attracting worried looks from other customers, including mothers and their children in the happy and colourful kids section, which was not far from the counter. “Look, look,” I said, “I have photos to prove it. I can show you.”

I went for my camera which was wedged deep into the front pocket of my travel pants. It was tight in there and I was having to yank it out.

“Sir? Sir! Stop what you’re doing! Look at me.” I obeyed. “Take you hand out of your pants and leave. If you don’t leave now, I’ll call the police.”

“But…but…”

Her hands went to the phone.

“OK…OK,” I said, my hands raised in the air. “My God!”

I turned and walked out.

I turned left and straightaway there was a homeless-looking guy sitting on the pavement with his back resting against the shopfront.

“Spare a dollar, buddy?” he asked me.

“Arghhh!” I yelled at him.

I then noticed a few feet from him a planter box with this wonderful conjunction:

Flags

I stopped and pointed at it and laughed out loud and then plonked myself down on the pavement between it and the homeless guy.

“Oh my America! My new-found-land!” I recited out loud. “You crazy country!” I turned to the homeless guy. “That’s John Donne, the famous poet. You might know him. No? No idea? AKA Cunt Donne.”

Cunt done indeed.

“Can you spare a dollar?” he repeated with a crooked grin. “Got a dollar, buddy?”

You know, I think I did have a dollar but it was deep, oh so deep in my pocket.

 

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Episode 10: They hear woman with vibrator in Vegas

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We arrived late and tired to the hotel — it was the famous one with the huge pyramid —

1 Luxor 1

Here’s the soap we pinched to prove we were there —

2 Soap small

We queued to check in and went up to our room and tried the door but the electronic key wouldn’t work. I tried it every which way.

“But this is absurd,” I said. “We should try to find a staff person.”

“There won’t be any staff,” my partner said. “This place is a machine. Everything is set up to make you gamble, nothing else.”

It certainly felt deserted. I cast my eye up and down: the inside of the pyramid was cavernous, you could see floors and floors of rooms, like a beehive, but not a soul in sight.

I tried the room key one more time — and this time a muffled, hesitant voice came from within. “This room taken!” it said, or it might have been, “We are in here!

We both stared at the door. I was suddenly conscious that the person in “our” room, whoever it was, was watching us right now through the spyhole in the door, and probably had been all the time we were trying the key and pulling at the handle. I drew my partner aside.

“Actually,” I said, “this is good. We might get an upgrade. In fact I’ll insist upon it.”

We went back down to check-in. The queue was long; I had to be bold. I marched up to the man and, summoning as much haughtiness as I could, tossed the key across the desk.

“Seems our room is already taken,” I said.

“That’s odd,” the man said and scanned his computer. Then: “Hmm. I guess we’ll just have to upgrade you to one of our superior suites.”

“That would be a good idea,” I said and chuckled in what I thought was a worldly way. I added, for I felt a bit guilty over the haughtiness, “And in which case, we might even stay for a second night” — to which the man, without taking his eyes from the computer screen, gave a brief, private smile.

With our new key in hand we went up to our “superior suite”, higher up than our original room, and it didn’t disappoint. A large space, two huge beds, a massive flat-screen telly.

“But there’s no kettle,” I said.

“They don’t want you in your room being comfortable,” my partner said. “They want you out spending.”

“Perhaps I can get a cup of tea on the Strip.”

“If you say so.”

I brushed aside all obstacles. We had only this one night in Vegas, and it was already ten pm. “Let’s go!”

We strode out. It was everything I dreamed it would be. A fantasy world! —

3 Fantasy world

“The first time you come here there’s the big wow factor,” my partner commented, “there’s that insane intensity. The second time it’s just the revolting underbelly.”

But what about the incredible iconic sights — Paris, New York, Hollywood —

4 Paris in Vegas

“There’s no hope for humanity,” she said.

I could understand what she was on about — it was brash and superficial and all about money — but this was my time! I wanted to be wow’d. I wanted to go into every hotel —

Caesars Palace in Las Vegas

“It’s the fall of the Roman Empire all over again,” she said.

True, the grittier, seedier side was almost immediately apparent. The pavements of the main Strip were littered with cards portraying naked women, their nipples and other bits discreetly covered by little stars. These cards were advertising for escort girls and strip clubs and were being passed out to passersby, who clearly discarded them in their thousands —

6 Pavement

As I walked along, one’s eyes could not help but be drawn to these cards. But I did not have the moral courage to bend over and pick one up, for fear of social embarrassment. Yet the desire to do so was strong, and eventually I said to my partner, “If you see me reach down and pick up one of those cards, it’s an anthropological experiment merely.”

“This is Satan’s lair,” she said.

We snaked on down the Strip. The night was hot and the crowds were huge. We passed dancing girls. You could get your photo taken with them for a small donation. This one waved me over and I snapped her for free —

7 Girls

“Goodo!” I said to her and walked right on by. “Goodo!”

My partner was steering us towards the famous Venice Hotel. If you were ever going to see a hotel in Vegas, she said, it should be this one. It had more style and dignity and quietness than all the brashness around it. And it was true —

8 Venetian

Magnificent. “This is where the intellectuals come when they go to Vegas!” I said, delighted.

Yet here we found ourselves not entirely relaxed, because the non-gambling parts of the hotel were largely deserted due to the late hour. We walked along its mall: its shops were closed. This window drew our attention —

9 Cat Masks

Mysterious, significant somehow. We continued on through large empty spaces that leached our energy. After some searching we found our way back onto the Strip. It’s where I wanted to be. It was full of life; you could feel the pull of the hot night air and the press of human bodies. I wanted to lose myself in it, this endless stream, turning and flowing, the smell of beer.

But we had a plan to descend into more gambling parts, just to see them. They looked like this —

10 Gambling

The spinning roulette wheels and the revolving dials of the slots … they were just so many chocolate wheels. I expected a bit more glamour; the scene struggled to rise above a Returned Services Club back home. Nothing reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven, no high-rollers in suits or ten-gallon hats, no charming smiles and suave cocked eyebrows. My partner was more dismissive:

“I’ve never seen so many people so disabled from their fatness,” she said, surveying the scene.

It was true. A large number of obese people were seated at the slot machines. Others were not fat but infirm in some way, supported by breathing machines or other devices that kept them upright so that they could endlessly hit the ‘play’ button on the machines.

We strode on through, triumphing in the fact that we were above such behaviour — until I stopped at a slot machine. I saw the place where you insert your ten-dollar bill. It said ‘ten-dollar bill’. That was exactly the bill I had in my pocket, and which I now began to finger.

This particular machine was nicely located out of the way, on a corner where two rows of machines met. It felt private and safe and all at once very inviting. It would surely be no harm if I inserted my note right there in that slot. It even had a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory theme —

11 Wonka

Surely that was a good omen. It would just be a bit of fun with some chocolate surprises…just the one play would do it —

“What? — ” I said, because my partner was saying something to me. “What was that you said?”

“I’ve never seen such fatness in all my days,” she said, casting her gaze around.

“Oh. Yes…yes…” I agreed and the note stayed fingered in my pocket.

Back outside the warm stream of people flowed by. We stepped into it and it bore us along. I looked up. We were passing under this creature that stared right down at me and right inside me —

12 The God

I could not take my eyes off it. Glorious! I took five snaps of it. It — this mysterious figure with its shining blue eyes and riding a strange, other-worldly ship called ecstasy — was inviting me on board. Come, join me, climb up upon my cornucopia of gold and ride into bliss! But it was unsettling too. The glowing eyes seemed to mock me at the same time. Yet, I thought, one could choose to jump on board and hang the result. This place was full of energy but had no conscience — and that was liberating! It had no class boundaries; it had no boundaries at all. It did not care who or what you were. Nothing meant anything. Come fly with me, come fly with me! And why not?! Why not a libertine world? One could give over to it. One could find…the Vegas within.

The stream moved us along to a place above the street that afforded a grand view of the whole dazzling Strip, and we paused there to admire it, including the elegant Bellagio —

13 Bellagio

“You know,” my partner said, “I see all this and I think, Islamic State take it.”

The hour was very late and we were running out of steam but decided we’d move on to see one last hotel. The MGM, famous for its glitz. But there had been some roadworks and we were diverted to a side entrance. We followed walkways and corridors and passed through a maze of glass doors — and the thing was we never managed to get into the hotel itself, we never found it, so we had to retrace our steps. I’d noticed that my partner had been opening doors using only her elbows.

“What are you doing that for?” I finally asked.

“I don’t want to touch the handles,” she said. “They’re all spermy.”

I was too tired to compute this. We dragged ourselves along the street, finally got back to the pyramid, went up to our room and — with no cup of tea in sight — collapsed exhausted into bed.

The first impediment: the pillows were huge and hard, impossible to sleep on — unless, I realized, you were really big or really fat.

“Think about it,” I said to my partner. “The mechanics of it.”

I tried sleeping without a pillow, but the bed was so hard I didn’t know which was worse: pillow or no pillow.

Suddenly there was a commotion outside the room — loud laughing and joking — and I jumped up and went over to the door and planted my eye into the socket of the door’s spyhole.

Now, I’ve got to say that this spyhole was magnificent. It gave an almost 180-degree view of the hallway. And through it I could see two men approaching, from the right, their bodies somewhat warped by the fish-eye effect.

One of the men had no shirt on. I got the sense he was sweaty and bursting with machismo. I imagined he was Mexican. They laughed and brayed and lingered awhile then turned around and went back the way they’d come — the direction of the elevator. The sense of lawlessness of the ‘Mexican’ was disconcerting.

“It’s OK, “ I said, and got back into bed.

We lay in silence for a while. I could not get comfortable.

Then the noise outside returned — the laughing, braying men were back.

“Superior suite my arse!” my partner said.

It sounded like a fracas was about to begin. Also I could hear a woman’s voice among it all.

I leapt out of bed and hurried to the door again. I looked through the spyhole — there they were, the two men, the shirtless Mexican most prominent, right outside our door. Actually they were just to the right — they were staying in the room right next to ours!

Their door was open: I could see the two men clearly addressing themselves to people inside the room. I could hear, but not see, a woman, or was it two women?

I was suddenly annoyed with myself. If I’d got out of bed just that little bit sooner I might’ve been able to see what was going on a bit better.

The two men entered the room. The door closed behind them.

I returned to bed. We could hear them all very clearly through the wall. I listened in the dark: I could hear, yes, two women’s voices, loud, maybe drunk.

“I could call the desk,” I said.

“No. Give it some time,” my partner said.

We lay there waiting. Miraculously it wasn’t long before we heard their door open and their voices resound in the hallway.

I padded to my position at the spyhole and saw the two men. I could hear a woman’s voice out there too but couldn’t see her. Damn it! What was it about this spyhole that wouldn’t let me see the women?!

“They’re leaving,” I said, and returned to bed.

“They’ll be back.”

Well, at least we had this window of opportunity to get to sleep. The room next door had fallen quiet, so perhaps all the occupants had gone. I tried the fatty’s pillow again. If I lay perfectly still, in the centre of it, maybe I could sleep. Some time passed, I might have been dozing off. Then:

“Are you hearing that?” my partner said.

I got up on my elbow and listened. It was a low moaning. Female, of a sexual nature.

We listened in the dark.

“It’s a woman with a vibrator,” my partner said.

I jumped out of bed and pressed my ear against the wall. I could hear a whirring sound.

“Not that wall…” my partner said.

Oh, the other one! What I was hearing was an air conditioner.

I stepped over to the wall separating us from our raucous neighbours and placed my ear on it. I could hear the moaning clearly enough. Not constant, but it was there. So at least one person — one woman — was still in that room.

I listened. And listened.

I could hear nothing other than her moaning. I could not hear a vibrator, and did not know if one could’ve in that situation. And now that I thought about it, how did my partner deduce that a vibrator was at work instead of some other stimulation? I did not want to know.

It was appropriate that I return to bed. I did so. The moaning seemed to subside. We tossed and turned. The pillows were impossible.

Then the moaning recommenced, this time much louder.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” said my partner.

“I’m going to call the front desk,” I said.

“No,” my partner said firmly.

“We have a right to.”

“I know.”

“I can do it,” I said.

“Don’t.”

Even if one ends up being really gauche, I wanted to say, one should not be embarrassed to do such things.

“Well how about I knock on the wall?” I said.

“No!”

“Fine!”

So we would sleep through it. I pummelled the pillow to soften it. Then something strange happened. I got itchy. At first on my legs, then all over. I had to scratch and couldn’t stop myself.

“What are you doing?” my partner asked.

“I’m scratching. I’m itching all over. It could be bed bugs.”

“Don’t tell me that!”

“I’m joking,” I said and explained that it was almost certainly my dry skin, exacerbated by the desert air and all the air conditioning.

I had an idea. “Look, let’s sleep in separate beds. We’re just waking each other up this way.”

“Yes.”

So I ventured over to the other bed. En route I pressed my ear against the wall and heard our neighbor still busy at work, long lingering low moans of intense pleasure. I shrugged and went to the bed. This time I ditched all pillows, got my jacket and scrunched it up and tried it. Apart from the zip biting into my cheek, it was far better than the damn pillows.

And it was good to have one’s own space. I was no longer itchy.

But sleep still evaded me — how long had I lain there? I could not see a clock; it was beside my partner. The moaning next door continued. How long could she go on for?

Eventually, not being able to sleep, I got up to listen again. The wall was cool against my ear. I felt strangely calm. The room was completely dark, or almost dark; I could see the outline of things. A recent headline from an Irish newspaper flashed into my mind —

14 Paper

Oh yes, No light, but darkness visible. I could stand here seen yet unseen, forever. And I did stand there for some time, how long I couldn’t tell. The deep-felt moaning in my ear was like the coming and going of waves on a beach under a faint moon, in and out…in and out… I could fall asleep right here, on my feet, beautiful, beautiful…

I was sleepy. I returned to bed and lay down.

But as soon as I got horizontal, my stillness of mind was invaded by images from the Strip. One was of a woman we saw being tattooed on her shoulder. She had laughed at the pain of it, perhaps not from stoicism but from the thrill of having her naked breasts exposed to the stream of passersby, mostly men, myself included, who grinned or gawped at her flesh. I’d been too surprised to take a photo and was jostled along.

Then the iconic figure reappeared to me, the one I came to call the God of the Strip —

15 The god close up

Those eyes of his, his beckoning hand laden with coins. That breasted creature he rode. That mask he wore — “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” Oscar Wilde said. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

More broken literary fragments came jangling like puppets into my mind. A line from the Marquis de Sade, which I’d not thought about for many years, from The 120 Days of Sodom — in which Duke Blangis (ah yes, de Sade’s favourite creation, a cruel libertine craven) is depicted in the throes of sexual climax thus: “Horrible shrieks and dreadful oaths escaped his heaving breast. Flames seemed to dart from his eyes. He frothed at the mouth…he whinnied… and he even strangled his partner.”

“Ha ha ha ha ha!” I laughed to myself. “Ha ha ha ha!”

Images of the escort cards that littered the Strip in their countless millions flickered in and out of my vision. Those cards! How my eye had scanned back and forth, back and forth, like — yes, like the evil angel Mammon from Milton’s Paradise Lost, who — I remembered this fragment from my student days —before his fall from grace, walked about Heaven with “his looks and thoughts always downward bent,/ admiring more the riches of Heaven’s pavement”, hoping to find any coins that had fallen from the other angels’ pockets.

Pavement I now thought, just as I thought back then twenty years ago, pavement … What a stupid word to put in a poem! And what a stupid rhyme! Downward bent…pavement. The pavement cards morphed in my mind —

16 Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah. Burn, baby, burn! —

17 On fire

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha!” I laughed.

A noise split the night. I sat bolt upright. Commotion again erupted out in the hallway. I threw the sheet aside and darted to the door and planted my eye in the spyhole.

The still-shirtless Mexican and his mate were holding a woman in their arms. They carried her ‘chair’ style, their arms under her thighs while she draped her arms around their necks. She wore a stark red dress and was moaning deliriously, her head flopping back. The men were talking in their braying language — not laughing, this was serious. What on earth was happening? Was she with them or was she a stranger? Had they spiked her drink and kidnapped her and were going to do unspeakable things to her right next door? — No, they were not. There was a familiarity to their demeanours; and this new soberness of the men spoke against anything untoward. They stopped outside their door and one of them — the Mexican — knocked on it.

I don’t know why but I found myself opening our own door.

I did not actually walk out into the hall to meet them, after all I was dressed only in boxers and a T-shirt. Rather, I held onto our door and extended my top half out more or less horizontally from it.

From their point of view, it would have looked like I was somehow sticking out sideways from the room, like I was floating, like a vampire perhaps.

“Hello!” I said. “Problem here? Problem here?”

The two men, and even the woman — who, I now realized, was in pain — turned to me. Their expressions were suddenly blank; their mouths hung open.

“What’s your connection with her?” I said to the Mexican and pointed to the red-dress woman.

The Mexican removed his right arm from its position supporting the legs of the woman and jabbed a finger in my direction. The blank expression was gone; he now looked fierce.

“You,” he said to me, pointing, “you can fuck off.”

“Goodo!” I said “Goodo!” and my top half glided sideways back into our room. I closed the door.

I heard their door open. I fixed my eye to the spyhole.

“What’s happening?” came my partner’s voice out of the darkness.

“Shush!” I said.

I could hear the second woman — the vibrator woman — open the door and come out. But she only came out far enough for me to see her forearm. Blast this damn spyhole!

They were all talking to each other in excited voices. The two men carried the red-dress woman inside and then the door was pulled shut. I left the spyhole and moved to my position by the wall and planted my ear. Yes…yes…the story unfolded. There had been a fight…with some men outside a club…and the red-dress woman had trodden on a broken bottle…her foot was slashed… They were explaining all this to the vibrator woman, who was suitably shocked and concerned and I was wondering had she finished with the vibrator when they’d knocked or had they interrupted her?

There was some laughter… All would be OK…Phew!

I relayed all this to my partner, leaving out my little encounter with the Mexican.

Within ten minutes silence fell in the next room.

Without any more conversation between my partner and me, I returned to my bed. I slept. I know this because at some point I woke with a nightmare, sat up, flaying in the darkness visible, and cried out to my partner, “Where are you?!”

“I’m in the other bed. You’re OK, you’re OK.”

“Oh…Oh…” I said and lay back down.

And I was awake enough to hear her mutter, “For the love of God let me sleep.”

Next thing I knew our clock-alarm was beeping. It was daytime, early but we had a big day ahead.

“How revolting to be kept awake for three hours by a woman diddling herself,” my partner said as I drew back the curtain. Unglamorous day greeted us —

18 Heat

We forced ourselves to eat a dismal, groggy meal at Starbucks in the lobby. With coffee I perked up. I said I wanted to explore the hotel for a few minutes. Long had I desired to see the pagan gods and idols of this building —

19 Luxor idols

Did my partner wish to join me?

“No,” she said and sat down with the luggage next to some fatties from Australia. “I’ll sit here,” she said, and added: “Doesn’t matter where you are in Hell, you’re still burning, right?”

I walked out the main entrance and into a long tunnel, which proved to be the loins of a great creature, which I saw in full when I emerged into the beating sun and heat. Oh greatness! —

20 Sphinx

But it was time to leave. We picked up our hire car. On the outskirts of the city my partner pointed to a sign.

“Look,” she said. “The University of Las Vegas. Typical. A shack in the heat.”

“It wasn’t all that bad,” I said, meaning our whole experience.

“Promise me we’ll never return.”

We hit the open road and drove east across Arizona and up into Utah and came almost to the centre of the desert. And here, in our humble hotel room, with the pure, red sand all about us, we made a cup of tea and stretched out on the sofa and switched on the television only to discover the following programs on free-to-air broadcast —

Bye-bye double chin!

Lovemaking secrets!

Belly too big?

Knife show/cutlery corner

I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist

I hate my aching feet

Young sluts who serve

Plus-sized nymphos

Homemade sluts

And a program hosted by two glamorous but respectable-looking women, called Sexy pleasures: Adam and Eve at Home. We paused on this one. The two hosts took the viewing audience through a tour of their top-of-the-line vibrators, including—

The wild G spot rabbit vibrator — “Truly futuristic, waterproof and with rabbit ears.”

The wet wabbit vibrator — “With rabbit ears, the future of adult toys.”

The bullet blaster kit — “Complete with light indicator.”

The original Venus butterfly — “Excellent for hands-free action.”

Fingo’s nubby finger …

The removable vibrating bullet …

And finally the Super head honcho masturbator for men.

They invited the audience to explore all their fine products at www.adameve.com. Their eyes twinkled as they said, “Purchase one of our top-line products and you’ll also get a free romance kit with a little something for him, and also for her.”

“That’s enough of that rubbish,” I said and turned it off.

We headed further east, by car and then by plane and after many dusty days arrived in New York.

At last, Manhattan! Now we could get the holiday we wanted, the holiday we dreamed of in our planning. Civilization! Culture! Class! Begone all that crassness!

But even seedy hotels are expensive in Manhattan. We lugged our luggage up the narrow stairs and into a tiny room that was in fact one of their ‘deluxe suites’. We stood around looking at the room, for there was nowhere to sit, and within ten minutes we heard a raucous noise in the hallway.

I went to the spyhole, which by the way was far inferior to the one in Vegas. Through it I could see two people: a muscle-bound man grinning like a boy and a raunchy blonde woman cackling.

With great excitement and fidgeting and groping they entered the room directly next to ours.

“They’ll be trouble,” I said.

We continued to unpack our bags, and within a few minutes a loud cry came from the corridor.

“Christ, that’s a child!” I said, alarmed.

“That was no child,” my partner said. “It’s that raunch couple.”

“No,” I said. But I went to the wall connecting our rooms and listened and sure enough they were engaging in raucous sex, and very soon they reached their crescendo, which included — I could hear it clearly — slapping of flesh and the woman emitting a very loud ecstatic screech.

“She actually sounds like a monkey,” my partner said.

Then I was drawn to new sounds coming from the hallway. I took to the spyhole and saw that a Middle Eastern family had come out of their room and were heading in our direction clearly having heard the woman’s shrieks and thinking that a girl or woman was being attacked or was dying or otherwise in need of some help. Then, halfway down, the father obviously twigged to what was going on, and he went from looking concerned to looking horror-struck; he stopped his wife and young daughter in their tracks, did an abrupt about-face and ushered them back into their room, saying something like, “Go, go! Nothing here, nothing here!”

I returned to my partner.

“Christ, it’s everywhere we go,” she said.

“Well, we’re stuck here now,” I said. “We’ve paid a week in advance, no cancellations permitted. I guess we’ll have to spend the evenings at Starbucks.”

The sexual moaning and grunting next door continued in full swing.

“It’s so disrespectful, they’re animals,” my partner said.

“They are literally animals fucking, if you know what I mean,” I said more philosophically.

Another wailing cry of ecstasy echoed through the building.

“Come on!” my partner suddenly hollered. “It’s not a fucking whorehouse in here!”

I stood looking at the wall that separated us from the action, mystified that all I was seeing was a wall, an immovable wall.

“Fuck it, let’s go for a walk,” my partner said.

Yes, I guess that would be the thing to do. Get some air. Maybe stop for a drink somewhere, see the sights, Statue of Liberty and so on.

We stepped out into the hallway. The sex noise had stopped and now voices could be heard from within our neighbours’ room, normal voices, mostly the woman’s voice.

“Did you hear that?” my partner asked, and proceeded down the hall.

“No, what?”

“What the woman said.”

“No. What did she say?” I said following her.

“Something about in my butt-hole.”

Goddamit! I said to myself and punched my hand in frustration and looked back at Miss Butt-hole’s door. How can I report on my world if I don’t pay attention!!

So we headed out onto the street. The night, at least, was cool.

 

Episode 9: A tale of lust and romance

3

The couple pulled up into the little car park just after we did. It was a bright sunny morning after rain and the carpark at the back of the lodge was a bit mucky. But no one cared about that in that glorious sunlight. Our American hosts introduced us to them and instantly we were all delighted and laughing. It emerged very quickly that he, the husband, was a literature academic.

“Of what type?” I asked, and he briefly answered “the moderns”, to which his wife — and presumably this was inspired by our just having said that we were travelling from Ireland — ironically, if pointedly, asked him:

“Ah but have you read Ulysses?”

“No,” he said, a bit sheepish.

“Ah,” I said after a pause, “but there is one of us present who has!” — my tone and raised finger indicating that I was referring to myself, and this brought grins and instant laughter.

Then, smiling but with a narrowed eye, the husband shot me a question: “But have you read Finnegan’s Wake?”

“Only the first word!” I retorted and laughed aloud as if this was a great joke, because I had a vague recollection that the first word was somehow significant but in truth I couldn’t remember anything about that novel other than its title.

Either way, everyone chuckled, suspecting there must have been a humorous significance too. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

As we walked towards the lodge’s lovely entrance, it emerged that she, the wife, likewise had a literature background and said boldly that the only good literature was that written before the turn of the nineteenth century.

“Bravo!” I said.

“Give me George Eliot and Emily Bronte any day!” she said with a flourish.

It was amazing how well she fitted this “type”. She was lithe and artistic somehow, making flowing arm gestures and eyebrow raises; very ‘feminine’ if one can use that word. I could readily see her running across the moors in the wind.

We all said goodbye and the husband and wife went into their suite and we joined our hosts in the main part of the lodge. The hosts at once suggested that since we and the new couple were the only guests we should all have dinner with them some time. I said I thought that would be a great idea.

The dinner happened the very next night. The couple, as it turned out, were regular guests to the lodge, and knew the hosts quite well and were totally at ease in the kitchen and dining room as we all pitched in. While we were preparing the food and drinking some wine in the process, the wife surprised me by revealing that she now had a great interest in financial crises and other economic issues, and indeed worked part-time in the economics field, not in the field of literature at all.

My partner asked her about her specific interests, and the wife supplied details and even went on to explain that she had to find reading matter on such a such a topic but was having great difficulty doing so, to which my partner, who dabbles in that area, said:

“I’ve got a whole reading list on that very topic. I can email it to you right now.”

“Oh!” the wife said to my partner, raising her hands in a devotional prayer gesture, “I worship you!”

I said nothing, but feeling left out I contrived at the dinner table to bring the conversation back to literature, specifically by introducing a novel I’m sure the wife would’ve appreciated; it even won the Booker prize, I said.

“What’s it about?” she asked.

“Well,” I began, “it’s a novel of great complexity and is resonant with nineteenth-century writing. It’s structured according to the zodiac, each chapter representing a phase of the astrological system. Ingenious, really.”

She shook her head and frowned. “But what’s it about?”

I was aware of the husband watching me closely. “Well,” I said, “the story is really interesting…” — and I rather um’ed and ah’ed for a bit because the truth was that I’d read the opening fifty pages or so of the novel three times and couldn’t get past them. There was no story, I kept forgetting where I was and falling asleep and having to backtrack. There was a ship and a storm and many pages of small print, but that was all I could remember.

“Well,” I continued, “the novel’s antique style and arcane astrological system, the ascendant, the cusp affect and reflect the plot, so that as the star sign waxes and wanes so too do the characters.”

She blinked back at me in her round glasses. There was an awkward silence in which I felt my colour rise. Then everyone turned to each other and immediately continued on with their global financial crisis discussion, during which the wife was beaming at my partner.

I kept to myself after that. During dessert, however, the wife surprised me.

“I have a novel for you,” she said. “It’s pure nineteenth century. It’s one of my favourites of all time. It’s called The Romance of Lust.”

“Ha, ha ha!” I laughed. “An oxymoronic title!” Her bright eyes held me and I was desperately thinking what on earth that title meant. “A romantic saga!” I said. “An epic of never-ending polar opposites! Who’s it by? A woman?”

The wife shook her head, delighted with herself, and said to the whole company: “It’s by Anonymous!”

“Ah,” I said. “So it is written by a woman!”

The husband, in a narrow, suspicious way, leaned forward. “Why would you say that?”

“You know, ” I said. “Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, women and fiction and all that — a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow, some witticisms about Miss Mitford if possible.” I felt my colour rising again under the company’s gaze as I sought the words and quoted Woolf: “Anonymous, who wrote so many poems without singing them, was often a woman.”

The husband gave a derisive snort. The wife, however, laughed even more delighted and reached over the table, tapped my hand, and said, “I’ll drop the novel over to you later.”

True to her word, late in the evening after much red wine had been consumed, she placed the novel next to me without saying a word.

“Great,” I said, as she took herself to the other side of the room. I picked up the volume: The Romance of Lust: A Classic Victorian Erotic Novel.

I decided not to start it till the next morning when I’d have a clear head. The day dawned bright. The lodge was filled with soft light. Our hosts had given us the best room, on the second floor, with commanding views of the grounds and the surrounding woods. It was in this room, in a wonderful old armchair, that I sat back and began to read the novel.

It begins with the hero-narrator, Charles, as a boy being seduced by his governess (oh how wonderful to have a governess!), Miss Evelyn —

…she gradually removed every particle of dress within a couple of yards of me —

[at this point Charles is hiding in a cupboard in her bedroom and is watching her through a peephole]

— the effect of each succeeding charm, from her lovely and beautifully formed bubbies to the taking off her shoes and stockings from her well-formed legs and small feet and ankles, caused my pego to swell and stiffen to a painful extent. When all but her chemise was removed, she stopped to pick up her petticoats that she had allowed to fall to her feet, and in lifting them, raised also her chemise, and exposed to my view a most glorious bottom—dazzlingly white and shining like satin.

And:

Oh, how little she thought of the passion she was raising. Oh! dear Miss Evelyn, how I did love you from the dainty kid slipper and tight glossy silk stocking, up to the glorious swell of the beautiful bubbies, that were so fully exposed to me nearly every night, and the lovely lips of all that I longed to lovingly embrace.

How delightful! How naïve and innocent was the writing! Ah the constraints of those days! The decorum! I slung my leg over one arm of the chair and thought of the wife — she must enjoy it, I thought, as I was enjoying it now, for the love of the language and the playfulness we as modern readers bring to it with all our sexual and publishing freedoms.

I examined the volume again. It was indeed old and well-thumbed and dog-eared, browned with age, some moisture damage here and there. I would’ve thought she would’ve taken more care of it. But maybe the book’s ragged condition was a sign of its status with her: she was happy to take it everywhere and throw it around like an old knockabout friend — Herodotus, or Pride and Prejudice perhaps.

I read on. The novel got a bit edgier and I laughed: The governess had taken to putting young Charles over her knee and spanking him (delightful!) —

This, together with the intense tickling irritation communicated to my bottom, as well as to the friction of my pego against the person of Miss Evelyn in my struggles, rendered me almost delirious, and I tossed and pushed myself about on her knees in a state of perfect frenzy as the blows continued to be showered down upon my poor bottom —

Then I sat up, for the book took a dramatic turn altogether; the innocent beginning is a clever trap. Once Charles’s sexuality is awakened, he and Miss Evelyn engage in, to use the novel’s own words, “the lewdest and most lascivious indulgences” and practise “every act of lubricity”.

I will not, could not, detail for the reader what follows in the novel, beyond saying that the four-letter words become the norm and that the novel contains more sex than I’ve ever read before; and not normal sex-sex, but the most excessive, explicit, extreme and taboo-ish encounters that … that I could not hope to … that are like … that one could not … over hundreds of unrelenting, shocking pages —

And this book was handed to me by the wife, and it was one of her favourites! I stood up. I pictured her in her boudoir, thinking of me reading this thing in my hands. Was her thought erotic? Exhilarating?

Over the next four days I read the novel at every possible opportunity, and often secretly for fear of anyone developing any opinions about me. I was determined to know it, to finish it. I would be talking to the wife about it. I wanted to know everything. And I was not going to be found wanting again like I was with the Booker Prize book over dinner, and that rude, mean snort from the husband. I took mental notes. I jotted down page numbers to revisit. I stayed in the room while my partner, sometimes in the company of our hosts, strolled the grounds or walked through the Appalachian woods. I kept my eye out for the wife, whom I would occasionally see from our bedroom window. Her and the husband’s suite was in full view; I could even see inside their suite. I would listen for their comings and goings, lift back our curtain and look down. She would stroll in and out of view, a Penguin Classic in hand. One afternoon, hearing their door slide open, I put aside The Romance of Lust and strolled to the window and looked down. She was, miraculously, scantily clad. I thought she was in bra and panties. I did not bother to conceal myself. I felt my expression was hard, my gaze imperious, but I did not care. I almost willed her to look up at me. It turned out that it was a bikini she was wearing and that she was about to join her husband in the lodge’s outdoor hot tub. Another time, her door opened and I went to our window to watch — and there she was holding in her delicate hands two huge leather boots! Woodsman’s boots, I thought, with a flared cuff at the top. Her husband’s no doubt. She was cleaning the muck off them. They looked so big next to her.

I suppose this was sobering, though my curiosity did not wane. Yet I felt the need to get out too, and at times joined my partner and our hosts in journeys through the woods. This was liberating! Oh the fresh air! It was so evocative. I was reminded very powerfully of The Last of the Mohicans with all that exciting running through the forest. And I took to reciting that line where Daniel Day Lewis says to his love in the spray of the waterfall and with the cruel Huron Indians in pursuit: “No, you submit, do you hear? You be strong, you survive…You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.”—

I will find you

I felt strong. I needed purpose. I had to finish reading The Romance of Lust, of course, but I wanted more. I embarked on making comprehensive lists of appropriate phrases and words used in the novel to describe the sexual organs — this was in preparation for work on my own novel which I’m going to submit to my local publisher when it’s written (having been inspired by the publisher in my recent encounter with him, see Episode 7).

Here are some examples of the female bits from The Romance of Lust:

delicious grotto

Venus’s altar

velvety folds

her beauteously covered mount

I glued my lips to the open pouters below me

the entrance of love’s grotto

voluptuous sheath

delicious cave of delight

the orifice of the lower temple of Venus

mossy mons Veneris

the delightful callipygian recesses of Venus’s second temple of lubricity

rosebud-like dimple

the more secret temple of salacious delights

before the smaller temple of lust

the second orbit of love

her well-rounded globes of dimpled ivory

cunny land

the divine temple of Priapus

sacred vases

the generative vase

exquisite receptacle

that narrow abode of bliss

the vermilion nut

the exquisite recess of Venus

the divine entrance of that rapture-giving receptacle

And the male bit:

doodle

delicious instrument

mighty instrument

naked instrument

glowing instrument

saturated organ

the great development of my weapon

big splitter

The days and nights flew by, and in that time I saw the wife and her husband only in passing, whereat although I tried it was not possible to engage her. I tried — all in good fun of course — shooting meaningful glances at her, tried to insert allusions to the novel, with a flick or two of the rakish eyebrows, but breezily she went about her business. So I satisfied myself that I would have the opportunity to connect with her, to continue our plutonic relationship, at another dinner in the lodge.

But then when my partner and I returned from a walk one afternoon it was to see the husband and wife throwing their bags in the car.

“You’re leaving?!” we said.

Yes, they nodded. I looked to our hosts, who were nodding happily: this was no surprise to them. Why hadn’t anyone mentioned their imminent departure to us? And what about a second dinner and some nice bottles of red? And what about — Christ, the book!

I ran upstairs, grabbed it, and flew back down. The husband was leaning into the car boot. The wife was talking to the hosts. I went straight up and handed her the novel.

“You’ll be wanting this,” I said.

“Oh no,” she said, waving me back. “I was only kidding. I found it in the suite, it’s not mine. Someone must have left it there.” She looked a little embarrassed, or surprised.

“Of course!” I said and laughed. “Ha! ha! ha!”

“Is it any good?” she said. “I didn’t get to have a look at it.”

“Engrossing!” I said with alacrity, and repeated the word a few times until the hosts leaned in, curious about the book, and I duly handed it over to them with a brief, formal bow, and that was the last I saw of it.

The wife and husband jumped into the car and they were off with a beep of their horn. We waved goodbye, then went inside for a cup of tea.

Soon my partner and I also left the lodge, and then began our long journey through more of the Appalachians and farther north into Quebec, with many a hill-walk and brief stopovers in small towns as the road took us on further across two countries. And everywhere we went, in every little town, I headed to the bookshops, mostly old and secondhand, in a quest to find a copy of that ‘Classic Victorian Erotic Novel’. The road draws me ever on, and still I have not found it, but I know, no matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find it…

 

Mohicans

 

 

Episode 8: A song of ice and fire

2

All right. It was time to get more serious about this country. I would start by learning more about it. I suggested to my partner that we go to northern Ireland. But here I encountered a dilemma. I wanted to see places where A Game of Thrones was filmed, including the studio in Belfast, but I also very much wanted to see the Titanic Museum, also in Belfast. You can’t do everything when you’re travelling. So what to do?

I decided I’d let the journey lead me to the answer. And it did, with surprising results.

You know, it’s a strange thing but Dubliners whenever you raise the subject of northern Ireland always speak about it in hushed, wary tones, like the characters in Game of Thrones when they speak of the North beyond the Wall. Oooh, the North! Be careful! Winter is coming! Beware the White Walkers! Scary!

I don’t know what all the fuss is about. We drove up through lovely little towns. The curbs were painted red, white and blue, and the streets were decked out in bunting pennants in the same bright colours.

We got out to walk. “It’s great,” I said, “it’s like it were a fete day every day,” and I started on about where was the alleged northern grimness and “troubles” and how you have to have “one eye looking over your shoulder” and so on.

“Hush!” my partner said.

“Oooh!” I joked. “’Ware the White Walkers of the North! One touch from the locals will turn us to ice!”

At her urging we didn’t linger but drove on to the ancient city of London Derry, which has a famous “walled city” within it. The walls are massive and have never been breached —

Derry City

I’m no good at reading historical plaques and such. It’s made worse by the fact that my partner reads these things four times faster than I do, and has the habit of commenting on them when I’m still in the process of trying to read them.

Above the entrance of the walls, I read: “On this site in 1688, the famous city of Derry — ”

“Did you read that?” she said, pointing three-quarters of the way down the plaque.

“What?”

“That sentence.”

My eye was swimming in the midday sun. “Which sentence? Why?”

“That one!”

I read: “… And so the thirteen Apprentice boys shut the gates in the face of the invaders, thus heroically beginning the siege of Derry…” I asked: “Who were the Apprentice Boys?”

“It says so there.” She pointed again, this time further up.

My eye scanned the words but I found it difficult to focus, and my imagination was seeing scenes of the boys swashbuckling down tunnels and sewers to open and close gates and let bombs off. My eye settled on the name King William of Orange, and I blurted out:

“So the Apprentice Boys were the Orange Boys?”

“There are no Orange Boys,” she said.

I begged to differ! There are Orangemen. I’ve seen them on telly with their bowler hats. Those men began as something!

“But that was long after William of Orange liberated the city. Look.” She pointed to the river Foyle running by the city and explained how the king’s navy sailed up and got to these very gates we were standing above and threw food in.

I shook my head. “But who did he liberate the city from?”

“The Jacobites,” she answered.

“Wait. So the Jacobites were inside the city and King Orange’s men came and freed them?”

“No. — No. The Jacobites were the besiegers. They were the Papists.”

Who were the Papists? — I kept my mouth shut. After a few more plaques and info stops I couldn’t work out if the besiegers were the good Irish, or if the good Irish were inside the city, or if the Apprentice Boys had closed the gates or in fact opened them or whose side they were on. And indeed, what trades were they in?

We walked on and came upon a big group of tourists looking over the wall into a square below where some short-haired youths were building a circular wooden structure —

Bonfire

This was more like it! It proved to be a massive bonfire in the making. We overheard the tour guide say that the bonfire was a celebration of the Orange Order. The builders were Orange Boys!

I couldn’t resist joining in, and said to everyone present: “Let’s hope they don’t throw any Papists in!”

Jeez! Some people have no sense of humour.

Fire

Look, all I know is that next to green, orange is my favourite colour on the Irish flag.

The day dragged on, the walls went round, the history mounted, and by the end of it I’d had quite enough of kings and queens and this green game of thrones. So the answer was simple: next day we would head to the Titanic Museum. Hooray!

It was expensive to get into the museum — over twenty pounds sterling — and that was only the tip of the iceberg! But in we went and it was rivetting! —

Rivetting

We were thrust into Titanic’s story. The ship sailed at an unlucky hour:

Launch

Titanic picked up some hapless Irish then steamed ahead. But —

The smart ship grew

The Hardy poem goes on —

Let none hope to avoid their fate;

Let sun-worshippers worship,

And ice-haters hate.

 

There were warnings enough —

Ice warning

But they were ignored. Then it happened. CQD! CQD! Come Quick, Distress! —

Urgent

We’ve struck the iceberg! This is serious. We’re already getting the women into the boats —

Help, Big Sister

Mayday Mayday Mayday, we’re going down —

Going down fast

Going down —

going down

Going down now —

Faster

Last messages —

Last Messages

Going … gone! —

That's it

It was so poignant to read the stories of those final moments. Some passengers, rather than face the icy water, threw themselves into each other’s arms in a kind of bacchanalian free for all —

Getting excited

I won’t detail the sad stories gathered there in commemoration, but will convey the poignancy of the experience by saying how outraged I was, as presumably many others are, when learning that an Inquiry into the disaster brought no one to account, even though it was clear that there were shortcomings —

The Inquiry

— No, neither the Captain nor the Crew nor the Company had had a large experience of ice, yet they sailed on regardless. And there were the lifeboats, or rather than absence of. The ship was supposed to have 1000 lifeboats, but a huge number of these were actually removed from the ship before sailing, so as to make room on board for a croquet pitch and a second swimming pool. Here is one of those original lifeboats, standing useless in the museum —

Lifeboat

And no one was responsible! I began to formulate some ethical-moral grounds for holding White Star Line accountable: One, you built the boat. Two, — but then I heard something, a wistful music that drew me away into an adjoining room, and there I struck gold: the essence of the Titanic Experience! —

The film

The music was the theme song to the film, and images to match. All very moving —

Never let go

Oh yes —

Romance

With this truth in mind, we left the building; and there at its front, not seen by us when entering, was Kate Winslet herself. I’m flying, Jack!

Flying

Believe it or not, my story continues. After Belfast we drove a long way south and then west to join the extended family for a week-long holiday in the Gaelic-speaking area of the country, all of us sharing the one big holiday house. In the evenings we would, for a while at least, sit by the fire and sing songs, that is traditional Irish songs or similar ballads. I too was called upon to sing a song. But not being well endowed in that area I apologised and offered instead to tell the poignant story of the Titanic. I launched into it and when I was done, one of the group said, “You know what they say in Belfast about the Titanic? It was all right when it left here!”

Everyone burst into laughter, and then they urged him: “A song! A song!”

This fellow is a real wag. He sat for a moment, rubbing his hairy chin as if deep in thought, then began earnestly —

On a cold rainy night on a Liverpool quayside

In the years before the Great War

The world was in shock at the loss of Titanic,

So proud had they been days before:

Relatives gathered for news of their loved ones,

To read through the list of the dead,

When into the throng came a sad-eyed old polar bear:

And to the clerk at the counter he said:


 

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.

 

Everyone was delighted, and the more he sang the more nasally his delivery became, in the tradition of the Irish lament —

My wife and my children were coming from Greenland,

To be by my side in the zoo:

Belinda’s my wife, and the eldest’s called Bernard:

And Billy, well, he’s only two.

I know on the ship there were hundreds of people,

And I know that the iceberg’s not yours:

The polar bear’s eyes held the start of his teardrops:

He covered his face with his paws.

 

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.

 

It’s been over a year since I last saw my children,

I left home to build a career:

I’ve worked very hard, I’m a star in the circus:

It’s all been for nothing I fear.

There’s my face on the poster: we’re in town this week:

My children were meeting me here:

Everyone watched as he struggled to speak,

As his paw brushed away one more tear:

 

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.

 

By now all the people had gathered beside him,

His grief was one they could share:

The people around him, in silence and sadness

Listened to the sad polar bear

I wanted my children to see me performing:

And Belinda, she would have been proud.

At last lost for words, and his tears flowing freely,

The question was asked by the crowd:



 

And now the whole family, except myself, joined in —

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.

I allow it’s a good song, but I found it disrespectful to the Titanic’s memory and all those who sailed in her. I did not speak these thoughts aloud but took myself off to bed. Well, this song, and the wag who sang it, became the hit of the holiday. Everywhere we went one of the group at some time would be singing snatches of it. In the evenings, when the house was all quiet, and only granny was awake downstairs doing the last cleaning up of the kitchen, I could hear her plaintive, mournful tones coming up the stairway:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

(sweep, sweep)

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

(sweep, sweep)

They mean the whole world to me.

 

Within a month my partner and I were abroad, dashing through the Canadian wilds. It was all high adventure, and I had forgotten all about Ireland and family until one day when we walked into a souvenirs shop in a twee little town and I saw this —

The iceberg

And this —

Happy

And this too —

Quick, swim!

And, wiping away a tear, I began to sing:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.

 Sleeping

Episode 7: Tries to get book published

0

After all that excitement I felt the need for a little quiet, for things more traditional.

I took to strolling in my local area and was surprised to discover a little publisher located in a nearby residential street. It was so odd to find an office situated among these ordinary houses. I had to look about me to see that this was indeed a normal street. It was. But everything was so quiet, not a soul about, even though it was mid-afternoon on a lovely sun-filled day. I looked back at the publisher: it was so neat and compact, its bricks were the same colour and type as the houses, it seemed to fit right in, and yet there was its bottom half in a different façade and its signs announcing its trade —

The Lilliput Press

This seemed somehow significant, and then I remembered (strange that I had forgotten about it) my idea to try to turn my adventures in Ireland, and in other places, into a published book. I found my legs moving towards the building. I opened its little gate, which creaked and squeaked loudly. A sign said not to enter this way but to take a side door two doors down.

I followed this instruction, and knocked on what appeared to be the door of an ordinary house. I felt at this time rather self-conscious and imagined I was being surveyed.

After a while a man answered. He was in his forties and portly, and shorter than me.

Without my being able to get a word out, he said, “Come in, come in,” and motioned me in, looking at the floor as he did so.

I was very polite even though I noticed he was very jowly and ruddy, which I found off-putting. His hair was thick and wavy, and done in an old style, as if pulled and brushed back hard.

He did not smile at all. He led me through two interconnecting hallways and into an office with hardly a thing in it: a desk, some low shelves, an old-style telephone on the floor in the corner. I could not tell where I was in relation to the building as I’d seen it from outside.

The man directed me to a chair at the desk and he sat down on the other side. This act of sitting together made me uncomfortable; I’d imagined a more breezy encounter, an ideas exchange, men on the go, that kind of thing. But this man was so stocky and stolid and serious. He sat on the very edge of his seat; it was a hard chair, like the one I was on, and I pictured how the chair must have been biting into the backs of his legs. There was something of the bulldog about him. He gestured for me to speak, and then he clasped his hands together and leant on his elbows on the desk.

Did I mention his lips were thick and purple? And his expression was innately cross, or rather it was the expression of one who stands above and surveys and stands in judgement on everything and everyone below him.

I was thinking about that expression. About where this demeanour came from, how he justified this demeanour. Why is that puffy, ruddy, lip-smacking face judging the world? On whose authority could it judge? Why should everything have to satisfy his opinion of what is what?!

He gestured again with his pudginess, for me to continue, and I obeyed.

I began: “You sir, are a publisher, and I have a modest proposal for you.”

He made a grunting, rumbling sound in the back of his throat.

“I shall be swift about it,” I reassured him. “It would be a wee little book. It would be all about my travels in strange lands, including this one.”

“I see,” he said in his swallowing, rumbling voice. “And on these travels you have adventures, meet strange people and the like?”

“That is the nature of it, yes.”

“And you make interesting observations about their persons and customs and so on?”

“Yes,” I said, “that is exactly it. For instance, one thing I’ve noticed is that people with unkempt hair appear smaller than they are, and those with well-kept hair appear larger, so on the whole the population of Ireland appear undersized. My hair being quite neat.”

“I see,” he said. “Big people, small people, hair…”

“Yes.”

The way he went on nodding, with that imperious lip protruding, all censorious like a sergeant major whom no one could please. The way he would not look at you when you were talking but kept his eye fixed on the desktop, as if he were the great listener and judger! The superiority of the man! I had a mind to cease on the spot, or to lean over and dash him about the head.

“Hm. A question,” he said, raising a finger. “Is your time important to you?”

“Well, yes, yes, of course. Time and tide wait for no man.”

“Time and tide, hm?”

“Yes,” I said. Those lips of his, their empurplement, on some occasion could be construed as attractive to some people, the thought occurred to me.

“See that?” he said.

I turned. I hadn’t seen it on coming in but behind the office door was a large, high-backed rocking chair. It had a wide seat and looked very quaint and comfortable if out of place in this austere room. “That,” he said, “is for our budding authors.”

He stood up and went over to it, and taking it by the ends of the armrests pulled it into the centre of the room.

“This is the pitch chair,” he said, and pushed down on its high back and set it gently rocking. “Do you know why we call it the pitch chair?”

“Ah, no. Because it’s comfortable…?” I said knowing my words made no sense.

He smiled for the first time, albeit to himself. “No,” he said. Then, I didn’t know what was going on, he gestured for me to come over and sit in it.

I thought to indulge him, so I went over and sat in it and naturally began to rock back and forth. “I could stay here all day!” I said.

This appeared to please him. He stepped away and went over to a low cabinet and pulled out a pile of black straps and brought them over and let them fall onto the floor in front of me, save one, which he proceeded to place around my right wrist.

“Interesting!” I said. “Kinky!” But I was taken aback a little, for he pulled the strap tight, make no mistake about it, and quickly secured my arm in place by means of the Velcro fastener at the end of the strap.

He now went to do the same to my left wrist but at this I stood up. With my free hand I indicated it was time to stop. We were standing very close to each other, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Are you serious or not?” he said at last.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you want us to publish your book?”

“Well, yes, I do.”

“Then sit down.”

I laughed. It was a game! OK then! I wanted to show him I could be up for it as much as anyone. Well! I sat back down, saying, “Bring it on!”

He strapped my left wrist to the chair. And it was tight too. I would not be able to get my hands free for sure. But then I laughed and said, “I’ve got it! To stop me being pitched out!”

He gave no response at all to that; he crouched down and firmly strapped my right foot to the rocker.

“Okay,” I said. “No response to the brilliant pitch answer. Strange man continues to strap other man down — whoa!”

He had moved to do my left leg, but that was too much, and it had shot out in reflexive protest. To this the man spread his palms wide and looked up at me as if it were no skin off his nose, he didn’t care one way or the other what I did.

“Do you want to be a published author or not?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “But, not, ah, not — but I don’t want to be tied to a contract! Ha! ha!”

He grabbed my left leg and lashed it to the chair.

“OK, very funny,” I said, “you’ve got me. ”

“Not quite.” He moved behind me and I could see the loop of strap coming around my chest; he pulled it hard and got me tight up against the uprights of the backrest.

Now he appeared in front of me again. He walked over to his chair and pulled it over so that it was very close and he sat down facing me. His face had blossomed red from the effort of getting me into the straps.

“Like I said,” he said, “this is the pitch chair. It’s where our prospective authors get to pitch their ideas to us.”

Ah! It all made sense! I felt myself relax.

“So,” he said. “My time is valuable, as yours is, is it not?”

“Absolutely.”

“OK. So you have thirty seconds to convince me. What’s your book about?”

But I’d already told him what it was about. What did he mean?

He read my confusion. “You’ve done your homework,” he went on. “Haven’t you? Yes? You have to pitch your idea, don’t you?”

“Yes, well, yes.”

“So, what’s your book about? This is your chance. You only get one shot at this kind of thing. You’ve got twenty-five seconds — and I’m being generous.”

“Well, well, well…”

“Tick tick tick tick.”

“All right,” I said. “All right. Fair enough. Well, let me begin. All right. The traveller to Ireland soon finds that Ireland is as every bit as interesting as people say it —”

The slap across my face was so brutal and sudden that I simply blinked back at him with my mouth hanging wide open. Then he leapt at me, grabbed me by my shirtfront.

“So you think you can just walk in here with your jokes, eh?” he said, shaking me furiously. “You think we haven’t heard it all before, eh? Little independent press, sure go in and stomp all over them. Very funny. Yeah, well, things are pretty serious now, aren’t they?!”

“What? What? I don’t —”

Suddenly he let me go, sat back down, calmed himself. “Now,” he went on, “your story. You have twenty seconds left.”

“I don’t —”

“Tick tick tick tick.”

I stopped squirming. I became resolved. I now repeated what I’d said about the book when I first came in, leaving out all mention of Irish hair, and I furnished him with a few examples of my experiences in this city, including going to visit the big attraction of the Leprechaun Museum.

I finished. He pursed his lips, looking down at the floor in thought, then rose to his feet. “I think you need something more stimulating,” he said and walked out of the room.

From the way the chair was positioned I couldn’t see where he’d gone, though I could hear his footfalls down the hallway, followed by a door opening. I examined the straps, flexed my legs and arms, twisted my wrists. There was no getting out, and each time I tried the chair would start gently rocking, which put me right off the attempt. It was absurd! It was a joke! Ha! The only thing to do was submit and put him at ease.

A moment later a sound came down the hall: the sound of … rummaging through a kitchen utensils draw.

“Ho there!” I cried out. “Hello! I think my time is up here. Not funny anymore … Hello?”

I heard the drawer slamming shut and the utensils, if that’s what they were, rattling. Presently his footsteps approached.

“All right,” I said. “The book idea has gone quite out of my head. I won’t bother you again. You win. I’m sorry to have wasted your — ”

He swooped in at my side, grabbing my face in one hand. “Oh, it’s too late for that, my dear! Oh, yes! You’ve bothered me now and I am a little interested. You must have had some good reason to think that the man in the street would be interested in you enough to spend more than sixty seconds of his valuable time on your words. Hm? That presumption must stem from some laudable or otherwise compelling motivation, must it not?”

“Yes, yes, yes!” I said but I wasn’t thinking anymore: I could see that he was hiding something in his other hand, something from that kitchen drawer. Mother of God! He saw me looking, saw what I was thinking, and leering like a monster raised into view not a knife but a massive medical syringe with a big needle sticking out of it.

I bucked in the chair, which served only to send it — and me — madly rocking.

“This sorts them right out,” he said, looking at the syringe. “Doesn’t it, my sweetheart?”

The needle was a good five inches long, and the syringe was filled with a transparent liquid and was about eight inches long.

I was panting. He grabbed me by the hair and wrenched me towards him. His eyes were on fire. “Do you know what this is for?” he said, holding the syringe inches from my eyes. “No? Well, this is filled with 150 cc of saline solution. You inject it just under the skin to create a bulge that’s temporary but very dramatic. Everyone’s doing it. An elephant man or walking dead effect, you can be deformed for a day or so. The Japs love it! They make a bagel shape in the middle of the forehead. After you inject the solution, you press down in the centre of the lump to create the hole. They call it a bagel-head. Beguruheddo-desu!”

He thrust my head back against the top of the backrest. I had no way to fight him. He needle zoomed towards my forehead like an arrow.

“No!” I cried.

He stopped at the last second. “So what’s your pitch, eh? You’re in the pitch chair now, aren’t you? You’ve got ten seconds left. What’s it gonna be?”

“Don’t!” I said. He brought the needle closer; then I felt it prick my skin. “Oh God, don’t!”

“No?” he said. “Still no story?”

“Please stop! Stop!”

He did stop. I opened my eyes. The needle was a foot away but he wasn’t finished: his eyes narrowed and he bared his teeth and said, “Or how about an injection right into the ball bag, eh boy?” He let go of my head and held his free hand in front of me, palm up, and began to make lurid motions as if squeezing a big water balloon. “Give yourself a bit of volume, eh?”

He lowered the needle to my groin.

“Help! Help! Help!”

“Oh, don’t bother with that! No one can hear you, no one will come. Now, what’s your book about?”

“Oh Christ!”

“The book!”

“It’s … It’s … It’s …”

“Ye-e-e-s?”

“It’s about … It’s about…”

Ye-e-e-s?

“It’s about a man who tries to express affection but it all goes horribly horribly wrong!”

“How so?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know! I swear it’s all I have! I swear!”

He stood upright and allowed the syringe to drop to his side.

“Hmm,” he said, nodding. “Actually that’s not bad. OK, come back again when you’ve fleshed it out a bit more.”

He put the needle on the desk then undid the straps, the Velcro-tearing sound ripping into my very brain. What he did after that I don’t know: I ran down the hallway, and kept running. I must have taken a wrong turn for when I burst out into the sunlight I didn’t know where I was. It certainly wasn’t the door I came in by. Not that I cared. I collapsed onto the road and gulped in the air:

All washed up

 

 

 

 

Episode 6: The galaxy is green!

2

It was sad to be leaving Italy. But on arriving home we saw this poster on the bus stop shelter outside our flat. I ran up to it. Look at the colours! Was this the tragic bride of Dolceaqua, and the cruel Lord exercising his right of the first night, right here in Dublin town?! Ah, the romance continues! —

1 Happily Ever After

 

Then something even more wonderful happened. Star Wars was coming to Ireland! A costume convention. A willing friend invited me along with his two munchkins. When the day came we set off to the exhibition centre with great enthusiasm. Outside, a stern welcome greeted us —

2 Stern greeting

 

Sexy! And inside, the hustle and bustle —

3 Hustle and bustle

 

We made our way through the crowds, in search of the main feature, but were abruptly stopped by this guy —

4 Not the droids

He said, “Let me see your identification.”
My friend, taken aback, fumbled for his entry ticket.
But I stepped in and, with a wave of my hand, said: “You don’t need to see his identification.”
The Stormtrooper paused, then said: “I don’t need to see his identification.”
I motioned to the two munchkins. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
He said, “These aren’t the droids I’m looking for.”
“He can go about his business,” I said.
“You can go about your business,” he said.
“Move along,” I said.
“Move along, move along,” he said and stood aside.
“Wow!” said my friend. “How did you do that?”
I shrugged. Who was I to speak of Jedi mind tricks?

We passed more imperial security —

5 More imperial security

 

Now we were close —

6 Emerald Garrison

 

Invasion Dublin! —

7 Dublin Poster

 

The invasion was extending to the utmost end of the Empire: Cork! —

8 Invasion Cork!

 

We came upon a vast opening, with a banner announcing we’d made it —

9 Enter the galaxy

 

Inside, darkness fell, and then: mystery —

10 Mystery

 

And action —

11 Action

 

And danger! —

12 Danger

 

Boba Fett gave you the thumbs up if you bought his official Bounty Hunters Code book —

13 Boba Fett

 

Literally! —

14 Code

 

Further in, it got weirder —

15 Weirdness

 

And weirder —

16 weirder

 

Yet here was a typical Dublin northsider. I’d seen his ilk often outside the Cabra McDonald’s —

17 Northsider

 

We went deeper in, and in the lurid light found the throbbing heart, the representation of Ireland, the Green Garrison indeed! —

18 Ireland represented

 

Beyond it, the honoured guests, for whom a long queue had formed —

19 I have you now

 

In a corner, the droid I was looking for —

20 Droid

 

And Chewbacca on the loose —

21 Chewy on the loose

 

It was all going swimmingly until staff appeared waving their arms about and announcing that the Jedi Knight battle school was closing prematurely —

22 Jedi School

 

The queue for it had been enormous, even from early on in the day. They were oversubscribed, the staff announced; they were inundated; they were turning away the young would-be knights in vast numbers! Anger followed, which turned into outright rebellion. Light sabers were flashed about —

23 Light sabers

 

Some characters were threatened —

24 Threatened

 

And some attacked —

25 Attacked

 

I got a good hit in on Chewie —

26 Chewie attacked

 

Yoda urged calm —

27 Calm

 

Calm he urged. But the munchkins went ballistic —

28 Munchkins

 

Amidst the mayhem I saw her from across the room. “I’d recognize those buns anywhere!” I said, and leading our group I pushed through the fighting and when I reached her I tapped her on the shoulder, and began to introduce myself —

29 Princess

 

But this Princess Leia proved to be, er, much younger than the original … and was understandably a little disconcerted by our intrusion. Her parents came to her aid and looked us up and down. “All good fun,” I said, “all good fun! Ha-ha!” and beat a hasty retreat. Toes were trodden on and apologies made. I got separated from the others. Turning about and about amidst the whirling of the light sabers I found myself suddenly standing before the chortling form of —  what was it? — the ultimate in things green! —

30 Soul

I made a dizzy obeisance and staggered from the building.

 

Episode 5: Italy

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Our first day in Italy it rained and my partner came down with a migraine:

Headache 1

Both conditions continued the second day:

Headache Two A

I suffered for it too:

Sebastian

But on the third day the sun rose and so did my partner, and this is what we saw.

O Italy, where pasta is big!:

Pasta

And pizza is happy-making:

Pizza

And where the fruit grow freely:

Fruit

But where cruel things also happen:

Cruel A

And dangers lurk — this from a fish market during siesta:

Chair

The words read: Don’t touch – Private Property – Danger of death!

Yet they tread softly too:

Cute

O Italy, cities of illusion! Where tricks await in doorways:

Magic door A

And pussies in windows:

Cat One A

Meow!:

Cat Two B

And where old meets new in a dazzling display:

Old and New

And East meets West:

Betty A

And tourists go with dignity:

Photographer

And where women have sticky-out bottoms:

Sticky out bum B

But are otherwise well represented:

Solarium

But of all these great sights none compares to the fairytale town of Dolceacqua, the last of the historic towns we were to visit on our holiday. The town is overlooked by a castle. We crossed the mule bridge here pictured:

Castle

And entered into the many musty passages leading up to, and underneath, the castle, through dungeons dark and caverns old, and doorways closed to modern man:

Door Aqua

And climbed up through many a steep-stepped lane:

B&B women

And at the top came upon this plaque, which I’ve reproduced here in full as the picture below might not be clear enough:

History of the Michetta

This legend originates in the 14th century: at that time the marquis of Dolceacqua, Imperiale Doria, was an avid and ambitious man, so avid of power that he claimed the inhumane right of “jus primae noctis” [right of the first night]. On the wedding night of the young couple, Lucrezia and Basso, two armed soldiers took the young bride to the castle where the cruel nobleman awaited her. The maiden with great tenacity refused the advances of the tyrant, who, in anger, had her thrown in the deepest dungeons of the rock and there the maiden starved to death. The young bridegroom swore to revenge his beloved, hid in a bale of hay, and on the back of a mule entered the walls of the castle and armed with a dagger he confronted the marquis and demanded the abolition of “jus primae noctis” by edict. The next day, in celebration of being finally free from this abuse of power, a group of women created a pastry, whose very form alludes to the female private part, which they named “michetta”. From that day every year on the 16th of August the youths of the village celebrate the “festa della michetta”, with songs, dances and litres of Dolceacqua’s Rossese wine.

Michetta

After reading this text I felt a burst of exultation and ran back down the many steps, past the ancient doorways, through caverns measureless to man, by the dungeons deep and the B&Bs, and across the mule bridge and into the centre of town to the local bakery where I placed my order for a slice of michetta; and upon receiving the sacrament, I sunk my teeth into it:

Vagina bread 1

Self-raising and yeast-free!

O Italy, thou lovely country!