Slowed a little by a stone in my shoe, I arrived in Galway City a while after dark. Galway City, the Sodom of the West! I reached the very crest of fabled Prospect Hill, to see a bolt of lightning split the sky. Its white flash outlined a dark cloud of bats against the soaring tower of Galway’s greatest building, the Car-Park of the Roaches. I plunged down Prospect Hill toward the heart of the city, toward Eyre Square.
Looking behind me, I saw I had shaken off the pursuing mob.
I covered half of Eyre Square at a sprint, the next quarter of Eyre Square at a trot. I ambled through an eighth of Eyre Square, and I drifted to a halt with only a sixteenth of Eyre Square ahead of me.
A distant church bell chimed the hour of two a.m. Between the first stroke and the second, the nightclubs of Galway disgorged their contents onto the streets. A crowd milled about me; I was spun around, and around. A woman took me by the elbow, a man took a swing at me, and I spun and ducked and waltzed my way to the edge of the crowd.
There, stunned, I beheld a tremendous transparent building, lit from within with golden light. Its splendor dominated the west side of the square.
A building so vast and beautiful could only be a temple; and sure enough, through its walls of glass, I saw an enormous congregation facing a long low altar behind which a priesthood seemed busy at their rituals.
Outside it, young people milled about, many of them on their knees on the pavement, their heads bowed thoughtfully over what appeared to be modest food offerings.
Glowing a fiery red above its teeming entrance was the word SUPERMACS. As though hypnotized, I found myself drawn inside.
And then I saw her.
A vision far ahead of me, wreathed in mist from her chip-pan: the most beautiful girl in the world. And I realized this was a chip shop the size of Killaloe Cathedral. And I realized I was in love.
I looked upon her surface, and imagined her depths. And the wild beating of my heart caused my blood to surge faster through the narrow channels of my body, so that the roar of blood in my ears deafened me, and my sight dimmed, and I grew faint.
I shall not describe her face, for its glory lay not in its geometry, nor its proportion, nor its symmetry. No. No description would convey the relevant information.
Her body was muffled under a uniform designed, by its look, for neither fashion nor comfort. Yet the way in which she inhabited her body, the way in which she deployed her face, the color and heat of the spark of life in her illuminated the temple of her flesh
In a trance, I walked toward her, and bumped into a counter. Various people tried to step in front of me, poking my chest.
“U!” they shouted.
I had no time for their riddles. I knocked them carefully aside, vaulted the counter, and walked to her.
“My name is Jude,” I said. “I have fallen deeply in love with you at first sight.”
In a voice like the whisper of silk against an angel’s wing, she said, “You’re taking the piss, right?”
I reassured her that I was in earnest.
“Are we on television?” she replied.
“Not to my knowledge,” I said.
A selection of anxious young men in grease-spattered uniforms ceased to feed the hungry, and gathered in the aisle near us. They engaged in fierce debate in expletive-flecked undertones. Some then went back, to quell unrest among the neglected masses. At length, the eldest youth pushed forward the youngest.
The young man approached me, speckled with spots, his hair encased in a curious net.
“Please sir, please could you return to the other side of the counter, sir. Please. Sir.” I looked down at him, greatly moved. No one had ever spoken to me with such politeness and evident respect before. This young man was obviously deeply spiritual, to speak with such humility to a poor Tipperary orphan such as I. A fellow far along the path to enlightenment, or indeed a high priest of some sort. Though he seemed young for such a role, I knew that in certain faiths the greatest spiritual leaders were often trained from birth. Like the Dalai Lama in Buddhism, and also the Panchen Lama, of whom I had read.
“Are you a lama?” I asked him. He very slowly backed away from me without replying. No doubt his humility forbade him from boasting of his high spiritual status. Ah, well. I returned to my conversation with the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
Next thing I knew, my arms were pinned behind my back and I was being hurled over the counter by uniformed guardians of the peace.
“Drunk. Or high. He thought I was a sheep,” the polite young man was telling them.
“Lama! Lama!” I appealed to him, as I was hustled out the door.
“Llama, sheep, whatever,” said the young man. A curious crowd gathered around me.
“I love her,” I tried to explain.
“Sheep shagger!” shouted someone. The crowd began to chant, “Sheep shagger!” Someone threw a curried chip. My attempts at explanation seemed only to make matters worse. The crowd closed in. I racked my mind for a clever plan.
“Sheep shagger! Sheep shagger!” roared the crowd, as they pursued me down Shop Street.
The crowd, as is the way of large, running, roaring crowds, drew a crowd of its own from the after-hours drinkers, musicians, and bar staff in the pubs and clubs and alleys we passed. From The Imperial, from Garavans, from both Lower and Upper Abbeygate Street, from the Snug and Church Lane and Taaffes they came pouring. Many of these inebriated onlookers joined unsteadily in the chase. Unsure of whom it was they were chasing, many of them fought the front-runners of the chasing pack.
I made good use of this confusion to increase my lead, but soon I was slowed by a stitch in my side and the stone in my shoe. Limping, in agony, with my pursuers so close I could smell their porter breath over my shoulder, I threw myself through a narrow church gate, in search of sanctuary.
The crowd crashed to a halt against the railings behind me. Strong men held the gateposts and bulged every sinew to stop the crush pushing them through the open gate. Not a soul followed me.
“’Tis Saint Nicholas’s Collegiate Church!” one cried. “He will be eaten by Protestants!”
I limped into the great church. Several old ladies and an even older gentleman looked up at me, startled. The old gentleman approached me with great caution.
Trying to remove the stone from inside the heel of my shoe, I absentmindedly extended my right hand under my raised left knee, to shake his hand. He raised his knee and did likewise, with a great creaking of bones.
“You are a Mason!” he exclaimed with pleasure, standing on one leg.
Me, a mason? It was true I had built a short stretch of the orphanage wall, after block-laying instruction from Brother O’Driscoll, but to call me a mason seemed excessive flattery. The wall had fallen in the first high wind, leaving a gap and crushing a number of orphans.
“Why, you are a gift sent from heaven,” said an old lady. “We were just saying we need a young man to be warden of Saint Nicholas’s now that Ramsey has retired. But there are no God-fearing young Church of Ireland men in this parish any more, for we have stopped breeding.”
“What would my duties be?” I asked, interested.
“Well, to ward,” said a second lady.
“And to save electricity,” said a third. “And if you could play the bells now and then...”
“What is your name, young man?” asked the old man, dashing my hopes on the instant. Oh, curse the day the Brothers of Jesus Christ Almighty christened me after the patron saint of hopeless causes! My Catholicism revealed, I would be denied wardenship and sanctuary and be cast out to be torn limb from limb by my fellow Catholics in an orgy of both violence and irony. “And I suppose,” he mused, “technically, we should also ask for a curriculum vitae, a tax clearance certificate, credit history, and two references from senior figures in the Church of Ireland community.”
My dreams lay blasted. Not a one of these had I. I searched my mind for a reference from a senior figure in the Church of Ireland.
Lost in thought, I put down my left foot. Unfortunately, the stone had been stood on end, sharp point up, by my poking. It pierced my heel as I placed all my weight on it.
I spoke in tongues, put my head between my knees, lifted the foot, lost my balance, and recovered it by grabbing the old man, through his loose tweed, by the testicle, and slowly lowering my forehead to the cold stone.
I let go his testicle, raised my head, and hopped.
“Well, well, well,” said the old man. “A Mason of so high a rank, and so young! You were modest earlier, with your greeting of the Fourth Rank. We may skip the formalities.” He bowed low. With a creak and a groan, he removed his right shoe and tweaked, with his toes, through the cotton of his shirt, his left nipple, before handing me the keys to church, sacristy, and bell tower. He put on his shoe.
They bade me good night and left.
I took the stone from my shoe, and put it in my good pocket. It was my lucky stone. I gave the pocket a fond pat, made my way up the bell tower, and explored the store cupboards.
The contents were sparse, but sufficient for comfort. Tools, glue, oilcans, polish, an old pillow used to muffle the bells...
I lay on the pillow and sniffed the glue nostalgically, for it reminded me of my happy childhood in the orphanage. I drifted off to sleep, and dreamed I was a camel.
When the sun woke me next morning, I discovered that the glue had stuck my pillow firmly to my back. It would not budge. I pulled my clothes on over it. This gave me a somewhat unusual appearance. Sighing, I brushed my teeth with my travel toothbrush, in the sunny bell-tower window.
Then, of a sudden, I spied, far below me on Shop Street, the Most Beautiful Girl in the World. My heart clattered like a stick along railings.
“It is I, Jude, your admirer!” I cried, my speech somewhat impeded by toothpaste.
She looked up, and saw me.
I cannot account for what followed, unless it were that I did not look my best, hunchbacked as I was, in a bell tower, and frothing at the mouth.
She turned pale, her knees gave way, and she toppled slowly to the pavement.
My love lay there, unmoving.
Dropping my toothbrush, I leapt down the twisting wooden stairs of the bell tower. Tripping on the last landing, I tumbled the final fifty feet. Luckily, I was protected from lasting damage by the pillow glued to my back, and by my head, which between them absorbed the majority of the impacts.
Gaining the street, I hobbled to my unconscious beloved’s side, in the shadow of Eason’s the newsagents. I carried her limp form back to safety, to the bell tower of Saint Nicholas, a place I had already come to think of as home. I lowered her gently to the floor.
I gazed down upon her.
Her radiant face.
Her generous frontage. She no longer wore her uniform but rather a child’s T-shirt sprinkled with glitter.
Her eyelids flickered, and opened. “I,” she said in a voice like honey flowing from a jug of gold, “will never drink Red Bull and vodka again.”
Then her eyes focused, and she leaped a foot. My appearance had not been improved by my fall. In addition to my hump and my frothing at the mouth, I had cricked my neck and was now forced to look at her entirely sideways. I abandoned my plan to play it cool.
“I love you!” I cried, perhaps too energetically, through the pain and toothpaste.
“Yuk!” she replied. She declined my offer of assistance, preferring to remove the toothpaste from her hair herself as I continued.
“I am poor, but honest. Could you find it in your heart to love me?”
She searched her heart as she backed toward the door. At the top of the stairs she found her answer: “No!”
And, overcome no doubt by womanly emotion, she sprinted downstairs in high heels, her tiny skirt inverted by the rushing wind, her skintight top failing to restrain her magnificent jiggling.
Distraught, I called from the tower as she reappeared in the church grounds below me, “Is there not a task I could perform to change your mind and win your heart?”
“Yeah, sure!” she called up as she ran, and my heart leaped like a salmon. “Get plastic surgery to look like Leonardo DiCaprio. And make a million more on ”
And with that tantalizing promise she was gone...
The first part of her request was clear, though I puzzled over the second one briefly. A million more on what? But of course! A million more on top of what I had already!
I was ecstatic, transformed. The woman I loved had set me a task.
I gazed, sideways, from my tower, at the glorious new day.
She loved me!
*Illustration: Jacques Callot, Saint Thaddee (Saint Jude)