Category Archives: RIP
He turned onto Moore Street where his Ma slipped on a rasher and croaked. That was a good while ago now though he couldn’t be sure, it was all mushed. ‘Coconut head’, she’d called him in her fond no vodka moments, not because of the shape of his noggin but for the way his Da kicked the nelly out of it, side to side, smashing him into navy dots. Army boots with a clown’s mouth rip covered from the inside with a plastic Knorr soup packet to keep the rain out. She thought it was gas. Seemed a bit twisted to him now. He still snagged memories of her freckle-splattered arms doing the octopus sway in the bingo halls here when he was knee high to an ashtray, small as a mouse’s diddy.
Aul Ones with Rothmans-stained chins shouting, ‘Two fat ladies, go on Jimmy, get up and run, thirty one…dirty Gertie, clicketyclick, staying alive, eighty five!’ Some were able to handle four and five bingo cards at a time, marking the numbers like Phil Collins on drums. Bash bash bash. He’d lay on his spindlies gazing up their A-Line skirts, musty whiff of brown tights on an afternoon in November 1970-something. Disco lights, apples sours, dusty bin.
Now he was out of the Seventies into a new Century where the whole world had descended onto the same street. “Anthony! Anthony! over here!” yer one shouted. A right carrot top. “This way!”
He hoped she wasn’t a social worker. Bottler, not Anthony. No-one called him Anthony these days. He couldn’t stomach those smug tarts from the Health Service Executive. He hadn’t practised what to say but his choice if she gave him one would be a course on computers. They’d blinked by him the years he’d been on the gear. Missed the whole digital revolution. Couldn’t even look up The Google now. Survived on stale pineapple cake and sloppy kebabs from out-of-date food skips outside Aldi. Got by on mobile phones. Plucking them from Luas carriages. Selling to teenagers in pink lycra. He felt bad about that shit. Pinching, grabbing, punching. Felt bad about not remembering. Found out in rehab over a cup of Rosie Lee that he’d slept in a dog kennel for a year, had half his guts removed, grew a batch of holes on his tongue the length of a scallion. But his Da was right, all you had to do in this life was survive no matter what and hope a rhinoceros doesn’t shit on your head.
She was standing on the corner at Buffet 79, holding a plastic folder, looking the mutt’s nuts.
“So nice to finally meet you! I tell you what, you’re a hard man to get hold of! We’ve been writing to you for weeks. Well look, you’re here now, thank God you answered your phone. I’m Aoibheann!” She was gripping onto his arm like they’d known each other since nippers. He was throwin’ a reddener on account of her being so over fucking familiar ‘n all.
“Howayea,” he said, unhooking her. “Ye alright, wot’s de buzz?”
“This is it here, what do you think, huh?” Hadn’t a crusty what she was on about. They were outside an orange building with spitting air vents and roast duck stink. A poster with ‘group love’ on the wall and a load of slappers in red Tulip dresses dancing in a circle. She stuck a folder into his hands. Snap of a man facing sideways with a giant hooter on the cover, military uniform, oval cloud of mist behind him.
“I know what you’re thinking, not much on the outside. That was the planners’ intentions, you know, to retain the façade throughout the lane way, renovating the inside a la modern day.”
Her voice trailed off as he glanced at more posters on the opposite wall: a gold man pulling his torso apart to get to the gold coins inside him. Paul Weller looking on in dark glasses, arms folded. Two dykes sitting up on new Audis, whipping the bonnets goodo.
“There’s only sixteen apartments Anthony. You’re in the Padraig Pearse suite. Well now ‘suite’ is a bit American isn’t it!? I prefer to call them apartments or you might like ‘flats’. Whatever you’re comfortable with. Sure we won’t argue over it!”
He’d slip her one alright. Queer bit of skirt. Air bags knockers. Cheese puff lips.
“Will we head in so, shall we? Do you know who this is Anthony?” she asked, pointing again to the big-nosed spamhead on the brochure. “It’s Pearse himself! This is where it happened. Well, here and up the road…whole block is on the Record of Protected Structures now. While the main building is a good bit up, this is where a lot of the men actually died. Though it was a new beginning for the rest of us, that’s for sure, but oh God” – she stopped to grab her heart through her mint lambswool jumper – “It’s a desperate sad story. Brutality of it. Dozens fell on the stones right here. Bled to death in the gutters. O’Rahilly, riddled with bullets, managed to pen a letter in his own blood to his wife and kids. Sure you wouldn’t even have time to send a text these days, can you imagine?”
Well yeah, he could. It was in an alley just like this that they dealt with Scuttler for a €500 debt. Still gave him the night rattles. Draino sticking the knife in just above the belly. Flipping the fucker over to get to the spine. Doin’ his girdle sack, screams, like a girls’. ‘Shut that cunt up till I get the work done,’ he told him. Slicing upwards to make sure he was paralysed. Chinee sticking his head out from the back of a restaurant door and shutting it again, pronto, bolts clanking. Rain coming down, steel pin rain in goose grey, washing yer man’s wails away. Bleeding out. They lit two joints, watched him wriggle. “It’ll be over in a minute, stop stressing!” Draino roared. “I thought you’d take it a bit better than this, for fuck’s sake!”
“This is the entrance hall to the apartments,” Aoibheann explained. “The walls tell the stories of the ordinary lives, OK, not just the heroes! See this little man and woman, James Rooney and his wife Cora…they were in their eighties…braved the machine gun fire to hide some of the men in their basement that day, 29th April, 1916”. She turned to her paperwork to double check the date. Then pointed to a laundry room out the back and a shared shed for storage and locking bicycles.
“Fair balls to them,” Anthony replied, though to be honest, they looked like a right pair of spanners. The woman in particular.
“And here we have The O’Rahilly’s letter to his wife. We got a calligrapher from the National College of Art and Design to do it in gold leaf and flecks of bottle green. Beautiful isn’t it?”
Darling Nancy, I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street, took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was & I made a bolt for the lane I am in now. I got more [than] one bullet I think. Tons and tons of love dearie to you & to the boys & to Nell & Anna. It was a good fight anyhow.
Names of more hoagies doused on the plaster, fucking eejits who shot themselves trying to bash down doors with rifle butts to save their own arses. Whacked some of their mates in the scuffle. Others lying with bits of legs hanging off, firing off orders. James Connolly on a stretcher, guts dangling. Some wounded plank tripping over him with all the gunsmoke, grenades and other shit the Brits had at their disposal. Must’ve been a right bunch of psychos. Photograph of a nurse who’d booted around like a blue bottle with messages for the main boyos, trying to get them to grab the white flag. He remembered none of this from school. The Safe Cross Code, how clouds formed from condensation, Christmas carols in Irish. That’s what he remembered in eight years of primary school. Not these maggots.
“This is your apartment, No. 3, well, that was the date Pearse was executed: 3rd May, they’ve thought of everything.”
His apartment? Was she a fucking brandy snap short of a picnic? But he’d keep stum, say nothing, sign nothing. A short stroll around a sitting room painted in hospital white looking out over McColgan’s Butchers. Her talking shite about skirting boards a quarter up the wall for an easy clean, plug holes, an interactive Wi-Fi telly with built in CCTV, steam mop in the cupboard. It was a lottery system, with all their names bunged in from the Rehab gaff. Irish men and Irish women, in the name of God and the dead generations, and whatever else. His name, third pulled. Lifelong sublet deductible from the scratcher. Part of the planning regs for the commemoration block and new Insurgents Visitor Centre.
“You have twelve days to sign the lease and get the documents back to Dublin City Council, OK? The address is here,” she told him, rubbing her fingers up and down where Pearse’s hoop was at the back of the brochure. “Make the most of the opportunity Anthony. You’re a hero now in your own right, the way you’ve knocked the drugs on the head for good. How long is it?”
“Two years,” he told her. “This Christmas or thereabouts, anyways.”
“Well good for you,” she said, “You should be well proud!”
He knew plenty who died for Ireland or because of her. Hasslebat, with his ginger eyebrows lit up like hot worms in a snow of forehead. Face half eaten by his own Jack Russell after overdosing in a boat-house down the canal. Gonzo and Widearse Wendy in a car smash down the docks when they were sleeping rough in the Punto. Many more in slob fights, knife slices, ganger brawls. He’d been too out of it in those times to make any of the funerals. Didn’t see the point when they were already wormfood.
If Pearse could be President of his own Republic, then he could be too. Sixteen thousand troops swarmed into Dublin in 1916 to wreck the bleedin’ gaff. That was more than the entire Garda Drug Squad and army reserve now. Who the fuck did they think they were!? He’d call up his troops too:
Dickie who’d do anything for a six pack of Dutch Gold. Brains, the nasty little dwarf from up around Sheriff Street who’d stick a gun up your hole quick as a bum doctor in the Mater. The Finglas twins who loved to scrap for no reason, mad bitches. The preparation would have to be secret, no dribblers, no rats.
He could see himself in full Pearse pose swaggering down Moore Street commanding the charge: “We’re going to take on the Somali pushers,” he’d tell them. “Yez’ll horse up the lane here when I give the word”.
Each of them swinging a fifty euro shooter.
“We’re putting a stop to this Zimovane shite the kids are selling for €8 a pack. It’s feeding their gaming addiction. Only a matter of days or weeks before they’re snorting the yayo or chewing the gat, are yez hearing me?”
“Yes Bottler!” they’d roar. “Yes Bottler!”
“We’re gonna free all those hookers they send into Jury’s Inn to suck off concert promoters, there’ll be no women sellin’ their holes in my Republic.”
“We’re gonna clean up this town, no more stabbings or stupid fucking killings.”
“We’re gonna bring eternal peace to these poxy streets.”
“We’re striking for freedom, do yez even know what that means?”
He stared across the sitting room towards the microwave. Never thought he’d own one of those pingers. Draino would be out of the clink in two years and he didn’t forget. No matter where he was, he’d find Bottler. Oh his Ma always said he’d be kicked to death by some loon if she didn’t get hold of him first. Her arthritic claw reaching down the banisters, pulling him up onto the landing…stamping on his ankle bones when he was cowering on the ground before she’d start proper. It wouldn’t be that hard to find a plonker to sell a pizza warmer to. Had to be worth at least a tenner up around Argos. He took the SIM card from the phone, flicked it into the fancy swing bin, grabbed the keys. Snatched the €100 Dunnes Stores voucher Aoibheann left for ‘essentials’, mozied to the door.
“Losers!” he screamed at the faces pinned to the wall. “I’ve never seen a bigger bunch of fucking losers!”
** This story was short-listed for the 2016 The Sunday Business Post / Penguin Ireland short story prize. It was also read at the Bogman’s Canon Fiction Disco and Staccato Spoke Word night in Toner’s pub, Baggot St.
Bro, you haven’t bothered getting in touch since you died a year ago today. In my head … the barmy idea that you still look like a slab of Edam and that I never got to say goodbye. The chipmunk breeder Alice you shacked up with in terminal time, when Duck Arse left for a pub bouncer with a metallic four–by–four, has now lost over six stone, inspired by the story I guess. Alcohol & gluten free; she’s even ditched the sloppy pillow burgers in blood sauce, the ones from your holiday pics when you told us, ‘Bad days are in the post but for now it’s business as usual!’ Half the kids, the older ones, are fine. Edel is on her way to becoming a science buff in London even though, well c’mon, we must be honest here, you expected her to be a hairdresser or something low-key but Christ has she started to fly! Saul is taller than you ever dared imagine, as if when you went skyward he did a Jack & the Beanstalk to get you back down again. At sixteen it was more than he could bear. I’ve kept all your emails, eyeballing them from time to time.
Driving to France on Saturday with the kids just for a long weekend, Paddy cancelled his summer camp in York with the scouts so he could come and yer one is a complete cunt (Sorry, I just had to add that). Really looking forward to my first holiday with the kids only and staying on a campsite near Calais so a short drive will be better to contain Princess Lara’s immense puking skills. Saul & Edel are making their own way, old enough to travel solo would you Adam & Eve it? Booked a three bed mobile home this time so we are all a little excited! Divorce is ready to go, Duck Arse admitted in writing to adultery. How are you and your pet mice? And why 10 months off the booze?
Etch-A-Sketch of a year where I still ride the blanks and hope no one in the library notices. I set off most days with Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel playing in my head. Out past the squiggle of purposeless shops and homeless men who nudge their heads up like broken birds from splintered eggs in the basement of the church, and on to the Tolka Bridge where an orange city fox once followed me in the first draft of morning. Conversations become cataracts of sorts. ‘Wouldn’t it bite the toes right off ye?’ a woman said at the bus stop in October. ‘I can’t be doing with this heat!’ the same woman said the following summer. Only then did I realise so much time had slipped by.
I’m booked in to see the oncologist at 9.30am Monday morning to discuss an action plan involving chemo and some new drugs on trial. I’ll take anything that’s going if it means squeezing a few more years, if possible. Remaining focused and positive. It was a hell of a shock for everyone as we were all expecting a routine operation and the surgeon was pale faced explaining to me why he could not operate. I will know more Monday afternoon. Been one mad year or what?
Aul ones on buses constantly bitching about fluoride in water, men in pubs, chemicals in clothes, joyriders in cars. It’d do your bake in. Aside from the militia of junkies in Phibsborough, idiot bankers, gym bunnies, people who tie terriers outside Tesco, absolutely nothing in Oirish suburbia changes. They’re still slamming car doors, hauling kids to over-priced crèches. Sometimes, stupid I know, I find myself getting jealous of the ones who stayed and did it all by the smug pudgy book … bought houses with the charmed approval of grannies and aunts and far-off oil-owning uncles in Australia, purged children into the world and who now stroll through parks laughing their freshly-washed heads off, pull perfect shepherd’s pies out of high-gloss ovens, who know what they’re about, really about,, what they were planted here for. Little girls with springy curls, tubby-bellied boys full of, ‘But mammy look!’ and ‘Daddy look!’
I think if we hadn’t of gone to London, you know, if we’d stayed and done it properly, rewrote the late eighties, jobs in IBM or IDA or any abbreviation of anything that would pay the way to a Semi-D and a bit of stability. But over you came and I was never stable anyway! Kipped on my couch, slept with nearly all my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so you said, me being your little sister, I had to go in the boot!? God, yes, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver, ‘Turn left now!’ and ‘Turn right here!’ even though I couldn’t see a damn thing.
A year later we lived in Jersey where you worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires who’d travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers and get pissed all day. ‘She was the worst barmaid ever!’ you told the chipmunk breeder Alice later. It’s true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in London’s east end. Your stunt as a cappuccino salesman was a dreadful failure but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house, every night was a party. When I was at uni, you ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. Two kids with the first wife (but she had great thighs!) and later, more disastrously; it was round two and another two kids with Duck Arse and her litany of hell. Your snooker buddy Darren told me before the funeral. He told me it all, out in the back garden with a stack of San Miguel. I wanted to bash your head in for keeping it all a secret. I wanted to dig you up and kick the crap out of you for never letting me know how bad it all was.
‘I can’t have another disaster,’ you told him, ‘I can’t lose my kids again.’ Water meets its own level, our ma used to say, but your women were never bobbing anywhere near your level and somehow all of it must’ve dragged you down.
I drank water before I went in. ‘I would recommend it, Madam,’ top hat man said and you would’ve laughed at the whirring fan receptionist with the bovine ankles whose job it was to spray disinfectant when no one was looking. Viewing chamber the size of a High Street dressing room: yoghurt stale & browner than a bum moon.
A dance with neutrons and protons. That’s what I imagine it is for you now. Sliding up and down wallpaper. Watching us in our daily drudge. Can you see me and the other women working in the library? We all pretend to get on, but aside from readjusting each other’s hormones into an assemblage of demented bitching and chocolate splurging, we’ve bog all in common. The building is Georgian, a carved wedding cake, crafted cornicing, walls of tedious green and piercing yellow, corridors cropped in spiderweb wigs where the elderly shuffle through to read or snore or attend ‘literary readings’ upstairs. Almost everyone who strolls in wears glasses and carries a spiked umbrella. There’s a small cafe in the basement that serves tea, fair-trade coffee, tray bakes and ham sandwiches made at the curvature of dawn by an old crooked cook who reeks of rotten lilies. I always meant to show you around.
In the quiet clammy armpit of early afternoon I’m haunted by the grammar system we made up as kids – berry nide – a kind of warning system for people who might do us wrong. He’s not berry nide. But you’re berry nide. No, you’re nider! You’d already been through it by then. Bogeyman in a house, up mountains, on holidays. Oh he got a mass said for you afterwards, your own special mass, how’s about that! Dirty hypocrite, cheddar cheese chin of a wife, curse their life! Mass to make themselves feel good, exonerated, whole. No one speaks to them anymore. Not that we can make sure-fire connections. Medicine is a long way off that kind of jump.
Thanks for your long email and words of advice. Yeah, I was happy and loyal and Duck Arse is the most horrible person I’ve ever met and I care not a jot about her now. Saw her today when I dropped the kids back. Still not allowed in her tiny house whatever that’s about? I just felt relief. The look on her face on Sunday was priceless when she dropped Lara & Paddy off. I told them in advance not to eat as I was cooking a Sunday roast on the phone the night before. I could hear her howling in the background, ‘But your Dad can’t cook!’ like, even at this juncture, she still wants to put me down. When they got dropped off Lara ran back out the front door screaming at the top of her voice: ‘Alice is here with her chipmunks and she’s cooking, not Daddy!’ Duck Arse’s chin hits the ground and she boots off like a rocket drive on Top Gear. Yet I know she’ll poison their heads when I’m gone. The older ones will be fine, but try your best to sort the younger ones. You are welcome here any time, nice spare room with a new double bed. I’ll pick you up at Stanstead and spoil you rotten while you’re here!
Hubby-One-Day will be up soon, singing in the shower, shuffling after me in the kitchen, soggy, smelling of boy spray. He talks about you every time there’s a football match, especially when Liverpool is playing. ‘The hell he gave me!’ he says. ‘He called me blue and white shite!’ Still hasn’t the energy for his own divorce, but like Duck Arse, yer one is living with someone new: A, B, C, D: to the soulless it hardly matters. Hubby-One-Day makes me curtsy for him in my Victorian nightdress in the mornings, up and down the kitchen, crab sideways, around in circles, a slice of McCambridges’ toast in my gob. Hey, it’s the little things!
The town peacocks, de geezers, your Hawaiian shirt Jägerbomb mates, the ones you told (only towards the end) what happened, they never did smash up the Bogeyman when it was over. Somehow it didn’t feel like you to insist they would. That bit jarred with me. There was rumour, conjecture, but a great big nothing happened. No grand retribution. No staged revenge. Instead your friends stood in a line outside the church, over half a mile long, hands behind their backs. I’ve never seen such colour, ever, even though the colour has seeped from my life since. Aero & acid blue, amber, blush and violet. A woman head-to-toe in cameo pink. Duck Arse and her gombeen family. First wife and the older kids too. All there. Who knows where Bogeyman was, but at least he wasn’t invited. His vile-denial Catholic wife, a headless woman struggling to gawp out her own body, forgetting she no longer has eyes. You don’t need me to tell you, especially at a time like this, but people like that, they’re not berry nide. Not nide at all. But you? There just couldn’t be nider. No one in this giant shit heap of a spinning world is nider than beautiful gone you.
In 1973: The Yom Kippur War breaks out with Egyptian and Syrian forces attacking Israel. It ends after 20 days with Israel victorious after early losses to the Arab armies. In response the Arab oil states impose embargoes on countries that supported Israel, triggering a global energy crisis creating an economic shockwave around the planet.
In 1973: A sinister new murder machine emerges from the shadows carrying out a number of sectarian murders in Belfast including the killing of 14-year-old Phillip Rafferty. An organisation called the Ulster Freedom Fighters claims responsibility – it is in reality the Ulster Defence Association the legal and open loyalist street militia to emerge early in the Troubles.
In 1973: I finally make my Holy First Communion almost a year after most of my seven year old peers in St. Colman’s Primary School in The Market area of Belfast. My mum buys me a dickie bow and accompanying frilly fronted shirt but changes her mind before we make our way to St. Malachy’s Church and lets me wear a plain white shirt and thick-knot dark blue tie instead.
In 1973: Richard Nixon tells reporters he is “not a crook” in relation to the Watergate spy scandal directed at the Democrats. Later his attorney general reveals the existence of the Watergate tapes including an 18 and a half-minute gap in the recording.
In 1973: The Republic of Ireland and the UK join the European Economic Community, and following elections in Northern Ireland that summer, a unionist bloc led by former Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, along with the nationalist SDLP and Alliance, agree to a power sharing government in Belfast after negotiations at Sunningdale. Hardline unionists including the Rev Ian Paisley vow to wreck the arrangement.
In 1973: After Holy Communion my mum takes me to the Royal Victoria Hospital to visit her mother Florrie McManus (nee Stewart) who is seriously ill. She only lasts a short time and dies.
In 1973: A military junta led by Pinochet and backed by the Nixon Administration and the CIA overthrow the democratically elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende. The date of the coup is September 11th. An East German friend of mine recalls crying when he heard about Allende’s death on DDR television, and later remembers Chilean left-wing refugees arriving in his home town.
In 1973: The Provisional IRA bomb the Old Bailey in London marking the beginning of the Provos England campaign. The bombers are arrested on route back to Belfast and include Gerry Kelly, currently a junior minister in the power sharing government in Belfast. Among others captured at Heathrow Airport are Marion and Dolours Price who later go on a hunger strike in an English jail so they can be repatriated to an Irish jail. During their incarceration they are force-fed by prison authorities. One man dies of a heart attack during the chaos caused by the bomb blast. Marion Price is back in jail in 2011 charged with encouraging acts of terrorism.
In 1973: Sunderland stun the football world by beating the might Leeds United in the FA Cup final. It is the first live final I ever see in colour on my own television in my house at Number 1 Eliza Street. The giant-killing feat was re-enacted by me using a rolled up pair of socks and the gaps between sofas in the front living room used as goals.
In 1973: The first American prisoners of war are freed from Vietnam and the Paris Peace Agreement effectively ends US involvement in Indochina. The NLF is only two years away from victory and the capture of Saigon while the Khmer Rouge gains ground in Cambodia before seizing power and establishing Year Zero.
In 1973: A UVF car bomb explodes in Dublin’s Sackville Street killing one and injuring 17 others. The car used to transport the explosive device had been hijacked in Agnes Street on Belfast’s Shankill Road. It marks the first major attack on southern Irish civilians by loyalists.
In 1973: I spend a week in Sligo on a cross community children’s summer holiday which degenerates into sectarian scrapping. We stay in a boarding school style place and witness fist fighting on the disco floor. Everyone over the age of 9 appears to smoke Goldflake and Major while the older lads wield chains and show off “hot shit” pen-knives. No one gets stabbed but we get chased from an orchard by an old priest wielding a blackthorn stick after we poke at a bees’ nest.
In 1973: The American Indian Movement take over Wounded Knee sparking a violent siege in South Dakota. AIM activists chose the site because it was where 300 men, women and children were killed by the US army in the 19th Century. Two Native American activists are killed and an FBI agent is paralysed during the armed confrontation. Literature from the AIM is circulated during Official Sinn Fein’s anti-imperialist festival.
In 1973: The Heath government imposes a three day working week in response to the oil crisis and ads appear on television urging us all “To Save It”. More than one million workers march in Britain in protest at Conservative austerity cuts. Plus ca change.
In 1973: My family home is the election headquarters of the Republican Clubs in The Market and a Starry Plough flag flies from one of our attic windows. My sister and I cover the lamp posts outside with round election stickers. No one from the party gets elected to the new and later doomed Northern Ireland Assembly.
In 1973: Both German states, the Federal Republic and the DDR are accepted as members of the United Nations. Meanwhile Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhoff terrorism continues to plague West Germany. A friend of our family has served a brief but disastrous jail sentence for an arson attack in Belfast inspired by the RAF-BM a few years earlier.
In 1973: We dance in the Silvertops disco in Belfast’s Hamilton Street to Gary Glitter’s I”m the Leader of the Gang (I am) blissfully unaware that our glam-rock/pop hero is a paedophile. The Silvertops becomes the battle ground between the Provie and Sticky Fiannas with studded belts and steel capped boots being deployed on the dance floor beneath the glitter ball.
In 1973: The world is still divided into the capitalist and communist blocs although the threat of nuclear holocaust is receding with détente all the rage. The New Cold War is still far off and the Islamist counter-revolution (the first thrust backwards into history and the past) is yet to break out in Iran. Europe is divided and the Berlin Wall looks permanent.
In 1973: The unions in Britain still retain the power to shake governments and within a year help bring down Ted Heath’s administration. The optimism of Sunningdale and the prospects of power sharing are short-lived – the approaching Ulster Workers Council strike will bring down the cross community government. It takes 33 years and thousands more deaths before unionists and nationalists share power again, this time it seems for good. Seamus Mallon’s description of the Good Friday Agreement (the template for the later St. Andrew’s Agreement) as “Sunningdale for slow learners” seems tragically apposite. Among the dead for the new dawn are at least one of our relatives, a dearly beloved uncle, several friends and a couple of neighbours. Our home is damaged and my father and I narrowly escaped death from a UVF bomb outside our home.
W1973: A group of UVF members bulging out of dark suits, wearing streaky black ties, gather around a grave to hear an oration in Roselawn Cemetery East Belfast. It is Remembrance Sunday 2011. My sister and I look on at this menacing crew amid howling wind and rain. We are standing at the edge of a mushy, freshly turned over, rain-sodden piece of earth. We begin the work of cleaning up the black-headstone caked in hardened mud and dirt. As we move over the to wipe it with hot water and cloths, one of my feet sinks into the mire up to my knee. My leg is descending towards where my mother was laid to rest the month before. She lies on top of my father, who died four months before her. I lift my leg out of the sticky, viscous muck but my foot has left an imprint on the strip above where my parents are buried. When we return a few weeks later the shape of my foot is still visible and is filled with rain water. W1973: The number of the grave where my mother followed my father into the ground.
Peter Falk’s greatest triumph on the screen was arguably the time when he played himself. Although better known as the shambolic detective in the trench-coat who became the legend that was Columbo it was Falk’s performance as the actor Peter Falk in Wim Wenders 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire that will stand the test of time.
Of course he endeared himself to millions all over the world in his role as the seemingly scatty-brained sleuth who outwitted rich and arrogant criminals, Falk was a true revelation playing the outlandish part of a fallen angel turned actor who has just arrived on the front line of the Cold War.
In Wender’s homage to Berlin, at the time when the Wall still cut the city into two ideological halves, we only learn about Falk’s former angelic status towards the end of the movie. It’s revealed in a comic yet deeply moving scene when Falk meets another fallen angel close to the Wall – the character played by Austrian actor Bruno Ganz. Prior to Ganz’s angel falling from the sky, his immortality sacrificed in pursuit of the beautiful mortal trapeze artist, Falk talks to the character in a number of black and white scenes. “Columbo” greets Ganz at an Imbiss food stall on bleak, blasted waste-ground running up towards a section of the Wall. He senses Ganz beside him and strikes up a bizarre conversation in front of the Imbiss owner behind the counter who only sees “Columbo” talking to himself. He describes the joys of smoking and drinking coffee at the same time, of rubbing your hands together in the cold to get warm and outstretching his hand to the invisible angel offering his friendship as a “companero.”
The next time the pair meet is in colour shortly after Ganz has abandoned his immortal form having fell to earth with his suit of angelic armour falling on top of him, subsequently wounding him in the head. The angel turned mortal spots Falk and cries out “companero”! They exchange greetings and then Falk offers Ganz a few dollars. To which Ganz replies that he has money and then Falk remembers he must have sold his suit of armour. Then it dawns on the former angel that Falk too – his companero – once had angelic status. Indeed Falk informs him that he was probably robbed as he himself made several hundred bucks selling his armour to a shop in New York City many years earlier.
Falk’s character is in part comedic but also partly melancholic. He strolls around Berlin with his sketch-pad drawing extras taking part in the war movie he’s starring in, stumbling about as shabby and absent-minded as ‘Columbo’ himself. And yet world-weariness is etched on his features. His internal dialogue recalls with affection his grandma and her long-lost world of pre-Nazi Berlin. He retraces her steps and finds only broken ruins and churned up earth, the scars of war, Holocaust and division. Amid the menacing backdrop of the Wall and No-Man’s land, in the winter cityscape with its skeletal trees, in the spectral light that Wenders shoots in through most of the film, Falk is the voice of the little man still clinging to his humanity, his empathy for others around him, even for the angels who other mortals around him cannot see, touch or sense intact.
On realising he’s in the presence of another fallen angel, Ganz expresses incredulity to which Falk replies: “Sure, there are loads of us.” It’s a comforting line in a film that creates so much ethereal beauty out of the barb wire, the concrete, the spot lights, the bullet-pocked buildings, the iron-bridges, the poky apartments and the packed claustrophobic subway trains of West and East Berlin.
Wings of Desire celebrates the crooked timber of humanity. Peter Falk stands out in Wenders’ tour de force as the crumpled, wrinkled, generous face of that humanity with all its faults and foibles. RIP Columbo. RIP the first of Wenders’ fallen angels.