It’s my first night out in I don’t know how long but, for reasons I’ll get to, I’m really not that pushed. Marie has been encouraging me, says she totally understands why I’d have to get out once in a while, after my days at home with the kids and the housework. She doesn’t even expect the quid pro quo and rarely goes out in the evenings herself. Being out there in the world every day, engaging with it, that’s enough for her, she says; her work satisfies her.
I have no idea what my wife does for a living. I know what it’s called, of course, her job title. But I just can’t imagine it any more: the place, the people, how it all happens, what they are all trying to achieve, in any way that makes any sense to me.
Anyway, the truth is I have to really think about whether I want to meet Ralph now or not. Time was, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a minute. There used be a kind of comfort in knowing that Ralph wasn’t going anywhere; he’d always be around, if you needed him. If for example, it turned out that you had made an unwise choice of partner and needed someone to chaperone you back into the desperate demi-monde of the city centre, get you back up into the creaky saddle, Ralph would be your man, I would have imagined. But it was Ralph who called me, on this occasion. Not that it was entirely out of the blue; I was half expecting it. I knew he’d been out of prison for a few weeks by then. There were people I’d been closer to out of our original circle but I had been the only one foolish enough to attend his trial and visit him that one time in Arbour Hill.
It’s a bitterly cold Friday in January, with snow forecast for the weekend. There was a time, I’m aware, when the fact that I was heading into town on a Friday night would have been the only relevant information. Tonight I’m already past however the Ralph situation might turn out and already trying to get the kids to school and crèche through a snowy Monday morning and trying to anticipate what hidden structural flaws an extreme weather event will expose in our criminally over-priced house. Hopeless, I know, but there it is.
I’m that bad now that I can’t even kill the half hour before I’m supposed to meet Ralph. The obvious thing is to just go to the bar and wait but something in me still can’t be the first one there; like a prize turkey, a welcoming committee of one, a tier of yellow ribbons round old oak trees. I want to get a look at him first, that’s the truth. I have to see him before I can decide if I’ll keep the appointment, I realise. It’s possible to do that in the place we’ve agreed to meet. I’m familiar enough with its several entrances, any number of stained glass vantage points I can look through without entering the premises, see what I need to see, before making my decision. From a safe distance of two hundred yards or so, pretending to examine my mobile phone, I take a quick recon and, satisfied, resume my aimless wandering around the streets, a flaneur, a man about “town”, as we used to call anywhere within a two mile radius of College Green. Very strict about that, we were, we who bused in from the outer suburbs at the weekends, the hushed suburbs that are now slowly but surely reclaiming us all. Dublin city centre wasn’t much but it was all we had then; our one chance for a crack at the big, shiny Metropolitan experience that the television set had been promising us for years. It usually ended on the rancid carpets of dilapidated ex-tenement houses or in Abrakebabra at four in the morning but at least we had tried. Unless, that is, you were Ralph and had a way about you.
Don’t you think it’s about time you re-joined the human race? This is my wife, her very words. She doesn’t mean it in a bad way, of course. Just one phrase among many that she has used to encourage me to get out more, which is another one. I suppose I could be hurt by her seeming lack of gratitude for what I do, for what I have done: assuming this stay-at-home role, embracing it before I really knew what I was getting into.
So here I am, honey, out re-joining the human race again, just like you said. First order of business: to hook up with my convicted sex offender friend, the worldly man with the cosmopolitan sexual preference for minors.
Marie doesn’t know I’m meeting Ralph but knows all about the trial and my single prison visit. She was no keener on the idea at the time than I was but knew I had to go; or, rather, that I couldn’t be seen not to go, to cut all ties with Ralph before he’d even been convicted. Not that there was ever any doubt about his guilt or the outcome of the trial, to anyone except Ralph himself. But Marie also knew what it would look like to just drop someone I had known for so long, who I had worked with, who had been at our wedding, and at the christening of our eldest child. And everyone was looking, make no mistake, and I don’t mean just the press. Everyone who knew us and our connection to him, of which there were quickly and mysteriously, more than we’d ever imagined, watching, listening and saying nothing. Their secret delight at the proceedings was no doubt enhanced by their having some connection, acceptably tenuous, to the accused. A delight all the more exquisite for knowing that it would be as short lived as the trial itself, as they knew, as we knew. There is a way of doing these things: you are grimly steadfast; you support; you attend; you shake hands openly. Until the State itself relieves you of your loyalty to someone like Ralph, you who are not even family after all, by sentencing him and putting him away. Time will take care of the rest, or so you think.
As well as being one of the stupidest people I’ve ever known Ralph was also one of the brightest. And this was no bunch of airheads, our crew. We mightn’t always have got the girls, in those days, but you couldn’t fault us on the swath we cut through the generalised naff-ness of the late nineties and early noughties. Ralph though, he was always the one who could go a step further, was always way ahead in that sad game of cool. But he also had the gift of being able to appear to take us along with him. He could articulate a place in the wider world for us, a place and a way of being that we thought was our own dirty little secret, stifled by the sheer numbers of the drones that surrounded us. Ralph elevated us to where we had only begun to imagine ourselves. In short, Ralph made us all feel a lot smarter than we were and, because of that, no one ever minded that he always got the girl. Some even seemed to feel that only fair and correct that he always got the girl.
The tram pulls in and disgorges yet more squads of willowy, hipless jailbait in micro-mini’s, hot pants, fetish boots and circus act heels. Armed only with fake ID’s, stolen cigarettes, entry level cash, minimal cosmetics and the strong intuition that they are as physically perfect as they will ever be, they go forth to torment males of all ages throughout the city. The take-out tipsy wobble; the clinging and the shrieking; the excruciating self-consciousness amplified by every word and gesture; it fails to put us off, us males of all ages. Knowing all that we know, we still look, ogle, relish, sigh, groan, flush, sweat and generally fancy our chances in the arena of the unlikely verging on the impossible, tinctured with the just plain dumb. Most of us enter and exit the zone of virtual torment as willingly and helplessly as they do, knowing the rules and the risks. But some of us, like Ralph, go further.
It isn’t that I don’t know why, up to a point.
I watch the tram filling up on this Friday night at eight o’clock. Filling up almost exclusively with exhausted parents and crabby children; dead on their feet shop assistants, waitresses, cleaners, security guards; the middle aged and elderly in their sensible clothes and reusable carrier bags, absenting themselves from the moment, from almost all moments, but whatever respite is available on dented sofas washed in a TV flicker.
I can understand anyone wanting to avoid that. It’s part, but not all, not by a long way, of the reason why I can’t go home, not just yet.
Although it wasn’t a complete surprise (I had, as I said, calculated he’d be released around that time) I have to confess that Ralph’s voice in my ear still caused a shudder to run down my spine. It was the same voice as ever: the Border Counties vowels almost but not quite flattened out; the tone of ironic formality that could somehow sound more intimate than the most casual monosyllables (and not all that different from the courtly schmooze that he used on the ladies). But this jaunty playfulness that had now, to my ears, acquired an altogether different quality.
I was imagining, not unreasonably, his phoning from a mouldy halfway house in the North Inner City, wall to wall with dressed-down recidivists drinking mugs of instant coffee while staring blankly at daytime television, body-pierced facilitators alert to any sly zapping over to a children’s channel, with no Wifi to lead them into temptation.
So Ralph’s tone was, at this late date, just s little bit too playful for my liking. His general attitude, unchanged and unbowed, a little bit rich, given the circumstances. Especially now that I had decided that the whistle was about to be blown on any further play between myself and Ralph.
It didn’t help that he called while I was in the middle of a school run. That there I was, engaged in a ritual one-upping session with another parent (Nadia loves her Camogie/Hip-Hop/Sanskrit/CoderDojo; devours all things green and sugar-free) when Mister Sleaze Incarnate calls. All right, so maybe the call released me from that particular by-way of deception, with the added bonus of making me look more in demand than usual among the other stay-at-homers. But when my daughter spotted me and began to run toward me, on legs that are certain to bring sporting glory to our nation, I knew I have to cut the call short, banish even Ralph’s disembodied voice from being anywhere near her. She’s only eight, but what difference would that make, to someone like Ralph? How low will you go, Ralph?
But they did overdo it, the papers; I have to admit that. And in many respects were allowed, as they often are, to get it plain wrong. I will give Ralph that much, at least. Before the trial, and before Ralph’s and other’s names were released, there were stories printed about a group of men “grooming” the girl, more than a suggestion of her being “passed around” by a network of middle-aged men, one of whom, to add extra spice, was a “carer” employed by the State. Although no money was ever claimed to have been exchanged, explicit photo’s and text messages were. All of this was splashed over the tabloids for weeks, using the kind of language you’d expect. It was also fodder for half a dozen columnists in the broadsheets and think-pieces from mail-order psychologists, featuring large photo’s of pubescent models looking winsome and vulnerable. There were even questions asked in The Dáil; resolutions made that it was an area that would be looked into, going forward.
Child Protection: that was the area. And unlawful carnal knowledge of a minor (she was thirteen); that was the charge, in the end. Doesn’t sound too bad, put like that. Like some misdemeanour committed by a careless, coked-up celebrity. Not entirely unprecedented. But for Rock n’Roll Ralph, even the probable year and a half actual jail time he would serve was too severe. He had wanted to appeal (but was ultimately persuaded against it by his remaining friends, myself included) on the basis that the coverage had prejudiced the jury and that the judge had tried him and one of the other men together, although they had never met, which was true. Wasn’t it?
No, he just didn’t get it, our Ralph. But he’ll get it soon enough.
I had met him for a coffee before the trial, for the kind of mid morning jolt n’chat that never does anybody any good. He was still out on bail, secured by me with “his end” of the never-to-be-realised profits from our joint venture into online marketing: full-scale portrait paintings of yourself and/or your family members, in the painting style, school or era of your choosing, for those who didn’t have the time, with a hectic modern lifestyle, to sit for a painter. Just upload a photo and your preferences ( á la anyone from Vermeer to Graham Knuttell) you’d get it in the post within a month, for a trifling three figure sum. No refunds but another penniless art student put on the job if you weren’t happy. I used to have some contacts in the art colleges, Ralph took care of the online jiggery pokery.
He goes online; she goes online.
That’s how it starts, in Ralph’s version. It’s wasn’t really my area, the social networking thing, but Ralph, nearly a full year older than me, had taken to it way back, as a mere boy still in his thirties, even before Bebo and Facebook.
Which didn’t really add up, if you had known Ralph at his peak. As I said, Ralph always got the girl, got to the girl before anyone else did. The rest of us didn’t stand a chance, with Ralph around. So I’m thinking now that he must already have been in trouble, if he had to go online to get that girl. A shadow of his former self already, his confidence badly dented somehow, although he showed no outward signs.
Then again, to be forty something and to never have had a long-term girlfriend (and I mean never; I would have known ) has to raise a few questions.
My wife’s antipathy toward him is based partly on the fact that she was one of the many unsteady girlfriends of those early days. It’s not something that we speak about often but, yes: I married one of Ralph’s cast-offs. There you have it; I have no pride. I was, as I said at the time, a rebound man from way back. But seriously, why should it bother either of us, especially now. Because where had God’s Great Bloody Gift been of late? Online, is where he had been; the ether; Little Miss Lonelyhearts, was what he’d become.
So they find one another, Ralph and his girl-child. Coy and cutesy; Clickety-Click. They agree to meet; lickety split.
Of course Ralph has his serious face on as he’s telling me this. The face he knows he has to put on for the occasion, even for me; maybe particularly for me. Pale, frightened, a touch of red in the eyes, dried lips that he has to keep moistening. His honest face that wouldn’t fool a child.
He knew straightaway. He admitted that, at least.
She said she was seventeen okay sixteen. You don’t mind, do you? But he knew she was younger again, and still there they were, already in the car, after he’d pulled over at the agreed meeting place and not just driven on. He’d opened the door and she’d climbed up into Ralph’s land cruiser, the one he couldn’t afford even then. But had to have, with uncanny foresight as it turned out, the four by four with the tinted windows, because that’s where they stayed mostly, for the duration: Safe inside the vehicle. Out in the open only after long drives to the most deserted spots Ralph could find: beaches, lakes, forest parks. She knew the score, he said. Even when he had been willing to risk a stop off at some roadside café or a Drive-thru McDonalds, she’d declined. “What for, a Happy Meal?” she’d drawled, lighting her cigarette with his dashboard lighter. His thinking: Well, it could be innocent. They could have been father and daughter, for instance, technically. Her, way smarter, thinking: anyone watching would know instantly, from their just-been-at-it body language, their smirky secret in the air between them, his dopey enchantment. It was incidentally, the same pattern with the others, the other suitors she had running concurrently with Ralph: always the high performance cars and the public spaces with minimal public usage.
He brings up love, Ralph does. He brings love to the impossibly poky coffee table in the horrible caffeinated clarity of that pre-trial morning. Love; jealously; obsession. Prompted by her no doubt generally knowing how to push a boy’s buttons, inside and outside any roadworthy vehicle, but particularly by her for instance forwarding the filthy texts from those others on to Ralph. Just a couple, one illustrated, was all it took, he says, to send him over the edge. Send him out in a jealous fit, unanswering phone clamped to his head as he patrolled round and round the housing estate she had claimed, imprecisely, to live in. Ralph sweating and moaning alone in the car, or getting out to stalk through the streets, lanes, shopping centres, parks of that general vicinity with a very vague notion of what he could possibly say and a demented disregard for how it might look, if he ever spotted her. That was love, in Ralph’s books.
You only had to look at the mother, to know. She wasn’t hard to spot at the trial, of course. The daughter gave her evidence via video link but the mother was there throughout. Because it was her show, after all, The big blonde forty nine year old mother of one, grotesquely trying to look twenty years younger even as we were all where we were because the barely adolescent daughter tried to pass herself off as an adult. Leaving them to meet, you would think, somewhere in the middle. But that will never happen. Because there is nothing that will convince this mother, not the hairline cracks or the collateral spill, the swelling ankles or the dimming vision, that it’s all over for her. But she’s still got it, as far as she’s concerned, ageing and parenthood be damned, and God help anyone who tries to tell her any different. Even a deadweight daughter, leaving those messages, illustrated or not, around for her (who else?) to find.
And even then, she doesn’t get it. Oh, she immediately calls the law, she quakes maternal, wails outrage at the massed forces of darkness (horned, scaled, male) but she still doesn’t get it. All of these events, and all of the inconvenient, hampering events of a life, for someone like her, as for someone like Ralph, will always fall sudden and unannounced from the firmament, small, rock-hard missiles hurled from the spiteful abyss.
That night, after he’d called me from the halfway house, Marie and the kids safely out of earshot, I called him back.
‘Oh, not a bother, ‘he says after I apologise insincerely for not getting back to him sooner. ‘I know how it is…well, I can imagine. And Nadia’s in Big School already? Hard to believe, eh?’
I try, and fail, to imagine the curfewed halfway house. Are there others listening nearby? Bunk beds? Jammies? What?
‘So, how’s your…accommodation?’
‘Less than satisfactory I’m afraid, Ronan. In fact, I was wondering if you could put me up for a bit, if I go on the run? This rehabilitation lark is dragging on a bit.’
Okay, good one. I’ll give him that. I guffaw from the other side of the Grand Canyon opening up between us.
‘Seriously, though. It’s a step up from some of those kips we shared over the years. And I don’t even have to listen to your snoring.’
‘With some important differences, I’d say.’
‘Yes, Ronan, you’re right. Like I feel safer here than with some of those lunatics you used to drag home with you then. What are you, going all Grand Inquisitor on me now?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘The tone, Ronan. The tone. Like I need you to remind me of what….Sorry. I’m just being a bit sensitive.’
‘That’s understandable. I didn’t mean anything by it. This is all new to me too. I just don’t know what to say.’
‘To an ex-convict, you mean? For God’s sake…Sorry, done it again. You can say whatever you want, Ronan. Whatever you would have said before. I haven’t changed, you know. Not that much.’
Oh, yeah? Well why the fuck not, kiddyfiddler, at a thousand euro a day to keep you off the streets?
‘So, what do you do with yourself during the days?’
‘Well, a lot of reading, Ronan. A lot of reading.’
Yes, all that reading, reacquainting yourself with Dostoievski and Kafka, wandering about town, maybe not showing your face around the galleries yet but malingering in your favourite public spaces, sitting in Starbucks between visits to your therapist, your parole officer, signing on at the Garda station. The kind of terrible emptiness a few people I know wouldn’t mind sampling for a few hours, let alone day after day.
But I don’t say this. Neither do I say: But you’re out, Ralph, out after a piddling eighteen months. And soon enough, they’ll take the parole officer off your case; your course of therapy will be completed; the guards and the state generally will take its eye off you and, beside being on some register somewhere, you’ll be free to go.
I don’t say any of this. I listen and I make the correct noises. I let him go on about looking for work in our former industry, as if nothing had ever happened. I’m well out of it now but I still have enough contacts (many re-established during the course of the trial) to know he won’t be working for or with any of them soon. And, in a town this size, that means anywhere within The Pale either. The fact that Ralph doesn’t know this yet, is just another sign of how deluded he still is, how far from getting it he is yet.
One thing he’s been avoiding, he says, is alcohol. He’s grown unused to it, out of practise. Even the odd single drink he’s had since his release has gone straight to his head. He’s nervous about having any more but is willing to try again “under strict supervision”, if it’s with someone he can trust.
Would I oblige?
If you want to make a splash, you go to the tabloids. If you only ever read the Paper of Record, as I used to, you could easily have missed all the business with Ralph. Vying for space on page four with gangland shootings, spousal homicides and the seemingly bottomless reservoir of other child sexual abuse cases, you might easily have passed over Ralph and Co. Without photos and with any emotive language in quotations, your eyes would soon slide back to the more obviously craven face of whoever the pot-bellied guards were bustling along and the juicier story underneath.
But “Schoolgirl Stalker Outrage” and “Under Age Sex Beast Gets “Insulting” 2 Years”; that was more like it.
Or how about this: “Paroled Perv On Prowl Again.” Or “ Early Release Gymslip Club Man Caught Red-Handed”
With photos of Ralph in a late night bar grinning, lasciviously of course, at the almost exclusively underage (or close enough) girls who frequent it. I may be out of it but not so out of it that I don’t know where those places are still to be found. I also know that I can persuade Ralph to go to one of them with me and that, regardless of how he acquits himself under such a stress-test of his willpower and his reform programme (if there really is one) it will look really, really bad for him.
I didn’t have to persuade someone like PJ Leavy of how bad it would look. Or how good a story it would make for him and his photographer. He knows his job. Once I got over my surprise that an actual human answered when I rang one of those numbers they print all over the paper (“Have you got a story for The Post?”) and, after the briefest nutter- screening, was patched through to the man himself, it was Leavy who ran with it.
Eighteen months ago or not, all I had to do was give Ralph’s name for him to have instant, total recall. Not only did he remember the weeks of “coverage” (Anonymous, unsourced fantasy for the most part) they had gotten out of Ralph and the others but he also seemed to know straightaway what I had in mind, maybe better than I did. Within a couple of minutes he was finishing my sentences for me; after twenty more I was reduced to monosyllabic answers to his repeated queries:
“Was I absolutely sure?”
The practicalities were arranged; he didn’t need to meet me beforehand. If we were a no-show, he had nothing to lose but the price of a couple of beers whereas I wouldn’t get my fee afterwards, an item he himself had insisted on bringing up, a matter of indifference to me and an amount that will change no one’s life for better or worse. He then lapsed into noisy breathing and slow responses to my expression of justified outrage at the behaviour of “scumbags” like Ralph and the failure of our justice system to deal fittingly with them.
‘Have you kids yourself?’ I asked him breathlessly at one point.
‘No, I don’t.’
He was very firm about that, very quick off the mark. So I guessed that he probably had but just wasn’t about to discuss them with me. Which is fair enough, when you think about it. Business is business. Who was I, after all, to be swapping that kind of information with?
Before I go in, I’ll stand outside here and have my first smoke in two years with the other lepers: the non-inhaling apprentices; the pan-handling part-timers; the ecstatic back-sliders; the reptilian hard-core. Among the latter I recognise some of the old faces, the unmistakably on-the-turn faces of our old town crowd. The die-hards who obviously don’t posses mirrors or anyone close or kind enough to let them know the party’s over.
Ralph’s already in there. I’ve seen him from a few different angles through the emergency exit glass, at the bar with his book and his cautious cup of coffee. Well, that’s the end of him, I thought straightaway. You could almost feel sorry for him, the fat bastard, if he hadn’t brought all this on himself. His high bloat potential had already begun to manifest before he went away but the extra couple of stone he’s carrying now is pure sex offender porridge. No hard labour for the boys of Arbour Hill. And his pallor is a shade greyer than even the most fiendish doper in the place, like something out of a geriatric ward. But on someone his age it comes with a kind of contrast aura, like he’s in sepia, so not the kind of aura you’d want, really.
It doesn’t look like anyone has approached him yet, out of the few familiar faces scattered around. But would they, even if they did recognise him? Have they already blanked him, hunched their seedily elegant shoulders against him, murmured something about hard necks into their affronted armpits?
Phil the Fixture, the shop headman, must have okayed him but sure hasn’t he paid his debt to society, lads. And didn’t he always fix up his tab? Me hands are tied, no offence to yourself, Ralphie, heh,heh,heh.
But it’s all over for Ralph now, bar the shouting. Once I slide in next him and play it cool; sorely disappointed, of course, but willing to forgive.
Ah, Ralph! If you could only have seen yourself ten years ago? I’ll bet even you had no idea how golden and anointed you looked, so obviously filled with the Holy Spirit. So close to perfection .Yes, I can say it now, because that’s what you nearly had, once: Perfection. For the rest of us to gaze upon and be awed by what God can really do when He puts his mind to it. Things came easily to you because of it, and you took them, but you never really saw why.
I don’t even blame Marie for choosing you over me back then. I would have done the same if I was her, no question. But why should that bother me now, after all these years, now that it’s me and Marie, not you, who are all boxed off. We’re done now, Ralph; or almost. By tomorrow morning we’ll all be hunky dory and fair n’ square, like the noughties never happened. So, a deep breath now and mind that pint, would you?
How’s it goin’, Ralphie?