December 22nd, 2014

To TV3 for an interview on Ireland AM. A taxi takes me to Ballymount, or as I like to call it “Montrose without the trimmings.”
I am seated on the couch with Alan Hughes, Mark Cagney, and Sinead Desmond. Benjamin’s words are ringing in my ears: “Can you get me a signed photo of Sinead Desmond, Johnny? Pleeeeease.”
There is some talk about the art of crime fiction. Mr Cagney chairs proceedings. He starts every sentence with an unquestionable declaration, such as “You were one of the first Irish writers to…” and “Your work is profoundly concerned with…” He speaks with such authority that he leaves little room to doubt his apparent knowledge, although I note that he is wearing odd socks.
There are occasional guffaws from Miss Desmond and Mr Hughes, usually about some show business reference. The guffawing increases in intensity as they discuss a matter concerning a minor celebrity until they are both shrieking in unison. Mr Hughes adds to his shrieking by bouncing up and down on the couch and pounding his palms on the cushions. Mr Cagney looks on, like a benign inscrutable owl.
It is all rather beyond me. News is ten minutes late, the weatherman doubles up a cameraman, and the receptionist arrives to touch up Alan Hughes’ make up, twice.
After the interview I ask Sinead Desmond to sign a photo of herself. “Is it for yerself?” asks Alan Hughes. I stammer something about it being for my nephew. Miss Desmond obliges.
Alan Hughes offers me some free tickets to his latest pantomime. “Bring your nephew. He’ll love it.”
The last thing I hear as I exit the building is the braying of Alan Hughes in the staff canteen, counter-pointed by some shrieking from Miss Desmond.
Back home in the basement, Benjamin assures me that I was very good. He sticks out a webbed hand and claws the air in anticipation.
I hand him the signed photo and he sighs and coos over it and inserts it into a frame on his desk. He beams at it and asks “Did she smell nice, Johnny? I bet she smells nice.”
“I’m not in the habit of smelling people, Benjamin.”
“But you’re always going on about that writer fellow, and how he smells.”
“That’s a condition, Benjamin. He can’t help it. Now enough about Ian McEwan. Time to get back to work.”

December 20th, 2014

To Dr Kimmage’s. The moaning from the basement has become almost unbearable, and the cat has started to join in in sympathy. Benjamin’s frequent requests of “look at my foot, Johnny. It’s turning green!” have also made me realise that letting the situation run its natural course can only result in something as bad as Christmas 2010.
After bundling him into the car and under a blanket, and navigating through some quite horrendous Christmas traffic, we arrive at Dr Kimmage’s surgery.
A coded knock, and we are let in through the back door. Dr Kimmage attends to Benjamin, casting occasional disapproving glances in my direction over his half moon spectacles.
He inspects the foot and makes small talk while I sit in the corner with a handkerchief to my nose and mouth.
“How’s the new book coming along, Benjy?” he asks.
“Great,” Benjamin winces, as Dr Kimmage examines his foot. “I wrote five thousand words yesterday.”
“Good for you.”
Dr Kimmage continues to look at his foot. There is some small talk about what Benjamin wants for Christmas. Without looking at me Dr Kimmage asks his next question:
“What about you, John? How’s your new book coming along?”
I clear my throat. “Well, it’s a meditation on time and nature, examined in a forensic manner through an identity that’s-”
“Still haven’t started then?” he says casually.
I clear my throat again. “No,” I say. The word sounds too small and quiet in the room.
Dr Kimmage nods to himself and smiles at Benjamin.
A course of antibiotics is prescribed, and Benjamin is advised to stay off his foot as much as possible. Dr Kimmage leads us to the door.
“Just as well you came to me when you did. It could have been Christmas 2010 all over again.”
He watches Benjamin clamber into the back of the car and under his blanket, and he sighs.
“You know you’re going to have to bring him to an actual doctor at some point, don’t you? I have an Alsatian in the waiting room with a possible hernia. I need to prioritise.”
On the drive home I try to make casual conversation.
“So, you wrote five thousand words yesterday, Benjy?”
He gives a muffled response from under his blanket. “Actually no, Johnny. I didn’t.”
“Well, at least you’re trying,” I say, turning back briefly to give the blanket a sympathetic look.
“It was closer to eight thousand.”
Pearse Street suddenly becomes a red shimmer.
“What was that, Johnny?”
“Nothing, Benjy.”
“It sounded like a bold word. Were you thinking about Roddy Doyle again?”

December 18th, 2014

Late afternoon. Another phone call from Roddy Doyle:
“Did I tell you I was working on a screenplay?”
“No, Roddy, you didn’t.”
“And a new novel.”
“That’s nice for you.”
“And a picture book.”
There is a beat. I can almost smell the insidious intent drifting down the phone line.
“So, what are you working on at the moment, John?”
“I’m working on a new novel. I don’t like to boast, but I like to think it might be the most profound statement about the nature of art and time since Derek Mahon’s A Disused Shed in County Wexford.”
“Neglected is it?”
“Very much so, at least in terms of being as widely read and acknowledged as it should be. Although, its place in the canon-”
“What is it, some kind of art installation? I thought he just wrote poems.”
A breath – a pause. I watch a dust mote descend through a shaft of light as I realise what’s happening.
“It is a poem, Roddy.”
Another pause. The air tightens and condenses.
“I knew that,” says Roddy.
“No you didn’t you didn’t!” I cry.
“Yes I did, I was just-”
“Taxis taxis no takesie backies.”
I slam down the phone.

December 17th, 2014

Bumped into Richard Ford running out the main gate of Trinity College. He seemed quite distressed. I asked him what the matter was.
“Don’t have time,” he shouted. “He’s coming!”
He was gone in the direction of Grafton Street before I could ask him what he meant.
The mystery was solved moments later when John Kelly darted out the gate looking left and right.
“He went that way,” I said, pointing in the direction of Westmoreland Street. He nodded his thanks, and glided away with the resolute purpose of a predator.
Back home I found Benjy in the basement complaining about his foot.
“It hurts, Johnny. It hurts real bad. Would you like to see?”
Before I could object he was removing his sandal and his right sock. My shriek was only matched by that of the cat who had been lounging against the back wall. It was a close run thing as to who would reach the top of the stairs first. The cat, by dint of his relative youth and agility, shaded it.
While I stood panting outside the basement door Benjy’s plaintive voice (and the fragrance) wafted up towards me.
“Johnny. Johnny.”
I called back down to him and told him not to worry, and that I would bring him to Dr Kimmage soon. I’m not entirely sure if he caught the full meaning of my words, as I was pinching my nose at the time.

December 16th, 2014

An early morning phone call from Roddy Doyle. He sounds tentative, as if hiding something. After some small talk about the weather, and some incomprehensible guff about his beloved Chelsea, he gets to it:
“So, did you see the Late Late Toy Show a couple of weeks back?”
I say no, but the truth is I did watch it because I’d let Benjy up from the basement for his annual treat. As usual, he became quite agitated during the tots in small cars section (“They’re going to crash, Johnny. They’re going to craaaaash!”).
“Well,” says Roddy, “one of my books was featured.”
His voice is slightly high-pitched.
“Really?” I reply. “That’s nice for you. Which one was it? Was it the sentimental picaresque about the chip van, or one of the others? I can’t remember.”
There is the sound of air being sucked in at the other end of the line. “It was Brilliant.”
“Yes, I’m sure it was-”
“No, Brilliant, my book. It’s called Brilliant.”
“Is it?”
“Yes, it’s called Brilliant.”
“No, I mean is it? Is it in fact brilliant?”
I chuckle at my little jest. Roddy is silent for a moment. When he speaks again his voice carries the slightest hint of a feral growl:
“It has a dog on the cover.”
“The poo book!” I exclaim. “Of course.”
“No, that’s a different one. That’s completely different, that’s a Rover book.”
“The dog, and all that poo, and the needless scatology. I remember it well. Rover something or other.”
Roddy clears his throat aggressively. “It’s the one about the children chasing depression as symbolised by a black dog through the streets of…”
It’s at this point that I lose interest, and instead I inspect my nails and think about Paulette my manicurist. Perhaps I shall pay her a visit soon. I can see my face in the polished cuticle. I smile. I am embraced by a sensation as smooth as a polished stone on a beach. Then something Roddy says distracts me:
“What was that, Roddy?”
“I was just saying how ironic it is that Frank Lampard has gone to Man City, when it’s Chelsea who could suff-”
“No, go back a bit. You were saying something about one of my books.”
“Yes, The Newton Letter, I read it recently, and I was just saying how much I liked it,” he says.
“Really?” I say. “And how much would you say you liked it.”
Roddy hums and haws. “Well, I suppose a fair bit…”
“Well, because it’s very good I suppose-”
“You said it! You said it! You said it was very good.”
“Too late, taxis taxis no takesie backsies!”
I hang up.

December 15th, 2014

Lunch with Brendan Kennelly. Unfortunately I don’t remember much of it, as I spend an hour and a half battling the urge to squeeze his cherubic cheeks. They sit either side of his captivating smile, like the upended shiny buttocks of two tiny elves.
After our repast Brendan says “So, that’s okay with you then?”
I nod my assent, not sure what I’m agreeing to, and I try to avert my eyes. Brendan seems pleased.
The cheek squeezing urge only deserts me twenty minutes later as I spy Michael Colgan making his way across O’ Connell Bridge. I have heard tell of the modern term “unicorn chaser”, perhaps Michael is the physical embodiment of its antithesis.
Home, where I find Benjamin poring over the allegedly “let them eat cake” cover of the Sunday Independent Life Magazine. He holds the page millimetres from his eyes and squints:
“Who’s that, Johnny?”
“I have no idea.”
“And who’s that?”
“Miss Ireland? Somebody who models? I’m not entirely sure.”
“What about her? Who’s she? She has lovely hair.”
“That’s Barry Egan.”

December 8th, 2014

Today is my birthday. I buy the annual cake from a local shop. It’s a layered coffee concoction. I suspect it to be more derivative of its alleged nomenclature than the label claims. Nonetheless it will serve its purpose.
After arriving home I take a deep breath and descend into the basement. It is warm and airless, and a dim light is thrown from a single, naked, urine coloured light bulb.He is crouched over his desk when I arrive at the bottom. The collar of his dirty grey anorak is pulled up to cover the back of his neck. Strands of greasy hair are dragged across his balding head. He is hunched over a laptop keyboard, the hump on his right shoulder exaggerating a position of demented intensity. He is wearing his black sandals and his favourite argyle socks, the awful brown pair which he claims are patterned with “gold”, and which I fear he hasn’t removed since I bought them for him six Christmases ago.
I clear my throat. There is no reaction, so I gently call his name.
“Benjamin,” I say. “Benjamin.”
He turns around, and once again I feel that odd mixture of guilt and repulsion. His right eye is larger than the left. The left side of his jaw sags downwards, lending him an idiotic aspect, and causing saliva to collect and pool in the corner of his mouth. He wipes some drool away with the top of a webbed hand, and his voice is soft and moist, like that of a swamp dwelling amphibian which has somehow been given a voice:
“Johnny, what is it?”
I give him my best smile and I produce the cake from behind my back.
His right eye lights up (the left stays deadened and glazed).
“A cake, Johnny, a cake. You brought me a cake!”
He claps his hands together like an over zealous seal, and there is sudden fragrance of sweat and fish.
“Us, Benjy. I brought us a cake.”
For a moment he looks confused, his lips work soundlessly, tiny milky white bubbles pop in the corner of his mouth.
“Of course!” he screeches. “Happy birthday. Happy birthday to us.”
Benjamin hops up from his chair and pushes it aside. He starts to caper up and down, stopping occasionally only to wipe the strands of hair over the top of his unnaturally large head.
“Benjy, can you-”
“Happy birthday to us happy birthday to us!”
I sigh. “Please, Benjy. Stop capering. You know I don’t like it when you caper.”
Much to my chagrin he continues to caper for a few more seconds, flapping his elbows in and out of his sides as he hops from one foot to the other. Eventually exhaustion takes over and he stops. His shoulders slump forward as he pants, droplets of sweat wobbling on his pale white face.
I step forward and place the cake on his desk. I can’t help but steal a furtive glance at his laptop screen. He notices my curiosity.
“It’s going well, Johnny. I should be finished well before the deadline.”
“That’s good,” I say. The smile I return his lopsided one with is strained.
“The plot is all there, Johnny. In this one Quirke is investigating the murder of a young woman who worked for a wealthy Dublin family. There are dark secrets, and intimations of institutional forces at play with deeds of a most nefarious and dark nature.”
I beam. “Well then, that sounds very-”
“But then Dublin is hit by a heat wave, and Quirke spends an awful lot of time sunning himself in Stephen’s Green and eating ice cream. And he meets a girl, Johnny. A lovely girl who he falls madly in love with, and he smiles lots, and all the things that have previously burdened him and made him so angst ridden seem to vanish like a puff of smoke. They get married and live happily ever after. And they have a lovely time together, and it doesn’t rain once. Not once!”
He shouts the last two words, and gives me a manic look. I can feel my mouth go dry, and the hot prickle of fear along my back.
“Ha ha ha, fooled you!” he shrieks, pointing a webbed finger at me. “I had you going there, didn’t I?”
He does a little jig, and somehow I muster enough strength to compose myself. I give what I hope is a convincing semblance of a chuckle.
“Very good, Benjy,” I say. “Very good. Most amusing.”
He looks at me with a subtle expression of appeal. “Do you want to read this one?”
I look at his laptop screen and then look at him and shake my head. “Perhaps the next one.”
Benjy tries to smile, but he turns his face away from me and shrugs a misshapen shoulder. He looks at the cake.
“There’s no candles.”
“No. You ate last year’s, remember? I thought it best not to have them this time.”
“Do you want to eat some cake with me? Maybe have a chat?”
He smiles at me, and a string of white drool stretches like slow salivary elastic from the corner of his mouth and plops onto the floor.
“Not this time. Maybe next year.”
“You promise?” he says, taking a half step forward.
“Yes,” I say, taking a full step back.
He looks at the floor and nods. Then he sits himself down and helps himself to a fistful of cake and crams it into his mouth. I take it as my cue to leave, and halfway up the stairs I hear his voice:
“Yi yub oo yohhny.”
That hot prickle of fear again. Without turning back I say jauntily. “Yes, it is rather mild for this time of year, isn’t it?”
I ascend the stairs, leaving my twin brother to his birthday cake.