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Michael McNamara

Mistaken Identity

By Michael McNamara, Rice College, Ennis.

Second place, junior Clare Champion Short Story Competition

FIVE days a week, for eleven years. It is never duly crowded and it takes me from Maynooth right into Connolly Station, only an eleven and a half minute walk from the door of my office in Google buildings on Barrow Street.
I have always liked the process of commuting; every phase of the journey is always a pleasure to me; the regularity of it.
Nineteen or twenty of us gather on the small platform of our station to catch the 8.16 each morning. Most of them are colleagues, graduates who excelled in the modern world of finance or information technology, each one striving for that seven figure salary and casting furtive glances in my direction, a look of envy in their eyes. I had reached the summit and gave them something to aspire to. It was a group that rarely changed and when occasionally a new face appeared on the platform, it caused a certain ripple of consternation, an invasion of our own private world.
It gives me a sense of assurance to be moving among my peers, dependable, dignified people who recognise my position of authority and always demonstrate due respect and deference.
But last Tuesday, the Tuesday after County Clare’s All-Ireland win, a chilly, auburn autumn morning, as I was striding onto the platform, I breathed a sigh of relief, not a saffron and blue jersey in sight. With The Times tucked under my arm, I suddenly became aware of a stranger who was standing plumb in the middle of the platform, feet apart and arms folded, looking for all the world as though he owned the place. He was a tall, thickset man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter and a hint of arrogance. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronise or pity. All of his movements were large but well balanced, like those of a wild animal.
A local provincial newspaper, The Clare Champion, was tucked under his arm. Was he lost? Why had he not returned with the rest of the herd? His shoes were brown, requiring a touch of polish, his grey hat was cocked at a ridiculous angle, and in one way or another he seemed to exemplify the world from which all the rest of us on the platform had escaped. I walked straight past with my face to the sky, adding, I sincerely hope, a touch of frost to the already cool atmosphere.
The train came in. And now, try and imagine my horror when this individual actually followed me into my own compartment! Nobody had done this to me for the last three years, since my promotion to senior management and that coveted seven figure salary. My colleagues, respecting my seniority, and eager to cultivate my patronage had afforded me this privilege. But here was this fellow, this stranger, straddling the seat opposite, blowing his nose, rustling The Clare Champion and opening a jumbo breakfast roll. I couldn’t decide if it was the smell of this roll, or this individual that was causing my nausea. I suppose he was about the same age as me – thirty five or six – but he had one of those brown, leathery countenances that I find particularly vulgar.
“Did you see the match?” he asked, assuming of course I knew the match that he was referring to. That was all he said. But the sound of his voice had a sudden extraordinary effect on me. In fact, l think I jumped. Then I sort of froze and sat up staring at him for at least a minute before I got hold of myself and made a reply.
“What match?” I said, knowing that this would disorientate him.
“What planet are you living on?” he asked in a somewhat familiar sarcastic tone.
There it was again, that curiously crisp, familiar, mocking voice, clipping its words and spitting them out hard and small like a quick-firing gun. Where had I heard it before? And why did every word seem to strike upon some tender spot far back in my memory? I was properly put out. We spoke no more during the journey, but you can well imagine that by then my whole day had been upset.
The next morning there he was again. Where had I seen him before? This stranger had invaded my world; my peace and tranquillity shattered by his presence and tone. There he was, standing with his legs apart just as though he owned the place, tapping The Clare Champion against his knee. The tapping! That did it! I stopped like I’d been shot.
“It’s Casey!” I cried under my breath. “And still tap, tap, tapping!”
Except now he beat out the rhythm with a newspaper instead of that dreaded timber metre stick. It was Casey all right. Slasher Casey as we used call him. I had not seen him for, let me see; it must be almost 25 years. At that point, the train came in and, sure enough, he sat next to me again.
“Great day isn’t it,” he said. There was no mistaking the voice now. It hadn’t changed at all.
“All right, Harrington,” he used to say. “All right you nasty little boy. I am about to beat you again.” He still had the arrogant tilt of the chin and the flaring nostrils. He hadn’t recognised me.
Looking back on it, my father was the unwitting cause of my suffering at the hands of Slasher Casey. I was ten when I first went to that fine private boarding school in the West of Ireland. It was a family tradition; necessary to provide “backbone”. My father, a courteous, dignified man, escorted me to the main entrance, when suddenly somebody who was wanting to get by us gave my father a great push from behind and nearly knocked him off his feet. My father turned around with surprising speed and caught the culprit by the collar.
“Don’t they teach you better manners at this school young man?” he said.
The boy, looked at my father with a cold, arrogant-malevolent glare and said nothing.
“It seems to me,” my father said, staring back at him, “that an apology would be in order”.
But the boy just kept staring with a cold defiance and with this funny little arrogant smile that undermined my father’s composure.
“You strike me as being an impudent and ill-mannered boy,” my father went on. “And I sincerely hope that my son has little contact with the likes of you as I would not wish for him to pick up any of your bad habits.”
At this point, the big boy inclined his head slightly in my direction and a pair of small, cold eyes looked down into mine. Unaware of the power of senior boys at private boarding schools, I remember I looked straight back at him in support of my father, whom I adored and respected.
Slasher Casey never forgot this episode. The following day, I found myself in Slasher’s “dorm”. Even worse than that, I was in his study. He was doing his last year and as a prefect was given free reign over the juniors in his care. He took a sadistic pleasure in tormenting me and exacting revenge for the perceived slight of my father. Me, a small pale shrimp of a boy, a long way from home. No escape, no hope, a year of misery.
And now I sit opposite this person who almost drove me to suicide. So, what would I do? Suddenly, a wicked idea came into my head. Slasher couldn’t hurt me any more. So I decided to face my demons, tap him on the knee and reveal my identity, to list his crimes and watch as the horror of it all became apparent to everyone in the now crowded carriage. I eagerly looked forward to basking in his public humiliation.
Suddenly, he caught me staring at him. There was a flicker of irritation in his eyes. It was now or never; I decided to go for the jugular. I would keep it pleasant, sociable and polite, in order to maximise the impact and cause him paramount embarrassment. So then I smiled at him and gave him a courteous little nod. Then raising my voice, I said “I’d like to introduce myself.” I was leaning forward closely so as not to miss the reaction. “My name is Harrington – George Harrington – and I was a border at Abbeywood in 1991.”
I could sense the others in the carriage listening in anticipation.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, lowering his paper to his lap. “Mine’s Murphy – Johnny Murphy – the Comp 1985.”

More stories to follow.

 

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