French Letters

by Phillip Daughtry

What is bounty without a beggar?
Although rain comes down in Ireland with the same determination it does in England, its reception is less optimistic. Too sulky to use umbrellas, Irishmen prefer to defy the weather. Even as a shower was soaking Clifden's main street, Jimmy Canliffe waited stolidly outside The Old Boar. Hunched in a shrinking jacket, a smoldering dog end glued to his lip, he directed his curiosity toward anyone in hailing distance.
Recently crossed from America and having purchased an English raincoat, I was dry-- especially my throat which had gone years without draft Guinness ,whose effects compete favorably with watching my last twenty bucks gallop first past the post by a nose.
Certain he'd caught my eye, Jimmy Canliffe ventured a greeting calculated to avoid the weather, in itself a cultural difference from strangers at London bus stops whose commentaries elevate meteorological fatalism to an art form.
So it's for a jar or two is it? Jimmy started.
Do dogs piss on the street? I replied.
It's a good thing dogs don't drink porter, he said, we'd all be swimming.
Well then, I said, shall we contribute to the day of the flood? I'll stand you one unless by any chance you've taken the pledge?
The man glanced at me as though I was insane, replying, I have no fear of drink, it's the taste of courage makes drink sweeter. Under this proclamation, with the resolve of commandos we marched inside.
Having endured generations of forsaken cigarette butts and the neglect of owner Jack Docherty, whose primary caretaking was to wave his grimy bar towel at the premises if he was in the mood, The Old Boar emitted a moldy opulence of nicotine and Guinness. Its foot rail was rickety and the floor greasy with sawdust Jack Docherty seldom made effort to sweep. The place was short on frequent clients and its light thin, as the front window glazed with cobwebs let in small illumination to ghostly effect. A morose servant of his craft,the proprietor bore a hatchet face that would give credit to a desert Tuareg for the hook of its nose, and a complexion almost as dark as our chosen beverage. Behind, his shelves were sparse, holding only three bottles of Tullamore dew, one variety of Bushmills single malt, two species of gin and several cream liqueurs whose shoulders, loamed in dust, had stood untouched since Pharaohs were bandaged.
Two regulars stood at the bar with their hands clasped in the adopted style of Irish boozers avoiding noon mass for more concrete evidence of spiritual existence.
After hanging up my mac, I nodded at the host and raised my right hand in the usual's two fingered salute. The barkeep proceeded. Pouring Guinness is a formal convention making burial rites anarchy by comparison. The beverage must be poured to a snowy head exact to the rim. An adroit barkeep hovers above holding a thin spatula used by dentists in search of microbes. When the pour has set it is handed over gently as a child rescued from an orphanage whose sustenance was boiled cabbage leaves and tenderness four lashes instead of six.
To the usual miracle, proclaimed my guest, as he lowered the drink from another frothy mustache on his unshaved face.
May you always fall backward looking down a well, I said and supped life's silken reminder, careful to deny pause to its reception.
We waited in silence a moment before lowering our half emptied jars.
I'd say you were an overseas visitor, Jimmy started.
I am, I said, though there's family up in Howth a generation back. I was born outside Newcastle but have been in America most of my years.
I thought you from elsewhere by that map sticking out your arse, Jimmy said. Though it's claimed anyone needing a map in Ireland is short on the wit to read it.
I lifted the noted tourist folio out of my back pocket and surrendered it to the bar. Jimmy studied the brochure's cover, a green map of Ireland.
Do you see how, he said, if you study it, our country has the shape of a hound's head?
I ventured his point of view. Yes. I agreed, the noble profile of a large wooly dog. A full-sized poodle would be my guess.
Overhearing this, one man next to us stirred. Sor, wouldn't you think it hasty to be comparing our ancient geography to the shape of a curly dog? French too forgive us.
French, Eyetalian or bloody Chinese, Jimmy snorted,'tis a free country is it not O'Sullivan? This gentleman from across the water who roasted me a pint, has every man's right to candid observation.
Don't get your ears in a flare Jimmy Canliffe. I was only suggesting some catlick citizens might view a canine comparison infringement on the liberty of a civilized people whose dogs are restrained on leashes and thrown a bone, if they're lucky.
I apologize if you are insulted, I said.
Take a look for yourself man, Jimmy suggested.
The man shuffled to my map and after close review, announced: Jaze. It's the head of a dog! Look here. Tom you've been living er,look, see, about right... here. Two thumb widths west of Galway puts Clifden under the gullet of a wooly dog.
Mother of God, his friend observed, it's a wonder we're not invaded by fleas.
It's a kindness it's only the head and the country isn't shaped to the entire animal's body, the first man said, or we might be located in some nether region less suitable to discussion.
The man in question stretched his jar along the bar. He and his mate stood closer appraising me in the custom of an epic race rehearsing stoic manners of celtic Kings.
It's a fine raincoat you were wearing,the man said, a bit on the republican side suitable to concealment, if you know what I mean. I'd be careful in the North.
The man winked meaningfully. I recalled the IRA boys once wore similar macs to conceal grenades while exercising their vendetta against colonial oppressors and incidental four-year-olds.
I'm Ronan O'Sullivan. This man is Tom Flannery from Clifden and meself from Dublin though previously Connemara. Before that is a mystery me own mother didn't reveal. Might I stand us a second in the way of our astute canine observation you might say?
Allow me, I said. The barman waited until I parked another ten on the bar and resumed his beverage partnership with the Guinness Corporation.
Ronan Sullivan was a small wiry man of the Firbaugh race, meaning much about him was compensation for his shortage of stature and rapscallion tendencies. His thick brows parked above his nose like thorn bushes and his eyes were constantly on a quest to see around corners, an affliction that ordained them to dart precipitously in the direction of his feet as if to verify the ground was trustworthy. Furthermore his hands never found a resting place, so overall he was nervous and overeager to confide in anyone who'd withstand his armpits which exuded their unfumigated wilderness well beyond his tweed suit.
So you'll be here a bit eh? Ronan began as he reached for his jar which in his child handed grasp assumed the dimensions of a grand flowerpot.
Well I just arrived and might stay awhile. I was uncertain of this decision.
It's a grand place the West. O' Sullivan asserted and downed a quarter of the glass making sure to distribute stout onto both sides of his suit collar.
Might I ask your business then? As he stepped closer, I recoiled from an odor redolent of the musk of ripening corpses.
I have no business here, I said and supped my own jar, a reward which carried me into the reminder that I was without a burden in the immediate world .
Ireland is a grand location to be conducting enterprise, O'Sullivan went on. Look at this, he said and thrust a roll of notes under my chin. I have just turned a venture which as you see was highly profitable. Listen now. Isn't it a fact that of all ministrations, religion stands as likely the most common?
Next to pubs I'd say you were on the nail there, Tom chimed in. Tom was thin as a door caught sideways in a dim light. He was also underdressed for the weather having nothing to warm him but a green woolen vest and a shirt that had been white when Saint Patrick provided serpents visas to foreign countries. His hair was equally thin and his trousers tucked with a large safety pin did nothing to prevent his shirt tail from waving from his zipper in a semaphore intended to indicate surrender to any cause, especially the bathroom, which he took occasion to visit every fifteen minutes.
Right you are Tom. Pubs and churches, continued O'Sullivan. Well, you see, by way of making a few punt. I met a chap in Dublin who turned me onto a foin business. You see all across Ireland priests light an army of candles at all hours executing their holy duties. It's like a farmer's milking you might say. He has to do the udders seven days a week, a demanding exercise and no let up sure as widows pray in church regular as trains.
Trains? Intercepted Jimmy Canliffe. You call waiting two hours on a forkin platform 'regular.' I've seen caterpillars make quicker progress with ten broken legs.
Right you are, Ronan persisted.This chap I met had the notion to peddle gas candles and me to unload them. By way of my salesmanship and the value of the product, priests gobbled them up. One afternoon in Cork, I had three holy fathers chasing me down the street waving money. Then there was the timers, plumbing the gas, extra bulbs, all extras. I'd be doing it now except the chap gave too many entrepreneurs wind of it and they flooded the market. Gas candles are self operating you see. Automatic holy illumination.
If you get to heaven you'll have a hell of gas bill , Tom confirmed.
Let me stand another jar, Ronan said. His apparition eyes glittered as he peeled off a note to iron delicately onto the bar. Jack Docherty's own eyes closed too in a reverie of profit, even as he operated the vat pump, conscious of extra suds surfing into the grill to be bucketed home to fatten his mournful pig.
By now hinged to my third Guinness, I was approaching the region wherein quantity means nothing. The small Clifden pub was developing a cabin like propriety. I was its cozy passenger drifting on a tilted sea of Irish speech.
So? I urged the man.
I have a brilliant idea, Ronan announced in my ear. And you sor look the very man sent to help me by grace of God.
I'd prefer to keep God out of it, I said.
What is it you say man? Jimmy Canliffe was crowding toward my right ear where Ronan on tiptoes, attempted to whisper unsuccessfully, inasmuch as his face barely reached my shoulder.
French Letters. Ronan announced softly, as though confessing the shame of falling asleep when he was under exhausted tutelage of a schoolteacher chastening Ronan's inky finger along declarative sentences of The Three Bears.
French Letters? I proclaimed thinking immediately of Francois Villon.
The barkeep opened his eyes. We'll have no fookin blasphemy like that here, he said.
You mean, you mean, those things? Tom was shrinking. He slid away and glared at the floor in abject isolation
See what I mean? Ronan proclaimed. Shy as ravaged sheep. It's tricky to sell the Lettors here in Ireland, certainly in the countryside. The church is dead set against using them. So what we have is a helpless army of young lads and even a few lasses,who'd pay triple the price for the ready. One, because they can't buy the ready and two, because if they could they are too mortified to ask . Not to mention all the rushed wheelbarrow weddins because the Vatican thinks protected intercourse is the location of a racetrack in hell.
The ready? I was puzzled.
The very thing. Ronan agreed.
What? I said.
French letters! Ronan was impatient. Condoms. Countryceptives. Dutch raincoats. Spanish helmets. Sexual shower caps. Rubber socks. Johnson tents. Chinese overalls. Polish fookin brake shoes. God man. Where did you get your sexual education? In a refrigerator? You're not by any chance, a suffering virgin are you son?
What time is it? I answered reflexively. Ronan O'Sullivan clearly didn't suffer fools. I knew he had me going now.
You have a passport right?
Two. I held dual citizenship
You probably only need one.The Gardia are on to me.For nothing important mind you... I need someone to pop across for a shipment then we flog them at three times the price.
How French letters...are we talking about.?
O'Sullivan paused to check his onboard condom calculator. Five hundred quid's worth. I like to start small, if you know what I mean.
Brilliant! I said hoisting my drink, feeling inflated by O'Sullivan's numbers and the chance to reduce the planet's growing army of unwanted children, precluding myself.
You're a darling man. Ronan said and waved to the barkeep who recoiled in horror.
I was too saturated for second thoughts. The job experience might prove handy.'Condom Smuggler' would add panache to any resume.
I'll provide half and you match it. There's an urgency at hand. I have customers lined up eager as three balled rabbits. It's a hotter trade than gas candles I promise you. Then there is the mercy of helping a lot of poor lads drop their abuse of Five Fingered Mary for a more three dimensional exercise.
God help us! Proclaimed Tom and left.
Docherty abruptly began to lock up his kegs. We're closing up! He announced, and crossed himself several times, muttering Faith, there's more than me wouldn't stand a word of this pornographic exploitation.
Outside a harder rain had taken sides with Jack Docherty's savior and it was steadily anointing us. I queried O'Sullivan how he might trust me, a stranger not to take his cash and leave him high and dry? Although trusting me with his phone number and affirming himself a masterful judge of character,he studied both my passports and held on to the American one.
Then, O'Sullivan handed over the money and evaporated into the puddling shadows leaving me to our venture. After four jars of Guinness I was feeling weightlessly saintly. Traveling, my mind had been on the road with no urgent objective. Called spontaneously to a worthy task, I was its solitary agent , smuggling sexual liberation to frustrated hordes of repressed sybarites.
So I bussed back across the center of Ireland, which is not a long ride, and ticketed onto a late ferry to Holyhead. It was a wavy trip. The seaman in me is an eager apprentice at best. I suffered three hours until we made port. My strategy was to make this trip in a record breaker two days if the contraceptive Gods were with me.
Holyhead is in north Wales. I decided, despite my arrival port's appropriate name, the likeliest place for my commodity was Liverpool. The Beatles are famously from there. At least musically, Liverpool's rock and roll culture suggested the availability of an adequate supply advertised under banners declaring: all you need is love. Their city had many active fans eager to promote an activity that drew the masses closer, much closer.
I got off a train at Lime Street Station at nine forty six in the morning and started to look for drug stores, called chemists shops in England. It was a slow going. The Liverpool City Center was mostly historic buildings more notable for their intercourse with time than the sweaty concerts O'Sullivan and I were promoting. But soon I spotted a window advertising 'Bell's Chemist Shop.' Inside, the place smelled of Chamomile Lotion, Licorice Allsorts and Dettol disinfectant, all vital underpinnings of The Realm. I sauntered between its shelves failing to detect any sign of the 'ready'. Apparently condoms were not kept in public display. I was forced much against my upbringing to verbally inquire.
Behind the counter a young woman with bleached hair wearing an unbuttoned chemist coat over a straining jumper awaited my order.
Good morning sir, she said nasally, can I help you?
Yes, I said , I need, I'd like, some er, condoms.
They're right below you luv, top two shelves. I stepped back. A variety of the little rascals hung on hooks in neat rows. I began to stack them on the counter. The girl watched as I cleaned out the shelf. By now she was straining to keep a straight face.
Got any more of these? I asked diffidently waving a blue package displaying a bristle- helmeted Greek foot soldier prominent above small print declaring its product "vibra-ribbed, lubricated spermicidal guaranteed tested extra strength latex." The 'testing' aspect of the latex technology implied another profession I'd pondered along with my college friends with some ribald curiosity about a tester job's prerequisite physiological qualifications.
How many do you need, er, want? She said.
Maybe a thousand, I said.
Oh. She said, immobilized by the request she couldn't stifle a grin, neither could I.
It is a bit of a tall order, I admitted.
Tall? she guffawed. Preparing for a hectic social calendar are we? She giggled again, then covering her mouth murmured. Sorry .
Sorry is another handy convention of The Realm, used to excuse dropping one's teaspoon or gloss the massacre of entire native tribes. History aside, I was relieved she'd broken the ice.
They're not for me. I mean,er maybe just one or two or half dozen. It's, it's for a ,an important investment, health purposes, strictly medical. I was babbling.
How many did you say? She asked suddenly businesslike. Our rapport would have been OK if she hadn't said sorry and simply continued making light over the merchandise.
As many as can I get for five hundred pounds, I said and the girl disappeared behind the shop's interior shelves leaving me to pace like an expectant father.
While I waited a customer entered the shop. The man was wobbly drunk and breathing erratically. He put one hand on the counter to steady himself and studied the low-rise construction project created by my stacked up merchandise.
Sumbody's got right idea, he said. The man fumbled through the pile, picked up a blue box and waved it authoritatively. These are good 'uns. Look you, it even says here, 'extra sensitive.'
The blonde shop girl returned with a middle aged gentleman. He addressed the fellow leaning over his counter.
Mr Peters, your prescription is always Thursday. Please come back then.
Mr. Peters ignored the chemist, pulled a vodka bottle from his coat, took a jolt and offered it to me.
I'd rather you don't do that in here, the chemist said, which caused the man to leave.
The chemist began tidying up my order. Winifred says you wish to purchase more,a lot more of, of these?
Yes. I said. The chemist assumed the faint smile Englishmen acquired when they used to banish debtors to remote continents where breathing was strictly rationed.
A thousand is what you want? He paused. A thousand?
That's right, Winifred nodded, relieved she was not hallucinating.
The chemist became animated. Of course that is a wholesale quantity. Do you have a business tax number?
I wondered what sort of number a fellow might need in order to purchase enough condoms to drop the population of a country down to one. I was tempted to blurt out my telephone number in California but realized this might get me into the racket on a scale requiring container ships.
No. I said, just retail.
I see. Well obviously under retail you will pay more.
We don't mind. Do you have the stock?
Frankly not but I can have your order in an hour providing you leave a deposit. Any er, particular brand?
No, regular. I guess you can throw in few large, in whatever boxes they come in.
They are all the same size. That would be by the dozen, in closed cartons.
Fine. I said.
He calculated the quantity to the amount of five hundred pounds give or take and told me to come back .
Hmm. Condoms came in dozens. Just like eggs ? This struck me as an appropriate number, there being twelve fertile months to a year. Meanwhile the chemist got down to business and the girl kept smirking. I wondered if I should venture that I grab a small sample and we step out somewhere cozy while the chemist was filling my request? She was my type at the time, female, human,with legs, arms, teeth, but something under a yellow angora sweater was alert to the suspicion that I was possibly a defrocked feminist. She pointed her breasts at me and checking them briefly to assure me they were still hers, shook her head.
I left and walked down the street which was my first stroll into Liverpool. It began to rain again. I began to understand why Brits take rain personally. English rain is arranged to soak people just as they wax enthusiastic about going out. The biggest drops hit your neck at an angle the engineer of raincoats neglected to calculate. It's an aspect of heroic sensibility, the capacity to arrive cheerfully on someone's doorstep with a tin of biscuits then hang up a wet coat that weighs three tons.
I kept sloshing toward the Mersey which was a good mile ahead. Shop windows featured loads of Beatle paraphernalia. The rain was winning so I escaped into a cafe for a hot cuppa and a sausage roll served by a motherly waitress who called me "pet." I sat nursing my tea keeping an eye out for the condom police, then wandered back to the chemist where two boxes sat on the counter neatly wrapped with newspaper and string.
The girl rang up the purchase, took the cash and and handed me a receipt.
Have a nice night, I mean day, she said cheekily.
We're always open to a research assistantship, I replied baldly.
Sorry luv, she said. I'm all done with school.
I grabbed the package strings and headed for the station just in time to wait an hour and a half for a train which was supposedly due in twenty minutes. The train dropped me in Holyhead where I waited another two hours in the dark. The return ferry crossing was calm. I walked down the gangplank past indifferent nods from a customs inspector. It was six in the morning, time enough to make Clifden by afternoon and set my personal best for fastest pony express service from Liverpool to Clifden.
It was already late afternoon when I telephoned Ronan to meet at the Old Boar. I'd waited outside about an hour when I heard the racket. A throng of raucous youths turned the corner, Ronan O'Sullivan leading them on. Several lads brandished bottles and a few wore soccer or maybe rugby uniforms. The whole lot smelled collectively like pot smoke from a drug enforcement bust's giant bonfire. There were about thirty people including five lasses in short kilts and white blouses and two women in nurses' uniforms. The folks were in a party mood probably in view of what they had to look forward to.
My delivery resembled a public cattle auction more than the discrete back alley whisper I'd anticipated. Ronan simply handed me my passport and five hundred quid which doubled my end of the bargain, then he assumed proprietary ownership, opening the boxes right there in front of the pub. Demonically satisfied with his eager customers and also deliciously plastered, O'Sullivan proceeded to auction condoms. Several passersby, some on bicycles stopped to witness the sale.
Here's the thick of it , O'Sullivan announced, what am I bid for three dozen of these specially imported, never before used, genuine French Lettors!
O'Sullivan flashed three packets which were run up and sold for a swollen price much to the cheers of the fans. O'Sullivan had the consumers in his grip, several of them, purchasing reps for other timid markets, bought large quantities. O'Sullivan flogged the entire shipment. In quick time his hands held bank notes contributed by a thinning crowd whose rapid dispersal was marked by a universally focused intention toward a singularly urgent destination.
Soon there we were, sold out in front of the Old Boar confronted by a box of crumpled cash and a nosy policeman on a black bicycle who'd come up to glare as O'Sullivan bent to arrange his profits.
Can it be honest money you're counting Ronan O'Sullivan? The cop had spring clips around his uniform trousers so they wouldn't catch their cuffs in his bicycle chain. I was duly informed an unruly mob was gathering in front of Jack Docherty's pub, he said.
Is there any other kind of mob? O'Sullivan challenged. And do the two of us make a mob? As for this money, do ye see ony bloodstains on it? O'Sullivan continued brazenly arranging his denominations in front of the suspicious officer.
You're up to something O'Sullivan, the constable was already preparing to remount his bicycle which had a raincoat tied by string across its crossbar and a basket in the back with a paper sack in it, a sausage sandwich by the bulge of it.
I am always up to something, O'Sullivan admitted, which gave the officer pause for he braced his foot against the curb.
What might I expect from a man who peddles gas candles that light up of their own accord to the shame of parish priests and who is right now counting too much money from who knows where for who knows what? The policeman was waxing plaintive now.
If I know of any crime atall Joe Tierney, O'Sullivan said, you're late for the proof of it and too frozen in belief to grasp the good of it. But I'll clue you how I made this honest money, for a juicy bone is sometimes safer thrown into the lion's den.
But Tierney dismissed this offer, balanced his wheels and pushed off enroute to sniff out another infringement to the peace whose usual insult was the failure of a citizen to walk in straight lines.
O'Sullivan pulled himself to his full five foot one and presented a snappy salute, his left hand brandishing the cash and his right poking his eyeball as he yelled after the officer: It's the traffic of French Letters we're involved in sor. Guilty as charged!
By now Jack Docherty, who had arrived and pushed past us, was tinkering the lock on the Old Boar's wounded door. He was opening, a bit late, Docherty apologized ,meself being a confirmed bachelor and only hand available to the husbandry of a relentlessly famished porker.
I was hopeful our ethical contribution, small as it was, would help diminish the pressures devastating our overpopulated planet, perhaps only by a trickle, but as many a practical mother likes to say, including my own : every mickle makes a muckle.
You're a hell of a revolutionary O'Sullivan, I said walking inside after Jack Docherty's peat stained heels.
As God made us, O'Sullivan declared.