Chapter 13 Orla
It was 1989, the real Millennium, and my year. The meeting with the Captain in London followed by winning the bank encryption contract in turn led to that meeting with military intelligence and the matter of the phone and it started to rain but it was still the sunniest day ever and this was still my parade.
I struggled to decide who to tell first, about the meeting about the phone and its magnificent significance, for all of us. Shea was the obvious first choice because I wouldn’t get much sleep at all until he confirmed whether what I’d been asked to do would even be possible. And if he concluded that it just wasn’t then I had no idea how I would handle the despair. He was probably at work, all day, still laying phone lines somewhere in the city and beyond contact. The most important answer in my life would just have to wait until its holder punched his clock.
The second option was my father and he was already thrilled that while I hadn’t quite followed him into the service, being called on by his former colleagues would be the next best thing. He’d want to know everything – the names, the ranks, what the buildings were like. For every answer he’d have a story – he knew a Captain by that name but was probably not related or too young to be the same man. The time he’d spent very little time at McKee on the way to some exercise or other. How different it was in his day and how easy these younger lads had it.
We hadn’t spoken much since the loss of the Crock and if he felt the loss as much as I did, or felt it at all, he gave nothing away. As was always his way. Not long after I decided to become the king of the buggers, the family decided it would be best for everyone to close down the Crock completely, and I hoped one decision was not influenced by the other. All the remaining buildings – the weaving sheds, the lofts, the dye house, even the courtyard – were all sold to a firm of architects who turned them into a suite of modern offices.
The house would remain in the family and would continue to be home for Grand Aunt Francie, now being cared for by my uncle and his family. The gardens would remain with the family, although with no gardeners left on the payroll it wasn’t long before the decay set in there too.
Not long after all the affairs had been tidied away and all creditors paid, in full, mind you, now in his sixties and completely worn from years of struggling to keep the kingdom liquid, and even more years watching it crumble, my father had to do the one thing he’d never had to do in his life. He had to find a job.
He still had a pension from the army but it was so paltry it would need to be supplemented and especially as what was left of the Crock still had to be maintained. After nearly 400 years the roof and the foundations needed the kind of work that would cost much more than the property was now worth.
Through his connections in the world of weaving he finally got a job as an advisor with the Craft Council of Ireland, guiding and advising a new generation of craft workers, potters, and weavers half his age or more.
I’d drop into his small office in the Powerscourt Townhouse Center in the center of Dublin from time to time, and while he made the effort to seem pleased to see me, it was still very obvious that he wasn’t pleased at being seen there. He looked so alone and lost and broken behind the small desk in a small shared office that was such a world away from the grandeur and splendor of the kingdom he had jointly ruled for more than a quarter of a century.
The very sight of him always made me even more determined to restore the family’s place, even if it was too late to restore the family lands. There might be no more Kingdom but there was still hope for the Crock to live on, for a new generation with new ideas, and on this day I had such great and hopeful news to share that might lead to just that.
But it would still have to wait, at least until I’d told Orla. Orla was everything I wasn’t but secretly wished I was. She was outgoing and confident, pretty, popular and flirtatious, business focused and disciplined. And while we’d recently decided to take a break from each other, we were still each other’s most trusted confidantes. Or at least I assumed.
Over the years Orla and I would bump into each other occasionally at parties hosted by mutual friends, she usually in the company of her latest handsome Jewish boyfriend and me usually single and alone. Our conversations were a mix of joking and teasing and flirting, and for her it seemed like it was all just an exercise in demonstrating her power and spell over me. And her independence from the date who usually just glared at the flirting from across the room. But it always seemed to end the same way as the spring reached its fullest extent and then quickly recoiled to its rightful place.
Then one day the spring didn’t recoil. I found a gift waiting outside my office, a giant silver teddy bear and a note “thinking of you” that had the girls at reception struggling to contain their giggles. The following day as I strolled by the Central Bank near Trinity College a white Renault slowed and honked. Orla leaned across the passenger seat and yelled if I liked the teddy bear and then smiled and sped away.
The tip of her warhead was her eyes. Big, bright, and sparkling blue sapphires on snow that held your gaze with only the occasional flutter, and she used them ruthlessly. The eyes and the flutter. Oscillating constantly from wild to doe and with such great effect even Sir Richard Branson couldn’t pull himself away from her spell.
Two years after I succumbed to the eyes, Orla and I treated ourselves to a quick weekend trip to London, arriving at Dublin airport only to find that someone had banjaxed our bookings and there was no space left on our flight.
While we argued about our options on the balcony overlooking the main concourse, a scrum broke out below us as throngs of reporters and onlookers surrounded a group of immaculately clad and perfectly pretty flight attendants, who in turn had formed a protective ring around their beaming and bearded boss.
“Holy shit,” said Orla, “Isn’t he the spit of Richard Branson?” I squinted, it was such a jostling scrum and it was hard to separate any individuals. But then the bearded man raised his hand, the scrum backed off a little and went quiet, as, true enough, Richard Branson addressed his audience.
It was a predictably wild press conference to celebrate the inaugural flight of Virgin Airlines from Dublin to Luton, a growing airport north of London and a popular option for those unwilling to brave the chaos and cost of Heathrow.
“Hang on,” said Orla, “I’ll be right back.” Without even catching her breath, she glided ghostlike down the faux marble stairs, politely elbowing her way through the crowd and right up to Mr. Branson himself. I gazed down in awe and embarrassment as she interrupted the Virgin boss, exchanged a few words and from the middle of the crowd beckoned me down. She and her eyes managed to get us a free seat on the flight.
But it didn’t stop there. Richard spent the entire flight speaking only to Orla, and much to the annoyance of everyone else around. When we got to Luton Airport, we still had to catch a train to London. And Richard’s fascination with her continued all the way to Euston Station. As they chatted and flirted, I sat sulking three seats away and treated only to the occasional glance and wink from Orla before she refocused her weapons on the bigger target.
As he finally managed to pull himself away from her at the train station in London, Mr. Branson signed a copy of the freshly printed in-flight Virgin magazine with the message “Those eyes, what eyes, eye eye. Love Richard.”
I loved her for it, I envied her for it, and I feared her for it. And yet I couldn’t hold on to it. But even though we’d agreed to a temporary split to find ourselves and rediscover our passions, even if they were for other people, I still treasured her opinions. And I had a point to prove. And we shared an office so I had little choice anyway.
She knew about the meeting and I expected her to be waiting there patiently at her side of the office with an axe of a face, all pointed and sharp, businesslike, ready for the felling, to judge my performance. I needed to get my story straight, just right. She’d heard so many versions so many times before. How big it would be and how close I’d come. Always close and yet still struggling. But this one was different, huge. Special. I’d have to wing the opening, though, be flexible in the exaggerations, because it all depended on her mood.
My story needed to get big and quickly. That wouldn’t be a problem. After all, my country had just called on me, me alone, to come to their aid. Ireland wanted my protection. The smallest country on the earth needed my help to protect itself from the greatest nation on earth. I didn’t seek this meeting. It wasn’t my usual sales pitch. They had identified me, researched me, followed me even, trusted me enough, and finally chosen me. Everything else was irrelevant.
For more than a year Orla and I had shared a basement office just three doors away from the Grand Canal on Lower Leeson Street, the city’s throbbing seedy nightclub district where almost every single basement on either side of the tree-lined business district was occupied by illegal and overpriced late night wine and dance clubs.
I pulled into the tight parking lot at the back of the office and parked my compact Honda next to her compact Honda. We had a matching pair of the very latest new body style Honda Civics – hers was red and mine blue. Orla had persuaded me to finally turn my back on the bright red Ford Granada, a retired taxi with the missing left-side passenger window and an awfully bad habit of just deciding it didn’t want to go any further, and always in the middle of traffic and heavy rain.
Much to her embarrassment, instead of replacing the missing window with the obvious option of glass, instead I cut a piece of melamine to fit the gap exactly and slipped it into place.
Orla had been humiliated in the Granada too many times on crowded Dublin streets and she refused to tolerate it any more.
We had been renting a two-roomed basement office together for nearly a year – I opted for the front half that was close to the street side and allowed me to keep a constant eye upwards at the legions of secretaries that would stroll the pavements during workdays. I gallantly offered to let Orla have the back office because it had far more light and warmth and opened directly onto the car park so she could easily haul in and out the boxes of the printed presentation folders she made
“Hi, so how was your meeting?” We didn’t greet each other with a kiss or hug anymore and I could tell she was trying to be as casual and disinterested as possible.
Time for some drama.
“Well.” I looked away, searching for words and raising my eyebrows as I mentally calculated where I would land the knockout punch.
“Looks like the army wants to make me rich.”
It didn’t sound quite as bad in the milliseconds it rolled around in my head before it rolled out of my mouth.
“Us, rich,” I offered as a peace token.
Now it was time for her eyebrows to peak but not in a good way. I imagined she imagined just another one of my stories.
I guided her through the meeting and the conversation, and the intrigue behind it, and in grand and minute detail painted a picture of every look and word and smell of the encounter. I exaggerated at every opportunity, lied when I couldn’t find a suitable exaggeration, and just leaving it out entirely when I couldn’t find a big enough lie fast enough.
Then I finished and I waited, and she sat back and did her thing. Her thing was to stare intently at me while she processed my pitch, perhaps trying to read my tells, then pinching her upper lip between her thumb and forefinger. I never knew if it was just her tell or a twitch or if she was trying to inflict pain on herself to muffle some other emotion.
“So how much are they going to pay you?” She let go of the grip on her lip, and leaned back in the chair with her arms folded across her chest.
Skip the spuds and go straight for the lamb. This was the corner she wanted me in and now was not the time to tell the truth.
“Well, apparently the government has grants for things like this. Big grants.” A big lie. “And they’ll pull some strings for us.” Big friends, but now the lie was even bigger.
What else, think fast. “And if it’s backed by government grants we’ll probably have no problem getting some investors.” I didn’t even know if Ireland had investors but I was sure that only someone in the know would ever use those words in a sentence.
“Well. That all sounds very exciting.” She didn’t sound very excited. “I have some deliveries to make. I’ll see you later.” She brushed past me like she couldn’t stand to be another moment alone in my company. But she didn’t mean to see me later either. There was no more later any more, she’d made that clear.
She was already seeing other people. She knew I knew, but what she didn’t know, at least until later, was that I knew who they were. And worse, sometimes when and where. My reign as king of the buggers might have been over but I could still be potent. Only a few weeks earlier she flinched when I brushed my fingers across the small of her back, and not so reluctantly revealed the pretty severe carpet burn just above her waist. “ Jesus,” I said, “When did I do that?” and almost proud of my work. “You didn’t,” she smiled and looked away and in that moment it all changed forever.