“By Christ, it’s all kicking off now, boy!”
A dozen pint-sized Dubs whoop and whistle through gaps in their teeth. Their lookout sounds the cry, and he’s gyrating down the lamppost, straddling the thing like he belongs up the road, in Angels, the house of ill-repute like. High up from his place in the crow’s nest, he sees The Congolese rounding the corner, before the rest have even caught the ripple of his arrival through the distant crowd. Next thing the lookout’s down and shimmying through the huddled bodies, back toward the big-arsed trailer right there in the middle of Parnell Square. It’s all on the young lads to call the build-up now.
“Well, is he brickin’ it?—is he?”
“I dunno,” the lookout says, “can’t tell. He’s not smiling, anyways, there’d be no missin’ the teeth on him if he was!” Cue the hoots of laughter.
“Course he’s not —are ye mad? Will ye look at the bleedin’ size of him?”
“He’s bigger than the real Muhammad Ali!”
“What would you know about the real Muhammad Ali, ya thick?”
“I know what I seen on the posters, and he’s massive. I’m tellin’ ye, massive.”
“The Congolese is not bigger than John Joe.”
“But he’s quicker than John Joe, so it’s the same.”
“Doesn’t matter, there’ll be no dancin’ at this one. Even if The Congolese wins, even if he does win, he’ll never get out of here alive.”
“Will ye look at the hack of them. Manky aul caravans blocking the whole shaggin—Jesus, will ye look at that! He’s got the whole bleedin’ U.N coming up behind him!”
No flies on that kid.
Round the corner, the holy reflecting pool in the Garden of Remembrance, the one for every doomed uprising we ever fought, starts to ripple. The blue gates close over on their own steam, bronzed letters rearranging themselves to spell: ‘No entry, you savage fucks.’ The Swans of Lir sculpture rattles, cursed swans turning back into four metal, mythical kiddies who unshackle themselves before legging it over the high back wall and down the street.
Those ancient young’uns have seen a vision of what’s to come.
Windows are being dragged open now, shoulders knocking frames upward half-inch by half-inch. Trying to grab the first glimpse of the dark horse, and they don’t come much darker than the man dragging history around on his back.
And heeeerrrrre he comes.
Fabrice the Congolese, to give him his full title. All six foot six of him, arms like Rottweilers’ torsos, chest like a stab vest, square-jawed and soulful-eyed and always pondering something. He strides round the bend in the path, bathroom attendant duds peeking out sheepish from underneath the famous garment; the purposeful head of a man with a shift starting in a few hours who isn’t accustomed to having his schedule interrupted.
A golden Copperface Jacks’s Nightclub emblazoned on the pocket of his short-sleeved, black shirt—a far, far cry from the pressed suits he wore to teach mechanical engineering at the University of Kinshasa as a younger man in another life. But no one’s eyes are on that ratty old thing, anyway, not with the museum piece wrapped round it. They say it’s the original, the one Bundini Brown—real Muhammad Ali’s philosophizing Afro-Jewish corner man—had made for Ali to wear on the big night in Zaire when he went seven rounds with Foreman. When the whole damn world tuned in to watch him drink up those punches like water and spit out, That all you got, George? before kissing him goodnight. Now that was a fight they’ll never forget. And the robe was part of it, or at least it would have been had that handsome bastard not waved it off. Said it was too showy. Said he wanted something simple, something understated—as if he’d ever had an understated day in his whole life. But that’s the call he made, The Greatest, and it’d be a foolish man who’d mess with his head five minutes from Showtime.
Christ, that kind of playacting could change the course of history.
So the razzle-dazzle robe stayed quiet on the back of an old foldout chair, while Muhammad Ali went out to wind up the crowd. The year was 1974, and the most famous fighter in the world had a point to prove.
Long white silk, so it was, is, with green, red, and black piping along the edges and a green, red, and black map of Zaire stitched across the heart.
Over three decades’ worth of juice stored up in its threads by the time it hit Irish soil for the first time, in the suitcase of a former academic looking for a fresh start.
Fabrice is thumping it now, hammering his clenched knuckles home, drawing every drop of power out of the thing. Not one soul in the crowd will ever know the full story. It’s his alone to protect.
Oh, Fabrice is a big one, all right, no doubt about that, but the faces peering out at this makeshift halting site are still smiling away. Damn near giddy. There’s a glint to the capital today, you see, a sparkle under the surface, and they’ve all got greedy eyes wide for it—whatever ‘it’ turns out to be.
His opponent, John Joe, wants a fair scrap, though; wants that glint in the crowd put only to voice, and he’s made it clear: no tripping or spitting or aggro heads hopping in if things get tough. He didn’t want this circus at all, but you have to come when you’re called, and Paddy McDonagh, the agent of this debacle, despite his big mouth, was still blood at the end of the day. John Joe’s cagy, taking nothing for granted, whatever the odds they’ve concocted behind their bead-curtain doors. Fabrice the Congolese is an unknown quantity, a wildcard. But that robe of his’d be enough to make any man stand up and take notice. A fella who wears the duds of John Joe’s childhood idol is not someone to be taken lightly.
“G’wan, J. J.! Go out there and take the head off his body, will ye!”’
And he will, but he’s not making a song and dance about it. So John Joe is keeping his own head down for the minute, and the rest are happy enough to let him alone with his thoughts. He spends a fair bit of time with his thoughts, especially before a bout like this; that’s just his way. Course there’s never really been a bout like this. Wouldn’t be the usual kind of fare at all. But they’re not worried, not one bit. They know well this African fella hasn’t seen the like of them before. The boys won’t need to throw any sly digs, just stand there beating their palms with chunky gold knuckledusters, and this lad’ll think he’s walked into a prison yard. Soon as he claps eyes on the cold, dead peepers starin’ in from every exit, soon as John Joe’s shadow stretches out across the ring, he’ll have the shits put up him before the two of them even touch fists.
And as for The Roar. Sure, there isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t have his cough softened by it. This’ll be the same Roar that shattered every window in Tuam two weeks previous, including the barracks, with its fancy fucking triple-glazing and delusions of authority. The same Roar that has night watchmen scurrying for backup on the edges of industrial estates across this country. The very same Roar that burned through the Carigallen bog, when one of our own was taken too young all those years ago.
The kind that’ll echo till it hits bone.
“Oh no, you’re not in the jungle anymore, boy,” they say. “We’ve got a rumble waiting that’ll put manners on you quick enough,” says a voice buried deep inside the pile.
They’re smiling away, John Joe’s brood, happy out like, because they still think it’s a one-man show. But the quake is building from somewhere not too far away, tingling like a tickled ballsack, and when the shock waves hit, they’ll know all about it. Our corner boys at the foot of the lamppost are the first to go. Shot up to safety like midget firemen in reverse. A few seconds after the sighting, and the entire Ex-Pat army is crunching through the streets after Fabrice, ripping up pavement slabs, tipping over cars like the whole damn city is a hollow set.
The Africans are swinging taxi plates by the wires like deadened yellow morning stars, fashioning rough blue paper towels into flags with indecipherable slogans of outrage.
Lithuanian physicists-turned-fruit-pickers hurl bushels of Wexford strawberries high into the air, cluster bombs of soured sweetness.
Romanians tear magazines into confetti; there are bigger issues to deal with today.
Coming up on the wings it’s the Chinese—a great bunch of lads to add numbers, when it’s put up to them.
And down past the Gate Theatre, an Aircoach screeches to a halt. The sound of heavy footfalls signals the arrival of the Poles, bursting forth from the bottleneck of the bus’s stairs. “Don’t forget your tickets for afterwards,” the driver sighs in the direction of a trio of high-cheekboned beauties. The kind not long for his world.
Paddy McDonagh’s speech, the epicenter of this ruckus, was rough, no doubt about it—but everything might have died down had he not spat out that last comment through the crooked corner of the sneer he wears:
“The mongrel afterbirth of a jungle whore.”
That was the killer, the one that brought them all together—“unified the tribes,” as the fella said. They have Paddy McDonagh laying low inside in a cupboard with a couple of bruisers watching the door in case he tries to leg it—or worse, get up on his soapbox again. Sitting there, stewing with the dented, sour head on him, but it’s his mess, so he’ll stay till they have it cleaned up. Stay where they can keep a close eye. He’ll be in no humor to show his face anyway, not with the bollocking he’s after getting from his mam in full view of every hyena in the site. “That last remark—twas bile after the vomit” is what she said. The others didn’t try matching her for poetics while they were kicking lumps out of him for being such a feckless, loudmouth dope.
“One more word, Paddy, just one more, and we’ll be feedin’ ye yer own bollix. D’you understand me?”
The gang’s all here, but that hasn’t stopped numbers swelling. Expectant fathers machine-gunning smokes outside the Rotunda Hospital join the ranks. Out on the stoops and in through cracked car windows, word is trickling through. Heads are nodding in silent agreement—or is it resignation? Doesn’t matter. Grizzled Irish cabbies stop chasing shadows, turn off their lights, and pull in. Sean O’Casey’s angry socialists have left the Abbey Theatre rehearsal space and are on their way to the square, flat caps and waistcoats donned, to lend their voices to this apocalyptic street chorus. Chicken fillet rolls lie half-made at abandoned SPAR deli counters. From the gutters of the city’s alleyways, the smell of a distraction rouses the junkie hordes from their slumber. The pace of their zombie walk quickening, stale air moving through an open door; Fagin’s grimy troops won’t need their needles today.
The blaring horns are dying down, and curiosity is wafting its way through the streets like shite on the heel of your boot. Young and old scurrying into position, craning their heads for a big screen—as if Obama had come back for his keys with one last important thing to tell them all. The buses are pushing their way through this swamp of shabby, flabby bodies. Some ad-hoc gypsy traffic warden is marshaling them into a wide perimeter, bumper to bumper around the square:
“If ye’re only here to watch, ye’ll pay, so ye will! Give yer money to the babbie there now, and I’ll keep an eye on ye.”’
An infant with a cash box and a book of tickets is charging people based on their belt size. Burly Poles give spectators boosts up onto the tops of the double-decker buses. Anyone with a bit of fight in them gets the wave-through. Inside, Fabrice’s immigrants are singing battle hymns in a hundred different tongues—French, Polish, Igbo, Mandarin, Urdu, Russian, Esperanto, Pig Latin, Gibberish—while Fabrice sits in silence. The cornerstone of this shaky tower of Babel.
Muffled chants are rising from the twenty-odd caravans that have popped up overnight. Rocking back and forth now, ready to empty their contents and balance the scales.
Across the city, something else is stirring.
It had to be today, anyone with a bit of sense knows that, but they’re hoping the Guards don’t. And sure, even if they suss it in time, there’s not much they can do about it. “National Day of Protest” they’re calling it—but it might as well be “National Whatever You’re Doing, Do it Now Day,” because there’s not enough law to go round. Not by a long shot. The students and their No College Fees badges are building a red tide round the back of Trinity College, while the gray cloud of aul ones and their medical card complaints are shuffling up toward Government Buildings. Paint still drying on cereal-box placards. If you’ve shopping to do, you’d better take it up the North because there’ll be no getting cars in or out of the city today. Not with the farmers haring up the N11 on their tractors and the taxi drivers honking themselves hoarse on Dame Street, drowning out the Occupy hippies camped outside the Central Bank.
Oh yes, there’s fires that need watching every which way you turn.
And they’re only warming up.
The battleground is a makeshift ring, but it’ll do the job nicely. Four stout, black bins have been dragged across the bridge from Temple Bar, measured out in size-ten paces and filled to the brim with empty bottles for the weight—though there’s more than a couple of shouts to cover them over with black plastic bags, just in case one of these back-alley brawlers finds himself caught too long in the corner and resorts to . . .
“Desperation can make scumbags of the best of us.” So says a raspy inner-city lilt that, lo and behold, comes from a little Asian fella who’s muscled his way to the front. A zigzag scar through a dead right eye tells bystanders around him all they need to know. He’s doing a whip around the buses for dashboard newspapers to clog up the holes, throwing elbows into his neighbors to stop gawking and give him a hand. Times, Independents, and Heralds, Examiners, Stars, and Telegraphs come sailing through the air, each one of them too slow with the real story, but they’ll get the scoop here and now with a bit of maneuvering.
When every clinking bin hole is stuffed up air-tight, the Asian fella gives a little nod and melts back into the crowd. A murmur runs through the thousand-strong faithful. You can hear the gnashing of teeth, feel the current running through them like a bolt of lightning has just struck this automotive cage and started the monstrous engine inside.
The caravans have turned into clown cars, popping out nomadic royalty—Wards and McDonaghs and Joyces—in impossible numbers. Soon the whole itinerant population of Dublin and God only knows where else have lined out along the railings. The two sides should be roaring at each other, popping eardrums for the good of the cause.
But no one is speaking.
The big-arsed trailer starts to shudder with a flurry of stomping feet. In time. All that’s missing is the bodhrán and silk shirts. They’re silent as Chaplin’s grave outside—all but The Congolese, who’s reliving something under his breath. Lips moving fast in a conversation no one else can hear.
Then the rusty, white hatch swings open, and John Joe McDonagh steps calmly into light.
One thing is for damn sure: John Joe won’t drop easy.
When John Joe’s off on one of his trips, the younger members of his community spread stories as far as they’ll go.
They say in the early stages of his mother’s pregnancy, he absorbed his twin, assimilated him into his own body for sustenance so that he’s had the strength of two fighters locked inside him since the womb.
They say he was taking scalps off grown men from the age of ten. Not soft men either; big, bruised fuckers who’d bite a chunk out of your cheek before they’d let you best them.
They say—and there’s no one who’ll speak up to disprove it—that he hasn’t been horizontal since he was a teenager. Never been knocked down, never sleeps in a bed, does his stomach crunches hanging from a bar. Even his wife swears that he’ll be standing straight as new recruit when they’re at it, no exceptions.
Course, he stands up for more than that. Has the Traveling Community Pride Award to prove it and all. Off on his crusades around the country, talking to town councils, petitioning school boards and trade unions, booming the We-Shall-Not-Be-Moved mantra into every microphone they put in front of him. Been fighting for Itinerant Rights since he was old enough to cop they didn’t have any. That’s when he’s not putting manners on any upstart foolish enough to think John Joe’s time may have come early.
It’s hard to marry the two walks of life at the best of times, and late at night, when he’s being honest with himself, he’ll admit he’s gotten tired of playing the fighter role. Tired of feeling the jaws of whippet teenagers fracture under his hand. Tired of the wheezing, heavy-set knucklers who keep coming back for more because it’s all they know. Tired of trying to sell a version of his people that no one in the settled community is interested in buying; of trying to be a soldier and a politician all at once. So when Paddy McDonagh comes out with his bloody poisoned sound bites on national fucking television, the whole fucking country hates us even more than they already do . . . but what’s done is done. The only thing for it is to finish the African lad off quick, leave him with a bit of dignity, and get back on the campaign.
But there are more of his people out here than he expected, a lot more, and every single one is staring at him like he has bolts coming out of his temples.
Except The Congolese.
One mile across town, inside the walls of Trinity College, the students are leaving it too long. While the man at the helm of the protest, the Student’s Union president, aka The General, is straightening his Irish Tricolor tiepin and practicing the sound bites, more and more of his future movers and shakers are growing restless.
It’s a cold day to be out in nothing more than a shitty red tee shirt. Comforting blue Bavaria Lager cans, six for seven euro, are popping up like mushrooms the length of the cricket pitches. A group of first-years are crowded round some bushy-haired pied piper. He’s busily shotgunning full cans to choruses of: “Shove your fees up your gees!” and “Wehaaay, g’wan, Tommy, you legend!”‘
Snake-oil salesmen in training lurk round the edges, passing out Protest After-Party: Drinks Promos All Night flyers to anyone and everyone whose voice is already starting to slur.
For the past few minutes, The General has been reminiscing. He has been thinking about his grandfather, dead for almost a decade now. He remembers the day the old man took him on a long walk through Dublin’s dirty streets, telling stories of fearless freedom fighters and noble politicians—men who built up a new state from the ashes and rubble of the old. He remembers the ice cream melting onto his wrist as he watched the old man point skyward at the old-timey street signs that kept the names of these big swinging dicks alive. He remembers how his grandfather told him that there was nothing stopping him from becoming one of these men if he stuck to his guns and never backed down from a battle worth fighting.
When he was at school, he wanted to ask his grandfather why the other boys gave him nothing but shit, day in and day out. Why they laughed when he stood his ground and called himself a leader. Why he spent his graduation night at home with his parents, instead of out necking pints and sniffing around for the ride, because there was no group in whose company he felt welcome. He wishes his grandfather could see him now, leading his own army through those same city streets to fight the good fight.
All of a sudden, The General plugs back in.
And he can’t grab hold of the megaphone quick enough.
“How do you turn this fucking thing o—everyone? Everyone, can I have your attention for a moment?”
But it’s too late. He’s let them get down off the horse, and there’s no going back now. They move, all right, can’t fault this crowd for energy, but he’s worried. And he should be. He can hear the clink of fun-size bottles of cheap vodka and the ripping-up of cardboard mini-crates as they spill across the cobblestones through the college’s Front Arch. He’s sweating buckets, wondering if they’ll even make it as far as O’Connell Street for the big group shot. The line between peaceful protest and public drunkenness can be a fine one, and all it’ll take is one rough scuffle with the law for this whole thing to collapse in on itself. Then all his planning will have been for nothing. Without the pillars of the General Post Office as a backdrop, the first ten minutes of his speech won’t make any sense: “the unfettered control of Irish destinies”; “cherishing all the children of the nation”; that’s the bit they would have put on the nine o’clock news! Out of the corner of his eye, he spots little red-clad satellites racing into shops for markers, mixer, fuel.
“Where’s my sandwich?”
“No one working the deli counter.”
“Ah for fuck’s sake . . . right, just give us the blue permanent one there, this is gonna be hilarious.”
Meanwhile, our two boys in the ring have no need for a referee.
Sure, who’d call it better than the pair of them? This is a boxing match on the street, not a street fight; there’s only so many ways you can hit a man fairly. Having said that, if either start in with the low blows and dirty tricks, they’ll have a job escaping from the place in one piece.
A pack of dolled-up teenage girls have emerged from yet another caravan with the first aid box, protecting it like you would a wolf-maimed lamb. Our heavyweights in the middle won’t get much use out of the thing, but it’s better than nothing at all, so they each give the girls a quick nod of thanks before stepping in close: toe to toe. This is the first time Fabrice has had to look up at a man since he was fifteen years old, but if the sensation is an unpleasant one, you wouldn’t know by him. A glassy pair of eyes. Deep brown. Strapped knuckles barely meet before they’ve turned back into their corners.
“John Joe’s a bull, The African would be more of a panther.” Some lush voices his chewed-up two cents’ worth.
No one knows what to say to this. It’s not often you’d see those two creatures going at it, but we’ll have our answer in half an hour’s time.
A ripple through the crowd: no bell? Fuck.
But wait! Some slick bastard in a crumpled Armani suit is standing up on top of the 145 bus at the north end, waving his hands back and forth, mouth soundlessly hollering.
“What?” someone roars back to him. “You’ve a smell? What in the name of God—Larry, what in the name of God is that yuppie gobshite roaring about at all?’
The yuppie gobshite gives up the drowning-man routine and presses an index finger down into the screen of his smartphone.
Jaws are dropping up and down the line. The yuppie is still standing, holding his breath. Fabrice and John Joe look at each other, shrug, and raise their giant fists.
And here comes that Roar. Not just the nomads, either. Oh no, every throat in the arena is screaming itself hoarse, blowing a gale toward the ring, toward the yuppie, toward the sky. Fifty hands clap him on the back at once, and for those few moments before the first punch connects, he’s the hero.
But then the first dull slap of a body blow sounds off from the center of the ring, and it’s dry eyeballs from here on out.
By some small miracle, The General thinks, the students have made it this far. A protective wall of Hi-Viz police on horseback encircle O’Connell’s statue, saving The General from the PR nightmare of a photograph. But some of his troops are agitated now, The General knows this. He knows they had an extra-large tee shirt all stretched out and ready to go for Big Dan O’Connell: The Liberator, The Emancipator, the smooth-talking, paternity-suit-dodging, champion of the Irish oppressed on whose bronzed shoulders every nationalist for the last one hundred and fifty years has stood. The students bought duct tape for cans, glue for cigarettes, elastic bands for novelty sunglasses. O’Connell was supposed to be their immovable mascot. For God’s sake, what kind of a protest doesn’t have a mascot!
So the chanting kicks off in earnest. Ferocious choral assaults. Flecks of spit from glowing faces. On either side of the street, more and more luminous lawmen take their positions, backs straightening, snarls, for the time being, reluctantly swallowed. The General is growing in confidence. His voice rings crisper through the megaphone, he feels powerful, vital to this noble cause.
“Okay, everyone, remember to stay off the road itself. Please stick to the center pathway.”
Shoppers in the vicinity look confused. They could have sworn the protest was coming from the other direction. If not, what was all that yelping and tire screeching up around the corner?
The General has spotted the first of the cameras.
He has to act fast. If he can get them remembering just a couple of key chants—maybe the ones that don’t rhyme with cock or fuck or the like—he might just get away with this one. Shit, what does that leave? C’mon, chief, you know this, think. But his thoughts are too scattered, nothing is sticking. Behind him, a girl with a nerve-shredding Cork accent is berating one of the guards. In legging it across the line of traffic to break up a scuffle, the guard has landed right in her firing line.
“You sleazy fucker, you! All your sweet talk afterward and you give me the number of a fucking Indian takeaway!”
Now she’s belting the guard over the head with a handbag, a makeup counter’s worth of gear pouring down around his shoulders. He’s obviously flustered and hungover, and the cackle of drunken laughter is disorienting. Only three months out of training, but he’s pretty sure they never covered this scenario in the college in Templemore. So he does what the powers that be tell them you should do when you find yourself outnumbered and outgunned: he calls for backup.
“Stop! Please stop, you’re ruining everything!” The General’s voice, aimed at all and none in particular, shoots up a couple of octaves.
The Cork girl’s romantic scuffle has become a maul, red on neon yellow on red, sucking new participants in with every spin.
What’s that noise?
What is that weird death rattle of a noise?
And now a creepy hush descends on the legion, fists and batons freeze mid-flight. They hear it too: the unmistakable sounds of wheelchair spokes clicking; of hearing aids booting up; of boiled sweets clacking against dentures . . .
The first big knuckle-on-jaw connection, the kind that would knock out a bear. John Joe shakes it off like it’s nothing at all. Fabrice scoots backward a pace or two, soaks up the stands for a second, then refocuses. His toes tap the concrete with skipping-rope speed, ducking and shucking and launching lefthand jabs at the mountain that stands in front of him. Not bad going for a forty-three-year-old.
John Joe drives. Low, or low as the man can get, and releases a cannon blast into his opponent’s midsection. Elbows shield Fabrice from the worst of it, but they’re too brutal not to steal a bit of wind. Fabrice leans back against the ropes, the thick tug-o-war kind, and tries to ride out the storm. But John Joe isn’t tiring. He’s burst many a heavy bag in his day, and knows it takes time. His shoulder blades guillotine back into position with every round fired. Then whooooosh, a wide right missing by atoms. Fabrice pirouettes into the center to safety. John Joe looks annoyed. No rounds and nowhere to run, this headcase is just delaying the inevitable. But before John Joe can reload, The Congolese has pounced.
Jab jab Bah-Boom jab jab. Duck. Jab jab jab Bah-Boom-BOOM.
His long, sinewy arms are moving like pistons, heavy blows chasing tenderizing jabs.
Now Fabrice throws caution to the wind. He’s working off wild leading rights, launching massive knockout punches to the head, inching his man toward the corner.
John Joe grabs him round the neck, and the two wrestle around the ring like weary dogs, snarling and jerking until a chorus of boos breaks them apart.
Now the triumphant yuppie is really pushing his luck. He’s after sitting on the thing in his pocket, and his expression is gradually turning into one of sheer, shit-your-pants terror under the angry gaze of the crowd. Again, there’s a brief stay of execution while the spectators defer to the battered warriors below. A tacit agreement has been made, and the men shuffle back to their corners. Yuppie has been spared all but a few stray grumbles. He’ll be wringing out his shirt later on, but for now he’s got the new lease.
A quarter-mile down the road, the pensioners bringing up the rear of the protest line are angry.
They’re angry about their medical cards.
They’re angry about new alcohol driving limits.
They’re angry about more things than they have breath in their weary lungs to vocalize, but they’ll be damned if they’re staying at home sulking.
They are not the generation to sit on their arses whingeing when there’s action to be taken. Oh no, you can be sure of that. So when they see these precious little bollockses—who’ve been spoon-fed privilege from the cradle, by the way—moaning about grants and jobs and emigration . . . Don’t talk to them about emigration. Try living through the Eighties, the Fifties, when you could be two weeks waiting on a letter, eaten up with the loneliness and the worry, ignorant lumps of Yanks and Brits screaming orders like you’re no better than an aul workhorse: “Paddy! Get down here and shift this fucking hod. Move your arse!”
So they, too, have mobilized. They have a list of demands as long as your arm, and every gawker on O’Connell Street will hear them on their way to the Government Buildings. Their speakers are well practiced. Their placards are clear and to the point. Their fury is controlled.
Then a keen-eyed octogenarian spots the symbolic coffin, bobbling above the heads of four muscle-bound freshmen, and all hell breaks loose.
The General had the coffin made for this march alone.
In bright white capitals the length of the lid, it sums up the grave implications of the new and terrible dawn being foisted upon them. He was to be chief pallbearer, just for the final stretch of the course, resting this teary symbol between the GPO pillars before clearing his throat and delivering a eulogy that would bring the house down. Except that within seconds of the Casanova Guard’s SOS, it was doused in cheap beer. Shouldn’t have used water-based paint, The General muses, while it teeters precariously above the mob. Then, just as the first wave of Grays come into focus, a hand slips.
He sees it happening in slow motion and makes one desperate attempt to cushion the impact. The Grays look on aghast like he’s trying to rip a life-support cable out of the wall. The wide end of the coffin strikes The General dead in the chest, sending him crashing to the pavement. The lid opens mid-fall and the last thing he sees, before an avalanche of shiny blue cans knocks him out cold, is that sweet spot, just in front of the GPO’s mighty Death of Cú Chulainn statue—the same spot from which his dear departed grandfather passed on the myth of the greatest Irish hero of them all—where he would otherwise have made, he realizes now, one hell of a speech.
This time the yuppie is prompted, and wouldn’t you know it, his hands are shaking too much to unlock the shaggin’ phone, but he gets there in the end. The bell sounds off one last time, and the fighters rise with the second note still ringing in the air.
With no brass left to guide them, the student troops don’t know what to do. The cops are cutting crop circles through their ranks, while a train of disgruntled drivers crawl up the flanks, hemming them in. A tractor horn sounds different than a taxi horn sounds different than a rickshaw horn, which is really more of a toot. But none is as fierce as the voices of the geriatrics swirling round them now:
“Ye’re a drunken disgrace, is what ye are!”
“Nothin’ but a shower of impudent pups.”
“A coffin. A coffin! Have none of you got any respect at all?”
More and more arthritic fingers poke red-clad chests. On any other day, this’d be enough to subdue them. Heads would bow, tongues stutter, and twenty thousand Millennials would piss and moan and shuffle offstage like good grandkids should.
But they’re about three drinks shy of themselves, and no one wants to go home. Not just yet.
John Joe looks bruised. The steel has gone from his eyes and been replaced with a sort of raw fury. He’s swinging his tattooed tree trunks over The Congolese’s head and taking a battering to the solar plexus for his trouble. Fabrice is working the body at ferocious speed, sweat beads mingling with the first droplets of rain. John Joe’s hands are lowering ever so slightly bit by bit and—
Bam Bam, Boom, Bam BOOM
—a five-punch combo leaves him staggering backward like never before. He’s a man teetering on the edge of a cliff face. The chants grow louder, the same ones another group of locals fired at the man once known as Cassius Clay, nearly forty years ago: “Ali Bomaye, Ali Bomaye, Ali Bomaye.” They want him floored, they want blood, they want a fucking execution—“ALI BOMAYE, ALI BOMAYE”—louder louder LOUDER till Fabrice doesn’t see a bloodied behemoth willing himself to stay upright. He doesn’t see the trailers or the buses or the motley crew of braying spectators, all bagged eyes and worn-out souls.
He’s not even in this city, in this country, in this time. He’s back in Zaire. He’s sitting atop his father’s shoulders somewhere high up in the Gods of the Stade du 20 Mai, President Mobutu’s palace of pain, watching his hero, the black American fighter who took on the world, throw two gloved fists into the air. He’s racing through an underground corridor, dark stains skirting the walls, seeking him out. He’s standing there, cocooned in something cool and shiny, a smooth Kentucky drawl telling him he’ll grow into it someday. For years it hung like an icon between crisp white school shirts, graduation robes, dry-cleaned suits, and now a bathroom attendant’s getup he wears out of pure necessity. It’s a temporary costume, though, of this he has no doubt. When The Greatest sees greatness in you, there’s very little you can’t accomplish.
John Joe feels iron crack as his fist connects with The Congolese’s jaw. Keep dreamin’ champ, you’ve time for it now . . .
Hard to make out who’s who in this melee. Is that a baton or a walking stick? The rain, of course, is falling in torrents now, fat globs hammering downward from a whirlpool sky. A pack of new recruits have tipped over a taxi and are launching beer-can grenades toward the Spire, around which the Grays have built a makeshift fort out of banners and walkers. A stray band of teachers, with their sensible haircuts and arch-supporting shoes, leg it out of an alley, firing obsolete chalk dusters wildly into the dog pile.
The vibrating clang of bronze as the Cú Chulainn statue drives a bare heel through the window and roars a “YEEEEEEEEWWWWOOOO” by way of encouragement. Shrapnel shatters taxi windows on either side of the street.
The police don’t know where to push them, too many clusters striking at once. What happens when you clout a geriatric with riot gear?
Fork lightning snaps a picture of the scene. The tear-gas canisters are booted into sewage drains by tough old coots hooked up to oxygen tanks. One of them rips the mask from his face and howls against the rolls of thunder. The streets are empty for a quarter-mile in all directions; if you’re still hanging around, you’d better get armed lively, cause there’s no getting out now. Not for you, not me, not anyone. Around their ankles the water is rising.
. . . FOUR! . . . FIVE! . . .
Is he swimming? All Fabrice feels is the cold soak. This could be it.
But no. Something is bouncing off the surface of the water.
. . . SIX! . . . SEVEN! . . .
Move something. A leg. An arm. Anything. And swim. Swim to it. Swim to it now, before the last of the bait is eaten and gone. He drags his yelping dogs through the water . . .
. . . EIGHT! . . .
John Joe can’t believe what he’s seeing. That blow was a killer. He’s punched through cattle carcasses with less power, and he heard it. He heard the jaw, he’s sure of it. How can this black fella be alive, how can he be rising?
. . . NINE! . . .
Just one more stroke and you’re there. One more and you’ll break through. You’ll stand. Stand. STAND!
The crowd is on its feet.
And so is Fabrice.
No more guerrilla attacks. No more lines. No more colors or ages or factions or demographics. Just water hitting flesh, hitting water, hitting steel, hitting flesh, hitting the cold stone of the capital’s main street.
And they’re on the move.
Fabrice steadies himself, squints the world around him back into focus: open gobs as far as the eye can see. John Joe looks uneasy. The Congolese raises his arms, slowly. It feels like a car is sitting on top of his dukes. But they’re up. Barely, but still up. There’s no more dancing left in him, so he sways. John Joe draws his right arm back as far as it will go. He sees the blow before it leaves the chamber, and winces like it’s headed in his own direction.
The Congolese will fall, and John Joe will raise his massive fists to the bawling sky, and his people will dance ecstatic in the downpour, shadow-boxing ghosts and proclaiming him The Best There Ever Was. But what will it mean, really? What pleasure will John Joe glean from fustigating this warrior, a man who so nearly put him on his back? He’d rather it were Paddy McDonagh swaying punch-drunk in front of him right now. But that ain’t how it works, Big Man.
The storm blows a tree branch the size of a traffic light across the ring and into the side of a bus. Nothing for it but to hop down from the bus tops and hug the ground.
Fingers burrow into soft earth. Arms wrap around leaning lampposts. The ringside seats have made a circle, linking bodies to keep themselves earth bound.
No one leaves till the fight ends.
The protest’s Front Line should be the eyes of this wave, but you can’t see an inch in front of your face, so who gives a fuck. They’ll hit a wall eventually. Sure, you couldn’t stop this thing now if you wanted to.
”No surrender, lads, get stuck into them!”
John Joe can’t do it. He can’t break this lad. There’s something still there in his eyes, fixing him cold and fearless inside a shattered body. The Congolese will die in here if he has to. Problem is, so will all the rest if this thing isn’t put to bed. John Joe takes a quick scan and knows this to be true. It’s either pull the trigger or they all go down.
“I’m fierce sorry about this, Fabrice.”
Dublin is a city of voices, of sounds; sweet and sour, strange and familiar. Rare aul brogues, mid-Atlantic twangs, pangs of homesick silent sighs. The guttural cúpla focal, the knowing chuckle for foreign interpretations of our miscommunications. The inclination toward slagging, bragging, dragging the Queen’s English through Hiberno hedges backward. All those bullets and bombshells of language, of noise, hocking tiny gobs of color into the boredom of the void. And to hell with any dry shite who even dares to get annoyed.
But is there a noise, is there a tone or a pitch or sound, even in Dublin, for a tidal wave of protesters crashing over a double-decker bus in the middle of a boxing match in the middle of the street, in the middle of a storm?
Not that it matters. Cacophony gets attention, sure, but it’s as useless as silence when you really want to be heard.
Everyone just wants to be heard.