By: Ronan O’Shea
—Your generation is too willing to take it lying down, said Smithson Rodgers.
—Don’t be facile, Murphy.
—Your lot are spoiled.
—You’re not used to fighting for what you believe in.
—When were you born?
—You just accept things the way they are.
—You’re not wrong.
—Positively bone idle, Smithson.
—See? You won’t even stand up for yourselves.
—Wouldn’t dare, said Murphy. —I’m a coward, a laggard, an out-and-out fool.
—You can say that again.
—I’m a coward, a lag-
—Shut up, Murphy.
—Will do, sir.
The table reacted variously. Geert Luyckx laughed, as this is what Geert Luyckx liked to do. He was Belgian, with round glasses, thinning white hair and a big, bushy Bismarck moustache. He’d been with Murphy and Smithson Rodgers all day, marvelling as the younger journalist riled the latter with such ease.
Berliners Gertha and Belinda laughed too. They had sat behind Murphy and Smithson Rodgers on the mini-bus, bearing witness to the affable idiocy of the one, the mercury-rising exasperation of the other.
Spaniards Julio del Oviedo and Sergio de Pampalona were a little surprised, having spent the journey from Lindesnes to Kristiansand either on Instagram, or by flirting with Gertha and Belinda. They flirted back when they weren’t listening in to Smithson’s speech about the trouble back home, while Murphy tried to give him the runaround, so as to avoid talking about it all.
Murphy thought the flirting fair.
The German women were beautiful, the Spanish men too, both pairs charming to boot.
He thought all this with jealousy and wan admiration.
Now, hours later, Mona and Lisa from the Norwegian tourist board looked on with concern, fearing a full-blown argument. They’d no idea that Murphy had never had a full-blown argument with anyone, ever. It wasn’t his way.
He preferred to keep his hopes, dreams, frustrations and gripes to himself, unhealthily, functionally.
Smithson Rodgers liked a debate. His schooling had given him that. It was his bread and butter. The school he had gone to taught him how to be right. The money it had cost made it worth it. It was easier to live your life convinced that you were right than to pause to consider that maybe you weren’t. Much easier.
Murphy hadn’t gone to such a school. He was forever unsure of himself, and preferred real butter and bread than to the bread and butter of debate, and so was languorously spreading one on the other; a roll.
Smithson Rodgers jabbed Geert Luyckx with his elbow, as if they were comrades by dint of being older men.
—If his lot had come out in better numbers, we wouldn’t be in this mess, he said.
Murphy’s mouth was full of roll, and he convinced himself this was the reason why he didn’t say the following:
If your lot had not, we wouldn’t be either.
It was a nice fantasy.
He took another bite from his roll. The butter was delicious. It had Nordic Sea salt crystals in it.
Smithson Rodgers was in a good and confident mood thanks to events back home; the chaos was going to end.
Murphy was unsure, but didn’t argue, focussing instead on his butter and rolls.
—But what does it mean? said Geert, of the news back home they’d been discussing the past ten minutes or so, the assembled press giving Smithson Rodgers its rapt attention, while Murphy concentrated on biting his tongue and eating his rolls. There was only so much runaround a man could give in a day.
—It means there will be a second vote, said Smithson Rodgers. —It’ll go back to the people, and they won’t make the same mistake again.
—I wouldn’t be so sure, said Murphy, having swallowed his bite, unable to help himself. —I’ve a friend called Tom Foolery. Always repeats the same mistakes. Never learns a thing.
—Shut up, Murphy, said Smithson Rodgers.
—Brilliant so, said Murphy, and he did.
Mona and Lisa laughed nervously.
Smithson Rodgers and Murphy had met the previous day, at London Stansted, an airport in Essex.
Smithson Rodgers, a journalist for a well-known newspaper, was travelling to Norway to cover the opening of Europe’s first underwater restaurant.
Murphy worked for a company that had flown him to Norway, to keep him out of the way.
The company produced in-flight magazines. They were made from paper. Planes killed paper, albeit indirectly. Murphy had made a crack about this a few weeks earlier, and the crack’d centred on the notion that to his ‘mind, we have a bigger carbon footprint than Shell’, such that Murphy was deemed dangerous enough to embarrass his seniors, harmless enough not to fire, useful and likeable enough that to do so wasn’t desirable.
In short, he was sent to Norway by way of ‘rewarding’ him for all his work in recent months. The fact that the CEO of the company was visiting that week was immaterial.
Murphy didn’t like conflict. He liked people to get along.
He didn’t like to be put under pressure either.
Throughout the day, other journalists had plied Murphy and Smithson Rodgers with questions about their homeland, as if they were animals in a zoo.
Murphy answered most with ‘I’ve absolutely no idea.’
Smithson Rodgers, on the other hand, gave lengthy answers, using the same words over and over to explain the situation:
—What does ass-a-nine mean? Gertha asked Murphy, as they sat in a minivan, pootling along the gorgeous Norwegian coastline, skerries poking out of the water like seals.
—Something to do with donkeys, said Murphy, gazing out of the window, hoping the stunning Nordic coast might drown out the English man.
—I still don’t really understand, said Geert now, the events of the day a cure-all to Smithson Rodger’s mind, leaving everyone a little baffled. He looked towards Murphy for answers. Murphy shrugged.
—I won’t let my sister-in-law in the house anymore, said Smithson Rodgers.
Murphy wanted to ask what his wife thought of that. He had no bite of roll in his mouth stopping him, yet didn’t ask, all the same, listening on instead as Smithson Rodgers spoke of ‘self-sabotage’, the ‘blind leading the blind’, the ‘maddening idiocy of it all’.
Murphy turned to Gertha, asking her what she did for a living in the journalism world.
She was an interiors blogger. What that meant, he didn’t really know, so he asked a few questions, and learned.
He was distracted a minute or so later, by Smithson Rodger’s loud voice.
—There’s a march in London this Saturday. They’re predicting a million.
—Will you go? said Geert.
—Yes, said Smithson. —I’ve booked my train. I’ve got my badge. It’s going to be the biggest since Iraq.
—And you, Murphy. Are you going on this march?
—I’m afraid of big crowds.
—What about shortages of insulin? said Smithson Rodgers.
—Insulin isn’t used to treat agoraphobia, said Murphy. —Anyway, I wouldn’t be a big fan of protests.
—Of course not, said Smithson Rodgers.
—Why not? asked Geert.
—I’m thirty-two. I’ve never seen one work.
—What about the Berlin Wall?
—I was two.
—Or the Iraq march?
—They went ahead with the war.
—Marches give people hope, Murphy, said Smithson Rodgers, and though Murphy was inclined to say so does God he said nothing, having found the butter, and the excuse of another bite of roll.
Smithson Rodgers wasn’t done, however.
—It reminds people there are others like them, he said, to which Murphy felt like saying and others, there’s others, that are not.
He didn’t, and when Smithson prodded him, asking ‘Should we just give up?’, answered ‘No, we ought to enjoy bread rolls, and lovely Norwegian wine.’
—It’s French, I think, said Gertha.
Murphy took a sip.
—It’s Norwegian after tax.
Gertha laughed. That was sublime.
Murphy liked Gertha, but assumed she would like the handsome Spanish men more. Murphy was risk-averse when it came to rejection, and so he would never find out, leaving Smithson Rodgers to decry Murphy’s ‘age-group’ and its ‘unconscionable apathy’, adding that his ‘son and daughter’ were ‘just as bad’, and that a ‘sense of social responsibility’ was in order.
—You’re not wrong, said Murphy, taking another roll.
—You really like bread, said Gertha.
—Absolutely, said Murphy. —Is it good in Berlin?
—Very good, she said. —You should visit us sometime.
Murphy went the colour of sundried-tomato bread.
The conversation flowed, like Norwegian wine.
Smithson gesticulated, a Jesus at the dinner table, expounding rectitude to the disciples all around, whilst his ersatz Judas sat opposite.
They’d all travelled to Norway for the same reason; to witness the opening of that underwater restaurant.
They had done that, and in the afternoon they drove a couple of hours east to Kristiansand, Murphy gazing out the window, taking in the scenery; the pine trees to one side, the beautifully rugged Nordic Sea the other; his ears interfered with regularly by topical conversation.
Now, they were beneath ground level again, a basement – not underwater – restaurant this time.
The starters arrived.
—In Britain, people don’t understand, said Smithson Rodgers. —You vote for officials to represent you. To make decisions on your behalf. In doing so, you bequeath them a mandate.
—What does bequeath mean? said Gertha, turning to Murphy.
—I’ve no idea.
—What’s a mandate?
—I think it’s like bromance, said Murphy.
—Would you ever be so kind as to fill my glass? said Murphy.
The starters were eaten, the plates removed. The mains arrived; burgers, good ones at that.
—It’s an act of such gross stupidity, said Smithson Rodgers. —I struggle to comprehend.
Murphy finished off the last of his burger bun, peeved that it had been served seed-side down, over-layered in onion and lettuce in that oh-so modernist way.
There was a clamour from the Spanish end of the table; Julio del Oviedo.
—We are desperate for you to stay, he said, clasping his arms to his bosom, his ridiculously handsome face curving into a beautiful smile.
The others laughed. Gertha laughed. Murphy became jealous, amused, sad too.
It was possible to feel more than one way.
—Well after today we will be staying now, said Smithson Rodgers. —I’m sure of it.
—That’s good news, said Sergio, and he said too ‘Let’s drink to that’ so as they all did, even Murphy, who didn’t want to point out they were all sat there in Norway, a minority, a gaggle, a privileged few, so he decided, if asked, he’d say, ‘Sorry, I don’t have a clue.’
But he’d a needling discomfort in himself, a sense that while Smithson Rodgers was right, he was also wrong to falsely advertise, to give the impression he and Murphy were representative in any way. It seemed as if the lot of them were preaching to their own choir.
Had he given Smithson Rodgers the runaround like he had in the afternoon, he mightn’t have snapped.
Had he evaded, talked around, over, but not about, the subject, he might have been swell.
Had he poked fun at the situation, maybe he’d have continued to bite his tongue or prevaricated his way out of things.
Murphy wanted only to eat his dessert, or pudding, to explain to Gertha the difference between the two.
He wanted only to get on in life, and more importantly by, without hurting anyone at all. It was a worthy, if cowardly, life pursuit.
But he was bloated, and had kept his quips to himself too long. He was polite, and had bitten his tongue. Cowed by his peer’s age, learning and experience, he’d felt the needle of stupidity in him so as he’d not spoken up at all, lest he look a fool of another’s making.
To be the fool was fine, to be made to look one, that was a different kettle of cat’s altogether.
Yet despite all that, had Smithson Rodgers not said what he did next, maybe Murphy would have kept his thoughts to himself.
—If only we could go back to 2015, said Smithson Rodgers, a year Murphy remembered well.
There had been misinformation; hysteria, flash floods in places that didn’t count, mine closures in others that counted yet less; swathes of men and women with blankets for roofs and cardboard CV’s, and invisible, unglamorous and widespread misery, so as Murphy murmured tentatively from the side of his mouth post a last sip of Norwegian wine, ‘It wasn’t a fecking picnic.’
Murphy put down his glass.
—It wasn’t exactly roses back home then, now was it, Smithson?
—It was a damn sight better than this mess.
—But that’s not the same, said Murphy. —Things were not exactly good. They weren’t, I’ve a mind to say, even close to being okay.
Smithson Rodgers sat up, an amused look on his face.
—Go on then, Murphy, he said. —Say your bit.
For reasons he’d later question, Murphy felt the need to stand as he spoke, and so slid back his chair, rose, and put his glass to one side.
—Erm, Murphy? said Smithson Rodgers.
Murphy was done listening to Smithson Rodgers, so he went on a little rant then, saying things like ‘It’s a maddening idea, yes’, adding that the ‘poor bastards were there for the taking’, summing up that at the end of the day it was the way it had always been, was or would be, by which he meant ‘the same damn wool the powerful pull over the eyes of the poor’.
Smithson Rodgers lifted a finger in the air, to interject, but Murphy was not for stopping.
—Haven’t we a responsibility to be realistic? said Murphy. —If we’re to be done with the thing ought we not look as to why people did as they did?
He sipped his wine, which he’d found reason to lift to his lips during the first bit of his rant.
—What, Smithson? You think my lot ought to hang our heads in shame?
Murphy didn’t know why he’d taken to saying ought and would later put it down to the influence of television court-room drama.
—We didn’t ask for this mess, he said. —Should we be expected to care, let alone clean up after it?
Smithson Rodgers gave up. He had tried to warn Murphy.
He admired his strength of feeling, and despite what Murphy thought of him, empathised with the depth of embarrassment that would soon follow. He’d a son himself.
Throughout his rant, Murphy had been standing there with his fly undone, and his Christmas underwear on display.
—You may have a point, Mur-, he began, but was cut off.
—I just don’t see what an I want to be in EU badge does for nurses in Thurrock, Smithson, said Murphy.
—No, said Smithson. —Neither do I. Bu-
—If we’re to convince them they’d the wrong notion we ought to be marching on their turf, said Murphy. —Lest we start thinking ourselves Alabama, Derry, or Jarrow, he added. —It’s not protest if your only sacrifice is a thirty-quid train ticket. It’s a day out.
The table stared intently, the women watching with rigid, crane-like necks, the Spaniards smiling, Geert caught like a rabbit in the headlights.
Murphy knew now he’d lost the run of himself, knew also this was the greatest moment of his life, and that for all the discomfort, the excitement coursing through him could not be quelled.
—Your flies are undone, Murphy.
Yes it could.
—We have to get to the root of the problem.
Yes it had.
—Your shirt tail is hanging out.
—We must learn to empathise.
Smithson tried one last time.
—You’re extremely embarrassed aren’t you?
Murphy stared dead ahead, refusing to look down, knowing what was there; the open fly, the Santa underwear he had packed and was wearing in March, for reasons unclear.
He understood why Gertha, Belinda, Mona and Lisa had stared upwards, with such committed intent.
Gertha looked at Smithson Rodgers, then rotated her head towards Murphy, budging not an inch up or down.
Murphy looked down.
—Technically, it’s a fly, he said. —But Smithson has been trying to tell me that my zipper is undone. That would be the American term.
—I see, said Gertha, laughter suppressed (barely) by a hand over her mouth.
—Excuse me, said Murphy, turning to Mona and Lisa. —I need a quick whizz.
In the trailing near-distance he heard someone ask ‘what is whizz?’, but amidst the humiliation, laughter and cloud of thought, he never found out who it was.
Murphy washed his hands. His cheeks were like tomatoes.
—God damn it, he said, drying his hands.
Why had he stood up?
Moreover, why hadn’t he kept his thoughts to himself, where they were safe?
—Are you okay, Murphy?
Murphy looked up. It was Smithson Rodgers.
Though inclined to say yes, as always he would, he managed a flat, defeated ‘No’. Smithson Rodgers smiled.
—Seems like you do have some opinions after all.
—I suppose I do.
—Some of them a little confused.
Murphy stared at the basin.
—Sorry, Smithson, I don’t know what came over me.
He looked up.
—No need to apologise, Murphy. I was quite entertained.
—I’m just sick of it all, Smithson.
—What’s it? said Smithson, to which Murphy said ‘The arguing, and the black and white, and the going around in circles of it all’.
The pair of them looked each other in the eye, sort of, via a mirror, as if to say that this, this was all Murphy was sick of, nothing less or more.
—I suppose I am too, said Smithson Rodgers.
He looked back towards the table, through the crack in the door.
—A clown must have an encore.
Murphy looked up at the tiny window leading out to the street.
—Can I not go out the window?
Smithson Rodgers inspected the window, shook his head.
—Don’t take this personally, Murphy, but I’m not sure you’d fit through there.
Murphy looked at the window. Smithson Rodgers was right.
—Physical comedy, Murphy. And a stiff upper lip.
Resigned to whatever it was the British meant by this, Murphy nodded, and walked towards the door.
—Are you ever going to do up your fly?
Murphy looked down, and then zipped up his fly.
—Why the Santa pants? he asked, to which Murphy said ‘I’ve absolutely no idea,’ to which Smithson said, ‘Good stuff, Murphy, now make it a show’.
When they returned to the dining room, Murphy was met with a round of applause; Gertha clapped lightly, Mona and Lisa too. Geert whistled, the two Spaniards charged their wine glasses, said ‘bravo’ one time or two, and Belinda was in what can only be described as peals of laughter.
Murphy gave a bow, and the lot of them played along with the illusion that it had all been a show.
—That was interesting, said Gertha, as Murphy sat back down.
—Yes, I suppose it was.
She smiled, and looked over at the two handsome Spanish men.
—Those two are going to have a drink at the hotel bar. Do you want to join?
Murphy looked over at the men, and Belinda, who was laughing now as they sang loudly, charging their glasses, finishing their wine.
—You know, I might have a nightcap after all, he said, to which Gertha said, ‘What’s a nightcap?’ and Murphy spent a minute or so explaining the meaning of the phrase, as if he’d any sort of a clue.