Colman McIlraith was nicknamed Hobbes not because he lectured in History or Political Science. In fact, over an accretion of decades – it was impossible to imagine he was ever a young man – the modules he taught on had been entirely within the remit of English Lit. No. He was nicknamed Hobbes because, as every Fresher soon discovered, Colman McIlraith was nasty, brutish and short.
Why he should have elected to devote a lifetime to a regional college like All Hallows declaiming on subjects which sparked in him no obvious pleasure or curiosity was anyone’s guess. So immutable were his lecture notes that every September there was an active trade in photocopies from years gone by.
McIlraith must’ve been a puzzle to his colleagues as much as to the rest of us. He was caustic, prickly as a hedgehog, not given to the free-exchange of gallows’ banter which makes agreeable the academic life. For thirty years and more, he’d arrived and left as punctually as a striking clock in an indefatigable Beetle, ecclesiastical black with undersized, myopic headlights.
There was a story he’d once been jilted. Whether there was any truth in it, the only creature he was ever seen to consort with outside college hours was a wiry terrier with Old Testament eyebrows he chaperoned round the perimeter of the park as dusk fell. On Fridays and on the last day of term, the dog would pant for hours on the backseat of the VW like some effigy of patience, awaiting the long trek back up to whatever ancestral home Hobbes laid claim to in his native Armagh. Down here he rented bedrooms only by the academic year, rooms in which it was a rare event indeed for him to remain over a weekend.
In the absence of hard fact, speculation, which makes agreeable the student life, flourished. Rumour had supplied the passionless man with any number of solitary passions. His storied debauches invariably danced about the poles of alcohol and online pornography. Down the years, a tell-tale fluorescence had been reported long into the small hours from whatever bedroom overviewed the black Beetle – I’d witnessed its eeriness myself. Mornings, his dull eyes were frequently bloodshot.
Hobbes’ wardrobe had never escaped the 70s, and this gave rise to the outlandish conjecture that McIlraith had once been trumpet-player in a show-band; his stature, that he’d set out to be a jockey, but had been debarred for the mistreatment of his mounts. There was even a theory he was a failed priest. Every year at conferring, his robes bespoke a Queen’s University doctorate. It was inferred that when the Troubles were in their infancy, Colman McIlraith had been run out of the North. That much was agreed; but whether in his capacity as informer, sniper or child-molester was never settled.
For the better part of a month, Deborah Lyons-Gough had balked at the long corridor that led to McIlraith’s office. Freshers might still occasionally misread his wide-collared open shirts, platform soles and hooded eyes to betoken humour – I’d done so myself. No Final Year ever made that miscalculation. Deborah had reason to know this more than most. Beneath Hobbes’ corrugated brow and dwindling comb-over squatted a humourless, letter-of-the law mentality. Whether he would now prove as vindictive as he was officious was something she was loath to put to the test
Though three winters had passed since her celebrated run-in with Hobbes, the incident still had the power to raise a smirk among us. Deborah was ‘of a certain age’, which is to say there was nothing less certain than her age. The course was a gift made possible by the life-insurance policy her late mother had taken out. I’d known them both – knew them to nod at, the way everyone is known to everyone else in small-town Ireland – and I could have predicted Deborah Lyons-Gough would be just the type to put Colman McIlraith’s nose out of joint.
She was disorganised, constitutionally so. Desirée Toussaint, her closest friend, used say you could absolutely rely on Debs – rely on her to show up late and flustered. Through their twenties they’d made several attempts at retail – ethnic clothes, tarot decks– but none had cleared the pittance they paid on a room that adjoined a charity shop out the Dublin Rd. Then Desirée began to tour the midlands with a Cajun band called Les Diaboliques. When she moved back to Essex, the retail business went under entirely. That’s ok love, consoled Lorna Lyons-Gough, the nuns always said your talents were more for English than for sums.
She moved back home. And that was alright. What bothered her mother was that, once her pal was gone, Deborah stopped dyeing her hair, which she now wore long and unteased like some red Indian squaw. Worse, she deliberately chose the baggiest of clothes that did not a jot for her figure. And would you not go out and meet a nice young-fella instead of sitting in writing them oul stories? This from Lorna Lyons-Gough, who’d gone to the grave without ever having married. Still, for all her bluster, she must’ve known the insurance policy would send her Debbie straight through the gates of the former seminary to indulge her passion for them oul stories.
“Layons-Goff or Layons-Gock, Muzz,” Mcilraith intoned, as though he suspected the name might be a manifesto of some kind. Whether it was the grey tendrils tumbling down from either temple of the student who’d burst in late, whether the brazen nose-ring, the dungarees, the double-barrelled surname or some other perceived peculiarity that had triggered his disdain, it was an unpropitious beginning to her new life.
She might well have despaired, if it hadn’t been for Sarah Scattergood. In Dr Scattergood, a bindee-wearing Londoner who was the other half of the English faculty and who, if one might only survive first year, offered such electives as 201 Irish Female Poets, 320 Post-Colonial Representations of Women and 303 The Gothic, Deborah knew she’d found a kindred spirit. Sarah Scattergood’s arrival in the college some seven years before had given rise to the only verified instance of wit from the redoubtable McIlraith, who’d quipped in the course of a tutorial on T.S. Eliot: “Nowadays the women come and go / talking of Maya Angelou.”
All at once it was the last day of term. Debbie sat on the front steps, distraught, on the ground the forlorn print-out of the first essay she’d attempted since her time with the Loreto nuns: ‘Madness and Method in Jane Eyre’. But the secretary was gone home, the deadline expired. Half-heartedly, she acknowledged the Christmas wishes from departing classmates. Then she sat, erect. From the carpark behind eructated the staccato flatulenceof the vintage engine. In a trice she’d swept up the essay, in another, had intercepted the black Beetle, stuck fast in the general exodus. She tapped at the window brightly, but was answered by an uninterested shake of the head. Hobbes hadn’t even looked. So she brandished the essay, tapped more insistently. The window was lowered a grudging inch. “Dr McIlraith,” she panted jubilantly into the gap, “I’ve got your essay for you.”
He’d smiled, almost. “Has it,” he inquired of the dashboard, “been stamped by the departmental secretary?” Was he toying with her? A little Christmas joke? From the rear of the car the dog watched with Presbyterian imperturbability.
“She’s gone home.”
“Because all submissions,” he nodded like a bobbing doll, “must be stamped by the departmental secretary, so they must.”
Her mouth fell open. Could he really…? “But, she’s gone home! For Christmas!”
The Dickensian detail fell flat. Slowly, deliberately, Hobbes wound up the window. She thumped at it with the heel of her palm. The car lurched forwards a foot. The terrier watched her temerity, astonished. She thumped a second time, panic stopping her breath. Hobbes raised his hooded eyes, was there maybe something else? Exasperated, “Why are you being so anal?” she must have ejaculated, because she saw him turn white, then pink, then puce. Then there was a clearance in the traffic ahead and the Beetle sputtered into it and she found herself the centre of gob-smacked admiration.
That January Dr Scattergood, whose subdued smirk betrayed the extent to which she’d enjoyed the riposte, had been instrumental in smoothing over the faux pas. Over the many semesters that followed, Deborah side-stepped such electives as McIlraith offered yet somehow, through the good grace of Sarah Scattergood, was well on the way to amassing sufficient credits to qualify for a Teaching Diploma in English. What’s more, she’d encouraged Debbie’s creative efforts, and one or two stories had appeared in online journals. They’d even sketched out, together, the skeleton of a final year dissertation to be entitled Subjectivity and the Female Body in the Poetry of Eavan Boland.
Then, almost casually, her friend and mentor announced the unforgivable. She was pregnant. She would be on maternity leave for the major part of Deborah’s final year. Her eyes were scalded, her throat constricted. Dr Scattergood dissolved in a blur. Dreamlike, there followed the sting in the tail. Her position as Final Year Academic Advisor would be assumed by none other than Hobbes himself, Dr Colman McIlraith.
Now it was late October. Deborah was in all kinds of trouble. Stress was playing havoc with her sleep, sleeplessness was impacting on her health, and ill-health was ratcheting up her stress. She’d had a panic attack that had put the frighteners on all of us who’d witnessed it. The substitute who was covering Dr Scattergood’s electives and supervising her dissertation students was a Trinity doctoral student named Coyle who could not see past the requirement to lace every paragraph with ‘discourse’, ‘enabling’ and ‘problematize’. Twice, on foot of his prescriptions, she’d trekked up to the capital to waste hours staring at arcane papers whose footnotes cited Lacan or Foucault or Irigaray.
There was no other way; she would beg Mcilraith to allow Sarah Scattergood special dispensation to act as supervisor. Failing that, might Dr Scattergood be allowed supervise the doctoral student’s supervision? So desperate was Deborah, so demoralised, she was even thinking the unthinkable: asking Hobbes himself whether he’d supervise the bloody thing.
Several students had complained about the Trinity pedant – they’d received short shrift from the short man from Armagh. Small wonder Debbie had wasted the better part of a week prevaricating at the foot of the stairs that led to the dingy office. So deep was she in gloomy reverie that she failed to notice his descent onto the mezzanine just above. Finding his way blocked, his eyebrows hoisted interrogatively.
“I was hoping to have a word,” she gasped. “Before you go.”
He considered for a moment. “Office hours,” he recited, “are Mondays at eleven and Wednesday afternoons.” And because she didn’t appear to have understood, he added, “Today is Thursday.” When she again failed to comprehend, he came as near to expounding a personal philosophy as anyone had ever been afforded. “Ms Lyons-Gough, if we don’t have rules, do you know what we have? We have a free-for-all.”
“Dr McIlraith, I…” she at last managed, but her sentence was severed by a raised hand. “Office hours,” he declared without looking back, “are Mondays at eleven and Wednesday afternoons…”
She decided to convene a war council. Friday was Halloween, and Hobbes would be away off home for the duration of the mid-term. She couldn’t simply sit out the ten fidgety days and agitated nights before his next office hour came round, and that on the very day that the future would be set in stone. Because even if, by some miracle, she could find a potion that would have her sleep out the interim, the point was that the Monday following mid-term was the final deadline for fixing title and supervisor for the dissertations.
Desirée Toussaint, her friend since Loreto days, brooked shit from nobody. If anyone could be counted upon to steel her resolve it was Desirée. “Why are you being so anal?” still sent her into throbs of throaty laughter. But she’d been away in Essex for seven years and had only recently returned. She was unfamiliar with the ways of Hobbes McIlraith. So it was that, out of the loose assemblage of mature students who gravitated to the end tables of the canteen, she selected an old boot closer to her mother’s vintage than her own, a chain-smoking battle-axe named Viv McHugh, which is to say myself.
Outside of tutorials, I had a nodding acquaintance with McIlraith – on the back steps to the college I smoked, he vaped. Besides, I’d had my own run-in with the little man, or to be entirely accurate, with the Dean of Studies, on foot of a satirical sketch that made it onto Sunday Miscellany. But that’s another story.
We were to meet up that same Thursday night after Desirée knocked off waitressing. Earlier, in preparation, I opened a notebook. Two issues needed to be resolved: (a) how to obtain a meeting for the next day; and (b) what precisely to ask of the man. I was dismayed to learn she’d had no contact with Sarah Scattergood since the previous June. Above my bifocals I inquired: Would a first-time mum, who was due any week now, be willing to take on a supervision, even if it were a possibility? Not, you understand, that it was remotely likely that a stickler for rules of the stamp of Colman McIlraith would ever sanction it. As for requesting he supervise Subjectivity and the Female Body in the Poetry of Eavan Boland, my dear, better the devil you know …
“Ok,” said Debbie, iPhone already in her palm. “I’ll send Sarah a text.”
She winced. Palpably, the pregnancy still smarted like a betrayal. But she nodded. The Scattergood phone was turned off, however; so she promised to try again prior to our war council.
It was late when we met for the first time, three black and midnight hags. So Desirée Toussaint declared us. I felt I already knew her, so many of Deborah’s stories took their inspiration from the misadventures of her irrepressible school-friend. She countered that she knew me through a scrapbook Debs had put together of my humorous pieces cut out of the Midland Tribune, which seemed so unlikely one had to believe it. Then it was down to business.
Debbie’s latest didn’t encourage. It turned out Sarah Scattergood was up in Dublin for a routine check-up and was staying with a friend. But she’d suggested meeting up for a coffee early next week. “What’s the big deal?” shrugged Desirée. It was left to me, as village elder, to explain. The minute his final tutorial was over the following afternoon, McIlraith and dog would retire from the field of battle and would be out of reach until Monday 9th.
“Still don’t see the problem mate. We make him stay down, is all.”
“Oh? How do we do that?”
“You know where this dude lives, yeah?” In the minutes that followed, I discovered I hadn’t really known the first thing about Ms Toussaint. The following morning, on the back steps of the college, I learned she was no mere talker, either.
Hobbes was in foul humour. When he was in foul humour, he spoke freely, and to the merest stranger. He paused only to suck, like Alice’s caterpillar, on his vaporiser. He’d had to march in, post-haste. A mile and a half. More! He’d actually arrived thirteen minutes late for a lecture, he who’d never been late for a lecture in his life. “Really?” Car wouldn’t start! First time in thirty years, not a dickey-bird. “Did you try…?” Oh he’d tried everything: pushing; choking; pumping, cranking; jump-leads; everything. Not so much as a dickey-bird.
I coughed, to cover a guffaw. What voodoo Desirée Toussaint had employed – a potato up the exhaust or sugar in the tank or some other trick – there was no way that vintage banger was getting up to Armagh any time soon. Would he maybe consider taking the bus, or train? He might. If it came to it, he might have to. But he’d go bail that the car would be back on the road by this time tomorrow. Still couldn’t understand it all the same. Thirty years, and this morning not a dickey-bird.
They say God helps those who help themselves. Whether or not the same is true of the Devil, the coup Desirée had pulled off gave rise, by indirection, to a couple of interventions that even now suggest the black arts. Firstly, out of all the possible garages about town, Hobbes dialled up Brennan’s – the significance of which only later became apparent. Then, having watched his black Beetle towed away, he set off for St Brigid’s Park, the dog on a short leash alongside his short stride.
How precisely the mutt slipped the leash may never be known. What Hobbes should have known is that the park, usually so quiet, fills up at the first whiff of Halloween with every class of hooligan and prankster bent on taking advantage of costume and the dark to let slip their savagery. It may have been scarcely dusk, but already schoolboy shrieks and hoots were echoing up from incipient fires.
One imagines the terrier had a canine aversion to loud bangs. One imagines a firework, thrown with malice or with carelessness. One way or another, the animal slipped the hold and scarpered. Word doesn’t take long to get around a town like ours, and by the time of the next war council the disappearance was common knowledge. “Which plays right into our hands,” I said.
“Yeah?” Debbie was having her doubts about the whole project.
“Don’t you see? Suppose the car gets fixed first thing tomorrow…”
“It won’t,” rumbled her friend. “Trust me.”
“But just suppose, sake of argument. Now he’s got another reason to stay down. I mean he’s hardly going to abandon the animal.”
“Tell you what I think,” Desirée suddenly sparked up. “I think we’ve gotta find that pooch. You show up at this dude’s door with his poor little doggie in tow, he’s gonna owe you big style.”
Debbie considered, nodded undecidedly, looked to me as though it had been my idea. “But how do we go about finding him? He could be anywhere…”
Search me, I shrugged.
“Got a picture of him, have you Debs?”
“Could you get one?”
“I dunno. By calling in on this McIlraith dude.”
The horror on Deborah’s face was answer enough. But her friend was undeterred. Desirée pulled over my notebook and flicked a pen, all business. “So what’s he look like? What breed is he?”
“Terrier!” we said together. Unimpressed, her ebony eyes looked from one of us to the other. “I don’t know. Scottish?”
“Nah, not Scottish. West Highland maybe?”
“Definitely not. That’s the little guys on the whisky bottle.”
“He has these bushy eyebrows, if that’s any help.”
“Maybe he’s a whatcha-may-call-it. A Schnauzer?”
“Isn’t that a sausage-dog?”
What happened next amazed and delighted. Debbie drew the notebook to her, borrowed the pen, and in less than a minute had executed a passable likeness. The proportions were askew; the comical severity, spot on.
“So now what?”
Desirée sat back and stretched like a cat. “Set up a WhatsApp group. You send out that pic, yeah? Tell them to get back to you the minute any of them sees or hears shit. Oh, and tell them they gots to keep it to themselves, yeah?”
We met up the next day prior to Desirée’s shift. There had been several developments. Word from Brennan’s Garage was, the Beetle was properly banjaxed. Desirée’s cousin who worked there had seen to that. It’d require a couple of days just to get in spare parts. On the downside, they did have a policy of offering a replacement car for the duration. Hobbes hadn’t taken up the offer, so far as the cousin knew. Then, too, there were several reported sightings on WhatsApp; sightings not of the dog, however. A distraught Gollum with a comb-over had been variously reported accosting strangers to solicit news of the missing creature. There was even a video, all shakes, bumps and furtive angles.
So what to do next? “Let you run into him as if it was an accident, yeah? Make sure he sees how shocked you are when he tells you his pooch has run away. Know what, you’ll help find it! You’ll spread the word. That way, he’s well impressed when you do show up with it. That way, he’s got to be thinking it wasn’t no fluke. You done him a major favour even trying.”
Debs not only looked less than impressed, she looked deflated. She was beginning to regret she’d ever brought her old school-friend in on the deal. For my part, I spent that afternoon about the town, not actively searching for the dog, or for its master for that matter. Wandering. Keeping an eye out. I expect what I was really doing was making myself available to Providence, should it choose to take a hand.
Toward four I ran into him.
He was like a homeless case, shuffling about with no idea of where he was going. He looked hard at me as though struggling to bring his eyes to focus. I was so shocked I abandoned all thought of playing out a scene, letting on I’d heard nothing. Instead I took him by the arm, ushered him back up toward the estate in which he was renting a bedroom that year. He allowed himself be led until we were within sight of it, then he tugged his elbow from me, in horror that he’d been cajoled to abandon the search. “But have you a photo?” I appealed, “you must have a photo!” He stared hard at me from red-rimmed eyes. “Of your dog.” The idea must’ve been running around in my head, unbeknownst, because it came out fully formed. “If you’ve a photo, we’ll run off some colour copies and put them up on lampposts around the town with your details. It’s what they do for missing persons.”
“I see,” he nodded. He’d never looked so infantile. “I see. Yes.” All unlooked for, emotions I’d not felt in years had begun to tumble inside my gut. “Yes,” he declared, “very good. Let’s do that.” I watched him stride purposefully ahead. Christ Viv, what are you letting yourself in for? Was this a betrayal of what the war council had agreed?
Inside the house I felt like an intruder. It was every bit as dingy as I’d imagined. I was all for waiting at the foot of the stairs but he wouldn’t hear of it. Now he was all bustle and purpose. I was mortified to find myself standing at the threshold of the bedroom. In order to keep my eyes off the skinny backside bobbling up and down as he rifled a suitcase he kept under the bed, I glanced uneasily from the desk, dominated by an old computer with bulky disk-drive to the wardrobe open onto jackets, shoes and folded shirts to the dresser’s priestly toiletries: the hairbrush set; the scissors and electric razor; the bottle of bay-rum. It was the opposite of nosiness. A fear of privacies, rather. Behind the bay-rum was a double photo-frame, a little silver diptych with what appeared to be two children. He caught me looking. “The sister,” he approximated a smile, gesturing I should come into the room, was welcome to look closer. I hesitated. “Please.”
There’s a quality in the palette, a predominance of browns or oranges, that dates a photo every bit as much as clothes or hairstyles. These two children, a boy and girl, it placed in the early 60s. “Lorraine,” called the voice from the far side of the bed, somehow intensifying the silence. He’d risen from the semi-recumbent position. In his hand was another photo, a polaroid of the dog, which he was holding toward me like a schoolboy. “Will this do?”
It would. Admirably. I offered to run off two dozen colour copies down in the chemist’s with his contact details appended, but he said no, I’d been very good. He could manage from here – they had a copier in the college. As I closed the gate his voice overtook me. “When she was sixteen, they punished her. Left her tied to a railing, so they did.” I stared back, appalled. “Lorraine,” he called from the upper window. Then he added, as though reminiscing, “She was never right after that.”
I walked with no direction, having trespassed on a private unhappiness. I was having deep misgivings about the whole ploy. Was it to his troubled sister he sped home every weekend? I was of a vintage that still remembered the terrible images; the tarrings, the tribal intimate revenge. Probably I was being fanciful. All the same, to have spiked the man’s car was a shabby affair.
On a whim, I decided to take the route home along the river, a thing I rarely do. Can it have been an agent of the occult who whispered the suggestion? I was about two-thirds the way along, too far to turn back though my instinct was to do so. I could see ahead, at the locks that skirt the weir, a group of youths up to no good. They’d seen me, and there was a leering challenge, daring me to continue past them. To turn back might bring them on, who was to say? Well Viv. Nothing for it.
The leader – he was perhaps fourteen – stood out into the middle of the path. One or two of the others, uneasy, looked from him to me, from me to their bikes, from the bikes to him. Another, a low-browed lout with close-set eyes, tossed a surly stone down into the lock before rising from his hunkers. There was an expectant stand-off until I said “Could I get by, please?” Unable to find a verbal witticism, the first of them stood to one side and parodied a bow that triggered a round of sniggers. I walked on, concealing from them the glances I stole into the frothing waters. When at last I reached the bridge, heart fisting my throat, by the grace of God there was a Garda just within sight.
They’d gone by the time we got back there. What I’d glimpsed tumbling in the torrent might have been anything; a bundle of clothes, or a coat; yet I was as certain as though I’d stood there unmolested to confirm my fear. It was a dog, bound in some way to a stick or plank, no longer paddling against the frightful current.
If I’d been fortunate in finding a Garda; I was doubly so in the Garda I’d found. She appeared to know as though by instinct from what thicket to pull out a plank long enough to coax the bundle toward an opening. Then, without waiting for the help she’d called in, she waded knee deep into the waters to drag that bundle into the reeds. But for that, the unfortunate animal would surely have drowned.
It was in a dreadful state, eyes shut fast, so exhausted the ribcage was barely palpitating. There was an open gash to the back of its head that had bled white. Queasily, I watched the latex fingers of the man from the ISPCA touch it open, his face glowering with impotent disgust. “They call them animals who do this. All wrong. No animal is this sick.” Then he fixed his brown eyes on mine. “Any idea whose it might be?” I shook my head, needing time to think; to allow my guts to settle.
Debs was entirely distraught, so much so that I decided this was not the time to tell her what I’d learned about Colman McIlraith. She’d made it down just before the ISPCA van took the unconscious terrier away. I’d given the Garda a description of the four ne’er-do-wells, but she didn’t hold out much hope anything would come of it. I hadn’t actually witnessed them mistreating the animal.
There’s not that much more to tell. The dog recovered. So too, the VW Beetle. Without even approaching the Final Year Academic Advisor, Debbie abandoned all hope of getting a second reader for her dissertation and at Christmas, to my intense dismay, she dropped out. She did go on to land a contract with a small Irish publisher, a collection of short stories to be entitled Why does the Devil have the Best Tunes? I’ve an idea her friendship with Desirée Toussaint cooled off somewhat.
Sarah Scattergood had twins, and is tipped to be the next Director of Humanities at All Hallows. By all accounts, she’ll be delighted to launch the forthcoming story collection.
As for Hobbes Mcilraith, that was to be his last year among us. He took early retirement. Word was he told the Dean of Studies he was heartily weary of the damned place. One thing I can say, he held true to his principles to the last. At Easter, when I went to him to look for an extension, he turned me flatly down. “Rules have to be rules for everybody, Muzz McHugh.” The funny part of which is that even though that scuttled any chance I had of coming out with a 2-1, I still harbour a tiny fondness for him, the old bastard.