Monday, March 21, 2016

Blue Notes

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Speakeasy column on 20 March 2016.

Blue arrived in our Cork secondary school half way through 3rd year from Dublin so he was always going to be an outsider. He was a rheumy-eyed, dirty blond haired boy with a blotchy complexion. Our school was relentlessly philistine and success on the sports field mattered far more than other pursuits. Blue had no interest in games and not much in academic matters either. He also had a fine line in insolence, which did not endear him to Brother Leo - our ferocious Latin teacher. Leo made it his mission to beat this insolence out of Blue. He was singled out for almost daily beatings that went far beyond the routine punishment we all suffered. Leo would often lose his temper as he beat him out of the room and continued his ministrations in the small adjoining teacher’s room. One curious thing I remember from that time was his virulent dislike of his mother. Issues with fathers were common-place amongst adolescent boys, but it was unusual to encounter such animosity for a mother.

We were never very friendly and I thought no more of him after we left school. A few years later between stints at university I spent some time in London. Going into Piccadilly Circus tube station one day I met Blue and a couple of other Cork guys – including the infamous Judd Scanlon (later to spend time in US, British and Irish jails for heroin dealing). We got talking and they told me that they had a scam operating whereby they went around different dole offices in London signing on under different names. This way they made a comfortable living. They also had acquired a pile of unused tube tickets and generously tossed a few in my direction.

I bumped into him and his cronies from time to time in London in ’68 and ’69. These were halcyon days – the anti-Vietnam protests in Grosvenor Square, the legalise pot rallies in Hyde Park and of course the Stones in the Park (a sad anti-climax that). Blue had started to deal drugs – mainly hash but also LSD and various uppers and downers. He had become, according to his friends, extremely paranoid and reckoned he was being followed around London. He carried a Polaroid camera with him every where and would wheel around in the street and photograph those walking behind him to try and establish who was on his trail.

I moved back to university in late ’69 and didn’t see Blue again for about 6 years. After university I spent a few years working on oil rigs around the world. Between operations we spent 6 months in dry dock in Amsterdam getting our drilling ship refitted. We would head into the bright lights most evenings after work. I was walking through the red light area one night on my own when I bumped into Blue. He was very upbeat and invited me back to his nearby apartment to sample some of his wares. It transpired that he had moved on to heroin dealing and was doing well. He introduced me to his very pretty 17-year old French girlfriend. She couldn’t stay long as she was going across the canal to her work in a live sex show - a thriving industry at the time. Blue made tea and invited me to join him in snorting some heroin. He was thoughtful enough to warn me that first time users often vomited when using this method. We sat back and reminisced about the old days in CBC. A little later there was a knock on the door and Blue opened it to reveal two middle-aged Chinese men in suits. It became clear that my presence was superfluous to requirements so I took myself off back to the rig.

In 1979 I had moved to Dublin and found more conventional employment. I was driving past the old Salvation Army hostel off Stephen’s Green one late afternoon and spotted Blue emerging. It looked like he was down on his luck. A few week’s later I was sitting in Stephen’s Green admiring the flowers. Suddenly Blue appeared making erratic progress across the grass and through flower beds. He seemed very agitated. He was shouting and gesticulating while he kicked the heads off inoffensive flowers. I left him to it.

My last sighting of him came around 1990. I had been staying in a hotel in Bloomsbury and was getting a tube to Heathrow the following morning. I was standing with my suitcase on the platform of Russell Square tube station when I saw a familiar figure working his way down the platform begging. He was very shabbily dressed and I particularly remember that the sole of one of his shoes was flapping. About half way down the platform he spotted me and before I had a chance to say a word he abruptly turned down one of the exits and was gone - into the underground. He's never been heard of since. Should I have offered some succour or was it too late?