The Lodger

The Sunday Tribune - Shortlisted for Hennessy Literary Awards 2011

The Lodger

Mr Nolan was never referred to by his first name. He arrived in the bosom of the Lynch family as an economic migrant from Dublin. He had learned his skill of engraving from his uncle, but, failing to find employment in Dublin, answered an advertisement in a national newspaper for O’Brien’s department store, the centre of all hardware needs in Co. Wicklow. Mr and Mrs Lynch, who were newly married and needing help with the mortgage, took in the lodger.

Thirty-two years later, he was still there. They had intended getting rid of him once or twice, but on the first occasion Mr Lynch was put on a three-day week and Mr Nolan’s rent couldn’t be done without, and on another Mrs Lynch lost the child that Mr Nolan’s absence was going to make room for. In the superstitious semi-rural environment it didn’t go unnoticed that anytime the existence of Mr Nolan was threatened some tragedy beset their lives.

There were certain advantages in having Mr Nolan as a lodger. Firstly, as he reigned over the glass and porcelain sections of O’Brien’s, he held a position of prestige in the town. Any wedding, engagement or anniversary required his input and the prizes for all cultural and sporting events were engraved by him. This made him indispensable and gave him a fame of sorts, and some of this rubbed off. It didn’t hurt either that Mrs Nolan could coax (usually after serving up his favoured shepherd’s pie) a discount for her and her circle of friends.

Mr Nolan had also embedded himself in the local Pitch and Putt club, rising through the ranks until he landed as Secretary, a position he held for the some seventeen years. In some people’s minds he was the Pitch and Putt club; and this gave him influence with the good and great, or rather influence with those who had influence with the good and great, the sport largely inhabited by adolescent boys, bored housewives and the retired.

But most importantly, Mr Nolan served as a buffer between Mr and Mrs Lynch. It might be an exaggeration to say he was the glue that kept the marriage together, but maybe the oil that made it run smoother. Both took solace in their projected image of him. For Mr Lynch, he was the mind of virtue and male reason, unlike his wife. For Mrs Lynch, he was the gentler, kinder, more sensitive side of the male psyche, unlike Mr Lynch. Mr Nolan listened to their complaints in a kind and considerate manner, refusing to take sides; but in listening often softened the friction between them.

Despite the zealous efforts of some local debutants on his arrival, it became apparent that Mr Nolan was more suited to the ‘bachelor’ life. His friendship with one of the town’s other distinguished ‘bachelors’, Mr Timmons, warned off the posse. Mr Timmons was famed as the chief organist of the parish and also for the garden of his little cottage, which was the envy of all serious gardeners with its arpeggio-like steps and ridges.

There was a myth surrounding Mr Timmons that he had been ‘let down’ by a ‘beauty’ in his youth and, devastated, fled to London, where he enlisted in the British Army and fought bravely in World War II. The truth was that he had let down a beauty, ran away from her father to London, and instead of reaching the front was confined to a desk job because of his ‘bad chest’. He fell in love with an American soldier, who let him down, couldn’t find work after the war, and returned to Ireland to nurse his ailing, widowed mother.

The two men shared a Sunday ritual that was as permanent as living memory. Mr Timmons played at 11.15 Mass and afterwards he and Mr Nolan walked up to the Central Hotel, where they indulged in the hotel’s acclaimed Sunday roast. They then took up residence on a bench, that all but had their names engraved on it, adjacent to the town’s public lavatory. From this perch, they simultaneously greeted the good and great of the town on their Sunday stroll, while keeping abreast of the talent heading into the men’s urinal for a little male to male affection. They themselves never partook in any sexual escapades, being only too well aware that gentlemen of a certain age had to pay for sexual favours, and then it all got murky and dangerous. They preferred to sit like a pretty bow on top of a gift-wrapped box of homosexuality, that must never be opened.

When they had their fill of the romantic escapades of the queer-leaning locals, they strolled down to Mr Timmons’s house, where any moderations in Mr Timmons’s garden from the previous week’s inspection were commented on. They then took their evening tea in Mr Timmons’s living room in the shadow of a dashing photograph of Mr Timmons’s wartime love interest.

Recently Mr Timmons’s world was turned upside down when the daughter of this wartime lover turned up on his doorstep, having traced Mr Timmons from the War Office in London. She was an enlightened soul, who realised from her father’s diaries that his ‘great friend’ Andrew Timmons was another of her father’s male lovers, affairs that had continued long after he married. She had long since reconciled herself with the betrayal and, for some strange reason, was obsessed with retracing her father’s footsteps, as if only his truth would reveal who she really was herself. She had written him several letters since her visit and promised to visit with her family the following summer. Every word of these letters was pored over again and again by the two gentlemen. It gave them a whole new lease of life, as if the great love of Mr Timmons’s life was given a legitimacy, and by his lover’s daughter no less. It had sprouted, however indirectly, a legacy.

Mr Nolan’s other lifeline to the gay world was his monthly weekend visits to his sister in Dublin. On the Saturday evening of his visit, he and his brother-in-law frequented one of about six pubs in Dublin that were known as ‘queer’. To the casual observer these pubs looked the same as any other; it was the bitchy tone of the conversations that might have alerted one to their real status.

Mr Nolan’s brother-in-law found this kind of banter a welcome relief from male posturing and wasn’t adverse to the attention he received as a red-blooded heterosexual male. These evenings were quite innocent and the nature of the interaction was never openly alluded to by the two men. It was just understood that when they entered the pub, they were entering another world, a world that existed in the pub alone.

One evening when his brother-in-law was ill, Mr Nolan decided to venture in alone. He drank a couple of pints at the bar, and was about to leave when he was approached by a handsome stranger. Alex was a businessman from Ardee, who was newly divorced from his wife, but not quite married to the homosexual life he knew somewhere deep in his heart he really desired. The reason for the divorce was his philandering with women, but the truth was he just used them to break up his marriage, which was childless. He was free to visit Dublin now most weekends, often ending up in the arms of one of those young jackeens that preyed on affluent older men. He naturally tired of these soulless exchanges, and Mr Nolan who was in his early forties at the time, and if not particularly handsome gave off the appearance of ‘looking after himself’, appealed as someone he could get to know while holding onto his checkbook for once.

They began exchanging letters and later fell into a routine of meeting on Sundays for lunch, taking a stroll round Stephen’s Green, possibly taking in a film and finishing with a bonk back at the hotel suite, before Alex put Mr Nolan on the last bus back to Wicklow. It was commented on in the Lynch household that Mr Nolan was spending an ‘awful lot of time with his sister’, to which Mr Nolan evasively replied that she ‘needed’ him right now, which momentarily satisfied. The couple spent several weekends away and even managed a holiday to Greece, which for Mr Nolan was one of his happiest memories.

The relationship reached a point where it was going to go somewhere or limp back into the shadows from where it emerged. They never spoke about their future because the future comprised of living openly in a gay relationship, something unknown outside of theatrical and intellectual circles in Dublin. It was, unfortunately, on one of his nights out with his brother-in-law that Mr Nolan spotted his beau, a little worse for wear, drooling over a young gold digger in a corner.

Mr Nolan tentatively approached, and Alex, in a voice that appeared stagey and artificial, introduced his new charge, explaining how he had bought the outfit the young charge was wearing, and: ‘Didn’t he look well in it?’ Mr Nolan wrote a letter looking for an explanation and received a cold response. The relationship had died in the arms of society.

Several events conspired almost concurrently to disturb Mr Nolan’s way of life. There had been a gay rights movement in Ireland since the sixties, but it wasn’t until the AIDS crisis in the early eighties that the populace sat up and took notice of the so-called ‘deviants’ who were allegedly ‘killing themselves and in danger of killing everyone else’. The word ‘homosexual’ was for the first time spread across newspapers in bold print; and though many felt they only existed in San Francisco, they were given a name and an identity. The town was then rocked by a scandal involving a school teacher, her husband and a homosexual priest. She returned from a trip to find them in bed together and complained to the Bishop — the priest was ‘relocated’. What made this scandal extraordinary was that it passed through the lips of the town gossips at all; a few years earlier it would have been silenced on utterance. Then gay characters began to pop up on TV, mostly on American sitcoms where they were camp and desexualised, but they were there, represented in a positive light.

A telling moment occurred when one of Mr Lynch’s nephews approached Mr Nolan when they were watching TV and, having heard the adults discussing Mr Nolan on a previous occasion, asked: ‘Mr Nolan, are you gay?’

Mr Nolan flushed, the veins on his neck bulged, a lump in his throat rendered him speechless, and he abruptly left the room.

The main reason for his departure from the Lynch household, however, was the closure of O’Brien’s hardware store. It couldn’t compete with the new American-owned superstores that had recently opened, one of a chain opening up and down the country. The landscape of the town was changing as small businesses were supplanted by corporate ones. Even the beloved public toilets were closed and the franchise leased out to a Portaloo company, whose cabins ensured that all underground homosexual activity was pushed even further underground.

Mr Nolan moved to Dublin and took a room with his sister and her husband; and as her husband had been incapacitated workwise for some time, his weekly contribution to his upkeep was greatly appreciated.