The Professor Dunne Mysteries – The Simple Matter of the Elusive Illusionist
The Professor Dunne Mysteries
© Barnaby Taylor 2018 – All Rights Reserved
Professor Patricia Dunne is a silent film historian and amateur detective. This is the story of her adventures.
The Simple Matter of the Elusive Illusionist
September the Eighth is the feast-day of Our Lady in Dublin and Professor Patricia Dunne never missed the chance to attend the ceremony that was held in the Whitefriars Street Carmelite Church.
In case you’re wondering, the simplest way to get there is to come out of the Front Gate of Trinity College and walk straight ahead. Keep going until you reach the bottom of South Great George’s Street. Here you should turn left and walk up the hill. Carry on past the expensive restaurants of Fade Street and keep going until you reach the bottom of Aungier Street. All you need to do is cross over the road and you’ll find the Carmelite Church up ahead of you on the right-hand side.
The sun was shining and Professor Dunne was pleased that she hadn’t worn her heavy raincoat. The weather in Dublin was always so difficult to predict. You could leave your house when it was raining and find that five minutes later the sun was making you regret you had worn too many layers.
Professor Dunne lived in rooms overlooking Front Square in Trinity College and the walk to the church normally took her fifteen minutes, even allowing for the throngs of tourists who flocked to Dublin all year round. Today, however, the crowds seemed bigger than normal and the pavements were full of visitors, some looking lost and consulting maps, others looking more confident that they knew where they were going. A friendly-looking elderly gentleman and his wife stopped just in front of her. Both were wearing walking shoes and matching rain jackets. The gentleman had a backpack.
‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ said the gentleman. ‘Do you come from round here?’
The gentleman’s accent said Texas. His face said content with his lot. Professor Dunne stopped and smiled.
‘Dublin born and bred,’ she said. ‘Where are you trying to get to?’
Professor Dunne’s accent was that lovely blend of gentle lilt with a slight inflection that would tell anyone who knew the city that she had been born and raised on the South Side.
The city is divided spiritually and geographically by the River Liffey that makes its magnificent way through the heart of Dublin. Those born south of the river are Southsiders, those born North come from the Northside.
If you ever find yourself wandering about and can’t decide whether you are on the South or the North, then all you need to do is look at a street sign. Postcodes south of the Liffey are even numbers, postcodes on the Northside are odd.
You will also see this on the more traditional forms of postal addresses where street names are followed by Dublin 2, Dublin 12, or Dublin 7, depending upon where the recipient resides.
‘We’re looking for the Carmelite Church, somewhere on Whitefriars Street.’
‘Why yes of course,’ Professor Dunne replied. ‘I’m headed that way myself. Why not come with me?’
‘Really,’ said the elderly man, sounding very relieved. ‘That would be great.’
‘Right so,’ said Professor Dunne. ‘We’re headed down Dame Street until we bear left and walk up the hill.’
It turned out that the elderly gentleman was retired Lieutenant Charles P. Mallory and he was on honeymoon with his new wife, Sandra.
‘We’ve only been married three weeks,’ beamed Sandra. ‘Chuck and I were childhood sweethearts who went our separate ways after High School. Four marriages and sixteen great-grandchildren later we realised we still felt the same about each other as we did when we were sixteen and so here we are.’
‘Here we are, indeed,’ said Chuck. ‘I always knew that she was the one but you know …’
Chuck sighed. Sandra squeezed his arm.
‘You great, big soppy thing, you,’ she said.
Professor Dunne smiled.
‘It’s nice to see you both so happy.’
‘What about you?’ asked Sandra. ‘Is there a someone for you?’
‘Sadly not,’ said the Professor. ‘It never happened, I’m afraid, and never will now.’
Chuck wasn’t so sure.
‘You never know,’ he said. ‘You never know.’
Oh, I think I do, Professor Dunne said to herself.
After the service, Professor Dunne gave Chuck and Sandra a brief history of the Whitefriars Black Madonna over afternoon coffee and Victoria sponge in the tearoom attached to the church.
‘I owe most of everything I know about the church and the Madonna to Dr. Daphne Desiree Charlotte Pochin Mould,’ Professor Dunne confessed.
‘What a wonderful name,’ said Chuck.
‘Yes, isn’t it?’
‘Dr. Mould was a renowned photographer, broadcaster, geologist, traveller, pilot, with a strong interest in archaeology,’ Professor Dunne continued. ‘She was also this country’s first ever female flight instructor.’
‘She sounds like a remarkable woman,’ said Sandra.
‘She was,’ said the Professor. ‘She received her doctorate from the University of Edinburgh and moved to Ireland following her conversion to Catholicism. Once here, she developed a keen interest in Celtic saints, amongst many other things.’
Professor Dunne stirred her coffee clockwise. The other way just wouldn’t do.
‘In 1964 she published her short guide to the Whitefriars Street church. According to the guide, the foundation stone for the present church was laid in 1825 and the building was finished in 1827. This is important because Catholic Emancipation didn’t take place until 1829 and though the church has undergone significant change since, fundamentally, the building still speaks to an age when new tolerances towards the worshippers were just emerging.’
‘What about the statue itself?’ asked Chuck. What does Dr. Mould have to say about that?’
“Surprisingly, Dr. Mould makes no mention herself of the statue. Other commentators have suggested that the wooden statue dates back to the Middle Ages and was once used as a trough.’
‘A trough?’ asked Sandra. ‘How bizarre.’
‘Apparently, the statue originally had a hollowed-out back which meant it could be used as a means of feeding swine.’
Professor Dunne smiled.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said,’ the incongruity of it all is never lost on me.’
Chuck and Sandra smiled too. It seemed sometimes that the reason for Professor Dunne’s solitary existence could be explained by something as simple as an innocent aside.
‘Where did Dr. Mould live?’ asked Sandra, kindly changing the subject.
‘A small village in County Cork called Aherla,’ replied the Professor, not noticing that Sandra had tried to spare her blushes.
‘Cork?’ said Chuck. ‘That’s where we’re heading next on our honeymoon.’
He looked at his wife.
‘What a coincidence.’
Professor Dunne smiled.
‘The coincidences just keep coming,’ she said. ‘I’m headed down to Aherla for an inaugural amateur film festival taking place in four days time. Its research for a new book I’m writing on Irish amateur silent film history. It will be my first time in the village.’
Chuck looked at his wife. She smiled and nodded.
‘We’re driving down tomorrow morning. It would be an awful honour if you accompanied us.’
‘I would be thrilled,’ said the Professor.
With the traffic restrictions in place in and around Trinity College, Professor Dunne agreed to meet Chuck and Sandra at the Hertz Car Hire Centre on South Circular Road. This was a simple journey for the Professor and she had done it hundreds of times. With a small suitcase on wheels, the Professor waited at the bus stop on Dame Street opposite the Four Angels Fountain.
Known locally as ‘The Peeing Angels,’ the fountain is part of the memorial created for the highly influential nationalist thinker Thomas Davis by renowned Irish sculptor Edward Delaney. The four angels are blowing their horns to awaken the four provinces of Ireland to the possibilities of self-rule.
September in Dublin can be fairly brisk and Professor Dunne shivered slightly as she waited for the No. 122. Though it was unbuttoned, the Professor had chosen to wear her woollen coat. The weather down south could be awfully changeable and not-one, not least the Professor, wants to be caught in Winter weather wearing only a Summer coat.
She could have caught the No. 68 but that would have meant walking to a different stop. As she waited, the Professor marvelled at the life and energy of her city. With the recently-completed extension to the LUAS line, trams, buses, taxis and people, hundreds of people, swarmed around College Green, the part of the city in front of Trinity College and Parliament House, once the seat of Irish democracy, now the building is a branch of the Bank of Ireland.
If you took away the cars, you could easily imagine what this part of the city looked like in the early 1900s. Existing documentary footage from the period shows trams and people going about their business in much the same way as today. If it wasn’t for the phones everywhere, Professor Dunne mused, you could imagine the past and the present nicely combining to create a most charming tableau of the city.
Professor Dunne didn’t own a mobile phone. She despised the very thought of it.
‘Just imagine,’ she said to her sisters Sibéal and Iseult during the most recent of their weekly lunches, ‘how much more productive the world would be if it was able to pull its foolish face away from these infernal tiny screens.’
‘I don’t know,’ Iseult always said, herself schooled in the art of mobile technology by her triplet granddaughters Aoibheann (pronounced ‘eve + een’), Dechtire (‘deck + tir + ra’), and Rionach (‘ree + in + ock’). ‘It strikes me that one actually saves time by having a mobile phone.’
‘Saves time?’ asked the Professor. ‘How so, my dear?’
‘I have recently discovered that their inherent portability is somewhat liberating.’
‘Liberating? If one of these infernal things is a symbol of contemporary freedom then it is my sworn duty to make a stand for a different kind of liberation, one that is firmly founded upon the primacy of the printed page and not the tyranny of the circuit board.’
‘Come now, Patricia,’ Iseult said. ‘Smartphones have their purpose. If nothing else, we would both be able to telephone you in advance if neither of us were available to meet you for lunch.’
Professor Dunne laughed.
‘And what would be smart about that?’ she said. ‘You’re always available to meet for lunch. We all live within a thirty-minute walk of each other. Even if you weren’t free you could always leave a note with one of the porters at Front Gate. They all know me very well.’
‘I bet they do,’ teased Iseult.
‘We could, of course,’ smiled Sibéal. ‘Or we could leave a message on your phone.’
‘Now, you’re just being smart,’ said Iseult. ‘You know Patricia would never listen to her messages, even if she had a phone.’
‘Of course, I wouldn’t,’ said the Professor. ‘I would refuse to listen to any messages left for me simply in order to rob the infernal machine of one of its most important functions, thereby rendering it at worst, incomplete, and at best, not fit for purpose.’
‘You would as well, my dear,’ smiled Iseult. ‘It would almost be worth buying you a phone just to watch you attempt to undermine its very existence.’
The No. 122 bus arrived and the Professor sat at on the left-hand side. Her preference was for one of the raised seats on the newer buses before you got right to the back. Only once in forty-seven years of using Dublin buses had she ever sat on the top deck and that was only so she could avoid a particularly truculent student and the experience was so excruciating for her -–something to do with an over-exuberant body odour and a horse that broke free from its trap whilst going down Talbot Street – that Professor Dunne swore never again would she sit upstairs on a corporation bus. Now, all these years later, Professor Dunne would rather wait for the next bus than climb up the stairs.
The bus moved slowly along Dame Street and as she sat and looked out the window the Professor was struck by the recurring thought that it was never the cars that made the city streets so treacherous but the pedestrians. Though she chose not to take part herself, it appeared to her that it was jaywalking and not Hurling that was the national sport of Ireland.
Having never learned to drive, the Professor could only rely on other people’s testimony in relation to this matter. However, she had wholeheartedly agreed with a taxi driver who told her that having spent decades of colonial rule by the British being told what to do, crossing the roads when and when one felt like it was a decidedly beautiful if somewhat dangerous act of rebellion.
The bus stopped right by the National Boxing Stadium and Professor Dunne alighted. Hertz is just past the stadium and so it wasn’t long before the Professor found Mr. and Mrs. Mallory sitting in the reception area looking extremely eager to get started.
‘Good morning,’ said the Professor cheerily. ‘How are you both this morning?’
‘Professor Dunne,’ said Sandra and smiled. ‘We were just talking about you.’
‘Really?’ said the Professor.
If anything was going to get the Professor’s goat – as they say – it was the thought of being talked about. For many people, this is one thing that they crave. For Professor Dunne, quite the opposite.
‘My affairs are my affairs,’ she would say when Sibéal and Iseult teased her about her notorious insistence on privacy.
‘But you’re a published author who has spent her entire working life standing up talking in front of strangers,’ Iseult said.
‘Precisely, my dear,’ the Professor replied. ‘My teaching career has been a fine balance between loving what I do and wishing I didn’t know how to do it.’
‘But you wouldn’t have been any happier if you were doing something else, would you?’ said Sibeal. ‘It’s very hard to find a career that doesn’t involved working with other people.’
‘Unless you became an assassin or a nun,’ laughed Iseult.
Professor Dunne frowned.
‘I’ve read far too much about the affairs of nuns to know that a life like that would simply be far too chaotic for me.’
The Professor smiled.
‘An assassin, on the other hand, is a completely different story. I wonder how many years you have to study for to be one of those.’
‘I expect its more than study, dear,’ said Iseult.
The Professor looked horrified for a split second.
‘There is nothing more than study,’ she said emphatically. ‘You, all of people, should know that.’
‘On account of my three weeks at secretarial college followed by thirty-five years of being a full-time mother?’ Iseult said.
‘Precisely,’ said the Professor. It felt fun to be the teaser and not the teased.
‘Perhaps I’m the one in need of some highly-advanced assassination skills?’ laughed Iseult.
‘Ladies,’ said Sibeal. ‘Pack it in, the two of you.’
‘Yes, Mam,’ the ladies said and laughed as they spoke simultaneously.
‘What Sandra means,’ smiled Chuck, ‘is that we were wondering whether you would be able to recommend a scenic route for us to follow. We have plenty of time and would love you to give us a guided tour of your homeland.’
‘Within reason, of course,’ said Sandra. ‘You’re not a hired hand.’
Professor Dunne was pleased at the prospect.
‘I’d be delighted,’ she said. ‘I’m sure we can find some interesting places for you to see as we follow the road.’
‘Which road?’ asked Sandra.
‘It’s a figure of speech,’ replied the Professor. ‘The kind of non-specific phrase referring to getting to a place that has allowed centuries of Irish people to find exactly where they are going without any problems but have left generations of tourists and visitors completely lost.’
‘That sounds like some kind of road,’ laughed Chuck. ‘Still, I guess with a guide like you we should be fine.’
‘Let’s hope so,’ laughed the Professor. ‘Otherwise our gentle road trip might turn into an odyssey of classical proportions.’
Chuck chose a silver Audi A6 with automatic transmission as he said he liked the way that the Germans went about their business.
‘I’m talking now, of course,’ he felt the need to qualify.
The Professor smiled.
‘No need to qualify anything, Lieutenant Mallory,’ she said. ‘We’re all able to go about our daily business without the fear of our preferences for goods and services somehow betraying an alleged affection for totalitarianism. You’re hardly Leni Riefenstahl.’
‘If you say so, Professor,’ smiled Chuck not getting the reference. ‘You can never be too careful in my book.’
With everything stowed in the boot and Sandra sitting in the back, Chuck pulled out onto the South Circular Road. Being after the morning rush hour the traffic was moving again and so once he was used to the small variations like right-hand drive and left-hand lanes, Chuck, Sandra and the Professor started out of Dublin.
‘Aherla is approximately 282 kilometres from here,’ said the Professor, ‘and our best bet is to get there via the M7 leading onto the M8.’
You need to follow the N7 road to get out of Dublin and as you do so you make your way through the most lyrical-sounding places; Inchicore, Bluebell, Ballymount, Newlands, Kingswood, Citywest, Rathcoole Broadfield Manor, Farmvale, Castlewarden, Kill, and Johnstown. Many of these places are simple pass-throughs and industrial estates but you can easily keep the romance of their names alive simply by choosing not to stop along the way.
It was a lovely clear day and once he was used to cars filtering on to the road from his left, Chuck made good time. Sandra dozed in the back of the car. Professor Dunne didn’t. She sat up straight in the front seat.
‘I take it you’re not a fan of driving,’ he said.
The Professor nodded her head.
‘Having lived my entire adult life in the city I have never needed to do anything other than walk to where I want to get to. This is why I have never learned to drive.’
‘I see,’ said Chuck. ‘Dublin seems such a small city anyway that I guess walking everywhere is a pleasure and not a chore.’
‘It most certainly is,’ she replied. ‘For longer distances there is always the bus or the train’
‘My whole life has been about big distances,’ he said. ‘The state, the country, serving overseas, moving around the world. I have sometimes wondered what it would be like to live a life of short distances.’
‘I do love big places and things far away,’ said the Professor, ‘only my big distance is a historical one. Being a silent film historian is rather like being a time traveller and every film I have ever seen opens like a portal to transport me back to wherever my desire takes me. The history of cinema may be a relatively brief one, especially when compared to literature or painting, but that doesn’t mean that my journey is a short one.’
‘What made you become a film historian?’ asked Chuck.
Professor Dunne paused. She wasn’t happy talking about herself. In fact she hated it. However, it was going to be a long, awkward journey if she refused to answer the Lieutenant’s questions.
‘My father,’ she said. ‘He was a keen amateur cinematographer and I remember my childhood as being one long film he was making. Sadly, the films he made were never ever shown.’
‘Father died in a house fire and all his films died with him. Early film was so flammable and one might say that he was killed by the thing he loved the most.’
Professor Dunne paused. She worried she was sounding too melodramatic. Chuck didn’t notice.
‘Sounds kinda poetic to me,’ he said. ‘You know, fitting and proper, like the ending of a Hollywood film.’
Professor Dunne wasn’t sure.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that if I was going to be killed I would rather it was something or someone I loved rather than something or someone I didn’t.’
‘Do we have a choice?’
‘Probably not but we can at least have a preference, can’t we?’
‘I suppose,’ replied the Professor but she wasn’t sure at all. For someone whose life’s work had been the study of moving images, Professor Dunne was dreadfully, painfully, and determinedly unromantic. For her the world was a simple one of sepia hues; a world of grey scales and half-tones and shadows, one confined on all sides by the narrowest of aspect ratios. There was no CinemaScope or Technicolor for Professor Dunne.’
Sandra woke up.
‘I don’t know about anyone else,’ she said, ‘but I could really eat something.’
Chuck looked in his rear-view mirror.
‘Absolutely, Sweetheart,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking the same.’
He turned to the Professor.
‘What about you, Prof?’ he said.
Professor Dunne stiffened slightly before relaxing. It would be extremely rude to take an elderly American to task for being over-familiar while he was driving down a motorway at 120 kilometres per hour. Despite her annoyance even the Professor felt that this would be going a step too far.
‘I could eat,’ she said instead. ‘I could probably eat something.’
‘Well, good,’ smiled Chuck. ‘That’s settled then, three probable somethings coming right up.
The Horse and Jockey Hotel in Kilnoe, Co. Tipperary was completely full. Well, almost. Our three travellers followed a young girl who led them through the busy dining room. She stopped at a small table covered in piles of napkins, bottles of ketchup and pots of mustard, placed everything on the table along a shelf just above it and arranged four odd chairs around the table.
‘But there’s only three of us,’ said the dismayed Professor.
‘There is for now,’ the girl replied, ‘but you never know.’
‘I think we do,’ replied the Professor, her hackles rising.
The girl smiled and didn’t reply. She was well used to feisty pensioners getting crabby over the poor conditions in the dining room. Chuck and Sandra sat down. Chuck smiled at the girl.
‘Could we have a look at the menu, please,’ he said kindly. ‘We’re starving hungry and looking forward to something traditional.’
‘No need,’ replied the girl, putting her pad and pen back in her pocket. ‘Everything’s gone, we only have coddle left. We’ve got two coaches on their way to meet a cruise ship at Cobh and they cleared us right out of frozen fish and chicken wings.’
‘What a frightful combination,’ said the Professor.
‘Oh no,’ said the girl. ‘Not together, Miss, you can’t order them together. You can only have one or the other.’
‘Or neither,’ said the Professor, ‘as we’ve been beaten to them by hordes of hungry holiday makers, haven’t we?’
The girl looked around the crowded dining room.
‘Pilgrims, Miss, not holiday makers. They’re pilgrims.’
‘Pilgrims?’ said the Professor. ‘What on earth would pilgrims want with frozen fish?’
‘It’s Friday, Miss,’ said the girl, wishing her shift would miraculously end here and now.
‘Of course it is,’ said the Professor. She looked at Chuck and Sandra. ‘I guess we’ll have to make do with three plates of coddle, please.’
Sandra looked slightly perplexed. She smiled at the girl.
‘What’s in a coddle, please.’
The girl smiled back, probably pleased that she was speaking to someone else. The Professor had really put the wind up her.
‘Coddle,’ she said as kindly as she could. ‘Not a coddle.’
‘Oh,’ said Sandra sheepishly. ‘What’s in coddle.’
The girl smiled, pleased with the small victory she managed to win.
‘Bangers and rashers and spuds and oinons and herbs.’
‘Bangers?’ said Sandra. ‘What on earth’s a banger?’
‘I believe it is another name for a pork sausage,’ replied the Professor, herself uncertain about the appropriateness of such a word on a menu. ‘It doesn’t sound very appetising, does it?’
‘That’s all we have, Miss,’ said the girl. ‘It’s that or Nothing Pie.’
Chuck went to say something but Sandra stopped him.
‘Three bowls of coddle, please, she said.
The girl smiled.
‘Cutlery is on the shelf above your head. You have to order drinks at the bar over there.’
Over there seemed far too far to have to travel.
The coddle quickly arrived and before anyone had time to ask for the Nothing Pie instead, three bowls of thin-looking stew with small pink lumps of sausage bobbing in a broth alongside waxy potatoes were expertly plonked down in front of them.
‘It’s a local delicacy to add ketchup to the coddle,’ said the girl as she sidled away to serve another table. ‘Enjoy!’
‘That looks tasty,’ said a voice to the Professor’s right. She looked up to see an orange-hued man with a huge silver quiff sit down opposite her. ‘I’m fond of a bit of coddle,’ said the man.
‘I’m sure you are,’ replied the Professor, her senses quickly recovered. ‘Perhaps you might take your aforementioned fondness for coddle to another table? I’m sure the coaches are leaving very shortly.’
‘They probably are,’ replied the orange man, ‘but I’m not with them. I’m on my own.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ replied the Professor. ‘You can’t just sit down next to people and start a conversation as they’re about to eat their coddle without so much as a please or thank you.’
The man pointed at the girl.
‘She said this was the only seat left in the entire dining room and because you were such a lovely old lady you really wouldn’t mind if I ate my lunch with you.’
‘Well she was wrong,’ said the Professor. ‘In fact that poor, misguided girl could not have been wronger if she had tried.’
‘Wronger,’ smiled the man. ‘Is that a real word?’
‘It is now,’ snapped the Professor.
‘Joxer Flanagan,’ said Joxer Flanagan as he shook Chuck and Sandra’s hands. ‘Lead singer of the Joxer Flanagan Star Times Showband, formed in 1967 and still going strong today.’
‘A showband?’ said Chuck politely. ‘You must have some interesting stories about life on the road?’
Joxer’s eyes lit up. The Professor’s dimmed somewhat darker.
‘Well funny you should say that,’ smiled Joxer. ‘Did I ever tell you about the time that I …’
‘I’m sure you already have,’ said the Professor. There was an edge to her voice that even seasoned members of the Professor’s inner circle would not have recognized.
‘I’m not quite sure what you mean, Mum,’ said Joxer. ‘We have never met before, have we?’
The Professor stiffened.
‘Oh, you would know if we had ever met before, you self-inflated, pompous old fool.’
‘Professor …’ protested Sandra.
Joxer waved Sandra’s protests away.
‘I’m fine here,’ he smiled. ‘Let the lady have her say.’
The lady. The lady! Professor Dunne considered tipping her bowl of coddle over the conceited singer’s head. The trouble was if she missed she might spatter her travelling companions and that would never do. She took stock of the oaf sat before her.
He was tall and even though his skin was orange-hued he was handsome. This made it even worse. Being the lead singer of a showband, he was probably more than used to being adored. His hair was beautifully coiffed in the sort of well-oiled quiff that would make most men jealous, not least those in their later years. Even though she would never dare to admit it to anyone, this pompous prig looked a lot like an Irish Rock Hudson. You’ll never those words issue forth from my lips, Professor Dunne said in her head.
Fortunately, the girl returned and saved everyone sitting at the table, especially the Professor, from ‘the lady’ having her ‘say.’
‘What can I get you?’ she asked Joxer.
As the Professor watched, Joxer turned slightly to one side and spoke quietly out of the side of his mouth. The Professor thought he looked perfectly ridiculous. The girl blushed slightly and almost curtsied.
‘Well, my dear,’ drawled Joxer, ‘I guess I’ll have a bowl of whatever these good folks are having.’
Joxer’s accent was somewhere clearly in the midpoint between Mullingar and Michigan. Even Chuck was taken aback by the jarring oddness of Joxer’s accent.
‘Are you one of us?’ he asked.
Joxer turned to Chuck and smiled.
‘Why most certainly, my fine fellow, whatever one of us is.’
‘I meant American,’ Chuck continued.
‘So did I,’ continued Joxer without missing a beat. ‘I have always been American in everything I do and have done, the difference being that I was born here instead of there.’
‘And where is here exactly?’ asked the Professor.
‘Dublin by way of Roscommon.’
‘So why pretend to be American?’
‘I’m not pretending, I’m simply demonstrating the full range of my stagecraft.’
Professor Dunne ate her coddle in silence. It was all too much for her to bear and now that man was telling Chuck and Sandra yet another story about when he and the rest of the band were smuggled out of the Tipperary Palladium in the back of a bread truck because the fans wouldn’t stop baying for an encore.
‘We would have been baked alive alright,’ Joxer said with his strange, bastard twang, ‘if folks had known who was hiding among the batch.’
‘Batch?’ said Sandra.
‘Bread,’ said Joxer, ‘on account of it being a bread truck and all.’
Joxer nudged the Professor just as she was about to spoon the thin stock into her mouth.
‘How’s ya coddle, Doddle?’
The Professor put her spoon down.
‘Doddle?’ she said to the singer. ‘There’s nothing easy about any of this.’
‘It’s only a bowl and a spoon,’ said Joxer. ‘How hard can that be?’
‘Where do I start?’
‘Probably at the beginning,’ he said, ‘because that’s a very good place to start.’
‘Don’t tell me,’ said the Professor, ‘you know a song about that.’
‘How did you now?’
‘Well, you know a song about everything else you have talked about for the last three-quarters of an hour so I deduced that you would have one for this as well.’
Chuck and Sandra sat quietly and politely waited for everything to be over. They would soon be on the road and their honeymoon could peacefully continue without any further sparring between the Professor and the singer.
‘We should probably get on the road again in a minute,’ Chuck ventured. ‘We still need to drop you off in Aherla before we get to our hotel.’
‘Aherla?’ said Joxer with too much of a grin. ‘Did you say, Aherla?’
‘I sure did,’ said Chuck.
‘Well, what are the chances of that?’
The Professor sighed.
‘Don’t tell me,’ she said. ‘You did a show there once or know a song about the place or have some other tiresome recollection that you are desperate to share with us.’
Joxer grinned his best promotional poster grin.
‘Better than that,’ he said, far better than that. I’m headed there too.’
Professor Dunne sat in the back of the car for the rest of the journey to Aherla. Everything had kind of gone in a direction different to the way that she and Chuck and Sandra had hoped and by the time Chuck pulled up outside McDevitts Bar and Off Licence, conversation had dwindled to simple niceties.
‘Well, Professor,’ Chuck said as he helped her remove her case from the trunk, ‘we hope you have a good time at your amateur film thing.’
The Professor smiled. She knew that Chuck and Sandra had been taken aback by her run-in with Joxer but at this stage in her life it was very hard for her to change her ways. She shook Chuck’s extended hand.
‘Thank you, Lieutenant Mallory, I hope you and your lovely bride enjoy the rest of your honeymoon.’
‘We sure will,’ Chuck said. ‘Thank you very much.’
Being the only pub in the village, McDevitts Bar and Off Licence not only offered pints of Guinness, toasted cheese sandwiches and a small evening menu, it also doubled as the village post office and had a small suite of bedrooms upstairs. Patsy McDevitt, the third-generation landlord stood behind the bar.
‘You must be our esteemed guest,’ he said as the Professor stepped into the lounge. ‘We don’t often get professors round here. What brings you to Aherla?’
Professor Dunne furrowed her brow ever so slightly.
‘Why, the film festival, of course.’
Patsy laughed again. He was a cheerful sort of a fella with a mop of red hair and drinker’s nose.
‘Ah, young Jerome and his film festival,’ Patsy repeated. ‘I’m surprised he managed to get anything organised.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What with the cinema being bought by an out-of-towner and his tumour coming back and everything.’
‘Where is the cinema?’ asked the Professor, nonplussed by Patsy’s news.
‘The Méliès,’ said Patsy, ‘is the only cinema in the village. You come out of here, turn left and keep walking until you stop outside.’
‘The Méliès?’ said the Professor, her researcher’s instincts rising. ‘Why is it called the Méliès?’
‘On account of him being the Founding Fada of Film,’ laughed Patsy. ‘That’s what the locals came up with.’
‘Yes, the locals. The gentleman lived in this village for six months. He caused quite a stir, apparently.’
The Professor was dumbstruck. Georges Méliès was a master illusionist and one of the founding fathers of film but what was he doing living and causing a stir in a small Irish village? In all of her years of serious research why had the Professor never come across a reference to this before? This was enormous.
Born in 1888, Georges Méliès is rightly revered as one of the founding fathers of film. Unlike his great rivals, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, who favoured simple documentary shorts, Méliès specialised in trick photography and fantastical films; his most famous being 1902’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), the one where a group of scientists fire a rocket at the Moon and hit it in the eye. Once feted for his visionary developments in silent cinema, Méliès fell distinctly out of favour by the early 1920s. Professor Dunne had spent a large part of her academic career giving lecture on the man and his films but had never heard of him being in Ireland before. This was news of enormous significance.
Tired after her journey and disturbed by recent news, Professor Dunne fell asleep early that evening. The bed linen was cheap and the pillow was thin but the Professor found herself drifting off.
In her dreams, the Professor was spending Christmas in Paris in 1895. She was waiting patiently in the Salon Indien du Grand Café for the first paid public film screening in the history of the world. It was the talk of the town and the Professor realised how propitious it was for her to have managed to get a ticket. Two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière were presenting ten films.
The Professor already knew that these first films were about horses and babies and fathers drinking wine and, most famously, a train coming into a station but somehow her being in the audience also meant that she didn’t know what to expect. The lights went down and the mechanical whir of the cinematograph began.
The Professor saw a train coming towards her, small in the distance at first but getting bigger and bigger. She started to feel uncomfortable. What if this was all a trick and somehow magically the train would keep coming until it ran over her and everyone else? The Professor found herself standing up. She pointed at the train. She looked around the room. She started to shout.
‘It’s real, everyone. The train is really real. It’s going to crush us.’
‘Sit down, Madame,’ shouted Louis Lumière. ‘The train is not really here.’
‘But it is, I tell you, it is,’ shrieked the Professor.
Other people began to panic too. They stood up and started heading for the exit. Chairs were knocked over. People were trampled underfoot. Auguste Lumiere stood in front of the train.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, do not be afraid,’ he pleaded. ‘The train is not really here. It will not crush you beneath its rolling wheels. You are in absolutely no danger.’
But no one was listening, and the audience fled in a blind panic. Fourteen people sustained injuries, some serious, including broken bones. The following day the Lumière brothers were arrested, and their equipment confiscated by the authorities. The trial was a short and sensational one and both brothers were sentenced to ten years hard labour on Devil’s Island. Louis survived his sentence and lived out the rest of his days working in a tobacconist’s shop in Lyon. Auguste died en route to the island.
When Professor Dunne woke the next morning she couldn’t remember the full details of her dream but had a vague feeling that somehow she had been present on the very day when cinema was born and died at the same time.
McDevitts dining room was empty the next morning when Professor Dunne came down to breakfast. Sorcha McDevitt, Patsy’s daughter, watched the Professor sit down by the window.
‘Morning, Ma’am, what can I get you?’
Professor Dunne smiled at the child. Sorcha was seventeen but looked younger. She had a sweep of red hair that was tied in a ponytail. Her cheeks were heavily freckled. Professor Dunne was hungry this morning.
‘I think I will have a three-egg omelette, two rashers, pudding, toast and tea, please.’
The professor nodded.
‘I learned something very interesting last night and today is going to be very busy.’
‘You’re a professor, aren’t you?’
‘I am, indeed, my dear.’
‘How could I become a professor?’
The Professor studied the girl. She looked bright enough.
‘Years of study, my dear, and no time for distractions.’
‘What are you a professor in?’ Sorcha asked.
‘Of,’ corrected the Professor, ‘I am a professor of something not in something.’
The Professor smiled.
‘I am an authority on silent cinema history.’
Sorcha smiled too.
‘I love going to the cinema,’ she said. ‘Only last week me and Dervla went to see Super Team Three: Revenge of the Android Army. Have you seen it?’
‘Thankfully not, my dear, thankfully not.’
Professor Dunne had no real truck with modern cinema and couldn’t remember the last time she went to see what she would call ‘a high street film.’ Her sisters had given up asking her to go with them a long time ago.
‘Modern films are too noisy,’ she would protest whenever Sibéal and Iseult invited her to go with them. ‘I can’t hear the whos and the whys and the whats.’
‘I took Aoibheann, Dechtire, and Rionach to see The Wrong Ranger last week,’ Iseult said. ‘They loved it.’
‘I’m sure they did, dear,’ replied the Professor. ‘I’m sure they did and so they should. Films like that are for people like them and I would have no business being in the same space as The Wrong Ranger anyway. Equally, Aoibheann, Dechtire, and Rionach would have no business watching the 1903 pastoral actualities shot by the pioneering filmmaking sisters Lucy and Elizabeth Gibson.’
‘They might like it,’ Iseult said. ‘All those winsome views of waving fields and people trying not to look at the camera.’
‘Possibly,’ said the Professor, ‘but somehow I doubt it.’
In many ways, the Professor hoped that even if they were to see the Gibson’s pastoral actualities that they would actually hate it, and anything else she might happen to show them. Not that the Professor was particularly cruel or wished ill of her sister’s grandchildren. Far from it. For the Professor, it was a simple case of her having decided to devote her life to something and having to ensure that this devotion never waned. The only way that she could manage to do this across her whole adult life was to make sure that the only opinion she heard on the subject of her devotion was hers. Otherwise, the Professor had reasoned early in her career, she would be forever bound to the vagaries of other people’s taste and that was not something she intended to be bound to. It had to be this way, otherwise all of the sacrifices she had made in her adult life would be for naught.
But what had she sacrificed? Marriage? Children? Companionship? Someone to share things with? What things? And with whom? There had been people. There was dashing Anthony when they were both undergraduates, but he proved to be untrue. As did Donal. And David. Seamus as well. The Professor had lost count of the men that she discovered she couldn’t trust and so she focussed on those that she could trust. Like Auguste and Louis. Edwin S. Porter. D.W. Griffith before he got too noisy. Women too. Lillian Gish. Dorothy Davenport. Alice Guy. The Professor’ academic career was founded purely on focussing on people who couldn’t or wouldn’t lie to and cheat on her. People who wouldn’t say they were somewhere when they were somewhere else. Basically, men and women who she didn’t know and would never meet. These were the companions the Professor had acquired and though she knew loneliness like nothing else she had ever known, it was safer to write books about people she couldn’t ever hope to meet than it was it was to try and meet new people.
After breakfast the Professor decided to explore the village. She was already anxious to find Dr Mould’s house but since her discovery yesterday evening she also couldn’t wait to find the Méliès.
Aherla is a small Irish village of nearly 800 people and constitutes little more than the usual collection of yellowish two-story Irish buildings that include the ubiquitous convenience store and mini-supermarket, one pub, McDevitts, a driving school, a children’s’ clothes shop, Hickey’s Headstones, and various residential and holiday homes. Villages like Aherla are the same all across Ireland and one can easily forget what distinguishes one from the other.
Sorcha had told the Professor to turn left outside McDevitts and to follow the road called Orchard Meadow.
‘Keep going along the road and you’ll see the cinema ahead of you. You can’t miss it.’
Village life was such that as the Professor followed Sorcha’s directions she saw very few people. It was now mid-morning and if you weren’t at work, she mused, you were probably at home drinking tea and watching daytime television or enduring some mindless group activity in a community centre. Though she was now old herself, the Professor has no time at all for old people.
‘I’m not old,’ she would tell her sisters, ‘and I don’t want the kind of existence that involves coach trips to woollen mills and singsongs on the way home.’
‘Sounds like great fun to me,’ teased Iseult. ‘Perhaps I’ll sign the three of us up for two-week Mediterranean cruise while I’m at it.’
She smiled at the Professor.
‘I can just picture you dressed for the evening gala and making small talk at the Captain’s table.’
‘He’d turn the ship around head for home before the first course was even served.’
The Professor was a good sport most of the time and she knew that her sisters loved her really. She also knew that they were right about her and her dedication to a solitary life.
Even when the three of them were young it was always Patricia (as she was then) who could be found indoors with a book and not playing outside with the others. As teenagers, the Professor spurned social gatherings if she possibly could, preferring, instead, to be reading and writing.
‘You’ll find your path,’ her mother would always say when Iseult and Sibeal headed out for a party, leaving her behind. ‘You’ll not want for a life, Patricia.’
Well, the Professor’s mother was right, she didn’t want for a life after all. She found early success with her first book, Through a New Lens: Fresh Perspectives on the Early Days of Film, and it wasn’t long before she gained full tenure at Trinity College, Dublin. It took the Professor five more years and four more books to become a full Professor. With her career well and truly established and rooms provided by the College overlooking the beautiful Front Square, the Professor soon settled into the sleepy rhythm of academic life at Ireland’s most prestigious university. Before she properly realised quite what was happening, the Professor found herself heading towards retirement and though her retired life was no different to her working life, the Professor occasionally wondered what would have happened had she chosen to be a nurse, an engineer, a poet or a missionary.
The Méliès had once been a schoolhouse and now sat awkwardly amid overgrown rhododendron bushes and a litter-strewn gravel entrance. The wooden nameplate above the door was rotten and the Professor could barely make out the name. An open metal frame was on the wall next to the door. The poster inside was so water-damaged that the Professor couldn’t read what film it was advertising.
‘The Sound of Music,’ said a voice behind her. ‘That was the last film ever shown here and its final screening was July 14th 1994.’
The Professor turned to find an ill-looking man leaning on a walking stick.
‘You must be Professor Dunne,’ smiled the man. ‘My name is Jerome Molloy and this is The Méliès.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Molloy,’ smiled the Professor. She squinted at the man. She guessed he was in his late forties and was very ill. His face was ashen and even standing still looked painful for him.
‘If you don’t mind me asking, perhaps you might tell me what ails you.’
Jerome seemed relieved. It was obvious that most people he met didn’t know what to say to him. The Professor’s directness was something he appreciated.
‘Gladly,’ he said. ‘I have managed to cultivate a monstrous cholangiocarcinoma and will be lucky to see out the next five weeks.’
The Professor nodded.
‘I’m sorry to hear that. The difficulty always is that everything is so advanced by the time anyone presents themselves for examination.’
‘And by then it’s too late,’ Jerome said. ‘Sad but true.’
Jerome pointed at the cinema.
‘Perhaps we should go inside, it is far more comfortable than standing here.’
Jerome took a key from his pocket, unlocked the door and stepped inside. The Professor followed him.
They were standing in the tiny foyer. The Professor saw a ticket booth beside an old shopfront counter that had obviously once been full of chocolate bars and other goodies. Now, it was covered in thick dust. Jerome opened a set of double doors and flicked a light switch. The Professor followed him into the cinema itself.
There were thirty seats organised in three columns of ten and dusty red safety curtain hung where the screen should be. The ceiling was ornate with a giant chandelier hanging down. Most of the chandelier’s glass was missing. Small bulbs sitting in gold half-shells lined each wall. The Méliès was down and out but still somehow beautiful. The Professor caught her breath as a million celluloid memories washed through her mind like waves washing down a hotel corridor. Jerome went down to the front row and sat down on a red, velvet seat. The Professor sat next him.
‘She’s beautiful,’ said the Professor. ‘Absolutely beautiful. Why is she not still in use?’
‘There is a twelve screen multiplex, complete with bowling and burgers, ten minutes away from here and The Méliès just can’t compete with the allure of cheap meat and expensive films.’
‘But that’s such a pity,’ said the Professor. She looked excitedly at Jerome.
‘Is this where the film festival is being held?’ she asked. Jerome shook his head.
‘It was,’ he said, ‘until this place was bought yesterday morning by someone out of town. The estate agent has now decided that the festival cannot be held here. Apparently, the new owner is not much of a film fan and hopes to turn the building into a luxury holiday home for touring golfers.’
‘But that is simply monstrous,’ said the Professor. ‘Surely something can be done?’
‘Not unless you have the money to buy this place back again,’ said Jerome. ‘Even then, you’d need to convince the new owner that a cinema that is never used has more value to the community’s economy than more tourists spending their money in the village and surrounding area.’
‘And who is this beastly new owner?’ asked the Professor. ‘Surely they can be reasoned with?’
‘No one knows for sure but no doubt we’ll find out soon enough.’ Jerome shrugged. ‘Until then, I’ve been asked to keep an eye on the place and make sure that nothing untoward happens to it.’
‘Other than it being turned into a holiday home.’
The Professor and Jerome chatted long into the afternoon and the longer she spent in his company the more intrigued the Professor became.
‘As one the country’s leading experts on silent cinema you would be aware that the cinema was named after the great man himself, in honour of the six months that he spent in Aherla in 1923.’
The Professor sadly wasn’t aware and had to admit the same to Jerome. Jerome smiled.
‘I’m not entirely surprised,’ he said, ‘the great man’s stay was such a difficult one for all involved that it was only at the later insistence of Dr. Pochin Mould that the cinema’s name was changed back to the Méliès. It had been known as the Regal for years.’
The Professor smiled.
‘Not a name to really inspire customer loyalty,’ she said.
‘Not at all, Professor,’ Jerome said. ‘In any case, Méliès’s visit to the village was so controversial that what with everything else that was going on at the time, for many people it was an episode that was best left forgotten.’
‘I knew the old man was a cantankerous so and so,’ said the Professor, ‘but what could have happened here to leave such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth?’
‘Where do I start?’ said Jerome.
‘From the beginning, please,’ replied the Professor.
Jerome took a deep breath.
‘You are fully aware that by 1923 Méliès was driven so demented by death, bankruptcy, the First World War and the loss of his studio, that he burned as many of his films as he could lay his hands on. He disappeared from public life until his contribution to the medium was reconsidered in the late 1920s.’
The Professor had always felt for the poor man and could never have imagined just how desperate he must have felt at the time. She looked at Jerome.
‘Please continue, Jerome,’ she smiled.
‘Méliès’s flight from Paris led him first to London, Leeds and then Liverpool and at every point he found that no one cared any more about him or his life’s work. Despairing and feeling suicidal, the great man resolved to vanish from the face of the earth just like a figure in one of his films. One puff of smoke later, and Georges Méliès appeared in the tiny village of Aherla.’
The Professor smiled at the dying man’s joke.
‘I’m sorry that we have only met now,’ she said tenderly. ‘I have really enjoyed our afternoon together.’
Jerome smiled too. He was lonely and afraid; the thoughts of his imminent death had forced him to see the world for so long through the narrow end of the telescope that he had forgotten how wide his view could still be, even if only for a matter of days. The Professor, too, felt a poignancy to her meeting Jerome. We all fear death, she mused, more so those of us who are alone and afraid to be alone, and for Jerome to confront it so humorously was something she felt great admiration for.
‘Of course, when you die,’ Iseult would always tease, ‘the world’s simply going to wonder where your most beautiful glare has gone to.’
‘My most beautiful glare?’ asked the Professor.
‘The most beautiful glare I have ever seen,’ said Iseult. ‘The kind of glare to stop a careering horse whilst also bemusing a child.’
Sibeal laughed with her usual warmth and these were the times when the Professor secretly wished that she hadn’t been so stubborn and hadn’t been so secretive and had been more open and receptive to the world, but it was too late now and in any case what good what good did it do to be open anyway? That was when was the bad thoughts settled in your head and she didn’t have space enough for those.
And then the Professor did something that surprised her so much that she was sure that it wasn’t her doing what she did. It must have been someone else.
The Professor took Jerome’s hand and held it gently.
‘I’m so sorry that you have to die,’ she said. ‘I truly am.’
Excited by her conversation with Jerome but troubled all the same by the poor man’s plight, the Professor took herself to bed straight after she had eaten. The bed was small and not too comfortable and normally the Professor would have had more than half a mind to simply go home to her own bed, however inconvenient that would be for her, rather than suffer the indignity of trying to sleep in someone else’s bed but somehow tonight she didn’t feel moved to take such drastic action. In fact, she didn’t moved to do too much at all. Needless to say, this caused the Professor some consternation.
‘Am I settling for something?’ she asked herself. ‘Has the change of scene had a detrimental effect on my sinuses?’
The Professor had known death, of course she had, but something about Jerome felt different to before. Her father had lain in bed for five years without moving, dying slightly more each day until the day he was dying no more because he was actually dead. There was an unendurable endlessness to that, a permanence, as well. Every day seemed just about the same as the one to come but also slightly different from the one before. He was like a mouldering rowboat drifting slowly out to sea and the longer the boat was lapped by the salty water the more rotten the hull became until that fateful day when the boat simply stopped floating and sank beneath the surface.
The funeral was the typical kind of thing for people of her father’s generation with plenty of tears and alcohol and singing and hand pressing. The Professor’s father lay in state in his coffin in the drawing room and the three sisters sat through the night beside it.
‘Are we meant to make sure he doesn’t change his mind?’ giggled Iseult. ‘You know, decide to stretch his legs one more time.’
‘Aren’t we meant to take things more seriously?’ asked Sibeal. ‘You know, proper mourning and all that black cloth sackcloth stuff.’
‘Probably,’ said the Professor, ‘but I do think that we are entitled to a little levity, especially considering people have been sitting next to him for the last five years. If we must do this, then we should at least be allowed to laugh.’
It is not that there was any love lost between the daughters and their father. Far from it. He had been a large and positive influence in all of their lives but the length of his dying and the dull facts that surrounded it meant that an inevitable tiredness and tiny resentment crept into their feelings towards him.
As she lay in bed unable to sleep the Professor found herself feeling thankful that she had no children to burden with the mundanity of her inevitable passing away. It was such a tiresome business and not something that she wished to inflict upon anyone. The world had much better things to do than sit and watch the slow rotting of a human body as it made its way from life to death. The Professor hoped for a clean and sudden death, one that involved as little fuss and mess as was humanly possible. She also hoped that she got the chance to choose, or, at the very least, express an opinion.
‘Hello, Professor Dunne,’ said Sorcha the next morning. ‘What would you like for breakfast?’
The Professor smiled.
‘I think I’ll have the same as yesterday, please.’
Sorcha smiled sweetly.
‘Coming right up.’
Considering the fact that she hadn’t slept very well, the Professor was feeling quite sprightly. Her plan was to go back to Jerome and find out more about Georges Méliès’s Cork sojourn. All of this so new and so fascinating that even though she had been doing this kind of thing for longer than she cared to remember, the Professor never tired of the scent of new research. The thought of her day ahead filled the Professor with such bliss that she failed to hear the door to the breakfast room opening.
‘Two eggs, please, my dear child, and rashers, mushrooms, beans and the rest.’
The Professor drew a breath as the sound of the voice rang a bell in her head. Joxer Flanagan. She dared not move her head but it was too late. The chair in front of her scraped as the aging showband superstar pulled it out so that he could sit down.
‘Well, hello, my dear Professor,’ said Joxer. ‘So lovely to see you again.’
The Professor looked up to see the man smiling.
‘The same to you, Mr Flanagan.’
‘Joxer, please,’ he replied. ‘All my friends call me Joxer.’
The Professor tried not to be too arch but she was struggling.
‘Well, we’re not quite there yet, are we, Mr. Flanagan?’
The man smiled. It was a good smile. The Professor smelled expensive aftershave as well. It put her right off her breakfast.
‘I don’t see why not?’ said Joxer. ‘Its not as if we have only just met, is it?’
‘I suppose,’ offered the Professor, ‘but the first time we met did feel somewhat like it should have been the last time.’
‘For you, maybe, but for me it felt like the start of a great adventure.’
Joxer started singing. His voice was deep and the Professor enjoyed its sound more than she cared to admit.
‘We neither knew what was in store,
Who can see the day before?
But from that time I have wanted more,
The day the two of us met …’
The Professor recognised the song from somewhere. She looked at Joxer.
‘I know that song from somewhere.’
Joxer stopped singing.
‘I should hope you do,’ he said. ‘It got to number 26 in the Irish pop parade in December 1972. Me and the other lads go to go on the Late Late Show.’
‘The other lads?’
‘The Joxer Flanagan Star Times Showband,’ he replied. ‘Remember, I told you the first time we met.’
‘How could I forget?’
Joxer picked up his knife and fork and started to cut the rashers.
‘Well, easily, I suppose,’ he said and the Professor heard the faintest hint of insecurity in his voice. ‘Unless, I was to keep reminding you.’
‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ said the Professor. ‘Not necessarily because I want us to stay at the sort of cross purposes we obviously arrived at the first time we met. Not at all; I’d simply rather we were able to eat our breakfast without disagreement.’
‘Sure,’ said Joxer. ‘You won’t find me disagreeing with that.’