Excellent perhaps, but not easy. As we progressed into our second year, I found college increasingly humdrum. The routine of lectures, tutorials and essays became mind numbing. My one outlet, the debsoc, was cut off as the crowd there grew increasingly hostile, exchanging mocking glances with one another at my expense. A whispering campaign began in my absence. It was clear that they held me in contempt. I, who had been faithful to them for so long and had turned up every week without fail and minded my own business, was no longer welcome. McGiolla wasn’t surprised when I told him about having to bolt from the chamber one evening.
‘You’re not from the right place. Isn’t it as well now that you didn’t try to involve yourself in anything else? You’d be persona non grata all over campus. Keep the head down and say nothing.’
The college literary journal, Cobblestones, appeared to offer a compromise to me, in that I could contribute something, whilst at the same time, maintain the low profile that McGiolla prescribed. My flatmate wasn’t too keen on the idea when I brought it up with him, however.
‘Flashers and whores: that’s all poets are if you ask me. It isn’t enough for them to have the experience; they have to parade it in front of everyone. Look, amn’t I great? I had a perception. Mammy, can I have a medal? Fuck off you little bastard or I’ll murder you.’
That particular exchange remained with me afterwards, as I remembered it as the first time I diverged from McGiolla. I was new to friendship in those days and wasn’t sure if being pals with someone meant always wanting the same thing. Did it mean that you weren’t allowed to be friends with other people? I wasn’t sure.
The Southside Homeboys shared some of my tutorials, and I had become friendly with them in a quiet, unobtrusive way. If they said something funny to one another while we waited to get into to a classroom, I laughed along to show that I got the joke. Sometimes, even if I had my Zippo on me, I would go up to them outside the arts building and ask for a light. It was small-scale stuff but progress nonetheless. McGiolla didn’t share my enthusiasm, however.
‘I’d hate to see you get disappointed,’ he said. ‘You’re obviously getting your little hopes up about hanging out with the cool kids. You might be riding for a fall. Maybe now is the time to pull back.’
‘All I’m saying is that they were having a laugh and I was there. It was no big deal.’
‘Did they know you were there?’
‘I’m sure they could see me. It was in the light of day outside the arts building. I was nearby.’
‘I don’t know, Jasper. I keep having this image of you hovering about – an eavesdropper and a nuisance. It doesn’t sit right with me at all. I can’t watch out for you all the time, you know. I have a life of my own.’
‘I’m not asking you to watch out for me,’ I said, walking away out of the kitchen. I was annoyed. I looked back to see McGiolla shaking his head at me in disapproval.
Whatever the demands of his own life, McGiolla certainly did watch out for me from there on. Surveillance became the new theme in our friendship, with McGiolla popping up all over the place, emerging from behind bookshelves and from under desks in the library, following me into the toilets to look over the cubicle wall at me and hiss at me:
‘I see you, Gorman. I see everything.’
I wasn’t stupid. I could see his concern: he didn’t want me to make an idiot of myself. The surveillance continued back at the flat where McGiolla waited behind doors to jump out at me, screaming. He didn’t want me to lower my guard, but at the same time, I wanted to get my poems published in Cobblestones, and from what I could see, the better your relationship with the Homeboys, the better your chance of being featured. McGiolla and I were heading for a collision – I knew that – but I failed to anticipate its magnitude. I was so casual in announcing my submission to Cobblestones, it took a moment for McGiolla to digest the news. He stood back from me in the living room and looked at me as though he’d never seen me before.
‘Is that the way of it?’ he asked in a hoarse whisper. ‘You went behind my back after everything I told you, after all the trouble I went to on your behalf. Well Jesus, I’m after making a right idiot out of myself.’
‘It was only a poem – ’
‘Shut your dirty big mouth you knacker.’ McGiolla had found his voice. ‘I’ve heard enough from you to do me two lifetimes. All your shit about wanting to be popular, wanting people to notice you – all the crap I’ve indulged and put up with – and for what? And all your bloody misery too. Did you think yours was the first broken home on a council estate? Give me strength. The first chance you get, you’re away trying to make new friends with people – who, by the way, who have as much interest in being friends with the likes of you as they do in flying to the moon. You want to take a look at yourself some time. Your sort are the shame of this country. Ye fucked off to England when there were hard times here and then ye came back when things were well. Talk about fair-weather friends. You ended up a crowd of half-caste bastards that never fitted in anywhere again. Well more fool me for taking you in – me from my background, where we had decency, where we had standards and you – ’
The blood had drained from his quivering face and his pupils had dilated. I didn’t know he was capable of such anger and hurt; I didn’t know him at all. I was about to apologize but he cut me off just as I gathered myself to speak.
‘And you and your feet that stink the place out. Did I ever complain? Did I ever give you a hard time? No, because I was too soft. Well if you want to do this the hard way, that’s the way we’ll do it – your choice. Some people only respect you if you come the heavy with them. I’ll be the boss all right and then maybe you’ll show some respect.’
This happened midway through Lent term, on an evening in February, 1992. It altered our dynamic into something that challenged my whole idea of friendship. McGiolla no longer called me Jasper or even Gorman; henceforth, I was Trench Foot. I was to do as I was told and there would be no backchat. McGiolla was the boss and that was the end of it.
Tough as I found the new regime, there were no alternatives. The hostility that I suffered at the debsoc spread to all other areas of college life and I had only McGiolla to turn to. I was afraid to open my mouth in tutorials such was the feeling against me. Whatever it was that I had done wrong or whatever I represented, I couldn’t have been less popular. When I wasn’t there, they spent all their time laughing at me.
McGiolla was correct: I didn’t come from the right place. I could see that now. The horror of it hit me in particular moments and when it did, there was nothing for it but to run. I remained proud of my existential angst but I sometimes regretted its intensity.
Strangely, in the midst of all this, it was McGiolla who decided that I should have a girlfriend. He returned to our flat on Pearse Street after Spring Break to announce that he’d given the matter some thought.
‘I think you’ve learned your lesson, Trench Foot,’ he said. ‘I’m going to cut you some slack and get you fixed up with a woman of some sort. I don’t want to get up and find you swinging by the neck from the rafters some morning.’
I was very excited by the prospect and wondered how it could all be arranged.
‘That’s my domain. Leave it to me.’
A couple of weeks later, I got up with a stupefying hangover to find that I’d hit it off with some girl on the South Circular Road.
‘The likes of you don’t get many opportunities of this kind. I went to a lot of bother on your behalf, so don’t let me down on this,’ said McGiolla.
That happened in April, a couple of months before I went to Paris, came home broke, moved into Grosvenor Square and met Teddy Boy Mac. What a time.