Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Curious Case of the Prison Conversation

“You seem agitated, Watson,” said Sherlock Holmes, as he battered an old violin into submission with a horse-hair bow. “Come and sit down, old friend, and tell me what is the matter.”
I withdrew my head from the gas oven and flopped down heavily into one of the Georgian armchairs that adorned Holmes’ Baker Street apartment. “I can hide nothing from you, Holmes,” I stated wearily. “My mind has been puzzling over a conversation I heard some evenings ago and I must confess, its meaning has been driving me to distraction.”
Holmes flung the wailing fiddle out of the window and began pacing up and down. Then he began pacing from side to side. “Tell me all about it,” he exclaimed patiently. “I can’t keep this pacing up forever.”
“It was the other night,” I began. “I happened to be taking my evening constitution by the walls of the prison, when suddenly a young girl started calling.”
Holmes’ ears pricked up at this. “A young girl?” he repeated. “How old? Seven or eight?”
“More like twenty, old chap,” I replied. “She was evidently calling to someone inside the prison as there was nobody else around at the time.”
“How very singular,” Holmes ejaculated.
“How so, Holmes?”
“Well… in so far as it isn’t plural,” replied my friend impatiently. “But tell me, do you manage to remember anything of what she said?”
“Why certainly, Holmes, “I answered. “I took the trouble of writing it down in my notebook just as you have advised me.” Here I withdrew a vellum notebook from my breast pocket and began to read slowly.
“Michael,” I read. “They have taken you away.”
“Surely this Michael, being in prison, would be aware of this salient fact,” snapped Holmes. “Did this girl seem simple?”
“Not at all Holmes.”
“Then proceed. Did she say anything else?”
“She called out at the top of her voice that this Michael had stolen Trevellyan’s corn so the young might see the Mourne,” I answered after consulting my notebook.
“The young? The young what?”
“She didn’t say, Holmes.”
“Hmm,” replied the detective, stroking his angled chin and pacing diagonally across the lightly furnished room. “So, by calling this out at the top of her voice, she was alerting the prison service to the fact that this Michael had indeed carried out this act of larceny?”
“It appears so, Holmes. May I continue?”
“Pray do.”
“The next thing was, she bawled out that a prison ship was lying waiting on the kay,” I continued doubtfully.
Holmes head snapped up. “On the kay?” he asked. “Are you sure you heard this conversation correctly? It wasn’t a quay by any chance, for I happen to know that at this very minute a convict vessel is lying on the quay” – he stressed the word – “waiting to sail to Botany Bee.”
“Well, okay, it may have been a quay,” I conceded ruefully.
I was about to continue when the sound of feet came scurrying up the stairs and came to a halt outside of Holmes’ apartment, to be followed by several sharp raps on the door.
“Who can that be Holmes?” I asked in bewilderment.
“A woman, aged in her mid forties. She has obviously served in India for a considerable time. She has a tattoo of Victor Hugo on her left ankle and has a fondness for Lionel Ritchie, though she prefers to keep this latter fact from the public’s gaze.”
As I gasped in astonishment, Holmes strode to the door and swung it open.
“Pizza,” said a young boy. Holmes grunted and took the two boxes, flinging the Pepperoni at me in disgust.
“Anyway, Holmes,” I continued tactfully. “This girl then proceeded to shout out that the fields of Athenry lie very low and that she and the prison inmate had evidently spent some time together watching – how did she put it? – “small free birds” flying there.”
Holmes flicked the last of his peppers into the fireplace and ruminated this information. “So, she has a interest in the topographical contours of east Galway, yet her knowledge of ornithology is somewhat vague,” he murmured. “Yet why should she be imparting this to the man inside the prison?”
“Maybe it’s a code,” I offered.
Holmes jumped up and smacked me smartly on the back, causing a bit of crust to go shooting across the room and land on the piano.
“You have it, old friend!” he announced smartly. He strode to the bookcase and pulled out an old volume called “Rugby players of Connaught.” This he proceeded to open and flick through at great pace. “Tell me, Watson,” he asked. “This young lady didn’t happen to mention a sporting personality of yesteryear that she and the young man were intimately acquainted with?”
“Good Lord, Holmes,” I gasped in wonderment. “Her very next words were “Our love was on the wing.” How could you possibly know?”
Holmes read quickly from the journal. “Lionel Edgar Mentary. Rugby player of some note in the nineties. Played for Galwegians. Went into business with a young couple after they got the franchise for Merry Green Giant sweet corn for the West of Ireland. Currently under investigation by the fraud squad.” He closed the book triumphantly. “L. E. Mentary, by dear Watson.”
I doffed my cap to the great detective, despite the fact that I wasn’t wearing one. “That’s amazing, Holmes,” I said at last. “But pray, who is Trevellyan?”
“Ah, poor Trevellyan,” said my friend wistfully. “He was the loser in all of this. He had been selling tins of sweet corn around the towns and villages west of the Shannon for years, until these three reprobates tried to muscle in on his act. Poor man. When he woke up one morning to find his warehouse broken into and his total supply of sweet corn missing, he was so distraught that he got a blockage in his – what’s the name of that canal that runs through your body?”
“Alimentary?” I ventured.
“Alimentary, my dear Watson. Come we have no time to lose. We must alert Inspector Backwall of the Yard that a consignment of sweet corn is currently being stored near the River Mourne ready to be dumped in Strangford Lough.”
“But what about the code, old chap?”
“Its only a sniffle,” replied my friend impatiently and ran out of the door.

The Stop and Go Man

A few weeks ago, that delightful company Eircom decided to spend a week or so digging a long narrow hole down one of the distributor roads in Littlepace and then filling it in again. Naturally the work entailed one man sitting in a JCB eating sandwiches, while another five sat around reading the Mirror and arguing over Mourinho.
However, sitting morosely at the head of the queue of the cars waiting for our turn to pass, I suddenly realised that it was a long, long time since I had actually seen a Stop and Go man. And, such was the length of the hole that was to be filled in, it doubled my delight when I spotted that there was actually a similarly-engaged youth at the far end and that the two, through a series of knowing looks and gestures, were working as a team to ensure neither queue grew too large.
Of course in days of yore (a large vegetable of the brassica family which has sadly fallen out of favour,) the Stop and Go man was ubiquitous, wielding his mighty sign wherever there was a blockage on the thoroughfare. Young Peter O’Loughlin, who “stopped the whole street with a wave of his hand” according to Percy French’s “Mountains of Mourne,” was obviously a Stop and Go man who chose to bring his talents across the water.
The profession was an honourable one, ranking just above zoologist and slightly below gigolo in Debrett’s annual “List of Notable Professions,” and it seemed as though the Irish had a special knack for it. While the English and the Germans frantically experimented with signs that read “Stop” on both sides and took copious notes on the ensuing gridlock, the Irish had long since perfected the system and were leading the way in freeing up the highways. The Japanese too tried to muscle in on the act, flooding the market with cheap signs which, though clearly displaying the words “Stop” and “Go,” failed to differentiate between the two in terms of colour, both sides being a hideous shade of orange and today there is a large landfill site near Ibaraki which contains ten million of these returned prototypes. Even Marcel Proust, the notable French pastry chef, found his revolutionary new sign with “Allez” on both sides fraught with difficulties and it was only after several years of pranged Renaults that he discarded it in favour of the Irish version.
It seemed as though every town and village in the land had their own Stop and Go man, just as they had a policeman, a postman and a florist. It was not an uncommon sight to see students of this great art practising out in the fields in all winds and weathers with bemused cattle, trying to perfect the roll of the hand that signalled, in the great AA quote of our times, that a contra flow was in operation.
Generally the first son inherited the family business, the second became a priest and the third went to the big seminary in Borris-in-Ossary (now the Whining Moon Chinese Restaurant) to study the art of Stop and Going. “My son, the Stop and Go man,” was a phrase uttered casually by proud mothers who used to relate to small clusters of other excited women after mass, the latest exploits of their offspring. “Working down on the N7, hundred and fifty cars an hour,” they would whisper, nodding sagely, while their audience listened in wonder.
The advent of that most hideous of Man’s creations, the Temporary Traffic Light, signalled the end. In Britain, riots ensued at picket lines as the Stop and Go Union Leaders warned that its introduction would spell the end for this honourable profession but the Lady, and it seemed, the road diggers, were not for turning and these automated monstrosities were soon adorning the tarmac wherever a hole needed to be dug. Disillusioned Stop and Go men sat morosely in Job Centres, reminiscing with shepherds and executioners about the good old days, while despairing clerks tried to find modern uses for their skills.
Their plight was beautifully summed up by Pete St.John in his sentimental ballad, “Bloody Traffic Lights:”
“And now I lie
Abed and cry
As ‘lectric lights now glow
To indicate
If cars should wait
Or if it’s safe to go.”

Of course, the Temporary Traffic Light was a godsend to the Road Digging Contractor, who did not need to pay it wages nor arrange for it to have toilet breaks but for the harassed motorist, it has merely increased the frustration inherent in modern day driving. Waiting for ages as these yellow machines dictate that it is unsafe to proceed while nothing is coming the other way, does little for the blood pressure of the driver trying to get home in time for “Deal or No Deal” and it is little wonder that contractors have returned to work in the morning to find their little red-eyed gods adorning ditches and hedgerows.
Thus I was delighted to see the renaissance of this noble art in Littlepace and spent several minutes marvelling at the almost telepathic skill of the two operators as they rolled their signs around in harmony after the briefest inclination of their heads. In fact it was with great reluctance that the incessant and frustrated beeping of horns behind me forced me to move, though on leaving the scene of the roadworks, I immediately executed a 180 degree turn to experience this personalised service from the opposite direction.
And then, only last week, I was travelling down the Clonsilla Road to return a Lionel Ritchie album that I felt was not up to his impeccably high standards, when I came across another Stop and Go man. This time, as the roadworks were considerably shorter in length, he was working solo, his head constantly moving from side to side as though watching a tennis match, as he appraised the length of the queues in either direction. A small crowd had gathered on the opposite path and they applauded him every time he swivelled the sign around, though, like a true professional, he simply bowed and continued his watchful post.
One swallow, as they say, does not make a summer, and certainly a veritable flock of swallows didn’t make any kind of summer in Ireland this year, but I couldn’t help wondering if the sighting of these two separate Stop and Go operations heralds a shift in the tide of progress.
Is the seemingly all-conquering reign of the automated machine coming to an end, with a return to manual labour? Will horses be reintroduced into the fields of Ireland while Massey Fergusons lie rusting in barns? Will comely maidens return to dancing at the crossroads? Will this column go back to being written in longhand with the numerous spelling mistakes being laboriously corrected with Tippex?
Er, probably not. But with the reintroduction of the Stop and Go man, there is a chink of light for the future of mankind. The next time you pass one of these artisans of vehicular logistics, I urge you to shout a few words of encouragement to him and maybe slip him a fiver for a pint.