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Authors: J. P. Donleavy

The Onion Eaters

BOOK: The Onion Eaters
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J. P. Donleavy

The Onion Eaters

THE LILLIPUT PRESS

A cold misty rain descends streaking the windows down an empty shopping street. The university baleful behind its great iron gates, a light in the porter’s lodge, a faint yellow beacon at the end of a street where the massive porticoes of the bank shelter lurking figures on this barren Saturday afternoon.

Two orange beaked swans paddling up stream under an iron foot bridge arching over a river’s sour green waters. At a black door up three stone steps this grey coated gaunt figure looks east and west along the quays. To the slate roof tops and chimney pots puffing smoke over the city. Where a shaft of sunlight spreads, glistens and
disappears.

Push open the door. Go down this dark corridor and knock under a sign. Enquiries. Face moist, toes and hands cold. Damp seeping through my gloves. A girl in a big purple hat and large glad smile looks up from behind a high counter.

‘Are you Mr Clementine.’

‘Yes.’

‘Mr Thorn is waiting for you. I’ll show you the way. Up the stairs.’

Her heavy blue blotched and pink legs. She holds open the door. From a dark hallway into a darker room. The floors stacked with bulging beribboned files. A desk
overflowing
with papers. Book filled glass cabinets along the walls. A stuffed owl on a pedestal by the window. This man standing with blond strands patted back on his head, beads of sweat on his brow. Grinning between red tinged cheeks. He turns his head towards the window and looks out upon the grey late day.

‘Mr Clementine, Clayton Claw Cleaver Clementine, is it not.’

‘Yes.’

‘Illustrious family. Elegant and unique. To say the least. Descended directly in the male line from Clementine of The Three Glands. Please, do sit down. Any stack there, of papers will do. On a quiet Saturday such as this one’s mind wanders and I was wondering, without wanting to pry, naturally. I know this medical rarity has been fully
documented
three balls on one man, but I mean to say, can one inherit such an incredible bit extra like that. Good Lord, Miss Jones, be gone, please, Mr Clementine and I will not be long and you can lock up.’

‘Yes Mr Thorn.’

‘Forgive me Mr Clementine, that was a dreadful slip there. Don’t be distressed. Of course no one will believe her spreading that all over the city to every Sylvia, Sue and Cynthia. But now between us. What about that. Is there any substance in this scrotal rumour. If I may coin a phrase. Yes, sit there. Pile of torts will give you more comfort than the defendants, what. I mean you understand one can’t hold in one’s curiosity. Troubling me for months. You don’t raise an eyebrow over the chap with one or, God forbid, none, but how many of your chaps will you meet in a month of tuesdays with the bit extra. I mean do having three give any discomfort.’

‘I beg your pardon.’

‘Well well, of course, one can’t contain one’s concern over a thing like that. Ah now where are those papers. I put them down. Wasn’t a second before you came in. May I trouble you to stand a moment, Mr Clementine, do please forgive me, in case you’re sitting on them. Ah to be sure. Now we’re right. The full and necessary are here I believe. Three jewels by God in your mechanism and that’s that. Very fitting your taking up where your great aunt left off. She herself is a remarkable creature. Must be nearly ninety now. I believe she’s just assumed residence in an hotel midway on another continent across the seas.’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, well. This is the key case which we are instructed to present to you. Daunting proposition if I may say so. Press simultaneously these both points. Open it comes. The big one for the main portal. Rumour is this was used to slap and slay a rapist by your great great grandmother. You wouldn’t be any the better for a clap of this across the rotundity. The other keys are arranged alphabetically down to the bottom tray, six trays in all. A few missing. To minor rooms it would seem. You are now possessed of Charnel Castle and certain lands thereabouts.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Now as a solicitor to whom matrimonial matters upon occasion do come, has the question of your added item, that is to say, the extra of which you are possessed, ever thrown confusion upon a member of the opposite sex.’

‘Yes they go out of their minds counting.’

‘To be sure, to be sure. But now to be perfectly frank, is it a case that the extra of which you are possessed has led to a little unbridled proclivity now and again. I’m thinking it must be ruddy marvellous, with one more than is
standard.
To be afloat as you might say on a sea of turpitude. Ah God nature is very good to the aristocracy. Now there’s one last matter I’ve nearly overlooked. You’re to pick up the dog at the station. Down there by the custom house. With the compliments of your aunt.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I’m glad Mr Clementine, to hear, that three is not a crowd in your case.’

Clayton Clementine stepping out into the moisture again. Search one’s head for various phrases to throw back at delving questions. Take a calming vision meaningless beyond belief. But a comfort to know.

That thrice

They hang

Down there.

Untangled

In the arse white

Infinity

Up the stone steps of the station. Between two white globes on lamp posts. Into this high grey granite edifice. Musty wide corridors under a roof held by girders. Clayton Clementine stops at a counter and open hatchway along the platform. A group of porters and attendants hovering over something huge and grey on a shelf.

‘Excuse me.’

‘And what can I do for you sir.’

‘I am looking for a dog.’

‘Are you now. Would you know it if you saw it.’

‘Not exactly, just a dog.’

‘Are you able to kill a calf a day.’

‘I beg your pardon.’

‘If we’ve got the dog you’re looking for you’ll need to feed him that at least. He can’t walk but eat by God, he’d take your hand, shoe or elbow just to fill space between a hindmost molar.’

‘Is that him.’

‘It is.’

‘Hello woof woof. Big bow wow. Come here. Here doggie.’

‘It’s no use now. Stand up or walk he will not. Four of us it took to carry him here off the train with him licking the countenances off our faces. Then he gobbled down the station master’s dentures, full upper and lower like two bits of candy floss.’

Clementine inhaling a large breath to lean and peer over the counter. A little avenue opening between the porters all smiling to show this large grey shaggy animal who looked up from brown friendly eyes as his long tail beat against the shelf.

‘Hello doggie. Bow wow. Woof woof. We’ll call you Elmer. What about that.’

Elmer with tail flapping was lifted down the front steps of the station by four porters and placed in a horsecab. Past shops, pubs, cinemas and left across a bridge. Woof woof taking note of the city with his big black nose sticking out the window.

Clementine following Elmer lugged by ten hands to this cosy compartment on the train. The great canine spread across three seats. Two friendly drawling travellers
referring
to each other as ma and pa, peeking in, opening the door. And rearing backwards into the laden arms of their porter.

‘Land sakes alive pa that there creature is alive.’

The steam engine throbbed and tinkled, blew a whistle and clicked down the track. As we ride together all alone. There he sits, huge padded paws draped over the edge of the seat. Grey and soft they are. This woof woof’s eyes so full of trust. One day soon he should be able to walk, canter, then trot. He’s just eating now to gather up the strength to do so. Must be patient. Ah he likes to lick my shoelaces untied. We’ll get on together. And he’s getting us both plenty of privacy. One likes that.

Flat strange lands pass in the night. Faint lights in cottage windows. Lonely stations and voices in the dark. Unloading goods from the metropolis. With iron wheels rumbling on the platforms. I was instructed to tell the engine driver to stop in the morning at the Castle
Crossroads.

At dawn through an open eye I see him already awake, wagging his tail, banging it against the window, smiling at me. The rumbling and roaring of the train. Through the darkness of a tunnel. Light again. And down there the sea. Good God we go across a bridge. Which is swaying. High over a silver stream down between the rocks. Stone walled little fields. A sandy bay and a purple small
mountain
. The train is slowing. And stopping. Next to a flattened bit of ground. Where the conductor stands with a green flag in one hand and a big key ring in the other.

‘Is this the Castle Crossroads.’

‘The very same sir.’

‘There’s nothing here, not even a road.’

‘Ah I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. Just the other side of the track now there’s this bit of road. Sure it’s been known that at various times of the week travellers do be passing. I wouldn’t be alarmed now sir.’

‘Could anyone help me with my luggage and this animal, who must be assisted’

‘Ah we’ll get the engine driver and Micko off the goods van and be giving you a hand with the beast and the bags.’

The conductor, driver and Micko, the three of them tugging, pulling and rearing back their heads from Elmer’s long licking tongue. Settling him to rest on the sandy ground where he lays his big head between his paws and gives a long contented groan.

Under a sky of moist tumbling clouds this fresh early morning blew with fragrant winds. Clementine with his faithful Elmer stood among their chattels. The whistle went, the engine puffed and the conductor waved and smiled. Micko the last passing face gave a thumbs up sign. The little train down the track over lands rising to barren brown hillsides.

Purple mountains push up into the white mist. Lacy droplets falling. Elmer sitting, his hind legs crouched. Over there in the western greyness sweeping sheets of rain
beating
across the tarnished heathers. Coming this way. To soak the silence and emptiness. From which one would like to hide. Between two big mothery thighs for warmth and comfort.

Elmer licks the moisture from his nose. Someday he might spring forward aloft on all fours, ears up instead of down. Good lord which way does one go. This map shows a winding road. And there, a castle and walls, ruined church, cemetery. Boundaries of Charnel Demesne. Cliffs, the sea and fathoms. Feel strange distant rumblings, the ground ashake. Elmer stank out the compartment last night. I doused this morning in eau de cologne. March forward now feeble in the knowledge that I have an axe, matches,
tin cup and my ebony ivory inlaid case of toothbrushes. And rhinoceros arse shaped trousers.

Clementine told Elmer not to stir. As when a few yards away doggie attempted to rise only to collapse greyly again over the black gladstone bag. A stony road descending
between
rumbling walls of granite boulders. Thickets of wintry trees over mossy undergrowth stretching soft green and dark up beyond the shadows of hillsides. A steep hedged lane. A gate with a sign. Lands Poisoned.

The sound of wheels. Rounding a bend by a tall pine, a boy standing in a high sided cart rocking and swaying pulled by a donkey. Leap aside to let the roaring traffic plunge by. Must not let this wheeled invention pass
without
begging assistance. Boy wears tattered trousers which appear to be the lower part of a morning suit. Donkey’s ears twitch and goodness, his darkish private part seems to wag expanded. Amazing how emotions can wax in this chill inclemency.

‘Excuse me but I wonder could you help me. I’m stranded. Back there on the road. With luggage and a canine friend.’

The squeaking creaking swaying cart halts. The boy rearing up the donkey who bends his head to tear up some grass. The boy shaking his head up and down. Staring at Clementine.

‘Will you help me. Do you speak. You no speakum. I mean to say you can’t speak. Well I’m up at the crossroads. I will pay you to take me to a place called Charnel Castle, marked here on this map I have.’

The boy smashing his willow branch down on the arse of the donkey who lifts his head and trots off up the hill. The boy looking back over his shoulder. As if Clementine might have the strength left to give chase, drag him from the cart and deliver boot blows to the ribs accompanied by evil gospels in the ear. One will not again carelessly mention Charnel Castle.

Clementine trudging dripping back down and up the stony lane again to the crossroads. Elmer sitting with a silk cravat hanging from the corners of his mouth. A large hole
torn in the side of the steerhide gladstone bag.
Toothbrushes
scattered everywhere. Each a different colour and neatly printed with a time and day of the week. This broken chewed one marked Tuesday Morning. And this Monday Noon. O my God he’s eaten the keys. Nearly all of them. Except the front door. Which mercifully won’t fit down his throat as cavernous as it must be.

Clementine suddenly looking up at a sound of laughter. Pealing out from this empty landscape. And a movement. Behind a boulder some yards away. Beyond a few whorls of mist. Thing to do is put the head down and rummage through the strewn remnants of my itinerant personal
furnishings.
And now suddenly look up. Ah. There.
Something
behind that rock. A grey battered hat peeking out. From a good hatter if I am not mistaken. So long ago now it seems that I was waking from sleep in a dry hotel room. Pray heavenwards for this rain to stop. Send dust dear God, send dates and sand accompanied by endless other parched aridities.

‘Can I be of help sir.’

Clementine rearing upwards in fright from this voice directly behind. A man attired in elegant cut blue pin stripe suit, the trouser cuffs of which hang in tatters over a pair of bespattered spats. A brown sweat stained fedora, the rim well pulled down and dripping rain fore and aft from his head.

‘Holy Christ.’

‘He is that.’

‘O boy. I mean good day.’

‘Good day to you now, a bit of softness there is.’

‘Indeed.’

‘Are you waiting for the train. It won’t be passing till noon tomorrow.’

‘I’ve just got off the train.’

‘Welcome then.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Are you just stopping here a bit.’

‘Yes I think I am. In fact I think I’m waiting for the train.’

‘Ah wise man, there’s not a living thing here save a few sheep and a herd of wild goats.’

‘I thought I saw something over there behind that rock.’

‘You saw Clarence.’

‘I did.’

‘You did.’

‘Who is Clarence.’

‘Well to tell you the truth now nobody knows who Clarence is. Except that he’s there. He lives beyond the mountains. In a windowless cottage facing out over the sea. Hasn’t been known to speak to a soul since anyone can remember. Comes out like that now and again to see what’s going on in the world. He would of course be most
interested
in your arrival. He’ll move along the walls in the near distance popping up every now and again to have a peer at you. He could be a comfort as there do be terrible loneliness out here. Not many would take it into their heads to pass this way if they could pass another.’

‘Why.’

‘It’s the old castle. The years of misfortune haunting it and the lands around for miles.’

‘What misfortune.’

‘Ah God a long tale of inhuman blood curdling
shenanigans
and indecent idolatry. Be an affront to burden a stranger’s ear with. Sure a poor girl was lost in the old castle and wasn’t she found the next day her hair nearly white and she paralysed unable to move. Steer clear of that place if you ever have a mind to head in that direction. You can’t miss it. On the side of the hill up there as you go. Blood bespattered dungeons, tunnels leading they don’t know where. Built it was by Clementine of The Three Glands. He would have at ten women a night. And feared he was everywhere for his visceral atrocities.’

‘Thank you. You’ve been most helpful.’

‘Not at all. Sure I’m the four miles down the road there, the first house you’ll come to. Should you ever be passing that way you’d be most welcome. I do be in my spare time an antiquarian. And I see there a lot of interesting equipage.
That animal you have I venture to say would take most of it on his back and nearly yourself as well.’

‘He’s taking a holiday today.’

‘Is that a fact. Well if you have a mind to move, Tim will be coming this way now. You’ll hear his boots on the road. Well over the seven feet tall he is and could gather you your beast and all together and carry you in comfort. Listen now. That’s him.’

A dark shadow approaching steadily through the mist. Striding a strange gait in the centre of the road. Like great limbs of a tree his long arms swinging. Each step speeding him through the wet. With trousers ending just below his knees and jacket sleeves just below his elbows. His tiny head on top of his great shoulders.

‘Ah Tim, would you have a moment. There’s a
gentleman
here needing help with a few of his belongings.’

Tim veering like a ship at sea. Moving towards
Clementine
and Elmer who moaned and wagged his tail. Tim nodded, his lids closed over his eyes. His hands feeling round on the ground as he picks up the gladstone bags and tucks them up under his arm. And with a great swing he swept up Elmer who draped across his shoulder and licked his nose.

‘Now sir if you’ll just walk along in front of Tim wherever you’re going he’ll follow you. He’s never been known to open his eyes or speak. He’s saving these faculties for when his others might fail. Good luck and God bless.’

Clementine waving thanks. Head off now in the mist. Followed by Tim. Who’s already white haired. Maybe not from fear. An ancestor had at ten dolls a night. Might
reestablish
that great tradition. If one can find ten in this utter bereftness. Take time to work up to that many a night. With constant practice and gentle increases and keeping it soft and long and pliable with lotions, who knows, might even dip into the visceral atrocities as well. In one of the tunnels.

Rounding a sharp corner in the road there was a grunt from the shrubberies. A pink fat pig stepped out. And took up the rear of this procession. Between these brambles
overhanging
the road. Now narrowing and going upwards. A crushing strange loneliness lurking in the valley of these high hedgerows. Where those behind follow the leader all heading for the haunted castle.

The little group trudging by a high stone wall with mossy abutments, grey, green and yellow lichens on the craggy granite. A great black bird squawked overhead its wings flapping and whirring in the mists. See how the troops are to the rear. The hair along Elmer’s back
standing
up. First thing that dog has done denoting action.

A great barred gate. Set in a high wall. Clementine
tugging
at a chain. Loosening it as the rusty scales fall into the weeds below. Open up and enter this gloom and circumstance. Had such elaborate plans to live a modern go ahead kind of life. Where everything you want jumps out at you at the press of a button.

The great gate creaking open. The heavy bars with
peeling
scales of green paint. A potholed roadway. Ahead walls and battlements. And a door of oak if I know my wood. Behind the shelter of which I must get my wet chilled self. Together with Elmer, Tim and this nice fat friendly chap. Who is last of all. And a pig as well. Call him Fred.

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