I should clear up some confusion among one or two readers in Ireland. This isn’t actually about Enda Kenny, not so far as I know anyway.
He showed up at odd intervals over the next several years, and like the drunks and trannies, Kenny’s visits also had their pattern.
One of his sudden, monosyllabic apparitions prefigured anything up to three days of visits, in which there might be anything up to thirty separate meaty pawings of the shop door, hour upon hour of grunty Kenny talk, reeling Kenny silences, interrupted only by a very occasional actual customer.
Always, as another florid 72 hour cycle reached its end, there was the almost teary relief, tangible as a looming orgasm, that it might be anything up to a year before I saw him again.
But once a year had passed, I found myself – not exactly missing him – but vaguely concerned, vaguely hoping he was ok, that whatever constituted his strange, sad story hadn’t fully gobbled him up yet. My concern became far more acute during that whole business about coming loose in time. I should explain, but first I need to sketch a little local history.
Since the dawn of time, apparently, Loonford had languished, if not happily, at least with familiarity, under a perpetual pall of economic gloom. Over the centuries, industries came and withered, leaving behind their individual echoes on the eternal background hiss of resentment.
The few historic natives who’d entertained dreams of transforming their town’s fortunes had ended up, without exception, drunk, dead and disappointed. It was the eight hundred year pattern. It was familiar. It might not seem comforting, but some of Loonford’s ingenious souls managed, I believe, to find a kind of comfort in it.
But then time played a prank on the town. Time decided to rewrite eight hundred years of history in just a couple of months. Time brought the UROK Corporation to Loonford.
The founder of the Corporation had made his first billions selling self-affirmation tapes to insecure Americans. In times of stress or challenged self-worth, the customer simply popped one of the tapes into a machine, kicked back and listened to over an hour of soothing messages about what a great and successful person he or she was.
(“You are feeling goo-ood today, Kenny. The world is out there for you today, Kenny. You might not think it, but it is there for yoo-oou Kenny.” Yes, Kenny listened to the tapes, but only, I think, after he started taking the drugs.)
Prior to the coming of the Corporation, nearly all Loonfordians – myself and Kenny included – would have regarded the tapes as a ludicrous joke, but Loonford was not then part of the greater American whole. Most great ideas only accrete their greatness through washing up at a particular point in space and time. Stupid or not, the tapes made their maker into a money God, and his grand designs, bizarrely, came to reshape the life of Loonford itself.
For reasons unclear to me, UROK’s lurch for global domination didn’t end with the tapes. The company began to diversify into pharmaceuticals. Specifically, it was carrying its fight for feelgood into the chemical arena.
UROK boasted that its business literally involved tweaking the tiny chemical glitches in our brains so that no one would ever have to feel unhappy about anything again.
It claimed to be on the verge of launching a whole new fleet of drugs (it didn’t, of course, call them drugs. It called them ‘Reality Augmentation Products,’ ‘RAPs’ for short.), which would eradicate sadness from the human condition.
If it seems profoundly weird that such a product line was tested and manufactured in Loonford, a place devoutly married to its own unhappiness for centuries, then let me refer you to reality and its quirky moods, to time and its two fingered salutes.
Before it could sell the RAPs (all, so it claimed, made from perfectly legal ingredients) UROK needed to be able to test them on people.
What the corporation called a ‘restrictive testing environment’ meant it couldn’t test them back in the States, at least not without incurring billion dollar liabilities. The same problem hindered UROK in almost every other country in Europe or the English speaking world.
They could, I suppose, have gone to some Third World country, but there was the worry that the trial subjects might not yet have acquired the problems the RAPs were supposed to liberate them from. Also, aside from monitoring the physical progress of their subjects, UROK’s researchers needed to hear, in language they could understand, that the RAPs were actually making people feel better.
Loonford spoke English, of a sort anyway. Loonford thought a ‘restrictive testing environment’ was something to do with stopping young pups from cheating in their exams. Loonford, like most of Ireland then and since, faced the prospect of torrents of imminent American cash like some impossible wet dream made flesh.
Emigration, the lot of almost everyone who wasn’t the child of a doctor, lawyer or rich farmer, or who, like me, had a family and business they couldn’t escape, ended overnight. Loonford natives with baroque qualifications began to stream out of the town’s brickwork, taking up positions as drug developers or technicians.
There was something for just about everybody: secretarial jobs, security, cleaning (for drug making, it seems, was a messy business), doling out fries in the company cafeteria. In less than a year, there wasn’t a single family in Loonford that didn’t have at least one member employed, or otherwise dependent upon, the UROK Corporation.
It’s fascinating how quickly something like UROK becomes so essential to a place like Loonford, how easily the collective soul, so to speak, is annexed. Suddenly, grown men and women threatened you with violence if you dared poke fun at the tapes. Anyone rash enough to wonder out loud about the actual merit of what UROK was up to faced calls to move immediately to some other, non-drug dependent town.
Overnight, people bought houses and planned futures dependent on the continued health of the UROK project. How on Earth had Loonford managed before UROK? This might seem like an obvious question, but no one ever asked it.
Natives like Kenny, who possessed no obvious qualification to do anything, in a sense performed the most important function of all. Even the town’s winos suffered a sharp, albeit brief decline in population as the company tested a RAP designed to cure people of alcohol addiction. It doesn’t seem to have worked.
Kenny showed up one day with a batch of the tapes, inquiring if I’d ever tried them out. I replied that I hadn’t.
“You should. Der fookin’ deadly. Give yeh a whole new – whatjacallit? – perspective. Make sense outa whole lotta shit like.”
I hesitated on the brink of asking Kenny what kind of shit he meant exactly. He might, after all, have told me.
“Shur we’ll give it a go, come on.” He located a free deck in the battered ghetto blaster I used to try and nourish my sanity during shop days. I worried that he’d break it. Unctuous phrases began oozing into the mottled air.
“Toldja, fookin’ deadly right?”
“Kenny, are you ok? You look sort of, different.”
And indeed, so odd were the changes that he might as well have been wearing a frock. His hair was the same length it had always been, but had somehow begun to change colour. It was as if, in defiance of over thirty years of stolid practicality, Kenny had started using highlights, except the blonde stuff appeared to be growing up from the roots, so that his shrinking enclave of dark hair was fighting a rearguard action from the top of his thatch. Tufts of blonde beard were sprouting up at odd locations on his face as well.
Combined with Kenny’s square jaw and head, his now weirdly luminous blue eyes, his piano lifter’s body, the effect made him look like a young Burt Lancaster.
“Have you done something with your hair?” This was hardly a wise question to ask Kenny at the best of times, but then his mood, like his hair, seemed inexplicably sunny.
“Wha? Oh, y’mean have I done somethin’ queer like?”
“Jesus no, I only meant-”
“No, I been testin’ out some stuff for de UROK people. Dey said der’d be side effects like. Hope no one tinks I’ve gone puffter like, but de money’s fookin’ brilliant. It’s fookin’ mental.”
“What’s it supposed to do, this stuff you’re testing?”
“Dunno ’bout dat. Didn’t ask.”
He didn’t ask, so I was happy to let it go as well, until three months later, when he arrived in the shop looking like a student’s first failed attempt at waxwork.
His hair had gone from blonde to dark green, his face to bone white. His lips had also acquired an unnatural red fullness. I kept expecting to see giant clown shoes. Also, distressingly, his arms jerked outward at seemingly random intervals, at one point shattering some glass baubles suspended from the ceiling of the shop.
“Jesus Kenny. What’s this shit you’re on now? What’s it supposed to do?”
“Dunno, but de money’s fookin’ brilliant like. Dey say I’m a great whatjacallit – a great subject. Serious. I got wasted four or five times last week, but I’ve still got shitloads of dosh.”