Ferdia Lennon is an Irish writer from Dublin. He recently returned from Paris, where he co wrote the comedy sketch show Fifth Wall which played at the Petit Théâtre du Bonheur, Monmarte. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as The Galway Ropes Anthology, Boyne Berries and Wordlegs' 30 under 30. In 2012 he was shortlisted for the Sean O' Faolain Short Story Competition.
Raskolnikov and I
Commended in the 2012 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
If you had entered Fionn O’ Reilly’s flat on the Rathmines road, the first thing you would have noticed was the smell of cabbage. Smells by their very nature have a tendency to dominate all else, and it was a wise man who wrote that in the land of the noseless the one nostrilled man is king. That man was Fionn. It would not have been an exaggeration to say that, at the time, Fionn lived on cabbage soup. People throw the expression “I lived on” around so much that it has become almost redundant, but Fionn truly lived on cabbage soup. He had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and although medical specialists may have disagreed with me, I was sure the consumption of such a large quantity of what he dubbed his ‘green mistress’ in effect gave his skin the jade hue which people often commented on.
I met Fionn at University. We were in the same French Philosophy tutorial. From the outset he fascinated me. One look at him and it was clear that he despised us all, including the tutor. He said nothing, but regularly could be seen rolling his eyes and scoffing when anyone spoke. Things finally came to a head in the fifth tutorial. The tutor, a balding man in his thirties, was reading a passage from Descartes’ Meditations when Fionn started to laugh. By this time the class had become used to his incongruous chuckles, but this was different. It was the laugh of someone who had genuinely heard something hilarious. He slapped his knees, as his thin pale face swelled pink and his eyes watered. Soon all heads turned to him.
‘Why don’t you tell us so we can laugh together?’ said the tutor, arms folded tightly.
Fionn merely stroked his goatee and yawned. I looked back at the tutor. He was visibly shaking; I remember having mixed feelings. The tutor had always been nice to me and I did like him, but along with this there was the reality that he was a bore and seeing him tremble like jelly, I was more engaged than I’d been in weeks.
‘As I said, could you please share what you find so funny or kindly leave?’
‘There once was a Pharaoh, who did not know.’
‘There was once a Pharaoh, who did not know.’
Saying this, Fionn stood up, gathered his belongings − just a pashmina scarf and Moleskine diary − and left. There were gasps around the room and although the tutor smiled and shook his head, he was clearly miserable. I describe this event in detail only because it was then that I made a promise to myself that I would be Fionn’s friend.
I saw him a week later at the Arts Café. He was sitting on his own reading, a lunch box filled with cabbage by his side.
‘Hey, I didn’t see you at tutorials today,’ I said. He looked up, but it was a long while before he spoke.
‘I’m bored,’ he said. ‘Amuse me.’
‘Amuse you? Eh, sorry?’
‘Tell me a story.’
‘A story? Let me see… it’s kind of tough man, on the spot but... ’
‘Eh wait okay, I think I have one, there was a guy I knew from secondary school called Danny and Danny looked really like Bono, so one day some people in the class decided that they would like, you know, do something with this… ’ I stopped, Fionn was reading his book. ‘Actually man, it’s a terrible story and I’m no good at it.’
He looked up.
‘That’s a pity, I was enjoying that, but never mind, tell me something true.’
‘Tell me something true, it can be anything, but it needs to be true, please.’
‘Eh, I like tea.’
He started laughing, much like the time in the tutorial, and soon I did too. After we had laughed for a good minute or so, he stopped.
‘That’s what I wanted to hear, something fucking true! “I like tea.” Brilliant! Sit down.’
‘Cheers, what are you reading?’
He raised a yellowed paperback.
‘Oh, Crime and Punishment—I’ve heard that book’s class, I mean that it’s amazing.’
‘I have a tattoo that says Raskolnikov on my arm.’
Seeing the blank look on my face, he grimaced.
‘Raskolnikov? He’s the protagonist of Crime and Punishment?’
‘Oh shit, yeah, really a tattoo though? That’s amazing.’
‘Why is that amazing? Any idiot can get a tattoo.’
I bit my lip and smiled.
‘Yeah but usually people just get stupid things like their name in Chinese writing or a yin and yang symbol, Raskolnikov, I mean at least that’s original.’
Fionn shrugged his shoulders and rolled up his sleeve. In large black letters coiling around his bicep was the word “Raskolnikov”.
‘It’s nothing really.’
‘So you’re like big into Dostoyevsky right?’
‘You could say that, to be honest I feel a little cheated that I wasn’t born in 19th century Russia. Tom, things were actually at stake then—questions were being asked.’
I was so pleased he knew my name that I just stared dumbly.
‘Sorry man, they were?’
‘Fuck yeah, these guys were debating the big issues, wrestling with them: God, justice, free will, when was the last time you heard an Irish person talk about free will?’
‘Well Dr. Rourke talks about it in our Determinism module right?’
Fionn let out a cackle.
‘Exactly, in modern Ireland in order to discuss, perhaps, the most fundamental of human questions, you have to skulk into Theatre P to listen to the insipid drivel of Dr. Rourke! In 19th century Russia you couldn’t take two steps without someone pulling you aside to get your views on it.’
‘Yes, picture it, everywhere you go people huddling over the samovar thrashing out the big questions, trying to scrape together a rouble or two for a bowl of cabbage soup and a glass of vodka!’ I was excited now.
‘It sounds like the real thing.’
‘It was—in 19th century Russia, life actually meant something. Raskolnikov’s suffering was not in vain and the nobility of his sacrifice transcended the brutality of his crime!’ Fionn paused and fingered a golden strand of goatee in bony fingers. ‘Sorry, I forget you haven’t read it. The basic gist of Crime and Punishment is that Raskolnikov, a poor young Russian intellectual, murders a rich old hag of a moneylender. He does this not so much for her money, but to see if he as a great man can transcend ordinary moral laws and through his strength of will, remain unaffected.’
‘Amazing man, so he wants to see if he can create his own morality?’
‘You’ve got it in one Tom,’ said Fionn, with a look of genuine respect. ‘You know I’ve thought about trying a similar thing myself. It’s a bit of a compromising story but you seem like you’d understand.’ I nodded eagerly. ‘As a trial run I used to beat up my mam’s cat. It was a small beginning, but great things have small beginnings and I didn’t fancy actually committing a murder right away.’ He laughed strangely. ‘I started by putting a bar of soap in a sock and hitting it with that, but pretty soon I moved on to waterboarding—well I dunked its head in a bucket. By the end the fat beast would run away as soon as it saw me. To be honest the whole thing was a letdown. My mam noticed that the cat was limping and got really upset and I lost heart and stopped. At the time I was ashamed. I thought that I was a failure. That if I had have been an actual great man I would’ve continued the beast’s punishment, regardless of how much it upset my mam. But I’m telling you Tom that wasn’t it. What happened is that I realised that torturing a cat in a society like our own was too little too late. Yes it’s frowned upon and people think it cruel. But ultimately what’s the point? What had I achieved? Nothing of consequence. In 19th century Russia even beating a cat had meaning, but now in Ireland, in the 21st century, it’s at best inappropriate.’
My first feeling was horror. I’d never understood why people kept pets but, even so, the idea of waterboarding one struck me as deranged.
‘Don’t look at me like that Tom − I only told you ‘cause I was sure you’d understand − Tom? I mean yes it was a stupid thing to do, yes it was cruel, but I was as much the victim as the cat!’
‘Of course, like I’m trying to tell you—we, because I include you in this, we were born at the wrong time, in the wrong place. I know that if me and you had met each other, say 150 years ago in St Petersburg our friendship could have lead to something, now the most it can do is ease the tedium!’
The expression in his eyes was almost sorrowful.
‘You’re a smart guy Tom. I knew it the moment I saw you, knew that you were dissatisfied with this sterile promontory,’ he smiled, ‘that you were like a lion given a ball of string and told to amuse itself!’
‘No need to thank me, why do we do it Tom?’
‘Exist? What’s the point?’
He looked at me expectantly, and I remember feeling a desperate need to not let him down.
‘Well man, I don’t know I guess we just do, it’s our lot.’
Fionn nodded but I could tell he was disappointed.
‘I suppose that’s all anyone can say, but I want more. I’m angry Tom—Nietzsche said anger is good if it can drive you to achieve something, but what if you feel that achievement is impossible? Even my novel − I’m a writer Tom − what’s the point? I mean what impact can it have? What’s the point Tom? I’m so bored!’
He buried his face in his hands. I know this will all seem pretty contrived but believe me, he was really upset.
‘Man, don’t say that, like I’m sure people were having the same conversations back in Russia, you know?’
A slight spasm passed over his left cheek.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I don’t know, I mean maybe people were bored and dissatisfied then and thinking you know, what’s the point? I mean even Raskolnikov, like killing some old woman to see if you’re special, that seems to me the act of someone at the end of his tether you know? Someone just like you, whose going what the fuck can I do?’ I stopped, suddenly ashamed. I’d gone too far and shown myself for the fool I was. But Fionn was smiling.
‘You mean Raskolnikov was disillusioned and bored himself?’
‘Eh, yeah I mean, it doesn’t sound like he was in a good place anyway.’
‘You might be onto something,’
With that he closed his book and stood up.
‘I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space! There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
‘Hamlet!’ I said, pleased to know the quote. Fionn patted me on the shoulder.
‘I like you Tom. Would you care to join me back at my place? I’m broke but I can offer you vodka and cabbage soup?’
From then on I saw a lot of Fionn. We met three or four times a week, always in his flat. He began giving me reading lists and homework. Within a couple of months I’d read pretty much all of Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Lermontov, and Turgenev. Fionn felt that Tolstoy and Chekov were bluffers and would only allow me to read the The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which he said was more like a Dostoyevsky novel anyway. Although the reader might find the idea of me completing homework a little pathetic, you have to understand that I was genuinely eager to learn. He spoke to me of many things, including his novel: a stream of consciousness epic entitled Moscow Tapestries. The one problem was that no matter how much I begged him, he wouldn’t let me read it. Very occasionally he’d give little snippets from the plot, or themes which he was exploring. And I spent many an evening crouched in his freezing flat, warmed by a glass of Smirnoff and a bowl of cabbage soup, while he teased me with a quote or metaphor from his book.
That summer, Fionn announced he would be moving to St Petersburg and wouldn’t be back till the beginning of term. His novel had reached a bit of a standstill, and he told me that he felt he could only finish it in Russia. I begged him to let me go with him, but he was adamant that he needed to be alone to work. Left in Dublin I got a job, through my uncle, on a building site and even though I was usually exhausted, I never missed Fionn’s homework. The money was good but the regulars on the site took a dislike to me and my habit, taught to me by Fionn, of using Socratic dialogue on them only made it worse. It’s a strange thing being bullied as an adult, and I was in denial about it for a long time. I was sure that if I responded to their insults and pranks with an ironic smile or a probing question, it would force them to respect me. It didn’t. I finally broke when a month in, at the end of the shift, I went to pick up my bag and couldn’t. Immediately the guys around me started laughing. I tried lifting it again and this time managed to get it a few feet in the air before letting go in exhaustion. When I opened the bag, I found it was full to the brim with solid cement: my copy of The Brothers Karamazov and two essays I was writing for Fionn stuck inside. Seeing this I began to explain to them that they were all worthless, but before I could finish, Damo, one of the ringleaders, head-butted me.
Fionn was due back on August 20th and I called over to him the next day. The first thing I noticed was that the smell of cabbage soup in the corridor was gone. As usual when I knocked on the door, flakes of dry blue paint flew off and a shiver of delight ran through me. I was home.
‘Raskolnikov!’ I called, banging harder but there was no answer. I stayed in the corridor for a half hour but seeing that the other tenants looked at me with suspicion I left. I came back the next day and the day after that, but it was always the same. On the fifth day I met a group of shaven headed men carrying furniture out of Fionn’s flat. They told me they didn’t know who Fionn was but they’d been paid by a Mrs O’Reilly and if I wanted more information, I’d have to speak to her. Amazingly they let me get in the van and I was dropped at a council house in Tallaght. I don’t know why, but I’d always imagined Fionn as having come from wealth, but this house was even smaller than my parents’: more like a two floored cottage than anything else. The walls were pink, but the paint had cracked and the damp grey of the concrete was visible from underneath. The minuteness of the house was highlighted by the garden: a strangely expansive jungle of weeds and dead flowers which we had to stumble over and crush just to make it to the door.
Bob, the head of the removal men, pulled the knocker, a large brass lion with a bolt in its mouth, and in an instant the door opened to reveal a small emaciated woman holding a cup of tea in blue veiny fingers.
‘We’ve got the stuff Mrs O’Reilly,’ said Bob.
Mrs O’Reilly nodded and ushered us into a bare hall which smelled of cats.
‘If you could leave it upstairs in the first room on the left chicken,’ said Mrs O’Reilly walking into the sitting room. I followed her. In contrast to the hall the room was a clutter junk. Paintings, mostly religious, covered the walls and the shelves were a mass of books and other knickknacks. But the one thing that stuck out was a photo of a small boy, clearly Fionn, at the beach, smiling, holding a plastic sword. I found myself staring at the photo trying to see signs of an enfant terrible. I heard a coughing noise and turned to see Mrs O’Reilly looking at me.
‘Eh hello Mrs. Reilly, my name is Tom, I’m a friend of Fionn.’
For a second she looked confused, but then her eyes brightened somewhat.
‘Thanks for coming,’ she said.
‘No problem, has Fionn moved back from Russia?’
‘Russia?’ she asked, clearly shocked. It occurred to me that Fionn was probably estranged from her and she didn’t know. In fact the only time I’d heard him mentioning his mam was when he talked about waterboarding her cat.
‘Eh nothing, I just wanted to say hello, but have a good day,’ I turned, but felt a surprisingly strong grip on my arm.
‘Why did you say Fionn was in Russia?’
Mrs O’ Reilly, shaking, looked like she was about to cry. I gave in.
‘I’m sorry but he’s been in St Petersburg all summer, I thought you knew.’
‘St Petersburg? Who told you that?’
‘Eh, well Fionn did.’
She turned, and buried her face in her hands. I stood there feeling helpless; thinking Fionn would kill me when he found out.
‘If he didn’t tell you, I’m sure it’s because he didn’t want to worry you Mrs O’Reilly, I’m sure he’s fine.’
She looked up at me, a half smile half grimace on her face.
‘The eejit was never in Russia—he was in hospital the past three months.’
‘Hospital? Are you sure? Is he alright?’
She laughed strangely.
‘No he’s not alright, he’s dead.’
‘He’s dead—he died two weeks ago,’ she paused to pour me a cup of tea, ‘and the poor eejit telling you he was in Russia—typical Fionn.’
She offered me a jersey cream. I went to take it but feeling nauseous, I put it back.
‘Ah take it,’ said Mrs Reilly, ‘sure you’re shaking like a leaf, a bit of tea and sugar will do you good.’
I took a long gulp. It was thick and sickly sweet: more like syrup than tea and I ended up spitting it back into the cup.
‘Don’t worry it’s only a bit of tea—if you don’t want it, Paul will.’
As if on cue an enormous tabby cat pawed its way onto Mrs Reilly’s lap and began nuzzling towards her saucer.
‘Paul only drinks Barry’s,’ she said.
‘You said your name was Tom?’
‘Fionn told me about you. He usually never spoke about his friends but he told me about you—he said you were a great thinker!’
She continued talking but I couldn’t focus. My eyes kept drifting to the tabby, who was now sipping from her cup. I stood up and made an excuse.
‘Ah but you’ll stay on for a bit—it’s lovely having you to talk to?’ said Mrs Reilly, taking my hand.
I told her I was sorry but that I had work. She made me promise I would visit again and even though she hugged me, I think she knew I was lying. Out in the garden I could see her through the front window. She was crouched over her face in her hands—the cat oblivious, still drank from her cup. I turned away and closed the gate.
©2012 Ferdia Lennon
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