Drinking from James Joyce’s Glass
by Paddy Jones
When Alan finished work on Monday, he phoned his friend Bill to arrange a game of squash for the following evening. Bill said, “You’ve grown very fond of losing to me at squash. It’s very decent of you really.”
“This time I’m going to...”
“No, when... I’ll...”
“We’ll see about that. I’ll...”
Alan could remember the last time they played. Between each point, Bill kept talking about a dead cat and how he ‘comforted’ the woman who works in the cafe. He tried to imagine what he’d do if he was playing Bill now and he said, “Yeah, well this time I’ll be wearing ear muffs,” but Bill had gone off the phone by then.
He thought it was strange that he could easily imagine what to do right now, but he couldn’t picture doing anything on the following evening. His mind went blank when he thought of it. He tried to imagine going to the pub after the game, and that was blank too.
He thought of meeting Sarah later that evening, and he had no trouble imagining that. He pictured them sitting at her kitchen table, and she says, “Amy still can’t find her phone.”
This is exactly what she said when they were sitting in her kitchen on the previous evening, but in the version in his mind he says, “Amy couldn’t find her phone if it was glued to her knee,” instead of ‘who’s Amy?’, which he actually said.
He tried to imagine the following weekend, but his mind went blank again. He wasn’t too concerned about this, because there was also a blank space in his mind when he tried to remember the previous weekend. The only thing he could remember was saying the words ‘there’s no way I’m drinking that’ in a pub.
He became more concerned when he tried to imagine Christmas. It was five months away, but he couldn’t picture anything about it in his mind. The wedding he was going to in September was also a blank. He thought of Tuesday morning, and he could easily see that in his mind. He saw himself getting out of bed, making breakfast, going to work, reading another email about a man injuring himself in an accident with a goat, then lunch time and Tuesday afternoon. He saw himself coming home from work and turning on the TV. He’d watch the end of TV3 News, and then change the channel at six to watch a repeat of The Simpsons. He could see himself changing the channel and putting the remote control down on the table. And then it all went blank. In his mind there was just a blackness, a void he filled with fear.
He had always wondered why he couldn’t picture himself as an old man. He thought it was just because he was young, but now he wondered if it was because he was never destined to be an old man. Would the end come at six o’ clock on a Tuesday, twenty-eight years, three months and sixteen days into his life?
He tried to tell himself that this was ridiculous, that he wasn’t facing oblivion at six o’ clock on Tuesday just because he couldn’t imagine Tuesday evening. He wasn’t dying; he was just stupid.
That evening, he did his best to listen to Sarah as she spoke about her sister’s hedge. He tried to go on as normal on Tuesday. He went to work and read the email about the accident (it was an elephant rather than a goat), and he did his best to laugh at it too. He tried to concentrate on his work all through the day, and on his way home he looked at all the women he passed on the street to avoid seeing the blank space in his mind.
He was just minutes away from that void when he got home, but he tried to stay calm. He turned on the TV in the kitchen. His hands were shaking as he picked up the remote control and changed the channel. He looked at the ads before The Simpsons, and they seemed to go on for much longer than usual. He stood completely still, his mouth slightly open, until he heard a knock at the back door. He dropped the remote control. No one had ever knocked at the back door before because the only way of getting around the back was through the house.
He went to the door, but he couldn’t see anything through the frosted glass. When he opened the door there was no one there, and the back garden was empty. He went outside and stood on the lawn, and he noticed a small opening in the hedge at the back of the garden. He went to it and looked inside, but he couldn’t see anything apart form the small green leaves. He stepped inside and cleared a path ahead of him. He still couldn’t see anything apart from the hedge, but he kept going forward.
A minute later he was still walking through the hedge, with little patches of evening sun lighting up the leaves above. And then he came to a clearing. There was a round white table in the centre, with three people sitting at it, drinking tea. There were two men in dark grey suits and a woman in a red dress. She was smoking a cigarette. The sun lit up one side of her face. When she looked over towards Alan, the two men turned around to look at him too. One of them stood up and walked over to him. He shook Alan’s hand and said, “It’s very nice to meet you, Alan. Very nice indeed.”
“Hello. My name is Richard, and this here is Graham, and this is Emma.”
“Hello,” Alan said. Graham stood up and shook his hand, then sat down again. Emma just nodded at him.
“Well now,” Richard said as he picked up an empty glass from the table, “first things first. We’d like to show you something that you might find interesting. Or maybe not, but here it is anyway. This very glass was once used by James Joyce.”
“This very glass. By James Joyce, the writer. Have you ever read any Joyce?”
“Neither have we. He’s a bit... you know yourself. Great writer, though.”
“It’s different with Beckett. At least you can read Beckett. Have you ever read any Beckett?”
“Neither have we.”
“Yeah... Is that it? I mean... is that it?”
“No. There’s one other thing we’d like to discuss with you. Just a little point. It might seem like nothing at all after you’ve seen James Joyce’s glass, but it’s a little thing you might find useful. Just to give you an example of what we’re talking about here, you might remember a boat race you were at a few months ago with a friend of yours. You bet your friend that one of the boats would sink before the end of the race. This is just an example. Thankfully for everyone, all of the boats made it to the end without sinking at all. The point is, betting that one of them would sink was a bit of a negative thing to do. You tend to see the negative possibilities in the things you see around you. We could give other examples too, but we felt that the boat example sums up what we’re saying perfectly.”
“Right. So ye’re saying...”
“Just be a bit more positive about things, and you’ll be grand.”
“Right. And the reason I’m here is just so ye can tell me this?”
“Don’t forget the glass.”
“And the glass as well. Right... Are ye trying to scare the shit out of me? Because if ye are, it’s working.”
“Yeah, we can smell that.”
“I mean, did I have go to through all that stuff in my head with the blank space and all that?”
“That’s something you put yourself through. And if you were more positive, you wouldn’t have gone through that at all. You weren’t always like this. When you were four, you wanted to be Evel Knievel. What happened to that little boy?”
“What’s positive about that?”
“Evel Knievel is a man who sees a few buses and he says to himself, ‘Hm, I think I’ll jump over them on my motorbike.’ What in the world is more positive than that? And just a few minutes ago you didn’t know what was happening to you, so you said to yourself, ‘I must be dying.’ Is there anything more negative than that? There you were, a boy of four, wanting to fly through the air on a motorbike, like a bird. And here you are today, just waiting to lie down in your grave, with people like Evel Knievel still flying by above you.”
“Right, so Evel Knievel would be jumping over graves then, instead of busses? Surely he’d be put off by a graveyard. If he was in a field or something, okay, but who’d do something death-defying in a graveyard? He’d surely say, ‘I don’t know. I have a bad feeling about this.’ And then when he gets there he asks about all the flowers, and someone says there was a funeral there earlier, and he thinks, ‘Wait a minute. That’s surely a bad omen.’”
“This is exactly what we mean.”
“What’s negative about that?”
“You have to pick holes in everything. You always see the negative bits.”
“Wait a minute, a few seconds ago you were saying that I’m negative in the sense that I don’t want to jump over busses on a motorbike, and now you’re saying I’m negative because I pick holes in things. That seems like a fairly vague definition of negative.”
“It’s all part of the same outlook. You have a negative outlook. You just need to look at things in a positive way. See the glass as half-full, instead of half-empty. And then you’ll be fine.” He nods.
“Yeah well that might work on my sister.”
“You don’t sound like a man scared shitless at all. It sounds to me as if there’s still a fair bit of shit in you, to use the language of Joyce.”
“I’m just saying, why go to all the trouble of bringing me out here like this, just to make a point that someone else might find insightful, but will just sound stupid to me.”
“Do you want to look at the glass again?”
“I think you should. Maybe you haven’t been studying the glass enough. Or if you were really terrified, would you find it insightful then? Do you need to be scared more, or do you need to study the glass more? Which one is it?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s a very valuable point.”
“The man who hasn’t studied the glass enough. Would you explain to us what’s stupid about it?”
“It’s not stupid. I’m just saying that if ye know enough about me to know that I wanted to be Evel Knievel when I was four, then surely ye should know that I’m not the sort of person who’d find that sort of advice appealing.”
“Well maybe that’s the sort of person you should be. Did you ever think of that? And do you think we wanted to listen to your speech about Evel Knievel’s aversion to graveyards? Do you think that’s the sort of thing we’d find appealing? The man who didn’t study the glass enough.” He looked back at Graham, who shook his head. Emma was looking in another direction.
“What does the glass have to do with it?” Alan said.
“It’s just a glass that James Joyce used. That’s all it is. Just another historical artifact to be ignored. But don’t try to think about it — you’re not that sort of person. We’ll have to contact your sister or your grandmother to find someone who’d appreciate that.”
“Yeah well my grandmother actually met James Joyce. Or so she says anyway.”
“Where did she meet him?”
“I don’t know. She never says much about it. It might not have been him at all.”
“Yeah. So she’d have been fascinated by this glass.”
“She’d love to see it.”
“It’s almost like meeting Joyce himself.”
Richard shook his head and clicked his tongue. Graham shook his head too. “We’ve shown you a glass once used by James Joyce,” Richard said. “We’ve passed on a piece of advice that could help you.” He counted these things on his fingers. Two things. “And what’s more, those two things nearly rhyme as well, and what thanks do we get?”
“Look, I’m sorry if I seem unappreciative of all your efforts. Ye’ve just caught me at a bad time here. I didn’t know what was going on; if it was the end of the world or what was going on. But now I find out that it’s not the end of the world at all. I find out that I’m just being shown a glass once used by James Joyce, and I’m told to be more positive. And that’s fine. That’s fantastic. If I was in a pub or a museum or something, and someone said to me, ‘This glass was once used by James Joyce,’ I’d say, ‘That’s very interesting. That’s a very interesting thing to see.’ It might even inspire me to read James Joyce.
“And if someone I knew and respected took me aside and said, ‘Alan, I think you can be a bit negative at times. It’s something you might want to have a look at,’ I’d probably think, ‘Maybe they’re right.’ And I’m sure that when I’ve had time to reflect on all this, when the memory of being scared shitless fades away and I can appreciate that it’s not the end of the world at all, I’m sure I’ll say to myself, ‘Wow. I’ve just seen a glass used by James Joyce.’
“And I’m sure that will inspire me to read James Joyce. I’ll remember the advice you gave me too, and I’ll think, ‘Maybe he was right. I probably should be more positive.’ Or maybe I’ll take that message from reading Joyce. He might not say it in those words, and those words might not be the words that would immediately appeal to me, but if they’re true anyway, if they apply to my life anyway, then... then they’ll apply to my life anyway. A truth is a truth in any language.
“So if I seem ungrateful now, it’s just because ye’ve caught me at a bad time. I’m sure I’ll be grateful later when I’ve had time to reflect on this. So I’d like to thank you sincerely in advance of being grateful. Thank you for enriching my life by showing me this glass once used by James Joyce and for passing on that invaluable advice.”
“That was very, very eloquent,” Richard said.
“Are you sure you’ve never read Beckett?”
“Because I’ve heard that he was very, very... eloquent.”
“I probably will read Beckett when I’ve finished with Joyce.”
“That’s great altogether. Y’see, it wasn’t so painful after all.”
“Your sister or your grandmother would have seen that straightaway. What does that tell you?”
“That I should be more like my sister or my grandmother.”
Richard shook Alan’s hand and said, “That’s great altogether.”
“I suppose I should be going now. I can go now, can’t I?”
“Of course you can. Off playing squash, is it?”
“This will be your first chance to test our advice. Be more positive, and you’re sure to win.”
“Yeah. I’ll try that anyway.”
“How do you know all this stuff?”
Richard tapped the side of his nose and winked.
“Right. I better be off then. Thanks for everything.”
“All the best now.”
Graham stood up and said goodbye. Alan turned around and waved as he made his way back into the hedge. Richard and Graham waved too, but Emma kept staring off into the distance.
Copyright © 2005 by Paddy Jones