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The Third Policeman

by Flann O'Brien

Paperback, 200 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $13.95 |


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Excerpt: The Third Policeman

Chapter OneNot everybody knows how I killed old PhillipMathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it isbetter to speak of my friendship with John Divney becauseit was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving hima great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump whichhe manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divneywas a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. Hewas personally responsible for the whole idea in the firstplace. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was theone who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanationswhen they were called for.

I was born a long time ago. My father was a strong farmerand my mother owned a public house. We all lived in thepublic house but it was not a strong house at all and wasclosed most of the day because my father was out at work onthe farm and my mother was always in the kitchen and forsome reason the customers never came until it was nearlybed-time; and well after it at Christmas-time and on otherunusual days like that. I never saw my mother outside thekitchen in my life and never saw a customer during the dayand even at night I never saw more than two or three together.But then I was in bed part of the time and it ispossible that things happened differently with my motherand with the customers late at night. My father I do notremember well but he was a strong man and did not talkmuch except on Saturdays when he would mention Parnellwith the customers and say that Ireland was a queer country.My mother I can recall perfectly. Her face was always redand sore-looking from bending at the fire; she spent her lifemaking tea to pass the time and singing snatches of old songsto pass the meantime. I knew her well but my father and Iwere strangers and did not converse much; often indeedwhen I would be studying in the kitchen at night I couldhear him through the thin door to the shop talking therefrom his seat under the oil-lamp for hours on end to Mickthe sheepdog. Always it was only the drone of his voice Iheard, never the separate bits of words. He was a man whounderstood all dogs thoroughly and treated them like humanbeings. My mother owned a cat but it was a foreign outdooranimal and was rarely seen and my mother never tookany notice of it. We were all happy enough in a queer separateway.

Then a certain year came about the Christmas-time andwhen the year was gone my father and mother were gonealso. Mick the sheepdog was very tired and sad after myfather went and would not do his work with the sheep at all;he too went the next year. I was young and foolish at thetime and did not know properly why these people had all leftme, where they had gone and why they did not give explanationsbeforehand. My mother was the first to go and I canremember a fat man with a red face and a black suit tellingmy father that there was no doubt where she was, that hecould be as sure of that as he could of anything else in thisvale of tears. But he did not mention where and as I thoughtthe whole thing was very private and that she might be backon Wednesday, I did not ask him where. Later, when myfather went, I thought he had gone to fetch her with an outsidecar but when neither of them came back on the nextWednesday, I felt sorry and disappointed. The man in theblack suit was back again. He stayed in the house for twonights and was continually washing his hands in the bedroomand reading books. There were two other men, one asmall pale man and one a tall black man in leggings. Theyhad pockets full of pennies and they gave me one every timeI asked them questions. I can remember the tall man in theleggings saying to the other man:

`The poor misfortunate little bastard.'

I did not understand this at the time and thought thatthey were talking about the other man in the black clotheswho was always working at the wash-stand in the bedroom.But I understood it all clearly afterwards.

After a few days I was brought away myself on an outsidecar and sent to a strange school. It was a boarding schoolfilled with people I did not know, some young and someolder. I soon got to know that it was a good school and a veryexpensive one but I did not pay over any money to thepeople who were in charge of it because I had not any. Allthis and a lot more I understood clearly later.

My life at this school does not matter except for onething. It was here that I first came to know something ofde Selby. One day I picked up idly an old tattered book inthe science master's study and put it in my pocket to read inbed the next morning as I had just earned the privilege oflying late. I was about sixteen then and the date was theseventh of March. I still think that day is the most importantin my life and can remember it more readily than I do mybirthday. The book was a first edition of Golden Hours withthe two last pages missing. By the time I was nineteen andhad reached the end of my education I knew that the bookwas valuable and that in keeping it I was stealing it. NeverthelessI packed it in my bag without a qualm and wouldprobably do the same if I had my time again. Perhaps it isimportant in the story I am going to tell to remember that itwas for de Selby I committed my first serious sin. It was forhim that I committed my greatest sin.

I had long-since got to know how I was situated in theworld. All my people were dead and there was a man calledDivney working the farm and living on it until I shouldreturn. He did not own any of it and was given weeklycheques of pay by an office full of solicitors in a town faraway. I had never met these solicitors and never met Divneybut they were really all working for me and my father hadpaid in cash for these arrangements before he died. When Iwas younger I thought he was a generous man to do that fora boy he did not know well.

I did not go home direct from school. I spent some monthsin other places broadening my mind and finding out what acomplete edition of de Selby's works would cost me andwhether some of the less important of his commentators'books could be got on loan. In one of the places where I wasbroadening my mind I met one night with a bad accident. Ibroke my left leg (or, if you like, it was broken for me) insix places and when I was well enough again to go my wayI had one leg made of wood, the left one. I knew that I hadonly a little money, that I was going home to a rocky farmand that my life would not be easy. But I was certain bythis time that farming, even if I had to do it, would not bemy life work. I knew that if my name was to be remembered,it would be remembered with de Selby's.

I can recall in every detail the evening I walked back intomy own house with a travelling-bag in each hand. I wastwenty years of age; it was an evening in a happy yellowsummer and the door of the public house was open. Behindthe counter was John Divney, leaning forward on the lowdownporter dash-beard with his fork, his arms neatly foldedand his face looking down on a newspaper which was spreadupon the counter. He had brown hair and was made handsomelyenough in a small butty way; his shoulders werebroadened out with work and his arms were thick like littletree-trunks. He had a quiet civil face with eyes like cow'seyes, brooding, brown, and patient. When he knew thatsomebody had come in he did not stop his reading but hisleft hand strayed out and found a rag and began to give thecounter slow damp swipes. Then, still reading, he moved hishands one above the other as if he was drawing out a concertinato full length and said:

`A schooner?'

A schooner was what the customers called a pint of Coleraineblackjack. It was the cheapest porter in the world. Isaid that I wanted my dinner and mentioned my name andstation. Then we closed the shop and went into the kitchenand we were there nearly all night, eating and talking anddrinking whiskey.

The next day was Thursday. John Divney said that hiswork was now done and that he would be ready to go hometo where his people were on Saturday. It was not true to saythat his work was done because the farm was in a poor wayand most of the year's work had not even been started. Buton Saturday he said there were a few things to finish and thathe could not work on Sunday but that he would be in a positionto hand over the place in perfect order on Tuesday evening.On Monday he had a sick pig to mind and that delayedhim. At the end of the week he was busier than ever and thepassing of another two months did not seem to lighten orreduce his urgent tasks. I did not mind much because if hewas idle-minded and a sparing worker, he was satisfactory sofar as company was concerned and he never asked for pay. Idid little work about the place myself, spending all my timearranging my papers and re-reading still more closely thepages of de Selby.

A full year had not passed when I noticed that Divneywas using the word `we' in his conversation and worse thanthat, the word `our'. He said that the place was not everythingthat it might be and talked of getting a hired man. Idid not agree with this and told him so, saying that there wasno necessity for more than two men on a small farm andadding, most unhappily for myself, that we were poor. Afterthat it was useless trying to tell him that it was I who ownedeverything. I began to tell myself that even if I did owneverything, he owned me.

Four years passed away happily enough for each of us. Wehad a good house and plenty of good country food but littlemoney. Nearly all my own time was spent in study. Out ofmy savings I had now bought the complete works of the twoprincipal commentators, Hatchjaw and Bassett, and a photo-statof the de Selby Codex. I had also embarked upon thetask of learning French and German thoroughly in order toread the works of other commentators in those languages.Divney had been working after a fashion on the farm by dayand talking loudly in the public house by night and servingdrinks there. Once I asked him what about the public houseand he said he was losing money on it every day. I did notunderstand this because the customers, judging by theirvoices through the thin door, were plentiful enough andDivney was continually buying himself suits of clothes andfancy tiepins. But I did not say much. I was satisfied to beleft in peace because I knew that my own work was moreimportant than myself.

One day in early winter Divney said to me:

`I cannot lose very much more of my own money on thatbar. The customers are complaining about the porter. It isvery bad porter because I have to drink a little now and againmyself to keep them company and I do not feel well in myhealth over the head of it. I will have to go away for two daysand do some travelling and see if there is a better brand ofporter to be had.'

He disappeared the next morning on his bicycle and whenhe came back very dusty and travel-worn at the end of threedays, he told me that everything was all right and that fourbarrels of better porter could be expected on Friday. It camepunctually on that day and was well bought by the customersin the public house that night. It was manufactured in sometown in the south and was known as `The Wrastler'. If youdrank three or four pints of it, it was nearly bound to win.The customers praised it highly and when they had it insidethem they sang and shouted and sometimes lay downon the floor or on the roadway outside in a great stupor.Some of them complained afterwards that they had beenrobbed while in this state and talked angrily in the shop thenext night about stolen money and gold watches which haddisappeared off their strong chains. John Divney did not saymuch on this subject to them and did not mention it to meat all. He printed the words-Beware of Pickpockets-inlarge letters on a card and hung it on the back of shelvesbeside another notice that dealt with cheques. Nevertheless aweek rarely passed without some customer complaining afteran evening with `The Wrastler'. It was not a satisfactorything.

As time went on Divney became more and more despondentabout what he called `the bar'. He said that he wouldbe satisfied if it paid its way but he doubted seriously if itever would. The Government were partly responsible forthe situation owing to the high taxes. He did not think thathe could continue to bear the burden of the loss withoutsome assistance. I said that my father had some old-fashionedway of management which made possible a profit but that theshop should be closed if now continuing to lose money.Divney only said that it was a very serious thing to surrendera licence.

It was about this time, when I was nearing thirty, thatDivney and I began to get the name of being great friends.For years before that I had rarely gone out at all. This wasbecause I was so busy with my work that I hardly ever hadthe time; also my wooden leg was not very good for walkingwith. Then something very unusual happened to change allthis and after it had happened, Divney and I never partedcompany for more than one minute either night or day. Allday I was out with him on the farm and at night I sat on myfather's old seat under the lamp in a corner of the publichouse doing what work I could with my papers in the middleof the blare and the crush and the hot noises which wentalways with `The Wrastler'. If Divney went for a walk onSunday to a neighbour's house I went with him and camehome with him again, never before or after him. If he wentaway to a town on his bicycle to order porter or seed potatoesor even `to see a certain party', I went on my own bicyclebeside him. I brought my bed into his room and took thetrouble to sleep only after he was sleeping and to be wide-awakea good hour before he stirred. Once I nearly failed inmy watchfulness. I remember waking up with a start in thesmall hours of a black night and finding him quietly dressinghimself in the dark. I asked him where he was going and hesaid he could not sleep and that he thought a walk woulddo him good. I said I was in the same condition myself andthe two of us went for a walk together into the coldest andwettest night I ever experienced. When we returneddrenched I said it was foolish for us to sleep in different bedsin such bitter weather and got into his bed beside him. Hedid not say much, then or at any other time. I slept with himalways after that. We were friendly and smiled at each otherbut the situation was a queer one and neither of us liked it.The neighbours were not long noticing how inseparable wewere. We had been in that condition of being always togetherfor nearly three years and they said that we were thebest two Christians in all Ireland. They said that humanfriendship was a beautiful thing and that Divney and I werethe noblest example of it in the history of the world.