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Liam Cagney


The first kind of error is a horse error. A horse error is when you’re at a friend’s house and you look in the mirror and see a horse – not just the head nodding from a broad neck, but the whole brown thing, the floppy ears, bushy forelock, body, hooves and tail, a whole mass of horse. A horse error is pretty rare, though. It usually only happens when you’ve been awake for a few days then have to go to a prearranged dinner party at a friend’s house, where you make conversation with the other guests as if you were normal, talking about Love/Hate on Sunday, the weather on your holiday in Croatia, mutual friends who are having kids, a postcard up on the mantelpiece of the Eiffel Tower which someone has anonymously sent the host; and then after you go to the bathroom to have a moment to yourself, on the way back out, as you clasp the inner handle of the bathroom door, you catch sight of yourself in the bathroom mirror, stood in front of the white dressing gowns, and where you would expect a sweaty brow and a pair of dilated eyes you instead see a tawny-hued horse tottering on its hooves, giving a brusque snort. Though the horse could in theory be brown or white, in fact it’s always brown. A horse error is not the kind of thing you can tell anyone about, it’s safe to say, but then it’s not the kind of thing that you, being reserved, would tell anyone about anyway. Much better, as you reenter the kitchen and pull your chair up to the table with a little screech, to remain silent as is your wont, or else just make some inane remark and forget about the horse you just saw. In any case maybe you just imagined you hallucinated it – maybe you didn’t hallucinate it at all.
   The second kind of error, which is worse than the first but not much worse, is a brick error. A brick error is when, again after having been awake for a few days, you go to buy a tennis racket and ball, to play tennis with either when you’re in Paris or when you’re at a party in Dublin in a house on the Leinster Road – that is, either in Paris or in Rathmines – and after they give you the tennis racket and the ball in the sports shop and you give them the money and the transaction is concluded without any superfluous words having to be exchanged, you then bring the tennis racket and ball back to the party or take them with you to Paris in your suitcase, and as you go to hit the ball, you spontaneously decide in your head at that very moment that the only rule of the game is that the ball mustn’t under any circumstances be allowed to hit off any bricks: then a fraction of a second later, with the ball suspended in mid air at a zenith above your head, ready to drop back down, you notice that the racket is in fact a carefully sculpted racket-shaped, carbon-fibre-constructed brick. A brick! Pure madness! Pure unforeseeable madness – the racket turns out to be a brick! This quandary leaves you in an impossible fix, of course, as the ball drops with a little bounce on the ground beside you, like Newton’s apple, with only slightly less gravity. For it’s impossible now to play the game without breaking the game’s rules. What to do? What to do about this brick error? No one at the party knows. The Eiffel Tower doesn’t know. The Pont Neuf doesn’t know. Canal Saint Martin on a summer’s evening with people sat on the banks drinking cheap wine and chatting doesn’t know. A copy of Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, the last one in the Fnac at Place de la Bastille, doesn’t know. A bearded Belleville lemon vendor you met once doesn’t know either. A brick error.
   Now, maybe you’re wondering what connects these two errors, a horse (equine) error and a brick error. In short: what warrants these two events being combined as two terms in some overarching unifying series? What is the rule of the series? What is its meaning? This you find out through bumping into James Joyce. Not the James Joyce, naturally, but a namesake: a guy at the Leinster Road party who improbably enough has the same name as the great writer. So this so-called James Joyce tells you, as you both stand in the kitchen, with the bass-heavy techno coming through from the sitting room rattling the crockery, that if you have indeed been awake for a few days, as you say, three or maybe four, you should probably at this point try and get some rest. Because even if you can’t sleep, you should at least, you know (he says), just lie down and let your body have a bit of rest, let it get some of its energy back, says this James Joyce, sipping at a cup of tea. His pupils are black pools below thin ginger eyebrows and a balding head. At once the idea of rest appears like an oasis. Taking his advice, you walk out of the kitchen and through the hall – not many people are left now, the DJ in the sitting room is playing only to himself, some people in the hall are drinking Buckfast from cups – you go up the stairs and into the first free bedroom, close the door, draw the curtains and dive under the cold duvet. It feels good – you wonder why you didn’t do it earlier on. Though there’s no chance of sleeping, given what you’ve been taking, at least your muscles are whispering ‘thank you’.
   This is the third kind of error: a Joyce error. A Joyce error is of course different from the other two errors. Nonetheless, completing the series, it resonates with the other two in a strange harmony that’s less a music of the spheres than one of intersecting oblongs. This is how the Joyce error happens. Understandably, in its exhausted state your mind errs towards slumber, but since it can’t sleep it contents itself with tormenting you, broadcasting silently an inner reel of events for your inner eye, mixing actual events that have happened in the past (your tenth birthday party) with fantastical events that have no chance of ever happening (your millionth birthday party). The images are closer to cartoon than to reality. One image morphs into the next, you lose your sense of time. All the while you still cower under the bedsheets, awash in the bass vibrations from downstairs. Though initially entertaining, the phantasmagoria of your mind soon palls, becoming like a waxworks museum in an extreme heatwave, everything tilting from mere cartoon to delirious nightmare. You can’t tell whether you’re asleep or awake, whether you’re bedsheets or body, whether you’re mind or music or person or beast. So you get up again, actually quite refreshed. Your body feels like a tennis ball, and your mind like another smaller tennis ball within that bigger tennis ball. Since the fact of having come across somebody actually called James Joyce is bizarre enough, you think, to keep you entertained, you go back to the kitchen to talk to this James Joyce. But he’s not there, and through the window you see he’s in the garden. So you enter the garden, stepping into the cruel daylight, dodging the bottles strewn on the slabs, catching sight of the Rathmines clocktower glaring down like a stranded lighthouse. You blurt out ‘How’s it goin’?’ to James Joyce and make a laughing remark on the strange literariness of his name. He looks you in the eye blankly. A tense silence falls among the few other lads gathered round him. He replies to you, speaking in a south Dublin accent, saying his name isn’t James Joyce, it’s Brian O’Brien. ‘No,’ you say, ‘it’s James Joyce, I’m not so fucked that I wouldn’t remember meeting somebody called James Joyce, even if I have been up for three or four days.’ No, he cocks his head forward, my name’s Brian O’Brien. And you see now in the look in his eyes and in the way he’s regarding you aslant that he’s sizing up whether you’re mad, fucked or deliberately looking to cause trouble. ‘Man – James Joyce!’ you repeat, patting his shoulder, appealing for some sort of partier camaraderie. But at this stage of the party camaraderie’s long exited the building, and you’re cut adrift, flotsam, a monad. He brushes you off – Alright dude, good luck to you – and turns his back. You hear him say to his friends, Your man’s fucked, and watch as he takes a sip from his cup of tea. 
   You awake with a start. The duvet’s perched over your face and your slow breaths heat up the bed’s tent. Downstairs the music’s changed: it’s quiet, no longer techno but tunes probably coming off somebody’s iPod, since you hear Pixies coming through the floorboards and you doubt any DJ would be playing Pixies. You notice as you get up from the bed’s soaked sheets that it’s become dark outside. You move towards the door and open it and slouch into the corridor and slouch down the stairs to the ground floor, ambling round the rubbish. Everyone’s gone, the house is devoid of bodies, an MP3 player as predicted is plugged into the PA and set to shuffle, the speakers are pumping music to no other ears but yours. Talking Heads now – Psycho Killer. Though you’ve never liked the song before (it’s got no edge) you start getting into it, and you sing along now in your cracked ruined voice to the lyrics of the chorus: 
   Psycho Killer, qu’est-ce que c’est? 
   Fa fa faaa, fa fa fa fa, faaa, faaa … 
   For a while you sort of dance around, a jive, a waltz. You wonder if dancing alone is still dancing. 
   As you pass the mixing desk you notice one of the turntables is still revolving with no record on it, but with a sheet of paper placed on top of it, sitting underneath a book that’s acting as a paperweight. You remove the book and pick the sheet up. The sheet is empty except for a title written across the top in red ink: Series of Errors: in joined-up handwriting that strikes you as elegant. This has clearly been placed there for you to find. Why else would somebody leave it there with no one else in the house? Of course the glaring absence on the page – the full blank space below the heading – is there pointedly: it’s intended that you should fill the rest in. 
   A few days later, when you’re back at work in the office in grey brutal Sandyford, reflecting on the recent train of events, you begin to piece together and identify, according to the magnetic draw of your memory, what the three kinds of error might be: the series of errors the title speaks of. You’ve kept the white page with its red handwritten legend and you’ve stuck it up in front of your desk with a thumbtack, beside the photo of Carrauntoohil you took with your girlfriend a couple of summers ago. On your lunchbreak you sit as usual on your own outside the Spar, your ears hooked round the industrial estate’s strange silence. You loosen your tie, you roll up your sleeves. Without much thought you now write down the names of the three kinds of error, with a short description beneath each: a horse error, a brick error, a Joyce error. Then you fold the note and put it in an envelope. On the way back to your desk, having addressed it to the house on the Leinster Road and included your return address, you drop it in the tray for outbound snailmail.
   As you walk back that evening along Harrington Street, staring ahead at the red-brick tower of St Kevin’s Church, imagining that it’s a fissure in the sky, one thought crops up and leaves you uneasy. Maybe you just imagined that these three events were errors: maybe they weren’t errors at all but just things imagined. 
   That’s the fourth kind of error. 

Waiting Alone by J. P. Donleavy