Personal Essay: My Other Life
– By Tony Clayton-Lea
Did I ever tell you about the time I stayed up till dawn in the company of six transvestites in Singapore? Or the time I almost slipped overboard in a Force Nine storm while we were gamely sailing through the Bay of Biscay? What about, perhaps, the time I missed getting back to my ship in Hong Kong because I failed to hear orders above the din of music blaring away in a topless bar? Or, while on leave and back home in Drogheda, someone in a pub said to me that if certain friends of his knew I was in the British armed forces I’d get a bullet through my head? No, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned these before. Perhaps it was all a dream? Or maybe they happened to a different person? Sometimes, other lives have a knack of making you feel like that.
I was a month shy of my 16th birthday in 1972 when I joined the Royal Navy. Seeing me off at Dun Laoghaire were my mother (who had, on receiving my news that I didn’t want to stay at school, and that I wanted instead to leave home, promptly walked into Dunnes Stores on Drogheda’s West Street and bought me a cherry red suitcase) and my brother (who had himself returned from two years in Australia). Looking back, I get a sense that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into; I simply knew that I didn’t want to finish secondary school, and I didn’t want to stay in a dreary provincial town. The fact that my mother had left Drogheda in her early 20s for a life far more interesting in England could have been the impetus; my father wasn’t around (they had separated in the ‘60s), yet he too had travelled extensively in Africa prior to settling in London, where he and my mother married. That my brother had also left school early to live and work in Australia may well also have contributed to the family aesthetic of travel broadening the mind.
The only thing I am certain of now is that joining the Royal Navy changed my life utterly; I dread to think what I would have been like as a person if I had continued to live in Drogheda. Maybe I’d have passed the Leaving Cert and – then what? – went to college or got a job. The notion of this teenager back then was to spread my wings, not to have them clipped. Thankfully, my mother realised this, gave me her blessing, and signed the necessary papers. I remember that on the morning I was leaving, she helped me pack my red suitcase, and that when I opened it on the ferry over to Holyhead I found underneath a few vests a sex education book that she had slipped in when I wasn’t looking. Such foresight, such pragmatism, such love…
Of course, women were quite likely one of the more subliminal reasons for joining the Royal Navy – didn’t sailors have girlfriends in every port? It would be quite some time, however, before any female would find a six stone weakling with no discernible social graces in any way interesting. Besides, easygoing humiliation and lack of charm were core to the six weeks basic training I received at the ‘concrete ship’, HMS Raleigh, at Torpoint, close to Plymouth. Here, we were put through the hobnailed boot camp drill: raw recruits were subjected to what I vividly recall an unbending adherence to discipline, a hierarchical display of authority and a dismissive attitude towards any sign of sensitivity. If you sniveled you were sneered at; if you cried – well, you just didn’t cry.
It wasn’t juvenile detention – not any of us were remotely close to borstal boy troublemakers – but neither was it Hogwarts. Rather, it was the instilling of a militaristic belief system that traded facets of individuality for deference to authority. As well as learning basic procedural information about life Royal Navy-style, I was instructed how to polish shoes, march around a parade ground with a kit bag on my shoulders, shoot self-loading rifles, sew, iron, tie knots, peel vegetables, cope with varying intense levels of peer pressure, and how to avoid having my six-stone body being beaten up (clue: having a sense of humour really helped). I also learned, quite crucially, how to interact with, and strategically avoid, people in very compact spaces. Which was just as well because within several months (following further training at a specialist shore training base, HMS Collingwood, at Fareham, near Portsmouth) I joined the 230-plus crew of the frigate HMS Torquay.
At HMS Collingwood, I trained as a Control Electrical Mechanic, which meant that I (as part of a team) was responsible for the maintenance and repair of various types of communications, sonar and missile equipment. Within weeks of joining, the ship sailed for the Caribbean, and while I put up with what I’d experienced on shore with varying levels of forbearance, commitment and stubbornness, my experiences of being at sea on such a large vessel turned from wary to wondrous. A wet-behind-the-ears teenager from Drogheda sailing across the Atlantic on the way to the Virgin Islands? Pinch me until I wake up, Sub-Lieutenant! From a distance of over thirty years, it isn’t easy to pinpoint why I loved being at sea so much. The sense of genuine excitement at not knowing what the next day would bring?
Over the next five years (which included a two-year stay on HMS Rothesay, the highlight of which was a nine month around-the-world trip that saw us dock and join the dots pretty much everywhere between Gibraltar and Panama), I experienced things that to this day remain dramatic touchstones in my working and personal life. It is, for instance, both a blessing (hopefully, to those I work with) and a curse (to my wife, I’m quite certain) that I have an inbuilt sense of what constitutes a deadline. Perhaps it’s a basic fear of being ordered to run around a parade ground with a kit bag on my shoulders that has instilled such immutable time-efficiency in me? As for ironing shirts and trousers – well, if you want a crease you could cut cheddar with, call me.
You may well ask that if I loved it so much (and I did, I really, really did), why leave after five years? The truth is that I was getting tired of being told what to do – I was over the age of 20, and still being told to get my hair cut, polish my boots, be back on board by midnight. And then there was the claustrophobic, sweat-heavy proximity of people that, even now, I clearly recall with varying levels of fondness, dislike, amusement and unease. Enough!
And, besides, I was getting to love music more and more. Each week from when I joined up, my mother diligently posted two papers – the NME and The Drogheda Independent. In the former I read strange, interesting things about glam rock and punk rock, as well as first becoming aware of writers such as Raymond Chandler, Evelyn Waugh, JG Ballard, Albert Camus, F Scott Fitzgerald, Harlan Ellison, Hermann Hesse, Graham Greene and Franz Kafka, all of whose works I devoured. Through the Drogheda Indo, I made my sailor mates laugh by shouting out at totally inappropriate times townland names such as Termonfeckin, Annagassan and – their all-time favourite – Nobber.
I look back on those days of my life as undoubtedly – as the Defence Forces ads would have it – a life less ordinary, as well as a life that very few would, or could, fully understand. Curiously, I have no yearning to sail again – I have had the wind knocked out of me, you might say, by having done it before so brilliantly, and under such professional, disciplined care and control.
But, you know, there are times when I look out to sea and remember random, extraordinary things that I thought I’d long forgotten – a beautiful woman in Fiji, sailing through the Suez Canal, a dive bar in Hawaii, the human noise of Bombay, the calm of Antigua, the degrading poverty in Djibouti, and how a boy from the provinces transformed, quite literally, into a man of the world… Whenever these and other memories come back, I know my other life wasn’t a dream at all. And I thank God and my mother for that.
Tony Clayton-Lea is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes on pop culture, movies and travel for a variety of publications, notably The Irish Times and Cara (Aer Lingus in-flight magazine). He lives in County Meath, Ireland. Check out more of Tony’s work at tonyclaytonlea.com ; follow him on Twitter @TonyClaytonLea
Flash Fiction: Brain in a Vat
Fragment from the Obituary of Donald H Moore published in The Journal of Contemporary Metaphysics, Spring 2010
– By Rob Doyle
After decades immersed in the arcane intricacies of academic philosophy, it seems that, on reaching his seventies, Professor Moore came to hold the remarkable and bizarre belief that he actually was a brain in a vat. Embarrasedly, and with respect for Professor Moore’s position and reputation at the university, but suspecting that their colleague was sliding rapidly into senile dementia, certain faculty members sought to remind Moore that the famous ‘brain in a vat’ was, of course, merely a rhetorical cypher, a thought experiment, a conventional dramatisation of the human incapacity (according to some) to possess certain knowledge, much like Descartes’ ‘malicious daemon.’ No philosopher, they reminded him – not Descartes, not Hume, not Russell – ever for a moment claimed, nor indeed believed, that they really were a brain in a vat, nor that the sense one has of being an embodied entity abroad in a substantial external world, really was the illusion produced by such a disembodied brain.
Undeterred and defiant, Moore retreated to his study and set to work on what was to be his penultimate, and now notorious, philosophical paper. In the paper, Moore sought to prove, beyond all warranted doubt, that he, Donald H Moore, was, literally, a brain in a vat – and that, by extension, the entire visible universe existed only as the projection of this brain.
It was only by the force of Moore’s long-established reputation as a philosopher of great dialectical perspicacity, together with his editorial role at the university’s philosophical journal, Thought, that the resulting article, A Refutation of the External World, With Four Proofs that I Am a Brain in a Vat, was permitted to see print. Dismayed by what they saw as the collapse of their once-great colleague into senility and incoherence, and realising that swift, ruthless action was needed to protect both their journal and their university from greater and fatal ridicule, various members of the philosophy faculty sharpened their pencils and set to work demolishing Moore’s (deeply and variously fallacious) thesis.
The first of the rebuttals had just reached the office of Thought when Moore’s shattered body was found in front of his campus residence. Witnesses confirmed that the professor had hurled himself from the fourth floor window. On Moore’s desk (which he had left as immaculately tidy as ever) was found a printed two-page document, marked as an addendum to A Refutation of the External World. Scrupulously annotated and tightly argued (albeit from wildly unsound premises), the addendum reiterated and fortified Moore’s claim that the essential, in contradistinction to the corporeal, Donald H Moore, was wholly indestructible by any action taken in the so-called external world. It was deeply uncomfortable for Moore’s loved ones and colleagues to regard such a calm, considered document as being Moore’s suicide note. Yet that is undoubtedly what it was.
Born in Dublin in 1982, Rob Doyle holds a First Class Honours degree in Philosophy and an MPhil in Psychoanalysis from Trinity College Dublin. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, The Battered Suitcase, ESC, and Penduline. He is the author of a novel, Here are the Young Men, currently being considered for publication. Since university, he has lived abroad: in Asia, South America, Sicily, San Francisco, and London. He teaches philosophy and English. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobDoyle1
Flash Fiction: Gone
– By Joe Jeninngs
“I think I need to sit down.”
“Oh yeah … do.”
“Well, you know … considering what just … you know.”
“Of course. I understand.”
He rested on the stairwell. I remember his shoes squeaked on the grey rubber floor. What went through his head next, well, I don’t know. I don’t want to know. It’s never something that I’ve wanted to ask anyone. I just stood beside him, not moving and became strangely aware of my breathing in the silence.
Then the tears came. It didn’t start slow. No, it poured out of him. Pure sobbing, he was out of control, his head fell into his hands and his arms collapsed on his lap. I swallowed hard. But I stood there, conscious of the brilliant white walls and the black mould growing on the corner of the window. He wailed in pain, unbridled emotional pain.
“Let it out man, let it out.” I said.
He ceased making noise but kept weeping. His body shook like he couldn’t control it. It jolted and bounced. Again I stood rooted to the floor; although this time I patted him on his shoulder. He looked at me. His eyes were red raw. Burnt with tears. Completely fucked. I nodded my head towards him. Thinking that would help. He nodded back. It’s always difficult with them, it never gets easier.
“How am I supposed to get though this?”
“Well, you aren’t.” I replied.
I didn’t want to say anything more. It was hard enough already. I moved towards the far wall and I saw the red stains leading up the stairs. In fact, it seemed the whole stairwell was smothered in blood. I hadn’t noticed it before. It surrounded my brown shoes, quite thick and sticky stuff.
There were no more tears after that. He knew it was over. There was no going back. So he removed his coat. His wrists were gashed quite viciously. A dirty job. Not like ones I’d seen before. He stood up too. Almost empty of sorrow and guilt, he displayed his arms for me. So pale, so fucking pale, his skin colour dropped and dropped into a colourless material. His pupils went black. That was it. It was over.
“What now?” He asked.
“Nothing.” I answered. “That’s it. You’re done.”
He sat again and half smiled. But I knew there was something else in his face. Some regret perhaps. It was hard to tell. He stopped bleeding and the blood had washed away from the floor. Back to the generic grey rubber. So lifeless. So incomplete.
“Will I get another chance?”