—  Extraordinary stories —

The stories.

Ashes to ashes
Protests and prawn cocktails
Inside the chorus girls' dressing room
Brief Encounter
The sad story of Butterfly san

Ashes to ashes

In 1963, the final year of our living in Canada, directly across the street from the Montreal apartment where my wife and our newborn son and I lived, we had three Scottish friends who had an apartment very similar to ours. In case any of them are still alive I will change their names to Andrew and his wife, Heather, and Andrew's friend, Craig, who was their lodger. We were all in our late Twenties and had become friends because we were all rock climbers.

On an evening in early April, never since forgotten, they came across unexpectedly, ringing our doorbell with Heather in a state of shock. Her story was that she had briefly left their living room where she had been listening to music with Andrew and Craig and as she stepped into the short hallway, which linked their front door with the other rooms, there was a strange man in a dark suit, like a dress suit, moving towards her. Terrified, she ran back into the living room, crying for help. The two men ran out but inside of the locked door of the apartment they found nobody. Nor was there anyone in the hallway or on the stairs outside.

Eventually with wine flowing and more music, she calmed down and the evening became more like other familiar social evenings.

Andrew had one personal characteristic, which had bothered me since we first met. He was a dour and pessimistic Scotsman, which I could accept, but he hated going to work on Monday mornings so much that he insisted on leaving our climbing venues early on a Sunday so that there would be sufficient time left on Sunday evenings before the dreaded bedtime that brought Monday mornings.

As the wine and music took effect, Andrew became jocular and approached where I was sitting with a grin that suggested an imminent funny joke or story - I can still picture how he looked at that moment.

He then told me or, more accurately, tried to engage me in the most awful, even terrifying, sick joke that I could even imagine. In fact it was away beyond my imaginings, so terrible that I have never been able to repeat it as it actually emerged. Suffice to say that it involved the extermination of six million Jews and some play-acting with ash from the cigarette he was smoking.

The only reason I can reveal the bits of it here is that it is fundamental to the story I am telling. I was shocked to the core and would probably have ended my friendship with him if events had not done that so decisively. The next day I was presented with the opportunity to take a seat which had become available on a cheap charter flight to London and jumped at the chance to follow up on some job possibilities in London and Dublin, so the following Saturday a climbing party visited one of our venues in the Laurentian Mountains without me.

On a climb where no rock had fallen before, as Andrew sat paying out the rope to Craig, a rock fell and, hitting Andrew on the head, killed him instantly. The rest of this story comes now from my own dear departed wife, Mary, as she was central to it while I, because of circumstances, was still far away. Mary had to spend the next few days supporting the grieving Heather, especially in the funeral arrangements.

The climax in the story came on the day of the funeral in the crematorium during the following week. At the point in the cermony when the clergyman signalled to have the coffin wheeled to the loading bay, Heather grabbed Mary, collapsing, and saying "That's him!" She claimed that the man in the undertaker's suit now delivering Andrew's body to the incinerator was the one she had seen only the week before in the apartment.

Whatever we think of Heather's story, Andrew was reduced to ashes a week after his dreadful ashes joke.

Protests and prawn cocktails

I used to be press officer for a state organization in Ireland known today as Enterprise Ireland. We dealt with enterprise, innovation and manufacturing, so my work with media involved me in speech-writing and media exposure for government ministers presiding at events such as factory openings and award ceremonies. Occasionally, the more prestigious events would attract the presence of the country's prime minister.

On this occasion, Garret Fitzgerald held that office. It was an award ceremony for industrial excellence in a South Dublin hotel and my role included looking after the attending media, meeting the prime minister and walking him in to the top dignitaries inside, at which point I would rejoin the journalists and camera people at the press table.

As I moved out to the lobby, hotel security informed me that students from UCD, aware that Garret Fitzgerald was arriving, were gathering outside for a protest of some kind. Sure enough, as I positioned myself at the front door they were forming a barrier on the short driveway between the front gates and the lobby entrance. It was customary for me to walk to the dignitaries' cars, greet them as they emerged and walk them inside and then reverse the procedure on their departure. For example, during the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, I greeted the British Ambassador upon his arrival at an even and walked with him and six or more Special Branch officers into a venue.

As the prime minister's black limousine arrived, the students, male and female, began to lie down on the short driveway, blocking the car. As Garret got out and good-naturedly began to step over bodies, I instantly moved towards him, stepping over those closer to the front door. As I did so, an absurd thought came to me. My daughter was attending UCD at the time. Would I step over her body to greet the nation's prime minister?

But there was more to come. As I resumed my place at the press table, hotel management informed me that the head student wanted to deliver a letter to the assembly, so I went out with them to the lobby where a well-dressed student was waiting with his letter. On impulse, I invited him to join us for lunch and he accepted with alacrity. I sat him with us at the press table where with complete ease he chatted with the journalists, showing no further interest either in the letter or the protest, tucking into the prawn cocktail and sipping the good wine with the ease of one in a familiar milieu.

I don't know how long his colleagues waited for him in the cold outside.

Inside the chorus girls' dressing room

I served six years as an audit clerk in the offices of a Dublin firm of accountants before qualifying. One of our clients was Capitol and Allied Cinemas, which represented the Capitol Theatre beside the GPO in O'Connell Street and about six smaller cinemas in Dublin. Each year I was part of a small team that spent several weeks auditing the books in the Capitol's boardroom, which was situated above the main lobby with its window looking out through the electric signs onto O'Connell Street.

The Capitol was one of two theatres in Dublin, which featured both a movie and a stage show, the other being the nearby Theatre Royal. The stage shows in both included performances by troupes of dancing girls, who in between the other acts would go through their routines. The troupe at the Royal was called the Royalettes and the one in the Capitol the Capitollettes.

Before moving to the main extraordinary story, there was another one while I was working there. It was 1953 and the Capitol was showing one of its most famous movies - Shane, which was attracting huge audiences, although queues were common for most of the main downtown Dublin cinemas. It is difficult to describe the impact that this movie, featuring Alan Ladd, had on Dublin audiences, although its impact is well recorded elsewhere and this little story may also add to an understanding.

One morning, well before the afternoon performance, as we totted up our columns in the boardroom, there came screaming and uproar from the main lobby below us. A very senior executive, who I will not name, had apparently suffered a mental breakdown, because he arrived into the lobby dressed as a cowboy with a toy pistol and began shooting at the cleaning ladies who scattered screaming. He was rushed away and there was no published news of the incident or any news about him afterwards.

So I move on to the chorus girls incident. One year the Capitol management, suspecting that things were not fully in order in the wardrobe department demanded that we carry out an unscheduled audit of the garments. The wardrobe department was situated at the end of a corridor that ran from the wings of the stage to the backstreet stage door. Just above the steps down to the street stage door was a toilet, next the wardrobe mistress and her assistants with their sewing machines and next door to them the actual wardrobe, which was a long room with rows of hanging garments on each side. Most of these were sets of ten or twelve for the chorus girls. Between here and the stage wings were all the individual dressing rooms for resident and visiting stars and right at the stage end a very large dressing room for the troupe of girl dancers, the Capitolettes.

My friend and colleague, Peadar, and I were chosen for this special audit, mainly I suppose because at eighteen we were the youngest audit clerks. Our job was to take the lists of garments and by label to count the actual amounts in the wardrobe to see if they matched the listed numbers and this task extended even to shoes. It was obvious that theft by the girls was suspected.

What we began as 'a lark' became a three week nightmare as we laboured inside a stuffy and dusty confined windowless room, painfully counting sets of dancing costumes. Many of them had underskirt netting that emitted fine dust, so that eventually we found ourselves both exhausted and literally choking. One might not have noticed much dust from a few of them, but after separating a dozen or so each of dozens of costumes we found ourselves overwhelmed.

We worked normal hours from morning on, helped by both the wardrobe mistress and the fatherly stage door security man or bouncer, who guarded the stage door. The Stage Manager was the overall authority of the area. Around lunch time the girls, including their head dancer, would arrive for the afternoon performance and begin their preparing and they would exchange pleasantries with us as they came up and down the corridor between the wardrobe mistress and toilets and their own dressing room. While we were both normal young heterosexual males, we each had girlfriends of our own age, mine to become my wife, so we did not have any deep interest in these girls who were probably all in their twenties.

One afternoon when we were resting outside the wardrobe, trying to recover with some fresh air, we experienced something quite new to us but apparently common around and inside stage doors. A dancer was walking down towards the toilets and about to pass us and because of what then happened I can still picture her. She was wearing a loose partly opened silken dressing gown over a two piece dancing costume. A man came up the stairs from the street and began to talk with the now suspicious security man, but suddenly dodged past him and literally threw himself at the girl, thoroughly shocking us as we stood there. The security man dragged him off her and began to push him down towards the stage door. The culprit tried to hang onto the rail, whining, but the security man virtually beat him with his fists until he fell out into the street. I will also never forget the girl's reaction. After her initial gasp, she brushed herself off and continued as if unaffected to the toilet. One thinks of today's obsession with unwanted sexual attention and harassment. We learned that the intruder was known as a 'stage door Johnny'.

Our own adventure came in the final week after we had finished the costume count. We were instructed to count the shoes and to include the many in the girls' dressing room, unannounced and during a morning before they came to work.

Upon entering the room, we were first struck by the rows of mirrors and chairs and under each mirror a sink full of body make-up. But we immediately had a problem as the only way we could count the shoes by type was to arrange them in pairs, which action was sure to alert them that we had been there, but we had no choice so set to work. Right on cue, early that afternoon, the head girl appeared and demanded that we accompany her back up to the dressing room. We went dutifully, while, unknown to us, either the wardrobe mistress or security man ran for help.

The girls had just finished their first routine and each sat in costume in front of her mirror. It was another scene never to be forgotten. The head girl, standing in from of us in her costume, angrily denouncing our intrusion, while all the others sat quite decorous and silent, attending to their make-up. To say that we were out of our depth would be an understatement. People say that auditing is a boring job. The charges being levelled at us were not clear, but one was that we had stolen a picture of the Pope from one of the mirrors. The surreal scene ended when the Stage Manager rushed in, extracted us and read the riot act to the head girl. Many years later I assumed that the rest of the girls had a good laugh after we were rescued.

But the real lesson for our times was what then happened. Our boss back at the office sent for us urgently and when we appeared before him expressed the fear that we had been upset by the experience and was relieved when we assured him that we were fine. Today it is inconceivable that two young men would be in such a situation, but, if they were, they would probably have to undergo therapy or counselling.

Brief Encounter

In William Shakespeare's, The Tempest, Prospero reflects that 'our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air: and like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples - - - shall dissolve, and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on - - - - '.

Yes this story is the stuff made from such dreams. In the year 1967, I was a young man at the peak of a brilliant career. Having been one of the world's first computer programmers in Bell Telephone in Canada and the US, I returned to work for IBM in Ireland in the Sixties, had a couple of computer books published and by 1967 at the age of 33 was in what might have been the top job for someone of my age as computer manager for Ireland's national transport company. I had a gold travel pass, given only to top European transport company executives allowing first class travel all over Europe.

In 1967 I attended an international computer conference in Nice, south of France. Just down the road towards Monaco was St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a seaside village on a peninsula jutting into the blue Mediterranean.

There was no TGV in those days so travel from the Riviera to Paris meant a change of train at Marseille and an overnight couchette to Paris. But first class travel by rail was luxurious.

As the conference ended, I set off for home, changing platforms for the Paris train at Marseille. My first indication of the encounter ahead was when I noticed the ticket checker at the gate responding to me and my gold pass by pointing at me and signalling an official who was standing down outside the first class coaches. I was apparently being marked out for some special treatment. Today it would more likely be to check the validity of my pensioner pass, because as Prosporo predicted the vanities of my youth have long since dissolved.

The smartly-attired station official at the first class coach greeted me.

"Excuse me, sir, we are looking for discreet passengers to share a coach with a couple and not bother them with attention." I had noticed a crowd held back by some barriers at the gate.

"Certainly," I replied, briefly wondering who would need such protection.

As I was being directed to the door, three girls who had broken through the barrier came running down the platform, pursued by security guards and managed to thrust a piece of paper for an autograph through a window. The man who took it signed it and handed it back out before the excited girls were taken away.

I was escorted onto the private coach, where apart from the couple, at whom I did not stare, were a few professional men minding their own business. I parked my case on the rack, removed my jacket and settled down for the journey, trying not to look across the aisle at the couple.

Then I caught a flash of her violet eyes, which drew one irresistibly to look at her. Instantly recognizable, as was her partner, she was the most famous woman in the world and they, together, the most famous couple - Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

They were on their way from their place at Cap Ferrat to London. Four years earlier in the movie Cleopatra, Elizabeth had become the first actress to earn a million dollars for a single movie.

I was alone at a four seater table and they were across the aisle, facing me, only one row back, just the two of them at their table.

Because of our positions we could if we chose look across at each other, but I being young and successful in my own way and full of my own dreams and vanities had no need to brush shoulders with, stare at, or obtain the autographs of, celebrities. I slipped into my own quiet reveries and let the long journey to Paris begin. In a few hours I would be asleep in a couchette and Taylor and Burton could be in bed next door for all I cared. I stared out at the passing beautiful Provence countryside. It never occurred to me that I could have looked like a lonely young man to anyone.

Dinner came, French railways first-class standard, served by two splendidly uniformed waiters, the couple first and then me, as if I was of equal importance. They chose their wines, but I just pointed at a bottle, safe in the knowledge that it was free for me. The meal was excellent. After we had finished, Richard Burton got up to use the washroom, conveniently located at our end. I did not look directly across but could see from the corner of my eye. He returned and after a few moments she also arose.

I continued to look straight ahead, but then - - -.

My God, she had paused to look down at me! I looked up into those violet eyes.

"Hi," she said softly and then she smiled at me.

"Hi," I said, weakly, my youthful arrogance melting in the face of such incandescent beauty.

We are indeed such stuff as dreams are made on.

The sad story of Butterfly san

Puccini would have approved, because this story has it all - a beautiful young woman, a handsome man, a ship and a sad end. But the beautiful young woman was Bronwen from Wales and the handsome man was Japanese and she was the one who left him. She told me this strange story when we worked together in the great American corporation that was known as Bell Telephone.

What had drawn us together was that in the vast, and at times stifling, conformity of a great organization, we were both from the 'old country', she Wales and I just across the water, Ireland. Our relationship never advanced beyond friendship, because I was married and she became a friend also to my wife. Although very attractive and intelligent, she appeared to shun personal relationships with men, but loved our coffee break and lunch chats where we shared our otherwise suppressed views of the ways of our fellow workers and the demands of the mighty corporation.

After about a year of friendship, she asked for and was granted six months leave of absence to see the world. She left and the break expanded into a year, during which time I missed her company. When she finally returned, she came around to our apartment to tell us this extraordinary story.

On the Japanese leg of her world journey, she had embarked on a cruise which docked for a four hour visit at a port where there was a popular shrine on a hill above the harbour. In the cable car on the way up, she was befriended by a good-looking young Japanese man, keen to practice his English.

They first enjoyed the views from the top where he pointed out the various parts of the city below. They then settled down for a long chat in the restaurant. Around the two hour point, they went out to the verdant garden at the back, where a small ornate fence separated garden from sky and sea and the depths below. He took her hand and suddenly they were kissing passionately.

By the two and a half hour point they were deeply in love. They hastily wrote down names and addresses and contact numbers in each other's diaries. At the three hour point, the ship's mournful siren began to warn passengers to begin returning. They were by now locked in a sad embrace, lovers not wanting to part, but knowing that soon they must. They began the descent and, once back on the streets, slowed their sad steps as they moved towards the ship. The last few minutes were spent locked in embrace at the gangplank. Had he not thrust her onto it at the request of a sailor, she would have been left on the dock. Weeping, she raised her hand in farewell from the ship's rail. He stood forlorn.

The next port was six hours away. From the ship, she telephoned her boss in Bell Telephone and requested a further six months leave of absence. This was granted, so the next day she disembarked and took a train back to the port they had just left. He was waiting with open arms for her.

He brought her to his home where his mother and father, brothers and sisters greeted her warmly and welcomed her into the family. That night they made love in his bed.

Happy days followed as she dressed up in Japanese clothes and let herself become absorbed into family and community life. Gently, he broke some sad news to her. He was committed to an arranged marriage and this could not be changed. They had just five months together before he must bid her farewell and take his new wife into his bed.

Bronwen said to him, "When I have to leave you, you will be known as 'Butterfly san' or 'Mister Butterfly' and I will be Madam Pinkerton."

The Japanese part of her story ended here, but she had not finished. From her bag she took out his letters written since they had parted, and then she read this piece:

"My new wife knows about you and last week I asked her how she felt about it. She replied that she accepted it but sometimes when she sees the little blue envelopes with your hand writing on them coming in through our post box, she feels very sad."

As we listened to this end of the story, I thought to myself that surely his new wife was the real Butterfly, because while she now lay in physical embrace with him at night, she knew that his heart was with his Welsh Bronwen far away in a country in the West.

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