Authors: Patrick McCabe
When Declan tried to explain that it had never been his intention to act ‘the big fellow’, the response was nothing more than a bewildered shaking of heads. ‘Oh no,’
Fish-hook said, ‘of course it wasn’t! And I suppose the next thing you’ll be trying to tell us is that you don’t deserve to be blown up!’ At this, raucous laughter
erupted ecstatically skyward as small tears came into Declan’s eyes. ‘There’s one thing I’ll say for you, Coyningham,’ continued Fish-hook wearily as he took him by
the arm, ‘there’s no doubt about it! You’ve definitely got some neck!’ Declan meekly permitted himself to be led away as in the distance – although his captors were
but a few feet away – he heard: ‘Come on, lads! Let’s get this over with! We haven’t got all day!’ to which his eager minions responded eagerly: ‘Yep, Fish-hook!
Whatever you say, Fish-hook, sir!’
In a way, there was a strange beauty about being led away to be blown up, Declan reflected, as they passed the railway gates, going towards McConkey’s field. An odd sense of comfort, of
journey’s end, in that he intimately knew the place in which he was to meet his demise, and had done for most of his admittedly brief time upon this earth. A privilege which, he was well
aware, had been denied to the Saviour in His particular time of trial, never having seen Calvary before in his life. So it was that when he heard Fish-hook cry: ‘OK, lads! Off with the
trousers, then!’ the sound of angels singing behind McClarkey’s Garage came as no surprise to him. And why he felt no pain, only resignation, as Fish-hook deftly inserted the nozzle of
the air hose snugly between his sad but acceptant buttocks. Why, there was not the slightest trace of vindictiveness or thought of revenge when he heard Fish-hook trumpet: ‘Right, boys! Start
pumping! Pump! Pump away there like the clappers!’ as gleefully, they complied.
Quite how long the eccentric execution took it is impossible to estimate with any degree of accuracy. Suffice it to say that within mere minutes Declan, who had up until then been of average,
unremarkable schoolboy size, had become a truly hideous, bladderesque monstrosity, with, paradoxically, upon his face an expression of almost total peace, if not ecstasy, which persisted right up
until the very last moment before he finally did, in fact, rend asunder.
It seems superfluous to state that the days which followed were sad. Perhaps if Declan had been knifed, or shot, or even blown up in what might be considered the normal way, the good folk of
Barntrosna might have found some means of assuaging their grief. . .who can say? One thing is for certain – the task of gathering up various pieces of the now-decimated schoolboy, which fell
to Skinner Moran, had an undeniable effect on him for the rest of his mortal days. It was not unknown for him to begin laughing whilst strolling up the street, seemingly for no reason whatsoever.
In the end too, Declan’s Aunt Gertie had to be taken away and this gave rise to much local sadness. Particularly when, on being assisted into the ambulance, she insisted on smacking the
attendant playfully on the shoulder, tittering: ‘Arra, leave me alone! I can manage perfectly well myself!’ as she paused then to add, with a glazed and unsettling, wide-eyed look,
‘But of all places to find his right eyeball – on the footpath outside the New Pin Cleaners! I ask you!’
Declan’s assailants, of course, were packed off to Borstal, only to return some few short months later, infused with a new energy, and are once more to be seen strutting, with renewed
vigour, about the town and glaring brazenly at the cowed citizens. ‘Just try it,’ their malevolent gaze seems to say, ‘and let’s see what will happen – particularly in
the vicinity of McConkey’s field!’
But no one has any intention of trying anything, for the qualities of inner strength required for such fortitude are now but a memory; indicating, perhaps, the deepest and most depressingly
enduring legacy of Declan’s demise – the sense of hopelessness which came to hold the town in a fierce, unyielding grip. Indulgence in all moral thinking now began to appear futile.
For, the townspeople found themselves reasoning, how can a deity be possibly said to exist if the wanton destruction of a boy like Declan Coyningham can be so casually countenanced? A boy who lived
only for others, who would one day (or so he thought – another cruel, cosmic joke!) have administered the sacraments to all his neighbours, become lifelong friends with Monsignor Pacelli
Harskins (in a real, flesh-and-blood relationship far beyond the realm of subconscious longings and dreams on a hot summer night), strolled about the leafy lanes chatting to passers-by and cracking
jokes with their growing children, singing lighthearted tunes to dandelions. But who was now nothing more than an awkward assemblage of bones and irregular innards lying in a cold casket in a
poorly maintained cemetery.
No, dear friends, the truth is that Declan Coyningham was never in fact ordained and now never will be; never live for his mother to see a shining force field vibrate about her
son. For her, it has proved but a chimera. As it has for all of us. And now that he lies, along with Aunty Gertie’s missal, inert beneath the grass and randomly scattered sweet papers, we
know in our hearts that he will never live to see the day when, before cheering crowds, he cruises homeward in that open-topped bus through streets bedecked with bunting.
No, there shall be no evening walks in the seminary grounds, no private crises of conscience along the ‘gravelled circle of contemplation’ as small birds twitter in the evenings. For
these, like so many of my thoughts about him, now are but as wisps of cloud drifting across the skies of what might have been.
Yes, he is far away now, that pale smiling boy whose soft hands once clasped his zippered missal of calf leather and whose precious words through smiling lips did promise ‘Someday I will
save the world!’, a sentiment which like the thinnest wisp of cloud slowly now makes its way silently above the rooftops, looking down upon me where I stand, moist-eyed, outside the New Pin
Cleaners, part of me lost for ever in a world that used to be, before Fish-hook Halloran, fate and the insouciance of an ‘all-seeing deity’ took the balloon of hope and, mockingly,
holding it aloft, repeatedly squeezed until we watched it, like a boy called Declan Coyningham one sad, seemingly innocent day one spring long ago, go ‘pop!’ before our very eyes.
Incredible as it may seem, the reputation of Bruce Lee as the supreme exponent of exhilarating, sweep-kicking kineticism is not yet secure, and it is indeed far from uncommon
to overhear comments so mind-numbingly ill-informed as to be almost stupefying. Comments such as: ‘This Bruce Lee fellow! What do you think of him? Is he all he’s cracked up to be, do
you think? To kung fu what Elvis was to rock and roll or a chopsocky fraud in a warm-up suit?’
It is galling to have to acknowledge that this is the pitiful standard of commentary currently prevailing. And to have to further admit that these would-be – and arrogant, with it! –
commentators are not content to leave it at that, but will insist on you accompanying them to a coffee shop or hotel bar where they can proceed with their sententious pronouncements – with
your presumed approbation, of course! – not to mention heaping unnecessary derision on the shoulders of a man who, for almost the entire duration of the 1970s, was the undisputed king of
kick-boxing. And who, if he were alive today, would soon show these bumptious detractors – who persist in puff-chestedly proclaiming from the rooftops that he is not all he is ‘cracked
up’ to be – just what the word
really means! It would be straight over a banqueting table in a somersault and a fresh-fish-slapping-on-concrete kick in the jaw for them!
But I suppose we ought not be too severe, for, in the end, what can one do but feel pity for them?
For the midgets, that is. For what else are they? If Bruce were alive today, it would take one glare – just one – from his intense, angular face, perhaps accompanied by a gym-towel
smack of his hand in the solar plexus, to dispose of a gratifying proportion of their intellectually diminutive number. And if that were to happen, I, for one, would have absolutely no compunction
about cheering on the air-slicing killing machine from Hong Kong. ‘Who’s the sick man of Asia now!’ I would cry, as he dispatched them like dominoes right across the floor of the
A deafening silence is what we could expect to look forward to after that particular encounter.
Ever since I completed my book
Bruce Lee and Me
, many people have come up to me and said: ‘Tell us, Helmet-Head’ – their nickname for me! – ‘which of all the
Big Boss’s films that you have seen would you consider to be your favourite?’ It is a question I hear time and again and yet, to this day, I have to confess that it is a teaser that
often comes very close to stumping me.
What I found quite extraordinary about the man when I first encountered him was that he was quite unlike himself. By which I mean that if you were anticipating an angry-looking oriental figure,
quite small, with two parallel scratches on his cheek and a sleek, short-cut hairstyle – itself not unlike a helmet! – then it is likely you would find yourself very taken aback indeed!
I had been half-expecting that, completely without warning, I should find him pantherlike leaping into action – instinctively succumbing to his natural, defensive impulses – catching me
around the neck with his legs whilst swinging from the top of a doorframe, or aiming a low-flying kick at my midsection. But, as it transpired, this was entirely misguided, with him being so
relaxed in fact that I had to actually plead with him to raise his right leg for the purposes of a photograph. Something else which surprised me also was his manner of speech. Avid viewers of his
films will be aware that the movement of the fighter’s lips will not always correspond to the sound which is to be heard on the soundtrack, for which reason I felt for a long time that my
hero suffered from a slight speech impediment, perhaps the result of repeated asthma attacks when he was a child. Which then led me to wonder was his condition directly related to his being from an
early age an eccentrically fluid and masterful kung fu expert? I could only imagine what it must have been like in the school playgrounds of Hong Kong with boys who had been born in the alleys and
side-streets of a city plagued with crime going: ‘Ha ha! Big chopsocky king! Bruce Lee has asthma – haven’t you, Bruce? Go on, Lee – let’s hear it! Do your stupid
cough for us!
Ha ha – did you ever hear the like of it, boys? Ha hatcha!’
I had fully intended to explore this hypothesis with him, and any other attendant childhood experiences which had a bearing on his becoming such a single-minded and practically invincible
one-man crime-busting machine. But, as I alluded earlier, when it turned out he could speak perfectly good English such a need evaporated instantly.
Which came as a welcome relief to me, to be perfectly honest, for one thing I cannot bear is the thought of anyone being teased because of their asthma. It is a most reprehensible practice and I
ought to know, quite frankly, for every day after school my own classmates amused themselves by waiting for me on the bridge, hitting me and prodding me relentlessly until I acquiesced and
performed a similar ritual for them, which they had quaintly termed ‘Helmet-Head Shiteing Razor Blades’. I can still hear their voices ringing in my ears as they mimicked what they
insisted was my idiosyncratic manner of perambulation and insisted that I now illustrate it for them, raucously crying: ‘That’s it, Helmet! Shite some more razor blades for us there!
Good man, Helmet-Head McGeough!’ pursuing me with a variety of twigs and sticks up and down the length and breadth of the bridge. It is fortunate for them, be assured, that I happened to be
in no way endowed with martial arts or kung fu skills, for had I been one thing is certain – I would have demonstrated none of the self-control for which the subject of this little memoir is
famous. Within seconds my cry of ‘
’ would have rent the air and I would have gone through my adversaries like a knife through butter until each and every one of them was
laid out on the bridge, folded like a wet noodle. I wonder how many ‘Razor Blade’ exhortations we’d have been hearing then! Very few, may I be so bold as to venture!
Another aspect of Bruce, which also took me by surprise, was just how friendly and companionable he could actually be! You hear all sorts of stories concerning oriental warriors, don’t
you? How you are never supposed to know what they are thinking and how, no matter how long you are in their company, be it fifty or a hundred years, you will never be considered a friend by them.
Well, I am sorry but I am afraid that in the case of Bruce Lee and myself, nothing could have been further from the truth! For of all the friends I have had in the course of my life, now as I
approach my forty-fifth year none of them has meant so much to me as the undisputed king of martial arts. Of course there are those who, to this day, will insist that the person I interviewed and
of whose life I have now extensively written was not Bruce Lee at all but someone they had clearly attired to resemble him. A waiter (they claimed!) in the Red Lotus Temple restaurant in Mullingar!
This, of course, is the sort of envious drivel one hears daily in the Bridge Bar from the mouths of those who have nothing better to do than invent rambling incoherent stories to brighten up their
otherwise unbearably dreary, benefit-collecting lives. There was a time, I admit, when these people would have mildly irritated me. I am not about to deny that. As neither am I about to deny that
if I had been – as I adverted to earlier – fortunate enough to be even mildly proficient in the art of martial polefighting, I would have taken the greatest pleasure in utilizing
crossbows, noose contraptions, dangling nets and sharpened plumbing pipes in order to hurl them over the parapets of the bridge and into the roaring waters below.
But, as it has been ordained that this is not to be my lot, I think there can be no better weapon to have at one’s disposal than a contempt which is complete and utter. In the early days,
when they would call from the street corner, ‘Oi! Helmet-Head! Still at the writing, are you? Good man yourself! Ha! Hatcha!’ or ‘One chicken curry and a pancake roll, please,
Helmet!’ I would long for the moment when an opportunity to bring the fist of fury to bear on the situation would present itself. But now their taunts I barely hear. I am usually too busy
making my way to our local video shop to rent either
Enter the Dragon
yet again, to be honest with you! I suppose I ought not to be so surprised when young Martin, the
eager assistant, shrugs his shoulders yet again and sighs wearily as he mournfully exclaims: ‘Oh no! It’s you again! Bruce Lee’s best mate!’