The Engineer’s Secret

I remember clearly the first time I met him. It was the spring of 1923. I had just turned twenty-five and he was a schoolboy of seventeen.

It was the Trinity tie that brought the enigmatic youth into my life. His was not the type of attention that I had had in mind in the wearing of my old university tie. I was poised reading the Irish Times beside my father’s brand new Austin Seven, waiting for him to come out of the bank and hoping to be noticed by the solid merchants of Enniskillen or failing that a pretty girl or two. I wore a new trilby hat perched squarely on my head. Some fellows wore the trilby at a rakish angle, but that wasn’t my style as a consultant electrical engineer. I was looking to reassure those sceptics who believed that electric light was not only too expensive, it could also lead to feeble-mindedness. A jaunty trilby did not suggest soundness and the reliability of a professional man. Instead, according to my mother, it gave me the look of Harold Lloyd.

By spring 1917 the Great War, had left me with one eye and one good hand. I had felt that with these injuries I was on the scrap heap at nineteen considering work as a lowly civil servant. Before enlisting in 1915, I was doing well as an apprenticed electrical mechanic with Maguire and Gatchell in Dublin carrying out the type of dexterous mechanical work for which you needed two good hands coordinated by two equally good eyes. That world was closed to me now. However right at the end of the war my luck changed. In spite of my disablement, I got into Trinity College Dublin to study for a degree in electrical engineering. This would allow me to be involved in less manual, more theoretical and managerial work; at the cutting edge of the new post-war modern technology where I wanted to be.

Although being very much of the old school and a dab hand with the pony and trap, my father had been persuaded by me to buy a motor car to get the family in and out of the town and, more importantly, to get me to jobs in the area. Ours was the two hundredth car in the county and cut a dash around the town – when I was able to drive it in a straight line. My sixty year old father had no wish to learn and wouldn’t let my younger and more able-bodied brother, John, take the wheel. As there were no driving tests, driving lessons or even insurance in those times, I simply obtained a licence from the council and away I went with one good hand and one eye driving this fast moving machine along rocky roads.

To this day I’ll never forget my father’s face when I turned up in this bright red Austin. To me it was a thing of mechanical beauty, but on seeing the car the old man’s pipe hit the dirt.

‘Aye I see the game now, boy,’ he declared. ‘Ye plan to be the go-boy of the county and at my expense! Do ye think ye’ll be taken seriously drivin’ around in that music hall yoke? Is it chorus girls yer after or paid work, sir!?’

I was made to take the red Austin back and exchange it for regulation black. Of course he was right. Such a colour would have confirmed me as nothing more than a snake oil salesman, regardless of how the trilby sat on my swelled head.

I was engrossed in reading a report in the Irish Times of the civil war butchery further south. Ireland was a place that had nurtured my youth. In spite of being a second generation immigrant, I had, and still have, a deep connection with the land and its people, but it was rapidly becoming a foreign land of dark hatreds. I read that five IRA prisoners were brutally executed the previous day at Cahersiveen, County Kerry. They were taken from a National Army post in the town at gunpoint by Dublin Guard officers under protest from the garrison. The prisoners were then shot in the legs to prevent escape and blown up by a landmine planted by National Army troops. I struggled to understand it. The Black and Tans had done no worse.

‘You’re a Trinity man, I see.’

The voice was youthful with an educated Dublin accent. It tore me away from those fearsome images. I turned to see a tall bespectacled youth smiling and blinking in the bright sun, dressed in the uniform of Portora Royal School.

‘What?’

‘Trinity,’ he repeated pointing to my tie.

‘Oh aye,’ I said, my hand instinctively checking that it was properly knotted.

‘I’m hoping to go to Trinity.’

‘Oh. Have you been accepted?’ I asked.

‘I’m waiting to be called for an interview.’

‘I had to sit an exam,’ I said.

‘What did you study?’

He had an intense, probing stare that was difficult to return, yet there was also vulnerability behind the challenging look.

‘Engineering.’

‘Uh-huh,’ he looked disappointed at my answer. He was examining my eyes. I guessed he saw the strangeness of my glass eye. I matched his stare. He looked away uneasily. I sensed he wanted more from me. He began examining the car, prodding one of the tyres with his foot.

‘And you?’ I asked.

‘Nice motor car. Black, but red must be the colour of choice. I saw a red one in Dublin at Christmas. Mind you, red may frighten the horses in your line of work,’ he said without looking up. ‘French, Italian, and English.’

‘Is there a living in that?’

He shrugged as if he had never considered his prospects.

‘Did the Germans do that to you?’ he asked suddenly looking at my eyes and glancing down at my deformed left hand. He missed nothing.

‘Sort of,’ I said thrusting my hand into my pocket.

‘Sort of,’ he repeated reflectively, nodding. I thought he was going to pursue the subject. If he did I would have to tell him to sling his hook. It wasn’t the done thing to ask a man how he got his injuries. Luckily he saw my steely reaction and thought the better of it. ‘I won’t study German,’ he said, perhaps to curry favour.

I had no strong opinion about the Germans. Many of the lads hated them and understandably so. But I had had no direct encounters with them in the war. I had been an aircraft mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps. My injuries were caused by a stupid flying accident. My poor pilot died without a German in sight to blame.

‘There’ll be another one,’ he said.

‘Another what?’

‘Another war. Yes. They made too much money out of the last one. They all need the business. Engineers like you will do well.’

‘Away and jump in the lake, sonny,’ I said angrily. ‘It was the war to end all wars. Lloyd George and all those other fellows said so.’

‘And you believe them?’

‘Listen. You don’t know what you’re talking about. We finished the Germans.’

I glared at him. I had never heard such an opinion. It shook me to the core. ‘But if that’s how you feel, sonny, you’d better do what I did and get down to the castle and join up; forget about acting the dandy at Trinity.’

‘I’m waiting for the call. It’ll be a while yet,’ he said confidently and walked off as nice as you like leaving me greatly churned up.

Did these young men who had missed the Great War want a re-match? Was the last nightmare not enough for this schoolboy and his type? Looking back at this encounter it may have been my recognition that he might well be right that distressed me most. It was indeed true that engineers like me, currently struggling for work, would do well in another war. Was this what I had studied for, to design implements of yet another war? I thought of the awful business down in Kerry. In anger and frustration I cursed the world and threw my new hat into the car, kicking a tyre for good measure. I looked up and down the street for my father realising I was making a holy show.

I mouldered over that encounter for several days and nights. On reflection I suppose it was inevitable that we should meet again in the small town of Enniskillen.

So when I got a note just a week later from the Headmaster of Portora, the Reverend E G Seale MA, asking for my advice about their electric system, my thoughts immediately went to that opinionated boy.

*

It was raining heavily when I pulled up in front of the school. I saw two men in working clothes sheltering under a fir tree and asked them for directions to the Headmaster’s office.

‘Oh you’re asking a mouthful there sir,’ said the taller of the two.

‘Why’s that?’

‘He’s not here,’ said the short one. ‘His Reverence does this all the time; makes arrangements with folk and then clears off, forgets, doesn’t turn up. So we wait. We’re waiting for him in this rain by this tree here.’

‘Aye, to have it out with him. I’ve been asking him for new boots for weeks. He agrees I need them. Well, ye can’t look after the grounds with boots that leak, can ye?’ He lifts up a boot to show me the hole in the sole.

‘How’s your foot?’ asks the short one.

‘Swolled as ever. Can’t get me boots off most nights. Nothing to be done.’ He shrugs and sighs resignedly.

As the two men bemoaned their lot I saw the boy who had tormented me walking across the quadrangle with a cricket bat in hand.

‘Oh ho, look at that, Michael! There’s the chastened boy and no mishtake,’ said the taller one pointing to the boy.

‘Yer’re right there, Mick. The good lord has chastened him, brought him low for his sinful ways.’

‘Fair play.’

‘Who is that boy?’ I asked.

‘Beckett, Master Samuel Beckett. Red hot cricketer and captain of the rugby team. Bloody great Dublin snob,’ said the one called Mick.

‘He likes tormenting those he sees as his social inferiors. That is Mick and me plus most teachers. Calls us names. What’s he call us, Mick?’

‘He calls me Vladimir,’ sniffed Mick. ‘The other day he reduced Mr. Tackaberry to tears in front of the whole class.’

‘Mr. Tackaberry is a rather soft gentleman, sir, unable to control the youngsters. We’ve had to go in and restore order at times ourselves. Beckett there is an agitator. Probably an anarchist or a republican even,’ said Michael.

‘But he went too far this time, see. He was brought before his reverence. Now he regrets his behaviour, I’m told, and is a much chastened boy. Look at him, head down. Not like hisself at all. Ha ha.’

‘Well the same boy tormented me the other day in the High street,’ I said. ‘Then he just walked off, calm as you like.’

I explained the content of the incident. The two men were outraged that a disabled ex-soldier should be treated in such a manner, threatened with another war by a ‘smart Dublin jackeen’.

‘That’s his style, sir. Let’s get this settled. Oi! Master Beckett!’ shouted Mick. ‘There’s someone here to see ye.’

I protested, but they insisted on calling this Samuel Beckett over. The boy responded with a quizzical look. Then as he drew near and recognised me, he visibly flinched.

‘Be careful now, sir,’ said Michael. ‘He’s a champion boxer too; handy with his fists.’

‘If he starts anything with ye we’ll bear witness, sir,’ said Mick enthusiastically. ‘He’ll be exposed and thrown out.’

As Beckett approached my heart sank. This was not how I had envisaged the afternoon turning out. I imagined I would have had a civilised conversation with the renowned Rev E G Seale during which I could demonstrate my technical expertise, we would agree terms and I would proceed with an agreed schedule of work like the professional man I was. I did not imagine I would be brawling in the rain with one of the pupils. How could I expect to secure any work if I was a known brawler?

‘This gentleman says you abused him in the street, Master Beckett. Upset him with threats of another war. He’s just fought one for you and me and got badly injured. Now he’s come here to see his Reverence about you and…and like us he’s left waiting in the rain. What do ye say to that?’

I got ready for a confrontation.

‘I-I,’ he began. ‘I am sorry. I don’t know what came over me. It was just an idle theory about war. But I shouldn’t have voiced it ….to you.’

This was indeed an altered young man. There was no arrogance or piercing stares. His eyes darted guiltily from me to Michael to Mick.

‘Well we all have our theories about war. Don’t we, Mick?’

‘We do indeed.’

‘But we don’t go accosting our ex-soldiers in the street. What does the good book say? Let him who is without stones, cast the first one into a glasshouse,’ said Michael.

I saw the flicker of amusement on Beckett’s face at Michael’s confused biblical quote. He looked at me to see if I shared his amusement. I did.

‘And what about the names you call Michael and me when we’re going about our respectful duties in the school? Vladimir and … and…?’ asked Mick.

‘Estragon,’ said Beckett.

‘Not very respectful of two loyal retainers such as our good selves, is it? Foreign names! Do we look foreign to ye?’

‘No, not at all. I’m sorry. It’s just that your names are so.. so similar. I….’ Beckett continued to glance appealingly at me to rescue him from the moral onslaught of Michael and Mick.

‘I think we have reached an understanding here, gentlemen,’ I said suddenly reaching my good hand out to Beckett who took it gladly and we shook.

Michael and Mick stood erect with their hands on the coat lapels, waiting. Beckett took the hint, but instead of immediately offering his hand to them, he let them wait. So a silence descended upon us as we stood in the rain with Michael and Mick standing very erect and Beckett smirking. I could see that not all the mischievousness in this boy had been chased away by recent events. It was merely becoming more mature and hopefully a little less cruel.

Anxious to get away from the silent stand-off between the two men and Beckett, I offered him a lift in my motor car. I didn’t specify where, but Beckett quickly recognised it as a way to escape their continued examination. We thanked Michael and Mick for their wise words and rapidly drove off out of the school grounds leaving them with their hands still clasped to their lapels like two stoic policemen.

Nothing unites people more than laughing together. And so it was with Beckett and I in the Austin Seven as we left the school and her guardians behind. I bought him tea and pastry in a little cafe near the cathedral. He was keen to know about Trinity and I was equally keen to talk about my happy post-war years there. He still held to the view that there would another war. Only this time in a more considered fashion. We talked books. His tastes were too erudite for me – Proust, Joyce and Russell: whereas I preferred Dunsany, Sabatini and Haggard.

We promised to stay in touch and met a couple more times that spring before Beckett went down to Trinity. However we never did communicate after that. Until one day thirty years later a package arrived for me from France. It was Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ in the original French and signed by the author himself. Inside was a note:

‘You see, sadly I was right about the war. But I did my bit this time – Boy Scout stuff really – and luckily came off a little better than you. I think war has become a habit now. You’ll see our old friends Vladimir and Estragon feature in this. Hope your French is up to it. Best wishes, Sam.’

I pride myself that, as far as I could tell, no one but me knew what Beckett’s inspiration had been for the characters, Vladimir and Estragon. Perhaps that’s why he never returned to his old school in case his secret was revealed.