Mr Sheridan French should be the gentleman half of a Dresden china figurine. Instead he is a Court clerk in Cork. His courtliness lends the judge authority. Clarion calls for order are moderated by empathic gestures of polite alarm. Unhappy litigants, trembling across the divided Court, freeze. Silence sucks in the anger till all is calm. The judge pronounces in a passionless vacuum - judicious words dignified by the echo.
"The defendant is found guilty. Extenuating circumstances (Your Honor, he was drunk). His sentence is.... to be put on the boat to England."*
"If justice is not seen to be done it at least can be heard." Sheridan French intimates this to a callow student over whiskey in the Oyster. The cavernous tavern is famous for its rare steaks and even rarer wines (nobody in the town can afford them). Etiolated fingers fatten towards the tips, which meet to form a cathedral, He puffs into the sanctuary, hands splay like a priest re-enacting the helplessness of being crucified. "The best", Sheridan remarks casually, "is the enemy of the good. God's on the side of big battalions." Quotations pepper his conversation like the samplings of today the Late Great music.
is appreciated for its rarity value in our town.
The lady in the Dresden would be tranquil. A haven of good sense, the mantlepiece.Inclining towards her, his phrenologist's dream of a head holds its own despite a willowy frame. His hair is like a helmet of worms, tufts permed into place. He is clad in Court clothes - black jacket with silken lapels and pinstriped trousers, grey tie, ineptly knotted, starch-stiff detachable collar the stains on his shirt are cloaked by a cardigan. I notice this as the evening loosens his buttons.
Sheridan is a night student of my father. He wants to escape. "The Law by day confirms for me that the world is a crook's paradise." He flounders by night in history's quagmire for precedents proving it was always thus. He rolls a cigarette. I match it. "My crooked smoke", he murmurs, admiring the smoldering thread, "above the stir of this dim spot which men call earth." "Damn spot." O'Leary has arrived to complete the party. Sheridan ignores him. “Out of the gnarled timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made."
His sentences are patterned by word counts. "If you can't say something important in fourteen words, better shut up and listen. If you can't shut up and listen, better say something important in fourteen words." The pauses between are made to count.
This habit, he claims, was inspired by a character in Turgenev who found all great thoughts were contained within fourteen words. He has a store of examples from Pascal, Schiller, Rousseau and Kant. Courts like war are boring. Sheridan totted up words in dictionaries of quotations and concluded that Voltaire was the greatest thinker. More of his wisdoms attained the requisite number.
Sheridan's measured discourse is not consistent. "That's a half-thought, only seven words." We stopped counting.
His doctoral thesis on Voltaire is slow to develop - ten years old and still not ready to read or write. Stray paragraphs hover with the smoke on the ceiling of the Oyster. Mostly quotes. "Men only use their thoughts to justify wrongdoing, and words to conceal their thoughts." O'Leary - a fellow chronic student - is sympathetic. "Everything is good leaving the Creator's hands. But goes to the bad in man's." He lost his draft Rousseau thesis on the Circle Line while researching in London.
I sense they are both trying to impress me or impress my father through me. Fat luck. A gargantuan Arts student who lives and studies on pints of Guinness in the Oyster glad-waves from his stool. "Is that lemonade you're drinking, French? Voltaire drank lots of it to cure his smallpox." Sheridan dismisses him with a delicate 'phfft'. He is the son of the perfect policeman who directed traffic on the Grand Parade at rush hour, a fine figure of a man, with a Clark Gable moustache. "Get back to your books," hoots O'Leary, "and earn your Guinness." The roused giant is not to be outdone. "Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau. Mock on, mock on, it's all in vain. / You throw the sand against the wind, and the wind blows it back again." I count the words - it is two word-sonnets.
Sheridan is telling us that "Voltaire began in the Law and ended up an outlaw who dined with Emperors". "Just like you, my friend", remarks O'Leary, "and that's Nero over there." The Guinness giant will get a first-class degree and a studentship to Montpellier and die before he is thirty. But in the Oyster that evening the world is his and ours.
O'Leary and myself are invited for a pre-dom at Sheridan's. He is known to have a little wife at home, a down-to-earth local girl who keeps a stormy marriage pegged to reality. Not that Sheridan would raise his voice or puff the house down. He is a gentleman. The gales all come from the wife. Her frying pan greetings for his tipsy midnight arrivals are legendary. I am curious.
We take a short cut across fields. Sheridan leads, swinging a cane. Midnight. Full moon. Cows squat like ornaments under a sycamore tree. The river not far off, freshens the silence. The evening chills - three drunk men hardly notice. Pounding forward with sweaty faces through the clumpy grass. Sheridan waxes lyrical about my father, intonation lowered. O'Leary is nodding agreement. All the irony and scoffing of the evening ("not having succeeded in the world they took their revenge speaking ill of it") drained to a reverential hush. I am disappointed, wanting the low down on my father. It's embarrassing. Could it be their careers depend on it? Unworthy thought. The hedge surrounding the field is fuchsia. I tear off a flower and say, "Dancing Pavlova. That's what he calls them. Now tell me one bad thing about the Professor." Sheridan stops dead. Looks at me. His aristocratic face is gothic, demonic. "One thing I can't stand about your father. At social gatherings. He accepts a drink, a small whiskey. And barely touches it all evening. I can't keep my eyes off his glass. Half full when he leaves. I always make a point of finishing it."
He does not count his words.This is serious.
The last field is barb wired. Sheridan raises it with his cane and ushers O'Leary and myself through. But stays put with the wire upstretched. "What are you doing, French," O'Leary exasperates. "It's the grandfathers. I'm letting them through." Midnight. Moonlight. Three drunken men. Stand by while their respective grandfathers pass through the hoop. Six grey eminences honored. I think of mine. Never knew either. They died before I was born. I missed them. Now Sheridan has gifted me two grandfathers, if only for a minute. I hear the river. French's house is by the weir.
A three-room cottage. Mrs French opens the door. Three drunk men. She is tiny and homely, no Dresden. Pleasant enough in her annoyance. "The boy is asleep. We can't invite your friends in." Sheridan remonstrates gently. Then slides to the ground, his cane breaking the fall. We pick him up. "I know you. You are.......” Mrs French steers the lifting party to a chair where Sheridan is perched. " The Professor's son. I don't mean to be unwelcoming." "He needs his whiskey", confides O'Leary, " and a good sleep." We leave.
"Jeremy Bentham's clotheshorse corpse sitting in state in London University,"O'Leary hoots.
Sheridan's thesis was eventually published. The Times Literary Supplement approved. "Mr Sheridan French has written an elegant book about Voltaire." Like Gibbon after completing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he settled for walks, talk and whiskey. ("The superfluous is a very necessary thing in the best of all possible worlds.") Two years before retiring from the History department, he was granted tenure. My father was with his own grandfathers by then.
His son - like Voltaire in his wilderness years - moved to London. He has his father’s
hands. Plays the violin in the Wren Orchestra.
Sheridan French's grandson is called Candide.