Subscriber OnlyRoss O'Carroll-Kelly

‘When I close my eyes at night, I can still see that bird’s horrible, leering face’

It’s the old man’s birthday, and Ronan has brought a surprising present to cheer him up

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Ross O'Carroll-Kelly: Charles. Illustration: Alan Clarke.

“Sur! Prise!” we all go.

But the old man – standing at the bottom of the stairs in Shanahan’s on the Green – barely raises a smile.

He’s like, “Oh! Hello, everyone!”

The old dear, who’s linking his orm, goes, “Happy birthday, Dorling!” and she smiles at him with a face on her like the fish option.


His eyes pan the room – yeah, no, we’ve booked out the entire downstairs – and he acknowledges a few people he recognises: “Ah, Kicker… Hello, Hennessy… Evening, Minister.”

I’m like, “Sit the fock down, will you?” and even though it gets a huge laugh from everyone, I’m not actually joking. “Everything doesn’t have to be about you.”

Twenty minutes later, he finally makes it through the throng of wellwishers to our table and plonks himself down next to me. He’s not himself. Everyone at our table can see it.

I’m there, “God, I’m storving here. I’d chew the orse off a low-flying duck.”

But Sorcha decides to indulge him. She goes, “How are you, Chorles?”

He’s like, “Oh, you know – another year older.”

She’s there, “Sad about the rugby, wasn’t it?” because she’s obviously wondering is that what he’s, like, sad about? She’s been counselling me for a fortnight now. “I thought they gave it their all.”

He goes, “Yes, I’m sure they did, Sorcha.”

She produces a box then, covered in wrapping paper. She’s like, “Happy birthday, Chorles!” and hands it across the table to him.

I’m nodding and grinning to try to make it look I’ve gone halves with her on it? I’m there, “I hope you don’t have one already.”

Then out of the corner of my mouth, I’m like, “What did we get him?”

Sorcha – through gritted teeth – goes, “Ross, you always focking do this to me. It’s bubble bath.”

I’m there, “It’s just focking bubble bath, Dad. From the two of us.”

Except it’s not bubble bath?

“Ah – cigors!” he goes.

Sorcha’s there, “They were made the same year you were born, Chorles. I had them imported from Havana.”

He’s like, “Oh – okay.”

Then he’s quiet again. Honor, in fairness to her, has a crack at him just after our storters arrive. She’s like, “How’s the book coming along, Granddad?”

And he’s there, “Book? What book?”

Yeah, no, they’re publishing a collection of 50 years of his letters to The Irish Times.

“Oh, that,” he goes. “Yes, my secretary is pulling all of those together.”

She’s there, “You must be excited.”

And he’s like, “Oh, yes, I suppose I must.”

Dude, you need to get over it. Seagulls have been dicks for years. And they’re probably going to go on being dicks.

—  Ross

Hennessy tips over to our table then. This is while we’re waiting for our steaks to arrive. “There’s an opinion poll in the Business Post tomorrow,” he goes. “Has New Republic on 23 per cent,” and if he’s expecting a high-five slash chest-bump, he’s disappointed.

The old man’s just like, “How interesting.”

You often hear people say that we should watch out for signs that people close to us might be struggling. And it’s me who ends up grasping that nettle.

“The fock is wrong with you?” I go.

The old dear is like, “Oh, don’t ask, Ross. He’s still going on about that wretched seagull.”

I’m there, “What, the one that took the Cohiba out of your mouth outside the Shelly? That was, like, weeks ago!”

He goes, “The thing attacked me, Ross, in broad daylight. And absolutely nothing is being done about it.”

“His doctor thinks he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” the old dear goes.

I’m there, “Dude, you need to get over it,” because I’m calling it. “Seagulls have been dicks for years. And they’re probably going to go on being dicks.”

Sorcha’s there, “Ross, don’t dismiss your father’s own lived experience,” because she’s always been a bit of a crawler around my old pair. “I can totally understand, Chorles, how you – a powerful man – can be left feeling totally emasculated by an experience like that.”

I’m there, “Are you not eating your onion rings? Give me his onion rings,” and I reach across the table and take his onion rings.

“You know, when I close my eyes at night,” he goes, “I can still see that bird’s horrible, leering face.”

I’m there, “Could you pick him out of a line-up?” trying to lighten the atmos.

But the old man’s like, “I actually think I could. He had a sort of wart, right here, just above his eyes.”

I’m there, “Are you not eating your bone-in rib-eye? Honor, throw me over his bone-in rib-eye there, would you?”

When we’re finished our mains, the old dear goes, “Chorles, you’d better say something.”

The old man’s like, “Say something? Say what?”

She’s there, “Well, all these people have come out to wish you a happy birthday. You must thank them.”

So – yeah, no – I tap my fork off the side of my glass and a hush falls over the restaurant. The old man stands up and you can nearly hear the excitement of everyone thinking, “Okay, here we go!” because people – for some bizorre reason – get a kick out of him. “This should be good!”

But the old man just goes, “I just wanted to say thank you all for coming. Enjoy your evening,” and sits down again.

And that’s when I end up getting – being honest? – a little bit worried about the dude?

Anyway, I’m actually knocking back the brandy that the old dear ordered for him for the toast when Ronan all of a sudden decides to show his face.

I’m there, “Where the fock have you been? You haven’t missed anything, in case you’re worried. More craic at an autopsy.”

He just goes, “Soddy Ine late,” and he hands the old man a birthday present. “There you go, Cheerlie – happy beertdee!”

I’m there, “That’ll be a cordigan or something,” at the same time grinning and nodding. “I hope you don’t have one already.”

Except it’s not a cordigan? The old man tears open the wrapping paper. The first thing that hits me is the smell. I actually wonder at first has the toilet overflowed because of all that jacks roll I stuffed down it. But then I notice what it is that Ronan brought as a birthday present. My mouth just falls open. Everybody’s mouth does? It’s – quite literally – a dead seagull.

The old man holds up its stinking corcass and a smile – the first of the night – suddenly lights up his face.

“It’s him!” he goes. “Bloody hell, Kicker, it’s him!”

Ross O'Carroll-Kelly

Ross O'Carroll-Kelly

Ross O’Carroll-Kelly was captain of the Castlerock College team that won the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in 1999. It’s rare that a day goes by when he doesn’t mention it