Tony Breathnach rocks the mic.
Tony Breathnach rocks the mic.
The Celt wasn’t undercover at Sherry FitzGerald’s Wednesday auction of three former Ulster Banks, but it might have helped. We discovered we wouldn’t last the opening scene of any thriller when it comes to meaningful nods, knowing eyebrows-raises and that villainous wink-then-nose-point combo.
The three banks to bid on were in Belturbet, Killeshandra and Kilnaleck and were dealt with alphabetically for the then-seemingly innocent 30-odd gathered in the back of the Hotel Kilmore. Simple enough, the Celt thought.
Our director: Tony Breathnach.
The principal valuer with Sherry FitzGerald put on a show any quick-fire comedian would envy. He’s part gregarious wit, part human weathervane but mostly a hundred-mile-a-minute delivery.
Belturbet was first to the floor, dating from the mid-1800s and still with two strong rooms, the €50,000-valued protected structure sounded more than capable of holding on to its own secrets.
The door to our backs clicks shut.
“You can’t get out now,” he jokes to nervous laughter.
Initially, bids slowly climb, then accelerate, but the Celt knows it was out of its depth early here - as there was not one among us visibly doing so.
When you find yourself turning 180 in the middle of an auction you probably stand out like the prize turkey you are. Obviously, these people are pros.
“Bidmeonsixty, sixty bid, bidmeonsixty, bidmeonsixty... Sixty-ONE!” Tony would go. “Poom! Pow! Bang!” he might as well have been saying to bested competitors, re-thinking the fray.
But then we spot one.
Poker-faced and upping the stakes throughout sits a steely-eyed younger man, right up the front, no place to hide and none wanted, without hesitation he zips return bids like a besuited Roger Federer late for tea. Ladies and gentleman, we have our Bond.
“Bidmeonsixtyone, bidmeonsixtyone, bidmeonsixtyone...”
One bidder nearby, in an aisle seat, occasionally addresses a digit out and then downward toward the passage but under the cover of a programme - a furtive hitch-hiker with a terrible secret, and a need to leave town.
Any movement is significant now.
In front of him, a man lifts a biscuit to his mouth - playing with fire. Then an audacious, outrageous nibble from the man with nothing to lose.
It’s a mix of The Secret Millionaire and the Ipcress File. At the back, a standing few keep their distance and pretend to casually scat flies with rolled up brochures, but we’re getting wise to it now and they’re fooling no-one.
“Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-FOUR, sixty-FIVE, sixty-five, five, five, sixty-SIX, sixty... SEVEN!” says our eagle-eyed host before a quick gulp of by-now room temperature water and coming back with gusto. “Sixty-EIGHT!”
“Sixty-eight, sixty-eight... sixty-NINE! SEVENTY!”
And then, panic.
Is he? He is.
He is looking at me.
Is. He. Looking. Right. At. Me?
Oh, dear god, no. I think remember a hand moving from a side, rising itself, intent, utterly malevolent, totally out of control and rubbing a nose. My nose. My hand. My god.
The scenarios play out: go on the lamb, ring the folks and apologise they won’t be seeing me for a while; fly right, knuckle down and get a loan; passports, just run away... right now. I’ve bought a bloody bank.
Of course, I hadn’t, but the mind does strange things when spreading total panic through the body, if even for an eye-blink (mental note: eye-blinks are now out).
But Tony’s off again. Thank god.
Another minor flurry of bids are exchanged, keeping with the waltz-like tempo.
Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow.
But there are no more hitch-hikers, fly-swatters, no more Rich Tea-munchers.
Bond is slugging it out somewhere in the seventy-thousands with an impeccably-attired femme fatal who’s not read the script. Don’t move a muscle. It’s between the two of them now.
Tony calls the tussle’s back and forth:
“Seventy-FIVE!” by nod.
“Seventy-SIX!” by finger.
“Seventy-SEVEN!” by flick of pen.
“Seventy-EIGHT!” by roll of paper.
The number hangs in the air.
“Any advance on seventy-eight?” he repeats in various cajoling forms.
“Going once.” He reaches for the hammer.
Somehow, total silence.
Still, total silence.
The hammer smacks. And breathe.
“That’s the itchiest I’ve ever been,” immediately exhales the young man next to me, positively erasing his lower back with his fist.
The assembled quickly wriggle off any tension and return to giggled pleasantries and generalities.
If it’s sweet relief for our hero, too, you wouldn’t know as he calmly signs for his prize and coolly takes a handshake.
Our own palms are sweaty but, we convince ourselves, that’s from the window’s sun, raising temperatures.
Clearly, the most dangerous role to play any auction is the gormless spectator - and the danger is to yourself alone.
“We’ll be back in ten minutes, folks, for Killeshandra,” Tony tells the various players.
A sequel? The Celt scuttles off to find a nearby bathroom for a staring competition with itself.
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