TERRY PRONE: Early life of Brian O’Driscoll forced the office to tackle our unusual obsessions

You could tell from early on that he was never going to make it, this child. Not saying he didn’t come from a good family. He did. His grandfather and then his father were our GPs.

The little lad was always a well-mannered, courteous young fella. Everything going for him.

Except for the punctuality problem.

And if you think you have it all worked out that he annoyed his teachers, parents and schoolmates by his constant lateness, you are wrong, wrong, wrong. He was never late. Never, ever late.

When he was sent to a school on the southside, it looked simple, on the face of it. All he had to do, any schoolday, was to get the DART in Killester at twelve minutes past eight.

Eight stops and twenty seven minutes later, he would get off the DART in Blackrock and the school would be six minutes away.

Now, you might worry a bit about a child who would know the duration of each section of the journey with such precision: eight stops, twenty seven minutes, six minutes.

But let’s just address one of those numbers.

The six minutes it would take to walk from the DART to the school. Which would apply if the young man actually walked, which he doesn’t. Ever. Other kids on their way to school walk. Not him.

“I go whizzing by them, pretending I’m in a race,” is how he portrays his younger self managing the last chunk of the journey.

“The idea of being late, of not being there when the bell rings at five to nine, makes me panic.”

And that’s on a normal morning. A routine, ordinary morning.

In the nature of things, along comes a morning which is neither ordinary nor routine. As he stands on the platform, over the loudspeaker comes a metallic voice making an announcement to the effect that the next train will be delayed by thirty minutes.

This is before mobile phones, so the lad takes off (inevitably at a run) until he finds a phone box. Broken. So he picks a house at random and rings the bell.

“Excuse me,” he says politely to the woman who opens the door, “Could I use your phone? I really need to call home.”

The woman is clearly concerned about this poor little lad in his school uniform, even if he doesn’t have obvious signs of fever. But all he wants to do is get his mother behind the wheel of the car to collect him and drop him to school, lest the delayed train make him late.

When this happens a couple of weeks latter, he chooses a different house and begs permission to ring his mother, who comes and collects him, mildly commenting “You can’t keep getting yourself into a state.”

He agrees, as any sensible little boy would do, and takes corrective action. From that day on, instead of getting a train at twelve minutes past eight, he gets the one leaving massively earlier, arriving at school an hour early. No other kids arrive an hour early, but he’s OK with that. The key objective is not, under any circumstances, to be late.

Here is a kid, I hear you say, who may get through life, but that’ll be the height of it.

Except that the kid was Brian O’Driscoll and he tells all of it in his new autobiography,* including admitting that for twenty years and more, the prospect of being late for anything has stressed him out.

Ask those who have met him recently if the punctuality continues, and the response is an immediate nod.

Most stars, whether political, entertainment or sport, tend to arrive slightly late for appointments. Brian O’Driscoll arrives slightly early. Just warning you.

Reading this aloud in the office (we have such an easy life, where I work) someone asked if anybody present had a matching obsession.

Aileen admitted to a problem with uneven numbers on the volume dial or her Audi (we have such classy cars, where I work).

She always makes sure that the dial is set to an even number. Except for 7, because that’s her lucky number. When she’s a passenger in someone else’s car, it bothers her not at all where their dial is, presumably on the basis that any bad luck coming via uneven numbers would hit them before it hit her.

Then Juliane, from Germany, while rejecting the possibility of it being obsessional, nevertheless confessed to a fairly florid case of plug-left-in-socket syndrome.

That’s the one where you’re halfway down the path when you wonder if it’s possible you left the electric fire plugged in.

Or, if you have a burgeoning obsession, where you wonder if it’s possible you left the hairdryer, computer/television/toaster/radio/deep fat fryer and/or electric fire plugged in.

Juliane’s worries centre on the iron. Any time she uses the iron, she takes a picture of it at the end of the task, in order to visually verify that the plug has been pulled out.

Now, of all the photographs filed on one’s phone that are likely to get one locked up, I’d have thought an endless sequence of the same unplugged iron has to be high on the list.

Unless she does a weekly cull of her iron pictures.

I thought I was going to escape, as obsession-free, when Himself spoke up and shared what he described as my numeracy obsession.

“When we got married,” he told the room, “we didn’t have a dishwasher, and I used to be puzzled when I’d realise that a big pile of dishes had been washed, dried and put away, except for a cup and a plate left in the sink.

“Or sometimes a mug, a jug and a saucer. I’d go and examine them to find out why they had been found unworthy of joining the ranks of clean crockery, but I couldn’t figure it out.

“Eventually I asked, and immediately got the explanation, as if it was completely obvious, that crockery gets washed in fives.”

“Everything gets washed in fives,” I corrected. Even if it was going to make me look like I shouldn’t ever be let out, I was going to tell the truth.

“Five bits of cutlery add up to one piece of crockery. Five knives, or four knives and a fork, are equal to a cup. Except for teaspoons. Because they’re smaller, you have to have ten teaspoons to equal a plate.”

By the time I showed them (Exhibit A, my A4 size diary) that ten tasks have to be done each day, they were looking at me askance. I had to explain to them that, while giving a lecture might be one task, making or taking five phone calls or sending five emails constitutes a tsk, a task being a fifth part of a task.

It’s the only way to live. I mean, how does anybody get through life without diary pages littered with crossed-off tasks? Where would the justification come from for sneaky cups of coffee while watching videos of cats falling down behind couches? The thing is to pick your obsession early - as Brian O’Driscoll did - and you’re set.

‘The Test’ by Brian O’Driscoll is published by Penguin.


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