Issue 4: Kintsugi

For our fourth issue Kintsugi, we offer up some tales on the theme of beauty in brokenness, taking inspiration from the Japanese practice of putting broken china together with gold lacquer - kintsugi. With stories by Jonathan Creasy, Chewy Chewerson, Rosa Abbott, Una Mullally, Brian Herron, Seamas O'Reilly, Roisin Agnew, Megan Nolan, Eoin Butler. Illustrations by Fatti Burke.

Roisin Agnew | Editor's Foreword

Among the things lying around my parent’s house this summer was a book called ‘Who Will Run The Frog Hospital’ by Lorrie Moore. I’d heard of her from the New Yorker podcast. I liked the title. I read the book.

In the first few pages the protagonist of the story describes being a girl of five standing in the snow of her back garden trying to get her voice to split into two. She wants her voice to break into two sounds, two oppositions that together might make a harmony. She’s convinced this will give her some sort of specialness, some form of power. She tries and tries to break her voice, but she eventually comes back into the house hoarse and frozen.

We desire that broken voice. We believe that a disruption to the natural order of things, a malfunction that reveals the cogs beneath, will reward us with a deeper understanding of how it all works. We hope that the voice will break into two to form that harmony. Cancer, failed trips, death, botched friendships, posy teen self-destruction, are all occasions where an inevitable or a self-imposed breaking creates a new order, a different perspective.

Kintsugi is the Japanese practice of putting together broken porcelain with gold-dusted lacquer. It’s part of the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which embraces imperfection and values repair. The idea is that an object is made more valuable because it is broken. In our fourth issue we will adopt the teachings of wabi-sabi and hope to spot the beauty that lies in brokenness.


Fatti Burke | Issue 4 Illustrator

When it comes to Fatti Burke I’d have to agree with her boyfriend. Late one night at a Halloween party in Ballybough, he leaned into me saying, “Kathi is so amazing. There is no one like her.” And then he tripped over something. Fatti (or Kathi) does a lot of things I admire. She Instagrams her beautiful face with no makeup on and no fucks given. She deals with her career with balls-out courage. She gave her dog the name of a man from Sex And The City (perhaps unintentionally). She got a tattoo that reads ‘One can go too far’ in response to an Offset brief about an Adam Shrigley quote, and it now compliments the rest of her skin’s inkiness. But what I like the most about her is that she illustrates places, people, and situations in a way that creates moments of self-recognition and humour every time. In daydreams I see myself walking around Dublin as a Fatti Burke character on a Fatti Burke map. You may know her from the Bernard Shaw bathrooms, her Cara maps, hotels and restaurants and your friend’s wall, and you are soon to know her from her new book coming out in Autumn.

Southern California lacks for the absence of all but one season. Lives built on comfort, and the feeling that if today is not your day, tomorrow certainly will be. These are American values.  

My mother was born in North Dakota. Mile after mile of flat, frozen land. I wrote a poem once about the first traffic light installed in her tiny town. She, as a teenager, pulling out of the driveway, managed to crash the car into the only other driver between Bismarck and Winnipeg.

Only ten miles from the Canadian border, the small town of Bottineau, North Dakota, which is only 1.09 square miles itself, has a population that hovers around two thousand people, these days. My mother was born there, eldest of three, in 1946. The good townspeople of Bottineau erected their mascot, Tommy Turtle, in 1978. During her childhood, my mother would not have seen this thirty-foot high fiberglass turtle mounted on a snowmobile, cautious enough to wear a helmet on his head where, presumably, his shell could not cover. I’ve seen the damn thing. And wondered why? and what the hell? 

In the Bottineau of memory, it too had only one season. Winter. The fear of that aching cold drove my mother first to Arizona and finally to California, where I was born in Los Angeles in 1987, the year Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers once again defeated the Boston Celtics for the NBA Championship. Memories like these were crucial to my assumed culture: local, but with the weight of the world supported on these heroes’ shoulders. I saw how gods and men can be confused, and learned that worship is the naïve hope that someday something else will come. My brother wore a bright purple and gold Lakers jacket (more “eighties” it could not have been), emblazoned with our family name in gold on the back. We still have that jacket somewhere, in an out-of-the-way closet rarely rifled through. We all live, in some way now, without weather or winter.

My mother died in Paris, suddenly. She was sixty-seven years old, with a history of heart trouble, and on one mortal evening her heart stopped at a wedding party outside Paris. A glass of champagne still in her hand, she collapsed. Or slumped more like, in the way it was described to me later. She never regained consciousness or speech. For the sake of her story, and ours, she died that day, that minute, outside Paris, with a glass of champagne and music mingling with the sound of foreign ambulance shrieks and whistles. She died that day, if only dying were so simple.  

What I’ve left out, so far, is the in-between. Those days between 1987 and today, in Dublin, where the story comes strangely into focus. When memory, played back like a quick shuffle of cue cards, skips over times both sweet and wrenching, accumulating into fractured film stills, constituting a life.

In those stills, I find both beauty and brokenness. Often in the same form, shapes made from the unending push and pull of ego, insecurity and silence. I had not spoken to my mother for several weeks when the phone rang. I was in Grogan’s. Warm weather in June, and the next day we planned to make the trip to Paris, where a French cousin of mine was being married. I took the call. At the other end, quiet for a moment. Then crying. Confusion. I knew then. I knew…

But in the years past, which telling constantly revise and undermine, there were days when I wished for something like this to happen. If only to be set apart, to be the one who has lost. To be, finally, lost. Who has not imagined his own death, or the death of someone close, and imagined it so that the crowds of mourners mourned for you, you alone and specifically? Only then did they recognise certain things in you, a beauty, a hearty recklessness, that set you apart and made the loss that much more profound and devastating. In these imagined scenarios, you either watched as a ghost over your own funeral, looking down, feeling pity, pain and pleasure all at once in the reactions of people gathered there. Or you imagined standing beside the grave as one was lowered down, your grief a singularizing enclosure out of which you may look at the world in detached, knowing silence.

But life and death are not so.

For ten days she hung on in intensive care. A brain detached from a body detached from a soul detached from the world. 

By some accident, we were given a house to stay in near the hospital. A grand, airy country house in white, with windows looking out over a sloping valley. In certain moments, we forgot our purpose. My father, my brother, cousins, aunts and friends, gathered, ate, drank, and told stories both sweet and sombre. 

Sometimes, in that moment of grey light just before sun sets, with French wines softening the edges of our tired minds, we were simply happy. A weight, for a moment, lifted.

There are places I go in memory, where my childhood home divides into rooms, the rooms into individual corners and wooden boards, and those boards into minute, imagined worlds of longing and escape. I was afraid of her. I tried to burrow out of one life into another. Her abuse was not meted out in beatings. Just a quick flash of a hand, silver of a wedding ring, and the hollow thud and sinking stomach of a windy blow. Words followed. Of hate. Of leaving. Of not coming back. Of determination toward a new way of living. Not always, but often, these thoughts pierce whatever else those years held, between 1987 and now, between the Showtime Lakers and the faintly heard cries at the end of a telephone.  

Her mind died at a wedding party outside Paris, and for ten days we watched her body follow. When normal brain activity ceases, doctors in white hospitals quite literally starve the body to death.

But like any story, there are chapters to this one. Not all so bleak and unforgiving.

Several months after her death in Paris I returned to Los Angeles for the memorial service, attended by nearly a thousand people. In her retirement from a legendary teaching career, my mother became involved in dog rescue. She would often have two or three dogs, usually the most desperate cases (geriatrics with three legs, half-wits and lovable rogues). The dog I had always felt closest to was a one-eyed Pomeranian called Jack. When we visited Los Angeles for the memorial, we found that Jack had been returned to the rescue agency. In my mother’s absence, he simply had nowhere else to go. Only half-considering the consequences, I made it my mission to rescue him all over again.

Years earlier, Jack had been found wandering the streets of South Central Los Angeles. When my mother adopted him, a legend grew around his rags-to-riches tale. (Think: the Fresh Prince of Bel Air at 5.6 kilos.) I tracked him down and endeavoured to bring him back with me to Dublin. A happy strand from one lost life tying neatly into the next.

Since then the myth has only grown. On one characteristic occasion, walking down South William Street to Jack’s favourite pub (Grogan’s, of course), a woman in her thirties abruptly yanked her husband to a stop. ‘That’s the dog!’ she yelled, pointing at Jack. Clearly, this little dog – more cloud than canine – had made an impression on her, his story apparently extrapolated and discussed over the dinner tables of complete strangers.  

Jack embodies a beauty in brokenness that has brought me closer to my mother than I ever was during her lifetime. His outsized single eye, his jaunty, arthritic walk and his general good nature all point to the purity of imperfection.  

Memory of the fraught relationship I had with my mother for nearly twenty years has not – and will not – vanish because of this little dog. Yet, on more occasions than not, I am reminded of my mother’s fierce love, her powerful authority and her inspiring teaching. Jack looked up to her with one, big, round eye, and he loved her. Despite everything, he reminds me to do the same.

In the seasons that pass, or do not pass, over continents and seas that separate our lives from others, stories emerge out of memory and construct the tales we determine to be the truth. If we are lucky, in the end, there will be some flash of recognition at the mention of our names.  We can hope for little more when it is all over.  In a small white dog, or a country house outside Paris, in the drive toward that elusive championship, or the absurd figure of a thirty-foot tall fiberglass turtle, are the images we select and call our personal histories.  

A few brief moments alone will last, and make some small measure of a life.

 

 

I once nearly missed a three month trip to South East Asia because I fancied a few extra minutes in bed. That’s not to say I slept through my alarm. I woke up and felt so miserably tired that I had to weigh up whether the trip was worth it – the trip won, narrowly. I wish I could say that’s the worst of my troubled transit tales but alas I have missed more than a few flights and cost myself more than a few pounds for a myriad of reasons. Thankfully these episodes have now become entertaining yarns for me to regale in first class lounges at some of the swishest airports in my head.

I still think of myself as being a great traveller, like George Clooney in Up In The Air, I know which queues to join, often travel belt-less, and am pretty sure Michael O’Leary is going to saunter down the narrow aisle with an engraved metal loyalty card any day now. It’s the bit before that I struggle with. I have missed flights waiting on breakfast rolls, turned up at the wrong airport (twice) and once, after losing my passport, I had to sweet talk my way onto a flight with no ID save a Palace membership card (implying it was a premium establishment whilst remembering the ‘Smirnoff Ice on tap’ meat market we all know and love).

 I’ve spent so much money on missed flights that if I make a flight I convince myself that I am balancing out the lost revenue on missed ones – it doesn’t take Carol Vorderman to figure out the flaw with that calculation but it certainly makes me smug buckling up in my financial ignorance. I recommend you try that technique actually, it really is a great confidence booster.

I also tend to book flights very last minute, with obvious financial penalties. It was a new year’s resolution to book flights on time but six months in I still haven’t got my shit together. 32 years in actually. As a regular London–Dublin commuter this means I always have a plan B: Sail and Rail.

Doesn’t the name sound romantic, timeless? Strolls on the upper deck, dining at the captain’s table, wood panelled cabins – these are all things not to expect when doing a Sail and Rail. The only romantic hark back that does still hold water, is probably a good old-fashioned murder mystery. Even at the age of 15 I knew what a trip on the ferry meant: travellers, runaways, and young girls seeking a solution to a problem Ireland still won’t deal with. Historically it meant emigration and that is as true today as ever. Travellers get an honourable mention, for as everyone will tell you, they are a regular fixture (more of which later).

 For those unfamiliar with Sail and Rail, it consists of a train ticket from London Euston to Holyhead and a ferry ticket from Holyhead to Dublin for the very cheap and flat rate of 43 quid. Perfect when you have forgotten to book a flight and the airlines want £200 to squeeze your 6ft plus frame into rendition class.

There now follows a handy guide for everything you need to know about Sail and Rail:

 1 Euston Station is not pronounced like Dublin’s Heuston Station and doing so may lead so sneers from smug, settled Irish.

2 Euston station is a pigeon infested building site, but it does contain a Sainsbury’s Local where you can stock up on booze and snacks – DO THIS.

3 The train journey is pretty boring but does have plug sockets.

4 Holyhead is spelled with only one L

– I learned that just now.

5 Holyhead is one of the most depressing places you will ever be forced to spend time in – I learned that years ago.

6 There is a shop in Holyhead that sells airguns, Funsnaps, and Boob Inspector hats.

7 You should buy a Boob Inspector hat when given the chance as you never know when that chance might appear again.

Everyone has a Sail and Rail story, usually involving cancelled trains or boats and time spent in Holyhead. This is time spent either looking for the least vomit-like all-day breakfast, or a trip to the local Chinese for the local delicacy - sweet and sour chicken balls.

I have many of these (stories, not chicken balls), some fun and some depressing, but all are stories that I cherish. Sometimes it takes a while, but eventually I can look back and laugh (usually when I have forgotten to book a flight again and my brain goes into denial).

The lows may also serve as a warning to others, some may have been avoidable. For instance, you may think staying up all night and going straight to the early morning ferry may be a great way to attack the journey, sleep through the monotony of the trip, to be gently woken by the ship’s steward on arrival. When I last attempted this, I fell asleep in the departure lounge in Dublin only to be prodded by a friendly traveller when it was time to get on the shuttle bus. I don’t think the staff would have bothered. Said traveller was making the trip with some mates who all looked like they had had more than a few already. I can admit that my prejudices had me wary of these guys, so all the more foolish I felt when one of these guys woke me up. A few hours later they were thrown off the train for disturbing other passengers - an afternoon on the high seas with some high percentage cider and you run that risk.  

Once on board the ship there was not a stretch of pleather to be found on which to spread my weary limbs. I shifted around in the odd boy racer style seats at the ship’s bow but despite their ergonomic design and comfortable wipe clean finish I couldn’t get comfortable. I tried other lounges on the vessel – even stuck my head in the infamous Trucker’s Lounge, but there was nowhere suitable to lie amongst the fruit machines and scowling faces. On arrival at Holyhead, bleary-eyed, I waded through the passengers to the train platform to be told the train was cancelled and a wait of an hour and a half was in store.

As mentioned, Holyhead is not the most exciting place in the world, and your slim options are even slimmer on a Sunday. I had planned on picking up a Boob Inspector hat (first seen some three journeys earlier, but missed out on through a variety of conspiring circumstances) but alas, the shop was closed. I resigned myself to a pre-pack sandwich from Boots and a little sit on the platform. The train was standing room early resulting in no sleeping opportunities until my bed that day (which came after a tube and overground journey from Euston).

The highs have been good though. On one memorable trip I was settling into to my seat when a few rows over I saw two men tuning their ukuleles. This then spread to a few more, and before I knew it there were about 30 uke players belting out hits from The Beatles to Hall and Oates. That was quite romantic and I did think at the time that had the ship sunk, I would have stayed listening to them as we went down. That feeling lasted about three seconds before I was clocking the lifeboats and sizing myself up against the truckers.

The Sail and Rail also provided me with a memory that will last a lifetime - the trip back to Dublin for Ireland’s Marriage Equality Referendum. Inspired by the Contraception Train in the 70s, some pals wanted to make a political point arriving en masse to assembled media. The point was well-made, but equally, those of us that were on the trip had amazing fun from start to finish. Thankfully we don’t have reason to make trips like that regularly, but as it is for so many different people, the boat was there when we needed it.

 

One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever been given is to look outside at the world. That the greatest, most fascinating minds are those which look outside of themselves, not inwards towards themselves. That inner turmoil, however tempting, “gets quite dull after a while, doesn’t it”.

I try to remind myself of this sentiment every time I feel tempted to beat myself up about something essentially unimportant (or even something that is important) and it really does hold true. No matter how much you wish to dwell on your perceived weaknesses, remember that the world outside yourself is endlessly more fascinating and full of surprises than your flaws are. In fact, I’d hazard that your flaws are not really that interesting to anyone except yourself. I’d hazard that self-pity is the ultimate form of self-obsession.

 When I was a teenager, I probably used to think self-hatred was quite glamorous. That self-destruction was inextricably bound up with sex appeal, that passion was synonymous with a troubled mind, that being drug-addled or in therapy or under-eating or being excessively promiscuous or all of the above was the last word in cool. I read and re-read the Wikipedia page for ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ (which, naturally, I had diagnosed myself with) and looked towards the tragic heroes of film, television drama and pop culture to add fuel to my internal fire. The disturbed but sexy Angelina Jolie as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. The starving and drug-addled Edie Sedgwick voicing over Warhol’s Ciao! Manhattan tapes. “Cocaine Kate” and pallid Pete (it was circa 2004). Hell, even the pampered misery of Marissa Cooper in The OC seemed hot. For the record, I now realise that Summer was way cooler.

This was my personal pantheon of self-destruction, aged 13-16, but the glamorisation and fetishisation of self-harm (in its many forms) remain far-reaching and alarmingly frequent. Their contemporary counterparts might be Lana Del Rey, who alludes to suicide in her music videos and once admitted to The Guardian’s Tim Jonze that she sees early death as glamorous, adding “I wish I was dead already”. Left unamused by this was one Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of Kurt, who quickly responded on Twitter, saying, “I’ll never know my father because he died young, and it becomes a desirable feat because people like you think it’s ‘cool’. Well, it’s fucking not.”

Ms Cobain touches on a very important point. It should really go without saying, but the reality of self-destructive behaviour is anything but glamorous – for either the people displaying it, the people close to them, or in Frances’ case, the people left behind by them. On top of this, the romanticisation of mental illness is incredibly patronising and trivialising to those who do suffer it.

I don’t think I was necessarily conscious of glamorising any of these things in my early teens, but I do think I probably enjoyed wallowing in self-pity when I did begin developing self-destructive habits of my own. For a few torrid years, I experimented with various direct or indirect ways of hurting myself. It’s quite difficult to sift through it now and distinguish how much of that came from genuine distress, and how much was simply acting out what I thought a person in distress should be doing. I guess it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. Whilst I strongly disagree that the media alone can be held solely accountable for any mental health issue, I do suspect that for my naive teenage mind it probably sparked a few ideas, or egged me on a little harder.

Years later, having left home and gone to college in a different country, some of that behaviour would resurface sporadically. When it did, it felt different. First time round, at 13, it was manic and deep-reaching but also (in retrospect) had an air of play-acting. At 21, living with strangers, far away from the bosom of home and the watchful eye of concerned parents, there was something far more absolute and terrifying about it. Manic and erratic behaviour morphed into long stretches of permeating bleakness. If teenage angst is like kicking back against the walls that surround you, adult depression (for me) was feeling like those walls had disintegrated. It felt all-encompassing, debilitating and endless.

 A number of things got me out of this. One was cognitive behavioural therapy, which I underwent at the recommendation of TCD’s student counselling service. It has had a genuine and long-lasting effect on my thought patterns – or at least allows me to recognise when they’re going off-kilter, even if I’m not always immediately able to “snap out of it”. I have had bouts of depression since then, but never with quite the same nihilistic pervasiveness as before I’d had it.

Another was the slow construction of a trusted network of close friends. Friends whose company warms your blood for days after you have been around it, whose antics make you laugh out loud while dressing for work on a Monday morning, as you cast your thoughts back over the weekend’s mischief. Aside from providing a solid support structure, these friends also made me realise what traits I most admired in other people: strength of character, inquisitiveness, ruthless honesty, brassy wit and a sharp eye to the world around them. They are dazzling and interesting, not least because they are the kind of people who, for most of the part, look outwards, rather than inwards.

Kintsugi is often translated into English as “beauty in brokenness”. But if you look towards the original usage of the term, relating to ceramics, it’s really more like “beauty in repair”. Brokenness in itself isn’t what’s appealing, but how brokenness can change or enhance an object. Kintsugi ceramics are admired because they are honest about their weak points and past failings, but they now stand recomposed, with dignity and a dash of gold.

 

Una Mullally | Something Inside Me is Trying to Kill Me 

 

Your body is meant to protect you. Yet one day, it wakes up and a cell tilts its head like a dog does when you say its name. “Today,” the cell - one out of 100,000,000 - decides, “today, I am going to do this.” It diverges from its usual daily routine and instead does something new. The following morning, another cell looks over and squints. “That looks fun.” After the initial millisecond of chaotic behaviour, a pattern emerges. The random becomes uniform. In a year or so, enough cells have arrived to the party to create something inside you that is trying to kill you. Your body is meant to protect you. Instead, for no reason, no cause, no impetus, no trigger, it has built a bomb. It doesn’t tell you that, but at a certain point the timer counting down those red LED numbers will get closer to zero. Your body starts to listen. Something isn’t quite right. Three, two, one…

The scan on the table has a colour photo of something gnarly. Pink and red and white and glistening. You hear yourself saying, “that’s a tumour”, and the doctor’s eyes turn downwards. “Yes, yes it is.” Her hand clasps your right forearm, the type of human contact that is shorthand for bereavement. It seems as though the air has been sucked out of the room and the voices talking around you have the same fidelity as underwater screams. Your cheeks are wet.

 Something inside me is trying to kill me. Your body is meant to protect you. But inside it, there’s a war going on, a battle for territory, a bodily coup. In the trenches of your bloodstream, cells are firing shots at each other. In the logistically important battle sites of your organs, the draw bridges are being pulled up, the sandbags laid, as in the distance the cancer is advancing, relentless, like the zombies in World War Z. There is a boxset of drama unfolding within you, and it plays on Super8 in your brain. The effect is discombobulating. Your body is not of you, because you have no control. Things are taking place that you never planned or signed off on. Your body is meant to protect you, and somehow, it didn’t.

The surgeon sits you down. The only part of you that moves is one tear after another. They are silent and hug the chin and curl around the neck before being absorbed by the collar of a t-shirt. He talks, and then that’s over. He calls down the corridor as you are floating away, walking like they do in South Park. “Una?” Yes? “Did you see the date? I just wrote it on your chart.” You know what date it is because you joked about it that morning. It is Friday the 13th.

In the first few days, you gradually understand yourself to be in a state of shock. Ah, that’s what this is. All other shocks you’ve experienced before this - the phone call about someone dying, let’s say - don’t come close. You are in a suspended state. It is as if someone pauses a cartoon at a certain point where the character is blurred in two, the animation split. You are removed from yourself. Every day, you wake up ridiculously early, and because it’s nearly summer, the mornings are brighter, and so you go for walks. You aren’t walking anywhere in particular. Maybe just down streets where one of the Council’s rubbish machines hums in the distance. Maybe you walk down the canal, which is so beautiful. You know that you are now encountering the world in a completely different way, but you can’t articulate it. You realise the weird thing that is happening is a terrifying clarity. Because of the shock, a layer has been removed from the world and everything is illuminated. You walk towards the canal and a car door closing is the loudest noise you’ve ever heard. At the petrol station, the lights digitally declaring the price of diesel are so bright they almost hurt your eyes. You put on your sunglasses. A magpie cackling from a tree is bizarrely amplified. You sit on a bench and feel so weak and suspended and hypnotised by the reeds. It is 7am now. A man walks towards you with the type of gait that indicates he is still out from the night before. “BOO!” he shouts, as he walks by. “Fuck you, you asshole,” you scream. He shrugs and walks away. You scream and swear again. He turns around. You look at him, and shout, “you have no idea what’s going on in people’s lives.” He looks confused.

The filter is gone. The tracing paper that you didn’t even know lay over the world has been removed. And with it, there is a strange sense of elation. Nothing matters now. Nothing. All of the things that ate into the muscles in your shoulders where you carry most of your stress, all of the things that twisted that sinew have departed and you are freed from every single problem in the world apart from this new one. When you walk past people in the street, their faces are each more memorable and expressive than the last. In half a second you take everything in, like magic, each wrinkle and fragment of a conversation and eye colour and detail on a necklace. Every element of every frame of the world your eyes are focussing on floods your brain with colour and smell and sound. You are hallucinating reality. Zapped by shock, your brain has stepped into a zone you didn’t know existed. It has accessed a hyper version of every scene and manholes and walls and bins are vivid. Seizing this, you start to go to art galleries, and the paintings are overwhelming, making you burst into tears and laugh and sit staring, totally absorbed. It is all so beautiful.

A day later, you walk past lads drinking pints outside Grogans, women in the street on the phone to their friends, Mums pushing buggies, hairdressers on a smoke break, guys setting up the tables at Pyg, coffee drinkers on the bench outside Clement and Pekoe. Fuck them. Fuck all of those people. You resent everyone who doesn’t have cancer. Fuck them. Why me? Why is this happening. And then, at some point, you move beyond ‘why is this happening’ to ‘this is happening’. Then a realisation lands that is so obvious now, but that you never thought of before. All of the big things that happen in your life? You don’t decide them. They are not options put in front of you from which to choose, they are not things that you plan and follow through. The big things - lucky breaks, love, death - they are things that just happen. The actual control you have over your life occurs in between these things. Your body is meant to protect you, but it has no control.

Back in the hospital MRI scans feel like practice for a coffin. You try to read the expressions of the doctors doing the scans for information. What have they seen? Is it worse or better? You do not know if you are going to die very shortly yet, so when you have an important meeting a week after your diagnosis and the surgeon tells you it isn’t terminal but is stage three, you are the happiest you have ever been. Someone has just told you that you can have everything back you thought was gone if you go through hell for a year. You can do that. Your sister who is a doctor is in the meeting with you and seems extra relived. When you're walking on air out of the hospital she tells you you don't know how lucky you are, “you could have been walking out of that meeting with them saying it was a few weeks.” This idea floors you. But that’s not what happened. You are alive. Your body is meant to protect you, and somehow, it did.

Three months later you are cycling down the canal and it's sunny and warm and the wind is just so. You push your feet on the pedals, raising yourself from the saddle and realise that in this moment, you have never been happier. Earlier that day you lie in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham and take off your shoes and the grass feels so perfect on the soles of your feet. A few days before that, you cycled into Phoenix Park and when you found a herd of deer, walked as close to them as possible before lying down. You opened your eyes looking at the blue sky and could hear them shuffling around you. That weekend, you sit in a boat on Lough Corrib and concentrate on the mayfly dapping on the water as your bait, waiting for a trout to grab it. On the drive home, the trees on either side of the road meet to form arches.

On the day of the solstice, you happened to be driving past Tara Hill. You pull in and walk to the hill, and stand on top in the wind and feel the earth coming into you through your feet and up to your mind. You have been waiting for something profound to happen throughout this experience so far, but nothing has apart from this renewed appreciation for nature, which you always liked anyway, but now you get. You have always been interested in philosophies pertaining to transience, but now you understand them to the point of embodying them. You are not a crier, but you realise you are crying more at things, things you see. The Dart journey hugging Dublin Bay. A kitesurfer leaping with the wind. Your parents calling to your door. The sand whipping itself across a beach like a granulated aurora borealis. Your body is meant to protect you, and somehow, it will.

Writers are spiders. They suck the living-juice out of everything around them, digest it, and shit it back out as irony. Writing is all about taking miserable things and turning them into beautiful stories about miserable things.

We turn over every wretched thing that we find, to see if it’s sad and precious and beautiful and tragic enough to use. Like a ballerina’s bound feet, Van Gogh’s ear, or everything about Michael Jackson, something must be broken first before there can be something good. 1

Misery makes art. I’ve always been terrified that I don’t have enough misery stored up from my teens and twenties. Because by your mid-thirties you don’t want to still be miserable: you want to convert the misery of your youth in to cash in the form a large advance that you can spend on pensions or creche. Like you’d always dreamed.  

There’s a betrayal inherent in writing. It’s easier to deflect that onto a group that can’t respond or don’t matter – acquaintances of the distant past, politicians, you parents. Sometimes I wish more people around me had died so I wouldn’t feel guilty about plundering their lives for personal gain. Not enough deaths! I tell myself. That’s what’s been holding me back.

Sometimes, you must go hunting for weird things and seek adventures exciting enough to feel something, but that aren’t actually emotionally debilitating. Or worse, that would make you happy enough not to want to write. What you want is something that’s a vaccination against actual emotions. Just a little hurt, so you get the idea of it. But not like, actually have it happen. Some sort of safe disaster. A minor earthquake. A small asteroid. A mild cancer.

Like when I went to Chicago for an internet date. 

Internet dating, in general, is a little like a lotto ticket. Not that you might find a winner - don’t be a tool. That’s not going to happen. It’s because when you buy it, you get to spend the whole week pretending you’re a millionaire and imagining all the good deeds that you’re going to do with your money. And how fucking even you’re going to get with your enemies.

Same thing with dates. You always think that this one is going to be the one. And like the inevitable, almost unnoticed disappointment of still being impoverished after your numbers don’t come up, the date happens, then quickly slides into forgotten abstraction. The date becomes an also-ran for a song-of-the-summer from sometime in the aughties that you can’t quite remember the melody for. She had dark hair – or maybe blonde. And her name was… I want to say, Suzy? We went for cocktails, or possibly the zoo.

But Chicago Girl was going to be different. I mean, it had all happened so perfectly that it couldn’t not be. It was Real Life, just like in the movies.  

Becky was everything that I could could possibly have been looking for. She was lithe. She was quick. Smart. So smart. Of indeterminate ethnicity. Something Haitian. Something German. She was hip. She was American. And she found me. She found me. Out of the blue, she emailed me one night, to say hello. Ask me who I was, and did I want to be friends.

This is the point where you’re all, “I know where this is going”. You think that this is some second-rate Catfish piece. Firstly, Catfish hadn’t come out at this point, and second of all, of course I thought she was fake.

I replied to the email, and I was friendly, but not too friendly. A little circumspect. Like a no-friends kid who gets invited to a popular kid’s birthday party. He suspects, no he knows, that this is a cruel joke, it’s just that he can’t see the full terrible design of it yet. But maybe it’s not… right?

We Skyped and Becky existed. She was as beautiful as she was on her internet profile photos. She crinkled her nose when I made fun of her. And she was intimidatingly sexually adventurous. We got to emailing daily. The conversation was chaotic and scatter-shot and utterly charming and I said fuck it, and booked flights.

At the point that Becky and I started emailing, internet dating still wasn’t a big thing in Ireland. It had the same sort of disreputable, sleazy undertone as nudie beaches or tag rugby. It was outrageous that, after a few emails, I was ready to run off to Chicago. But only if you’re using a pretty tame definition of outrageous.

In the run up to the trip, with my ego distended, I comfortably inhabited the role of a gallivanting Lothario. At parties friends would bring up Chicago Girl with a, “Wait till you hear what this guy is doing,” and I’d happily trot out the story on demand. It was like wearing a loud and ostentatiously elegant suit. You’re going to earn resentful admiration, but people will also think that you’re a bit of a prick. Fair trade off maybe. Sure, everyone around me thought that I was about to get murdered, raped, scammed or humiliated in some order or another. But that’s what friends are for - to look out for you and mock you till you bleed.

Becky was a story. It had beauty. Yearning from oceans apart. Mystery. The internet. And I was definitely hinting that there was a feral sexual dimension to it too. It was a unique and special thing. Win, lose, or draw, this was going to be a great yarn. And then I went to Chicago. And then I stopped talking about it.

A family, once, were on holiday in Greece somewhere on the Aegean coast. An idyllic place of unparalleled beauty, villainous moped drivers, and tasteless local beers.

Imagine the scene.

The father has taken the kids fishing off the pier and he catches an octopus. Only it’s not an octopus. It’s only got six limbs. It’s a hexapus. The dad takes the thing by the tentacles and whips it, smashing the hexapus against the rocks, killing it. All its arms flop slimy and limp.
And the father, an American, goes to a local taverna and asks the chef to cook the thing up. The chef points at the six-limbed thing, like a bit-part player giving a warning in a Shakespearean tragedy preempting disaster - “The hexapus,” he intones, “is special and I will not cook it.” 3

Raging, not doubt with imperial righteousness, the father ignores the chef, and the chef’s no-doubt disapproving, thick Greek moustache. He goes home and fries up the hexapus and feeds it to his family. Imagine now, the chef entering from stage left to soliloquy about impending doom.

Mentioning his catch later to a biologist friend, the father learns that hexapuses are extremely rare and only one has ever been found on the planet. One. On the whole planet. Ever. The man is distraught. The story gets out and he is pilloried by the media globally – I mean it’s really global. Pick a major trashy internet source; they’re covering it. And a lot of non-trashy sites too. The man is flayed by the internet. Stricken with a new-found sense of his place in the world, he decides that he will dedicate his life and fortune to raising the world’s awareness of this, the most rare of sea creatures. 

True story. And this is how writers work. You take something special and then you kill it and cook it and serve it up to eat. We take the cruelest and most human behaviour we can find, revel in the ignominy and shame of it, and hope that the the audience recognises themselves in it. Nuance is the death of stories. Maybe it was not always so. But the time for nuance is gone.

Nuance in the hexapus story kills it. Here’s the truth with a little ’t’.

The father wasn’t American he was a Greek immigrant, living in America. So straight away we lose the ignorant, bullying American angle. He was really familiar with the locals and local customs; you might think it brutal and inhumane, but dashing octopuses against rocks is how locals kill them. 

If you’re looking for a basic tool to kill an octopus with, rocks are a pretty good option.  And rocks are used a lot for this purpose – octopus is a Greek coastal staple. And yes, the local chef refused to cook the thing.

But maybe he thought it was weird and risky from a health and safety perspective, who knows? There was no internet where they were, so the family couldn’t look up if their find was really that unusual. They just thought maybe the poor fella had lost a couple of limbs in the everyday violent turmoil of undersea life. With no internet, how were they to know?

And the thing is, they were fucking right! The hexapus isn’t a species at all. It’s just an unlucky octopus. It’s either got six limbs because of some genetic defect or because it encountered something hungry with a lot of teeth. It is true, that previously only one hexapus had ever been found before. But the aquarium that studied it threw it back into the sea after giving it a look over. It might have been the same fucking hexapus for all we know. Man catches and cooks octopus, isn’t a Daily Mail headline.

And Chicago Girl ended the same way. The headline is: Internet date ends badly.

Before I flew, she told me that her feelings were growing for me. I was a little older than her. I wasn’t going to trick myself into romance. This trip was a jokey, rakish thing that I was doing for no other reason than because I could. It was a grand adventure nothing more. Fortune had come knocking and I would not be found wanting.

She met me at the airport, her hair wild and curly, her bag heavy with anatomy and physics books for her pre-med classes. She was real and perfect and all of the things that I hoped she would be. But she was other stuff besides.

It was like cramming an entire relationship into a couple of weeks. Initial excitement and hope and we were just clicking all over the place, then we settled routine, then into boredom and separate lives, then dissatisfaction, and finally resentment and everything that goes after that. It was bizarre ticking off the stages like that in 14 days, but Americans are so impatient as a people.  

Becky was an obsessive studier who was studying at a university known for breaking all but the most committed minds. For a brief moment that obsessiveness was turned on us and me being there. And then it wasn’t. She was completely dependent on Adderall. Which either explains why she was an obsessive, or her obsessiveness might explain why Adderall might be something she’d be dependent on. She would work furiously, breaking only to worry about not working enough. Periods of intense focus were followed by periods where her shattered attention span made communication on any level, distracted or obtuse. There was a roving need for productive activity at all times – which for an Irish person is weird. We have a roving need for a bar stool.

 She could only think of her next exam. Or yoga, which she was also addicted to. She left me alone for days. And then would appear at the apartment I’d rented because she needed a place to do to her extensive personal yoga routine in preparation for the group yoga class that she was on her way to. Then she would tell me what it meant to her to have me here, that I was her future, and then she’d leave.

I had not been to Chicago for many years. I had spent a summer there just after school and I knew the city well enough. On one of those days when she was off doing things, I went to the neighbourhood that I used to live in. It had changed, but I could recognise some of the trees and features of the streets, even though all the bars and restaurants I knew had been replaced by new ones. I had survived for a summer on a weekly food budget of 10 dollars buying pasta and whatever sauce was on offer that week at the supermarket, supplemented occasionally with canned ‘chilli with meat’ for some protein. I remembered being in love with a girl here, unrequited and intense. And realised that I felt the same way now: deeply rejected and confused. Only this time I could afford small batch single-estate americanos and drink beer that wasn’t Busch Lite.  

I had fallen for the idea of her and was crushed that it didn’t match up. I knew – I knew – that she was fucking this up when she didn’t really mean to. She just didn’t know how the real world works. That other people continue to exist outside of the time that you use them. Which was kind of an ironic observation, coming from me.

 This was not the story of serendipitous romance. Of a beautiful girl flinging a message in a bottle out to sea with a joyful heart and love finding a way against all the odds. This was the story or a mixed up girl who was stuck. An unhappy thing reaching out because she couldn’t quite figure out how life was done. Caught between abusive fuck buddies and an employer who habitually propositioned her to come to bed with him and his wife. A broken girl looking for someone who could give her something that felt like home, like the movies promise. And that’s what she wanted more than anything. Apart from studying and yoga and being a doctor.

 And ‘internet boyfriend’ was perfect for her. An emotional fix, without having to sacrifice any of the actual time that a relationship takes up. And on the long nights when she was alone, and she couldn’t sleep because she’d been necking Adderall all day, a six hour time difference makes it perfect for Skyping someone winding down their day in Ireland.

 All those questions about why someone who is young and beautiful and smart and funny would reach out to someone so far away were answered. It was the reaching out that had counted.

Of course, that still begged the question, what the fuck was my excuse.

Like all internet dates, even the ones that you cross oceans for, its promise became unmoored and it drifted. And after all my showboating and grandstanding at home about this trip, I was suddenly desperately disappointed that there was no great romance. There was no great story to tell. Just two people flailing out for connections for different reasons and making mistakes all over the place. I set out to live a story, but actually I was just living.

I had a couple of hours in the morning before I took my flight. I hoped to spend it talking about what had gone on between us. She told me that she loved me and then took a four hour round trip to her psychiatrist to pick up more pills. She left me minding her yoga mat.

 I wrote to her on the train from the city to the airport – a poignant letter that on the surface seemed to articulate my feelings, but really was designed just to make her cry. Then I got sick in the toilets in the boarding area. And then I watched the movie on the plane home.

The closer you look at the hexapus, the less special it becomes. And the less you want to cook it.

St. Fiachra’s was not overly pushed about academic achievement. Other schools nearby pushed their students toward attending the best universities in the country. We were told we’d be lucky to attend one of the better universities on an oil rig.

 

 Within this meagre orbit, I edged toward the top of the class. Not difficult, perhaps, if you share a classroom with Bartie Darkens - a boy who brought a beach ball to school with him every day for six months, a boy they just stopped calling in from lunch after a while. Even Trev Cassidy had to come in from lunch, and Trev Cassidy ate watch batteries. For three months at the end of fourth year, we sat in double Chemistry, and there would go Bartie, hurtling past the window, chasing crisp packets or blowing up that fucking beach ball down by the hockey pitches. These were my peers.

 It strikes me that I was bad at cultivating allies. Felim Dundas was one such opportunity. He and I were fairly similar in several respects. While all around us  ungodly brutes were sprouting beards, body odour, and baritone voices, we were bookish and slight, with little interest in sports. By 14 all puberty had gifted us was an Adam’s apple the size of a rugby ball and a voice like a rain-damaged trampoline. None of the body hair we’d grown thus far would have survived contact with a single, malevolent strip of Sellotape. Despite all this, we never really spent much time together until one day in 1999, which saw the end of us ever being friends.

 We had been in double history. Mr. McCartney had told us to pick from a few different historical topics to write about as creatively as we could. Our writing could be historical, biographical, or totally fictionalized, so long as it wasn’t in essay-form. We began excitedly discussing our ideas. Caolan Dempsey was painting a watercolour of a death camp and Mickey Clark was doing a 10 minute play about Strongbow, set in 1920s Chicago. I knew little about either topic, but even I felt that they’d over-reached. Meanwhile, Conor and Moss Heap were writing reggae about Henry VIII and six separate boys were composing raps about the famine. 1

 Amid this throng of inspiration, I became aware of Felim striding toward me. He squinted his eyes and, placing his hand on my forearm, he adopted the conspiratorial flair of an off-duty guard at a horse fair. He was hell-bent on doing a comic about Padraig Pearse, and asked me to pair up with him. Felim quickly explained the strengths of the idea: he’d been drawing Pearse for years so we could probably smash it out fairly quickly, with me writing and him doing the art. From his point of view, we could pay tribute to a great Irish hero and all I’d have to do is help him with the wording. It would also mean that we wouldn’t have to do a joint project with any of the other dumb-dumbs in the class. A resounding rubbery dolphin-squeak filled the room. As if in encouragement, Bartie Harkens was rubbing his beach ball across the window from outside. I immediately agreed.

 We were to write it that night in Felim’s small, square house in Creggan. His family were proper Republicans - capital R - the type that are only about an inch away from sleeping on sandbags and brushing their teeth with holy water. To them, Padraig Pearse was a holy poet, a national icon and a martyr of uncommon valour. My family didn’t have commemorative plates of Padraig Pearse on their walls, I tried to explain. We had one plate on our wall for a while, but I think it was just celebrating a hundred years of the Blackpool Pleasure Beach. We’d kept it too close to the fryer and it went a bit yellow, so we took it down. By the time I’d finished saying all this Felim had left the room and returned with his notebooks.

 Prior  to this I hadn’t exactly been sold on Pearse. He seemed so pinch-faced and austere, a small, prissy man you might see on holiday ironing his ties in a tiny caravan on the Aran Islands. Even as a child I knew we wouldn’t have gotten along. Certainly not in the way he would have allegedly liked. (It should be noted that Felim had a particular dislike for me mentioning anything to do with Padraig Pearse kissing young boys. Looking back, my choice to repeatedly do so was a poor move on my part. This I can see now).

 One thing that was clear from the notebooks, however, was that Pearse was undoubtedly the historical character Felim could draw best, unless you were to extend your definition of “historical” to include Alf, the affable, cat-eating, vaguely Jewish alien from the popular American sitcom of the same name. While Irish republican figures, flags, and emblems vastly outnumbered all the little Alfs he drew, there was a varied enough mixture of both to make those notebooks a lot more pleasingly surreal to thumb through.

Gradually we laid down the first sticky filaments of a story. We knew we wanted our comic to combine the historical savvy of a truly great biographical work, while also having the charm and pizazz of something more adventurous. At 14, we already saw ourselves as writers like Patrick O’Brian or James Clavell, only with bowl haircuts and Ellesse t-shirts. As our work pattern evolved, we moved away from slavish adherence to history and began speaking from the heart. I would suggest a panel and we’d talk through how best to frame it. Inch by inch we plodded forward and settled into a comfortable rhythm on his bedroom floor -  both cross-legged and in silence, he drawing and me scribbling more nuggets of narrative gold. It crossed my mind that this was the sort of easy, co-operational spirit Van Morrison had dreamed of. Even the missteps were in their own way thrilling, particularly those points at which, with a weary sigh, we’d crumple some paper and throw it into bin from where we sat.  It felt adult and exciting and dangerous to be writers. Struggling writers! We were proud when Felim’s mam called us for dinner and remarked on how messy the bedroom was. There were books open in all directions; papers, colouring pencils, and marker pens strewn everywhere you looked. Such was the artistic condition we reckoned. This was probably what Roddy Doyle’s gaff looked like, give or take a few pogs, or that sad army of stiff, roughened tennis socks under Felim’s bed.

We began to balance Felim’s preference for historical realism with my own taste for mild fantasy. I was cool so long as he didn’t make everything about the Brits, and he was happy if I kept references to paederasty to a minimum. I can see now that Felim had some valid concerns of his own about my contributions. It wasn’t that he wanted the whole thing to be a hagiography of the man per se. It was more that he didn’t think having Pearse getting trapped in a haunted house on the eve of the Easter Rising was necessarily the right direction to take. We compromised and moved toward finishing what we had in a timely manner, but I did begin to notice that what had once been a pamphlet had really quite recklessly expanded. Felim was in the grip of a fervent passion for his art and it seemed each time I looked up, there would be another new draft and another new dispute. Things came to a head when I looked up and found that the comic was now 16 pages long with 2 appendices. It had subplots and dream sequences. To make matters worse, I’d only narrowly vetoed a musical number earlier, so in the spirit of compromise I had to allow for  the bewildering graphs and charts he’d added to page 6.

This was not the direction I’d anticipated for our project. We began to lash out at each other. Our teenage vocal chords were not ready for the onslaught. The volume increased and our sorry throats yelped and twanged, reducing us to undignified yodeling. I called him an artless hack. He called me a West Brit prick. I can’t remember who threw the first pencil, but it was I who began tearing pages strip-by-strip from the cardboard-lined pad he had filled with drawings. If we both had to start our stories from scratch, I didn’t care. This was a matter of principle. We hoarsely rasped insults and redoubled ripping and tearing every piece of paper in sight, showering ourselves in poorly daubed, historically-suspect confetti. When I eventually stormed out, I left the philistine alone in his nest of shreds, glowering from its centre like a massive Republican hamster.

 Upon my arrival at school the next day, I saw Felim sitting near the front, awaiting his turn to address the class. He squeezed a weak, smug smile from his lips. I was just thinking how cool and collected this was on his part, when he almost immediately started giving me the finger. I glanced at the bulky ream of papers in the manila folder he was holding. Even from where I was sitting I clocked the bumpy, rag-tag shape of it, and the bags under his eyes suggesting he hadn’t slept. A knot grew in my belly as it became clear he’d painstakingly pulled the entire saga together, gathering all the scraps like a madman into one absurd patchwork of bits, the whole thing lumpy from revisions, shiny with Sellotape.

He’d even gone so far as to remove my contributions, tippexing over them with his own, and had the genius to represent its shoddy, patchwork appearance as a feature not a bug. This was, he said, all the result of this hallowed historical document, being trafficked and manhandled as samizdat for the guts of a century. Everyone stood up when he presented it, students and teachers alike, all oohing and aahing in a tight circle, like when Gary Butler found that dead bird and we all took turns poking it with a stick. And although the name did prove distasteful to many, Padraig Pearse & The Curse of the Gypsy’s Tears, it was clearly a huge success. A success I’d had no part in. I’d been brought low by my own lust for control, I’d tasted the bitter fruit of a writer’s life,  and it would be some time before I wrote again.  

The day wasn’t a total bust. I learned a lot about myself and, in fairness, my rap about the famine was generally well received. Felim and I did patch things up, but we lost touch after school. I eventually did go on to college, and though I did write again, I turned down the chance to write a foreword to Mad About The Boy, a warmly reviewed anthology of Pearse’s poetry. None of the old gang have heard from Felim in a few years, although Izzy Moynan said she’d been told he was now a tattoo artist in Bangor. She said she’d never forget the RA head who told her that Felim was the best inker in the business - all across his chest, the most gorgeous full-colour Alf he’d ever seen.

There’s that moment when you’re lying in the water playing dead, when your head comes up just enough for your ears to fill with all the sound that the water has muted. From that deep liquid silence, the ears open like an uncorked bottle, filling with the sound of the cicadas and the lapping of waves, rhythmic and unstopping. It’s my favourite sensation.

I get out wearing my pink bikini, clocking the man in his 60s watching me, holding my gaze unabashed when I turn to look at him as I tread lake water and make my way back to my lilo. I’ve been reading The White Album, feeling like it was an act of some cosmic fate that placed it in my eye-line as I made my way out to the terrace the night before. It’s one of those old 1970s copies that I like finding in my parents’ house, the Penguin orange iconic, a forgotten currency printed on the price tag. I’ve been feeling very very sad, and Joan Didion’s Californian cool intelligence makes me feel like I can claim a kinship to something glamorous - I too write, I too need to see a doctor, I too can be pretty, I too like the heat, I too am a woman. It’s the only book for me right now.

But really what I can’t stop thinking about is my pink bikini. I turn onto my stomach attempting to even out my tan which never seems to work out on my rear-end, leaving me with a luminous orb poking out over two angry trunks. The pink bikini has lasted me since a fateful summer in 2010 when I was back home in Rome, interning with the BBC and getting stood up at an alarming rate every time I ‘put myself out there’. Encouraged by my boss Patti Partee to go on a diet of Greek yogurt and Marlboros, I’d been chain smoking inside the office and ingesting collated white guck to the point that the two things started to adopt each other’s flavours. After three days I decided my new figure deserved some recognition. And so the pink bikini came to pass. It would later emerge that the Greek Marlboro diet had added 4 kilos to my waistline and made me prone to tonsillitis for the rest of the year, whilst Patti would die of lung cancer 18 months later, Ray Bans, Vespa, silver hair, and Greek Marlboro diet till the end.

The sun’s fury intensifies, drops appearing between skin folds spreading a gratifying sense of burning that comes with a promise of tan, and I think about my pink bikini. Dana, the lady who cleans our house and has acted as friend and counselor to my mother for over 11 years, had washed the top and the bottom in two separate washes. The top half was still a brilliant pink, obviously washed in the light wash, whilst the bottom half had become the colour of old grey-pink underwear, and I found myself unable to stop feeling irritated. How could a person not notice that they were two different colours now? That they belonged to the light wash together? I looked forward to the moment when I would see my mother and be able to complain about Dana’s absentmindedness as if it were her personal responsibility.

From the time I was about 17 one of my most frequently used nicknames was Un Dos Tres - a break from the regular Pickle with which extended family and friends still refer to me. Un Dos Tres did not refer to any innate sense of rhythm I carried in my hips, nor had it anything to do with Ricky Martin’s superb banger. Un Dos Tres refers to a nervous tick Nicolas Cage has in a film called Matchstick Men. It’s a great movie - Sam Rockwell is in it, Roger Ebert gave it 4/4, and Cage is a saucer-eyed manic wonder throughout. For those who were out sick, here’s what you need to know: Matchstick Men follows Roy Waller (Cage), a neurotic con artist whose daily life is a nightmarish succession of rituals and ticks generated by his obsessive compulsive disorder. One of his most debilitating idiosyncrasies is a habit of having to open and shut doors three times whilst counting up to three in Spanish – un, dos, tres – before being able to go through the door happily. This of course becomes more and more tragic and ridiculous as the stakes heighten during the film, and Roy finds himself having to go through his rituals in a hurried fashion, lashing into the door, opening and closing it, breathlessly mumbling un, dos, tres, seeking out the soothing effect of repetition while suffering extreme emotional distress.

My parents christened me Un Dos Tres in a moment of exasperation caused by my obsessive compulsive behaviours. When I hit semi-adulthood I began to rack up little ceremonies with which I would carry out the most basic daily functions, most of which I still carry out today. They add ceremony to everything, as though I’m being secretly filmed or as though there’s something remarkable and noteworthy in my choices and way of living life.

I say I’m ocd in the way everyone says they’re ocd or gluten intolerant, using a specific word to turn a vague self-diagnosis into a reality, thereby stripping the poor bastards who actually suffer from these conditions of any sense of entitlement, the only solace you have when you suffer from such conditions. 

My ocd-ness manifests itself in a few ways: 

1 I once house-sat an amazing four-storey Georgian house off Fitzwilliam Square, but ended up covering everything in white sheets because I couldn’t bear to look at the mess, which was causing me to have an asthma attack. I don’t have asthma.

2 I missed the train to school everyday because I was doing my makeup. I refused to do my makeup in any of the school bathrooms because the lighting “wasn’t right”. 

3 I won’t share desserts with my mum because she eats from crust-to-point instead of my preferred point-to-crust. 

4 On weekends when I get home, no matter what time it is, my first activity is to get on my hands and knees and clean the tiled floor with a sponge or kitchen paper. This has become so normal that my boyfriend Steve will just take a seat unprompted and monologue about quantum physics, knowing that that’s what I’ll be doing silently for a while. 

5 Once I’ve figured out the formation in which I like my objects on a tabletop, I will almost never move things again. My childhood bedroom is like a mausoleum to my adolescence, nothing has moved. 

6 I’m very proud of my folding skills. If something doesn’t fit in with the dimensions of the of the folded mound, I will fold everything in the mound until it is an even pile. 

7 I must brush my teeth in the shower and I must have breakfast before showering or else my day gets weird 

8 I carry books in zip-lock bags and plastic folders so that they don’t get damaged in my handbag  

9 I’ve bought the same exact grocery shop every week for the past three years

Etc etc

From the outside it’s hard to believe that I’m capable of any behaviour that requires discipline or organisation. I’m criminally late to everything, I was runner up as class clown every year in high school, I consider peanuts a meal, I never stick with any exercise plan for long, the price is always right for me so money just trickles through my fingers, and when we did a personality test in one of my jobs, I scored as an ‘Extreme Last Minute Racer’. I’ve had conversations with bosses about it over Wibbly-Wobbly Wonders and I once kept a first date waiting for me for an hour and half.

 I’ve been getting the feeling of late that Dublin is a siren holding me captive on her island - I’ve seen the same shops, done the same loop, had the same conversations, drank the same drinks, worn the same styles. I’m used up, worn out, stale, and while I was doing all this I missed a boat that is never coming back for me. Getting down on my hands and knees at 6am after a night out, scrubbing the stains and picking up the crumbs from the cream tiled floor feels like the greatest assertion of my will power. Every coffee stain removed is a victory over some prophesied fate. Every sneaker I line up in a row, is a vote of confidence in myself. Here I am, Un Dos Tres - every placed object, colour-coded spreadsheet, washed Merry Christmas mug, and right-angled magazine-pile bows to my command! I am not a mess or a failure here, because I am in control. Nothing is past hope because I have the bravery and tenacity to arrange my pillows according to size! I can make my own happiness and decide what happens in my life because every morning I ceremoniously take two sips of coffee before eating a bite of my cereal! I triumph over sadness, over chaos, and over fear because I, like Roy Waller, see the importance of an ordered life. And in that there is some kind of beauty. 

I estimate that the heat is over 40 degrees now. The drops are no more, I’m just sweating all over, streams running down my neck dropping onto the pages of my book. Joan Didion has lost me. There’s too much talk of political figures that defined the 1970s that I’m not entirely familiar with, and so I get up to go for another swim, my fifth this afternoon. I lift myself up from my belly and remember my bikini that’s now the colour of old underwear. I remember my revenge on my mother and on Dana. And as I begin to get annoyed again, I realise I’m in excruciating pain. My white orb is no more. In its place is a bright pink protuberance that looks like undercooked roast beef. It stings and I know that when I turn my back on the beach to walk into the water everyone will see my oiled up pink growth sprouting from the end of my back. And as I opt to run as fast as I can into the water so that a) nobody sees me and b) burny feely go way-way now, I decide to let my mum and Dana off the hook about the bikini and spare them my ‘how to wash my clothes’ lecture. As Un Dos Tres I yield great power and with it comes great responsibility. And today one of those responsibilities includes not being a shit-head for the whole of my life.

Dear X,

The feeling of aloneness strikes you over and over as you move around London, so abruptly and physically that you’re often winded and gasping as you exit stations or traipse between jobs. The feeling is different to loneliness, characterised not by lack of human interaction which you are surrounded by and never want for, but by the inability of human interaction, for the first time, to comfort you. You are much more physical here than you were in Dublin, where your body and life had settled, where you slotted in easily and navigated the city by foot and without thought - moving as automatically as a character in a videogame clearing obstacles.

Now every journey is laboured and dictated by the moving blue dot on your phone which is you, you watch yourself move around the screen of the city and grow more aware of dragging a body around all the time, of having to guide it. For the first time in years you’re not hungry for regular meals, the stomach too nervous to tolerate intervention. Although you are not doing this purposefully or for aesthetic reasons, you are reminded of how you once loved to feel the thin acids of hunger circulate. You loved it more than anything, to feel cleaned and soured by them, as though being boiled sterile from the inside out. Back then your body was no longer sweaty and bloody and warm. You did such good work that instead of flesh and sinew you were made of cords and rope and muslin. You were beyond body, the insides clean of mess, the veins filled with hardening concrete. You felt strong and inhuman and read compulsively of dissection, of marrow and pus and disaster. You bought books about autopsies and memorised the phenomena which occur depending on the method of death.

You read about the messy corpse of a man who had thrown himself off a building. A witness had reported that without fuss or warning, he neatly dipped forwards, as though having merely dropped something beneath a table and was attempting to retrieve it 2. When a doctor arrives, he must check as a matter of course that the heart has stopped, and using a stethoscope hears and then feels a strange crackling sensation throughout the man's chest. It sounds like Rice Krispies when you first pour the milk on. The man's lungs have exploded upon impact, and all the pockets of air normally contained within them are now travelling around the body at speed, trying to settle.

Lungs are light as spirit because their tissue is so thin and delicate; the membranes within them arranged so as to maximise exposure to breath much as the leaves on deciduous trees maximise exposure to air.

The fragility of lungs leads you to consider infant death, your dad’s family, large Irish Catholic broods of the 1950’s who seemed to often lose a child in its first few weeks for no good reason. The tissue of organs is always terrifyingly unresisting, pliable, susceptible, right into adulthood. But a baby's organs are made of such ephemeral gauze that infection passes through like a dream through a head; glibly, smoothly. The baby gets a bladder infection on day 7 and by day 21 the bacteria has comprehensively swam through every available organ until the brain is on fire and, just like that, no more baby, better luck next time. I think of these things when you ask me, not infrequently, if you are going to die and I laugh and say never, never.


For Now,
Meg

Dear X,

You are never going to die.

There are tears in my eyes as I bang this old Dell keyboard now, in the middle of a dismal Monday dawn, thinking of your body and how alive it is and how far from me, tears just thinking about how good and strong and beautiful you are. From the first time we slept together your body was an object of pure devotion, was a place I could come to be quiet with myself.

Do you think I am unaware of calling you a place, a thing? Do you think I am unaware of what it is to praise you like this?

There is something mortifying about speaking of a man’s body. What do I know about a man’s body? And do they need any more praising? I always liked that you were so open about your need to be physically perfect, so few people are vain and still lovable but you are.

I want to write to your body and leave you out of it because we have done nothing but talk for the best part of a year and I’m tired and I never say what I mean because what I mean is too much, too ugly, and is finally without hope. So I’ll think instead of how much time I spent exploring your limbs, foraging around in the morning trying to inhale before I had to share you with the world, you swatting me away for spending too long nudging my nose into your ears while you tried to sleep. But that’s not enough- how to talk about what it is to regard you from bed? I mean, when I am inside it and you are above, mobile. You are looking back at me, waiting to join me in the evening; or already up in the morning, stretching so far you brush the ceiling, anxious to begin living.

That winter I was stagnating and scared of being stuck forever, and I tried to forget it by looking at you instead. You were so beautiful that I could have looked at you forever and never made a decision if you’d have let me. And then we left one another, over and over again, and the hours and minutes between seeing you all had the low thrum whine of a perpetual Sunday night. I was waiting for something to happen. I was waiting to disappear.

What I wanted was always to be having sex and always to be sleeping beside you and for there to be no life in the middle of these things. I wanted there to be no moment where I was alone and would be reminded that I exist.

I should end by regretting all that, by being wise and retrospective but I don’t blame myself even now, the sharp intake of breath I can hear beneath your ribs when I lie with my head there and my hands everywhere and we laugh and laugh and laugh.


With love,
 

Meg

It was the American moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson who first introduced me to the concept of thought experiments. Thomson would take real life moral dilemmas and transplant them, via some far-fetched analogy, into absurd alternate realities, wherein the reader could engage with the essence of the original question, freed from the straitjackets of politics or personal prejudice.

 Most famously, in 1971, Thomson made a case for legalised abortion by concocting a story in which readers were invited to imagine they’d been kidnapped and awoke connected, via intravenous drip, to the body of an ailing violinist who, they were told, would need a continual supply of the reader’s blood for the next nine months, if he was to have a chance of surviving.

As a younger man, this approach to thinking really fired my imagination. I would compose thought experiments all the time. Here’s one I came up with while arguing about East Germany with a girl I’d just met in a bar. I was insisting that life under the Honecker regime had been hellish and oppressive. She disagreed, saying things really weren’t all that bad.

 It turned out this woman was born and raised in the GDR and had some fond memories of the place. Whereas my own expertise derived largely from having seen the film The Lives of Others earlier that evening. In the circumstances, I felt a game-changer was required...

Once upon a time - I told her - there was a prosperous kingdom ruled over by a benevolent king and queen. One morning, the king and queen were trampled to death by a herd of stampeding rhinos and the throne passed to their son, a pampered little prince. Without his parents around to offer love and guidance, this spoiled brat soon became a fully-fledged tyrant.

The new king had a wooden leg and, after a misunderstanding at the grand opening of a cash  and carry, he became convinced his subjects mocked him for this behind his back. So next day, he issued a terrible edict. Every man, woman and child in the kingdom was to have their left leg amputated just like him.

His soldiers went to work, hacking the left legs off every citizen in the land, before turning their swords on themselves. The streets and rivers soon ran red with blood. Cries of despair could be heard in every hamlet. Over time, the new king mellowed and became, in some ways, an enlightened ruler. But on this one issue he refused to budge.

Decades passed. By the time you and I were born, the king was an old man and foot amputation was a painless childhood rite of passage. On the day of our procedure, each of us was given cards and gifts, and lavished with attention.

A skilled caste of craftsmen had come into existence, producing beautiful and ornate wooden legs, illustrated with portraits of dashing matinee idols and idealized depictions of rural life. Indeed these craftsmen’s workshops often became focal points for local communities; somewhere growing teenagers would go to have new limbs fitted or sometimes just to shoot the breeze.

Maybe your parents first clapped eyes on each other in one of these places. Maybe your mother carved your father's initials on her new prosthetic and keeps it as a sentimental treasure to this day. Meanwhile, at the Paralympics, the kingdom's athletes brought home gold after gold after gold.

Oh, yes. That’s something else I should have mentioned about thought experiments. They don’t have punch lines. They rarely even have endings. They just peter out, like small talk in an elevator. The point I was making there was rather a banal one: that a person can grow accustomed to just about anything. We were talking about East Germany. But looking back, I wonder if I wasn’t really talking about grief.

At the time, I’d suffered four major bereavements in five years. This wasn’t something I mentioned much in bars. It wasn’t even something I dwelt upon in private. A and B were two beautiful sisters killed in a horrific accident overseas a few days after my 21st birthday. (A third girl I knew less well also lost her life in the same incident.) The first locals to stumble upon the girls’ bodies stole their wallets and their belongings. So they lay in a ditch five days before the alarm was raised.

I was a pallbearer for A and slept in B’s bed the night of their funeral. At the graveside, their mother lurched forward wanting to say something. In her anguish, I couldn’t immediately grasp what was the matter. She wanted to know which coffin was which. She wanted to know which one of her daughters we were putting in the ground.

When the prayers were over, C tugged at my arm and offered quiet condolences. Considering the state of her health, I was surprised she’d made it to the church, let alone to the cold and windswept graveyard. She hadn’t known A or B personally, insofar as I’m aware. She was there to support me and I appreciated it.

A couple of years later, I kept a late night vigil at C’s bedside. She was breathing through a ventilator, a shrivelled, grotesque parody of the woman I had loved. At 4am, almost imperceptibly, her grip on my hand relaxed. I summoned the nurse and asked her if the breathing noise I was hearing came from the patient or the machine. “It’s from the machine,” the nurse confirmed. In that case, I said, she’s gone.

Later that same day, D showed me how to prepare for a wake. We stopped all the clocks, covered over the mirrors and established a line of credit at the nearest off-licence. Two years later, I found myself repeating the process for him. He had keeled over after playing a game of indoor soccer.

At the time, these were just a scattershot of unrelated, tragic events. It never felt like a single narrative, let alone one in which I played the leading role. In each case, others had far greater claims on grief than me.  

I was concerned for their welfare and never for my own. This wasn’t gallantry. It’s just easier to mask your own feelings sometimes than it is to confront them. As I understood it then, this just came with the job description for being a man. Which isn’t to say I managed to block it all out. For a long time, I was secretly haunted by visions of A and B’s final moments, by the sheer terror they must have experienced when they knew they were going to die. A couple of months after the accident, I was having trouble sleeping at night. D and I were in a cafe on a Saturday morning when the owner approached our table. When you’re 21, adults still tend to look through you and behave as though you aren’t there. So I was surprised to find it was myself, and not D, that the cafe owner wished to have a word with.

“Those two girls, your friends,” he barked. “They’re buried out at the cemetery in Aghamore, aren’t they?” I nodded. “Have you been out there lately?” I gulped. “I mean at the graveyard, since the funeral?” he continued. “In the past week or so?” What the fuck business is that of yours?, I should have responded. Instead, I stammered. Yes, I was there yesterday. 

A planning notice had just appeared in the local newspaper, announcing a new property development on the old graveyard road. “You must have walked past the site,” he implored. “Did you get a look at it at all?” He was fishing for gossip. He had question about units and frontage and builders vans. None of which I was able to answer to his satisfaction. It was surreal, like an out of body experience. I felt like begging him to stop. But he didn’t. And D just sat there, fucking oblivious, sipping coffee and reading the paper.

 I drank a lot in those days. I did a lot of drugs and got in a lot of fights. All of this seemed normal at the time. But looking back, I can’t help wondering if I was acting out?

 For a lapsed Catholic – which I most certainly am (after all, there can be few greater stress tests of one’s disbelief than to close the lid on a person you love desperately and accept you’ll probably never see that person again) – this line of thinking is very seductive. The idea that I could make a Devil out of grief, and absolve myself of responsibility for all of the stupid things I’ve done since then has some obvious attractions. But that’s self-serving bullshit. I’m pretty sure I’d have done all those things anyway.

 It was after D died that I walked closest to the ledge. I would behave like a normal person at home, at work, and in the pub afterwards with my friends. But when I was walking home, after a few drinks, I would torture myself replaying painful scenes and conversations, over and over, in my head. In the darkness and the anonymity of the city, I finally allowed myself to cry.

 I became acutely aware of the winos, beggars, junkies and prostitutes wandering like ghosts in our midst. I fancied now I felt a little of what they felt. One night, when I was walking down Fitzgibbon Street alone, an ambulance peeled past and mounted the kerb ahead of me. Paramedics jumped out. For a moment, I thought that they had come to take me away. And I was willing to go with them. But they brushed past me, up the stairwell into the flats.

 There’s no happy ending in all of this. Not really. But time does have a habit of passing. Things move on. Stuff happens. New memories are created. If you’re lucky, those are happy memories, memories you wouldn’t swap for the world, even if some people were no longer around to have been there. In some cases, things happen for the better that could never have happened if the deceased was still alive. This is the accommodation we come to with loss. This is the only accommodation we can come to with loss.

 The day after the Berkley tragedy this summer, I visited A and B’s grave for the first time in several years. There were a couple of kids’ bicycles slung against a wall by the cemetery gates. My friends were buried with their grandparents, in the old section of the graveyard. A lot of the old tombstones there are falling down now and many of the graves are overgrown.

 At the top of the hill, I paused at their grave. I wondered, if the girls had survived, would we even still be friends? Would we have fallen out with each other, or grown apart? Would we be Facebook friends, who liked each other’s photos once in  a while, but hadn’t spoken in years? I hope not. But you really just don’t know.

Then I turned around to admire the rolling green fields and crumbling stone walls that spread out for miles in every direction. They sun was shining. It was a beautiful day. Two small boys were cavorting in the ruins of the lovely old chapel, overlooking the girls’ family plot.  With a friendly greeting, I tried to convey that it was okay for them to be there. I really didn’t mind. But the two boys scattered in fright. I could hear them in the next field, still shrieking and laughing as they ran.

 This is the natural order of things, I said to myself. Edifices crumble. Grass grows over the stones and, eventually, children come to play on that grass. And there is beauty in that to be sure. But it would be better if some stones were still standing. It would be better if I still had two legs.