“I’ve thought long and hard. Do As I Say, Not As I Do pops into my head a lot. I’ve always thought it was very Irish. Reminds me of my mother.”

Back when we were a twinkle in a Kickstarter’s eye, we gave away the theme and title of our fifth issue to a generous soul willing to unleash a certain amount of dough on us. That soul belonged to chef and popup maestro Kevin Powell, the man behind amazing food project Gruel Gorilla.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do looks into issues of authority at Kev’s request in this period of post-election readjustment. The phrase describes the intrinsic injustice in orders - being told to do something that the speaker is not going to do. It’s a cliché and a cliché for a reason. Punishment and Power come up if you play a word association game, quickly followed by Mum, Work, School, Government, Dog. In a place like Dublin you are never allowed to forget the omnipresence of orders and the institutions they belong to. From your education to the shade of your boss’s lipstick, do as we do and look into questions of authority in this our fifth issue.

 

 

Fuchsia Macaree

I’d heard she changed her name when she was 8. She was in class one day and the teacher asked her what her name was - she flicked through the millions of possible lives and names she could have and settled on something she liked because of its suggestion of a strong vivid colour - “Fuchsia” she said.

I like to think this story is true even if it’s not, as it gives Fuchsia a precocious Matilda-like quality, throwing newts across classrooms with the power of her mind while she forges her identity under the mantle of this new moniker. It’s like an origin story that explains that idiosyncratic humour present in all her illustrations, as well as her total disregard for anything other than the beat of her own drum. Aside from her monstrous talent, it was this quality that made her perfect for our issue about authority.

Fuchsia is a working and breathing female illustrator whose work you might have seen in Totally Dublin, on a tote bag near you, at Offset events, and soon on a project by an enormous American corporation.

 

In the dentist’s office I focused on the light behind the man’s face, my feet in the air as the blood drained into my head, mouth pulled wide open with his horrible gloved fingers poking my gums.

“You don’t floss. Why don’t you floss?” He asked.

“Iaagh yusheghhh doooogh,” I replied into his fingers.

“Did nobody ever teach you? Come on, up you get.” He flicked the switch that made the chair upright itself with me in it. I had assumed that just booking the appointment was enough to constitute doing the adult thing. I had typed “dentist near oxford circus” into Yelp and found one that seemed accommodating. I had been so proud, phoning up to make the appointment, writing the time into my blue day planner, smiling dreamily as I tongued the teeth inside my mouth. Rotten teeth in a rotten mouth, apparently, according to this horrible clean man with his gloved fingers.

“To the mirror.” In front the mirror the dentist stood behind me and looped the dental floss between my teeth, pulling harshly to demonstrate technique. “This is how you floss, Ellie. You need to do this twice a day to save your gums from further disease.”

It hurt.

“It hurrghts!” I told him. There is no indignity more crass than having your words fumbled by a clean man’s gloved fingers, pulling fine thread between your teeth. I could taste blood and in the mirror, saw my diseased gums dyed red. I caught the dentist’s eye with sheer panic in my face.

“A little blood is to be expected, Ellie. It’s a sign of the disease in the gums.”

How was he so clean while I was full of sickness? The blood was on my lips now and the pain was getting worse.

“Can you stop?” I asked, somehow, through his gloves. My eyes were welling with tears and I was too confused to even pretend I wasn’t about to cry.

“There. That’s how you floss. You now have no excuse for such bad gums and teeth. Will you promise me that you’ll floss twice a day from now on, Ellie?”

 

His fingers were no longer in my mouth, but there was a lot of blood pooling around my tongue now, so I wasn’t so confident in my ability to reply yet. I nodded. Does a nod count as a lie? I nodded anyway, my bloody tongue complicit in my head’s dishonesty.

My mouth was still full of blood when I got back to the office. I had spat it out in the bathroom of the dentist, and I cautiously reapplied my makeup once I had managed to stop the automatic tears from spilling out. The bleeding had calmed a little by the time my bus stopped on Marylebone Road, but nevertheless when Olivia poked her head around her door at me, sitting quietly at my tiny assistant’s-desk, to ask how the dentist had been, I was too afraid of my blood and tears giving me away to do more than just nod and smile, mouth closed tight.

Olivia’s door is generally closed or ajar depending on her mood, which depends in turn on what she has eaten for breakfast. Once, Olivia tore up an email from a long-standing, difficult contributor in front of him, simply because she had opted for a boiled egg instead of porridge. She printed it out first, in order to tear it up, which seemed to me like a waste of her already-limited energies. But that is the thing about being an assistant: it’s obvious that nobody cares how anything seems to me, really.

That morning Olivia’s door was ajar. And we matched – her mouth was blood red too, Ruby Woo, her ‘signature lip’, in her own words. I could hear her rustling papers and opening and closing drawers – busy noises, I had to assume. The Digest gets many submissions, almost all of them paper, and I know this because the place that gets them, technically, is my desk. And I don’t know how they get there because they are all there when I arrive in the morning. I am usually the first here and nevertheless they crowd my desk, jostling for my attention. The Digest gets a lot of submissions because, I supposed, it’s the Digest, and it is esteemed, and writers seem to believe that its tacit approval will make them into Writers. “It’s about the company you keep,” Olivia put it to me on my first day.

Olivia has not written a book, which means that she is not a Writer, but that’s okay to her because she really considers herself more of an Editor. This seems to mean a friend to all talent, someone raven-haired and glamourous, with a double first from Oxbridge, ready to extend a glass of expensive scotch and talk you through your talented troubles on the knackered leather Chesterfield couch in her office.

Olivia’s remit is reviews, whereby she collates and criticises the month’s reviews before electing which ones are worthy of publication. Of course I do the collating; I am the assistant, this is what we do all across Marylebone and Fitzrovia, between lunch orders and paying invoices. Olivia is good at criticising. For Front of Book I once wrote a short memo on what I perceived to be a connection between the newest Will Self novel and a teenage backlash against druggy hedonism, and within an hour she had left it back on my desk slashed to ribbons with red pen. At the bottom, in the studied scrawl of a hormonal woman who criticises for a living: Your point is true, but is it interesting? “You need to read more Susan Sontag,” she tapped the piece of paper walking past my desk on the way out to Côte Brasserie. It wasn’t printed. I took an early lunch, which I spent crying over my coleslaw in the toilet. If her remit is reviews, mine is feeling constantly like I am not educated or well-read enough to even be in this building. Maybe even in this city. I furrowed my brow.

The Digest’s writers are, by and large, older and by and large on the sleazier side of charming. Malcolm was always kind to me when he called to schedule a meeting with Olivia. “After two,” he’d roar. “After two and before five, please Ellie.” He kept these hours, I’d learn, because he was a drunk and those hours, when he’d had two drinks but not three or four, were when he’d be most functional. For a drunk, Malcolm was a handsome one, and his picture was often in the Diary pages of the Evening Standard, which I would leaf through idly on the commute home. Here he was with Zadie Smith. Here he was with Claudia Winkleman. Ah, here he was with Olivia, her dark red lips pursed in what I think she thought was a sexy, kittenish pout. I wondered when a woman gets too old to be kittenish.

Here he was now in the office, all six foot five of him, filling the doorframe in his stained overcoat, his flop of dark hair jutting over his face.

“Hello, Ellie!” He boomed over my desk. “Tell me how it is being 23 in the year 2013. Did you read the Nadine Gordimer I lent you?”

I did, I told him, and smiled bashfully, lying of course. I liked it. He lent down and rested his elbows on my desk. His breath was sweet and heavy with red wine, not like the sour smell of piss and whisky like the tramps down Baker Street. But still I recoiled just a hair. “Let me take you for a drink, Ellie. I have another book I think you’d love,” he said, patting his overcoat pocket.

Olivia cleared her throat over his shoulder, standing at the threshold of her office. I blushed. “Ellie,” she cooed. “You’re blushing like a schoolgirl.” My face had betrayed my insides, again, for the thirteenth time today. But I pretty much am a schoolgirl! I wanted to shout. Malcolm looked over his shoulder as he followed Olivia, in her black leather boots and her grey striped dress, which I knew was from Marni because I was here, at my desk, when the package from Net-A-Porter had arrived. Her gussying up for the handsome writers, her flirtatious manner – it all seemed one big posture, a going-through-the-motions of chemistry that made her seem more appealing to the writers, increased her capital somehow, I thought. I thought about the picture of her and Malcolm in the Standard, the calculation she put into her pose and how she dipped her chin at an angle to capture her best side. It was all put on. She closed the door behind her with one black leather heel.

 

Throughout college I worked in a department store’s beauty hall, and to get me through afternoons selling glass pots of snake oil to obnoxious women who insisted on writing cheques despite their near-total obsolescence, I would pretend I was onstage. I am not a natural actress, but there was a sign by the clock-in machine that told me to “Be HELPFUL, Be ATTRACTIVE, Be a MODEL of GOOD SERVICE”, and that was all I needed. Once I walked on to that shop floor, I was on and I was not able to fuck up. No toilet breaks, no idle chatter, no distractions. I was not a source of great amusement for my colleagues, maybe, but I got through each shift. My first day at the Digest I slid back into this habit. I pretended the cameras were trained on my desk. When contributors came in to meet with Olivia, meetings that were inevitably more about literary gossip and small tumblers of freebie scotch than about editorial matters, I detached from the situation so much that my performance elicited a kind of elated adrenaline. I focused in on this now, rather than on the blood that remained in my mouth, or on the muffled chatter – in which I heard my name, and some conspiratorial giggles – in the room behind me. I concentrated on maintaining the actor’s veneer so that I wouldn’t be swallowed whole by my hatred of her, my embarrassment around this situation, of the flush on my cheeks that I couldn’t control. I filed away the submissions on my desk and I tongued my sore, raw gums inside my mouth, pursed tight.

40 minutes later, the door swung open again. I hopped up to fetch Malcolm’s coat. It smelled of damp, the tartan lining torn in places. There was a flush smudge of red near the lapel and my heartbeat doubled, had the blood in my mouth gotten there somehow? I put my thumb on the spot in horror, frozen in panic. Malcolm stepped in front of me and took the coat from my hands genially. I looked up at Olivia behind him, the lipstick on her mouth, and blushed again, feeling my face heat up out of my control. “Thank you Ellie dear. I hope to see you again soon,” he said. Be a MODEL of GOOD SERVICE, Ellie, I told myself. Get it together. Olivia made it seem so easy, with her yahs and her glottal stops, her weekends in the Cotswolds and her easy, boarding-school manner with men. Maybe it wasn’t all put on, after all. She fixed her gaze on me as Malcolm made for the door.

“Are you feeling OK, Ellie? You look a little peaky.”

I swallowed hard. The taste of blood still lingered.

“I’m fine, Olivia. Just – you know, the dentist.”

Wear it or you’re fired, they said, and now here I am, sweating in my big head. The fan at the top isn’t working properly, no doubt because my long, wavy strands of hair keep getting caught in it, ripped away at the roots. Each time this happens I jump a little, here inside my furry suit. The Girls in Yellow lead me from the service corridor into the indoor pool area and I get a glimpse of myself in the poolside mirror. One of them has me by the paw, another by the tail. My eyes are ovoid, heavily eyelashed and dewy, my smile and buck teeth so big they verge on demonic. I am Gabby the Gopher. Take of me what you will. 

For, what is money? Nothing but a construct, a thing invented to aid us in our suffering, but which adds to our suffering in innumerable ways – and I need it bad. Art school doesn’t pay for itself, you know (or at least that’s what Dad tells me). It’s sweltering, Autumn, easily triple digits, wet and sticky, particularly here by this vapor-spewing jacuzzi. When the Girls in Yellow announce my presence the younger children yell and crawl over each other to get out of the pool. They know Gabby by name, and they use it. Though my vision is limited to the million little pricks punched through the metal saucers representing my eyes, still I see them all. My breathing is heavy and sounds heavier, like a deep sea diver, in my bubble. When I graduate I will have a cottage in the countryside, and I will paint there.

I am taken to the outdoor area and the kids are not upon us yet. They are small, and slow. The time is 4pm, and 4pm is when Gabby emerges to do her dance. Through my pinholes I see Missouri – ‘Misery’, as they pronounce it here – splayed like a Lichtenstein beyond the brickwork patio and the Fun Zone House, falling away and rolling past a row of condos, all mosquitoes and hickory, Paw Paw and lakeside bluffs, an immense flooded hollow drenched in an endless haze. It is infinitely hotter outside than it was inside.

But there’s no time for stopping. The Girls in Yellow continue to lead the way. Joseph Beuys once spent a week locked in a room with nothing but a stack of newspapers, an umbrella, a coyote and a roll of felt. I Like America and America Likes Me. People filed in, safe behind a windowed wall, to watch the coyote tear at the newspapers, tear at the felt, be held at bay with the umbrella. He once covered his face in honey and gold foil and explained art to a dead hare cradled in his arms. I can do this.

There are more kids in the outdoor pool than there were in the indoor pool, and they too shriek when they spot me. Their parents, rotisserie red, turn and laugh.

 

“It’s Gabby time everybody!” says Girl in Yellow Number 1. “Is everybody ready to dance?” The kids from the indoor pool have caught up to us, and are bouncing with glee. Yes they are ready. Girl in Yellow 2 goes to plug the phone into the speakers.

“And are you ready, Gabby?” says Girl in Yellow 1. I’m not allowed to speak, and so I nod, but to make Gabby nod I have to enter into what is essentially a slow-motion headbang. The kids from the outdoor pool have joined the others, and they all now face me, jumping.

The music comes on and I begin the Gabby Dance. This comprises a left-foot kick across the body with jazz hands, then a right foot kick across the body while continuing jazz hands, followed by a booty shake while making running movements with the arms. The kicks and jazz hands are fine, I can handle this, but a booty shake in the Gabby suit is no laughing matter. Gabby is meant to be bent over a fair bit while she’s doing it, to show just how into it she is, but the head is heavy and the tail is long, so to get the whole thing into a proper flowing motion takes a heap of energy, and soon I am completely soaked in sweat. In the corner of a gallery, Felix Gonzalez-Torres installed a number of hard candies in bright metallic wrappers equal to his own weight. Visitors were allowed to take as many pieces as they wished, but with the sweetness came an odd guilt. It was as though you were stealing a piece of him, eating a piece of him. After his death this guilt increased manyfold.

The fan pulls a few more hairs and I jump. A new, faster-paced song begins, and I up my speed. The Girls in Yellow, on either side of me now, take a paw each and join in the dance. Many of the parents seem to have wandered off to the Cocktail Hut. Bright candy smears circle the children’s mouths. Already wired, the upbeat song works them into a frenzy Gabby is obliged to oblige. Through my mesh eyes I see a little girl come for me. She clamps onto a big furry Gabby leg and I can no longer dance-kick without launching her into the pool. Another girl is inspired to join her on my left leg. “I love you, Gabby,” she says. Love and obsession ooze from her eyes.

The Gabby Dance has been relegated to a shuffle, and the Girls in Yellow don’t seem to notice that we’re getting too close to the pool. Hockney does the best pools – so serene, so crisp, so full of meaning. But boys do not show their excitement by hugging. Boys show their excitement by punching, or at least these boys do, and their little fists are right at the same height as Gabby the Gopher’s crotch.

They strike. The Girls in Yellow gently try to dissuade them but their main concern is the happiness of the children, and their admonishment comes couched in fun. “Not so hard, boys,” they say. “Love him with your words.”

The fan inside my head is powered by a battery. Can a battery electrocute a full-grown man, or should I fear only drowning? The blows lead me closer to the pool’s edge, and the girls keep their grip. I am no longer able to dance, though the music plays on. Another boy grabs my tail and pulls, and I head backwards faster still.

“Gabby, I love you!” the girls shout. More pile on.

On foul days I will paint inside my cottage; on fair days I will venture out. I’m teetering on the edge. A few more hairs are lost to the fan. The children love me and beat me. The Girls in Yellow have me in their hands.

Sometimes I have found myself in trouble with authority. I say ‘found myself’ because it’s often been a surprise. I’ve never set out to get ‘in trouble’ and I always find it slightly embarrassing at first. My instinct, I think, is to side with authority.

This attitude to authority may have been formed early on in school which I loved, until I was about twelve years old.

I grew up in the countryside outside Navan, but attended secondary in the town. Even at the time our primary school seemed like something from another era. We were exceptionally innocent. In our final year, aged 12, I remember us girls and boys holding hands and singing as we ran through the fields. I think I would have cried for anyone who smoked. At home I once fell to my knees and prayed that drugs would never enter my life.

Secondary school in Navan seemed a real change but I adapted quickly, I thought. It seemed exciting. None of it was that hard except for Maths which I claimed to find difficult.

This affectation had begun when I was about 9 with a teacher called Mr. O’Donoghue, a singular man in retrospect. He spent most of each day playing his keyboard and often invited me to join him. He also had the desks arranged so every single one of us was faced away from the blackboard, and him. We would sing gaily while everyone else chatted. It was a completely accepted fact that you ‘lost’ a year when you came into Mr.O’Donoghue’s class.

One Maths class I was summoned to the blackboard to solve a problem. I can’t remember any of the details, but basically I got mixed up and he began to laugh.

To my continuing shame I could not resist making him laugh again, and so further messed up the problem. Taking Maths seriously was not for me, I concluded.

So, in our first Christmas tests at secondary school I did very well at everything except for Maths which I failed.

But it turned out everybody had. In fact, my fail was quite respectable. My new best friend Caitleen had done terribly and she began to weep beside me. Her mother was a teacher and would be livid. The Maths teacher, Mrs Dolan-Cunningham took Caitleen outside.

Miss Dolan – as she was known - was very overweight with creamy skin and black curly hair. She wore strong perfume, smoked, and though often late, moved at a stately pace, sweeping into the room. She had long nails, and wore a lot of rings. At that point I didn’t have much else to say about her or her personality. I would have thought we had made little impression on each other.

In the corridor Ms. Dolan told Caitleen she shouldn’t sit beside me in school anymore, and she would tell her mother this too, teacher to teacher. I was a bad influence, and would always do better.

My reaction was one of horror when I heard this. I was 12 years old and loved Caitleen with a slightly ridiculous intensity. I wanted her to flourish. I couldn’t understand how I could represent anything negative to her.

It seems incredible now, but that conversation precipitated a long and awful sequence of events. We weren’t to sit together anymore in Maths, and after a time I wasn’t allowed sit beside her in other classes either.  

The injustice of this arrangement really upset me. We shared the same group of friends but they were mostly her old school friends, and things got very bitchy. I became friends with another girl, who was older and wilder, and, meaner.

We embarked upon a somewhat comic crime spree; mitching, copying keys from the school and stealing things, we broke into the school church, pissed in a chalice, and accidentally set the altar on fire. We got away with most of this but were eventually caught in town ten minutes before the end of school and suspended for one day.

This was major.

In our school it was very unusual to be suspended. I remember crying and other girls patting my arm and saying it was going to be alright. But it wasn’t. I knew that, and I was correct.

Suddenly for the first time in my life I was friendless. My partner in crime was rich, and her friends were pony club girls. She blamed everything on me, and soon she was back to hunt balls and pony camp. I was seen as trouble. Nobody wanted to talk to me anymore.

To be honest it’s still painful to think about how I spent the next year and a half. It was unrelenting. I sat on my own every day in school. Sometimes people pretended they had saved a seat for someone else rather than sit with me. I’d hear people talk about going out, or into town. I was never invited. I spent every lunch-time on my own. It’s almost laughable now in its pathos, but I rented a violin and learned to play so I’d have something to do then. I practiced in a semi-underground music room and watched everyone outside. You couldn’t script it.

I was terribly self-conscious. I felt my loneliness was lit neon everywhere I went. I’d never experienced something like this before. School was a safe place. I’d fallen foul of bullies plenty of times but always had friends, and made new ones easily.

Things weren’t great at home either. I was extremely unhappy. In hindsight I may have been depressed. I cried constantly. I knew I would do my Junior Cert, move classes, and then leave school but I couldn’t see how anything could be enjoyable again. It was a different era, and there was no concept of talking about your feelings. There wasn’t really a culture of self-harm or suicide either. Perhaps this was a good thing. I couldn’t imagine any alternatives. So, I just went on, I suppose.

There was a climax. And, it involved Miss Dolan again. By then I was fourteen years old.

I used to always arrive in class right before it started. That way I wouldn’t have to spend much time either sitting on my own, or seeking a seat beside someone. I could slide in anywhere.  

I had done this today and remember having a couple of sentences of conversation with the girl next to me and feeling upbeat as a result. I smiled at Miss Dolan as she swept in for Maths.  

Was it that gesture?

She shouted, “Quiet.” We all looked up expectantly.

And then she looked down at me, and asked me to stand up.

I stood, a little uncertainly.

“Sinead,” she said. “Who are your friends here?”

I didn’t understand.

She leaned back and smiled, and said slowly:

“Sinead, who are your friends here? Point out your friends.”

There was no need to look around. I knew. She knew. Everyone there knew.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more shame. I bent my head. My nose kept sniffing, and my eyes were full of tears.

I stood there for several minutes.

I wonder now how that was for the others, and for Miss. Dolan. Eventually a girl called Martha Coogan who I barely knew spoke up.

She said, “We’re all friends with Sinead.”

At this Miss Dolan said I could sit down.  Perhaps Martha jolted her into some kind of sense.

There is something of a happy ending to this. I won some competitions and did a good Junior Cert. In the small way of these things my honor was restored and girls wanted to be my friend again. Obviously it wasn’t the same for a long time. These days I’m probably back to my primary school self; I’ve lots of friends. I seek out time on my own. My 14 year-old self could never have anticipated this.

I don’t know what happened to Eileen Dolan Cunningham.

I began this by asserting my natural affiliation to authority. It’s true, but there are actually so many events in my life which suggest otherwise, and a lot of my career as a journalist and filmmaker has been entirely taken up with the questioning of authority.

So I think it’s probably more accurate to say I have a natural respect for authority, but I’m very aware of how it can be misused.

I’ve far less patience with institutions. At best there’s something silly about their pomposity. More seriously, they can really damage individuals. I loathe how people pander to them. I’m nauseated by parental ambition, mostly.

I now have a five year-old daughter, and recently attended her first parent-teacher meeting which was funny - there’s just not much to say. Only one comment resonated. She’s great, her teacher said, except when she disagrees with what the group is doing. Then she does her own thing.  
I couldn’t but interpret this as a positive.

The Americans won their revolution in 1783 and British loyalists, who some Wikipedia articles refer to as refugees, fled North. Red coats and wrong side sympathisers hacked through forests, upsetting native populaces until they ‘founded’ Toronto in 1793, after some negotiations with the Mississauga tribe.

 

Not the most sophisticated summation of a nation’s founding history, but you’re rarely asked about Canada in pub quizzes. The capital is Ottawa. The Great Lakes are Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario. Done. That’s all you need to know. Trust me, I’ve been there.

 

I ended up in Toronto for a few months at the tail end of 2010 until the Spring of 2011, because of Canadian literary giant Margaret Atwood. I had wanted to study abroad for my third year of university. It was to be potentially seminal, a future chapter in my biography.

A law school in Atlanta, Georgia was my original choice. Even now, the word Georgia trips off the mental tongue as heady, fun, full of possibility. A taste of the Deep South was going to be the making of me, I decided. I would develop freckles and wear a letter jumper.

While still in college in Dublin, I met up with a girl who had lived in Atlanta the year before. Over coffee she described keg parties, football players, Friday night games at neighbouring campuses that turned into weekends, backyard pools. I smiled, a bobbing back-of-the-car dog ornament to her every rushed anecdote. Words like ‘class!’ unleashed when she finished sentences, but inside my blood stilled. This is not my future she’s describing, I thought. This doesn’t sound like opaque-wearing me. Freckles would ruin the alabaster skin strangers complimented. I look awful in shorts. I can’t swim.  Combine that with early twenties drinking habits and a rented home with a pool outside - I’ll nab an obit article in the Irish Independent. Facebook photos of me wearing matte foundation with an overlay of gloopy Benefit highlighter, striped in the approximate direction of cheekbones, would litter cheap paper. An ignoble legacy.

Which brings me to Margaret Atwood. After the fright of Georgia’s prospects, I scrambled for a new plan and hit upon a college on the outskirts of Toronto, Atwood’s home city.

I thought me and Maggie were on the same wavelength, like every other 20-something-year-old female in further education. Following a proposal of marriage from a chalkboard-grating boyfriend, her heroine in The Edible Woman begins to see food as a living entity she cannot stomach. Every time I roast sweet potato, I think its puckered damp flesh reminiscent of bubbling skin. When I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I, like the protagonist, got distracted from the grim dystopian plot by the sexy mechanic. Sweeping 20th century epic The Blind Assassin is about a woman with secrets, and an argumentative sister. I have sisters.

Canada became a ‘that’ll do’ goal, a suitable making of me with a pared back but hopefully intriguing narrative. And yet, I made no clear impression on that chunk of continent. If I landed in the city tomorrow morning, I’d have two people, tops, who could provide me with a couch.

My Toronto was a flavourless guidebook. I tellingly pronounce the city’s second ‘t’. When I wandered the streets I invariably ended up in Starbucks. I didn’t develop a taste for Tim Hortons. I forget the name of train stations I used frequently travel through. When I think about Canada I feel a betrayal of sorts, a treason against myself.

There are stand out memories. A Scottish guy in the exchange gang made it his short-term mission to be the funny one. For Halloween, he dressed as the Joker, easily two to three years after the Batman movie was released. When he knocked on my door requesting red lipstick, I asked him was his outfit ironic. “What?” He would get in touch months later because the other Irish girl, who he fancied, wouldn’t reply to him on Facebook. He was worried she had disappeared.

There was a guy in my Law & Literature class who chose to analyse his own screenplay for our end-of-term essay. I was ghosted by my History of Criminal Law study group after submitting free-from-critical-analysis notes to the email thread. An Australian taught me how to play poker. However, I never had an ‘adventure’.

There was a fleeting chance of something when I roomed with an uneven-in-number girl gang on the college ski trip, and two attractive guy friends they snuck in. One was immediately arresting. A young James Spader look, awful sunglasses, he told actual laugh out loud stories – a rarity in that part of the world. I found the fact he tried skiing in jeans and was bleeding from the knee when he first sauntered in kind of cool. I stress the fact I was 21-years-old at the time.

The other guy was a less bombastic soul, a tall wavy haired brunette who kept trying to chat me up. I shut him down with bare responses as I sipped my gin and tonic in a very careful manner. I was seeing an Irish guy long-distance. Something I felt compelled to tell every man who breathed near me. He very kindly introduced me to everyone at pre-drinks and acknowledged any awkward attempt I made at entering the group’s conversation.

A few weeks later I was walking through the city with a friend. That same quiet handsome man saw me and called out. He jogged a little bit, caught up and asked me, breathlessly, if I wanted to join him at a party in a nearby bar. Looking back, him shouting my name while gulping cold evening street air ranks among My Top Ten Sexy Memories. Me telling him I had to go home to Skype my then-boyfriend ranks high in 2011’s Stupid Decisions. In the flashback monologue of my life, this is the part where Now Me freezes the frame, breath moisture hanging in the air, and says: “That was your fucking adventure, Jeanne.”

As we strolled away my friend asked me who he was. Just some guy, I said. Which is true, I don’t even remember his name, but in retrospect he was my chance at something, even just one night of mere drinks and proper flirting. The next time a man expressed interest in me in that city was my last night in Toronto. A stocky Corkman approached me in a bar to tell me he was impressed I ordered chicken wings. I was different from other girls.

For all these memories, the only proper imprint is my hatred of snow. I despise it on a scale I’m certain no one else can understand. Snow belongs in movies and on illustrated Christmas cards. In Canada it belongs everywhere. The rumble of ploughs accompanies dark AM rituals. Your bank account vomits funds because quilted coats which seep stray feathers come March are a necessity. Toes become unfeeling bullets. Box-dyed hair verges on snapping with the indoors-out change in heat.

In the city, I avoided the slicing aboveground air with underground shortcuts. That’s what the Toronto snow was, something to be avoided. It drove you into hiding, protected and subterranean. I never witnessed a vast frontier with an unforgiving landscape, swathes of silence, and a suspicion of wolves. That was the Canada I imagined, a never-ending inaccessible countryside.

Instead I got a dead campus on the outskirts of a polite city. In my eyeline were three fellow highrise apartment blocks built with rectangular windows like sad eyes. Beyond those freestanding impositions, university housing ran out like matchboxes. The April day I moved out to journey home to Ireland, a young woman was murdered by an angry male acquaintance in one of those houses. Her boyfriend was on a video call and witnessed it all unfold.

It wasn’t until my last week there that I finally met my next-door neighbours. Turns out they had the quietest toddler in existence. I never heard the child wail.

One December evening we were evacuated because of rapidly dropping temperatures and a fire that screwed with the campus-wide heating. As I waited in the hallway I had my one proper conversation with a neighbour. She wore blue jeans, a practical cushioned winter jacket and sensible work boots, something on the Timberland scale. We chatted. She told me she was a mature student with a background in activism. She worked on developing SVU in Toronto. I was like, “The television show?!” She explained, that no, she helped the police department in the city develop new standards regarding victims of crime. She also revealed she was a few weeks pregnant and introduced me to the father of her child. She was so happy and proud.

Less than a month later the fire alarm in our building was set off and residents gathered outside in the snow, wearing layers and boots. We sensed nuisance rather than threat. She was there so I shuffled up to her with a greeting and queries. The conversation ended with an awkward hug. She had miscarried in recent days. A few months later, an email arrived from the law school dean announcing a student’s unexpected death, a between-the-lines suicide.

She died in that apartment building. I wondered if she had a room similar to mine – a stiff foam mattress, bathroom lighting evoking all imperfections and making pale skin look like puddle frost, a humming fridge in the corner of the open plan. Her Twitter account still exists. It wasn’t too active back when she was alive and working on developing SVU. There was a terse reply to Charlie Sheen during his Tiger Blood days, a few comments about essays. In 2014 her account was hacked by Russian spammers. A glut of Cyrillic outbursts dashed through a February.

In the end I met Margaret Atwood, not in her hometown but two years later in Dun Laoghaire amid a clammy seaside drizzle. She was speaking in the Pavillon Theatre at a sold-out event. My younger sister had secured a ticket and I tried my hand at a cancelled one. The box office girl told me some seats had freed up because of Seamus Heaney’s death.

I didn’t tell Margaret Atwood she was responsible for eight months of my life. Because she wasn’t. It was all me. I merely smiled as she signed a copy of The Blind Assassin. My intent, wordless focus prompted her to widen her eyes and frown as she stared down to finish her inky flourish.

After the graduation ceremony I went down the hallway on my own in my gown. There was the smell of the hall, the brutal white lighting, the doors with their numbers that had come to symbolise the people who taught behind them, my locker’s stickers, the smell of Impulse under my Biology textbook. A lot of people had been crying, but Carlo and I had been unable to stop laughing after three people we’d never seen before stood up to take their scrolls and move their tassels from one side of their hats to the other, apparently classmates of ours we’d never seen.

We decided one of the students looked like he’d been Fritzled - kept hidden in the attic of ‘the villa’ of our school. All these years he’d secretly been generating the school’s electricity supply through centrifugal power by riding a bicycle furiously while our small blonde headmaster whipped him mercilessly complete with latex suit and gimp mask. We frequently thought up scenes with our middle-aged headmaster in latex.

We had plenty of time for this between my moment - Agnew - and his moment - Robilant. According to the end of year’s school tabularium we were Desert Island Companions and respectively The Most Likely To Succeed and The Most Likely To Never Graduate From High School. Our parents never stopped watching us as we teared up laughing at the expense of our classmates.

As I walked back up the hallway to the door leading out of highschool, having committed the vision of that hallway to memory, a voice called me. It was from the principal’s office that stood in front of the doors to the school, and the voice turned out to be the principal himself.

Natt Smith had joined the school only that year. His first address in our student newsletter - The Falcon Dreamer - read: “I encourage you all to take an active role in your child’s development and education. Ask questions. Share. Take delight in their achievements even as they struggle.” He was from Orange County, early 40s, and handsome. He’d had what we surmised was a nose-job and a quick search on the internet revealed an photo of him addressing a Scientology gathering some time when he’d been a mayor in OC. This led the student body to refer to him as our new ‘scientologist principal’ for that year. This wasn’t particularly shocking, since a few months earlier it had emerged that a much loved teacher had been in a 1980s horror porno in which he ate someone’s heart before fucking their brains out. A parent had found out via her son who had a niche interest in 1980s Italian gore-porn clearly, and had asked for the teacher’s dismissal. A petition went round, the entire staff and student body signed it, and Mr GorePorn stayed where he was clearly needed.

Smith was nice to me, realising quickly that the best way to get on my side was to flatter my vanity, which at that moment resided in my conviction of my superiority to everything around me. “Jeez, Roisin, there’s an actual queue of boys trying to talk to you,” he’d say, to which I would reply, “I know. Get in line.” He came into an Italian literature class one day and yelled, “Who remembers the opening line to Camus’ L’Etranger in French?” To which I, quick as a flash, recited, “Aujourd’hui maman est morte, ou peut etre hier, je ne sais pas,” a weird thing to shout, particularly in an Italian class.

“Roisin Agnew!” The thrill of your whole name being spoken.

I walked into his office where he was putting away gifts he’d been given. He congratulated me on my graduation and I thanked him. “And now that you’ve graduated I can tell you something I couldn’t tell you before,” he said, after mentioning that I almost wasn’t allowed graduate because of my frequent absences. “When I saw you in that cafe the first day of school, I didn’t think you were a student,” he went on. “I was like, wow, Italian women are so beautiful and sophisticated drinking their coffees at the counter. And then I came into school and you were there, and I was like, shit, no, that’s one of my students! I hope I didn’t dribble my coffee!”

My distaste for authority started early and through no fault of my own. When I was in kindergarten my father received a call saying that I was refusing to colour in elephants. In a rare moment of impatience for a man who is normally polite, even gregarious, he replied, “Well why the fuck should she colour in elephants, it’s a ridiculous activity!”

Sneering aside, I loved school. As an only child I was expected to do well, but my parents taught me to disregard authority figures if I thought they were fundamentally wrong. American-trained pediatricians had tried to put me on Ritalin and I suppose this was a stand of defiance my parents had chosen for all of us. “We trust your judgment” was a refrain.

I was a nightmare and had a really great time. A parent calling into a math class in middle school opened the door to find me dancing on a table and then delighted my mother by recounting the episode to her in front of a group of mums. I forged my father’s signature on letters sent home that complained about my behaviour, until the teacher asked my parents to come in for a meeting. I was ‘sent to the hallway’ until my senior year, when one teacher decided I was too old to be kicked out of class, so she’d leave instead in protest at my behaviour. It was innocent but consistent bad behaviour.

But I was a good student and I enjoyed school. I became semi autodidactic, racked up absences, and read the teacher’s handbooks, going to another school’s classes occasionally as I was convinced I wasn’t being taught properly. I did well and so my distrust of the school deepened.

An international school in Rome with fees upwards of €15K a year, it was attended by the prime minister’s son and the son of Jeff Koons and porn star Cicciolina, as well as by embassy children from Israel, Nigeria, Canada and normal (if privileged) Italians. Young teachers came from the US for two year jaunts so they could work tax free, older teachers came for a last stop before retirement. The year after I left, one of the jovial, rotund administrators was escorted off campus by the police because of his involvement in some fraudulent activities with student fees. Or so I heard.

School set the standard by which I would come to understand authority figures. They were oily opponents prone to sneaky serves that turned into half-volleys who I’d be forever side-eyeing across the tennis court. My peers were my leaders. School was ‘the establishment’, a microcosm of the half-perceived injustice that existed outside its privileged confines - greed, pettiness, ugliness, from the dirt and neglect everywhere, to the obsolete public transport, from the illegal developments in national parks, down to the bomb-proof golden gates at my classmate’s house.

Feeling unrepresented by those in charge allowed me to feel like an outsider and not care but pay attention, an emo Kylo Ren. It made me hesitant to follow direction until I was sure the person had good judgment. I never took a boss’s word for anything until I trusted them. I never adopted their opinion until I could see good reason for it. I learnt what the Dilbert principle was from the cartoons - incompetent people promoted to middle-management in order to get them away from the frontline where they could do real damage. Where authority lay was a matter of circumstance and context, not of ability or talent.

For a year I’d been fantasising about a scene like this. Me ready with my teasing replies, him saying something drenched in innuendo, some terrible version of Baker Street playing in the background, papers flying across the room, me figuring out how to undo a tie, me looking up that nose to see if I could see the scars from the operation, “there’s only one place where your midriff can be exposed in this school young lady, and that’s right here.”

If he’d touched me I would’ve probably giggled like a baby and drooled, any hint of sex leaving my body like a deflated balloon. I felt awkward and young. His flirting with me was so that he could watch my poorly masked reaction. He knew I’d been fantasising about him that whole year, he knew how conceited I was. And then there was the Federer move, the SABR half-volley. “We almost couldn’t let you graduate because of your absences. I couldn’t have that though.” His magnanimity and thereby his power were great. I wondered did all forty year-old ex mayors with nose-jobs need to toy with 18 year-old girls to get their jollies. And then I remembered that it didn’t matter.  I’d graduated. Everything this individual said to me now was just words. The scales had tipped, the context was different. “I remember that day,” I said. “And you did dribble your coffee.”

My family had a great car in the early 90s. It was a 1970s Chevrolet Impala, known affectionately to us as “The Chevy”. It was a loud, gas-guzzling beast, long enough to make parallel parking a near impossibility. It was deep maroon in colour, with one long velvety front seat identical to the back seat. I remember wearing seatbelts in The Chevy because, in the 40 degree desert heat of Jeddah, the city we lived in, the metal buckle of the seatbelt would get so hot that you needed a barrier of clothing between you and the buckle, or it would singe your skin.

“Your Girl Scout uniform is on the backseat,” Dad called back to me from the front, as he focused on the road ahead. Dad had just picked me up from baseball practice in the dusty, sandy field at my school, the American International School, established in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1952. The school campus was a fifteen-minute drive away from Saudia City, the compound we lived on. A few thousand people lived on the compound, mostly Saudi Arabian Airline employees and their families. My dad took a sabbatical from his job as a secondary school English teacher in Monaghan Town in 1986 to teach English to Saudi employees of the airline, bringing my mum, my older sister and myself with him. My parents had planned to stay for two years, but they liked the multi-cultural expat lifestyle of Red Sea snorkelling and desert camping trips, and stayed for seventeen years. My twin brothers were born in Jeddah. 

Our compound was a gated community near the sea. The Chevy had a sticker on its windscreen so that the security guards at one of the four gates knew we were residents. We could drive in and out as we wished. On the compound we had our own dusty baseball field, a small shopping centre with a grocery store, a donut shop and a dry-cleaners. Basketball courts and outdoor swimming pools were dotted around the expansive development that took me at least an hour to rollerblade across. The crumbling ruin of a closed-up cinema was a source of fascination for us kids. It had been shut down by the religious police, known as mutawa, before my family moved to Jeddah in 1986.

The government agency in charge of enforcing key aspects of Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia had the same name back then as they do today: the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Their mutawa mostly stayed out of our compound but they still asserted their authority within our gates in a number of key ways. Women couldn’t drive and alcohol was forbidden.

Back in The Chevy, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to change out of my dirty baseball uniform into my crisp, green Girl Scout uniform between Dad picking me up at school and dropping me off at the community centre on my compound where my Girl Scout troop met. I was just a month shy of my tenth birthday, feeling the pressures of the busy life of an active nine year old. It was February 8th 1992.

We were driving down one of the wide streets lined by dusty vacant plots, dotted with private flat-roofed villas, painted white. Suddenly, my eardrums were filled with the sickening sound of screeching metal. I was pulled violently forward. My head hit something, maybe The Chevy’s metal door handle, and soon there was sticky blood oozing down my face. I can’t remember feeling pain, just shock. We’d been in an accident. My twin brothers, also in the car, were crying but I think they were mostly just scared because of my bloody face. Dad was shaken but physically ok as he quickly got us out of the car. There was just one man in the other car, a tiny white Toyota dwarfed by The Chevy that had kept us safe. The Toyota was a write off. I remember that the man, with light brown hair and a moustache, looked small and frightened on the side of the road, as he stood looking upon the wreckage of his car and at us.

We were less than a mile away from our compound. A passing truck, most likely driven by one of the thousands of poor Bangladeshi migrant workers toiling away in Jeddah, picked up my Western dad with two crying baby boys and a stunned nine year old with blood on her face. They dropped us at one of our compound’s security gates; Dad used the telephone at the gate to call my mum at our house. She sped over on her bike to get us, so that Dad could get back to the crash scene. I was bleeding quite badly and Mum needed to get me to a doctor. But, of course,  women are not allowed to drive so she had no car of her own, just her trusty bike that had gotten her to us, fast.

Before the security guards could suggest calling the compound’s taxi company, the Saudi man who owned the compound dry-cleaners happened to be driving in through that gate. He was a kind man. He piled us all into his car and drove us to the medical centre on our compound. Dr Medhat, the Egyptian doctor who had supported my family through twin pregnancy, asthma attacks and the other minor injuries that most families face, calmly stitched the deep slash in the centre of my forehead shut.

A few hours later, we were in one of the hotel-like hospitals in the city, where I was getting X-rayed to make sure that the only damage done was the cut on my forehead (it was.). The Filipino nurse found out we were from Saudia City and told us gently that there had been another accident that day. A boy had been hit by a car and killed on our compound, perhaps an hour before our accident. His name was Caleb Parsons, he was America - did we know him? Caleb was 13 when he died. His dad was my PE teacher and his mum was our school’s librarian. He had a younger brother in the grade below me. I had known Caleb a little. He was a lovely kid. He was so friendly, even to younger kids like me. I had had a bit of a crush on him.

Years later, my mum told me that there had been some confusion as news spread through the compound of the two accidents, with some people thinking that I had died and Caleb had survived, or another story where we had both died. In the years after the accident, I had a recurring image of death as a black cloud hovering over our compound, its cruel fingers reaching out over the sites of both accidents, deciding which one of us to take. I felt guilty that I had survived and that he hadn’t.

The day after the accident, Dad was forced to bring me to a police station. The driver of the white Toyota was a Turkish mechanic. He had come out of a side street and ploughed into us on the main road. He had fled from the scene immediately after the accident, while Dad was getting us back to our compound, but he was later apprehended by the police. There was no question of who was in the wrong, and he had been imprisoned overnight, because a child had been hurt in the accident. My dad had to bring me to the police station to prove that I was alive, and to work with the police in deciding what kind of punishment the man should face for hitting us. All aspects of public Saudi life was swayed by Wahhabism, the fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam founded on the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th Century, and it’s still a major influence in Saudi society today. Qisas is the Sharia Law term meaning retaliation in kind, otherwise known as an eye for an eye.

 I remember the cool, marble floor of the police station, and the mustached men in their beige uniforms and black berets. These weren’t mutawa (religious police) or the mabahith (secret police), but the regular police force that handled everyday civic duties. There was a lot of shouting, as Dad pushed for the man’s immediate release. “But your daughter’s face!”, the policeman insisted angrily. “How will you marry her off in later life? Her face is destroyed. There has to be consequences.”

I stopped this heated back and forth by combusting into loud, scared tears. “Please let him go! Please!” I couldn’t bear to think of this man in a prison cell, because of me. The man was released, and Dad agreed with the police that the man’s punishment would be to fix up The Chevy, free of charge, in the garage that he worked at.

Dad still winces when he notices the scar on my forehead. Though these days it’s hidden under a fringe, I like my scar. It reminds me that I am alive. 

Danny has just learned the most frightening word.

 

“No”.

The word “Yes” has yet to make an impact on his absorbent 18 month mind. I suppose that “No” is an easier sell. It is strong, simple, definite. So Danny, not knowing “Yes”, uses “No” as shorthand for both the affirmative and the negative.

“Would you like a banana?” “No”

I hand him a banana. He wolfs it happily.

But then, sometimes “No” does means No. “Would you like some toast?” “No” I carefully butter some toast, then lovingly cut it into soldiers and offer him one. He stares at me like Al Pacino stared at Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross. As if to say: “What particular far-flung planet of fucking alien morons did you just land on Earth from?”

I offer him the toast again, now with an ingratiating grin. He pouts and his eyes say: “Where are you coming from, that you might, for even a minute, think that I would like to eat some toast? You cretin…you clown Dadda.” He takes the soldier in his hand. “Do you not understand the simple, two letter, monosyllable… No?” He drops the toast on the ground. Miraculously, it lands butter side up. I’m filled with a strange happiness. Because sometimes, occasionally, life delivers the simple beautiful thing. Instead of the head-wrecking, maddening thing.

Then the cat leaps and licks at the butter furiously.

Danny stares at the toast on the floor. The cat worries it energetically as if it’s a tasty, crunchy blood-filled mouse. Danny looks hungry and points.“Towss” he says. “TOWWSSS”

Raising a child is not easy. If you don’t have a child, then you know this because your parents looked tired a lot.  Or because a lot those friends who had babies have disappeared on you lately.

One of the great imponderables of parenthood is the mystery of how the hell you are going to produce a happy, industrious young man when you were a frowning, indolent terror yourself at that age.

I can handle the thought of a two year-old toddler falling and splitting his lip, a rambunctious eight-year old getting his fingers caught in a door, or a far more terrible prospect, an 18 year-old telling me he has joined Fianna Fáil during Fresher’s Week. I can help in these situations. But the dread I feel for Danny is for when he hits that age where the world turns upside down – those weird, demented years, 13 and 14. And instead of being able to offer wisdom and perspective from the dusty chapters of my own life, I’ll only be able to shrug my shoulders, wish him luck and, perhaps, tell him about how dreadful I was at that age.

It’s August, 1987, the fifteenth summer since the one when I was born. I’ve arrived at an Irish college in Waterford and I’m not best pleased about it. I’m a ball of confusion, hormones and sulky anger that has found a natural outlet in a love of heavy metal.

I am clad in the uniform of the suburban metaller: tight jeans, boot-runners, and a denim jacket festooned with the garish, but rather magnificent logos of metal bands. My hair is styled in that underrated blend of practicality and non-conformity: the mullet. The long-at-the-back atrocity first sported by David Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust years.

(It is quite perplexing now to think of the moral panic that metal bands induced with their supposed penchant for small animal decapitation and devil-worship. In truth, it was more about the album covers than the music. Heavy metal leads to typography, not Satanism).

I had been recently kicked out of my secondary school, and in September I was due to pitch up at a stricter, notoriously jockish South Dublin school. So spending two summer weeks in another institution seemed like a very bad idea.

“You’ll enjoy it, wait and see” said my mother as she dropped me off, but in the face of my glowering I could see her optimism wavering.

The reality didn’t help much – the Irish college was a hopelessly antiquated mess of nationalist codology and militarism straight from the 1950s. Iron beds were lined up barracks-style in dormitory rooms. Each day began with an assembly where the (many) rules were reiterated and the national anthem sung. The food was unspeakable.

I was not in a mood to go quietly along.

The teen film of that era was The Breakfast Club, a simple, if somewhat theatrical tale of five archetypal high schoolers who are serving Saturday detention under the supervision of an understandably irritable teacher. The whole thing is glued together with Simple Minds’ sublime Don’t You Forget About Me, which they had only unwillingly recorded for the film under duress from the record company.

The star of the piece was John Bender, a wise-cracking delinquent marvelously played by Judd Nelson, who, looking back now, was blatantly in his mid-20s at the time of filming. Bender pisses off the teacher royally, gets the other kids unrealistically high, and then scores Molly Ringwald, all while sporting the other iconic hairstyle of the late 80s – the curtains.

I think I might have been a bit more into the John Bender vibe than was good for me. But in my defence, back then, the “fuck you” attitude was very much in vogue, mostly thanks to another shaggy-haired rebel. It’s difficult to get across just how massive a figure Bob Geldof was in those days. His trajectory was odd, from disreputable rocker to secular saint and along the way he’d sworn, pouted, and thrown his toys out of the pram.

Band Aid was big, but Live Aid was pure hysteria. I remember getting into a car with my brothers to go camping with my dad as Live Aid was taking place. The rain was lashing against the windscreen. The radio DJ burbled ecstatically “This is the greatest day in the history of pop music.”

Look! History was reaching its absolute zenith! Everything that had gone before in the world had been leading up to this day! And I was stuck in a Renault 11 with my little brothers, heading to sleep in a leaking tent in the Comeraghs during the wettest summer on record.

Nightmare.

Geldof’s memoir, Is That It? is a manual in how to piss off the establishment by refusing to play by their phony rules. And because of everything that he had achieved, the powers-that-be could do nothing except shower him with more awards and commendations. Geldof was untouchable, a bulletproof John Bender. And I was pretty sure Bob Geldof wouldn’t stand for this shitty Irish college. So it began.

I had a simple strategy: don’t dance at the céilis, refuse to eat, don’t cooperate with the authorities in any way. Three days of uneaten lunches (not hard as I distinctly remember one dish which appeared to consist of grey meat, broken biscuits and feathers) and three non-dancing nights of being chased around a céili hall by livid supervisors.

I was turfed out. The word spread fast. Before I knew it, I was a mini-celebrity. A girl called Deirdre kissed me that night. That had never happened before. Shit, my mother was right. I WAS starting to enjoy it, just as I was getting booted out. My luckless parents were on holidays nearby, probably enjoying a few welcome days without the dreary presence of a sulking adolescent.

The Renault 11 came to collect me. I stood waiting in the courtyard between the main house and the grey dormitory block. Up in the girls dorm, the window was packed with 12 and 13 year-olds staring down to get a look at the eviction of this dangerous dissident.

Notoriety at last.

One of them, a tiny eleven year-old called Elizabeth strained to catch a glimpse of the mulleted, boot-runnered figure getting into the car. She watched as the car drove off.

I’m married to Elizabeth now.

She is Danny’s mother.

She’s sleeping. She’s been exhausted lately. So I get Danny up out of bed.

“Would you like some breakfast?”

“No,” he says, pouting and shaking his head.

“Now…” I pause. “Might you actually mean yes?”

A smile spreads across his chubby little face.

“Yes”.

He laughs and claps his hands. I pour the Rice Krispies.

He’ll be OK.

Some of my favourite writers are non-conformists who rage against authority. But I live a working week of quiet conformity.

Our culture seems to value authority but I am a drone and a proud one. I am drawn to physical jobs with specific routines and orders to follow. In my non-working life, I can be as creative and autonomous as I like, but at work, I put on my uniform, hunker down, and obey.

When I was in secondary school, a business studies teacher asked if there was anyone in the class who definitely did not want to run a business. My hand shot up - it was the only one. I had no grim experience of watching parents struggle to run a business and pay the bills, but I knew that the stresses of managing and juggling were never going to be for me.

In theory I like the idea of planning your working day and having complete autonomy, but it rarely seems to work out that way. Those who run businesses seem to have less autonomy the more authority they gain. The stress of managing people, of taking full responsibility if the task goes wrong, and of bullshitting other people to keep them on side, outweighs the benefits to my mind. I admire people who have a talent and set up a business to sell the products of that talent, but the business side of things, managing taxes and staff,  incomings and outgoings, sounds like fresh hell to me.

All of my life I’ve avoided jobs that require me to be an authority figure. I taught English in Japan, but this was authority-lite. When I taught in elementary school or junior high school, the class teacher sat at the back of the class ready to intervene in the event of objects being fired at my head.

I liked hunkering down on the floor playing with the children, sneaking learning into fun activities; I hated standing at the front of the classroom, disappointing the expectant little faces turned towards me, looking for someone who could sort out their world. I hated the fact that I was supposed to discipline the children if they went out of control - I wanted to go out of control with them. When the games we were playing threatened to get too loud or too frenetic, I wanted to shout and tear around the classroom with them. Fortunately, my boss prided himself on accepting the children who had been expelled from other language schools in the district. If ear-splitting roaring and floorboard-shaking were coming from my classroom, this was viewed as a successful lesson.

The only time I was pulled up for my lack of authority had nothing to do with my teaching.

My boss called me into the office one day to let me know that I had been seen by some of my students. It sounded ominous. My mind flicked through Saturday night’s heavy session, but surely none of my young students had witnessed that! No, it was the meal we’d had before the drinking began that was the problem.

My boyfriend and I had gone to a sushi restaurant with a friend. As well as the plates of sushi circling around the conveyor belt, there were desserts aplenty. When a gorgeous confection of pineapple and cream in a knickerbocker glory glass passed, I grabbed it. Before we started on the sushi, I ate my dessert. Then I ate my sushi-fill and had a second dessert. The first dessert was the problem. I had been seen, unbeknownst to myself, by a couple of the children and their parents. The children were impressed by the idea of starting a meal with dessert and decided this was a plan they could get behind. Their parents were not so impressed. My boss informed me that as a figure of authority, I had to watch my behaviour in public.

I found teaching adults difficult, especially those who had been in the world longer than I had. Age comes with a natural authority. In my twenties, I felt none. I felt too tall standing at the top of the class. I felt unsure of what I was teaching.

I know now that those who speak and act with authority do not necessarily have any knowledge or experience, but I still actively avoid being  in charge. I respect leaders who admit there are gaps in their knowledge, but there are too few.

I have always been drawn to physical work, the kind of work some people regard as drudgery and pay others to do for them as soon as they can afford it.

Growing up I spent my summers on my uncle’s farm in Mayo. My younger brother and I loved the farm work, shadowing my uncle and doing whatever tasks we could be trusted with – feeding the dogs, rounding up the cattle, washing the milk-churns, raking the hay. Physical tasks have a beginning and an end, a feeling of satisfaction to them. I loved the routine of it – knowing that at a certain time every day, a certain task would have to be performed. And I loved the way your mind could wander and circle as you were carrying out those tasks. I considered becoming a farmer, but as soon as I realised it would involve a business brain and lots of responsibility – as well as sending cute woolly creatures off to the slaughterhouse - I dropped the idea. Working for The Man seemed easier.

Since then, I’ve had many jobs that would be seen as drudgery by some. I had paper rounds, minded children and elderly people, cleaned hospitals and nursing homes, delivered post, and I’m currently working as a cleaner in a university. I know that I’m pond-life in terms of respect and money, but I feel free. I am told where to clean on any given day, and when I finish at 9:30 am, my day is my own. I am physically tired, my brain will have had room to roam around the book I’m currently working on, there is no stress to bring from work to home life. I like being a cog in a wheel. I have never wanted to be the person pedalling. I am happiest in the background, a follower not a leader, even though our society reveres the leaders, the ones who sometimes get us into untold messes.

This is not to say I have a natural respect for authority; I don’t. But even when I’ve had to work under incompetent managers, I still felt fortunate to be taking orders rather than giving them.

Since I’ve had my first book published, I get asked things about the state of Irish literature or other questions I feel I have no authority to answer. I’m uncomfortable making grand pronouncements.

Sometimes I feel bad about my decisions to opt out of authority. I was a high-achiever. I studied hard and spent two years studying a course that would have landed me in a respected well-paid job with plenty of responsibility. I dropped out to study English. When things go pear-shaped, or watermelon-shaped in my life, as they have several times in the past few years, I can’t help but think that if I had chosen a career instead of a job, at least I would have financial stability.

But, most of the time, I’m regret-free. I’m very happy going to work in the mornings, despite having to get out of bed at an hour I had only ever seen coming out of parties. I’m happier cleaning up literal shite than metaphorical shite; at least the literal stuff vanishes with a few swipes of a toilet brush. There is of course a certain amount of disrespect from some people towards people who do manual labour, but I don’t feel the need to take on their bias. Those in positions of authority have to keep a certain distance from the people who work for them. I like chatting on a level with my colleagues. I like not having to waffle or schmooze or bullshit or outright lie in order to get ahead. I like the reality of my job, the actuality of it: something is dirty, I make it clean. I do my work, money is put into my bank account every week, all’s right in my world.

 

This happened because I am unprofessional.

I never buy notebooks: I have a pile of empty, thirteen-quid Moleskines given to me by people have given me for ten birthdays now.

Last April I was sent to Veracruz, eastern Mexico, on a story. The content doesn’t matter: the story was spiked because being sent to Veracruz, eastern Mexico, on a story is like being sent to the Bermuda Triangle on a diving expedition.

What matters is the time of year: April, when the white, space-cancelling winter fogs are beginning to thin and vanish. The road from Mexico City swung in wide curves through colourless nothingness. I was thought-free all the way, lost in driver trance, but the day’s date itched at the back of my skull: April 15. A celebrity birthday, probably - or an ignored deadline.

I stayed in Córdoba. The day’s rain had the main square shining like a rink. Families strolled through the lead-colored Sunday evening light. From the bandstand came cheap, violin-led dance music strapped to a thudding beat, urgent bass that sounded like want. Unexpected uplift: shapes like candied fireworks traced the violin sounds through a thrilled hot darkness in my chest. I felt the indent of a memory just beyond reach: sickly, heavy as wet sugar, an overindulged feeling. I saw a red spindle of light turning in clouds of dry ice. I checked my inbox for why April 15 mattered. I remembered everything.

That all happened almost a year ago. The process begun that evening is nearly over now. At my elbow I can see the stack of pages grow thinner. I winnow the pile into a bin-bag. My friend Fernanda is building landscapes out of them. She wants them to look like a ruined city beside an ash beach. Every week I bring her more. Her cat nests in the excess shreds. She kicks the latest sackful.
“Daddy issues,” I tell her.

“Heavy,” she says.

April 15 is my father’s birthday. When I finally looked at my mother’s message, after checking in, I saw that she had written to remind me of this.

“An email would be the best birthday present he could ask for,” she had said.

I wouldn’t send one. I didn’t reply. Too late, anyway: it was already the day after back home.

After dinner with my fixer I went to bed.

I’m dating a medical student. Twenty. Too young, even by the half-your-age-plus-seven rule, and by other signs, too. The moon tattoo on her shoulder-blade, for example, is like innocence etched for good on her skin. Every time the medical student hoiks off her top I catch a cloud of her pH-neutral deodorant and it smells like youth, hope, chances not yet spurned.

The day after, I picked up the fixer in my jeep and drove out to meet our source in Tierra Blanca, a major stop-off on the northbound human and migrant trafficking routes. I’d been warned not to expect much. As we crossed the rail tracks towards the migrant shelter, he warned me again. I parked outside the low, squat shelter and its broken-glass-topped wall, gave the fixer my business card, and he went inside. I got out my new notebook and cracked the spine. Except its spine had been worked supple: I’d grabbed an old one instead. When I looked inside I knew the date by the wine-stains that had softened the pages and bled their ink. Summer 2011, the last time I had spoken to my father. Where the letters were legible they looked like a collapsed fire escape made of black metal. The leaked, run letters looked like broken piping: the sight of them filled my nose with the sulphur smell of old plumbing. The shock drained down through me, cold and slow.

The door opened again. My fixer emerged, shaking his head, looking rueful, and now my shock was at this sudden, straight flame of hate in me. Somehow this as his fault. I shut my eyes, breathed in hard through my nose, past the broken-pipe odor.

“I did say not to expect much,” the fixer said, defensive. “Perdón, eh.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know. Perdonado.”

I got a kill fee on the story and drove through mountains like broken teeth as far as Coatepec, where the fog is coldest and thickest. My hotel windows looked like blank pages. With my penknife I reefed out the first fifty-odd pages, up to the part where my father and I stopped talking. Then I began to read.

I hide at the medical student’s apartment a lot. My place is closer to the Centro, so the water comes out warmish from my taps and makes me think of pipes bundled and coiled in entrail-shapes deep in the body of the city. Further south, where the medical student lives, the water spits out white and cold and numbs the core of your teeth when you rinse your mouth. I shut my eyes over the sink, see mountain freshets, green university acres rolling away towards white sun and empty skies. I stand for ages in her shower, washing my hair again and again, watching the flocculent white suds swirl out of sight, and that is how I would like to go, too.

I did well in university. It was my way of making up for the uselessness of my degree: a four-year-long apology written in achievements. I wasn’t happy in university: the sense of privilege all around was like a constant pumice abrasion against me. I have the whole period edited down to as few memory frames as possible: how the cobblestones looked like mussel-shells in the swirling mud and rain; the toffee-colored tiles of the Arts Block; the windowless, striplit tutorial rooms. I started to drink heavily after my first big academic prize came through. Wine was the chosen fuel: I could get two bottles under and still be able to read and think. To hide the smell I ate an entire tablespoonful of peanut butter on its own before classes. I smoked rollies until the whorls of my fingertips went dun, loving the cruise-speed feeling of booze and nicotine in my blood. I wrote a bad novel at the time as a kind of psychological Kleenex. I recall keeping the bottles in my room, to piss in, when the world was too blurry to move through. When my family called to visit we would meet somewhere else off-campus.

This was how we fell apart.

I stayed at the medical student’s place all last weekend. I didn’t expect to, but her apartment is all neat lines, dim wattage, varnish-color sunlight through wood blinds, like the cover of a book, and I couldn’t leave. She didn’t care much, since all I really did was sit at her kitchen table with a stack of old pages reefed out of my diaries from the time I stopped talking to my father. I picked up old tatters, scried the mad ink tangles, tried to join them together.

“You’re writing,” said the medical student. “That’s so nice!” She was in her taekwondo gear. Her parents are rich. There is a gym room in her apartment.

The medical student represents Mexico in taekwondo. That’s not a niche interest: it’s like the third sport here, and they televise it. One of the medical student’s Facebook photos is her at a competition, her leg raised vertical towards the audience. There are cameras: a phosphor seethe of flashbulbs at the rim of the photo. She’s facing the other way, eyes aimed nonchalant out of the frame. Onwards, forwards, all that. She can do that.

“I love words,” she said. “But I can only do sentences - phrases, little joined-up chains of words sometimes. Nothing finished. The thought breaks. The light goes out. You know?”

During one visit, at a pub, where I slugged down two Carlsbergs before lunch arrived, I remember my father biting the edge of his finger trying to hide how he felt about how I looked one morning. I was ashen, having vomited into two different bins on my way to meet them. I was coming to the end of final year, and it looked like I was going to get another big academic prize. But I’d also missed all of the deadlines for the kind of university I should have been applying for. Even if my family had been able to afford them, the word burnout had started to hover in the air, with its sharp yellow smell like the noise of a lightbulb filament about to snap.

I talked vaguely and quickly about moving to Prague after graduating.

“To do what?”

“I think I want to do nothing for a while.” My voice has a plea in it.

“You can’t do nothing. We all have to earn a living. That’s how the world works.”

I order another pint when the waitress swoops in for my empty glass.

“It’s one o’clock, Tim.”

“I got up early. What are you drinking?”

Da indicates forlornly his failed tea, his acrid coffee. “Not impressed so far,” he says. “Perhaps some water!” The hope is bright in his voice. “They can’t mess up water, can they?”

“Spirochetes,” I say.

When my final grades came in they were very high. I did end up going to Prague, but not to live. I went with my father. It was like his pat on the back for getting through.

Only then did I run away.

Escape is a tactic in my family going back to when one of my uncles made a break for Spain at the age of 19. He isn’t Irish anymore. He’s ruddy and effusive and his English is deckle-edged with Spanish sounds: short vowels, percussive consonants, long ‘s’-runs that turn whole sentences into one breath.

After I ran away, to Barcelona, I took the train all the way cross-country to Extremadura to see him, through landscapes smooth as a seabed: worn-down Armorican foldings.

When I get there we drink for days. Kevin’s teenage years come blooming up.

“Your father helped me,” he said. “Helped me so much.”

He showed me a photo on his phone: himself in 1980. Skinny leather tie, feathered Hall & Oates hair. He looks up at the camera with a sceptical, pursed mouth and cagey eyes.

“Imagine trying to get away with that in your grandfather’s house,” Kevin tells me. “No hitting - just a lot of silences. I would come into the kitchen and he would stop talking. Really obvious stuff like this - addressing me through my sisters. ‘Tell your brother to do this, tell your brother not to do that’, this kind of thing. Someone told your dad this was getting to me. He had moved out by then, was married to your mother. He brought me for a drive one day. I don’t remember that we said much. At one point, out of nowhere, he said to me: ‘It’s OK to hate your father’. He turned in his seat like he was checking had I heard him. Then he dropped me home. I knew I could run away then.”

On the table lay a plate of that dark local ham. Blackfoot pigs fed on acorns. Calcium traces stay in the meat: white dents like comets.

Prague by night though the aeroplane window was an orange spill shaped like protozoa.

“This is how we look to God,” I slurred to my da, who frowned.

“Never heard of him,” he says.

“Do you want another sandwich?” I said to my da. “I can arrange that. Anything you want. It’s all on me. Pringles, Kinder Bueno, a fucking Choc-Ice, if it’s on the flight trolley it’ll be in your gob soon as kiss hands, my friend!”

Benzos only kind of work on me, I was discovering. My pulse was still a flutter. My lungs seemed to fill only half the way up.

Down, now, through clouds like fiery wool. My gut lurches

“The spirochetes in Prague are huge,” says my da. “It’s in Kafka. Probably.”

One night on the trip, coming from a bar, while Da’s sleeping, I bucket up dark red sick and think it’s blood. But then I see black threads: stomach lining, meaning the red isn’t blood but sugar. My liver is a dark bruise feeling mid-torso. I lean my head on the cold rim of the bowl. My hangover has already begun: a heat in the skull like fruit rotting. I have a licked-battery taste on my tongue.

I fell asleep on the medical student’s couch one of the nights I stayed there. I’d been watching Chinatown. When I woke the DVD player had stopped and gone back to the TV. A nature documentary was on. I watched a heron stoop and dabble in clear water. Once it brought up a moss chunk, which it shook and tossed aside. The water shaken free looked like drops of light.

My uncle showed me around his whole region. I wanted to inhale his words about how he had gotten there: I needed a manual for getting out and staying out. “Basically Vegas for the Romans,” he told me when we visited the wrecked amphitheater outside his town. The undersea look of ruined stone, the empty sockets where marble plating was tugged free and sold. Deep in the wreck, where gladiators waited for their bouts, the air was cold, heavy, and smelled vaguely of rivers.

We drive to a museum. Through the car window I could see grass the colour of oxides and sulphides - dry, dusty pigments.

The museum floor was plate glass over an old temple floor. I thought of coral. In the rows of coins I saw how the dynastic noses and chins swapped across generations. One explanatory text said how alcohol was used to clean some of them, a clear burn that seared away black dirt scabs, patina. Under alcohol everything shows through bare and stark. In the floor I watched the caught reflections of clouds crumble in over the hills.

Next room over held a statue of Aeneas. His son hadn’t made it through - his right arm ended in a broken stub - but his father remained, battened tight to his back. I can remember Aeneas’ stricken, noseless face and his heavy kilt made of small, ticket-stub-shaped chevrons of stone etched with gods’ faces. I couldn’t figure the caption out: “The statue is believed to have survived because of hidden structural imperfections in the ruin where it was located.” All the time held in the statue’s stone pores breathed out cold around me.

At some point my uncle suggested another drink. When we pulled in at a wine bar the clouds had darkened, swagging low and volcanic over the hills. While we drank I looked at the rib of black stone that arced across the hills. I thought of the skeletons of whales.

We drank to that point where ‘too much’ circles back to ‘just enough.’

“ ‘It’s OK to hate your father’,” I said to my uncle. “Big words.”

“Yes, but only mine,” he jokes. “Yours is OK.”

I remember that in Prague the TV blarted an endless static phrase at us from its white screen. Flicking the channels we found a quiet channel across which jerked thin bands of white.

“You can kind of make out a footballer through the snow,” said my da.

“Cut in slices, though.”

“Do you want to go back to the salt mines again, is it?”

I pictured the salt miners in the blue mica-glinting caverns, pictured their hands’ seams whitening with ingrained salt, pictured the salt coating their fingers until they were blue ingrained salt

“Nah, man,” I said. “They felt very literal.” My tongue is fat with benzos and my thoughts are treacly.

Da frowns and paws the air. “Me book.” I hand it to him. We read. Well, he reads. I take the words in, but thoughtlessly, as if they were so many bytes in data transfer. I hear my own brain make the light gritting noise of a hard drive. Soon I’m not even reading, instead just letting my eyes skate over the white gaps between words, like so many frozen lakes. Where my eyes catch on phrases, I find myself fraying them. The day greys. This grey daze. My grade A’s. After a while there are only analogies and riffs with no memory of their source, and there is the sound of my father’s breath slowing as he dozes, and my worry about when he will die.