My life has always revolved around stories. Coming from an Irish family, stories are what I was brought up on. I was fed them as I was spooned my morning porridge and honey each morning, as my hair was combed in preparation for school, before I went to sleep at night. I would close my eyes and the tales would echo around in my brain, until they dimmed and melted into my own narrative. Then, I would finally sleep. Each story would be presented without much introduction, but rather as an organic part of daily life which tinted the mundane brighter and more colourful. They were placed alongside food, water and a healthy dosage of self deprecation in my parents order of things necessary for life.
My close family was and is, the least argumentative family I have ever come across. As children we would have the occasional tiff, but it would be over in a matter of a few hours, to be forgotten alongside the frogspawn we spooned from the ponds and left drying in the sun. The placidity of our daily life made room for fantasy, for the everyday to be transformed into the spectacular or the hilarious.
My best friend’s family is gigantic, and habitually in conflict with one another. Arriving on my doorstep without advanced warning, she came to escape the drama which clung to her home life. Following routine, we would cocoon ourselves in a nest of blankets and gather various food supplies to in preparation for the night. We would watch a movie as was tradition, usually consisting of a sappy romance we both mocked and secretly wished for. It was a necessity, even if we didn’t listen to a word. It granted space for confession, the words on the screen allowing room for those feelings we couldn’t admit in the stark, unsympathetic silence. A place for eyes to look.
I remember the feeling of the confessional box I was forced to visit as a child. The wood was dark and varnished, my bare knees sticking to the red leather cushion on which I knelt. Both intensely intimate and equally alienating, any words choked, thick in my throat. I had no idea what I was meant to confess, I mean, at the age of seven the worst thing I had done was purposefully spit chewing gum in my sisters long, thick hair.
Between the two cubicles there was a mesh window where I could see the profile of my priest. A man I loathed and who was singularly the most sinfully dull person I had ever met. I remember hearing him clear his throat, an ugly wet, mucusy sound, and the heavy silence evaporated. What came spilling forth was a story I had heard the week before about a girl who stole everything she could, cramming sweets, toys, money into her pockets at every opportunity.
I was told to recite Hail Mary and Our Father over and over, the words a meaningless chant to my ears, a punishment I couldn’t understand. Instead I recounted the story I would tell my friends once I left, knowing to describe the priest in full, to evoke empathy and laughter. The rosary beads were smooth and round as I rolled them between my fingers.
Films and books are the place where I recede to when things become too hard to take. The stories of others, better or worse, soothe in a way that nothing else can. An escape for the mind. After the deaths of our grandparents, my family would always spend the next few months watching movies. They gave us permission to feel. Every night we would sit, cocooned in the velvety dark with our eyes pinned to the screen. Tears were attributed to the characters on screen rather than our own feelings, the choked sound of crying was stifled behind sleeves. After the movie ended we would clear our throats and pretend not to have noticed the outburst of emotion. When I was three years old, I watched ‘Black Beauty’ and cried for hours. My mother always said it was the most emotional I have ever been and notes that, ever since, I rarely cry at anything at all. It was then, aged three that I realised what another narrative could teach me. Stories have since become the media through which I learn, the thing I go to when I cannot understand. An idea, an emotion a viewpoint. If a story about horses can teach me about death and friendship, then the power of other narratives is seemingly indefinite.
Home is the cup of tea at the end of a long day presented to you without word from your mother, the comforting feel of fur through your fingertips, the soothing sound of a familiar voice in the dark, the smell of woodsmoke on a cold day, lying in your own bed with all its familiar bumps and springs after being gone for weeks. The small stories that only mean something to you. Intimate. Wherever I am, whatever stage I progress through, the stories I have been told anchor me to a place I at times lose sight of. More than a material space, it is where stories bind me to others, to land, to history. Memories. Home for me is a place of stories, whether they be my own, works of literature or other people’s recollections. A fabric, untouchable but eternal, a tapestry of life.
Outside, the iron sky was a colourless canopy, crossed only by the trails of planes. The womblike interior of the room was situated so that the outside world seemed inconsequential. The dim lustre of the stained-glass, that chronicled the lives of men who had achieved great things or been attributed glory through time, the only marker of life outside.
It seemed a relic of a time that had been lost in the process of modernity. The roof curved like the bones of a longship, an immensity of noise reverberating at the slightest movement. An imposing statue of christ on the cross hung above the alter. His face peaceful. Rose had always imagined that it would have been an anguished grimace and was taken aback at its expression. A shaft of light from a domed skylight shone on it, dust particles moving in waves, only seen in the narrow beam. It was a room that demanded reverence. More and more these days, she felt that reverence was dangerous. She had worshipped people, ideas, abstract notions she barely understood, for the majority of her life. Life seemed too scattered, imperfect, nihilistic, to have the potential for something to have such worth. The more you looked, modernity had indeed taken hold. Awe and beauty obscure, but clear enough, markers of time were apparent: glowing fire safety signs and clumsy extinguishers sat alongside plastic the electric candles that had replaced votives. They seemed lost in the mass of wood and marble, dressed in their gaudy colours.
Her palms were sticky. A salty residue that she wiped against the material of her jeans in rough strokes. It seemed to cling, like the guilt she vainly attempted to wash away in the shower. After is happened, she felt so sick with shame that she showered five times in one day. Yet, in the dark, she could smell it, musky and rank, mingling with her damp breath, her skin, her hair. She had been sitting on the bench for close to an hour, back collapsing as she she rested her head in her hands. Palms cradling her jaw, fingers reaching and smoothing under the thick heavy hair, to were the bottom of the cranium dips and meets the sensitive spot at the back of the neck. Her fingers restlessly soothing the skin. Countless times she had been told she was lovely in the past. But recently, she had to taken to standing at the mirror, searching for clues that she in any way resembled who she knew. Herself. Her hair, usually obsessively straightened, hung bedraggled. Crimson lipstick had run to the lines of her mouth, bleeding into the white of her skin.
Before entering, Rose paused, gulping in air to brace herself against the weight of the shame that pressed against her skin like lead paint. A girl of seventeen, tired and bloated, lounged against the rough pebbledash. Arm bent, wrist tight, she grasped a burning cigarette and pressed it against her lips. Her mouth was filled with smoke. Her gaze flickered over, and their eyes caught. Neither speaking, nor evoking any expression, a shared understanding that they, in many ways were on the same path exchanged in the black space of their pupils. The same path neither had wished to consider. Looking away, she drew a final gasp of smoke and dashed the cigarette against the concrete, orange sparks a forming miniature firework display before dissolving into ash. Continue reading
University life, especially in St Andrews, while exciting and completely varied, can often lead to extreme cases of cabin fever. In a town so small, the feeling of being stuck in a bubble can be intense, and this feeling is especially concentrated in between the load of coursework and the onslaught of exams. I would spend many an evening stuck in the tiny cinderblock library listening to the soundtrack of frantic typing and surrounded by an air so thick with apprehension it could practically choke you. My favourite desk (only available if you arrived before 9) overlooked West Sands, a long stretch of sand bordered by the Old Course and fringed by tall pine trees. I would sit with my head in my hands and just stare out at the North Sea, in all its turbulent glory.
Throughout my time at St Andrews, the sea was my hook, the place I would go alone or with friends when we were stressed. We would stare out and talk, or not talk, and when we returned to the nests we would build ourselves during exams and essays, things would feel different, our perspectives readjusted. Continue reading
Like water, viscous, smooth as mercury
it pulls me under, grasping fingers, dark.
I want to gulp, erase it. Surgery
that can stitch together, remove your mark.
With time, the bolus numb. Thoughts sliced, arranged
discombobulated, in straight neat rows.
You flit, dissolve, a memory estranged,
incorporeal, not, but for the scent of rose.
A picture sits, upon my wall, of you.
alive, awake, for a moment, askew.
When he was, but a small ball of potential, she had imagined him to be be bright eyed, with green printed knees, muddy feet and a penchant for climbing trees. He had arrived, eyes seemingly too glassy and spherical to be human. He would sit in his high chair and watch her with an awareness and directness that unnerved her. His eyes always seemed too old. Sometimes she would forget he was in the room and be caught by his gaze, and would laugh off her unease.
She was elbow deep in misty dishwater, the bubbles long gone. She had never replaced the old washing up gloves after she had sliced the top of the index finger clean off. Her fingertips were crinkled, damp paper-mache swirls. Outside, she knew Hamish would be kneeling in the sodden path of grass, hidden from her sight by the yew hedge. She could see it from the window that the sink stood in front of. The dripping branches of the willow tree overshadowed the lower half of the garden. Having lost its leaves, its branches unnerved her, for they seemed to her more like yearning fingers than branches. Perhaps, she contemplated, she could suggest to her landlord that they have it chopped, so that the house could have more light in the afternoon. Hamish loved that yew tree. Before its leaves had fallen, he had hidden under its canopy, cocooning himself in the dim light and earthy scent. Continue reading
Trace of a Memory
The smell of geraniums removes me,
the petals, bruised. A cloying perfume, sweet
but sickly. Blood bright, seeping into sea,
the memories unbidden, incomplete.
I close my eyes and try to capture them,
impossible, they spill through cracks, escape.
An image, poignant, lost. I try to stem
the flow. Unwinding celluloid, black tape.
The moment gone. The stench transformed, a gross
last trace of something fleeting, lethal dose.
While I lived in Scotland, I spent every holiday until the age of 15 in the middle-of-bloody-nowhere Ireland, where my entire extended family lived. For me, a second home. Stories, before and during my time on earth, bound me, not only to the the people, but the land itself.
We would visit my Granny’s childhood home up on the hill in Rossinver, long-abandoned over inheritance issues, where she would tell stories of her childhood and our shared past as we peered through the cobwebbed windows. My siblings, cousins and I would then venture up to the top of the hill and foot the turf, leaning hard against the spade to cut into its roots. On the plateau perched a large almost vertical mound, a cave formed out of the tip. Despite the eternal ferocity of the wind in that particular spot, we would fight our way up, though the nettles, and, reaching the brink, would gaze out at the landscape below. There, a network of hewn turf stitched together was lain out, a quilt shaped by my entire family. So many tales I had been told about individuals I had never met, and ones I knew better than myself, were mapped out in the ridges of that landscape.
The cave was encroached upon by nettles, the corpses of sheep that had sheltered there in their last moment, seeking comfort, lay decaying. Their skulls would always make me shiver, a loneliness I never completely understood instilled in their hollow eyes. I would trace the names carved into the stone with my fingertips. Continue reading
In my childhood I spent practically every day during summer at the sea, in the sea, walking by the sea. There was barely a day that went by where I wasn’t drawn into its murky depths.
‘Sometimes Eve, I swear water runs through your veins,’ my Mum would announce each summer. This was always accompanied by my Dad’s wry answer ‘blood is made of water Alicia’. He would precede said statement with the face he pulls every time he tries to make a joke. One eyebrow slightly higher than the other, his mouth taut with the pretence of being serious. We would laugh obligingly.
She would pretend not to smile and continue with the story about my baptism, where the priest tried to dunk me, whole body, into the baptism font. She always stopped at this point for dramatic effect, looked you straight in the eyes and declared ‘In the middle of January!’ There was always a pause to give time for an appropriate reaction, and then there would be a discussion on why the priest thought that would be a good idea, usually resulting with the conclusion by my brother that he got a fright when he saw my face.
My mother is exceptional at making any banal story sound exciting, to the point that I would overhear one I told her myself and not even realise. Technically, it would be the same, but it would be like comparing a Michael Bay movie to a documentary on worms. She would add drama, intrigue, a character which was either hilarious, idiotic or heroic. My own persona in these stories would flit, depending on her mood, my actions or her audience.
I had never been scared of the sea, or in fact, scared of much at all. My competitiveness at times spilled over into idiocy because I was always determined to win, never thinking of the consequences. This was always exacerbated when at the beach. Despite not being a particularly strong swimmer I would be resolute to swim the furthest, to capsize the most, to dunk as many people as possible.
The year I took up surfing, this was no different. I started up with taking lessons, but as the weeks progressed I began to go by myself, intent on becoming one of those blonde haired surfers seen on the posters plastered up around town, defying the rules of gravity. My plan was only hindered by the resolute fact that I was, frankly terrible, largely attributed by my ability to lose my footing even on dry land.
Upon overhearing that the biggest waves could be found past the fringe of surfers that bobbed in wait of a swell, there was very little chance that I could be persuaded that paddling further out was a terrible idea.
Body pressed against the board, arms steadily scooping on either side, I paddled as far out as I could go. So absorbed in the motion, I didn’t realise quite how far I had travelled. Unbeknownst to me, the current was incredibly strong once you passed the edges of the cliffs, pushing you out at an angle from the beach so that it became difficult to distinguish the position of the beach.
Looking around, my vista was only open water. A vast swell of sea. The heavy weight at the bottom of my stomach arrived alongside the chill I felt in the air. I had no idea which way was land. The sensation of fear was a new and horrifying experience and one I had no wish to feel again. For what seemed like hours I paddled, that now familiar pressure vital and bone-deep, pushing me onwards until I reached the shore.
Days later, I hear my mother telling the events to my uncle as I walked by the living room, the sound of my name catching my attention. Sitting, with one ear pressed against the door I listened, the story transformed at the tongue of my mother. Rather than fearful, I sounded brave.
In my hands I hold a small grey box, rectangular but with a strange half curve over the front. Inside is a tiny frantic heartbeat. A dollop of peanut butter. Scrabbling feet looking for escape. The rhythm of my steps soothes it a little, but as its warm body lies against the bottom of the box, its fluttering heartbeat is a panicked tattoo. For weeks on end I had been kept awake by the small scrambling of miniature feet in the attic above and the occasional rustle as it journeyed across my room. Rare would the poor beastie make its way into the kitchen and the only thing found nibbled in the pantry was a packet of yellow sponges, gnawed like a cartoon cheese.
This morning I was awakened by the revelation that at last I had caught my diminutive nemesis and with victorious joy set out to remove it from my threshold. The instructions as printed on the top of the box tell me to ’walk a mile from your or any other property’, so I plod my way across the field to find an acceptable place to release the poor creature.
Triumphant victory gives way to something less solid, the uncertainty of my position as negotiator on where something can or cannot live wanes. Walking has always been a form of therapy for me, and so as I crunch my way through the drying hayfield out the back of my house, I can’t help but recollect that misunderstanding that man cannot live side by side other creatures. So prominent was my understanding as a child of the shame in mans dominance over other creatures, it is shameful that only now as I trek through the hardening autumn land with a mouse in hand that I become aware once more.
At the age of five, I had, like so many others in my class, contracted every parents nightmare: the dreaded lice. With my hair being waist length and thick enough to inspire horror in every poor hairdresser assigned to cut it, I resembled in many ways a small russet animal. Undoubtedly, the first pioneer lice to make that journey from one head to mine, decided that like the new land, he was to make it his own and set out to cling on for dear life.
However, with no pets except for a vicious cat ironically named Casper, the idea of having my very own creatures that I could carry around everywhere I went was thrilling. In retrospect of course, the very idea of having a small colony of bloodsucking critters laying eggs in my scalp is a stomach churning prospect. However, at the age of five I could not be deterred in my affections and had to be wrestled and pinned down so that my parents could douse my hair and beloved pets in vile scented poison and comb every last one out.
Empty box in hand I wander back, strangely comforted in the knowledge that after humans are no longer part of the world we live in, nature will steadily encroach into our defiantly defined areas and make them once more, unified.