If I were a woman, I’d have fallen in love with the man
Is it because men are afraid of naked emotion that they seek to cover women?
Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell
I was in an auto-parts shop in Ennis last week looking for seat covers because there’s a rip on the seat of the Jeep. The man behind the counter had a beard and a mug of tea. He found me a pair of cheap covers and threw in a Padre Pio air freshener to sweeten the deal.
Outside on the street a man was collecting for a men’s shed, where they run woodwork workshops. I gave him €1, stuck the Ennis Men’s Shed sticker on my lapel and then went to the pub.
The pub was another masculine universe, of leather and wood, with whiskey glasses, pints of Bulmers and Guinness on the counter. It was 11.20am. Sky News was on mute. One man sat at the bar staring at the television. Another read the newspaper on the counter like it was his job. Most people were wearing cheap unwashed fleece jumpers, old anoraks, and denim jeans.
I ordered a mug of tea and nursed it in a shaft of sunlight that was piercing the stained-glass window.
Everyone watched the mute screen as if they could extract some meaning from the images of plutonium processing in Tehran.
Later that day I met an Iranian man standing outside a shop that sells Persian handcrafts: beautiful patterns in various colours printed on to cotton.
I was looking for a bit of Velcro to patch the hole in the seat of the jeep because, as it turned out, the seat covers I bought didn’t fit. He showed me his stock of beautiful handbags and rugs and wall drapes all printed with exotic colours.
“The colours are from nature,” he explained. “Red comes from pomegranate, and green from the skin of the pistachio nut, and blue from the indigo flower and brown from the walnut.”
“Where are you from?” I wondered.
“Iran, ” he said.
Then he showed me the wooden print blocks that are used in the process.
“It’s an ancient craft in my country,” he said.
“It’s beautiful work.” I agreed. “I guess there is more to Iran than the images on Sky News.”
I thanked him for the Velcro and went off thinking that if I had been born a woman I could easily have fallen in love with such a man.
Not that I would want to be a woman in that neck of the woods. I feel sad sometimes when I see women in black veils with just a slit for their eyes, as they wait obediently beside men in elegant suits at airport gates. And I wonder if a woman’s veil is a comfort to a man, or is it because men are afraid of naked emotion that they seek to cover women.
And it’s not just in Arabia or Persia that men fear emotion. An Irish woman once told me that on her way into the hospital to view the remains of her recently deceased father, her husband turned to her and said, “Your sisters will be in here so for God’s sake don’t start crying.”
I’ve often seen men brood but I’ve rarely seen them weep. Sometimes I walk with the General and he sits on some bench by a lake, and he looks at the water so that viewed from the side he might be a cast of Winston Churchill, a bulldog crouching, and I can hear him breathe sometimes if we’re alone in the same room, but I can never discern his heart.
My own mother had a great ability to display emotion, even to the point of tears. Her song was one of disappointment. When I was a child she would sometimes display me to the public and startle the audience with phrases such as: “I would have loved a little girl.”
No doubt had she lived in Arabia they would have clothed her in a extra large veil, to protect themselves from her immense emotions.
Even when I was a teenager she could speak simple sentences such as “your father was never interested in dancing” with enormous pathos, and tears would well up in her eyes as she sat in the front room with a nun who came occasionally from some parish outreach programme to inquire about her health.
The two women would sit there watching the television and emitting large sighs of horror or compassion, depending on what the news was about.
And I sat with them, disappointed that I wasn’t a girl, and veiled in an iron mask of indifference that teenagers were inclined to wear back then; the hard shell that I hoped would some day make me into a man.