Mo laethanta saoire: Sister, you wouldn’t approve of this essay
It’s funny, Sister, how every year around this time, when the tan lines are fading, I think of you
‘The beautiful woman I met at a bar told me she wasn’t a lesbian, but if she was, she would like to sleep with Fiona Shaw [above].’ Photograph: Tullio M Puglia/Getty Images
Pencils ready, girls: mo laethanta saoire: my summer holidays. Mary, close your mouth and stop looking gormless; if the wind changes, you’ll stay like that. Anois. What is the Irish for “bucket and spade”? You won’t find the answer outside that window, Mary. God forgive me, do I have to come down there and close that wet maw for you?
It’s funny, Sister, how every year around this time, when the tan lines are fading and the insect repellent is crusting around the lid, I think of you. You and your predictably mind-numbing essay titles, and the bluebottle sheen of your habit, and your wounding, metallic wit.
And every year, as I store away the worn flip-flops, I think I’d quite like to tell you about my summer. About wading into big seas and lying in damp sheets and drinking under a yellow moon. But that’s not the kind of essay you would approve of, is it, Sister? You dictated our summers, reinvented our narratives. Our stories ran something along the lines of Mamaí agus Dadaí and a couple of well-scrubbed leanaí hopping into the gluaisteán to save the hay or a bunch of pagan babies. Or maybe that is time’s embroidery; maybe they just went to the seaside.
Fragments of memory
You probably wouldn’t be interested in my haphazard summer holidays now anyway, or in the fragments of memory that lie on my kitchen floor like wilted daisies among the dirty washing. You probably wouldn’t want to know the pictures that surface while I sit there, emptying the rough sand from my shoes.
You might not have liked the beautiful woman I met in a bar after a hot drive through the mountains, a woman 10 years my senior who seemed to emanate shade, her cotton shirt unwrinkled, her brow dry, her ankles fragile, her eyes narrow as a cat’s.
“I’m not a lesbian,” she said when she heard I was Irish. “But if I was, I’d like to sleep with Fiona Shaw.”
She sipped her drink, her long white hair resting over one sculpted shoulder.
“Why Fiona Shaw in particular?” I asked her, wondering to myself why I was wearing Lycra the same colour as my sunburn. “Passion,” she said lightly, her eyes skimming across the bar like a slim pebble. A thin cat wound itself around the table leg. The waitress brought a cold glass of white wine. I drank it.
Into the mountains
I remember that drive too, Sister, heading up into the mountains from the coast, flying along over the viaductos in the rented car, my family sleeping in the seats like sticky corpses, heads thrown back, mouths open. And to be honest, Sister, I felt like the cat’s pyjamas, what with the hum of the Skoda under my rump and the great curve of the highway under the tyres and the big yellow sun dipping in and out of the hills and the spinning arms of the wind turbines guiding me back to my destination like enormous metal air hostesses pointing out the exit.
The beautiful, white-haired woman reappeared at a party I went to, Sister. A bash in the bowl of the mountains, where lots of people (a fair whack of whom seemed to have slept with Mick Jagger) drank mojitos on an ancient threshing circle. And there was a young girl there, Sister, a musician who someone said was famous, or almost famous, who arrived with her band wearing a great big wedding dress, which seemed like an awful lot of bother to create a tiny moment of irony.
And I sat on an old, iron-framed hospital bed under the stars that someone had sprayed silver (more irony, I suppose, Sister; more jolly taunting of fate), and I bit into sharp mint leaves pulled from my empty glass, and I listened to a boy play the zither. And I looked out at those sombre, ancient hills under that great big cyclorama of stars and I thought, Christ, I’m glad time’s arrow moves forward, not backwards, because I’m happy to go on, even though it’s clear to see that the horizon is dotted with an imprint of loss.
And I suppose that’s as much as you can ask from laethanta saoire, Sister, would you say? That, at some point on your journey, you have a moment of clarity under the firmament? And I swear to God, Sister, that’s not just the mojitos talking.