How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps, by Roisín O’Donnell
12 Stories of Christmas - Day 12: A short story from Wild Quiet, Roisín O’Donnell’s debut collection
Step 1: Receive a letter with a fish jumping through a turquoise box in one corner. Unfold heavy blue-lined paper, translate neat black font into Portuguese and laugh. Condicional? They have got to be kidding. A Chara, Ms Luana Paula de Silva, thank you for registering with the Irish Teaching Council. Your registration is: CONDITIONAL. Your conditions are as follows: Irish Language Requirement. Time allowed: THREE YEARS.
During the first two years, you should:
Give in and bring Séan to Caraguatatuba, deep in the green belt of the Mata Atlântica, where Speak-Easy English School is seeking two new teachers. Over the next eighteen months, Séan’s pale cheeks will freckle into a blotchy tan, fine lines will branch around his pond-green eyes, and he’ll wear his thinning brown hair in a sweaty ponytail against the heat. Sometimes, on chirruping cricket-loud nights, Séan will play his guitar to you down on the praia, where skeletons of tiny crabs litter the damp white sand.
Celebrate your twenty-eighth birthday with runny chocolate pizza, Brahma beer and shots of cachaça. Try to teach Séan some Portuguese (he will never progress beyond obrigada and cerveja por favor).
Spilt the seam of your white chiffon dress thirteen minutes before you walk up the aisle in São Paulo. Your mama will stitch you back together, and her darting needle will prick your nutmeg skin. At this moment, your honey-brown hair should be sculpted into coils, and your mama’s hands will be like frantic sparrows fluttering around your waist. Close your eyes and kiss the tarnished silver amulet of the sorte necklace your papa gave you.
Pose for photos with your new Irish in-laws against a sky of postcard blue. Hand-feed Séan coxinha and pão de queijo. Laugh when he takes pictures of the oozing misto-quente and black-bean feijoada.
Wrap your thighs around your new husband in the bathroom of the flat where you grew up, the back of your head rubbing against the yellowing fleur-de-lis wallpaper. Float hand-in-hand through the rippling palm shade of Moema and along Avenida Paulista, lined by its collar of skyscrapers. Take selfies in Parque Iberapuera in front of the towering banyan trees, their hanging roots like dark brown dreadlocks.
Hug your mama in the glass-walled departures lounge at Guarulhos Airport and feel as if you have stepped outside your body. Whisper, ‘I’ll be home soon,’ into your mama’s crimped black hair and inhale her lavender musk. Your head should be crowded with voices begging you to stay.
Don’t sleep during the sixteen-hour flight back to Europe. While Séan snores with his head on your shoulder, stare out at the pulsing ice-blue lights on the wing. Imagine the path you are charting through the mess of Atlantic stars, which will make you feel lost in the snow globe of space.
Step 2: Watch swallows perform roller-coaster dips and dives across the pale June sky. You now have less than ten months in which to learn Irish. Post a cheque for two thousand euro to register for the Scrúdú le hAghaidh Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge. Séan will ruffle your hair and say: ‘Seriously, babe? You think you can learn Irish in ten months? That’s insane!’ Fold your arms. Think: how hard can this language be?
Click ‘send’ on your two hundred and fifty-sixth teaching application. Start each cover email ‘Dear Sir/Madam, I am a fully qualified primary school teacher with five years’ teaching experience.’ Drive the dank maze of Dublin streets in your silver Micra, delivering your neatly folded CV into the hands of various school secretaries, none of whom will ever contact you. After you have driven in the wrong direction up a bus lane for the third time in a week, Séan will buy you a satnav. Path-Finder98: Find Your Way Always. He will kiss your forehead. ‘No more getting lost, babe, yeah?’
Dye your hair Caramel Blonde. Put on five pounds. Haul your end of the leather sofa sideways through the narrow hallway of a red-bricked terrace with a purple door. Tentacles of ivy should crawl over your pebble-dashed walls from Glasnevin Cemetery. To fill the blank page of another jobless day, take a walk from your new house to the graveyard. Circle-headed Celtic crosses will resemble rows of people watching an invisible opera. Black yew berries will bleed onto the gravel path, and the industrial growl of a lawnmower will drown out the silence. Try to whisper the Gaelic inscriptions to yourself and wonder what they mean. Go dtaga do Ríocht. Go ndéantar do thoil. I bParthas na ngrást go rabhaimid. The chop of a spade will startle you from your contemplation. Your stomach muscles will tauten at the sight of a gravedigger slicing into the daisy-strewn lawn. Kiss your sorte necklace and try not to remember the undertaker’s black-gloved hands at your papa’s funeral.
Love the way your husband wears his long hair in a batik bandanna and strides around your new home like Kurt Cobain storming across stage. Watch him drilling holes in the freshly painted magenta walls, polishing his Vespa in the driveway and perching on stacks of cardboard boxes in the sitting room, practising his guitar. Drag Gabriela to every gig performed by Séan’s band, Rootless Drifters. Feel blessed to be privy to the secret vulnerabilities of this confident man, his bottle of anti-hair-loss shampoo packaged like a petrol can, and the greenish skull tattoo on his left bicep, which he regrets. Happiness will swell in your belly, leaving you freefalling in a sense of joyous disbelief.
Step 3: On an August morning, quiver with goosebumps as you smile for photos on the windswept North Wall Quay, outside the tilted glass cylinder of the Irish Convention Centre. ‘Naturalisation’ will sound like a process involving dairy products. Buy a red body-wrap dress for the Irish Citizenship Ceremony (the dress will be slightly too clingy, so you will spend much of the day holding your breath). After two hours of sitting and standing, dozens of sweaty handshakes, an oath of fidelity to the nation and a flimsy certificate in a plastic sleeve, you should drink five pints of Guinness in The Quays and ask your father-in-law to teach you Irish. He will rub his speckled head and say, ‘Oh geez, Luana … I wouldn’t be a great Irish speaker now, sorry.’
Tottering in your strappy silver heels, approach Séan’s sister and ask her if she could help you learn Irish. She will shake her shaggy blonde fringe into her pinot grigio and say, ‘Ach, Luana, pet, I’d love to help you but I wouldn’t have a fuckin’ notion about Irish.’
Undeterred, ask Séan to teach you. He will hoot, ‘Are you serious? That’s hilarious, babe. Sure my Gaelic’s brutal. Cáca. Milséan. Banana. That’s all I’d remember. Fuck, it’d be nearly impossible for a … for someone from a …’.
How do you say ‘foreigner’ in Irish?
On the opposite side of the River Liffey, queue with Gabriela outside the immigration office on Burgh Quay in the washed-out light of 6 a.m. You will have agreed to accompany your friend to renew her visa because she says her English is shit and she needs you to translate. Ask her, ‘Gabi, how am I meant to learn Irish when hardly any Irish people can even speak it?’
Gabriela will exhale cigarette smoke, her nose-ring glittering. ‘Languages are weird, Luana. You know Irish is partly derived from Sanskrit?’ Gabriela studied linguistics in Rio de Janeiro, but here in Dublin she shovels French fries into cardboard boxes for the minimum wage. You know your friend too well to ask her how this happened.
Step 4: Receive a call from Scoil Mhuire National School at 8:45 on a September morning. ‘Aisling Burke’s waters are after breaking early,’ a mewing voice will tell you, ‘we’ve a nine-month maternity post. It’s short notice, but if you could come in today …?’
You now have a job. And you have seven months left in which to learn Irish. Kid yourself that watching Ros na Rún whilst lounging on the bed nibbling popcorn counts as a learning exercise, when in fact you’re just dozing and reading the English subtitles. Switch the language on your phone into Irish (this will piss you off after a few days; change it back). Dye your hair Temptress Amber. Sign up for Weekly Irish Conversation Exchange at O’Donoghue’s Lounge, where a man with veiny cheeks and rheumy eyes will lead you away from the other Irish speakers for a ‘beginner session’ in a shadowy corner of the pub. He will lean close enough for you to smell his oniony breath, and his beer belly will brush your thigh as he asks ‘tá tú singil?’ Leave early, forgetting your umbrella. Hurry into a sheet of rain, which will close up behind you, like the beaded curtain on your mama’s kitchen door.
Enrol in Irish For Beginners at the Scoil Ghaeilge on Dame Street. Classes should begin on an October evening sweet with the fragrance of rotting leaves. Most of your classmates will be Irish retirees in search of a new hobby. If they gawk at you and ask why the feck a Brazilian girl like you is learning Gaelic, explain that you are a primary teacher with a master’s in education from São Paulo University, you moved here to Ireland because you fell in love with an Irish man, and that you must learn Irish in order to teach at primary level. Notice your classmates’ eyes glazing over (at this point you should probably stop speaking). Learn your first phrase in Irish, and enjoy the Gaelic words undulating on your tongue. Tá tuirse orm: the tiredness is on me.
Learn ‘indigo’ in Irish.
Learn ‘five hundred and seventy-three’ in Irish.
Learn ‘broccoli’ in Irish.
Realise that at this rate it will take several decades for you to reach the required level of Irish fluency. Purchase a copy of Is Féidir Linn! Teach Yourself Gaelic. Inspired by a blue-skied Sunday morning, buy some sheets of brightly coloured cardboard, cut them into uneven squares and write the Irish on one side, the English on the other. Man. Fear. Woman. Bean. Heart. Croí. Break. Briste.
How do you ask ‘você me ama?’ in Irish?
Turn off the bedside lamp. Kiss Séan’s neck and wriggle against him. When he doesn’t react, consider flicking the light back on. Say nothing. Perhaps fears are like fantasmas; if you don’t mention them, then they won’t be real. Lie awake in Séan’s arms until he rolls over to sleep with his back to you. How long is it since you really looked at each other? Since he really saw you? Feel as if you have woken up into a nightmare and that reality is somewhere ahead of you in your sleep.
Step 5: Tear open another envelope with your teeth, leaving lip-prints of Sherbet Promise lipstick on the blue-lined paper. A Chara, an Irish inspector will visit your classroom on 3 November at 11:20 to assess the first stage of the Scrúdú le hAghaidh Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge. In order to fulfil this stage of the assessment, you must teach a lesson using ONLY IRISH. Má úsáideann an t-iarrthóir aon Bhéarla, ní bheidh de chead ag an scrúdaitheoir marc níos airde ná 2.5 as 6 a bhronnadh (ANY use of English will cap your mark at 40 per cent).
Panic. With the help of Google Translate, write out your entire thirty-minute Irish lesson like a badly plotted film script.
Shake hands with a tall grey-haired man in a green reindeer jumper and mutter an embarrassed ‘Dia duit, conas atá tú?’ You will not understand his reply. He will take out his black clipboard and sit at the back of your classroom, almost doubled over on one of the yellow-legged infant-sized chairs.
Take a deep breath and give a fumbling lesson on an aimsir, during which Fionn will decide to steal Nabil’s Spider-Man pencil case. In retaliation, Nabil will trap Fionn’s index finger between two desks. Meanwhile, Belal will take a pair of plastic-handled scissors and hack Hamza’s fringe off, and Beatrice will tug on your skirt and wail, ‘Teacher! Agnieszka she say some bad word for me in Polish!’ Attempt to resolve these disputes without using a word of English. Orchestrate an impromptu game of Céard atá sa Mhála? Rally the children into a song about a duck up a tree, which has absolutely no connection to the lesson you are meant to be teaching. At this point, thirty-two sets of small eyes will be regarding you with quizzical expressions.
Switch back into English as soon as the inspector leaves. Remind your class to ‘keep your hands and your feet and your unkind words to yourself’. Your control over the class of six-year-olds should now be slipping through your fingers like a fistful of sand. Feel minuscule as a tartaruguinha being swept across oceans by the tsunami of the children’s noise.
Following this sharp peak in noise level, you should be summoned to an after-school meeting with Mrs O’Reilly. The principal will pour you a cup of milky tea, pat her mousy bob and fold her hands in the lap of her floral skirt. ‘Ms Silva, tell me, how are you finding the class?’ Her tapered smile will not reach her pencil-grey eyes.
Mumble, ‘Okay … not too bad I guess.’
Mrs O’Reilly will sip her tea, ‘Look, Luana, we’re here to help you, pet. I know how difficult it can be, but the noise from your class this afternoon was through the roof. Through. The. Roof.’ Nod mutely, to which she will continue, ‘Now, perhaps you just need more support? Now I’ve noticed your class has less Class Stars than any other class in Scoil Mhuire, Luana. It would be great to change this, wouldn’t it?’
Smile and gulp your tea. Part your lips, but find no words emerging. Contemplate robbing some Class Stars off another class’s display board.
Step 6: Call Séan to tell him about your inspection. If he doesn’t answer, phone his bandmate John, who will tell you, ‘Sorry Luana, umm … there was no Drifters rehearsal this evening.’
Say, ‘Oh yeah, of course. It’s Tuesday. Silly me.’ Hang up. Blood will pound in your ears for a few minutes, making you feel as if you have gone temporarily deaf.
Stand by the stove stirring black-bean rice. Later, you will hear Séan’s metal-capped boots stomping up the stairs, and the discordant strum of him retuning his guitar. When he plods into the kitchen, ask, ‘So how was the rehearsal tonight?’
He will tell you, ‘It was grand, yeah.’
Feijoada should now be simmering in the pot, fogging up the dark window. The warm air should be heavy with moisture, as if you were trapped in the entrails of the Mata Atlântica rainforest. While he speaks to you, Séan’s narrow eyes will flit between the bubbling beans and the pearly buttons of your blouse. Experience for the first time the sensation of missing someone when they are standing right in front of you.
Step 7: Dye your hair Cocoa Velvet. Make sure you wear the black silk dress with the low-cut neckline to the Rootless Drifters’ Christmas gig at The Bleeding Rose. (Your husband will tut at your cleavage and will say, ‘Fuck sake, Luana, do you have to be so … so … so Brazilian?’) John will pat your back and ask, ‘Luana! I heard you’re learning Irish. That’s unreal. How’s it going?’ Tell him that you are progressing excellently and are now borderline fluent. If Séan then strides over and introduces the new bass player, Áine, who is a fluent Irish speaker, you should avoid her chirpy questions and feign indigestion. Leave Séan at the gig and hail a taxi home.
Slam the front door shut, hurl your red handbag across the room and twist open your last bottle of cachaça. Take a gulp of the clear liquid, which scalds a trail from your oesophagus to the pit of your stomach. Try to drink yourself into a place beyond thinking.
Open your sticky eyes five hours later, your clammy cheek plastered to the leather sofa. Wipe the spidery trails of mascara gloop from your eyelashes, and realise that Séan has not come home. Around your fence, blue LED icicle lights will blink at you sadly. Waking up will feel like a feat of extreme survival.
Butter your toast, and use the knife to slit open another letter, leaving trails of marmalade on the envelope. ‘A Chara, as a result of your classroom inspection, you have passed the teaching aspect of the Scrúdú le hAghaidh Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge. As the next step of your Irish Language Requirement, you must complete a residential study period in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht.’
Google ‘Gaeltacht courses for primary teachers’. Book to spend a week at Coláiste Loch Con Nualla in Connemara during February half-term break.
Step 8: Whisper a prayer to São Cristóvão as you scrape the snow from your windscreen. Séan will watch from the doorway while you cram the boot of your Micra. Pack the fluffy blue Foxford your mother-in-law gave you, an AA road map, a backpack bulging with woolly sweaters, Is Féidir Linn, a three-pack of notebooks, your green stormproof coat, a Tupperware box of pão de queijo from Gabriela and your last packet of Fandangos crisps. He will fold his arms and mutter, ‘Fuckin’ ridiculous … how the hell d’ya think you’re going to learn Irish, babe …? Waste of money … probably get lost anyway … stupid fuckin’ idea.’
Click the boot shut and throw your arms around his neck. ‘I’ll miss you.’
He will pull away and mutter, ‘For God’s sake, Luana, mind out for black ice.’ Notice the coldness of his ferret-like eyes, the fact that he’s wearing a Rootless Drifters T-shirt embossed with a logo of his own face, and the girlishness of his hand with its long guitar-strumming nails. Wonder why you never heeded these things before. Love and hate morph with the suddenness of a S?o Paulo nightfall.
Programme your Path-Finder98 and head west on the M4, through the flat expanse of the midlands. Bypass Galway city and continue through the outlying towns of Moycullen and Oughterard. Turn off the main Clifden Road onto a narrow, winding track signposted ‘The Gaeltacht’. Follow the road as it weaves and curves around every ditch in the bog, but do not pay too much attention to the road directions you were given by the secretary at Coláiste Loch Con Nualla. These directions will not take you anywhere near the place you are trying to reach.
After two hours driving in desperate circles around the wilds of county Galway, realise that your destination isn’t even on the map. Disconnect your Path-Finder98 and shove it into the glove compartment. As daylight fades, get out of your car and slam the door. Your breath will fog in the freezing air. Shout at a few uninterested sheep. Sense the hostile glare of this grey-green land in which you will forever be a foreigner. Cover your face with your hands. Remember the country you left behind. Ilha de Anchieta, where big-eyed spider monkeys perform acrobatics in the palms. Waves crashing on the soft white sand of Caraguatatuba. Your mama’s hands. All of this you abandoned for a love as fleeting as quickly browning açai blossoms. Pick up a rock and sling it into the mutilated darkness of the bog.
Get back into your car. Your bluish hands will be shivering on the steering wheel. How do you say ‘perdido’ in Irish? Kiss your sorte necklace. Do a U-turn and judder back up the potholed limestone track. A snow-blotched sheet of bog will stretch for miles before it creases around the edges of the Atlantic. Yellow wind bushes will be bright splashes on the tawny landscape. Gnarled branches of hawthorn trees will lean sideways as if caught in a perpetual storm. Locate the whitewashed farmhouse just as darkness has begun to drape across the rugged shoulders of the Loch Con Nualla hills.
Step 9: You should be greeted by a small blonde woman in a leopard-print apron. ‘Come on in pet, I’m Mary, your Bean an tí. I’ll not make you speak Irish now, not to worry. You’re from Brazil? My son’s over there travelling, so he is.’
Follow her into a furnace-warm kitchen and find ten pairs of primary-teacher eyes staring at you like rows of politely seated orcs. Listen to ten names. Forget all of them. Accept a cup of milky tea and a slice of buttered soda bread. Feel an avalanche of exhaustion bury you when the other students ask why a Brazilian girl like yourself is learning Irish. Tell them ‘I don’t know why I’m learning this stupid language at this stage’. Some of the women will titter, perhaps unsure whether you are joking or not. Stupid vacas. Curse at them in your head in your crudest S?o Paulo slang. Duck your head away from their curious glances and swill your lukewarm tea.
Leave the kitchen and tiptoe into the dormitory. Undress. Lie on your assigned bunk bed and peep out through a chink in the threadbare curtains. The moonlit loch will be windswept into a texture like ruffled velvet. Shiver uncontrollably, despite your thermal pyjamas, Wilderness Explorer sleeping bag and fluffy blue Foxford. Consider getting out of bed to put on your woolly hat and gloves, but become paralysed by the leaden inertia of dreams. Think of Séan. Imagine that your bed is a raft that has been cut adrift, and that you will float forever without reaching the shores of this night.
Step 10: Attend lessons in the sea-facing classroom of Coláiste Loch Con Nualla from nine to five each day, but do not expect to understand a word the teacher, Kathleen, says. A wild-haired woman from the Aran Islands with a hooked nose and drawn-on eyebrows, Kathleen will not write anything on the dusty pine-green board, but will sit in a creaking armchair and reel off Irish sentences like incantations. ‘Déarfainn … déarfá … déarfadh sé/sí … déarfaimis … déarfadh sibh … déarfaidís …’. Try to make some notes, but find yourself unable to do this because you cannot spell anything in Irish. Sneak out your mobile under the desk and try to google ‘spelling patterns in Irish’, but find that there is no internet signal in Loch Con Nualla. Tears should sting, making your eyeliner bleed.
While waves of Gaelic roll over your head, look out of the tall windows at the lunar landscape, across which dry stone walls are slung like broken rosary beads. Study a century of black-and-white school photos patchworking the rough stone walls, and try to envisage what it would be like to grow up out here, so far from everywhere. Think about the phrase ‘non-national’, and imagine yourself as a seed lifting on a chaotic breeze and drifting away from your home place, never to return.
Crunch back up the frosty hill towards your Bean an tí’s farmhouse. Stop at a rusty gate to feed tufts of long, wet grass to two earth-brown donkeys, their hairy lips tickling your palm. ‘Gorgeous, aren’t they?’ A square-jawed woman with turf-brown curls will stop beside you, rolling up the sleeves of her peacock-blue coat. ‘So, are ye in Ireland long?’ she’ll ask as she pats the smaller donkey’s tufty black mane.
‘Eight years, almost. I came here for one year to learn English, but you know …’.
‘Met a fella was it? Always the way. I’m Caoimhe.’
Walk together up the rest of the hill in comfortable silence, past where an old red fishing boat is marooned on a bed of heather.
In the kitchen, Mary will be serving dinner. Douse your tasteless breaded chicken and over-boiled carrots in salt and pepper whilst zoning in and out of the teachers’ loud conversation. ‘So, you’re from Ballinasloe?’ ‘Do you know Deirdre Fallon, the sister of Padraic and Séamus …?’ ‘When we were above, doing the Leaving …’. ‘Tell me now, would they be related to the McFaddens from Oughterard … used to go with my cousin’s friend …?’
Once they have all gone to bed, sit at the kitchen table and copy passages from Is Feidir Linn into your looping handwriting. The only sound should be the scratch of your biro nib, the fingernail-drum of sleet on the window and the gurgle of the kettle on the cherry-red Aga.
Like salt crystallising on summer-beach skin, or the solidifying whites of poached eggs on a Sunday morning, begin to find patterns emerging from the embryonic mess of the Irish language. Nod with satisfaction when Kathleen tells you that the answers you’ve given to the Modh Coinníollach questions are spot-on. Start to formulate simple sentences in Irish, and whisper these to yourself. Luana Paula is ainm dom. Táim naoi mbliana is fiche d’aois. Is as Brasaíl ó dhúchas mé, ach táim i mo chónaí i mBaile Átha Cliath anois.
Step 11: On your final night in Loch Con Nualla, link your arm with Caoimhe’s to steady yourselves along the frosty lane. Watch the two brown donkeys trot into the village past the fogged-up window of McDonagh’s. Spot the same two weary-looking donkeys plodding back up the road by themselves two hours later, as if returning from a night on the tiles. Drink pints of Guinness until you lose count of them. Sip your first shot of Jameson. Down your second shot.
Follow a trail of laughter up the country road into darkness so tangible it should have a texture, a smell, a taste. This is the first time in your life you have experienced the real Irish night, away from the murky dishwater of the city sky. Explain this to Caoimhe. She will nod sincerely, although you have been speaking in Portuguese for the last ten minutes. Crawl into your bunk bed just as a pale yolk of sun rises over Loch Con Nualla.
Hand Kathleen a cheque for €1,200 for your stay in the Gaeltacht, and wonder if you will have to sell half of your internal organs to pay for the luxury of learning this language. Swap numbers with Caoimhe, who will hug you and say, ‘Good luck, missus. See you in the exam.’
Drive back up the winding road, and watch the Connemara hills retreating in your rear-view mirror until the imposing mountains are nothing more than purplish fingerprints smudged along the horizon. Follow the M4 back across the belly of Ireland, sketching a line from one coast to the other. Three hours later, enter the grey outskirts of Dublin feeling as if you are resurfacing from the swamps of a hallucination.
Step 12: When you pull into your driveway, Séan will be leaning on his Vespa with his wispy hair veiling his eyes. Under his leather jacket he’ll still be wearing the Rootless Drifters T-shirt with the logo of his face on it. As you approach you will notice the khaki backpack on the Vespa behind him. He will put a hand on your arm. ‘Luana, I’ve been thinking. Fuck it, it’s just … with the new tour coming up … I just need some time to …’.
Shake your head, ‘No, no, no, no.’ Step into his arms and bury your head against the shoulder of his jacket. His sandalwood aftershave will take you back to the night you met, when his first touch evoked a type of muscle-memory, as if your body already knew him from a previous life. You already had your flight to São Paulo booked, but your plans to leave Ireland dissolved the minute Séan first hugged you. You sensed your future dividing like the Parnaíba River Delta, splintering into different paths.
Séan will pull back, taking both your hands in his. ‘Luana, please … it’s just for a few weeks, just till I get my head around …’.
How do you say ‘stop talking’ in Irish?
There are no words you could possibly say to Séan, in English, Irish or Portuguese. Stand in the doorway and listen to his bike chortling down the cobbled pathway of the home you once loved. After the snarl of his Vespa has faded into a whisper, watch a fuzzy rainbow leak through a slate-grey sky. At this moment it should be sunny somewhere on the horizon, but it will start raining where you are.
Close the door. Draw your green living room curtains, which will fill the room with sub-aquatic shadows. Sit cross-legged in the epicentre of a grief that is every human emotion distilled down to 100 per cent proof. If your mama calls you, do not answer your phone.
Step 13: Teach. Sometimes you will need the distraction provided by your class of infants far more than they need you. ‘Teacher, he hit me!’ ‘Teacher, my nose is itchy!’ ‘Teacher, she won’t be my friend!’ Through the eyes of your assembled six-year-olds, see yourself not as a broken wanderer but as a Fixer of All Things. On yard duty, try to keep check on the dizzying rush of children, an enterprise as pointless as attempting to patrol a hurricane. Pupils will swerve around the yard, haphazardly bright in their winter coats, like escaped pieces of a Cubist painting. ‘I speak Arabic.’ Nabil will skip up to tell you, his black fringe mad in the wind. Ask him ‘How do you say hello?’ Repeat after him. ‘You’re not exactly saying it properly, teacher,’ he will smile.
After a rainy playtime, a type of mass captivity-induced hysteria will ensue. The children carry a constricted energy: flushed cheeks, scrambling, elbow-butting, pencil-fighting. In the midst of this chaos, you should attempt to conduct the daily Irish lesson. Gorm … Dorcha … Bándearg … Buí…. Mrs O’Reilly will stick her mousy-brown bob around the door and say, ‘Oh how lovely, Ms Silva. I didn’t realise you were teaching them Portuguese.’
Step 14: Read the next letter without translating it. Swallow hard. A Chara, your final examinations for the Scrúdú le hAghaidh Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge will take place on Tuesday April 7 between 10:00 and 13:00.
You now have fewer than six weeks left. You will lose your Teaching Council Registration if you do not pass. Panic. Sit at your dusty dining room table surrounded by toppled-over towers of Irish flashcards, mugs of whitish congealing tea, biscuit wrappers and stacks of dog-eared Irish notes. Over the wall, graveyard daffodils should bop their heads in the March breeze. ‘Why don’t you just give up and get a different job?’ Gabriela will say. ‘You don’t even like primary teaching, Luana. Why not just quit?’ Shake your head. How do you say in Irish ‘I cannot give up now’? Run your hands over your face. Grit your teeth. Open a new chapter of Is Féidir Linn.
Listen to Kathleen giving free Irish lessons on Skype. During these lessons, you should contemplate:
Smashing the screen of the laptop against the bedroom wall.
Returning to São Paulo, where at least you wouldn’t have to learn Irish.
Do not attempt actually to learn Irish or to write essays in Irish. If, spurred by a blast of hormonal enthusiasm, you happen to write an essay in Irish and email it to Kathleen, she will reply within ten minutes telling you ‘It’s complete crap, Luana,’ and she will scold you for using Google Translate. Embrace the art of cramming. Read group emails from Caoimhe and the other Loch Con Nualla students (they are now placing bets on which essay question will come up). With blind faith, rote-learn the essays Kathleen has emailed you. Pray to every deity you know that Kathleen’s predicted essay questions will come up.
Google ‘fastest way to learn a new language’. Find out that the human brain is most likely to recall the information it receives immediately before sleep. Keep your Irish flashcards and rote-learned essays on your bedside table, and study them until your eyelids droop. Sleep. In your dreams, Portuguese, Irish and English should now be merging into one language. Dream of seven skewered chicken hearts cooking in the churrasco flames. In this dream, you will be standing on the roof of your mama’s building in Moema, and Séan will approach you from behind, pushing you close to the skyscraper’s edge. Wake up alone in your double bed. Stare at the ceiling while you figure out which set of sounds to speak.
Step 15: Sit at desk number thirty-eight and stare at the exam booklet.
SCRÚDÚ LE hAGHAIDH CÁILÍOCHTA SA GHAEILGE - PÁIPÉAR I - 100 MARC
Trí huaire an chloig don pháipéar seo (10:00 - 13:00).
Cúig cheist le freagairt, ceann amháin as gach Roinn.
Write ‘Luana Paula de Silva O’Connor’ into the empty box using a running-out blue biro, so that the last letters of your married name are carved into the crisp white sheet. Caoimhe, wearing a canary-yellow cardigan, will give you a fingers crossed from across the room.
Feel a lump like hot pão de queijo in your throat when you open the booklet and see Kathleen’s chosen essay question on the first page. Grip your sorte necklace. Regurgitate Kathleen’s entire essay by heart as best you can. Have a guess at some of the other questions. Resist the urge to pass comment when two Irish girls stroll out of the Triail Chluastuisceana saying, ‘That was easy wasn’t it?’ Do not shout ‘IT’S VERY BLOODY FUCKING EASY IF YOU WERE BORN AND BRED IN IRELAND, ISN’T IT???!’ Feel your cheeks flush. How do you say ‘Dear God, please help me’ in Irish?
In the Scrúdú Béil, listen to your Converse creak across the shadowy expanse of the exam room. Sit down at a mahogany table opposite two old men with greyish whiskers protruding from their noses. Watch them demonstrate with great pride the device they will use to record your speaking: a machine that seems to have been resurrected from the 1960s. Don’t give in to the urge to laugh hysterically at this point (it’s just the lack of sleep). Listen to the old men’s questions, and answer in Irish as best you can. You should be half-aware that you are throwing in the odd word of Portuguese. Hope that they don’t notice. Luana Paula is ainm dom … Chuaigh mé go dtí an Ghaeltacht ar feadh um semana. Bhí bean an tí an-deas. Bhí sí tipo agus flaithiúil.
After the exams, traipse down the hill to The Winding Road with Caoimhe and the other teachers. Drink two pints of Guinness and feel the tiled floor of the smoking area become as unstable as a sheet of melting ice. By now your head should be throbbing, your body drained and limp as a fallen leaf.
Slightly tipsy, call Séan and invite him to the pub. When he arrives and hands you a bunch of pursed-lipped daffodils, avoid his eyes. Stand by his side, swaying slightly. If he stares at you and says, ‘Luana, please … can we at least talk …?’ shake your head. If he tries to kiss you under the glow of an outdoor heater, duck away.
Gabriela will then turn up, pinching your waist from behind. ‘Luana! What’s this text about leaving Ireland? You can’t leave! What will I do if you leave?’
‘You’re leaving?’ The amber orbs in Séan’s pond-water eyes will blur. ‘Fuck, Luana, don’t tell me you’re fuckin’ leaving?’ Before you can answer, he will hug you tightly. Clasped in the bony warmth of his arms, your cheek pressed against his skull tattoo, a familiar darkness will gather inside you. A grainy blackness like coffee granules filtered through the stuff of days, building up as toxic sediment in the pit of your stomach. Swallow hard as a gritty feeling rises in your mouth. Push away from Séan, run past Gabriela, scurry into the Ladies, lock a cubicle door behind you and throw up into a toilet bowl. Rip off a sheet of loo roll and wipe the trail of watery vomit from your chin. Run your hands through the undyed roots of your knotty hair. Santa Maria Mãe de Deus.
Duck between elbows and out of the pub before either Gabi or Séan has a chance to see you. Newly arrived swallows will be skydiving across the bright spring evening. Take a shortcut home through Glasnevin Cemetery. Kneel and trace one of the granite inscriptions with your finger. I líonta Dé go dtugtar sinn. May we be brought into God’s nets. The circle-headed headstones will eye you with curiosity, and a rat will scurry across your path from under one of the yews. Jog home through the bitter yew-berried evening, lock your purple door and throw yourself onto your squeaky leather sofa. Don’t worry if you do not understand why you’re crying at this moment; you’re not meant to.
Step 16: Wait. From the window of a Boeing 747, watch Dublin retreat beneath a torn veil of clouds, until the houses of your adopted city are so small you could scoop them up and fit them into your pocket. Spend the Irish summer at home in São Paulo, where it is winter. Refuse to talk to your mama about what happened with Séan.
Shut your bedroom door and stay in your room watching reruns of Esperança and listening to old Djavan songs on YouTube. ‘Mais fácil aprender japonês em braile … do que você decidir se dá ou não …’. By now, the switch in seasons will have given you a head-cold. Your mama will pour all of her concern for you into her feijoada, and the smoky black-bean taste will catch in your throat. Take the elevator up to the rooftop at sundown to see the skyscrapers lit up like lanterns. Watch the shifting geometry of the São Paulo skyline and wonder why your birth city no longer feels like home.
Little things should now irritate you about São Paulo: the morning smog that chokes the canyons of Moema, the gaudy bombardment of advertising on the privatised Globo TV channels and the power cuts that frequently blinker the city for whole afternoons. You’ve lost your taste for pão de queijo, and coxinha seems too salty. Spend hours wandering around the city alone, circling the glassy lake of Parque Iberapuera, on which languid black swans drift. Google ‘resettling in home country after living abroad’, but this search will only provide information for rehomed asylum seekers. Spot a Tourism Ireland advert on a flickering billboard in a shopping centre outside Santos: three freckled children grinning against a purple-hilled backdrop. Freeze at the top of an escalator, felled by sudden emotion.
July will slide into August, and your mama will stop asking you when you’re returning to Ireland. Celebrate your thirtieth birthday with a surprise churrasco on the terrace. As the pale winter sun slips into the collar of the skyscrapers, pour another cup of milky tea and retell your mama the story of how you attempted to learn Irish. Already your life in Ireland will feel like a dream recounted by somebody else. Draft five emails to Séan, and abandon all of them. How do you say ‘I’m lost’ in Irish? How do you say ‘I’m confused’ in Irish? How do you say how you really feel in any language?
Step 17: Lock yourself in your mama’s bathroom and scrutinise the creased white envelope in your hands. On the now-familiar logo, the Salmon of Knowledge will leap through a square of cobalt-blue. Lean your head against the sun-bleached wallpaper. Imagine the worn-out tendrils of the fleur-de-lis weaving into your honey-brown hair and rooting you to this place. Try to formulate a single sentence that will express the meaning of your eight years in Ireland. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Kiss your sorte necklace and wonder what your papa would make of all this. Rip open the envelope with shaking hands.
Fling the bathroom door open and shout out ‘Mama, guess what!’
Roisín O’Donnell’s debut short story collection Wild Quiet, published by New Island Books, will be launched by Sinéad Gleeson in Hodges Figgis bookshop on Dawson Street, Dublin, today, Wednesday, May 25th, at 6pm