Undressing the Muse

Hennessy New Irish Writing: March’s winning short story is by Lani O’Hanlon

Lani O’ Hanlon, whose  fiction has been shortlisted for Over the Edge Writer of the Year, and the Dublin Writer’s Festival, Date with an Agent 2017

Lani O’ Hanlon, whose fiction has been shortlisted for Over the Edge Writer of the Year, and the Dublin Writer’s Festival, Date with an Agent 2017

 

The wind coming through the bamboo hut is my kissing lover, and if the wind could write it would graffiti the sky: Achilles was here. In this land of gods I thought that I might become someone else. Instead I am the same woman, afraid of stinging insects, startled by goat bells and the strange electronic sound of the owls here. Whenever I can I retreat to my hut to write and contemplate my clothes. Travelling light was a mistake, but I do what I can with scarves and sarongs.

I also go to the cafe to dream and scribble and watch the pet pelican strutting around or going down to the sea, where the owner feeds him fish from a bucket. Sorcha, the woman I share my bamboo hut with, often strides up the road, past the cafe and towards a gateway that leads to the secluded beach – the bare-arse beach, they call it here, a little strip of sand hidden from the road. I haven’t gone there yet, as I would feel too exposed in front of the others. Instead I wear a swimsuit and take my chances with the sea urchins down by the harbour.

But I write all this now so you will think, and I might be fooled into thinking, that I am not obsessing about the great writer. This morning in class he wore a pair of baggy trousers, and when he stretched back in the chair I could see the line of black hair on his stomach, and my mouth actually watered. He is kind, and I have become hypersensitive around him, his hand resting beside my scrawled pages, his voice, the way he crosses his legs, the smell of fresh cotton on salty skin. I have been reading his books for years and should have known better than to make flesh of his words, living in such close proximity, breathing the same air and at the same time needing to appear casual. “Good morning, kalimera, how are you today?”

I spew up thoughts on a page, trying to paint pictures with a rusty tongue, and then I have to read that out loud with the group looking at me. The other students are relaxed, funny, and I do my best to emulate. I am supposed to be on holiday after all, and it took months of working in the supermarket to save what I needed to come here. The other day I was writing about the birth of my first child. I forgot myself and where I was, and when I looked up the blue of the sea, one particular lemon hanging overhead and the tenderness in his gold-flecked eyes coloured my mind.

“Good,” he said, “that is what I was talking about last week.”

I blushed, a thick flush on my sunburnt neck and chest.

I am always aware of where he is in the space, and that awareness feels exciting, painful and tiring. But still I notice the white doves that fly over our heads when we are writing and the cascading bougainvillea that starred in the romances I read as a teenager. I met my husband when I was 17. In some ways I am still 17, but without the body and the whole life ahead, and before I got lost in his rock-star life I wore black eyeshadow and nail varnish and smoked cigarettes under rain-drenched trees behind the school. I had an English teacher, Miss Grace. When other teachers had given up on me she read my essays out loud in class, and when Nellie Byrne and me were practising to be anorexic she walked to the back of the class and put a bag of chocolates on each of our desks. Round, chocolatey Miss Grace: if she had taken me to one side would it have made a difference or would I still have become pregnant at 19? These are the questions I ask myself as the wind sings through the bamboo.

He reads us Chekhov and Raymond Carver, and I watch his lips, the yearning behind words, the unspoken things that lie between letters. I want to put my mouth on his and drink and suck like a baby at the breast. My God, try not to make a fool of yourself. You’re 40 and he’s at least that. At the same time some star-struck part of me eavesdrops in the bar when he is telling one of the other teachers, one he seems to like, that his relationship ended recently. My husband and I separated last year.

Before I left Ireland I stood in my house, with my books and candles, listening to the clock ticking and in the distance the sound of the Atlantic, familiar as my name. How could I have known then what it would be like to walk alone after so long?

In the village I greet the old women, sitting in doorways and on low balconies, “kalispera” or “kalinichta”.

Self-conscious, I meander through the corridors of their lives, sidestepping soapy water thrown from a housewife’s basin. The other night I heard Greek gypsy music coming from one of the houses. My arm rose in the air, wrist twisted, hips circling, the only audience a scrawny white cat with one blue eye, the other green.

This morning at breakfast – thick yogurt, chopped fruit and cinnamon – Trevor stood up on the raised platform to read the inspirational thought for the day. Dressed in shorts that were too short, like a schoolboy’s, with socks and sandals and glasses that slid down his small nose, he read Robert Frost. When it came to the dividing paths I hesitated there with him.

The great writer sang Raglan Road in the cafe bar, that song about Kavanagh, the Irish poet, who loved a girl – who wove a snare with her own dark hair. I haven’t smoked in years, but suddenly I yearned for cigarettes, wine, brandy, his kiss. As if he could bless my mouth with his. Later I sat in the library and searched, like one starved, for words that might help me. When I have fears that I may cease to be, before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.

As I made my way past the mirrors in the washing area I saw another kind of woman, draped in a turquoise scarf, honey skin. She looked back at me, slivers of light behind her eyes.

Sorcha was asleep under the veil of her mosquito net as I crept in, wondering if I should visit the toilet just once more before I lay down.

Her voice came from under the sheet. “And what hour of the night do you think this is? Out drinking, smoking and talking to boys!”

“Shhh . . .” as we laughed so quietly my stomach hurt from it. The mosquito nets give an illusion of privacy, but you can hear everything in the other huts.

Sleep was fuzzing through me when a man cried out. We convulsed with laughter again, then felt remorseful, in case he’d fallen.

“Should we go and help?”

Then a woman moaned, and the pair of them went at it with intermittent and enthusiastic cries.

It was hard to sleep after that, images flowing through my mind and body; me and Colm in the beginning, desperate to touch; the way he bent me over, my hair a swish of sound on my back.

Miss Grace handing out the essays, and one particular essay she wanted to read to us. I was sure it would be mine or Nellie’s – we were the best – but she picked out a copy that was not familiar. The story was about a donkey, or, rather, it was told from the viewpoint of the donkey, and Tessy Nolan, a swotty girl with spots and glasses, got redder and redder. It was like someone took up a stun gun and hit me in the chest, it was that good. My thoughts scrabbled as I looked at the B+ at the end of my own essay, and then I thought, At least I’m better looking than her.

Thunder woke me, and I went for a shower, the wind was building, the Furies, those goddesses of wind and change. On my way to the cafe I took shelter in a miniature chapel. Inside, the scent of incense, red and gold icons on the whitewashed walls, sighs of old prayers in the stones. I found matches near the little altar, lit a thin wax candle and placed it in a bowl of sand.

Julia is a loud woman with purple lipstick, and after dinner she grabbed the great writer and slobbered all over him. He looked so desperate as his eyes flicked around the dining area that I stepped in and moved him away.

We walked along the arc of the bay to the taverna. My body thrummed in his presence, but the image of Julia’s purple lips and bossy breasts held me sway. I bent to pick up a white stone, and his hand came warm on the small of my back, his left hand.

We stood under grapevines in the taverna as the orange sun began to drop into the sea, the squeezy rasps of the crickets lulling us into silence. He was wearing atrocious black canvas shoes – plimsolls, I think they’re called – and I marvelled that I could be interested in anyone who would wear shoes like old men’s slippers, perfect with a plaid dressing gown. Just then I felt a tingle and tension between us, his body taut, held in. Somehow, mysteriously, and given all the variables, he was attracted to me.

My thoughts peaked and tumbled like the waves below. Tessy Nolan’s story about the donkey, I should have asked her about it.

“You know, when I was a young I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t even know what that meant.” I whispered but he heard.

He drew back and put on a teacher’s face. “What stopped you?”

“I don’t know.” Then I remembered a remark on one of my old report cards. Janet is more interested in boys than schoolwork. “I suppose I was more interested in boys . . . or love . . . and . . . well . . . there were so many things that I couldn’t say, in Ireland then . . . you know, but I was always around people who made things.”

We sat down at the table, the light fading like old denim, and he talked about the Greek muses and his books. I listened, but in my mind random things blew in and out: that song about giving rock’n’roll the best days of your life, all the sunny Sundays and moonlit summer nights.

The pelican walked past, his webbed feet steady on the ground, the yellow eye at the side of his head. I moved the shell of my hand away from his big beak.

For the last class I read something I’d written many years ago, when I was in love with a rock singer who smoked marijuana and sang songs that sucked me in. The wind rose, and I had to shout to be heard over it.

That afternoon, as Sorcha and I swept leaves from the terraces, the writer got into a taxi on his way to the next group in the village. We waved and waved, and as the car pulled away I felt my body being pulled, my ankle twisted, and I fell sideways. It was bloody sore, and I looked around for something to blame: the slippy tiles, the wind?

“You fell for him,” Sorcha said.

I went to deny it, swallow back the embarrassment, then, “Yes, I suppose I did.”

More hysterical girlish laughter, as she helped me up and put her arms around me and the laughing turned into those sobs that burn through the lungs.

Afterwards I walked up the hill and through the wood. I got a bit lost, but eventually I found my way to the bare-arsed beach. I pulled off my scarves and sarongs, my nipples like nuggets from the wind, and then I walked into the Aegean and threw my body back into the blue.

Lani O’ Hanlon is a dancer and movement therapist. She has an MA in creative writing from Lancaster University. Her work has been published in Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review and Mslexia, among others. She has worked as an arts facilitator and director, and as a creative-writing facilitator

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.