‘I needed a lot of comfort as a child because I felt stupid’
Michael Harding: Even now I am regularly overwhelmed by my own sense of stupidity
The woman in the picture often comforted me, even when the real-life mother was too busy. Photograph: iStock
When I was a child there was a travelling woman who sold holy pictures outside the old market house in Cavan town; soft-focus images of God’s Mother, in laminated cardboard squares the size of a modern driving licence.
My mother bought one for me, and I kept it in my bedroom, and the woman in the picture often comforted me, even when the real-life mother was too busy.
I needed a lot of comfort as a child, because I felt stupid most of the time. In fact even now I am regularly overwhelmed by my own sense of stupidity.
I was on the beach last week and it was so warm, despite the gathering clouds, that I felt a raincoat would look silly. So I went off for a walk, in a linen shirt and trousers.
But then it poured with the fury of a bad day in a tropical forest. I looked like Charlie Chaplin in a wet film, and as I returned from the beach the town was full of people standing in doorways, as if they had assembled just to sneer at me.
When I was in Warsaw last summer I had no anxiety about what to wear, because the weather never changed. It was hot and the only problem was perspiration.
In the apartment there was no air conditioning, and I would sit, with the patio door open as rivers of water ran from my body on to the floor.
Maybe she read one of my books and was terrified I might develop a dysfunctional relationship with the machine and fling either it or myself off the balcony
Outside tourists sat at tables along cobbled alleyways and birds sat on the backs of empty chairs and children rushed through the spray of many fountains.
But I remained indoors.
It was an Airbnb apartment and when I arrived on the first day the landlady, a pernickety woman, showed me how everything worked.
She focused a lot on the washing machine, a cool steel German thing with blue lights. She showed me three different types of washing powder to use, depending on what kind of load I had in the machine.
Maybe she thought Irish people were not good at mechanical stuff, or maybe she read one of my books and was terrified I might develop a dysfunctional relationship with the machine and fling either it or myself off the balcony.
Certainly I’ve had emotional issues with dishwashers in the past, but clothes washing machines are things I stay completely clear of.
Which is something I could not tell her, without feeling stupid.
So on she went, about every programme option and every possible combination of washing powder, as we stood close together in the tiny bathroom.
“You must use this setting here,” she declared, “if you are doing the smalls. And this is the powder, for the smalls”.
And her English wasn’t great; she went on and on about my smalls as if they were smells.
“Put the smells in here. And you must not use the big box, for them. Because the smells need this powder. This is better. For the smells.”
When she was gone I took out a holy picture from my wallet which I bought from a gypsy woman in the porch of a church in Bucharest four years ago, and I placed it on top of the bedside locker, and sat gazing at it, and perspiring, like a leaking nuclear radiator, and wondering how I would deal with my smalls.
She emitted a sigh of quiet spiritual ecstasy and forgot entirely about the smell of my smalls
And to avoid the machine, I decided to wash everything in the basin.
Which would have been fine except that the landlady phoned the following morning to say she’d come round with a remote for the television in an hour.
I didn’t want her to see the smalls in the wash hand basin, so I squeezed them as dry as I could and hid them in the bedside locker, until she was gone.
But I can remember the precise moment when her nose caught the faint whiff of detergent coming from beside the bed.
“What is the smell,” she wondered, moving towards the locker.
Which is when she saw the holy picture, where I had propped it up against my tablet box. She emitted a sigh of quiet spiritual ecstasy and forgot entirely about the smell of my smalls.
“We are making a walking pilgrimage to Czestochowa in August,” she said, “and you may come with us if you would like that.”
I declined, but when she was gone I offered many prayers of thanksgiving to the little laminated picture of the Great Mother, for saving me once again from that horrid affliction of feeling stupid.