Irishness is a coat you can’t take off, and it can smother you

Laura Kennedy: My brother returns with the accoutrements of adulthood – and a wife

‘They’re handing out barf bags. The crossing is going to be rough’. ‘Aren’t crossings always rough?’ Photograph: Eric Luke

‘They’re handing out barf bags. The crossing is going to be rough’. ‘Aren’t crossings always rough?’ Photograph: Eric Luke

 

I am sitting on the stairs, counting my enemies. There is just the one, really. For enemies is what we were, for more than half my life. I should own my part in that business, but historically, have been reluctant to. He was the elder, after all. From our first meeting, he couldn’t stand me. He suggested I be thrown down the stairs, or tossed in the fire.

Those were unforgivably violent sentiments to hold, let alone express openly. But then, he was only three. It was just the two of us, but that fact pushed us further apart than it connected us.

We had little in common but a mother, an absent father, and different methods of coping with the chaos. My brother thought that I was weak, and took myself too seriously. I thought that he had misaligned priorities, and too much of a young man’s rage.

He toiled his way through years of study, only to find when he emerged at the other end that Ireland had no need of buildings, nor anyone to design them. There wasn’t any money. There wasn’t any place for him. So, like many Irish people, he left Ireland with a bag to go to London. “I’ll come home,” he said. And I knew he would eventually, because Ireland is just one of those places. Irishness is a coat you can’t take off, and in alien climates it can start to smother you. At night, you stare at the dark of a foreign ceiling and hear the call to come back. This isn’t the case for everyone, of course, but it was for me. It was for him.

 Things changed between us, later. We stood side by side over a year and a half and watched our mother disappear into our memories. That experience ripped a layer off the surface; we could look at one another and finally see what lay beneath. We each took some pain to shield the other, and realised that when everything is reduced to the span of an outstretched hand, there is little more to love than that.

 Now, after years away, my brother is coming back. Instead of the bag full of a young man’s things, he returns on a ferry with a car jammed full of the accoutrements of adulthood. Not to mention, a wife. They are staying overnight with us before they continue on to Limerick in the morning. It isn’t the same Limerick he left years ago. Our mother isn’t there any more, nor the home we grew up in. A young couple live there now. They refurbished it. Last I heard, they had had a baby. Reborn as someone else’s home, it is at a tide change; our time there is a wave already crested, crashing in my memory. Occasionally, in quiet moments, something in me reaches back toward that place that no longer exists, but then it ebbs away.

 From where I sit, I can hear the force of the waves lurching him back to the past, and into the future. Skirting the coastline between what is gone and what is coming. The world won’t let him have the poetry of the moment, though. Nor me, either. He messages me from the boat – “they’re handing out barf bags. The crossing is going to be rough”.

“Aren’t crossings always rough?’, I think, but message back “HA”, accompanied by a nauseated looking emoji.

 I sit on the stairs now, waiting. I’ve done a lot of waiting on stairs. They feel like the right place to feel on the cusp of something. Stairs are inherently liminal somehow – sitting on them, you are between layers; adrift between two states of being. I think about how normal even the most important days turn out to be. Nothing really has the weight and importance that we ascribe to it intellectually. The world just won’t let us take ourselves that seriously. Montaigne said, “Kings and philosophers sh*t –  and so do ladies”. Those words float across my brain now. I would like my brother’s return to Ireland to have the poetic, musical timbre of a Yeats poem, but it doesn’t. It’s barf bags and a roof rack crammed full of vacuum packed pillows, because that is the nature of things.

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