Róisín Ingle: I am, I realise, a bit institutionalised
There’s a tentative opening up this week but we’re not all rushing out to explore
This time has knocked something out of some of us. Something that might come back. But also something that may not. Photograph: Getty Images
I posted on the family WhatsApp that we were having a book sale outside the house, to raise money for the Peter McVerry Trust. Even though my mother has an eye condition called macular degeneration and can’t read physical books anymore – she listens to them now – I knew such a happening would tempt her out of the house.
Despite having had her second shot in the arm of Pfizer’s second most famous drug she’s become a little institutionalised. She feels a lot older but not at all bolder. And she’s not the only one.
Sure enough, as I sat at my makeshift shop outside my front door, my sister’s car arrived disgorging, slowly, carefully my mother and, like rockets exploding, three of her smallest grandchildren. The sun was shining on the redbrick terraces of my north-inner-city neighbourhood. Neighbours wandered past, then stopped and traced their steps back to my book-laden table. You find out a lot when you talk to people about books.
I found a book on the famine for history-mad Barry from across the road, who told me he’d only ever read one novel in his life. He’s a demon for the non-fiction
“I read anything,” said Áine from across the road, who had just finished and adored Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. She showed off a photo of her new granddaughter Alex to “oohs” and “aaahs” all around. We agreed we’d all love a go of a baby, a snuggle, a sniff of a newborn head. Like therapy, we said.
“Have you any good thrillers?” asked Sheila whose daughter Beatrice had just moved in down the road.
I found a book on the famine for history-mad Barry from across the road, who told me he’d only ever read one novel in his life. He’s a demon for the non-fiction.
Elegant Frances from the end of the street arrived and so did musical couple, Keith and Áine, who’d had al fresco wedding drinks on the road during the summer.
For two hours on a sunny Saturday, neighbours, friends and family laughed and chatted and pressed money into my hand. The books were three for a fiver but they gave €10 and €20 and €50, sometimes not even taking a book.
“Good cause,” they said. “Great cause.”
Everybody who bought a book also got a pecan cookie made that morning by my daughters, who worried, as I set up my stall, that nobody would come and no funds would be raised for the homeless and even worse, my feelings would be hurt.
“They’ll come,” I told them. “Sure what else would they be doing?”
“Are things that bad, Róis?” Seán who drives a taxi called across the road, laughing when he saw my stall. I told him it was for charity; he came back with books to donate including an annual about the year 1988. The idea, I scolded, was to get rid of books not add more to the pile. But the 1988 book proved diverting. I bought it myself and remembered Dublin’s millennium year and being 17.
Inside my house, the books were teetering on every surface, falling down around me when someone (usually me) closed a door too loudly which is why I decided it was time for a cull.
I lose everything. Earrings. Sunglasses. Important letters. Patience. Awards. (Well the one award I ever got. It was small and wooden as opposed to tall and shiny – easily lost.) But I still have my precious 1980s Wham! annual and a well-thumbed childhood copy of Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild.
I’ve managed, mostly, to hold on to my books. They feel comforting, surrounding me in every room, reminding me of the story of my life and the words that shaped me, better than anything else.
I’m lucky to be in a job where reading books is part of the gig, but the books tend to accumulate. The postman or delivery person knocks at least twice a day around here. Opening the packages is always a thrill. You never know what people will write books about.
I needed a lie-down after the book sale. I hadn’t talked to that many people in such a short space of time in months
Two recent arrivals on my must-read pile are How To Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie – “uplifting” apparently – and The End of Men, a debut novel by Christina Sweeney-Baird which is about the “male plague”, a global virus that kills only men and boys, most of them anyway. It’s a book about how society changes and is managed when women and girls dominate. I’m dying to read that one.
For an hour or so, my mother sat beside my book stall and listened to the witty banter of my two-streets-down neighbours James and Orla and petted their greyhound Flea.
Later my mother and I got into a row about some of the sexual themes in Megan Nolan’s deeply affecting first novel Acts of Desperation, a book we’d both recently read.
“You’ve got a massive blind spot,” I insisted, in that patronising way daughters sometimes address mothers. “Oh, do you need cataracts removing?” my next- door neighbour who was browsing for a biography asked her, full of concern. “Not that kind of blind spot,” we said laughing our heads off. “But also, yes that kind of blind spot.”
I needed a lie-down after the book sale. I hadn’t talked to that many people in such a short space of time in months. I am, I realised, a bit institutionalised. Feeling older but not that much bolder. Panstitutionalised in my house, in my 5km, in this small world we’ve all been inhabiting.
There’s a tentative opening up this week but we’re not all rushing out to meet and greet and explore. This time has knocked something out of some of us. Something that might come back. But also something that may not.
We’ll find out over the next while, the plot unfolding slowly. In the meantime, a happy visit to Peter McVerry to give him the €244 we raised selling books on the street. And a pecan cookie if there’s any left in the tin.