I've wanted an Irish childhood ever
since I realised I could not remember my own. I had been reminiscing with old school
friends in the pub, listening to them recount story after story in which I
apparently played supporting roles. “Do you remember when we had that water
fight with the fire extinguishers?”
“Or that time we cycled all the way to Clontarf?”
“Remember you...?” I nodded along and smiled in false recognition. When they expectantly turned to me to fill the silence meant for my own story, I became an actor without his lines, and falling back on our late adolescent tradition, offered to get another round in.
For others, the difficulty in writing about their childhood lies in cleaving the fiction from the truth, before settling it onto the page with bits of fiction added back in, like pieces of pulp in a bottle of Club Orange. No wait. This is the problem with beginnings, one false move and you've lost the reader. I've begun too late and you're probably asking why a strict Christian Brother isn't keeping me back after class by now. Or what am I doing talking about pages and truth, when I could be shivering through winter fields to milk the cows for the porridge and cupán tae. You won't mind if I start again?
Having just returned to Ireland from two years in India, I was reacquainting myself with Irish life and, now that I think of it, my place within it. The taxi took me from the airport to my apartment which I had been subletting to an Australian Physicist. He was reluctant to move despite the terms of our contract and the more pressing nature of my standing in my house requesting him to leave. He wanted to house-share, he'd even pay more rent, he said. After two years spent crammed in amongst every shape and type of person in hostels, too many tents, and one night in the garden of a preposterous building that once belonged to a Maharaj, I needed peace. Judging by the state of the place with guitars and bongos lying alongside empty beer cans and disposable barbeque sets, I suspected peace would be difficult to achieve if he were to stay, for as some famous guy once wrote, peace comes dropping slow.
He finally relented and began sulkily squeezing his life back into his suitcases. Rather than hanging around and giving him a chance to talk me out of it, I left for my parent’s house. Nobody answered. I was slightly disappointed that they hadn't thought to be there to see me for the first time in two years. I had reminded them about my return often enough on Skype. Luckily I had my old key and as I turned it in the lock, the sniffing started. I heard the patter of paws excitedly scraping at the door. When I opened it, Max trotted toward me, his short tail wagging his hind quarters to and fro causing his back legs to slip on each step. He sniffed intensely at my shoes, my trousers, my hands. When I pulled him closer for a cuddle, he growled from deep inside his chest. At the age of fourteen, he had obviously decided he had been around long enough to talk. He slipped out of my hands and trotted into the kitchen where he poked at his food bowl while watching me with, what was that expression? Suspicion? Or indigestion? My grand homecoming was diminishing by the minute.
When I returned to the apartment, my tenant was ready to leave. He signed, I undersigned. We didn't shake hands. With the help of family connections, I acquired a job and the walls and ceilings of my life settled into place and everything soon became familiar and mundane. It was only when I met up with some old friends for drinks and reminiscences that I became aware of the emptiness where my childhood memories should be. Instead of evocative images, sounds, and smells continually playing inside a hidden archive room, ready to aid in recollections, nostalgia and context, there was nothing.
For the most part, experiences in life only attain significance when they are placed into context. Your first time using the grown up toilet is only a big deal when compared to your previous diaper based escapades. Memory is the cover of the book, into which the sentences and chapters of your life make sense to you and to others. By the time he died, Funes the memorious, with his prodigious memory, had whole reference libraries detailing each waking second of his life. Most people’s lives amount to a book or two. For some reason I was different, the first chapters had been ripped from the spine of my past.
My inability to recall the events of my life before my age shot into double figures was troubling. It was only now that I recognised it, did my loss become as cumbersome as a missing limb. Imagine finding yourself stranded between the two tenses, drifting like a leaf in the ocean. I have never been one to reminisce; perhaps this is why the problem eluded me for so long. For me, the future has always been the only thing worth thinking about, it is the unknown, and can just as quickly become success or failure. I find it exhilarating, or at least I thought I did.
The thing is, you can’t prepare for the future without the foundations of the past. Very soon after my discovery, this was made apparent in the most unfortunate of circumstances. I had met a girl, Andrea. It was one of those chance meetings which you suspect people make up based on expectations derived from popular media, and which you only accept when it happens to you. She was standing behind me as I paid for a coffee in the cafe near my office. I turned, and having the spatial awareness of an inanimate object, walked straight into her, shoving my drink into her stomach in the process. Not the most auspicious start to a relationship, you might be thinking, but she was gracious and the drink was iced. As difficult as it may be to believe, that incident was not the unfortunate part of this short example. I wrangled a date out of her and she suggested this new fish restaurant by the sea. I’ve never eaten fish. For reasons which will very soon become apparent, it never really existed in the menu of my mind, but she was hot, so I said, sure.
Half an hour into our date, I was raced to hospital, expanded like a blowfish in the back of the ambulance. Turns out, I was allergic to shellfish. My parents had rushed to my bedside and immediately berated me for forgetting my allergy (I think Andrea slipped away at that stage, but it’s hard to be sure. My area of vision was still greatly reduced as a result of my inflated skin). According to them, my allergy had become family legend after my four year old self had snuck an oyster from my dad’s plate in a restaurant, as he argued with the waiter over the temperature of the wine, not noticing his son’s facial features disappearing in a massive expanse of flesh. I haven’t seen Andrea since.
While I was in hospital, a doctor remarked on a tattoo on the sole of my foot. I refused to believe him and things were getting tense until a nurse found a mirror and showed me. There was a strange Sanskrit marking on the white of my foot. I jokingly put it down to a drunken night in India. The problem was, I don’t drink. And I abhor tattoos. I asked about my memory lapse and, in turn, they asked me some questions about the date and the current Taoiseach, before suggesting tests and appointments with neurologists. I am now the newest member of a waiting list that may be longer than time itself.
Look at me, I’ve come all this way, telling you about my intimate problems and mysterious tattoos, and I haven’t even introduced myself. What must you think of my manners. I would assure you that my parent’s instilled a fine set in me by an early age, but as you probably know by now, that would be a guess or, at worst, a lie. What I do know is my name is Jonathon, and I’m a copy writer. I write those taglines that dig into your subconscious. I don’t care if you buy anything as a result; I just want you to remember. Ironic isn't it? I suppose it was my comfort among words that led me to try to reconstruct my childhood in story form.
One day after work, I visited my the library. Once there I searched the database for Irish childhood stories. The shelves must have been reinforced to cope with the weight of the misery and degradation that Irish children went through in these memoirs. The list was far greater than I could manage and so I became more selective, taking note only of anthologies of short stories and memoirs by the better known writers.
Soon I was spending all the free time I could gather in the library, typing up story after story, inhabiting childhood after childhood. I have rarely remembered dreams, but that first week, and since then, my dreams have stayed with me for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I couldn't get rid of them, they aren’t like guests who have overstayed their welcome. You can't sweep around their feet and pretend to be busy until they get the message and leave. They weren’t like bad smells either; air freshener did nothing, and leaving the windows open until you're too cold to move only makes you too cold to move. The dreams were there to stay. I relented and collected them like a lonely old woman collects wounded animals lost in the rain.
I dreamt of alternative childhoods; rural villages became a feature of my life, despite my having lived in Dublin since birth. Stories and memories merged and I began to imagine I had walked to school in bare feet through fields of snow and frost, climbing old stone walls that rocked when you balanced at the top, rather than cycling my yellow bmx bike five minutes down the road each morning. I began to question ever having owned a yellow bmx. The more I tried to picture it, the less defined it became, until it was just an object as distant as a glimpse from the sitting room window of a car passing on the road.
My quest to retype every pertinent Irish childhood story took longer than I had originally envisioned. That first week spread its days into a fortnight; then a month had almost passed. I carried a book with me at all times, reading on the bus, typing in work and during my meals in the evenings. Soon, the accumulated weight of history and myth unburdened themselves over my fingers like sacks of coal and typing became tiresome. I had transcribed fifty stories and didn't know what I was going to do next. I had hoped the process of retyping the work of Irish authors would somehow help me to reconnect my neural connections and enable me to remember. It wasn't working, I had, by then, lived a town full of childhoods. I had become Jung’s shared unconscious; that great cloud of memories and experiences, with all of those wispy tails leading back to little empty me. And still, among those hundreds of beginnings, full of the emotions that lend richness to life, my hinterland was nowhere to be seen. I remained a poorly developed character in a book.
So I did what I always do when thoughts refuse to come out of hiding, I coaxed them with my pen:
My father and mother should have remained in the village of…
No, that wasn’t right, my parents always tell me they bought one house when they married and they would die in that house. We never lived in a village. I tried again.
My earliest memory was the sight of a new born calve emerging from the rear end of Daisy...
I may not remember my earliest memory, but it certainly did not involve cows, especially not ones called Daisy.
Old Nell was never one for complaining, despite those gnarled arthritic hands that could have grown in the dark earth beside the ancient oak tree that…
This wasn’t working. I needed more material, more time to assimilate the wild strands of stories that appeared so similar, but were as different from each other as the leaves of ivy strangling the young trees in the orchard, where we once stole apples to sell at the fair, while our crippled brother waited in— that's wrong! I’m an only child, I don’t have any siblings!
It was a few days later, when walking home from work in that uniquely Irish rain, that doesn’t so much wet you as embrace you, that I came to an important realisation. There I was, with the old brolly furled tight and by my side, enjoying the coolness of the wather against my face and hair when I gave the thing a bit more thought.
My birth certificate states I was born in Ireland. Friends and family will attest to my having lived on this island for just past a quarter of a century, and yet, when I look into the great mirror of Irish stories, I see no reflection. It was as if my roots had been poisoned. And the poison was slowly climbing towards my present, erasing (or was it changing?), everything it came into contact with. The only commonalities I had been able to find through my reading of Irish authors were an affinity for tea - but not for mugs- and contempt for the dreariness of our winters.
Weeks passed and I continued copying the stories of other’s Irish childhoods, regardless of their tenuous connections with the reality of the author or of society. I could feel my roots growing. Even my previously neutral accent took on tinges of North Dublin, sometimes lapsing into that of a Sligo townie, or the drawl of Drogheda. My golf clubs had lain unused in my parent’s house since I returned from India. I had an urge to play hurling and took to messin' with an old hurley when I watched the telly. I wished I could have brought a GAA shirt to wear on my travels. Of course these were superficial things, but you can only get to the core by scraping away at the surface. From an actor without lines, a character without background, my subsumption into the great play of Ireland was finally happening. And I couldn’t have been happier with my new role.
There was another thing that I’m not sure I should mention, being as I am a grown man of twenty six. About the same time I started to immerse myself in these stories, I first heard the noises; stirrings from the guest bedroom. I would lie very still, gripping me hurley in me two hands, not wanting to imagine the new barely realised versions of myself dragging themselves across the floor. I told myself it was somebody in the apartment next to me and lay there, waiting for my new found dreams to take me back to the safety of another childhood. And yet I never investigated the bedroom where I had heard the noises. Leaving the apartment, I crossed myself involuntarily in the way those of the previous generation do when passing an christening, wedding, or funeral.
By the time I had almost finished completing my transcription of every Irish childhood story, my motivations had changed. At the start, I had always kept an eye beneath their layers, searching for hints to my own. I found I did this less and less, for wasn't there truth everywhere? I could feel their truth coating my insides. One Monday the older woman who sits in the cubicle opposite in work, and always wears too much make up, complimented me on the rash of freckles that had sprouted over my nose and cheeks and asked if I had been sunbathing over the weekend. I pretended I had, and damn near raced to the jacks. By God, she was right! I had grown me first freckles. With my sallow complexion and dark hair (though it was lookin’ fairer than ever!) they looked like they had been painted on. I scrubbed at them but only managed to redden my skin.
The apartment was unlocked when I arrived home. My clothes were strewn around every room, torn into unidentifiable bundles of fabric. My books too were destroyed. When I opened the front door, pages of European and American novels fluttered into the air as if beseeching me for help. On further inspection, I found some books had survived intact, and in place, on the shelves; Kavanagh, McGahern, Synge, Joyce’s short stories, the collected works of Friel. There were others, authors who were contemporary in chronology only and who would, like my missing childhood, soon be swallowed by time. Almost every book by an Irish author who wrote about Ireland had remained untouched. All, that is, apart from one, my copy of Flann O’Brien’s, The Catechism of Cliché. It lay scattered throughout the place. I found its front cover in the toilet.
Nevermind that fellah, that wordy yoke. He's a dead husk of a ting now. I burst him like a pimple. Forget all that shite about not knowin about me childhood. Its grand, I remember it well. Full of the hardship and misery. Like any other in Ireland I s'pose. Raised by me bootstraps, I was. Haha. Anyhow, after he found the books all scattered, I was too hungry to do anytin about it. The hunger was fierce on me. I barely gave another notion to what had happened and really I didn’t care. Y'see, I already knew. I made him quickly finish the tidyin and search the kitchen for food. It was bare as anytin so I jogged down the old allotment (fancy dan had wanted to visit the supermaket. Ooh la la! I shut him up). It had been raining and sure the grass was only mud with airs and graces. I was still in work clothes (I've hadta change jobs since), so I took off me shoes, and tucked me socks into dem and rolled my trousers up to the knees and waded to the shed to fetch a rake. I dug the potatoes and cabbage in me bare feet, enjoying the feel of the mud squishing and sucking against me toes.
I barely had time to boil the prátaí and cabbage and eat them up with a slice or two of bacon before collapsin into de leaba. I remember hearin de noises again but took no mind. I knew dey were a part of me. Weren’t dey only de pages of me childhood gadering demselves togedder. Pullin' demselves togedder, ready for me to slip into dem like a new pair of trousers at Crisimas time. Another few days and I had me own homemade childhood. Grand stuff so it is.