I never had the tongue for languages. I tripped down the stairs of my mouth every day. When the girl at the shop asked, “need a bag?” I had to make some remark about the sustainability of bringing your own. If she so much as nodded in agreement to this, I would misread the cue and go on talking, sucking the air out of the room.
It was the same with my friends. I stumbled over my own attempted jokes, choking on the punchline, stammering over my comebacks. I didn’t know when to unravel my tongue or when to hold it in. I longed to train it to perform tricks. If I could only teach it to summersault or recite great poems or even just to count the correct number of syllables in an upcoming sentence, my woes would be halved.
My thought in going to this class was to weigh my tongue down. In lieu of speaking successfully, I would teach it to be confused so I could, at least, buffer my embarrassments. Or maybe, in adding a second language, I was doubling instead of halving the chance of a blunder. I had never had the head for maths. Nor the thumbs for gardening now I thought about it. When it came down to it, I could not place a finger on what I had the anatomy for. Sometimes I would imagine my body only as separate parts, not belonging to any one whole. I was a Lady Frankenstein, blu-tacked together and not calibrated properly.
It was one of those spring evenings where the temperature drops suddenly after a week of tentative sun. I had not dressed appropriately. I pulled my jacket around my body and wished I still smoked. Not only for the heat of a cigarette but for something to do with my hands which I was suddenly very aware of. They hung by my sides like weights whenever I felt nervous. More useless parts.
I clung to the insides of my pockets and tried to talk myself out of turning back. I was bad for taking impromptu notions. Nanny always warned me against them, trying to pin me down to an armchair with a cup and saucer. “It doesn’t do you any good, you and your notions,” she would tell me disapprovingly, “you’ll end up untethered if you keep jumping after whatever is in that head of yours.” She was a stern woman, and old age, which made the grandparents of my friends grow papery, had only seemed to root her further into the ground below her feet. I hadn’t even bothered to let her in on this one.
After the idea came to me, I wanted action and I wanted it now. I’d tried to sign up for a beginner’s French class at the Crescent Arts Centre, but it was already full. I spent a few evenings online scrolling across various community centre notice boards. There were lessons in fencing and German and botany and cooking, and then, tucked away, about halfway down the alphabetised list; Irish. Two hours a week, every Thursday evening until the end of the school year.
I’d never considered learning Irish before, but it made more sense than German. It also made more sense than learning French when I thought about it. If I’d lived in another part of the city, I would have even studied it in school. It was odd to think it could have been my native tongue. I wondered if reintroducing it might subdue my unruly anglicised one.
I kept walking forward. The evening sky had darkened since I’d left the house, transforming into that odd half-light I always struggled to see in. The arts’ centre was in sight.
I hated first days. I hated not knowing where to go or who to sit beside. I hated that when I was unknown, I regarded myself with cool confidence. I’d perch in my high and mighty inner world and think, I am beautiful in this room, I am a bright shiny thing. But as soon as my mouth opened, my tongue would unfurl, and I would lose my cool.
I also hated that specific fluorescent lighting which hangs in every classroom and every community centre. It really ruined any attempts at romanticisation. It highlighted my hair frizz and bad skin and somehow always came with a balmy climate. As I pushed open the door, I felt my cheeks flush tomato red.
There was a group of about ten people aged 40 and upwards already gathered around one of those coffee dispensers you mostly see in Presbyterian church halls. A man wearing a checked shirt and a kind expression looked up as I took off my now-too-warm jacket.
“An bhfuil tú anseo den chéad uair?”
Feck. I hadn’t expected to begin immediately. I panicked, looking around for some kind of metaphorical life jacket.
“An bhfuil Gaeilge agat?”
“No?” I answered cautiously.
He chuckled, “is this your first time?”
I nodded, relieved to be back on familiar ground.
“Good for you. I’m Jim. I’ve been coming here for a year now and you’ve heard just about my entire vocabulary.” He winked then and offered me a polystyrene cup, “Coffee? We’ve just been discussing the need for caffeine when it comes to lingual lessons.”
I smiled in a way I hoped came across as agreeable. I felt my palms start to sweat. But it was fine. I was far from being the weakest in the class. It would not have mattered if I was.
“Ná bí buartha” the teacher would chime when we got an answer wrong. It was one of the first phrases I learned. Do not worry.
“It’s all about trying out the words in your mouth, swill them round like mouthwash,” she was chatty and fluent and easy-going. “You should see the wee ones I teach on Saturday mornings - they don’t know a word when they come in and as soon as you give them a wee bit of vocab you can’t shut them up. It’s all sin this, that and the other. Won’t stop asking each other cad é mar atá tú. We should all approach language like children do.”
I was like flexing a muscle I didn’t know I had. It felt stiff. It wasn’t like learning a language in school. Suddenly being exposed to Irish was like dredging up a bog body in my brain. I had the oddest sensation that it was down there already, fully formed, behind the weight of some vertical mossy wall.
“Irish, especially Ulster Irish, is a living language. It changes and adapts and gains new words and loses others. There are people who’ll tell you it’s fading on this island, but they are wrong. Best example of this are the words we use to describe the land we stand on. Abbey is mainistir, hill is cnoc; who has seen these words before? Exactly. This term, as we’re going into spring, I want to focus on nature words and build up that vocabulary.”
“How’d you find it?” Jim asked me at the end of the evening.
I nodded, “good.”
“I always think it feels like I’m supposed to know it or maybe like I used to know it.” He rolled his eyes at himself, “but that’s maybe just because I am an old codger and don’t have much else to be at. Do you think you’ll be back?”
“Oh yes,” I said it with warm enthusiasm, and I meant it.
My head was swimming. As I closed my notebook, I tried to skim my mind over the new things it had acquired to see if anything had stuck yet. There wasn’t much. Like the light from the arts’ centre against the late evening, it simply faded into dark. Even so. I’d be back. I was sure of it.
I managed the twelve easy weeks of classes with methodical self-discipline. It wasn’t like me, but I earned a certificate and learned to appreciate the validation that came with trying. Jim and I became friends. He would nudge me and make jokes during lessons and during the class trip to a pub trad night he bought me a pint. I appreciated the camaraderie.
On the final night we all exchanged email addresses and agreed to stay in touch. I didn’t know if we would. That part didn’t seem to matter. The completion in itself was an achievement. A foot in the door. I wondered if, after the months of toil, I’d be able to dream in my new language.
And then it was July and raining and I was drunk.
I was outside, leaning against the rough brick. When I looked up at the eaves on the roof it made me feel a little dizzy. The raindrops were falling with such precision, like God was using a pipette to guide each drip. I leaned the back of my head against the wall and closed my eyes. Even behind my eyelids, things were spinning.
I wanted a cigarette.
I’d casually taken up smoking again about a month previous when I had bummed one from the cool friend of a friend who had invited me along to a gig. The music had been bad, but she was dating the bassist or the drummer or the sound guy. I couldn’t remember. In any case, I’d gotten in for free and in an attempt to not let my tongue slip and accidentally cause offense, I’d asked for one of her cigarettes.
“I was meant to have quit,” I had played it coy.
“Oh my God, story of my life.” She had leaned in close as she passed me her lighter. “I think we have the right idea, listening to them from a distance.”
I had bit my tongue and laughed. She smelt of smoke in the way that was only appealing in the doorway of bars. I thought about what it might be like to kiss her. Her breath would taste like masked smoke and chewing gum mint. My mouth would taste the same. I inhaled.
Now I repeated the action, inhaling fresh air deeply and forcing my eyes open. Watching from outside the window, the party scene looked amateur. I had been debating utilitarianism or free market economics or some other conservative talking point with some boy. He had been impressed that I had a law degree. His being impressed had annoyed me but I had still been trying to work out if I fancied him enough to let him put his tongue in my mouth.
Looking now, I couldn’t see him. Or rather, I couldn’t identify him from the rest of the boys scattered around the various chairs and doorways. The orange-purple bloom of light pollution hovered above the city. I wondered if the moon hiding behind the clouds was the shape of a disc or a lemon slice or a toenail.
“Bit stuffy in there, isn’t it?”
I glanced towards the door at whoever had dared interrupt my rickety train of thought.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Be my guest.”
He was quiet for a moment, fumbling in his pocket for a packet of something. I watched him through half opened lids. He looked at me sheepishly, “Sorry, but do you have a lighter?”
“Only if you have a spare smoke.”
“Everything in this world is a transaction.”
“Something like that.”
He handed me the cigarette he’d just rolled. Then he sat down in the open doorway and was quiet again. I appreciated that. I looked up at the roof again and at the eaves. I wondered what the Irish word for ‘eaves’ was.
In the weeks since classes had ended, with my Thursday nights now free, I’d quickly realised that it had been my only exposure to a world I was far from being immersed in. I felt new frustrations at my tongue and its inability to pronounce Irish words. I was annoyed that none of my friends cared. I couldn’t conjure meanings from thin air. My sentences reeked of bad grammar. I didn’t know how to say ‘eaves’.
“Do you speak Irish?”
He looked surprised, “Labhraím, agus tú?”
“A tad. I don’t know the word for ‘eaves.”
He poked his head out of the doorframe and followed my gaze upwards, “I don’t know what ‘eaves’ are.”
“That bit that hangs there,” I motioned.
“Ah,” he was quiet again. Then, “Sceimheal, I think.”
I liked that he was taking the time to think about it, so I nodded in a way I hoped came across as grateful. “Where did you learn?”
“My Mam. She’s from Cork. Made my Dad learn it before they got married. I grew up with it. What about yourself?”
I wanted to tell him about my tongue and its ability to trip me up even when I was being silent. But that felt a bit one-dimensional and selfish. I realised I’d never spoken Irish beyond greeting outside of a classroom. I was a poser. I sucked on my cigarette.
“I’ve just started. I wanted to find the words for the world around me.”
“I like how Belfast uses it. It’s its own thing here. Mum gives off at me for mixing dialects, but I like it.”
“Mmm,” I liked it as well.
He flicked the remainder of his cigarette. The orange tip glowered in the drain, “I really should quit. Are you going back inside?” He was quite pretty.
“In a bit.”
I watched him retreat into the dully lit living room. I felt a little bruised. I should have asked him to help me learn to describe the city from our little nook. I could have asked him to teach me the Irish words for different types of rain. I could sit and listen to him speak. I could grab another drink, steal another of his cigarettes and then, later, after holding a line of tension, asked the Irish for different ways to kiss.
I could ask him to name my useless anatomy. Words I already knew but just wanted to hear him say. Tongue, the same word as language teanga, lips liopa, teeth fiacail, mouth béal. Hips cromáin, thigh leis, hands lámha. The damp wall was beginning to feel uncomfortably cold against my thin t-shirt. I finished my own cigarette and followed him inside.
I always forgot how damp July in Belfast was. The entire month felt like laundry left outside for too long. The world was light and soggy as I trudged through the park. I had taken to practicing using my tongue in private. I was determined that the next time I came across a fellow speaker I would do less talking about Irish and more talking in Irish.
It is easier to work from the base you know. I stuck to the park. I knew the words for the different types of trees. I’d bought a little dictionary and a botany book and when I found a new plant, I would look it up in English and Irish. It surprised me how little of the world around me I could name in either language. There was crann darach, seiceamar, crann beithe. Oak, sycamore, birch. And I knew them. But then there was peirsil bó, pis chumhra, hiodrainsia. Cow parsley, sweet peas, hydrangea.
As soon as I looked, the colours of the world sprung up from under my feet. I wondered if I had a word for everything would I see more or know more or believe in more. Would the words for clouds and skies expand my periphery? If I knew the right words would I see God? Or maybe I would just be able to see all the flowers in the park. Maybe that was the same thing.
In any case, I knew more words for the things in the park. When I walked out the gate, I still tried but it got more difficult the less green space there was. It was even harder in the rain. The way my hood was sitting on my head dripped pools down my neck and I became less interested in naming things and more interested in how my jeans were a darker shade in the front than the back. Crá croí ceart é sa bháisteach.
A car tyre against the curb splashed a roadside puddle over my head. I let out a yelp. That was it. I hurried to find cover under the nearest building. From my hidey hole I watched the rain dictate how people moved about the street – they held their hands high, bent over at the waist, scrunched up their faces. I looked upward at the pregnant raindrops which were falling like ripe fruit from a vine. The eaves were visible just below the limitless grey of the sky. Sceimheal.
Almost as soon as it felt that July had resigned itself to permanent rain, sunlight would offer rebuttal. “Did you not check the forecast?” my friend asked when I stopped to remove yet another layer. I was too warm to argue.
As I struggled out of my jumper, I noticed a little sign in the window of the library. ‘Cúrsa teanga gaeilge: tosaitheoir, idirmhéanach agus ardcúrsa. “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.”’ I smiled at it.
“They’re doing Irish classes in the library,” I pointed to the sign.
When I had left that very first class, I had longed for instant fluency. The slow trudge left a lot to be desired, but I knew the word for eaves, and I could read the sign.
My friend wasn’t interested, “No-one speaks it. I just don’t see the point of learning a dead language.”
I wanted to say, “there are words I knew in Irish before I knew them in English,” but she had stopped listening. I couldn’t explain how the little coincidence warmed my heart. I noted the times of the intermediate class that was starting in September.
“You study Irish literature?”
I leaned forward. “no, I’m learning Irish.” It was rowdy in the pub and I wasn’t in the mood for another conversation arguing for the existence of a language that was spoken every day.
“You mentioned Romantic poetry?”
I began my spiel, “I started this course last semester and we covered words of the natural world. We learnt to annotate poetry. Afterwards I realised I still couldn’t describe my surroundings, because you know, I’m a city slicker. I can barely string you a sentence together, but I can tell you the word for pansy is goirmín.” I maintained eye contact. She was actually listening to me and I could feel myself getting pretentious. “I have been thinking about how to believe in things we need words for them. It took me a whole new language to see certain things that were right under my nose.”
The thoughts in my head, once spoken aloud, felt embarrassing. I stopped talking abruptly, but she didn’t seem to notice. “I think what you said was very interesting.”
She kept looking at me like she had something else to say. Later, when we were divvying up those taking a taxi home and those walking, she held back.
“Where do you live?” she asked me.
“Me too. Would you like to walk?”
It was nearing August now and the evenings, long and light, felt like the beginning of the final act. We began our dander down the street. I did not like it when it got dark again. My diary could no longer sensibly contain midweek pub trips. Pretty girls would not offer to walk home with me.
“I want to hear more about the language of existence. I think you’re right. What you said about not being able to believe in things you couldn’t name and how when you find a name you start to see them.”
“Did I say that? I can’t tell if that’s very profound or if I am drunk.” I was definitely drunk. I could hear it in my voice.
“Tell me the Irish name for this,” she was pointing at a little patch of land.
“Ceapach bláthanna. Flower bed. Bláth means flower and ceapach is plot,”
“What is the word for wildflowers?”
“Bláthanna fiáine I think.”
We were walking quicker than I’d realised. The sudden flood light on the Albert Bridge washed our faces pale like strange, close moonlight. Below it, the river looked like ink. The city in summer at night turned into this fantastical landscape. I’d once read a story about how the starlings that lived under bridge held onto memories like scraps of paper. They weren’t flying now. In fact, there was barely a movement, barely a sound. Just the link of lights draped around the roadside trees like fake stars.
“What type of tree is that?” She asked.
“I don’t know the name for that one.”
“Perhaps it does not exist.” She stopped and stood perfectly still. “Listen to how quiet the city is.”
I could hear the nameless tree’s branches, the lapping at the riverbank, a faraway car. I could feel her body close to mine. I avoided looking at her face.
She whispered, “How about one night we take all the green spaces around the whole city and we plant something new. Fill in the blanks. If we plant perennials, by next spring, there’ll be new things to look at. You’ll have new words to learn,”
I thought about it. It was a silly plan; a drunken walk home plan; a whispered whimsy of an idea. If it failed, it would barely be noted on the canvas of my life.
“What do you think?”
“I think what you said was very interesting.”
I hated organising, but once the idea had been thought it flourished organically. It was as though speaking it aloud had planted the seeds already. I’d had to research the right flowers to plant at this time of year. Like I said, I didn’t have the thumbs for gardening. I didn’t know the names of flowers without my little botany picture book. Although this was less true now. I knew peonies could be planted all year round and took their root most easily in the early autumn. I didn’t even remember when I’d read that. It was in my head now, something akin to knowledge. Like weeds growing through the concrete cracks of my frontal lobe or like an uncovering of an old forgotten treasure. New ventures felt less like bog bodies than they had six months ago.
We planned to go at night for anonymity’s sake and because it was more dramatic to think about darting across the city with a shovel and potted plants in the dark. We’d contacted the council to ask about planting in green spaces. It wasn’t quite as anarchist as it felt.
I never thought I’d set out for a night with the intention of kneeling in the dirt. We had decided to start small, picking the green banks on the path up the street from the students’ union. It had rained the previous evening and the plot which had been dry only a few days prior was now suitably quenched.
The rhythmic thrum of digging and planting left me in silence. A few yards away from me, there she was, digging the same. Occasionally she would glance up, catch my eye, and hold the gaze. The first few times I’d felt bashful and had smiled, looking away. I always thought I said too much and that I didn’t know when to let my tongue rest or when to swap sincerity for humour. So, this time, I didn’t say anything.
My Nanny often accused me of navel gazing. “Do you ever talk about anything but yourself?” she would say. Although, lately she’d taken to prodding me to get me to respond more. “You’re awful quiet, what are you thinking about?” I sometimes wondered if she’d ever be happy with me as I was. I had an inkling she’d rather be buried six feet under than admit that she was proud of me. But I didn’t really need her to admit it, it was the criteria for being a grandparent who paid attention. I wondered if she would notice if I planted trees around her part of the city. She’d probably complain about it, grateful for something new to say.
I dug my trowel into the soil again. I could do this weekly, I thought. I could plant until all the streets were covered in leafy green. I could take a day, become nocturnal and make a habit of kneeling in the mud. The scale of the idea was becoming tangled in my mind, so I bundled it up and tucked it away. For now, I was planting zinnias. I wondered what the Irish word for ‘zinnia’ was.
By 2 am we were finished. I looked down at my plot, full and flowering. When I stood up it looked like an entirely different street from the one we had started on. She was standing as well, dusting off her knees.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She nodded, content with the prerequisite for silence we’d unintentionally set. I felt at ease. I didn’t have much to say either.
We gathered up our things and the bars began to be let out. Drunken strangers spilled out onto the road and crowded towards the yellow lights of the nearby fast-food outlets. I watched them trample over the flower beds we’d just planted.
A man lurched onto the road and a passing car beeped its horn as it swerved to avoid him. He yelled after it and then turned on his heel back to his friends, the incident seemingly forgotten. Within the hour, the street would be deserted.
She put her hand on my shoulder, “Don’t look so disappointed. They didn’t do too much damage.”
“It didn’t even matter, did it?”
“You’re just tired. It did matter. You’ll see.”
She was right. It was just that I’d imagined a city in bloom. I wanted to be sitting on the banks of the river and seeing the sky turn from darker to lighter until a violently beautiful slash of light spilled across it, like a can of paint being knocked over. I had wanted to see something change.
Now it was just me and her walking home again and I couldn’t remember the words for anything. I didn’t ask why she had come with me. Any answer would have been disappointing. I couldn’t work out if I wanted her to leave me completely alone or if I wanted to cling to her. I thought of the people who I’d picked up and set down again like plates at a finger buffet. I could not tell what my friendship with her was supposed to mean. We’d been in flux since we’d met.
As we walked, the light began to change anyway. It wasn’t quite a sunrise, but it was something. When we got back to my house I turned and saw a little trail of soil weaving the way we’d walked, like breadcrumbs. Later, when the sun came up properly, it was like none of it had happened.
I signed up for the library course and passed the information about it onto my old classmates via email. I hadn’t learnt much Irish in the three months since my last class but there was something in the fact that I hadn’t forgotten anything either.
I had also started applying for jobs again, much to Nanny’s delight. She’d loved having a grandchild who studied law until I walked out mere weeks into my successfully secured grad job.
It had been an easy job at a firm consisting of filing and note-taking. I was good at it. They paid me proper money. I’d worn sensible shoes, grown out my dyed hair and taken up a daily skincare routine to maintain some control over my adult acne. I lasted almost a month before the fear of moral ambiguity got the best of me. I’d barely thought about the office in the year since leaving.
I was running late for the first class when I bumped into her. We hadn’t spoken since the night we planted the zinnias together. I felt sheepish. She did not.
“I’m going to this Irish class with you.”
“What? But you don’t know any Irish yet.” I don’t know why I objected.
She fell into step with me. “I see it like evidence that the language of existence works. I didn’t even think about this language till I met you. Now I see it everywhere and I want to see it more. Besides, you’re not great at languages, so I am sure I’ll catch up with you in no time. What is the word for the chemist’s?” She pointed at the Boots,
“See, I don’t even know if that’s right or wrong. What about the word for wildflowers?”
“You’ve asked that before. Bláthanna fiáine,”
“Bláthanna fiáine,” she repeated nodding. She pointed to a little patch of soil where green shrubs were tentatively pushing up the dirt.
“Maybe.” I shrugged.
“No. They definitely are. I planted them.”
“What do you mean?”
“I went around the city and planted wildflower seeds. It takes them about three weeks to start growing.”
I just looked at her. “When did you do this?”
“About three weeks ago, wouldn’t you say?” she nodded again towards the little buds.
Actually, I didn’t know what to say. She had conducted a small act of God.
“You noticed, didn’t you?”
I’d never had the tongue for languages. Nor the words to describe this feeling. But it existed.