The last time I was this cold, I was also in Ireland: in Thomastown, during the late winter of 1994. We were living in an old mill, part of which had been converted into a comfortable family home. The remainder was a craft school and residence for young artists. We slept on the floor of a friend’s studio, one of those random living arrangements we often plucked from the chaos of that time, agreed upon for a month, stretched out until roommate or landlady complained. When it is that cold, and one is that young, days can start late. After delaying hunger and bladder to the last possible moment, one moved quickly down freezing corridors through the cavernous stone-clad house, tracking pockets of warmth from a steamy bathroom, calling up to another studio reached by a wooden ladder let down from a trap door in the ceiling. There was a fairy-tale logic to those passages which suited me. At any time I could open a door and find myself, not in the tumult of the larger world, but in some forgotten glory-hole. A room full of half-finished puppets. A dead-end window festooned with wreaths of drying monkey-puzzle branches, below which a series of abstract watercolours hung drying from an improvised clothesline. I was reading a biography of George Sand, gleaned from T-town’s surprisingly well stocked public library, and my thoughts, when I allowed myself to have them, were full of irregular relationships played out in hidden gardens, of lives devoted to art.
We were all very poor. Other than a celebratory greasy breakfast at the pub on dole day, walking was the only entertainment we could regularly afford. I spent days walking to all the towns within a hand’s breadth circle on my map: Jerpoint, Inistioge, Dysart, the last home to a ruined castle where my puppet-making friend once found a human skull. During that uncommonly frigid winter, the countryside round Thomastown had a beautiful clarity I have yet to see matched. I remember tree branches encased in ice, barren and articulate. In the field across from the apple orchard, sheep huddled in companionable knots, breath rising from their soft noses to hang in the crystalline air. As the frost began to relax its hold, a rich, verdant landscape emerged, so different to my eyes accustomed to the mountainous lunar reaches of Connemara. Closer to the mill, I found a wooded walk by the river, counted every day the heads of cow parsley, snowdrop and fuchsia, all newly arrived and heart-breaking in their fragile promise.
In the evenings, there were communal dinners in the vast high-ceilinged kitchen, mostly vegetarian, always thick with “hunger-plugger” ingredients: marrows, lentils, dried beans two or three years old which required boiling to mush to become edible. We played at down-on-our-luck Bohemia, drinking cheap wine and listening to Tom Waits on a second-hand cassette player. If someone was feeling particularly flush, there might be the luxury of a bottle of Mateus. Surrounded by artists, I suspected this brand was bought for its curved, unusual green bottle, with the swan sailing gracefully across the label….certainly not for its taste, the memory of which even now threatens headache. These bottles were recycled into endless “make-and-do” projects, filled with stones and coloured sand and popped last-minute into a still life for an overdue painting assignment, or quietly repurposed as something to catch and disperse winter sunlight across a deep-set window sill.
I had my own “make and do” that winter. One day I sat down at the living room fireplace and burned all my journals. Five years of effort, in matched red and black cloth bindings, sacrificed systematically, quickly, so as not to admit remorse. There was some practical justification for that little murder. Not for heat. I’d been living in student squats long enough to know that paper may flare up satisfactorily in the grate, but provides no lasting warmth. My rationalisation circled around the need to consolidate boxes of books and lecture notes and unfinished thesis drafts, a burden difficult to transport when your only option is a pilfered shopping cart and you move house every six weeks. Whatever the reasonable impulse, the process rapidly devolved into ritualised exorcism. After six months of being reminded that God or Fate or the universe did not give one damn about what it was that I wanted from my life, I was prime for the easy path. Watching the chemically-tinged sparks flit their merry way up the chimney, I felt relief, tasted a savage joy in the grand gesture I was making.
Alas, grand gestures are almost always hollow. As I scribble this now, in a bland blond-wood coffee shop deep in south Dublin, I can only look back in horror at what I lost. My first kiss with the love of my life. The way I felt the first time his long fingers brushed across my bare skin. Accounts of performances and songs, epiphanies at gravesides, the names of friends. The exact way raindrops hung in the light-brown hair of a boy I met my first day in grad school, as we stood near the vaulted arches of the quadrangle at the university entrance off Newcastle Road.
A storehouse of memory, of tantalising possibility.
Lately, I’ve been hearing the whisper of leaves blowing across a woman’s path in Marlborough Street. Another younger woman is standing in the grounds behind Queen Catherine’s House in Cheyne Walk, her uncrinolined skirts tangled about her long legs. By her side, his great height a match for her own, a deerhound shivers. She bends down, strokes his neck, tells him, “Go on, then,” and he lopes off, down an allée of pleached lime trees leading to a great mulberry tree at the heart of the garden. Here in my double exile, I squat before the shelves of colour-coded folders where these ideas live and think, who will have the dubious honour of throwing all this out when I’m gone? Why should I entail the responsibility for my failure onto others? James burned. Dickens too. Why wait?
Something rustles in the corner of an empty box.
— amrh / January 2015, Milltown Road, Dublin, and Mougins