Sure, maybe I’ll go out foreign, start scribbling massive fannies on everything, and get myself a toyboy? What do ya think?
Ah Gráinne, stop. Sure fair play to her. I’m delighted.
I still can’t believe he invited her.
There’s a lot of love there.
The mess he was. That’s what I can’t forgive her. How he went into himself after she left. He’s the real talent, everyone knows. She had him on her CV; that’s all she cared about.
He’s happy now, anyways.
And her stuff – whatever New York thinks – pure gimmicky. Edgy Ireland packaged up for the yanks. It’d drive you spare, that she’s the one with the big exhibitions while Bren is still footering around in that damp auld kip.
Ah now, do you not think ...
The voices trailed off as the pair left the jacks, so Caoilfhionn couldn’t be sure what the half-arsed defence of her morals and talents might have entailed. Maybe she’d ask later. Ha.
She brought Post Its everywhere. She’d write Out of Order on one, stick it to a cubicle door, and sidle on in. She’d been doing this for fifteen years and never once had anyone questioned the Post It’s authority.
Sometimes she’d sit on the toilet with her knees tucked up to her chin. Blanking. Mostly, the Post It let her skin up in peace. She knelt on the seat, used the tray of the cistern to gum three rizlas, pinch out tobacco, sprinkle weed, pop a roach. Roll, lick, stick. Into the handbag.
You’d overhear some interesting conversations alright.
She’d felt it all day. She didn’t need Gráinne Heaney – Roach? O’Malley? Whatever she was now – to make the word flesh. The diagnostic of her condition: notions. Tis far from big exhibitions and toyboys she was reared. One part charlatan, one part succubus. She hated to be crying because of Gráinne. That wagon was only happy when everyone else was miserable. But God, she was embarrassed.
She’d felt embarrassed since approximately 1998. The emotion hung around her shoulders like a fox stole at a PETA convention.
Still, it was nice they’d been invited.
It was a wedding like all weddings. It was the wedding of her one true love to his very likeable partner. After their split, a decade ago, Bren stopped speaking to her for eight years. She’d tried to contact him at first, but in the face of implacable silence, she’d given up, convinced she’d been cut out forever. She deserved it.
She’d missed him something savage. In time, the torture became a duller thing, more troubling for its persistence. It was like having a phantom limb. She’d reach for advice that only he could be trusted to give, for knowledge, for comfort, for someone who would get the joke – but there were no fingers to grasp him. When she identified the sensation, she kept thumbing through her copy of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, originally bought for Bren’s Art and Ideology course, aged nineteen.
She remembered Bren with his powerpoints and hand-outs, guiding her class through the dense theory, blowing her tiny mind. She remembered wanting more. As they fell in love the following year – that irresistible period of heat and subterfuge – she got what she craved: more art, more ideas, more Bren. Pygmalion dynamics, sure, but is the statue ever going to wish to be turned back to stone?
After her amputation, Bren became what Merleau Ponty would call an ‘ambivalent presence’; she couldn’t stop reaching for him with shrapnelled fingers. The refusal of mutilation, old MP reminded her, is not deliberate.
It is precisely when my customary world arouses in me habitual intentions that I can no longer, if I have lost a limb, be drawn into it, and the utilizable objects, precisely insofar as they present themselves as utilizable, appeal to a hand which I no longer have. Thus are delimited, in the totality of my body, regions of silence.
You’d go mad, listening to lack.
It was 2008, and Ireland’s Celtic Tiger Boom had gone bust. She wasn’t the only one who’d had to move back in with her Mam and Dad. People were bleeding out of the country. Canada’s conservative minister for immigration sat on The Late Late Show, sweet-talking would-be migrants into life in America’s hat. We might not have the same weather as Australia, he chuckled, touting Irish ‘cultural compatibility’ as reason enough for Paddies to brave the snow and ice. For ‘culturally compatible’ see ‘white,’ thought Caoilfhionn.
I’d be on the next flight if I were your age, said her Dad, Sure what is there here? She started crying because she thought Dad was trying to get rid of her. Dad paid no mind. Wasn’t she the whole time crying?
She went. It was easier to be where Bren wasn’t.
In Canada, her work hit a wall. 50 percent of her artistic sensibility resided in another person’s brain, and she just couldn’t ... what couldn’t she do? She couldn’t tell.
After two years of safe, bland nothings, she started painting and plastering over her own acrylic cityscapes, landscapes and portraits. In mixed media, she layered Síle na Gigs, their labia ripping apart and bleeding over the picturesque ruins of country churches; she posed children lying dead on Connemara coastlines; the mutilated head of the murdered prostitute Mary Gallagher juiced a punctured eyeball over a prettily impressionist, post-industrial Griffinstown. Then, ashamed of her brutality, she disguised the additions once more, blurring their edges, making the viewer wonder if they were there at all. Clumsy, schizophrenic creations. But they made her feel something.
She read an Ira Glass quote on someone’s Facebook wall, wrote it out longhand and stuck it to her fridge:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.
Was her taste telling her these pieces were worth pursuing? She loved them; she was embarrassed by them. Which flavour was stronger? Maybe Glass wasn’t talking about people like her. After all, everyone thinks they have taste. She went to reach for Bren, then stopped. He wouldn’t rate this stuff at all.
Three years later, she was selling. Really selling. Look, there was no one more surprised than herself. She’d never been the best student. Solid seconds, occasional thirds. She got a first once, on a project about time that she completed in a total panic while waiting for her period to come, afraid she was pregnant under Ireland’s abortion laws. Pregnant by her lecturer, no less. Wouldn’t that have been the scandal now, Brendan?
After art school, she had group exhibitions in Bren’s space. Her work was never singled out in whatever reviews clawed their way into the local papers. She knew she was invited to exhibit because he loved her. All the art heads in town knew it too. Not that Bren’d ever say it. His line was that she was technically talented; the critique was left hanging, implied. She could draw and she could paint – but she didn’t have that vision that marks out Picassos from folks inking comic books.
Luckily, Canada wanted good inkers. Its video game industry needed artists to imagine characters and costumes, give them faces and dimensions and flesh. She got a job with Warner Brothers. She liked storyboarding – it was meditative and she could do it high. And Montréal was a grand spot – cheap rent, quality smoke, she was learning French, and she could even afford a shared studio to paint in evenings and weekends.
She was at a music gig in a little gallery one night when she admired the stuff on display: feminine skeletons, in ballet slippers and tutus, posed on elegant, old-fashioned chairs. She got talking to the owner, an owl-faced Québécoise called Marie-Pier, and ended up buying a painting (which she couldn’t really afford, but which Marie-Pier shrewdly advised her was ‘money on the wall’). They got friendly. And when the gallery owner saw her recent work, she offered her some space. For the first time in her life, Caoilfhionn was not under the impression that the show had anything to do with personal affection.
She got reviews. Two agents courted her. She was featured in Canadian Art. There were commissions, opportunities. She could actually quit the day job. It was exhilarating and frightening.
After an exhibition in New York, the Irish press pricked up its ears. There were pictures of her – and her work of course – in the papers. She was flown home to be a guest on The Late Late Show. Dad was beside himself.
She was atrocious on The Late Late. As the comments under multiple Youtube videos of her attested, she was woeful at interviews, but that one was a particular steamer. She couldn’t stop thinking that Bren might be watching. What could she say? They are all for you – in defiance of you – and, yes, I know you hate them. So be angry with me. Just know I would give it up, fuck them all in the bin, plaster them over in whatever ugly thing, if you would pull me to you again.
Instead, she talked about technique, affirmed the self-evident with zingers like ‘art should make you feel,’ and generally sounded like a thick. She quoted Ira Glass, then apologised for it: I’m not saying that my taste is better than other people’s; in fact I’m not sure I have great taste at all really, so I don’t know why I keep coming back to that idea, but I saw it on Facebook one time, you know, and I put it on my fridge, so.
Some of the kinder pundits on Twitter described the interview as ‘painful,’ ‘cringe,’ and (memorably) ‘the profound ramblings of your Mad Auntie Nora when she’s had seven gins.’ Her Mam and Dad were proud though. Sure it isn’t every day your daughter’s on The Late Late.
Don’t mind them, said Dad, did ya ever hear the one about the Irish lobsters? They don’t need a lid for their tank, because if one of them tries to climb out sure the others will pull him back down. D’ya get it? They’d pull him back down. The Irish lobsters.
Before the fame, she’d been dating someone nice in Montréal. Mike drew for Warner Brothers too. He was the opposite of Bren in some ways. Shy. Self-effacing. And like him in others – deeply political, knowledgeable on history, literature, on almost everything it seemed. They had to agree to disagree on the value of conceptual art. He thought it was all bourgeois bullshit. Married, he was, to mimesis. And maybe he was right.
Other than the fact Mike thought her paintings were crap, things had been going grand.
But with the shock of success there was no more agreeing to disagree. He was constantly critical of her: of her political ideas, of her drug habit, her work habits, of her materialism, her hunger for fame that was driving her to produce commercial bullshit.
The fame insult didn’t hurt. Despite her paper-thin skin, she knew it wasn’t true. Her work wasn’t for art snobs. It was for Brendan Cormican. Mike had picked the wrong weapon.
In a more tactical display of emotional artillery, he stopped fucking her: a power play that she found more hurtful than she could quite fathom. She was getting old and fat and yellow-toothed and probably wouldn’t have children.
Mike had some decent points. She’d been stoned every waking hour since she arrived in Canada. She liked a wee sniff at the weekend. Sometimes she stayed in bed all day and got up at 7pm, and went to the studio and stayed there ‘til 7am. Sometimes. And this fame thing was kind of intoxicating and maybe she was a bit up her own hole and – look – the money was nice, she’d never had money before and you can’t pretend it isn’t nice. Was she being insufferable? She’d try to be better.
It didn’t work. Mike left her. The pain was a pinprick compared to the want for Bren that she’d painstakingly curated for five years. Still, for months afterwards, she worked obsessively. Why was she crying? Why was she always crying?
Maybe she should go home. Where all her friends were married with babies and everyone felt vaguely sorry for her. But she needed Bren back home, to help her navigate the pub and the dinner table. No one in Ireland liked having her around. No one in Montréal loved her. Which was worse?
She didn’t know so she got a half gram of coke, called her friend Marla and went out dancing. Merleau Ponty reminded her that ‘anaesthesia with Cocaine does not do away with the phantom limb’ but she ignored the fucker. The dingy club played a strange mixture of 90s grunge and 50s show tunes, and she loved it. Everyone was mad cute when they were dancing. She beamed at a beautiful girl to her left, who returned the glow, smiled at a handsome young fella swaying on her right. He smiled back.
He held her eyes a little. Probably high, she thought, because it takes one to know one.
When the music ended, Marla went to get the coats and Caoilfhionn stood finishing her beer, feeling like an awkward old lady in spite of the drugs. She thought she saw the boy from the dancefloor heading in her direction, then he turned back to his friends at the bar. Let’s not get delusional, woman, she reflected. But just as she drained her bottle, she felt someone standing by her shoulder, and it was him.
He said Salut, and they started scaling language barriers. Was she alone? No – her friend had gone to get the coats. Of course she wasn’t alone. What was her name? What? But how do you write that? No, spelling it won’t help. Okay. C.a.o.i.l.f.h.i.o.n.n. It’s Gaelic. Because I’m Irish. Yes from Ireland. What was his name? Listen, Victor (she had never liked the name Victor), do you smoke? Let’s smoke. Marla came back and Victor’s friends wandered over from the bar. She watched him walk down the filthy staircase and admired his shoulders, his sinewy neck. Outside, he lit her cigarette and a friend of his dutifully chatted up Marla, who dutifully pretended she wasn’t married.
He was a carpenter. Like Jesus, she said, which was a stupid thing to say. Like Jesus, he agreed. She taught him how to pronounce her impossible name as she put it in his phone, and he called her straight away so that she’d have his digits too – or maybe to passive-aggressively check that she’d given him a real number.
Marla and she went back to her gaff, finished the blow and watched a DVD of Depeche Mode live in Berlin under a blanket until they fell asleep. In the morning, as Marla got her head together to go back to her kids, Caoilfhionn got a text from Victor, asking her to go for a drink. She almost blanked him, but she hadn’t been on a date in months and reckoned she should at least try.
They went to a bar and she squirmed at how young and hot he was, how incongruous they looked together. In contravention of her low expectations, the date was nice. They had their first glass of wine in broken French, their second glass in broken English and the rest of the bottle in an amusing but functional Franglish. They talked about their families. She told him about her paintings. He worked in a local factory that made bespoke wooden tables, which was a sexy occupation if ever she’d heard of one. What age was he? 25. Of course, twenty-fucking-five. What age was she? 38. He liked her hands; he took one to examine it, then kept it in his.
He walked her home and kissed her. Evidentially, he was madly attracted to chubby 38-year-old stoners who didn’t brush their greying hair. The kiss was her favourite kind. The kind that starts slow, dry lips just grazing, and grows into spit and tongues and grabby hands, before getting a hold on itself and returning to a civilized median, then modestly taking a bow.
He texted the next day and asked what she was doing. She was at a party, where her friends were having important conversations about sexual predation and harassment in the art world, and the steps that everyone needs to take as a community to protect each other and build a better future. She texted back that she was bored. She made excuses to Hervé, her host, and taxied to a dive bar, where Victor bought her a gigantic bottle of Belle Guelle, and showed off how badass he was with a pool cue before letting her win the game.
Eyes were on them. Who do they think I am, she wondered? The cool auntie? But Victor’s hand rested on her waist, and the dynamic was unmistakable. She tried to see it from the outside, and instantly regretted doing so because she saw a pathetic cougar and a horny boy and felt embarrassed, embarrassed, embarrassed. He suggested a beer; she suggested getting out of there.
They went back to her place. She had a pretty, late-19th-century apartment with exposed brick and big threadbare rugs. Modest at 38, palatial at 25. This is your place? Waow. Maybe I should be an artist. You must be successful, no? She said nothing. She didn’t want him to google her and read the vicious review of the New York show that had been search engine optimised so it was always the first hit when you typed her name. Or to see the videos of her gormless interviews, with all the comments underneath.
This is yours? He stood looking at the large canvas over the sofa – her favourite from the mutilated Síle na Gig series. She’d kept it in spite of significant pressure to sell. But as she watched Victor take it in, she was ashamed. Bren would call it needlessly oppositional, criticise her for shock tactics. She was going to cry. Victor turned around. Ça va? I’m afraid you won’t like my painting, she said, surprising herself with her honesty. But yes I like it, he said.
They had the kind of sex that happens when a man looks at a woman on a dancefloor and thinks, I want to fuck that woman, and a woman looks at a man looking at her on a dancefloor and thinks, is that man really looking at me? She tried not to think about her fat belly or differently sized tits as he pushed her onto her back and lifted up her shirt. She focused on the beauty of his long-lashed eyes, his high cheekbones, his face set into the strange seriousness of desire.
In the morning, he had a coffee and a fag and left, and she lay back down on her bed and masturbated to the cinema reel of the night before. Then she cried. Mortifying. Why was she always ... no wait, she cried because she’d thought it was over for her, that kind of sex.
She had a spliff, went to the studio and started Revenge of the Eunuch. It was a ridiculous piece and she couldn’t stop giggling at it. Claudia, with whom she shared the space, arrived, and Caoilfhionn tried to reel her shit in. You seem in good spirits, Claudia said. She wanted to tell her that she’d gotten laid, but she didn’t want her telling Hervé that she’d left his party to bang a 25-year-old. She said she was excited about the painting.
She started to see Victor every other day – sometimes there’d be dates, sometimes they’d watch a movie or cook. It was all a pretext to the bedroom. So, what do you guys talk about? Marla asked her. She couldn’t answer immediately, which her friend found amusing. C’mere, said Caoilfhionn, I think we both understand the nature of the arrangement.
Yet, as the weeks rolled by, and the 25-year-old turned 26 and insisted she come to his birthday party with his practically-teenaged friends, and as she continued to wake up with her nose tucked into the beautiful nape of his neck, as he sent her sweet text messages with annoying smileys, as the sex graduated into a class of its own, as he whispered ‘goodnight bebe’ in his pretty Quebec accent – she began to feel less sure about what was mutually understood.
The fucking though. Let’s get back to the fucking. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. He was unapologetically selfish, which was doing it for her like nothing had in years. The foreplay was non- existent, but she was always wet. She loved watching his face when he slowed so that he wouldn’t come – not waiting for her, but prolonging his pleasure. She loved his sandpapery fingers on her back, placating her as if she were an animal. Or the times he’d grab her by the hair and pin her down, his long fingers firm on her throat, holding her in place until he’d taken what he needed. Then he’d place her head on a pillow next to his and say, as if to atone for his moment of delicious violence, how is my little Irish?
Her canvasses were full of it: acts of war and rape layered onto children shyly handing each other daisies; fat hairy cunts in O’Keefian blooms, laughed at by British soldiers, yet dripping, dripping; and once – Victor’s portrait – unbidden: those bad blue eyes, that girlish mouth.
She told him that evening. I painted you, by accident. She pulled up a photo. He examined it closely. It looks like me but not like me. How not like you? I look angry. But I am very chill. We never fight. I don’t know why you make me angry like that.
She looked at it again and saw the cruelty in the eyes, cruelty that she had put there; then she looked at Victor’s face: flesh, bone and confusion. She’d defaced him. No shock tactics needed. Brendan would call it a masterpiece.
I think I made you angry because I can’t believe you like me. Her straightforwardness with Victor continued to ambush her. A side effect of her bad French and his bad English – it was impossible to hide behind cultural connotations. What had Beckett said: he wrote in French because it was easier to write without style. He wanted to shake off the shackles of Irish colloquialism, idiom and cliché, to approach the human condition, get to the heart of the thing, say only what he meant.
Of course, I like you. Victor said it in English to avoid the verb ‘Aimer’, then switched back to French. But I don’t know what you want. I am not sleeping with anyone else. You I don’t think are sleeping with anyone else?
She said, it’s too early to know what we want. Victor nodded, okay, we go with the flow, on verra. You see? I am very chill.
That night he stared ruthlessly into her eyes; when she tried to close them he’d freeze. If she wanted her pleasure she’d have to return his gaze.
In the morning, after Victor had his coffee and fag and left for work, she rolled her spliff and checked her e-mails. There – third from the top – was the name Brendan Cormican.
She felt sick. She hit the balcony in the freezing cold to smoke before returning to her computer.
Will you be home for the Christmas? Will we have a coffee?
She rolled another. She called her Mam. Mam told her to calm down, sure it was all ancient history now, and probably he just wanted things to be water under the bridge and wasn’t it nice? And was she coming home for the Christmas anyhow, sure she hadn’t even told her.
She got off the phone and booked Christmas flights. Then she took an hour and twenty minutes to write:
It’s good to hear from you. Yes – I’ll be home round the 15th, staying through til the 2nd. I’d love to go for a coffee – just let me know times and places.
When she told Victor she was planning a trip home, he asked if he could come. She thought about landing in on her Mam and Dad with a 26 year old who barely speaks English. I’m not ready for that yet, she said.
On the night before she left, Victor brought her a Christmas present, wrapped, some kind of jewelry, she thought. She felt bad – she had nothing for him. You are not a good mistress, he joked, I should get a better mistress. They cooked and drank wine and had rough, affectionate sex. In the morning, he told her he’d miss her, and she said, you’ll have another girl by the time I’m back.
In Ireland, in her childhood bedroom, she chose her outfit for coffee with Bren very carefully. He’d always liked her in soft fabrics – tactile jumpers that made a man want to paw at you. He always said he liked her best without make up, but she knew that wasn’t true. She’d bought a bottle of the perfume she used to wear when they were together. She sprayed it on her wrists and behind her ears so that her pulsing blood would warm it up.
She got to the café first. Her hands were shaking. She ordered a glass of wine instead of a coffee and waited. Until there he was. Her phantom limb. A long hug made her feel whole for the first time in eight years. She looked in his eyes and said I’m sorry. They carefully, painfully dissected the end of things. And then, it was done.
They talked about their art. He’d seen her in magazines, on TV. He congratulated her on her success. She knew what that meant. Him, he’d lost the drive after the split. It was coming back now, though. He was working on rural nudes – he wanted to bring out the unnaturalness of bodies; how the human form always connotes culture, even in the most unmarked of places. The modeling process could be a bit dodgy – seniors hiking out to Cleggan stumbling across young ones in the nip, streeling about the petrified forest. Caoilfhionn laughed. Bren laughed too. It’s good to see you, he said.
He had something to tell her. He’d met someone. Her heart dropped through the floor, its thumping weight pulling at the corners of her mouth, as she resisted, resisted.
Tell me about her, she said.
Anna had been his student. His graduate student. An extraordinary mind, a genius really. His blue stocking. She’d just finished her Master’s, and he was encouraging her towards a PhD (not under his supervision this time, of course). An artist? Well, an aspiring one. Caoilfhionn read between the lines. She was an artist, but she wasn’t much cop.
She’s a fan of yours, actually, Bren said. She’d love to meet you. Oh yes. Let’s make it happen. I’d like that. And do you have anyone?
It was settled. She’d be visiting Bren’s, where they used to live together, to have dinner with Bren and his new girlfriend, who lived there in her place. She spent even longer choosing an outfit this time. Her Mam said, Is it torturing yourself you are, for the craic?
Bren answered the door, big smiles and warm hugs. It smelled like home. He brought her through to the kitchen, which had been festooned with modern spot-lighting, and introduced the girls: Anna, Caoilfhionn, Caoilfhionn, Anna.
Caoilfhionn remarked that Anna looked like her: mousey, pink-cheeked, cuddly. Or that Anna looked like Caoilfhionn had a decade ago, to be precise.
White wine in Bren’s grandmother’s crystal. Fish, bread sauce, new potatoes and steamed veg. Anna told Caoilfhionn how much she admired her work, and asked the kind of sensitive questions that proved her interest genuine. Bren stayed out of the conversation, except to jokingly remark, when the women got onto female genital mutilation, fear of The Other and the aesthetics of vaginal alteration, that he’d obviously been left bobbing on feminism’s second wave and was way out of his depth.
He didn’t need to tell Caoilfhionn that he disapproved of her new direction. She was impressed that Anna didn’t feel the need to agree with him.
When pressed, Anna talked shyly about her thesis, which studied Irish visual and performance art about abortion. It was becoming apparent that Caoilfhionn liked Bren’s girlfriend very much. She managed to keep an even keel when Anna gushed, so in love, about how exceptional it was to find an Irish man like Bren, who genuinely gave a shit about women’s rights, who would sit and talk about gender stuff for hours – even if he did have to wear armbands when the third wave came rolling in.
Anna asked Caoilfhionn for some advice on painting, on how to find a distinctive aesthetic. I mean, my paintings aren’t very good, she qualified. You are a supremely talented critic, Bren interjected.
Well, look, it’s just what worked for me, but I think it’s important to find the beans for a studio – a shared space, a warehouse, whatever. Then, when you’re there, you’re painting.
Bren said, we paint together, me and Anna, and I love that. We have the studio here.
Caoilfhionn remembered trying to work when Bren’s eyes would see the day’s results, her technically excellent paintings paling beside his talent.
I’m not sure you can find your voice when you’re painting alongside someone you’re so close to. I can’t put my finger on exactly why.
Always one for the sweeping statements, Caoilfhionn. She could feel bite in the remark in spite of Bren’s friendly tone. She remembered his red pen on her undergraduate essays: ‘avoid generalisations,’ ‘where’s your evidence?’
She changed tack. And, of course, I’ve been stoned since 2002. You could try that. They all laughed, giving her the opportunity to suggest smoking the doob in her handbag.
She left them red-eyed and giggling. She left still in love with her ex, and fond of his Anna.
She spent Christmas at her sister and brother-in-law’s place, with her parents and her nieces. She loved the girls but wasn’t much good with them. She never knew what to talk to children about, or how to have an adult conversation with them around. Mid-way through dinner, Cara proclaimed, ‘Daddy, I want Auntie Caoilfhionn to go home now.’ Cara was three.
Caoilfhionn forgot about Victor’s gift until bedtime. Silver earrings. Síle na Gigs. And not just any Síle na Gigs, but the Seir Keiran Síle, a twelfth century Celtic Christian incarnation with mysterious extra orifices around the vulva – the inspiration for the painting in her living room. Where on God’s earth... he must have had them made.
She took a selfie and sent it to him. He called, already buzzed, though it was just 7pm on the other side of the Atlantic. His friends and family chatted and caroused in the background. Did she like the earrings? No, he would not say where he got them. He missed her.
When she returned, he met her at the airport.
No longer estranged, Bren and she wrote to each other on the regular. She had a little of her limb back and it felt only miraculous. They told each other where they were up to with their work, sent articles or videos, plámásed, gossiped. He ran into so and so who’d seen her on TV. She met a Canadian First Nations artist doing similar stuff to Bren with the body and the wilderness. Anna said hi. She said hi back, guiltily, because she opened every e-mail hoping it would say the relationship was over.
Victor and she picked up where they left off. Franglish, drinking, cooking, fucking. He stayed over so much he might as well have lived there, so she gave him a key. He would come in late sometimes, drunk and stumbly, climb into bed, and take her from behind without saying a word. One night, she started awake to find him – him? him – inside her. Sneaky, she whispered, and they laughed as she pushed back against him.
He liked to interrupt her just as she was about to sit down with tea and a biscuit, and bend her over the table while her cuppa went cold. Or, he’d walk into the bathroom when her mouth was full of toothpaste and watch her struggle to spit and rinse while he pulled down her pants. Now? Really, now? she’d faux protest. I like it when you blush, he said.
It confused her, how much he wanted her. How much pleasure she derived from being wanted.
One March Sunday, as Victor smoked in minus 10 on the balcony, she got an e-mail from Bren:
Big news! I asked and she said yes. Wedding in August. We both hope you’ll come. Will send a save the date as soon as it’s confirmed.
Lots of love,
The selfie attached showed them on the ramparts of what she deduced was Kinvara castle. Bren’s friend’s uncle was the caretaker. He’d probably managed to wrangle the keys. What a beautiful proposal, she thought, crying, crying, always crying.
Victor came in from the cold, and, while no longer surprised to find Caoilfhionn in tears, asked what was the matter. She didn’t want to tell him, but it was impossible to lie in their patois and soon the thing was out. Her ex was getting married.
She showed him the e-mail, the picture. She looks like you, Victor observed. Me but younger, Caoilfhionn agreed.
They went out for brunch. Victor the Chill was uncharacteristically riled. Did they have to go here? There was a line. Their table was too near the door. No, he did not want to share a side of mushrooms.
On Bloody Caesar number two, he asked or stated (she could never quite figure out Québécois inflections), you are in love with that man.
Her reflexive lie was stifled by lexical confusion. So she said yes. Victor fired off an arsenal of questions about her relationship with Bren, when it had ended, why it had ended, what had happened at Christmas, why hadn’t she told him about it? And just when it felt like his machine gun was done, he climbed over the parapet and bayoneted her: you are in love with him and not with me.
I care about you, she said. But I’ve known Bren since I was 19 years old, almost my whole adult life. You and I have only just met.
Victor bit into a fancy pickle.
Why do I spend all my time with a woman who is in love with someone else?
I don’t know, sure. I don’t know why you’re with me at all. You’re beautiful and talented and you’re lovely. You could find a million better girls.
I would like to go to the wedding.
The wedding in Ireland. I want to go.
It’s too soon.
In August, we will be one year.
You’ll be sick of me by August.
On verra. Then you can just say that I am not coming.
You’re asking if I can come?
He took her hand and asked her if she wanted to share a chocolate banana waffle for dessert. He paid when she was in the bathroom, and on the way home he insisted she take his much thicker gloves.
The next day, she wrote:
Massive congrats to you and Anna! Is that Kinvara castle? Did all that cat-sitting for Andrew finally pay off?
I’d love to come in August. I feel lucky to be asked, so thank you.
Do you think I could bring a plus one? Though no hassle at all if ye’re trying to keep it small.
She waited a few days for a reply.
Ha – yes, I guilt-tripped Andy with memories of Pissy Ziggy til he handed over the keys. (Pissy Ziggy is dead now, you’ll be pleased to hear.)
We’re on for Wednesday August 16th at Cloonacauneen Castle. It was easy to get mid-week at short notice, and most of our people can get the day off, so we figured why hold out for a Saturday when we want to get the thing done!
You can certainly bring a fella. Is it the ‘nothing serious’ from Christmas?
Delighted about Pissy Ziggy.
Thanks for the plus one. Yes, it’s the ‘nothing serious’, well remembered! His name’s Victor (full name Victor Durand, in case you need it for writing in squiggly gold font). We’ve been seeing each other since last summer. We’ll book our flights so,
His name is Victor Durand and you’ve been seeing each other since last summer. Is that all I get? How did ye meet? What does he do? Is it going well?
We met in a club. He’s a carpenter. It is going well in spite of a 13-year age gap (not my first big age gap, as you know, but it feels weirder in this direction) and the fact that my French is shite and his English is also shite.
Speaking of which, do you want to seat us with terrible conversationalists so that Victor’s broken English seems comparatively sparkling? Thanks, like.
Age is just a number yadda yadda. We’re looking forward to meeting him. (Anna has nice French, actually.)
I will sit you next to Gráinne and Scintillating Pete.
Who’d be there, who’d even be talking to her, would she be able to hold it together when Bren promised himself to someone else forever? Well, at least people were supposed to cry at weddings.
She was reading Armistead Maupin, when she came across Mona’s law: ‘You can have a hot job, a hot lover and a hot apartment, but you can’t have all three at the same time.’ It doesn’t have to be jobs, lovers or apartments, she thought. It can be anything that’s a pillar for you. She wrote it out and stuck it to the fridge.
She made three triangular prisms from wire. Then she painted different Síle na Gigs for each side – the Ballinderry Síle (with liquid gushing out from between her little legs); the Ballylarkin Síle (who was clearly having a wank); and the Seir Keiren. She made them bright; some say the stone Síles used to be painted that way.
Victor helped her design a mechanism to make the prisms spin, like a fruit machine, except that you could never have three matching Síles at once. Then she fit them into a box-like canvas, which she painted to look like a department store window. The metaphor was too obvious, she could hear Bren advise. But it was a prototype. Give it time and space and it would find its depth.
Soon, there were lots of impossible desires spinning around her studio. As an unfortunate side effect of the process, she was the whole time singing and all I can do is keep on telling you I want you, I need you, But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you, Now don’t be sad, ‘Cause two out of three ain’t bad.
She wrote to Bren about it. He congratulated her on her work ethic. She knew what that meant. In return, he sent photos of his current pieces. They were excellent. Young women in all sizes and shapes nestled nude in various nooks of Connemara. There was something about the contrast between the human form and the symbolically loaded landscape that jarred, made her return to what the West represented for her. She thought she recognized some of the models. Former students, maybe.
The Síle na Gig road trip was Victor’s idea. He was mad excited for his first visit to Ireland. He found a map of extant carvings on old castles and churches and planned an intensive three-day itinerary. They scaled walls and broke into fenced-off woodlands. Their jeans were streaked green with moss and their arms twig-scratched red, and it was glorious. Every time she came face to gowl with a Síle, she lost herself and found herself. Pure atavism. Her ancestors knew something she could feel.
Her parents declared Victor a lovely young man, and Mam waited until the lads went to the garage – to see if Victor would know what was wrong with the antique rocking chair at all – before remarking that he was very handsome, and very taken with you now, Caoilfhionn.
He certainly scrubbed up alright for the wedding. She could see the young ones eyeing him up as they walked into the little country church; she imagined, embarrassed, the raised eyebrows as he took her hand in the pew.
It was nerve-wracking seeing Bren’s parents and siblings again. They knew what had happened. And they’d never liked her in the first place. But everyone was warm and welcoming. Sure, they were probably only delighted that he was marrying someone else.
She cried as the couple smiled their I dos, but that was weddings, wasn’t it?
Between the church and the castle, they found a secluded spot so she could smoke something strong, and, when they got to Cloonacauneen, Victor ordered them both a double Jamey and ginger. So she was the right amount of buzzed when she checked the seating plan and saw that Bren had made good on his promise to sit them with Gráinne née Heaney and Scintillating Pete, her dry shite of a husband.
Gráinne had been Bren’s teenage girlfriend. She was a barrister, a wit, and a bitch of cosmic proportions. She adored Brendan and was making no bones about the fact that she was positively insulted to be seated next to public enemy number one.
Gráinne spoke in rapid-fire staccato sentences, and even her most banal questions felt like accusations. Victor, yes, nice to meet you, yes, a Frenchman is it? A Quebecer, he explained. Oh a French Canadian, is it? Some say that, some say Quebecer, he replied lightly. Oh excuse me, I didn’t know French Canadians were so touchy. Victor looked confused, so Caoilfhionn translated. J’avais compris, he said, mais elle ne t’aime pas du tout? No. I’ll explain later. Why would Bren sit us with a woman who doesn’t like you? I’ll explain later, she said, adding, it’s a kind of a joke.
Now, now, no speaking Quebecer at the table, Gráinne continued, and the other guests chuckled. Introductions went round, the meal began, and a new colleague of Bren’s asked Caoilfhionn about her work. What do you think it is about your art that speaks to North American audiences? She knew that she was supposed to defend herself, her right to butcher Ireland and sell it as exotic meat to hoteliers and bankers.
I’m not sure really, she said.
Victor stepped in. People here too like her art, in fact. Anna says me she like it. Okay some Irish might not like it, but if everyone like you maybe you are boring. Gráinne remarked that universal admiration had certainly never been Caoilfhionn’s problem, and the table laughed knowingly (Caoilfhionn included). Victor continued, clearly confused. I think why it speak to people is it is strong love and strong fear together.
Are you an art critic, Victor? asked Gráinne. I am a carpenter. Giggles. But the partner of Bren’s new colleague backed him up: I’m not a critic either, but know what you mean about the love and the fear. I was actually dead excited to meet you, Caoilfhionn. Well, what is it the man said, Gráinne mused, if you expect a kick in the balls and you get a slap in the face, it’s a grand day.
Lads, said Caoilfhionn, can we please talk about anything else? I’m sure Gráinne will agree there’s a wide array of more interesting topics. I’ll cheers to that, said Gráinne, and the table clinked good-humouredly.
She got through the three courses. She smiled through the speeches, somehow. When the bride and groom came around to say their his and howeryas, Victor was frosty as fuck with Bren, acting as though he had almost no English, speaking in French to Anna instead. She pretended she didn’t notice.
And Jesus it was hard to see Bren, her Bren, facing out into the future with his new love. The fact she wished them well didn’t make it any better.
By the time the tables were being pushed back for dancing, she would’ve sold her Mam for a spliff – Post It time.
Sure maybe I’ll go out foreign, start scribbling massive fannies on everything, and get myself a toyboy? What do ya think?
She could’ve done without overhearing Gráinne’s free range vitriol. The woman’s learned opinions on her relationship with Bren and her artistic talents were hardly a surprise. And she used to be able to take a slagging. Sure, before she left Ireland, she’d had a decade of jokes about grades for blowjob artistry. Would you look at her now, in bits in the jacks at Bren’s wedding.
Two more guests came in. She recognised a voice. Bren’s sister. Deadly. What was she going to do? She couldn’t go out there, crying like this. People would get the wrong impression. Well, the right impression. And Victor was on his own.
Excuse me, ladies.
It was Victor’s voice.
Is Caoilfhionn in there?
Is there a paper says Out of Order on one toilet door?
He walked in past the women, and stood outside her cubicle.
She opened the door and let him in, then locked them both inside. Bren’s sister and her companion whispered their way back to the party.
Victor wiped the tears from her cheeks and kissed her, gently at first, then less gently. He pressed against her, hard from her blushes. Not now, babe, she said, as he unbuckled himself, no, not now, as he hiked up her dress, not here, please.
But don’t be ashamed, he said, pushing himself inside her. Baby, don’t be ashamed.
Anosognosia is excerpted from our forthcoming print issue – Somesuch Stories #4: Redemption, which is now available for UK/EU pre-order.
Emer O'Toole is a columnist for The Guardian and The Irish Times, and the author of Girls Will Be Girls.