Written by Marcus Bateson
PHILIP. Boxes lie unopened. They contain books. Books I bought in college. When I was big into reading. Well. When I was meant to be. A lot of them I never actually opened. They kinda just sat on a shelf in Dublin. So, friends for dinner or guys for sex, would think, ‘He reads Joyce. He must be intelligent.’ Once, in second year of Trinity I messaged the man from the flats across the road to come over. He was always online. Always liking my Grindr profile. I had met him off once before. He told me he taught in UCD. Environmental Science. He was particularly interested in the conservation of the Irish Corncrake. So, before he arrived, I laid out books by Greta Thunberg and Mary Robinson. So, he would know I gave a shit. I think that’s important. If someone is going to be inside me, I want to be sure that our politics at least broadly align.
I wake up early to the Sunday morning murmur of village shopkeepers and mass goers exchanging local gossip and the results from yesterday’s match. The Catholic bells ring across the coast. Morning sunlight greets the early riser like a gift. I hug my jumper into my fist as I leave my door and amble up to the newsagents. I can smell coffee being grinded from the teashop draped with late petunias. I wish I had lived here all my life, to understand how this all works. The stand outside McCarthy’s strangely boasts The New York Times alongside The Mayo News and The Farmers Journal. This is an odd comfort. I could be in Manhattan.
I buy the Irish Times. The article on Sustainable Urban Regeneration in Dublin Suburbia pulls my eye, but I know I will only lose myself in its self-importance. I worry if I read too much about Dublin, I’ll want to go back. I see a picture of swimmers at the Forty Foot and am goaded by a memory. I remember watching the sunrise on a park bench in Sandycove, after sleeping with a friend and wishing I hadn’t. He had a Labrador. I miss the dog. I do not miss Dublin.
The sun has remnants of summer in it. The tourists have all returned to the motorway, and so here we are. Those that stayed. Those who remain, to enjoy the final warmth of it.
I call into the village café as I wander home. An elderly woman greets me As Gaeilge and I ignore the faded rose wallpaper and pictures of cats on all the tables and dubiously order myself a Flat White le do thoil. A small ritual borrowed from the city
I live above a bookshop. At home, there is a SuperValu Pain au Chocolat waiting for me. I play Sorcha Richardson on Spotify and fill out the crossword with nobody to help me with the clues. I finish it in 45 minutes. I have to Google the daughter of Uranus. Six down. It is still morning. I wish it always was. The place is small and modern, and my Dad gave me lots of house plants as a present.
The woman who owns it is called Phoebe. She once lived in Bordeaux but grew up in Ballina. Her hair is brown, and her smile is crooked. She told me when I arrived that I had moved to somewhere beautiful. I told her I was excited. I told her I was nervous. She told me not to be. She asked me what I did. I told her I was a writer. She told me not to be.
The village makes movements to be louder. I can hear the cars pass outside. Their disruption both a curse and comfort. I make myself another coffee. My friend Siobhan from Trinity texts me. She asks me how I’m settling in and if I’m free for a call. I don’t open it. I don’t reply straight away. I wouldn’t know what to say. Siobhan is working for a literary magazine off Dame Street and lives in a house with a garden in Stoneybatter. She has a fixie and writes eco-poetry. I don’t know what to say to her. I scroll onto Instagram. My ex-boyfriend has uploaded a story. He is having brunch with our friend Sarah. By the looks of it, the weather is nicer there. I verify this on my weather app. Sun. 17 degrees. I miss the warmth. I don’t miss Dublin.
His haircut makes him look more attractive than he used to. I wonder if he knew I’d notice this. I also know that that shirt he’s wearing is new and I really wish I didn’t. I wish I knew nothing about him. We hardly ever talk now. He hasn’t asked me about where I’m living. He doesn’t know that after we broke up, I fled West. He doesn’t know that I live above a coastal Mayo village. He doesn’t know that my Dad phoned me yesterday to tell me about the new patio. He doesn’t know if I’m alone. He doesn’t know who the daughter of Uranus is. But still, I know everything about him. I wish I didn’t, but I probably always will.
I try not to post on social media. I used to sometimes take photos of my boyfriend. That and sunsets. But mostly now, I just watch as other people tell me everything about nothing and nothing about everything. I put my phone down and feel a bit nauseous. I feel sad. Even though, when I think about it, I have no idea where else I would rather be.
Sometimes I worry that I can only exist in the city. Where there are trams and pride parades. Where there are billion-dollar tech companies waving empty rainbow flags. Where there are clubs, drag and Grindr. Where there is unity. Where there is support. I can exist. But amongst the small history of rural streets, the old ladies talking with frames and cigarettes, the seagulls singing a warning of an Atlantic storm, and the families with farms and children, I’m not so sure. The story fragments at my arrival. I peer my head out of the Velux window. Up above the colourful street. Above bikes and plant pots, tractors and pensioners. Between Sky and Earth, I watch the world go by.
I ask Phoebe for a job in the bookshop. She asks for my CV and I show her my cracked iPad with the PDF open. I don’t own a printer and I wonder briefly if that is what distinguishes young people from adults. Ink. She smiles. Trinity. English Literature. She doesn’t read on. She asks me who my favourite author is. I have prepared this. Someone Irish. Someone new. Someone fresh. I start to list names of writers I know. Nicole Flattery. Emilie Pine. Sally Rooney. Sinead Gleeson. Naoise Dolan. She shakes her head. She asks me for the truth. I tell her David Sedaris. She asks me why. I tell her because he makes stories about Cancer funny. She smiles and tells me I start Monday. I blurt out that I really love the queer bookshelf too. I tell her it’s progressive. I hear myself in a South Dublin accent, and hate how patronising that sounds. I say sorry. She laughs and says thank you. She has a hold of me now.
I arrive Monday morning hungover on Italian wine. Phoebe is setting up the counter display, humming Hozier and I am wretched. I ask if there is anything I should focus on today? She doesn’t even look up when she asks.
Tired this morning?
I wonder what it was about my voice. I shake my head and lie. No, I’m feeling great. Just in need of a coffee.
She makes a sound I cannot hear before turning to me. She says I can sort the new arrivals of Travel books. She points to a box behind her and returns to the pink bookmarks she is arranging.
The sunlight is beaming across the shop floor. It lands on autobiographies of dead sportsmen and canonical Irish novels. It flitters on further, to shine on voices overlooked. Writings on race, feminism, and sexuality glow too, in the morning sunlight of the West. I would if I was allowed, spend a lifetime in a bookshop like this. I would sit in the armchair adorned with pinstripes and drink mugs of coffee while riding out my twenties amongst the words of Margaret Atwood and Colson Whitehead. Perhaps then, I would grow middle aged on the thoughts of Mary Shelley and Leo Tolstoy before retiring grey with the pages of Shakespeare to sing me to sleep. And I know, even then, I would have left the world out, ignorant of all the important books that never make the shelves in a village like this. The walls have been painted a modern white and each section is highlighted with a neon front. Fiction glows green, travel blue. The LGBT section is small and obscured, but I am so impressed by its mere existence, I regularly steal a glance at the pink neon letters, to remind me that change is possible anywhere. I see a copy of Angels in America, and in the context of the salted Mayo farmland, it feels almost dangerous to consider that history. Yet, I am reassured, because even if it is only two hidden shelves, in a small shop, in a remote painted village overlooking the desolate route of pirate Queen Grace O’Malley, it is here, and it remains and that’s enough.
I unload the city guides to Barcelona and London under the watchful eye of Phoebe and I wonder if she knows. I wear simple clothes and a neutral face, yet I get the feeling she can read my mind. Or else it is obvious. Unless something uncontrollable gives me away, a thought which used to torment me, but now makes me proud.
‘What brought you to the West?’
She is arranging Michelle Obama’s autobiography, and the words Becoming seem to take on sudden significance. I smile and say
‘Dublin rent y’know’
As if this is everything that anybody could say. As if it goes without saying that housing in Dublin is hell and this is Connaught.
Phoebe checks her watch and goes to open the door.
‘You must find it very quiet’
I’m not sure how to respond. I say that I like the peace. I say that I did everything Dublin had to offer. I say I found Dublin lonely by the end. She nods but sketches a frown on her brow.
‘And you won’t be lonely here?’
I swallow any answer I may have held, and she offers me a coffee instead. The shop is empty for half an hour and we have the books to ourselves. She tells me that she never married and that her Mam told her one Christmas that single women upset the baby Jesus. I laugh at this and ask if she ever came close. She stares at her red shoes, a young girl once again, forced to make a choice.
‘Not really. Not the easiest thing here’
I wonder if she means love. I wonder does she mean the people. Or is it simply the wind, does it blow too frequent and strong for things to last at all.
Our first customer is an old man called Gerry. Apparently, he is always the first customer, full of chat and questions in the morning. Though he hasn’t bought a book here since 2005, Phoebe greets him like an old friend. A widower I’m informed. He asks me my name and he says that its Huguenot. I have no idea if this is true, but I thank him as if a compliment was given. He picks up the plays of Oscar Wilde and starts to read. I’m not sure if this is for any audience, but I notice Phoebe pause and listen and I allow myself to do the same.
‘There was a girl once, she was very young, she was little over eighteen at the time. She knew nothing about life. He- knew everything. He made this girl love him. He made her love him so much that she left her father’s house with him one morning. She loved him so much, and he had promised to marry her!’
I pretend to be familiar with the classic play but am lost in the story of unrequited love and a man who will not commit. While Gerry continues to recite in his deep Mayo brogue with increased charisma, I notice Phoebe looking right at me. She smiles with understanding. Is it in the eyes I wonder? Are they what deceive me?
‘After the child was born, she left him, taking the child away, and her life was ruined’
I almost interrupt to denounce the clear sexism, but realise that is precisely the point.
‘For her there is no joy, no peace, no atonement. She is a woman who drags a chain like a guilty thing. She is a woman who wears a mask like a thing that is a leper. The fire cannot purify her.’
Gerry puts the book down as if a bedtime story and tells us he left his geansaí gorm in a pub in Leenane last night. He says he could do with it, because there’s a storm coming in. You can tell the future just by looking out to sea he declares. And off he goes, down the village street, as the sun is gloomed by cloud.
I return to my book order and allow my mind to wander as I group the cities of the world by continent, by reputation, by colour. I consider if what the old man read was true. If sorrow dons a mask and hides us from any future love. I wonder if once you have loved fully, with every inch of bone and being, does the heartbreak go on forever? Are we chained down no matter where we run?
By the time Phoebe tells me the day is over, I have forgotten what it was that made me cry.
The road to the beach is quiet and easy for cycling. I wave to Phoebe through the glass. She is turning off the antique lamps while I unlock my bike and push myself towards the sea. It has been raining for an hour, and only looks to be getting worse, but I would rather swim in wild cold water than spend a night alone. The mountains on the horizon are damp, misted and black, giants oblivious to sirens and waves. I’m almost blown off into the ditch by a westerly gust, but I track the road along the head, until I arrive at the local strand. There isn’t a sinner to brave this beach. I leave my bike by the Marram grass and stand tall to the gale. It is now that I strip, piling my clothes under the wheel for protection. My skin prickles with the exposure and cold. I am awake. The waves crash heavily onto the shore, somehow inviting in their fury. I breathe the salt air in, and hope to always feel this alive.
But for my jocks I am naked. Beyond the rocks, I can see the red lighthouse peering out to sea. My shoulders are tight and cold from the rainwater running off my hair. I begin to jog along the sand, hoping the momentum will carry me in. I hit the water and cry. It is ice on my toes. I consider the fact that this might be dangerous. This evening, the foam is rolling and pulling as hurricanes do. I glance back, as if to catch the eye of someone to stop me. A loved one concerned. The beach is empty, but for my jeans waving with gusts by the abandoned bike. There’s a blue cottage a few miles upland. It glows significantly amidst the gloaming. And I think, before I wrestle with Ireland’s tide, will they see a man of no importance? Will they wonder what he had to lose?
I wade further now, deep to my waist, hands clasped to regulate the shock. There comes a certain point with sea swimming, when it becomes more painful to stand half out and uncommitted, than to fully dive beneath the waves. It’s always a moment of faith, that the cold won’t sting forever, and the fear will turn to ease. Although it was pleasant yesterday, and so too the day before, there can be no guarantee that today will be the same. I close my eyes and fall. The water will take me now. I swallow saltwater and seaweed and exist beneath the land. And before I rise, I’m quiet. Before I float, I could have drowned.
Only now, I may not leave so easily. The romance of it has gone, and this is now a battle to survive.
The currents tug at my knees and I am forced to gasp for breath as I am forced under once again. I kick my legs with fury and swing my arms above the tide, as if there was anything to hold onto. I notice the beach is more distant now and my toes cannot reach the shore. The water looks to choke me as I splutter the Atlantic from my lungs. I remember the drowning sign from school, the fist rather than a wave. But there’s nobody here to know the difference. And for a moment I feel the warm ease of it, to slip beneath the waves. As if there’s a heroism to die before its time. But I make a choice, to fight rather than succumb. I have not lived enough days yet. Not enough to know what it is I really want. And who I am. If I am ambitious. If I am kind. If I am resilient. If I am capable of love and being loved. If I am good at all. I don’t know that yet. And I want to know. I want to know the broken bits. The fragments and the fears, held together with pritstick and stubbornness. Maybe they’re worth something. Maybe those parts of me, the worst parts, are the most important too. I don’t know. And if I drown here, I never will.
So, I push. In a direction which feels easier. I keep my eye on the cottage, like a finish line, and do not stop swimming until the tide releases its grip. I lie motionless on the wet sand, the centre of a thunderstorm, gulping air like life itself. It is still raining as I stumble up to my feet. Out there on the horizon is a thin strip of sunset, a pale orange light amidst the grey. I just stare at it, soaking and cold, but mesmerised by the distant colour.
You can tell the future by looking out to sea, the old man had said. I wonder is this what he meant.