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Text by Leona Lee Cully
Image by Bernadette Beecher
Every morning I walk to work to save bus fare. On my way into the city centre, I habitually count the sleeping bags in the shop doorways that cocoon men, women, or couples. In the last few months I see something new and terrifying—a couple with children. Two buggies wedged into the shop doorway beside their sleeping bags. A baby bottle rolling on the ground.
Yesterday morning, I passed a drunk man in a suit and tie, swaying outside the Hugh Lane Gallery on Parnell Square. Celebrating his own kind of liberation across from the Garden of Remembrance. Our little garden, almost shamefaced, that marks our nation’s battle for independence from its occupiers. The man clutched a bottle of vodka in one hand, a plastic bag of groceries in the other. I imagined that he’d gone on a bender after a bad job interview the previous day. Decided to throw off the shackles, all attempts at pretending the world is a fair and decent place. For a moment, I envied him his oblivion.
Further on I noticed a girl with bright red dreadlocks leaning over to throw up in what used to be Wolfe Tone Park. A park that had real grass and trees but was razed and is now a desolate concrete slice of emptiness. Another of our public spaces wiped clean of history and nature and seating. A space that discourages lingering, sitting, thinking, sleeping, kissing, eating, reading, gatherings of people…
Today, I didn’t walk to work.
Today, I kept my son home from school because this morning the landlord called me.
Landlord. A word that seems strange when you look at it and repeat it over and over. Like poor. Why do we call them landlords? After all these years? As if we never actually won the War of Independence at all.
My landlord called me at 8 a.m., on May Day, to catch me before work, he said. My stomach lurched. I didn’t want to answer, but I pressed the button and waited for the news I had been dreading for months.
‘You’re a good tenant, Sarah, but looking at rents in the area, we have to put it up,’ my landlord said with a sigh.
Oh God, by how much, I thought. Where can I go if I can’t afford it?
‘But didn’t they just pass a law fixing rents for two years?’ I said, trying to keep my voice calm and pleasant. You must always keep calm and pleasant.
The landlord paused and took a dramatic breath.
‘Well, yes, but we’re just giving you a choice before we make a decision.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘We were thinking of putting the house up for sale so we’d have to give you notice to leave. Or we can put the rent up to market levels and you can stay. It’s up to you. We want to keep you. You’re a good tenant.’
Pure fear coursed through me. I saw myself sleeping in a doorway with my son. My son taken from me and put into foster care.
‘Okay, I see. What kind of rent is market level?’
He named a sum that made the room darken. Recent headlines flashed before my eyes. Families advised to sleep in the airport. Women and children evicted from their homes, sleeping in their cars.
‘But it’s just a small two-bed house! How can you charge that much?’
‘We see it as a three-bed if you use the downstairs sitting-room as a bedroom. And in terms of selling the house, young couples are mad for red-bricks in that area.’
‘Please,’ I begged. ‘I’ve paid out of my own pocket for things that have broken in the house for the last two years. Kettle, a new toaster. I paid for the heating to be fixed. I have the receipts but I didn’t want to bother you.’
‘Sarah, why should we lose out? You’ve enjoyed a cheaper rent than normal for the area you live in. You can give us the receipts, but to be honest it might be best to get new tenants in at this point. A fresh start for all of us.’
That moment when you reach the end of rage and it turns inside out and makes you feel numb.
‘Alright. I’ll change the direct debit before the end of the month.
‘That’s great, Sarah. We’re happy to keep you on. You’re a good tenant.’
* * * *
So I sit here, on a park bench, on the first day of May, panic rising like sap inside me.
A bumble bee, dazed by unexpected sunshine, flies low over the grass. Its flight so heavy and clumsy, it seems made for a lighter world where gravity is kinder.
I feel disassociated and hyperaware at the same time.
When the clouds break the light is dazzling. When they close in again, the nimbus clouds roil overhead, suggestive of angry gods.
I close my eyes and imagine that if I sit here for long enough, under this plane tree, a skin of bark might grow over me, transform me into a wood nymph. I could live in this city park, aching forever towards the Tolka River. My only task would be to observe the beer cans, condoms, polystyrene coffee cups, footballs, and broken umbrellas that tumble down river and drift out to sea.
The poetry, all the books I have read, all the arts degrees I have taken fall away, useless as flakes of skin. All that is solid melts into air.
I am now officially poor. One of the working poor, one pay cheque away from disaster. But disaster has finally arrived.
A woman in shiny patent loafers with a glittering plastic lanyard around her neck walks past with four children. Her youngest child veers close to the riverbank, tempted by the shallow water. Then I see that there are just three children because the fourth child is actually an au pair. She shoulders three schoolbags and clutches a dog-lead attached to a lolloping Labrador. The mother kisses her children goodbye and leaves the park. The au pair hurries the children towards another gate, telling them they will be late for school.
I imagine that my landlord is married to a woman like that, the kind of woman I should have been. A woman who has shrewdly amassed all the right belongings—patent loafers, a husband, 2.5 children, a dog, and a succession of live-in slaves. A journalist writes in a national newspaper that au pairs should not be considered to be real employees.
In the distance I hear the school bell announce the start of lessons. My son is officially late for school. He’s in the playground up on the hill. I can see his dark head as he clambers onto the climbing frame.
It’s a relief to miss the daily ritual of the school gate. I don’t mix well with the mothers. I forget not to swear. My small talk is atrocious. The women look at me in boredom if I mention anything political, and in horror when I smoke outside the school gates. Once, a mother went out of her way to inform me that it was very strange to read a book while waiting for my son after school. I laughed because I thought she was joking but then I realised that she was serious. All I could do was look at her in astonishment and wonder how so many women have been taken hostage by an economic creed that doesn’t even consider motherhood to be work.
And this is what my son learns in school: smoking is a sign that you want to die but recycling is the path to salvation. The school has reward charts for walking or cycling to school, turning off taps and lights, and bringing in old batteries. No mention of corporate pollution and waste.
They learn about entrepreneurship, the new world religion that creates the ideal citizen who requires nothing from the state. Entrepreneurs have no need of unions, or rights, or sick leave. My son doesn’t receive any school rewards for the protest marches I bring him on. For carrying a placard, for shouting on the streets about austerity, water charges, healthcare, abortion rights. For all the good it does. I’ve been protesting for over twenty years for abortion rights and basic human rights and I’m tired. I’m giving up.
I’ll miss the protests though because it was there I finally found my people. Kind and good-humoured and compassionate and funny. The elderly father with his middle-aged Down syndrome son, standing arm in arm as we blocked O’Connell Street. The woman with a palsy that made her head shake ceaselessly but her right hand was firm as iron as she held aloft her banner. The people in wheelchairs with their carers. Generations of working-class people marching and standing together.
And those I won’t miss. The elderly man on O’Connell Bridge in a three-piece suit, the Irish Times tucked under his arm, who told me I was a disgrace for bringing a child to a march with all the gurriers and lazy freeloaders. Was he one of the pro-life men who called me a whore when I protested about abortion rights in the nineties? Well, Mister, I had the baby but look at me now.
I told my boy that today was a special day, a day off school to celebrate May Day. The first of May used to be about love and making babies, then later it became Labour Day, Workers’ Day, Anarchists’ Day. Soon it will be re-branded as Interns’ Day. My son just rolled his eyes at me and asked could we go to the playground first.
* * * *
I sit on the bench and work out sums in my head. No matter how much I scrimp I can’t afford the new rent. Not unless we stop eating and my son stops growing out of his clothes.
A hooded crow heckles me from the canopy of the plane tree. I stare at the peeling layered bark which is mottled olive, brown, and pewter, as if the tree has a skin disease, a beautiful deformity.
Clouds race away in a hurry and suddenly the sky is a cobalt wash. The light falls clear and hard. Colours shine with an intensity that startles me.
As if for the first time, I see, really see, the purple sheen on a pigeon’s neck.
A leaf, lipstick red, is pinioned against the sloped shelf of a shallow waterfall in the river. The glossy black tails of the mallards, their silky green headscarves.
The river is swollen after a week of rain. The water rushes forward in a frenzy, then slows to form hypnotic patterns—chevrons, ripples, curlicues, ever changing.
My boy swings upside down from the ropes of the climbing frame, and I have to look away. He never falls but I feel a sickening lurch whenever I see him do that. Agile as a monkey, he is physically fearless. I wish I had his courage. He is a latch-key kid, letting himself in from school when I can’t collect him. Really he’s too young to be alone, but I have no choice.
I work longer and longer hours for less pay in a not-for-profit that I suspect does more harm than good for the cause it claims to support. The CEO earns more than three times my wages but she works less than half the time I do. Like most managers I’ve worked for, she is a sociopath. That look they all share, eyes sharp as broken glass. Their words weapons crafted from the shards of their broken minds. They know how to cut deep, apply just enough pressure to keep a person on the edge of despair, obedient and worn down. In a previous job I saw a man openly weep in frustration at his desk. All of his complaints about the man who managed us went unheeded because profits weren’t affected.
In my current job we tiptoe around my boss, bitch about her bullying, and rewrite her reports and funding applications so we can keep our jobs, and she can keep hers. Most people I know work for similar bosses in the arts, in private business, in the civil service. The broken ones are the people who succeed, who set the tone for the world in which we live. We’re sheep, we say, but keep our heads down. We have kids, rents, mortgages, bills, cars, loans, groceries to buy. We know all too well that interns and government job schemes lurk, waiting to fill our seats with free labour. Unions have been reduced to a PR joke, civil rights to a worthless piece of paper. We are worth less and less, powerless. Too mired in debt and fear to stand up, rise up.
A grey heron glides over the water and lands in a shallow stretch of the river, so shallow that the hooded crow alights nearby to strut on the pebbly sand bars.
The clean lines of the heron like a Japanese painting inked with strokes of grey, black, and dull orange. The heron moves slowly, eyes trained on the water. A trio of seagulls swoops down to feint at the heron, protecting their patch.
I’m surprised when the hooded crow flies up from the sand bar and fights off the gulls, swooping and diving and croaking in its terrible cracked voice at them. The crow is fearless, adept at fending off a crowd. The gulls sally back but lose interest and fly down river.
The crow circles back to the sand bar and forages once again in the rubbish snagged on the stones and pebbles. Nonchalant in its grey waistcoat, black wings a little frayed, I sense that the crow is male and old. He keeps a watchful eye on the frail heron, who is young and not thriving. A fish kill last month in the river, yellow foam, stench of fish rotting on the sand bars. The heron steps slowly, jerks its head upright, then stoops low and cocks its head as if listening for the glide of fish scales through water. A quick dip of its head and it captures a tiny fry in its mouth, pauses, swallows.
A movement in the undergrowth at the opposite bank of the river catches my eye. A blur of red and black. It’s the dreadlocked, red-haired woman I saw in town yesterday. She rolls up a sleeping bag and pushes it into a small pop-up tent obscured by a copse of willow and briars. She walks away from her home, legs stiff, shakes out her hair. Green parka, red tartan trousers, and black Doc Martens. A uniform I wore in college in the nineties.
I have an urge to call out to her, to ask her if she needs somewhere to shower, some breakfast. My stomach knots. No words form in my throat. She walks out of the park patting her pockets, looking for a light for her roach.
My life now will be a constant search for solidness even as the edges of everything blur and dissolve. Possibilities spiral out into an endless list of questions. Who can I borrow money from who will take us in while I look for cheaper housing will I have to move my son out of his school can I ask his estranged father for help after all these years will my mother say I deserve all this my siblings the same and what if I lose my job…
‘Mam? Mam, I’m hungry!’
My son startles me. He is naturally thin, almost frail, but eats constantly. Hungry first thing in the morning, and last thing at night. I fish in my handbag for something and find some crackers in cling film. He takes them with a sigh.
‘Are we going soon? I’m bored.’
‘Yes. Just give me a minute to think.’
He examines me gravely.
‘Are you thinking about where we’re going next?’
‘Where are we going?’
‘I don’t know.’
He sits beside me and I feel his mood change. I have to be careful with him. The emotions of others seep into his pores unwittingly—the moods of his teacher, my unspoken fears. Over the years he has startled me with his strange gift. Now I see it as a curse he has to bear. Can you teach a child to be less empathetic? Can you teach a boss, a nation, a world to have more compassion?
Your breath smells like sick, he said only a few hours before I threw up. He cried one night as I hold his hand watching a film. Horrified, I realise that he has absorbed my sadness as I brooded on my money worries, my singledom.
‘I feel like something in me has changed but I don’t know if I like it,’ he says. ‘I don’t know if I’m ready to change.’
His gaze follows mine to the crow who flies away from the river and settles on the grassy bank. The crow plucks at the grass, rooting for worms.
All my strength goes into not crying. He is only nine years old. He is too young for everything.
There is only this.
We will take step after step and I will do anything and everything I can to keep us safe. And I will ask for help, beg for help, scream for help, demand help until I get what I need for us. Or die of tiredness trying.
‘I know,’ I say eventually. ‘Change is hard. No one likes it.’
And I tell him a story about all the tiny changes that spark every moment in our cells, in the water molecules, in the feathers that fall from the birds, in the dust we shed, the light we inhale.
Image by Domna Vratsista
Leona Lee Cully was born in the Canadian mining town of Uranium City, Saskatchewan, Canada. She grew up on a farm in Westmeath, Ireland, and now lives in Dublin. She has had stories published in The Stinging Fly magazine, New Planet Cabaret Anthology, Penduline Press (U.S), and Carve Magazine Anthology (U.S). Her flash fiction has been broadcast on RTE Radio One.
As a writer, Leona has collaborated with artists on a series of exhibitions – Edges & Margins I and II – which combined the written word, a spoken narrative film, visual art, and music to explore issues around urban space, identity, and expression. Recently she was invited by in:Action Live Art Review to respond to a live art performance in Dublin hosted by Influence @ Livestock.
Bernadette Beecher is a visual artist who has exhibited in Temple Bar Gallery & Studios (film); The Claremorris Open with video piece Being; the Office of Public Works Open Exhibition (works on paper); and Chocolate Box (works on paper) in La Cathedral Studios; and at The Model in Sligo.
Her artistic practice deals with the perception of how public space is used and how cultural frameworks have a profound influence on the development of the public / private sphere. She has also exhibited photography and film works as part of Edges & Margins I & II with Market Studios.
Bernadette works at Visual Artists Ireland. She holds an MA in Public Culture Studies, a BA in Fine Art, and an Advanced Diploma in Psychology.
Bernadette Beecher, Self Portrait, 2016.