“Invisible Bird”, by Claire-Louise Bennett
After graduating, I would have liked to stay in London. Despite considerable arrears on my rent, I somehow assumed that I could continue to live in my high-ceilinged studio apartment near the common for as long as I wanted. I had done a lot of work in the garden, two gardens really – the owners had two tractor-trailers at the top of an elegant tree-lined avenue. The seedlings were side by side, but separate, connected to other houses, even though the back gardens were side by side with no boundary between them, so it was entirely permissible to consider them as one sprawling entity. Especially when you were out there pulling bindweed cables that started in one corner and narrowed many solid yards later into the shaded depths of another.
Occasionally a man from the next house would come downstairs to marvel at my thriving biceps without even lifting a finger himself to help me. I was relieved that he refrained from trying to get involved in my sudden enterprise. Although I enjoyed his occasional visits, I would not have liked him or anyone else to be with me all day, joining me. On the one hand, it would have made the whole enterprise awkward and serious, because of that terrible inspiring pressure of another person’s presence. can often put you under, I suppose. I did a good job clearing the garden on my own, and it was no small feat – I don’t think anyone has been near it for long. I can’t imagine where I got the tools from. My owners have been quite surprised by the impressive results of my hard work and have expressed their admiration on more than one occasion. However, the constant fact was that I owed them an awful lot of money, and it was clear that nothing had developed which would allow me to meet this deficiency satisfactorily, or even gradually, and so, handing me a great whiskey in their radiant arch-living room glazed and filled with artwork on a glorious summer evening, they kindly announced the end of my tenancy.
It is possible that at that time London was not the best place for me. In the three years that I have lived in the city, there have been frequent times when the very thought of going beyond the top of the street has caused me great anxiety. At the bottom of the street was the commune and it was one of the few places where I could occupy myself at certain times of the day. Dressed in a long green velvet skirt that mingled with the gently growing grass, I walked slowly, evenly, around the ponds, handing out bread along the way so the ducks would stay with me. I would have been uncomfortable anywhere, I guess, but London has a knack for embellishing a minor terror into pathological and seductive proportions. All these people, I thought, never paying blind attention to myself and yet somehow cursing my soul choked in Hell. I felt this quite intensely, especially on the buses in the morning, and for a while I saw bugs and sores hatching in the corners of other people’s mouths. Somehow, I thrived on the bizarre tricks my senses frequently played on me. The mottled backdrop of London conspired with my nervous restlessness so that, rather than a dark affliction that needed to be healed, it sometimes felt like a curious power that might one day turn into something shimmering and expansive.
My hometown, on the other hand, had no capacity to exalt my neurosis into something exciting, and I was extremely unhappy to find myself there – and back in my old room in my parents’ house. After a short time, I moved in with a recalcitrant man with fine hair who lived in an apartment downtown, not far from the train station. For several months, on weekday mornings, I crossed the railway bridge, holding a cigarette in one hand and a toolbox that had belonged to my father in the other. These mornings tended to be cold and bright. Frost, beautiful immaculate frost. Like the mornings of childhood. I had signed up for a blacksmithing course for women which consisted of learning three types of welding: MIG welding, oxyacetylene welding and a third method that I don’t remember. After being tasked with deciphering literature for three years, I wanted to practice something based on palpable laws and immutable principles. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I liked welding and forging, and combining the two techniques produced a surprisingly acceptable mirror frame. However, overall my boyfriend and I weren’t very happy living where we were. Unless you were prepared to do things the normal way, people would often assume you were up to something fishy, and life in a mundane English town could be downright dark and demoralizing – that’s not to say. nice to feel constantly judged and mistrusted. We both worked night shifts in a paint warehouse on the outskirts of town over Christmas time, then on the last day of January we left for Ireland. My boyfriend sold his car before we left and it took several months before I realized that the mirror frame I had spent weeks making was left in the trunk.
The Dublin airport bus dropped us halfway down O’Connell Street. I don’t know the time of day, early afternoon maybe. There was a very lively man with a brush-like mustache and dressed in a pleated brown suit waving to people as they got out of the car. It was a dismal day, gray as a bucket. We had a big black backpack, which my boyfriend was carrying. I don’t remember what kind of bag I had, something impractical I think – a toilet bag maybe. I don’t know what our plan was. I guess we had one because it wasn’t like we decided to raise the sticks on the spur of the moment. We had some money, but it didn’t last very long – things were much more expensive than we had anticipated. Also, we went to the wrong places and ended up paying way beyond the odds for everything, so pretty soon we had almost nothing left. In fact, I think we blew the last of it over a bewildering two-course meal at a nice restaurant called the Mermaid, and frankly it was a relief to get rid of it because when we had it, we couldn’t keep dealing with it and I wondered how long it would last. Well, now it was gone, and the futile calculations that were like so many staples in my head fell off.
Memories of my first months in Ireland come to me without too much concern for chronology, and naturally there are many gaps, days and days that remain quite blank. It makes no difference anyway. It’s not like things develop in a linear fashion, one occurrence leading to the next in a gradually progressive fashion. Sometimes you got a little lucky and then it was over, or there were complications with it, so it didn’t feel so lucky anymore. That’s how I felt about Kenny, whom we met at the Sackville Lounge one weekday afternoon. He had tall wolf hair and small eyes that seemed to boil inside his face. I immediately became suspicious of him. Within moments, however, he and my boyfriend were as thick as thieves. That evening he took us back to his flat near Mountjoy Square and told his girlfriend, Anna, to cook us something. She went out to get beans and slices of cheese. I felt very uncomfortable and stood behind the sofa until she came back.
Kenny and Anna’s apartment had not a single window, not a single one, and instead of walls there were thin partitions, it was like a stage set for a drama simmering over a kitchen sink. It wasn’t very restful – all you could do was stare at yourself or the marked ground. Nothing felt natural. The ceiling was very high and there was a skylight somewhere so that sometimes a distinct ray of light came down fleetingly – I don’t remember what effect it had but I suspect it did something. We were sensitive to the slightest fluctuations because we were all on edge. On edge because we were all expecting unrelated things, things we refrained from hinting at in case it triggered someone. There was an illusion of solidarity – in reality the undercurrent was entirely factional. The atmosphere was inflexible but unbearably flammable. It was only a matter of time before one of us exploded. Downstairs there was a church, and a lot of Africans would meet and sing there on the weekends, and there was a laundromat next door that I was always happy to visit. Whenever we had money, the first thing I did was to have our clothes cleaned. Fresh clothes become very important to me when I’m going through a tough time. The better things go, the more willingly I receive.
I can’t remember what we slept on when we stayed with Kenny and Anna, but I think it was something decent – I mean we weren’t on the floor or on the couch. The bathroom was very small but I liked it because you got down there and the door latch was tiny, silver and firm. When I strapped it behind me, I immediately felt like I was someone else, somewhere else, like on a beautiful ocean liner heading for San Francisco. It was fully tiled, mostly white with racing green trim, and it was always immaculate, as were the towels. I then used a vanilla scented body lotion, Swiss Formula. It reminded me of something I couldn’t quite place, an oil I had used in the summer a few years before maybe, or maybe something my mom had used, even further back. I got on well with Anna. She was very reserved and that suited me because I didn’t like to talk much either, I didn’t have much to say. She had large, bulging eyes – sometimes they looked horribly indulgent and other times impressively contemptuous. I never saw her get angry or even irritated, but I felt, or maybe just hoped, that she had her own isolated way of turning things around with Kenny. He worked for a man, it soon turned out, who had a furniture store in Portobello, selling flashy pieces he imported from Bali. This guy was from the Liberties, Kenny says, and his dad was a mobster – Kenny disclosed this in a way that was clearly meant to shock and intimidate us, which I found very childish. This association offered my boyfriend a regular job, often of an unsavory nature. Either way, we started to feel like we had taken the first step towards our settlement.