comfort creative non-fiction

Awake

Carrie Walsh on the comfort we seek in strangers, the comfort we find in the family we choose and the occasional discomfort of intimacy.

by Carrie Walsh

Your arm heavy, fingers slightly caressing the side of my left breast, as I curl up and try to sleep in your wonky bed. Outside the trains shimmer and crackle along the hum of tracks, the flat flashes electric blue. You possessively curl your legs around mine. I am unsure how to deal with this strange intimacy, so I just lay there as a Rolling Stones song plays in my head. I feel as glamorous and desired as a girl in an expensive perfume advert – She comes in colours everywhere

I lie still, holding my body folded in two, compact and small, wearing his freshly laundered white teeshirt. The strange heaviness of his body pricks every hair on my body alert and awake, thrilled and yet petrified with the shock of physical touch. The trains shimmer and hum away into the dead of the night. 

Two weeks ago, I was in a hard, strange bed, sandwiched between bleached white cotton hotel sheets. The room was the colour of dust, with thick brown, patterned carpets, a small TV announced the arrival of a strange important Argentinian man in white robes. Which black shoes do I wear with the new black jumpsuit? My brother in the next bed, his back to me as he scrolled Instagram looking for escape in a screen. My phone flashed, a former friend got in touch, sending sad faces.

I lay there, in the wonky bed, with two too-flat pillows unsupporting my neck, aware my hair (that I like to imagine as curled flame in a Rossetti painting) was quite possibly suffocating him as he continued to press his naked body against my partially clothed one. My legs sweated against his, dampening under the sheath of his navy duvet. Maybe I shouldn’t have slept with him? I wonder as I gaze at the silhouette of a life-sized stormtrooper through the navy gauze curtain separating the boxy bedroom from the rest of the flat. The song still plays in my head – She comes in colours everywhere – my contact lenses itch like a desert in my eyes, as I was unprepared for this particular encounter. When he rang me earlier that week, he said he enjoyed the pictures of me on the mountains. 

The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary were hidden from sight. We were late due to delayed flights. We stood outside my aunt’s house in the village, shivering in the black pool of summer night, huddled by the car engine for warmth. My dad sombre, but making quips regardless. My mum wrapped her trench-coat around her arms tightly, my brother scuffed trainers on a kerb, me observing everything, feeling every angle and soft pouch of my too-tall body against my petite family. I read every detail of the outside gloom; the way the blossoming clematis crawled up the trellis in the front garden, the sound of crunching pebble under foot and how that reminded me of Nana’s old home, just streets away. We’d arrive by car, via ferry, via Dun Laoghaire, via Wales, via motorway service stations, via the M1, via Edgware Road, and the South Circular Road, and the house I live in now. The crunch under wheel meant we were home, not home in south London but home to where our souls were born, were raised warm on the flaming hearth. Home to where the air smelt like burning turf, home to tea-stained, rose-patterned, peeling wallpaper that hadn’t been touched since the 1960s. Home to where the range was always on and hell-hot. A heat-blackened kettle always on the hob, steaming ready for the ritual of tea. A round wreath of heavenly soda bread was always warm for our arrival, ready to be dripping in melted butter for our wet hungry mouths to crunch into.

The crunch under wheel meant we were home, not home in south London but home to where our souls were born”

The timing was almost impeccable, it was almost too good to be true. It had been exactly eighteen days since the funeral, exactly twenty nine days since the happy birth of my best friend’s son and it was that very day I finally cradled his warm, squirming body in my arms. It was so natural to have him gazing up at me, grabbing locks of my hair, being comfortable in my arms, squawking loudly for his wonderful mother, kicking his big feet into the air. My love for him tearing my heart wildly open, leaving me as vulnerable to the world as he is. I said silent vows and silent prayers to protect him, to love him, to be his most wonderful aunt. To bestow upon him the same unconditional love that I had bestowed upon me by loving aunts. The eternal holy flame of friendship between me and his mother, somehow stronger for his birth. I remembered the pictures of positive pregnancy tests his mother sent me the day we found out. I remember how I bawled right there on the spot while buying Christmas make up in Superdrug. Of course it was you, of course it was you. I cried with happiness the day he was born, and I didn’t stop crying – of course it was you. Then ten days later—

They carried the coffin on strong shoulders from my aunt’s house, along the gravelly road to the whitewashed church that presided over the village green. The tin bell high above mournfully singing out to us below. My dad shouldered the small weight of his mother. The crowd kept growing, people I didn’t know or recognise kept joining the throng. Maybe I was related to them? Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe they didn’t know who I was either. We shuffled our way into the church. Hundreds of people lined the gates as we went in, dressed rurally in ordinary pastoral clothes, it looked odd but colourful against our uniform of black. More were already sat in the pews furthest back from the altar and closest to the imposing wooden doors. We made our way to the front, a sea of shadows against the warm pink glow of the church. I kept my eye on the stained glass window, the unusually hot-for-Ireland August sun blessing the church with a kaleidoscope of colour. We stood, we listened, we knelt, we prayed, we took sticky communion in our dry mouths.

You said you thought you’d get along well with my dad. You said you too had a brother far away in Australia. You too spent your last New Year’s Eve in Sydney. You said your favourite tea was also Yorkshire. You said I had the darkest blue eyes. I said my sister used to frequent the pub we sat in, she said it was haunted. I imagined if she went on dates here with strange men. I imagined what she’d say now, perhaps she’s better at dating than me. You said you were the youngest of four, I said I was the oldest of four. You said you were a Viking, I said I was a Celt. Later, in the unexpected wonky bed, you asked me if I would write about you, I said it’s not about you, it’s about me.

We walked from the church to the graveyard. I guessed it was three miles. My mother and I city girls, used to gliding quickly on our feet were ahead of the entire congregation. I never looked back down the winding hilly lane, I was too scared to see what herd we were leading. We walked right behind the hearse, chrysanthemums spelt out NANA. Wasps occasionally fizzed past us, blossoms of midges in misty gangs floated next to us. Carts wheeling sheep and cattle padded down the lane. Wild rabbits poked their heads out from hedges, crows sat on rusting field gates. Everyone came to look, everyone and everything came to pay their respects. 

I was anxious. Had I forgotten how to speak the language of wet mouths? I cupped your bristly face in my pinked hands as you fed my hungry mouth kisses. Your lips were so sweet they could rot teeth. I shouldered off the burden of grief as I sunk into your arms and your slouchy settee. I was putty in your hands. 

I wondered if this was normal behaviour, to find myself so comfortable and free in a stranger’s arms. 

I felt it was unlikely I was going to return to Ireland anytime soon. My father said he had nothing to return to now his mother was dead. He plucked a fistful of blazing heather from the side of the mountain at Glenmacnass Waterfall, the soil and roots bleeding out. At sunset, he planted it upon the fresh soil of Nana’s grave. We said our private goodbyes. I silently asked her for her soda bread recipe, but as soon as I asked, I realised I would never be able to make it like she did, because it came from her small wrinkled hands, a reward for returning home to the family.

I felt it was unlikely I was going to hear from him anytime soon. It was a perfect first date, so it had to remain like that, a perfect first date, unsullied by imperfect second dates, an imperfect relationships, imperfect intimacy, imperfect love. But for the first time in years I was comfortable with the thought of getting uncomfortably comfortable, it thrilled and petrified me. 


Carrie Walsh | @walshlette

Carrie Walsh is a London Irish writer of poetry, plays and prose who has just graduated from Oxford University’s Creative Writing diploma. Her plays have been performed at The Pleasance, Southwark Playhouse and The Vaults. Her writing focuses on sexuality, religion, London and Irish identity.

1 comment on “Awake

  1. Lynda Oakley

    I found this a good read. Some nice ie.interesting and unpredicatable use of words and effective repetition. I didn’t quite understand the ‘of course it was you’ lines and found the time sequence of events a bit difficult to follow at times. I assume the Five Miseries of Sorrow.. is referring to Nana’s rosary laid on top of the coffin? For non-catholics you might want to clarify this in a head or foot-note.

    I keep going to say i enjoyed it, but that doesn’t seem like the right word for a story of loss, but it captured my interest very well.

    Like

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