Only in September the husband and I went away to Cork for a few days — my 43rd birthday, our 10-year anniversary. The hotel room had a view of the River Lee. A river runs through our town too, but it does not make itself known, running in narrow canals set low, beneath abodes and fields, and it is only by walking that you might chance upon these furtive channels. Boldly bisecting the city, the River Lee determines one’s routes; it wove in and out of our days and nights, murmurring its green secrets between limestone walls fuzzy with buddleia and tiny pink and white daisies called Mexican fleabane. Often, whilst smoking a cigarette, I’d spot a cormorant or butterfly, rushing by as urgently as the city’s human commuters.
Every morning I ate breakfast alone in a vast room decorated with blue velvet chaises longues, smoky mirrors, and murals depicting classical columns draped in lianas, recalling the ruins of an elegant civilisation now surrendered to jungle. Beyond the window, a heron would perch, studying the water as if lost in thought, before darting quickly, to spear whatever he had discerned in its murky depths. Often I was hungover, feeling outside of myself, observing my reflection as if it was not mine through the haze of last night’s wine, one year older and not at all wiser.
Our first night we visited the Cork Grocers Club, a gentleman’s club established in the 1860s, of which I could find little information online except for the obituary of a barrister, my age, the first female full, rather than associate, member of the club. It was located in a side-alley, accessed via the barman by phone, who ushered us up a staircase bracketed by a chairlift, into a warren of modest, cosy rooms, empty save for our small lot. For generations, the elite of this city, barristers and shopkeepers and middle managers, entangled by marriage and neighbourly proximity, whispered deals and angled for gossip under pastoral paintings of horses and black-and-white photos of fishing trips, across small tables on cast-iron legs in the shape of mermaids. In the vast snooker room hung a brace of cues, each labeled and locked in place, awaiting for the return of their owners.
The next evening, we visited a friend. The entrance on Sunday’s Well is unmarked, a black door that opens unto a narrow stairwell leading down into a half-wild garden overlooking the river. Remains of a feast lay on the table: lumps of ravaged cheese, half-eaten fruit, the ends of loaves, prawn shells piled into a bowl. Geese flew overhead, in trios and quintets, while a bat flitted in and out of the trees from which unseen apples fall, thump, thump. Pouring wine and clearing dishes, our curly-haired host tossed out anecdotes and bon mots, anarchic and mischievous: Pan, impatient with anything but fun, good humour, conviviality.
Another evening we went to see a minor bard. In the venue, thirty attendees, rather than once-customary hundreds. While he sang of love as if his audience were lords and ladies, we ordered cocktails, hailing the bartender by switching on a red light. A tender voice lifts in a vast room as lights flicker on and off. Afterwards we visited a pub, entering by alley, to visit a publican friend of my late father-in-law. A ragtag bunch of musicians, from all over Europe, popped in and played in another room. Otherwise, dark and empty, the hissing of taps, the ghosts of patrons. The following week pubs would re-open, only to close two weeks later.
Every evening some random detail surprised me: the chairlift, the thumping apples, a singer’s phrasing. Isn’t that the point of travel, to be surprised? To feel what you thought of as the true extent of yourself brushing against the mysteries of people, city, universe? One is not so self-contained, although one often lives as if one is divorced from nature and environment, staring into screens, cultivating an audience however small, and being an audience for others. Too often I’m a “personality”, attached to an avatar, a series of images, words, links, and memes that somehow alluded to a self that I did not recognise in those times when I was sad and regretful. It was then a relief to get away from my screen, and to feel again a city, unfolding mazelike under my feet, as I turned left and right, following a map of my desires, whose dimensions were known only by chance and wonder.