Long-listed for the TSS Quartery 2000 prize.
She remembered the look on people’s faces when she had said that she didn’t understand what the protest was about. The flags made it obvious, didn’t they? The marching flute bands, the uniforms? This was a group of people who felt that their culture was being threatened because the Union Jack was no longer going to be flown – as often – at the City Hall. And she a politician, how could she not know?
The finer point she held in her mind was lost. Of course, she understood something of sectarianism; though not being from Belfast she would never presume to really understand what it must have been like to live through the last 40 years. Of course, she felt uneasy about the militaristic timbre of the march, the bloody hand of history raised high over people’s heads right in the city centre. Yes, she got it. And she had nodded as she was told that those cast as the ‘other side’ had learned to live with it; heard herself say, “it must be frustrating for those who just want to move on”. ‘Frustrating’ was a weak choice of word. She had made a slow gesture with her head, not quite a nod, and pressed her mouth into a half-smile trying to suggest that she still needed time to think.
The conversation had been fast paced, the accents heavy. She liked the buoyancy of it but always felt guilty when, pursuing her own string of thoughts she was tripped up and made to look clumsy. She felt ashamed that she wasn’t more ‘straight-cut’. But when something was obvious she felt the need to reject it. To push away everything that was in plain sight.
Winter asserts itself. She walks up the lower part of Antrim Road, a mix of new and old red brick shops, houses and – rumour has it – somewhere up here a detention centre for sex offenders. The neat order of the streets is broken by the hulk of a brick wall extended upwards by a red and grey painted corrugated steel barrier, blockading off a large jaundice-brick police station. This steel edifice is topped with rolls of barbed wire and there are multiple cameras placed on crude metal poles along the pavement, which is studded with a dozen concrete bollards. It’s a fortress, she thinks, and all those feelings of sorrow and anger must be stranded at its stubborn base.
She thinks of creatures that make shells, their living processes tied up with the making of something hard and fixed. Did these creatures ever confuse themselves for their shells? She imagines the figures frozen in time at Pompeii, a catastrophe of a process, ossification, happening in the blink of an eye. At the other side of the road a white prefabricated metal supermarket imitates the police station. But here, people move in and out with carrier bags. She thinks these plastic pouches have an aspect of a seed pod or skin about them; thin pliable membranes taken between the bigger brick and mortar membranes of the city.
What captures her attention next is the raking winter sun. Oblique and beaming almost directly up the road. To look north is to see a hazy but perfectly defined scene with even lighting. To look south is to have your field of vision obliterated by penetrating solar rays and to be only partially aware of the movement of deceptive shadow-objects. Representation by any external optical equipment would be impossible. Human eyes provide so much more information in their flinching, watering and stinging. These thoughts run through her mind as she steps off the pavement. Looking north she is aware that the drivers will see nothing more than a tapestry of silhouettes. Her breath forms a temporary halo. In the world of shadows it grows from her, fleshy tendrils as solid as her fingers or legs.
In the chalky yellow light she imagines circling around, watching the world shift from light to dark. Imagine flying higher; she will make people appear as tiny insects moving here and there. From this perspective the proximity of human feeling is removed, replaced by the large scale statistical motion of survival. And these thoughts are fuelled by the smells caught in her earthbound body, the tang of exhaust from passing cars, the mineral-like odour you sometimes get before snow, the general aroma of the city. Her feet are sore from the penetrating cold. Her boots had let in water that was now learning to bite.
Ruth had been with John for two years. With their young baby girl they visit his family here every few months. Arguments seem like a natural part of family life in this part of the world, fomented against the background of radio news broadcasts. At first, this was very unusual for Ruth, her agnostic upbringing based on a tiptoeing around people’s feelings. But she knew that arguments could be healthy. John’s own contributions however sometimes boarded on being aggressive and she was often hurt by the way he dismissed her views in public.
Ruth excelled at being a local councillor, yet found herself belittled by John at home. At work she had to find a way to deal with ‘facts’, but in the privacy of her own life she wanted to be respected enough to leave the coarse measurements of politics behind and think and speak in subtle tones and colours. But that seems impossible now.
– I can’t stand the way you talk to me sometimes. When I refuse to see your point of view you act bored or you talk over me. Then you go into a mood like a little boy. And then when we get home you expect us to have sex, not seeing that for me that has to be something arrived at holistically as part of a happy day.”
– Get lost. You’re so impossible when you’re drunk. We start an argument and then you change it half way through. Hey, don’t walk away when I’m talking to you. Ruth, Ruth!
The bitter, tearful fight replayed in her mind as she approached the city cemetery. She wanted a place, any place she could go to be on her own. Graveyards fascinated her. They seemed to give voice to her suspicion that the living things of the world are soft, brittle and fleshy. The dead are cast in stone.
The notable feature of this graveyard for many visitors was the sunken wall, a wall pushed deep into the earth to divide the bodies and presumably the souls of Catholics and Protestants; born on different sides of the fence, buried on different sides of a wall. Bodies, falling like coins into premade slots. What could the living do against the existing architecture of the world? How much of a body is alive in the first place anyway?
Bones, she thinks, are already half-way stone.
She often wonders about herself, about ‘Ruth’. The name given her from birth was now feeling like a weight. The way her daughter said it, it was always a question blended with a moan, it pulled at her. The way John said it, so critical and biting, spiteful: so hateful. She imagines ivy growing up from the ground to catch hold of her and tug at her spirit. She pictures the lurching of the land to form inclines all around.
– You’ve got too much of an artistic sensibility, it’s not helpful. You’ve got to grow up Ruth. you’re a politician for God’s sake.
– I really resent the implications of what you just said. Firstly, that I’m not mature enough to be a politician. What does that mean? You don’t have a clue how great I am at my job and also how arrogant that makes you sound. Secondly, why are you so prejudiced against art? Why can’t art and politics mix. People need to have an imagination, to think critically about things…
– Think critically. How is drawing pictures of things thinking critically Ruth?
– Art isn’t just drawing pictures. And even if it was, pictures are a complicated language. They allow people to formulate the units of meaning that they need to be able to express something. It’s a wonderful way to make something intangible appear in the world. I’m sick of you thinking that there’s this rational right way of doing things and then there’s, well, art.
She clenches and unclenches her hands, occupied by being ‘Ruth’. Those angry exchanges; then the feeling of being an outsider and having to deal with the looks from members of John’s family who obviously heard the shouting. ‘Ruth’ had to play a part, make a show of contrition. Then when John entered the room – when he finally felt like joining her again – she had to make a public display of making up, be coquettish almost. Sometimes nothing is lonelier than being abandoned with someone else’s family. Having to awkwardly navigate an unfamiliar house, asking for basic necessities.
– Ruth, I don’t think I can do this.
– So you’re just going to give up on us are you? After all we’ve been through, you’re just going to walk away. Do you know how much I’ve given up, to have a child with you?
She becomes aware of how gothic it is, a tearful figure walking alone in a graveyard contemplating their life. And the sadness of ‘Ruth’ was that she would probably hold out for an hour or two and then head back to confront John, where else could she go? John would go through a pattern of hesitancy and regret. Eventually he would yield, be tender and take back everything he had said. It was a familiar cycle.
But for now, she roams the cemetery, casting absent glances at the stones. They are not so much markers of people’s lives, but the teeth of the world coming up to claim her. The living, the idea suddenly comes to her, can only hope that there can be something beyond the constraints of the past, the conservatism of the present and the inevitability of the future. She breathes deeply. She closes and opens her eyes. She tries to picture things that are meaningful to her, but no images are capable of affixing themselves to her watery mood. She swallows. She breathes deeply again. What else can you do whilst turning to bone?