When the world gets smaller

When I came in, her eyes did not light up as usual.

She tried to fake it, a little, but her smile was all wrong.

I wasn’t in good form either. I was cranky from spending too much time indoors wedding-planning, while the sun shone tauntingly outside.

As so often happens, small frustrations had given birth to a greater sadness.

Earlier that week, Frau B’s telephone had stopped working. The man who came to fix it asked her to dial a number she knew by heart. The only one that came to mind was that of an acquaintance she’d lost touch with. She got through to the answering machine and didn’t know what to say.

It was humiliating.

She couldn’t call me. My mobile number is too long for her to remember, let alone to dial.

We’ve tried before.

Frau B keys in the digits too slowly and gets cut off mid-way through by a dial tone.

We’ve resigned ourselves to this fact, and she knows she can rely on me to get in touch instead.

But there aren’t many others she can call.

“Everyone I knew is dead,” Frau B said, as if she had to justify it.  “If I didn’t have you….”

She trailed off.

We both needed escapism, I decided, and reached to the shelf for a book.

It’s another one full of stories about early twentieth century Berlin.

Usually, the descriptions of the streets, cafes and institutions that defined the era prompt delighted interruptions from Frau B.

“My father would take me to that funfair!” she will say. Or, “Oh yes, that café! Full of artists! We’d only ever pass by and look through the window.”

Today though, I got through several pages uninterrupted.

A bad sign.

She was listening though, so I continued.

Finally, I got to a passage about death masks.

Totenmasken!” she said suddenly.  “I remember seeing some in Vienna!”

“You did?” I asked, a little startled. “When were you there?”

A long time ago. But she remembers everything. The city’s main museum is home to the death masks of Beethoven, Mahler and Klimt.

Frau B can still see them all. And as she began to speak, a cloud began to lift.

She has a cartographic mind, with a remarkable ability to mentally navigate the places she used to know.

One of the best presents I ever got her was a laminated map of the world.

She looks at it through her magnifying glass, while I hover over her.

“That’s Ireland,” I’ll say. “It’s shaped like a teddy bear.” Then, drawing my finger all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, I’ll land somewhere in America and say: “And that’s where my sister lives.”

Frau B’s  life now takes place within a room of 20 square meters. Day-to-day, her greatest sojourn is down the corridor to the dining hall. Sometimes, if she is feeling energised, she will wheel herself all the way to the terrace.

She is meticulous in her use of space. Order, for her, has become synonymous with control.

In the last year or two, she has begun hiding things.

She squeezes bars of chocolate into the bottom of her sock drawer and tucks brooches into a box that slides behind the books lining her shelf. She slips banknotes beneath the insoles of her shoes.

She says she is scared of things being stolen.

They never are. Sometimes I think her fear is more about losing herself.

Institutionalised and immobile, the world is ever closing in.

But deep inside her, preserved with care: a rich tapestry woven from the people she once knew and loved, the places she explored, the personal tragedies she endured and the triumphs she savours.

A wealth of memories a death mask can bring back to life.

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Berlin versus Vienna: a Capital Battle

After spending four months in Berlin, I took a holiday in Vienna.

If, as some claim, Berlin is a city going through puberty, then Vienna is its older, more responsible sibling. On the surface the family resemblance is clear: the beautiful Altbau (literally “old building”) style of architecture, much of it restored since World War II, can be found in both cities, though it dominates more in Vienna, where significantly less of it was destroyed.

Altbau houses are typically painted in tasteful shades of blue, pink or green and are decorated both outside and inside with elaborate plasterwork. They are tall but not imposing and, while very pretty, not particularly remarkable. In Berlin, in the fortunate neighbourhoods where Altbau buildings dominate, their charm contrasts reassuringly with the gritty Soviet blocks, which are usually within sight. In Vienna, on the other hand, where every street corner boasts yet another impressive feat of architecture, they merely add to the provincial, sophisticated feel which characterises the city.

Altbau in Berlin

While both cities boast an efficient underground transport system, in Vienna the stations look like Duplo models. They are easily navigable, childishly labelled, pristine and absolutely identical. In Berlin, they are different colours, often garish and grotty and full of musicians and homeless men with long, wild beards rooting through bins.

Both places are made for easy living. You can get around quickly until late at night and you can visit galleries and museums or lounge comfortably in the vast open spaces which surround them. In the summer, both cities set up rows of deckchairs beside their rivers. Little kiosks selling peanuts, crisps and beer pop up nearby. In Vienna you can fill your bottle with ice-cold water at Trinkwasserstations, which occur at regular intervals throughout the city. In Berlin, both the young and the old prefer to travel with a bottle of beer in their hand.

While Berlin and Vienna might share roots, their character couldn’t be more different. Vienna is stylish and self-contained, while Berlin is anarchic, vigorous and care-free.

Viennese Coffee Culture

In Vienna, the sophisticated coffee shop culture and well-dressed middle-aged lady reign supreme.

In Berlin it’s the punk bars and anybody inside themthat claims to want to fight the system.

In Vienna, most of the art is kept in museums which charge a high entry fee. In Berlin it’s all around you and changes at the whim of the latest anarchist movement.

The street-corners in Berlin are alive with fire-breathers, hip-hop dancers and human statues covered in body paint. In Vienna, the police politely ask the street musicians for their papers and the latter move on without complaint when they fail to produce the right ones.

Vienna is a city that no longer has much to fight for and whose history has been tastefully, expertly painted over. Berlin is attacking its raw wounds with an aggressive, momentous vigour.

Berlin is growing up. If it develops like Vienna, in a few years it will mourn the loss of adolescent ideals, which many of us too grow up to grieve. And there’ll be fewer beer bottles for the homeless men to collect.

Are schooldays the best days of your life?

I wrote this piece 10 months ago, when I was still unemployed and feeling rather nostalgic about the time I spent at school. Luckily I’m now working fulltime and the prospect of writing “The Toilet Wall” for a living is that little bit closer than ever before.


The Fruits of Literature

“Imagine that you have found the most delicious-looking plums on your kitchen table”, Niall Mac Monagle began, in media res on the occasion of my very first English class. “You gobbled them up” he continued, “and now you must write a note to the rest of your family apologising for what you have done”. Luminous sheets of card fluttered onto our desks and twenty -six young fountain pens began to scrawl lines of contrition. “Time up”, yelled MacMonagle. “What have you, Ms Flaherty?” A scoff. “Erm.. Sorry I ate the plums”. MacMonagle beamed. “Excellent!” Then silence, then a poem. I have been hooked on language ever since, and were it not for the brilliance of this man, I would have neither studied English literature at university nor considered writing for life. I am imagining his humble cheeks turn rose petal pink upon reading this, and it gives me pleasure.

Emancipation or “On Covering the Calves”

The fight for girls to wear trousers was won in the summer of 2001, when I was thirteen and about to enter my second year at Wesley College. Clutching the uniform list triumphantly, I dragged my mother to Rita’s uniform shop in the ‘old’ Dundrum shopping centre, and we purchased a pair of over-sized, shapeless navy slacks, which I am waiting patiently to grow into, ten years and several hundred cupcakes later. The design was so ghastly that I was the only girl in the year to condescend to wear the garment and even at that, my resolve faded with the advent of spring.

A Changing World

I have the young and kindly music teacher, Mr Gifford to thank for my introduction to google. One afternoon in the computer room in the library, while my friend and I were typing up our entirely fabricated research project on Simon and Garfunkel, he bent his head tentatively between us and whispered, “There is a great new way to find information. It is called Google”. A rather silly name, I thought. Hardly one that will catch on.

I remember returning to my locker at 4 o’clock on September 11, 2001 and coming across a geeky classmate in a state of excitement. He was pounding his fists together to describe the trajectory of a plane’s crash into a skyscraper. I thought he was talking about a computer-game. Later, on the 48A bus home a lady spoke into her mobile phone, “who knows what will happen now; that Bush is a maniac”. By the time I got home, the TV was on, and the blown-apart pieces came together.

Breaking news and breaking ground

The very best bit of my time at Wesley College was my involvement with the establishment of a school newspaper, Fullstop. The editorial team consisted of seven people: six of my very best friends and myself. (It’s all about who you know in this country!). Tonight I reminisced over a coffee with David Kearney, then-editor-in-chief about some of the gems that the publication produced. The second issue, released on 26 January, 2004 featured a six-page interview with Graham Norton under the promising headline The Full Norty.

No area of school life was passed over by Fullstop: the controversy about the new swipe card attendance system was neatly summarised by the headline Swipe Strife! and tensions between prefects and non-prefects were explored under the provocative question: Prefects or Defects? My baby was a column on page 3 called The Toilet Wall, which is so full of righteous indignation that it makes me cringe with nostalgia.

Seeing the Woods for the Trees

On Thursday 18 November 2004, Fullstop ran an exclusive interview with the one and only Christopher Woods, after he was announced as the new principal of the college. The headline read Out of the woods and boasted an exclusive “fifteen-minute intensive grilling about Wesley, Africa and the secret to a good education”. Mr Woods mused that “ if I can look back in fifty years time when I’m old and grey and can say that everyone enjoyed their time in school and learned a lot … I’d be a very happy man”. It was a privilege, in my final two years at Wesley College to have a principal so dedicated and so interested in his pupils as individuals. I am sure that Mr Woods, old and grey will be a very happy man.

Now and Then

I studied English literature and Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin and now I spend much of my time at home googling jobs but all I can find are telesales positions requiring proficiency in Dutch. I do a little bit of teaching on the side which I enjoy but if I’m honest, what I really want to do is get paid to write The Toilet Wall. Wesley College inspired me to dream of great things and life since graduation has coupled that entitlement with a dollop of humility. The class of 2006 may have considered themselves the crème de la crème, but many of us are still sorry we ate the plums.