On Growing a (de)Tail

I hit my forehead against the side of a glass shelf in the Birkenstock shop at 36 Wicklow Street this afternoon. The blow inflicted a sharp pain which faded until this evening, when I absent-mindedly rubbed my forehead as I was watching Upstairs Downstairs on BBC4.

The man behind the till in the Birkenstock shop was old, with the air of an indifferent butler and if he noticed my accident, he masked his perception with perfection.

Then I met my friend Reuben at Central Bank. He had on shorts and as I approached him he was reading. There’s that way that we all stuff a book out of sight or yank earphones into a tangle when somebody we have been waiting for approaches us suddenly. A universal movement away from ourselves and into that self-governing realm of conversation.

Reuben’s cup had flowers on it and contained lemon and green tea, but mine was glassy and plain. We both got bendy spoons though, which hovered over the rims of our cups and I didn’t notice until Reuben pointed it out, that the spoons were smiling. When it was time to pay, I put a tiny sum into the tip jar and took a mint. I felt bad when the waitress offered me a mint after, because that meant I had taken mine out of turn.

On the way home I crossed the road because there were boys in tracksuits on my side. In Centra, the Irish Times was sold out but there was a handful of London Times and Independents left over.

My mum read me two German Christmas stories tonight. She is the best reader in the world.

During Upstairs Downstairs my dad cupped his hands expectantly so I threw him a Malteser. After that I threw Maltesers at him without his hands being cupped.

In Avoca, a table yelled for my mum and two girls gave her effusive hugs. Grateful, smiling students of hers. It moved me strangely. I was feeling tender today, with preoccupations of an uncertain future. We met the mother again, as we were walking into Zara. She said it was ‘crazy’ in there.

There is a golden button missing from my coat. It came that way, but I have a spare because my boyfriend is magic and he went into AWear and asked for one once. They ripped a button off a faulty coat for him and I have been meaning to sew it on for seven weeks. I wondered today where that button was, but then, outside the Pound Shop in Rathmines, I felt it in the undersized pocket of my coat.

My sister and I sat beside the fire and when our feet touched by accident, her toes recoiled and danced away in disgust. She left the room to talk to her boyfriend while I listened to my mum’s stories. When she came back, we talked about epigenetics and how everything is related to everything.

I told my mum about what Ian McEwan said. That to write, is to have a detail, and not a story. That Atonement sprang from a single observation of his bossy elder daughter directing and staging a play. That a single detail can grow into love and war and betrayal and atonement and a moving masterpiece.

I’ve a lot more to gather, but this was a start.

The Two-Taled Tea Test

So there I was browsing in the Palais de thé of Wicklow Street wearing a chequered brown dress and carrying a bag made of recycled Rittersport chocolate wrappers (This to become important later). I was leaning over a pot to smell a blend of rooibis tea when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to face a girl: blonde, bright-eyed, curly-haired, affable, tall.  

‘HIIIII!! how ARE you? … good to see you!!’ she cried ,smiling effusively at me. I looked briefly, and with great intensity into her face. No, I did not know this girl.

I responded with alacrity, matching with exactitude her smile and demeanour: ’Hi there!! I’m doing well thanks!! how about yourself? I’m just browsing for tea – it’s a lovely shop here isn’t it?’

‘Oh, it’s gorgeous’ she said – ‘here, smell this one, it’s the most popular blend’.

‘Oh, that’s lovely actually’, I said, ‘though I really think I’m most tempted by the rooibus blend’

‘I love that one too’, she admitted, before asking ‘.. so what are you up to now?’

I paused. She’d hit upon a toughie. It all depended on from what context she knew, or thought she knew me.

I eliminated school, former workplaces, friend-of-a-friend and distant relative. I was left with college and in a flash there came an hypothesis. Could she be a version of a Mary Claire, who studied psychology with me in first year? She had had dark skin and brown hair then and we had barely spoken but there was a certain je ne sais quoi (quite literally) about her that seemed familiar.

Yes, I thought. This is Marie Claire. I sighed with relief as she prompted, ‘You must be finished now..?’

‘Yeah’, I agreed, ‘all done and out in the real world..’ sigh ‘What are you up to yourself?’

She was telling me all about her pastry internship when along trotted a shop assistant. He had an asymetrical haircut and selection of piercings. ‘I spotted you from afar’, he said to me. ‘I knew from your outfit when you came in that I wanted to talk to you’.

He continued, looking at my acquinatance ‘You know that I sing opera to Mary Claire  morning and night’.

The name was music to my ears. Suspending bewilderment, I pondered to him that Marie Claire was a lucky girl..

‘And she doesn’t know it’, he said wistfully before gliding away.

I recovered my equanimity. ‘Do you know him?’ I asked.

She laughed ‘Oh yeah, I used to work here’, I just came in for a chat today as I was passing.’

‘I see!’ And I did. She was, beyond all reasonable doubt, Mary Claire of first year of college who had since worked as tea mistress and pastry artist. She was the same Mary Claire who had been friends with a friend from college with whom I’m in regular contact.

Smug in my superior knowledge I asked ‘Do you see much of Alex still?’

Her face went blank. ‘Alex?….. em?’

I faltered a little. ‘Alex.. yeah he was in psychology with us..’ (you were considerably more acquainted with him than you have ever been with me, I thought)

‘hmmm, I’m sure he’ll come back to me’, she said cheerfully.

‘Oh, yeah he will, I’m sure. He’s actually written the first draft of a novel’, I added.

‘wow, impressive!’ she said. ‘I’m sure I’d know him to see’

A good fifteen minutes had passed and as well as being confused afresh, I was fearful I would be late for a coffee date.

I made my way to the till to pay for my rooibus tea. Asymetrical haircut guy threw in a dozen free tea bags and winked as he undercharged me.

I thanked him very much.

‘Don’t thank me; thank her’, he said, pointing at Mary Claire.

I flashed her a sheepish smile. ’Thanks Mary Claire’, I said as I rushed out to the sober, reassuringly familiar buzz of Wicklow Street. I vow to return, incognito in the same outfit, swinging by my side the recycled Rittersport wrapper bag.


 (Paul Grice does a great job of explaining why most people don’t just blurt out: ‘I don’t know you’ and Stephen Pinker’s idea of ‘plausible deniability’ explains away my reluctance to use Mary Claire’s name before Asymetrical guy had confirmed my hunch)