On your return home from recession-proof Australia, you try not to notice the poverty now commonplace in Ireland. Because this is your new normal. It has been everyone else’s normal for some time. You mustn’t come across too unpreoccupied about money. You’ll appear odd. Foreign. Or even worse – a blow-in.
You try not to notice how every telesales assistant tells you exactly how much something will cost, repeatedly, to the cent. That will cost you 4.98. Ok. That’s 4.98. Ok, that’s fine. We will be applying a charge of 4.98 to your account. Ok. I get it. Thanks. You actually start thanking people for charging you money.
You try not to notice how nice customer service representatives are about saving you money. Even if it’ll do them out of a sale. You still have €18 on your mobile from when you were home on holidays a few years back, why would you sign up to new a contract now?! Wait until you use that €18; then come back and get a contract, if you like. But use it up, use it all up – it’s €18. You attempt to maintain that it was €18 you haven’t missed for the best part of four years, but the kindly 3-Mobile salesman is having none of it. Come back in the New Year when we have a sale on. Use up that credit, you hear now. I will. I will, thanks. You’ve started thanking people for saving you money you’d already spent.
You try not to notice people mentioning how much anything might cost. Let’s go for dinner. OK. What’s everyone’s budget? We could go here. It’s cheap, under €12 for a meal. Or here, it’s mid-range €18 for a set menu; but that’s just for starter and main, no dessert. Or, somewhere else, might be too expensive. Wine will be extra wherever we go. Do Irish people budget now? You wish they’d been this understanding when you were an eternal student in your twenties, and they were all raking it in in the noughties.
You try not to pick up cheques. You try to remember that money conscious is not a sign of penury in the Irish, anymore. It’s the new national psyche.
You try not to see all the derelict houses on the Main Street in your hometown. You try not to see the boarded-up windows. In fact, you spend your time in the nicer town, two villages over, that doesn’t look like it’s had its heart and viscera ripped out of it by unemployment, mental illness, and drugs. You try to remember your hometown as it was: cute, quaint, unremarkable.
You try to accept that your parents are pensioners now – not broke.
You pay for everything you would have let them treat you to before. You know they aren’t struggling. They’re budgeting. You say the word again. Bu-dget-ing. You recognise it as the thing you always did before the depression when everyone else thought you were mad; with your no Credit Union loan, your no credit card, and your no overdraft. You remember phoning AIB and asking them to remove the automatic €100 overdraft facility they had applied to your account. They told you wouldn’t be charged if you went over, and to relax, just not to use it. You told them you were a postgraduate student on a zero-hour teaching contract, you really did not need, want, nor qualify for an overdraft. They told you they didn’t know how to remove it. They told you to write them a letter. You actually did. You had a postage stamp allowance in your budget.
You try not to notice the pyrite symptoms in your parents’ house. They are stressed enough with having to move out immediately after Christmas. You try not to complain too much about the squeaking floor, the doors that won’t open, the ones which don’t close. You try not to notice the massive gap between the front door and the floor, and how cold the house has become from the draft. You really, really try not to mention the slope in the floor in the kitchen, the hump in the floor on the landing. You try to make light of it all, a joke, some banter. You feel your parents deserve better than this. A tiny bit, you feel you do too.
You try not to feel embarrassed by the current state of the once ‘lovely’ new scheme they moved into when they sold the old house and land on your road. You try not to notice how no one has painted their front doors or windowsills in the past three years. You try not to notice the dilapidated caravans parked outside two houses, the broken-down motorbikes, buggies, old toys, and deck chairs (in Ireland!) strewn across front lawns. You try not to notice that no one has weeded in-between their cobble-locked driveways on your side of the green, and how you can’t walk over to the other side of it for the builders ripping out house foundations along with people’s souls, and all the corrugated portacabins like a mini-refugee camp erected in the far corner of the green, but two-stories high and complete with barbed wire fencing.
You pull into the estate one day and next door have their Christmas’ lights up, there’s a neon Santa, a flashing Rudolph, five bedazzled snowmen outside your/their front door. They’ve 6 children under the age of 8, are Polish, and like the Catholics you grew up with in the 80s. The oldest boy’s name is Elvis. You can’t not think they decked out the windows in electric blue flashing lights in homage to his Vegas years. You try really rather hard not to be all worldly and highfalutin now. Still, you can’t help wryly commenting that it’s like you’ve been transported to Greater Manchester and the estate off of Shameless. You look down at your Ugg™ boots then pull up the zip on your R.M. William’s™ windbreaker while getting out of the car, and silently affirm not to be so cuntishly Upper Middle Bogan about it.
You take a deep breath and try not to idealise the road of your youth. With five bungalows total. Yours – the first-ever one there; before electricity or even sewerage. There were septic tanks though, not outhouses. You remember all the fields full of cabbages, baby new potatoes, and leeks. You remember playing in the hay bales with the other kids from your road. You remember the hares you could chase away from your grandad’s crops if you got up early enough in the morning to spot them. You remember the farmers whistling to you all, up in your treehouse, when they were done for the day and you could jump down and pick up leftover scut potatoes in the front of your jumpers, rolled up like kangaroos’ pouches, for your mothers to wash and boil for that evening’s dinner. You remember the fields you were allowed to walk in, single-file, inspecting the plants; and the ones that were strictly off limits. You remember being let into some of the glasshouses, to help with the weeding, for a treat.
Sometimes, in the summer, a man from up the North visited your neighbours down the end of the road, he had a massive truck and they had a huge artic fridge full of locally-sourced seafood. He’d give all of you 50 pence if you went down the beach for the day and handpicked periwinkles. It was akin to child/slave labour, but you really didn’t mind. Afterwards, you’d all traipse over to the sweet shop which was someone’s front room in the private houses two fields south, next to the council house estate that you weren’t allowed to play in. You could play with anyone from the council house estate, just not in the estate, but out on the green, where you were visible to the shopkeeper’s wife or your sister. Your big sister worked in the sweet shop, and never once gave you a free sweet, or even a Flipper marshmallow dolphin, which were everyone’s favourite, and Martin O’Rourke even asked her to once. She scowled at all of you; an art she was well-practised in.
You’d all go in when Neighbours came on for your lunch, and again for your tea. You were let back out after in summer until it got dark. There weren’t even any street lights then. You try not to remember lying in each other’s gardens watching the clouds drift by and making up names for the undiscovered future planets where you all might one day live with Marty McFly-type jet packs and hovercrafts. And you try—with weakening resolve—not remember getting invited into your friends’ kitchens for cups of tea and biscuits, even though you never had the chocolate ones in your house except for at Christmas; and how that was the very best treat of a week.
You try not to think of the beautiful soil, that’s covered in concrete and apathy. You try really really very very hard not to idealise how it used to be …
So, you remember shitty things.
You remember the endless rain and Summer Bay taunting you from the corner of the new veneer unit which held the TV, twenty-four red leather bound Children’s Encyclopædia Britannica, and that Xanadu record you loved, while your—now long since dead—younger brother and you lay on the poxy vomit green geometric patterned carpet getting bored of who could raise their leg the furthest straight up, then bend it backwards behind their head, giving up and deciding to play who could do the best imitation of a dead body, to scare your Mam with when she next came into the room, if she wasn’t washed away by the rain threatening to overflow the ditch and sail your house downstream, way past the end of your road and off the cliffs into the Irish Sea.
You remember one school holiday when none of the kids on your road, including your dead brother, played with you and you stood at the side of your house hitting tennis balls against the wall pretending to have interests outside reading books and daydreaming, lest you appear like less of a loner and hoping desperately they all might take pity on you and ask you to join back in.
You remember not being let go to the other council estate two fields North; because there was a bachelor man there, who lived alone, and liked to invite children into his house to play games. And you were never to ever ever play with him. So, you couldn’t see your friends from primary school in the school holidays, or even after school – just the kids on your road. And you remember one neighbour’s dad’s drinking, and the others’ parents estranged marriage, and your family arguing and fighting, with each other and with you.
You remember these shitty things and they become like still photos of individual black and white scenes, because in trying this hard not to you also recollect the technicolor montage, and all there was to love about home. You just can’t reacquaint yourself with the now of it, somehow; and in these moments you realise that hindsight and 20/20 are not intimates, they’re not even truly friends.