Back to the clunk of a keyboard once again, frenetic tapping, pregnant pauses of navel-gazing, middle-distance staring.
Back to trying to write myself out – or perhaps write myself in.
Rue Darnel, Calais, Wednesday, 18:19. Sirens. Sitting out the window, legs dangling. Skin crunchy with sea-swim, sweat, an unfaltering failure on my part to moisturise. Shower, even. Coffee beside. The first non-instant in a while.
Loose dress exposing the croissant flop of white breasts to windowed neighbours. Apple slices yellowing on the window ledge – dismembered remnants of Picasso’s Neoclassicism – splayed on a plate tarred with a viscous substance intended to be peanut butter. Reader; it is not peanut butter. Rooftops above, below, around me.
I live beside a theatre now. Last week, it was a square above which four strangers-turned-friends shared beds and one cramped kitchen; three balconies between us to sip, scoff, smoke off of. Now: a ground floor for refugees with nowhere to go; a converted loft-cum-mezzanine where volunteers for Calais’ various refugee aid organisations slip in and out, gossip and eat Dominos around a round table, and in the middle, the intervening first floor, the homeowner – a beautiful and formidable French woman who sleeps with her young son while we commandeer her bedroom. A bizarre, beautiful set up replete with wolf-like dog benignly called something like Jack or John. He easily reaches my hip and sleeps outside our bedroom door so, when we inevitably need to use the bathroom in the night, our 2am stumble is stopped by the stare of his orange eyes in the darkness.
Playing: Marina and the Diamonds
The Ethiopian women glide through the house like shadows, in long skirts and long, zipped hoodies. I smile at them in the simpering, apologetic way that has become the nervous tic of my privilege. It’s supposed to be welcoming, an invitation to connect but I can feel in the way the tendons stretch and my eyes crinkle that I am nothing more than a caricature of condescending and curated magnanimousness. I say hello, then bonjour, ca va and how are you, all tousled in the confusion of not knowing which language I am supposed to use and the growing realisation that neither is appropriate. These are not questions, just salutory exclamations as I hurricane through the room en route to somewhere else. The words are slower to leave my mouth than I am to leave the house and I wonder why I am the kind of person who cannot stop, wait, stand into the silence, create the space for conversation. Why, in spite of this, I am still the first to bemoan the chasm of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
These women have not been explained to me and so I cannot explain them to you: why they live here; if they’re refugees; how I can best befriend them. I want to tell them I’ve been to their country but there is no way to do it – no way to explain the fundraising element of the trip, the sightseeing, the fact we stayed in places named things like ‘Paradise Lodge’ – without appropriating, intruding.
Calais is not the place to tell the people you meet that theirs is a beautiful country.
And so I say nothing, except my daily banalities as I collect my damp washing or search for a mug or twist my headphones into ears burning with the knowledge of how late I am, once again, for my volunteer work.
Still Wednesday, still stooped over the window and out into rooftops. Still listless, still dangling, still waiting for something inside me to settle, to exhale, to let me begin to tell you of Calais and the men from Aghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea who are sitting on roundabouts with nothing but a plastic bag at their feet; whose lives are measured by the metre of kerb from chainlinked fence to tarmacced road at a disused gas station on the outskirts of town on which they sleep, do laundry, hang tarps and whatever else they can find that might proffer safety, shelter.
Cannot. Too sad. Brain refuses to process the menagerie of this life’s realities.
I have picked up two books in the past fifteen minutes, contemplated one French newspaper, cradled the possibility of diary-writing only to toss it to bed again. Bed. Where everything of me lands, these days. Thoughts frictioned off in the chafe of sandy feet between thin sheets, emotions half-actualised in dreams, intentions set in the yawned welcome of slumber, forgotten in the sleepy gunk of a morning dawned too soon.
I am a collection of abject intentions these days –
Handwashed delicates, searing op-eds, social media campaigns, a postcard to a friend, an unfinished shopping list lost to the allure of late-night baguette. A podcast too much commitment in this late afternoon lethargy; silence unbearable, unthinkable.
How can I exist in halves, these fragmented shards, when I am giving nothing but everything?
This is the longest I have been left to the quiet of a solitary room in over a month. Borderline recluse d’habitude, I am unsettled, worn down by the welcome erosion of new people and strange, foreign personalities to co-dependence. Now, I am frazzled by the gape of the day to fill without the pillared people to prop me up. Harassed by ‘shoulds’ and then equally, simultaneously, perniciously attacked by the counter-shoulds. You should not feel pressured to do. Should not feel pressure to run, write, advocate, wash.
Should does not exist. Should does not exist. Should does not exist.
Must is a smell. Must is the evocation of my grandmother’s basement. Must not.
The past hour has been given over to acquainting myself with online portals for virtual training sessions and abysmally cringy introduction workshops for the role I may/may not be commencing in October. Forced to upload a sickly-sweet photo of myself (twenty minutes of agonised scrolling to find one without a pint in hand) and begin a brief recount of my professional worth using words I still do not understand. Once more into the performative breach; once more into the underworld of ‘How interesting!’s and ‘Tell me more!’s
I have read the sentence “looking forward to e-meeting you all” more times than should be deemed humane.
Should does not exist. Should does not exist. Should does not exist.
Playing: Sufjan Stevens
I have an impossibly stark tan line where my watch habitually straps my wrist. An inverted tattoo. Hanging feet are sliced by the straps of birkenstocks. I like it. Tanning still feels like an accomplishment to me.
Today, I went to the park. Dressed in a bubblegum purple activewear two piece, I marched, yoga mat in hand, intent on bougeing (my witty upcycling of the French verb ‘bouger’) the glut and bloat of too much bread and too many beers. A boy of about 11 saw me coming, read the intent of my outfit, water bottle, determined and slightly terrified expression of one about to contort, jump, crunch, feel faint, sweat and dropped to push ups as I unfurled my grass-stained mat, peering up at me with each completed rep through brows knitted in mischevious determination.
I am someone who routinely gets bullied by pre-pubescent children and so my immediate instinct was FEAR, PANIC, UNADULTERATED INTIMIDATION: THIS BOY IS MOCKING MY ATTEMPTS AT FITNESS AND I HAVEN’T EVEN STARTED YET.
The one time I dared to skateboard in public, I was roasted so savagely by two North Dublin twelve-year-olds that I ended up having to hide in an alleyway until I was sure they were at least a safe three kilometres away. So today, when I saw this boy mimicking my attempts at some serious fitspo energy, I panicked and wondered if once again my tenuous confidence when it comes to any form of bodily coordination would be cruelly destroyed by a child not even half my age.
No, it turns out. My cynicism and misapphrension were poorly judged.
Instead, as I began making windmills with my arms and lunging in preparatory frenzy, the boy moved closer and closer to me, copying my every movement with a wide smile and eager eyes. I kept glancing over at him, trying to surreptitiously ascertain what he wanted from this interaction. How to respond?
I was scared of scaring him off with my enthusiasm, and equally nervous of coming across as unfriendly. But the world we live in demands austerity and reserve when interacting with unknown children and I was worried his mother would take me for a kidnapper. After all, who on earth would trust a single woman in a lycra ensemble of blinding purple who chooses the muggiest of afternoons to attempt burpees in a public park?? Definitely not me.
I decided, given I’d spent three days psyching myself up for this excursion, and two hours that morning talking about how ‘excited’ (read: completely unmotivated) I was to work out, to persevere in the face of this unusual addition and strangely interactive audience. I would remain focused on the task at hand, glued to the regimen written out in the Instagram post of some personal trainer I’d saved in midnight intention-setting. I began stretching, obstinately ignoring the itch to turn off the cringy motivation music (obscure ABBA hits) vibrating in tinny inadequacy from my phone and the boys watchful gaze and ebullient copycatting. I would not be cowed.
But then, our eyes met as we star-jumped in unison and we both started laughing. Doubled over and panting with exertion and the comedy of just how ridiculous each of us looked, a bond was formed. Some silent agreement was reached: we were in this together. He leap-frogged closer as I began to shout directions in broken, gasping, and embarrasingly basic French. Why, after a four year university French degree, I still don’t know the simplest of verbs and body parts – what the hell is the word for ‘wrist’? ‘Stretch’, ‘squat’, ‘sweat’?? – but yet know a myriad of ways to tell someone to fuck off, will remain an acute source of shame and pride for me. Not that the vocabulary I did possess (‘jambes’ returned to me with searing clarity after twenty minutes of slapping various parts of my thighs and calves to demonstrate the next body part in need of attention) seemed to make any difference: he appeared to ignore all my attempts at verbal communication. Instead, he improvised his movements by mimicry alone until he too, like me, was dripping in a sweat at once masochistic and glorious.
He didn’t leave my side, nor would he allow me to continue without him, for the entirety of the session. When he ran to get water or lay, panting and sweating on the grass, potentially on the verge of a heart attack, he was immediately incensed at the mere suggestion of his taking a break while I continued. The few times I did tentatively mention the benefits of resting awhile, he would scramble to his feet and motion emphatically to get on with it. At the same time, every announcement of a new exercise was met with incredulity – ‘You mean THERE’S MORE???’ his face said. His eyes were bulbous, disbelieving saucers, becoming impossible to see through the traintracks of sweat steamrolling down his forehead.
For my part, I worried I might possibly kill him with this neverending countdown of exercises. I realised that I was soon to be his mother’s favourite person or her mortal enemy: this boy would not be able to move for days after I was finished with him. He laughed off my concern and told me to keep going. So I did. We gathered a small, amused audience as we burpeed and push upped and crunched our way to giggling fits and socially distant high-fives.
‘FIVE MORE’, I gasped as we both battled with our screaming tendons and that internal voice that had been bellowing for us to STOP THIS NONSENSE for the past thirty minutes.
‘FINISHED’ I shouted euphorically, as we both collapsed onto the grass, heavy with effort. An eruption into fits of exhausted laughter as we rolled ourselves to a sitting position and stretched together.
‘Yoga?’ he asked.
AS IF THIS EXPERIENCE COULDN’T GET ANY BETTER. MAIS BIEN SUR, MON CHOU.
And that is how I found myself meditating in a sunny calaisien park with a young child I now considered a soulmate of sorts. Together, we sat in stillness, closed our eyes, breathed deep and sighed into smiles. As I walked him through the postures – down dog, cat-cow, one-legged pigeon – he began to make the noises of the animals they were named after, until we were both mooing and meowing and guffawing to our own endless amusement…and that of the somewhat confused general public.
We ended with lion’s breath. Sitting cross-legged on the grass, stuck our tongues out to the world and panted out the frustrations, worries, woes of the interior. Emptied ourselves only to fill up again with goodness. Remplir.
I never got his name. We waved goodbye and he ran back to his mother as I rolled up my mat and headed home. Buoyant.
It is Thursday, now.
I went to the pub last night and, once nestled on a stool with a strong pint in hand, was asked about my day off. I told my friends of this young boy I had met in the park and the hour we’d spent laughing, talking absolute nonsense and yet communicating so clearly. I tried to describe how special and essential that connection was – how our interaction had once more reminded me of the potency and endless potential for true connection in the unlikeliest of places. Of just how important the smile of a stranger can be, and the power we all hold to make someone’s day. I failed miserably in the articulation of this just as I know, if I were to read back over this tsunamic outpouring, how this atttempt too must flounder in drab and hollow inadequacy. I haven’t learned how to write magic yet.
‘Wait,’ my housemate interjected. ‘Was this boy alone with his mother? What did he look like?’
I described the pudgy, irresistible roundness of his face, the big, brown, excitable eyes, the fact he didn’t seem to understand what I said whether I spoke English or French. ‘Why?’
‘There’s a refugee family from Syria living in that park with a little boy and I’m pretty sure that’s him,’ she said.
Thud. His laughing, jumping body before me. The mother sitting on many blankets in the background behind. The idea, half-formed because I cannot take it further, of a life lived between shrubs, on a bench, in public.
That moment, of inhibitionless play, of wordless camaraderie and simple connection. A moment I now hope, more than ever, meant as much to him as it did to me.
I can’t write anymore. I go back to the window and face out to the slanted stare of rooftops. Think of all the things I do not do to make this world a better place. Then, pick up phone, search for respite and refuge in an Instagram scroll until I fall asleep.