Written and presented by Pierce Gleeson
Roy is not unclean. He does not smell particularly badly, his teeth are scrubbed, his hair not so terribly lank. And yet everything about his presence reminds those sharing it of the phlegmy, suppurative nature of the human body. Fellow tram riders trapped in his airspace discover themselves forty seconds into a breath-holding exercise they have not consciously decided to begin. Those obligated by work and friendship to shake his hand find themselves thinking longingly of sinks, soaps, hot water. And yet Roy is essentially clean. The reasons for his phantom miasma are not entirely clear. The usual scrubbed and tailored street face disguises very well the goos and sludges around which it is wrapped, but it seems impossible to look at Roy without imagining every kind of issuance from his dark-rimmed orifices. True, his skin has a smudged, slightly unctuous sheen, and his eyes are exactly not the clear, shining pools of a healthy pup. But his aura is darker and deeper than these small tells. Time spent in his company leads to black thoughts about the mess in his guts. His exhalations are often actually dodged, his embraces excruciating ordeals. His fingers seem strangely textured, matted with some fine crumbs or loamy residue. All of is inferred, imagined. The impression comes from somewhere beyond the physical, and even in those instances when Roy suspects something cagey in his interactions, he could never imagine for a moment a way to trace it back to his face, his limbs, his terrible ambience.
See Imelda, carrying a loaf, head dipped respectfully towards the wind. Her hair is honest white, honest curled. Her skin is smooth and evenly tan, burnt ruddy from a million walks to the newsagent. On her feet she wears clumping walking shoes, two prominent inches of rounded black rubber crowned with a faux leather vamp and quarter. The shoes are, by any objective measure, ugly. By any objective measure they are practical, by any objective measure they are modern and yet formal. Shoes designed for people no younger and no older than Imelda.
The loaf is cellophane wrapped soda bread, pre-sliced, held together within the bag by a crinkling plastic tray. Imelda carries it under one arm, without a carrier bag. It is her only message. It crackles as she walks. She strides purposefully, throwing shapes younger than her years. A tolerant grin appears in the face of particularly strong gusts. She appreciates every weather. The loaf clutched to her side is a passport to the world. A message from the shops. She nods at everyone she sees.
Along comes the metronomic slap of Simon’s long cane. It is distinctly a slap rather than a tap—each time its tip meets the kerb the length of white bends slightly under pressure. Simon is beating a path to the shops, furious.
His face is clean shaven but a little raw. His hair cropped to nothing. His head sits tilted back on his neck, looking upwards and outwards at not a thing. Simon wears a three-quarter length fleeced waterproof, baggy slacks and sensible boots in defence against the mild day. You can’t see it, but his socks match. All of his socks match.
There’s an amateur quality to his progression. He wanders too often off the straight line, his foot falls heavily down undetected steps, and each of these mistakes causes him to pause and nod out a quiet, heartfelt curse. His rod plinks the frames and spokes of parked bicycles and he curses them. Bins, he curses. Flowerpots, he curses. Postboxes and lampposts are left alone.
At the shop he asks for the proper milk, the blue one, and counts out coins using his thumbnail against their ribbed edges. After he’s awkwardly manoeuvred through the door, one shopkeeper turns to the other, half smiling, and asks how he knew it was blue he wanted.
Simon knows it’s blue for the same reason he curses at pots and stumbles on kerbs. He knows it’s blue for the same reason it takes him an hour to get dressed in the morning. He knows what blue is.
Rebecca track stands at the top of the hill, half-illuminated by the gas lamp above her, paused and thinking. She is deciding on a route. Her exhalations fog around her head, her forearms twitch slightly as she adjust the handlebars to maintain balance. The merged whole of bicycle and her self have the bearings of an animal—she is not entirely unlike the huffing stags she flits past on dark park roads. Similar in bulk, in poise, in momentum.
Rebecca wears synthetic skins that match wholly and unselfconsciously the colours of her bike, reinforcing the impression of a single entity. The whites and blues of her clean carbon frame meld into those of her human one. The vented helmet hides almost entirely a ponytail of tawny hair. Her form is narrow, taut potential. A space-age dissonance between mass and strength.
She appears to idle, frozen longer than it should take to chose a direction. Her feet, laced into shoes clipped into pedals, apply imperceptible pressure to the cranks to keep her upright. Her face, invisible in the murky light, might be smiling. Her eyes might be momentarily be closed.
Suddenly, like a fox discovered, she turns out of the lamplight and moves onto the black road behind the Áras, the red glow of an LED trailing from the small of her back. The visible dot bobs energetically as she builds up speed, then settles, then is gone.
Jason retrieves his hand from the depths of a toffee muffin and extends one blunt finger towards the monkeys in front of him. Slowly and methodically he takes each screeching animal by the tail and drags it into the barrel at the bottom of the screen. His smooth, white brow furrows with consternation each time a monkey escapes, but his speed is unaffected. He moves steadily, never showing panic.
His parents hover around the edge of the scene like occasionally intrusive stage decoration. His mother in particular trespasses, reaching out and catching his wrist before rubbing its gooey hand clean with a napkin. Even so, the screen is well-streaked with brown smears and treacly clods of crumbs.
Jason’s fist goes back into the muffin for another rough handful, and the monkeys run amok as he carefully folds the mass between his soft, white lips. He chews the sticky mouthful as slowly and deliberately as he snared zoo escapees a moment earlier, taking this opportunity to peer into the outer world. He is throned on a high-seat at a Victorian ironwork table tucked into the corner of a gravelled courtyard. The tablet is propped at sixty degrees in front of him, screeching mutedly. His mother and father and their masses of winter clothing occupy the remaining space around the table. They drink coffee and pick distractedly at their own treats. Above the high stone walls of the yard, Jason can see the black limbs of sleeping trees and one lonely green Scots pine. The sky is January blue, slashed with thin, dark clouds. The air is very still. Nothing moves. Jason swallows down the glutinous lump and returns, unhurriedly, to the screaming monkeys.
Cod comes down the hill trailing a small granny trolly. His lanky frame is bent almost double to reach the handle, and twisted so that he’s half-turned towards his luggage, arm extended straight from the shoulder. This awkward shape gives an awkward gait. Cod’s gracelessness imbues his entire form. It seems to lend awkwardness to the area around him, rendering the roughly-joined concrete path awkward, the kerbs awkward, the overhanging trees similarly awkward.
He wears grey, formless tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt too light for the weather. His runners are no longer of identifiable profile, colour or brand. He is ageless, or else terribly aged. His head hangs loosely at the neck, an expression of fierce concentration on his gurning features. The creased skin around his eyes is in tight, frozen folds. He notices nothing of the day, the light, the mildness of everything. He glares downwards, scanning. The concrete waits to trip him up.
Deb’s car smells like a sweet shop. The scent’s origins are not clear. A furry blue teddy and an equally furry tree hang from the rear-view mirror. The drawers and cup holders hold a neat but diverse arrangement of small bottles, pens, tubes and markers, which on closer inspection are revealed to be an assortment of both cosmetics and an eclectic range of office stationary. Any individual product might be the source of the sweet, slightly sticky odour that permeates the vehicle, but most likely it is a combination of their individual characters.
Deb finds this smell comforting. The car is, for her, a deeply relaxing space. It reminds her often of her grandmother’s back lawn and her father’s study. Not because the car’s interior and these spaces share any particular physical ambience, but because they are spaces in which she has always felt both safe and pleasantly isolated. She drives the car to work each morning, a journey of almost fifteen minutes. The interior is kept very clean, regularly hoovered, wiped down, minded. She takes less interest in the vehicle’s exterior, finding that maintaining a sheen through muddy winters is a depressingly impossible task.
The mirror ornaments swing gently as she takes the roundabouts. Deb is an attentive driver without being overly interested in perfecting the practice. She flicks endlessly between a selection of fizzing radio stations. The city buzzes silently outside, morning and evening. She never winds down the window. To do so would unbalance the air conditioning.
Umair appears between cars, immaculately dressed. His clothes are perfectly clean, razor folded, and just a year or two behind stylish. Jeans a little too bangled, shoes a little too clumpy. His jumper, however, is fitted to his tapered frame, smooth as a shop window. His shirt shows signs of embroidered details around the collar. From what can be seen, it is a very nice shirt.
It would be unfair to say that Umair swaggers, but there’s a jangle in his walk. A looseness in the hips and elbows. His thin lips form a perpetual half-smile, his eyes flit over yours, never landing. He’s too polished for the streets he saunters, but he rarely strays further south. The phone that jumps between his palm and his back pocket is a shimmering purple slate—he can just stretch his slender fingers around its edges. The phone is wrong. So many small details are wrong, but he smells magnificent.
Claudia makes her way through the park as it sinks into dusk. Somewhere in her fifties, she walks with an assured step. Not light, but not inelegant. Her clothing is modern and sensible—a bright red windsheeter with layers of fleece visible at the collar. Eight-holed walking boots, thick cotton leggings. A purple beanie is pulled down over her ears, covering her hair. She crests a hill and walks down the far side, skirting woods. She is flanked closely by two enormous wolfhounds.
The dogs hug to her legs, ambling with a heavy-limbed gracefulness. Neither is leashed, but Claudia’s hands hover splayed at her waist, occasionally teasing the thick grey curls of their long backs. She sings softly and continuously, a wordless tune that keeps the dogs in her nimbus.
One wolfhound is old, the other nearing fully grown. From time to time the pup pulls left or ups his pace, moving gently away from Claudia’s side. Before he is gone the full length of himself she bellows his name. George! The roar she lets has twice the weight of her small body. The dog shows no alarm, but drops gently back to her flank, and Claudia resumes humming. In this place, with these beasts, she has total dominion. The plains beyond the three are ranged with deer grazing and locking antlers. Both hounds raise their head at the sound, but pad onwards.
The side wall of Kevin’s shop is covered with twenty years of confusingly warm memories. Decent pencil sketches of the shop’s chaotic floor are tacked up next to yellowing ‘zines with his name on the cover and tiny bicycles folded out of aluminium drinking cans. Letters of thanks and letters of praise. Ancient Christmas cards. Hand-made posters espousing cycling.
Kevin speaks barely at all. His mumbled responses come after a delay of ten or sometimes fifteen seconds. He stands silently, snapped brake assembly held in one greasy fist, while his unfocused eyes flit through a mental inventory. Typically he turns abruptly, climbing backwards through the frame-and-wheel-strung narrow workshop until he disappears, leaving the customer with indefinite opportunity to examine the implausible show of love fixed over the counter.
The clues come over time. He returns from his expeditions with a precious nut, a rare bolt, a curative spoke clutched between his trembling, knotted fingers. Experiences are clean, cumulative, free of the animation of deception. Pilgrims stand shivering in the unheated basement, supporting their lame bikes with one hand, blowing warmth into the other. Unsure that Kevin understood them, unsure where he’s gone, unsure when he might be back.
They cycle home ten minutes later, having paid out of the spare change in their pockets. Kevin is impossible to chat with. He nods at jokes, shrugs at questions. He listens to long elaborations without response or reassurance. Then you cycle home.
Damien goes out when there’s nothing on the telly. He selects a single paint can from the collection he keeps in his mother’s drinks cabinet, slipping it into the pocket of his baggy trousers before quitting the house.
He walks a little bird-like. A stunted sort of a strut that his limbs aren’t quite able for. He might hail twenty people before reaching his destination, depending on the night, the cold, the route he’s chosen. He has never not walked these roads. The weather doesn’t matter to Damien. Rain drips uninhibited from his greased fringe. If the cold hurts he doesn’t show it. The only thing that bothers him is a wet canvas.
Most of his work is quickly painted over. He expects this, and is unfazed. He allows himself a little swell of satisfaction when he sees a piece still proudly visible after a fortnight, but the obliteration bothers him barely at all. It’s ongoing. His commitment is a kind of permanence.
At the edge of the park he finds a freshly-painted park bench. An older tag can still be be made out under the thickly-daubed white, but only if you knew it was there. This bench has taken a lot of coats in recent months. Its edges are rounded with the mounting layers.
Damien pulls out the can and, without pausing to look around him, sets to spraying. He hunkers down to even out the application. The letterforms are wide and rounded, inexpert but regular. The style is recognisable to anyone from the area, as is the simple, unadorned, endlessly repeated message. ‘NIGGERS OUT.’ Damien is finished in forty seconds, and pockets the can as he walks away. Down the street he sees a postbox still bearing last week’s work, and a small, simple smile plays over his pallid face.
Ray speaks almost entirely in aphorisms and axioms. ‘Sure you have to laugh.’ ‘Ah, you can’t beat a bit of banter.’ ‘It’s only a bit of fun, isn’t it?’ These pat remarks, responses to normal overtures into conversation, often trip his neighbours at the second hurdle. There’s a dissonance to these moments. To the foreign observer they have all the trimmings of a warm exchange, but to those sharing the street corner chat with Ray they are fraught, disorientating experiences.
It becomes evident, as the uncomfortable encounters accumulate, that Ray is not listening. He is, for unknown reasons, going through the motions of a conversation that he elected to begin. He nods at the wrong time, looks through your chest, pulls another phrase from his bag of tics. ‘Ah, that’s Deborah, hah? Hah?’ There is no softness. There is no flow. There is the appearance of softness and the appearance of flow. He speaks confidently and effortlessly and without emotion and without meaning.
His reputation in the street is that of the gregarious organiser. He appears behind microphones, directing fun with a slightly heavy hand. Typed newsletters with his name at the bottom appeal to the common senses; decency, outrage, craic. It is generally agreed, with barely a lowered eye, that he is a great guy altogether. He hails his neighbours loudly and heartily. Ray’s eyes are not unusually cold or unusually glasslike, but they’re looking somewhere else. You imagine a great, hidden well of hostility. This seems somehow preferable.
Elizabeth sits stately at the post office counter, receiving one by one the visiting townspeople. Her voice adjusts minutely for each the caller and their business. Not her accent nor her pitch—her lilt and timbre are powerfully local—but for those who need it she provides a bone to gnaw, still others get a hard word, and others just a postage stamp.
Elizabeth is the young, soft-eyed lord of all who present at the glass. Judges and barristers from the courts, locals from the flats, clenching shadows from the clinic down the road. Their desires are as varied as themselves. Envelopes, both full and empty. Parcels awkwardly shifted through the hole in the window. Forms to fill, forms to file. Who to approach, who to avoid. Everyone in search of reassurance and wit, and both are amply given. She inhabits without representing, siding with all complaints, nodding dismissively towards the office around her as if she were not currently its only occupier. ‘I agree! It’s terrible. Shocking.’
Watch her, without weight or condescension, persuade a destitute to overcome his anxiety and accept the ‘flu jab. The opening of this exchange is loose and conversational, but it ends with gentle pointedness. He leaves in the direction the surgery. To the next in line she sells a book of international stamps with the same grin and the same soft crinkle around her eyes.
Conor slouches at a full four feet, three inches. His true height is a matter of theoretical speculation only. He could mass four stone under that tracksuit, he could be seven. His shape is a mysterious micaceous structure of starched and vented sports materials. Above his collar it smooths into winter pale, near-translucent skin, a heavy scatter of freckles, two green eyes under white-bone features. The uniform, invariable hair.
He comes up the hill, without much sign of exertion, on a bike two sizes too large for him. The seatpost has been fully retracted, allowing his feet to reach the pedals if he adopts a straight-backed, half standing posture. The bike is too big, too expensive, absurdly thoroughbred. He’s cycling it on the footpath, allowing the front wheel the freedom to weave and shimmy, trailing its winding path unconcernedly. From the underside of one dropped handlebar hangs a twisting plastic bag. Two knuckles of one hand are wrapped around the timber of an ice pop. In free moments he raises this hand to his mouth, slurps hurriedly, then lowers it again to grasp the spongy tape of the handlebar. The white faux-leather under his grip is sticky and stained with orange syrup. The plastic bag swings as he steers, knocking off his knee, heavy with a litre of milk or a fizzy drink or some other summoned thing.
Alejandra is at this moment behind the counter. Earlier she was elsewhere, later she will be elsewhere again. Her hours are irregular, ephemeral. She lives nearby, surely, or perhaps in a press under the counter.
This counter is wood panelled and chest height, but not the height of Alejandra’s chest. Her head and shoulders make puppet-like appearances above the barricade to take orders. She meets the coffee machine face-to-face, raising the portafilter aloft to bang its grinds out into the tray. The presentational, pyramid-stacked bags of expired Italian flour and Irish porridge oats that line the upper shelves are beyond her reach, and beyond her plus the chair’s reach. The lower shelves are all, by various means, achievable.
She wears: a light cardigan and blue jeans, colourful banded socks, generic canvas runners. These details are registered later, after first seeing only her enormous blue-framed glasses. Two rounded rectangles conspire to make her small-boned features even smaller. She moves energetically but works unhurriedly. She knows offhand the price of nothing. Her English is not terrible.
Chloe works the automatic checkout with a practiced hand. Her sidekick passes her an enormous yellow bag of bags of crisps, then two slabs of milky chocolate, a selection of sugar sweets. Each package bleeps as it crosses the lasers. The machine offers helpful, ignored interjections at timed intervals. The final tally remains modestly unannounced, but appears at the bottom of an itemised bill on-screen. Chloe pulls handfuls of change from the pockets of her pink, velour tracksuit and flings them into the coin chute, where they rattle away before accumulating slowly on the screen. She and her friend alternate between dramatic focus and helpless laughter as they work. The two gather their haul and exit the shop, filling the echoing spaces with yells and laughter. They are ten years old, whippet-thin, raw nervy energy. Chloe’s house can be seen through the front glass of the supermarket doors, and they light towards it, leaning into one another in strange, stumbling, intimate embrace. Chloe holds the crisps over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Their discussions are endless and chaotic, always high-stakes. A couple of blagged euro pays for the banquet, and a couple of euro can always be blagged.
Denny’s trousers are too short. His jumper is too large. All of his particulars are, in some way, wonky or unsuitable or askew. He is standing in the closed road behind the zoo, where a gap in the trees overlooks the sea lion pool. He is not looking at sea lions. He is looking at his feet, then at the kerb, then at the face of each person passing. Walkers shuffle through the great mounds of dead leaves that accumulate where cars never go, but Denny stands on a clear island of footpath, toes flexing visibly in his shoes.
His hands go often to his face, as though trying to manually rearrange his nervous features. Waves of discomfort pass visibly over him, and at their peak he runs long, knotted fingers through knotted hair with dramatic and self-conscious vigour. The hair is loose and curly, going towards grey, and has retreated a long way up his forehead.
To each passerby he gives a look that is wide-eyed and trembling and disarmingly submissive. Shoulders stooped, his arms enter a half-fold, then retreat, then pause awkwardly. Each hand clutches absently at the other. His expression is unhinged, unable, but above all apologetic. He apologises. He apologises. He apologises.
Ger wears a woollen hunting cap with the flaps tied up at the sides, tilted backwards slightly off his brow. His coat is a three quarter length tweed affair, with narrow shoulders and flat chromed buttons and supportive clasps at the neck and ends. The collar has a short, grey furred lining and the cuffs are similarly detailed. The coat hangs open, revealing a fitted navy jumper with a v-neck and an orange-stitched white shirt collar visible beneath. His belt is brown, oversized, hanging a lazy, steel-tipped tongue down from the first belt hole. The trousers it hoists are uniform blue denim, upturned and downturned in the appropriate places. They show an inch of slate sock before the interruption of his brown leather ankle boots. One of Ger’s shoulders holds a buckled satchel that hangs angled at his side. The other arm supports a bicycle that is all these things: steel-framed, tan wall-tyred, five-geared, drop-barred, chrome-detailed, leather-trimmed. This is what Ger wears, carries, holds. It would be pointless to go further than this.
Dominic delivers the post. He arrives these days, not by bicycle or even postvan, but in an unmarked Ford Mondeo that he parks as the end of the terrace. He wears the postman’s jacket, an all-weather indestructible thing with a logo on the breast, and a navy blue woollen hat pulled over his ears. It is unclear whether the hat is a postman’s hat. It is unlogoed. His face is ruddy with the cold, his hands are uncovered. His shape is big and friendly in the quiet cul-de-sac.
He keeps the letter sacks in the boot of the car, and leans in to select the bundle for the road before walking the houses. If he has a parcel to deliver, he often rings the bell as he passes, leaving the resident to answer an empty doorway and, after a moment’s confusion, spot Dominic pulling a package from his vehicle down the road, waving with one hand. He offers parcels to neighbours in the event of the addressee’s absence. He trusts and is trusted. His job is a favour to people, his appearance a happy punctuation in the flat hours of the midmorning. It is easy to be liked.
Robert is not jogging. He sports the clothes (light, strangely textured fabrics of colours that do not match or ever think to match), and wears the shoes (an impressively discordant collage of perforated nylon, grossly ornamented plastic mouldings and reflective details), but his progress could not be called a jog.
The paths are full of his people, all similarly dressed, all heads bowed, arms crook’d, hands in gentle fists. Their legs carrying them with the deliberately restrained strides of the committed. They move slowly, surely, endlessly eating miles.
Robert runs with abandon. His long, long legs are flung forward in great, elastic leaps that carry him quickly onwards. He seems often on the point of falling, shimmying and rolling as his feet land unevenly. His arms are thrown every which way as he moves, as though trying to detach themselves from his shoulders. Robert’s features are pale and mottled pink, his eyes crowed, his mouth pulled back in a pained rictus. His hair, not short, dances unconstrained at the back of his head.
His pace, his form, his face. Nothing suggests this can last. He runs like a dying sun, passing dozens of joggers as he burns himself out. The laughing stock and envy of them all.
Colm looks old for his station. He comes down the middle of the empty street, pushing a buggy out of which hangs one languorous child of indeterminate gender. A second keeps pace with her grandfather, taking and releasing and taking his hand six times a minute.
The man wears tracksuit bottoms, layers of fleece, tired out runners. A peaked cap on his head. It takes a moment to register his age. His face is rangy and dark, tanned by years. His features are not soft nor fresh but they hold a measure of youth in them all the same. It’s the skin around his eyes that marks his true age and his temporary stewardship. He speaks constantly to his two companions—about the weather, about the street, about the passing day—and they ignore him with amiable familiarity.
He carries the kids along with a kind of fretful intensity of which they appear entirely ignorant. In this, too, he is old. Straight of back, true of stride, but ever glancing concernedly around him. At cars. At passers by. At the children. He is taking them home. They’re on the way home. They’ll be home soon.
Róisín’s face looks a little soft for the job she’s purportedly doing. She’s wearing a pinstripe grey skirted suit draped over by a barrister’s great black gown. The two white tails of the collar bands are whipping slightly in the wind as she beats her way down the river towards the courthouse. Her partner on this walk, an older man comfortable both in his stride and in his similarly telling clothing, is holding forth on what might be a legal dilemma or a longwinded joke—it is impossible to tell from his animated expressions.
Her teeth are gritted, her lips pulled back, her eyebrows hunkered. The wind is really blowing. For all that, she has an open face. She listens to his monologue with earnest attention, eyes flitting between his glance and the footpath ahead. Róisín breaks this rotation once, twice to look at her shoes and further furrow her brow in thought. Despite the wind grimace, despite the exaggerated mien of professional interaction, her countenance betrays an incongruous vulnerability. She looks too human for her clothes, too human for her company. Her eyes water from the gusts, revealing for a moment her soft, churning interior.
A tree. Sticks. A path, a puddle, sticks. Legs, shoes, paper cups. Lolly is taking inventory of the street. Her head swings up from the footpath at odd moments, her eyes refocus, surveying the route ahead, the upper bodies passing by, the cooing strangers. The memories she is already losing. And down again, her nose goes back into the soupy firmament that demands the fullest part of her attention.
She stands a little under six hands high. Her spine stretches four feet from her crown to tail—a tight mass of sinewy muscle that boils as she moves. This brawn sits bunched in the back, the shoulders, the thighs, while her flanks show clearly the regular bars of her ribs. Her hair is an even bristled blond, white at the mouth.
Lolly doesn’t like the lead. She is young, hasn’t given in just yet. She likes the wrong side of poles, the wrong side of oncomers. She takes chaotic diversions into garden sumps to smell the bins and the winter crud that collects under walls. Everything is carefully examined. Lolly is evenhanded, showing no disappointment nor particular favour towards any particular piece of crap.
In the open she is unleashed, and bolts before minds are changed. She recedes into the distance, accompanied by a fading thrum on the soil. Two hundred metres in ten seconds. The speck of her veers left and she returns in a great circle, mouth open, tongue hanging, laughing soundlessly into the wind. Her legs are willow rods, barely tipping the ground as she goes.