My phone ribbits on my bedside locker. I pick it up. ‘Colin’ flashes on the screen. I think Colon. I’ve been calling him Colon since I swiped a like over his Tinder head three weeks ago.
There’s a photo flashing too. It’s of Colon smiling proudly with his hand on my shoulder. I’m hanging from him like a dead fish. My eyes are cold and dull. All I’m missing is a hook in my mouth. He took the photo on my phone with his hand that wasn’t holding on to me. Then he fiddled with the settings so this awful image of us would come up whenever he called. It makes me not want to answer. I don’t. I roll over. It’s too cold to get up. I press snooze on my phone every fifteen minutes for the next three hours.
Eventually I wake up and sit up and it’s so cold I can see my breath. I look through my photos on Flickr, picking out ones for my new blog. There are blue ones that I took by the sea in Dun Laoghaire, and grey ones I took in the woods in Malahide the day I went there on my own. There are some of the sinking gravestones in Glasnevin. I stare at each of them for a long time and wait for them to tell me their story. I add them to the blog and write below each one. Not like a description, more like a poem or an incoherent story. I grow lost in this, in what each one draws out of me. I sit back and look at my poetic postcards on the screen. I tweet about them. @rainwindow45 favourites it and replies saying ‘beautiful’. I reply saying thanks, loved your dog post yesterday btw. Then I retweet @rainwindow45’s tweet and get out of bed feeling happy. Feeling satisfied.
As I’m making a cup of tea to warm myself I get a text from Colon saying ‘Morning Milly Bops I’ve got a surprise planned for our date! It’s going to be fantastic’. I look at my reflection in the teaspoon. I’m no Milly Bops. I’ve got Russell Brand hair and black eyes. Why can’t he just call me Amelia like everyone else? I’m to meet him at the entrance to Stephen’s Green shopping centre at four o’clock. It’s a quarter past three now. I’m going to be late. I should have gotten up hours ago. I wonder what the surprise is. I wonder where I would bring me if I were treating me. Then I think about how it might not occur to Colon to factor me into his surprise. And it dawns on me – of course, the exhibition upstairs in Stephen’s Green. ‘The Potato – Reconnect with your Roots’ – it’s been advertised on the back of every bus and pub toilet for weeks.
On my way to meet Colon I start thinking about everything that’s wrong with us. This can’t be the thing everyone searches for; what all the shite films and great songs are about. But maybe this is as good as it is going to get. People settle. So what, it’s not like in the films and songs but neither is life. Maybe this is real life.
When I arrive Colon hands me a daffodil he must have swiped from Stephen’s Green. The bulb is all covered in muck and dangling from the thing like its bollocks. I say ‘Thanks’ but make an unimpressed face and hold it at arm’s length like it’s a dirty nappy. His face falls and I feel like a bitch. I’m twenty minutes late and he’s been standing here like an eejit with this ragged mucky thing in his hand waiting for me.
‘Sorry I’m late Col’.
He rolls his eyes, sighs and says ‘Sure you’re here now’.
He kisses me on the forehead like I’m his niece and I think about how maybe he’d make a good boyfriend for someone else. Someone that isn’t me. It’s a bad start to the day so I try to Tipp-ex it out.
‘So what’s the big surprise?’ My voice fakes up an octave.
‘Eh, just the potato exhibition.’ Colon mumbles.
‘Oh cool, I’ve been dying to see that.’ I lie and wonder who I am.
Colon hands the man behind the desk his shiny blue Visa card. The man on the desk tells us they don’t take cards and that I can’t bring the daffodil inside. We’ll have to pay for a locker to check the daffodil in. We have to check our coats and bags in too just in case we steal any of the potato paraphernalia. We’re also not allowed to take any flash photography of the potatoes. Colon is really bothered about the daffodil situation. I can see him getting stressed about it. He stiffens all over and glares at the man. I smile and ask for a tissue or a plastic bag that we could wrap the daffodil in. He looks at Colon then he looks at me with pity.
‘Sure, here you can put it in this.’ He hands me a plastic bag, I pop the daffodil’s bollocks in and we hand over our coats and bags.
‘Eh, I don’t have any cash on me.’
‘Oh that’s fine I can get this. Can I just pay for two please?’
‘Sure, for two adults? That’s twenty each and with the bags, coats and daffodil that comes to €48.50.’
‘Okay, great. Here you go. Keep the change.’
As we’re walking away Colon says – ‘Power tripping loser. He’s at least forty and working the reception of some temporary exhibition. I can’t understand how people can get to that age without having a proper job.’
As far as I know Colon has only ever worked in his father’s engineering firm. I let it linger. I’m good at letting things linger.
‘So how was last night?’
‘Ah it was only alright, would have been a lot better if you came.’ He grips the back of my neck. Invisible spiders crawl down my back.
‘Yeah, sorry I wasn’t feeling too good.’
‘No it’s okay, it’s just John and some of the others were wondering where you were is all. They’d like the chance to get to know you better, you know? But sure plenty of time for all that I suppose.’
The thought ‘of plenty of time’ with Colon irons me hot and cold all at once. ‘John and the others’ are the kind of lads who think MTV should be making a reality show about them so they act like that’s what’s happening.
‘Yeah sure I’ll catch them next time. So did I tell you about my new blog? It’s really cool, I’ve got all these photos that I took last year and…’
‘Oh check it out Milly – Monster Munch covered in real gold.’
He lets me go and darts over to a glass cabinet in the centre of the room.
‘Oh look it says it’s to signify the Celtic Tiger era, cool huh?’
We’re in the Tayto crisps section of the exhibition. There’s a whole wall of different styles of Tayto crisp packets from over the years and stories about Mister Tayto – newspaper clippings, ephemera from the time he ran in the elections, that sort of thing. There’s a video showing school children eating crisps in the Eighties and a diagram demonstrating how to make a crisp sandwich. There’s a picture of a girl trying to decide between chocolate or Taytos. In the next picture she’s shown eating them both at the same time.
Another section is dedicated to the famine – a time of minus craic and minus potato. There’s piped music playing, something sad and Irish on loop – violins and banshees wailing. There are bits of cloth on display and fishermen’s nets. A few people are gathered around in the corner, all quiet and funereal. We go over. There are a lot of different types of gnarled potatoes on display – new potatoes, roosters, kerr pinks, golden wonders, all with mud still on them. Some of the people are weeping. Actually crying real tears. Colon embraces me from behind, as though to protect me from the pain of this sight. I hear him sniff in my ear. I turn around and his eyes are all red and tearing up. I don’t know where to look. I kiss him on the cheek then turn back to the potatoes pretending to be moved, wondering what the hell is wrong with me or what the hell is wrong with everyone else?
In the next part there are pencil drawings of coffin ships and skeletal people dying on the sides of boreens, outside workhouses. It makes me think about reading ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’ as a child. I never really understood what was going on. Bad things kept happening all the time and just when you thought the worst thing had happened something even worse happened. There was always people dying. I didn’t like it, mostly because at the time I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just eat pasta or rice or something other than potatoes. Off the Famine room there’s a dark room showing a black and white film – men with pipes in their mouths pulling roots out of the ground, men digging ditches, men making poteen, men eating potatoes, men drinking poteen, men falling in ditches. In the last section at the exit there’s someone dressed up as a potato handing out fliers. His legs poke sadly out of the bottom of the oversized potato body suit. I suspect the face underneath does not match the smiling one on the pretend potato man’s face. Colon laughs gormlessly and pats the potato man on the head. I shoot him a look.
‘C’mon Milly Bops, lighten up.’
I heat from simmer to boil and hope the air outside can cool me down. The top of Grafton Street is thick with people – we wade through shoppers, dodging freak shows, fake statues, dogs made of sand, buskers, chuggers, muggers, beggars, psychopaths and bible bashers. Feels like a video game and I’m running out of lives.
‘Wow, how good was that?’ Colon shouts at me over the crowd.
‘Pretty good, yeah.’ I shout back, forced, fake.
‘So the next part of the surprise is food – I hope you’re hungry!’
‘Famished as a famine victim.’
Colon looks unimpressed at my insensitive quip. We’re back to zero again. The tension stretches between us tight as the skin on a drum. I wish I was alone with my camera somewhere.
The food part of the surprise turns out to be an all-you-can-eat buffet on Dame Street. We queue up with our scratched brown trays. Colon piles every type of food there is high on his plate. He dollops yellow curried rice on top of black bean beef stir fry on top of sweet and sour chicken and Bolognese. He tops it all off with cheese and noodles and ketchup that he pumps from a red plastic container at the condiment and cutlery section. I’ve put a small scoop of potato salad in the middle of my plate. Colon looks at me with disgust then speaks to me for the first time since my famished as a famine victim comment.
‘Is that all you’re getting?’
‘Eh yeah, I’m not really that hungry after all.’
‘Do you mind if I put some food on your plate so? It just seems like a waste considering it’s all-you-eat like.’
He makes a mountain on my plate with more of the same crap he has put on his. My potato salad is lost beneath pasta bows and cous cous. I know I’ll never see it again. When we get to the cash register Colon pays on his Visa then he goes to find a place to sit. I follow behind with my tray like we’re in prison. The lady on the till calls me back.
‘Sorry, that’ll be ten euros please.’
‘Oh God sorry, I presumed he paid for both of us.’
‘No. I guess he’s not such a keeper after all.’
‘Tell me about it. Here you go, thanks.’
I sit down opposite him and stare out the window. The unsaid things fester like a yellow filled pustule between us. Colon shovels his mountain into him. I watch people passing outside and wonder what their lives are like. Some of the couples that pass look like they are in love but then I think that maybe we look like that sometimes too and I guess you can never really tell. I can’t look at him so I look down at the table. There’s a hair on his tray beside his plate. It’s small and black and wiry. I feel like I am going to vom. He reaches across the table for my untouched mountain.
‘Cool place, huh?’ He mumbles through mouthfuls.
‘Yeah, it’s deadly.’ It looks like a soup kitchen. I look around me for something to comment on. ‘I really like the eh… the eh… tiles…’
‘So did you enjoy the exhibition?’
With his eyes wide in his blank face he stares at me waiting for my answer. There’s a right answer and a wrong answer to this question and whichever I choose will determine the mood for the rest of the day. I say ‘Yeah I thought it was interesting, I felt some of it was just marketing but some of it was… was, I search my mind but can’t find the word I want to use. I don’t want to say ‘moving’ and then I hear myself say ‘…really quite moving.’ Jesus, who am I?
‘Yeah me too, the actual potato part was quite powerful, I was surprised at what welled up in me but I guess when you think about it all that stuff is deep in the collective unconsciousness, it’s only natural that you’d have a response to it.’
‘Yeah I guess so.’
We go back to his. I drink wine. He doesn’t. He cleans the place up. It starts to rain. After he’s done polishing the sitting room and I’m done polishing off the bottle of wine, we fuck like the strangers that we are. He doesn’t look at me. He stares at the ceiling. He comes fast. I don’t come at all. He doesn’t care. When it’s over we come apart and twirl over, repelling each other like the backs of magnets. Colon reads the Financial Times while I flick through Tinder. John, 34. 10 kilometres away. Active 59 seconds ago. His profile pic is a selfie of his nose hair. Nope. Neil, 31. 31 my arse – looks old enough to be my dad. Nope. Luke, 29. 3 kilometres away. Active 1 day ago. Posing in sunglasses, smiling mouth wrapped up in a beard, having fun. Luke. Like. No match.
I stare out the window at the rain splashing on everything. I lie there thinking about being with someone else, someone that isn’t Colon. I lie waiting for the rain to stop so I can leave and not have to feel lonely any more.
Alice Walsh lives and works in Dublin. You can read more of her writings at alicewalshblog.com, she tweets from @al_icewalsh.