Oblivion

It was July and a faintly faecal odour carried inland from the sea. The air in the city was close. The sky in the city was dry foam.

Even though it was evening the basement studio retained the heat, gathered and pallid, so that, on the sprung floor before the mirrors, women now stretched and wilted and fanned themselves dramatically. A queue had formed by the water machine. No breeze streamed through the galley windows. White keys shone from the piano in the corner. Caroline shook out a bag of change by the piano and began dealing with latecomers who hadn’t paid her yet.

Drink plenty of water, she drilled.

People were leaving. They turned disoriented on the step, turned and made their way from the mews to the street, and each time feet in thonged sandals passed by the galley windows, slippers now in string bags, tights wound up. On a couch of throws the woman who taught contemporary dance at six sat slumped, scrolling on her phone.

All yours now, Caroline said.

Good stuff. The woman did not look up.

Caroline delayed a moment more, stretching her arms over her head. Her heart was hammering. She let her head tilt and fall back, enjoying it. She felt thirsty and nervous but wildly alive. There was a climbing sensation: something was climbing inside her.

She herself climbed the cramped staircase and passed the framed show posters. In the changing room she removed her tights and shoes and put back on the sundress, the white runners, before cracking and turning to the locker she had bolted on the wall. Her phone lay on a folded cardigan and there was one missed call, from Patrick’s father: she phoned him back at once. She tapped a toe behind a heel as the phone rang on. When the old man answered he was, as ever, immensely polite.

Caroline, he said. How are you?

I’m all right, I’m all right, I was teaching a class.

Not a problem at all. I am sorry to disturb you.

Any word?

No word. At this the man’s voice dropped, sounding conspiratorial; Caroline squeezed shut both her eyes, opened them, and nodded soundlessly. After a moment she said, OK. We will wait.

We don’t know where he is.

And you say he has never done this, gone this far, before?

Never this long, the man insisted. Never more than a day.

All right. Well. We might have to think about something – I mean, about calling the police?

Let’s give it a little bit longer, he said.

She could not say why. She could not say why the thought formed in her mind autonomously, as if it had thought itself, but she would not question it.

She pulled on the cardigan and then removed the cardigan and tied it around her waist. When she passed the studio downstairs the woman who taught contemporary dance was crouched at the hi-fi, playing one crunching riff after another, browsing through the contents of a playlist. It was as if she were deaf and didn’t care that the music was blasting, erupting as blunt as a weapon – falling silent – beginning again. Caroline let herself out and walked quickly to where she had chained her bicycle. Even the mews was loud with evening traffic.

Wheels spiralling towards Islandbridge. Take a left before crossing the river; weave around stacked traffic on the quays; navigate the big break of O’Connell Boulevard and cross the bridge with two other cyclists in the path of a bellowing bus, like dolphins springing up before the prow of a ship, and it was easy not to think on this journey – not to reflect – because it was dangerous, palm-sweat dangerous, and still so hot, and Caroline’s throat was dry. She became confused by the lane system and dismounted to push the bike as far as Pearse Street. The Garda station rose steely and square. There were squad cars parked about and posters on the double doors with instructions for tourists who had been mugged.

Inside, there was something vintage and austere to the reception, with its orange tiles and absence of light – cool, with a bank of mangled snugs – and the circular counter with biros on beaded cords and names and the word pigs cut into it multiple times. Caroline hesitated and blushed. She made and unmade her ponytail. There were people waiting, people speaking quietly, and a young guard nodding to her now, impatiently.

I don’t know what the process is, she said, for, like, reporting somebody missing.

And who is this? he asked. He took out a notebook and a pen.

When she said ex-boyfriend he wrote down boyfriend and Caroline said, no, no: ex-boyfriend. A moment later he asked, and how long were you married to him?

Never married, Caroline said.

She said, I’m probably being stupid.

I’ve found him on the system, the guard told her, reading out Patrick’s parents’ address.

The night he had been punched and blacked out, and woke up in the hospital. She had entered into the mystery and become incandescent, telling all the cab drivers, driving around, looking out for him. She had gone to his parents’ house and sparked up the steps and was let in, although it was late, to the threadbare front room with its vast aristocratic ceiling of pennants and florets and fruit. To speak stoutly. To say, I am the woman who can deal with this.

Now she spoke frankly and sanely to the guard, looking him firmly in the eyes to impress upon him a regard for her frankness and her sanity. He drinks, she said: I mean he basically has a drink problem and his parents are ashamed, I think, so they’re playing it down, but he’s in a bad way. In a bad frame of mind. I believe he might be a danger to himself.

To someone else?

No, only himself.

I can file this, the guard said, and then it will go out on to the system. He asked a lot of questions. He asked for the names and numbers of Patrick’s parents. He asked for her name and her number and her address; she said, well, I’ll give you my parents’ address.

But the guard said, your Dublin address as well.

I can file this now, the guard said.

OK. Caroline squinted at him. Hmm, she said. OK. Will you wait just one minute?

Call his father again, the guard suggested, and see if there’s been an update.

On the phone Patrick’s father listened to her and then said, no, Caroline, and I’ll tell you why. If he goes on to the system you see, as missing or anything else, it will come up the next time he is vetted for work.

Oh yeah, she said.

He might never work again. I have spoken to a family friend in the Gardai.

Patrick’s parents had friends in the Guards and the courts and the medical establishment. They had friends in embassies and senates. They were always producing these friends in conversation as if they had only just thought of them.

So I hear you, she said. But it’s been three days now, and what if something bad has happened to him?

It will be over for him, the old man insisted, as regards work, if he has any run-ins with the law. They will say, what’s this, why were you reported missing?

I see. You don’t want me to do it?

Can you wait? he pleaded. Can you wait, Caroline, and we’ll try him again?

She had a thought. The thought was, they are trying to get into my head. This time it was less of a thought than a reflex. On the night she had sparked up their steps, on the night of excitement, the old man had looked at her over spectacles and said, I can tell you’re a sensible girl.

When she’d hung up and explained to the guard, she asked the guard, well, what do you think about that?

I can hold on to this – the guard waved the notebook – and they can decide if they want to pursue it later.

They have asked, Caroline said drily, that you absolutely don’t log it. So this conversation that we’ve had, I mean – this won’t be on any system? I have been told to get assurance.

Not unless I log it. Nothing on the system for now. You should call us, the guard said sternly, as soon as you hear anything.

Caroline felt strangely sedate as she rode into the evening. For a while it had seemed as if nothing was ever going to happen again.


When she was high a crude synaptic stutter occurred and she found herself trapped in an unfolding moment, a single moment, for the guts of an hour, and it was absurd.

In this moment, she wrote, I became a foetus, powder pink, and shrank into myself. I could feel my knees on the flesh of my belly. I was reborn like a person snapping out of a dream, with a gasp of air, and the bucket before me – I wanted to puke – and the trails of sweat left by my fingers against the linoleum floor – the bucket before – and I wanted to puke, but it wouldn’t come.

So I buckled and moaned and relented and became a foetus, powder pink, again, in a chamber of luminous skin. I awoke with a gasp like a person snapping out of a dream to the bucket before me – I wanted to puke – and the skids of sweat shrinking away from the linoleum. But no matter what, I couldn’t throw up.

I thought that vomit would put a stop to it.

You cannot imagine how nauseous I felt.

I am sick just thinking of it but that wasn’t even the half of it.

She wrote, listen to this.

When it cleared I slid into the ritual circle and cried because I felt ashamed of myself. I slid on my thighs in the short denim dress that had become an orphan’s attire, a white pinafore, as a part of my hallucination of May Day procession – I carried a Sacred Heart then, and my hair was cut bluntly across my forehead, and this was in the nineteenth century, and there was a nun I admired in the choir – earlier, that was earlier in the high. Now I just slid to the centre and wept. Now I felt derelict.

I don’t know why I went into the centre of the ritual. I think that I wanted an audience, or help. I could say I was high but there was such a logic to it, a logic I couldn’t verbalize, but which lassoed me into the centre and enclosed me like a bell. Both the sound of a bell and the shape of a bell. A cave of misty flickers. Anyway I became convinced of certain things. On two occasions, actually.

On two occasions, she wrote, during this controlled high I became convinced or became aware that the previous year of my life – of our lives, of your life and my life – did not occur, but in fact had been fabricated by my fancy for the purposes of pedagogical hallucination. Which is to say prophecy or example. Which is to say a kind of dumbshow on the wall of the cave or a parable encoding cautions, acting as a cautionary tale, saying: this is not how to live a year of your life, this is not how to be.

You see?

What generosity!

My mouth fell open (this was a trope) and I saw my palms shining upwards like the empty pages of a copybook. And when I went outside the world was almost goadingly harmonious. Fields behind the fences stretched to a sculpture of cloud and a copse of absolutely erect evergreens tapering monumentally against the blue sky and I knew that they had been placed there by calculation to create balance, whether by a landscaper or God or Gaia or even Kali, with people standing about in equal proportion as the musicians played Canon in D.

It was very much like an eighteenth-century pleasure garden. I began to think that the trees and the sky were actually trompe l’œil and I felt that this was sinister but articulate.

But when the Pachelbel swelled, she explained, it became too much, geysering through me, and I threw my arms out cruciform. When the Pachelbel began to fold up it was embarrassed for me, fixed in a smile of condescension, so that I felt self-conscious. The fact that the year had in fact happened, the previous year of my life and your life – of our lives, the shady places where our lives have intersected – settled into me firmly and then I was depressed, I felt very depressed, I sat listlessly watching trees sift into lizards and Rorschach tests for the rest of the afternoon.

It was terrible.

I think about it now and I have to sit back from the page, where I sit at the kitchen table of my apartment facing the railway and the park. The trees of the park are not transforming into anything; they bloom as bulbous and as charmless as brassicas. The mountains are soft scoops of navy and baize, the sky a self-loathing grey. Every day comes to this, she wrote: a reckoning. She underlined reckoning several times and provided a sketch of the tapering trees and the trompe l’œil arrangement with musical notes that looked like something drawn by a schoolchild, and wrote, see watercolour attached.

So the next day, she wrote, we did it again. We burned sage and palo santo. After the stuttering moment had stopped – more cartoonish this time round, with flying skulls – I became convinced once again that the previous year of my life had not occurred, merely could occur, if I did not heed the advice here proffered, to get out of the bucket-and-foetus linoleum rut, to see reincarnation as mimetic template, applicable everywhere and not only to the actual doctrine of reincarnation, which if I am honest the jury is more or less still out on.

Darling, only think of it.

Later in the dorm we spoke of karmic history.

As we were speaking, women with hairbrushes and rosehip oil, another woman rushed in and said, oh no, a frog, a frog. An amphibian as small and tender as a throat – as a throat disgorged, throbbing and delicate – had hopped under a bunk bed, and we were six or seven minutes catching him between the dustpan and the brush, whooshing him into the bush again. The night came down, fragrant, over privies with half-moon slats.

Only think of that. A world without accidents.

My joy, she wrote, at the thought of undoing a year at a stroke was matched only by my grief at having it – the year – returned to me as unwanted property.

Longing to be free.

Longing to be free.

So I went home and I was out of sorts for a week. I smudged and I cried in child pose and I dreamed of glowing love-hearts, glowing skulls, and I went to a spirit activation class, kindly civil servants shrieking and orgasming on the floor of a community hall – a hall with unihoc and basketball and yoga mats – and it was beautiful, even more beautiful than Canon in D, because shrieks and howls had become for me ambient sounds.There was laughter and dry electric frying. I sat in the centre (the centre again) bereft, unable to access that space where a year might be wiped, where we might meet again and no cruelty pass between us and no bitterness – only this.

The spirit travels up your spine. It wants nothing more than to flower from your mouth. But if it can’t it will stay in the spine and vibrate – it will make your whole body vibrate. Think of electricity trapped and wrapping in panic around the scrappy circuit board of a phone charger, desperate for release. Your body will turn into autonomous poses from yoga and contemporary dance. Nobody does ballet because ballet is deeply unnatural.


I got your email, he texted. This was the first sign that he had resurfaced.

Well, she replied, I am glad you aren’t dead.

In her room he was rolling his shirt up and she saw a brutal bruise dug into his back, cried out in surprise, pointed to it.

I don’t even remember how that happened, he said.

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