I spent the last week in a friend’s cottage in Mayo. And on the internet. But mostly in the cottage, I think, sitting on the carpet by the fire, my back against the sofa. Sometimes the fire lit for me, sometimes it didn’t. I wore my hat indoors constantly when not for warmth, for comfort.
Once or twice a year I do this, up and go with little to no notice, off to the West or an island off the coast of Kerry. This isn’t as romantic a notion as it looks: in recent times, my tolerance for living in the city has changed, and my already-anxious disposition has been thrown badly off centre by the changes in Dublin. Finding a quiet place to write isn’t as simple as finding a silent place: finding somewhere comfortable, tender, private is slightly more complicated than that. Libraries provide that for me most of the time, but I am currently writing the last leg of my third novel, and needed more than just average space to get my head around some final secrets it was holding.
So I go, and I know that my years of being able to up and skirt into the wilderness may be limited, so I wring every ounce of pleasure and quiet out of these times that I possibly can, as well as treating them sincerely as a work-undertaking. This time in the green world was a silent rollercoaster: a failed promise to myself of machine-grade productivity. Instead of as many words as I would have liked I managed a lot of thinking, a lot of notes, an entirely full diary – three wasted pens. Several of the days passed without me getting the chance to speak aloud for more than a few moments: one was silent beginning to end. I kept Youtube on in the background as I wrote – inane commentary on video games, attractive wealthy people putting make-up on very slowly and meticulously, conspiracy theories about aliens. An endless radio show: background noise of affected, American voices. In some ways the sound of them is numbing, but in others it felt at least like signs of life. One-way conversations, I find, as the sun truly sets on my twenties, are more and more common in real life than they used to be – so at least when I listen to these symmetrical millionaires talk, I know I don’t have to say anything in return, I know they aren’t going to reach through the screen to me – and there’s an odd comfort in that.
I cooked for myself three times a day and enjoyed every tiny procedure, I drank a lot of hot tea with oat milk which has a distinctly biscuity flavour. A part of me thinks I’m cut out for this life, well – in a world of just green and sky and no noise at all. Except for the fire. The fire is the thing.
I fought, for the first two mornings and one night, with the hot element itself. Because I’m from Dublin, presumably, I can’t for the entire life of me light a fire. This has to be my excuse. People I meet who were raised outside the capital rightly give me serious stick for my profound lack of practical abilities: I’m a suburban child from the land of radiators and plug in gas heaters, I’m not sure I ever saw a real crackling fire until I was well into my teens. Making one is the kind of puzzle that if you truly lack any cop on, as I seem to, that can leave you not only incredibly angry – but also very cold.
I watch the construction and only realise halfway through that it makes total sense, and I’ve been doing it entirely backwards.
I was last in this cottage in 2017 and was shown, specifically, how to light a fire. I spent a week on a cliff in Kerry once battling with the formation of a turf stove. As an adult I am certain that I have been shown how to do this, but as I sat there staring into the grate, the briquettes and firelighters and kindling just fizzled again and again. My structure was wrong. I knew, the first night, that I could just look it up online. I could just ask the internet. I ask the internet the stupidest things, things I already know – I stare into my phone for hours a day. But I decided that I wanted to make this fire myself. The first night was a smouldering bust, but I conceded and went to bed wrapped around my three foot long hot water bottle, so I was grand. Determined to start the next day antidoting the blue light of the west with crackle and spark.
However in an overzealous attempt to get a large piece of kindling into the mouth of the fire after somehow getting it going for a few hours, I used the heel of my left hand to press down the door. The iron door. The iron door that was scorching hot. My hand didn’t realise it was burned for a few moments, and I sat on the floor slowly thinking, ‘No. Nah. That’s not it, is it?’ to myself, feeling the bad pain rise from the inside of my body as it always does with burns. It was my left hand too. My work hand.
The fire kept going, but I stood in the kitchen with my left hand under cold water and my right, holding my phone, and pouring tales of my misery and stupidity into Whatsapp. I then fashioned a kind of ice-pack out of some frozen peas poured into a sock, and wrapped it around my hand like a cold bandage. I watched Youtube videos for the rest of the day, my hand throbbing, feeling guiltier and guiltier but somehow the numbing effect of these strangers voices kind of soothed me.
I know I can’t keep treating the internet like the enemy, like an indulgence I concede to. I know I should probably just relax about it, think about it less, but in writing these columns I feel as though I am getting closer to a truth about my relationship to it and the role it plays in my life. How I didn’t used to feel so bad about using it but now it fills me with a loathing both for myself and for the thing itself, the invisible parallel realm of information and thought that none of us can touch, that none of us can burn our hands on. As I was sitting miserably staring into the endless expanse of Youtube, I flicked on Bon Appetit again, the benevolent cooking channel featuring chefs in the test kitchen for the magazine of the same name. I’ve learned most from them, recently. And by accident, I learned how to build a fire. Molly Baz is in the wilderness, blonde and chirpy and cooking a whole meal on a campfire she lights herself. I watch the construction and only realise halfway through that it makes total sense, and I’ve been doing it entirely backwards.
You put the firelighters at the bottom, under the fuel. Building a little pyramid out of kindling and giving it structure helps. When Storm Lorenzo hit, I kept the fire going all day long using this structure – at first hiding the firelighters in a nest of kindling, three of them, a trifecta, then feeding the fire hour on hour. I was so proud, I took photo after photo of my little achievement, my flames that I sustained properly, as though this wasn’t the most basic human skill since the dawn of time. And I learned it from Youtube and something about this makes me feel ashamed – shallow, or something.
My hand chilled out after a day or two. I solved the secrets of the manuscript I’m finishing. When I checked my screen time on my phone for the week, it was appallingly high. Still as I sat on the train home from Galway in a bathed pink sunset, I felt different. The answer to all this, this puzzle of silence and noise and internet and analogue isn’t going to come in one clear message, one frank statement. It’s going to show up when I’m looking for something else, and it’s going to catch alight.
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