"Nakedness rather than sex is the theme of Nuala Ní Chonchúir's Nude, nakedness and hiding linked like natural opposites, the delicacy of encounters and then the blunt proposition, the subterfuge and the revelation. Over it all is an elegant simplicity of language, a quilt of metaphor. Art and beauty are the threads that hold it together and ravel the lives of her characters. A beautiful collection of stories about beauty."
Man Booker longlisted author of This Is The Country
"Nuala Ní Chonchúir's stories in her extraordinary collection, Nude, are at once ravishingly sexual and achingly, vulnerably human. The title not only refers to the body but to the human heart. She understands both with profound delicacy and compassion, and she has a pitch-perfect narrative voice to illuminate truths that are rarely spoken."
Robert Olen Butler
author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
The guide-book said not to smile at men, that it is not a part of the culture and might be misinterpreted as flirting. For the first few days I swallowed my thanks for directions and nodded sternly at both men and women. But the people were nice, so I soon gave that up and said ‘Merci’ – with smiles – to all. I got lost a lot at first, though Paris is not a confusing city. Victor, my ex-husband, used to say I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag. Ex-husband. That always sounds like I’m trying to state a position, make myself known; when I say it in conversation, I hear my own defensiveness.
The outflow on the bath is like a keyhole; you stopper it with your toe and let the water lap in your ears, to block out the house. If you were key-shaped, you would slither into that hole and slip down the pipes, away from here. Away from the women who breed women; the women who’ve cried lavishly for three days, though your daughter was an embarrassment to them and you all know it. When you called your baby Angelica, your sister said it was a waste of a good name.
The air slung like a noose around my nose and mouth, then slipped down to settle on my neck. I had never felt as uncomfortable in my own skin; the flabby heat made my trousers stick to my legs like fly-paper. I craved two things: water to drink and breathable air. The Hotel Bright, when I got there after a bumpy auto-rickshaw ride, was anything but. My room was dim and plain; it made the squalid chalets from childhood trips to Butlin’s holiday-camp look five-star. But, seeing a merry parade of sadhus under my balcony, all of them slung with saffron garlands and moving to a brass band, made me feel a little less dark. Watching the procession pass, I let the bone-weariness that always comes over me after a long journey, descend into my body.
She has a doughy face and bulging, raisin eyes; her belly-folds flop one over another in a fleshy heap. Her companions look like Mediterraneans trying to be gentlemen, with their succulent lips, hirsute chins and cheap jackets.
This is no nude; she brazens at me from the painting, a naked, living woman. There is hair (hair!) peeking from her armpit, and the sole of one lumpen foot bares itself to my eyes. Her dress, a discarded picnic blanket of blue silk-organza, holds – instead of the meat of her – a tilted basket of peaches, plums and grapes, as well as a water flask and a knot of bread.
The police wasn’t that interested in why I done it, more like how. They asked me loads of questions and I tried to be honest but, you know.
They says to me, ‘You’re a fantasist, Shine’.
And I’m like, ‘I am not’.
It was all questions: ‘What training have you had, Oscar? Did you always make things, Oscar? What school were you at?’
I said, ‘I had no training, I didn’t go to no art school. I like the library. A bit boring, aren’t I?’
‘No,’ said the Art Squad fella, ‘you’re very interesting to us Oscar Shine, as it happens.’
I wear the blue silk gown for my portrait, with a lace capelet and my marriage pearls. In painting a half-portrait, Ramsay, the artist, accommodates my wish to hide the swell of my belly. I am all amazement that he consults me concerning the making of the portrait. He says my comfort is the most important thing, for only when I am at ease will he ‘capture my essence’.
‘My style is natural, Madam,’ he says, ‘and your husband is fond of nature.’
‘He is, Sir,’ I agree, thinking of the nights Mr Morison enters my bed-chamber, scatters the bedclothes and then enters myself.
Two days after Cowboy met Nelly, he had her name tattooed on the white skin of his inner wrist. The girl who inked the tattoo stayed silent. Cowboy wanted to talk; he wanted to tell the girl about Nelly, about her jutting clavicle and mannish hands, about her sweet-dough smell. But once he had talked to the tattooist about what he wanted her to draw, she didn’t speak again.
Cowboy was worried that the script might blur if the letters were tiny and crowded.
‘Don’t make the letters too small,’ he said, trying to sound calm.
The tattooist nodded and continued to inscribe Nelly’s name in a line of plain, purple letters. Outside the tattoo parlour, Cowboy stripped the bandage from his wrist, held his arm up under a street lamp on O’Connell Street, and whispered, ‘Nelly’.
My flaccid mood had lasted the thirty or so years I had been alive; I was weary and without confidence. But Ernest came into my world and he saw inside me – into my reserves – and with his loving interest, my energies burbled. He was a darling man; with Ernest, I lived. That’s how it was, even for a time after I lost the valise. Though his heart shifted away from me then and could not quite settle back.
Peeling away the onion-skins of years between that time and now, I can still weep. I see that young me – trying to do a good thing – lugging two valises to the Gare de Lyons. I was excited about taking the Paris-Lausanne Express to join Ernest in Switzerland, where he was reporting for the Toronto Star.
I stare at The Woman in the Waves – on a postcard bought from a book-shop by the river – and imagine, for the thousandth time, that Bea’s breasts are like the woman’s. I do this before she arrives at my flat, positing all that swollen-upward, otherworldly, blue-tinged flesh onto the not-so-bad breasts that are Bea’s.
Bea’s key in my front-door releases something familiar inside me; a crabby desire. I listen to her walk across the sitting-room carpet.
‘In here,’ I shout, and in a moment she is standing in my bedroom doorway.
‘Hello,’ she says, and unbelts her coat. ‘There’s a weird smell in here.’
The perverse nature of some of the art in here annoys me. It’s not that I’m anti-flesh – I love bare skin – but some of the nudes in this gallery are deliberately ugly. Take this one with the distended bum. Why did he (it’s always a ‘he’) do that to her? It looks like half of her innards have become her outtards. There’s no way the artist knew a woman with a bum like that, I just don’t believe it.
I read a slogan once that went something like: ‘Do women have to be naked to get into this gallery?’ Around here, the answer might be yes. Naked and nude are two different things, you know.
She told me on the phone that her gaff was called Jerusalem. This was before I knew who she was, or anything about her, and I thought it was an awful weird name to call a place. But famous people are always doing that sort of thing, like calling their kids Banana or Tuesday and nobody bats an eye. Her gaff was easy to find – the walls were painted a mad orange – but it was still a typical auld dear’s place, with the windows cluttered up with Saint Anthony and the Child of Prague and swaggy curtains. Her voice was real posh, but I knew it would be, because Christopher talked like that and he was her nephew and my teacher. I hate yapping on the phone, so I said I’d call round, and she could have a look at me.
You arrived in Barcelona with no plan other than to experience it. In your head it was a gothic place, all teetering Gaudiesque towers and endless nights. The reality of it wasn’t too different: the maze of laneways off the Ramblas pumped their dark sensuality like a medieval carnival, night and day, and there was a vibrancy to the roaming crowds of rich and poor. Barcelona didn’t wear the pristine frilliness of Germanic cities, it had its own dirty-sweet, lived-in charm, like a treasured vintage dress. The Gaudi buildings weren’t everywhere, like you had expected, but the place was beautiful and unlike any other you’d been in. Arriving in October, you found the city still basking under summer’s heat and you were glad of it, after a rainy Dublin September.
Twice a year they come here, to her home-place. He and she. One winter visit, one summer. She is a good daughter, the kind anyone would be glad to have. He is a good son-in-law: helpful, fine-featured, polite – like all French people, they think. He loves nature, the outdoors. The Irish landscape refreshes him, gets him ready for another half-year in the rush and din of Paris.
Sheila, the good daughter, settles into the house, fussing over her parents and acting younger than she is; she enjoys the worn familiarity of home. Henri, the good son-in-law, chops logs and paints rooms; he hefts furniture from B to A and goes for long drives into the mountains, where he likes to walk. His walks take him through places his wife has never been: Lugnaquilla, The Glen of Imaal, Poulaphouca, The Sally Gap.
We are so glad that Roy isn’t alive to see what’s happened to us because, oh my Lord, he would die.
Yes, we’re comic-strippy – not exactly the Rokeby Venus – but we are of-our-time, same as old Mrs Rokeby. Whoever she was. And, we are not pleased that some weirdos want to get at us because we are undressed. And that there are fancy-schmanzies who think we’re dumb because we were modelled from models. Hullo, that is how it operates, and our models loved their work and were good at it. How many of you can say that?
Road-kill, Easter Sunday: a badger, a hedgehog, a black cat, a grey cat, a pheasant hen (feathers blowing behind the car), a baby rabbit. Another black cat, two fox cubs, a magpie with a broken tail, a black and white collie.’ A pause. ‘Probably someone’s pet.’
Bernadette heard the snap of the off-button and felt Ralph’s self-contained silence sifting like a vapour through the car. The Dictaphone had been her idea: before, Ralph would sit in the back scribbling his lists of road-kill – and other sights of interest – onto a notepad. It was easier to mouth them into the recorder and, like most boys, he enjoyed owning a new gadget.
You died today. I’ve sat at my window all morning, staring at the untrustworthy spring sunshine hovering over the boulevard, wondering who you thought of in the end. Old Pompadour? Your Polish wife, perhaps? Or me? And I’ve wondered, too, whether men hold memories like women do, as full-flowering scenes with smells, skin-touches, falling light. But, no. A man’s memories are more likely to hang like meat in aspic, still and jellied, trapped in time.
Early McIntyre had a badger-stripe of silver flashing through her hair from root to tip. My mother said she should dye it black, to give herself a more youthful appearance. She only said that to us, though, not to Early herself. They had been at school together but were never friends. My mother told us that people said old Mr McIntyre had built a circular house – a place without angles – so that the Devil couldn’t lurk in the corners and tempt his daughter.
‘The Devil can hide as easily in the human heart as in a corner,’ my father said.
My mother humphed. ‘Shut bloody up. What do you know about the human heart?’
My father shrugged and disappeared back into watching the television.
Is it vain to love a portrait of yourself? My mother didn’t think so. Juno Out of Yellow hung – and still hangs – in the City Gallery. We used to visit it together. Mother would squeeze Father’s arm and say what a great artist he was, and how lovely she herself looked in the painting. Father had wanted to paint her like Botticelli’s Venus – powerful and demure – but she argued for a Flemish-type Bathsheba and, as always, he obeyed. He portrayed Mother being helped out of a yellow cloak, her alabaster breasts pouched, her face turned away.
The light bulb over the table burst and the kitchen went dark; bits of bulb glass landed in my hair and I shook my head and swiped them away.
‘Shit,’ Imogen said, reaching across to touch my arm, ‘it must be a power surge.’
‘It’s Dana,’ I said, standing up, ‘she’s dead.’
‘For fuck’s sake, Sonny. What are you talking about?’ Imogen snapped her hand away and fumbled towards the hall. ‘This one’s gone too,’ she shouted. I heard her bump into the coat-stand and curse, then head up the stairs to the nursery.
I knew Dana was dead, as surely as I knew anything. And although I had weaned myself off the idea of her – of us – I felt panicked at the thought of never seeing her again. I sat down, my mind pulling backwards to Dana and our pact: when one of us died, we had said, the light bulbs in the other’s house would blow. All of them, spectacularly. We had made this deal as twelve-year-olds, cooped in the hut we had built in her garden, high on each other’s salt and clay smell, our mouths raw from a long ‘session’.