Where there’s smoke there’s ghosts

If you had to pick a country to grieve in, Ireland was it.

My up-for-anything comrade, Kennedy, was twenty-three when he died. He didn’t mean to, but it was like he knew. In his last weeks he’d even coloured silver streaks in his hair, to see what it was like to have grey hair.

Then on his last day, he phoned me at five am and said in his been-up-all-night voice: Anna, I need to reach out to someone. I’d only seen him a few hours earlier and told him in my crabby let-me-sleep voice: I’m too tired to talk. Thankfully, Kennedy called back at ten pm. He’d wanted me to drive him to a friend’s place, but my rusty Datsun was playing up. So instead we talked for two hours about life, friends and love.

The next day Kennedy’s flatmate found him in their living room, slumped in a beanbag with a trickle of vomit across his shoulder.

Five weeks later, and in numb shock, I left Australia.

After a few months of grimy youth hostels in Europe, I found myself in rain-speckled Ireland. I threw out my umbrella and let the constant rain drizzle over my skin and frizz my hair. An Irish winter, as brutal as it was, was something you had to surrender to. The apartment I shared with two Irish girls had one shoebox-sized electric heater and an equally small fireplace. Every night that winter I dove into bed, wearing leggings under my tracksuit pants, at least two tops, a jumper, beanie, woollen gloves and three pairs of socks. Then, to trap my body heat in, I piled coats over the doona. My mouth would be coated in lemon, sugar and whisky from the hot toddies I’d downed to fight off the bone-aching chill. My nose was all that peeked out from the covers. Once cocooned in bed, I wasn’t getting up for anything.

But late one night, while I was sleeping in the rear bedroom, our bathroom door slammed shut, clicked open and slammed shut again. It then continued banging at intermittent intervals for what seemed like hours. I thought it was the wind and snuggled deeper under my mountain of coats. My bedroom door was closed and I fell asleep.

Our greying, whitewashed apartment was long, narrow and below street level. The footpath above could just be seen through a black, box-framed window in the living room and the only way to get in or out of our apartment was through the main front door. A hallway-kitchen joined the living room to the rear bedrooms. There was no window in the kitchen, only a skylight filled with twigs. In between the two bedrooms was a tiny bathroom with sticky, blue carpet and a pink loo and shower. Torn squares of Kilkenny’s local newspaper were stacked beside the loo for wiping and the only ventilation was an atlas-sized window. With only two bedrooms and three of us, we took turns sleeping on the couch.

One of my flatmates, Áine, was an attractive Trad musician who played the mandolin and sang Gaelic folk songs in smoky, low-ceilinged pubs. With her oak-coloured hair and medieval dresses, Áine looked like she’d sprung straight out of a faerie circle. And every time she sang, her honey-lilted voice easily silenced over a hundred rowdy pint-drinkers.

My other flatmate, Clare, was a classic Irish beauty with bobbed onyx hair and a soft, peaches and cream complexion. Seven nights a week she came home reeking of cooking fat, and her hands decorated with cuts and burns from working in a wine-bar kitchen. On weekday mornings Clare cleaned herself up, and the apartment, for her day job as a nanny to a gorgeous toddler whom she minded in our home. On those days raspberry shampoo and stewed apples scented our cosy home.

Sometimes I’d be mistaken for a pale, dark-haired Irish girl, then I’d open my mouth and the twang came out. People often did a double-take and asked if I was from Home and Away. There weren’t many Australians living in Kilkenny before the economic boom of the late ’90s. Home and Away was the only Australian TV show playing on one of the three channels Ireland had, RTE 1 and RTE 2. The other was a Gaelic channel none of us understood.

One of my jobs was working nights as an usher for £1.50 an hour at the only cinema in town. The retro building had a huge single screen and red velvet love seats. I collected tickets for movies like Michael Collins, which played every night for two months. For the Friday evening session I’d have to sit in the cinema and keep an eye on the hundred-or-so kids, mainly checking for cigarette smoke. When the cinema went completely dark, just after the ads had finished, these kids would scream and stamp their feet for a solid minute. The deafening shrieks were like some end of week release, and it amazed me. In Australia you’d be kicked out of the cinema for making a racket like that at the pictures.

During the day I was a shop assistant at a new-age clothes shop. Shrouded in a swirl of incense, I sold hippy dresses from India, second-hand jeans from London and T-shirts with Wonderwall printed on them. The main customers were high school kids in puffer jackets and jeans with the ankle seams torn to make them look like flares. Sometimes itinerant gypsies came into the shop, trying to sell me palm readings. One woman in particular spooked the crap out of me by incanting: I have a message for you. But mostly the gypsies came in and stuffed stolen jeans into their bags, while I looked the other way, on my own and too scared to say anything.

Most mornings I changed linen, and cleaned the bathrooms and kitchen at the local hostel. The manager who lived there, Alice, was from Australia too and she took care of me in my sadness. I must have been a miserable friend to be around, but she’d be always there, ready with a hug. She ran the hostel with the grace of Rossetti’s Venus Verticordia. Alice wore the most exquisite perfumes and had strawberry blonde dreadlocks down to her hips. When caught in the light, her hair shone like spun gold. Alice had a thing for Sheela na gigs. They were these Celtic sex and fertility drawings from the middle ages. The soothing swirls and alien like images decorated her bedroom walls, along with her hand drawn typography of ancient Irish sayings.

Our rent was £14.00 a week and a sack of coal for the fireplace in the living room £7.00 a week. To keep bills down, we avoided using the electric heater and stuck to coal fires. When we didn’t have fire-starters we used old shoes, spraying deodorant to mask the synthetic rubber smell. There were no smoke alarms to hinder our efforts. I soon learnt how to make a fire by stacking the balls of coal into a mini pyramid and gently nudging them until they flared to life. My fingers would be coated in gritty, black dust and my nose and eyes watering from the fumes. But the warmth would eventually reach into my bones like the electric blanket I wished I’d packed in my backpack from Australia.

Living in Ireland meant long hours of work and aching damp but I never wanted to return to Australia again. The pub was a second home, always heated, with pints of nourishing Guinness and hot salty chips, brought in from the chippa down the road. We’d go to the pub most evenings to watch Friends or the two wayward priests in Father Ted, courtesy of their satellite TV. We’d sprawl out over the low-back couches, and each other, as if it were our own living room.

It was deadly, as the Irish would say.

The night the bathroom door kept slamming, I remember pressing my cheek into the T-shirt I’d used for a pillowcase and listening for any birds chirping, or for one of the girls to get up and close the door properly. There were no curtains on my window and I peered outside for any hint of morning light. All I saw were four grey walls, shadowed in midnight darkness. The bedrooms and bathroom backed onto a tiny square space in the centre of the three-storey block of apartments. From our bottom floor we could barely see the sky.

Eventually the door banging became so insistent I couldn’t sleep anymore. I had a slow-burning headache and reluctantly unpeeled suede coat after woollen jacket and stumbled to my bedroom door. The icy air poured through my layers like a bucket of cold water. Shivering, I swung the door open, and … couldn’t see a thing. Blackness cloaked everything. The kitchen had disappeared, or maybe I had gone blind. Even the skylight, which usually let in some moonlight, was hidden in black. I stood there dumbstruck, half-asleep and wondering: what the bloody hell, when a scorched-metal smell hit me like a rotten egg cracked onto a frypan.

I brushed my palms along the tiled wall, using my fingers as eyes. My heart was pounding. I knew something was dreadfully wrong. I flicked on the kitchen light and the blackness instantly became a colour—white smoke. I covered my nose with my jumper and felt my way along the bench to the electric stove. Fumbling in my woollen gloves, and coughing, I found the knob that had been left on and switched it off. My eyes were stinging and the noxious taste in my mouth was like I’d been chewing on the burnt shoes in the fireplace. Still blinded by smoke, I edged my way around to the bathroom door and flung it wide open. Then I stood on the toilet seat and pushed the window fully out. It had only been slightly ajar.

When the smoke dissipated, I noticed a saucepan on the stovetop. In it was a charcoal boiled egg, crumbled in the middle, and black worms that must have been noodles. The melted saucepan handle was curved down towards the element like a dripping banana in a Dali painting. With a tea towel over my gloves, I shoved the saucepan over to another element that wasn’t glowing red and corroded at the edges.

In the living room I found Áine, asleep on the couch, still in her Celtic dress with my sleeping bag draped over her. I shook her arm but she was rubbery with sleep. She’d had a Trad session that night at the pub. I hadn’t heard her come home or start boiling the egg and noodles. I peeked in on Clare in the second bedroom. She was breathing soundly. After fanning out more smoke, I jammed the bathroom door open with a boot and returned to my pile of jackets.

The next morning the smoke was gone but not the stench. The pungent bushfire smell was in everything, including our clothes, hair, furniture and towels. The stovetop element was destroyed and the saucepan unrecognisable. Clare examined the warped metal in her professional, kitchen manner and shook her head: Lucky the handle hadn’t touched the element ’cause then the flames would’ve caught.

Poor Áine had stood there wide-eyed and hung over.

Later on that day I checked out the bathroom door. It was an average white door with a chrome lever-style handle. Curious, I slammed the door shut. When I pushed on the door with my shoulder to open it, like I thought the wind had, it wouldn’t budge. I had to press the handle down to release the snib. I wondered if the banging was a fluke or caused by some movement in the doorjamb beams. I slammed the door again and again. Even several weeks later, I’d return to the door and test it, to see how the wind had opened and closed it.

But every single time the door closed tight.

And I felt a sense of comfort. I imagined Kennedy’s ghost in the smoke, swinging the door open and shut, and using it to call out: get out of bed, Anna, get out of bed … don’t die.