Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing: home | Fiction


Purpose of Amendment

A short story originally posted in three parts

Photo of the Custom House, Dublin by the author, 2005

There’s no going back, of course, there never has been. That truth is both too obvious to need saying and too fundamental to be merely implied. When Heraclitus declared that you can’t step into the same river twice, the quick riposte was that you can’t step into the same river once. Similarly, Thomas Wolfe’s admonition that you can’t go home again forces us to recognize that we could never have gone there in the first place. “Home”, like “the same river”, is not a fixed place or time. At best it’s an accident of perspective. As Lee Marvin sang, “home” isn’t somewhere you go to. If you’re there, it’s because you haven’t left yet.

When Niall thought about Dublin in the 80s — which he couldn’t do without his thoughts being occupied by Klot — he saw that while his trajectory had seemed at the time at least continuous if not smooth, when he looked back the path behind him appeared broken, fragmented, pitted with gaps and disruptions.

Klot, small and dark though she was, had cut through the dreary greyness of early 80s Dublin like an incandescent beam of compacted energy. In more than twenty-five years since he had spoken to her, he must have thought about her every day. He was sure, though of course there was no way to test his conviction, that her effect on him would have been every bit as powerful if, the first time he’d seen her, she hadn’t been (to his young mind) scandalously underdressed.

That was in 1976, when he was 11, and she would have been about 14. Her given name was Charlotte. Julian, her later boyfriend, made a tediously persistent effort to persuade everybody that she ought to be called Carlotta, “Charlotte” being far too fluffy and soft — too sweet — to match her personality. Like most deliberate attempts to impose a nickname, Julian’s didn’t quite hit the target and Charlotte instead became Klot. The handle was apt in the same way as “Curly” for a bald man. She was graceful, elegant and self-assured and if she ever performed a clumsy action, the fact that it was her action at once stripped it of its clumsiness.

Niall’s first encounter with her happened years before she became Klot, of course, but he had never doubted that her nickname applied retrospectively. She’d always been Klot, even if the world had been slow to recognize the fact. She was standing thigh-deep in a pond in her aunt’s garden. The land was parched and adults seemed to wilt like the vegetation in the abnormal, hypernatural heat, while saying as little as possible lest they utter a sacrilegiously ungrateful complaint about the “good” weather. Klot had chosen the most effective method of keeping cool. It did not occur to Niall to wonder by what magic any water remained in the pond.

“It’s all right so long as you don’t splash and none of the water gets in your mouth,” Klot told him. “The pool is stagnant, so heaven knows what it contains. Almost certainly rat’s piss and worse. Don’t let your head get anywhere near the water.”

“I can’t get in there.”

“Suit yourself, but you look awfully hot. There’s really nothing to be afraid of, so long as you’re careful.”

“I haven’t got my swimming togs.”

“I haven’t got any either. I’m a bit surprised you didn’t notice.”

He blushed, but persuaded himself that his cheeks were already so red from the oppressive heat that she might not have remarked his discomfiture.

“But I’m not allowed to — At least, I don’t think — You live here. It’s different for me.”

“I don’t exactly live here. I’m staying with Aunt Tilly for the holidays. And she certainly didn’t give me permission to get in the pond. She suggested that I might be cooler if I sat under a tree.”

He nodded. Miss Ross would surely not have told him to go and introduce himself to Charlotte if she’d known that her niece was at that moment doing an impression — necessarily sedate to avoid stirring up the pond’s filth — of a water nymph.

“Really, don’t worry,” Klot assured him. “If we get in trouble, I’ll certainly be the one who’s in deeper.”

So, within five minutes of meeting him for the first time, Klot had coaxed him out of his clothes, all except his underpants, an impressive feat which no one else would equal for many years afterwards. That exceptional occurrence set the tone of their friendship. From that moment, each tacitly accepted that she could talk him out of — or into — anything she wanted to.

Klot had been meant to stay with Miss Ross for two or three weeks but that sojourn had been extended. Miss Ross was her mother’s older sister. There was also a third sister, the youngest, who had always been “delicate”, and had recently suffered sudden debilitating health problems. Klot’s mother went to look after the invalid, while Klot remained with Miss Ross. Klot’s father, a Lieutenant in the Irish army, was off carrying out his military duties and in no position to look after Klot, who was therefore enrolled in Niall’s school for the start of the new academic year. Ordinarily she’d have been doing the Inter at the end of that year but it was thought (not necessarily by her) that it would be less disruptive for her to repeat the previous year. Niall had started school a year earlier than most of his peers and so had always been the youngest in the class, almost a full year younger than the median age.

As a result, although there was an almost three-year age gap between Klot and him, he had ended up just one class below her. Because of the constant experience of having been slightly in advance of his classmates intellectually, while lagging behind developmentally, it had become his habit to affect an emotional maturity that was far from his actual state. Klot, he always believed, saw through his act and worried about what would happen if he ever let it slip, so she took it on herself to help and protect him. There was also the fact that she was new in the school and she and Niall already knew each other. For a while, they were nearly inseparable.

Her other friends, when she made them, tended to be from the year above — her peers in age, rather than in scholarship. Julian, who would instigate the misconceived effort to rename her, was another year ahead. He’d be doing his Leaving at the end of the year. (When it came to it, he decided to repeat the year even though there was no real reason to believe that he could improve on his admittedly unimpressive results. It seemed that he was not yet prepared for life outside Klot’s sphere of enchantment.)

It was never clear to Niall just what attraction Julian held for Klot. He was handsome enough and not badly off, but he was neither brilliantly clever nor witty. He was too ordinary. Niall knew that Klot didn’t like him to ask about Julian but he couldn’t always resist. Usually, he got nothing sensible out of her on the subject. Once or twice she hinted that the attraction was sexual which made Niall at once sorry he’d asked and eager to know more. He didn’t think they were actually having sex, less because Klot wasn’t yet sixteen than because he was sure that she’d be more discriminating in the bestowal of what he thought of as her “favours”. But it wasn’t just that.

Klot always seemed to him to be purposeful, focused, maybe even driven. He had no idea what her goal might be but found it inconceivable that she might think Julian capable of furthering her progress. Still, they remained apparently intimate right up to the end of Julian’s second attempt at the Leaving Certificate. Klot had got 8 honours in her Inter, distributed more or less evenly across the range of science, languages and business subjects. By now her mother and younger aunt formed one household, she and Miss Ross a second, and her father visited only irregularly. With a lack of curiosity which he later thought bizarre, Niall refrained from asking her how she felt about the de facto separation of her parents and she gave no hint that her feelings in this respect might be a suitable topic for enquiry.

Not that he was incurious about her life, far from it, but his interest was limited to those aspects of her existence which he could see, or at least glimpse. She contrived to suggest that the relationship of her parents, with her and each other, impinged very little on her being in the world. Even much later he couldn’t be sure that her deflection of attention was conscious.

Julian continued to turn up occasionally during Klot’s final year at school, which she ended by getting poorer Leaving results than expected. She still did well enough to be accepted to study modern languages in university. Niall was determined to follow her there a year later. He didn’t have an aptitude for commerce or any of the sciences — he enjoyed physics but had found parts of the Inter Cert syllabus beyond his intellectual capacity, biology was too icky to spend much time thinking about and chemistry just seemed remote from anything that interested him — so he’d already decided to concentrate his attention on the humanities. He saw Klot only irregularly over the course of that year and had plenty of time for study. To his surprise, he was able to stick to his resolution and he ended up with better results than he’d hoped for — good enough to join Klot at university the following year.

They were in different years and departments, but had lunch together a few times a week and often hung around the students’ bar in the evenings. Towards the end of her first year, she had become a key figure in the university’s women’s group and her conversation was now sprinkled with terms like “patriarchy” which made sense to Niall in general, abstract terms but which he wasn’t able to relate to social institutions that he recognized. Conversations with her, unwilling as he would have been to give them up, had become exhausting because of the constant mental adjustment they required if he were to attempt to see the world as she did.

He told himself that it was flattering that she gave him the unexpurgated version, that she didn’t feel she had to tailor her conversation with him to make it more acceptable to what he’d heard her call “male discourse”. This was true but not quite the whole truth. He accepted loans from her of books by Sheila Rowbotham, Elaine Showalter, Susan Brownmiller and a few others but struggled to make sense of them. When he confessed this to Klot she seemed more disappointed than surprised.

“As a male, you have a built-in disincentive to understand the underpinnings of your own privileged status. The ideas aren’t all that difficult but your own self-interest prevents you from grasping them. You just need to keep at it. Break down your own resistance.”

Part of him acknowledged that this must be true but a more powerful part recoiled from the idea that his intellectual faculties, which he’d always found a source of self-satisfaction and reassurance, could also be deceiving him? Klot’s emphasis on the notion of male privilege was putting their friendship under strain. Luckily the Anti-Amendment Campaign provided them with a pressing issue they could agree upon — an opportunity to make common cause.

The Taoiseach, Garrett Fitzgerald, not long after proclaiming his commitment to a “constitutional crusade” aimed at liberalizing the social fabric, had given in to pressure from conservative religious zealots (funded and encouraged by their US counterparts who had seen an opportunity to fight their very different American battles by proxy). His government agreed to hold a referendum on adding a supposedly “anti-abortion” amendment to the Irish Constitution. The professed aim of the amendment proposal was to prevent the Irish Supreme Court from ever invalidating the prohibition of abortion under a law which had been in force unchallenged since 1861 — or the Oireachtas from repealing that law.