She decided to stop washing herself. She decided to stop grooming herself in any way whatsoever. I don’t know if she continued wiping herself after going to the toilet. I don’t know how she dealt with menstruation, or if she avoided it altogether by taking the pill. If she made any exceptions to her filth regime, they were not obvious.The stink was obvious. It was dense, and complex. It had tones and layers and unexpected interactions; sweat, dirt, feces, urine – fresh, maturing, fully matured – all mingling, all churning one into the other. Whether the stink came at you intermittently in waves, or whether it settled unbudgingly around you, there was no getting used to it. It was best not to eat or drink anything for a few hours before you went to visit her. When somebody retched, or fled out of her presence to go vomit somewhere, she just clicked her tongue and continued to smoke. Everyone who visited her brought something to smoke – it just about covered up enough of the stink to make being there bearable.
At first some of her concerned and anxious friends tried to talk her out of her decision, but there was no talking her out of it. Her laid-back friends just said let her at it, she’s stubborn and contrary and that is why we like her, that is why we started hanging out with her in the first place. Rebels forever, remember? In a month or so her filthy condition became both familiar and unmentionable, like a mother-in-law’s alcoholism.
She grew an actual beard.
Many Irish people believe, or say they believe, that you can drink yourself sober. Similarly, some who heard about her in the pubs and groves rumoured that she counted on achieving a perfect, edenic cleanliness through letting nature take its course all over her, from head to toe, from foot-sole to follicle. She was convinced her body would learn, or remember, how to clean itself using it’s own natural, gaia-like, self-regulating processes, which had been smothered under the relentlessly promoted chemical treatments of industrial modernity, especially those treatments aimed at modifying the female body in a romantic way. She could have easily picked up such a notion, they said, during one of her penniless hitches around lesser-crossed europe, perhaps from the crusties she reputedly lived among in a settlement of tepees and treehouses somewhere in the foothills of the Slovak Tatras.
On her return to Ireland – when the only immediate sign of what was to come were matted dreadlocks and unseemly feet inside rotting old clogs – she had ended up in an emergency hostel sharing crowded space with alcies and junkies, who never leave off moaning and scrounging and rowing, not for one minute of the day or night. The real reason she turned herself into a ball of stink and dirt, into a germ hive, into a bearded lady, was because it stopped her undead ‘housemates’ from hassling her all the time. The way she was, the way she had made herself, the addicts wouldn’t go near her. She disgusted them and they were afraid of her. They thought she was some kind of witch who could curse them to death if she wished*. She was a dark Madonna I suppose, a madonna of the worms, the beetles, and the bugs.
Eventually, her HSE assigned social worker, who had long taken to wearing a mask and surrounding herself with a cloud of air freshener while visiting her, found her a place to live and she moved in to it. She started washing herself again shortly afterwards. She shaved off her beard. If you were to meet her now you would never in a million years guess what went on with her before. She looks amazing and smells of rosy soap, lemon balm and mild perfumes, subtle intoxicants evoking airy formal gardens and gently raining summer days.
*Irish street addicts are by and large informal syncretists, holding passionate admixtures of christian and paranormal beliefs.
Words by Dave Lordan. Illustration by Ronan O’Hanlon.