Audio Guide by Ronan Hession

“Are you sure you’ll be ok?”

“I’m fine. Honestly.  My folks are coming over later so I won’t be on my own.  Go on. You’ll be late.”

I left Angela to rest up, her body still getting used to itself after the miscarriage.  Everything had changed so quickly.  Last week, we had been living a life of plans, talking  about the arrival of a baby who was in fact already in our bed, inside of Angela; a little nineteen-week-old grapefruit.  But what can you say when there’s no heartbeat?   When the scan shows indecipherable black and grey shading and the baby is still there but without that pulsing, characteristic pattern that is supposed to last a lifetime?  I was full of questions, trying to talk my way out of things, but Angela just settled into a profound, personal realisation that was inaccessible to me.  That deep wisdom of the body once it knows, truly knows, that everything has changed.

As we sat at home, waiting for the tablets to work, I texted my sister: “We’ve lost the baby.  Can you tell people?”  We sat through the unreality of trying to find something decent on TV, of having run out of bread, of drying some spare pyjamas for Angela in case she needed to go back into hospital, which she did, for a D&C later that day.  I phoned my boss and said that I had a vomiting bug and would be out for a couple of days, instinctively knowing not to tell the truth.  The following days were filled with the practicalities of medicine, and that closeness you find between two people who have been through a lot together.

The world seemed stubbornly normal as I made my way back in to work. It was autumn and Dublin looked well; the leaves turning the colour of Georgian bricks.

“Here he is! The only man to catch morning sickness when his wife is pregnant – how’s your bump Ger?”

“Hi folks.  Thanks for your sympathy. Don’t come too close, I’m not sure if I’m entirely over it.”

“So brave.  What a pro.  Here he is back after only three days in his Superman pyjamas.”

The first morning at the office filled itself with routine: looking through the end-quarter numbers before they were sent to the West Coast; querying payments made while I was out; clearing annual leave for the girl who worked for me.  Little pieces of normality that I operated by remote control from inside my grief.

At lunchtime, I passed on an invite to go for a curry with the others, answering them with a pantomime pat of my supposedly recovering stomach.  Once the office quietened down, I logged out and left for a walk.  Outside, the bockety streets were full of that midday busyness: people texting their lunch dates to say that they were running late, something had come up; charity fund raisers flirting for Africa; and Italian students in puff jackets walking five abreast, full of continental obliviousness.

I stopped outside the National Gallery.  For months it had been barricaded by hoardings during its renovation, but now, like me, it was slowly beginning to engage with the world again.  It appealed to me as a safe place where a person could go and look like they were doing something, even if they were not really taking anything in.

The lobby was busy with tour groups and people with bags being told that they would need to use the cloakroom.  The Perspex donation box stood awkwardly, half full with unfamiliar currencies. I decided to rent a recorded audio guide to insulate myself from the chatter and close off my interior world.  I put the old-style foam-covered headphones over my ears and clipped the device onto my belt.  It was still set to German so I had to fiddle around and find the English setting, but it played automatically once the language was selected.

“The National Gallery first opened in 1922, after the Parliament building had been bombed, leading to a reorganisation of city centre properties under the control of the State . . .”

The crowds were all drawn to the big names on show at the visiting exhibition of Art from the Low Countries, so the rooms of lesser known Irish art were pretty quiet – mostly rural scenes and large landscapes.  The audio guide explained that Irish landscape paintings typically devoted an unusually large amount of space to the sky: the mercurial weather providing the variety and drama that painters loved.

“Number 41.  This painting depicts working men stopping for lunch.  Their dark skin and weathered clothes indicate that they may have been day labourers, or Journée men . . .”

Standing still, my arms hung loose and my body felt torpid.  I needed some rest, but I also knew that I needed to begin the process of rejoining the world.  Any more time in that house and I would have become too sad.

“ . . . Notice how the woman to the rear of the painting, wielding the soup ladle, stares straight at the viewer.”  

-She looks sad.  On her own among all those men.

“That’s because she is sad.  She’s wearing a black scarf over her head, which indicates a family bereavement.”

-Is one of the men her husband?

“Unlikely.  Perhaps her husband has died and her sadness is because she must work among other men in his absence.”

-That’s a powerful interpretation.

“What do you think?”

-I think she might just be exhausted to the point of sadness.

“No. 59.  This portrait depicts the Earl of Longford, James Hassekemp, with his hunting dogs.  The landscape in the background alludes to his Dutch protestant heritage and the style of the Dutch masters . . .”

-Is he famous?

“Only in the sense that he was rich in the nineteenth century and so his history is recorded and his family name remains in the area.”

-Is that the only reason his picture is here?

“Do you feel drawn to him?”

-I don’t know.  I’m not sure.  I think I like the painting though.

“It’s well executed, but somewhat stiff.  Why do you like it?”

-It’s just so big.  He looks so tall.

“Why is that important?”

-It makes him look substantial.  Unaffected by things.

“Number 73 is titled ‘Woman with a Guitar and Tears’.  This is by Irish painter Lily Oster, who travelled and studied throughout Europe and who was married to the famous sculptor, Daniel Bard.”

-Why tell me who her husband was?

“He is very famous, and the better known.”

-He always will be if you keep describing her like that.

“It’s a Cubist painting. Do you know what that is?”

-I think so. I mean, I know it’s modern art and it’s made up of shapes and different perspectives and all that.   I wouldn’t be able to tell it from other schools of abstract art, but I know as much as I need to.

“How does the painting affect you?”

-It’s ok.  Only ok.  On a different day I might feel engaged intellectually, but the way I am today it just sort of washes over me.

“Does the fact that she is crying mean anything to you?”

-I suppose it’s meant to mean something, but to me it just looks, I don’t know.  Just a painting.  I’m not getting anything from it.

“Some say she looks like a sad Mona Lisa.”

-Let’s move on.
“The next one is number 80. We can skip this if you want.”

-It’s ok.

“I thought it might upset you.”

-Why?

“Because of your baby.”

-My little grapefruit.

“We don’t have to do this one if you don’t want to.”

-Tell me about the painting.

“It’s by Ulick Grey.  It’s called the ‘Child’s Wake’.  It was his last painting and was unfinished at his death.  The child and the adult figures were done by Grey, but the details of the room had to be completed by one of his students.  This is the first time it has been shown here.”

-I haven’t seen it before.

“Grey mostly painted landscapes.   Even though it’s not particularly well executed, the choice of subject is original and profound, which makes it arresting.”

-I see what you mean. The child’s face is wrong though, isn’t it?

“How so?”

-It looks like it’s sleeping, rather than dead.  It’s too peaceful.

“How should it look?”

-I don’t know. But not too peaceful.

“What about the mother figure?”

-She’s not difficult to do.  Everyone knows what a heartbroken mother looks like.

“And the father?”

-He’s not looking at the child.

“Why do you think that is?”

-I think I know.

“Go on.”

-At some stage he will have to choose the exact moment to pull the blanket over the child’s face.

“Should we move on?”

-I have to go back.

“Can’t you stay?  There are two more rooms on this floor.”

-I can’t.  I wish I could bring you with me.

“They won’t let you.”

-What would happen?

“I don’t know.  I don’t know how things work from your side.”

-I’ll just bring you back.  I suppose I have no way of knowing if I’ll get you the next time I come here.

“I guess not.”

I returned the audio guide at the counter, where a woman with a steel grey bob hung it among the others, without breaking off the instructive conversation she was having with some tourists.  It was hard to see exactly where she had hung it or to tell which one I had given her.

Stepping outside into the street again, my ears felt the cold.  Things seemed calmer now, with a few people here and there, making their way with an easy randomness.  A school tour passed by, the children each holding hands with the kids in front and behind them, looking like a string of cut-out paper dolls.

I was in no mood to go back: not yet ready to accept that part of returning to normal was getting back to doing the things that I didn’t want to do.  I sent two texts:

“Hi love.  Am taking a half day.  See you in an hour xx G.”

And to my boss:

“We lost the baby.  Can you tell people?”


Ronan Hession is an emerging writer based Dublin – his work has previously appeared in The Honest Ulsterman. As Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, he has released three albums of storytelling songs. His third album Dictionary Crimes was was nominated for the Choice Music Prize.


Image Source:  Igor Miske