By Fiachra Kelleher
Jane knew the curtains were Prussian blue. She was no art student, being too busy for art, but she did take history. Not that taking history for the Leaving you should know anything about Prussia. You learned about Irish independence and the fifty years in which things seemed to be going well for the Americans. History was, however, one of the humanities, which meant that generally weaker students took it, the stronger students opting for something more respectably STEM, which brought down the standard you needed to sit higher on the bell curve, and so Jane had picked it, finished the project a year early, and had just gotten a H1 in her Christmas exam, the last history exam she’d sit before the Pre, which was the last history exam she’d sit before the real Leaving Cert, which was the last exam she’d have to sit ever, she may as well think, because thinking this was one last push, and that from June onwards she’d never have to know dread and drudgery again until she was a parent, she supposed—that was a nice feeling.
The curtains were Prussian blue. They signified the Feis, Father Feis Maitiú, onetime Cork-based abolitionist philanthropist, now the name of a sort of fossilised auditorium just off an umbriferous quay in the city centre, which played host to The Feis, The Feis Maitiú recital competition. The auditorium also hosted bingo, she’d heard. She’d heard, too, that the Feis Maitiú was the second largest recital competition in the world, second only to some big one in China, and though she knew it was a competition that went on for months and she had, herself, competed in it in piano recital, poetry recital, violin recital, Irish drama, English drama (contemporary), Shakespearean drama, school choir recital, “group action songs” ages 10 and under (again with the school), and knew there were categories like group drama and individual and group mime and every mainstream classical and traditional Irish instrument in every age category from six to eighteen and over, she did not quite believe this bit of Corkist propaganda—it went too well with them being the second city and having the world’s second largest natural harbour and of course it would be “China” whatever lazily dreaming pintman would have named as the biggest one, because things were always being projected onto the vast unknowable East in the west, even if your bit of the west was a former colony, small, on the margins of Europe, itself. Ignorance goes in both directions, all directions, but differently.
She knew Prussian blue because on a wild day in October when she was streets ahead of where she needed to be on the curriculum, and her classmates were trying to get their heads around some very basic concept like the Jarrow March or something, she’d gone on the computer she was allowed to use in class because of her dyslexia and looked up the Prussian empire. Usually she’d use spare time like this—lots of school time was spare time, she had realised—to look at maths notes. But she’d been in a good mood and was finding complex numbers easy and decided on a flight of fancy.
She’d read the whole Wikipedia page, which was quite long and referenced hundreds of seemingly very important historical events she had never heard of. She wondered whether very educated people—who were generally English she’d noticed, and who did irrelevant but still apparently very employable degrees and took part in University Challenge and ended up in the British cabinet—she wondered whether to be like them would you have to spend lots of time reading Wikipedia pages at random and generally reading everything at random, and you wouldn’t, then, have much time for study or for conscientiousness, but you’d turn out sort of romantically brilliant, the notion of which she found appealing but terrifying. Because that was all very well for rich English people, but in Ireland if you were from a normal family like hers you had to stick a bit closer by the social contract, which vaguely stated something like you should use school and university to become employable and you’d be rewarded when you were thirty-five with a nice life and more time for hobbies. For now, however, hobbies weren’t hobbies but burgeoning skills, and they could be assessed. She was backstage at the Feis, she reminded herself. They’d called her up, it was very dark backstage, and she’d just sat down.
There were eight of them competing and they were playing Brahms to start—an intermezzo. Each of them would put their own spin on Brahms and then play something of their own choosing—like Mastermind, sort of.
She was on sixth. Having turned eighteen, she had to compete in the adult category now, which was actually less competitive than under eighteens, because the adults had two categories, “Senior” and “Advanced”, and she was in the former, less hardcore competition. And going by her kid sisters and her friends and then thinking about herself and then thinking about the older people she knew, she thought the under eighteens might be more competitive, anyway, even if the standard were lower, given how just competitive you had to be these days, and how it was only becoming more and more so with people training their kids nowadays, not letting them play in the forest or whatever, and you couldn’t just take off down the rail tracks and find a dead body or float Mississipily into mischief, and you were supposed to play educational games and her mother seemed embarrassed if she ever admitted to sometimes just watching TV with her children.
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Photo credit: Image by Jorge Guillen from Pixabay