(Firstly, everything in italics is a whisper.)
So I go back home every few months. The night I arrive me and Mam have a chat and a tea and some chips and briefly discuss the flight and how Amsterdam is and whether work is busy. I go to bed, sleep in my old single bed in my childhood room and wake up slightly stiff but happy and comfortable.
The next morning, without fail, we do what we always do: Head to Cork City to scour the charity shops and find detritus we do not need but that brings us such joy. I buy books that my mother scowls at; she buys trousers that I tell her are “too motherish” for her, despite the fact that she is in her early seventies and then the conversation flows like water. We dip our heads and discuss births, deaths and marriages. We shelter in doorways from soft rain and I tell her about what is happening in my life. I link my right arm through the crook of her left and we carry on up the North Main Street, delighted with every 2 euro purchase, satisfied with our treasures.
Last week on my trip back for Patrick’s Day, this pure and holy ritual took a slightly unusual turn of events. In one of the shops, a woman who volunteers there – a 70-year-old lady who knows us from our frequent visits – beckoned me to the counter.
“Here, you,” says she, “someone dropped in a mug earlier on. I don’t know what to do with it, will you have a look and see what you think?” Of course I strolled over, thinking the offending issue would be a bit of chipped porcelain or an unattractive glaze on a piece of misshapen pottery.
“The handle, well, it’s a C, and it says U-N-T on the mug, so it actually says cunt,” she said.
“Oh right,” says I, wiping tears from my eyes while my mother and her pals gather around the counter: “That cup says cunt on it, did you see that?” they’re roaring at each other.
In the midst of my laughing, the woman who showed me the mug in the first place leaned across the counter and softly put her hand on my forearm.
“When I was your age, about 30, me and the girls went on a trip to Dublin on the train. We’d never drank, I had never been drunk in my life and after a few jars we discussed what you’d call “it”, y’know, down there. I’d never heard the word cunt in my life so that night, I went home to my husband and I asked him if he’d ever heard it. Sure the next day didn’t I come out with a black eye.”
Nobody in the group batted an eyelid except me.
The only time I’ve ever heard of “reclaiming the cunt” was in The Vagina Monologues. It didn’t ring true but on this occasion it does. Imagine that 40 years ago in Ireland, using the word “cunt” in front of your husband could result in domestic abuse. It was not your place to be sexual, it was not your place to name your vagina or even refer to it at all.
It started off that day in the shop as a funny joke, and ended up as a sharing of stories from one generation to another and I am so glad I heard it. Call it whatever you want, because now you can, and it’s a privilege to not have known a time when sexual freedom of expression as a woman was forbidden.
Standing around in a shop in Cork hearing septuagenarians freely use the word cunt – without meaning to sound like a pretentious idiot – was one of the loveliest experiences I have had. Hail to the cunt.