The first time I was painted by Hannah Meehan, she spent some time arranging me into a pose that would work for her.
First, she told me to relax, to find a position that was comfortable, because we’d be going for a few hours.
I sat in the yellow armchair in the middle of the small studio in the attic of her house. I crossed and uncrossed my legs – first at the knee, then at the ankle. I folded my hands in my lap while she watched me.
‘Maybe,’ Hannah Meehan suggested, ‘it’s about finding a pose that isn’t really a pose.’
Then she disappeared downstairs and I shifted in my seat, trying to think of portraits I had seen, of how comfortable or otherwise the sitter looked. I arranged myself so that I was leaning one elbow on the arm of the chair. The other arm was draped on my legs. The hand of my leaning arm was by my face, so I could finger the space behind my ear – a movement I found soothing, and endlessly interesting.
Hannah came back into the room with an armful of things from downstairs.
‘Oh, good,’ she said, standing in front of me. ‘That’s a lot better. Do you knit? She was holding out a ball of wool and two long, thick needles.’
I took it from her. ‘I can do only plain, I think. Nothing fancy.’
‘I think sometimes people like to have something to do with their hands.’
‘It won’t be a problem for you, for painting?’
‘No,’ Hannah said. ‘No, I don’t think it should be an issue at all.’
‘How do you know my son?’ She asked. ‘Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that question.’
‘No,’ I replied immediately. Other than the knitting, I was trying to keep very still, because she was working with great intensity. ‘Not like that. We were in the same class at university. We did Old English together.’
I remembered Conor and his bright, privately educated confidence, always with the homework done, always ready with the answers, to the extent that the tutor told him to stop and give someone else a chance. The tutor was talking about me and my small voice, my cheeks burning as the rest of the class looked at me.
‘He’s a good guy,’ I added, because I thought a mother would like to hear that.
‘In Dubai now,’ she said, dismissively. ‘Working for an aviation start-up.’
‘Well, it sounds like he’s doing alright for himself.’
‘Never thought I’d have a son who worked for an aviation start-up,’ Hannah sighed.
Conor had got in touch with me on Facebook and asked if I’d want to sit for his mother. She asked if I had any interesting-looking friends, he typed. Then he quickly followed up with: Sorry, I don’t mean it like that!!
I had recently moved home from Berlin, and was out of work and bored. I was living in my late uncle’s empty house in Kimmage, which was to be sold in a few months. I had some savings, and money wasn’t an immediate concern yet. But I was spending too much time on my laptop. Yeah, OK, I replied. It seemed romantic, being an artist’s model. It would be an answer to questions in the pub about what I was doing with myself now, since I’d come back to Dublin.
Before I met her, Hannah Meehan was a name I knew and did not think much about. I didn’t know her work, unless you counted a viral clip of her on a popular chat show a few years earlier. I had watched the clip like everyone else – waited for the bit where she told the interviewer that she’d just left her husband for a woman. The audience uttered a collective gasp, like it was panto. Here was this woman, fifties, rich, married, child, career, house. And she’d shat the bed for the love of a woman. We were pretending to be an enlightened country at this point, but I remember the judgment in the presenter’s voice as he asked her: Wow, was that a tough decision to make? I suppose you felt like you really had no other choice?
When she opened the door of her nice, red-brick house, I started to think I’d maybe got the wrong end of the stick. I was good at that. I had thought she might be glamorous. I thought maybe: expensive black linen, a single piece of sculptural jewellery on a ring finger or around her neck. On television she’d had a sharp haircut, a shock of grey hair, bright lipstick. But she opened the door in blue mechanic’s overalls that were shiny with a crust of oil paint. They crinkled as she stepped back from the door to let me in. She didn’t look me in the eye. She had curly grey hair that needed a comb, tied at the nape of her neck with a scrunchie.
After our first day in the studio, I went home and watched that clip on my laptop again. It seemed like a relic from another era. The quiet judgment in the studio when Hannah talked about how she was fond of her ex-husband, but she’d realised, slowly and then all at once, that she wasn’t in love with him. She wasn’t straight. Then she’d said, when the host had asked her what she’d learned from the ordeal, that shame was toxic, that it made people sick and it was especially bad for women. It was toxic the way chemicals were toxic, Hannah had said, in that it was damaging to the integrity of the thing but also it could cause pain, sickness, danger, and that, she’d said, was the real problem.
I closed that tab and then I googled her work.
I was embarrassed when I went back the next day, embarrassed that she was going to paint me, of all people.
Late in the first week, Hannah asked me what had made me leave Berlin.
The easy answer was that my relationship had ended, and that I was twenty-six and it was the kind of thing you did in that situation. Something in her voice when she asked the question made me think she wouldn’t want the easy answer.
‘I think I realised,’ I told her, ‘that I’d been treating life like a fairground where you play games and win tokens for doing the right thing, and then eventually, you get to exchange those tokens for happiness. Or something.’
Hannah snorted. ‘I think we’re supposed to think that virtue is its own reward.’ She tilted her head around the edge of her canvas, so that she could look at me properly. ‘But now that you know, maybe you can have a bit more fun. Maybe you can stop being so good.’
In Berlin I had worked as an account executive at an ad agency. I was good at it, by which I mean I always stayed late and never left an email unanswered. Outside of work I took photographs and was good at that too, insofar as everyone who knew me knew that I took these photographs, and I had a little website that described me as a photographer. But the photos were dull and insipid, with nothing in them. They were always a pale imitation of the work of someone else, the street photographers whose archives I trawled online, the Robert Franks, the Helen Levitts.
I took sitting for Hannah seriously. I don’t know if I was good at it, exactly, but I know that at the end of every session, she went down the little staircase and came back five minutes later. She called my name from the bottom of the ladder and I leaned out over the hatch to take the tea from her. Then she climbed back up and we sat together with the tea.
‘So,’ she said on the first day and at the end of every session after, ‘will you come back tomorrow?’
From my evening googling I had learned more about Hannah Meehan. She had been a flight attendant until she had Conor, and then the airline had quietly encouraged her to stop working. For a few years, she looked after her child and when she had the time, painted a few portraits of her friends, her family. By the time Conor went to school, she had a gallery, a few enthusiastic buyers and a growing reputation as one of Ireland’s feminist artists.
It wasn’t clear what made Hannah’s work feminist, other than the fact that she was a woman. Mostly she painted her female friends. Sometimes she painted them seated, like I was – as normal, but with their torsos dissolving into nothing around the midsection. She called this, in an old Irish Independent interview I found, the void. ‘I like painting the void,’ Hannah said, ‘because I feel emptiness is a woman’s birthright.’ Emptiness, of course, represented best by that chasm up between the legs, that blank empty space where life began. Actually she didn’t say that last part, but I knew that was the implication. I assumed that was just the journalist being polite. The 1990s, I knew, were a very different time. I filled in the gaps myself.
As time went by, Hannah Meehan’s work went out of style. She never found much of an audience abroad, and at home the country went mad with money around the turn of the millennium. Art collectors in Ireland were more interested in satirical paintings of businessmen, or pop art renditions of priests and nuns. Very edgy. There was little trace of Hannah online from those years. It was only recently that her work was being reappraised. An American novelist had mentioned her in a book she’d written, and that book had won a prize. There was a new profile in the Irish Times, in which the journalist acted like she was uncovering some priceless and lost item of jewellery simply by sitting at Hannah’s kitchen table and having a cup of tea with her. That profile had hinted at intrigue in her personal life – an affair, a divorce – and it contained enough zingy quotes from Hannah on feminism and the female experience to cause a few ripples on the surface of Irish public life. The appearance on the Late Late followed soon after.
Now there was the exhibition. And a definite buzz around her, a hushed interest in what she might be about to produce. When I ran into people I hadn’t seen since before I went to Berlin, and they asked me what I was up to, I mentioned Hannah’s name. The younger people, the ones my age, tended to look impressed. With my older acquaintances it was a bit more complicated. A friend of my mother’s looked at me with something like reproach, like I’d fallen in with a bad crowd. A former lecturer gasped and squeezed my arm, like I’d told him I was getting married. The cumulative effect was that in a strange way, I began to feel like what I was doing was important, and special.
I longed to see what Hannah was painting, but we never talked about her work while we were working. I wondered if I might have a void. I didn’t expect that I would look beautiful, or even that I would look interesting. I thought that sitting with her, I was playing a role in her work. Hannah Meehan was seeing me in some way. Whatever the outcome, no matter how she rendered me, I thought she would be able to represent that in a way that meant something. I could feel it, the connection that was building between us in those hours. I watched the way she worked at her canvas, looking at me, then looking back to the canvas, over and over. I began to find it soothing: the uneven rhythm of her glances, the movements of her hand.
Hannah would do most of the talking while we worked. She was prone to describing various books and articles she’d read, interviews she’d heard on the radio. She was a content aggregator and I scrolled passively, sat on the armchair in front of her.
‘Pain lingers in the body,’ Hannah told me, paraphrasing a pop science book she’d heard discussed on a podcast, ‘and if it doesn’t linger in yours then it gets passed on to someone else, your child or your community. Your country. The culture.’
I thought about her son, who was the most well-adjusted person I knew, unless you spoke to any of his ex-girlfriends.
She kept on working and we sat in silence, while I kept knitting.
I thought about the types of pain that might be lingering in my own body. There was the chronic discomfort of neurosis, of trying unconsciously to be good all the time. There was also the physical pain that arrived every time I’d had sex since I was a teenager. That pain had arrived first as a shock – that this was what all women must be experiencing, all the time, and we didn’t speak about it – and then, over the years, it flattened into something deadening. Something dreadful but dull. Pretend it’s not happening, I told myself every time. But the pain came in earnest, and tended to want violent imagery to describe it: corkscrew, dagger, or my favourite, lance. The German GP I’d seen after the inevitable breakdown of my last relationship had given me the word lance. A spasm of the muscles, he said, referring to a plastic model of the female reproductive system he happened to have underneath his desk. He gave me the most cursory of physical examinations, then referred me to a bilingual therapist who specialised, he assured me, in problems like this.
The therapist’s name was Heike. I saw her once. I gave her the potted history of my troubled vagina, and she nodded with enthusiasm. She had been following the news in Ireland of the upcoming referendum on the 8th amendment and drew a link immediately.
‘You grew up in a place where the sexuality of women was punished,’ Heike said, leaning forward on her elbows. There was the barest shimmer of excitement in her voice. ‘What do you expect? How can girls grow up with a normal sense of themselves as sexual beings in a place where the punishment for an unplanned pregnancy can be death?’
I shook my head. That story was another easy answer, and one that had nothing to do with me, my body. I would not be Heike’s case study. I got up and Entschuldigened my way out of the room. On the way to the U-Bahn I thought about the first time I’d experienced the pain, the shock of it, the feeling of it being unbearable, the feeling that it wouldn’t stay localised in one place – that it could spread out, malignant, a threat to my whole being.
Instinctively, at the memory, I crossed my legs.
‘Grace,’ Hannah admonished, and I uncrossed them again.
After Berlin, after the breakup and the GP and the therapist, and I decided to come home to Dublin. There was something comforting in the fact that I could drop out, if I wanted to. It was easier than trying so hard all the time, like I could prove myself somehow. I had thought that coming home would be like plunging into the sea on a cold day: a shock to the system at first, followed by a careful habituation. I didn’t know it would be more like sitting in a bath until long after the water had gone cold.
I could tell her, I thought in the armchair. I had not enjoyed telling either the German doctor or Heike, nor any of the men who’d seen me cry in their beds. The words were difficult to get out, in a way that made me feel even worse about it. You can’t even speak about it, I would reprimand myself. How could you possibly overcome it? But maybe I could tell Hannah Meehan about it. These paintings of hers all around us. The fact of it felt like a stick of dynamite in my hands. Something that was powerful, and that was mine.
I opened my mouth.
‘It seems that female pain is very in nowadays,’ Hannah remarked.
Then I closed it again and pursed my lips.
‘So,’ Hannah said the next day. ‘What are you going to do with yourself next?’ She had been making reference, the last few days, to the fact that my time sitting for her was coming to an end.
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘Dunno. Try to get a job, find a new flat before I’m booted out of Kimmage. Get on with life, etc.’
‘Is that what you want?’
‘I mean, it’s what people tend to do.’
She shrugged. ‘Some of them. But you’re young, you have options. You could travel, go back to college. Maybe you could have a baby.’
‘Hahaha,’ I said. ‘You make it sound so easy.’
‘Or do women of your generation not have any interest in that.’
‘I’m sure loads of them do. I just don’t know if it’s for me.’
She didn’t say anything, just looked at me and kept painting.
‘I think there might be other things to do with my time,’ I added, though of course I didn’t know what those things might be. I think I was hoping that Hannah might tell me.
On Friday afternoon I told her I’d been thinking about what she had said, the other day, about pain. ‘What did you mean when you said it was in?’
Hannah squinted at me. ‘Oh, you know. Trendy. It’s something we didn’t talk about for a long time. And now I think there’s money to be made from telling people that the way they feel is not their fault.’
‘Women, you mean.’ I gestured towards the portraits stacked against the walls, the old women and young women. My policy towards sitting still in the yellow armchair was getting very slapdash.
‘Well, yes. I think maybe some women like to make things difficult for themselves. I think some women are what you might call wilful collaborators with their own suffering.’
Maybe I should say now that on one level I thought Hannah’s work was excellent. I didn’t know much about art but I thought that she got to the heart of things in a way I admired. She left space for ambiguity, she added enough distortion or surrealism to make things compelling and strange. It was the truth, but it was also a little absurd, and I felt that her work was very serious in a way that the work of male painters often wasn’t. Of course she wasn’t taken as seriously as I thought she should be. But she was a woman, and she was gay, and it was Ireland, as people always said when you brought up things like these. This is Ireland, they would say, shrugging their shoulders, like you’d said something about the weather outside.
‘Ah,’ I said, nodding like I agreed with her. ‘Yeah. I think I know what you mean.’
I finished the row I was knitting while she left, going downstairs to wash her hands. The scarf, or whatever it was, was getting quite long. I remembered then something I’d said to the German GP, when he asked me to put the impossibility of attempting sex into words. I’d considered it for a while, then told him: it can feel like knocking on a blind door. Pushing it, expecting it to give way. But there is nothing there. He didn’t know what a blind door was, so I gestured towards the wall, then gestured painting the outline of a doorframe. He frowned, and I could see him thinking about this.
‘So it’s like,’ he said carefully, ‘you know that the pain will come before it even begins.’
Hannah took her time downstairs, and I was alone in the studio for a little while. I thought about moving from my seat, walking around to the other side of Hannah’s easel and taking a look at the work in progress. If I did, it would be the first time I’d see the painting of myself. I thought about it, and then I could hear Hannah returning, pulling herself up the ladder from the landing.
Hannah didn’t ask me to come back the next week. She said she needed a bit of time. Consolidation, she said in a text, time to amass everything she’d been working on and turn them into something worthwhile. Without the bike ride to Hannah’s house, the arrangement of my limbs into her yellow armchair, her gaze on me and mine on her, I was at a loose end.
I applied for jobs. I met up with friends from university and nodded as they caught me up on their lives. I thought about how I might explain Hannah to them, but decided it was easier not to talk about it at all. After a few days, I got my camera out for the first time in months. In Berlin I had tried to do a kind of street photography, born of a belief that everything I saw or encountered could be beautiful, or interesting, if I just knew how to capture it. Now I thought there was something else I could do. I cycled south of the city along the coastline, taking pictures of nothing at all – the horizon, the tilting waves, the empty beach at Sandymount Strand. This time I didn’t show the photos I was taking to anybody. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing.
Eventually Hannah texted me again.
Everything done now, she wrote. New exhibition announced later this week. Maybe you’d like to see?
When I got to the studio it was as if it had been the subject of a home makeover challenge on TV. I barely recognised it. At the centre of the room, Hannah was sitting on the yellow armchair. All around her were canvasses with women on them, stacked against the walls or up on easels. Opposite Hannah was a painting of me. It had to be me.
‘What do you think?’ She asked me.
I hated it. In the painting I sat, knees to one side, face in profile. I looked wan, sick, grey. That was fine, that was what she’d chosen to do. What I hated was me. It was like hearing your voice on tape for the first time. I felt sick, like the girl on the canvas, who I did not want to admit was me. I would not admit it.
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Yeah, just, wow.’
The girl on the canvas looked at me like she was afraid of me. She didn’t have a void, like the women in Hannah’s early work. Instead she was the void. Her face was blank, meek, her body language suggested suspicion. She held the knitting needles in her hands cautiously, but there was no knitting, only needles.
‘It’s not you, exactly,’ Hannah added. ‘You know how I work. I use the image, but not the person.’
What’s the difference, I thought. I remembered all the hours I’d spent on the yellow armchair, the poses that weren’t really poses. I thanked Hannah Meehan and gave her a weird little one-armed hug before I left her studio for the last time.
After that I didn’t speak to Hannah again. I got a job at one of the local ad agencies through a former colleague in Berlin. I was an account executive again, and I could finally stop thinking about art and bodies and myself and so on. This proved difficult, however, because as I learned on my first day, cycling down Harcourt Street, Hannah’s painting of me was on the side of a bus, beside her name and the exhibition details. When I saw it, my head turned so quickly that my front tire slipped into the Luas tram tracks. It was office tea-break fodder that first week. Did I see you on a billboard at the train station? Yes, haha, funny story.
A few weeks into the new job, I ran into Conor Meehan in O’Donoghue’s one night. It was crowded, a rainy evening, damp inside on the windows and walls of the pub, and I was pushing my way up to the bar when I saw him.
It was true what I’d said to Hannah: I hadn’t known Conor that way in college. I think I would’ve liked to, but that option was scrapped after I went home with his flatmate Robbie towards the end of our first term. We had just gotten into bed when I experienced a blunt and abrupt comedown from the shitty legal ecstasy analogue we’d both taken, and the result was that the pain ricocheted up through me with unanticipated velocity. I thought about all the violent words I’d later come to fixate on: dagger, corkscrew. Lance. I pushed him off me.
Robbie was nice about it. Confused but very polite. I remember he gave me a little kiss on my shoulder, I thought that was very intimate. Then he called me a taxi while I cried in the bathroom. He thought the tears were about the pain, and I probably did too, but it turns out it’s always more complicated than that. Anyway, after that I think my reputation preceded me among those boys.
Conor was at the bar, drinking a pint of Guinness like he was being paid to do so in an ad.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘There she is. The woman my mother won’t stop talking about.’
‘Jesus,’ I replied. ‘I hope she’s not saying anything awful.’
He was in town for the week of her exhibition, he said. Staying at the Meehan home.
‘Must be nice to be back,’ I said.
‘And what about you? How are you coping with your new-found fame?’ He had a folded newspaper in front of him at the bar, and he flipped it over to show the back-page ad for Hannah’s exhibition. Me on the yellow background, the wan look in my face, unmistakably, horribly me. It was then that I realised her painting of me had a name. I hadn’t been able to read it from the banners on buses or the billboards I’d seen. The name of the painting was Complicit.
I swallowed and looked up at him. ‘Ahh, you know what they say about fame.’
‘What do they say?’
‘That it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.’
Conor looked at me for a second, and then he looked away. ‘Can I buy you a drink, Grace?’
Complicit, I thought as I washed my hands in the bathroom. What does Hannah Meehan even know about me? What was it she’d said the last day in her studio? It’s the image, Grace, not the person. I ran my fingers through my hair in the mirror. I remembered what she’d said before all of that, about women being collaborators with their own pain. For a second my hand caught in a knot in my hair, and I had the urge to pull at it roughly until the whole tangle ripped out. Instead I went back to the bar and put my hand on Conor’s hip and steered my mouth onto his. For a second I felt the tension in his body, the sensation of being taken by surprise. I thought again about the blind door, the stupid foolishness you feel when you try to push a door that says pull. Then I felt the tension give way, as Conor’s mouth turned soft on mine.
‘It’s late,’ Conor said when we got back to the house. ‘She won’t be up.’
But we still crept quietly through the house, just in case. On the way up the stairs I looked at Conor’s back, and thought about whether I should tell him what was about to happen. It had been almost six months since the last time I’d tried, with Simon, the pain a constant that tore through me every time with the same old vigour. But now I felt alive with a confidence I didn’t recognise, something stolen, maybe. The hum of it on my skin like electricity. Something wild and strong that made me feel like the barrier between me and the rest of the world was thinner. Maybe it was dissolving altogether.
In Conor’s childhood bedroom we took off our clothes, and I waited for it. I stood at the threshold of it watching him lean down in front of me. I was sure that it could be something else this time, if I wanted it enough. But once it arrived the pain was thick and pure, almost like desire – my desire for him or for it to work, I couldn’t tell anymore. It was all just sensation. It was the same as always. He didn’t see that my face was in a spasm of agony, or maybe he didn’t care. I kept going, because I wanted to, and because I thought if I did it might stop hurting, but obviously it didn’t.
‘Are you not enjoying this?’ He asked.
Oh, too late, I thought. He must have noticed my face.
We stopped, and lay beside each other in the bed. I ran my thumb down the soft skin behind my ear, pausing at my neck to feel the throb of my pulse.
‘Sorry,’ I said, and he gave a sort of embarrassed laugh that was meant to shut down that conversation. It was impossible, then, not to think of Hannah Meehan, lying in her own bed elsewhere in the house. Her home, though I was here in it now. In the bed that she must have paid for, had probably made up for her son’s arrival home. I could rumple the sheets, but that was the extent of it.
Conor said I could stay the night. I think he thought the evening wasn’t quite done, that we might give it another go, in a little while. But my plan was to lie there with him in the sheets, until I could hear his breathing slow. I was going to get dressed quietly and leave. I was going to slip out of the Meehan house as if none of it had ever happened.
Image © Ashley Van Haeften