Irene

Our body is our ideal home


I had just finished the night shift, and in a hurry I gathered my remaining energy to rush off for the last train leaving Stratford station. At that time I was working in the kitchen of a luxury hotel in central London, whose brigade was made up of a conglomeration of macho comrades and violent-tongued jackals.

We lived, Irene and I, in a sloping house, spread over three floors, together with nine other migrant souls. There were ‘the gazelles’ with their rodeo fucks, there was Isac, the nocturnal creature and single father, Sacha and Vikesh, the Polish–Indian couple dispensing invasive joy, Mike the Jamaican athlete and penniless student, whom we traumatised because we had made him watch Bruce LaBruce’s Gerontophilia, Elena the Cypriot, obsessed with the relationship between her arse and gravity, Sebastian, also called ‘The Lunatic’, a middle-aged Marcantonio, bipolar and prone to alcoholism, and finally Steve, the mute musician.

In that ship-house the crew lived in a state of total anarchy in which, despite the threatening

post-it notes DON’T TOUCH MY CHICKEN and THE KITCHEN IS DISGUSTING, YOU PIGS! stuck in the most unthinkable places, we had achieved a subtle but rigorous balance.

That evening, therefore, after the night shift, I went home sinking my swollen feet in the spicy district east of the city, where along the pavements, under the warm lights of the street lamps, endless rows of abandoned appliances stood chatting among themselves, waiting to be adopted.


Finally arrived at the front door, I put the keys in the lock and turned them three times. As I entered, I put down my backpack with my filthy apron inside, propped it up against the wall in the hallway, and hurried to the kitchen to drink the usual glass of cheap Merlot, bought on sale for 6 pounds at the local Lidl.

As I was pouring it into an opaque but dignified glass, I realised that the light in the shed outside in the courtyard was still on. ‘It must be Irene’, I thought, letting the doubt breathe together with the alcohol. Only a few moments passed and I saw her go back into the house through the French window. She was sweaty, wrapped in denim overalls and a chequered fleece shirt, all stained with oil paint. She was holding a half-rusted saw in her left hand and a huge piece of wood with a woman’s head painted on it in the other. Of a Madonna. The Madonna she had been painting for weeks, for entering in a competition for emerging painters organised by a renowned gallery in the heart of one of the most hipster districts of the capital.


“Irene, what have you done? What are you holding?”

“It’s the head. The head, Giovà, that bitch’s head!”

After days of fighting with that painting, she had gone mad. Irene had completely lost her head in the middle of the creative process, and so she had cut off the head of her creature. One of her thousand women with a gloomy gaze. Beings trapped in a redundant purgatory.


“I’m sorry for asking but why have you beheaded her? You’ve been working on it for almost a month.”

“Because she has these dull, liar eyes, even a little crooked, and she is staring at me, staring at me all the time. The more I tried to make them be a window, a breath, the more they crumpled.”


I poured some wine into the mug with Queen Elizabeth’s face printed on it, the one I had given Irene for Christmas, and I listened to her ranting about how tightly holding garlic in her vagina could cure candida better than any pharmacy-bought lavage.

The next day she accompanied me to pay the first tuition for the teaching qualification course. We took the tube for twelve stops and a bus without getting lost. Extraordinarily.

Before entering the academy, she grabbed my arm and told me to make her a promise. She made me promise to never stop writing and to believe in the power of my imagination. Irene was well acquainted with the very faint candle that gave little light to my dreams, and she feared for me. We had often wondered about the impact of two such different means of expression, and about the path that leads you to the unattainable sense of completeness. She cut off heads, I patched up words.


We were always broke but we pushed ourselves, devising short-term plans. That was all that we could afford, together with Lidl Merlot and ‘Moroccan-style’ hummus reduced by 20%.

In that precise historical moment of my existence, I surrounded myself with so much flesh without feeling. I had been abandoned by a man, at the dawn of his declaration of mutual love. We were lying on the bed, side by side, and he jumped up and sat on the desk chair in front of the bed. With his hands on his head, half bald, he told me with lowered eyes that he didn’t want to be near me, that I didn’t make him feel vulnerable and that, after all, we had watched too many French films to be able to really think of a happy ending. From that moment, from that infamous rejection hidden behind the honesty flag, I blamed myself for everything. And so to the destruction of my soul I responded with flesh. I made people come inside my body whose names I don’t even remember today. I did not have the courage to abandon myself to solitude and self-love. I needed to be accepted because I repudiated everything about myself and desperately longed for their rehabilitation.


A few weeks later Irene asked me to pose naked for her. That request, which came so lightly from her mouth, petrified me instantly. I pictured myself lying with my clumsy body in the foreground, exposed. The emptied breasts, the swollen belly, the flabby buttocks all squeezed in rigorous denial. Irene frowned at me, took me by the arm again, and carried me into the shed.

“Tonight you and I are treating each other like true ladies, look here!”


She took out a bottle of whiskey stolen from the pub where she worked. We got drunk, then she put on Iggy Pop’s Loves Missing and we started dancing awkwardly. In a moment, however, she became serious, and one by one she began to take off everything I was wearing. I was helpless, I couldn’t stop her. Once I was completely naked she made me sit on the chair, asking me to be still and silent. The intermittent snapshots of her eyes mesmerised me to sleep.


I woke up the next day, alone and numb, covering my still naked body with an encrusted blanket. I saw the huge wooden table with my body depicted on it, which I didn’t immediately pay attention to. It was in fact a letter pinned to her head that first caught my curiosity. I took and read it, discovering that Irene was gone forever. For too long had her dream lain dormant in the darkness of the old continent..

So I dropped my arms to my sides and lifted my head, looking at my painted body. I strained my eyes to find myself between the lines and finally recognised me/her. The Madonna in Purgatory and her head firmly attached to her neck, with real eyes, open like windows, like a breath.




*Story by Silvia Pellegrino, Illustration by Simona De Leo*

Every story is inspired by true events.


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