When truth is denied

Jane spoke without looking at me, without mentioning my name. ‘I think there is a personality disorder,’ she said. The meeting had been called to discuss the problems with the project I worked on, the clashing ideologies of the the national charity that employed me and the social services department where I was based. But mainly to address the concerns I had about how my volunteers were being treated, concerns that the volunteers had raised with me, which I had passed on to Jane, the social worker, her assistant Pat, and my manager at the national charity. Instead of discussing how these concerns might be addressed, I was being accused of causing trouble due to having ‘a personality disorder’.

My role was recruiting, placing and supporting young, full-time volunteers, in partnership with a scheme run by the social services department of a London borough. The scheme was based in a former children’s home. A couple of the rooms had been retained as bedrooms, as off-duty accommodation for the volunteers. While ‘on duty’, the volunteers lived in with a severely learning disabled person. There was supposed to be a paid carer at each project as well as a volunteer. The scheme was supposed to provide a positive experience for the volunteers as well as enable people with disabilities to live in their own homes, many having come from long stay residential care, at a time when Care in the Community was a new thing.

It soon became apparent to me that the volunteers were being exploited. Where there were insufficient paid carers and volunteers, sole volunteers were left at on duty for several days without relief. Also, the off-duty bedrooms were not exclusive to one person. Whichever bed was available was used, with no change of sheets, and there was nowhere for the volunteers to permanently keep their possessions. They were effectively living out of a suitcase. There was a volunteers’ house, too, given to the scheme by the council. It was ramshackle and tatty, and was infested with rats.

I thought that if I spoke the truth, if I tackled these problems directly with Jane and Pat, then they would be addressed. Instead, there was a kind of war against me, waged by Pat. Some of these skirmishes were direct – angry phone calls to my home on the days I wasn’t working. Others were sly, and difficult to deal with. Piles of jumble were left on my desk, paint pots and brushes piled behind my chair when the office I shared with Pat was being painted (she moved them there; they had been against a wall away from any desks). Pat complained that the name plates on our office door should be reversed in order: mine was above hers, purely because my surname came before hers in the alphabet. Instead of taking any responsibility for the volunteers’ poor living conditions, both Jane and Pat blamed these young people for being lazy and dirty. And I was blamed for not supplying the scheme with enough volunteers.

Whilst I was believed by my manager, who stated that she was very concerned about me working in those circumstances, and about the volunteers, nothing changed in that scheme. The charity did not withdraw from supplying volunteers (which I suspect was due to them not wanting to lose the funding), Jane and Pat did not make any improvements to the volunteers’ living conditions, and I continued to be targeted by Pat in her petty war. The only thing I could do, for my own wellbeing, was leave the job.

The reason for recounting this story is to show that telling the truth, speaking out, is not always received gratefully, or dealt with as it should be. It’s something I have been thinking of recently, of times where I have spoken out and told to keep quiet, incurred the wrath of others, or had my truth denied.

In the early days of my illness I was disbelieved by my GP. He put all my symptoms down to depression. This went on for two years, his blinkered view not open to the fact that the various symptoms I had might add up to other diagnoses. I was telling my truth and my truth was ignored, discounted. I felt I was going mad; not being believed makes you feel like that. Sure enough, when I changed GP I received a proper and full diagnosis.

Over the years, I have had skirmishes with the DWP over my disability benefits, and each of these has been due to me not being believed. This year, I was assessed for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), which is replacing Disability Living Allowance, a benefit I received for 20 years as an indefinite award. My husband and I filled in the form together, gathered evidence from professionals involved in my care and a friend who could account for how my disabilities affect me. My account and all the evidence were disregarded by the assessor. She spent less than an hour with me, and decided that most of what I said, what was written on the form, was not true. Because she said so.

It was not just the loss of benefit that affected me, it was not being believed. I did not exaggerate my difficulties, in fact it was really hard for me to put across how badly I function on most days, to address the truth of how limited my life has become. I contested the decision, asked the DWP to look again via a Mandatory Reconsideration. The letter that came (12 weeks later) ignored all my points, again ignored the supporting the evidence, and upheld the original decision. So I appealed to the independent tribunal service, expecting to wait a year until my case was heard. Imagine my surprise, a month later, when the DWP (not the tribunal service) wrote to say that they had reconsidered the original decision and the Mandatory Reconsideration. They were awarding me PIP at the highest rate. Although this is wonderful news, I have had trouble accepting it. First I was disbelieved, then disbelieved again, then all of a sudden believed! I am half-expecting another letter to say they are taking it away.

Truth -telling and how it is received … it is too big a subject for a short blog. Especially at a time when liars and deniers hold power in the White House and in Downing Street. Globally, truth and evidence are ignored in favour of what people choose to believe. Personally, individuals will always be ignored or vilified for speaking their truth, will be made to feel like they are going mad. 

*Jane and Pat’s names have been changed.

Embroidering the truth, fact and fiction in As Long as it Takes

Read individually, these stories might seem modest: each cuts its small piece of cloth and lays it out with truthfulness, understanding and warmth. But characters recur and situations illuminate one another, so that when we read them together we find ourselves inside the story of a whole community of Irish immigrants, suddenly faced, as the protagonists are, with the tellingly displaced expectations and longings of a generation of women and their legacy to the generations that succeeded them.

Susan Wicks on As Long as it Takes by Maria C. McCarthy

This week, I would have been a guest writer at the 25th Irish Writers in London Summer School. My invitation has been postponed by a year, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Who knows how long it will be until we can join with others for such literary events? It will take ‘As long as it takes’, as in the title story of my collection.

During lockdown, I have taken up an old habit – patchwork, and have been learning some embroidery stitches to patch together pieces of fabric from the scrap bag, pieces too small to make anything substantial, but too nice to throw away. It has put me in mind of a phrase my mother used to use, ‘Embroidering the truth,’ used in reference to those who exaggerate or add embellishments to a true story.

I am a daughter of Irish migrants, the middle child of five, who lived in a community of Irish people in Epsom. The central family in As Long as it Takes has five children, too, and live in Epsom. This fictional family is not my real family, the stories are not true; except for patches and fragments, half-remembered conversations, items of clothing, pieces of furniture, mirrors and mantelpieces. Stitching those in was like finding just the right slip of fabric to enhance a patchwork cloth, embroidering it into the bigger work, adding in details for colour and texture.

In the story ‘A Long as it Takes’, Joan takes centre stage; she is a peripheral character in some of the other stories. Her story is of multiple late miscarriages, of despairing of ever carrying a baby to full term. Alongside this is the impending loss of her mother, back home in Ireland. The story begins with the smashing of a fireplace by Joan’s husband, Bill. The opening sentence is, ‘The dust took months to settle.’ Bill cannot express in words what the loss of a child means to him, so he takes a sledgehammer to ‘the brown-tiled surround’ and builds a York stone fireplace. He also makes a bonfire of the cot, a symbolic act to mark that the couple have decided that they cannot put themselves through another pregnancy.

The story is set in the 1960s, when few working class households had a phone – certainly no one on the estate where I grew up had one. News to and from Ireland arrives by letter. There is a late delivery by post – a christening gown arrives from Ireland, for a baby that has not survived, and then there is a letter telling Joan that her mother is in poor health. She sets off on the boat train from Euston to Holyhead, telling her husband that she doesn’t know when she will be back: ‘A dying woman takes as long as she takes.’ The plot relies on this, people taking off for as long as they need to, and not being traceable, if they decide to disappear.

When writing the story, I got to a certain point and abandoned it. Joan suffers a breakdown after her mother’s death, gets as far as Limerick, where she is due to catch a boat train to Dun Laoghaire to return to England, and gets stuck. She can go neither forwards nor backwards. She cannot go home and face up to her loss, neither can she go back to the town where she was raised. So she stays, working in a cafe in Limerick, sleeping in a small rented room with a narrow bed and a crucifix on the wall.

Poor Joan; I didn’t know what to do with her. I worried about her from time to time, but did not know where to take the story. Like Joan, I was stuck. I waited longer than Joan did to resolve things, a full year I left it, before writing the ending. Joan, as it transpired, spent only a summer in her liminal state. Shaken out of it by a woman she met on the crossing to Ireland, now returning with her young family in time for the Autumn term. In the last scene, Joan boards the boat back to England, and drops the christening gown, which she had earlier tried to return to her mother, into the sea.

So, where do fact and fiction intertwine? Joan was the name of my mother’s best friend. She lived on the same council estate as our family, in a house with an identical layout to ours. All the houses looked like this, though some of the interiors were mirror images of their neighbour’s. All the houses had brown-tiled fireplaces to begin with, though some tenants took sledgehammers to theirs and enhanced their rooms with York stone fireplaces. When writing Joan’s story, I saw the woman I called ‘Auntie Joan’ as her physical embodiment. Fictional Joan looked like real Joan. Fictional Joan’s house was Auntie Joan’s real house. But the real Auntie Joan’s story was not one of multiple late miscarriages, of childlessness. The fact was in the physical details, the embroidering in of remembered conversations, of the fireplace in Auntie Joan’s house, of the mirror that hung in my own house. And the opening line of the story, ‘The dust took months to settle’, came from the experience of knocking out a similar fireplace in a house I came to own, in my adult life. ‘Every time I polished the furniture, it was covered again within a couple of hours, like salt sprinkled on an icy path.’

Joan’s bus journey to Limerick after her mother’s death was drawn from a bus journey I took as a child, with one of my sisters, as there was not enough room in the taxi that took the rest of the family on from Limerick to my mother’s home town in County Clare. The night crossing from Holyhead is from memories of crowded decks each summer of my childhood, ‘mothers with four, five, six children, luggage, coats and cardigans, and no men around to help.’ I remember a lone traveller, like Joan, helping my mother out on one such crossing. A stranger. I woke with my head on this woman’s lap, as she held me as I slept. The room that Joan rents in Limerick comes from a photo of a young Muriel Spark, draped across a narrow bed with a crucifix on the wall above it. Spark looks like Joan, the real Joan as I remember her in the 60s, with black hair, smoking a cigarette, an open handbag and a gaping cigarette packet on the bed.

Susan Wicks, who wrote the above endorsement for As Long as it Takes, was my tutor on the creative writing MA at the University of Kent. She looked over an early draft of the title story, and asked why Joan was so desperate to have a child? I needed to let the reader know. I thought it was obvious; it was to me. Joan was an Irish Catholic working class woman. Women like her were expected to have children, lots of them. But what was obvious to someone of my background would not be to all readers. How would I weave this in? I recalled a conversation with my mother-in-law (not Irish, but rather old-fashioned in her views). She could not understand why a woman would choose not to have children. She, like Joan, had suffered miscarriages, and her longed-for babies where very precious to her. I put my mother-in-law’s words from that conversation into the mouth of Joan’s dying mother, as Joan tries to return the christening gown, tries to tell her mother that there will be no more pregnancies.

‘I’ve brought the gown back,’ I said.

‘Ah, you’ll be needing it soon enough.’

‘No mother, I won’t.’ […]

‘Don’t be talking like that,’ she said. ‘You’ll keep trying’

‘No, Mother. Bill and I just have to accept… We can’t go through all that again.’ […]

‘You can and you will.’ […]

‘It’s a woman’s life. What else will you do if you don’t have children?’

The last line of dialogue is my mother-in-law’s paraphrased words, and perhaps the worst thing that Joan’s mother could say to her daughter, to a woman grieving for her lost babies, and about to lose her mother.

I thought that my Auntie Joan had a life that was very different from the fictional Joan’s story. She had two children and never took a leave of absence from her life in England. At Auntie Joan’s funeral in 2018, I learned that she, too, had problems with pregnancies. After her son was born, she was warned not to become pregnant again, that it would be too dangerous, to settle for the one child. But she went ahead with a second pregnancy, a girl, who became my childhood best friend. I wonder now whether I overheard something about this as a child. I had a habit of sitting with the women in the kitchen as they talked, I thought I could make myself invisible if I sat on a certain stool in the corner and stayed quiet, so the women would chat as though I wasn’t there. Like the unnamed narrator in another of my stories.

In ‘A Tea Party,’ a young child tries to make sense of things that she sees, or overhears, including seeing the character Joan burying her face in a pair of child’s shorts while helping the child’s mother with the ironing.

‘Some people have lots of babies and some have none at all, even though they like them a lot. I don’t know why God won’t let Auntie Joan have a baby. She holds Brendan really tight sometimes, and she likes to cuddle the new baby. Mum doesn’t look very happy if she holds them for too long.’

Perhaps my fiction was closer to fact than I realised.

As Long as it Takes by Maria C. McCarthy is available from Cultured Llama Publishing all the usual online stockists. It is also available as an ebook

A violin with a rose on the tailpiece

The smell of rosin takes me back to being eight years old, when I started to learn the violin. The rosin is a hard amber lump, wrapped in cloth inside a dark red box. I tighten the bow by turning the screw on the heel, rub the rosin up and down the taut hairs, testing the bounce on my hand before playing.

The violin has new strings; the old ones were in a bad state. The instrument hasn’t been out of its case for years. I tune the strings: A D G E. The intervals are ingrained in my memory, from when Miss Moss would hit A on the piano. We tuned that string first, then the others by ear: A D G E, the highest-pitched string last. Karen Jewell had pitch pipes, one for each note: A D G E. I had a recorder at home, to blow an A with two fingers on the top holes, thumb over the hole at the back.

There were six of us that started together at St Joseph’s school – Karen Jewell, Sharon Corr, Kevin O’Doherty and me. The names of the others escape me. We hired three-quarter sized instruments at first. Then came the time to buy a violin. There was a bus ride to Ashtead from Epsom, with my mum, then a walk down several streets until we reached an ordinary-looking house. A man showed us to an upstairs room where there were violins for sale and waiting to be repaired. The one I chose had a small rose on the tailpiece with an inset of mother of pearl. 

I practised in the bedroom, alone. I cried because it sounded horrible. I couldn’t get it right. The tears flowed freely in my hormonal teens. Practising for grade exams, year on year, at which I got steadily worse: Merit, Pass, Pass, Fail. I sat in the waiting room to take my grade exams, a low-ceilinged, wood-panelled room. My mum was with me, but then I had to go in alone. There were prepared pieces to play, sight-reading, scales, an interval sung (or was it played?) by the examiner, which I had to name. A third – While Shepherds Watched. A fifth – Baa Baa Black Sheep. No reaction from the examiner. One was a lanky man who remained side-on to me throughout the exam. He didn’t look at me at all. His chair was tipped back, his feet on the desk, he barely acknowledged that I was there. I remember the shape of that man, his trousers with turn-ups, his feet crossed on the desk. I see my fingers on the strings, the bow moving up and down.

Then the wait, the brown envelope with the results. The marks for different pieces, sight-reading, aural tests, the overall result: Grade 1, Merit; Grade 2, Pass; Grade 3, Pass; Grade 4, Fail.

Miss Moss saw me through all those exams, up to Grade 4, except she rarely turned up for lessons in the two terms before my last exam. She had married that year, and the story my mother told was that Miss Moss couldn’t be bothered, was more interested in her husband. She could have been ill; but we were never told. She didn’t return at all the term after I failed Grade 4. There was a man in her place when I went for my lesson. I didn’t take to him, found him scary. ‘I wouldn’t have put you in for Grade 4 if you weren’t ready,’ he said. In retrospect, a reasonable comment, but I wasn’t used to failure. That shameful word on the folded paper, ‘Fail’, was enough to tell me that I was no good and should give up playing.

I was in a Maths lesson when the music teacher hauled me out of class. She seemed angry. ‘What do you think you’re doing, giving up the violin?’ she said. I mumbled something about getting a job in Woolworth’s after school. Said nothing about my developing interest in boys – no time for the violin. She looked furious, turned away in disgust, stomped off down the corridor. I think she was trying to tell me that I was good at the violin, not to give up on music. But people didn’t say that kind of thing in the 1970s. No one ever said it at home, that I played well. It was years later, maybe twenty years, that my mother said, ‘We used to listen to you downstairs. It sounded lovely.’ One word of encouragement might have saved me from giving away my violin to my brother, who had started learning by then.

The violin I play today belongs to my daughter. It’s still hers, if she wants to claim it. She used to practise in her room, but also downstairs, in front of me and her sister. She had lessons until she was 18, the summer before she left for University.

I manage some scales. A few off-key notes, but the fingers of my left hand remember where to go on the strings; the fingers of my right on top of the bow, by the heel, the thumb beneath. My wrists tire quickly. Chronic Fatigue does that to wrists. I pack the violin into its case, loosen the hairs on the bow and tuck it into the slots in the top of the case before clicking it shut. The violin is staying downstairs, to be played a little a few times a week. I won’t be playing alone, shut up in a bedroom.  I shall play along to records, find folk tunes to practise. I won’t be taking any grades.

The importance of rituals, candles and dogs

I was raised Catholic, as was my best friend Karan. I loved the rituals of a Catholic service, the ‘smells and bells’, and the sung Latin Mass. I knew the meaning of the words long before I learned Latin, translations from the English prayers that we chanted each Sunday and at primary school on a daily basis. The chanting meant that we didn’t appreciate the meaning of the prayers, and this was highlighted for me once, when I went to Mass in Ireland, and the service was garbled by the priest and congregation in double-quick time. It felt like everyone had done their duty, and could then get on with cooking the Sunday lunch or whatever.

In my teens, I started to skip church, choosing to spend an hour with my boyfriend instead. Until I was discovered passionately kissing my boyfriend goodbye at a bus stop. Caught by my father, he said nothing at the time, or at any other time. It was passed to my mother to deal with the embarrassing incident. ‘Snogging’ was the word she used, with a facial expression of disdain, so that I have associated the word with ‘a bad thing’ ever since. So back to church I went. When I reached 15 and had a different boyfriend, I was not allowed to see him on a Sunday unless I had gone to Mass and eaten a roast dinner at home first. Mass meant nothing to me by then, and hadn’t done for some years, and when I turned 16, I stopped going to church.

What I have held onto, though, is the ritual of lighting a candle, either in a church, a cathedral, or at home, and ‘praying’, in my own way, for friends and relatives who I feel need positive thoughts. I have other rituals, too, of my own making. Whether these help the person concerned or myself I don’t know. Perhaps they are something I perform for my own benefit. I do feel that rituals and ways of marking change are important.

My mother died two years ago. We had been estranged for many years, and I did not feel I wanted or needed to go to her funeral. To put it plainly, the thought of doing so filled me with great anxiety. I knew that I would only be going to put on a show, to please those who thought I should be there. Grief is hard for everyone, but it is a strange thing when you have been estranged. I discovered that there has been some research on ‘disenfranchised grief’, where it feels, or other people feel, that you have no right to be bereaved. This can happen when an ex-spouse dies, for example. I did feel  alone in my grief, and different from my siblings who had remained in touch with our very difficult mother, and indeed cared for her in her later years. I decided to hold my own wake for Mum. A few friends attended, I read something I had written about my mum, others read poems and sang songs. There was food and drink. Although none of these people knew my mum (except my husband, who had met her briefly), it was tremendously supportive, and I did feel that I had made my own ritual to mark Mum’s death. I also lit a candle while her funeral service was happening, when I was at home.

Karan, my best friend from my childhood years, died this week. It had been expected for the past 10 months, but is nevertheless a huge blow. During her treatment for a brain tumour, I sent her a Dog of the Week every Saturday. Karan loved dogs, and it was a way of keeping things light, but letting her know that I was thinking of her. The rules I made were that each dog must be able to fit in an envelope and must be posted on a Saturday morning. Each week I searched for dogs in card and gift shops, or made my own – I made an origami dog, found a wooden key ring at a craft fair, and a small felt dog in a gift shop on Brownsea Island. In the cards I sent each week, I would make up a name for the dog and a little story about them, and repeat the same text every week at the bottom of the card: ‘Dog of the Week is brought to you, dear Karan, to cheer you on and cheer you up during treatment, by your old mate, Cookie.’ Cookie was a childhood nickname, which only Karan and my two brothers still used. Now there are only two people in this world that call me Cookie.

I sent the last Dog of the Week on a Friday rather than Saturday. Karan died 6 days before her 61st birthday, and I had already made a card with a patchwork dog on the cover. I decided to send it to her family, with a note. I shall miss the ritual of finding, making and naming dogs, of going to the postbox each Saturday to send them. I have been lighting candles at home for Karan all week. Soon, that ritual will end, too.

Do Less in 2020

New Year’s resolutions, made at the darkest time of the year, are usually about depriving yourself (of food, drink etc) or pushing yourself to work harder at something. Gym memberships rise in January, causing regular gym-goers to pray for February when their usual haunts will be empty again, and those NY-resolution-makers will be lighter of pocket, having signed up for something they can’t keep up.

How about making DO LESS your resolution for 2020? As part of my Little Big Steps project, celebrating small steps as achievements in themselves, or on the road to bigger things, this is my suggestion. I got the idea after reading an article by Mia Gallagher in The Stinging Fly, Issue 41, ‘Practice, Process, Product’, from a lecture delivered at the Bray Literary Festival in September 2019. Gallagher writes:

I’m often asked by people for feedback on how they should complete a book or other Thing they are making. I usually ask them how long they’ve been working on it, how much time they intend to spend every week or every day going forward, and for how long. When they tell me their targets, I nearly always suggest they do less […] Don’t put in four hours a day. Put in one, or if that’s too much, thirty minutes. Or twenty minutes, three times a week. Each time you turn up, you build up energy. It’s the decision to be there that feeds the flame, not how long you stay once you’ve arrived.

Unless you are contractually obliged to complete a piece of work, in any discipline, and to a deadline, this is advice well worth taking.

Challenges that feel like competitions

I am declaring myself against National Novel Writing Month, when writers commit to writing a novel in a month; I am also ambivalent about the Write a Poem a Day months. I have only tried the latter, rarely get beyond five poems drafted, and hardly ever write them on consecutive days. I have given up feeling a failure, as I drop out on the second week, and instead work up those few poems I have drafted, preparing them for submission. I don’t do challenges that feel competitive, though I do set challenges for myself.

Changing habits

Habits are good, as long as they don’t stifle you. Like football fans wearing the same lucky socks to matches, we writers can become stuck in our habits, superstitious about notebooks, pens, times of day to write. I used to write only in A5 spiral-bound notebooks, using a pencil. I used to write only in notebooks that were given to me. The two notebooks I am using at present – A5 spiral-bound for general journalling; A4 for planning and research – are working perfectly well, even though I bought them for myself. Several gifted notebooks, that are neither A5 nor spiral-bound, lie on my bookshelves, full of my words. I recently picked up a cartridge pen, which I had not used in a while. The ink had dried up. It took some time to change the cartridge and scribble until the ink flowed freely. I now use it every day, instead of writing in pencil. I don’t need to stop to sharpen it, and even writing a few lines a day keeps the ink flowing. I see this as a good metaphor for writing habits, or for any creative pursuit: keep going, even a little at a time, or it will take you a while to get moving again.

Discipline needn’t be daunting

Discipline is a good thing if you have a long project to complete, but the project need not take over your life. I had a conversation with John O’Donoghue, about his method for writing his award-winning memoir, Sectioned: A Life Interrupted. I was daunted by attempting to write my own memoir; it seemed like such a massive thing to work on. John told me that he looked on his memoir as writing 15 separate stories. As he finished each story, he mentally pinned it up alongside the others, like pegging washing on the line. He worked at producing 500 good words, three times a week. This seemed achievable for me, and I did produce over 20,000 words working in this way. My memoir is now abandoned, for complicated reasons, and I am not working on a long writing project at present. But the process and practice remain a good lesson for me, plus there will be parts of the longer work that I can repurpose, in time, as poetry, as fiction. Working in small chunks of time, of output, is far more effective than bashing away until exhausted, then needing to cut away most of the words from the first draft.

‘Writing is not the only thing you do’

On my desk, I have a weekly planner, where I note down all sorts of ‘things to do’ from household tasks, birthday cards to buy and send, to writing projects. I used to have a separate mind map for writing, but now all my life tasks are together. In On Writing, Stephen King says: ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.’ The most helpful thing said to me last year, just after I had abandoned writing my memoir and was floundering over what to write, was by my osteopath. ‘Writing is not the only thing you do,’ he said. I was  furious, at first. How could he not understand that I am a writer? But it’s not the only thing I do. By just living, looking around me, I slowly, slowly started on a new poem, about my neighbour’s garden, from short notes written over a week or so, on a notepad by my bed. Just a minute or so at a time, until the poem formed. By doing less, I began to do more.

 

Talking to strangers and travelling fearlessly

We are standing on the railway station in Sighișoara on a cold morning in April. It was 19 degrees the day before, as we wandered round the citadel, and now the temperature has dipped to 2 degrees. There is no indication of why the train is late, no announcement, nothing on the board. The train is coming from Vienna, so plenty of opportunities for delay, and our journey back to Bucharest will take five hours.

Bran Castle

Bran Castle

A small crowd of people cross the track to the warmth of the waiting room, either knowing something that we had been unable to discover about the delay, or being used to this sort of thing with Romanian trains. The six of us left on the platform decide to follow them. We are a party of three, and then there is an older couple from Belgium, plus a young man with a rucksack, travelling alone. ‘Shall we dance?’ I say, in an effort to keep warm. The Belgian woman laughs, and joins me in a few steps. Her husband has hair the colour of the glacial water in the mountain streams that we have seen from train windows on our journeys through Transylvania. The couple intended to go to the Black Sea, but with the turn in the weather, they are heading for Brașov. The young man is touring fortified churches, and hiking when the weather allows. He tells us of a place in Moldavia he has visited. ‘It’s like a living museum,’ he says. ‘The people live in wooden huts built in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s really hard to get there by public transport.’ It transpires that the young man is also Belgian. He and the couple are from the same village, but have never met before.

A sudden chime from the speakers, like an Alpine tune played on handbells. Our train is arriving in three minutes. The locals have already gathered this, ahead of the announcement, and have crossed to Linia 2. This is a theme throughout the trip: foreigners are just supposed to know, in the way Romanians know – where to find a kiosk to buy bus tickets, when trains are late. There is little information for tourists.

This is me, travelling fearlessly, with my husband and my friend. A pledge I took in my sixtieth year, to do sixty things for the first time, with a running theme of going to places I hadn’t been to before. All my life I have been fearful of travelling. My parents had migrated from Ireland to England, and the only trips I knew, growing up, were the long journey by rail, sea, bus and taxi to County Clare each summer, and the occasional journey to the Sussex coast. I had my children young, then had little money, and it seemed the opportunity to travel had passed me by.

Romania was quite a challenge, but I was attracted by a non-touristy destination, and by the fact that my brother’s boyfriend is Romanian, the two of them having made a similar trip through Transylvania. I was able to get advice from them – on how to buy bus tickets and train tickets (no point getting an Interrail card, as trains are dirt cheap in Romania), on bringing food for long train journeys, as there is no buffet. I learned some Romanian through an app, Duolingo, which taught me many useful phrases, such as ‘You are men. You have children,’ and ‘The owl eats insects.’ My friend, armed with a Berlitz phrasebook, and I, armed with six weeks on Duolingo, managed to negotiate buying train tickets and ordering food in Romanian, and even my reluctant husband ordered a taxi and learned how to say ‘Multumesc’ (‘Thank you’).

The memories I hold of that trip are not only of visits to castles, the beautiful scenery, of storks in flight and nesting alongside railway lines, but of the conversations with strangers. On a train journey, Teodora, a medical student on her way to university in Cluj Napoca, told us of her parents’ experiences, living in the time of communism, when they had to get up at 4.00 a.m. to queue for one loaf of bread for the week for the family. She explains why the younger people speak good English, but the older ones were only taught Romanian and Russian in the time of Ceaușescu, which explains why we have trouble conversing with older taxi drivers and people on buses. Nonetheless, the older Romanians we encounter are willing to show us how to stamp our bus tickets, and to reassure us that we are travelling in the right direction. There is friendliness and good-naturedness all round.

The Belgian couple we meet on the train platform think we are Romanians, at first. Coming towards the end of our stay, we no longer look like bewildered tourists, and I am no longer a fearful traveller.

Invicted – a guest post by SM Jenkin

I invited SM Jenkin to share her poem ‘Invicted’, as it lends itself to the theme of Little Big Steps. I know SM as Sarah – we were sister Medway Mermaids, part of a women’s writing group, and also share the experiences of being second-generation Irish women and living in the Medway Towns.

‘Invicted’ appears in her debut poetry collection Fire in the Head, published last year by Wordsmithery. It was also published in the anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, edited by Isabelle Kenyon, a fundraiser for the UK mental health charity Mind, and runner up for Best Anthology at the Saboteur Awards, 2018.

Invicted

Victory
is getting out of bed, even though
it is past noon and everyone walking past
has seen that your curtains are
still closed

Victory
is having curtains in the first place,
and a net behind them, and
space to put them up and
keeping them there

Victory
is those sharp clean teeth and that cereal
that you swallow down and keep down
and the milk that is still OK to drink,
today

Victory
is remembering that above those sharp
teeth are lips that kiss, that shape
soft words:
you are allowed

Victory
is those clothes that keep you warm,
and those matching yellow socks
that remind you of
summer beaches

Victory
is making it beyond the chipped
front door today, and staying put
when they walk past, and see
right through you

Victory
is not telling them to go
fuck themselves, because really.
Who knows what their victory looks like;
is it anything like yours?

Victory
is going to bed and staying there,
not knowing if tomorrow is going to
be a victory day and
doing it anyway

____________

Over to Sarah, to tell us how she came to write ‘Invicted’:

‘Invicted’ was written as I reached one of the lowest points of my life, a culmination of what felt like a relentless conga-line of hurt and humiliations, large and small, and a couple of major health scares. It became difficult to get out of bed, to have any kind of energy at all; I didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere. It became hard to find anything to celebrate when it seemed like everyone else was surging ahead in their lives, and posting such happy pictures online. I was isolated and not meeting anyone. My life seemed small and grey in comparison. So, to compensate, I wrote myself a checklist for myself of the things I was able to do and why this was important. It started off more as a way of reassuring myself that I was managing to do something, to remind myself that I was doing something. That, yes, getting out of bed was an achievement. Yes, staying in the outside world once you managed to get there was an achievement. Yes, now that you’ve seen this you can celebrate and recognise that this is, after all, a common and shared life experience. That we do not know what other people’s victories look like.

I wrote that poem because shaping the words helped me to shape my understanding, and how important it is to recognise those small steps of achievement. Writing that poem became an achievement for me, and sometimes, when the bad days return, I can say to myself, Victory is getting out of bed. There’s still a hangover that any talk about weakness is not the done thing. I’m a poet. I’m not always going to stick to the done thing, especially now.

It was important to me to make a reference to HMS Victory, the ship built at Chatham dockyard, where my dad worked.

It feels to me that there is still a macho hangover in some parts of Medway. An idea that a victory is something that has a very narrow definition,  only applying to “wins” such as a conflict (large or small), a business win, a football match.  I wanted to explore and expand that definition for myself. That winning mindset is hard to shake off.

SM Jenkin is a second-generation Irish writer, a lover of science fiction and an editorial advisor for Confluence magazine. A former chair of the Medway Mermaids writing group, chair and founder member of the Medway St Patrick’s day committee, SM Jenkin is a regular performer on the Kent Live Lit scene. She has performed internationally, and has been published in numerous literary anthologies and magazines. Her debut poetry collection Fire in the Head was published by Wordsmithery in 2018.

Social media: @sajenks42  https://www.facebook.com/SMJenkinWriter

Little Big Steps, taking the first step

Since my last post, I have come up with a name for my project, which celebrates small achievements as good things in themselves, or as steps on the road to bigger things. The name is Little Big Steps – so far so good.

I had thought that this could become a book, or that I could start a new blog – something big. But the whole idea is to celebrate the small. So I am choosing not to follow one of the habits of highly effective people, as outlined by Steven Covey: ‘Begin with the end in mind’. (From The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Starting with something big in mind might mean that you never get started at all. It all becomes too daunting.

I have been thinking about how I get started on my writing, how I got started in the first place, nearly 20 years ago, when I was very ill and had severely limited energy. It started with a notebook, a gift from a friend. I wrote a little poetry in the notebook each day, typed it up the next day, edited it another day. Twenty minutes at a time was all I could manage. The writing was enough in itself, without thinking where it might lead to.

There are Boats on the Orchard, my latest publication, was not the result of starting with the end in mind. I was living in a house that backed onto a disused orchard, in a village that had been a major fruit-growing area; the orchards now disappearing or in decline. I had finished a story collection, which I had been writing for five years (also not started with a book in mind – a pair of stories sharing characters, which accidentally grew). I was not sure what to do with myself. I had a quote pinned above my desk, about when you finish a long writing project, it is as if you are falling from a tree, hitting off every branch as you come down.

It was a kind of bereavement, after living with those characters for so long. And after a bereavement, you have to carry on every day, putting one foot in front of the other. Putting new words on the page, even if they seem slight, even if it seems they won’t lead anywhere. So I wrote about what I could see from the window of my writing shed, and things I noticed as I walked the local orchards. Over time, those poems grew into something bigger – a commission for Wandering Words followed, and eventually a pamphlet, working with Sara Fletcher to produce images to illustrate the poems. It had long been an ambition of mine, to collaborate with an artist, and all this grew from seemingly slight scribblings in a notebook.

I guess the point of this is, you don’t have to begin with the end in mind. Just take a step and see where it leads you. For the time being, I have a name – Little Big Steps – and I have begun a new notebook, one that I have been saving for a while. I am jotting ideas, copying quotations from books and articles, and I have already asked a guest writer if she would like to share a poem of hers on this website, which fits the theme. More soon…

Small steps to a bigger world

Twenty years ago I walked out of the charity where I worked, never to return. Someone had given me permission to do so. A stranger, a counsellor with Victim Support, whom I not only told about the shock of my car being set on fire, but spilled all the awful things that had happened in the previous year. Not least of these was my deteriorating health, and an intolerable work situation. I had gone off sick the previous year, for 3 months, and returned sooner than I should have done, under pressure from the board of trustees, and because of my own wish to ‘get back to normal’. I returned with promises of more support and a reduced workload. This did not happen. The stress piled up, and my underlying health problems became more prominent. But I felt responsible, knowing how the charity had struggled with my earlier sickness absence, so I struggled on, until I came to a halt.

I do not remember the name of that Victim Support counsellor, nor what she looked like; just her words. ‘You don’t have to go back in that place,’ she said. ‘You never have to go back.’

My world became small. I had hoped, after a few weeks recovery, that I could apply for another job, resume my life, but weeks became months became years. My functioning was severely reduced, physically and mentally, and although I have improved since those early years, my life remains restricted by low energy, mental tiredness and physical pain.

I am telling this story, as I am approaching a milestone – my 60th birthday. That day I walked out of the office for the last time, twenty years ago, I was a couple of months short of my 40th. A third of life has been restricted by illness. My small world has only become a little larger in those twenty years, and this has only happened because of small steps.

There is a lot of emphasis on big achievements in the media – I remember a TV programme where people with mental health problems were supported and encouraged to run a marathon. Some of them achieved it, but I recall a man whose anxiety was so great that even leaving the house was too much for him. He tried in the early stages of the programme, but dropped out of the big run. He had achieved something big, just giving it a go, just leaving the house. Of course, showing him leaving the house and walking to the shops and back would not have made great television. The runners receiving medals and being hugged by Nick Knowles were what the viewers wanted to see.

I don’t want to totally put down what that programme achieved. My daughter was inspired by it, and took up running as a result. I am very proud of her for doing so, and for completing the Great North Run. But what about those of us that can’t run? Can’t run at all, let alone attempt a marathon?

My small steps over the past twenty years have led me to do bigger things. Taking up part-time study, leading to an MA in Creative Writing, started with little bits of writing, small sessions of researching funding for my fees, short sessions of filling out application forms over several days. It took a year for me to recover enough energy to attend a two-hour class once a week: my first writing course. And there were backward steps, during my MA course, when I had to get extensions for assignments due to my health.

I was inspired in recent days by a friend who is fundraising, asking for sponsorship as she loses weight and gains fitness. Her goal is to achieve this in small steps – walking to the shops instead of driving, taking her dog for longer walks. How fabulous, I thought. No marathon to run, no mountain to climb; just everyday things.

I thought, then, of friends whose lives are limited by illness, and others who find achieving big goals too daunting to embark upon. Of how to celebrate their small steps, their achievements. I think this could become bigger – a book, a blog, an inspiration for others. Watch this space as ideas come together.

Meanwhile, I am working towards doing 60 things for the first time. These range from visiting all of Kent Country Parks to travelling through Transylvania by train, which I did in April of this year: ‘Travelling Fearlessly’. For someone who barely left the house twenty years ago, it’s some achievement.

On stealing shiny words and walking into gunpowder smoke


I have two conditions that force me into solitude – one is chronic illness, and the other is being a writer. I don’t want to push the tortured artist thing, or the tortured sick person thing, but I do spend a lot of time alone. I don’t have consumption and live in a garret – it’s a comfy 1960s semi, actually, and my husband is often upstairs in his study in the smallest bedroom, and would come to my aid if I needed company or help, often summoned by the magic of WhatsApp if I’m too tired to climb the stairs.

Oare Gunpowder Works: a bridge beneath which only Borrowers could pass

I have been brought out of solitude by working on collaborative projects. The first was being one of a group of artists chronicling a year in the life of Rainham Community Orchard. We mostly worked alone, making our visits to the orchard: sketching, taking photographs, writing down lines of poetry, but some of my visits were with Sara E. Fletcher, who was to work on ceramics, some of which ended up with the words from my poems on them, and those of Stephy Stanton. Sara and I also met away from the orchard, to spark ideas off one another, which changed my words and inspired her work. During our walks in the orchard – on a windy February day, and again in September on one of the pick-your-own-apples days – I noticed things that I would not have done so if walking alone, and Sara could always be relied upon to identify plants and wildlife. The weeds I called ‘tall yellow flowers’ were Oxford ragwort, and both definitions ended up in a poem.

Walking with someone you have not walked with before, even in a familiar place, brings new insights. I did so with Anna Bell, ‘Anna Outdoors’, when she asked me to write a poem for children about Oare Gunpowder Works, near Faversham. For eight years, I lived close to the woods in which the ruins of the gunpowder works stand. I walked there alone, I walked with my husband, I was an ‘Artist in the Woods’, at their annual event, for a couple of years. And yet, with Anna, new revelations came to light – a low bridge over a leat (a waterway built to transport goods around the site, on powder punts), which Anna said would only allow Borrowers to pass beneath; the scribblings of bark beetles on a moss-covered log; the two-tone moan of industry from the other side of the road that borders the woods.

Anna, like Sara, knows things about nature. Her experience added to my inspiration, her words became mine in the poem (poets are magpies, we steal shiny things and claim them as our own). Anna talked of the ‘chattering of bats’, and that phrase was too good to let go.

As a child, I spent a lot of time on Epsom Common. I was a member of ‘The Red Pea Club’, named after the berries of the hawthorn tree in the alleyway near to our house. We had a club song, ‘Acorn’s the Word’, and a tree that we claimed as our own, The Dragon, which had branches that were wings and a tail, and a ‘cockpit’ from which to steer the dragon’s flight. I couldn’t tell you what sort of tree the dragon was, nor could I have named a hawthorn. I knew the ferns, the blackberries, and the wild golden rod that flourished on the Common, and the lilies of the valley that grew in our garden, but that was the limit of my knowledge of the names of plants and trees. Lost Words? I never knew them.

Back to the walk in the woods with Anna. She was keen for me to emphasise the sensory details in my poem, both of the Gunpowder Works as they are now, and as they were when the site was a factory, producing the black powder for the munitions industry. A friend told me that someone we both know has a licence to make gunpowder, so Anna and I visited Dave Lamberton at his Faversham home, where he fired a pistol in his garden, so I could experience the smell of gunpowder smoke. I stepped out from his kitchen to the garden, walked into the cloud of smoke – nothing at first, then in the nose, then down the back of the throat and onto the tongue, a bitter tang. The smell hung in my hair for the rest of the day. And all for one word in my poem, ‘The Gunpowder Spell’.

So, what have I learned? Writing is not just sitting alone with a notebook. It’s about walking and talking with others, with those whose experience is different from yours, and it’s about stealing – taking shiny words, storing them in your nest, then sharing them with others.

More about Anna Bell here: Anna Outdoors 

More about Oare Gunpowder Works.

More about Rainham Community Orchard.

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