Category: Irish writers and writing

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

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

Anatomised – a life changed forever by Lyme Disease

A few years ago, I heard Andrew McGuinness read a story at the University of Kent. It was a funny tale, and his delivery owed much to stand-up comedy. McGuinness taught creative writing at the university, and at Christchurch, the other university in Canterbury. I saw him at many events, reading his own work, interviewing writers and hosting panels. And then I didn’t.

Anatomised coverLike Jack Mann (a stand-up comedian and the protagonist of Andrew McGuinness’s new novel, Anatomised), Andrew McGuinness was struck with a mysterious illness. I don’t like to assume that all of Jack Mann’s experiences reflect those of Andrew McGuinness. This is a work of fiction. However, my guess is that the research that has gone into Anatomised is borne of hard personal experience. The medical details, the intricacies of test results, and the psychological effects of having a life-changing illness that no-one can explain. Jack Mann is thrown from a comfortable life (albeit with family and bereavement issues in his background), having just relocated to the Kent coast, to a Kafkaesque nightmare of weird symptoms, hospital admissions and doctors who can’t see beyond their own specialties – stroke, MS – to alternative therapists who advocate positive thinking when the tinctures they give Mann don’t work.

I nearly stopped reading Anatomised, as Jack Mann’s experiences reflect some of my own as a person misdiagnosed, mistreated, disbelieved and ignored, both in the early days of my own chronic illness, and even several years on. The falling away of friends and relatives, the isolation, the unexplainedness of it all, the grief, the suicidal thoughts. Jack Mann, in a darkly comic scene, fails to throw himself on the right railway track, watching the train (which he has timed from hearing it pass at the end of his garden) speed past on the opposite track as he lays there, awaiting oblivion. My own (lack of) attempts were less dramatic. I walked by the river Medway several times a week, past some steps that descended into the water. I imagined stepping down and down to a watery grave. I never even took the first step down, but my dreams, when they came amidst years of barely sleeping, were of drowning, then a hand pulling me out at the last moment.

This isn’t a review. More of a reflection on lives that once were, altered forever – mine, Jack Mann’s, and Andrew McGuinness’s. And how writers can process their experience through fiction rather than memoir. McGuinness’s novel is not perfect – I felt the author’s anger at his mistreatment channelled through Jack Mann and his wife Alice. It was a little too noticeable at times. Would a reader who doesn’t know McGuinness’s story notice this as much as I did? Or a reader who hasn’t been through that kind of anger themselves, sometimes channelling it through poems and stories, which would have been better left until some of that anger had subsided? Perhaps a fictionalised account is the best one can do, given the closeness of the material, the pain. It gives the writer a distance from the awfulness of it all.

Anatomised has stayed with me, and given me a great deal of cause for thought. I read a lot, but needed a week before beginning another book, to process Jack Mann’s story, Andrew McGuinness’s personal story, and my own. I thought of it as I walked with my husband Bob on a recent holiday. Bob has only known me with my illness, as we met when I was some seven years into it. On this holiday, as I do in my daily life, I could only manage a couple of hours out everyday, then I slept and rested for the remainder of the day. ‘I’d understand if you wanted a wife who could walk further,’ I said, as I took Bob’s arm, struggling to walk back to the house where we were staying. ‘Nah,’ he said, ‘Think of all the bother of divorcing you.’ We laughed, but I thought of how holidays used to be, before all these years of illness; a third of my life lived like this.

I’m glad I didn’t take that walk down the steps into the river, because life is good, in spite of my limitations. I’m glad that Andrew McGuinness was able to recover enough, to fight enough, to give us Anatomised. It is lyrical and thought-provoking. I would particularly recommend the last few chapters, where … but I don’t want to give the game away.

Anatomised by A.F. McGuinness is published by  Red Sail Press and costs £12.99. A proportion of income from sales of the book will go to Lyme Disease charities.

 

William Trevor, my father, and me

William Trevor and I have connections, via a small town in Ireland, and two men. One of them was my father, another is now a friend, and was a catalyst for uncovering my past and a wealth of material that was to feed my writing for many years.

In 2007, a William Trevor story appeared in The Guardian, and in the biog it said that he was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1928. In the same town and the in same year of birth as my father. It was a town I had never visited, and as my father had been dead for seven years by then, I had no cause to visit. We had few connections with that side of the family: Dad rarely mentioned his childhood, and his silence spoke of sadness.

I had not seen or spoken to my father for several years before his death, for reasons that I won’t go into here; stories that are not mine to tell. The truth is, you can never cut off entirely from your past, and my curiosity about my father’s past grew. I held on to The Guardian short story supplement for some months, spoke to a friend about writing to William Trevor, and the impossibility of doing so. I’m not sure what was holding me back from sending a letter, from writing the letter, but my friend said, ‘What do you have to lose?’

I found out that there was a short story competition to be judged by William Trevor, part of the William Trevor Literary Festival to be held in Mitchelstown. So I wrote a letter to William Trevor, care of the administrator of the competition, Liam Cusack. I left the letter to Trevor unsealed, placed it in another envelope, and enclosed a note to the administrator, asking him to forward it, and saying that he was welcome to read the letter before sending it on. I didn’t keep a copy, but from what I remember I asked if he might have known my father. Perhaps they had gone to school together. My dad knew William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ by heart, and perhaps they had learned the poem together. I expected no reply.

IMG_0390

Liam Cusack, Jim Parker and Maria in O’Callaghan’s, Mitchelstown

A few days later, I had a telephone call from Ireland. Liam Cusack had read my letter. He said that Trevor had previously received ‘crank letters’, so he had opened mine. There was no point forwarding it, though, as Trevor had left Mitchelstown when he was five years old, and would not have gone to school with my dad. He would, however, do a bit of research for me, about my dad, as he thought there was a man who would have known my dad.

This led to a visit to Mitchelstown in 2007, and twice more, the last being in 2014 when I read a story from my collection As Long as it Takes at a Culture Night event, in the company of both Liam Cusack and Jim Parker, the man who knew my father, and with whom I exchange long, handwritten letters once or twice a year.

In 2008, I spent two days at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival in the beautiful setting of Charleston. William Trevor was making a rare appearance, a reading and a book signing. It was sold out, but I hung around the desk in the hope of ticket returns. Five minutes before the event, a few tickets were released, which had been reserved by people in the USA, and had not been collected. I took my place, and listened to a story set in a small town in Ireland, not unlike Mitchelstown, read in the same accent that I had heard throughout my childhood.

I queued to have my book signed, and had a few moments with the man. He looked frail, and the organisers were protective of him becoming too tired, and aware of the long queue of people waiting. I told him that my father was born in Mitchelstown, too, and in the same year, and that Trevor and I had a mutual friend, Liam Cusack, in Mitchelstown. ‘Oh, how is he? I’ve heard he’s not been well,’ he said, but I was moved along before I could say more.

William Trevor only lived in Mitchelstown for five years. His father was a bank manager in the town, and bank managers were moved from town to town. Then Trevor left Ireland, as my father did, as a young man, to go to England to find work, and never returned to live there. He was an outsider, a Protestant in a Catholic country, an Irishman in Devon, and this gave him a different perspective on the world he lived in. Liam Cusack told me that Trevor came back to Mitchelstown often, and was to be found sitting on a bench in the square, looking towards the Galty mountains, or watching people, making up stories in his head about small town people.

I would not dare to put my own writing in the same class as William Trevor, but we do have a connection. We cannot quite escape our past, even a past that is ours only tentatively, or is it in the blood, in the psyche? What do I know, really, of Ireland, having grown up in England, having visited, for only weeks at a time, the Ireland my parents were born in? Yet Richard Skinner wrote this of my stories, when he reviewed As Long as it Takes on Writers’ Hub:

McCarthy shares with William Trevor a profound melancholy and her tales, like the Irish landscape eternally showered with soft yet invasive rain, are similarly saturated in shame, sacrifice, and secret sorrow.

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