Category: Irish Writers in London Summer School

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

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