Russian dolls – stories within stories, women within women

Woodcut by Maggie Drury

I’ve always been fascinated by Russian dolls, ever since I saw a set on a high shelf in the kitchen of a friend’s house as a child. I never plucked up the courage to ask to play with them; I don’t know why. I had known Karan since we were babies, tucked either end of one pram as our mother’s went shopping together, and I spent hours and days with her as we grew up. Being one of only two children, Karan had more than I did, as one of five – more things to play with and, it has to be said, more love from her parents.

The Russian dolls on the shelf sparked a story that I wrote many years ago. It ended up in my collection, As Long as it Takes, which was published ten years ago this month. The story is called ‘Gillian’s dolls’, and concerns Sharon, a girl from a large family, being jealous of her friend Gillian’s Russian dolls. Gillian is an only child. Gillian and her parents are not a bit like Karan and her family, though Sharon and her family are a bit like mine. Sharon plays with Gillian’s dolls without permission, untwisting each one and lining them up in height order. She is caught by Gillian’s father, failing to put the dolls back together when she hears his key in the lock. She clumsily tries to hide them in her schoolbag. Having witnessed a scene between Gillian’s parents, Sharon drops her bag, and the dolls tumble onto the floor. Gillian’s father blackmails Sharon into keeping quiet; he won’t tell her parents about ‘stealing’ the Russian dolls if she doesn’t tell them what she has seen. It’s not until she is home that she realises that the smallest doll, the baby, is still in her bag.

‘Gillian’s dolls’ was one of the first stories I wrote with the cast of characters that came to inhabit As Long as it TakesFurther stories emerged for each character at different stages in their lives: a younger Sharon in ‘A Tea Party’; a teen Sharon in ‘Saturday Girl’; her sisters Janice and Maggie as adults in ‘Here’s Looking at You’ and ‘Self Help’. Pauline Masurel reviewed the collection for The Short Review:

As Long as it Takes is a bit like a nest of Russian dolls, with one woman packed inside another woman, each helping to contain or release the other.

I’ve been working with Russian dolls as part of my therapy – looking at how the people we were at different stages in our lives are triggered in certain situations. I am learning to contain the scared child, the fearful teen, within the casing of the adult me. And, in a way, that’s what I do with my writing – with fiction, non-fiction and poetry. It feels never ending – the work I need to do on myself, the therapy, the writing. Ten years on from publication of the story collection, I am still unpacking the Russian dolls, lining them up, putting them in height order, tucking them one inside the other, discovering new things. I am mostly writing non-fiction these days, trying to unpack the past in order to contain it within the adult me, the adult Russian doll, so it doesn’t hold so much power. There is fear as I do this; not so much when I write, but when I think of releasing the work into the public domain. Having completed the umpteenth draft of a piece I have been writing and expanding on for seventeen years, in different forms and at different times, I gave it to my husband to read. The fear of just showing it to one reader, the defensiveness with which I greeted his notes, I was that scared teen again, worried about telling tales outside of the family.

As I get older, and contemplate my remaining years, my legacy, it feels like time to unpack the Russian dolls and set them out in a public place, to work towards publication.The piece I have been working on for seventeen years has, in several iterations, been called ‘Learning to be English‘. It was the title of the column I wrote and broadcast for the BBC Radio 4 programme Home Truths in 2006; it was the title of my first self-published pamphlet; it was a piece for an anthology of second-generation Irish writers, which didn’t make it to publication; it is now the opening chapter of planned book, having grown from about 1,000 words in 2006 to 12,000 in 2024.  If I don’t publish this work soon, I’ll still be writing the same thing on my death bed, an old and wizened Russian doll, too stiff to open up and reveal the dolls within me.

If you wish to buy a copy of As Long as it Takes please contact me via the email address on this page. If you wish to buy a secondhand copy, please do so via Wob, which pays royalties to authors on sales of pre-owned books.

See more of Maggie Drury’s artwork on Instagram: @maggie_drury9 

On noise and silence

I lost my voice for a few days recently. I found it frustrating, not being able to express myself freely, not being heard, resorting to writing notes to be understood. Growing up in a large family, I learned to talk loudly, but that some things must not be spoken about at all, either inside or outside the home. There were elephants all over the house, not just in one room, but they must be ignored, drowned out by noise.

My mother could not bear the thoughts in her head, so she masked them with radio and television, all day long. The radio in the kitchen always seemed slightly off station and too loud, the companion to cooking and cleaning. The television was on from lunchtime onwards – Pebble Mill at One, Crown Court, Good Afternoon with Mavis Nicholson. I watched them, too, when I came home for lunch, watched them with Mum, or on my own if she was out. The radio was on again when Mum prepared the dinner, then back to the screen: Crossroads, Emmerdale Farm, Coronation Street, right through to end of programmes, in the days before twenty-four hour TV. Mum would fall asleep to whatever she was watching, but if one of her children dared to switch channel, she would suddenly wake. ‘I was watching, that,’ she’d say. ‘Turn it back,’ as she was in charge of our viewing, declaring any programme she didn’t like: ‘Rubbish,’ or ‘Pure rubbish.’

I, too, used to have noise wherever I was, radios throughout the house switched on whenever I entered the room, even if for a few minutes. Perhaps I wanted to drown out my thoughts, too. Having grown up with doing homework in the corner of a room where television was blaring, people talking or arguing, I had to get used to it. There was no private space, no study space, in a small house with seven people living in it. No silence. I was reminded of this when I was sent a photo of the doorstep of my late brother’s house, after someone kindly laid flowers on my behalf on the anniversary of his death. The steps and the two low walls that flank it have been painted black, but the once-glossy red of the bricks was showing through; the colour of those steps when I lived in that house from the age of four to when I left home, a week after my nineteenth birthday.

I took my O-Levels in the hot summer of 1976, and spent many hours revising on those front steps, early in the day. Dad would get up early for work, and put the radio on as he made his sandwiches and drank his tea. The radio was loud, but it didn’t wake anyone but me. I would lie in bed until I heard Uncle Bill’s van pull up outside and the front door close as Dad left. Then up with my books to sit on the front doorstep in the relative cool of the morning, the house quiet, making notes on notes, condensing my learning into one paragraph that would trigger an entire essay in the exams. It was the only time I spent in silence while I lived in that house.

This month marks sixty years since my family of birth moved into that house, and it is just over a year since the last McCarthy to live in it left this world. The house has been silent for a year, just the ghosts of all of us humans that lived in it pass through; the spirits of the dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, white mice, hamsters and goldfish, too. Scenes and memories pass through my head unbidden. The last time I visited, it was all too much to bear. I said I would not go again, and handed back the keys; the only time I had ever held keys to that house. There was no need when I was young, when there was always someone home, when the back door was left unlocked. I now find I want to visit again, to sit on those steps, to remember some of the good times as well as the bad, to bring things to a close, but my requests are met with silence, as if I have no place, having left, having broken silence on some things that others would rather remain unspoken.

I can no longer cope with noise all the time. I cannot read and listen to the radio, I cannot write while the television is on, I cannot concentrate when there are voices around me. Silence is my friend these days, even though it lets the thoughts in that I would rather not entertain.

Meeting the Doctor

My ten year old granddaughter tells us her news from the back seat of the car. She’s seen something new, and it’s the best thing she’s ever seen. Doctor Who, the first episode of the first series, she tells us. William Hartnell, I think, wondering what she makes of television from 1963; but no, she means Christopher Eccleston, the ninth Doctor. It reminds of when she discovered Beatbugs, an animated series on Netflix, featuring music by the Fab Four. ‘Grandma, I’ve found out about a band called The Beatles,’ she said. ‘I think you’d like them.’

Yarnbombing of Medway Art Box by Unravel and Unwind

Sixty years of Doctor Who hardly seems possible, spanning several generations – and regenerations – and sparking many memories. I was four years old when the first Doctor arrived on our screens, the black and white sets liable to slip on the ‘vertical hold’, or to go fuzzy. I don’t really remember the William Hartnell era, but have a strong memory of Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, and his companions, Jamie and Zoe. Not of any episodes, but of a children’s Christmas party. I couldn’t place how old I was when I went, but as the granddaughter once said, ‘If you’ve got a Google you can look it up,’ so I discovered that I would have been around my granddaughter’s age, perhaps a little younger.

My memory starts on a dark evening, walking along a path along by a field with my family, then entering a large hall. The party was already in swing. The hall was dark and there was a magician on the stage. When the lights went up, we were invited to queue up to go into the grotto. There was no Father Christmas to give out presents. Instead, we entered the Tardis. There were real Daleks to walk past, then the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. Yes, the real Doctor, Patrick Troughton, standing a little way back behind a rope. I was upset, as my brother John had flu and couldn’t come to the party, so I as Jamie (Frazer Hines) handed me a wrapped gift, I told him that John was ill, and asked if I could take a present for him, too. Jamie gave me a second wrapped parcel to take home. My gift was a Lady Penelope plasticine set, with moulds to make the Fab1 car, Parker and Lady P, from Thunderbirds. I don’t remember what John’s gift was, and when I asked him a couple of years ago, neither could he.

I couldn’t work out why we were invited to meet the Doctor; the only other Christmas parties I can remember were at my dad’s working men’s club. John told me that it was Alistair and Beryl that arranged it – near neighbours of our family when we lived in the prefab where I was born, and where seven of us lived when were finally allocated a council house. I knew that they had an adopted daughter, Penny, and that they fostered other children, and that they lived in their ‘own house’ on a road that ran at right angles to ours. What I didn’t know was that Alistair worked for the Post Office, and that these annual Christmas parties were for Post Office workers’ children, and that they could invite other families that were ‘in need’. I think my mum would have mortified if she’d known about the ‘in need’ bit, but we probably were. It was John that told me about Alistair arranging for us to go, and a couple of friends who enlightened me about the invitations extended to ‘in need’ children. It’s amazing about these revelations, so many decades on.

I have many other memories about Doctor Who – like the long, multi-coloured knitted scarf I wore in my teens, like Tom Baker’s (the fourth Doctor). It wrapped loosely round my neck three times, and still hung down to my knees. One time, three of us from school wrapped it round each of our necks and walked from school to work in Woolworth’s, the sole runners in a three-necked race.  Then there was the wooden Tardis that my father-in-law made for my daughters, with a clear plastic tub poked through a hole in the top, and a torch inside to let the light shine through. Also, my sister-in-law writing a Doctor Who screenplay for her grandsons to perform and video one Christmas. They declared that it was ‘Certificate 30’, so we were all old enough to watch it.

I shall be watching the new series, as I have with recent ones, but I must admit to finding them harder to follow than I used to. So many special effects, so much running around … perhaps I preferred the sets of disused quarries, the slightly slower moving scripts.

Today marks a year since I last saw my big brother John. He died just over a month afterwards. I miss having him fill in the gaps, like telling me how we came to be invited to meet the Doctor. Perhaps he would have remembered Alistair and Beryl’s surname – I’d love the see if there’s anything I could find about them online. Perhaps I could find their daughter, Penny, ask if she remembers us, and what present she received from the Doctor at that party.

A spiritual experience amongst the dirty dishes

I was at the dentist a few weeks ago, the last painful procedure in a series of appointments that had begun 10 months previously. I heard the words ‘blade’ and ‘spanner’ pass between the dentist and the nurse, as once again they rummaged in my mouth, this time to fit the actual tooth into the implant that had been placed a few weeks before. I tried to imagine I was somewhere else, and the words of the song, ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ ran through my head, over and over.

The nurse stepped away, to the back of the room, and in her place was my brother John, just behind me and to the left. Now, this would have been unusual in itself; it was even more so, as John had died 7 months before.

Pete the Temp, Medway River Lit Festival

I used to be sceptical about such experiences, and I would once have explained them as tricks of the mind, but now I am not so sure. This wasn’t the first time that John had come to me since he died. The first was a few months before. I was in the kitchen at home, having cleared the dishes from the dinner table. I had just made a decision and taken action on a matter that had been troubling me for some time. Suddenly, there was John, behind my left shoulder, just at the edge of my vision. ‘Well done, Maria,’ he said. ‘You’ve done the right thing.’

Both were quite banal settings for John to make his presence felt – and it was a sense of his presence rather than a physical manifestation. I suppose I’d imagined that, if I were to have such an experience, it would come with celestial light and a choir of beautiful voices. Not in a dentist surgery or amongst the dirty dishes. Each time, I found the experience comforting. But, after that time at the dentist, I felt that he’d visited me for the last time.

I was asked recently about transcendent experiences. Spiritual, out of the ordinary, where I’d felt transported to a different state. I couldn’t think of a reply at the time. Brought up Catholic, I never truly felt spiritually raised in church, or within that faith. It was too bound by duty and rituals, by being told what to believe, by being sent to church long after I believed, until I finally refused to attend Sunday Mass. I did, though, experience a kind of transcendence singing with others in the children’s choir, and several times when I attended the sung Latin mass. There was the mystery of the words that I only understood in relation to the spoken English versions of the Credo and Agnus Dei, the musicality, the congregation singing along to the priest’s lead, acapella. It was the only service that I became lost in.

I think my transcendent experiences have all been around music. I was once taken by my choir mistress, Mrs Field, and her daughter Rosemary, to Brompton Oratory to hear the choir. I can’t recall what they sang, only remember that high roof resounding with seemingly heavenly voices, a beautiful feeling coming over me. And then going for lunch at The Golden Egg opposite the church. Mrs Field took me along to other musical events – piano recitals and the like – but they did little for me. My next experiences of transcendence were to be around rock music, being with others that were as into it as I was, losing myself in a kind of free-form dance. Now, I’d been into dancing for a long time before this, being a disco girl before I became a rock fan. I found ‘freaking out’ and shaking my long hair – head-banging – made me far happier.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, only that in writing this blog post I am reaching after something. Something outside of ordinary experience. Since John died, I feel more open to new things, trying to get out of fixed ways of being and fixed beliefs. Perhaps the rigidity of Catholic doctrine was replaced by other kinds of rigidity: I only read those kind of books, or listened to that kind of music. Also, a denial of the unexplained, of others’ beliefs and spiritual experiences. For heavens sake, I’ve even been open to the idea of God in recent months! Me, with my reputation.

I took very few things from John’s house after he died. Half a dozen books, which I have been reading, and a wallet of CDs, which he used to play in the car when he was a taxi driver. Some were of music I liked, bands that he introduced me to, like The Who. Others were from his rave years – dance music, which I just can’t get into. I was well into motherhood during John’s rave years; it was ‘The wheels on the bus’ and early nights for me. At the time, and as I tried to listen to John’s CDs after his death, I really couldn’t see the attraction.

A couple of months ago, I went to an event that was outside of my comfort zone. A poet/singer/musician known as Pete the Temp was performing, along with a harpist and synth player. As it began, I felt that this was not for me, that we would all be drawn into some kind of cult, taken off to a house in the country and made to wear robes, As the evening progressed, I got more and more into it, and had one of those transcendent experiences during what I can only describe as a rap in Latin with the sun setting over the river Medway outside the window. If a cult was involved, I was all in, robes and all. Perhaps this is what John felt, dancing at raves, a sense of losing himself, forgetting all his worries for a while.

I do think that John has visited for the last time, but that his music and his books are a legacy where I might discover more about him, and lay myself open to new experiences, new beliefs. Posting this, which I might once have kept to myself, is a part of the process.

A Tale of Two Memoirs

I was 20,000 words into writing a memoir. It was a year since my mother had died, and the work was about my relationship with her; best described as difficult. Early in the process, I decided that I would only write about my relationships with the dead, with the living as incidental characters. The work was developing into a possible book about grief. Disenfranchised grief, to be precise; a phrase only recently learned from a writer friend, Victoria Field, when we met for coffee to talk about her published memoir, Baggage: a Book of Leavings, and my work-in-progress. It’s a complicated kind of grief, when you have been estranged from the deceased. You may feel, and others might feel, that you have no right to grieve. But the loss of a parent, no matter how difficult the relationship, is a big hit.

Another unresolved grief came up for me as I was writing. A close friend had died by taking her own life some 35 years before, the same week as my second daughter was born. I hadn’t grieved for Julie, the friend, at the time (the reason being closely tied to my mother, who had decided for me that I should not go to Julie’s funeral). I was pleased by the way in which the memoir was developing, and it was helping me through two complicated experiences of grief at the same time. But there was a snag, a fear.  How would the living react to my work? Specifically my four siblings.

I spoke to several memoir writers I know about family reactions to their published work; the first being Victoria Field. I asked if anyone had objected to the memoir. She told me that a relative had said she didn’t want to read the book, as it might upset her. That was it really. The main figure in Baggage, Victoria’s ex-husband, had not raised any objections. She had disguised his identity, but not sought his permission. I wasn’t so sure about my own family’s reactions. I had included siblings in the work – as the middle of five children, I could hardly pretend I was an only child. Family dynamics played a part in the relationship I had with my mother. I had been sensitive, and had not used any names, but the terms ‘older brother’ or ‘younger sister’ were jarring.

I spoke to John O’Donoghue, the award-winning memoirist, author of Sectioned: A Life Interrupted. As an only child whose parents died when he was young, John had no experience of having to consider siblings as he wrote. He suggested writing to each of mine, telling them what I was working on, and asking their permission to use their names, or pseudonyms, if they preferred. He also said that I could offer to send them a section of my writing. My younger brother was fine with his name being used. ‘Anything that helps,’ he said. So far, so good. My sisters’ replies were identical. They did not wish to have their names used, or to be written about at all. They did not want to read anything I had written. One sister added that she found my writing ‘triggering’.

OK, not a dealbreaker, but a setback. Then John, my older brother, phoned me in a state. He told me that he hadn’t been able to leave the house, that he was suffering from anxiety since he heard from me, and that if I were to publish this work, he would have to move to another town, as he couldn’t face seeing anyone he knew. We had two long phone calls that day, and though I assured him that I had not let slip anyone else’s secrets, only my own, he was implacable. He did calm down to an extent, said that maybe I could publish it anonymously, once he better understood what I was about. We spoke a lot about grief, about Julie’s death as well as our mother’s. He shared that he, too, had lost a friend recently. However, seeing how distressed he was, I told him that I would discontinue work on the memoir. All was well between us once again.

The trouble was that I could not write for a year afterwards. John O’Donoghue advised that dark stories have a way of finding light, and that this would not be the last of it for me. But, he said, you can’t write with someone looking over your shoulder, and that’s how it felt every time I sat to write. What would John think? What would my other siblings think?

The second memoir I started was a year or so later. It was my story to tell, no-one else’s. I wrote with some fear, but not about what my siblings might think. The book-length work reached its first full draft within 3 months. It was about a police investigation after I reported a case of historical grooming and sexual assault – rape – by an older boyfriend I had when I was 15 and 16. The investigation was thorough on the part of the police, and the perpetrator was interviewed twice in connection with the offences. As I had predicted, they could go no further due to lack of evidence, but the man (whom I shall call Adam) was brought to account and faced with what he had done to me. It was a story that would help other women and girls, and the writing of it helped me process my experiences.

Only my younger brother knew that I was writing it; I didn’t tell my other siblings. I didn’t need their permission, nor did I need another reaction from John, my older brother. My suspicion was that he would be more concerned with what other people would think than I was. The book reached its third draft, after some feedback from John O’Donoghue, then I hit a snag. In my research, I found a photo on the internet of another man that had sexually assaulted me on a long train journey when I was 13. I couldn’t remember his name; only that he was in an Irish showband, and the name of the band. There was the face I had never forgotten; an obituary in connection with his musical career. Thank God the bastard was dead, but how many other young girls did he assault? I now knew the true meaning of being triggered.

That was 6 months ago. The work has been put aside, filed away, the various drafts in ring binders marked ‘Chalk Lane’ the working title of my memoir. Dark stories have a way of finding light… will I return to it, face my demons? Try for a publisher and get it out in the world? If I do, I will not fear the reactions of my siblings. John, my dear older brother, died a few months ago. I no longer need to worry about him. As for my other siblings, this is my story, and my choice to write it and let others read it. Like Victoria’s relative, they can choose not to read it.

Some other memoirs I would recommend: The Missing List, by Clare Best; First in the World Somewhere, by Penny Pepper; My Name is Why, by Lemn Sissay; To Throw Away Unopened, by Viv Albertine; Patricia Debney’s blog, which excerpts her as yet unpublished memoir, Learning to Survive; and my all time favourite, An Angel at my Table, by Janet Frame.