The Favour, a short story

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Naming is claiming. This was the parting idea for my short story, The Favour, which was published in The Irish Times on Saturday as part of the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition. I was interested in the statement of freedom and ownership first expressed by parents when they choose a name for their child.

It is the first decision an outsider (and everyone is an outsider to new parents) may object to, though usually not openly. Many more life-shaping decisions will follow. But what if the parentage of the child was unconventional? How much more complex and fraught the situation could be if someone else was involved in bringing the child into the world.

Please be my guest and read the story here before I reveal too much.

In this story Maeve does a large favour for her sister that turns out to have unexpected dimensions. Maeve came to me as a fully-formed character. She sees herself as strong and free-spirited, capable of great things. And yet she finds her life slipping by with no sign of the great things. When the opportunity comes along to do something noble and momentous, she grabs it. Her grand gesture is a means of securing life tenure of the good sister role. But can she impress her emotionally unavailable mother?

It’s important to say that my story is just an imagined set of circumstances, which are not meant to make a definitive statement about the reality of surrogacy. However, if you are interested in the subject, this fascinating radio documentary, first broadcast in July 2015 on Irish public radio is worth a listen. Seven Years and Nine Months is an unvarnished account of a couple’s quest to have the family of their dreams through surrogacy.

I wrote The Favour a year ago and the story spent many months languishing on various submission piles. I hope this will encourage other writers who believe they are on the right track to keep polishing their work and searching for the right home.

While on the subject of the short story, I have to recommend a wonderful new anthology of Irish women writers. The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island, is a collection of 30 stories spanning four centuries, that showcases all the amazing possibilities of the form (review to follow on the blog).

Finally, a word of thanks to Niall McArdle (fellow Hennessy New Irish Writing finalist) and Cathy Brown for suggesting I include this blogpost in their annual celebration of Irish culture, The Begorrathon.

(Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

 

 

 

 

My other perfect life

Don't get me started on Swiss home decorations
Autumnal scene in Bern, Switzerland

A simple effective way to banish clutter forever. This is the beguiling promise on the cover of Marie Kondo’s book about tidying. It’s big in Japan. But not only in Japan. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying has been published in more than 30 countries and has sold 1.5 million copies.

A colleague recommended the book to me when he was in between jobs. A bit of a hoarder, he said it really helped him gain control over his environment and achieve clarity. Kondo makes great claims about the transformative power of tidying. I had to find out more.

One of the reasons I love writing is because I have discovered it is something I can see through to the end. I get the satisfaction that only comes from completing a job properly. In other areas I’m not so good at getting across the finish line.

Kondo starts by telling us that there is no use in partial tidying. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. You have to follow her method through to the end, tidying your possessions in every category and every room – every single object – until the job is completely done. Only then can you reap the benefits of the new better life that has eluded you thus far.

I was intrigued by this idea of a better life being just out of reach. Better lifestyle is more accurate. Like that inadequate feeling you get from looking through an Ikea catalogue. I went to Ikea this week but my house is just as cluttered and uncoordinated as it was before I went!

To be fair, Kondo is not saying you can achieve your dreams by buying more objects. She wants us to work hard to reduce the burden of unnecessary objects. True to form, I only made a half-baked attempt at the Kondo method. I will not be granted access to that better life. But I do have her to thank for a massive clear out of my wardrobe.

The Kondo test for whether or not to keep an object is very simple. You have to hold it and ask yourself if it sparks joy. Joy-sparking objects in; non joy-sparking objects out. Now obviously this test doesn’t apply to the tin opener but can be used for almost anything non-essential, she says.

Even though I won’t get to live my other perfect life, I thought it would be fun to list some of those unfulfilled aspirations. In my other life:

I use the juicer I bought to make juices every morning with fresh spinach

I volunteer for several charities.

I have a low meat diet and can think of tasty new vegetarian dishes all the time.

The front path is swept and leaves no longer blow into the hall when I open the door.

I have a short-haired dog or no dog (as opposed to a very hairy collie).

I make homemade ketchup.

My children enjoy dried fruit as a snack.

I let my hair go naturally grey and it really suits me.

I can ski better than my children.

I don’t have a car.

I buy farm produce.

I go horse riding once a week, with galloping.

I banish clutter forever.

May all your troubles be little ones, as they say. So, are you a clutter clogs or a tidy terror? What super lifestyle are you missing out on? I’d love to hear your secret wishes …

Falling in love with fictional babies

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The baby was astonishing. He had little cloth ears, floppy as cats. The warmth of his round stomach could heat the world. His head smelled like a sacred flower. And his fists held mysterious, tiny balls of fluff from which he could not bear to be parted.

Meet baby Raqib, the adorable son of Nazneen in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I read and loved this book when it came out in 2003 and particularly remember being enchanted by this baby. It seemed that he was the first convincing baby character I had come across in a novel.

Babies are given birth to, carried around, fed, loved and admired in books, but it’s rare for a baby’s personality to emerge on the page. And babies are brimming with personality. They’re fun to be around, for their expressions and gestures alone. Back to Raqib.

Nazneen curled around him on the bed. He raised an arm, which reached only halfway up his head. He put it back down. The futility of this exercise appeared to anger him.

In the same scene, Nazneen’s husband Chanu is droning on about setting up a business. He asks: “What can you do without capital?”

Raqib tried to lift his head from Nazneen’s shoulder as if he knew the answer to this difficult question. Overcome with his burden of knowledge, he collapsed instantly into sleep. Squinting down, Nazneen looked at his month-old nose, the sumptuous curve of his cheek, his tight-shut, age-old eyes.

There is more of Raqib and every appearance he makes is so beautifully written you want to reach out and stroke that little cheek.

Often, the fictional baby’s role is to channel the thoughts of the parent or caregiver. Baby Jonah in The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell is that kind of baby. This scene takes place with his mother Elina out in the garden.

She moves the rattle from side to side and the coloured beads ricochet around inside their clear globes. The effect on the baby is instantaneous and remarkable. His limbs stiffen, his eyes spring wide; his lips part in a perfect round O. It’s as if he’s been studying a manual on how to be a human being, with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise’. She shakes it again and again and the baby’s limbs move like pistons, up, down, in, out. She thinks: this is what mothers do.

There’s another ‘as if’. There is a tendancy to ascribe thoughts and emotions to babies that they aren’t capable of having. Also the idea that they have some ancient knowledge – I’m sure I’ve read that more than once but can’t find any references now.

But in real life as in fiction, babies are interesting in what they reveal about the people who love them. Take baby Matt in What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, whose parents tracked his development “with the precision and attentiveness of Enlightenment scientists”:

For a baby he seemed weirdly compassionate. One evening when Matt was about nine months old, Erica was getting him ready for bed. She was carrying him around with her and opened the refrigerator to retrieve his bottle. By accident two glass containers of mustard and jam came with it and smashed on the floor. Erica had gone back to work by then, and her exhaustion got the better of her. She looked at the broken glass and burst into tears. She stopped crying when she felt Matt’s small hand gently patting her arm in sympathy. Our son also liked to feed us – half chewed bits of banana or pureed spinach or mashed carrots. He would come at me with his sticky first and push the unsavoury contents into my mouth. We read this as a sign of his generosity.

The examples I found are all boy babies. I wonder if this is a coincidence or do we consider the archetypal baby to be a boy?

We’ve had childbirth on this blog, now babies. My next blogpost will look at new mothers or motherhood in fiction – and then I’ll leave the subject alone for a while. Promise.

Has anyone else come across any good babies in fiction? I can think of one obvious bad baby, also a boy, but I’m more interested in the sweet ones. I think it’s difficult to write a convincing baby. Nicki Chen, a fellow blogger and author, does it in her novel Tiger Tail Soup. I’ll dig that excerpt out as soon as I get my copy back.

Paper candles burning bright

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Many years ago my parents procured a shop-sized roll of Christmas wrapping paper whose pattern became the unmistakable trademark of our family Christmas. When I first remember that roll it was too heavy for me to lift. By the end of its life several years later the thick cardboard core was covered with just a few thin layers of paper that no one wanted any more.

The pattern was distinctive: Candles blazing on an orange background. Endless candles burning throughout my childhood, bridging the gap from primary to secondary school. Some years even my school books were covered in that paper.

The cardboard box that held the stones that held up the Christmas tree was also covered in that paper. And in the strange way that memory is both reliable and unreliable, when I close my eyes I can still feel and see that paper, and yet what I see is more the essence of the paper than anything I could accurately reproduce.

But when I begin with the paper, I can gradually see everything else as it was in my childhood home at Christmas: the white tablecloth, the serving dishes of celery and carrots, the gas fire, holly on the picture frames, the World Book encyclopaedia, the piano, the brass and wooden ornaments on the black mantelpiece. Voices calling in the hall and cousins arriving and the smell of red wine.

In this way I can always go home for Christmas. If I could find a scrap of that paper somewhere, maybe through some alchemy I could use it to travel back in time, or maybe the spell would be broken forever.

Wishing a joyful Christmas or happy holidays to all the regular readers of this blog and to any newcomers.

The Laws of Love by Clare O’Dea

Some children start out unwanted but are soon loved and cherished. It was not so with me. Once unwanted, always unwanted. When I reached an age where I could question this, I could only conclude that I was missing the loveable ingredient possessed by other children, and no amount of eagerness to please would make up for this.

If my eldest brother is to be believed, my parents were happy in the early days. There was laughter and fun, there were callers and outings. Ten years later, when my newborn cries were keeping everyone awake, there was bitterness and want.

I developed a system of good and bad luck omens. Walking home from school I would fall back from my brothers and sisters and bet my wellbeing on chance variations in detail along the route. If the Currys have sheets on the line I will get a smile from mother, if it’s clothes I’ll get a clout, if it’s nothing, I’ll get nothing. I had the odds well worked out.

Mealtimes were quiet. There was none of the grabbing and rushing people associate with big families. We had our portion and we wanted to savour it. Not to forget my mother’s temper, which had a civilising effect on us all. I did not go to bed hungry although if I woke in the night hunger was lurking. We had clothes to wear, we washed. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

Escape was a room in a boarding house in Dublin 7, a house of straw as it turned out. I got shop work and independence, blighted at first by unwelcome attention from men in the neighbourhood. I faithfully sent money home and scraped by. A new room in a new house and life turned a corner. I met your father.

Shall I recite for you the list of his virtues? You could not know them all, for what child does? In the order in which I discovered these sides to him: he was good company, true to his word, thoughtful, tender and compassionate. He was in love with life and with me by association, and so together we built a house of sticks. What you saw between us was less than we started out with, to be sure, but it was still something good.

When I discovered that I was expecting – pregnant was considered a coarse word in those days, much too blunt – I felt the deepest and fullest satisfaction of my life. Those were my glory days.

Nothing could match my zeal. I was going to be the perfect mother. I was determined to shield you two from any harm at any cost. You placed your fervent baby love in me; I mixed it with my anxious adoration and gave it back to you in dangerous measures. It is not an exaggeration to say that I worshipped you. The light that shone from your eyes was my sun, moon and stars. I feasted on your purity and beauty. Your father could only watch and pray.

No doubt many mothers delight in every gesture and utterance of their children. But if they do, there is a counterbalance – feelings of criticism and irritation. This was missing in me. I bathed you in love and subjugated myself to you and your needs. There were no tensions between you children because I fulfilled your every desire. My purpose in life was to see that you wanted for nothing. I am truly sorry.

Wherever I was in the house I ran at the first cry. I smoothed over every conflict, made equal room on my lap for victim and culprit. When you stumbled I caught you before you hit the ground. I cooked only your favourite foods, bought your favourite toys and shoes, protected you from challenges and disappointments. I was ever vigilant. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

School was torture for me – hours of the day when anything could be happening to you, and all out of my control. I redoubled my efforts at home. There your spirits were replenished before you went out to face another day of adversity without me. Your father, Lord rest him, could not compete with my fanaticism. He retreated into his own life outside the home, which suited us, didn’t it?

This has been the way of our family until now. And look where it has taken us. For all the love I heaped upon you growing up, your cupboards are bare. Your every action motivated by self-interest, you can only muster mean-spirited possessiveness and call it love. Christopher is the worst offender, the newspapers are sure of that. What he did to that poor girl is one thing, but who can fathom his lack of remorse? No-one, apart from the woman who nurtured that weakness over many years.

What about you Paula? The results may not make headlines but I have failed you just as badly. When I think of all your father’s virtues, you match each one with the opposite vice. You navigate your way through life with wilfulness and spite. People are drawn to your narcissistic ways and then hurt by them. Your children suffer, their father too. I have my reasons alright.

Now that your father is gone, the house reverts to me. When you get out of prison Christopher there will not be a home here for you anymore. I am selling and plan to buy a small house of bricks for myself. I will not be passing the address on to either of you. Paula, get a nanny. If it’s any consolation I blame myself.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction. I haven’t posted any short stories for a while because I discovered that publishing on a blog breaks the ‘previously unpublished’ rule for most journals and competitions. All the same, sometimes it’s nice to send a story out for its own sake.

The oldest profession in the world

Farmer-Kneeling-Picking-Dandelions

Just sharing my most hated cliché, narrowing as it does women’s myriad innovative roles over the millennia in hundreds of civilisations to the least interesting and freely-chosen job on the list. To prove my point, I’ve written a little scene set in the city-state of Zabala in the Sumer Civilisation in 3,500 BC. Call it anti-cliché fiction.

“I like the dress,” Namini said, reaching to feel a corner of the red and gold cloth, before embracing her friend with the Sumer evening greeting of three kisses.

“Thanks, I got it from a neighbour. She sells her own stuff and it’s not expensive,” Sulah answered, sitting down on a mat by the window.

“Not Fatiza?” Namini called from behind the bar where she was loading her tray with fresh drinks.

“Yes, that’s her name. Her mother and sister are weavers too.”

“I know the family. Lovely people. What can I get you?”

“Just a tea thanks, I’m exhausted. I’ve been transcribing a massive contract all day. Look at the blisters on my hands.”

Namini came over with the tea and inspected Sulah’s hands gently.

“They are working you too hard there. I don’t know how you put up with it.”

Sulah shrugged. “They pay well and I can live at home. It’s hard to find a job like that. You know my cousin Lamila, plays the lyre? She has to stay at the temple seven days a week. The ceremonies are endless, she says.”

“I know. Who’d be a musician? The only job to have in a temple is priestess. People waiting on you day and night, listening to your every word, I wouldn’t mind that.”

A group of customers came in and Namini’s smile brightened artificially as she sailed over to them. While she was getting their drinks, more people began to arrive, in pairs. The busy part of the day was beginning for Namini, just as Sulah could go home and relax.

Sulah saw a young girl with elaborately-braided hair come in and sit alone, her dress draped low over one shoulder. When Sulah looked again the girl had pulled her dress up over the knee to reveal strong brown thighs, the legs of a country girl. A man from the first group crossed the small room to join her, placing a coin in front of the girl before he sat down.

Trying not to stare, Sulah gathered up her things to leave. She slipped into the back room where Namini was filling bowls of dates and olives.

“Namini, is it possible there’s a woman selling her body in your tavern? I just saw a man offer money before he sat down with her.”

“Don’t worry Sulah, I know her. It’s a new thing some women are doing. You know it’s been a bad year for farmers in the west. She needs the money, has some debts to pay off for her parents. Better here than down by the city walls.”

Sulah frowned. “As long as you know what you’re doing. I’m off. See you soon.”

“See you pet.” Namini paused to unwind and repin her hair. “And by the way, you should speak to Mazana the midwife about your hands. She has a good selection of creams as well.”

“Where is she based?”

“Well, she moves around a lot, from baby to baby. Ask one of the women selling spices at the market, they’ll know where she is.”

“Thanks Namini. Have a good night … .”

On her way out Sulah cast one more glance at the girl with the braided hair who, realising she was being noticed, turned her head to the side, resting her elegant fingers under her chin in the classic pose of Tanta, the Goddess of Courage, but also, as every child in Zabala knew, the Goddess of Fear.

It was while I was researching an article recently for swissinfo.ch about prostitution and human trafficking in Switzerland that I realised how often this offensive cliché is still being used by fellow journalists. Can we move on please?

“Too much statement and not enough suggestion”

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This is what many writers are getting wrong, according to Irish short story writer Claire Keegan who passed through Bern this week. Keegan, a woman of strong convictions and deep thoughts, gave a talk and read from her award-winning story Foster.

I couldn’t believe my luck to hear that such a well-respected author was in town and that I could manage at the last minute to go along and listen to her. For Keegan, it is clear that writing is not something to be taken lightly. She spoke passionately about life, love and literature.

Foster is a story, about a poor young girl sent to live with more prosperous relatives for the summer. Written from the child’s point of view in the present tense, the story manages to convey that gulf that exists between children and adults and the disadvantage that children have in their inability to understand what’s going on in the adult world around them. It’s all the more poignant in Foster because the girl comes from a neglectful home and she is being looked after in a loving way for the first time.

As Keegan pointed out: “Love can come from anywhere, it doesn’t matter where.” The author sees herself as a critic of her society. Foster, set in 1970s rural Ireland, is in part a commentary on the plight of families forced, because of religious dictates on contraception, to have more children than they could love.

As I writer I was naturally curious to hear what Keegan, who has lectured in creative writing, had to say about the craft of writing.

The first thing that surprised me was that she goes through about thirty (!) drafts before she considers her stories finished. More proof that writing is rewriting!

During this process, Keegan does not give her work to anyone else for feedback, although she did admit she would like to have someone who would look at her manuscripts as closely as she does but from another perspective.

She explained that having spent decades reading attentively and developing her own taste, she trusts her own taste. A good place to be.

On the subject of what new writers are getting wrong, Keegan was very precise. In her view there isn’t enough priority given to the story, to the point that the story can be completely buried by the writing or even missing altogether.

Keegan is quite a purist when it comes to storytelling and confessed that she mostly preferred reading “dead authors”. For it to be a story something has to happen in a defined space of time, something irreversible that the character would take back if they could, she said.

Nowadays there is “too much statement and not enough suggestion”. Readers have to endure pages of analysis about the character before they even have a chance to go through something with them. In other words the analysis has not been earned.

Keegan is a great believer in “turning down the sound” and observing what people do with their hands and feet and eyes. That’s where the truth is, she said, and that is what she writes about. She won’t tell us someone is miserable and proceed to tell us why over many pages. She will show that misery and the context and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Finally I liked what Keegan had to say about the elegance and efficiency going hand in hand in good writing. Not something that can be achieved in every blog post, but a good standard to aspire to in fiction.

The event was held under the auspices of the Swiss-British Society, Bern and SATE (the Swiss Association of Teachers of English).

The importance of being Swiss

The boat is full
The boat is full

My husband picks his way through the crowded hall. It’s late and many people are sleeping but I am keeping watch over the children, waiting for his return. He kneels beside me and shows me a cereal bar in the inside pocket of his jacket. The little ones will have something to eat in the morning.

We huddle together, sharing the blanket. After a while I turn and search his face for information. His eyes do not meet mine. I wait for him to share his news. Here we have all time in the world.

“I heard something,” he finally whispers. “There’s going to be another resettlement contingent. Brazil has offered to take a small number of Swiss. There are 18 places on the boat tomorrow.”

I can hardly hear the last words he speaks but I know what this means. It is the news we have been waiting for, the news I have prayed for and dreaded every minute since we arrived in this godforsaken place.

“Did you put the names down?” He covers his face.

“Tell me you put your names down.” He nods.

He cannot speak so I say the lines for him. “You have to take this chance. There is no other way. As soon as I can I will follow you, find you. We have to think of the children.”

That night I dream of our old home in Switzerland, forever out of reach now in the contaminated zone. We are sitting around the table, talking and laughing. I can see the delicious fresh food and the happy healthy faces of my children and I feel blessed. I reach out to touch the cheek of my youngest but where there should be soft, warm skin there is nothing, only air. Trying to control my panic, I feel for the dishes and glasses, sweeping my hands up and down the table. Nothing. What terrifies me the most as I claw the air where my loved ones should be is that I cannot tell if I am the ghost at the table or if I am the only one left.

***

A piece of flash fiction there for the weekend, inspired by an important step I took today. After almost 11 years in Switzerland I have finally applied for citizenship. I could have done it any time since 2008 but I’ve waited until now. The question I’ve been asking myself is – why?

One thing is I’m not alone. Only a tiny percentage of the foreigners living in Switzerland (including second and third generation immigrants) who would be eligible to apply for naturalisation actually do so. The reasons for that reluctance are complex, like everything in this country, but to some extent it’s a standoff.

The non-Swiss are eyeing the Swiss as if to say: “I may be here but I’m not one of them.” Meanwhile the Swiss are holding up a sign in the four national languages: “You may be here but you are not one of us.”

There is some serious bridge-building needed in Switzerland right now and a terrible shortage of engineers. I would suggest bringing in some EU workers but I’m not sure that would go down well.

Yes Switzerland is multi-cultural, but it’s a place where identity matters. Identity matters to me too. Up to now I’ve always thought of myself more as an emigrant rather than an immigrant, as a way of holding on to the person who left Ireland in 2003.

I don’t mean I haven’t integrated; I’m as integrated as a piece of bread dropped in a fondue pot. What I mean is I was afraid I would lose something important by becoming Swiss. Now I feel differently. The long stay in Ireland last year helped. It reminded me that Ireland will always be there and I will always be Irish.

But my life is here now and I want to participate more in Swiss society and, most particularly, I want to vote. Don’t take the story too seriously, I am not applying for citizenship in case I become a refugee at a future date following a nuclear meltdown (there is a nuclear power plant nearby by the way, we get sent iodine tablets in the post every few years, just in case).

No, it’s just that after years of being a very welcome outsider, I am ready to take my place now among the Swiss on equal terms.

I never liked you anyway

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Don’t you just love confrontation in fiction? Those flashpoints of drama, whether it’s a blazing stand-up row or a subtle exchange of fire unnoticed by the rest of the crowd, when the characters are pushed to extremes and the reader has the best seats in the house. Of course most of the time the conflict is underlying, like the thrum of an engine on a ship. That’s what makes it so satisfying when the tension surfaces.

I’m just coming to the end of Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage and marvelling at her mastery of every aspect of the craft of writing. In scenes of confrontation she has an amazing ability to convey the build-up of tension between characters, through facial expressions, dialogue, the character’s own commentary and the things that are left unsaid.

Take one brief scene in the short story Family Furnishings. Two women meet for the first time at a funeral. One of them, the narrator, whose father has just died, is a writer who once wrote a story based on a personal experience in the life of an older cousin called Alfrida. It turns out that the other woman who approaches her is Alfrida’s daughter, given up for adoption when she was a baby.

Munro describes the moment after the woman (only ever referred to as ‘the woman’) breaks the news of her identity.

“There was some sense of triumph about her, which wasn’t hard to understand. If you have something to tell that will stagger someone, and you’ve told it, and it has done so, there has to be a balmy moment of power. In this case it was so complete that she felt she needed to apologise.”

From there the conversation becomes more edgy as they reminisce about an old family story, involving the narrator’s father and his first cousin Alfrida, and it transpires that their versions of events do not match.

“… that feeling of apology or friendliness, the harmlessness that I had felt in this woman a little while before, was not there now.
I said, “Things get changed around.”
“That’s right,” the woman said. “People change things around. You want to know what Alfrida said about you?”
Now. I knew it was coming now.
“What?”
“She said you were smart, but you weren’t ever quite as smart as you thought you were.”
I made myself keep looking into the dark face against the light. Smart, too smart, not smart enough.
I said, “Is that all?”
“She said you were kind of a cold fish. That’s her talking, not me. I haven’t got anything against you.”

It’s such a perfect depiction of something we are all familiar with. The gap between our true feelings towards others and what is actually revealed (in some cases even to ourselves). People may go through life harbouring ill-will towards people close to them without ever giving an outward hint of their animosity. If those true feelings are ever expressed the effect is dramatic. And when I say people, more often than not it is family. Like this exchange between another set of fictional Munro cousins, Polly (single and left behind with an extended family to care for) and Lorna (married with children and comfortably off) in the story Post and Beam.

Fresh tears came welling up in her eyes. She was a mound of misery, one solid accusation.
“What is it?” Lorna said. She feigned surprise, she feigned compassion.
“You don’t want me.”
Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears, her bitterness and accusation of betrayal, but with her outrageous demand, to be folded in, rocked, comforted.
Lorna would sooner have hit her. What gives you the right, she wanted to say. What are you leeching onto me for? What gives you the right?
Family. Family gives Polly the right. She has saved her money and planned her escape, with the idea that Lorna should take her in. Is that true – has she dreamed of staying here and never having to go back? Becoming part of Lorna’s good fortune, Lorna’s transformed world?
“What do you think I can do?” said Lorna quite viciously and to her own surprise.

I think with conflict the real challenge for a writer is to stay on the right side of the line between drama and melodrama. I’m still working on that, and trying to eliminate clichés is part of the challenge. In my novel, Counting the Days, the main character, Laura, cannot accept how unemotional her sister Kate is about their brother’s disappearance five years before. They’ve just spend a day and night together, the first time they’ve been under the same roof overnight since Kate left home for college. For most of the visit they manage to steer clear of expressing the resentment and misunderstanding that lies between them, until a few minutes before Kate has to leave when they finally get to talk about their brother, falling back on the same old arguments until there’s nothing more to say.

“It must be time for you to go.”
We stand in silence, indifferent now to the gentle glory of early summer gathering around us.
Moving closer, Kate puts her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry. You did a good job with the campaign. No one can say you didn’t try your hardest.”
Pushing off her touch, I glare at Kate. “If you could just once show that you cared, that you still felt something. Where is the love for God’s sake?”
Kate shakes her head slowly and looks at me, her bewildered eyes full of reproach.
“You’re too much for me,” she says and walks back to the house.
A short time later, the sound of car doors closing cuts through my cloud of resentment and I hurry back towards the yard, almost tripping in the tangle of undergrowth in my sudden desperation to make amends. Kate opens the passenger window of the car for a final word. “Can I say something? You’re not going to like it.”
“Go ahead.”
“I saw your diary.”
A sudden fury passes through me like a spasm. The lack of respect, I am not imagining it.

First and last time I put my writing on the same page as Alice Munro’s! Some of the participants in the writing course I attended in Dublin last year have got together to meet fortnightly as a writers’ group and I am really pleased to be taking part by Skype. It’s difficult to know when a novel is finally ready and then to let it go. I’m hoping that this routine will give me the motivation and discipline to get the novel polished for submission.

In other news, I have a new writing buddy – Lucky. Isn’t he lovely?

Good boy!

Regrets, I’ve had a few

suit

One of the highlights of English class in secondary school for me was being introduced to short stories. One that I remember vividly is Brendan Behan’s The Confirmation Suit, a story about regret that beautifully illustrates the dilemma of being caught in a social bind. When reading this story, most of us were fresh from doing our own Confirmation (a coming-of-age ritual in the Catholic Church in which a lot of importance was placed on the new outfit bought for the occasion). Behan couldn’t have found a more receptive audience (albeit posthumously) for this iconic Irish story.

The boy in Brendan Behan’s story was obliged to accept a kindly neighbour’s offer to make a suit for him for the big day. An elderly seamstress who normally made funeral habits, Miss McCann was not blessed with a great sense of fashion and the writer gets great comic mileage out of the child’s embarrassment and his father’s amusement at his predicament. This must be why the unexpected sad turn of events produces such a memorable punch.

This description comes half-way through the story:

When I made my first Communion, my grandmother dug deep under the mattress, and myself and Aunt Jack were sent round expensive shops, I came back with a rig that would take the sight of your eye. This time however, Miss McCann said there wasn’t much stirring in the habit line on account of the mild winter, and she would be delighted to make the suit if Aunt Jack would get the material. I nearly wept, for terror of what the old women would have me got up in, but I had to let on to be delighted, Miss McCann was so set on it. She asked Aunt Jack did she remember father’s Confirmation suit. He did. He said he would never forget it. They sent him out in a velvet suit, of plum colour, with a lace collar. My blood ran cold when he told me.

The stuff they got for my suit was blue serge, and that was not so bad. They got as far as the pants, and that passed off very civil. You can’t do much to a boy’s pants, one pair is like the next, though I had to ask them not to trouble themselves putting three little buttons on either side of the legs. The waistcoat was all right, and anyway the coat would cover it. The coat itself, that was where Aughrim was lost.

I’ve just finished reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver and it wasn’t until I finished the book that I realised how personal the story was to the writer. She wrote the novel after her older brother died of obesity-related illness. Shortly before he died, when it seemed he might recover, Shriver considered taking him. She enquired about bariatric surgery at the hospital where he was being treated and even imagined bringing him home to recover in her house in New York. In the end her goodwill was never tested because her brother took a turn for the worse and died.

But Shriver went on to write a story about a woman who gives up her home and marriage to move in with her morbidly obese older brother to help him lose weight. The book is steeped in regret and raises that difficult question that often arises after the death of loved one: could I have done more?

In the story I have written, the main character has always had strong motherly feelings towards her younger brother and she feels enduring grief at his disappearance, for which she partly blames herself. In that sense it is about regret but later it explores the problem of how far it is possible to save another person bent on self-destruction.

I’ll leave you with the image of Behan’s boy standing in the rain wearing that silly suit. It encapsulates what is tragic about the end of childhood – the loss of innocence, the feeling of being misunderstood, the first taste of regret.

I needn’t have worried about the suit lasting forever. Miss McCann didn’t. The next winter was not so mild, and she was whipped before the year was out. At her wake people said how she was in a habit of her own making, and my father said she would look queer in anything else, seeing as she supplied the dead of the whole quarter for forty years, without one complaint from a customer.

At the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and I stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.