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!

Screen time, live to fight another day

stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent
stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent

Yesterday I spent about ten hours in front of a screen – eight in the office, one on my laptop at home and one watching television. More if you count the hypnotic hour of windscreen time I spent on the motorway. If this is the world we live in, why am I engaged in such an exhausting and long-running battle to keep my kids away from screens?

It’s almost as if (weird music) I’m trying to replicate the conditions my own childhood. The difference is that back then there was no such thing as games consoles, mobile phones, DVDs, internet, ipads, children’s channels and the rest. How easy it must have been for parents to limit screen time when the only thing on offer was a two-channel television.

In this house another Christmas has come and gone with Santa ignoring all the requests for screen devices that dominated my children’s lists. There is no television allowed during the school week and the children sometimes complain bitterly about the screen desert they are forced to live in. I’m starting to wonder if this puritanical approach will backfire one day. What if they spend the rest of their childhood seeking out contraband screen time? What if they become air traffic controllers?

I’ve tut tutted with other likeminded parents about kids staring at ipads in restaurants or watching films on car journeys. The prospect of a generation of people growing up unable to entertain themselves or practice the art of conversation is not very appealing. But I wonder if my resistance to the norm is becoming a little self-righteous? Not to mention a little hypocritical, considering that blogging and writing involve a fair amount of screen time.

So, while I will continue to worry about how much fruit and veg they are eating, whether they are dressed warmly enough and looking properly before they cross the road, I think the time has come to ease up a little on the screen restrictions.

By the way, if you can’t read what’s in the speech bubble in the cartoon above, the mother is saying: ‘Isn’t it great to have some quality time with the family’. I came across this back in the Irish Independent last September and it now lives on our fridge.

What do you think? Am I throwing in the towel too easily? Anyone else managing to keep the screens at bay?

Act II, Scene 1: Return to Switzerland

Home away from home
Home away from home

When there is a scene change in a play, the lights go down, the stage hands scurry in and skilfully whisk away the furniture and props, replacing them with whatever is needed for the new scene. The backdrop changes. The audience waits expectantly. A moment before, the actors were in a sunny garden having a tea party; now we find them on a battlefield, in a kitchen, a schoolroom. And the action continues.

The scene has changed for me again and the action continues. Yesterday I drove to work in the pre-dawn light and returned home at dusk. It was all so familiar, driving along the Swiss motorway, the Alps, crowned with pink-tinged clouds, providing a beautiful, distracting backdrop, the news headlines in German and me concentrating on the words, the road, the scenery.

When you move countries there is no such thing as a gradual change. You emerge from the plane and that is it. The dreamlike state of travelling is over and you have left the other behind, utterly. I’m amazed at how quickly I have adjusted and fallen back into this new/old life. The big goodbyes of last week seem a million miles away, or 1,200 kilometres to be precise.

Having had the luxury of spending so much time with Irish friends and family, it is frustrating to have to revert to long-distance communication again and to think in terms of future visits. The main consolation is that I now have the luxury of spending time with Swiss friends and family and making the most of this wonderful place.

Belated season’s greetings to everyone who follows this blog, as well as to new visitors. You may be pleased to hear that I will have less to say from now on about me the emigrant (you’ve been very patient!) and more to say about me the writer. Assuming I can keep up the momentum, in 2014 I will be blogging more about my novel and other writing themes. Thank you all for your presence and positive comments throughout the year.

Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.

Once upon a time in Westport House

Westport House
Westport House

Once upon a time I went to Westport House. I know this not from any particular memory but because there is a photograph from that day and it was a holiday that was later much spoken about. My mother wore a scarf on her head and a long skirt. I was one of three little girls, content in a world that did not extend very far beyond our family unit at that happy time.

The real event of the holiday was the death of Elvis Presley.

The sad news sparked an impromptu sing song in the hotel where we were staying. I remember the children being left to their own devices that night as the adults all descended on the bar to sing song after emotional song.

The other drama of the holiday was an afternoon at the beach when we became stranded by the incoming tide. We had had a picnic on some sort of grassy hillock and to get back to the car my father had to carry the two eldest children on his shoulders through the surging sea. My mother saved the baby and the picnic basket.

That little rescue scene is one of my happiest childhood memories. It comes from a time when our parents could protect us from anything and we liked nothing more than just being together.

By chance, or perhaps by some subconscious design, this week I found myself in Westport House again, thirty six years since the last visit. Our three little girls are now very close in age to the three little girls of 1977. And yes, we took a photograph on the steps of the house.

The stately home of the Marquess and Marchioness of Sligo now has a Pirate’s Park in the grounds, amusement rides and a mini train. But the house is as beautiful as ever and the sun obliged by coming out just before we left for this picture.

You’re looking fierce well altogether

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This phrase, which I overheard on the street today in Dun Laoghaire, adds great flourish and emphasis to the standard ‘you’re looking very well’. You can also be fierce upset or fierce busy in Ireland. In my first week back I am feeling fierce well altogether myself.

Maybe it’s the street where we are staying, ten minutes’ walk from my childhood home and from the sea.

Or the morning we spent on the sea shore, climbing the rocks and looking for crabs.

Being there for my little nephew’s birthday.

My membership card for the Irish Writers’ Centre arriving in the post.

Bumping into old friends at the Sunday market in the park.

Sitting out in the back garden with my mother and knowing that for a change we have time on our side.

Carry each other

He ain't heavy
He ain’t heavy

When was the last time you carried someone? Maybe you carried a sleeping child to bed, helped an elderly parent into the car, or lifted a barefoot friend over hot sand. Part of our lot as human beings is to carry each other; we are carried before we come into the world and our bodies are carried to a final resting place at the end.

Of the thousands of news stories that have flashed along my optic nerve, there is one scene that stays with me. It takes place on a suburban street. A man and his adult daughter get out of a car and turn to speak to the waiting media. The distraught young woman collapses and the man scoops her up and carries her into a house. The scene was over in a few seconds. She was a young mother whose baby had been kidnapped. Thankfully the baby was found safe and well.

There was something so beautiful and tender in that image of the man carrying his daughter, helpless in her despair. But most of the carrying we do is unseen. It happens in private – between partners, family members and friends.

For all the people who are carrying someone right now, using every last ounce of strength and patience to support a loved one through a difficult time, don’t give up. For those leaning hard on the people close to them, your time will come around again.

A tall order for Ireland

Sandcove beckons
Sandcove beckons

Is there any way the next four months in Ireland can match my ridiculously great expectations? How many gallons of tea, Jamaica ginger cakes, meaningful conversations and seafront walks will it take to satisfy me?

Small recap: After ten years in Switzerland I have taken some time off to return to Dublin to write, spend time with friends and family and give my children a chance to be more than just visitors to Ireland.

I am finally going to connect to the everyday rhythm of Irish life again, without the pressured merry-go-round of arrangements and catching up that my shorter visits home have become. At least that’s the hope.

More than one person has warned me that what I am looking for cannot be found. They perceive me as longing for le temps perdu – the way things used to be. Could they be right? I do know it’s not the same country I left ten years ago and that time and circumstances have changed us all but do I really accept that?

So what is it I am looking for? There are concrete things like my mother’s Sunday lunch, family birthdays, a dip in the sea at Sandycove. On the cultural side I’m looking forward to my first book festival in Dun Laoghaire, an evening or two at the theatre, the writing course I’ll be attending at the Irish Writers’ Centre. My children will come home from school, happy I hope, with a few phrases of Irish and a stronger sense of their other identity.

But it is the people I have missed the most. Close friends and family in whose treasured company I passed the first thirty years of my life. People I’ve only managed to have snatched moments with for too long, not only because of the distance but because of the demands of a growing family. A reservoir of unshared stories and experiences has built up behind the dam. It’s in these relationships that the greatest potential disappointment or reward of the trip lies.

Fellow blogger Karen O’Reilly returned to Ireland with her family earlier this month for good after 11 years in France.

http://getrealfrance.blogspot.fr/2013/08/taking-leap-moving-back-to-ireland.html

A lot of the reasons she gave for her decision echo my own but in my case the move is temporary. I hope the time in Ireland will soothe the homesickness I feel and help me commit more fully to my future in Switzerland. Whatever happens I think the regret of not following through on this idea would definitely do more harm in the long run. With just over two weeks to go before we leave Switzerland, any last minute advice or warnings are welcome!

The wrong response to a distressing week

It’s been a distressing week for Irish parents, shocked by television footage of neglect and mistreatment of small children at three crèches, exposed in an undercover RTE investigation. The private childcare sector has mushroomed in Ireland over the past two decades and the inspection system is inadequate to say the least. So not only are Irish parents paying the highest fees for day care in Europe, they are now faced with the horrible fear that their children may not be safe.

The truth is that the vast majority of children cared for outside the home are well-treated and thriving in a familiar environment, just as most children cared for one-to-one in a home setting are loved and cherished. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that good childcare is good for the child, regardless of the category, but unfortunately bad situations exist across the board.

The model of the mother at home all day to care for her children should not for a moment be idealised. Mothers lose their temper and their patience, many still hit their children. Some are isolated, depressed, or bored at home. There is no footage of their interaction with their children behind closed doors.

Parents automatically question the important decisions they make for their children and need no encouragement to feel guilty. We want desperately to get it right. There is nothing more important than the well-being of our children, which is why the last thing working parents need is a blanket condemnation of day care.

This morning we heard from an übermother on Irish radio sneering at “shiny corporate crèches” and telling us that children under the age of three should not be cared for in a group setting – full stop. If this is where the debate is heading then let’s call off the hounds. Such a simplistic and unfair pronouncement does nothing to help parents trying to make choices from realistic options, the thousands of families who put their trust in good people and come back to happy children at the end of the day.

No one way of looking after children trumps all others. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbours, crèche workers and childminders are all fallible and can give children the very best and worst of themselves. It’s a cheap shot to question the whole validity of day care on the basis of some bad cases. That is a test no category of childcare will pass.

Family Resemblance

The Lustre Jug by Walter Osborne (1902)
The Lustre Jug by Walter Osborne (1902)

Walter shook out his umbrella in jerking movements. “What a day,” Louisa said, stepping back to let him into the hall. She noticed he was wearing galoshes; Christopher would find that funny. In ceremonial style, Walter carefully arranged all his wet things on and around the coat stand and removed his sketch book from a damp leather satchel.

“Have you explained everything to them?” he asked, smoothing down his tweed suit. “Of course,” Louisa said, determined to be pleasant. She’d forgotten how blatantly he skipped social niceties.

“And they will cooperate?”

“They’re good girls Walter, you needn’t worry,” Louisa replied, her gaze criss-crossing his unlovely face. He was so like their father today with his bristly hair and manner. An image of the old man flickered in her memory, seated in his study, tilting his head so she could reach his cheek for a goodnight kiss. The last child of his third wife, even she could sense he was weary of playing Daddy by then. So different, she imagined, to Walter’s home life twenty years earlier.

A thump sounded from the dining room followed by muffled giggling and shushing. “Shall we?” Louisa said reaching for the door handle. She had issued strict instructions to the girls to stay in the room until she entered. Christopher agreed that it was time they stopped charging to the front door like hooligans every time there was a caller.

Nora was standing by the mantelpiece holding the lustre jug, her cheeks glowing pink, while Peggy and Maude sat straight-backed at the table. “It’s not broken,” Nora said, holding out the jug. Louisa took it from her eldest and touched her cheek gently. “Come and say hello to your uncle Walter.”

The girls lined up and shook hands with the visitor, looking angelic in their Sunday pinafores. Louisa was pleased to see the children were in awe of him and she hoped the feeling would last, keeping their behaviour in check.

Louisa waited for Walter to take charge but he stood as if in a daze, holding the sketch book to his chest. “How would you like to begin?” Louisa asked when the pause grew uncomfortably long. “Or would you prefer some refreshment first?”

Walter’s lips were trembling. “Could you ask them to sit at the table again? Perhaps they could gather at the corner and study something together?” He was almost whispering. The girls looked at their mother. “Here take this,” she said, pressing the jug back into Nora’s hands. The children followed his directions and Walter pulled out a chair for himself, positioning it by the sideboard.

Louisa glared a final warning at the girls and turned to Walter with a smile. “There. Should I leave you now?” Walter hesitated. “She’s just like my Gloria,” he said, staring at Nora. Louise looked and in that instant saw the resemblance and understood the loss for the first time. She squeezed his shoulder and left the room.

Inspired by The Lustre Jug by Walter Osborne (1902)

Together Again

There it was, the scrape of the curtain pulley. Rosemarie braced herself as the unkind morning light pounced on her closed eyes. Why did the day have to start so early? You would think the old folk with empty diaries would have earned their rest. Now was her chance to say she didn’t feel well and ask for breakfast in bed; Ronnie had encouraged her to get his money’s worth. But she felt her customary shyness clamp down on her throat and the attendant was gone. Rosemarie didn’t like to think of how much that reticence had cost her over the years. By a happy twist of genetics her daughter Melissa turned out to be brash and demanding, a fact which never ceased to please Rosemarie.

Taking it nice and slowly, she got up and used the en suite bathroom. Then she tackled getting dressed. The tricky bit was getting anything onto her feet. If she could just go barelegged, it would save a whole lot of effort. Finally, with her tights on, hair brushed and glasses ready on a chain for the morning crossword, Rosemarie made her way to the mirror by the door. Fuchsia had always been a good colour on her, today she wasn’t so sure. When did her hair get so white? A dab of lipstick brought her face back into focus.

Breakfast was the best meal the place offered and Rosemarie was pleased to still have a good appetite. She was having diplomatic trouble choosing a table though, with two groups vying for her company. People with good hearing were in demand. Coming into the dining room was always a tense moment. The best thing was to be first there and let the others play musical chairs. This morning the Crowleys had made it down first. They beckoned to her and she took a seat between them. The dining room had the appearance of an English B&B, the kind of place she would have stayed in with Maurice thirty years before. Look what you’re missing out on darling, she thought. Bert and Tess looked at her with matching what-did-you-say expressions. Luckily they were distracted by the morning girl, Rosemarie’s favourite, come to pour their tea.

Conversation ran out as breakfast finished. Rosemarie looked despairingly at the scattered crumbs and spots of jam on the tablecloth. It was too blowy again for a walk; three-and-a-half hours until lunch. She excused herself and trundled over to reception with her walker to pick up the newspaper. Mr Farley beamed in his ingratiating way and handed her a letter. Letters were like gold dust these days. Rosemarie tried not to look at it, almost snatching the envelope out of his hand. She laid it face down on her walker tray and hurried to the conservatory, where she plonked herself down in an armchair half turned away from the rest of the room.

It was from Loretta, postmarked London. Her handwriting hadn’t changed since boarding school, bold and artistic even then. The three years they overlapped at the Ursuline Convent had been the happiest of Rosemarie’s life. Despite the age gap they had spent most of their free time together nattering and laughing, celebrating their joint relief at having escaped the stifling atmosphere at home. Since then they had never lived in the same country, and after Loretta took off with her husband on a succession of postings abroad there were years between visits.

The words danced in front of Rosemarie’s eyes – coming home, got the brochure, room for me. She blinked away the tears and reread from the beginning. Loretta wanted to come and live in Glengoran Lodge. She was selling her house, under pressure from the children to move somewhere supervised. The time has come to return to Dublin sis, if you’ll have me. Always so careful to be thankful for the small comforts and pleasures left to her, Rosemarie had tried hard to stay positive since she moved to the lodge. Now she sank back in her armchair to bask in the long lost feeling of happiness. A laugh bubbled to the surface and Rosemarie covered her mouth like a schoolgirl. The Cully sisters, together again.