Two courses, one writer, and a fantastic story

The Secret Son

By Jennifer Burke

I am so excited, I think I might spontaneously combust. My first novel – The Secret Son – is hitting Irish bookshelves this month. Yet this time two months ago, I hadn’t the smallest inclination of what was about to happen. On 4th July, Martin King of TV3’s The Morning Show burst into my office where I work with the Commission for Energy Regulation and announced that I was the winner of TV3’s “Write a Bestseller” competition. Life since then has been a whirlwind – of the best kind. I had spotted the competition, which was run in conjunction with Poolbeg Press, when I was happily procrastinating from writing my third novel. Clicking around Writing.ie I stumbled across it and my mind flew to the dusty old copy of The Secret Son sitting in my drawer.

lawI’ll go back a few years. In 2008-2009, I was training to be a solicitor. While studying Wills & Probate law I was genuinely amazed at the amount of cases that came before the courts involving families having fallen out with each other over the contents of a dead relative’s will. An idea began to form. What if I could write a story about a will that went one step further than the cases I had been studying. Instead of just dividing up the family fortune in an unexpected way, the will could reveal a dark secret that threatened the very stability of the family. And so the character of Andrew Shaw began to form in my head. A sick young man in need of a kidney transplant who is horrified to discover that a recently dead stranger is in fact his biological father. Unsure how to even begin constructing a full novel on this scrap of an idea, I attended Juliet Bressan’s one day ‘How to write a novel’ course in the Irish Writer’s Centre.

Meeting other aspiring writers was itself inspirational. I learnt the basics of creating a story arc, marking plot points and developing characters, all which enabled me to structure the novel in my mind. Though the story ultimately changed and matured over the months, I had a plan to work from and I finally got down to the serious business of writing a novel. I wrote whenever I could. I got up early before work, scribbled down sentences in the evenings and stole some hours at the weekends. Eventually, the words added uPictured Jennifer Burke, author. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.p and I had my book done. Sort of. It was mostly finished, but I knew it was lacking. I just couldn’t put my finger on the exact problem. So I returned to the Irish Writer’s Centre and took Conor Kostick’s Finish your Novel course over ten weeks. He gave me the tools to shape and polish the book – being true to your voice, how to write dialogue authentically and creating villians; writing love scenes, being certain of your theme and book endings. I left the course with the skills I needed to hone and perfect my story.

It took many edits, more reading around (I particularly recommend Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages), and ultimately taking time off work, but I eventually finished. A year later, I came across TV3’s competition and sent The Secret Son off to Poolbeg. I had no conception at the time how it would change my life. In the past two months, I got to see a whole new side of writing – the process of turning a manuscript into a book for sale. Normally this process takes months, but we had weeks, if we were to capitalise on the publicity I have been so fortunate to receive from TV3. The editing process was the best part. I was nervous – you hear horror stories of editors cutting characters and decimating storylines. But that wasn’t the case at all. All of the edits suggested were spot on and mostly centred around making the book readable and consistent. It was the final polish and ultimately professionalised the novel. Aside from editing the actual book, there has been plenty of other fun stuff to do – acknowledgments, dedication, front cover consultation, photo shoot, marketing and PR. I’m still not entirely convinced this isn’t all a dream. It’s just unbelieveable that all this has been made possible in such a short period of time. Right now, I’m busy organising the launch of The Secret Son and I have my minions (ie. my very dedicated family and friends) spreading the word to their friends, colleagues and book clubs. I hope The Secret Son does well and that I get the opportunity to keep writing. For the moment, I’m enjoying the crazy, crazy reality that I’m actually being published. To anyone who is mulling over a spark of an idea, I say go for it. Just look at what can happen!

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Competitions, Creative Writing, creative writing course, Fiction, How to Write A Novel, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, Juliet Bressan, literature, novels

The Winning Story: Exile by Phil Young

waverly3‘This is to be your bed, Charlie.’ Nurse Gillane led him to the narrow bed with its iron frame. One of about ten in a long room. The room was painted a shiny green. It was very cold.

‘You can put your things into the locker,’  she  said, ‘and leave your boots beneath the bed.’

Charlie’s things consisted of his pyjamas, some clothes and a photograph of his mother and a man who was his father. Well, Mama said he was his father. Charlie didn’t remember him. He was wearing a soldier’s uniform, and looked  just like so many of the men in Charlie’s town. Mama said that he was killed in the war. He was a hero.

‘You can be a hero too Charlie! You be a brave boy now,  and when the war is over we’ll be together.  Just the two of us. There, how grown up you look in your new boots.’

She had just bought him new winter boots. Heavy black leather, laced beyond his ankles, and with studs on the soles, which he  could make spark when he struck them off the pavement. They were too big for him, but she said he would grow into them.

‘By the time you come back home, they’ll be just right size for you. But mind you don’t scuff the toes now. You have to look after them, so that they’ll last until you come home.’

She had kissed him then, and he had got on to the train with the other children. They were the most important thing, his boots. While he kept his boots safe, he was linked with his mother and his home.

Charlie remembered little of his journey. Noise, confusion, darkness. The whistle of the train, the rocking motion which soon put him to sleep. The long boat journey during which he was sick. The panic as he tried to clean the vomit from the front of his boots. And then being brought to this long grey building, with lots of other children and  lots of nurses with red crosses on their fronts.

Over the next few weeks, Charlie did as he was told, said as little as possible, and tried not to be homesick for his mother. He did all the jobs he was told  to do, he paid attention in the classes which were set up in one of the rooms of the building, and he ate the food which was put in front of him. Each  morning, as soon as the bell to wake the boys rang out, Charlie jumped out of bed to check if his boots were still there. As soon as he put on the boots, the cold, raw feeling which had been with him all night seeped away, and he felt a measure of security. While his boots were safe, he knew his mother would come for him.

The months went by, and gradually the number of children in the building grew less. ‘We’re finding foster homes for them,’ Nurse Gillane explained. Charlie hoped they would not find one for him. What if Mama came searching for him and found him gone? And then, one morning, Charlie was called to the superintendent’s office. The superintendent had a letter in front of him.

‘Well Charlie. How have you been getting on here?’

‘Fine sir.’

‘And you’ve been happy enough?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Good, good.’ The man looked awkward and ill at ease. Charlie knew there was more to come.

‘You see this letter?’

Charlie glanced quickly at the letter. Black typing. Heavy paper. Official looking.

‘The thing is, Charlie. You have to be  brave. Very brave ….’

Charlie knew then. He knew it from the flutter in his stomach. From the trembling that shook his knees.

‘You see, she knew,  Charlie. She knew that she had only months to live. That’s why she wanted you to be here … in safe hands. She knew we’d take good care of you Charlie. And  we will. We will.’

scratch boot  Charlie looked down at his boots. She had made him a promise. The boots were still shiny and barely scuffed. He took such care of them. He would not let anyone touch them. He never let them out of his sight. But now, she was not coming for him. He would never be going back. Who else was there to go back to? There had only been him and Mama. And she had promised. The shaking that had started in his knees now took over his body, his hands, his teeth. He couldn’t stop shaking. The superintendent rose, and coming around to his side of the desk, put his arm across Charlie’s shoulder.

‘There, there,  boy. Don’t cry now. Be brave. We must all be brave at times like this. Nurse Gillane will look after you for the moment. You like Nurse Gillane, don’t you?’

Charlie nodded.

‘Yes. Well, she’ll take care of you. Until we decide what’s to happen. I’ll call her now Charlie. You wait there. There’s a brave lad. She’ll know what to do.’

  *  *  *

 The train journey seemed to go on for ever, but Charlie didn’t want it to end. He sat on a lumpy seat by the window, a window so caked in dirt that it was like looking at everything through a fog. Across the carriage from him was a brightly coloured picture, beneath which it said ‘The Lakes of Killarney’. A man and a woman sat  in the seat opposite him. The man smoked a pipe which sent out waves of strong smelling smoke. The woman was knitting, and every now and then she would put the knitting on her lap, lean over towards Charlie and ask  ‘Are you alright son? You’re not feeling sick?’ Then, without waiting for an answer, she would continue her knitting. Charlie hunched into his seat and closed his eyes. He wondered where he was going to, but didn’t really care. Fostered. That was what happened to the other boys who had disappeared. Some were excited, most were crying. But none of them had ever returned to the grey building.

‘A lovely couple in the West.’ Nurse Gillane had cleared out his locker, and helped him to pack his things back into his little brown suitcase.

‘They’ve no children of their own, and want a little boy to help them on the farm. You’re so lucky Charlie! Do you understand how lucky you are Charlie?’ She gave his boots a little wipe with his handkerchief, and slicked down his blond hair.

‘What I wouldn’t give to get out of the city and have all that fresh air!’

Charlie knew nothing of the country or fresh air. He and his mother. Up three flights of stairs to their home. One room that overlooked a city grey with industry. Tall chimneys belching smoke. Cars, buses, trams…noise that was comforting in its ever presence. People everywhere, hurrying, busy, purposeful.

He opened his eyes now. He didn’t want to think of his mother. Of their life before all this happened. It was raining over the countryside. Mountains loomed out of their misty shrouds. Sometimes a burst of sunshine filtered through, to light up the vivid greenness of the fields. A rainbow hung like a child’s drawing, touching down behind a cluster of tiny houses.

‘Are you being met son?’ The knitting woman and her husband got up, gathering together their many bags and boxes.

‘Yes, thank you. I’m going to the west. To be fostered.’ Charlie heard his voice, as if it came from someone else.

‘You poor mite.’ The woman shook her head, and mouthed something at her husband, who nodded, and said to Charlie, ‘Isn’t that fine for you. That’ll put a bit of brawn on you.’

The woman pressed a coin into Charlie hand.

‘That’s for luck son,’  she whispered. Then they got out at a one building station, and once more the train hissed on its journey.

There was nobody in the carriage now, and Charlie stretched out, putting his feet on  the seat opposite.   He closed his eyes.

*    *      *

‘Here you are lad! Out you get.  There’ll be someone to meet you here.’  The guard shook Charlie by the shoulder. Guiltily, Charlie removed his feet from the seat.

‘Are we in the West?’

‘As west as you can go,  boy…unless you want to jump in the Atlantic.’

The guard handed him down his case, and Charlie stood on what seemed to be a deserted platform, wondering what would happen next.  A cold, grey, drizzle seeped from a leaden sky and found its way down the collar of his coat and into the top of his boots. This west was the emptiest looking place he had ever seen. Maybe nobody would meet him. Maybe he was just being abandoned here. But he had been told to wait, and Charlie had always done what he was told, so he waited.

* * *

 ‘I hope we’re doing the right thing.’ Pat shook his head .

‘There’s no going back now.’ Nora turned away from him. It was  what he had always wanted,  wasn’t it? All those years. All that hoping and longing. But the years went on, and nothing  had happened. And the hope had turned to sourness. He never said…Pat wasn’t like that. He was a quiet man. But she had failed him. How can a man work a farm without a son? And what was the point of it? Well, now he would have someone. It would take the burden off her. It would not take away the ache, but  it would be someone for Pat.

Pat clicked on the reins, urging the pony to move on. His mouth was dry and his stomach felt tight. Weren’t they alright as they were? He had long ago come to terms with the fact that there would be no children. That was the way it was, and what was the use of wishing your life away? Of course it was different for women. He knew that. He knew how she had lived from month to month, in those early years. But hadn’t they been happy enough together? And now this! Fostering a strange, foreign boy. Was there ever such a daft notion in all the world? Pat let the pony slow down to his customary shuffling gait.

Charlie watched the man approach. As there was nobody else on the platform, this had to be the man who was to meet him, and Charlie looked at him in a detached way. He saw a small man, not much taller than himself, wearing a long grey overcoat, wellington boots, and a cap.

‘You’re Charlie? The man’s blue eyes slid away from Charlie shyly. He took Charlie’s case, and motioned him to follow him out to where the pony was tethered. Charlie  climbed on to the wooden cart, and sat on a bundle of sacks behind the man. The sacks were wet, rain glistened on the pony’s rump, and the ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. The man spoke in bursts, shooting out long rambling monologues which made no sense to Charlie. He wondered was this Gaelic? Or some other foreign language? It certainly didn’t sound like the English he had listened to in the  grey building outside Dublin,  much less the English he had been taught in school. He listened hard at first, then switched off. He clung to the edge of the cart and stared straight ahead. Eventually the man stopped talking. Darkness was creeping across the grey  landscape by the time the pony trotted into the yard in front of the farmhouse. The pony shook himself in relief, and Charlie got down , every bone in his body aching. A woman stood at the farmhouse door.

‘You found him alright?’ she said to her husband. She nodded at Charlie.

‘You can call me Nora, and himself Pat, and you’d better come inside, for you look half dead.’

Charlie felt half dead, what with cold and tiredness. At least he could understand this Nora better than the man, and he followed her into the kitchen, where the heat from the fire soon sent clouds of steam rising from his clothes. Nora took his case and his coat, but when she made to remove his boots, he shook his head.

‘You want to do them yourself? Suit yourself. Now sit up there by the fire and have a bite to eat, and then you can go way to bed. Things will look better in the morning.’

In spite of herself, Nora felt sorry for the lad. He was much smaller and younger looking than she had been expecting. And so white and scared. He wouldn’t be much help to Pat anyway. Scrawny little thing, sure he’d never be up to farm work. Still, a couple of weeks they were told, and then they could decide whether or not they wanted to keep him.

Later on, when the boy had eaten and gone up to the attic, where he was to sleep, Nora asked Pat what he thought.

‘He’s a strange class of a lad, to be sure. Never opened his mouth all the way home, and looked like he was going to cry every time I spoke to him.’ Pat shook his head. ‘I don’t know why we’re doing this at all, Nora. We’re too old for this business. And I’d say that boy was born and bred in a city. He knows nothing about farming.’

‘Can’t you be teaching him? He can surely take some of the load off you, can’t he?’

‘We’ll see, we’ll see. ‘

The months passed. Winter yielded to spring, and the greyness of the west peeled back to show its undercoat of greens and purples and blues. Charlie fell into the routine of the farm, rising early to help Pat with the work. Cleaning out stalls, shifting dung, milking cows, harnessing the pony to take the churns to the creamery. All the daylight hours were spent working, so that when darkness came he could go to his attic bedroom and sleep. The two weeks’  trial period had passed. Pat and Nora were happy with him, and he was to start attending the village school after Easter. Charlie fell in with whatever they wanted him to do, and obeyed without question.

‘I never saw the likes of him!’ Nora whispered to Pat as they drank tea by the fire one evening. ‘It’s not natural for a child to be so good.’

‘Maybe when he goes to school he’ll unwind a bit.’ Pat answered.

‘I don’t know … I don’t know. But then, hasn’t he been through the mill? Away from his own country, no family, no home, nothing. Isn’t that enough to touch any young fellow, when you think about it?’

‘Hasn’t he got us now?’

Nora warmed to the statement. She could see that Pat had really taken to Charlie. He didn’t think that she noticed, but she had seen how he watched the boy. How he protected him from the heavier work, how  patient he was when Charlie made mistakes, how he encouraged him to eat  and to rest more. And in turn, she herself now took more pleasure in cooking meals for her ‘men’. If Nora could win a rare smile from Charlie she felt that  all the extra trouble was well worthwhile.

‘Have you seen how he’s filled out? He’s bursting through that jacket of his, and his coat will barely tie on him now.’

‘I know … it’s your grand food Nora. And all the fresh air. Sure what fresh air would they have in them foreign cities? By the end of the summer we won’t know him!’

‘If we still have him at the end of the summer.’ The thought of losing Charlie was suddenly a bleak one.

‘Have you noticed those black boots of his?’ Nora asked.

‘Why wouldn’t I. Isn’t he forever cleaning and scraping the mud off them?’

‘Well, I’m of a mind that they’re squeezing his toes – he’s grown that much. They’ll give him blisters if they’re too small for him. I thought maybe I’d bring him in to Connolly’s shoe shop on Saturday and buy him a new pair. What do you think?’

‘You do that Nora. He’s earned it, God knows’.

Nora sat back pleased, and sighed in anticipation. She and her foster son, shopping in the town together. Charlie’s eyes lighting up. Tommy Connelly bringing out his best, his most expensive leather boots. That’s a fine young fellow you have there Mrs. Ryan. He’s a credit to the both of you!

*  *  *

   ‘No thank you.’ His voice was polite, but quite firm.

‘But they must be pinching you, Charlie.’

‘They’re not pinching me. They’re fine.’

‘Now, don’t be silly. You know you need a new pair. And don’t be worrying about the cost…we want to give you a present.  Take those off, and we’ll see the size. Sure they must be falling to bits at this stage.’

Nora reached out towards Charlie’s feet. His reaction was instant.

‘No! No! Leave them alone. There’s nothing wrong with my boots! They’re fine. Just leave me alone!’ He sprang up and dashed out of the kitchen, taking the attic stairs two at a time, and banging his bedroom door. He didn’t come down for dinner that evening, and when Nora went to the top of the stairs to call him, she could hear his sobs. She quietly entered the room. He was lying face down on his bed. He continued to cry as she touched his face and stroked his head and murmured  endearments to him. ‘Hush, hush. There, there. It’s alright , lad, it’s alright’. He continued to cry on and off throughout the night. Nora stayed with him until he cried himself out and fell into a deep sleep.   She pulled the blankets up on him, and tucked them in beneath his blotched  face. It was as she was closing his door on her way downstairs that she noticed the strange animal like shape of the boots beneath the covers. She did not remove them.

It was the week before Easter. In two weeks’ time he would be starting in the local school. Charlie sat by the river, his head full of plans. Nora  had got him all the books he needed, and Pat had bought him a bicycle, so that he could get into town each morning. He loved cycling. The freedom of whizzing along empty roads, of feeling the wind whistle past his ears. At home he had rarely cycled. ‘It is much too dangerous,’ his mother had said. ‘Maybe when you are older…but the city is not a good place for children on bicycles.’ She had worried about him all the time. She would hold his hand tightly when they went out on the streets together. He remembered her white face, and the coldness of her hands on that day when she had brought him to join those other refugees on their way to Ireland. She knew then that she was going to die. Maybe she knew that he would never be coming back. Charlie closed his eyes, and let himself think about his mother. All those images which he had stifled for so long. He let them in, and examined them.   Her long black hair, which she braided into a plait each morning. The way she chewed the end of her pencil as she worked out her budget – always trying to make her money stretch. The smell of her when she kissed him good night. Soap and lavender water. Mama would like it here. She would love the openness, and the colour of the mountains, and the softness of the boggy grass. She would laugh at the curious way the cows stared over the wall, and at the pony’s antics when he was let out of the harness. She would be like a child gathering armfuls of wild flowers from the small wood behind the farm, and pressing them to her face saying ‘Oh, Charlie, smell them! Feel their silkiness!’

Charlie sat up. The sun was hot now,  much too hot for the week before Easter. He unlaced his boots, and released his feet, red and sore from their tightness. He spread his toes, and watched as slivers of grass sprang up between them. He felt the tickle of a small insect venturing up the  mound of his arch, and down the other side. Faintly, in the distance, he could hear Nora calling to Pat that dinner was ready. He knew he should be getting back to the farm. Nora got cross when they did not eat her food while it was hot.  Anyway, it was bacon and cabbage today. He loved bacon and cabbage.

Phil 2Charlie jumped up. Grabbing his boots by the laces, he swung them over his head, round and round, and flung  them into the fast flowing river. He listened for the splash as they hit the water and sank. Then he ran home, barefoot.

Phil Young is a native of Dunmanway in West Cork, and now lives in Dublin. She is the winner of the inauguarl Doolin Short Story Competition. She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with an MPhil in Anglo-Irish literature, and has had a number of short stories and articles published in various magazines. She has also been featured several times on the RTÉ Radio programme Sunday Miscellany and is the author of the first ever biography of children’s writer, Patricia Lynch. This biography was launched in Cork as part of the Cork European City of Culture celebrations in 2005. Her first novel entitled IN A PLACE APART was published in  September 2009, and she is currently working on her second novel.

 

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Filed under competition winner, Creative Writing, Doolin Short Story Competition, Doolin Writers' Weekend

Meet our intern!

kelly

Born and raised in Galesburg, IL., Kelly Ricketts graduated from Knox College with a degree in Secondary Education and English Literature in 2012. She is now a high school, English teacher in Knoxville, IL and is spending the summer working and studying in Dublin with the Gaelic Girl Program.

For the past 3 weeks, I have been working here at the Irish Writers’ Centre as a part of the Gaelic Girl Experience My job responsibilities have ranged from compiling databases of different literary magazine contacts to contacting past winners of the Novel Fair and updating the website with information. Though I’ve been told the summer can be quieter than autumn for the centre, I have thoroughly enjoyed my work so far.It has been a pleasure getting to see first-hand what it takes to be an actual, real, published writer. (Though, the writers might argue that I don’t actually know the extent of the sleepless nights and painstaking hours they put into their work!) Back home in small town Illinois, I was never around the writer/agent/publisher process and talk that I’ve had the chance to familiarise myself with this summer. I now know the difference between being longlisted and shortlisted, what a ghost writer actually does, and the possible frustrations of an editor/proof-reader. Besides all of the practical information, tools and viewpoints I’m gaining, it’s been a pleasure getting to know and work with the employees here at the Irish Writers’ Centre. Their kind and inviting demeanours have made my experience, and I’m sure the many experiences of writers who come into the centre, most gratifying.

Coming to Ireland a James Joyce fan, I was extremely excited to delve into whatever hauntings of Joyce and other Irish writers Dublin had to offer; so many hauntings, I have found. The first time I realised what living, working and studying in Dublin for eight weeks would do for my literary fanatic side, I was standing in the Oscar Wilde House. Here, during a class with American College Dublin, I was lead through a summary of the Wilde family lives and told the story of Joyce meeting the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, just outside the building I was standing in. Being a bit of a literary “geek”, my enthusiasm soars sitting in a room in the middle of America reading about these literary masterminds. Seeing where and how they lived their lives makes their life stories and works that much more magical for me.

The thing that is so incredible about Irish literature is that, for the country’s size, it has produced so many great writers. From Joyce to Wilde, Yeats to Beckett, Swift to Shaw, the island is certainly not lacking in talent or worldwide respect. While I did recognise this before coming to Ireland, one thing I didn’t appreciate enough was that the people of Ireland’s capacity to produce quality literature didn’t stop in the twentieth century. Writers such as Colum McCann and Emma Donoghue have recently earned international attention. (I read Emma Donoghue for the first time while here this summer. Room is an extremely captivating and unique novel.) And seeing the work that is done here in the Irish Writers Centre every day instils me with a confidence that Irish literary success is nowhere near an end.

Though the end of today will mark the halfway point in my work here at the centre, I’m sure there is much more to experience and learn before my time is up.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Fiction, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, Irish Writers' Centre intern, James Joyce, Ulysses

Spotty memories seen in reverse

Greg

Writer & poet Greg Kirkorian, member of the Irish Writers’ Centre

At the lonely start, I wobbled into the Irish Writers’ Centre in search of heat, feeling like the run off of a stream and hoping someone had some answers for me. The answers remained elusive, but a cup of tea was welcome and I remember thinking the tall girl who welcomed me had a cut of wit hidden behind her kindness. I decided to stay a while and paid my pittance for a seat in the warmth and the chance to pester the centre’s beleaguered staff.I had no idea I would spend my whole time in Dublin there: haunting the rooms and insinuating myself in conversations, meeting my best friends, glowering at fellow Americans. I was the worst kind of houseguest. Reeking of fish for eight months, I still had a place to warm my cockles and scandalise the locals. I played the boor every chance given, berating Irish ears with unwelcome words of late night scandals and dreams of Arcadia.

I spent the first month living in a hostel leaning over the Liffey. The environment was dizzying with a high paced flow of guests, so I leaned on the front house staff for a bit of stability. Typical of Dublin, I had no problem finding the comfort of a friendly ear.

Also typical of Dublin, I had no problem finding junkies. Downing vending machine brews and too many bags of Tayto salt and vinegar chips, I enjoyed many dawns walking along the brown of the river in a half-drunk cloud taking it all in. It seemed surreal that you could buy a ticket on a whim and find yourself in a different life. Eventually some weekend hooligan high as a kite off an MDMA/cocaine cocktail would wake me with a shriek, shake my bunk like a gorilla in heat, and accidentally kick me in the stomach while clambering up to the bed above me. I figured it was time to leave.

thebeardnardshaw_gallery2The rest of the time I spent in a swirl: boozing at the Bernard Shaw, Ear Inn and by the canal; bantering through half hour drives to eight-hour gay hikes; hobnobbing with the judiciary at a judge’s soiree; biking with my best friend to Howth for the day. Working a job at Ulster Bank call centre, listening to the cancer, the rancor, the madness and mindless jabber until my insides curdled. Watching so many open mics and so many concerts, which featured overwhelming highs and disastrous lows.

Fondness washes against my insides when I think back. My friends feel too far away and I miss the warped curve around Trinity. I miss Dame street, her clusters of teens, tourists and addicts mixing under the Central Bank, and Georges’ Street, salacious as it was perpendicularly fused to Dame at the crotch. I miss days in Stephen’s Green playing young again with delirium dreams of poetic grandeur floating freely with the pollen. I even miss Grafton Street’s fire spinner guy… complaining about how ridiculous and terrible he was made me feel like a true Irishman.

Wandering back through my memory, I land again and again in the Irish Writers’ Centre. There my experience started and there’s where I made those friends. There when the sun was up (never) or when things were gloomy (always). There where my most potent memory of Dublin resides with muted light filtering through windows overlooking the Garden of Remembrance, where the people turn into geese and fly.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Irish Writers Centre, Membership of Irish Writers' Centre, writing, writing groups

Telmetale Bloomnibus, the e-book, streaming live around the world!`

ulyssesTo celebrate Bloomsday we asked 18 writers to bring Ulysses into the 21st Century. As Joyce once took inspiration from the texts of Homer, the writers have taken the 18 episodes or chapters from Ulysses and transported them to modern Dublin. They have each written a story inspired by a title from Ulysses and will perform them in the Irish Writers’ Centre on the 14th of June. Stories will be told through prose, poetry and song. The only rule we gave the writers is that the stories cannot mention Ulysses, The Odyssey or Joyce (though inspiration from the texts is allowed).  The stories are all original pieces of work set in contemporary Dublin. Guided by love, lust, alcohol, drugs and ever present moons, our heros and heroines battle scangie-gangies in Adidas, hooded drug pushers, administrators, chauvinist school principles, tourists, junkies, priests, giant cannibals and catholic computers. Pissheads riding the storm. We wake up handcuffed to beds, sanitary towels on the kitchen table; we encounter a Dublin where stealing laptops is the new stealing bread. A Telmetale Bloomnibus embraces both the beautiful and the obscene.

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Click on pic to buy the book!

When Joyce first started writing Ulysses 99 years ago the landscape of the city was very different from today. Globalisation, technology, independence, women’s rights, church scandals, Starbucks, Ryanair, Google and other such things have, in many ways, created a new city. But with all of these changes one thing has remained constant, high quality writers are constantly emerging. Writers that burst boundaries, challenge our perception. A Telmetale Bloomnibus celebrates Joyce by showcasing some of these writers and captures the modern landscape.

A Dublin of: HIV, Hep C, KFC, Twitter, Facebook, The Late Late, Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium, the Pantibar, the millennium spire, Madigans, The Gathering and Viking Splash Tours.

You can buy the e-book by clicking on the pic, and you can watch the event streamed ‘live’ thanks to our partners at Breac via this link from 7pm tonight.

Line-up in order of appearance:

Pat Boran, Colm Keegan, Jane Clarke, Niamh Boyce, June Caldwell, Steven Clifford, Christodoulos Makris, Jude Shiels, Jack Harte, Maire T Robinson, Emer Martin, Niamh Parkinson, Deirdre Sullivan, Graham Tugwell, Alan Jude Moore, Oran Ryan, Doodle Kennelly, Nuala Ní Chonchuir.

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Filed under Benefit Reading, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Dublin Event, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, James Joyce, literature, Ulysses

Counting Down by Lisa Harding

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There is a huge disembodied thumb and it’s pressing down on my chest. I’m pinned. I open my eyes and stare at a crack in the ceiling.

Big Joe is singing in his sleep, a tuneless whistling kind of snore-song. He is so big the spindly bed looks about to collapse. I find I can move my head from left to right, left to right and wriggle my toes. Some fella in the corner tells me to kindly shut the fuck up as I hum along to Big Joe’s tune. I think it’s the new guy who came in last night: the ruddy farmer who bellowed like a bull and had wads of cash stuffed in his socks. There are eight beds in this prefab, and it is narrow and low. Under the nylon sheets I am cold and clammy. In case we piss ourselves, there is a plastic under-sheet. February in Ireland on the outskirts of a small town shit-hole and it is raining. I can hear the steady drone on the tin roof. The man above hasn’t stopped piddling down since I arrived here three weeks ago. He’s having a laugh, and drowning us.

There are nuns here. They lead the group meetings and the rosary which is said three times a day. I’d rather a screw any day – I mean a prison warden – that kind of screw. A statue of the Virgin Mary sits high on a shelf in the corner of every room, where a wide- screen TV should be, and she is smirking down her nose at the men with their tattoos vmand swagger. I want to smash her smiling face in.

I am sober now and I have the shakes, the sweats, the colds, the hots, the hard-ons. The tremors, the deliriums, the tremens, the demons, the scratching, the snakes slithering and biting. Seriously, this place, the dried-up auld bodies in their habits swishing along the halls, the lack of alcoholic anaesthesia, the round yellow pills with TV44 scratched into them, all make my pecker stand on end. The little bastard won’t lie down. I swear those old crones know what they’re doing. I swear it is their revenge on the male sex. It hurts like hell.

I’m going to start throwing the pills away. There are tiny yellow faces hiding in every fake palm plant.

I swing my swollen purple feet out of the bed and sit at the edge, clinging on to the plastic. I can move. The cold lino is sweating and sighing beneath the soles of my bare feet. I need to get to the tap on the other side of the prefab and splash water on my face. I sway and stumble, and the farmer dude shouts some more. Big Joe doesn’t stop whistling, even when I crash into the bottom of his bed and curse loudly. I bruise easily these days.

In the gloom I make out the fluorescent green liquid in the dispenser by the tap. Kryptonite. It smells sharp and burns a hole in the back of my throat. I fan my pyjama top out behind me like a cape and punch the air. The stingy soap makes my hands tingle and go bright red. I cover my face in it anyway and splash it with icy water. My ugly mug scowls back at me in the chipped mirror – raw, red now, and old so fucking old. Last time I counted I was eighteen. I already have that bloated stupid face the old man had. Will I end up in the canal, before I’m forty? I cover myself in the green jelly again and I am the Incredible Hulk. I pretend to burst muscles and roar silently.

Reflected in the mirror I see a shape sitting up in bed. I can feel rather than see his black pointed needles-for-pupils jabbing into me. It is the Bull, and he isn’t bellowing now. He’s laughing; a kind of high pitched girly giggle and it is shrill and sharp and stabs me with its edges. The fucker has that kind of leering swollen face, stupid and mean, that kind of face that I know. I breathe in and out, right down to the tips of my toes, like that lady councillor taught me, the one with the lovely smile and the carefully-cared for hair. She told me when I felt like this, out of body, out of mind, to breathe and the world will centre itself. Breathing in crisp cool clean air, breathing out any tension, any anger, any malice. I breathe and I breathe and I feel like I’m working myself up into a fiery dragon-like rage. My breath is coming hot and fast now and short and shallow. Maybe if I hold my breath long enough I will float away. I count down from one hundred, my cheeks puffed out like one of those puffer fish fellas, and I know that underneath the green slime I am bright red. I hope I bust a gut, I hope I implode, or explode right here right now.

Instead, I find I have to breathe out. My body has betrayed me once again. It is a stupid, weak thing, over which I have no control. I have no control. None. The Bull in the Bed is still staring and I stalk over to him and punch the air above his head, and he cowers. He is a coward. I despise cowards. I despise that part of me that used to piss myself under the couch, instead of donning my cape and flying to her rescue. I look at the statue of Our Lady and I see her mild face and it isn’t mocking me now. She reaches out a hand and she smooth’s down my cow’s lick, and she rests her hand on my head. I close my eyes. I am blessed. When I open them again, the Bull has burrowed deep under his thin yellowing blanket, and I think I hear him pray. He doesn’t have violence in him, and something warm and fluffy and calm burrows inside my brain. My brain is a warren-hole.

A trickle of light leaks in through the gap at the bottom of the brown frayed curtains. The trickle starts to flow until it pours, and I pull back the curtains and welcome the flood of sunshine that forces my tired eyes to open wide. The rest of the men turn their backs to the sun. It is too bright, too exposing. I blink fast and feel like my blinking is the lens of a camera trapping the light. I’ve always wanted a camera. The lady with the lovely hair encourages us to make art. I have been making pottery: pots and vases and houses. I am shit at art. I got a D-minus in school last year. Mr O’Callaghan delighted in his minuses, to add to the shame. But I am sure my eyes can see things other people don’t see. Yes. I’ll ask the lady for a camera, even a crappy throw-away one. I’ve never owned a camera. I think I might be good at it, capturing moments.

I stand at the streaked window and look out at the mangy vegetable patch, and the playing pitch. Today is visitor’s day, and no one will come. This is the first day I have seen the view, it is the first day the rain hasn’t covered us in a wet blanket of grey. They grow their own veggies here. I’ve only ever had baked beans and frozen peas. Carrots make me want to puke. Rabbits eat them. And the heads of broccoli look like shrunken bunny’s brains, green from too much grass. There are chickens in the coop behind the vegetable patch. Stringy, skinny little fellas and I decide that today I will go and feed them, and maybe I’ll kick a football around the pitch, although it is utterly pointless. The lady councillor said that was exactly the point. There is no point. It is about having fun, she said, I don’t think you know how to do that. Just have fun. She says funny things like “Just be,” and “You are OK exactly as you are. You are loved.”  I gag.

“I love you,” the old man would say. “I’m only doing this because I love you so much.”

I rub my stinging face with a brown towel. I wonder why they want to surround us with so much of the colour shit. It’s probably because it hides the dirt, and I look at the towel and see maggot-like germs crawling all over it. Iridescent and hopping. I know this is not real. A great whopping monster of an imagination. I have been told it’s a good thing. It means I am “creative,” apparently. They keep trying to make me put a pen to the page. To put order to the chaos, to let the chaos flow, to make words. I have never been able to make sense of words. Numbers make sense; they line up or down and move in straight lines. Words jump about too much. There are books here and I can’t make head or tail of them. What is the point? To relax, she says, to escape, to maybe see a part of yourself in someone else. That can be a relief, she says, and I know what she means, kind-of, because when Big Joe spoke yesterday about his da, I felt it too. I can’t say it but I can feel it.

The bells of the Angelus ring. It is time for morning meditation. I decide to dress carefully and to try to listen today. I find it very hard to hear what other people are saying, my mind whirs about like a jumbled-up washing machine, which is why they tell us to meditate, or medicate as Big Joe calls it. My mind gets louder in the silence and the sitting. I need to move and be surrounded by noise. I am more comfortable with shouting, than silence. This I something I need to un-learn apparently. It seems like everything I’ve lived with so far is wrong. It is wrong to feel angry all the time, to feel jumpy, to feel like you want to punch a hole in the face of the world. Although, the word wrong is wrong too it seems. The word is acceptance. And love.

I am the first today, and I kneel with all the crones in the big cold hall, and I look at Our Lady and think that’s what Ma looked like, before she met him. The room slowly piles up with half-sleeping men, who as soon as they are settled on their knees sleep again. Soon it is filled with the sound of shallow breathing and whistling. Big Joe is swaying in his sleep. He is twenty-five and looks about fifty. A fifty year old Womble, and I look around me at all the other wet-brained Muppets and I choke on a chuckle. A nun narrows her eyes at me and says, Shuuuuuuuush, and her fat lips look like two wet worms, and I laugh even louder.

“Leave,” she spits, “and say ten Hail Marys.”

I go to the canteen and have a cup of gloopy rancid coffee. There is a yellow piss-like stain covering half the wall. My stomach feels like its lined in acid, and I want to throw up. My shin is throbbing, where I hit it against Big Joe’s bed. I roll up my trousers and see a shiner, and I am reminded of the women in my house, all pretty in purple. I run my hand over the pink-red swelling and press down on it hard. A nun comes in and tells me I have a visitor.

“Your sister has come to see you,” she says.

I wonder why my sister would come to see me. I wouldn’t, if I was her and she was me.

My sister is twenty, exactly one and a half years older than me. She has big blue eyes and tiny fluttery hands. Dommo and Neill both fancy her and tell me they’d “do” her. I tell them I’d murder them first. I wonder will either of those assholes come see me here. I doubt it. So much for The Three Musketeers. Stick a fork in me I’m done fellas. This time I’m really done. Overdone, cooked, done-in.

My sister’s name is Beth.  I don’t know anyone else called Beth. Da told me it was Ma that called her that stupid name, and because he loved her so much he let her. He told me that it was himself that called me Kev, after his da. I never knew Kev Senior but Da spoke of him often with watering eyes. I was Da’s favourite. He never hit me, and he gave me money on the sly. He told me all his secrets when he came in stinking from the pub, and he was in a soft gooey mood. He’d wake me up in my bed and say “Son, I’d like to tell you all about how hard it is to be a man,” and he’d launch right into it. He’d hug me hard to him afterwards, and wet my hair with his tears.

So, today is the 17th February 2013. It means nothing to me, although the nuns are fond of telling us the date, the time, the place. They ask me when my birthday is… I don’t remember when my sister’s is either. I don’t think I have ever given her a card. Today I will ask her when her birthday is, and I will write it down. I forget everything, until sometimes I remember snippets now I’m sober, and I want to forget again. I feel some kind of extra whirling in my stomach. They are teaching us to “name” our feelings in here. Anxious, is one word for it, angry another and apparently – vulnerable, although I don’t really know what that means. I try it out. I feel vulnerable, and I don’t like it. It makes me feel small, so I settle for anxious.

“What about happy?” the lady asked me one day.

I see my sister through the round window of the waiting-room. She is wearing a blue dress with black tights, and is sitting on the edge of a plastic orange chair, ready to fly away. She looks like a tiny blue bird.

“Hi Bro,” she says, when I’m through the door.

“You look lovely.”

“Wish I could say the same for you! Jesus, look at the state of you; all skin and bone. What do they feed you in this place?”

“Carrots!”

“You’ve never eaten a carrot in your life.”

“Nope, and I’m not about to start,” I say imitating a rabbit with my two front teeth, and hands for paws.

She laughs, and looks at the ground.

“How’s Ma?” I ask

“Ah ye know. The same. She doesn’t notice much these days.”

And I think she hasn’t even asked about me, has forgotten all about me.

“I think she misses Da,” she says.

taytoAnd I think that’s right; there never was any room for anyone else. That hulking baby took all of her. I look at my sister and I can see something reflected in her eyes. That something in her eyes says “I’m not here, not really.” She kind of floats and disappears all at the same time, like a wisp. She has always possessed the special Power of Vanishing. I want to wrap my arms around her and say “I’m Sorry,” instead I pretend to be a rabbit again, and I say I don’t want to turn into Bugs, so I ask her,“Would you go out and buy me a six-pack of Tayto?”

That way by the time she comes back visiting time will be over.

And I fancy a pack of Tayto, I really do.

I notice that her right eye is twitching and there is a raised scar close to the baby blue, and I am back there in the kitchen and I AM HIM. I push her against the wall and punch a hole in the thin chipboard, and graze that eye.

I think she got in my way, or something.

My stomach heaves. It has shrunk and I can feel my ribs sticking through my checked shirt.

“Are they good to you in here?” she asks.

“Apart from force-feeding me carrots and broccoli, yeah!”

“Good, that’s good. Glad to hear it…Right, I’ll be off now. Crisps, anything else? Fags?”

“I can get fags in the shop on site here, just not Tayto.”

“Ok” she says and turns to go. I know that when she comes back there will be no time left, and so I say to her back,

“When is your birthday Sis?”

She turns towards me, and she looks like all the air has been sucked out of her, like vapour, as if she might evaporate, and I wonder will she come back.

“Yesterday.”

And I think ok, that means my sister’s birthday is the 16th February. I take out my pen and notebook and scribble the date. I can do that. I can write numbers and names.

“I knew that! Happy Birthday Sis. Hang on a second.”

I run to the recreation room and I take the clay model of a house I’ve been building. It’s wonky and tiny, and looks like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. I even put little blobs of clay for sweets all over it.

“This is for you.”

lisa

Writer: Lisa Harding

She says “Thank you” all formal and polite, and I think she is holding her breath, her shoulders are up around her ears and her face is going red. She does it too, I think, and I imagine her counting down from one hundred.

**********************************************************************

Lisa Harding came second in the Doolin Writers’ Weekend Short Story Competition 2013 and is currently completing the M.Phil in creative writing at TCD. She is an experienced actress, and has written plays for the stage including STARVING at Theatre503, AND ALL BECAUSE at BAC (as part of the National Theatre’s festival of new writing: Connect Four), PLAYGROUND at the Project Theatre Dublin. She is currently working on a new play OVERSPILL, for which she was awarded an arts council bursary and a Peggy Ramsay award. She is also writing her first collection of short stories.

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Niamh Boyce’s Blog Tour, all aboard!

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Photograph: Alan Betson © The Irish Times

Three months after the Irish Writers’ Centre inaugural Novel Fair in 2012 Niamh Boyce signed with Penguin and was on the speckled road to becoming a novelist in realtime. Today, as the book hits the shop shelves the author and the story are ‘trending’ on Twitter. The genesis dates back to May 1942 (though the story is set a few years earlier), a report in a local paper of a ‘coloured man’ arrested for serious offences against girls. Irish Times journalist Sineád Gleeson, who interviewed Niamh for the paper earlier this week, says the book is loosely based on a real court case and is all the more intriguing because it’s a work of fiction based on one small abandoned fact.

‘It concerns an exotic potion and tincture seller, who arrives in a midlands town and sets up a market stall. Before long the townsfolk, particularly the women, are beguiled by him. A strong cast – a prostitute, an ageing wife desperate for a child, two young girls who suffer similar fates – dominate a story that is sharply rendered, and full of dark humour,’ writes Gleeson. ‘Boyce perfectly captures the hysteria in the town’s see-sawing obsession with the herbalist. “The market in the real case was in my home town so I could really visualise him,” she says. “I also thought about [Arthur Miller’s play] The Crucible . . . about mob mentality and how a town can scapegoat someone”.

The novel is completely fictionalised, because she was fearful of “trespassing on people’s real lives”. The story is set in 1939, and examines the class structures of Irish life, and the sense of predestination that comes with being born into a specific background.

“That structure was still there when I went to school in the 1980s,” says Boyce in her Irish Times interview. “We were all still divided into groups according to whether our parents were farmers or shopkeepers. Emily [a young girl who becomes obsessed with the book’s title character] has no standing and is a nobody. When you live in a small town, before you’re born you’re ‘one of the Kellys’. The day you start school is a new experience, in a new place – but not to the nuns who teach there and know exactly who you are. The herbalist character represents what an outsider can do – he sees Emily in a different way.”

Emily has competition for the herbalist’s attentions. The women of the town – the women from the big houses and their maids, the shopkeepers and their serving girls, those of easy virtue and their pious sisters – all seem mesmerised by this visitor who, they say, can perform miracles. But when Emily discovers the dark side of the man who has infatuated her all summer, once again her world turns upside down. And while we can’t give away too many of the book’s Gordian knots, we can say that it is a magical tale with an ability to capture Ireland at a certain point in time without any caricature or causticity.

What began as a ‘few sentences’ penned in a creative writing workshop with John MacKenna, finished up as a 2,000 word a day bid-to-combat until the story was done. “My children were young and I didn’t have much time to write,” she explains, “But I found the time, often into the early hours of the morning and soon enough I had a first draft completed. When I heard about The Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair I decided to enter The Herbalist. I was lucky enough to win a place at the Fair with twenty other writers. I can’t say enough good things about the Irish Writers Centre’s staff and the way they organised the day of the fair, they were wonderful!”

The Sunday Times has called it ’an elegant morality tale about the inescapable strictures of women’s lives’ and Dermot Bolger has commented that the book is ’richly layered and finely realised … compelling’, while reviews elsewhere (Image magazine, RTE Guide and elsewhere) are glowing.

Niamh Boyce’s fictional debut – about a 1930s potion seller whose real business is a dark secret – captures small-town Ireland of both then and now…

The herbalistWhat we can say is that we are ridiculously proud of Niamh’s acheivement and are delighted to take part in her Blog Tour to celebrate the launch of this unique and beautifully written book. Here are three questions we put to Niamh about sustaining the writing life, living with your characters and ways to stay sane in the process:

Which character in the book consumed you more than others? In the beginning it felt like I was taking dictation from a quarrelling Greek chorus. I wasn’t sure which of the women was speaking or who exactly they were, let alone if they were telling the truth! So it immediately felt like there was mystery to solve, threads to unravel and I liked that.  But as I worked on, Emily’s voice became strong and she became the central storyteller, so if there was any consuming she did it!

Did you ever have any premonitions about being/becoming a writer? Never! I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember.  I still do! I loved reading, and read constantly but it never occurred to me that I could or would write a book myself. I don’t know why. I started ‘writing’ in 2008, when I fell in love with short stories, but saying that my old notebooks are full of poems and half poems going back to when I was a teenager. I just didn’t consider them as poems back then, not in a real sense.  So no premonition!

What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer? The ability to retain perspective is important, so that you don’t fall into the very real temptation to use writing as form of a semi permanent escape. There’s a life to be lived, people to be loved, worlds to be seen. (And you’ll need the material!)
It also helps if you love the process, if you love the very act of writing and the way stories reveal themselves; the way characters surprise you, and the very simple and wonderful fact that something exists that didn’t exist before.

Niamh Boyce is the 2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year and she has been shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story competition 2011, the Hennessy Literary Awards 2010, the Molly Keane Award 2010 and the WOW Award 2010. Originally from Athy, Co Kildare Niamh now lives with her family in Ballylinan, Co Laois.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Fiction, Novel Fair, The Herbalist

Doolin Short Story Competition – Third Prize: Valerie Sirr – Pete

doolinPete

He was beginning to notice a lot. Every light-reflecting surface in the hostel’s kitchen glared at him. The kettle accused him. The four cooker rings accused him. The shiny linoleum floor accused him. Get your own place. Why are you always here?

Viv, his care worker, flicked the switch on the boiling kettle lowering its rumbles to a hiss. Viv came twice a week to see that he went to work. He looked at her feet in her flat-heeled shoes planted on the black-and-white squares of the lino. He was often surprised by the presence of others – their weight, their outline, how firmly they were moored in the world. Nothing would pull Viv’s legs from under her. Viv knew where she stood.

He looked at his own white shins jutting out from trouser legs too short for his gangly limbs. ‘I’m a scarecrow.’

Viv laughed. She was all teeth and wrinkles. ‘You’re Pete,’ she said, handing him a mug of milky tea. ‘Pete Roberts.’

He gave her a blank look. She placed her hand on his shoulder. ‘Have you taken your pills today?’

He flinched. Then he nodded at her.

He covered his eyes with his hand to hide the vision of his morning capsules bleeding purple dye into the toilet bowl, same as every morning this week. Then he looked down at her hand resting squarely on his shoulder as if it were a part of some alien creature. He wondered why people were always touching each other. He stirred his tea. Viv always nagged about pills but he knew better than Viv.

She removed her hand. He watched it move across the broad expanse of her skirted hip as she turned back to the counter. He looked at the glossy skin on her solid calves. Black women had softer skin. The guys at work told him that. He liked the look of women’s skin. He liked everything about women. There were women in the supermarket, women in the street; women in cars. Sometimes they stood near him in a crowded tube. He would shrink from their touch but would be spellbound by a cluster of freckles, a single flyaway hair on a cheek, a tongue licking a lip. He would try to keep his eyes on the map of the underground, but he couldn’t. His eyes would fix on an earlobe, a smooth neck, a pillowy cleavage, until its owner moved away.

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He kept his head up as he walked down Pepys Road trailing one hand across the park railings. It was his fifth day without pills. The world was taking on a new resonance, vibrating like a film with the sound turned up. Frame by frame, he saw every branch of every tree, heard parting words in doorways, felt moved by the captured light. Everything was part of everything else. The wind, daylight, voices, his own edges thinning as though he no longer had a skin. There was a girl approaching; raincoat plastered against thighs. He flashed a smile at her startled face.

He walked on, smiling. He had graduated from Unit six of the Bethlem Royal to his own bunk bed at the hostel, and a job two mornings a week, and soon he would have a girlfriend. A car pulled up at the kerb. A woman got in, kissed the driver’s cheek, then they pulled away. He felt a rush of joy. He didn’t need drugs. He was sure of it. It was ages since that time in the hospital. Noises hurting his eardrums. The never ending table tennis in the common room, pock! pock!, the bedlam of TVs and stereos, pock! pock!, slamming doors and shouts, pock! pock!, the thundering of the tea trolley, pock! pock!, and Wednesdays in a tiny white room, where he sat in front of a psychiatrist, who sat in front of a wall-chart, which seemed to frame his head. He used to stare at the image on the wall, the fleshless head in coloured sections: cell,

brain, blood, bone, the white paper of the chart shining through the gaps between them.

‘Is that an actual person?’ he asked the psychiatrist once.

- Am I an actual person?

But he was sorted now. He had a job to go to. Pete, Pete, Pete. He shook his

head. It emptied for a moment then the voices returned.

pill2

The van waited for him outside New Cross station, its hazard lights flashing warnings at him. He decoded its white letters ‘SNUGFIT DOORS & WINDOWS’ against their flaky blue background. He approached and glimpsed Ray the driver then the squatting figures of Frank and Eddie through the open mouth of the side door. He climbed in, concentrating on Viv’s Tasks For Today. Smile and say hello. It was important to practice for tonight. He hunkered down among the huge rolls of fibreglass padding.

‘Hello Frank. Hello Eddie,’ he said, focusing on one of Frank’s Doc Martens and stretching his lips into a smile.

Eddie nudged him with his foot. ‘Shut the door, Pete.’

‘Right mates. Peckham today,’ Ray shouted over his shoulder and started up the engine.

He watched Eddie offer a rolled cigarette to Frank. Frank took it between thumb and finger and sucked in deep. ‘Just what the doctor ordered.’

He saw Frank’s head jerk in his direction. ‘A bit radio rental.’ Frank winked at

Eddie.

He looked away from them, his eyes irresistibly drawn to the congealed paint splashes on the van’s floor: a woman’s face in profile, a woman’s hair, flowing. Silhouettes jumped out at him then retreated. The world was coming at him in fugitive

shapes. Outlines formed on the misted van windows and in the exhaled jet-trails from

Frank and Eddie’s nostrils. He shut his eyes.

He practised listening to Frank and Eddie. Listen actively. Frank and Eddie knew about things.

They knew about women and football and politics. He looked at Eddie. Eye contact. ‘I’m meeting my girlfriend later.’ He jumped. His own voice felt sudden and loud.

‘In your dreams, mate,’ Eddie said, laughing.

He thought it was definite. But when he was sure about something he would begin to see it in a way that made it something else, then something else altogether, then his first thought would vanish before he could get hold of it again. It was his thinking disorder, his ‘cognitive dysfunction’ Viv called it. Organise your thoughts. Football, he thought. Favourite teams. Contribute your ideas. He looked in Eddie’s direction. ‘Arsenal played good last night.’ He got ready to say it again.

Eddie snorted. ‘Arsenal! Crowd of old women could beat Arsenal!’

A girl on a red mountain bike followed the van. She was close to the back window now and he could see the sheen of her wet cheeks. Her fringe was dripping rain and she was blinking. ‘She’s not old,’ he said. ‘She’s nice.’ He imagined she was a girl in a club and he was snogging her as if he enjoyed it like the guy in Eastenders. The van pulled away again.

He forced himself to look at Eddie. ‘Manchester United are definitely good.’

Eddie wasn’t looking at him. He was saying something about blind old women now and Frank was laughing.

He laughed too to show that he got the joke. He visualised last night’s sports page in the Evening Standard. Wing-backs, four-four-two, flat-back-four, sweepers. He tried to grab unto the words but they were leaking through the gaps in Pete’s brain. He hated Pete. ‘Outside-left,’ he muttered, ‘forward-centre, four-back-flats.’

He felt his brainwaves taking up the rhythm of the music from the van radio. Totten-ham, West-ham, Chel-sea, Ar-se-nal, he mouthed silently.

Pill3

They dropped him back at New Cross station at lunchtime.

He stood by the entrance trying to make eye contact with passers-by.

He squinted through windscreens at drivers heading east for Lewisham. He would tell Viv about his morning. How he had practiced all his social skills and how Frank and Eddie had let him seal up cracks with strips of draught excluder, Eddie measuring it out for him, Frank’s drill drowning the voices in Pete’s head that said Pete, Pete, Pete.

He saw Viv approaching and raised his right arm carefully. ‘That was a good wave wasn’t it?’ he said when Viv was in front him.

‘That’s right, Pete.’ Viv reached up and took his arm down. ‘Not so stiff though, okay?’

He gave a solemn nod and walked down the noisy street along with Viv, remembering to keep his head up. He looked back at the station. ‘Let’s go to Ted Baker. I want to get trousers in Ted Baker.’

They passed a building site and he was distracted by the sight of a man high up above them in the box of a crane. He’s on his own up there, he thought. Toblerone, out on its own, a jingle from the van radio sounded loudly in his head. He heard Viv saying something about budgets as she led him into the charity shop. He saw the name over the door and was distracted again. It reminded him of a word from one of Eddie’s jokes. A word that rhymed with Oxfam. ‘Jam,’ he said. He wasn’t sure whether he had spoken. Sometimes his thoughts were echoes, sometimes his words were thoughts and he was surprised to hear them repeated. He stood in front of the counter. ‘Eddie said to put jam on my shoes and invite my trousers down to tea,’ he said to the man at the till.pill4

In the toilets of the Coburn Arms, he checked the buttons on the fly of his new jeans. He missed the small screech of a zipper pulled firmly into place. He washed his hands then stood in front of the condom machine staring hard at the bright yellow sticker in case it had a message for him. The red letters snapped into focus: Release-any-jammed-coins-using-reject-knob. He pressed the knob three times then he shrugged and walked away. Back in the lounge, semi-circles of people were collecting by the bar. A queue waited to be served from steaming dishes behind a glass counter. He stood beside Viv.

Viv handed him his well-thumbed brochure. He stood staring into the distance. He turned it in his fingers. Viv ordered him an orange juice. The woman beside her took a sip from her drink and left a crimson lip-print on the glass. Viv moved and stole his view of her. A large woman sat in one of the chairs lining the room, flicking lint from her skirt. Bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep, he followed the sound of the cash register to decipher its signal. On another chair a man sat in a solemn trance, fractured occasionally by a smile.

He tried to smile too.

The slam of the till drawer made him jump. He held the brochure in front of his face. The letters were hopping on the page but he knew the words by heart.

‘Club-night-at-the-Coburn-Arms-the-comfortable-surroundings-of-the-

upstairs-lounge-bar-with-leather-covered-armchairs-make-it-very-easy-to-get-to-

know-people.’

He murmured this to himself, keeping his eyes on the illustration of the lounge bar. It looked real. Organise your thoughts, a voice told him.

He felt Viv touch him on the arm then she turned to speak to the barman. Leather covered girls. A girl stood by the food bar. Her face curved against the collar of her jacket. Her skin shone as if there was a light behind it. She smiled at her friend. Her face lit brighter when she smiled. Her friend had mousey hair and a hard, shut-in face. Her hostile glances met his stares in mid-air making him blink and lose focus. The bright-faced girl had a lot of sounds in her voice – sometimes light, sometimes low, sometimes like chocolate. She smiled. Smile and say hello. He saw himself chatting her up like on Eastenders.

‘Alright, Pete?’ Viv spoke to someone.

He tried to stop thinking. Sometimes Viv saw his thoughts.

Viv moved away and he watched her disappear through a doorway nearby. There was a tiny silhouette of a crinoline lady on the door, like the ladies on the covers of Viv’s Mills & Boons. She grew as the door swung shut, slowly, as if she was coming towards him. A man came out of the Gents and the door swished closed along with the door of the Ladies. Two small figures danced on the doors, swinging through gaps of bright light: a crinoline lady twirling, in a swish of billowing skirts; a silhouette man, advancing, coat tails buoyant on a current of air. Romance. Happy endings. Viv’s stories.

The girl was definitely smiling. The air between them was sparking with smiles.

He put his glass on the bar and approached the girl and her friend. His vision was playing tricks with him. They were nearer to him than he thought. ‘I’m not

drunk,’ he told them, ‘I don’t drink.’

They were tall and thin and almost touching him. Now they were small and fat and far away. He heard voices again. Red letter day. Listen actively.

The girls turned their heads away from him. Reject knob. He could not hear what they were saying. ‘You don’t look real!’ he said loudly. ‘Do I look real?’ He saw that they couldn’t hear him either, and he stopped. He wasn’t sure if he was speaking or thinking.

He bent closer until his face was inches from the girl’s. ‘Sometimes I see things. Do you ever see things?’

The girl wasn’t smiling anymore. She was moving away with her friend who was dragging her by the arm. A circle of people opened for them then the circle closed again. She was unreachable now, like his own self.

He saw the barman approaching. His stomach tightened and the tightness gripped his entire frame. He navigated his way unsteadily through the lounge, the faces of the guests looming like faces behind magnifying glass.

Inside the Gents he swung on the door of a cubicle. One by one, the voices shouted at him until they were all clamouring at once.

He turned on all the taps. He pressed down the stoppers. He leaned against the washroom wall watching the sheeting water, his back against the cool tiles, his outstretched right hand periodically pressing the steel disc of the hand-dryer.

He kept his left hand over his eyes and hummed loudly to the drone of the machine, drowning the voices in white noise.

He stayed like that without moving, losing all sense of time.

pill4

Occasionally, the bright mouth of the Exit swung open, slipping shadowy figures

towards him from the murmuring crowd outside.

When two of the figures advanced, a half-voluntary movement allowed him to peer through his fingers. He was surprised by the man standing in front of him and by the smell of Viv’s flowery perfume.

His brain, empty of thoughts, registered the rough feel of a blanket against the back of his neck and something sharp pricking his arm.

The familiar cadence of Viv’s voice made him want to sleep. The man’s hoarse voice answered her. Their sentences made no sense. He watched them peel his wet shirt from his arms. He felt a second prick in his arm.

He watched the man replacing items in the open metal box: syringes, needles, several phials.

Viv showed him a piece of crumpled paper before folding it carefully into his jeans’ pocket. The girl’s number! He tried to locate his voice.

Viv reached up and fixed the blanket around his shoulders. He felt its settling weight gathering him in, locating him. He saw his reflection in the mirror, outlined by the grey blanket, standing out against the white tiles, the white tiles standing out against him. He felt the weight of Viv’s hand on his arm, and he felt his own weight against the wall.

He walked outside with Viv. He felt the floor through his soggy trainers. It was dark out at the bar. He blinked to adjust his eyes to the shadowy figures – yawning, stretching; searching for coats. Viv went to get her coat.

He pressed his fingers against his pocket. He reached inside. There was no paper. Fluorescent lights flashed on overhead. He searched his pocket again. It was empty.

He sank into a torn seat near the door.

He stared at the dull yellow paint curling from the walls. He saw the cheap poster advertising the evening’s menu Sellotaped to the door. The shifting of crates behind the bar battered down the silence in his head.

He covered his ears with his hands. He stared at the faded red swirls of the carpet.

Viv’s solid feet swam into focus. He slumped against the stained leatherette. ‘Viv.’

She put her hand on his shoulder. He gripped it.

He held on tight. His voice shook. ‘Viv, I’m Pete.’ he said.

val***********************************************************************

Valerie Sirr won third prize in the inaugural Doolin Short Story Competition in association with the Irish Writers’ Centre. She has published short fiction and flash fiction in Ireland, UK, US, Australia & Asia. Publications include The Irish Times, The Sunday Tribune, The New Writer, The Stinging Fly, The Wisconsin Review. Some poems are forthcoming in anthologies from Revival Press, Ireland. Awards include 2007 Hennessy New Irish Writer Award, two Arts Council of Ireland bursaries and other national and international literature prizes most recently a flash fiction award (2011) from The New Writer Magazine (UK), judged by British poet and writer Catherine Smith. Valerie’s flash fiction appears on the National Flash Fiction 2012 (UK) website. She holds an M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches creative writing and blogs on writing: www.valeriesirr.wordpress.com.

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Filed under Doolin Short Story Competition, Doolin Writers' Weekend

Cinnamon toast on the move

cinnamonFor the next three weeks Novel Fair winner Janet Cameron is taking her newly-published (and fab) book home on tour around Canada. The story is set there, so Janet is a little more nervous than usual and we just can’t seem to convince her they’ll love the story as much as we did! So…we’ve decided to publish some of her blog-thoughts during this three week stunt in blightey. The book is a fantastic read, the characters are well-rounded and believeable, the story is about a multitude of funny and serious things, from house parties to pick-up trucks, cherry-vanilla ice-cream, sexuality and unrequited love. A la blurb: ’Welcome to the spring of 1987 and the world of Stephen Shulevitz who, with three months of high school to go in the small town of Riverside, Nova Scotia, has just realised he’s fallen in love – with exactly the wrong person. Welcome to the end of the world. As Stephen navigates his last few months before college dealing with his overly dependent mother, his distant, pot-smoking father, and his dysfunctional best friends Lana and Mark, he must decide between love and childhood friendship; between the person he is and the person he can be. But sometimes leaving the past behind is harder than it seems…Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is a bittersweet story of growing up and of one young man finding happiness on his own terms.’

It’s a coming-of-age, coming-out, come-tither-and-look-closely-at-my-world-if-you-dare story that isn’t afraid to tackle hard topics such homophobia, bullying and parental abuse.

We are *big* fans of Janet’s at the Centre, and not just because she got drunk with us after the inaugural Fair (!), but because she’s sparky, bright, fun, positive and simply good to be around. She also happens to be a very good writer. The book is published by Hachette Ireland in March 2013, and is available in Canada now! We wish her all the luck in the world with her book. Here’s a snippet from Blog Post One. Expect more over the coming weeks (and yes, we have asked her permission!).

I raced through it, found it hard to put it down when I had to and wanted more when I was finished….Her prose gets more elegant the further you get in and, the further and further Stephen gets into what he sees as the end of his own personal world, the more you genuinely care for him and the screwed up kids and adults that populate his world….It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if someone were to option this for a film….page-turning, top drawer stuff in the genre it lives in….More please. – broadcaster Rick O’Shea, for the Bord Gais Energy Book Club, April 8, 2013

May 7, Dublin, Ireland, 8:00 a.m.

Okay, today’s the big day. Of horrible travelling. Dublin to London, London to Toronto, Toronto to Emonton, with two hours in Heathrow and five in Pearson. But it’s all worth it, dammit!

Boredom may drive me to report on the wonders of international airports on two continents. Will boredom drive anyone to read it? If your name is Nettie Morine, perhaps. Hi, Mom!

*****

May 8, Edmonton, Alberta, 11:00 a.m.

Well, over a full day later, I can report that two hours really isn’t that long of a time to spend in an airport, especially one with such thorough, and…um…disturbingly intimate security procedures as Heathrow. Getting onto that connecting flight was a bit of a stressful rush, but nothing terrible happened and no one was injured, by me anyway. On the long and uneventful journey to Toronto, the teeny speakers fell out of my in-flight headphones and I couldn’t be arsed asking for a replacement – however, I did have fun reading the capsule descriptions of the films involved, and now think that “As Bella awakens transformed into mother and vampire” is probably one of the most delightful dependent clauses I’ve ever encountered. I read Brian Finnegan’s new book Knowing Me, Knowing You, about a group of Abba fans reuniting after 30 years, and found it to be an excellent travelling companion and a very engaging and emotional read.

toastIn Toronto’s Pearson airport the sun set behind us in a deep haze of orange as I watched a fellow passenger loudly berating the employees of an A&W outlet for not providing enough ketchup to suit his needs. Parachute Club was on the sound system, Tim Hortons was very much in evidence, and I was surprised to see that our currency is now threaded with transparent plastic and that the latest incarnation of Elizabeth II bears a faint resemblance to Chico Marx. Also the internet access in Pearson is kind of poo. Otherwise it was a Jim-dandy five hours, and another four flying off to my destination. I started Mary Grehan’s Love is the Easy Bit – very impressed so far.

I arrived in Edmonton at around 6 a.m. Irish time, roughly twenty-one hours after I set off from the apartment waving goodbye to husband and cat. Dazed, drooling, and barely coherent, I awakened the next morning transformed into mother and vampire. No, actually. I just awakened, ate some strawberries, got reaquainted with my 16-month-old niece and wrote this update. Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is in stores in Canada now, which is still difficult for me to get my head around. If you see the book, please tell it I said hello.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, competition winner, Irish Writers Centre, Novel Fair

Angela’s Cash is…

pocket-homo-sapiens…back in Ireland. Well, some of it, anyway. A few weeks before my trip to Dublin, I received word that I was slated to receive a grant from the German Science Foundation to study the impact of Homo sapiens on the decline of the Neanderthals in Spain’s Basque Country.

I have to say, disbursement of public German funds to an American for this type of work seemed quite illogical, given the sorry financial condition of so many European countries. Recent advances in DNA testing have proved that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred far more than we civilised humans might care to acknowledge, but lavish government spending on this type of useless research is precisely the kind of waste Germany seems intent on rooting out elsewhere in Europe. Why on earth would they pay me for this? I’ve cohabitated with a Basque Neanderthal man for 25 years and I would have been happy to tell Angie everything she wanted to know. For free.

neanderthalFirst off, if there’s anywhere Home Sapiens were hula hooping with the Neanderthals late in the game, it’s the Basque Country. Just look at the Basques: They lift boulders for sport. They brag about their direct lineage to Cro-Magnon man. And on our first date, my husband grabbed me by the hair and dragged me behind a stone wall. Our interspecies relationship has been a challenge over the years, but we at least had the benefit of marriage counseling. Way back when, disputes were resolved with a clubbing to the head. Which pretty much sums up why the mixed relationships, and hence, the Neanderthals, were doomed.

Alas, German disbursement was too efficient and once that cash was in my pocket—even if it did arrive via our small rental flat in Spain via a German archeology PhD student—I decided it had to be redistributed back to the country most in need. It was a close call among the various contenders, but according to the New York Times: Ireland is still grappling with high unemployment. Domestic consumer spending has been slow to pick up. And the government remains burdened with the staggering debt that it took on to recapitalize the country’s banks.

So, my friends, that is why Angela’s cash is coming back to Ireland.

Here’s a little breakdown of where her eiremarks went. I think she would be pleased.

A lovely housing estate in Sligo. I bought it sight-unseen at a fabulous price and boy, are my friends in America going to be jealous when I tell them I have an officially haunted Irish mansion. Although I’m not sure why there are no windows. Or doors. Or walls. I’m assuming that the construction equipment is there to finish it up. Like the developer promised me.

Twenty gorgeous photographs from an industrious flea market photographer who assured me that he would report the cash and the income to the government so as to not receive any more dodgy unemployment benefits, and, to contribute his share of the tax levy. Now, just as soon as I get those walls up in my estate, I’ll have something to hang on them.

A gluten-free, dairy-free, horsemeat-free dinner for a couple with infant twins. Making babies in Ireland, as evidenced by the country’s historically low birth rate, is obviously very hard work. So why not support the endeavors of these lovely people who had managed to make two, all in one go, without any help from the state. As I said, Angie would be pleased. See how very hard working the Irish have become? No wonder she was so eager to help Ireland exit the bailout. (Nota bene to the Irish: the Germans took 92 years to pay off their global debt so please, stop fretting about your 30 year term. Your mistake wasn’t nearly as bad as theirs).

Museum1

The Irish Jewish museum. Surprise! My family is invited to The Gathering. July, 2013. I doubt we’d be tracing our direct DNA here but hey—guess what: You really can be Jewish and Irish. In fact, over the years I’ve noticed the Irish and the Jews actually have a few things in common, and I’m not just talking about the monopoly on guilt or the occasionally near-debilitating inferiority and persecution complexes. Both groups also lay claim to having invented the phrase “beyond the pale” and to one Mr. J.C. from Nazareth, since the records show he lived at home with his mother until he was 30.  Near where I live is a deli/pub called The Star and the Shamrock—and go on—I dare you to come up with a better way to celebrate these two besieged cultures than with Jewish food and Irish drink. German reparations officially ended in 2010, but I couldn’t resist feeding a wee bit more German cash into this institution. It really is a lovely little place; evocative black and white immigration photos, a beautifully preserved 19th century synagogue on the top floor, and, my favorite, favorite newspaper headline ever:

Nazi group quits Ireland as it’s not quite fascist enough!

Unlike the rest of this post, that’s the only thing I’m not embellishing.

Honestly, how can you not admire a country that simply can’t be arsed to be viciously mean?

airport busOnce, when I was waiting for the airport bus—despite the fact that it had stopped at this very spot every other morning­—the monitor indicated no airport buses were arriving in the next 45 minutes. And I had a flight to catch. When I asked the driver of another line if he knew where the #16 bus might be, he told me to hop on so he could run me into town so I could grab another bus. We then had the obligatory where are you from where have you been here’s where I’ve been in the States conversation, all while he greeted each embarking and disembarking passenger with a remarkable display of good cheer and familiarity. All in the frigid 6:30 morning darkness.

I could go on in a cheesy way about the infectious kindness of people here, the friendliness of the Irish, the willingness to step out to help a stranger, but you all know all of that. That goodwill is generally valued over efficiency. That a one hour meet will stretch out into seven if the situation calls for it. That people here focus more on enriching souls than their own pocketbooks, in a multitude of ways.

So Angie don’t you weep, you’ll have your balanced balance sheet.

Ireland may never be the economic powerhouse that Germany is, but the good people of Ireland are working.

Just not the way the Germans do.

And for that, we can be grateful.

Diana FriedmanHUGE THANKS to Diana Friedman who took the time to write four fantastic blogs for us in recent weeks after landing at the Centre last summer! It was a delight to meet and get to know her. We’re also delighted to learn that she has just been selected as Artist-in Residence for the Spring Catoctin Mountain Artist-in-Residence program and will be giving a free writing workshop at the Urbana Library in Frederick, MD as part a fabulous afternoon  of art making if you’re in the US of A neighbourhood! Diana’s work has received several awards, including being selected as a finalist for the Howard Frank Mosher Fiction Prize, a top 25 pick for Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Contest, third place in Bethesda Magazine’s Annual Short Story Competition, and as a finalist in Sport Literate’s essay contest. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications, including Sport Literate, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Whole Earth Review, the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek, Bethesda Magazine, Stone Highway Review and the Legendary, among others. An excerpt of her novel will be published in a forthcoming anthology of Washington, D.C. writers, Defying Gravity, available from Paycock Press in 2013.  www.dianafriedmanwriter.com and to keep up with her newest writings or hang out with her in cyberspace, you can *like* her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/DianaFriedmanwriter or follow her on Twitter @Dfriedmanwriter

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Filed under Creative Writing, Feature Writing, Guest Blogger, Irish Writers Centre, new writing, writing