In the first of a new Irish Writers’ Centre members & alumni series we are publishing the first chapter of James Lawless’ novel: Finding Penelope. It is essentially a love story marking a growth in self-realisation in the protagonist Penelope Eames. It delves into the drugs culture and its associated criminality in Spain (where a lot of Celtic Tiger money wound up laundered), Ireland and the UK. “The prompt for the novel was from Cervantes (I have Spanish in my degree) and a motif may be interpreted as a sort of modern day parallel of Don Quijote’s attack on the proliferation of romance novels of that time,” says James. “As seventy per cent of readers are now female, I wanted to understand more of the female mindset. So I picked the brains of women I knew, including two adult daughters and researched contemporary women writers and books like Everywoman and I re-read with new female (or at least androgynous eyes) my well-thumbed de Beauvoir, Anna Karenina and Portrait of a Lady. Simultaneously, I was studying the crime culture on the Costa. The result was the character Penelope Eames”.
James has won many awards for his poetry and prose, including the Scintilla Welsh Open Poetry Competition in 2002. His first novel Peeling Oranges (2007), a paternal quest set in the Liberties of Dublin and Franco’s Spain, was highly praised by Gabriel Byrne. He is also the author of two other well-received novels For Love of Anna (2009) and The Avenue (2010), and an acclaimed study of modern poetry Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world (2009). A debut collection of his own poems Rus in Urbe was published in 2012. He is a freelance writer and editor who has worked with The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, Sunday Independent and Poetry Ireland Review. You can contact James via Facebook, Twitter, or through the Contact page. You can also find out more about James at Goodreads, on LinkedIn and on his Amazon author page or James | Irish Writers Online and James Lawless at The National Library of Ireland and James Lawless – Wikipedia.
She hears the voice on the sand, gravelly and authoritative like that of her father’s. Press the button and reject, that’s me, she thinks, Penelope Eames, that’s how I feel, or rather how I’ve been made to feel over the years, by him. Oh yes, the former esteemed professor of Histology and Morbid Anatomy with textbooks and learned articles to his name, who couldn’t teach compassion or filial love. The early Spanish sun is lulling her, making her mull over things, things that she had decided belonged to the past now, to another country. The top of her left breast is burning slightly, the new red bikini being skimpier than her usual black swimsuit (she should have thought of that), and then the skin is more sensitive there after submitting to the knife. It was Sheila Flaherty, her agent, ironically who had suggested she go in and get the implants – her breasts were an average size. ‘Good for your image,’ Sheila had said.
She was reluctant at first, considering it a vanity to don the anaesthetic mask to undergo an inessential butchering of oneself (she never even put a tint in her hair, for God’s sake). Sheila had had the job done a year ago, transforming her into the well-upholstered blonde that she now is. And for what?
It was then they discovered the lump in her left breast. Quite young for that, the nurse had said, and Sheila tried to make a joke of it – ‘you’re the lump out and I’m the lump in,’ and the nurse taught her breast awareness.
She hears the voice on the sand, the smoker’s huskiness reeking of pseudo-wisdom; he thinks he is the cat’s miaow. ‘Not at all, my dears,’ the voice (clearly English) is saying; ‘on the contrary, chewing your nails is good for you; rich in protein you know. If I could reach my toenails, I…’ Men, stupid old men, but maybe there is a humour there – who can account for taste? She looks up coyly from under her straw hat to locate the provenance of the voice: that elderly guy a few yards away with the silver ponytail sitting under a huge parasol in the canvas chair. He is holding forth with a bevy of young sycophantic beauties – just like him. Trying as he is to be youthful looking like a born-again hippie or something out-of-date, just like him, the slate blue eyes, her father to a T.
Except of course for the ponytail.
The fine fawn-coloured sand she slides freely between her fingers, letting go, easing her life. She is delaying. The sun has made her lazy. She should be gone back to the quiet of her apartment to work on that recalcitrant second novel, before the sun reaches its zenith. She knows that, and to avoid the sunburn. There is a sound of laughter. She can just make out through the rising waves of heat: grinning young males (is the broad bronzed chap one of the lifeguards? She thought she saw him earlier on his perch) and two females among them playing volleyball as she gazes up into the sun from under the awning of her hand (for she has removed her sunhat which was chafing her forehead). She hadn’t noticed the net before. There are shouts in Spanish of ‘Anda’ and ‘Ole’ subsuming the elderly guy’s utterances. The young men, in a veil of light and heat, are laughing at a monokini-clad girl who has just missed the ball. The putdown. What always emanated from her father. She wanted him to be proud of her as he was of Dermot, her younger brother, when he started on his science degree. Oh, such voluble praise. A scientist in the family. Mixing chemicals and potions in Quinlan’s Laboratories. How right, how prophetic he was. And earlier her first book which she stuck at, she was sure he’d be proud of; she was hoping - her first novel to be published - but all he did was wonder if anything could be done about it, her writing that is, as if it were one of his studied pathologies.
Her right arm is going dead from resting on her side. She turns. Svengali of the bitten nails is calling the girls in from the sun. They are gabbling in different tongues – mainly Russian she thinks – among themselves, and in strained broken English to him. ‘You’ll sizzle up, my dears, out there.’ She can see him clearly now as he looks this way and that, his ponytail bobbing like a pendulum. And the girls come running. And he sits on his chair like a king on his throne, his harem in the shade at his feet, and the blonde who had been playing volleyball without her top - the shameless hussy. It’s a different matter to lie prone demurely in a topless state, Penelope convinces herself, with the towel on the ready to cover for any required movement, but to flaunt oneself in such a manner at sporting males, and he talking about fingernails… really! The girls are ignoring the taunts of the volleyball boys to come and play; they’re concentrating on the mature man, positively drooling over him. Is he some rich dude? Is that it? They’re after his money, or maybe he’s a powerful film director - the chair after all in its canvas making could be interpreted as directorial. They’re looking for parts; that’s it, to be made famous in his next film. And the chrome-haired lecher pulls at the string of the nearest girl’s bikini bottom.
Her father always called for Dermot, never for her when he wanted something, whether to announce or to confide, he made his bonding with Dermot. Dermot, the scientist, the proud son, the drug addict – pick the odd one out. Oh yes, Father did not know. In a moment of pique and green-eyed envy, which occurred of course when he called for him, she thought of telling her father, of releasing the cat from its miaow as it were, and of revealing to him what his whitehaired boy was really up to all those purblind years. The cocaine habit that started after their mother’s death at the in-set college parties, the social round ofDublin’s elite (some of whom less canny are reduced like Dermot now ironically to the gutter). The mutual admiration society was what she called it, of all that talent and intelligence of neophyte lawyers and doctors and dentists and financiers, and scientists, a veritable whirl of brilliance in a newly vibrant country.
But he called for him, at the first sign of failing, for this junkie. It was like a dismissal to her, a rejection to one who had been tending to his needs all along.
All those needs. All along. All those demands. All her life. The best years.
And the last time Dermot came - Penelope had found him with the help of the drug unit in a down-and-out place: a lane, she can’t remember the name of it – Crow’s Lane, that was it, strewn with bottles and syringes and faeces and a pungent stench of urine which was trapped in the narrow street by overhanging buildings, so that, she mused, junkies would find their way home like animals by following their own smell.
Sometimes she wished her pain on both of them for all the years, not of material neglect - she was never left short in that regard - but for all the years of indifference. It must be the cruellest of wounds to inflict on someone, she considered, to do something unaware of or indifferent to the harm it would cause: to impose on one a habituation to worthlessness.
But – and she looks down at her wriggling toenails like a chorus to her thoughts – she is not worthless. She is a writer. She wrote to stitch the wounds, to seek affirmation from other sources. The great world out there.
She had her first story published in a teen magazine. ‘Shows a lot of promise,’ the editor had said. The story was about an orphan girl. What else could it have been about? she realises now looking back, indulging the warmth of the Mediterranean sun at its zenith now (cajoling her to linger). And then her first novel several years later, Smelling of Roses, a romance about the unfulfilled yearning of a young woman until she met the dark foreigner on a beach just like this one, feeding into what her father deemed the frenzied imaginings of impressionable females.
Men, she muses, as the waves beat rhythmically (she will venture into the water soon; she is sweating; she can feel the drops meandering into her cleavage). She was able to give up her job - her last job where she’d worked as a temporary tour guide in aDublinmuseum, after a previous disastrous sojourn in a bank and an earlier stint at Telesales. She had wandered through an Arts degree but did not know what to do after it; had no one to guide her. ‘Any dolt can get an Arts degree,’ her father said, and that was the end of it as far as he was concerned. In contrast, she remembers some of her college friends with their careers mapped out for them by doting parents; the sangfroid of those young women, she marvelled at, as single-mindedly they pursued careers in the media or the diplomatic corps or later appeared in the society columns marrying some rich lawyer or dentist.
She bought an apartment on the Costa del Sol on the recommendation of Sheila (‘Such a romantic country’) from some savings she had, abetted by the royalties of her first book and the advance for her next one. A sequel, well not really, but in the same vein, more of the same, that’s what they said, don’t change a winning horse. Another love story maybe with a bit more umph this time, yes that is what they said. She could afford to be more daring in this second one – it is the twenty first century after all, Sheila said, as if Penelope were not aware of that. Not exactly a bodice ripper no, we’re not looking for that, but quality of writing and candour of expression, those are the things we are seeking in a novel for the independent woman of today, who is not afraid to venture forth et cetera et cetera. But there is a problem this time: Penelope’s mind is in a flutter. After all, the first novel had been completed before her mother had died and before Dermot really went downhill. A mind needs, if not a stability, at least the semblance of it to write. She is thirty three now, and has to think of her future. All the time previously, because of her father’s conditioning of her (she blames that), she thought not of what she wanted but of what men demanded. But not anymore. Better not to have got hitched at all than to painfully suffer afterwards as her mother had done – such acrimony, and she was a witness to it all. Penelope Eames had run the whole gamut of negative emotions before she left her teens, and without having to put a foot outside of her family home.
She feels a palpitation as Mr Nails folds up his chair to make his departure. It’s like she’s missing him already in a sick sort of way, her father who is waning now, she has to admit, no matter what. She is afraid of loosening chains. Wanting and fearing at the same time. How had she come away? In what manner? The stubborn defiant Go if you must of his followed by the demented Where are you off to? And he refused to go into the nice nursing home in Booterstown which she would have arranged. To let someone else look after him, to take her place. But he would have none of it. Always winning the moral battle, to make the guilt hang on her.
Mr Nails has folded up his chair, his flapping gaudy shirt revealing a Brillo pad of hair on his tanned high ribbed chest. He is moving away, the line in the sand filling in already from the mark of his chair as his seraglio disperses.
She must get back too. She will forego the swim. But how can she write? She has lost the thread. She does not know where Dermot is, her only sibling, her kid brother. She thought it would be easy, just a matter of coming away to leave such preoccupations behind her, but it’s not so easy, she realises now; for such thoughts can travel too and can find their own berthing. Dermot started his disappearance act after their mother’s death; he would vanish for days, for weeks on end, and then reappear out of the blue with his dirty laundry and expect her to skivvy for him, while he chilled out, just as she did for her father. She was caring towards Dermot; she accepted it in the beginning with her mother the way she was. Even to know where he is, no matter what travail he may be going through, it is self-inflicted after all. But it would be a relief; it would put her mind at rest, just to know he was all right, still on the straight and narrow where she had tried to place him before she left, for she could not in her heart have abandoned him callously in the condition she had found him in Crow’s Lane. She brought him to the drug recovery unit on Merchant’s Quay before he realised where he was going, driven there, she remembers, to the repugnance of the taxi driver. After a few days with her cajoling (the strain of it she still feels), and on a course of methadone, he slowly improved. She spruced him up in a tie and suit, got him a job, not the big scientific position, no, none of that now, but part-time work in a Supervalu off-licence. She knew the manager there who had worked with her in Telesales. It was all a rush but at least it was something to keep him off the streets before she departed forSpain.
The day she was leaving, she gave him her mobile number and her forwarding address.
‘You’re fucking off on me,’ he said trying to make her feel bad, just like their father had done.
‘If you ever want to come over…’
‘Ha.’ The sneer.
‘I mean it, Dermot…’
But she didn’t mean it, she knows, as she looks out on the crystalline water.
No, she is not settled here yet despite the apparent tranquillity of the surroundings: the rolling hills, the lenitive evening beaches sufficient to provide the balm but not the longed-for obliteration. But she is only a few days here after all; one must give time a chance to exact its healing powers. Her skin has hardly changed colour; she is still pasty-faced. Who used call her that? Dermot yes, pasty-face, he used to say, and he ironically always more pale than her. She intends to stay a full three months, at least, what Sheila had recommended. And who knows she may stay longer. Who can tell? She may even stay permanently; after all who wants to go back to what she had left behind. But a full three months gestation period is needed to make inroads into a novel, Sheila had said, thinking it was her only reason for her move to Spain, for Penelope never revealed the intimacies of her family to her. Once that initial foray has been got over, Sheila told her, it can all be tidied up in gloomy old Dublinduring the dark autumn evenings. And ‘the bleak midwinter’, Penelope adds mentally, finding masochistic consolation in the sadness of a song. And she looks now at the Spanish sky and is dazzled by the light. But – and a panic seizes her – she has made no encroachment, not even the slightest indentation on that carapace of the imagination, and nothing to constitute the happy ending de rigueur for her publishers. ‘God knows,’ Sheila said, ‘there is enough misery in the world, without adding to it in our imagination. Write that blissful ending first, and then go back and recount the obstacles.’
So what am I to do? she wonders. What are the obstacles to happiness?
Her own life now.
She can’t be worrying about Dermot. He’s what? Twenty five years old for God’s sake this June, a full quarter of a century. And yet the words: ‘I want out of it, I want out of it,’ which he kept repeating in Crow’s Lane are haunting her now, the cry of his, rebellious but hopeless it seemed to her, that time she met him sprawled as he was in the slimy alley, calling out to the world that he wanted to get off. Oh, will he relapse into that state again? That is the fear that is haunting her. And, as for their mother, where was she during all of this filial malformation? She was on a metaphysical journey of her own incapability through a fug of alcohol and self pity. An unloved woman, a woman scorned, the cruelty of the words hurled at her by her overarticulate spouse. How can one be overarticulate? No, but overendowed with the bad words, the cutting words, the saw words that fell one. A woman betrayed many times, and she looks towards the sea and a girl dipping her crimson toes in the water’s edge. Betrayed by his fawning acolytes who frequented the professor’s room in the hope – in exchange for some momentary fleshy transaction – of summa cum laude in the examination. All done and dusted behind closed doors in those pre-PC days. She saw one such creature with her own eyes the day she went to summon her father when her mother had taken an overdose of analgesics – they didn’t kill her of course but they were an alarm bell. She remembers the rumpled girl, freckled blueeyed, blushingly exiting, straightening down her skirt. Young enough to be his own daughter. To be her! And she remembers the monosyllabic dismissiveness of her father, ‘What, what is it?’ as she entered; the decoy of tidying his desk, lifting documents and placing them down in the same place again. ‘Why did you not contact the secretary with such matters?’ ‘The secretary? About Mam, Daddy?’ Did she not realise how busy he was, or could she not wait till he got home? Was it really that urgent? Not the first time. Not the first time, he repeated, that she had abased herself in such a manner. And there was an uncharacteristic dishevelled look in him too, she remembers, a brylcreemed hair out of place, hanging tellingly over his high brow.
A volleyball lands near her, tossing up sand, forcing her out of her reverie. She hears Spanish boys shouting, ‘Bravo’ to a good smash. And as she stares, here he comes, the lifeguard (it is he) towards her, that handsome, young man in his cornflower blue togs with their yellow side stripes, and that quiff of raven hair falling like a wave so… so sexily over his right eye. He is what? in his late twenties, thirty at the most, just right for her to snatch him away if only in her imagination. She sighs as he stoops to retrieve the ball so unhurriedly, so maturely, unlike so many impatient young men, such as… yes, such as her brother. ‘Lo siento,’ he says. ‘It’s all right,’ she says understanding the phrase. ‘It’s quite all right.’ She smiles but is conscious of the tremor in her voice. And someone shouts, ‘Ramón,’ and he turns answering to the name.