Thursday, February 13, 2014

How to be a man

Last year, I was honoured to be asked by Colum McCann to take part in the launch of his non-profit project Narrative 4 and to write 800 words on the first assignment: "How to be a man."

My take on this is below and you can read pieces from other writers and find out more about Narrative 4 here:

Last night was 86 nights. I know it’s 86 because of the row of dents in the wallpaper. The first dent is deeper because it’s in the squashy patch, under the windowsill. I always make the dent before I cover Betty’s ears, even though I know she can’t hear because they’re made of fur.
I keep thinking Mammy will see the dents when she changes the sheets, but she hasn’t changed the sheets. She changed the sheets every two weeks before, but maybe I’m remembering wrong.
The day Mrs Taylor catches me sleeping at school I don’t know I’m sleeping until I’m awake and the other girls are laughing because of the wet on my cheek and my copy. Afterwards, I have to stay back.
‘How’s everything at home, Grainne?’ It’s Monday so she’s wearing her beige jumper and brown blouse. Her breath smells cigarettey.
Lisa went on ahead to tell her Mam to wait for me and I hope they do because it’s raining.
‘How’s your Mam?’
She nods. ‘You’d miss not having a man around.’
In the car, Lisa’s making faces at her brother but I don’t join in because I’m thinking about what Mrs Taylor said. At home, I start the list:
1.      Drive the car.
2.      Fix things.
3.      Mow the grass in the summer.
4.      Make her laugh.
5.      Give her money.
6.      Put the bin out.
I think that’s everything, except for sleeping in her bed and I have my own bed. The car was taken away after his accident and nothing needs to be fixed and it’s not the summer. 
That leaves the laughing and the money and the bin.
I’m no good at jokes, I’m always forgetting, so I learn the ones in the back of Whizzer & Chips by heart.  That night, I try one.
‘How much does it cost to keep a polar bear as a pet?’
She looks at me as if I’m far away, even though I’m only on the bed.
‘We’re not getting a pet, Grainne.’
‘It’s a joke, Mammy. Guess!’
She shrugs.
‘Nothing – they live on ice!’
I laugh. She smiles and says ‘that’s funny,’ but her smile doesn’t go as far as her eyes. I try another joke in the morning, about walruses. She calls me a joker. She doesn’t laugh.
Thursday is bin night.
In the dark, the garage is scarier because you can’t see the spiders. The handles of the bin are too far apart. When Daddy lifted it, he made it easy. I imagine he’s there, giving me super powers of strength. When the bin falls over it makes a big crash, and I think Mammy will come in and give out but she doesn’t hear it.
Tonight, is night 87.
The money slides in my shoe. The pointy corners where it’s folded, catch in my sock. I didn’t want it falling out of my pocket. I imagine Mrs Taylor saying, ‘Where did you get that twenty pounds from, Grainne?’ and my face going red and everyone knowing I’m a bad girl. And I’m not really, I don’t want to be. Anyway, Lisa’s Mam still had four twenties left.
Daddy always left the money in the kitchen, behind the windmill from Holland, but I can’t put it there, so I sneak into Mammy’s room. The smell is like Daddy, but not like Daddy, and I know it’s because the laundry basket still has his socks and shirts inside. The black patent bag she’s used every day since the funeral is on the floor. Her purse has a zip and it sticks but then it’s open.
That night, tucking me in, she gets into bed with me and Betty. She’s already crying. She still has her shoes on. It’s squashy and hot.
‘I need money, Mammy. For school.’
‘We’ve got swimming tomorrow. It’s £1.25.’
Swimming’s not for two weeks.
‘I’ll leave it out later, love.’
‘You might forget. Please, Mammy.’
She pushes herself up, wipes her face. The mattress goes down like a valley and then flat. I hear her in her room, opening her bag. I think I hear the zip getting stuck but I’m only imagining. When she comes back she has a pound note, two ten Ps and a five.
‘There.’ She wraps the coins in the money and puts it on the chest of drawers.
‘Thanks, Mammy.’
She kisses me on the hair. She’s stopped crying. She must have seen the twenty. It must have worked.
After she turns out the light, me and Betty lie there, listening to her on the landing, the stairs. We must have fallen asleep, because then I’m awake, and then I hear her.
I find the right place on the wall, dig my nail in.
I cover Betty’s ears.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Hurry Up and Wait...

I don’t like waiting.

I don’t like waiting and I’m not very good at it. I don’t have a lot of – what’s it called again? – patience, that’s it. I don’t have a lot of patience.

People are sometimes surprised to hear that. Some people have even remarked on my patience, praised me for it. That makes me feel good, when that happens, it makes me wonder if maybe I am patient after all. But just because I can fake it, just because I can keep smiling while someone ahead of me at the Subway is swiping their Metrocard five times to get through the turnstile, doesn’t mean I’m patient. It doesn’t mean I’m smiling inside.

Patience, waiting – these are not things that you associate with living in New York. It’s the city that never sleeps after all, everyone is doing something. Diners, shops even hairdressers stay open 24 hours a day. Trains glide into the station as you jump down the final step onto the platform. The guy in the deli on the corner makes your sandwich exactly to your specifications in record time every time – and everyone else’s sandwich as well.

In a city like New York it’s easy for the little grammes of patience that you possess – that I possess – to somehow flitter away.  I notice it in little things, silly things – two people in a queue for the bathroom at Starbucks means I’ll leave and find another one. A train in ten minutes means leaving the station walking the seven blocks to the express stop.

Sometimes, over dinner, I’ll tell my partner about these little details of my day and she might laugh. She might ask why I wouldn’t just wait for the train, point out that it will take almost ten minutes to walk to the 96th Street station anyway, so I’m not really saving time.

            She has a point, I know that. Still, I try and explain it to her: how walking to another station is doing something and doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing, better than waiting. I explain it all as best as I can, but she doesn’t really get it.

Sometimes I don’t get it either.

            Today, right now, right this minute, I am waiting. I am waiting for my publisher to send me through the final copy of my latest novel to proof read. I’ve been waiting all week, or maybe more than that. Maybe as soon as I hit the ‘send’ button and my copy edits were winging their way through cyberspace, maybe my wait began then. Right now, it’s 11am here in New York which means there’s only another hour to go in Ireland before the business day is over. And if I don’t get an e-mail with the proofs by then, the rest of my day will be pretty free and I’ll be waiting for another whole weekend.

            At this juncture, I need to point out that there is no urgency for me to receive this proof copy today. The novel publication date has been moved until June so we have more time. More time is good: more time means we will catch more things on the proof copies, fewer chances of mistakes, more time to find the exact right shout line and tweak the blurb for the back of the jacket. More time, in fact, is what I’ve wanted all along, I was asking my editor for more time last summer, last autumn, last month. And now I have it, I want it to hurry up and pass, but instead, I have to wait.

            This week – this wait – is what’s really made me think about all this, my patience or lack of it, what it’s all about. I started to see how obsessively I was checking my e-mail, skimming over mails from friends and marking them ‘unread’ while I searched for my editor’s name. Before I get out of bed, I find myself reaching for my phone, something I usually never do before I meditate. And twice this week, after yoga, still in the glow of Savasana, there I was, plucking it from my bag, pulling down the screen to refresh my inbox even though it’s past midnight in Ireland.

            On Monday, I talked to a friend about it – a fellow writer and a musician – about this waiting, this obsession. Rather than make suggestions about how to get my editor to reply quicker or fill my time, she said something else - she asked how I was feeling.  We were standing at the Subway station at 14th Street and it was freezing. I dug my hands deep in my pockets. We didn’t have a lot of time, it was too cold to hang around. I wanted to tell her the truth, but it wasn’t sure what it was. I thought it about it and I guessed – I said it might be something like sadness, it might be something like loss.

            Under her big fur hood she smiled a nice smile. She squeezed my shoulder, hugged me. “You’re grieving,” she said. “It always happens to me when I finish something big. Have you never felt it when you’ve finished a book before?”

            I thought about her question the whole way home on the train – the express train that I’d taken rather than hang around for the local, even though it would bring me closer to home. And I thought about it waiting on the lift in my apartment building, as I checked my e-mail.

Four days later, I’m still thinking about what she asked me –writing about it now – to dig these feelings up, prise them out, so I can look at them more clearly and find out exactly what they are. And I’m remembering my other books, the process of finishing and how that rolled straight into the chaos of publication – into PR and promotions and parties. And I’m thinking that in all of that, the whirl of that, that these feelings – grief is surely too strong a word? -  got lost, got buried, got hidden. And that being hidden isn’t the same as going away.

It’s coming up to twelve o’clock. She’s not going to send the proof today. She may not send it on Monday or Tuesday either. She has other authors, other books, other deadlines after all. There are other people who are waiting. It’s not just me.

A month ago, two months, seven months ago I would have looked at this future version of myself with a free Friday afternoon in New York with envy. In August, when I spent Saturdays at the library while my partner was at the beach, in December, trudging past the Christmas lights of Bryant Park market after a day of work to begin an evening of edits, I would have given anything for a day like today. A day that I can spend doing my own thing, with real people, rather than characters I made up in my head.

What I am about to write next makes me scared that you will judge me or think I am crazy, which is exactly why I know that I must write it. The truth is that I miss them – those characters in my head. I miss their stories, their lives. I miss the timbre of their voices and the scenes we created together. I miss Rhea Farrell, my feisty seventeen year old protagonist. I miss the way she sees things around her and the things she doesn’t see yet, and that only I know she’ll see things differently in a few months, or a few chapters or a few pages.

 Maybe that’s okay, to miss her – to miss them. Maybe that’s part of it. And maybe it’s okay to feel scared too, about what might happen to them next when the book is published, about whether critics and readers and friends will like them too. Maybe that’s what this waiting is for and maybe all of it, every single bit of it, is okay.

I’m going to finish up there because it feels like the end and because I have a Friday afternoon free with not all that much to do. I’m in Starbucks and I need to use the bathroom before I leave and I’ve decided that no matter how many people are in the queue, I’m going to join it. And I’m not going to check my phone, or check my watch, I’m just going to stand there, breathing.

I’m just going to just wait.