Category Archives: Cancer
Bro, you haven’t bothered getting in touch since you died a year ago today. In my head … the barmy idea that you still look like a slab of Edam and that I never got to say goodbye. The chipmunk breeder Alice you shacked up with in terminal time, when Duck Arse left for a pub bouncer with a metallic four–by–four, has now lost over six stone, inspired by the story I guess. Alcohol & gluten free; she’s even ditched the sloppy pillow burgers in blood sauce, the ones from your holiday pics when you told us, ‘Bad days are in the post but for now it’s business as usual!’ Half the kids, the older ones, are fine. Edel is on her way to becoming a science buff in London even though, well c’mon, we must be honest here, you expected her to be a hairdresser or something low-key but Christ has she started to fly! Saul is taller than you ever dared imagine, as if when you went skyward he did a Jack & the Beanstalk to get you back down again. At sixteen it was more than he could bear. I’ve kept all your emails, eyeballing them from time to time.
Driving to France on Saturday with the kids just for a long weekend, Paddy cancelled his summer camp in York with the scouts so he could come and yer one is a complete cunt (Sorry, I just had to add that). Really looking forward to my first holiday with the kids only and staying on a campsite near Calais so a short drive will be better to contain Princess Lara’s immense puking skills. Saul & Edel are making their own way, old enough to travel solo would you Adam & Eve it? Booked a three bed mobile home this time so we are all a little excited! Divorce is ready to go, Duck Arse admitted in writing to adultery. How are you and your pet mice? And why 10 months off the booze?
Etch-A-Sketch of a year where I still ride the blanks and hope no one in the library notices. I set off most days with Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel playing in my head. Out past the squiggle of purposeless shops and homeless men who nudge their heads up like broken birds from splintered eggs in the basement of the church, and on to the Tolka Bridge where an orange city fox once followed me in the first draft of morning. Conversations become cataracts of sorts. ‘Wouldn’t it bite the toes right off ye?’ a woman said at the bus stop in October. ‘I can’t be doing with this heat!’ the same woman said the following summer. Only then did I realise so much time had slipped by.
I’m booked in to see the oncologist at 9.30am Monday morning to discuss an action plan involving chemo and some new drugs on trial. I’ll take anything that’s going if it means squeezing a few more years, if possible. Remaining focused and positive. It was a hell of a shock for everyone as we were all expecting a routine operation and the surgeon was pale faced explaining to me why he could not operate. I will know more Monday afternoon. Been one mad year or what?
Aul ones on buses constantly bitching about fluoride in water, men in pubs, chemicals in clothes, joyriders in cars. It’d do your bake in. Aside from the militia of junkies in Phibsborough, idiot bankers, gym bunnies, people who tie terriers outside Tesco, absolutely nothing in Oirish suburbia changes. They’re still slamming car doors, hauling kids to over-priced crèches. Sometimes, stupid I know, I find myself getting jealous of the ones who stayed and did it all by the smug pudgy book … bought houses with the charmed approval of grannies and aunts and far-off oil-owning uncles in Australia, purged children into the world and who now stroll through parks laughing their freshly-washed heads off, pull perfect shepherd’s pies out of high-gloss ovens, who know what they’re about, really about,, what they were planted here for. Little girls with springy curls, tubby-bellied boys full of, ‘But mammy look!’ and ‘Daddy look!’
I think if we hadn’t of gone to London, you know, if we’d stayed and done it properly, rewrote the late eighties, jobs in IBM or IDA or any abbreviation of anything that would pay the way to a Semi-D and a bit of stability. But over you came and I was never stable anyway! Kipped on my couch, slept with nearly all my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so you said, me being your little sister, I had to go in the boot!? God, yes, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver, ‘Turn left now!’ and ‘Turn right here!’ even though I couldn’t see a damn thing.
A year later we lived in Jersey where you worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires who’d travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers and get pissed all day. ‘She was the worst barmaid ever!’ you told the chipmunk breeder Alice later. It’s true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in London’s east end. Your stunt as a cappuccino salesman was a dreadful failure but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house, every night was a party. When I was at uni, you ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. Two kids with the first wife (but she had great thighs!) and later, more disastrously; it was round two and another two kids with Duck Arse and her litany of hell. Your snooker buddy Darren told me before the funeral. He told me it all, out in the back garden with a stack of San Miguel. I wanted to bash your head in for keeping it all a secret. I wanted to dig you up and kick the crap out of you for never letting me know how bad it all was.
‘I can’t have another disaster,’ you told him, ‘I can’t lose my kids again.’ Water meets its own level, our ma used to say, but your women were never bobbing anywhere near your level and somehow all of it must’ve dragged you down.
I drank water before I went in. ‘I would recommend it, Madam,’ top hat man said and you would’ve laughed at the whirring fan receptionist with the bovine ankles whose job it was to spray disinfectant when no one was looking. Viewing chamber the size of a High Street dressing room: yoghurt stale & browner than a bum moon.
A dance with neutrons and protons. That’s what I imagine it is for you now. Sliding up and down wallpaper. Watching us in our daily drudge. Can you see me and the other women working in the library? We all pretend to get on, but aside from readjusting each other’s hormones into an assemblage of demented bitching and chocolate splurging, we’ve bog all in common. The building is Georgian, a carved wedding cake, crafted cornicing, walls of tedious green and piercing yellow, corridors cropped in spiderweb wigs where the elderly shuffle through to read or snore or attend ‘literary readings’ upstairs. Almost everyone who strolls in wears glasses and carries a spiked umbrella. There’s a small cafe in the basement that serves tea, fair-trade coffee, tray bakes and ham sandwiches made at the curvature of dawn by an old crooked cook who reeks of rotten lilies. I always meant to show you around.
In the quiet clammy armpit of early afternoon I’m haunted by the grammar system we made up as kids – berry nide – a kind of warning system for people who might do us wrong. He’s not berry nide. But you’re berry nide. No, you’re nider! You’d already been through it by then. Bogeyman in a house, up mountains, on holidays. Oh he got a mass said for you afterwards, your own special mass, how’s about that! Dirty hypocrite, cheddar cheese chin of a wife, curse their life! Mass to make themselves feel good, exonerated, whole. No one speaks to them anymore. Not that we can make sure-fire connections. Medicine is a long way off that kind of jump.
Thanks for your long email and words of advice. Yeah, I was happy and loyal and Duck Arse is the most horrible person I’ve ever met and I care not a jot about her now. Saw her today when I dropped the kids back. Still not allowed in her tiny house whatever that’s about? I just felt relief. The look on her face on Sunday was priceless when she dropped Lara & Paddy off. I told them in advance not to eat as I was cooking a Sunday roast on the phone the night before. I could hear her howling in the background, ‘But your Dad can’t cook!’ like, even at this juncture, she still wants to put me down. When they got dropped off Lara ran back out the front door screaming at the top of her voice: ‘Alice is here with her chipmunks and she’s cooking, not Daddy!’ Duck Arse’s chin hits the ground and she boots off like a rocket drive on Top Gear. Yet I know she’ll poison their heads when I’m gone. The older ones will be fine, but try your best to sort the younger ones. You are welcome here any time, nice spare room with a new double bed. I’ll pick you up at Stanstead and spoil you rotten while you’re here!
Hubby-One-Day will be up soon, singing in the shower, shuffling after me in the kitchen, soggy, smelling of boy spray. He talks about you every time there’s a football match, especially when Liverpool is playing. ‘The hell he gave me!’ he says. ‘He called me blue and white shite!’ Still hasn’t the energy for his own divorce, but like Duck Arse, yer one is living with someone new: A, B, C, D: to the soulless it hardly matters. Hubby-One-Day makes me curtsy for him in my Victorian nightdress in the mornings, up and down the kitchen, crab sideways, around in circles, a slice of McCambridges’ toast in my gob. Hey, it’s the little things!
The town peacocks, de geezers, your Hawaiian shirt Jägerbomb mates, the ones you told (only towards the end) what happened, they never did smash up the Bogeyman when it was over. Somehow it didn’t feel like you to insist they would. That bit jarred with me. There was rumour, conjecture, but a great big nothing happened. No grand retribution. No staged revenge. Instead your friends stood in a line outside the church, over half a mile long, hands behind their backs. I’ve never seen such colour, ever, even though the colour has seeped from my life since. Aero & acid blue, amber, blush and violet. A woman head-to-toe in cameo pink. Duck Arse and her gombeen family. First wife and the older kids too. All there. Who knows where Bogeyman was, but at least he wasn’t invited. His vile-denial Catholic wife, a headless woman struggling to gawp out her own body, forgetting she no longer has eyes. You don’t need me to tell you, especially at a time like this, but people like that, they’re not berry nide. Not nide at all. But you? There just couldn’t be nider. No one in this giant shit heap of a spinning world is nider than beautiful gone you.
Three months since my brother died, laid out in his naff crocs & Hawaiian shirt, coffin stuffed with kid’s presents in a flat-pack funeral shed whiffing of piss, ulcers, Airwick and necrotic tissue. Since then there’s been a number of misadventures: his mate was found dead in the Orwell river a month later, an early morning gynae plunge from a doctor in Cathal Brugha Street after bleeding for a month (stress, it turns out), low-blood pressure blackout in the Botanics, an easily forgotten triptych, frenzied attack from a phlegminist with duck eyes, drink binges with a purple cauliflower and an unpleasant encounter with an S&M coked-up oily intellectual I mistook for a friend. All of it: a dance with neutrons and protons. The kind of weird shit ghosts probably do with each other. Grief is not what I imagined it would be. Some mornings I wake up kicking like a frog.
Days when I cannot slink out of bed at all. Ceiling seals me in and I crave the very thing that’s set to ruin me. Lanky spiders dangle as doom so often does, perilously, timidly, lowering and hiring like arcade claws.
I didn’t see my brother for months on end as he lived in the UK but I always went over for New Year, booking a flight around now. This year it’ll be early-February for a fund-raiser to pay for his headstone. Everything and everyone in the ever meantime is getting on my tits. Junkies sucking jam at the ATM, flat cap aulfellas snailing on crutches smelling of tobacco and cabbage, gym bunnies, crusties who tie terriers to the trolley train outside Tesco, colleagues talking incessantly, cultural crusaders who turn up to events blah-blahing for litre dollops of free wine, nosy neighbour frog-sprawling the compost bin to scavenge for news, backpedal/backtrack/capsize, geriatrics sky-diving into scones in the cafe. Isn’t it well for them, long life!? Remembering how shit and old and thin and tumoured my bro looked, dead in his 40s, neat little blood clot at the end of his nose where they’d drained him. “Madam, would you like a glass of water before you go in?”. Will I ever forget that day, limping into the cheap shit-arse industry job-lot of death, intestinal stench, tiny lobby where the receptionist filed her nails, fan buzzing on the desk, being led through a door to a pencil-case line of collapsible booths – one open at a time – other refrigerated bodies waiting for family members to park-up. Back home in Ireland, the witch in the off-licence around the corner counting the bottles of wine & winking, headless woman struggling to goo out her own body, forgetting she no longer has eyes.
I walk out past the squiggle of purposeless shops and homeless men who nudge their heads up like broken birds from splintered eggs in the basement of the church, and on to the Tolka Bridge where an orange city fox once followed me in the first draft of morning, calling me a slut.
My head has been [and is] a tin of mushy peas. As of this week I’ve told friends to piss off till mid-2013 and have dived back into the novel. It’s about junkies squatting above an abandoned bank in D.7 who get mixed up with the Russian mafia. There’s a rake of Band-Aid fleeting characters; Beamer the old tramp with no veins. Hasslebat, his ginger eyebrows lighting up hot worms in a snow of forehead. Widearse Wendy: ‘Scuzzz me scuzzzz me scuwizzzzmeee. Do you want me to be like you? Is that it, do you want me to be like fuukin’ you?’ There’s end-of-rope junkies all over the city and everyone’s ignoring it in literature. Writers are still concentrating on haybarns, finches, the country-girl’s lightening exit to London, angry farmers and the phasing out of EU quotas, lonely men sitting on Calor Gas barrels in winter! That’s the global impression of Ireland in books. There are amazing Irish writers like Kevin Barry who are beautifully pissing about with form, with language, Mike McCormack’s dazzlingly strange short stories, Mary Costello’s quiet collection of small agonies. Few are writing about Shit City with the exception of maybe naff detective novels. I grew up in the city so I feel compelled to write about it. I was a Mod at 14, roaming the streets when the first heroin users were struck down with AIDS, that sliver of time when girls were still sent to laundries but the morning after pill was just available if you knew where to go. This novel is about Gonzo & Carol and their Jack Russell, Phib, a story of second-generation drug use, turgid love, the grisly struggle to survive. It’s grim, hairy, stupid, and it’ll be told from three different points of view. I’ve no idea if it’ll work but am determined as hell to give it a good go. Here’s a [wee taster!] on how they got together, part of the back story late in Chapter One:
The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said, out loud, pissing himself. Pains fostered out elsewhere, he felt boundless, happy. Met her roight here with a gang of inner-city boys from de flats around Dominic Street, drinking cans and dancing to U2 songs on a ghetto-blaster sometime in the middle of 1994. She’d weight on her then, chubby sweet smile, horse-tail of hair whooshing from end to end in de sunbeams. They kissed for an hour without stopping: wet balmy tongue slosh he’d never done with any other bird. Sometimes he still felt guilty, but Leather Joe said, ‘There’s no stopping some, and ye never forced her to take it.’ The counsellor from NewPaths also explained that ‘damaged people have a knack of stumbling on one another no matter what, in the way that water always seems to meet its own level.’ It made sense that first time they tried to get off it together. Both their dads were alcos and bashed them. Both their Ma’s couldn’t see anything wrong with their Da’s, and bashed them. Few weeks later, they fumbled and gorged and slopped into one another under the flat-leaf bushes in the Gardens. ‘What ye doin’ to me boy, wot ye bleedin’ doin’ to me!?’ Lads circling the railings, clutching chimps, uuumphin’ them on. ‘Slapper! Do her one!’ Afterwards they said Gonzo was a right grunter, like those fuckin’ mating seals on RTÉ. ‘It’s you and me babe, no-one else babe, you’ll do me babe.’
Nuala O’Faolain terrified me. I met her in May 1997 at her home in Ranelagh for a student interview. “You’re ‘too sensitive’ to make a go at journalism, too wide-eyed for shitheads in a newsroom,” she concluded, after just half an hour. Her family history had parallels with my own and despite the fact that she was completely intimidating, we somehow clicked. She scoffed a sausage sambo and laughed at me for being vegetarian. I was obliged to throw sticks at Molly the Collie and admire the ‘Victorian blue’ paint on the sitting room walls (sourced by her lodger Luke from a stately home in UK). Her grand plan was to live out latter days “writing about other people’s cats & dogs” in a cottage in Clare. Three hours later she drove me home in a battered car that could’ve belonged to a learner driver in Wexford and not a woman whose book Are You Somebody? was topping the best seller lists worldwide.
When I sent her the typed interview she thanked me by dumping a cat in a basket on my doorstep with a £20 note & strict instructions where to buy ‘Sandra’ a hysterectomy. ‘Anyone who wants to be fully human should own a cat,’ the note said. I zipped around to Tesco on Baggot Street, turning the nice crisp hysterectomy dosh into a bottle of bacardi, fresh pasta & some scented candles. Sandra got duffed by the lesbians-in-the-basement’s ‘Felix’ and three years later, while Editor of a revenue magazine, I emailed her to come clean. She called me ‘despicable’, saying I was the worst type of person there was. Nuala’s emails were hilarious, often sad, always sickeningly candid. I was forever chuffed to hear from her, even when she told me not to have kids, that I’d make a lousy mother (and various other insults): ‘You can’t even look after yourself or a cat, imagine what you’d actually do to another human being!’ Another email read: ‘Perhaps an interesting job isn’t your destiny June, so boredom and sexual frustration will force you to write fiction.’ Every few months she’d write to ask me how I was, without fail. Her messages were always packed with funny little nuggets of advice: ‘Don’t go to male shrinks, they’re even worse than ordinary males.’
In 2002, she agreed to be my ‘referee’ for a Foundation Course in Psychotherapy at the Tivoli Institute, Galway. ‘After you’re done there, there’s a place in north Belfast that does great training at weekends, you’d be a brilliant counsellor, I’d go to you, just don’t ever ask me for a writing reference’. It transpired I was way too neurotic for counselling training and Nuala changed her mind about a writing appraisal when she read a feature I wrote for the Sunday Business Post. Once again she ended up as rent-a-judge, this time for an MA in Creative Writing at Queens’ University Belfast in 2007. ‘You will soar, eventually, but the effort will probably kill you,’ she said. After she died I wrote an article in The Guardian which I think would’ve surprised her. Last night when RTÉ aired Nuala, a profile by a cherished friend, Marian Finucane, I dug out the original interview I wrote 15 years ago, which I’m pasting below. Bear in mind it was my first attempt at a journalistic profile (it’s written in the present tense of 1997), so some of the language is manuka-sticky, but a few worthwhile insights survive.
Relations between men and women are in an awful state. The old world is dead, but there’s no new world yet, we don’t know what to do or which way to go. There’s young-ones with money taking over Temple Bar and old Dublin, Joyce’s Dublin, is dissolved into paltriness. The whole point to Dublin was that it was accessible, shabby, alive. People wandered around it all day. Now they go from A to B, spiritually impaired. The wandering has stopped and mass exodus towards apostasy has begun.
This is what Nuala O’Faolain feels today, 11 months after her book Are You Somebody? was released. This arresting memoir, by a dedicated controversialist, presented itself by pure accident and topped the best seller list for 20 weeks in 1996/7. The book indwells itself in the public and private life of Ireland, so much so, that Nuala herself is stunned at the emotional episode it has created. People wrote to her from Trinidad, Australia, China, Chicago, and even from a trekker’s hut in Nepal, to offer her images of themselves in response to hers. In an unpublished extract called ‘Afterwords’, she writes:
‘I never envisaged such cherishing. When I called my memoir Are You Somebody? it was largely to pre-empt the hostile people who’d say, at my writing anything about myself at all, ‘who does she think she is?’ I never imagined awakening something a bit like love.’
She was asked by New Island Books to write an introduction to a decade’s collection of journalism articles. She felt it was impossible without chronicling some fundamental aspects of her life. She had no intention of ‘writing a book’, rather the lengthy introduction was an unavoidable resolution to a complex and lacerated childhood.
‘Trying to live and push as much life into myself,’ is Nuala’s motto. “Sensation and feeling, that’s how I want to live. I want to really live. On the other hand I can hardly live because I am missing all kinds of skins that enable other people to live fully. I’m 57, but it’s as if I’m 17, trying to learn how to be happy. Yet sometimes I feel it’s not happening, because I’m the only person who knows about me.”
Her cat Hodge is so like Patrick Kavanagh it’s not funny! He has the same cynical pissed off expression and he’s a begrudger. I imagine PK’s eyes were as strikingly gold on occasion, when he woke half dead from alcohol. But Hodge doesn’t indulge in the ‘wrong’ kind of drink or write poetry. He’s a misanthropic feline, with attitude, Nuala adores him, despite his mucky personality. “I bought him off a sinister man for £150,” she explains. “They’re both the same, they don’t have very good personalities…ah sure Patrick had his good days too, like when he’d win on a horse and want to share everything with you!”
In her UCD years, Nuala shared a flat briefly with Patrick Kavanagh, who used to piss and groan out the doorway in the mornings. Dublin was dark and dramatic then…Noël Browne’s Socialist Party met regularly in Moran’s Hotel to discuss the future of Ireland. Students sat around Bewleys, scoffing potato pancakes, discussing ideas for short stories. Nuala spent many a night drinking bottles of Vintara in Leland Bardwell’s flat in Leeson Street, writing bits of scripts for Radio Éireann. There was an unselfconscious scattering of ideas all over the literary Dublin of the time. You were assessed in terms of yourself, and warmly welcomed if you fitted in.
In 1958, while studying English at UCD, things did not always run smoothly for Nuala. At one stage she had to drop out of University and work in a hospital kitchen in London. When she returned to Ireland, Mary Lavin gave her an allowance for six weeks so she could resit exams and finish her degree. Shortly afterwards she read ‘medieval romance’ at University of Hull and eventually secured a scholarship for a B.Phil in Literature at Oxford. After she graduated she taught English Literature (briefly) in Dublin, before moving on to the BBC in 1970.
She produced outlandish and stimulating programmes: protesting pornography with the Queen’s gynaecologist, querying religious sects that buried their prayers inside batteries at the San Andreas Fault, chronicling personal problems of Yorkshire transsexuals and a documentary on the Bogside Community Association. Yet she was never au fait with any aspect of her emigrant life. She became increasingly desolate and disaffected in the UK, to the point where she had not choice but to return home. The year was 1977. The same vigour that hauled her through those early years, was bulldozing her towards inescapable crisis. She signed herself into St. Patrick’s Hospital as a full-time alcoholic, addicted to tranquilizers, desperate for help. It became apparent that she had to go right back to the beginning of her life, and start again.
Nuala O’Faolain was born in 1940, in an era of art deco, when Cat Woman first appeared in comics, when faulty condoms were made out of sheep’s intestines and UFO sightings were reported on a world-wide basis for the first time. It was the same year John Lennon and Frank Zappa were born, and Scott Fitzgerald and Emma Goldman died. Irish ‘O’Faolain’ is a diminutive of ‘wolf’ and is among the fifth most numerous names in Ireland.
In 1939, Tomás O’Faolain joined the Irish Defence Forces, spending most of his spare time writing to his ‘chroidhe dhil’ (Nuala’s mother) with details of moving his young family to Donegal. The following year he cycled up to Dublin from Dunree on the Inishowen Peninsula to greet Nuala at the Rotunda hospital. Her mother and father were desperately in love. By the early 1940s, Tomás had metamorphosed into the auspicious Terry O’Sullivan. He began his journalism career by taking the ‘Radio Train’ to Killarney for Radio Éireann, and his ‘Dubliner’s Diary’ column for the Evening Press. His ostentatious career and social life, took him further and further away from home. Mrs O’Faolain, glorified wife and onlooker to numerous extra-marital affairs, began to feel totally cast aside. Increasingly, she sat in her armchair in the kitchen to drink and read. “This is how she chose to eventually die”.
Nuala attended seven schools in total, during these early years, when she lived in a farm-labourer’s cottage in North County Dublin. She was hauled off to boarding school in Monaghan in 1954, when puberty became ‘a problem’. There she nurtured her love of reading, and fostered an urge to learn. ‘My life only began when I learnt to read,’ Nuala once wrote. And she read everything she could get her hands on. Saul Bellow, Alice Munrow, Chekhov, Keats, Dacia Maraini, Dermot Healy, Joyce, Eoin MacNamee, Montherland, Richard Ford, Kaftka, Racine, Jane Eyre, Robert Lowell, T.S. Elliot, Shakespeare, Kawabata. For too many years novels were all Nuala cared about. She has read a book every few days of her life without fail. In later life, she sees the characters of decades, gathered around her, to keep her company.
“When I get on in age, I’ll have to write novels,” she insists. “Sure what else can I do here? I’m here on my own all the time: you can hardly call that living. I will go and live in Clare full-time and write my books, crammed with characters, men and women & other people’s cats and dogs.”
Her input in broadcasting has been sedulous and when she returned from England in the late 1970s, she took a job at RTÉ, producing the Open Door and Booklines programmes. Journalist Jonathan Philbin Bowman debated many issues with Nuala over the years, but states quite clearly that his various opinions of her don’t always fuse: “Nuala is a very fine writer, equally capable of great sensitivity and occasional near sanity. There are times when she is not sure herself, how to bridge that gap between intellect and passion. But overall, she is consistent in the amount of human compassion she shows people.”
Nuala joined the Irish Times in late 1980, following a conversation she had on radio with Gay Byrne, about elderly Irish women. Today, she is a highly respected columnist, who writes about all miens of Ireland in a unique, manifold way. Angela Bourke, writer and lecturer summed up her journalism in the following way: “They are essays that have urged us over the years, to pay attention to the weave of the society we live in, weft as well as warp. She notices always the threads that run always: the lives of women, of children, of quiet men, the hurts inflicted and forgotten or suffered and remembered. Class politics, gender politics, power relations. These are her particular themes.”
Some find her writing uncomfortable because she insists on adjusting to a certain understanding of how things really are. A certain amount of people recoil when truth flails around so unselfconcsiously, other embrace her honesty as if it were a long-awaited benefaction.
On Poverty: ‘If you live one of those local authority estates on the edge of small towns – the ones whose name appears predictably in the court reports of the local paper – who will care about you?’
On Drugs: ‘Hard drugs are the worst thing to happen to Ireland since the famine. But we forget, we lose interest, we fortunate ones can afford to.’
On Female Sterilisation: ‘Women are in no position to be airy-fairy about their bodies, they bleed, their wombs swell, they labour just like animals to bring forth children, then they feed them, wipe the waste from their bodies, shovel grunge into their mouths…to bring them through to independence.’
She writes her articles, pen avec paper, on a rough wood table in her kitchen, where we sit now. Molly the half Collie, runs in from the back garden with a stick for me. We fabricated a friendship in the isolated minutes after Luke, Nuala’s lodger, showed me in and handed me a cup of cha. Nuala trundled down the stairs, hair soaked, wearing a blue flowery dress and a big, amiable smile. There is an extraordinary expression in her eyes, as she talks unhindered, with a sausage sandwich hanging halfway out her gob.
“My lodger Luke is the dearest man in the world, but I am terrified of him coming in drunk, my whole life I’ve been watching people come in drunk.”
What comes across most fixedly about Nuala’s life is that she is dreadfully hurt by what she calls “one of those hugely damaged, big Irish families.” It is this unresolved ache that propels her to discover truths that would otherwise be unreachable. She has undoubtedly survived all the things that have entranced, beguiled, sickened and outraged her. Yet at this stage in her life, she feels she has no immediate or momentous purpose, and is very alone.
Sean MacConnell, Agricultural Correspondent in the Irish Times is probably Nuala’s closest confidant. He has known her well for ten years, and worked with her father in the Evening Press many years before. To sum up Nuala in a sentence he told me, “She is an amazingly bright, remarkably strong woman, with great integrity and great vulnerability.” His first impression of Nuala was that she was unbearably shy but had a suave charm. “Just like her father, the one thing that really stands out about Nuala is that life is a huge learning process, and because she is so open to new interpretation, she can be very unpredictable.”
Going back to the book where the explication of her life and success ultimately lies, I ask her why she began and ended with poignant accounts of her parent’s ill-fated marriage? “I hadn’t realised that I’d go back to them, I think out of some mixture of loyalty and being imprinted by pattern, I was trying to oblige them by ruining myself. I was tempted to join my mother in her despair all my life. I was actually very close to her, even though I didn’t like touching her or being with her. I pitied her so utterly that I copied her. I am very lucky they both died when I was about 40, it gave me a chance to live. I have been very lucky too, that there must’ve been some instinct for life in me, that I was lucky enough to get off with Nell, who insisted on life.”
She spent nearly two life-giving decades with Nell McCafferty until they split up last year  when their many differences became insufferable. “Back to whole relationship/family thing: take my brother Don, who just died recently in London. He had a family of his own, but couldn’t let go of the past. He sat in his room and drank and starved himself and drank again, until he could die. He was just following out the logic of it.”
She tells a story about ‘Michael’ and ‘Rob’, her two tremendous loves featured in the book. They haven’t even bothered to drop her a line, or pick up the phone in response to her story being published. Her whole life it seems has been flooded by moments of unimaginable intensity, followed by long spells of desert, and all-consuming work in between. Her mother had been the same in this respect; nothing matters except passion, mythos is something to covet, something to adore…
On the way out the door, Nuala points to the rocking chair in the kitchen and says: “You know I sit there and drink red wine and read and read and read, just like Mammy.” When the car chugs off up the road, almost of its own accord, I ask her if she travels around the countryside a lot. “I do,” she says, “just like Dad did.” So at 57, writing, reading, drinking wine and contemplating how to live, she is a synthesis of her mother and father. How could she be anything else?
Not good, terminal cancer, the text read. Limping into the first lecture on the WebElevate course in the steel-strewn auditorium, my phone *beeped*. This plug ‘n play’ digi-media environment is all high-tech & low-lighting: exposed brick, flickering laptops, vending machines (with Rancheros!), earphones large enough for chimp heads, flagstone floors, camera pods, see-through steps, a Bistoesque stream of hops snaking through the open window from the Guinness brewery next door. One of the first questions the surgeon asked my brother when they operated a few years ago was if he drank Guinness. Outside 300 people are dressed in Edwardian costume for yet another Titanic drama…silhouetted behind them are local kids beating each other up with tree branches as sabres, a lone junkie talks to her Jack Russell out loud. What is User Centred Design?’ the lecturer asks, and then answers before there’s room for answers. ‘It’s a design process which focuses on the user through the complete design, build, deploy life cycle…’ Afterwards he launches into a long dismal history of design failures: how Sainsbury’s had to write off a $526 million investment for a dud supply chain management system. How could they have missed the spread after so many scans? ‘I woke up in a room on my own, no drip in the hand so I knew they hadn’t operated, nurse couldn’t look me in the eye, doctor came in and said it was everywhere,’ my brother explained, when I rang. The rest is a blank. ‘So…the earlier in the process you discover the issues, the easier it is to fix,’ the lecturer concludes. A bit like cancer.
On the flight to Stanstead a young architect sitting beside me drops his Powerpoint presentation which spreads out under several seats; laminated peacock feathers. A slide on the human-designed environment lodges under the warbling air hostess’ blue stiletto. To fasten your seatbelt, place the metal tip into the buckle, and tighten the straps so that it fits low and tight across your hips. He throws me a ‘look’ for not helping him but I’ve no energy to explain about the wonky hip, an inability to bend, and anyway my brother’s going to die and he has four kids who will have to grow up without him, so there’s no time for floating pleasantries. The eldest turned 17 the day before we found out. ‘I heard about my dad’, she texted from Doncaster, a graphic of a downturned smile. Her younger brother is a Justin Bieber lookalike and only wears designer clothes, funded by a Coca Cola schoolyard scam & other teen-capitalist adventures. He’s great at maths and football and wants to study Science & Engineering in a few years. The younger two, with a different Ma who bolted a few months ago, have also been told. Both have to fill out ‘feelings diaries’ in their lunchtime at their new school. The older of the two, aged 11, has being acting out a bit since. ‘He’s angry,’ my brother says, ‘but the Scouts takes his mind off it…he loves fishing and building things’. Last year when we went to France he hogged my copy of Ulysses, managing to make animated sense of it. ‘The guy’s a total nutter Aunty June, but it’s obvious he’s writing it from inside a DS game’. He informed his English teacher of his findings when he got back to Blightey. The seven year old girl loves to read from an invisible medieval scroll: ‘McDonald of Belfast wishes to marry Caldwell of Dublin, do you agree?’
The drive from Stanstead to Ipswich takes just over an hour, a patchwork of chrome barriers, scorched fields, thatched roofs, shed sellers & spud floggers…the bro’s new Jaguar is smooth as liquidised soup, heated seats to boot, though unlike his BMW there’s no mini-fridge with complimentary bottle of Aspall’s for the journey. This time the drive is laden with horrifying technical info. ‘If the bowel stops working or gets blocked, they’re not going to operate, it’ll be straight to the hospice at that point, so I’ll be properly fucked.’ Yet he’s in great form; positive, composed, weirdly happy. All your droll problems just lift like the cliché says: bills, debts, work, women, blah blah, up and gone. Everything looks different. ‘I can eat as much Ben & Jerry’s as I want’. He might even go on a cruise, the Macmillan nurse is looking into it. There’s some financial advantages too that’ll help with cash flow, an end of life grant of sorts, the option of a motorised scooter to zip up to the nearby Fat Cat for some decent homebrew. ‘There’s great welly in those yokes and I’ll stick de bird on me knee for good measure’. His new lady, as I’ll soon find out, is quirky, warm and interesting. [An equal at last!] Her mum is a vicar and the dad fecked off to Thailand to open a book shop. She collects mini cars to refurb, breeds chipmunks, snores like a miner and has spent over £16K on some very intricate tattoos. ‘She’s had madder jobs than you!’ he boasts. A pet psychologist at one point, prison counsellor, bar manager, farmer. She loves his monstrous snores. ‘They lull her to sleep, can you Adam & Eve it!?’ Only in Ipswich.
The scar on his face is from a wax apple I threw at him in 1977, knocking him out cold, though he still disputes some of the minutiae. ‘You didn’t knock me out!’ We’re sitting in the kitchen of DunPullin – his family home – drinking Biscotti Baileys while the Bison Grass Vodka freezes to a decent down-in-one temperature. ‘He broke my Tower of London mirror.’ I explain, filling in some early life detail. ‘I’m very proud of that scar, proof of fight-back’. I tell her how I robbed his ‘card tin’ for years – he won so much dosh on late-night card games – and I had a teenage cider & fag habit to feed. ‘In 1988 we went on holidays to Portugal, Adrian insisted we pay for a meal in a posh restaurant but run off without eating it. He’s a big fan of reverse logic.’ Six years between us, he followed me to London in 1989, kipped on my couch till he got a place of his own, slept with [all] my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. ‘Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so you said you’d go in the boot!?’ God, yes, I do remember, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver to ‘turn left now’ or ‘turn right here’, even though I couldn’t see a thing.
A year later we lived in Jersey where he worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires who’d travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers & get drunk all day. ‘She was the worst barmaid ever!’ he tells Alison. It’s true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in London’s east end. His stunt as a cappuccino machine salesman had been a dreadful failure – but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house – almost every night was a party. When I was at Middlesex University in 1992, he ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. There were holidays to Blackpool when the kids were young, mobile homes in France, trips to Belfast when I rented Castle Chester during the MA. Before the older kids arrive in Ipswich for the weekend, and before I start my usual cooking frenzy (he goes nuts for my leek & potato soup, keep showing him how to make it, but he can’t be arsed) the three of us stroll out to the back garden, where the night sky is clearer than I can ever remember. Alabaster stars flickering against a plush overlay of navy and there it is as we crane our necks: a shooting star, a dying star, zipping across the chaos on its way home. What a crummy beautiful coincidence. We clank our glasses and smile.
A good many moons ago, when Ireland was dubbed the ‘sick man of Europe’ and Wurzel Gummidge was being suitably saucy on tea time TV, I found out I was directly related to Oliver Cromwell. Although only ten years old, I knew it had to be De Da’s side of the family as he was particularly gifted at starting bloody civil wars in the house and claiming zero responsibility for the body parts.
American genealogists had dropped the bombshell in a registered letter to Dublin with a $2 note for a prompt reply. Oliver Cromwell’s mother was Anne Caldwell of Solway Firth. At some stage they moved to Northern Ireland and branches of sprogs settled in Fermanagh and Donegal, while others fled to America when Cromwell turned against them after Charles II returned to power. Cromwell’s right-hand General was also a Caldwell. You get the sordid sorry picture.
Whatever the truth, there’s skimpy point getting anal about it…or is there? Cromwell was obsessed with the bowels. His famous retort: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken! wasn’t blurted in isolation. While he died of typhoid on the battlefield it was also documented that he’d ‘terrible trouble’ with his bum and may have been diseased in that region too. And he may have passed it on. Last summer as my 46-yr-old brother’s colon tumour made its way by courier to a fancy genetics lab in the EU, I sat the old man down to ask how his siblings and family members had snuffed it. “Oh the two brothers died of bowel cancer or…hold on, no, eh – can you get me some water for the whiskey – one died of a rectal disease…and the Da died of colorectal cancer at age 58 and I think an aunt did as well, at the age of 23…but I couldn’t be sure of her, there was talk she might’ve been a prostitute”. The glorious eejit had never mentioned it. I’d had my suspicions about bipolar disorder, alcoholism, schizophrenia and depression, hedging my bets for a lengthy stay at a nut house any day soon. A could-be related cancer to his lot was there too on my mother’s side: four near relatives were wiped out by the stomach variety, the youngest at 36. “Even aunt Lena the almost vegetarian!” she exclaimed. “And her who wouldn’t even eat peas from a tin!”
The brother in England (with the travelling tumour) rang the hospital with my mother’s family history and asked what was the difference between bowel and stomach cancer? “Basically a few inches,” the geneticist replied. Double whammy for our generation of Caldwell’s so. The results back from the lab confirmed there was a ’virulent’ familial strain. A few months later, by shabby coincidence, my mother was diagnosed with the same thing too. She’s just been through major surgery and follow-up treatment this summer. (An upside to the chemo for her is the restaurant in the Mater Private with its great array of delicious food, we always go for dinner afterwards. My brother also cited an unobvious benefit to his chemo many miles away in Ipswich: “the steroids give you a permanent hard-on”). The rest of us are currently marching along for tests. As I write I’m staring at a large box of ‘Klean Prep’ which I have to consume in a 4-litre load, to induce in vitro mud-slides, followed by a polite impaling at Beaumont Hospital in a few hours time.
Here’s the thing: genetics and predictive medicine is where it’s at. We’re on the cusp of a gilded age in science when a good old goo at your DNA code will reveal an accurate risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Medical folk will then be able to predict what drugs or treatment will work to keep you alive and well the longest. Within the next two to five years, geneticists maintain they’ll have the sequence of every major human cancer. Eventually they’ll ‘tinker’ with fated diseases when human life is still curled snug in the womb. In the bland old meantime, Irish families are still reluctant to talk about what killed those who came before them. “It’s not the done thing,” my mother said. “In my day people were dropping of TB and all sorts but we were too busy trying to get by to worry our heads about it”. Diagnosis was all over the place then, if anyone died of an unknown condition, it was generally lumped under the heading: ‘consumption’. The doctor, just like the priest and possibly the politician, was a sacrosanct golden cow you could only ever bestow a “thank you” to, and not bother with serious concerns or even questions.
Ireland has the second highest breast cancer rate in Europe, staggeringly high skin cancer rates too, and a steady stream of lung, ovary and prostate. We also have the third highest incidence of colorectal cancer for both males and females in the EU. Around 21,000 people are diagnosed every year with some form of the disease as well as a host of other auto-immune conditions, a lot of which could have hereditary starting points. The sooner you sit down and have that ‘genetics’ conversation with older family members, the quicker you’ll be able to jump on your health horse and deal with it. My near-genocidal ancestor (if I’m related to him) may have been a heinous shit, but he’s left me with a clear will not to kill indiscriminately and to breathe in and out for as long as is reasonably possible. How about you?