Authors: Isobelle Carmody
Tags: #Young Adult Fiction
The memory of this silence disturbed him terribly when it came. He mistrusted its sudden emergence and suspected that he must have manufactured it to serve some obscure neurotic purpose of his own. But when he phoned his older sister she confirmed it. Their parents had their own precisely delineated areas of operation and they hardly ever spoke to each other, right up to the time their father died.
It hurt him, this rediscovery of parental disharmony. But over the next few days, he scrutinised the memories more closely and came to realise that the silence was not, as he had leaped to conclude, full of anger and petulance. It was not a refusal to communicate but a demonstration of perfect communication. They didn't need words to understand each other.
He wrote several poems about it, and in the process came to understand that neither extreme of interpretation was entirely accurate, and that the truth probably lay somewhere in between. One of the poems was good, and it led into a series about his mother and father, which became part of the first collection he published after he moved into the house in Islington. He knows that they are not bad poems, but in retrospect he wishes he had held some of them back for a bit longer and worked on them some more. Or, even better, retired them to the filing cabinet along with the slim folder of family letters.
But his publisher, for the first time ever, had been pressing him for a new book. It was amazing what a bit of publicity could do. He didn't fool himself into believing that he had become a household name or anything like it, but he had entered a new realm where he was known to the people who mattered, and the small population of lost souls who still bought poetry.
had been slated in Australia, where the Aboriginal sequence was condemned as inaccurate and exploitative, but in the rest of the English-speaking world it had been well received. It was reviewed just about everywhere that poetry could be reviewed, and although some of the interpretations made him cringe, almost all of the critics were positive. It was reprinted, then shortlisted for the Whitbread poetry section and reprinted twice more, and although it didn't win the Whitbread it did pick up two other prizes, both of them smaller and less wellknown, but both more prestigious in poetry circles.
He continued to be invited onto discussion panels and arts programs now that his name had risen up those im- portant lists in important hands, and he continued to experience the enormous pleasure of finding that his books were in the shops. And not only
. On the strength of its success his earlier works had all been reissued in new covers that echoed
design and thus gave him his own jacket style. Then letters began to arrive via his publisher, asking him to speak at conferences and to visit writers' groups and schools. She got a designer to set up a website for him, and through that came emails with more offers. He co-tutored a week-long course in Wales on writing poetry, and two weekend ones in Ireland. His publisher sold the US rights to a small press in Boston. He applied for residencies and bursaries as usual. The difference was that now he often got them.
For the first time in his life he was making money. Not serious money, not even a realistic living where Islington was concerned, but he paid his share of the household expenses at least, and it made him feel less like a kept man.
After she has made the coffee she discovers there is no milk. He hasn't used it since the doctor warned him about his cholesterol levels, and he has forgotten to buy any for her. She finds double cream in the freezer and chisels off a chunk with a carving knife. A large chunk. She puts it in a cup and microwaves it until it bubbles, then she adds coffee to it, and sugar, for comfort. And because of that, of course, guilt interferes with her enjoyment of it.
She considered herself overweight as a teenager and has been obsessed with thinness ever since. At the time she saw herself as massive, with tree-trunk thighs and double chins. But recently, looking through some old photographs, she was surprised to see that the girl in the photos, nearly always trying to evade the camera, was not plump, or even chubby. At worst she might be described as sturdy; perhaps busty. Not fat, though. Nowhere near fat.
And yet the misconception had governed her life; perhaps still does. At college she verged on becoming anorexic. In her first job, as a junior in the publicity department of a large publishing house, she skipped lunches and then sometimes gorged at home, and sometimes vomited afterwards. But when she went freelance she left all that behind her. She was run off her feet, and despite the endless meals and parties she never put on an ounce. It was burned off by the relentless pressure of keeping up with it all, and by the nervous energy needed to present her public face.
The face. The permanent bloody perfect public face. That was what perplexed her when she met him and they became close. She felt that it was obvious to anyone why someone like her would be attracted by someone like him, with his talent and his depth and his moody complexities. But why would he be interested in her? She accepted the label of media tartÂ âÂ that was what she was, and unashamedly so. But surely he wasn't taken in by the bubbles and the smile? Surely he could see right through to the vacancy behind them? She could only believe that he did, and that he saw even further than she could see, to where her true self lay bound and gagged and drugged. And if he saw it and liked it enough to stay around, then maybe she should try to discover it herself.
So with the help of her analyst, she set about rescuing it, and throughout the whole long, arduous process he listened and appeared to understand. He agreed, enthused, advised, encouraged, supported. She was right to undertake the search for her soul; it was the only really important part of a human being. Everything else could be reduced to survival tools and window-dressing, he said. The body was the scaffolding from which the soul is suspended, and as such it was largely irrelevant.
So what was all this about now? Could she have been wrong about him all along?
Over time he lost his gaunt appearance and developed what he called a beer belly. Although he still hated parties he learned to put up with them, because he understood the necessity of networking, and he no longer planted himself in the quietest corner but stood more centrally, or even circulated. His confidence increased exponentially, and if he never lost his dislike of media types and his disdain for the âarty' scene, he never let it show.
The Turf Shed
came out he was rewarded for his pains by full review coverage and another round of interviews and feature articles. One critic, writing in a prestigious Irish poetry journal, compared him unfavourably with Seamus Heaney and accused him of constructing a mythical âOirish' childhood to cash in on the current publishing hunger for âbarefoot misery'. His admirers told him it was rubbish and he would be best to ignore it. He did his best to follow their advice, but it wasn't as easy as it sounded.
He walks north, through London's strung-out villages, each with their own banks and post offices, shops and supermarkets, pubs and restaurants. He passes a Japanese place that was âin' a few years ago, but when he catches the cooking smell outside it he is reminded not of the food he ate there, but of the drinks he had in its parchment-and-bamboo waiting area. A few doors down, the legs of a prostrate drunk extend across the pavement. He crosses the street and lights another cigarette.
It is after ten, but that is still early for London and he feels safe in the bright high streets and the quiet residential hinterlands in between them. The black wool coat he bought in New Bond Street last year was an inspired choice. Anyone in the know would recognise its designer elegance as soon as they were close enough, but to a passer-by it would look quite casual, even slightly shabby. So although he keeps his eyes open, he does not fear attack. But what he is carrying within him does not feel so safe.
That Irish critic still haunts him. Twelve years on, the words still sting, and he is not such a fool that he doesn't know why. The title poem was one of those he now wishes he had withheld. It contains a lie at its very heart. It was his publisher (who also acted as editor, publicist and distributor for his small press), who suggested the change. His reservation was reasonable. The wood shed was too firmly associated in educated minds with Stella Gibbons and
Cold Comfort Farm
, and the power of the poem and of the whole collection would have been compromised by the comic echoes. He agreed and made the change, even though his family had never burned turf, but ash and beech cut from their own extensive woodlands. It hadn't troubled him at all at the time. No one would ever know, after all. But it now seems to him that the lie was a road sign pointing to greater lies within.
He passes a tube station and thinks, for the first time, of turning back. But the shock returns and the memory of what awaits him there, and he continues to walk, still heading north. In any case, he is struck by a strange sense that he is heading towards home and not away from it. He tries to analyse the feeling, but it is elusive. It is certainly not a blissful childhood hearthrug-and-hugs sense of home, and nor is it his current sofa-nest-and-popcorn one. It's a darker feeling; a primal, disturbing, instinctive kind of longing. For what, though? Death? No, not death. Nothing as dramatic and final as that.
A few drops of rain fall tentatively, the advance party for a deluge, checking that the sky corridors are clear. They are, and the downpour follows. He steps into the doorway of an all-night supermarket and lights another cigarette, keeping the hand that is holding it outside and upturned, reminding him of how he and his brother used to conceal their smokes like that, in case their parents happened along.
Maybe âlies' is too strong. The poems are fine. They are good. Everybody said so, bar the one.
A security guard inside the shop is staring at him. He turns to face the street and takes another drag of his cigarette. The poems are as well crafted as any of his earlier work. Better, perhaps, because he is constantly working and perfecting his technique. Yes. They are good. Technically, they are just about perfect.
But he knows, deep down, that this is all whitewash, designed to conceal a truth he is unwilling to face. He glances over his shoulder. The guard is still watching him. He throws the cigarette into the street, where it sends out a trail of sparks like a small firework, then he turns and goes into the shop. He strides towards the guard in a confrontational way but then averts his gaze and walks straight past him and in among the shelves. He picks up a bottle of water, and at the counter he buys a third packet of cigarettes.
Looking back on it, she can see that her first move towards defining her true self was not exactly revolutionary. He laughed when she told him about No Sandwiches, and at the time it bothered her. It's easy now to see that it was not the great leap into darkness and chaos that she expected it to be, but it was a small step forward and all she was capable of at the time.
The idea grew out of her increasing disenchantment with the sandwich as a lunchtime staple. In the years since she had gone freelance she had eaten lunch out nearly every day, and nearly always in the centre of London. Some clients required fancy restaurants with proper meals, but more often than not her midday meetings took place over a sandwich, and her non-meeting lunches consisted of a sandwich on the run. Despite the changes they had gone through with the introduction of fancy breads, there was still no disguising what they were. And she was well and truly sick of them.
So she came up with the concept of a cafÃ© that had both eat-in and takeaway sections, and was open from mid-morning to office closing time, and that didn't sell sandwiches. Instead it would offer a huge range of delicious alternatives: pasties, pastry rolls with a variety of fillings, quiches, spanakopita, Spanish omelettes, Indian and Middle Eastern snacks. The only bread would be pita to go with dips, and organic brown rolls to go with the soup.
It took far more research and organisation to get off the ground than she had expected, and there was a time when winding down the old business and winding up the new one overlapped and almost made her ill with exhaustion. There was consternation in the publishing world when word got out that she was giving up, and offers came in that she found all but impossible to refuse. A film star she had worshipped since she was a child was bringing out an autobiography. A writer of comic fiction whom she loved touring with was launching a new series.
Jobs like that might well have elevated her to another level of prestige and income. She wavered, but although he had laughed at No Sandwiches, he was backing her up now. It wasn't only about providing this new option for the office crowd and, hopefully, making a shed-load of money out of it. It was about her and her life; about stepping off the superstar merry-go-round and freeing up some time to get to know herself. So she resisted the irresistible and forged ahead with the new project.
She had never learned to cook and knew nothing about food, so she consulted those who had and did. With painstaking determination, she tracked down the people who could produce what she wanted. No food was to be prepared on the premises, but neither was it to be delivered in tubs or buckets. There was no plastic allowed, because she knew what happened to the taste of any food that came into prolonged contact with it. The only exception was the takeaway cutlery, for which she could find no affordable alternative. The food was stored and displayed in glass and pottery and kept there until it was sold on plates or in cardboard containers. He said she ought to call it No Plastic and compromise on the sandwich ban. He couldn't see what was wrong with sandwiches anyway. He liked them. But he supported her wholeheartedly, and when she was run off her feet he took over some of the donkey work, like supervising the decorators and trudging through the endless volumes of health and safety regulations.