Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Girl in The Wardrobe by Jennifer Farrell (Hennessey Winner 2005)

I first met Jennifer Farrell back in 2006 at the Hennessy Awards. We've kept in touch since, swapping stories etc, and she has recently been in touch to tell me that her memoir, (which won the inaugural Memoir prize at Listowel Writers’ Week in 2007 - Judged by Nuala O' Faolain) has been published.

I remember finding her decision to write a straight memoir as opposed to fiction interesting. Especially as her fiction writing is so strong. Jennifer's allowed me to post the forward from the book, which show's how the memoir came about.

It all started in a café in Dungarvan. I started to write what I thought was a short story. Something sparked the memory of the boiled sausages and the dreaded coddle, a dish I’d always hated. I was gathering stories; the year before I’d won the Hennessy Writer of the Year award, with my short story Beached that was published in the Sunday Tribune. I wanted to make a collection and maybe have them published.

In the café, over a huge pot of tea, the story of the sausages unravelled and the memories of that day came flooding in. I was right back there, in the dark scullery of our old corporation flat, with Ma beside me gripping the sweeping brush handle, and the girl in the café tipped me on the shoulder and said they were closing. The story continued, one scene following another, down long tunnels of memory, leading me back to where it all began. The smells and the sounds , the faces and the voices. The living and the dead. All the time I could see Ma’s pale face, and it struck me how full of expression that face was and how she might’ve been a good actress in another life. I wasn’t sure.

Something was telling me it was too long for a short story, but I kept writing and the dead came back to life. The Granda’s and Grannies, the Aunties and Uncles. The babbies. Da. It was like they all wanted to tell their story. Then the Listowel Writers’ Week brochure arrived through my letterbox and I knew what it was I was writing. A new competition, the Inaugural Memoir award was listed to be judged by Nuala O’Faolain.

I sent in an extract and forget about it. The white envelope when it arrived looked suspicious. I’d had a test done at the hospital and I suspected bad news. On the label it said: Winner: Original Writing Memoir Competition, but it didn’t make sense somehow. I tore it open. It said: I am delighted to inform you that your entry entitled “The Girl in the Wardrobe” has won first prize. As I read the first line, my knees buckled and I slumped into the armchair. It was like winning the lottery.

Meeting Nuala at Listowel was the highlight. It was the first and last time I saw her in the flesh. I will always remember her, lit from behind by a pool of sunlight in the foyer of the Listowel Arms Hotel. She looked radiant in a white cotton dress. Clutching a large handbag full of notes in one hand and a mobile phone in the other.

She’d just finished a workshop on the memoir and was rushing across the road to a reading. She greeted me with a warm smile. Touched my arm gently, like she knew me all her life. She loved the story, it gave her hours of pleasure, she said.

“Can you work this?” she said when the mobile phone rang? It was a new phone and she hadn’t got used to it yet. We fumbled with the buttons and the phone stopped ringing and we kept talking and then she had to run to the reading.

I never did get to send her the letter I wrote her after she announced she had a terminal illness. I finished it the night she died, sat up late into the night, intending to post it the next morning. I listened to her last broadcast with Marian Finucane on a pod cast in front of my computer screen and promised myself I would finish the book.

It took longer than expected. Ma got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and things started to fall apart in the family. There were times I was finding it hard to write about her when she was young. Some of the memories were so painful. Back then the women were burdened down with large families and terrible living conditions. In many cases, the men were heavy drinkers.

One of my first memories is that tenement I call The Drunken House. It wasn’t fit for human habitation and that’s why it was classified a condemned building and demolished. Back then if you lived in a condemned building your chances of being re housed in a corporation flat were improved. It was a rat-infested hellhole and we had to use a bucket or else go to the pub on the corner to use the toilet. Sometimes I was staying with my granny, but I came and went between the three flats north and south of the Liffey.

Ma looks back at those times with mixed feelings. She doesn’t deny tenement life was hard. Sometimes she refers to her own childhood in the tenements before her mother got the corporation flat in Cooke Street and it seems similar to what I experienced in the Drunken House. Her long-term memory is still very good and she’s defying the medics in the nursing home where she’s now a resident. She has good memories and bad.

Her best years were probably in her fifties and sixties, when she was at last freed of the burden of child bearing. She broke out and did her own thing, going to bingo and the local pubs for a glass of Guinness with her friends. I know if there’s a Heaven, that’s what it would be for her. A nice pint of Guinness in a nice little snug, maybe a fire going and a bit of a singsong. She’s never had a holiday and I don’t think she missed it. Maybe it’s true that what you never had you don’t miss, but she likes to hear of the places we’ve travelled to. She’s proud of our travels and tells people we travel all over the world even if we only go to the Canaries on holiday.

From the safe distance of half a century the memory can be selective. I’ve written this story the way it came, from the pictures and flash backs of memory about the time and place where I grew up. It was a different century, the swinging sixties they called it, but there wasn’t much that was swinging about it. Yet there was laughter and song and music, the ghost stories and the jokes. A complication of hard times and funny times and interesting times all mashed up.

The book is available here.

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Paul said...

Greetings from Listowel Writers' Week Fringe blog. Lovely to find you via Google Alert today. I've put up a short post about your piece on our blog
@omaniblog on Twitter

Titus said...

Thanks Uiscebot. I think I'll be getting this.

Evelyn Walsh said...

My God! What a great piece, I'm crying as I read it. Jennifer can certainly make words sing.

Brigid said...

Very evocative extract, fabulous writing