Thursday, June 9, 2011

A hundred thousand welcomes (Céad míle fáilte)

Céad míle fáilte is an Irish saying meaning a hundred thousand welcomes. I've used the phrase in English and Irish to frame a short passage I drafted on Monday. At the minute, I think it’s going to be the start of a longish short story. It might turn into something else. I’ve been thinking about the main character for a while and it was time to let him live a little. For those sensitive to profanities, I’m sorry about the first sentence of the second section. I did actually have this said to me once and it always seemed like it might come in handy at some point for a story. I'd welcome any feedback on the opening itself and also ideas for possible places to submit the piece to assuming it comes in under 10,000 words (which is the plan at the minute).

A hundred thousand welcomes (Céad míle fáilte)

‘Those Dubliners like to think that their city greets you with a hundred thousand welcomes. That the place is great craic altogether. Don’t believe a word of it, do you hear? The city shakes you by the one hand, pulling a fine old grin, whilst it filches your purse and your hopes and dreams with its other. Those Dubs know a trick or three. Nothing comes for free in that town. They’ll build you up with platitudes, then ... Are you listening, Catherine?’

‘What? Sorry, Mammy.’

The train from Sligo was five minutes late arriving into Carrick station.

‘Jesus, Catherine. They’ll see you coming from here. Be waiting on the platform for you, rubbing their hands with glee, welcoming a lamb to the slaughter.’

‘Mam, will you stop worrying! I’ll be fine. I’m going to Dublin not Ramallah. If I can cope with Longford Town on a Saturday night then I can cope with Dublin.’

‘Like a lamb to the slaughter. Don’t you be trusting anyone, do you hear? They won’t just be after one thing neither. I should be coming up with you. Make sure you get there in one piece. Get you settled in.’

‘Mam, will you stop! You know where I’m going. I’m staying with Rachel. It’s not like I’ll be alone there.’

The train pulled slowly round the corner and drew into the station. Catherine threw her arms around her mother and kissed her cheek.

‘I’ll text you when I get there.’

‘Just ...’

‘Mam! I’ll be fine.’

Catherine broke away as the train came to a halt, grabbing the handle of a large, black suitcase, half her size, tugging it on its wheels. She pressed the lighted button and doors slid open, and she dragged the case inside, turning to face her mother.

‘I’ll text you, okay?’

‘Okay. Here ... for the taxi.’ Bridie Regan thrust a twenty euro note into the carriage. She couldn’t help the tears. Catherine was her only daughter. Nineteen years old and heading off for a new life. ‘Cities like ...’ she trailed off as the doors closed automatically.

What she was going to say was ‘Cities like Dublin, they can swallow you whole.’ Her mother had told her that and she believed it. From the moment the doors clunked shut and the train started to pull out, she regretted not finishing the warning.

* * *

‘Why don’t you fuck off home, you English cunt!’ The old man has his hands on his hips, his flat cap pushed back on his head to reveal an angry frown.

Jesus, you’d think I was personally responsible for the 800 years of oppression prior to Irish independence. All I’d actually done was ask the cantankerous old git whether it might be possible to repair the fence between his field and my garden in order to stop his cattle wandering in and eating my vegetables. Right now I’d like to knock his bigoted, republican lights out, instead I counter with a sucker punch.

‘English? I’m as Irish as you are! I was born in Roscommon Town hospital. My parents moved to Manchester in 1966 when I was ten years old; just in time for the World Cup. Like thousands of other poor feckers, they had to emigrate to look for work.’

The old git breaks from my stare and gazes down at his wellington-clad feet and I know I’ve hit home, so I press my moral advantage.

‘I might have grown up there, but I’m feckin’ Irish. Irish born, Irish genes, Irish passport, living in Ireland. I am home.’

‘Aye, well,’ he concedes, scratching under his armpit.

‘So it’s okay then that I repair the fence?’

‘I’ll do it later. I better be getting on. Jobs to do.’

He turns away and walks back into his yard, heading for a tractor that must have been manufactured before I was born. His pride was dented by the exchange, but not enough to actually apologise. As far as he’s concerned, I’ve gone native. After all, I talk with an English accent. English accent, English mentality - English. It’s going to take a lot more than an assertion that I’m Irish to shift his perception of me as anything but one of the old foe.

Which is fair enough, as I’m actually Scottish by birth; not that the old git needs to know this. Besides, as far as I’m concerned I am bloody Irish. Second generation Irish: my mother hailed from County Leitrim, my father from Dublin. They met in 1955 at a ceili in an Irish club in Bothwell in south east Glasgow and fell madly in love. Or more likely, madly in lust. They were married seven months later and I was born two months after that.

Two brothers and two sisters followed, though I’m not sure how as my parents barely seemed tolerate each other’s company when I was growing up. They’re both dead now, god rest their souls. My father died in a car crash when I was fifteen; he drove into a bridge pillar whilst blind drunk. My mother died of lung cancer five years ago, which was no great surprise given her life-long impression of a human chimney.

And I moved to Manchester when I was four, not ten, not that matters much when we moved. As far as the native Mancunians were concerned I was simply Irish, none of this second generation shite. All through the 1970s I had to put up with Irish racism when the IRA was waging its bombing campaign in British cities. I wasn’t bloody English or Scottish then. And now I’ve retired to Ireland to reconnect with my roots I’m fucking English. Out of place in both countries.

I set off back along the laneway towards my small, two bedroom cottage. Not for the first time in the past ten weeks I’m wondering what possessed me to take early retirement, sell up, and move to a small plot of land in the arse end of rural Ireland? I’m fifty five for Christ’s sake! I have feck all DIY or gardening skills and I now live in a run-down cottage on an acre and a half of boggy land with two black Labradors – Laurel and Hardy – who are dafter than I am. And I’m surrounded by folk who would be suspicious about blow-ins from neighbouring townlands, let someone who grew up in another country.

I should have never of left my job as a detective sergeant in the Lancashire police. I had another good five years service left in me. All I needed was a few weeks break away from the job to recharge my batteries and gain a bit of perspective. Instead, I jettisoned out with a modest pension and ambitions of becoming a writer – a crime novelist, no less. Thirty years of experience should count for something, right?

I mean, at least I know what I’m talking about, unlike ninety nine percent of crime novelists, most of whom, to be frank, haven’t got a fucking clue. The nearest they’ve got to the lives of criminals or a police investigation is what they’ve read in the newspapers or what they’ve read in other novelists’ books or seen on the TV. Its crime and law seen through middle class sensibilities and it has fuck all to do with the grim realities of life. Unless you’ve lived something – as a drug addict, an armed robber, a paedophile, the victim of domestic abuse, an investigating officer, whatever, or worked on the front line as a social worker or something similar, believe me, you have no fucking idea what that life is like, what is going on in peoples’ heads, and the domestic, social and institutional shit that surrounds them. It’s all just guess work.

I was going to correct that. I was going write an authentic police procedural; an accurate reflection of what really goes on during an investigation, revealing the complex, messiness of a massive team effort that’s constrained by resources and due process. I wanted to pen characters that were ordinary folk with families and lives outside of policing; that weren’t mavericks or geniuses, but who plodded along. I wanted to write about cases that ran into dead ends or ended ambiguously, where the criminals didn’t always get caught or wormed their way out of a sentence.

Well, that was the idea.

I’ve since discovered a fatal flaw in my plan. I have no inherent talent as a writer. Sure, pour a few whiskies into me and I can tell a few good anecdotes, but I can’t actually write to save my life. It’s not half as easy as I thought it would be. You have to think carefully about plot and structure, narrative flow, sentence construction, punctuation and grammar, character development, prose and so on. I barely know what that stuff is, let alone how to do it effectively. It’s certainly not a case of sitting at the keyboard and knocking out a couple of thousand words a day and lo and behold three months later a book is complete. I guess it would be like deciding, despite having no training as a musician and not practising at an instrument, that because you’ve listened to a lot of music you’d retire to make bestselling albums.

The result has been a set of weak, lifeless scraps of text that are best suited to starting the stove in the morning. It’s going to take dozens of creative writing lessons and hours of practice before I produce even a half decent short story, let alone a novel. And even then, I might still produce shite. My brother has played the guitar for forty years, but I still wouldn’t pay to see him play live; especially if he’s performing his own compositions.

In the meantime, I’ve been making enemies of the neighbours by simply having the temerity to move from England to their rain-soaked, bog-ridden townland. A townland my mother left nearly sixty years ago to head to Scotland. The old git is her first cousin, not that I’ve told him that as yet. I’ve not been given the chance. I even stayed in his house once when I was a kid. He was a git then as well; resenting the fact that my mother had managed to get away and he was stuck tending the family farm.

Céad míle fáilte, my arse.


Anonymous said...

Rob - Those are great stories. You've drawn the characters particularly well, in my opinion.

Rob Kitchin said...

Thanks Margot. I'm going to take a lot of the backstory out of the second section (overloaded at the minute) and thread through the rest of the short story - which will be the detective searching for Catherine.