I took the bus to Paris. I’d always said I would get there and I did. It was the beginning of July, and I arrived from London with one bag, first job as replacement staff for the summer holidays. As soon as I stepped out of the Métro at Boulevard Voltaire and asked a gendarme for directions, I knew I wasn’t going back. And I didn’t.
Taking a break from shredding a few chapters of my re-write. Here are two what we call faits divers which used to be called chiens écrasés meaning news items of the lowest degree of interest ie dogs run over on the road.
On Sunday we were tickled by a report coming from Paris about a knife attack by a deranged asylum seeker who injured seven people before he was ‘stopped’. Not funny for the seven victims, but for the way he was ‘stopped’. A group of men playing pétanque by the Canal d’Ourq spotted the commotion and lobbed their boules at him. They got four or five direct hits on the head. The mayor praised their rapid reactions (and their aim).
The journalist on Sunday evening said the suspect had not been able to be interrogated because he was still unconscious. Tu parles!
The other very strange thing was to do with our hare. As usual, yesterday evening it appeared by the willows, making its way along the stream while we were finishing supper on the porch. We lost sight of it for a while then it came back, but instead of keeping to the trees it ambled up towards the house. It stopped by the wood pile about ten yards away and looked at us, chewed a few leaves and sat up to watch us again. Finbar had noticed it by this time and had stood up (he was tied up just in case) ready to defend the household. The hare stared at him.
Surely, we thought, it’s going to bolt any moment. It didn’t. Staring straight at Finbar it hopped closer.
“Oh My God,” husband said, “It’s on a suicide mission!”
It hopped slowly right up to us, got to within a couple of yards, accelerated, zipped right under Finbar’s nose and hared off round the side of the house. Finbar was so gobsmacked he didn’t even bark until it had disappeared. They say hares are timid, Irish folklore says they are wise, husband says they are mad. I’m inclined to think they’re all three.
When I first started to write, I was living in Paris. What emerged were stories set mainly in London from where I had just moved, Yorkshire, where I grew up, and Ireland, the place of family holidays, memories, roots and history. They were about first loves, family, children— I was in the throes of starting my own family—and my first serious thoughts about what makes us what we are.
We moved from Paris to a quiet corner of Picardy. In the walled medieval town, 1.8 kilometres long and less than a kilometre at its widest point, there were 81 historic monuments. You tripped over historic monuments. Many of them were inhabited; many more were in ruins and in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Wild boar, deer, red squirrels and pine martens wandered into the gardens along the ramparts, mistaking the town for an extension of the surrounding woodland.
My writing turned to Paris, the most recent part of our history, but was tinged with the light and textures of our new home. It was only today, walking past a clump of pink snapdragons growing out of a crack in the pavement, that I was put in mind of the way the walls of our old home were covered in yellow wallflowers (Christine Matthews). I remembered the soft, golden light, the wilderness that had crept up to the grey stone ramparts of the town, and the way we used to watch for signs of spring in the dark loam of the garden.
The south is different. The light is harsher, the heat thick and heavy. Flowers grow everywhere, on window ledges, balconies, around the trees by the roadsides. Hollyhocks push their way out of nothing, in the tiny cracks between house wall and paving stones, lining entire streets with their cottage garden prettiness. Saplings sprout out of old guttering, buddleia from the damp cracks behind drainpipes. Pansies, Jerusalem cherry, all kinds of mallow grow wild—bright, cultivated things, pretty but tame.
Looking back on how my writing has changed, I can see the influence of environment, and I wonder how I will be writing in ten years time. We absorb, possibly without even being aware of it, the light, the sounds and smells that surround us. The atmosphere shapes the way we see things, alters out state of mind. But it takes time to distil, in my experience at least. I don’t write about the immediate, but the immediate past, the sights and sounds that have been shunted into history because of a change in the immediate, the humdrum and banal.
I have started to wonder about those things that are now history: the walks along the coast at Dingle, or the Hill of Howth; holding laughing babies up to the fountains in Paris parks; taking small children to thrash through the goldenrod to paddle in the ruins of the royal cattle’s drinking troughs, or watch lizards disappearing into the wild wallflowers.
All those things found their way into my stories. Do we have to change, move on, keep our senses ever open to new experiences in order to find inspiration? Or do we reach a point where we go back to the beginning again in our writing, and recall, with hazy inexactitude, those golden summers and crisp winters receding into history? I’d like to think so.
This winter has been difficult for all sorts of reasons: the editing process on my book grinding to an inexplicable halt just before it was completed, a child getting cold feet about university at the last minute and deciding to take it easy at home instead, the usual idleness of some of her siblings, a nasty bout of flu, a sprained back muscle, the spring that refused to spring. Add to that the perennial cash shortage, the daily grind that gets more grinding, the list of house repair jobs that gets longer, the prospect of yet another year without a holiday, and you’re looking at a depression in the making.
But the weather is changing, the buds are opening despite the overcast skies and the air is really quite warm. It’s time to take stock. My grandmother would have called it counting my blessings. I prefer to call it dreams achieved.
My dreams started small. When I was little it was to have a cat. The farm next door was crawling with cats and kittens. By dint of encouraging them into our yard, two kittens were forever on the doorstep, looking in through the kitchen door. It wasn’t long before my mother’s heart softened and they were both officially adopted.
When I was twenty, my future husband and I talked about how we imagined our life as a couple. We took our first holiday together in Paris and decided that was where we would live. Our first apartment together was slap bang in the shadow of the Pompidou Centre.
While we were fixing on Paris, we also planned how many children we would have. We decided then that we would have five. My husband is a great one for organisation, making lists and crossing items off as they get done. We had four children crossed off the to do list when I was diagnosed with something funny. The doctors weren’t sure what it was, but I was told I must absolutely not have any more children, as they had no idea how my system would react to a pregnancy. We honestly did our best to follow medical advice, but child number five managed to sneak in anyway. The pregnancy was fine and despite a panic at the end, she was fine too.
Although Paris had been the first dream destination, I hankered after a warmer climate, so we moved south.
Next thing to hanker after was a dog. Not just any dog. I had always wanted a Lurcher, but the tradition of hunting with Lurchers doesn’t exist here. Then I read about the atrocious way Galgos are treated just over the border in Spain, and I knew I wanted to adopt one of them. It became an obsession, maybe because I had resigned myself, after a miscarriage, to the sad reality that the baby-raising era was over. I needed to baby something else that needed a lot of affection to get over a rough start in life. So we got Finbar.
With the affective problem sorted out, I began to think tentatively about my old dream of really becoming a writer. I started to write on a regular basis, rather than in the fits and starts that had been the only way to fit it in over the years of bringing up children. Last summer my first book was accepted by a publisher. I have plenty more in the pipeline, so I have started to think of myself as a writer, not a wannabe writer.
Apart from going to live in Moomin Valley in a house like Moomintroll’s, with stabling for a talking horse, I can’t think of many dreams that haven’t come true. In terms of economic success, I’m afraid we are a couple of losers. There are lots of things that many people would consider necessities that we haven’t got, but I suppose they were never on the dream list. We never dreamed in terms of how much cash we would have, how many bathrooms, or what we would do with the five children if they refused to ever grow up and leave home.
There is at least one dream left. It would be too sad of there weren’t. We would both love to have a small stone house in the countryside, with an orchard and plenty of space for big dogs to play in. By the time we are in a position to realise that particular dream, we will both be so decrepit that we might well decide that it would be more sensible to stay in town close to the shops and the hospitals! But the important thing is that the dream is there.
In the words of the song, you gotta have a dream, or how you gonna have a dream come true?