Seán Ó Faoláin Competition Winner, 2011 (http://www.munsterlit.ie/ ): Pat O’Connor
Pat O'Connor is a native of Castleconnell, Co. Limerick, where he now lives with his wife and two children. He writes short stories, and is currently writing a novel and a screenplay for a short film. He was joint winner in 2009 of the Glimmertrain Best Start Very Short Story competition in the US. His stories have been shortlisted for the Sean O’Faolain Prize (2010), the Francis McManus competition (2011), and was twice winner of the Irish Writers Centre Lonely Voice Competition. In 2011, he won the Sean O’Faolain Prize with his short story 'The Haggard' and is currently shortlisted for the 2012 Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. He is involved in Limerick Writers Centre Writing Group and gave a writing workshop at the inaugural Sean O’Faolain Weekend in Rathkeale, Co. Limerick this year.
Pat on his week at Anam Cara as part of his prize for the winning story:
I’d never have thought of going to a writer’s retreat – would any ordinary mortal? But I was lucky enough to win a week in Anam Cara in West Cork as part the Sean O’Faolain Prize, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Imagine, a whole week, and nothing to do except write.
I arrived there on a dark winter’s evening, in heavy rain driven by a wind that nearly lifted the car off the road. It seemed like a nice, ordinary house, but if I could just get in out of the damned rain. The door opened, and Sue was there. She said “All righty, you made it.” Without any fuss. And that was the way it went for a week.
Due to the season and the weather, there was only one other person there, the best-selling crime writer Alex Barclay. I asked Alex what it was like to work here. She said: ‘I’m going to finish a novel here this week, that’s what its like. It’s incredible what you get done here.’ Sounded good, because I was working on a novel myself. Alex knew what she was talking about, because on the eight shelves of books that have been worked on in Anam Cara, I counted at least four novels written by Alex.
I thought, I’ll get some tips from these two on how to get things finished. But you know the adage: Don’t tell, show. They didn’t tell me how to go about getting some writing done, they showed me. After breakfast, the two gals said “All righty,” and bounced off in their writing fatigues, not to meet again (apart from the odd raid on the kitchen) until Sue caused a delicious smell of lunch to waft about the place, smothering the creative juices and bringing on the gastric juices instead. Every day, haute cuisine appeared on time, which meant you could justify wrestling with the laptop for almost four solid hours without feeling put-upon. So lunch was served and there we were, eating delicious food (too delicious – I can see why Sue’s guests need the exercise stuff) looking out over fabulous, saturated scenery, talking nonsense and literature and writing and about how our literary characters were getting on (I was the one talking nonsense). And then, when lunch was eaten, we said “All righty,” and bounced off optimistically to do our own thing, not to emerge for more than a coffee, or sneaky snack, until a little bell said that dinner was ready. And even after dinner (believe this!) Alex popped off yet again to beat a little more inspiration from the ether that permeates the place. Not me though. I was only a beginner. I got myself a glass of wine, put my feet up on a pouf in the den and started reading a book I’d found on the shelves that I’d been waiting for ages to read.
Next day, we did the exact same thing, except the food was differently delicious.
And after a while I got into it: writing is the business there, and we were there to write. And I wrote. Nothing is allowed to disturb you and you don’t have to do a single thing else if you don’t want to.
I could have spent the week staring at the scenery; it’s good enough for that. There is a booming waterfall in the grounds, the ruins of an old watermill, and heaps of little places to explore if you like history or wildlife or a quiet, contemplative seat. I saw Kestrels and Sparrow-hawks from my writing desk, and in the near distance, islands and cliffs and headlands loomed in and out of the ninety-mile-an-hour mist. Sue has all sort of things like saunas and hot-tubs and exercise machines, and I thought to myself – yeah, that’ll be great. But it’s a place for writing, and in the end, I never used any of those things. The week was gone in a jiffy.
If life was like that all the time, I would get a great deal more writing done, it would be a lot more directed, and it would probably be a lot more polished than I often manage. But life isn’t like that: Anam Cara is a retreat, or a haven to get things done when you need to get things done. I got about three or four times as much work done that week as I would in a good normal week, I had the opportunity to discuss my stories and opening chapters with people who knew what they were talking about. Call it what you like: affirmation, a good rev-up, solidarity – whatever it was, it worked. I bounced out of there optimistically, and if I didn’t exactly say “all righty”, I was definitely thinking it. It’s a place you want to go back to.
Alex got her novel finished. It’ll be out about mid 2012. I’m looking forward to reading it.
The winning story: The Haggard
I was thinking one evening would I chance going toward the town, when in comes this auld hag, not a tooth in her head and a huge hape a kids, sayin to me was there any hope of a bite of food to feed their hungry mouths, they hadn’t a thing in the house since the father died and the mother went off to England. Bedamn, says I, I’ve nothing myself except stale bread that I takes off’a the crows down alongside Coffey’s public house. I gives it a wipe along the wall, says I, to put a bit of a taste in it, and you’re welcome to a bit for yourself and the childer, I’ve a months supply saved up in the Nitrate sack beyant in the corner. Ah, says she, sure a man like yourself up here all on his own must have the finest of feedin what with all the money I have and she winkin at me.
I seen her givin one of the kids a poke and it starts bawlin and soon the whole hape of them is bawlin and some of them has red hair and more of them has black and more again is blond and at least five or six of every type and shape there is and still th’auld one is croakin at me what about a bit of money and still more comin in the door and not one of them over the age of seven, all screamin and bawlin and pullin flakes of distemper off’a the wall and pullin the papers out of the good chair and they roarin at th’auld hag they were promised sweets. Says th’auld hag what you need is a good woman and hadn’t she her hand inside in me pocket but divil the pocket there is there only the family jewels swingin free and by Jaz doesn’t she grab a hauld of them and she probably thinking twas a pigskin purse full of money. Well I left a squawk outa me that’d strip a heron but you’d hardly hear it inside in the din that was there that evening and I busted out through the back door into the haggard and away with me through the nettles and briars and over the ditch and away through the slurry tank where the top fell in long ago and down with me into the septic pit and up the other side through the furze bushes where the Conroys have generations of cars stored and down along the face of the quarry and into the swamp, until th’auld hag left go of the family jewels and she sank into the swamp and the children caught up with her and they roarin for sweets.
I staggered back round to the front and opened up the barbed wire gate that I have and up to the front door that hasn’t been used in fifty years and sure it came away in me hands. Nothing would do then only for the rain to start tumbling down, so inside I went still holdin the door which I pushed back into the opening. T’was doin this I noticed that there was four legs on the door and sure the way I was after putting it in now weren’t the four legs stickin out into the outside and maybe take the eye outa someone’s head although no-one had called to the house since I could remember. By Jaz, says I, that’s horrid like the table that went missing around the time of the mother’s funeral. All the same, says I, better put the legs stickin inwards the way they were, and as soon as I did that didn’t I find I was outside again and the rain pourin down on top of me. What harm, says I, isn’t the roof inside lakin just as bad sure isn’t it nearly all the wan.
So there I was standin in the downpour and along comes a lough of big lumpy men through the bushes. By Jaz, says I, maybe ‘tis the county council come to repair the road, sure the main reason I never go anywhere is unless there’s no rain for three weeks a fella couldn’t tell if he was on the road or not, only that if you went in over your waist in water you were probably strayed off of it. So now seein these lumpy lads and they batin their way through the bushes, I left a roar at them and finally they espied the house about ten feet away and up they come towards me. Well, says I, is there an election on? Damn the election says the big fella and he catches me by the tip of the ear and drags me inside capsizing the table down flat with one kick. We want your money now and be quick about it. Yerra help yourself to all you see, says I, sure I’ve no need of money here and wouldn’t know it if I saw it. Less of the saucy stuff says he and if you don’t give up the money right quick you’ll be the sorry man. How would that be, says I, curious to know what type of conditions might be worse than the current state of affairs. The other lumpy lads were on for batin me straight away, but after my adventure through the haggard and the slurry and the septic and the swamp, the state of me wasn’t the best for layin hands upon, which was why the big fella had caught me by the tip of the ear where the rain probably exposed a bit of skin. They had an auld rope with them and they tied me onto the good chair and they all lookin round for something to bate me with but sure everything was burnt long ago and they could find nothing only maybe to pull apart the good chair and sure wasn’t I tied to that. Where’s your money roars the big fella or be Jaz I’ll... I’ll… And he seemed to lose the jist of it. Go on, says I. Have you that pliers Mikey, roars he at one of the lumpy lads, and they still lookin around for money or something to bate me with. Up comes a lad with a rusty auld pliers and gives it to the big fella. I’ll pull every tooth of your head he roars. Oh the blessins of God on you sir, says I. Now if he said he was going to pull the hairs outa me nose he’d have had the heart crossways in me, ‘cos many’s the time I hurt myself sore pullin a block out of the nose and the hairs hangin dearly onto it, but when he came on about the teeth I opened up the gob straightaway so’as he’d get a good swing at the three teeth remaining and they the biggest menace ever, paining me day and night and stopping me chewin the bread, only to soak it in rain and suck at it.
As soon as I opened the gob, sure they wrinkled their noses and screwed up their eyes and turned anyplace else. One of them says maybe we’ll pull the fingernails out of him and that’ll get him going. Right you are says the big boy and they grab a hauld of me hand and they squintin at it and turning it around, sayin there doesn’t seem to be any nails on it. Sure one time I used enjoy biting me nails when I had teeth in me head and nails in me fingers but once th’auld badger ran off with the shovel there was no way of getting the spud only goin at it with the hands and now all the spuds is dug by hand and nary a nail there is on any finger only callouses as thick as the sole of a boot. That one’s the thumb says wan’a the lumpy lads, no this one’s the thumb says another. But this here’s the palm says the first. No it isn’t says another, is that his left hand or his right hand? One of the lumpy lads takes a look at me from the side and I suppose what with me trousers being on back to front on account of excessive holes in the knees, and the well’tins on the wrong feet ‘cos of a terrible hurry on me back in 1975, and myself looking back over me shoulder to see what were they at, he became horrible confused as to what way round was I at all and sure the poor man fell down in a fit thinking they’d broke me in half putting me into the chair.
What we’ll do now, says the big lad, is we’ll pull the toenails off of him instead. D’ye hear that, he roars at me, where’s the money or we’ll pull the toenails off of ya. Small harm to you, says I, and since you’ve a pliers maybe you’ll be able for it and maybe you won’t, but myself I haven’t been able to get the well’tins off since 1976. Up to that point I used change th’auld sox fairly regular every New Years day. There’d be nothing left of the old ones only the rim and I used pull th’auld rim up the leg to make way for the new sock, then back on with the well’tins pretty quick before I’d suffocate. Only in 1975, what with the thickness of the smell, I closed my eyes and didn’t I put the well’tins back on the wrong feet. The following year, I remember it well cos t’was twenty years after the mother died of bad luck from a half-choked magpie, I couldn’t get the well’tins off for love nor money neither of which I had, and that was the end of the fresh sox. Be Jaz, says wan of the lumpy men, maybe ‘tis inside in the boots he has the money. If it isn’t, says the big lad, out with the toenails.
Well, half the lumpy men laid hold of me arms and the rest laid hold of me boots and they went to heaving like a tug-of-war. After half an hour, when I was about six inches longer and nothing else happening, didn’t one lad have the idea of heating the boots with fag lighters. They went at it again, yer man full pelt with the fag lighters, and next thing there’s a sucking noise and a blue flame and the boots went flyin and the whole place full of the most atrocious stink ever smelt above ground. Bedad ‘tis worse than ’75, says I to myself, keeping th’auld gob shut for fear of asphyxiation, all the while the lumpy men going purple and boggle-eyed with the stench such as no septic tank ever left loose. In the hope of fresh air, I put the head down and busted out the back door into the haggard and away with me barefoot through the nettles and briars and over the ditch and away through the slurry tank where the top fell in long ago and down with me into the septic pit and up the other side through the furze bushes where the Conroys have generations of cars stored and down along the face of the quarry and into the swamp where there was an awful splashin and screechin and roarin of children and next thing I see th’auld hag and she says There he is and the whole she-bang takes up after me and what with the lumpy men comin behind me I says to myself ‘tis into the thicket for me and I running along with stones and sticks and bits of rusty ganvanizing sticking to my feet and sure I thought the smell was catching up on me but wasn’t it comin from the feet themselves. So for the pure love of life I bate through the whitethorn thicket and off into th’auld stream and after enough of stones had stuck to me feet and fell off again weren’t me feet back to their normal size at least, so I circled back to th’auld cabin to see could I get the well’tins on again right way round this time and maybe risk a breath of air.
I sat down in the chair, trying to pull on the well’tins without taking a breath and listening to the faraway sounds of roarin and screechin in the thicket beyant, and bedad no sooner had I the well’tins on and takin a good suck of air and realizin I was after missing the chance of putting on fresh sox if only I had them, when in over the flattened table comes a dapper man with a beady eye and says he to me do you not know me, I’m your long gone father, back from America. Begob, says I, you’re hauldin it better than I am, cos the only hair I have on me head is in me nose and ears and sure yourself has hardly even a bit of grey. Ah ‘tis the good life, says he, and hardly was the words out of his mouth than in through the back door is another beady-eyed fella who says I’m yer long gone father, and while them two is takin at one another, in comes another wan and another wan, and next thing they seemed to be comin in the window or down the chimney cos I could hardly see the wall with them and each of them waltzin in and out whispering is there the loan of a few bob to get a business going or thaw out a bank account or pay a ransom and other such things and they had the eyes going round in me head and me with no father at all my whole life and now about fifteen of them of all ages. I was wonderin did the mother fall asleep naked in the dressin room of a hurling match or how did it happen I’d so many fathers, and distraught I was at the memory of years toiling away with no father at all and the mother sitting gobsmacked inside in the chimney, probably broken hearted at the fifteen men who loved her and went to America.
Perplexed with the sorrow of it all, I espied a hole in the wall that I thought I might lep through to get outside but sure wasn’t it only a patch of rising damp and didn’t I dive headlong at the wall instead of through a hole, poleaxing meself entirely and falling in a fuddle on the floor. Give him air says wan. Give him water says another. Give him room says a third. Give him here says the last. I woke up in a coma, across the back of this lad and he batin across the haggard and away through the nettles and briars and over the ditch and off through the slurry tank where the top fell in long ago and down into the septic pit and up the other side through the furze bushes where the Conroys have generations of cars stored and down along the face of the quarry and through the swamp and into the thicket where there was raucous row and ruille-buille and th’auld hag with a well-aimed stick brings down the father that’s carryin me and the rest of them following is tearin at each other and batin into the lumpy men with the horde of children entangled in their legs and biting their knees. Luckily for me being on the ground and being the same colour as the mud itself they couldn’t see me at all, so away with me slitherin back the way I came, over ditches and dykes and through all manner of filth and rot towards the haven of my quiet little cabin.
Not far I got however, cos up through the haggard comes all the fathers and the lumpy men and the hag with her screechin children, and I was only up on the mound that used to be the pigsty when I seen a tidy fella comin in through the barbed wire gate, careful-like, and he in a fancy suit and half-spectacles and carrying a tidy little suitcase. I knew he must be the most awful ever cos the whole lot behind me were suddenly quiet save the odd clap agin a child’s ear. See gee shees wrong a hane, says th’auld hag and she putting a full set of teeth into her mouth, and says a lumpy lad to one of the fathers Is that you, Father Considine. Tis Sergeant, whispers he, what are you doing here.
Up comes the tidy man to the top of the pigsty and the whole lot of them gathers around. Says he, would you be the man known as Dan Dinny Anne. Deed I am, says I. At long last, says he. If you will sign here I will give you a cheque for one hundred and forty seven million euros, for you have won the lottery. Well, says I, that is an amazing fact. It is, says he. Specially, says I, since I never bought a ticket. What’s that, says he, and he cross as a wasp. Aren’t you Dan Dinny Anne, known as Dan Dinny Anne the Bog? No says I, I’m Dan Dinny Anne the Haggard, Dan Dinny Anne the Bog lives beyant in the swamp.
Well by Jaz I was thrun upside down by the stampede. When t’was over there was only myself and the tidy man left above on the pigsty. He looked down at me a moment and with a small sigh he starts pickin his way back to the barbed wire gate. Good riddance, says I, and went in to sit down on the good chair and damn the goin to town.
©2012 PG O'Connor