As the moon fills its final quarter and bats can be seen hunting the high hatches of midges, a knock comes to my back door. I’m not expecting anyone and so, when I go out, I’m delighted to find my neighbour Evelyn standing there.
‘Come in, what a surprise,’ I say.
Evelyn says, ‘I won’t stay long.’
She steps out of her wellington boots revealing green and white knitted woollen socks. We normally meet on the long, winding walks in the forest that separates our houses. We also bump into each other occasionally in our local pub. At Christmas, Evelyn comes over for a drink, and a few days later we return the compliment.
‘A g-and-t?’ I ask when we reach the kitchen. ‘Or red wine?’
I’m already reaching for the corkscrew when Evelyn says, ‘Peppermint tea, actually, please, if that’s all right.’
Alarm bells, straight away. My recurring image of Evelyn is of her standing beside the Aga in her own kitchen, in her wellington boots, drinking sloe gin and singing ‘Ireland’s Call’.
‘No problem,’ I say and reach for the teapot.
Evelyn is a quite small, very energetic lady in her early fifties. Her hair is dark, her eyes large and observant. She is forthright and self-sufficient, grows her own vegetables, and keeps bees and hens. Her recipes are very sought after in the area. She used to sell hens’ eggs, until, she claims, the European Union put a stop to her. As a result, she formed a personal dislike of Jean-Claude Juncker. She is part of a local group called Dig It & Dung It who fly around Ireland in an old minibus foraging in woods and inspecting gardens.
Sadly, this time almost two years ago, Evelyn’s partner, Bill, passed away after a long illness. He was a teacher of science in a Dublin school. The pupils formed a guard-of-honour for his funeral outside the church. A great man, and a great loss. Our whole little community rallied around Evelyn and her family – two boys, one of whom works in London, the other in Sydney. Everyone knows how difficult it must be for Evelyn, her boys abroad, now living on her own. We all want to help her in whatever way we can.
‘So how are things?’ I ask casually as I stuff fresh peppermint into the pot and get out the shortbread (made by me with an Evelyn recipe).
She is sitting very still. ‘This is, if you like, a business call, in fact.’
I race to think what business there could possibly be between us. Once, our dog killed five of her hens, but that was years ago, and our current mutt is, as far as I can see, a pacifist. I set out the cups, pour the tea and sit opposite Evelyn, albeit on the edge of my chair.
‘There is no easy way to say this,’ she says. ‘I want to write.’
I don’t know what to say.
‘The other day, I was on my own, walking down the beach in Portmarnock, when I had this epiphany,’ Evelyn says. ‘I suddenly knew I wanted to write.’
Her eyes shine as she says this.
‘A novel,’ she adds.
Oh, dear God, I think. ‘That’s great,’ I say.
‘And I’m here to ask for your help,’ she says.
Feck it, I think. ‘I see,’ I say.
‘You’ve written loads of novels, you’re the ideal person to teach me how it’s done.’
I feel terror take hold of me, a bit like in the days in school when I knew I was next to be asked a question on a subject I had not studied. ‘Me?’
‘Who else? I don’t know any other writers,’ Evelyn says.
And this is the evening I’ve put aside, since my better half is out at a musical event, to watch golf on television.
‘Look, I’m delighted to hear your plans,’ I say, ‘but I’m probably not a very good teacher…’
‘Have you ever tried?’
‘No, but you see, even if I did try, I’m not sure a lot of the time what I do or why I do it,’ I say lamely. ‘It just sort of…comes out…
‘But you must have some clue.’
It’s as if I’m an imposter. I just sit, unable to respond, yet knowing that I have to say something. This is my neighbour, my friend, asking a favour of me.
‘I mean, how does it happen?’ Evelyn asks. ‘That’s what I’m asking you to tell me!’
‘Do you know how it happens?’ Evelyn then asks, not unkindly. ‘I mean, I’m not being rude, I hope, but surely there must be some rules, or guidelines, or principles you follow that you can share with me. You can’t work in total darkness.’
I have become short of breath, as if I’ve been caught out in something, as if word has just come down that the headmaster wishes to see me.
‘You know, I could be the next Margaret Attwood,’ Evelyn says.
I feel as if I’m sinking beneath the weight of someone else’s destiny.
‘I have this strong urge,’ she says. ‘I just need someone to help me start. Some tips! Come on!’
I consider, without chivalry, pleading the burden of my commitments and the lack of sufficient hours in the day for my own purposes; but then I recall the opinion of members of my own family, seldom muted, that my life is one of borderline indolence heavily disguised as literary endeavour.
‘I’ve read all your books,’ Evelyn says. ‘They must come out of somewhere!’
She has, as women tend to, seized upon the central point of my conundrum. I might well be in charge of what I do when I’m doing it, but that fragment of competence then quickly vanishes as the next problem in the writing presents itself. I have recently sent to my patient publishers, Sandstone Press, my new novel, Freedom is a Land I Cannot See, but my occasional attempts to see from where that novel came – to identify its genealogy, as it were – have proved futile.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘I’d like to help but I’m probably the worst person to ask. I’ve been writing for so long I just do it. It just happens. I start and I stop. I keep going back to the start. I muddle along, often for years, frequently lost. It’s all quite embarrassing.’
Oh, God, I think. This is my neighbour and I have just as good as refused her cry for help. How many times did Bill help me to hang a gate? To haul in firewood? To get my lawnmower going? All tasks I’m hopeless at. And how many countless recipes has Evelyn given us? And now the first time she has come over and asked my help in something, what do I do? Plead hopelessness in the very thing in which I’m meant to have some competence. Pathetic.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says again and finishes her tea. She consults her watch. ‘It’s getting late.’
What kind of person spends all day, every day, doing something that he can’t explain to someone else, I wonder helplessly? A writer, is clearly the answer. What kind of an eegit can’t explain what he does? A writer, apparently.
‘I apologise for putting you on the spot,’ she says and stands up.
She looks at me. Something rooted and immovable defines Evelyn at such moments. ‘What?’
‘How about we meet here, when I’ve had time to think, and we give it a go?’ I say.
‘We see what happens. Go with the flow. No promises.’
Evelyn’s eyes are a deep mysterious hazel. ‘Now I feel really guilty.’
‘I’ve guilted you into this,’ she says. ‘You’re there thinking – I’m refusing to help not just my nearest neighbour, not just a friend, but a widow! I’ve turned my back on a bereaved woman in her time of need, you’re thinking! You’re thinking, what kind of a – excuse me – what kind of a shit won’t help a grieving woman in her hour of need? But listen, I understand. I really do.’
‘I see it as a challenge,’ I say.
Evelyn’s eyebrows rise sceptically.
‘It’s about time I came to grips with what I do,’ I say. ‘Let’s try it.’
She sighs and sits down again. ‘Seriously – you shouldn’t do this unless you really want to.’
‘I want to,’ I say. ‘Yes.’
‘I mean I haven’t a clue what will happen. Maybe I’ll strangle your epiphany at birth – who knows?’
‘Oh – thank you,’ she says.
‘Let’s make a deal,’ I say. ‘We meet here and if it doesn’t work out, no hard feelings. This never happened. We’ll carry on as before.’
‘Sounds like a one-night stand,’ she says cheekily.
We shake hands.
‘So next week?’
‘Next week,’ she says.
I walk her to the door where she has left her boots. ‘I’m currently making a new batch of sloe gin,’ she says, ‘I’ll bring you a bottle.’
What have I done? I think, as I watch her walking away at a good pace under the heavenly moonlight.