THE STORY SO FAR
I’m pushing the boat out this evening to mark the fact that Evelyn and I have been meeting since late September and are still on speaking terms. She says she wants to write a novel and would like my advice. In order to help her I’ve been forced to analyse what it is I do when I write.
To be honest, I thought recently it was all over. From the outset Evelyn was distracted, as if novel writing was the last thing on her mind. It needed novelist and poet Mary O’Donnell’s soothing words to snap Evelyn out of her dark mood and unlock her past life.
Up to our last encounter something of a mystery was attached to Evelyn. When she and Bill (RIP) came to live here six or seven years ago, he was still teaching science in a Dublin school and Evelyn, according to local gossip, had taken early retirement. But retirement from what? I’d never been told nor had the opportunity to ask. But when she was last here, unbidden, she told me.
‘I was once a traffic warden,’ Evelyn said.
This evening we’re having a belated half-term celebration.
Evelyn took off for Halloween with her foraging group, so we’re only now resuming our discussion.
Since I’m the chef the menu is very simple: shepherd’s pie, made with Evelyn’s recipe, and salad accompanied by a bottle of Cote du Rhone.
I’ve alerted Evelyn in advance so she will not have eaten and can walk over through the woods and enjoy the wine.
Evelyn is in bubbling form. A couple of weeks ago she told me that Nigel, her eldest son, is coming home from Australia for Christmas. I know she is very close to Nigel – among other things, he reminds her of Bill (RIP).
And Evelyn has brought over a bottle of Rioja Reserve this evening, just to make sure we’re not thristy. Whatever dark mood was stalking her the last time she was here has been shaken off and now she is radiantly happy.
‘It is such a lovely evening out there,’ she says. ‘It’s almost theatrically beautiful.’
We’ve started out sitting either side of the Aga. The wine glows deep red in our Waterford glasses.
‘No light pollution,’ she says happily, ‘just a wash of stars.’
The smell of the shepherd’s pie floats up from the warming oven.
‘May I tell you something?’ she says and sticks out the toes of her woolly socks. ‘Last night I was seized by almost supernatural rapture at three in the morning and had to leap out of bed to write it down.’
‘It allowed me to get back to sleep,’ she says. ‘I think it was my muse communicating with me.’
‘No doubt it was,’ I say. ‘What did you actually write down?’
Evelyn shakes her head as if in wonderment at her own resources.
‘Can you imagine the – excuse my French – the shit that a traffic warden has to put up with? I mean, I always tried to be fair, to be nice. It was the way I was brought up. My mother was a nurse in the Mater, she looked after people. She taught me to care. But because my father died when I was two, she also made sure I was tough. A street fighter. Respect was the key word – you give it, you expect it. And so, in my former life, if someone respected me, I gave them a break. Oh, miss, please don’t give me a ticket. I know you have a job to do but I was kept waiting for an hour in the chemist to get a prescription for my baby. Fair enough. A complete try-on, but at least they were respectful. And then there were the others.’
Awesome, I think! This is the real Evelyn. Writing is bringing out the woman behind the eggs, hens and recipes and revealing the Traffic Warden From Hell.
‘The names I’ve been called,’ she says, ‘I can’t repeat them. Boy, did I make them sorry for what they called me – and not just men, in fact the women were worse. The things they said about me. Did you know it’s a criminal offence to be foul mouthed to a traffic warden?’
I stare. ‘Did you – send people to jail?’
‘I’ve spent years feeling guilty about that,’ she says, ‘but then last night…I got up and started to write it all down! Gave them all faces and then wrote down all the horrible things they said about me. I started to get them out of my system by writing about them! Now I don’t feel guilty anymore!’
She leans forward and I top up her glass with red wine, then my own. It’s amazing how little these bottles hold nowadays. We reflect for a quiet moment on the redemptive properties that spring from writing things down.
‘If I was to ask you for one word to sum up a writer’s life,’ Evelyn says, ‘what would that word be? And before you answer, don’t give me any airy-fairy poppycock like Misery or Fear.’
Her cheeks are glowing when she says this.
‘Routine,’ I say.
We’ve moved from the Aga to the table and I’ve served the pie and salad. The Rioja has now been opened and is drinking nicely.
‘The word routine is somewhat uncomplimentary, for it suggests a middle way that is unexceptional, whereas we are all inclined to think of creativity as a form of magic,’ I say.
‘Like I said, it’s the magic that draws me,’ Evelyn says.
‘Let’s call it for what it is,’ I say. ‘Writing is a craft, like woodwork, or making jewellery, with – and this is the big enchilada – a dollop of talent added. A bit like a little herb that transforms an ordinary dish into a mouth-watering treat.’
‘Like this Shepherd’s Pie.’
‘What all this means is that you have to treat writing like a job and not a call from God. You have to establish a routine,’ I say.
‘What’s yours?’ she asks and pours the Rioja.
‘I’m a morning person. I get up every morning at around 6.30 and I write. Break for breakfast at 8.30. Back to work for an hour or two at 10.00. I do this at least five days a week, often seven. I can write on Christmas morning, before anyone else is up. The only mornings I don’t follow this routine is when I’ve been out late the night before. My writing routine gets me to bed early, and provides me with a framework of discipline. If I am travelling, or indisposed, and miss my routine, I feel unbalanced.’
Evelyn helps herself to more salad. ‘I’m definitely an evening person. I think it comes from having been sent away to the nuns and having to get up every morning at seven o’clock for mass.’
‘I prepare the night before for the next morning,’ I say. ‘A sentence, a phrase or an idea. I dread the thought of the cold page. Patrick Kavanagh, the great poet, was asked by the late Gay Byrne if he liked writing. ‘I hate it,’ Kavanagh replied, before going on to explain that what he hated was the cold page awaiting him every morning. The sight of the tabula rasa. The getting back into the job anew every single day.’
‘This may sound pretentious,’ Evelyn says, ‘but there are days when I find myself in a lather of creative ecstasy. I’m not writing, I’m simply directing a torrent of what I think are sublime lyrics on to the page. I’m in a state of almost divine transportation. Then, the next day when I read it it’s like reading the ads in the newspaper the fish came wrapped in.’
She’s not been this open with me before. She’s like a different person to the Evelyn who was here last week. I pity the people who were depending on her not to give them a parking ticket.
‘Novel writing is a long distance race,’ I say. ‘You have to pace yourself, have patience, and get into the rhythm of the race. That’s why I think a daily routine is essential.’
I clear our dishes and serve tipsy cake accompanied by shots of Calvados.
‘Mmm, this is very good. My recipe?’
‘Yes, of course.’
[Click here for Evelyn’s recipe for tipsy cake]
‘I owe you an apology,’ she says.
I hate these unexpected moments.
‘For last week,’ she says. ‘I was withdrawn and rude. I’m sorry.’
I am about to remind her that she shared her backstory with me last week. But her hand goes up imperiously.
‘You see,’ she says, ‘last week my life took an unexpected turn.’
I knew it, I think. I bet Nigel cancelled coming home for Christmas and that Evelyn has now decided that she is going to Sydney to be with him.
‘You remember a few weeks ago I told you about how I fell into a ditch on a Dig It & Dung It outing?’ Evelyn asks.
‘Yes, and if it wasn’t for the gin you might have frozen to death,’ I say .
‘Well that may be the case, but in any event, I was pulled out,’ she says. ‘By a new member of the group.’
‘A new Digger & Dunger.’
‘His name is Lenny,’ Evelyn says. ‘And now he’s asked me out on a date.’