What’s the Story?

 

My Left Foot was on RTE 2 on Saturday night. I know it well because it was one of the ‘comparative’ texts I studied for my Leaving Cert (the film, not the book). Of course, me being me, I’ve read the book as well and it seems to be the voice of a man who very much came from an era where disability and impairment were problematic (okay, let’s face it, that’s every era – nothing’s changed there). Christy Brown is regarded as one of the most talented Irish writers of the twentieth century, and his name has become synonymous with triumph over adversity, literary genius, truly inspirational. And as a writer with Cerebral Palsy myself, I reflected on what it’s like to live in the shadow of such genius, and such brutal and cold oppression such as that endured by Brown.

If I had been born thirty years before, would I too have been relegated to watching life pass me by from under the stairs?

I’m constantly being told that I should consider  writing an autobiography, as Christy says ‘my own story’, and although I’m sure that every writer toys with the idea at one stage or another, part of me can’t see anything particularly extraordinary about my life. Unlike Christy Brown I was mainstreamed, and was very much a part of ordinary family life. I went to school, where I detested homework, and then to secondary school and college. I was always convinced that this was the status quo for other disabled people too, in spite of the fact that there were only two other students with physical disabilities in my school. (I say physical because there are also hidden disabilities like dyslexia, etc.)

Sixty years on from the publication of My Left Foot, I know that there are hundreds of autobiographies written by people with disabilities. In my home town alone, two men with Cerebral Palsy have published their own stories – Brendan Brophy wrote On Three Wheels and Dealing a Bad Hand and David Boland wrote Life from the Tip of My Tongue. Their style is different from Christy Brown’s, although some experiences are the same such as being in the CRC. My good friend Leigh Gath is currently extending her autobiography Don’t Tell Me I Can’t, the s\tory of her incredible journey as a thalidomide survivor (she has hands and feet, but not arms and legs) growing up in Newry during the Troubles, finding her identity as a sexual being and escaping from her alcoholic husband to finally find true love.

The progression of the perception of disability between My Left Foot and Don’t Tell Me I Can’t is intriguing. In My Left Foot Christy is preoccupied with his physical limitations and the now outdated terms he uses to describe himself, such as ‘cripple’ and ‘handicap’ whereas having been born thirty(?) years later, Leigh has a different perspective. Despite her specialised education at boarding school, she can clearly see from a young age that she is not the ‘problem’ but rather she lives in a society that won’t accommodate her needs. This frustration led her to become involved in disability activism and hard-core protests in trying to secure the rights of people with disabilities. It’s interesting to note that Leigh grew up in Newry, a community divided into Catholic and Protestants, while also inhabiting a world that endeavoured to reinforce the differences between disabled and non-disabled people.

Christy Brown’s perception of disability is now a little outdated. But one thing he must be credited for is that he gave permission to the disability community of Ireland (and the wider world) to tell their stories. Unfortunately at present we live in a world where these stories often exist in isolation. Christy Brown’s book may have garnered him worldwide recognition, but the rest of us face a new challenge. Disability has become so commonplace and integration is supposedly the status quo to the extent where, in the future,  writing your story from the perspective of having a disability won’t be enough to gain you credibility or respect.

Instead, it will be up to us as the future Christy Browns to push the message that disabled people in themselves are not problematic. It is society that disables, society that insists that we are different. A disability or impairment can never be overcome, but obstacles created by our society can be removed, if we put our minds to it.

And though I admit that I also am a sucker for a good old ‘triumph over adversity’ story, wouldn’t it be simultaneously strange and wonderful if we had more stories like: ‘Wobbly Yummy Mummy had no problems accessing mainstream school, or going to college, or accessing transport. She lived an average life with her husband and her kid. She sold a billion copies of her bestselling novel. The End.’

Okay, that’s a little boring. A little ordinary, even. But a good writer will always find the extraordinary in everyday life, if he or she is willing to look hard enough for it. My hope is that in the future, disabled  people will be perceived, and have the courage to portray themselves as the multi-faceted, complicated creatures we are.

And undoubtedly My Left Foot, both the book and the film version will be studied for decades to come, and my hope is that students will exclaim, ‘How could Irish society exclude Christy Brown and other disabled people for so long? Thank God Ireland ratified the UNCRPD!’*

*We haven’t, as of 23rd January 2018. The Minister of State with responsibility for Disability promised it would be ratified by the end of January. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

 

 

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The Befriender

The Befriender.

 

Daniel was browned off, and rightly so. Here he was, at almost twenty years old, being manipulated by his mother. True, he had reason to be grateful: she could’ve gone to the gardai, and she didn’t. God knows, it had never made much difference before. He smiled as he remembered their neighbour, Sergeant Larry Byrne, coming down to have a ‘friendly chat’ with him, which amounted to ‘ah son, you don’t want to be hanging around with those hooligans now, do you?’ His words had seemed hollow from a man who had an extensive collection of pirated DVDs, confiscated from the Sunday morning Clara market.

I don’t know how she found out anyway, he thought as he pulled on his bootleg cut dark blue Jack-and-Jones jeans. That’s the problem with living somewhere as small as Clara: everyone knew everyone else’s business. He couldn’t even remember where he’d heard that his fourteen year old neighbour Tina Cullen was pregnant, or that Robbie Mills from The Green got done for growing weed in his room. The cornerstones of any tight-knit community, he thought with a pursed smile: sex and drugs. Minus the rock and roll though; there was rarely anything exciting going on. If he could afford it, he’d be out getting mouldy in the Bridge House in Tullamore every weekend. And he certainly wouldn’t be living with his mother.

‘Get down here now!’ came the irritable shout. Daniel lit a cigarette as he sauntered down the stairs, trudging down step by step. He’d hoped she’d calmed down by now. Like everyone in this one-horse town, he thought, all Sandra Reilly cared about was her reputation. Not that it was all that good to begin with: as long as he could remember, Sandra had always been a bit of a player. Daniel would often be left to have awkward morning after conversations, sometimes with strange men, other times with men he knew. The time he had to sit across the breakfast table from his German teacher, Mr O’Toole, was particularly traumatising.

‘What?’ he sulked as he slinked into the kitchen, blowing out smoke.

‘I’ve worked out your punishment,’ Sandra said with a knowing wink. On the table lay a Christmas table centrepiece, comprising of a log with some holly, mistletoe and other greenery stuck into it. ‘You’re going to take this to Mrs. O’Shea down the road.  She has some jobs that need doing. She’s been ever so lonely since that husband of hers died last year.’

‘You can piss off with yourself,’ he retorted, stubbing out his cigarette on the brown ashtray.

‘Fine,’ shrugged Sandra, picking up the phone. ‘I’ll just call the guards then and tell them that I know who broke into Mags Kennedy’s last night, will I? Because I am warning you son, I am this close to washing my hands of you. I won’t have the pigs on my doorstep every night.’

Daniel opened his mouth to say something, then slammed it shut, like a fish. ‘I’ll drop it into her, but then I’m going into town. It’s the twelve pubs tonight. We’re hitting Tullamore.’ He picked up the centrepiece, his wallet and his phone. ‘See you later, ma.’

‘Don’t bother. You’re not coming back until you stop treating this house like a doss house,’ Sandra screeched after him. ‘And don’t think Tom O’Connor is welcome here, neither.’

Now that he was out in the air, he could think more clearly about what he was going to do about his grim financial situation. He hated going to the job club, listening to that Barbara prattle on about interview techniques. He hadn’t heard back from any of the jobs he’d applied for, not even the packing job in Carroll’s meat factory, and the mere thought of sitting at a desk studying all day turned his brain to sludge. All he wanted to do now was throw in this centrepiece and go into town and get locked.

Mrs. O’Shea’s front garden was a tropical jungle of overgrown weeds. She was perceived to be like a modern day Mrs Dubose: cranky and slightly deranged. She hadn’t always been like that: Daniel still remembered how she used to visit his mam every Friday with a homemade apple tart in hand, how the pair of them used to hang out at his front pillar gossiping, how her garden once featured in the garden section of the Midland Tribune. He tentatively stepped over a pile of broken glass before ringing the doorbell, which he couldn’t hear echoing in her hallway.

He knocked loudly on the door, then, sensing an opportunity, cleared some of the decaying greenery from Mrs. O’Shea’s step with his dirty Nike runners and placed the centrepiece down. As he was straightening up, the front door rattled. For fuck’s sake, thought Daniel. No escape now.

‘Linda?’ said a fragile voice. Daniel tried to hide his shock. Mrs O’Shea had once been a stout woman, but now she was angular; her elbow bones almost ripped through her skin, her neck was sagging. Her chest was shapeless in her green and maroon cardigan. ‘Who are you?’

‘It’s Daniel, Mrs O’Shea. You know, Sandra’s boy? She just wanted me to drop…’

‘Come in, come in,’ interrupted Mrs O’Shea, ushering him inside. The hallway smelled musty; the once blue-papered hallway was now yellowed from years of tobacco smoke. There was a faint smell of urine, not fresh. ‘I thought you were Linda, you know,  my befriender? She comes every Wednesday. Lovely girl.’ She fumbled with a cigarette. ‘Excuse the mess. I don’t get visitors often.’

Daniel’s eyes wandered around the unkempt sitting room and noticed a small three foot Christmas tree in the corner, covered primarily in gold tinsel and the odd bauble. He predicted correctly, before he looked up, that there would be a gaudy foil decoration, brightly coloured, stretched from one end of the ceiling to the other. Even though he wasn’t there five minutes, it frightened him how desensitised he was already becoming to the smell, the gloom, the squalor.

‘I just wanted to drop this off,’ he tried again, handing over the centrepiece. ‘I didn’t mean to disturb you… in fact, I…’ He turned to the front door, adjusting his coat.

‘Actually, son,’ Mrs. O’Shea interjected, ‘there’s a light bulb in the kitchen that needs changing. Could you…please? I’ve been sitting in the dark for the last few nights. The spare bulbs are in the press over there.’ She pointed at a brown chipboard press above the kitchen counter, under which rested an enormous empty wine bottle, almost filled to the top with coins and notes.

Daniel nodded and retrieved the bulb, trying to stop himself from gagging with the smell. It smelled like decaying food, human excrement and dried sweat, all at once. Mrs. O’Shea flicked the switch on the kettle and took out two greasy looking cups from the press.

‘Do you take tea?’

‘No thanks,’ Daniel said, flicking the light switch. ‘There, that’s working now.’ He pushed the chair back under the table, pretending that it made the kitchen neater.

‘A cigarette at least? Don’t think that I don’t know what you young lads get up to!’ She wagged her finger at him. ‘Just till Linda comes, please. There’s been no-one here all day.’

‘Where’s your daughter?’ Daniel asked. He wished he hadn’t accepted the cigarette; he could taste the smell of the kitchen when he inhaled. He remembered Lucy from old: she used to babysit him on a Thursday night while his mother was in White’s. She had always been a bit of a suck-up; in fact, she stopped babysitting Daniel because she was convinced he was ‘the spawn of the devil.’

Mrs. O’Shea clinked the teaspoon loudly as she stirred the tea. ‘Oh,’ she said, and then a pause. ‘She doesn’t come to visit me anymore.’

Daniel smelled a rat. ‘What do you mean, she doesn’t visit anymore? I thought she only lived on the Arden Road?’

‘She does.’

‘Then how come? Because obviously, you could use…’ He stopped himself and took a sip out of his tea. He hadn’t seen the woman in years, he had no right to comment on her living conditions.

Mrs O’Shea lit a cigarette, letting out a braying cough as she did. ‘It’s not her fault,’ she said, gazing out the window. ‘It’s mine. I treated her badly… I…’ Another cough, hacking this time. ‘I didn’t mean to…I don’t know what got into me. But the bills, they just piled up so suddenly and, well… I figured she owed me, you know? She moved off to live in her swanky house in Tullamore and I couldn’t afford to… so…’ She shrugged.

‘Oh right,’ said Daniel. He didn’t know what else to say.

‘That’s what that bottle is for, you know. I will pay her back one day before I die, if it kills me. I haven’t bought oil in an age, but this cardigan does just as well. And my stomach can’t handle much more than toast now anyway.’ Another cough. ‘I don’t go around thinking the world owes me something.’ Daniel straightened immediately. Was this a dig at him?

His phone vibrated in his pocket: a message from Vinnie. He and Tom couldn’t afford to go drinking in Tullamore, after all. Or as Vinnie so eloquently put it, ‘we’re fucking broke.’

‘Anyway, I really must head on, so…’ He stood up and ambled towards the hall.

Mrs O’Shea grabbed his arm with her cold, bony hand. ‘Thank you for calling in to see me today. It was so good to have a young’un to talk to.’ When she released it, his arm still tingled. ‘I know I’ve no right to ask, but I don’t suppose you’d call in sometime over Christmas, you and your ma? I’ve lovely mince pies in the freezer.’

‘Of course.’ He moved up the hallway, anxious to embrace the cleanness of the cold December air.

He walked briskly towards the Green, lighting a cigarette mid-walk. When he was a safe distance from Mrs O’Shea’s, he whipped the phone out of his pocket and, holding the cigarette in between his thick lips, smiled as he texted Vinnie back:

‘I know where you can get the money. Meet at mine in ten minutes.’

It’s only fair, he thought. An eye for an eye.

My Literary Inspiration

Sometimes (okay, most days if I’m honest), I find myself asking why bother. Why writing? Why not an office job, a nine to five with a steady income and job security? On days when I have to drag  the words out of my head kicking and screaming, I end up on job vacancy websites, sobbing into my laptop as once again self-doubt, in all its cruel and soul-destroying glory, sneaks in again and does a happy dance in my stomach.

This happened again last night, when I had so much to do and couldn’t settle. I scrolled through the Word document that will be a novel some day (I’m trying the power of positive thinking starting….now) and I watched helplessly as the words seemed to merge into one big blob. I have to walk away when that happens. The temptation to end the struggle once and for all using just two buttons, delete and enter, is much too great when I’m in a panicky, confused state of mind.

But I digress. I got to thinking why I wanted to write in the first place. Louise O’Neill, award-winning author of Only Ever Yours and Asking for It (and, as far as I remember, sat in a few tutorials with me in Trinity- her and Ken Mooney are my claims  to fame) credits Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (now a major TV series) for igniting her need to write. Incidentally, I’m a Louise fan too, and in particular Asking for It raises some serious questions about how we perpetuate rape culture and how we need to exonerate the victim of responsibility. After all, you wouldn’t ever say that a murder victim was partly responsible for their own demise, would you?

I’m an Atwood fan too, though the book that changed my life was Cat’s Eye, a novel detailing the complexity of female friendship, the far-reaching consequences of emotional abuse by a loved one and the struggle of trying to live with regret. Atwood is the master of description, and in Elaine  she created a complex character who is a product of her past and her regrets. In fact, if I think about it, this is what I’m trying to portray in my character as well.

Another book that changed my life was the text I read for my Junior Cert, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harpur Lee. I had read widely up to that point, mainly for pleasure, and Mockingbird was the first time that I considered that a novel could be a vehicle of promoting activism. Lee’s depiction of the inherent segregation of people in the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama and the widespread normalisation of discrimination, demonization even, made me feel cold. As a child narrator, Scout is taught both directly and indirectly, to judge people based on their differences, and yet Lee offers hope to the narrator. Yes, the innocent Tom Robinson, convicted of the rape of Mayella Ewell, is wrongfully convicted and later killed for trying to escape prison, but Scout learns to recognise humanity. In the touching scene where she meets the childlike Boo Radley for the first time, we learn that it is our perception of others that creates divide and not our tangible differences.

I still have nightmares about this last book (by no means the last book to have influenced my writing, but nobody will read a 4000-odd word blog about  it), George Orwell’s 1984. Like any good dystopian novel, the world of 1984 is not too far from the world we live in now. It’s a world in which the inhabitants’ thoughts are not really their own, where there are cameras everywhere, even in private homes, and where news stories are rewritten  to suit the agenda of the State and the real facts are chucked into a ‘memory hole’. Winston, an ordinary working class bloke, starts to question the oppressive regime under which he lives. He lives in a world where he cannot trust anyone, where he is not even allowed the privacy of his own thoughts. The reason why I had nightmares about  this book is because Winston is beaten into submission when he is placed in a room of rats. Loyalty means nothing in 1984, and neither does friendship or compassion. You think and do what you are told to think and do.

Sometimes I wonder whether I’d really be able to write a novel that would have the same impact on others as these three have had on me. Yet that little annoying voice inside says that I have to keep trying, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s better to have tried and failed than never tried at all. Right?!