And it's something every writer carries in them in their heart.
Carries–it's a big statement, but there's a small truth
within the kernel of it–carries the history, the geography, the rules
and the songs of the place they come from. It's inescapable.
And to throw it away or to lose it is a tragedy.
And to throw it away is a crime. So, for all my complaints
about my native land, I am glad to be in thereon that bus
because it was a lovely thing to have.
There are a lot of them driving that bus.
I'm just one of the passengers.
Finnuala Fiesta was as unpredictable as the weather. You’d finally think you finally had the measure of her when she’d surprise you with some new change of tack. The heater might go on the blink, the radio channels would change, or the windscreen wipers would spring into unexpected activity. One of her favourite tricks was to give a sudden lurch that’d drag you into the opposite lane where you could take your chances with oncoming traffic.
Her bodywork was splotched with carbuncular eruptions, some of which had burst open revealing the cancerous rust, Neil Young’s eternal insomniac, eating away at her, one crumbly orangey flake at a time.
The blisters were O’Dwyer’s fault. He’d be before your time, from the O’Dwyers drapers above on the main street, there where the Aldi is now. O’Dwyer was a loner. Still waters and all that. Hands like shovels on him. Fond of his pint. After the pub shut he’d drive the Fiesta down onto the strand and park facing the waves, a cargo of take-out cans on the passenger seat, and The Eagles, the soundtrack to his life, on repeat.
Finnuala chewed up the cassettes, copies he’d made from the vinyl at home. You’d see streels and ribbons of thin magnetic tape flashing in the breeze, caught up in the hawthorn hedges, and know that O’Dwyer and Finnuala had passed that way. If he’d lived long enough he would have moved on to the CDs, or the MP3s, but before he could get that far he ran straight into an oak tree, there by the corner of Kelly’s. I still feel a pang of guilt when I think of it.
The car was a write-off. For a long time you could still see traces of Finnuala’s red paint on the torn bark, the colour of lipstick or nail-varnish. That car was the only mistress O’Dwyer ever knew. The engine was shoved through his ribcage. You could say she broke his heart, and much of the rest of him too.
It was a closed coffin funeral. If he was looking down from above he would have been surprised by the number of people who turned up, people who wouldn’t have given him the time of day if they passed him on the street when he was alive. They came for the Mammy’s sake as much as anything else. Mind you, he’d be the same with them. He was never a man for words, beyond the lyrics of The Eagles songs, which had a peculiar habit of working their way into his speech.
For a while, there was an on-going debate down in Ryan’s as to which song O’Dwyer was listening to when he died.
“It could have been Glen Frey telling him to Take it easy.”
“More likely your man Randy whathisface encouraging him to Take it to the limit one more time.”
“Are yiz sure it wasn’t Life in the fast lane?”
But these discussions weren’t mocking O’Dwyer, if anything they were sincere and respectful. You wouldn’t hear The Eagles played around here after that. If they came on on the radio you’d change the channel or turn it off, and this must have been the only town in Ireland without Hotel California on the jukebox.
A few months before he died we were both caught up in an after-hours card game in Ryan’s. O’Dwyer slid the car keys to the centre of the table.
“Are you sure you want to be doing that?”
He nodded. The cards were revealed. My royals flushed his pair of pairs down the drain.
“Finnuala!” howled O’Dwyer, beating his head with his fists. “I’ll have her back off you this time next week if you’re man enough to wager,” he said, leaving the table forlorn and heart-broken.
He could cast aspersions on my manhood all he wanted, I pocketed the keys. But Finnuala Fiesta was no real prize, as those remaining at the table took pains to remind me.
“Sure that rust-bucket, she’d fall apart on you as soon as drive boy.”
“Seen it last week down on the strand, so I did. Up to the axles in the waves and himself asleep inside of it.”
I started to understand why O’Dwyer had given his car a name. Right from the start Finnuala showed a sight more personality than might normally be expected from a vehicle. Whether she was just naturally cantankerous, or whether it was because of the way O’Dwyer treated her, or the manner of her coming into my possession, exchanged on the whim of the cards, I can’t say. Whatever it was, she bore a grudge against me right from day one and was instrumental in the rapid withering of my tentatively budding romance with Brenda Flaherty.
“I swear, she’s neurotic,” I said to Brenda.
I’d had a long-running streak of luck, unanimously declared by the patrons of Ryan’s, as bad, particularly when it came to the ladies. In my mind winning the Fiesta from O’Dwyer marked the beginning of a change in my fortunes and I hoped things might work out well with Brenda.
“That’s just anthropomorphic projection,” she said.
“Seeing human characteristics in non-human things.”
“Where do you come up with words like that at all?”
“Books. Would you not read books?”
“I might if it was about something that interested me, like gardening, or a bit of DIY, sure don’t I have a library card, but you wouldn’t come across words like anthropowhatsit in them.”
Brenda had flaming red hair, though she called it auburn, and it gave fair warning of her garrulous nature, something any of her students at the community college would attest to if asked. Sharp-tongued and short-fused she was and God help the poor unfortunate who dared call her ginger or carrot-head.
She was a well-made, broad-beamed woman, with a set of hips that would give a man’s hands ample room to rove and grip if such opportunity were ever presented, which much to my chagrin wasn’t. She had a habit of probing her teeth with her tongue that reminded me of the creature in the Alien movies, writhing around inside their hosts, ready to break free and wreak havoc and devastation to all around her, but be that as it may I was happy enough to get a taste of that same flustered tongue, though truth be told it was a rare enough occurrence, requiring the best part of a bottle of Blue Nun apiece over Sunday roast above in Grogan’s Hotel. Other than that it was hands off.
“You must think I’m some sort of feckin’ eejit if you think you’ll be getting the milk for free without buying the cow,” she said, which was her way of bringing up the subject of wedding bells and rings, which wasn’t exactly what you might call forefront in my mind.
Like all school teachers back then she had a wardrobe of cardigans and A-line skirts, but the way Brenda wore them had a particular way of bringing the attention down from those womanly hips to the shapeliest set of calves this town has ever seen, all pure toned fibrous muscle, like marble statues of Greek Gods.
It was the hill walking gave her the legs, she was a demon for it. I joined her a few times, panting over a profusion of granite and heather and up into the clouds. You’d never really know if you’d made it to the top, or even if there was a top. She wouldn’t say much on those hikes, but you could sense a certain calmness from her, though being true to herself she was always smouldering away beneath it, like a fire under slake.
It all started to come apart when we arranged to go to see a film. I can’t remember what was showing, not that it matters anyhow, since, thanks to Finnuala Fiesta, we never made it to the cinema.
Brenda could have driven herself, but I wasn’t long after winning Finnuala and pictured myself a gallant prince charming come to collect his damsel in his carriage. Some carriage - more like a bloody pumpkin, and some prince as well, the sweet self-delusion of youth.
It was the type of evening you might call soft, if by soft you meant grey and drizzling enough to justify windscreen wipers screeching back and forth at low speed, and not yet dark enough to warrant the use of headlights, though it would be understandable if you did, the type of evening you could encounter at any time of year in these parts, with the taste of salt on the air and seagulls suspended on the wind blowing in towards the land, with their moans of existential angst. Plaintive, I imagined Brenda saying. My best conversations with Brenda were always the imaginary ones.
We’d talk about the way gulls are so unlike other birds. There’s a sense of menace about them, I imagined saying to her, like a gang of rowdies you might cross the street to avoid, and she’d say I know exactly what you mean, an aggressive aloofness in their sleek white-barrelled bodies, like miniature pit-bulls with beaks and wings, and I’d say always the vague threat that if you looked at them sideways they’d take out your eye with their curved yellow bills, though on a good day they might content themselves to just shit on your car.
Brenda was renting rooms from Mrs Maloney, up the top of the town in one of those old granite houses with the slate rooves. Mrs Maloney wouldn’t tolerate her tenants having male visitors, of any sort, at any time. I suspect that was precisely why Brenda chose those particular digs.
I parked out front and announced my arrival with a goose honk of the horn. The drizzle distorted the evening street through the wet windscreen, melting it into an Impressionist painting.
I remembered the umbrella on the backseat and got out to meet Brenda, swinging the car door behind me, leaving the keys still snugly in the ignition.
We walked to the car, sharing the umbrella. She was wearing some sort of perfume. A good sign, I thought. Rust, or some other form of corrosion, whether moral or physical, caused the car door handle to jam.
“Amn’t I after locking myself out of the car,” I said.
“And with the engine still running as well,” replied Brenda, in a put-down tone refined over years of use on recalcitrant adolescents. I blushed like a teenager.
“Well that’s the evening ruined,” she said, letting out a sigh. “I hope you have a spare set of keys about you somewhere.”
I didn’t, but if anyone did it would be O’Dwyer.
“Wait here until I go back upstairs for the keys to the Corolla,” Brenda said through tightly clenched teeth.
I almost answered “Yes Miss.”
I stood under the pattering umbrella watching the grey evening fade to dark, breathing in the fumes from Finnuala’s exhaust while she shuddered in a manner not unlike someone caught in the throes of laughter.
“Fuck you,” I muttered. “Anyway, I’m not the one with gull-shit on her bonnet.”
There were only two places O’Dwyer was likely to be found, three if you counted his house, which was a long shot at that time of day, and since it was still too early for him to be parked down on the beach with the gulls and The Eagles the obvious place to look was Ryan’s. Brenda drove and waited in the car while I went inside.
I offered O’Dwyer a pint for his troubles, but he refused.
“I’ll give them to you on one condition – you put them back in the pot on Friday night,” he said. “Plus you’ll have to give me a lift home now to find the keys as I’ve drink taken.”
That was never something to stop him before, and I was reluctant to take the wager, but I had little choice if I was to try and salvage the situation with Brenda. She was none too impressed at missing the film, and I guessed would be little pleased at the prospect of playing taxi for a beery-breathed O’Dwyer.
Whether it was bad luck or good I can’t properly say, but when the keys of the Fiesta were placed in the pot in Ryan’s that Friday night I won.
“Double or quits ye coward,” roared O’Dwyer, which made no sense of course. I pocketed the keys again.
“One of these nights!” he called after me as I left the table, quoting his heroes, as was his wont.
A week later I drove up the grey drizzle street to Mrs Maloney’s. Brenda had been acting cool since our last attempted date and even in our imaginary conversations she wasn’t saying much. I had a box of Milk Tray and a bunch of flowers on the seat beside me as peace offerings. I parked and honked and saw the upstairs light go off.
Carefully taking the keys out of the ignition I gathered up the chocolates and flowers and reached into the back seat for the umbrella. But my hands were too full, so I got out and put the keys on the roof while I wrestled the brolly out of the car.
I closed the car door with my foot and as I did saw the keys slide down the curve of the wet roof. Instead of falling harmlessly into the gutter the trajectory of the keys’ slow-motion decent intersected perfectly with the arc described by the closing door, which clipped them and sent them sailing through the air to land in the passenger footwell at precisely the moment the door clunked shut, locked from the inside of course.
Mrs Maloney’s front door opened and Brenda stepped out on the pavement.
“Were you going to open that umbrella?” Brenda asked witheringly. I felt like one of her classroom idiots.
“Amn’t I after locking the keys inside again,” I stammered. “It happened just this instant. Can you drive me home so as I can pick up the spares?”
“Won’t you come into my parlour said the spider to the fly,” she said, and then increasing the volume, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,” the last three words spat out in short sharp barks.
“You wouldn’t even have to come in, just wait in the car while I get the keys.”
But she had already turned and gone back inside, but not before taking the Milk Tray and chrysanthemums.
At least I had the umbrella. I finally opened it and walked home in the rain, cursing Finnuala Fiesta all the way.
Spare keys safely in my pocket I retraced my steps, heading back up the town to reclaim my recalcitrant vehicle, passing the video shop with its buzzing blue neon, past the chipper with its steamed-up windows and greasy chip smell. I paused outside Ryan’s, collapsed the umbrella and went inside.
O’Dwyer was sitting in his usual spot nursing a pint behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“Is it yerself?”
“Indeed and it is.”
“I thought you might be avoiding me.”
“Ah now, why would I do that?”
“You can’t hide those lying eyes,” he sang.
I reached into my pocket for the car keys and dangled them in front of him.
“Is it a game of cards you’re after?” O’Dwyer asked.
“I’d rather not take my chances. That car has been nothing but trouble to me. You keep them.”
I thrust the keys into his giant hand, not realizing that by reuniting him with the vengeful Finnuala I was sending him off to a meeting with an oak tree up by Kelly’s and a definitive place in a much too early grave.
Born in Dublin, Marc de Faoite lives on an island off the west coast of Malaysia. His short stories, articles, and book reviews have been published both in print and online. Tropical Madness, a collection of his short stories, was longlisted for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.
MY CREATIVE PROCESS
Can you tell us a little about the origins of "Finnuala Fiesta" and why you wrote it?
Finnuala Fiesta was inspired by a real life incident where a friend accidentally locked his keys in his car twice. I wanted to set the story in Ireland and the rest just came from wherever it is that stories come from. Since the initial idea was quite funny I thought that this would be a humorous piece, and to a certain extent it is (or at least that was my intention) but the story in itself morphed into something quite sad, where none of the three main characters are in a better place by the end of the story than where they started.
How and when did you begin to write?
My parents brought me and my sister and brother on a camping holiday to France when we were children – this was back in the late seventies. I’m not sure what their thinking was, maybe it was just a way of keeping us quiet or entertained, but they bought the three of us notebooks and every evening in the tent after dinner by the light of a hissing camping-gaz lamp we would have to write what we had experienced during the day. I kept a diary on and off after that. I was an introverted kid and I felt terribly misunderstood, so I often poured my thoughts out into a spare copybook. I’m sure I would cringe if I was to read the sort of self-indulgent stuff I was writing back then, but part of me would be curious to read them and meet that earlier version of me. I still have the camping diary from that French holiday.
Is there a built in divide between writers and readers? Is this is what the resistance to interpretation is at least in part about?
As a writer you are trying to get something out from inside your head, or wherever stories and creativity come from, sometimes I feel it’s more through me than from me, but anyway, that process is inherently imperfect. Words have limitations and this is further complicated by the fact that words resonate differently for every reader. If I write ‘cheese’ I know for a fact that this conjures up very different images and emotional resonances and memories for me than it will for the reader. When I read one of my stories I want it to be as close as I can come to the pictures that the story makes in my head. Even if I sometimes (let’s be honest, rarely) feel that I get close to those images, when I do it is still never close enough. If I can’t read my own writing and accurately reproduce the images in my head then what hope do I have of conveying the same thing to a reader, or ensuring that the reader will see the same images or understand the same things? Reading is completely subjective. What the reader can take from writing is as dependent on what they bring to it as much as the actual writing.
When did you realize you were a writer?
It took until I had a few pieces published to actually consider myself as a writer. Yes, I spent a lot of time writing, but I didn't really feel entitled to call myself a 'writer' or even think of myself in that way for quite a while.
Because it gives a sense of direction and coherence to an otherwise chaotic inner landscape. If I wasn't busy thinking about characters and plot and suchlike I would be left alone to face my own demons. Writing seems to me to be a reasonable way to divert the mind away from those demons, while at the same time tangentially addressing them through stories and themes.
What does writing give you that life does not give you?
I was going to say 'freedom' but I'm not sure that's true. It's certainly not an absolute freedom. But writing does allow a writer to expand and explore areas of the human psyche that might not be so readily open to exploration in 'real' life. Maybe above all writing is an act of empathy, placing yourself in someone else's shoes, allowing you to hold multiple perspectives on what it means or could mean to be human.
Were you born into a family of writers or artists?
I wasn't born into a family of writers or artists, but I was born and raised in Ireland, so that's almost the same thing.
My parents always encouraged me to read. The weekly trips to the public library were the highlight of my week. Both my parents read, but my father in particular. There were always plenty of books around the house. I suppose when you're a child you don't question it when you see a parent with a book in hand, but now as an adult I see how relatively rare that is, especially here in Malaysia where I live.
In early childhood, my reading habits were fairly mundane - the usual diet of Enid Blyton. Then the Hardy Boys and my sister's Nancy Drew books. There were some what are now called graphic novels - Tintin, Asterix, that sort of thing. I can't bring to mind any book from my childhood that made a particularly important impression on me though. In my teens I read a huge amount of Science Fiction - Asimov, Niven, Arthur C.Clarke ... the usual culprits.
Who encouraged you on your path to becoming a writer?
If there is one single person who has encouraged me most in my writing it is my editor and friend Sharon Bakar. Also Malaysian publisher Amir Muhammad who has always been very supportive, publishing my stories at first and then my collection of stories Tropical Madness. Then my wife. She gives me the time and the space and the tea that I need to write. She's very understanding about all of that and accepts that often the imaginary people in my head are more real to me than many actual people.
Which books have been important to you?
In terms of writers I think reading Songlines by Bruce Chatwin was a bit of a revelation to me. I was also a big fan of Paul Theroux's travel writing when I was much younger. Looking at that now I see the themes of travel, and almost amateur anthropology are common there.
What other art forms and disciplines interest you? What makes literature distinct from all other art forms?
I love cinema. Photography. Come to think of it there aren't really any forms of artistic expression that don't interest me. Maybe certain styles of music - I not much of a fan of techno or most country & western. I find a lot of pop music insipid, maybe that's an age thing, or maybe it's because all the good stuff has been done already. Architecture fascinates me, not so much on a theoretical level, but on an immediate experiential level, how the room or building or space that we are in can have such an impact on the psyche. For a number of years in my early twenties I was a live model for art classes in an art academy in Brussels. Mostly for drawing, but sometimes for sculpture which was really hard because it often meant holding the same pose over a period of weeks. That experience gave me an insider view from the 'production' side so to speak, but I've never been particularly coordinated when it comes to drawing or painting. My handwriting is atrocious.
Perhaps literature is the most 'participative' of art forms. All art is subjective of course, there's always an element of co-creation in any art form, but literature asks so much more from the reader. Most other art forms can be appreciated passively. I'm not saying they should be, but they can be. I don't think it's possible to passively read. Reading is always an activity, an action, that demands much more from the reader than just seeing.
What are you working on now?
I don't want to talk about what I'm working on now for fear I might jinx it. I'll just say that it excites me and I'm enjoying it. Even if it never sees the light of day, which is always a possibility, it will still have been worth it for what I'm getting out of it on a creative level. I think that's a key. the work has to be a reward in itself and not just a means to an uncertain end.
What are your hopes for the future of literature?
My hopes and concerns for the future of literature are very self-centred. I set myself a goal of reading 52 books this year. I'm slightly ahead, but it has really brought home how few books a person can actually read in a lifetime. I'll be fifty next year, so realistically I'm probably past the halfway post. The number of books to read is almost infinite, so there will inevitably be books I will never get to read. That saddens me in a way. It brings home our mortality.
On a broader level though, in a way it comes back to what I was saying about pop-music earlier - perhaps all the best stuff has been done, or that there are people out there creating fantastic work, but that it's drowned because there is just so much other work crowding it out.
What are your views on the future of communication and how technology is changing the way we communicate, read, interact with the world and our imaginations?
In a way technology democratizes a lot of things. Word spreads much quicker and more easily. I think that's a definite advantage for many writers, who might once have just been confined to a very narrow geographic market. Technology has also become a filter through which everything is viewed. There are certainly downsides, but I find it very exciting. As a species we've never had access to so much so easily. In the not so distant past if we wanted to hear the Dalai Lama speak we had to get to India and trek up to Dharamsala, or wait until he visited a nearby city. Now I can just go to YouTube and spend all evening listening to him speak if I wish. That's just one example. I bought a book online a few days ago. I had heard of the book from reviews I read online. I watched the author give a reading in a bookshop on the other side of the planet and enjoying what I heard decided to buy his book. All this without lifting my bum from my chair. That we live in such a world is to me quite incredible.
On another level though of course technology can pull us out of reality. Or even if, for example, as a writer we are already working on an alternative reality technology can pull us away from that too. I'm sure without Facebook I would write more than I do. I would certainly read more. On another level, and maybe this is me just justifying my behaviour here, I live on an island in almost complete isolation. I can go a long time without talking to another human being, in a face to face three dimensional reality way, but I'm always in contact with family and friends all over the world. That simply wasn't possible in the past. Like anything, technology can be used for good or bad. It's not so much the technology itself. It's a tool, like a hammer for example. A hammer can be used to help build a table or to smash someone's skull, but the violence isn't inherent in the hammer, in the tool itself. Human behaviour will express itself through whatever media, often in unexpected ways.
What are your hopes for our future on this planet?
To look at the future I look at the past. The world has changed irreversibly since I was a child. Damage has been done in the last few decades that can probably never be undone, at least not in our lifetimes. On one hand we've never had it so good - a much smaller percentage of people die in wars, from disease, or from famine than ever in human history. That doesn't mean it's a perfect situation, but for the majority of humans materially things are better than they have ever been. I'm no so sure about mentally, spiritually. People might no longer be as hungry or as ill, but there's a lot of unhappiness and depression. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that people feel they have less agency over their lives. In a simpler society you plant your food, harvest it, fish, whatever. Your actions count and you benefit from them, some of the time at least. at least you are participating in your own fate and destiny. AI and robotics are going to pretty much clear out the workforce. That seems quite clear. Increasingly the fields of activities in which humans excel are being supplanted by technology. One of humanity's biggest challenges for the future will be to find any meaning in life. Maybe that's where literature and art come in.
Parts of this interview were adapted from
a Q&A on Mel Ulm's Rereading Lives.