Saturday, 13 February 2016

Of Bells, Poets And Motorways

I was to my Patron of Reading School, ninety miles away, in Ballymun, North Dublin.  I’d left in plenty of time, and looked forward to stopping for a cup of tea soon. The motorway was long and dull, but fast and straight. I was thinking about all the STUFF I had to do before heading off to Arvon to teach on Monday. ABBA post (about what? I was singularly devoid of inspiration), packing, emails – and of course, The Story.

Two posts ago, I told you my plan – six short stories in six months. It had all been going so well. Four stories written, sent off to their fate in four competitions. Fifth story ready to be edited, post-Arvon. All I needed was to bash out some sort of first draft of story 6.

Story 6 should have been easy. I’d had the idea for ages. I’d written lots of notes about the characters and plot in an exceptionally pleasing notebook. It involved several of my favourite things – 1920s boarding schools and war poets. It should have been racing along without a bother on it.

But it wasn’t. Doing the research was fine – for this story, I’m using an actual historical person, the Irish WW1 poet Francis Ledwige. (He doesn’t appear in the story – I don’t think I could write about a real person like that – but the story revolves round a photo of him.) But when I sat down to actually write, I just wasn’t feeling it. And it worried me.

I’d run out of steam. I wasn’t capable of writing six stories in a row. Probably all these stories would just sink without trace anyway. What was the actual point?

I was glooming along like this when I saw the flashing sign: ACCIDENT: MOTORWAY CLOSED. Great. Goodbye straight fast road and restorative cuppa at service station; hello miles-long tailback through narrow villages, surrounded by the equally aggrieved. (And yes, of course I spared a thought for the poor people in the accident: I was frazzled, not heartless.)

There were no diversion signs, and few direction signs.  For several miles I simply followed the queue, assuming we were vaguely still heading south. Just before twelve I turned on RTE radio just in case there was some information about the accident. It wouldn’t get me there any faster, but there’s often a comfort in knowing that you’ve been inconvenienced by something newsworthy.

There was nothing about the accident. Instead the presenter said, ‘And let us now pause for the Angelus.’ I’d forgotten they did that on RTE -- a twice-daily tolling of the Angelus bell, a call to prayer and reflection. In certain moods I can be inclined to think it quaint, but today it was just an irritation. 

I was about to switch over to something useful when the regular tolling of the bell made me pause. OK, I said to myself. Slow down – well, actually, you’re at a standstill, but slow down mentally. Just listen to the bells – bells are lovely! And I looked ahead at all the traffic: finally we had arrived at a signpost directing us back to the motorway. And everyone was queued up to turn right, hundreds of cars, going through the lights maybe ten at a time. If I hadn’t been summoned by those bells, I mightn’t have noticed, might have just gone with the – it would be wrong to call it a flow. Bad-tempered trickle.

I didn’t join that queue. The motorway could wait. On I went through undisturbed villages and along quiet roads past rivers and hills. I was still going vaguely in the right direction, but I had struck out alone. The motorway could wait. There would be another junction further on. There always is.


And this was Francis Ledwige country. These were the Meath valleys and rivers and fields which inspired his work before he joined the army and fought and died. I’d been here before, but never while Ledwige himself had been so much in my mind.

I’d love to say I stopped along the wayside and wrote the end of the story. I didn’t. I still had to get to the school in time for the second session. But when I did go back to the manuscript, I felt readier for it. It’s not finished yet, and I suspect it won’t go quite as planned. But that’s OK.


Sue Purkiss said...

Good luck with it! Isn't Angelus a lovely word?

Penny Dolan said...

A fine diversion for ABBA, and lovely pictures of the landscape - though not the sign.

Ann Turnbull said...

What a lovely post - thank you, Sheena. And how lucky RTE listeners are to be able to pause for the Angelus twice a day - except when desperately awaiting news, of course. It's much harder to do your own pausing, especially when under stress. Good luck with the stories.

Steve Gladwin said...

Summoned by bells indeed!