The voices in my head, Orla McAlinden

The heron stands sentinel upon his rock. I never see him leave. He is there, or he is arriving, or he is gone. He is never caught in the act of departure. I never see his lumbering ascent into the skies.

The gate stands open. Or it stands closed. Moved by the invisible hand of the wind. Or by the same magic which returns the heron undetected to his rock. A few steps through the gate takes us to the rippling bank of the Dissour River, and onto the outlying trees of Glenbower wood.

And all the time the voices in my head are growing stronger. Some of the voices are well known, they crowd to the forefront shouting for attention, demanding that theirs will be today’s persona. Others are quiet, hesitant, they beseech a moment. Listen to me, they whisper, it is time for a new friend, walk with me through the world awhile.

Are these the voices of a mind disturbed? A mind perhaps too disordered to cope with the mundanity of the world? What other kind of mind might one expect to find in the writing room at Greywood Arts? I raise my head from the keyboard. The bloody heron is gone again.  

I am well used to the voices in my head. I have been listening to them, and allowing them far too much control over my life, for far too long. The most malevolent of them all is bubbling under the surface, breaking through too often. Who do you think you are?

I am know who I am. I am the mother of four children. I am the mother of four children who are in school two hundred kilometres away, and whose comfort and happiness this week depends upon a web of favours, phone calls, lifts, reciprocations and paternal half-days from the work which pays the mortgage.

Who do I think I am?

I am the mother of four children who would at this time on a normal Monday be wandering around Tesco.

Who do I think I am?

I am a woman who writes a few stories among the cornflakes, and the toast crusts of the mornings, when I am not in Tesco.

Another voice arises from the background hum. Its moment is fleeting so it shouts quite loudly. You are a multi-award-winning short story writer with a contract for your first novel and you deserve to be here. Why, I wonder, does this voice get so little airtime?

There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.  

Cyril Connolly (Enemies of Promise 1938)

I am not quite sure who was minding Mr Connolly’s child or children when he penned that famous quote, but I’d be prepared to wager he wasn’t changing the nappies (not to mention steeping them in bleach, boiling them in a copper and hanging them about the steaming kitchen on clotheshorses.) The physical labour of childrearing has all but disappeared; the vacuum cleaner, the dishwasher, the tumble drier, have brought to daily housework a brevity that would astonish our grandmothers. And yet, the emotional labour feels greater than ever; no mother-in-law in the next street, no aunties, no granny. Mothering has become a competitive sport… we fear to leave our child strapped in the car while we run into Centra for milk, knowing all the while that our mothers left us at home alone in our cots for an hour at a time. 

Sinead Gleeson has written of her guilt upon heading to a writers retreat ( Claire Kilroy has been famously frank about the impact motherhood has had upon her previous prolificacy ( to such good effect that I feel I can add little. If a renowned editor and writer like Sinead Gleeson cannot silence the voices in her head, what chance have I? If a Rooney Prize winner like Kilroy is so terrified by the cognitive decline wrought by pregnancy and motherhood, how can I, four times thus debilitated, and incapable at times of stringing a coherent sentence about pasta-and-fish-fingers together, hope to achieve anything of worth in one week at Greywood arts centre, in the village of Killeagh, while that bloody heron mocks my efforts?

Sighing, I return to my manuscript. The Flight of the Wren. My sixth child. My book baby. Twenty copies of my fifth child, a collection of short stories entitled The Accidental Wife, sit at my feet, awaiting the Thursday night public reading and interview which is part of the deal. Part of the inaugural Winter Writing Residency at Greywood Arts. I remember laughing to myself as I filled out the application form, carefully selecting one of my best stories, polishing it and hesitating as the cursor hovered over the Submit button. Who do you think you are? whispered the loudest voice.

I am the woman who has never applied for a residency in the annual Co Kildare arts service funding allocation. I am the woman who was personally encouraged to apply for a residency by the director of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and who laughed self-deprecatingly, not because I felt I wasn’t good enough, but because I knew I wasn’t free enough. I am the woman who would not be able to manage a whole week in Cork, any more than six weeks in the Grace Kelly library in Monaco, for whose residency I have also never applied.

For fuck sake, whispered the quietest of the voices, the most frequently ignored, the most often suppressed, press the button, what possible harm could it do? I pressed submit.

Outside my window the gate has shifted once more, almost closed, as though moved by fairy forces, and the warm lights of the pub a stone’s throw away challenge me to close the laptop, sink a pint, read one of the six novels I have brought with me. If I cannot write, I can at least read.

I reach out and close the file of The Flight of the Wren, the novel that for four years has eaten up my precious free time, the novel that has been written in what Jan Carson calls the margins of my life. The novel has at last found a publisher and my task this week is to finish the edit — polish and hone, shine and buff the prose — before the sulky, demanding offspring of a thousand snatched hours of solitude is handed to the printer.

And as my finger hovers over the off switch, and my mind switches to thoughts of a creamy pint of Guinness, I glance once again out of the window. All is subtly changed. The bloody fairies again, messing with that gate, I think. This is the second time that the word fairy has crossed my mind in thirty minutes, and not much more than the second time in thirty years. I am not much given to whimsy. Fairies do not occupy my thoughts. What is my brain trying to tell me?

I fire up the ancient Word programme again — no fancy bespoke fiction-writing software for me; I don’t even know how to type. Times New Roman, size 12, double spaced, extra wide margins.

A new voice speaks. It cuts through the cacophony. I have never heard this voice before. She has never entered my thoughts or dreams. She is old, she has the wisdom of the crone and the cynicism of a thousand years. She pours words into my brain faster than my ability to catch them, as I flail around the keyboard with four disorganised fingers. Shall I call her muse? Shall I call her fairy? Or madness?

During my week at Greywood Art Centre, I do not open The Flight of the Wren again. My car breaks down. I drive home twice for ‘unavoidable’ school-related events. The children look suspiciously well-nourished and regale me with stories of Eddie Rockets diner. My hired car breaks down. I take it as a message from God. No more trips home until the week is over.

I write late into the nights and early in the mornings. The voices have never been louder. When I leave Killeagh, with fond memories and new friendships made, I have twenty thousand words of a novel I never before contemplated. I have completed my first writing residency and the world has continued to turn in its accustomed orbit. All four children are still alive.

A few days later, a delivery arrives, a large and heavy object that will surely be in my way, if placed in the hallway. “Will you bring it in here?” I ask and, as the delivery man sets it down carefully beside the dusty and unloved piano that my children will not, and I cannot play, he asks me, “Are you a musician?”

“No,” I say, for the first time in my life, “I am a writer.”

He nods as though this is a perfectly reasonable thing for me to say, rather than the big fat lie I used to believe it to be.

Who do you think you are? asks the new voice, as I fire up the laptop, among the dirty dishes. And I smile.

Orla McAlinden is a multi-award-winning short story writer and novelist. From Portadown, Co. Armagh, she lives in Newbridge, Co. Kildare. Her work is inspired by Ireland’s complex and difficult history.