Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fighting Words

I've really been enjoying volunteering with Roddy Doyle's "Fighting Words"
Creative Writing Centre up opposite Croke Park ( There's a magic bookshelf, and best of all Mr and Mrs Cranky to make grumpy comments on stories
put together by groups of kids from schools all over Dublin. What fun!
Also good was author Colm McCann's "Writing out of your Skin" talk on writing fiction
(he wrote the amazing "Dancer", on Rudolf Nureyev, among many other great books),
and all the occasional interventions by Mr. Doyle himself. Needless to say, Fighting Words
crept into my first attempt at a short story, or should I say "struggle with fiction", below. Well,
sometimes it's hard for a non-fiction junkie, and recovering academic like myself!
But apart from all that, have you ever been mugged?

Miracle on Parnell Street
by Deirdre Mulrooney

“Who is that statue of again?”, wondered Jane, turning into Parnell Street. She made a half-hearted attempt to read the writing underneath the open-armed statue, the one that seems to be giving directions to Cineworld, and quickly gave up. There was no way she was pulling her glasses out. It wasn’t that important. Definitey historical. Will have a closer look another time.

It was high noon on Parnell Street. Well, actually it was twenty-two minutes past twelve. It was a cold, crisp January day, and as you might expect at that hour the sun was high in the sky. Today, fluffy clouds hung, halo-like, behind some of Parnell street’s tallest buildings. Jane looked up, and the phrase ‘a la silhouette’ ran through her head – a term she came across at an art exhibiton recently, that had something to do with frugality. Thoughts! Musings! She was listening to Joni Mitchell on her i-pod. Life was sweet. “This is just like New York”, she thought to herself as she dawdled along, peering into the Polish shop to see what Polish people looked like these days – ah – flirting with each other; gazing across again at the Korean hairdressers, that she meant to visit one day; admiring the cool Korean “Hop House” bar and restaurant that she was so fond of, smiling at the Africans who were rushing by, pushing their children in prams. So New York. So Walt Whitman.

“If you can keep your head, when all about you
Are losing theirs..”

Joni Mitchell. Uplifting dreamer. Jane hummed along.

Thoughts and reminiscences floated in a fluffy, associative manner through her head – she was really hoping some ideas for a short story would float up into her consciousness.

When – BANG! – out of nowhere, her blind-spot, let’s say, she felt an immense WHACK from the vicinity of her right shoulder. A sudden unmerciful tug at her laptop crashed into her inner city idyll - ruining it, absolutely ruining it.

From there in, it was like an out-of-body experience, except for the bitter reality that her laptop really was in the computer bag this time, one of the first times ever. Normally it was just full of documents and A4 pads. She heard shrieking, and shrieking, and shrieking. My God, was that her own voice? Everything went into slow-motion, as it does in these cases. Did she really let “F***** YOU!!!!!!!” erupt out of somewhere deep and primal, her own, at a dark and fiendish creature now attached umbilically to her right arm? How un-ladylike. Jane hung on for dear life – as this blurry, faceless bad-energy-being tried with all his wiry might to wrench her office out of her grasp. “Noooooo!” She envisioned her laptop disappearing down the street. She could feel it being pulled out of her defiant iron grip. But defeat was in her head, in her head only. Contradicting her worst, the dark force suddenly subsided, and as mysteriously as he appeared, the shadowy, desperate figure disappeared off through the lunchtime crowd, furiously legging it now onto O’Connell Street. Like a forlorn, disabused thing left behind in the wake of a tornado, Jane looked down. All there? To her disbelief her laptop bag was still hanging in there, at the end of her right arm, albeit by the flimsiest thread.

As if inhabiting a different dimension, the lunchtime crowd continued their bustling without missing a beat, oblivious to the hyperventilating girl in their midst, glued to one spot.

A miracle had occurred. Yes, a miracle. Jane hugged her laptop, with more love than ever before. (Well she had never really hugged it before. Ever). She was too shook and out-of-breath at this point to realise that this benign little incident was not what it seemed. She still didn’t know what hit her. The last thought on her mind was that what came across as inauspicious, was in fact the opposite. Where was her ipod? Still in her pocket.

The longer she stood there, the more passersby cowered and kerb-crawled, averting their gaze from the crime they “hadn’t noticed”. Could they be so caught up in their own aims and objectives? They walked closer than usual to the shop-fronts, to distance themselves further from Jane. New York indeed. Glued still, Jane continued cradling her laptop, and slowly won back her breath. She was still rooted to the spot though. Looking around, searching for someone to confide in among the indifferent throng, she finally asked of the thin air around her, or was it of the fluffy and uncaring clouds in the sky “Aren’t there any guards around?”

A youngish bloke, who looked half familiar appeared, and enquired, considerately “Are you alright?”

“Yes – but are there any guards around?”, replied Jane in undisguised extreme exasperation. This was no time for disguise. No time for pretense. Everything was all out there.

“No.” he shrugged. Rushed with his own awfully important agenda, he nonetheless found 2 precious minutes to spare. “I just wanted to check, are you OK?”

“Listen thanks so much for stopping, I really appreciate it” Jane heard herself say, as if this was all happening in the third person, and it really wasn’t her who was the victim, yes the victim, an actual victim, of a mugging. Or was it an attempted mugging? Well, the little fecker did get one handle of the bag, so that complicates things. Technically-speaking, the dark fiend of Parnell Street did steal something. A bag handle.

But he gave something to her too – if she could see it.

Another young man approached now from the vicinity of North Great George’s Street. He spoke, in a reassuring Cork accent, and a mobile phone attached to his right ear.

“I saw the whole thing. I was sitting in my car. He was wearing a navy hoodie and tracksuit bottoms”.

Ah, a country fella, thought Jane. A friend. She let her guard down. Here was comfort-zone-man, in deepest, darkest Northside.

“Oh thanks, thanks”, she gushed, feeling she was definitely on safer ground now. “Well at least he didn’t get the laptop”, she confided, stupidly. “Thank God. Do you know where is the nearest police station?”

“Oh fair play to you, you hung onto it. I saw the whole thing. I wouldn’t bother going to the police if I were you, there’s no point”.

“There’s a station on the way to where I’m going, up by Croke Park, I’ll drop in there”. Her breathing pattern returning now to something resembling more normal rhythms Jane finally unstuck her feet from Parnell’s grip, and took her first step up the hill that is North Great George’s street.

At that precise moment – what time was it now? - dodgy guy with mobile phone and inner city Dublin accent appeared out of her blindspot, and announced in a voice that would give you concern for your safety:

“Fair play to you love, you hung on to your bag and didn’t let him get it. Is there a laptop in it?”

Joan glanced back at nice country fella, because he was still there, and smiled, as if she and he, both with their country roots, stranded together now in inner city Dublin were in cahoots together:

“No, I never carry my laptop in this bag”.

Wink wink. Country fella returned her smile, as, to Jane’s surprise, he slid, or was it a slither, into the passenger seat of a blingy sports car which was now being revved up by aforementioned dodgy looking inner city guy. Glancing back while quickening her pace up the hill, Jane thought she spotted a Northern registration plate. The penny dropped, my God, it is they who are in cahoots. This is an operation. She sped up, almost to a canter now. She didn’t write down the registration plate. After all she needed to survive to attempt her short story – if she could dream up a storyline after this traumatic assault. She shoved her ipod deeper into her pocket. What was she thinking, bringing it up here?

Warrior-like, fighting her way through dense jungle undergrowth (hippy-dippy Joni Mitchell was a thing of the past), Jane made her way up the fine, elegant, and absolutely shambolic Georgian streets, and squares, until she reached Fitzgibbon Street Garda Station. In she marched, still alive, and showed the remains of her bag to the garda on duty. His name was Declan (she asked him). Suspicious of everything now, she recounted the incident.

“See”, she demonstrated, “there were two handles on this bag, and now there is just one, and it’s hanging on by a thread”.

“He was probably a junkie looking for his fix”, diagnosed the young garda, knowingly, and took out his notepad. Yup, this was a crime alright. The statement-taking process was interrupted by a phone-call. A person of the same description (5 foot ten), navy hoodie, navy track-bottoms had just robbed a bag in the same area.

Despite the delay, Jane was still just on time to volunteer across the road in “Fighting Words”, just across from Croke Park. What was troubling her was the karma of this whole ordeal. Wasn’t this “inverse karma”? I mean, when you are going to volunteer, and help give transition year kids creative writing workshops (even if that is something you are struggling with yourself), isn’t that supposed to attract good karma, and, even, um, inspiration towards you? Not an attempted theft of your laptop.

Jane crossed the funky dunky new complex that is Behan Square, and walked in to the ground-floor centre, but not without looking over her shoulder with a brand new nervousness, and, I’m sorry to say it, what was turning into a deep distrust of the universe. It would be a long time before she listened to Joni Mitchell and her out-of-touch idealism again, and anyway, what the hell was she thinking strolling down Parnell Street dangling not just a laptop, but also an ipod?! Doh!

In her perambulation across the city, Jane had been re-born into a brand new world of threat, menace, and fiendish dark beings lurking behind pillars and in alleyways. Surveillance helicopters, spies. She believed it all now. Nope, nothing seemed too far-fetched or too paranoid. Not after today.

She progressed through the so-called “magic bookshelf”, found a chair, searched in her handbag for her notepad, and hung up her coat. Not necessarily in that order. Well, she wasn’t thinking straight. Oh yes, and she found a safe place for her laptop. Or at least she hoped it was safe. You could never be sure. She wrote her nametag. “Jane”. She could preface that with “Calamity”. Ah no, she couldn’t bring the negative energy of what had befallen her into this idealistic setting. It just wouldn’t be right to ruin the magic.

A multicultural transition year of girls in navy uniforms piled in like a Benetton ad for their third session on creative writing. Roddy Doyle was there presiding over the proceedings in a low-profile sort-of way. Yes, Roddy Doyle. Today they were talking about location, location, location. Where would they set their stories? How much detail could they include? Images were posted up on the big screen - Blanchardstown, and Phibsboro shopping centre, for example – for comments and observations from the floor. Then came – yes, of course, of course! – the actual scene of the crime. As if in answer to Jane’s query, there he was in all his glory – all-seeing, all-knowing Charles Stuart Parnell. “Pointing down towards Cineworld, like an advertisement”, pointed out another volunteer. Looking the other way, thought Jane. “What are the pedestrians and passersby doing?” asked another bright spark from the floor. “Is that someone getting into a car, or getting out of a car?” “What are the smells?”, asked Roddy. “How about the smell of chips from that chipper?” Such observations. One little girl pointed out the clouds, “lurking” behind the buildings. They weren’t just fluffy clouds. No, they were lurking clouds. And then Roddy said it. “It’s dangerous”. He threw it out there, just like that. How could Jane have missed that? It’s so bleedin’ obvious.

Mugged by reality, Jane sidled up beside 16 year-old Ida, from Chad, and helped her build on the story she’d been developing for two weeks now, about running away from home with her boyfriend, packing up her things, and then eventually (with a little encouragement from Jane), promising her mother she’d be back for dinner on Sunday. Her equally magnificent ebony friend Nana, whose white teeth and black gums had Jane transfixed whenever a smile broke out on her 17-year old face, worked with Natasha, freelance writer and TEFL teacher. Natasha had done a lot of travel writing, and knew a Ghanian in Dubin who was in a rock band. Jane couldn’t get into it as she had to split slightly early for her next appointment. The day was accelerating to its close.

Later, Jane dragged her heels again past all those duplicitous Georgian exteriors towards her shortstory writing class. Her laptop, which formerly had handles, was now tucked under her arm. She sure felt hard-done by. How could the universe be so mean to her? How could it not give her the karma she deserved? The karma she was working up, surely, by volunteering? What kind of logic was this? You call this justice? And what was she going to write about for her own short story? Once Upon a Time? Middle-aged love story? Dublin Philanderers? But it’s got to be fiction. Fiction. But Jane was O-Ding in a sea of non-fiction. Was that junkie fiend a metaphor? For what? But what she needed now was fiction. Fiction fiction fiction.

The unjust universe had just dumped this overwhelming experience on her, then spat her out unharmed and with her laptop intact. She had told that junkie where to go, and sent him scarpering on to the next, more victimly victim. No sooner had she stepped through the magic bookshelf, than the exact scene of the crime was presented to her, being drained for inspiration by Roddy Doyle himself. Now if that isn’t a pointer towards a happy ending, albeit a slightly warped one requiring a little creative visualisation to knock out the deep meaning of same, what is? Not that the narrator, the “I” of the previous sentence, the writer, and Jane are one and the same of course. Or can they be disentagled?

Technically speaking, does the fact that the narrator admits the resemblance of characters and incidents to real life, even if their names have been changed to protect their identity, disqualify it? Does that make it an obvious 3rd person operation, mugging reality in daylight, or worse again, a low-key philosophical treatise?

Clicking her laptop open, lovingly now, in deep appreciation of its sticking with her through thick and thin, Jane tapped out her first draft. It was turning into an ode to her loyal laptop:

“And the moral of my story, that came at a price (a handle, but it was worth it), is that happy endings are up to us, and us alone. We’ve got to wrestle them out of the hands of the shadowy, desperate fiend, who is after all God love him, just looking for his fix, while his evil dealers look on from a tacky parked sports car. It’s nothing personal. But that’s your laptop that you have to wrestle out of his desperate hands so it can survive to help you arm-wrestle down fiction out of reality. Make sense? At least that’s how it seems to me today.

P.S. I’m hanging on tight. Next time it’ll be real fiction. 100%. It’s just, in the meantime, ‘Miracle on Parnell Street’ had to get out.”

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