Jacqui Broderick was born in Derbyshire, England. She has lived on the edge of Connemara since 1997. Broderick has had a successful career in magazine publishing. In 1998 she founded Galway’s original lifestyle magazine, Galway Life before going on to edit both Ireland’s Horse and Pony and Ireland’s Pets. She has also written eight books including a biography and novels for both adult and children’s audiences.
By Jacqui Broderick
Darkness begins to fall. Another day completing the slow rhythm of tasks that now defines the parameters of my life. Nothing seems to exist except this room and the bleak battle that goes on within it. Death crouches in a dark corner of the room, waiting.
Outside, the normal world has become an alien planet. This has become my reality. An ear alert to abnormal noises, as if those low, animal like moans have any resemblance of normality. Fretful movements from hands that still possess a surprising strength. The odd unintelligible word. Eyes that seem filled with resentment when I try and fail to understand a noise that has little resemblance to speech. Is there something of vast importance he desperately wants to say? Sodden nappies. Eyes that even now try to avert themselves from the sight of more of my father than I ever imagined I would see, much less clean. The hum of the washing machine dealing with yet another load of rancid sheets.
Why does he cling so hard to the fragile shreds of life, this shrunken scrap of skin and bone and disease that was once my father?
I draw the curtains, to shut out the dusk, to close down our tiny, isolated world even more. The inky blackness of the landscape stretches interminably towards the darkening sky. Far, far away, tiny pinpricks of light move across the horizon. Miles away in distance and experience cars are being driven, people going about their business in a world that seems utterly removed from this cruel reality.
I curl in a corner of the sofa, as if huddled on a boat in a stormy sea, a book open on my knee, hands moving the pages mechanically. I’ve tried to read. My eyes move over the page, taking in the words, but my brain does not have enough capacity to formulate the plot. Nothing is able to penetrate through the cotton wool that has become my brain. I long to read, long to escape into another world, to be desperate to find out what happens to characters I care about. I long to be transported away from the living hell, this disintegration of dignity, of hope and dreams I have to witness.
Not being able to read is a new experience – I have read my way through all of the traumas in my life –the skilful writing of my favourite authors have always provided me with a sanctuary. I long to be able to escape into a book, to lose myself in the story, to care more about the characters and their lives than my own reality, but none in the large box of books I brought with me do the trick.
One, a delight when I found it in a charity shop, my favourite hunting ground for books, is a huge Penny Vincenzi family saga. Saved for a beach holiday it now sits on the floor upstairs. It is the perfect weight for the purpose it now serves as a door stop, propping open the bedroom door, so if I snatch a short sleep the door is ajar enough for me to hear any sound that differs from the accustomed breathing and moans, alerting me. If I can’t read it, then at least it has some use.
I had promised myself not to buy more books. My house overflows with them, but still, sent away from the chemist to wait while the order for morphine is processed I find my legs carry me into the charity shop opposite. I end up with two more books, a few moments of utter absorption, my life fading into soft focus as I sift through the titles looking for some nugget that will delight or in all probability be shoved onto my book case at home and never read.
Books have always been my sanctuary and salvation, from my earliest childhood when they absorbed me so totally I lived in the plots rather than my reality. I didn’t live in a Derbyshire village; instead my reality was the world of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, the series written twenty years before I was born. Days were spent digging in the garden for secret tunnels and hidden treasure. On trips out with my parents we were the embodiment of Julian, Anne and Georgie as we set off on our adventures. How incredible it seems now that Blyton could create worlds that would have such an impact on a child, though probably no more so than our modern day J K Rowling and Harry Potter.
From Enid Blyton I progressed onto the pony stories written by the Pullein Thompson sisters and Ruby Ferguson. I longed to be part of the glorious world of ponies and picnics their characters inhabited. The Pullein Thompson sisters created a world where a child was brought up by adoring parents surrounded by ponies and dogs. It was a world that revolved around afternoon tea, picnics in the orchard, a world of love and calm, so far removed from the chaos I lived in, where adults shouted and argued. Through these books and the simple plots the Pullein Thompson’s created, I slid into the parallel world good writers create through their words. The real world operated on a different plane while I inhabited the world of my books.
Jill Crewe, the heroine in Ruby Ferguson’s books had a mother who wrote pony books for a living. Even as a child I wanted to be her, to write for a living, it is hard to imagine some 40 odd years later how books written before I was born could have had such a profound influence on my life. The stories had become so absorbed into my psyche that the horses and dogs I owned were named after the equestrian and canine characters in the books. Even as a child I was determined that one day I would be an author. I longed for the world of the writer, just as much as I relished being submerged in the characters and plots they created. To write all day, to create characters that lingered in people’s memories, which became part of our lives was something I longed to do.
School introduced me Emily Bronte’s only novel, Wuthering Heights and to the intense Heathcliffe, the ultimate stalker and to Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece. The Bronte’s passionate characters and their situations are a masterclass in creating tension and drama.
Authors sparked my love of Ireland. I lost myself in Catherine Gaskin’s dramatic Summer of the Spanish Woman which begins in Ireland, before being played out under the harsh Spanish sun.
Another author I admired and longed to emulate was Susan Howatch, her novel Cashelmara is a vast family saga set in Connemara, creating in me a desire to see this wild landscape. Howatch’s novels are unusual because of the way different characters narrate the plot, all written in first person, something I was told never worked for a historical novel. I know now that a truly good writer can break all of the so called rules. Howatch’s novels, Penmarric, The Rich are Different and Sins of the Fathers were of tremendous influence to me, although her Starbridge novels, set in the clerical world did not appeal as much.
Often I find a plot that jumps from one scene to another hard to read, but one author who carries this off well and whose books I have always enjoyed is Penny Vincenzi. Each of her chapters contains many small chunks of action from different characters. This, rather than losing the reader in a confusing mire, is so well done that each character and section has a life and relevance of its own. An Outrageous Affair, The Decision, Almost a Crime, are particular favourites. Vincenzi takes her reader into a world of wealth, privilege and strong, powerful women.
My fascination with Cornwall began with Daphne Du Marier’s Rebecca, a novel I once loved, but later began to find its famously unnamed heroine rather insipid. How incredible though that Jamaica Inn, originally published in 1936 still attracts tourists to the real Inn on the edge of Dartmoor. Du Marier’s novels have spawned a whole industry around the pub with its ridiculous wax figures of the book characters.
I have no great longing to read the literary greats; my reading tastes are far more simple. I want easy reading, characters I fall in love with, plots that carry me along so I am lost in the story and cannot wait until the next opportunity to get back to the book to find out what is going to happen. A moment in my writing career I am very proud of was someone telling me how well I had written the characters in one of my books.
Before life brought me to this point I read voraciously for the simple pleasure of being lost in a book. Devouring everything I could read of authors that sparked my interest. Wilbur Smith’s heartbreaking Eagle in the Sky was one I returned to regularly, never tiring of the scenes Smith described, I cared as much for the characters and their lives as I did for my own living family and friends. That, to me is the mark of a great author and something I have tried to emulate in my own writing.
Early on in my publishing career I was compared to Jilly Cooper, something then I was proud of. What a delight it was to be compared to her in the bullshit PR my publishers churned out. Who didn’t get lost in the soft porn froth of her novel Riders? To read about love and horses, my passion, was a delight and her style, so easy to read with characters that you loved, or hated with equal passion was an inspiration and something that definitely affected the way I wrote my first novel.
Now, has her writing changed, dated? Or have my tastes changed? I can’t read her current work, it sprawls too much, the characters flit endlessly and I have no interest in what they do. And yet the equestrian side of her work has remained in mine. Horses and country life are still my greatest passion.
However my reading has become darker and I have turned to crime, literary crime not literally to. Have I fallen out of love with love? Even though my tastes have changed I still find in the work of writers who now fascinate me the same skill at writing characters who have depth, who I care about as well as plots that carry the reader along at a fast pace. The crime novels of Val McDermid, Peter James and Susan Hill are very much to the fore in my current writing. Their work is commercial, easy to read, their characters so deep and finely drawn, I as a reader feel they are real rather than fictional.
Oddly, another book I found incredible and who I do feel influencing me in my writing was Lianne Moriaty’s The Husband’s Secret. The action does not race along but I loved the slow drip of information, the way the author can make a short piece of action, characters sitting drinking a cup of tea for instance into an intense large passage of words, each nuance and movement taking on a life and significance of its own.
I long to be able to read again, to lose myself in a book, to hurry to bed so that I can read a few chapters in order to still my mind for sleep. I long to be able to turn on my laptop and write my own stories again, to be lost in a world I am creating. One day soon I will.
The day begins with a sudden return to consciousness, stiff and cold from a night spent on the sofa, eyes, gradually accustom to the dim light, watching for the slow rise and fall of the bed clothes, watching and listening for the soft exhale of breath that means he is still alive. The fear he is gone, the dread that he isn’t. Why can’t he just let go?
Morning arrives, the slow lifting of darkness in the room. As I open the curtains, far way I see the hurried twinkling of lights as commuters go to work normal lives, doing normal things.
Here, time stands still. It feels like a major decision as to which to do first, on a par with running a major country. Should I empty the dishwasher of the endless mugs of tea and coffee we, the watchers consume, or the washing machine? My brain is fuddled, focus fixed solely on the crumpled form that still breathes and occasionally emits low moans or groans which sound animal like, but filled with frustration. Why does he cling to life? Does the body just demand to keep functioning, or is there some vital piece of information he needs to impart before he can leave us?
Daily tasks are all completed with an ear constantly tuned to the shallow breaths, low moans and the heart rendering harsh shouts of anger when the District Nurses attempt their tasks. He looks more dead than alive, cheeks and eyes shrunken as if the bones that support them are trying to suck them back in, mouth open, gasping, hands, tiny claw-like clutch mechanically at the bedclothes.
He’s home, where he wanted to be, fading immediately he got through the door on his return from the nursing home where he had spent Christmas. The place where gently my sisters had given him the news that his wife, my step mum, had lost her battle with a close relation of the cancer that was killing him. The house is filled with flowers, vast, extravagant chunks of colour and scent, sent after the first funeral a week ago. Soon there will be more flowers, for his coffin.
Coming home was what he wanted, to be in the ancient house he loved, enveloped by the silence of the vast tracts of countryside that stretch in either direction. The sheer will power that was keeping him alive was to be home, it was not, as we had assumed to attend the funeral, the one we assumed he had wanted to go to. A new suit had been brought so that he would look smart at his wife’s funeral and tried on with great difficulty over stiff limbs in the nursing home. That hangs unworn in the wardrobe, he will wear it soon enough.
For The Galway Review 7, (Printed Edition)