Author Caroline O’Donoghue writes about shame, loss, and the dinner party that gave rise to her new novel, Scenes of a Graphic Nature…[restrict]
I was 24, and I was on my way to a dinner party. All of my social events were dinner parties back then. Or at least, they were events that we called dinner parties. In reality, they were the mathematical result of realising that a whole chicken is cheaper than a round of drinks.
I was the last to arrive. I wasn’t late or anything. The only other guests at the dinner party were not only the hosts but also a couple: my best friends, Ella and John. I took my jacket off, kissed Ella and aired out the sweat that was rapidly building underneath my work shirt. John opened the wine and poured three glasses.
Then he asked me if I had heard the news about the Irish babies. “What babies?” I asked. I was sitting at the table, which doubled as a work surface, and eating grated cheese. “The babies in the septic tank.” Earlier that day, the Tuam story that initially broke in the Irish Mail on Sunday had gone global. It was a story so terrible that you had to repeat it to yourself several times to make sense of the events. A mass grave was found beside a former home for unmarried mothers in Galway, and it contained the bodies of almost 800 babies.
Some remains, it was widely reported, were found in a septic tank. Nobody in the international press could understand how a country like Ireland could let a thing like this happen. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, nobody could understand how Ireland could keep letting things like this happen. It’s strange to hear a story like this and for your first reaction to be embarrassment.
I was embarrassed that John, an English person, knew something about Ireland before I did. I was ashamed that the story existed at all, and that here I was, an Irish person in London, tasked with trying to find some kind of context for it. ‘Context’ can mean a lot of things, and in this context, it means ‘excuse’. I was, on behalf of Ireland, trying to find an excuse for the things we do to each other. They were not – and are not – excuses I was comfortable providing.
It was 2014, and I had left Cork three years earlier. This was not the first time I had felt that I needed to explain the place I was from, and on reflection, I’m not even sure that Ella and John were asking me to. But the thing about emigrating is that it creates the urge to explain your own home to people who have never been there.
“This is the broken floorboard, nobody stands on it,” you say. “And if you do, then it’s your fault.”
But I didn’t know how, exactly, to understand the broken floorboards. When you leave somewhere at 21, you don’t know why the house is built the way it is. All that comes later. I couldn’t explain why the 2008 recession had hit Ireland so hard, or why Salvita Halappavanar had died so needlessly, or, at dinner that evening, why the babies were in the septic tank.
I probably talked about ‘The Church’ the way Irish people do when we are backed into a corner: as if it were a many-tentacled beast that occasionally rises out of the sea to pluck sacrifices, and then disappears again. In situations like this, it is hard to talk about ‘The Church’ for what it actually is, which is people. People who were tasked with the job of hiding and disposing of those that other people found troublesome or inconvenient.
I don’t expect I said all of these things, then. Again, I was 24, and blaming vague institutions without further investigation was acceptable, encouraged, and fun. Once the initial horror had worn off – a horror that took us through our first bowl of crisps as well as our first bottle of wine – talk moved on to similar tragedies: the Stardust nightclub in Dublin, the New Cross house fire, an entire school in Aberfan. Events that had nothing in common apart from the fact that they wiped out small communities of young people, scenes of children and teenagers who knew one another and, had they not died, would have gone on knowing each other forever.
Ella found a Laurie Lee essay about Aberfan from somewhere in the bookcase (The Village That Lost Its Children), and we talked about what must happen to a place when a generation suddenly goes missing. “Like orchids among the slag-heaps,” Lee writes, a year after it happened, “one comes across occasional groups of the children who lived.”
We talked about these children left behind; and about their parents; and then we talked about the thing Lee couldn’t write about: the generation that came later. We talked about what happens when the facts of an event become muddled with the pain of having to remember them, and how that pain is translated to children, and children’s children. We talked about what happened when things were remembered wrong, or not remembered at all, and whether that made people’s suffering worse because it makes it that much more for nothing.
I now feel compelled to tell you, here, that we were really a much more fun and funnier group of friends than this evening implies.This sombre summer dinner was something of an exception, which is probably why- out of all the dinners we ate in those years- I remember this one in particular. We had hundreds of dinner parties then: sometimes just the three of us, sometimes other people. I’ve forgotten most of them. The parties, not the people.
I’m not much of a diary keeper, and have mostly relied on Ella to keep the memories for me. It has worked out, more or less. It is now six years later: Ella has published a well-loved cookbook about the things we ate and talked about during that time, and John is dead.
Authors are famously sketchy about where they get their ideas from. It’s an impossible question, because in my experience, ideas tend to snowball slowly the longer you roll them down a hill. Magazines articles you’ve read, holidays you’ve gone on, songs you’ve listened to. All that debris gathers and packs together until it’s one solid form, and by then you have no explanation for where it came from. But in the case of Scenes of a Graphic Nature, the snowball began at that dinner party.
Shame and embarrassment are sticky emotions, and everything stuck to them. I wanted a way to explain things about Ireland that were unexplainable, partly because they were cloaked in the ever-growing mystery of the Church’s actions, and partly because they felt so far away from me that it was like trying to slice through fog. I wanted to bridge the disconnect that was already forming in my own identity, but I also wanted to stop apologising for it. I’d never been an adult in Ireland, and I’d never been a child in England. It seems like an obvious enough thing to point out, but it creates blind spots that slowly become more irritating the longer you spend as an immigrant, when you become out of touch with your home country’s current events, and out of focus with your adopted country’s past ones. Who is Vogue Williams? But also: Who is Worzel Gummidge?
So I slowly started working on the new book. John was already sick by then, and the dinner party evenings didn’t happen so much anymore, but we still saw as much of each other as ever. I visited him in the hospital as often as I could, and later, as often as he could bear. I half-moved in with Ella, taking John’s side of the bed, feeling like a usurper. Later, she half-moved in with me, taking my boyfriend’s side of the bed, feeling like a refugee. Several years went by, and things got worse, and every week I kept expecting a grown-up to show up. His parents? Her parents? Someone from the government, surely?
It felt insane that we were left to handle it all alone, that our little gang of arty types in our early and mid-twenties had to establish a support system that was designed to be temporary but went on for years and years, new gaffer tape applied to it every month. And then, it happened. The intervention I assumed would come finally did: John was taken to Southampton, by his family, and died shortly after.
For reasons I will never fully understand, we were not given an opportunity to say goodbye, nor were we invited to the funeral. I suspect, now, that this might have had something to do with guilt. I know a lot about guilt, and John did too, and even though I can understand it and rationalise it and gaffer tape another little section of myself with it, I inevitably find myself back at that dinner party in 2014.
The dinner where we all picked a chicken apart with our hands and wondered idly about what happens when a thing is stolen and remembered wrong. There’s a picture of us in front of me, taken from around that time. I know, because Ella is wearing that floral dress, and John has all his hair. We are just another little scene of young people, about to be blown apart by a thing we could have never seen coming.
I write this, sitting at a desk in a flat that John never visited, trying to publicise a book he will never read and yet would not have existed without him, without her, without the countless lovely dinner parties or the cancer that ended them. The book is a murder mystery. You won’t find any of this in there. You’ll find a love story, and a friendship, and a dog.
You’ll find a lot of ruminations on immigration and creativity and Ireland and death. But if you look hard enough (or if you care to) you might find a slender bit of thread, and if you follow it, it will lead straight back here: to a chicken that is now famous, a flat that was eventually sold, a person who couldn’t speak Japanese even though his obituary said he did, and the context for an entire novel. Well. I say context. I mean excuse.