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Lucy: The fear I felt over my son's illness has inspired this new collection of stories

Published 21/05/2016

Author Lucy Caldwell
Author Lucy Caldwell
Author Lucy Caldwell
Author Lucy Caldwell

Author Lucy Caldwell drew on her experiences growing up in Belfast and her son's brush with death for her collection of short stories. She tells Una Brankin how she wrote it on her iPhone and about the way Van Morrison helped her out.

The hangdog-faced actor Jeffrey Tambor, star of the Emmy-winning Transparent, recently commented  that Mark Rylance is a good actor because he is inherently a good person.

The same measure doesn't apply to writers - there's a long list of reputed rotters in the literary community - but I imagine it is certainly true of Lucy Caldwell. The emotional truth and authenticity of her writing voice is manifest in her thoughtful conversation - which is delivered, incidentally, in much gentler tones than her writing, with its liberal splashes of Belfast vernacular.

Having lived in London for many years, there's not much of Lucy's native province left in her neutral accent. She is very softly spoken and delicate in her movements, characteristics that fit with her fine features, Bambi eyes and narrow frame. Although pale, she is slightly exotic - with a back fringe and kohl-flicked eyes, she'd make a convincing Cleopatra at a fancy dress party.

We meet in the upstairs lounge of the Europa Hotel to discuss Lucy's first collection of short stories, Multitudes, which are based mainly on her memories of growing up in Belfast in the Eighties and Nineties, as the eldest daughter of Maureen, a housewife, and Peter, a successful architect.

The couple did not impose any religion on Lucy (34) and her sisters Kim (32), a palliative care doctor, and Faye (30), a teacher.

"Mum's Catholic and dad is Protestant, but we didn't practise any religion," Lucy explains. "When you refer to mixed-marriage outside of Northern Ireland, people don't know what you mean.

"I remember when we were on holidays in France a woman asked us if we were Catholic or Protestant. We didn't know. Mum told us that if people insist on a definition, imagine God as a light in a stained glass window. You'll see the light coming through the different colours, but it's still the same light."

The young Lucy developed an interest in Buddhism after becoming a pen pal to a Buddhist monk, as part of a school RE project, and one of the tenets of the Eastern philosophy is woven into Multitudes. In the most autobiographical of the collection, the titular short story recounts her infant son's brush with death from a rare form of meningitis.

"Before we are born, we decide in advance the lives we are going to live, the events in them, the people, the choices," she writes.

"We decide according to the lessons we want to learn, and all of us have lived, many times over, learning new and different lessons, meeting over and over again the same people in endlessly new configurations. I dream this in the light hot daze of one snatched nap ... when I wake it all makes sense and the ancient wisdom in my baby's grave and luminous eyes is ominous, and I think, You're here to teach me too, and for a moment I even have a fleeting grasp of the lesson."

Lucy's son William fell ill when he was only nine days old and faced a 50/50 chance of survival.

"I instinctively knew something wasn't right," Lucy recalls. "I took his temperature and it was the high end of normal. There was a heatwave and our local out-of-hours GP said he was fine, but I pressed for a second opinion and at that stage his temperature rocketed.

"We stayed with him in the hospital for days."

He recovered, but suffered a recurrence 10 days later. William was seven weeks old before he was finally allowed to go home.

"It was terrifying. We had a GP appointment that morning and he said he was fine," Lucy continues. "But there was an edge to his cry I wasn't comfortable with. I had to wait 45 minutes for a second opinion and then his eyes rolled in his head.

"The doctor said it would be quicker to run with him in the sling than to wait for an ambulance and go through traffic, so I ran. Being there again was tough. Scarier. It took over 36 hours to get his temperature stabilised."

Back home after the prolonged ordeal, Lucy wrote Multitudes in a splurge on her iPhone, with William in his sling, by the kitchen island. Uppermost in her mind was the moment of clarity she experienced so pointedly in intensive care, about the lessons to be gleaned from her baby's perilous predicament.

"I remember the feeling of that moment being crystal clear and very fleeting, hard to grasp. Very profound. I wrote it as fiction, to ground it. I think in those moments, we are very close to the veil that separates us, between life and death.

"We're all spiritual beings having a human experience. We can't ignore our spirituality and our instinct. Quantum physics has shown that we only use a tiny percentage of our conscious senses. I knew to trust mine, in William's case.

"And then I felt a real urgency to get it written down, to contain what happened and to understand it. I felt my mind erasing it, then."

Lucy and her husband Tom, an English architect, now have to decide whether to have the new meningitis vaccine administered to their son. The vaccine can be administered in children up to three years old, but there can be potentially dangerous side-effects.

"It's a big question. Kids have died or been left disabled. We've had to make a conscious decision, given that we've no control over what happens. Either we wrap him in cotton wool or get on with life."

Lucy went for the second option and brought William to a literary festival in Cork when he was 10 weeks old. Almost two years on, he's staying with his grandparents - "he loves them" - in the east of the city, while his mother promotes her new book.

"I brought him to see my grandma, she has severe dementia and is in a home, but she smiled at him. And when we were leaving, she said 'bye-bye'. I was told it was the first time she had spoken a word in months. Just shows you the connection was there."

As well as a fiction writer, Lucy is an acclaimed playwright whose radio and stage plays - Leaves, Guardians and Notes to Future Self - have won awards, including the George Devine Award and the BBC Stewart Parker Award.

Her second novel, The Meeting Point, which focuses on a young Irish missionary couple's journey to Bahrain, received The Dylan Thomas Prize, while her moving 2013 novel, All the Beggars Riding, was chosen as Belfast's One City One Book.

She now divides her time between Belfast and London, where she lives in Bethnal Green with Tom and William. Lucy met Tom through his sister, an editor at her literary agency.

"My dad's an architect too, but I have no sense of direction at all - I even get my left and right mixed up - and can't think in 3D," she admits. "So being with Tom, it's the genes making up for me. Even my son, at one year and 10 months, has a better sense of direction than me. He can direct me to the playground when I get lost."

Multitudes is dedicated to William "and everything that brought you, us, here, now". In the prologue, the author quotes from Van Morrison's seminal track, Astral Weeks:

Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world

I'm nothing but a stranger in this world

I got a home on high

In another land

So far away

So far away

She wrote to Van to ask his permission to use his lyrics and he instructed his manager to clear it with Warners in LA, who own the copyright to his music.

"I met Van at the gig to celebrate his 70th birthday on Cyprus Avenue. He's so modest, so real. He really cares about music.

"No Belfast writer doesn't owe a debt to Van Morrison. His sense of spirituality and sacredness of everyday things; the power of repetition in Astral Weeks, the blues, the rhythm. It's such a young person's album. I love those lines I quoted."

Aptly, a love story, of sorts, in Multitudes is entitled Cyprus Avenue. It's about a London-based girl reluctant to make the slog of an overcrowded journey back to Belfast at Christmas, and a man she connects with on the way.

"It's not autobiographical in an obvious way, but there's a lot of me in it," Lucy admits.

"I'm so interested in other peoples' stories. When you meet someone, you never can know their sorrows and stories. That fascinates me, but now I've realised I can write about me.

"It's not art, though, until you shape it and give it structure. It has given me a new lease of life."

She recommends short story collections by Lucia Berlin and Elena Ferrante, the Italian author (whose true identity is unknown), who writes so beautifully about female relationships.

Sibling and teenage friendship bonds and tribulations are expertly portrayed in the Multitudes collection, such as Poison and Killing Time, both previously published.

Killing Time, on the topic of teenage suicide, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Canada & Europe) and is included in the anthology All Over Ireland, edited by Deirdre Madden. Poison, set in Dundonald, was published last November in Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty's Belfast Noir anthology.

"There are the Hollywood buddy movies about male friendships, not so much about female," Lucy remarks.

"The bond between best friends and between sisters is so intense. Sisters know each other so well.

"My sisters and I looked so alike - I used to hate that. They'd hold me back from forging my identity, yet I'd dress the same as my best friend and our hairstyles would be the same.

"At the same time, I'd be very protective of my sisters at school, if anyone dared bully them. Girls can be so mean. I was bullied at primary school, but who knows why. I was picked on in playground. It wasn't physical, it was more psychological. Girls not wanting to sit with you. I've yet to meet anyone who didn't feel like an outcast at some stage of their lives."

She writes compellingly about the "flashes of hatred" felt for annoying younger sisters, the misery of having to leave behind the innocence of childhood to enter the tough world of the early teenage years, of pretending you have kissed a boy before, that you have been drunk - all to fit in with your apparently more grown-up school-friends, who she portrays in all their horrid and vulnerable glory.

The emotional intelligence she reveals in these stories bodes well for her upcoming adaptation, later this year, of Chekov's Three Sisters, which she has set in 1990s Belfast, for the Lyric Theatre. In the meantime, she has written a Woman's Hour serial for BBC Radio 4, Dear Baby Mine, about the emotional consequences of male infertility.

"It's based on a story a man wrote to me when I was a lecturer at the City University," she says. "I thought he wanted me to be his ghost-writer, or to point him in the right direction. It was this heart-rending email about how he'd married his childhood sweetheart and they were trying for a baby.

"They had tests and it turned out he was infertile. Their relationship suffered and they were close to splitting up, but then they adopted a child, who he described as the light of their lives.

"He wrote to me because no-one talked about this from a male point of view. He'd seen an interview I gave and wanted to give other people hope, by telling his story. He believes what he and his wife went through was meant to be, and they were meant to adopt this child in the end."

Anyone with half a notion to write will be encouraged to do so by reading Multitudes. The author is delighted when I tell her so, a radiant smile creasing up those rounded eyes as she gathers her belongings to leave.

"That's the best thing, that I could encourage anyone to write," she beams. "I hate that Gore Vidal line [every time a friend succeeds, I die a little] about not wanting people to do well."

With that, she's off to collect her son and to spread a little more of her sunshine around. Cool girl.

Belfast Telegraph

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