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Tales from the Margin

Susan Knight

After Desire, by Phyl Herbert, Arlen House, 128 pp, ISBN: 978-1851321131

Amid the dazzling new crop of Irish writers, one seemingly younger than the next, it is heartening and appropriate to find launched during Bealtaine, a month that celebrates creativity in ageing, a fine set of stories by a new but older writer.

Phyl Herbert, whose collection After Desire was launched recently in the beautifully restored premises of Books Upstairs in central Dublin, has long been a familiar figure on the cultural scene. She trained as an actor in the Focus with Deirdre O’Connell but found that her true calling was as a director, and worked with the Dublin Youth Theatre for three years. As a teacher in a deprived area of the city, she recognised the potency of the Stanislavsky technique: how children with poor literacy could develop through drama language skills that transformed their lives. Similarly in the prisons, where for ten years she taught English, drama and creative writing. In 1999, with Celia de Fréine, she brought out a collection of short plays to be used in workshops with the prisoners. More recently she was head of the drama department at Liberties College.

This background is relevant because it informs several of the stories in the collection, not just in the strength of the dialogue but also in subject matter. In both “Hands” and “Offenders”, the central point of view is that of a woman who teaches in the prisons. “Hands” is particularly poignant: one of Alice’s more talented “students”, as she likes to think of them, has been severely beaten up by an officer and she finds herself powerless to do anything about it. The wonderful story “Freddy Mercury’s Anniversary” is told in the voice of a vulnerable young girl just released from prison:

Nobody knows I’m out. Nobody’s waiting. I step out into the world. The sun hits the roofs of the parked cars. I see the shiny black one, just like the picture I have in my black plastic bag – the only one that stayed on my wall for the whole six months.
‘Fuck the Rich’ was scribbled across the side of a big juicy Jag. ‘Fuck the Poor’ as well – I’m not going back to poor anymore. No. Ivy girl, this is the first day of your new life.

The voice is authentic and we find ourselves rooting for bold Ivy even when she steals a Mini to go joyriding:

I’m out now on the motorway and, God, I don’t like what I see. A big long endless streak of road, nothing either side. It’s like going on into eternity. Ivy, you better think fast. Mammy, please help me.
My First Communion comes into my head, the nuns were teaching us about sin and saying that heaven was a place that went on forever and forever into eternity. That’s where I learn that word – eternity – forever and ever, no ending. I couldn’t sleep at the thought of anything going on forever and ever. I didn’t like the idea of heaven after that.

Phyl Herbert writes in a clear, fluent style. Her stories are delicately constructed miniatures, tender glimpses into her often flawed characters as they make the best of their way through life. The title of the collection, After Desire, seems to need a question mark after it, for in many cases the point is that there is no “after”. Even the aged Bonnie in the story “Lunar Ladies” still lusts on her deathbed for the Nigella-lookalike nurse who tends her. The fifty-something ex-nun, Georgina, in the long final story, “The Gravel Road”, takes up the tango, ordering red dancing shoes from Argentina and having hot thoughts about her dancing teacher:

She dreams she is dancing close to Sydney; she is listening to his melodious voice, his face is close to hers and she feels the heat of his chest. He is pulling her closer and closer, and what is more she in enjoying the sensation and wanting more. He is saying: Let the man lead, follow my movements. She feels herself getting carried away as he places his face close to hers, and then she hears the voice of Mother Evangelist shouting her:
‘You are making an unholy disgrace of yourself, Sr Gabriel …’

Georgina, as Sr Gabriel, had been assigned not to the missions as she had hoped, like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story with a hunky Peter Finch for company, but to a mother and baby home in Dublin, up the gravel road that gives the story its title. Called with bitter irony a “community”, it is a grim place of punishment and humiliation both for the young mothers and for the nuns. The idealistic novice is shocked, but stays on for thirty years doing her meagre best for the girls who find themselves caught there. Another story, “Lost and Found”, features a woman who went to England secretly to give birth to a baby subsequently adopted and now, years later, tries to reach out to a twin sister who may or may not have known about it. In “Sliabh na mBan” an old man find that his brother, with whom he has lived and even slept all his life, has a secret never suspected.

The world of Phyl Herbert’s collection is thus a familiar one. Twenty-first century Ireland looking back at its past self and not much liking what it sees there, the secrets, the hypocrisy, the cover-ups. The effect of the crash is also dealt with, particularly in the blackly comic “Brave Inca”, where an old man, thrown on the trash heap, finds a spectacular way out. There are few obviously happy endings in these stories but the overall impression is still one of hope and the assertion of the human spirit, due in large part to the immense sympathy of the author for her creations.

The book is another impressive production from independent publisher Arlen House, whose director, Alan Hayes, nobly aims to produce quality paperbacks of poetry and short stories with little grant aid and little commercial profit. The cover illustration by Nell Graham is a thing of beauty in itself.

1/9/2015

Susan Knight writes novels, short stories and plays. Her collection Letting Rip and other stories was published in 2012. She teaches creative writing at the People’s College, Dublin.

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