“Thank you so much! I am sitting here in North Queensland CRYING my eyes out.”
This was the start of the message we received here at ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ all the way from Australia from Catherine McKernan Doris, winner of our latest creative non-fiction Wild Atlantic Writing Awards (WAWA) competition on the theme of Love.
And boy, did it make us feel good to have created such joy!
“This story is about my Mum and Dad. (Dad is no longer with us). You have no idea what this means to me and I cannot wait until this evening to call my Mum up in Tyrone and tell her the fantastic news. I am literally sobbing. From the bottom of my heart, thank you." Catherine
Entitled ‘The Past Present,’ Catherine’s story is published below. We will announce the winner of the Flash fiction category next week.
Keen to know more about Catherine and her approach to creative writing, we asked a series of questions. Here are her responses.
Q: Tell us more about yourself
A: “I have been involved with the theatre, both onstage and in production since I was ten. Born and raised in County Tyrone, Ireland, I emigrated to Townsville, Australia in 1998 with my husband, Martin, and our two children, Christine and Michael. In 2014, I began writing short plays and, to date, have written two full-length plays, a dozen ten-minute ones and three one-acts. My work has been staged all over Australia and my first full-length play will be part of the NAFA Festival in Townsville in July.
I began writing stories during the Covid-19 lockdown and have just finished the second draft of my first novel. This is the first time I have entered a story-writing competition.”
Age ’53 going on 21’ (or the same age as my tongue but slightly older than my teeth)," as she put it, Catherine describes herself as “an unpaid playwright, emerging author, jack-of-all-trades, wife, mother and grandmother.” She learned about the WAWA competition through a post on the Australian Writers Centre's Facebook page. “I thought it would be a good one to enter as I've only just started writing stories and wanted to see if I had anything worthwhile to offer.”
Q: How did you feel when you heard you had won?
A: “When I had stopped bouncing around the living room (with a high-pitched squeal emanating from somewhere that scared the dog, until he finally figured out I was yelling with joy and joined in the bouncing), I re-read the email to make sure I hadn't read it incorrectly. When the enormity of it sank in, I cried. Happy tears are the best!
The day before the winner was announced, I spoke to my husband about the competition and said to him, ‘If all I get is a mention or a highly-commended, I will be so happy.’ Ireland was my home for the first 31 years of my life and to have received such an accolade from 'the oul country' is a dream come true. A cliché I know, but true nonetheless.”
Q: How did the idea for your story emerge?
A: “When I first thought of the subject of love, I thought about my love for my husband and children. As powerful as that love is, it's not new or different to what most families strive to attain. That led me to thinking about sacrifice and what we would relinquish to ensure that those we are close to are cared for. From there, it was an easy connection to my parents. My father was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease when he was only 49. He died in 1989 aged 53 - my age now. For the four years of his illness, my mother nursed him at home, giving up her freedom to ensure he always had his. If that's not love, I don't know what is.”
Q: How many revisions did you make to your story?
A: “The story I entered in the competition was the third iteration. I like to write by hand first as I am not a fast typist and I like the almost organic nature of thoughts flowing from brain to arm to hand to pen to page. The 500-word limit makes you challenge every word on the page and whether or not it's valuable or necessary. The whole process from beginning to submission took me three weeks and I had three readers check it for me.”
Q: What was the most difficult challenge in the writing?
A: “The most difficult part of the process, apart from drying my eyes every five minutes, was letting my mother, my adult children and my siblings read the piece. That only happened after I had won the competition! I am not the most confident of writers and when writing something that is so personal to you, you have to remember that not everyone remembers things the same way. I had to remain true to the story but also keep my family's feelings in the forefront of my mind.”
Q: How challenging was it to choose a title for your story?
A: “I had 12 other titles but think, ultimately, 'The Past Present' summed it up perfectly. The others were: An Enduring Partnership; Familiar Places; Forgotten Places; In Pursuit of the Past; The Shape of Familiar Things; Safety in the Past; A Precious Life; Memories in the Present; All Roads Lead to the Past; Exploring the Past; and Journey to the Past.”
The Past Present
by Catherine McKernan Doris
She settled the blanket over his knees, tucking it gently around his bony hips. He was clothed and in his coat and hat. Ordinary except for the bedroom slippers. That battle hadn’t been worth fighting. He’d allowed her to bath and feed him. Unlike yesterday.
She buttoned her coat and jammed her hands into driving gloves. She had never driven, but found these didn’t slip as badly on the handles. Outside was cool and crisp, like a Granny Smith apple, she decided; the first vestiges of wintry weather in the autumn air. She brought a bag to gather blackberries from the laden hedgerows.
Friesians peppered the fields, not long returned from their morning milking. He clapped his gloved hands as they neared the foot of the steep hill, memories of boyhood re-animating his empty face. She looked to the sky, clouds like pulled wool over the blue, and prayed for strength to get them to the top. She leaned into the chair and pushed.
This was nothing like the landscape of her red-brick childhood in England. Everything here appeared to be soft. The very lane was tempered in its hardness, a broken line of nodding grass cracking the tarmac. Water oozed from underground, bleeding down both sides of the path, joining the main artery of the Torrent below. The dank smell of moss filled her nostrils as her breath became more ragged. She stopped then, for a moment, and heard a plaintive cry. Unfamiliar. Haunting.
‘Curlew,’ he said.
She engaged the brake and hunkered in front of him. Her eyes searched his face, remembering his voice.
‘Is that what it was?’ She coaxed, hoping for more.
But he had retreated into his thoughts, the man lost. She kissed his lips and readied herself again. He drank in his surroundings, peering through hawthorns to the stubble beyond, where shining black wheels of wrapped hay waited for winter. The pale sun rose higher. The scent of her favourite honeysuckle came to her on the breeze, cheering her. Finally, she reached the peak and turned his chair to the view.
The town lay huddled below, its inhabitants busy on their own journeys. She sat on her usual spot.
‘Little Miss Muffet,’ she giggled.
She showed him the old places – the bridge over the river; the football field where he played with his brothers; the grim row of terraced houses where he’d grown up, made beautiful again by distance; the chimney of the repurposed weaving factory; the remains of the railway that had long ago taken him from the battlefield of his childhood home to more conflict in Egypt.
She pointed to the chapel, where they’d baptised their children years earlier, and to the lough, sparkling silver on the horizon, holding memories of more carefree times. As always, the fleeting smile as he remembered, and her sadness as she watched him forget.
She chucked out the last of the tea and began the easier walk home. Tomorrow would be uphill again.