Sweating in the paddock – a poet’s mortifying experience of being shortlisted
The last time Martina Evans was shortlisted for an award was no laughing matter, but she looks back now at the comedy of it all
Martina Evans: “You’d think being a poet no one would dream of embarrassing you with such talk [of bestsellers] but strangely enough they do. Maybe it’s Seamus Heaney’s fault – changing the image of poets from cantankerous poverty-stricken drinkers like Kavanagh to urbane globe-trotting Oxford professors who win Nobel Prizes and make everyone proud.” Photograph: Eric Luke
Apart from the fact we’d be over and back on the same day and Buster wouldn’t be put out too much – I would leave the electric blanket on for him; I told Michael it would be on the lowest setting but I’d it all planned to turn around at the last minute and go back and put it up to the highest – the whole trip to Dublin was turning into something else altogether.
I took X-rays by day (and night also now that I come to think of it – those strange 24-hour shifts, my head nodding over Proust sitting under the light of the X-ray tube) and studied at the Open University and read books by night (and day now that I come to think of it, Ted Hughes’s foxy orange Faber volume slipped neatly into my white uniform pocket).
Literary happenings were on another plane, a heady place where people floated around loving books and each other and there were no awful mistakes where you might be accused of irradiating patients unnecessarily. Now after what seemed like no time at all, thanks to the encouragement of Desmond Summer, they were asking me to join them.
In those days before electronic ping, such events were heralded by a substantial envelope and a cream laid-paper letter with impressive heading, delighted to announce you’ve been shortlisted for the Guinness Literary Prize etc and we jumped around the kitchen or rather Michael ran to call the Ould Fella. That was what Michael called his father and after a while I got into the habit of it too.
Michael and the Ould Fella were always on the phone, rising each other about Cork and Kerry football and hurling matches. The Ould Fella would be subdued or maybe not call at all if Cork won and of course the teasing was unbearable for Michael if Kerry won. He’d let me answer the phone and sometimes even wave me away, miming I’m not here! The Ould Fella would chortle at the end of the line, Don’t I know he’s not gone out. He is not then! and I would have to repeat some sporting gibe a couple of times until I was sure I had it off by heart so I could pass it on to Michael. Then the Ould Fella’s voice would fade away with a heh heh heh…and as it had nothing to do with me, it wasn’t too much of a problem as long as I didn’t take any visible enjoyment in Cork losing and that was easy because I didn’t care.
Trying to remember any content from those conversations at all now is difficult. The only thing I seem to have carried away from all those matches and conversations is that Kerry were supposed to be very bad losers and when they won, they couldn’t stop rubbing it into people’s faces. Once they won five in a row and even I knew that about that – which really says something. The Kerry supporters wore T-shirts with Five In A Row written across the front.
Buster had his cream chin stretched straight out, I could never get enough of looking at him; he was like a ginger cake with vanilla icing and he smelled like a cake too. His meow was more of a croon, like Dean Martin. I was stroking the lump of cake that was Buster’s chin when I became conscious that the heh, heh, hehs were coming from Michael’s end as well. There was talk of backing a winner and horsy references of the William Hill variety.
Sure, Michael would be sitting up soon with his feet up, a kept man. Bestsellers were mentioned, a subject that makes me nervous to this day. You’d think being a poet no one would dream of embarrassing you with such talk but strangely enough they do. Maybe it’s Seamus Heaney’s fault – changing the image of poets from cantankerous poverty-stricken drinkers like Kavanagh to urbane globe-trotting Oxford professors who win Nobel Prizes and make everyone proud.
Michael came off the phone then and rolled in the grenade. The Ould Fella was after inviting his old school friend Bartie to the prize-winning reception. Michael was coming too: they were paying for his flight from London to Dublin as well as mine. An invitation to a special reception at the Royal Southern had arrived on a crisp cream card – drinks and canapes followed by lunch, after which the announcements would be made.
Could a stranger just turn up to an event like that and join in? But what did you say to him? I asked. Sure, doesn’t he know it’s private, didn’t you tell him? God, I can’t stop the man, said Michael. I don’t know how long we discussed this. I pleaded and begged but Michael said there was nothing he could do. Bartie was coming up from Tipperary. He’d loved books all his life, a great reader altogether but he never got a chance working in the ESB. A chance for what? To meet writers, I suppose, said Michael. But what if he’s turned away I asked when I found out he was coming all that way. Michael said he’d handle everything. Every few days I would be stabbed with the thought of it and ask Michael could he not talk to his father.
Meanwhile, bestsellers were on SW’s mind too. SW Ondaatje was the Superintendent of the Harrington Hospital and that included other departments in local amalgamated hospitals. He was a Big Cheese and I was afraid of him for some obscure reason that I can’t remember. Maybe it was just because he was a Big Cheese and I had to go into his office to ask if I could borrow a day’s holiday from the next year because I’d used up all my holidays.
SW was very surprised to hear my news. He said he was proud. He also said that he’d be expecting to come in to Harrods in a few years’ time and I would be sitting there at a table, signing copies of my book. And I’ll say that I was once your boss back in the old days. He put his head on one side as he said this, reminiscing into the future. Do you mean like Joan Collins? I tried to joke him into reality. Exactly, he said, nodding his shiny, smooth head and then he told me that his brother had a first-class honours degree in Classics from Oxford. Wow! Fantastic! I said, before asking him if he would keep it a secret from the rest of the department. No one knew I wrote poetry. Nonsense, they’ll be very proud. He threw open his door to call out to the group of radiographers, standing at the dark-room hatches, leaning over processors, standing by the viewing boxes; men in white coats, women in white dresses wearing wide brown belts. We’ve a poet in our midst. He pushed me out in front of him, telling me to be proud of myself. Well, pride was something else entirely.
A young student, from Monaghan of all places – you’d think she’d know better – asked me if I was suffering from Unrequited Love. She’s an Incurable Romantic, said Zia, as if I wasn’t in the room, and he started singing in Urdu and shaking his hips. It went like that every day of the countdown. Everyone’s version of romance was trotted out. Just about the only thing I wasn’t asked was if I liked Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain. Someone else asked me if I was a “Walter Mitty character with no sense of reality”.
Worst of all was that everyone kept saying that I was going to win. Why else would they be paying for Michael and yourself to fly over and back to Dublin? SW agreed, there was no doubt that I was going to win. William Hill wasn’t mentioned, probably because there were a lot of Muslims in the department, but I was sure from that moment on that I wasn’t going to win and at the same time I didn’t know how I could come back without having won.
I wanted to go back to the way I felt first. But it’s great to be shortlisted, that’s good enough for me, I said, and they all said, Nonsense, you’ve won already! It seemed like every night the Ould Fella was on the phone saying how delighted Bartie was and Michael said it would be unfair to stop him now and I kept asking what would happen if he was turned back at the gates of the Royal Southern. I asked Michael why we’d only just heard of Bartie. It was because the Ould Fella hadn’t seen him since school. Michael admitted that the Ould Fella only remembered his book-mad friend when I was shortlisted.
Bartie did get as far as the reception wearing an anorak with a rolled-up newspaper sticking out of the pocket. I’d been hoping like a coward that he’d be turned back at the door without our knowledge. But sure I only had to mention your name, Bartie said, and there was no need to worry about making conversation over the champagne and canapes. He never stopped talking and he was loud.
Cripes, is that Hugh Leonard over there, do you know he’s illegitimate? I started whispering myself to compensate. I worried about what Desmond Summer would think after all his encouragement. I couldn’t meet his eye and when he looked at me, I looked away as if I didn’t know him. What would he think of my ingratitude? Bartie’s biggest joke was counting the beards, including Desmond’s. All you need now to win is a long, grey beard like the rest of them. Bartie pointed the greybeards out again and I had a pain cutting my stomach in half from swallowed air. I tried to meet Michael’s eye. What were we going to do when it was time for the lunch? Where would we put him?
I was drinking sparkling water in case the champagne might make me screechy. Michael agreed that I had to be careful. He’d spoken to another young poet with a gelled quiff who wasn’t drinking because he said the winning poet would have to make a speech. I looked in alarm at the poet, who nodded at me, white-faced. Michael was putting glasses of it away like a jockey after a race, laughing away to Bartie’s running commentary about what my chances were of winning. There was talk of falling at the first fence and the high jump and so on. As if Bartie’d been primed ahead of time by the Ould Fella. Ah now, said Michael, when they said it was time for lunch, we’ll have to tell the poor fellow to go. I looked away while this was happening. I tried to make small talk to a woman beside me but she couldn’t hear me because I was still whispering.
In we went to dinner. A large journalist in a baggy, black suit smelling of cigars told us that he’d asked to be at the poet’s table because we’d be the most craic. He was of the old school – signing books in Harrods was not on his mind. Heaney wasn’t on his mind either. He was looking for feisty poets pouring drink down their throats and acting cracked but we were a faint-hearted bunch. He mentioned Kavanagh, Behan, James Clarence Mangan, O’Rathaille, Dylan Thomas but it was to no avail. Not a single poet was drinking alcohol. He’d picked the old dry-sticks table and he wasn’t happy. He tried to throw brandy in our coffee. White-faced, we put our hands over our cups. I had a permanent water bubble at the base of my throat and when the time for the announcement came, the poet with the quiff suddenly pushed back his chair and rushed out to the Gents.
If I could change anything about that day it would be to hold out my glass to the journalist. He was the one person I met who wasn’t interested in winners or losers. Like myself on Hill Sixteen in Croke Park reading Wide Sargasso Sea during the All-Ireland Final, he didn’t care.
The next day I went back to work. Rahila stood outside the old double doors of the X-ray department, perfectly brown and slender, her gold jewellery glinting against her white uniform, her mouth dramatically ajar, What? You didn’t win? A day of explaining and shocked and disappointed people to console. And to crown the day – in the afternoon a request form for a Sialogram appeared in The Box. I got roped in by the deputy superintendent to help Dr Fowler. As usual, everyone else had the good sense to make themselves scarce. Myself and the trainee radiologist turned the pages of Kitty Clark’s Positioning, trying to figure out the tangle of positions as the patient lay on the table, rolling his eyes at us, dreading the insertion of a catheter into his salivary duct.
And then it was over, apart from when the Ould Fella rang up on Sunday night as usual. There was a lot of heh, heh hehing before the conversation went back to the ping-pong of hurling and football insults and I was smelling Buster’s chest, still wondering if it was vanilla or almond. Afterwards Michael said it wasn’t fair but he had to laugh too. Bartie said he’d never seen anyone so nervous. According to the Ould Fella, Bartie had the greatest pity he’d ever had for a young girl, standing there in a desperate state altogether – sweating in the paddock.
Martina Evans’s latest poetry collection is Burnfoot, Las Vegas (Anvil, 2014), for which she has been shortlisted for The Irish Times Poetry Now Award, which will be announced on March 21st at DLR Lexicon in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, as part of the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival.