Before my father changed his name and became the custard king of Ireland, he was asked a question by his father, my grandfather, Stephen Walsh. It was this: will you take over the running of the shop?
His answer changed his life, and gave me mine. But I doubt he was thinking much about destiny, legacy, coming of age, or anything like that at the time. I think his answer was designed to infuriate his father. Sons are generally excellent at this.
The shop in question was S Walsh, Mill Street, Westport Co Mayo. Calling it a shop, though – that’s underselling it. The front end was a general provisions store. Cornflakes, boiled sweets, cigarettes – all the main food groups.
We spent every summer there when I was a child. Who gets to play shop in an actual one? Pouring sweets into the weighing scales, tipping it up to a quarter pound, twisting them tight into small brown bags. And if a few fell to the side? Well, a little kickback for the pockets of my very short trousers.
The shop end was a wonderland, but push the door open, the one marked “lounge” – and a world beyond was revealed. A dark wood-panelled cavern, where men (nearly exclusively) went to do men things: drink pints, stare forward, and say very little. The floor tiles were stale Guinness yellow and TK lemonade red. A fug of Carroll’s and coarse words in the half-dark.
It was where a boy should not be, and the only place I wanted to stay. As I got older, I was allowed to play in there too in the summers. My job was do the top of the pints. Take a white plastic knife, smooth over the cream like an apprentice plasterer, and lift them up to meet the gaze of eager men. They were only letting me play, but I loved it.
Listening in on private conversations from that backstage position. Writing down little lines I shouldn’t have heard. Trying to make people laugh. I was a little performer and that was my stage. Who wouldn’t want to stay back there, forever?
My Dad, for one. He answered his father’s question like this: “I’d sell it in two weeks, and feck off to Dublin.” Offer withdrawn. My uncle stepped up and ran it, like his father had, and his father, back to the 1890s. A fine line, but honouring tradition was not on my Dad’s to-do list.
He did go to Dublin, the first of his family to go to university. He got a job as a rep, selling coffee and cornflakes up and down the west coast. Driving in Achill one day with a colleague, he passed a woman walking. “See that girl?” he said. “That’s the kind of girl I want to marry.” That girl was my mother. What if they hadn’t been on that road, what if he hadn’t had the gall to roll down that window and ask? That’s how you disappear like a polaroid in Back to the Future, and come of no age at all.
But there was no way he wasn’t going to ask her. That’s the kind of man he is. If there’s something you want, you go for it. He was different from the rest of his family. By name, too. When he got to UCD, he found there were way too many Walshs. Far too common. Too country. Too Mayo. So he added an “e” to the end. Walsh became Walshe. Far more the city sophisticate.
What of it, if you turn from the family business, change your name, and become someone else? How better to come of age? He was a businessman, and what he did was his business. He rose through the ranks to run Birds in Ireland. Being backstage in a bar is one thing. Telling classmates your dad ran a custard factory? That is next level when you’re 11. Eating raw jelly as if it’s normal foodstuff, dealing Dream Topping sachets at school – we had it all going on in the eighties.
But under the sweetness was a hard, bitter bargain. To make it in work, you’ve got to make sacrifices. My Dad was on the road a lot. Work always came first. And it didn’t stop when he came home. We used to go to Crazy Prices, the supermarket down the road from us in Dundrum. Our job as kids was to move all of the Birds jelly to the front of the shelves, and push that evil Chivers stuff to the back. “Are we allowed to do this?,” I asked him. “You put yourself first. That’s how it works,” he said, as the store manager approached, and we started to run.
Am I making this up? How do I know that really happened? Because I wrote it all down in my diaries. Flash mob jelly merchandising was not without its thrills. But in keeping a diary, I was realising something else: I like writing things down. I like trying put a shape on things, even if it was just notes to self. But scribbling in a diary is not a job. Certainly not the family business. I studied commerce in UCD, like my father did. I left home, like him. And I went to work, like a good boy.
For years I was a travelling salesman too. Computer software rather than custard, but the road is much the same. It’s meant leaving my family alone, a lot. I pushed myself from Chicago to London. I did well. I know where my drive came from. But at some point you have to come into an age when you have to push back and infuriate your elders.
How’s this for pissing your Dad off: When I was getting my green card to emigrate to the US, at 21, the people at the embassy noticed that arriviste “e” was on my passport, but not my birth cert. Uncle Sam wouldn’t stand for such inconsistency. Make a choice, they said. I dropped an e and went to America. I used that line a lot in Chicago. I did the same thing to my father as he did to his: I broke the line and became someone else. And while I stayed true to the day job for a long time, that wasn’t me either. There was something else I needed to do.
After 20 years in sales, long gone from Ireland, I wrote him a letter. I’m going to try writing, I said. Just on the side. Just to see what happens. Because that’s what I’ve always wanted. Be who you want to be, he wrote back, but be sure you have a back-up plan. Wasn’t going to quit the day job, Dad. I was way too scared to let anyone down, except myself. But I started to push on that door, into that dark place, to see what was in there. After going down another path for a long time, I finally started writing properly a few years ago.
S Walsh is still doing a fine trade in Westport. It’s out of the family now, though my grandfather’s name (and mine) is still over the door. I thought about moving back once, taking it on, in a mad moment when my uncle was retiring. Part of me still wanted that backstage snow globe feeling to come back. By then I was deep into my sales career and living in America. Standing on the wrong side of the bar was no life for me. My Dad told me that too. He knew what I really wanted. All I had to do was go for it.
My parents were 50 years married in May – thank you Mam, for not walking on by. And last year, after working harder at writing than anything I’ve ever done, I got a book deal. My debut story collection, Shine/Variance, is being published in July. There are stories in it about fathers and sons, duty and dereliction, running away, and coming home. I can only push on the door into myself.
When I heard I was actually going to be published, My Dad was the first person I called. “That’s great,” he said. “And, how’s business?”
Business is good, Dad. I’m still selling my wares. But now I’m putting different things on the shelf. I’ve said no to what was on offer, and gone my own way. There’s nobody more proud than him to see me finally do this, I think. And I’m working hard at it. Just like he showed me.
Shine/Variance by Stephen Walsh is published by Chatto & Windus on July 1st