Matchstick Man by Julia Kelly: grim reality, beautiful words
Ruth Fitzmaurice on Kelly's account of her partner, Charlie Whisker, and his Alzheimer’s
Artist Charlie Whisker and writer Julia Kelly at their home in Co Wicklow. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Head of Zeus
“You’re in the swamp and it’s a very long way to shore,” says the counsellor with his head in his hands. “Diabolical . . . Jesus!’ he mutters to author Julia Kelly, charging her €150 for the pleasure. How do you dance with a devil called Alzheimer’s? Illness has grabbed her partner, Charlie, in a tight embrace and he is running away from her. Literally. He’s racing through busy traffic. Face gripped in a half-smile, like a nimble child you can’t catch, he’s running nowhere, his mind a dissolving thing. She chases after him as he swerves through cars, loving and hating him in equal measure, overwhelmed but compelled to make sure he is okay. “I’m demented,” he says to the officer when they finally corner him in the darkness of a large park.
“Now is the best place to begin,” writes Julia Kelly. Matchstick Man is her first memoir. An award-winning writer of fiction, Kelly has always woven real life into her unique descriptive prose. It was while working on her third novel she realised life events had swamped this former fictional escape. For her own therapy, as a legacy to the man she loved and a map for their young daughter to follow, her writing meshed with the mad dance of Charlie and his illness.
Julia first met Charlie at an artist retreat in Co Monaghan while working on her first novel. A self-described underachiever at 35, shy and unformed as a writer, she was spellbound by successful artist Charlie, 20 years her senior. Sitting at the communal dinner table on her first night, Charlie walked in fashionably late, pet iguana Skippy on his shoulder. He was immediately “luminescent under the lamplight”. She had never met anyone like him, who saw things the way he did and thus they fell into step easily together.
It was a Charlie-led bliss bubble and she was his protegee. He strode ahead with his walking stick, poking things, black beanie hat perched on his bald head. She kept up breathlessly, jotting down words he suggested, wearing clothes he liked. Lying side by side to watch a shadow creep up the wall from the rising sun, Charlie mock scolded her: “Hey, that’s my thing to be looking at. Find your own thing.” And so she did, the small matter of her incredible writing voice. Unlikely mentor and misguided muse is how they began.
From her vantage point of “the now”, Kelly’s recounting of their past is tinged with the inevitability of his decline into dementia; like she always suspected the melancholy would win, that his best-self would dwindle, that he would outrun her. The image of them roaring along the coast road, her blonde hair flying on his Moto-Guzzi motorbike, is far from perfect.
“I knew we were a cliche, that I was part of an image he wanted to project, but I didn’t mind; I was flattered that he had chosen me to complete the picture”.
Charlie was a charismatic character and a difficult one in equal measure; saving sick animals but also self-serving; eccentric, but with a cruel streak. He wanted her all to himself; he could be dismissive of others; he liked to scare people. As they built a life together, had a daughter together, the very things that attracted her to him, turned her heart cold. “He’s become quite dependent on you, hasn’t he pet?” remarked her mother.
A protegee often outgrows their teacher, but it’s not as simple as that. The view from Charlie’s brain is mesmerising to begin with. When does the creative eye blur and at what point is the gaze of illness born? With the onset of Alzheimer’s, the curious cogs of an already oblique mind get jammed in a horrifying jumble.
In a reality so relentlessly grim, beauty lies in the words themselves, written by Kelly with her signature page-turning pictorial touch. The power of her pen lies in the seemingly mundane details that bleed with emotional resonance. Tumbling 7up bottles in a fridge door that won’t stick; the car horn stuck in an incessant beep; her body crouched in the wooden playhouse at the bottom of their garden hiding from Charlie; the search for a front door key lost in the hairy underworld between kitchen cabinets. In a series of simple vignettes, she weaves for the reader a harsh tapestry of pain. Charlie struggles to clip his seatbelt into the CD player; pees on the bedsheets when he can’t find the toilet; tries to throw himself from a moving car.
Depictions of Charlie’s mental demise are gulped in solid shock, a detached Xanax washed down with a double vodka. The liquid centre of this book lies firmly with five-year-old daughter Nipey and the quirky intimacies that amount to family memories.
“The Nipe’s” unconditional love and distress will warm your heart and break it forever. She earnestly anticipates his confused gestures, develops a slower, more adult way of speaking not to frighten him. “I don’t mind that he forgets things. He’s still funny.” Charlie may no longer be left alone with his daughter, even for 10 minutes, but in a well-worn ritual, they still share an ice-cream together. A child who can barely tie her own shoes, comforts her mother crying on the grass: “Mum, I’ve known you for nearly six years, I think I know when you’re upset.”
“Will you mind my knives and guns?” Charlie pleads when he leaves to live in the hospital. The reader understands implicitly, because the writer has drawn him so well. Like the still life scenes comprise driftwood, human skulls and childhood teddies he once arranged in their home, Charlie is a wonderful eclectic mix of things. Kelly has gathered them all together diligently, trying to make sense of his belongings. There is still pain and confusion in the task as their loss is ongoing. Images of Charlie will haunt you like lost ghosts – bathing his iguana like a terrifying newborn, curled up watching Coronation Street, his droll nicknames for people, bald head, beanie hat, his collection of walking sticks. Yet a wry humour remains, like the complaint that the sight of women wearing tan trousers makes him want to “boke”.
As Charlie stops running, craves silence, wants only warmth and a long hug, Julia Kelly the writer will run on. A sad book about the loss of a mind and the conflicting layers of a relationship. We can only sigh in relief that such a talented writer was created in the process.
Ruth Fitzmaurice is the author of ‘I Found My Tribe’