Ulster says ‘Yes’: let’s hear it for talking – and listening
Anne Patterson, a Co Antrim nurse now working in London, on her shortlisted debut
Anne Patterson: Growing up during the Troubles, it sometimes felt that culture in my part of the world was put on hold. Photograph: Jane Cox
Yes is set somewhere in Co Antrim in the fictional town of Derryconnor. It’s one of those towns where everyone knows a bit too much about each other and would like to know more.
Maureen, the narrator, has had a stroke. When the book opens, she is confused. She’s lost a whole chunk of time and finds she’s saying yes to sugar in her tea even though she can’t stand it. In fact, the only word she can say is ‘yes’. It doesn’t stop other people speaking, though – even the normally strong, silent north Antrim Protestant types. She has a trickle and then a stream of visitors, all of whom find her easy to talk to, perhaps because they think she can’t pass on their secrets. She comes from a family where for generations no one has ever said what they really think, but now Maureen is almost silent, there is no stopping them.
As secrets unfold and answers are revealed to questions she never dared ask, Maureen reflects on life. She thinks about the death of her quiet, steady husband who she felt always held her back, seeing it as “like losing a parcel you hadn’t even started to open yet”. She recalls her adolescence when her harsh mother, on seeing crimson nail varnish on her daughter’s bitten nails, accused them of bringing “the tools of harlotry” into the house. One man is a frequent visitor whose feelings remain opaque to her. Is he diffident or indifferent? By the hospital bed, he finally tells her how he feels.
I studied nursing and social sciences at the University of Edinburgh. I ended up sharing a flat with English literature students. I envied their long evenings discussing Ulysses and summers producing Brecht plays, while I got up for 9-5 lectures and early shifts. Should I have done an English degree? On balance probably not. I’ve enjoyed working directly with patients. It’s a privilege to be there at the beginning and end of people’s lives. You grow up very fast. In a way it’s a very creative job, there’s an art to being a good nurse. As a student, I was interested in how it would feel to be “on the other side of the blanket”. I noticed how some nurses had a special “talking to patients voice” and tried not to do it myself. That’s one of the things I wanted to write about.
Yes is set in 1998. There have been huge developments in stroke prevention, treatment and rehabilitation since then. Strokes are very treatable, if action is taken early. Maureen was lucky because a stranger called an ambulance when she had the stroke. I can’t help thinking that if she’d been at home with her sister Shirley, she’d have said, “Don’t make a fuss, You’ll be okay after a nice cup of tea.”
It took me a long time to write. I started the book in 1999. I kept putting it away and taking it out again. In a way it’s a period piece – I didn’t want to write a book about the Troubles, but they’re present all the same. How could they not be? Maureen isn’t oblivious to the sectarian divide; she isn’t a bigot – she fumes at her sister who unthinkingly describes one of the nurses as “An RC, but lovely”. Although not politically engaged, Maureen is uncomfortable with how things are. In one episode she recalls hiding her Belfast Telegraph under the car seat when she goes to a women’s peace meeting and in another she describes two nurses doing the dance of trying to work out what the other’s religion is.
I’ve lived in London for years but where I grew up had a huge influence in the book.
I had a lovely childhood in Cos Armagh and Antrim, visiting uncles on farms and aunties with big kitchens and full cake tins. Yes is set in a farming community but it’s not twee. Not a rural idyll. Maureen and her mother and grandmother before her have had to work hard. People often describe someone being a “farmer’s wife” not a farmer, even though they put in a good eight hours a day working on the farm. While writing, I’ve flitted round the country in my mind collecting images from my childhood. The range in Maureen’s kitchen is from my Grannie’s house, the steep yard is from my cousins’ farm in Monaghan and the terrazzo floor from my aunt’s hallway. I needed a reason for Maureen’s admirer to keep coming to the house, so I borrowed the spring on my brother’s land.
I had a clear beginning and end to the book from early on, but I wrote the novel like a patchwork. I’m not sure if that’s my style of writing or if it’s because I just had snippets of time in between work and bringing up a family. It suited the shape of the novel because Maureen’s post stroke recollections are recalled in short episodes and the stories of others are slotted into hospital visiting times.
I’ve tried to get rid of some of my own bad habits by giving them away to characters. The idea for Yes has been around for a while. In 1999 at age 38, I wanted to write about an overburdened woman aged 50 whose life is put on pause and she suddenly has time to think. It’s taken me so long to get the book written that I have overtaken Maureen in age. I think in your 50s you can easily sit back and have regrets or you can see it as a time to get started. I am talking about myself as well as Maureen.
I’ve always been a great reader. Growing up during the Troubles, it sometimes felt that culture in my part of the world was put on hold, but of course writing quietly continued and has blossomed since. I loved Seamus Heaney’s poetry with its great sense of country and home, my home, but I wanted him to write a novel. I wanted stories. There wasn’t a book shop in town, but Ballymoney Library was right next to where I had a holiday job. I loved Edna O’Brien with her frisky country girls, Bernard MacLaverty’s novels, sometimes bleak but always warm, and Cuckoo by Linda Anderson, about a girl from Belfast who moved to London.
People have asked me about the book. Is it a romance? There is a bit of romance in it, but I think the key relationship is the one between Maureen and Shirley. Inseparable as little girls, their everyday lives are still intertwined, but Maureen realises that they have stepped back further and further from each other when they should have stood together. She begins to understand how much is lost by not being able to communicate authentically. This is a story as much about the importance of listening as the value of talking.
‘Yes’ by Anne Patterson is published by Silvertail Books. It has been shortlisted for the McKitterick Prize awarded to a first novel by a writer over 40. The prize will be awarded at the Society of Authors’ Awards on July 19th