All week this week we cover the brilliant new memoir by broadcaster Noelle McCarthy. Today: a chapter from the best book of the year so far
Going up the hill, I watch my feet, in open-front black wedges I bought with the money from waitressing all summer. My lilac toes wink up at me. Oasis are playing Páirc Uí Chaoimh tonight, the timing couldn’t be better. The rip in my jeans stretches across the top of my thigh pleasantly. It’s my first and last time going up to school not in my uniform. My hair is tied back except for two long tendrils, one either side of my forehead. My choker is a thin strip of black leather with a little silver heart in the centre. In the shadowy coolness of the hallway outside the library, I stand in a line with some of the girls from my year. I don’t know when I’ll see them again after today. The thought is energising. One by one, we’re brought into the library where the headmistress is waiting. I walk towards her, she holds out a thin sheet of yellow paper.
“Five A1s and two A2s,” I tell Mammy, from the payphone across from the secretary’s office. “I don’t know what happened with History.”
“Oh Noelle, thank God and his Blessed Mother! Sure they did the novena!”
” It’s not the fucking priests Mam, I studied.”
“Ah there’s great power in faith Noelle! He never lets you down, St Joseph of Cupertino.”
Mammy has a job now, in the evenings, looking after elderly priests. They are all put up together by their order, in a house on the Blackrock Road, when they come back from their missions in Africa or wherever, palsied with malaria. She sits with them, and talks to them, brings tiny bottles of whiskey for her favourites. They pray for all of us – me, John Paul and Sarah – for the Junior Certificate, and then the Leaving.
“You’ve a beautiful mind Noelle, God bless you. Well done, girl. Go on away for yourself, so, and celebrate.”
Daddy looks at me sideways a few weeks later when he realises I have enough Leaving Cert points to do law or medicine instead. Something passes over his face – disappointment, maybe, or exasperation – but he says, “Sure I don’t care what you do, once you’re happy.”
Second year of university. I carry my college books in a red vinyl bag that says CLUBSTER, go to London for a weekend, get a white ski jacket with a furry hood from Miss Selfridge.
I break up with one boyfriend, find another. I meet him at the student club night in town called Gigantic, on a Wednesday. He spills his drink on me. He is wearing a giant black fluffy coat that makes him look like Big Bird, if Big Bird was goth-y. I know his face, all long and chiselled, he works in a pub so cool I’m almost afraid to go into it. He and his workmates all turn up in the clubs together after last orders, moving as a single unit, self-contained and raucous, passing drinks from the bar to the dancefloor over each other’s shoulders, shouting and laughing and dancing, cooler than everyone, in their adidas jackets and Carhartt baggies. The girls have glitter on their eyelids and their hair in raver bunches; the boys are gay, some of them, intimidatingly dressed, in clothes you can’t buy in Cork. They stare at you frankly and keep their backpacks on when they’re dancing.
The room is spinning. In the mirror in the bathroom, I see I’m bruised purple along one side of my body
Cork is a young person’s city, with club nights and DJs famous all over England and Europe, shops where you can buy Buffalo boots and Duffer jackets, and bars like the one my new boyfriend works at, pulling pints while he does his Masters in Drama. The pub is a big white cavernous space that used to be a warehouse down in Cornmarket Street in the centre of the city. We knew it was taking off when one of the guys from the Happy Mondays started selling drugs there on Sundays.
When I wake up, my stomach’s already roiling. There’s bile in my throat and the room is spinning. In the mirror in the bathroom, I see I’m bruised purple along one side of my body. Creeping back into bed, I can sense he’s awake but I don’t say anything. Leaning against the cool of his back to quell the nausea, I shut my eyes, willing myself not to vomit. ‘Why did you say all that last night, to Paul Horgan?” The words hang there. I don’t know what I said, only that I shouldn’t have said it. My voice is hoarse from the fags and the vomiting. “Ah, I didn’t mean it. It was three o’clock in the morning. He won’t remember.”
“He wasn’t drunk. You were. We were all working. It was embarrassing.” He turns over to face me.
“He’s annoying. I don’t like the way he just sits there and stares at everyone.”
“He’s the boss, Noelle, he owns the place – he can do what he wants. You can’t just be going around spitting at people – not unless you want to be . . . some kind of punk or something! ” His voice is rising in frustration.
“I didn’t spit at him.” Did I? Jesus.
“Not literally, but telling people to fuck off, for no reason.”
“You’re so angry, Noelle. People don’t deserve it.”
I’m full of dumb fury. Fucking Paul Horgan, with his bushy hair and all his DJ friends from Dublin. What do I care about him? He barely looks at me. I’m glad I said what I said, even though I don’t remember. He deserved it. I hate his stupid bar full of posers. I’m sick of this stupid city. I can taste the iron tang of dried blood on my back teeth. I hiccup a sob of self-pity. “I’m sorry. I was drunk. I’ll say sorry to him.”
“No, just leave him alone. He’ll be fine, just don’t go near him.” He blows out a big sigh. “You’re so angry, Noelle. People don’t deserve it.” He puts an arm out then, pulls me towards him.
“Of course, the idea would be to move towards a PhD eventually.”
I sit up straight and say “Mmmm”, the soft consonants humming through my body. The thought of a doctorate is honey in my mouth, and ridiculous also. But Professor Dunne is saying it like an obvious conclusion. Last year, I took his seminar in nineteenth-century Irish Literature, and he agreed to let me write about Bram Stoker. It was the very last essay I wrote, in the last exam of my finals. It was quite short, and mostly about sex; my hand was very tired and my writing was very messy. Some time after graduation, I got a letter: the essay had won a prize. Mammy and Daddy came with me on the train to Dublin. We stood together, about a hundred young people, in a big ballroom with glass doors all along one wall and chandeliers sparkling above us and a former Taoiseach presented us with scrolls and told us we were the future. I came back to Cork and changed my Masters subject. I would do a thesis on the nineteenth-century popular gothic tradition. Professor Dunne, with his clever oval face and soft Wexford accent, would be my supervisor. It feels like a good omen that he has long teeth, which when he smiles are revealed in their entirety.
“Some postgraduate work here first, and then, probably, England.” He steeples his fingers together. My essay was ‘radical’, he tells me. A radical look at female sexuality. I am not sure how exactly. We talk about the future, we talk about Dracula mostly – what all of it means culturally, socially, historically. I quote from it too often, he laughs at me indulgently. I walk out and close his door softly. Beside the stairs, the rain is plastering yellow leaves to the window. One floor down, a cistern gurgles. I close my eyes and see my future rolling out the way he described it to me – the MPhil, a PhD, lecturing, conferences, books even. The feminine uncanny, fictions of unease, technologies of monsters. A whole life, built around it. He believes I can do this. I know it. I feel it. I want this so much I can taste it. I walk down the stairs, full of excitement.
I never write more than a few pages of the thesis.
“You can come in for a few lunches and I’ll see how useful you are to me, and you can see how useful I am to you. And then if we like it, we can stay together. Sound good?”
She’s got that funny, chewy accent that makes some of the vowels very short and others long and flat, but she’s been in Cork long enough to pick up the sing-song cadence. She’s smiling, a big wide smile that makes her eyes crinkle up at the edges. Her lipstick is very red. And she’s naturally tanned, a state unheard of in Ireland. Later on, I’ll know the lipstick is Chanel, a shade called Dragon, and she’ll leave it in a little silver bowl by the till so we both can use it. For now, I find her intimidating.
What’s it called? he asked. Cafe Paradiso, she said, after a place she liked in Wellington
She puts her hand in the till and takes out a handful of notes. “So how many shifts do you think you want?”
“Three or four possibly, depending on the money.”
“OK, Noel. Let’s see how we go.”
My friend Stephen got me the trial at Cafe Paradiso – he is always a bit ahead of the rest of us. It is the only vegetarian restaurant in Ireland that is a proper restaurant, with lovely furniture and a wine list, as opposed to a cafe selling rosehip tea and baked potatoes stuffed with lentils. It’s been on all the top ten lists, someone came over from the Guardian to have lunch there. Bridget owns it with her husband, he is from Cork, she is from New Zealand. The year before they opened, a guy from the Lonely Planet came into the cafe where Bridget was working. We have our own vegetarian restaurant, she told him – put it in your book, please. What’s it called? he asked. Cafe Paradiso, she said, after a place she liked in Wellington.
She doesn’t turn up until the middle of lunch service, and then, there she is, a small woman in a gauzy white dress and expensive-looking blonde hair, walking up the centre of the room suddenly, smiling her crinkly-eyed smile at everyone, talking to everyone in her up-and-down voice, banging a big pink plastic laundry bin full of purple napkins against her belly.
“Hi, you must be Noel.”
“Noel.” Beaming at me.
Everything in Paradiso is organic – only natural brands of soap, cola, butter beans…The front windows to the restaurant are doors actually, three big glass panes that Bridget pulls open as soon as there’s as much as a sliver of sunshine, even in winter when the wind is whipping along the quay. When the customers complain, she says, “Sure it’s good for you, central heating makes you scaly.” And they just laugh, and let her, because she is bold and gorgeous, and no matter how full the tiny blue room is – with lawyers and accountants and academics and actors, all the well-heeled burghers of Cork who come in for sheep’s cheese galette, and chickpea timbale – she’ll always find them a table. When we’re heaving on Saturday nights, people are sent next door to the Wine Cellar, to have a drink while they’re waiting. The bar there, long, deep and enveloping, is run by Sheila and her sister, who both look like Norman Bates dressed up as his mother. They reuse the lemon slices in the gin and tonic and sell you boxes of matches that have been struck already.
I watch the sequel to Once Were Warriors. I’m so drunk, my only recollection of it is Temuera Morrison breaking a pool cue
Bridget goes away for a weekend. I run the dining room in a tight black dress and Dragon lipstick. There’s a pen in my hair for writing down phone numbers and crossing out bookings. After service, we drink a lot, but not the good stuff. I lock up carefully. At first, I work three nights, while I am meant to be doing my thesis. Slowly, that fiction grows more see-through. Everyone is leaving – London, San Francisco, Sydney. I don’t want to go where everyone is going, and I don’t want to go for just a year either. When I think about a future in Cork City, the picture comes up empty. Mammy is a weight around my neck, just the idea of her. I don’t have a conscious plan yet, but I’m saving my money.
“Go to New Zealand,” says Bridget.
“What’s it like?”
“Like this,” she says, gesturing at the blue walls around us, blond wood tables, big doors you pull open.
She is from Tauranga – should I go there? “Oh no, go to Wellington, it’s lovely.”
She pulls out a Rough Guide from the little bookshelf in the corner, flicks through to the maps at the front, two narrow green islands surrounded by blue water. Aotearoa. I try saying it, my tongue stumbling over the unfamiliar double vowels. Aotearoa. A good place to aim for. I take on an extra Sunday shift in a pub, working for a guy Bridget knows.
My last shift in the restaurant is my last night in Ireland. At around 8 o’clock we take a photo – Bridget and me, crouched down behind the serving counter, in front of the coffee machine, clinking flutes of Lindauer and laughing in our red lipstick. My hair is short in the photo, and I am weighed down by the presents she gave me: a greenstone ring and a thick silver bracelet. It has my name engraved on it, and a flaming sun with a smile on his face, the Cafe Paradiso logo. Bridget wears a matching one, so do her sisters and nieces. A few years later, I will lose it in a cinema in Auckland, hungover.
Back at Bridget’s, she makes us watch the sequel to Once Were Warriors. I’m so drunk, my only recollection of it is Temuera Morrison breaking a pool cue. At the airport that morning, Daddy goes off and comes back with an armful of ham sandwiches – for the flight, he says. I don’t even thank him. All I can think of is getting to Bangkok. Years later, back in Ireland, at a table out in her back garden, Bridget says, “I was so happy when you left. I was afraid for you. Just the way that you were, the drinking.”
“Afraid of what?”
“That you’d die,” she says.
A lightly abridged extract from Grand: Becoming my mother’s daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin Random House NZ, $35), available in bookstores nationwide.
Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: we continue our week-long coverage of Grand with a portrait of the memoirist.