Authors: Michael Harding
Tags: #BIO026000, FAM014000
Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year 2013
John Murray Listeners’ Choice
Non-Fiction Book of the Year
‘A repository of modern man’s deepest fears, Harding emerges as something of an embattled hero for our times
… It’s rare for a memoir to demand such intense emotional involvement, and rarer still for it to be so fully rewarded’
‘Hilarious, and tender, and mad, and harrowing, and wistful, and always beautifully written. A wonderful book’ Kevin Barry
‘I read this book in one sitting … Beautifully written …
Staring at Lakes
gives us permission to be lost, sick, sad, creative, happy and compassionate – in short, to be human’ Mary McEvoy,
‘This memoir grabs you from the outset and holds you right to the end. His language sings’ Deirdre Purcell
‘Written in lyrical prose, it provides a compelling insight into the turbulent emotions that rage behind so many of the bland faces we meet in everyday life’
Sunday Business Post
‘This frank and unflinching memoir offers a fascinating insight into the mind of the author of two of the finest Irish novels of the eighties’ Pat McCabe
‘Difficult to put down’
Michael Harding is an author and playwright. His creative chronicle of ordinary life in the Irish midlands is published as a weekly column in
The Irish Times
. He has written numerous plays for the Abbey Theatre, including
, and has published three novels,
The Trouble with Sarah Gullion
Bird in the Snow
as well as a bestselling memoir,
Staring at Lakes
First published in 2014 by Hachette Books Ireland
Copyright © Michael Harding 2014
The right of Michael Harding to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Some of the names and details in this book have been changed to protect the identity of individuals.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Hachette Books Ireland
8 Castlecourt Centre, Castleknock, Dublin 15, Ireland
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338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH
ITCHY feet one time and left the beloved. I headed for Paris, but ended up in Mullingar. It was all because I knew too much – or thought I did. I knew who I was and I knew where I was going, in terms of my life journey, and I had decided it was time to leave Leitrim. Simple as that.
It is important to see the world
, I told myself. Going to seed in rural Ireland was not an option. So I presumed I was finished with the little cottage in the hills above Lough Allen, the home my beloved and I had set up thirteen years earlier. But of course I was wrong.
Five years later I returned. Knocking on the door, I said, ‘I’m sorry I ran away. Will you please let me in?’
‘But why,’ she asked, ‘did you go away?’
I don’t know,’ I confessed. ‘OK, so maybe I was worried that I hadn’t seen enough of the world and thought I might begin another life in Paris or elsewhere, despite the fact that I was over fifty.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And where did that get you?’
‘To Mullingar,’ I confessed.
‘So you didn’t get very far at all, did you?’
After five years in Mullingar, I was on the flat of my back with a gigantic prostate, colitis, mental burnout and tears filling my eyes. ‘Hold me,’ I begged her. ‘I’m a ruined man.’
And she did. And every day I sat up in bed, sipping a little soup and writing a few pages on the computer until I had a book finished, which was published and did very well and won a few national prizes, and then suddenly I was out of the bed again, going around the country, talking to audiences about how little I knew about anything. It’s amazing how consoling the general public finds it to meet someone who knows nothing.
And I suppose what I now accept is that I most definitely know nothing. If I had used that insight as my guide on the road of life, like a route on the sat-nav, I wouldn’t have gone down so many cul-de-sacs. Knowing things can be
a big problem. It can lead a man astray. It’s a delusion to think you know it all. In fact, it may be a delusion to think you know anything. Although it’s not easy to sustain a life based on knowing nothing. Or to admit you know nothing, especially when, like me, you’re trying to write another book.
I went to a psychotherapist about all this. She told me I needed meaning in my life.
‘But I’ve tried Christianity,’ I said. ‘And I’ve tried Buddhism. Neither of them seems to work for me.’
‘And why did you leave your wife?’
‘I found marriage a bit boring,’ I replied. ‘And besides, she had a different view of how to fill a dishwasher.’
‘And why did you go back?’
‘Because I was wrong – about the dishwasher. And now I think maybe marriage does work.’
She didn’t say anything else. I suppose that’s because she’s a psychotherapist.
And what I find most difficult of all is that being a man is wildly more complicated than it was in my father’s time. Nowadays, it’s essential to be liked. And men want to be understood. They want to be held. They want to go to therapists and they want to cry on television. Men are expected to be tender and human and loving, and to know when to hold their partner and when not to.
I’m told that in the olden days, men spent their time in the fields making hay and had no feelings, and women
were inside stirring pots of stew that later everyone ate, at the bare board table on the flagstone floor, in a kind of monastic silence, as they all inhabited the bliss of being a family.
That must have been really peaceful. Everything was simple. A man knew where he stood. In daylight, he wasn’t unlike a horse, a thing that lived outside, only coming indoors late in the evening. He grunted over his soup, dozed by the fire or smoked a pipe as his children grew up around him, and sometimes in the night he surprised his wife in silent love-making with the tenderness of a child.
When I returned home, I was sixty and I hoped I might just have enough wit to be a competent lover by then; because more than anything else in the world, a man dreams of being in love.
I certainly wouldn’t like to imply that I’m a great romantic, but there was one phrase I kept coming back to when I was recovering from depression.
That’s all I could say to my beloved. It was sad and pathetic, and I was embarrassed, but I said it over and over again, and she did it over and over again. She held me.
If I were a romantic, I might have used other phrases. I might have used the kind of phrases James Bond uses, and I’d throw them at her because she’s a beautiful person. I’d scatter them before her feet. But I didn’t. Not when I was recovering. I was speechless most of the time when we
were alone and, I discovered, a man is not very attractive in striped pyjamas.
In public or on stage, it’s different. I’m fine. I have no bother talking to three hundred people, and sharing my feelings. But when I’m alone in a room on a one-to-one basis, I get lost. Dumbfounded. I can never find the right word. Except for that phrase – hold me.
And then of course there was the case of my poor mother, who lived so long and who for so many years had nobody to hold her at all.
HAT’S WHAT I was thinking on a bright May morning in 2014, two years after my mother had died. On that particular morning, my beloved was returning from Poland where she had been for six weeks. I woke early. The room was still dark but through the window I could see the sun’s rays edging over the mountain. The sky was clear. The rain clouds had not yet gathered in from the ocean to cover Leitrim with that oppressive grey which makes humans in this part of the world feel so desolate and melancholic.
A glass of water sat beside my iPhone on the headboard above my head. The curtain was half open and my clothes were on the floor. I reached up to turn the phone on and listen to the morning news on BBC Radio 4. Then I got out of bed, using the phone as a lamp, and went to the bathroom. I had slept soundly through the night, and I relieved myself in a single and marvellous flow from my bladder and felt an enormous sense of well-being.
The reason for this sense of well-being was because in my early fifties, I’d been going to the bathroom every forty minutes, resulting from an enlarged prostate, and I was constantly walking around with the unpleasant sensation that my bladder was never empty. Then at sixty, after a successful operation to reduce the size of my prostate, I became a new man. I became like one of those Cavan men I have always admired; the ones who can down six pints without leaving the high stool and then go outside under the arch and piss with the ferocity of an officer’s horse.
I shaved, observing myself in the mirror, lathering my face, neck and cheeks with a green slimy gel and then pulled the razor blade closely down each side, line by line, like a window cleaner, ensuring not to touch the small goatee that gave my chin some respectability. For years, I’d never bothered shaving. So I wasn’t good at it. And I only started wearing a goatee when I began visiting the therapist. I thought I might look more awake, or at least less mad, and
more inclined to take the world seriously with a sharp little bush on my chin.
The therapist raised her eyebrow.
‘And of course there’s always something erotic about shaving,’ I said, because I always tried to dredge up something for the therapist.
She raised the other eyebrow so I didn’t pursue the topic. I was wearing some round-rimmed glasses I had bought in a chemist earlier that day for €5. I thought they might enhance the goatee. I wanted to look like a psychiatrist; it was a kind of defence mechanism, I suppose.
The sun had not yet risen fully over the ridge of the mountain, but the faint grey light in the sky was intensifying above Sliabh an Iarainn, and the trees in the garden were almost visible. I put on fresh underwear, clean socks and a tight-fitting shirt, with brown cord trousers, and had a look at myself in the mirror.