I knew I had a sickness, knew something wasn’t right, took me years to figure it out. And then, it was too late. Always too late. A head full of words all queuing up to get out, stories fighting among themselves, dreaming of the white page and me taking to the drink for solace because of the upset.
“You’ve a great imagination,” they’d say. Try living in my head for a day. Tis a sickness. A fracture of the psyche.
I dreamed of becoming a writer; no man is born to clean windows. Read all the most celebrated guides to the writing life. Studied the short story form. Joined a writers group. Followed the recommended blogs and my favourite authors on Twitter. People-watched, eavesdropped, endlessly observed the world around me. Had my writer’s motto, ‘Kill Your Darlings’ tattooed on my forehead. But the rejections flooded in, submerging me in a literary sea of despair.
I was a broken man, with a head full of mad books, until one day, I had an idea.
On a wet September morning I set off for Cork city, the Holy Land, the short story Shangri-La. At the Cork International Short Story Festival I hoped to meet other writers and advance my craft. Cork is a city of hills, old markets, narrow streets and friendly people. Cork has character, and Cork has beautiful white swans adorning the River Lee in a timeless elegance.
Booked myself into a quiet guesthouse near the university on the Western Road. A place where I would, once and for all, purge my mind, liberate the stories from the labyrinthine maelstrom of my imagination. Write my magnum opus. I would adopt a militaristic discipline to achieve my goal.
I settled in to my new Spartan surroundings, a small skylight-lit single room with a wooden desk and chair. Signed up to a short story workshop with an award-winning Scottish writer who was engaged in a legal deathmatch with his ex-wife and reeked of liquor and garlic and cheese chips in the mornings.
Went to the various readings, talks and panel discussions at a renovated church in the city centre featuring a host of internationally acclaimed writers. Took copious notes. Cerebrated prodigiously. Feasted on nuts and seeds and lentil soup. Avoided the infernal nighttime temptations of the city. Went to bed early. Felt like I was on the cusp of literary greatness.
They came from the skies in a terrifying rhythmic throbbing. ‘Waou, waou, waou, waou.’ Arriving with a ferocious flapping of the wing, eight-feet in diameter – The Beautiful White Swans from Hell.”
In the early Saturday morning sunshine I sauntered over a stone bridge beside the Beamish and Crawford brewery to my workshop, brimming with enthusiasm and narrative possibility, clicking my heels with the joy of the written word in an oblivious naiveté. It was then my world fell apart, my dream perished in a moment of abrupt barbarity.
They came from the skies in a terrifying rhythmic throbbing. “Waou, waou, waou, waou.” Arriving with a ferocious flapping of the wing, eight-feet in diameter – The Beautiful White Swans from Hell. Hissing and grunting. Swooping back and forth over my head. Five. Ten. Twenty in number.
They landed and encircled me, their necks curved back, wings arched, half-raised, edging towards me. Time seemed to stand still. We eyed each other up like gunfighters in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. I tried to give them the Clint Eastwood stare but my bottom lip trembled uncontrollably.
The Swan With No Name stepped forward, lunged and knocked me with an uppercut of the wing to the jaw. Before I could react he pecked me savagely with his murderous beak, pinning me to the ground. In a synchronic exhibition of avian sadism each swan took it in turn to inflict a personalised torture that left me writhing in agony. Thought I heard Ennio O’Morricone music but maybe that was some class of acute concussion. I’ll never know for sure.
I spat out two front teeth and a mouthful of blood and the swans again took flight, heading towards the gothic silhouette of Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral. ‘Waou, waou, waou, waou.’ The sound of the wing beats said to have inspired Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries.
I later discovered that the swans didn’t care for writers, artists, musicians, poets or aesthetic expression of any kind and there had been numerous unprovoked attacks down the years. Their serenity, an epic deception.
The culture of wanton violence that had gripped the swan community was exacerbated after they acquired a reissued special anniversary DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange at a car boot sale in Castletownroche. The swan’s propensity for random violence was well known locally but the powers that be, afraid it would adversely affect the cultural life of the city, played it down.
Frank O’Connor himself, Cork’s most famous literary son, suffered a particularly brutal attack from The Beautiful White Swans from Hell on the Grand Parade in 1963 and received extensive puncture wounds to the face, cuts, bruising and a broken metatarsal. He never wrote about the incident or publicly commented on it, although privately disgusted by the behaviour of the swans and by the inaction of the local authorities in dealing with the problem. He was the lonely voice of reason.
Locals recalled how he was too traumatised to take it any further, fearing reprisals given the prevalence of the swan as a species across the Northern Hemisphere and forevermore recoiled in horror and sobbed hysterically at the sight of one. I suppose all cities have their problems.
I also learned that the swans had conspired with city publicans in a bid to stifle my literary ambitions by seducing me with a topographical abundance of watering holes serving the finest porter this side of the Blasket Islands.
After my comprehensive defeat at the wings of the swans, I swam through rivers of stout, graciously imbibed the wine and, against all the odds, still managed to attend my workshop where I performed a superlative toothless rendition of the ode I penned in a MacCurtain Street snug on the back of a Murphy’s beermat:
An Ode to Porter
I wade into the black velvet embrace
submerge myself in the swirling waters
of my own consumption
it’s blissful here, intoxicating
I’ve never seen the world so clearly
for one beautiful moment everything comes together
before tearing itself apart
in a mutilating explosion of sobriety.
I left Cork in a state of physical and psychological devastation. After the delirium tremens had pulsed masochistically through my bag of bones and I’d stopped shaking, I returned to civilian life, washed windows, read books, subconsciously processed my literary adventures and slowly built up my strength.
Gradually, I began to feel more confident, once even venturing to a public house for a glass of sparkling water and a bag of Tayto crisps. My terrible ordeal with The Beautiful White Swans from Hell had in some way, I felt, helped me develop as a writer, had inspired in me an indomitable resolve and an insight into the human condition. I was sure I could exploit these experiences for narrative glory.
One night, some months afterwards, I found myself staring at the smoke-stained ceiling, tormented by another bout of insomnia when I was visited by dark thoughts, by a strange compulsion I was unable to resist.”
But that initial delusional enthusiasm, where I wrote through the night in a caffeinated frenzy and submitted manically to journals and magazines worldwide, soon waned under the onslaught of a shock-and-awe-style assault of rejection e-mails.
In response to the avalanche of indifference I didn’t set off to circumnavigate the globe in search of a publishing deal in a canoe made of paper mâché, fighting off Great White sharks by jabbing them in the eyes with my Parker pen and frantically scribbling notes into my little black waterproof Moleskine notebook. Nor did I trek the Mare Moscoviense on the far side of the moon for six months, wrestle anacondas with the indigenous people of the Amazon basin or ride a hippopotamus bareback in the blistering East African sun to the sound of beating drums in a tribal initiation ceremony.
I took to the bed.
One night, some months afterwards, I found myself staring at the smoke-stained ceiling, tormented by another bout of insomnia when I was visited by dark thoughts, by a strange compulsion I was unable to resist. I dragged my secondhand IKEA couch, kitchen table and chairs outside and piled them up in the middle of the road. Walked to the garden shed for a petrol can. Doused them. Slowly and methodically. I was going to have myself a Nazi-style book burning. I wheelbarrowed my treasured books onto the road, stacked them up on the furniture. Set them alight.
The neighbours’ unbounded curiosity soon got the better of them. I’ll never forget their faces, an amorphous mass of bewilderment.
I threw my prized annotated copy of Ulysses onto the flaming pyre, followed swiftly by the holy trinity that is the Beckett trilogy, and my thirty-three mint condition Danielle Steele first editions. Finally, taking my Parker pen from the inside pocket of my jacket, I tossed it onto the fire; there was a crackle and an explosion. Didn’t think biros could explode but explode it did, splattering Frank Madigan with blue ink and impaling Mrs O’Brien’s cat, Sheeba.
Shortly after, two solemn-looking guards arrived at speed with the fire brigade and an ambulance in tow. They told me I needed to go to the brain hospital for a bit of rewiring. Sparks flew into the cold November night, the words silenced amid the embers and the ash and the flashing lights.
And now, all these years later, I sit here, yellow-faced, listening to the hum of the fridge, Argos pencil and whiskey bottle in hand, and a head full of mad books that’ll never see the light of day.
Patrick O’Flaherty is from Limerick. His writing has been published in The Moth, New Planet Cabaret Anthology, theNewerYork, The Bohemyth, Visual Verse, wordlegs and has been broadcast on Irish national radio on RTÉ Radio 1’s Arena arts show.