The guest had arrived on an overnight flight from America. She had emailed me before leaving New York, asking if I could take her to her hotel to have a shower and an hours’ rest before taking a look at the work that we would be sharing in the coming days. A car and driver had been dispatched to her destination airport, with the instruction that she was to report directly to our employer. When I showed up, they were chatting over coffee. I introduced myself and sat down. After about ten minutes, I noticed that she was beginning to wilt. I suggested taking her to her hotel and she gladly agreed. I went home to wait and by 11.30 a.m. we were at work. In the evening, we managed a light meal at a local restaurant before she retired for the night, exhausted.
Three days later, as I left a document on my employer’s desk, my name in an entry on the page of an open diary caught my eye. ‘The American girl arrived this morning and Imelda was delighted with the opportunity to perform,’ he’d written. I read it again. Yes, it was still there, in his unmistakable scrawl. I felt sick. Back at my desk, the tears flowed. Gathering my thoughts, I told myself that I was bigger than this; I was more than the grossly misconstrued opinion of a crass, egotistical bastard who knew nothing about me. My lunch break provided breathing space and an opportunity to regain equilibrium. In the ensuing couple of months, I completed the project and bade my employer farewell. “You have done a wonderful job,” he said. “Thank you.” I gazed into his cold eyes and wondered what he saw.
Now and then, I would question myself. Was I ‘performing’? Was I over eager to get that tired, jet-lagged traveller to a warm shower and a snatched hour of rest? Did my eagerness make him appear inadequate, or lacking in hospitality? I even shifted blame onto the poor girl: why did she not catch a flight a day earlier and get a decent night’s sleep instead of turning into work straight off a transatlantic flight? And then, all my sordid history of injustices came back to haunt me – the snubs, the projects lauded by those who viewed them, not knowing the work was all mine. The meticulously-prepared presentations to cover up the presenter’s shortcomings, the administration and correspondence, the meeting and greeting of dignitaries, and the hospitality – all rewarded with paltry pay. But the more I reflected, the more I realised that I had played no small part in writing that history.
Many years ago, I was asked to write a piece for a local historical publication. I had written a story shortly after my mother died in 1984, but I was afraid that it would fall short of people’s standards and expectations. On the contrary. No less a luminary than the late Professor Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, of the department of Folklore at University College, Dublin, declared it ‘the best piece of writing he had read in a long time’. But any sense of achievement was tinged with embarrassment; I saw my story as a once-off flash of inspiration and didn’t trust myself to write any more. Rather than expose myself further to the vagaries of the literary world, I retreated behind a desk, to provide administrative and literary support to other luminaries. While their creative pursuits garnered worldwide acclaim, mine dissolved into the shadows.
In 2006, I was asked to ghost-write a memoir. Two publishers showed an interest in the manuscript and a deal was signed with one. The book was launched in 2008 and my confidence as a writer took a small step forward. Four TV documentary scripts followed and then the work dried up. Drowned by egos, I capitulated when it came to credits but I was thankful that one of those projects made it to publication and two made it to broadcast. The remainder are in private and State-run collections.
After my younger brother died in 2009, I had time on my hands and no money. I found solace in painting, something I had resorted to as a hobby in the past. A gallery offered to exhibit my work and my paintings started selling. But the grief of losing my brother to cancer and the multiple ankle fractures that I sustained in a fall – both in 2009 – had taken their toll, physically and mentally. In 2013, I had to move house again, but this move took me closer to home and the company and support of family and friends. Then in January, 2014, I was coaxed into a new venture. Following my nimble, sure-footed friend, I was guided to rugged mountain-tops, to gentle brooks, cascading waterfalls, lake water lapping the shoreline and cathedral silence on forest paths. I watched the changes in light, from minute to minute. I felt the earth awaken from frost-encrusted, brittle, brown, to moss-sprung suppleness. I began to feel more flexible and my sleep improved. This sensual contact with the landscape also inspired my painting and writing.
Growing up, I often heard people say, “You have to have a neck in order to get on in this world”. They were mostly what a writer of my acquaintance referred to as ‘the shadow population’: the people who serve. Servants peopled the downstairs regions of houses and businesses owned my great-grandparents. By the time I arrived on the planet, the dynasty had died out and somewhere along the line, serfdom had set in.
It has taken me a lifetime to cultivate confidence, a much more benign term than ‘cockiness’, which I would have associated with ‘neck’ in the past. I have come out of the shadows, no longer settling for ‘the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table’, no longer willing to remain a ‘ghost’, or be at the beck and call of those to whom I have been invisible. Now and then, tinges of anger and regret make their way to the surface – anger towards dismissal, degradation and humiliation hurled upon me if I dared question an idea or contradict a downright lie. Regret at having shied away from the hassle of hustle: of applying for positions that might have helped to advance my career in the arts. Each time I viewed a job description in these fields, I concluded that I was too old or that I didn’t have enough skills or experience.
In July and October, 2015, a magazine published two of my short stories. The scenic routes had awakened my resolve to reclaim the gifts that I had been given and to draw upon memories of encouragement from the dim and distant past, when my teachers advised me go to Art College or to university. Circumstances dictated that I get a job. Four years later, I had cut my teeth in the front line of two public service industries and was expecting my first child. In the late 1970s, I met an older woman, the wife of an employer, who, like my teachers, knew how to shine a light through my defences. We were in my office. I sat at my desk, shoving letters into envelopes for posting. She sat in an armchair, a ‘Woodbine’ in one hand, a cup of strong coffee in the other. Apropos of nothing, she said, in her melodious, German accent, “To be accepted in society, vone has to be an aristocrat or an artist. You are an artist, my dahling.”
I have learned that those less discerning see me as and from where I place myself. I put myself in the back seat, thinking that someone would come to my rescue. No-one never did. But, having reached late middle age via the scenic route – in more ways than one – I am relatively unscathed, gathering experiences that may one day find their way into a memoir. The mountains, the place where I am known since I was in ankle socks, have given me back my sense of self. I am beginning to heal – in mind, body and soul. Among my ‘shadow population’, I find laughter, understanding and support, and my new role is acknowledged as part of who I am. I am encouraged to honour my creativity and my work. “If you don’t,” they say, “no-one else will.”