Wednesday 23 January 2019

Summer's out of reach

As her new novel, revolving around one of those memorable distant summers that changes everything, is released, Emily Hourican remembers the holidays 25 years ago when she learnt who she was, and how death shattered the idyll

An age at which fancy-dress parties were the rage. I think this one was themed around 'icons'. Lord knows who I thought I was
An age at which fancy-dress parties were the rage. I think this one was themed around 'icons'. Lord knows who I thought I was
Pink dresses and pouts. Presumably my idea of sophistication
The Talented Mr Ripley

It's the summer we all have - the one that lives in memory and seems to grow more radiant in retrospect, as the years pass. But even though it picks up extra glory as it recedes, it's not that we don't know at the time that this one is something special. We do; we feel it. As the days and nights slip by, golden dawn followed by velvet dusk, we know this one is not like the others. That it stands apart - bathed in the seductive light of infinite possibility; a voice that whispers 'anything can happen' on a warm evening breeze.

It's summer like a shot of sambuca; sweet, faintly sickening, utterly intoxicating. Summer written by Ella Fitzgerald or Don Henley.

It is always summer, not Easter, or Christmas. This kind of naissance needs light, and heat, and long days without responsibility. It can happen at any age, probably, although really, I think we are talking a time frame of late teens into early 20s. It is a summer of love, and learning, and new things, new people; on a beach, in a city, in the countryside. Mostly, it is a summer of us.

It's the summer we learn who we are - or, far more importantly, we learn who we could be. And even though it is, for many of us, bound up in the idea of love - a boy or girl, a gang, a city, a situation - with the wisdom of long hindsight, I think that really, what we fall in love with in those months is ourselves.

The selves we suddenly understand we can be. The possibilities we discern, the future we see in front of us. It isn't the guy with the intricate snake tattoo on his upper arm after all, it's the idea that it could be him, if we wanted it to be. The giddying knowledge that, after all, we don't have to be the person we were brought up to be, or even the person we have been until now. That there is more, and more exciting possibilities out there. If we want it.

That summer, we finally understand that we do want it. And that we can have it.

For me, it was the summer of 1993. The year I finished my BA in UCD, a golden pause in the until then relentless cycle of school-home-study-college-exams; a hiatus in the exhausting process of becoming; a shelf on which to rest and take stock.

That June, I went back to Brussels, which was, then, still home, despite the three years I had spent in UCD, and for the first time I fully understood that there was more in front of me than behind me.

Dizzy feeling

I was 22, and I felt like someone had flattened all the walls around so that I was free. The long years of school, at which I far from excelled, followed by the years of my English and history degree, were over at last. I had survived. I had made it. The final exams were finished, and I was confident I had done well in them (for someone who had been academically rocky, that alone was a dizzy feeling).

I had succeeded in getting through the education system, where I had not thrived, and was now looking towards the world of work, where I had a feeling I would do better. But before that, there was... nothing. A long, glorious nothing. Three months of freedom and anticipation and luxurious enjoyment of every hour and day, because they all belonged to me. I had earned them, now I would spend them exactly as I wished.

I had a temp job - deeply undemanding, some kind of low-level archive administration that paid me, just enough, and gave me a place to sit during the days, while I waited for the far more exciting nights.

At first, my co-workers hated me, because I had failed to grasp the fundamental rule of lowly jobs in European institutions - there is always more work. I believed that I could somehow, by charging fast and furiously at my data-entry, get to the end of the pile, and go home early (I also failed to realise that going home early was not a thing that needed to be earned).

And so, as part of a human chain of co-workers, I was putting pressure on those around me with my over-eager keyboard-tapping. I'm surprised they didn't kill me. Instead, I gradually understood the drill, and slowed down to the appropriate crawl. After that, we all got on much better.

Indolent hedonism

I also had a house. My parents and younger siblings were in Kerry for the summer, which meant that I had the run of that beautiful house in Brussels with its magical garden, a place of dappled shade and birdsong; a perfect kind of Tennessee Williams-inspired backdrop to play at the life I dreamed up.

There were friends from school, ready and waiting, and new friends who showed up, had the same interests (basically bars, nightclubs, late nights, indolent hedonism), and stuck around. We had a gang. Some had cars, one guy had a pool; mainly, what we had was a sense of purpose in each other.

And I had, as I recall, limitless energy. Nothing could stop me, from going out, staying out, going out again. I loved everyone I met, no one annoyed me or bored me; they were all delightful, just as I was delightful. We were drunk, often, but it wasn't that that accounted for my enthusiasm, instead, it came from within, from a new belief in myself. The self-consciousness of my teenage years seemed to have melted away like the wax casing from a sculpture.

There are barely any photos of that time - we didn't have phones or selfies or filters then. We recorded almost nothing, except onto the blotting paper of memory. Mostly, it is a warm blur, but I recall certain specific moments, in parks, or bars, on streets, late at night or in friends' gardens. Like the time we broke into a park in the dead of night and sang Edith Piaf songs at the tops of our voices, until we were chased out by the police with good-natured threats of violence. Like the time I met the girl I admired most from school; French, a year older, gorgeous and beyond cool; and she, who had ignored me forever, was nice to me. Because now we were grown-up and had left behind the silliness of school and could just talk to each other normally (almost normally... she was still very cool, and that was still a bit intimidating).

In the absence of many images, there are smells - of petrol and hot cobblestones and bleach on early morning streets - and sounds, of traffic slowed by heat, the blurred wail of a siren in the distance, the thump of house music - and a certain type of late-afternoon sunlight across pale grey stone houses. These things will always remind me of that time.

And there was a song (there is always a song, the soundtrack of That Summer). For me, it was Show Me Love by Robin S. Even now, the thump of that organ bass instantly takes me there.

I'm making it sound even more idyllic than it was, and not everything was perfect. Rattling around Brussels late at night, not very sober, could be dangerous, and there was a fight one night that started with chivalry - a friend went to the aid of a girl being beaten by the guy she was with - and ended with a knife-cut to the face that required heaps of stitches. Another time, someone drove into the back of the car I was in, deliberately, because, apparently, those of us inside the car were 'bitches'. No one was hurt that time, but it was a reminder that the back page of the local paper was often made up of accounts of violent incidents that didn't merit more space, only a weary shrug of resignation: Ca arrive…

In my new novel, The Blamed, Anna, the main character, lives through just such a summer. She falls in love, with a city and a guy, and learns to believe that everything she has never dared to hope for is actually there for her after all. She drifts through hot days and hotter nights, fuelled by the secret purpose of her obsession. She learns a new language and a new way of being. Most of all, she learns that she has, after all, a say in herself.

Summer love

The Blamed is a work of fiction. The people and situations in it aren't real, but some of the places are. There is the nightclub we went to, as often as it was open - the Vaudeville, an old theatre with a curly plaster ceiling and red velvet seats, and a bar we haunted. The streets and squares I send Anna walking through are real too, although most are greatly changed in the last 10 years.

Like Anna, I fell in love that summer. Or I thought I did. Mostly, I fell in love with someone I made up in my mind, who was not the person in front of me, although I couldn't see that until it was shown to me quite brutally.

In The Blamed, that summer ends horribly for Anna, with the death of her best friend.

My summer ended horribly too, with the death of my father. The whole thing came to a sudden crashing halt very early one morning in August, when the sun was barely up, with a phone call from Kerry to say he had died, of a massive heart attack, that night.

It was the end of the summer, and for a time the end of everything. So much so that part of me wondered if his death wasn't my fault - the universe punishing me for my feckless hedonism. For daring to believe I could make it up as I went along. I guess those are the sad, slightly twisted ways in which we try to make sense of the terrible things that happen to us. As if they have a plan, a logic, a rhyming scheme somewhere inside that cruel chaos.

I left Brussels abruptly, for his funeral, and by the time I came back, I couldn't see any beauty in the city at all. I left again as fast as I could, and signed up to do a master's in English in UCD. In the face of so much unwanted change, I needed to go back, not forward; to somewhere I knew well, where I could hide myself among bookshelves and essay deadlines and familiarity.

The guy I fancied myself in love with, seen only ever in the half-light of late nights and my own wishfulness, turned out, in the cold light of a very harsh day, to be of no more substance than a dream. I tried to lean against him, and he simply dissolved. It wasn't his fault, and I didn't blame him. If anything, I was glad to find it out.

I never had another summer like that one, and that's as it should be. I've never wanted one. After all, the most basic quality of those days is innocence - of the full breadth of the world, and the way it can encompass tragedy as well as joy. Once you learn those things, that innocence is gone forever. You swap the dreaminess for a sharper reality and move with purpose instead of drifting. You replace the hedonistic solipsism of 'me' with the broader comfort of 'us'. Probably, you find happiness that is built to last.

Basically, you grow up.

But you don't forget.

The Blamed, by Emily Hourican, is out now, published by Hachette Books Ireland


7 of the best Summer books  and movies

1 The Great Gatsby A hot summer on Long Island, the height of the Roaring Twenties; F Scott Fitzgerald created a tinderbox of heat and desire even before introducing Jay Gatsby and his long obsession with Daisy Buchanan. Nick, Daisy's cousin, moves out to Long Island at the start of the summer and befriends his next-door neighbour, Gatsby. By the end of the summer, Gatsby is dead and Daisy has retreated, with husband Tom, "back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made".

2 The Go-Between The novel by LP Hartley, and film by Joseph Losey, begins with schoolboy Leo's visit one scorching summer to his much grander school friend Marcus, where he becomes fascinated by older sister Marian, (played by Julie Christie in the film) and finds himself drawn unwittingly into her forbidden love affair. It all ends with a violent thunderstorm and traumatic loss of innocence.

3 Stand By Me "In all our lives, there's a fall from innocence…" So goes the narrative of Rob Reiner's movie adaptation of a Stephen King short story in which four boys go on a bizarre hike to find the body of a missing child. Set over the 1959 Labor Day weekend - which traditionally marks the end of summer and beginning of autumn - this exists somewhere between carefree youthful adventure and existential adult drama.

4 The Seven-Year Itch As the New York wives and children depart the city for the relative cool of Maine and Long Island, their husbands are left to sweat it out at work. In this movie classic Tom, nerdy publishing exec, finds himself trying to stand the heat of the city, as well as resist his fascination with The Girl (Marilyn Monroe), who moves into the apartment upstairs for the summer. A lot of convincing fan-work, and that scene over the subway grate.

5 The Talented Mr Ripley The kind of golden languor of director Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel, is summer as we all want it - a playground of privilege. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow (pictured below with Matt Damon as Tom Ripley) are impeccable as the rich and indolent Dickie Greenleaf and fiancee Marge Sherwood, drifting from beach, to yacht, to dinner on terraces and late-night jazz clubs. No wonder Ripley wants to first be them, then kill them.
The Talented Mr Ripley

6 Dirty Dancing Made in 1987, this started life as a low-budget gamble by a new studio, and went on to be a massive worldwide hit. The story of Frances 'Baby' Houseman, a nice middle-class Jewish girl holidaying with her devoted parents and sister at Kellerman's resort in the summer of 1963, and her fascination with bad-boy dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), is utterly winning. Great soundtrack, plenty of serious themes properly teased out, and no, "no one puts Baby in a corner!"

7 I Capture The Castle Charming coming-of-age tale by Dodie Smith (later a film with Romola Garai) that takes place between April and October in a year. Cassandra, youngest of the eccentric, impoverished Mortmains, chronicles their strange life in a tumbling-down castle, including the antics of her beautiful, frustrated older sister Rose, and the arrival of the Cottons, two wealthy American brothers who have inherited the nearby Scoatney Hall, and become the Mortmains' new landlords.

Sunday Independent

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