Writing Britain Now: Deirdre Shanahan

By Deirdre Shanahan on September 18, 2019 in Articles

Deirdre Shanahan’s debut novel Caravan of The Lost and Left Behind (Bluemoose Books) tells several untold stories of individuals who live in but at the fringes of mainstream British society — those on the roads, those who move between the various nations of the United Kingdom without permanently settling in one, those who long for belonging but who may never find a stable place to call home. For our new series, the author introduces and shares an extract from the book. 

Travelling towards a Novel

An older Irish woman who was lost in England, wandering untethered to towns and cities, kept stalking my imagination. I knew she had a child and was drawn to the sea. She was in England but was drawn to Ireland, caught in a turmoil of not knowing where she belonged or fitted in. In Kilburn and Cricklewood, I had seen women like this wandering the streets loaded with shopping bags, who had come to England decades before. Some were unable, maybe because of family disruptions or lack of means, to visit their native country. They may never have returned and so had no live connections with friends or family. I knew this from my own observations but also from others who worked with them in the area. My character, Eva, became more distinct, evolved into someone I understood. I saw her torn between two places, two children. One child I knew was at a distance from her, while the other, a son, was with her and she sought, even at this late stage in her life, some kind of resolution. This gradually emerged to me as the truth of her having abandoned her daughter in Ireland years before. The consequences of her decision and her desire to find her, are reflected through her son Torin.

For a short time, after this, I came to know some Travellers who were settled on a site in England. They carried features and characteristics that I recognized. I admired their resilience in the face of change, their kinship and strength of character, their determination to be themselves against social norms. They were quick-witted, funny and charming but could be challenging, determined and keen to maintain their customs and beliefs. One woman predicted a life-changing event for me. This arose naturally in conversation but caught me and to my mind, was proven true and I never forgot her.

In their longing for Ireland and its landscape, to which they travelled intermittently, and in the disjunctured nature of their relationship with their native country, I saw a version of myself. Where did they fit in and where did they belong? The eternal writer’s question was born in me. ‘What if?’ What if I had been born to them? What if they were my people?

Later, in the course of thinking about Eva and Torin, I heard of a stabbing outside a school I knew, in years before it had sadly become so prevalent. In this, I saw how Eva might return to Ireland to protect her son from suspicion over involvement in such a tragedy.

Travellers have been part social history in England and Ireland for generations. In the latter, it is sometimes thought they originate as the displaced people out of the famines in the  1840s — those who were thrown out of their homes by landlords. Other commentators have traced their origins to the Egyptians who became displaced people wandering through Europe. Nowadays, especially in Ireland, while some travellers are still on the roads, others in England and Ireland are settled in houses and as a contradiction to the travellers usual mode of life, this presents its own difficulties.

In a wider context, we are only too familiar with people who have no home, whether as individually homeless or displaced as a group. But novels are not social history. They are not tracts for politics or issues. Certainly, I do not intend mine to be. Eva, Torin, and Eva’s daughter Caitlin emerged and grew out of my experience, reading, imagining and feeling. They are not real, but I hope true to life. I saw them clearly as their own people, individuals who triggered questions and suggested their own stories. As a writer, I wanted to travel with them.

Deirdre Shanahan’s ‘Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind’ is published by Bluemoose Books.

Read an extract from Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind:

Eva passed the small blue caravan and the red trailer. A woman drove a van out. Bony and fierce, the woman had no sign of a man by her. Eva would like to have driven, taken herself all over the country. Visited places she had only heard of. Giants Causeway. The mountains of Mourne. She wanted to put places to the songs. Duneen. Dungloe. Tipperary. But she could just about tell one end of a car from another.

Beyond the fence she was free. Tired, but free. Light-headed with relief, she walked off the clodding ache. A bare light pricked out every living thing. A rage of spring. The hedges thick with leaves and the nips of hawthorn buds. Fresh air washed though her feet were heavy as lead. She would go on, like the times she had walked into the sea with a giddiness and delight in the spray of waves. If she found Delia, what would she say? And if Caitlin was with her, what could she offer? What words after so long? Her throat caught and she could not breathe, but she pressed on. ‘Keep going,’ she thought.

For months after she had left Caitlin with her mother, she had seen the child in everyone passing. Her heart lurched towards them. She had to keep a hold on herself so as not to rush forward and take the poor child out of its pushchair. She used make-up every day but inside, she was falling apart. She saw Caitlin everywhere, in the blue check dress with tiny embroidered flowers and the white collar. As each day passed, she had wondered what way her mother dressed the child. She saw the run of dresses and cardigans Caitlin might have worn and longed to touch them but they were gone, packed in a brown holdall with a broken zip. All the clothes Caitlin used to wear were ready for wearing on all the other days running to a future she would not be part of.

Fields glistened, leaving the grass sodden. She walked in scratchy sandals, fleshy leaves brushing against her. The curve of the bridge to the shops rode over the river like a sigh. A man passed on his bike and a boy played with a stick and a dog. The land unfolded in stretches of small farms like those her father worked, fixing walls, mending pots and pans, sharpening shears, or to bigger houses where he might find a job for a week or so digging potatoes. Getting used to the walk, to the stretch of it, she could go miles.

A twenty minute wait for a bus. How did they manage? She had forgotten how few ran, but a bus arrived heading for Waterford. The driver told her of housing developments along the way. She would hang on until she arrived and he would tell her where to get off. The bus wove through villages and long fronted bungalows, fine-looking houses with windows atop of the roof, others with greystone like those she had called to years back with her mother. They looked empty despite smears of lace curtains. She recalled a story of her mother’s. A woman, Elizabeth Worthington, had lived in a big grey-stone house, brought over by her husband, a businessman who was often away in London. Elizabeth was lonely, without the social life she was used to in London. She missed the round of parties and dances and being able to play the piano, for her husband would not allow one in the house believing them to be silly, fanciful things. He had a nervous condition from the Boer War and could not abide noise. Elizabeth saw few people except her husband’s groom, a great horseman with whom she fell in love. Her husband returned from London and found them together. He was so full of rage he brought out his shot-gun. The groom ran off and, knowing the lie of the land, escaped easily while Elizabeth, chasing after, fell into a river and was said to have drowned. Eva heard the hooves driving into her, cracking along the road at speed. She should have come back when her mother was alive.

She should have borrowed money and come. Or stolen it. But this time would be different. She would watch herself and not go on with the old drinking. It did her no good, the doctor had said before she left. He had told her to change her lifestyle. Lifestyle. She did not know what it was and did not want to disappoint him by asking.

Beyond the town, when the driver indicated, she got off. Near a network of roads, a couple of girls of about sixteen hitched. No one would be bothered with her if she attempted it. She might have once, smiling, giving the glad eye, her skirt riding up. She walked on towards rows of new houses. An estate, surely. No. Dead end. Up here, a right turn, then left. One road leading to another. All the houses looking the same, it was confusing but she would keep walking. Even if it was dark when she arrived, even if Delia was not there, at least she would know. Her bones ached. She had little breath but walked the rise of a hill and made out a cluster of signs; ‘Roseland’. ‘Broadfields.’ ‘Templemore’. Even if Delia was not here, Eva would keep on looking. She would not hide in the back roads. She would move up the country, travel around, find her.

The houses were tightly packed tiny boxes, clinging to each other like toys with white wood cladding at the front on the upper parts. Some had drawn curtains. Three cars were lumped on grass verges where tyre tracks made muddy ridges. One had a dented side, and the front of a dark green car was smashed. In a garden, an ice-cream van had ‘Antonio’s Exclusive Ices’ and ‘Watch the Child’ spread on the back windows in worn-out lettering.

She knocked on the nearest door, but no one came. The neighbouring door, bashed in at the end and a crack in a square of glass, brought a woman in slippers, dripping a fag from her lips.

‘Yes, missus?’

‘Is there an old woman living round about?’

‘There’s a few, yes, that took up with houses a while ago. Were you wanting one of them?’

‘I am.’

‘What’s the name of them?’

‘Delia. She’d be old. One of the oldest out here.’

The woman looked over her shoulder and yelled, ‘Stace. D’you hear that? Seen an old lady around? No? No, she didn’t. I didn’t either.’

Deirdre Shanahan published her first novel, Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind, from the award winning independent Bluemoose Books in May this year. She won the Wasafiri New Writing Prize in 2018 and has won awards for her stories which will be published as a collection in 2020. She won a bursary from Arts Council England to have time to write, Spread the Word, and an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors.Her fictionhas been published fiction in ‘The Best of British Short Stories 2017,’  ‘New Writing,’ from Vintage / British. Some of her work has been published in the USA in ‘The Massachusetts Review’, ‘The Southern Review’ and ‘The Cimarron Review’.

You can read her Wasafiri New Writing Prize-winning story in issue 99.