A Novel on the way.
The Joy of Living
Many years ago I wrote a stage musical called "The Joy of Living", a work of fiction concerning a Movie Director, Billy McLean, who, upon receiving news that he is dying of Cancer, signs himself into a private rest home for the terminally ill, hoping to find enough privacy to write his memoirs before it is too late.
On arrival at the home, he becomes absorbed in the relationships that exist between the other 'guests', and their reluctance to communicate with each other. He finds a room full of lonely souls, each bitter and angry that life has dealt them a worthless hand, and he begins to wonder if there isn't something he can do to help them make the most of the time they have left.
It's a story of optimism, a celebration of life, and perhaps also a spiritual journey, and while it offers no answers as to how to deal with ones mortality, it certainly promotes the notion that we are still very much alive until that moment when we draw our final breath.
Did the story work as a musical? Well, modest forbids me from boasting that it won several awards here in Ireland, through the Association of Irish Musical Societies, and at the Waterford International Festival of Light Opera, but to me, the greatest success of the piece was the response I received from friends and relatives of people who had gone through the experience of residing in a rest home or Hospice. They seemed to identify clearly with the characters and with the agonies that they went through. Moreover, several cancer patients have approached me to express their thanks for changing their view of their condition, and for giving them a stronger will to overcome their condition.
The response was such that I am now well into the process of transforming the 'musical' into a novel. It has been a fascinating journey, delving deeper into the central characters, and deciding how they came to be in their current situation. Hopefully, I have managed to create characters who are very real and believable.
So, what I would like here is a little bit of feedback. Below is an extract from the Novel, and I'd be interested to hear comments from anyone. Does the extract give you a desire to read more? Do the characters make sense to you? Does the style of writing sit easily on your eye?
Any feedback will be read with appreciation, in the hope of improving the piece.
The Joy of Living - Extract.
“My mother was so brave. She didn’t ever complain about being sick. But she was getting thinner, and very weak. I’d heard her crying sometimes, when she thought I wasn’t listening, and that made me cry too. The rooms we had there were cold and dreary. I wished we could move to the country with lots of trees and sunshine, I’m sure that would have made her feel better, but daddy had to work hard to buy her medicine. He said he couldn’t afford to give up the little bit of work that he got there.
I saw a man in the street one day, dressed as a clown of some kind, and he had a painted on smile so that you could never really tell if he was happy or sad. He had a little hat beside him for collecting coins, and he danced and acted so that the passers-by might give him a few cents. But very few of them ever did, because the people around that area weren’t very well off, so I reckon that under the painted smile, he was probably pretty miserable. And I think that was the way my mother tried to be. Always smiling for me, so that I couldn’t see the pain beneath.”
Billy sat on his bed looking at the frayed pieces of paper that he had taken from the little leather folder in his suitcase. He marvelled at the childish hand-writing, and thought about the times when he had sat in the back room of Grant Dunstan’s store, trying to assemble his thoughts into some kind of order. This was the only record of those early days, the time when he first knew what death and poverty were all about. They were terribly troubled times, with many painful memories, but he never thought about them with any bitterness. Even throughout his mother’s struggles with illness, his father’s drinking and eventual demise, he had never wanted for love. He was also well aware that those hard times had given him a sturdy backbone, and the desire and determination to make something of his life.
He hadn’t gone through these papers often, but he kept them safe and always close at hand. They were his history. They were what made him the person that he had become. But now, they were more than that. He was making the same journey that his mother had been forced to make, through the dark corridors of illness, and in some way, he believed now that he could be inspired and assisted by his own accounts of his mother’s fortitude. Of course, it had been much harder for her. She didn’t have the drugs and the level of medical care that were available to Billy, but he was sure that had she been a weaker person, she would have passed away much sooner. When she had first been diagnosed with the cancer, the doctor had given her a few months at the most. But she struggled on for a little over four and a half years. He knew that within these pages he would find the secret of her inner strength, the incentive and determination to survive for as long as he possibly could.
He read a chapter or two that afternoon, and then he folded the sheets of paper, treating them as delicately as if they were ancient sacred scrolls, and returned them to the leather folder that had become their home. As if the writings had inspired him, he found a pen and a note pad and decided to give some time to planning out his Joy of Living manuscript. He knew that somewhere within the finished masterpiece there would be an acknowledgement to Cindy for coming up with such a wonderful title.
He sat for well over two hours, with notepad in one hand and the pen in the other, staring absently out of the window, without writing a single word. He watched a bird that was building a nest in a tree, a little way down the garden. He was making a home. Someday there would be eggs in it. New life, ready to spring forth and carry on the natural cycle. It was spring, and the world was renewing itself.
He saw Cindy walking in the garden. Such a frail girl, but in the afternoon sunshine she looked happy and healthy. She stopped by some flowers and leaned down to catch their scent, then walked to a wooden bench and sat down to browse one of her magazines. He thought about how she kept so closely in contact with the outside world through the pages of the articles that she read. In some small way, she was a part of that world of celebrity, while still being apart from it. If it brought her happiness, it could only be good for her. Then he thought about how his presence in the Wallace memorial home had suddenly brought part of that world into direct contact with her. He had no arrogance about his celebrity, but it warmed him to think that it could mean so much to her. He also knew that she was the strength behind his determination to fit in with the other ‘guests’, and as such, she was as important to him as he was to her.
She sat on the bench for some twenty minutes until the shadow of a tree blocked the early evening sunlight from direct contact with her. As if a sudden chill had crept over her, he saw her shudder and then arise and make her way back into the building.
Nurse Rachael was also in the garden, accompanying Arnie on his regular afternoon stroll. Arnie was fairly mobile, but a little weak, so she kept close at hand without actually supporting him unless he stumbled. Billy guessed that Rachael was probably about 19 or 20 and he remembered how uncomfortable she had been with him the night he had arrived. He felt sorry for anyone of that age having to look death in the face everyday and still try to maintain an air of jollity and optimism. Maybe he had been lucky, dealing with those issues when he was so much younger, perhaps just accepting them as a normal part of everyday life. Bearing in mind that Arnie had lost his powers of speech, he thought it must have been a strain on Rachael to keep talking to him for the duration of their stroll. He also hoped that in the course of time, dear Rachael wouldn’t inherit the cold indifference of her employer. He couldn’t figure out Doctor Wallace at all.
He remembered a play he had once read, ‘A Dog’s Life’. It was about a woman who ran boarding kennels, and her system for looking after her charges began to take over her life. As each dog had its own private kennel, with boundaries that kept it secluded from the others, so she began to compartmentalize her life. Not just things, but people too, all in their own little boxes. It was her way of coping and of avoiding complex situations. The trouble was that she built her own little box as well. She kept herself so much to herself that she eventually lost her ability to communicate with others. It occurred to him that perhaps Doc Wallace was doing the same thing. Perhaps she was building an impermeable wall around her emotions so that she wouldn’t be hurt every time she lost a patient. But it was so wrong, he decided. Life without emotions was no life at all. Without pain, how could we appreciate pleasure? How could we measure happiness if we didn’t have sadness against which to balance it?
Even as the thoughts were running through his mind, he knew that he had been guilty of similar practises. The pain of losing his mother and father had driven him to keep his distance from strong personal bonds of affection. But at least he lived in a world where he could vent the true depths of his emotions through his work. There was great passion in his films. Powerful emotion. With Doctor Wallace, on the other hand, her work was an extension of her private life. She had no outlet. Despite his aggravation about her attitude towards him, he suddenly felt very sorry for her.
Most of the guests had their own televisions in their bedrooms, but there was a communal one in the lounge which was seldom used, except for an occasional sporting event or perhaps a movie. There was a request sheet that guests could sign if there was something specific that they wanted to watch. Leo entered the lounge excitedly and glanced around to see who was present. Cindy was curled up in her chair, engrossed in a novel. Zack and Arnie were, as usual, silently studying their dominoes. Suzy was thumbing through the pages of a magazine. Leo made straight for the television request sheet. No-one had marked it for that evening.
“Ha!” he allowed himself a satisfied grunt and taking a pen from his cardigan pocket, he signed his name and entered the time when he wanted to view the television. 10.30pm. “Oklahoma”.
“What is it that you want to watch, Leo?” asked Cindy, raising her eyes from her book. In response, the old man started singing.
“Ooooooooo..klahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain!” There was little musicality in his voice, but what he lacked in talent, he more than made up for with enthusiasm. “It’s my favourite musical. I know every song and every word of it.”
“Then why the hell would you wanna see it again?” asked Gruber, who had just entered the room. He flopped lethargically into his seat. “Nuthin’ but a bunch of pansy cowboys, if you ask me.”
“Why would I ask you?” Leo sneered at him. “Do pigs have an opinion of art? If you don’t wanna watch it, you can have an early night.” Gruber ignored him.
Timmy came in eating an apple. Suzy instantly lowered her magazine.
“Hi Timmy.” He paused for a second to look at her, and she might have hoped for a second that he was going to soften and respond, but it was not to be. Without a word, he moved to his seat by the window and took an aggressive bite from his apple. Suzy’s heart sank and she leaned back solemnly in her chair.
Izzy and Velma were still talking over the incident from earlier in the day as they came in and seated themselves.
“Well if I live to be a 100, which I guess is highly unlikely, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the expression on her face. Ha!” effused Izzy. “It’s the first time since I entered this mad house that I’ve seen that dragon lady lost for words.”
“Yeh, it was kinda surreal,” Velma agreed, “But you can bet your bottom dollar that she’ll find a way to even the score.”
“I don’t know what she’s doin’ in this joint.” Leo joined the conversation. “She’d be more at home as a prison warden.”
“Oh, don’t be too hard on her, Leo.” Cindy didn’t like to hear anyone being maligned, even if, on occasions, they deserved it. “At least she had the good grace to give in and Billy got to stay. That’s the important thing.”
Gruber perked up instantly. He would never miss an opportunity to make someone else feel uncomfortable. “Important? What the hell is so important about McLean? Unless of course you happen to be head over heels about our little celebrity!
Cindy felt the colour rising in her cheeks. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous?” Gruber grinned. “It’s written all over your face.”
Leo couldn’t resist bursting into song. “People will say we’re in love.”
It was enough to make the others smile, but Cindy felt extremely uncomfortable.
“I am NOT in love, Leo. I simply admire him because he seems to have a sensitivity that most of the men in here seem to be lacking. That’s all there is to it.” She was, of course, telling a little white lie to mask her embarrassment. She had fallen in love with him through the pages of the fan magazines, long before she ever met him in person. She might never choose to admit it to anyone else, but she knew it in her own heart.
“He’s sensitive alright.” Gruber was still sneering. “He’s probably a faggot like all of those arty types.” He turned his gaze to Timmy. “Ain’t that right, Tiny Tim?”
Timmy was itching to snap back at him, but Izzy eased the tension.
“Well I don’t care what you think of him, brother, but I knew he was a good man the minute he walked in the door. And he talks a helluva lot of sense!”
“He does.” Cindy was quick to agree. “And he’s already started to have an effect on all of us.”
“He has an effect on me alright.” Gruber acknowledged. “He gets my back up!”
Leo let out a little laugh. “Ha! Everything gets your back up. You’re humpier than Quasimodo!” Gruber gave him a hard stare.
“What I mean is this. He’s got us all thinking.” Cindy didn’t want the conversation to end. “Not just about ourselves, but thinking about each other and that episode with Doctor Wallace proved it.”
Gruber rolled his eyes with disinterest and relaxed into his seat, but the others were curious about Cindy’s observations.
“What do you mean?” Velma quizzed her.
“Don’t you realise what actually happened, Velma?” Cindy was inspired. “When we all stood together to help Billy, we won the fight. It was a team effort, and that’s what Billy had been talking about all along. Helping each other and feeling good about it.”
As if this had been a cue, the door opened and Billy came in. He was still deep in thought about Doctor Wallace. Still felling sympathetic towards her.
“Hey Billy.” Velma put her hand up to stop him as he passed. “We’ve just been talkin’ about what you were sayin’ earlier. About getting to know each other.”
“Really?” Billy was distracted, “Well, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I ought to just keep myself to myself and save any trouble!”
“Yeh, maybe you oughta!” Gruber was quick to agree.
Cindy could tell from his eyes that Billy had lost a bit of his fire and enthusiasm. She wondered if he might be feeling sick, or if the argument that afternoon had had a negative effect on him. Izzy saw the concern on her face and came to the rescue.
“Now look here, brother. You ain’t gonna back out on us now! Not after what we did for you. Man, you was on a slippery slope till we stuck our necks out for you.”
“That’s right.” Velma agreed. “We pulled together to save your sorry ass, so now that we still got you here, you’ve gotta repay the debt.”
“Yeh!” Leo added his 5 cents worth. “You owe us one, McLean. So make with the therapy. I’m ready and waiting.”
Billy looked around the room. There was a distinct change of atmosphere. With the exception of Gruber, defiant as ever, the other faces in the room all held a new expression, or at least an expression that he hadn’t witnessed in these surroundings. They weren’t exactly smiling, but they were brighter, and more attentive. He decided that it was a combination of anticipation and hope. He knew that, ultimately, he couldn’t change their circumstances, but at the very least, he believed that he could help them all to cling more steadfastly to life and to make the most of their precious time. Cindy could almost see his thought process and she watched with great relief as the apathy seemed to fade from his eyes, to be replaced once more by the fire of optimism.
“You mean you want to go ahead with my idea?”
Izzy laughed. “Well, it ain’t as if we got much else to do, now is it?”
“And you’ll all be a part of it?” He knew that the ladies wouldn’t need any persuasion, but Gruber’s eyes were closed, and Timmy avoided eye contact. Leo, however, was quick to jump aboard.
“I’m with you all the way.”
“Count me in,” said Izzy, “What about you, Velma?”
“I’m in.” She shrugged, and turned her attention to Suzy.
“Yeh, why not,” said Suzy, “If Timmy will take part too.” She looked at him appealingly, but her warmth was not returned.
“No!” he replied abruptly, and hanged his head to avoid further eye contact. There were frustrated groans from Velma and Izzy, but Cindy was not prepared to give up so easily.
“You won’t have to say anything, Timmy” she assured him. “Just listen in. And then if you change your mind later, you can join in. It won’t hurt to listen.”
Timmy glanced nervously up at her from under his eyebrows. He liked Cindy, and he liked Billy and didn’t really want to be the only voice of dissention.
“Ok. I’ll listen.” He capitulated, and was appreciative of Cindy’s grateful smile in response.
“And what about you, Gruber?” Billy was keen to quickly remove the focus from Timmy. “Are you in?”
Gruber ignored the other pairs of eyes that were fixed on him, waiting for his response, and focused on Billy. They were like two prize fighters, about to enter the ring, sizing each other up, each knowing that the other was a worthy opponent. Theirs was never likely to be a relationship of camaraderie, yet each was aware, as prize fighters are, that the more formidable the opponent, the more passionate the fight would be. Their mutual animosity verged on mutual admiration. Each had the ability to make the other stronger.
“I still think the whole idea stinks!” he broke the silence, “But I’ll listen in too. Just don’t expect me to go pouring my soul out!”
“You’ve got a soul?” Leo darted in with a skilful parry. Gruber withered him with a look.
“Okay.” Billy was inwardly glowing. They had all come on board. They had all taken the crucial first step. He felt like it was the first day of a drama workshop. He would have to awaken their senses, inspire them, cajole them into opening up and sharing their experiences. “Well, like I said, the first thing to do is to get to know each other.”
“Getting to know you.” Leo spontaneously burst into song, “Getting to know all about you.”
“Shut up, Leo.” Velma covered her ears with her hands.
“Hey, we’re supposed to be openin’ up.” Leo was undaunted. “I would like for everyone to know that I like to sing.”
“We already know that, at the expense of our eardrums.” She chided. “I think what Billy means is that we need to get to know each other beneath the surface.”
Leo began to open his cardigan. “That’s fair enough. You want me to sing with my clothes off?”
“I don’t want you to sing at all!” she was a little more abrupt. “Jesus Leo.”
Billy laughed. “Sometimes a way a person behaves on the surface can tell us a lot about them, Velma.”
“Well, sometimes, maybe.” She conceded, “But not in the case of my husband. Even after ten years of marriage, all I could see on the surface was the clean-cut, respectable business man that I first fell in love with.”