“The Bees Knees and the Cat’s Galoshes” (by Olive-Ann Tynan)

An Irish writer whose first work of fiction appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 2013, Olive-Ann Tynan has lived in Italy for many years. She currently works as a translator from Italian to English and was at one time editor for an Italian-language golf magazine. Despite her long immersion in another culture, she continues to find her native Ireland in the period of her childhood the most fertile soil for her fiction, something she talks about in this post. Olive-Ann’s latest EQMM story, “Alive, Alive-Oh,” is in our current issue, March/April 2017.—Janet Hutchings

Some years ago, I moved from Rome to a hill-town south of the city, and usually take the local train to reach the city centre as by car it could take more than twice the time, over two hours. It’s a run I enjoy because someone else is taking care of the driving, and I can gaze out the window and try to solve some plot problems in whatever I happen to be working on.

We meet several distracting landmarks on the way, both ancient and modern. We coast the runways of Rome’s secondary airport, Ciampino, busy with planes landing and taking off over our heads, and, a little farther ahead, the Capannelle racecourse where, among the galloping jockeys crouched low over their mounts, I spot a Dick Francis look-alike. Closer to Rome, the railway track cuts right through the huge arches of the Aqua Claudia aqueduct, its construction begun by Emperor Caligula in 38 CE, and completed by Emperor Claudius a decade and a half later. By then I’ve set aside the plot problem—not because of Caligula’s nasty reputation, or because he didn’t get his fair share in naming the sixty-four mile long aqueduct—but because I start thinking about the cat’s galoshes.

I will explain where the cat’s galoshes come in, but it may take a bit of time before I get there. Write what you know seems like pretty good advice but when it comes to warming up the keyboard, what I seem to know best is the Ireland where I was born and grew up. It’s disheartening that I can’t come up with a story about a misdeed that took place under the arches of that towering aqueduct and maybe one day I’ll be able to, but for the moment I can produce nothing better than a collection of dead sparks. Perhaps it’s because Rome’s monuments and ruins are somehow robbed of their aura because they fit invisibly into the daily humdrum scene. Anyway, by then, the train which I’m still on, is pulling into Roma Termini and I’m hoping that the taxi queue won’t be too long, or that a bus I might need to take, the one that stops near the ruins of Diocletian’s Baths, won’t be delayed.

So there it is. I must forget (hopefully only for the moment) water-carrying arches and the like, and succumb to that growing addiction with a less remote past, further narrowed down to a particular place and time slot—Ireland in the Sixties. (In “Alive, Alive-Oh,” in the EQMM March/April 2017 issue, the narrator’s heart and soul is fixed firmly back in that time, although the action takes place “today”). Call the addiction a kind of nostalgia because the early Sixties were illuminated by the Democratic candidate of Irish origin who became the 35th President of the United States of America. Maybe, too, the regression is a kind of necessary standing back to create the distance and perspective needed to sink into the writing process, to conjure up scenes as though viewed through a telescope that is also, somehow, a kaleidoscope. Or maybe it’s because the older one gets. . . but I’ll leave that one hanging.

Whatever the reason, the Sixties were to become a decade of huge change that came slowly to our city, a small one but still the third largest in Ireland. Ireland had its own currency that included a green pound note, (punt is the Gaelic for pound), a russet ten-shilling note, and higher denomination banknotes, including a purple one which I think was fifty pounds. Among the coins which on the obverse portrayed a Celtic Harp (like today’s Euro coins), we had the silver half-crown scaling down to the bronze farthing that later succumbed to inflation.

At home we had a chunky black Bakelite dial telephone in the hall that gave a wonderful thrilling ring, and a TV set not much larger than a laptop on which we viewed, in black and white, the six o’clock news in English and Irish, and series and shows like I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, The Jack Benny Program, The Fugitive. We had coal fires in most of the rooms, and an Aga coal-fired range in the kitchen that stewed porridge overnight for breakfast. Delivered to our door, even on the frostiest of mornings, came unhomogenized, cream-topped milk in glass bottles, and we had the amount of clothes that fitted easily into narrow wardrobes. Was life tastier and easier back then? Yes. No. Maybe.

In any case, I’m stuck in that Sixties time warp, because it’s a comfortable place to be when I write. For instance, were I in Ireland right now and looking out the window, I would see that it’s raining or about to rain, and this is where the cat’s galoshes come in, because the characters will need to faithfully echo how we spoke back then. We young people had buzzwords which included our own particular version of that sometimes ironic accolade The bees knees and the cat’s whiskers, because logically in a country like Ireland you can’t let the cat outside without a decent pair of rubber overshoes. We said “Give me a buzz!” meaning telephone me and nothing more, and prefixed or suffixed weightier sentences with “Howsever.” Where the extra letter came from I don’t know, but the word carried heft and sounded good, and there it is waiting for some character to say it at the appropriate moment.

From back then, I remember a magazine article that deplored verbification of the noun “contact.” The transgression was viewed as a dangerous trend that could lead to the massacre of the English language, but in our group we used it as a verb all the time, and felt very up-to-date saying “Contact me!”, or “I’ll contact you next week!” In any Sixties story, though, the characters, both young and old, will need to beware verbifications, not because of crusty grammar pundits, but because many currently used verbified nouns hadn’t yet cropped up. So instead of feeling conflicted, John will be undecided or caught between two stools; instead of sourcing a required or missing element Jane will look for it; instead of being impacted by an external event Jack and Jane will feel strongly affected, and if they gain access anywhere it will be through a physical door or entry. (Who would have thought in our narrow world back then, that Captain Kirk’s awe-inspiring communication devices were to come into use and be a huge improvement on the imagined?)

To get the Sixties backdrop right, much of the time I’ll go by instinct; if a particular word or catch phrase sounds too modern—anything from the Seventies on—I’ll be wary of using them. If, on the other hand, I were to make a list of the examples that obligingly stick out the most, I’d include the verb resonate which will refer exclusively to sounds and not to emotions, the noun issue which will be pared down to fewer meanings such as promulgation or a legal point to be discussed, and only inanimate objects will be devastated. The phrase At the end of the day will be replaced with When all is said and done, but I’ll need to think up alternatives to Street cred, Thinking out of the box, and Comfort zone, all good expressions but in the context unusable.

Finally, and this is the obvious one, no calling anyone by their first name on short acquaintance, even if that someone happens to be only a few years senior; prefixed titles of respect, Mr., Mrs., Miss, etcetera, are a safer bet. And I’m sorry about this, but a Chairperson will have to be a Chairman or a Chairwoman, and You guys won’t include members of the gentle sex, which I suppose we were told we were back then.

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