Surrounding a kelly-green field is a dry-stone wall, limestones loose and snug, stacked to hold back Atlantic wind and salt. In the field there are sheep; moon-faced and trusting, they dot the grass like a scattering of rice. There is no way into this field, no gate, no opening. When farmers want to get a herd inside, or a tractor, they unmake the wall.
Before you reach this place of fortressed fields and soothing seascapes, there’s a city – small, medieval, arty. This city hurt me and so, for years, I didn’t happily travel through it to get to the beauty and balm of its hinterland – everything in the city, and beyond it, was tainted. The city itself was not my pain, of course, but people in it, specifically a married pair who set out to destroy me. Why did they do that? Fifteen years of holding my hurt to the light, of looking under and over and around it brings me always to the same conclusion: they were envious.
I’ve always liked the French word for jealousy, ‘jalousie’. They are jealous. Ils sont jaloux. Jalousie, like most things said in French, sounds less nasty, less shameful than its meaning, less parsimonious of spirit than its English counterpart; it’s a soft word and it shimmers, an iridescent gem, warm as ruby, pellucid as aquamarine. But jalousie is jealousy in any language and it’s an ugly thing.
I frequently stop to examine my own levels of envy, it’s inevitable in the world of writing – large success comes only to a rare few and some writers’ successes rankle, especially when they seem unearned, frequent, and loaded with that most elusive thing, luck. I’m an adult, nearer death than not, so I make firm attempts to quash jealousy when it wriggles through me like an unbidden infestation. I rationalise that one person’s fortune does not mean fewer good things for others. I congratulate people on all successes in life and in work and, mostly, I mean it when I say that I’m happy for them. But there are always those successes that sting, like the time a twenty-five-year old wins the under forties prize I’m being considered for. At forty years of age, it’s my last year to be eligible and the winner, clearly, has fifteen more shots. I’m properly jealous of her youth, her talent, her prize.
But, I tell myself – warn myself – that other writers’ jealousy once ruined my life; I left my job, my home and my marriage, so up-ended was I by the relentless hate campaign of that married pair which, all these years later, has not ended. The couple’s ire has been directed, too, at other writers who – in their opinion – rose too fast, too soon. But when people see themselves as king and queen fish of a small pond, they tend to thrash and splash a lot which eventually leads to less water and a lot of gasping. Luckily, you can’t gasp in a puddle and not get noticed and others, finally, have begun to see these fish for who they really are. Which means my burden is unloosening.
I’ve come to realise that by not going to that kelly-green oasis beyond the city, I’ve been cradling a spent hurt, one that needs to be released to the wind. These days, I pass through that western city more easily and allow myself the pleasure of breeze-chewing sheep; I revel in the restorative batter of salt winds on my skin; and I admire anew the art of those ancient stone walls built to keep things out as much as to keep them in.
Nuala O’Connor lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. In 2019 she won the James Joyce Quarterly competition to write the missing story from Dubliners, ‘Ulysses’. Her fourth novel, Becoming Belle, was recently published to critical acclaim in in the US, Ireland and the UK. Her forthcoming novel is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. Nuala is editor at new flash e-zine Splonk. www.nualaoconnor.com Twitter: @NualaNiC
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge.