Dónal Thompson

Dear Maeve,

I know you haven’t even been conceived yet, but your Mum and I were looking up at the stars waiting for the Perseid meteor shower when we decided, in spite of our age, to have a baby. You, in fact. We were sure we wanted a girl because your Mum already had your two brothers from her first marriage. I wanted to give you an Irish name and, to be honest, I thought I might have a fight on my hands. But your Mum just said “Maeve.” She remembered it from some English class I had given her about Celtic myths and legends. So that’s why you’re Maeve. Like the Queen of Connaught, where your Granny comes from.

I was taking a creative writing course around that time and I had written a piece for an assignment about life-writing. It was about my out-of-the-body experience and the day I saw my spirit guide. But, when we agreed to bring you here, ghost stories, however true, seemed rather superficial, so I sat down to write you this letter about the four or five things I think I’ve learned. I don’t know when you’ll read it but I suppose it’ll be when I’m not around anymore. Though I can’t imagine not being around you. Which is rather curious as we haven’t met yet. No, you haven’t even been conceived, but I was conceived and born a million years ago, in 1961, in a town called Wakefield, in Yorkshire, in England—this means I can play cricket for Yorkshire! My Mam and Dad were from Sligo and Dublin—this means I can play football for the Republic of Ireland! I do neither. (Not every opportunity should be grasped, Maeve.)

When I was a child it was okay to hit children, and my teachers thought themselves very okay. From eight to eighteen I went to a school run by vicious cockroaches called the Irish Christian Brothers. It was an all-boys school where referring to a friend by his first name, as opposed to his nickname or surname, was weakness. Rugby was obligatory for all pupils throughout the spiteful Stoke winters. In summer they let us play cricket and tennis. I was taught to hold a cricket bat by your Uncle Michael who is left-handed. That’s how I got into the school cricket XI. The teacher, “Guy” Gibson, thought it might confuse the bowlers. He was wrong. Sometimes your teachers will be wrong. Like Mr Cahill who hit me with a leather strap because I hadn’t done my religion homework—it was a composition about how God forgives us. Or like Brother Ryan who beat Simon, a friend of mine, for saying that he didn’t believe in angels. They were wrong, but in power; which is a lot like being right when you are the one with the leather strap. Muscled wrongness, Maeve. Watch out for that. It is a master of disguise.

Not all my teachers were Pol Pots. I learned to play the violin from an ex-army bandsman with two toupees called Wally Sethna. He forced music through the string sections of his orchestra classes like a butcher making sausages. He marked time with a cricket stump on his podium. One, two, three. Thwack, two, three. Thwack, two, three. He only used a baton when the school orchestra played a concert for parents. That’s also when he used his second wig. Although I played the violin well, I inherited your Uncle Gerard’s place as timpanist in the school orchestra. The timpani are those great big drums at the back of the orchestra. From my place at the back, on a raised platform, I witnessed an extraordinary metamorphosis in Wallace Sethna. All the disciplined regimental rigour of the army melted away as soon as he took his place in front of us. Sweating under his best wig he would charm the parents with “And after the Iberian passion of March from Carmen let’s waltz down the Danube to the music of Strauss.” Then he would turn round in his frock coat and draw the music from us as his baton butterflew in his graceful hands. Poor old Wally. He was transported when he conducted us. I cried when I heard he’d died. He taught me that to get to rapture you need to go through discipline. That’s what people who take drugs don’t know, Maeve. You can only really let go when you’re in total control.

I decided to try and get into Oxford University and, in spite of resistance from Brother Ryan who was a latent Cambridge man, I sat the entrance exams, did well and was interviewed for a place to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Keeble College. On the two days of my interviews I had the most almightily stonking bout of flu you can imagine. I did not say anything to the interviewers because I thought it would somehow be dishonourable. This is what comes of reading too many books about knights and chivalry when you’re impressionable. I was Dónal Quijote tilting at damn all. When the letter came saying that I had “failed to impress at interview” I felt suitably martyred. A very green knight indeed! Maeve, when you’re seventeen, read Catcher in the Rye.

After that I went to Liverpool University to study politics but I got no further than Plato’s Republic because my tutor Walter Little, a man like a bespectacled cushion, was so pleased with himself at being He Who Knows that it made me ill. So I went to study Drama at another University where I learned all about Karl Marx, feminism (your childhood ear-rings will not be my idea!) and Dario Fo. I had a tutor there who was famous. She was in a Head & Shoulders advert. They washed one part of her hair with a normal shampoo and the other with Head & Shoulders. After a week or so her dandruff apparently disappeared. Only she didn’t really have dandruff. I slept with her for nearly a whole term and she used Sunsilk (for greasy hair). She taught me that Shakespeare is not literature to read but a script to perform. It’s important to know when to stop reading and get to your feet. Curiously, it worked with Marx as well as Shakespeare.

I didn’t do any serious study again until I did the writing course. The years were spent drinking, singing and sighing. I wrote some poems. I fell in love at the drop of a hat and seemed sometimes to be encompassed by butterfingered milliners. I can’t say I was a ship without an anchor because at least you know where a ship should be. I spent years wondering where I should. And even if I should be at all. That was when your Grandad died and my former girlfriend’s ex-husband, a karate teacher, threatened to kill me. There are different types of pain, however, and God is a scarier black-belt. When my Dad died, I grieved twice: once for the father, once for the friend.

I’m hope we’ll be friends, Maeve. Maybe we’ll do The Times and Guardian crosswords together like I did with your Grandad. I don’t know if I’ll be the kind of dad who teaches you how to survive in the Peak District with a mouldy biscuit and a sheet of tin-foil. I went camping once and, frankly, it was far too wet and wholesome for me. Or one of those dads that gets two jobs so you can go to ballet school or open your own garage. Time puts everyone where they have to be. All I can do for now is sharing these five lessons:

  1. Just because you can is not a reason to,
  2. Wrong dressed up as right is still wrong,
  3. There are no short cuts to bliss,
  4. Read the right books at the right time, and
  5. Know when to act.

As for the rest, well, Maeve, you’ll have to make your own way like I did. You’ll never know where it might lead. It took me to Spain where I got a job teaching English over the internet and over the phone. That’s how I met your Mum. We had a twenty-minute phone class every Thursday. I'd been living in the Basque Country for twelve years then. We met in Madrid on St Stephen’s Day 2003. Your Mum showed me the sights and we went to see Cabaret—a musical about wrong dressed up as right. I visited Madrid a few times after that and I met your two brothers. One time I was waiting in Madrid Airport to get the plane back when I was overcome by a sense that there was a space for me here in Madrid. A me-shaped space. And so we all came together in Lombardia Street and the space was filled. Then, when nobody really expected it, two years later another space opened up. A you-shaped one. We were looking up at the stars at the time, waiting.

See you soon,



Dónal Thompson lives and writes in Madrid, Spain.

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