When I was casting around for a theme for my new novel, I was having coffee with my mother in her house one morning – and I’m not sure how it happened, but the subject of Mam’s one-time penfriend Maura came up. And the second it did, I knew I’d found my theme.
Here’s the story. When Mam was a young married woman (and I was still a twinkle in my father’s eye) she read a letter from another woman in the Irish Independent. The subject matter was something to do with teaching – we’ve never pinned Mam down as to what exactly Maura was saying – and Mam, being an ex-teacher (she’d had to give up when she got married) disagreed with the point being made and wrote to Maura to tell her as much.
Long story short, they corresponded for over twenty years. Mam lived in Tipperary and later moved to Limerick; Maura was in Dublin throughout. They never met.
Maura’s letters were priceless. We all looked forward to them. They were written on the backs of used envelopes, bits of cardboard boxes and scraps of whatever paper seemed to be to hand. Reading them involved piecing the various bits together, like a verbal jigsaw. And the content was another matter: her life seemed to be made up of one drama after another. I won’t go into detail here in case any member of her family happens to read this, but we relished the catastrophes and calamities that each letter brought.
In due course the letters stopped – ‘they just fizzled out,’ Mam says – and some years after that my father spotted Maura’s death notice in the paper. End of an era. They’d shared so much for so long, and had never come face to face.
It was inspiring. I was inspired. And even though Helen and Sarah aren’t a bit like Mam or Maura, I hope Something in Common captures some of the intrigue, and the sort-of poignancy, of a long-established friendship conducted solely on paper.
And I hope Maura would approve.