When I was four, I wanted to be a tapdancer. At family gatherings, I would sing ‘On the good ship lollypop’ and tapdance in a pair of my mother’s shoes that made lovely tap-tap-tap sounds against most types of floors, apart from lino which was unfortunate because there was a fair bit of it around in 1974.
When I was ten, I wanted to be a waitress in the canteen at the airport where my father worked. His office was in the hanger and whenever he took us there to see the planes, we’d go to the canteen afterwards and the waitress would wink at us and pile our plates high with chips. She said kids could never have enough chips, which was a sentiment I happened to agree with, in 1980.
When I was eighteen, I wanted to be a singer in a rock and roll band and, for a brief spell in the late 80s / early 90’s, I was. A backing singer. In a Dublin soul band. We spent a lot more time practising and having heated debates in the pub about the philosophy of the band than we ever did actually performing but still, I was a singer in a band so I could tick that particular item off my to-do list. Then the film ‘The Commitments’ came out and everyone decided that we were a Commitments-tribute band. It didn’t matter how many times we said that we were around long before that film came out. Thanks a bunch, Roddy Doyle.
When I was twenty, I left home and moved to Switzerland, leaving behind my various dreams of dancing, catering and rock ‘n roll. I worked in the World Health Organisation, I had a flat, money for clothes and drinks and haircuts and books. I had independence. It was like the Christmas I got the roller skates. It was that good.
From then until I turned 34 in the spring of 2004, I did various bits and pieces: I travelled, I asked a good friend to marry me, I learned how to cook spaghetti carbonara, I passed my driving test, I gave birth, got a mortgage, got a promotion. I was officially all grown up. A proper adult.
One day, in 2004, I was standing on the platform at the train station in Donabate where I live. There was nothing extraordinary about this day, but as I stood there in the throng, I suddenly realised that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And I felt that was a bad thing, given that I was grown up. As oversights go, this one felt big. I was an insurance loss adjuster at the time. I had never planned to become one. It just happened. All of a sudden, as I stood on the platform in the throng, I realised I was in a rut. The realisation settled on me like a dark cloud and followed me around for months. My husband noticed. He said, ‘What ails you?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.’ He said, ‘You’re already grown up.’ I said, ‘I know, it’s worrying.’
Then a man fell off the roof at Plunkett college in Whitehall and I was sent out to investigate the incident on behalf of the college’s insurance company. I got up on the roof, took some photographs, managed not to fall off and had a conversation with the principal, a lovely man who, in the general course of conversation, told me all about their evening adult education programme and gave me a booklet with the details of the courses.
The creative writing class started on a Tuesday. It was raining. Dark and cold. I didn’t know anyone. I was hungry, having come straight from work. I’m not good when I’m hungry. I’m cranky when I’m hungry. I worried that I would make a fool out of myself. I hadn’t written anything other than cheques, and reports for work, and letters before the advent of e-mail. I can’t really say why I picked that course. I loved reading. I remember Maeve Binchy saying, in a radio interview, that she was reading a book and thought to herself, ‘I could do that’ and she started writing a book that turned out to be Light a Penny Candle. I remember feeling the same way. Reading books and thinking, ‘I could do that. How difficult can it be?’
Turns out that it is difficult. Challenging. Frustrating. Time-consuming. Stressful. But when I write my two favourite words in the English language – which happen to be ‘The’ and ‘End’ – the sense of achievement and – this sounds a bit American but I’ll say it anyway – fulfilment, is enormous. I do something that I love. That I’m passionate about. It’s not always easy but it’s always interesting.
And finally, I know what I want to be when I grow up.