by Martine McDonagh
144 pages, Myriad
Review by Pat Black
Human behaviour doesn't appear to have changed much, going by the evidence of primitive cultures we've managed to unearth so far. We reveal this again and again, no matter how far we think we've come in evolutionary terms. It's a depressing glimpse into infinity, a realisation that we're still a few millennia away from even approaching those two laugh-out-loud concepts, harmony and equality.
Despite the best efforts of science and philosophy, we're still deeply flawed and capable of regressing to a state of savagery in order to solve our problems. That goes especially for those of us living in the west, supposedly civilised, well-nourished, educated and safe (for the most part) in our cities.
Only this morning I watched video footage of a helicopter gunship blowing eight people to pieces on the ground in Afghanistan - a video game hauntingly re-enacted in black and white - while the moron with his finger on the trigger laughed about it through his mouthpiece. It turned out the "dead bastards" he was sniggering about as they lay in rapidly pooling blood were actually photographers with cameras, and not insurgents with RPGs. Oops, their bad.
Quite how we'd respond to things if our civilisations were wiped away in the apocalypse has long been a favourite topic for writers and film-makers in the nuclear age. Personally I like the idea of arseless chaps and mohawks on motorcycles, a la Mad Max. So does Mel Gibson, possibly. But I'm sure you've got your own ideals.
The catastrophe-du-jour in Martine McDonagh's I Have Waited, and You Have Come isn't the result of a mushroom cloud, but global warming. That favourite topic of internet message board yahoos and ranting flat-earthers doesn't overpower the narrative, thankfully. It provides the setting and contributes to the isolation of Rachel, the narrator, but never overwhelms it. This is a psychologial portrait, the tale of a survivor and her efforts to engage with a fractured world. And she hasn't just survived the end of the world and the resulting hardships - she's also clawed her way out of that great mental fissure, a break-up.
Rachel is an artist in a time when demand for such skills may be at their lowest since Toomak and the Cro-Magnons' first bongo beanfest back in BC 1,000,000. But she manages to get by in her own compound thanks to the bequeathed ingenuity and practicality of her ex, Jason. She's got solar panels, wind turbines and water butts. She bakes her own bread and her chickens lay eggs to go with the toast. There's plenty of firewood around for her to stoke the boiler - although it might need drying out first, given the constant rain. She even has a phone link with her friend, Stephanie. If Rachel should need a little more, like cheese and candles, she heads down to the marketplace with her paintings to barter with the travelling communities.
McDonagh points out that the people who are best equipped to survive natural catastrophes are these same communities which many would brand "the scum of the earth". The dead from the cities are only referred to in passing as piles of refuse to be collected from towns - the inexperienced and unequipped, failing to deal with the fact that they must become builders and hunters and farmers in order to survive, and not merely consumers.
All of a sudden, it's a crusty utopia.
The new agers have several communes set up within this changed English rural setting, but Rachel isn't part of them. Living alone, occasionally battling the damage wrought upon her remote home by tree-uprooting storms, she keeps her distance. Indeed, in her carbon neutral perambulations, her do-it-yourself attitude and the fact that she has the time and resources with which to paint, there's something idyllic about Rachel's life. Pottering around with her wagon, living off the land, surrounded by the forest, sharing herbal teas with her dreadlocked friends - she's like a new age, firmly middle class earth mother. Robina Crusoe, boho warrior queen - minus the Aga in the corner.
We do get some of the rough n' ready hand-to-mouth scavenging behaviour that was so gripping in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but Rachel's story isn't quite so desperate or savage. There are some who might even think that she has a good thing going out there in the semi-wilderness.
But no-one likes to be lonely. Noah from the marketplace has caught Rachel's eye for something more than his cheesemaking abilities, and she endeavours to ask him out. However, her efforts are intercepted by an unwanted suitor, a strange man called Jez White. Like her, he's an artist, though of a slightly different hue. Rachel - who, she keeps telling us, has some kind of sixth sense for disaster - is disgusted with this person on sight, sensing a deep wrongness in him. Even worse, he can't seem to stay away from her. Incerpts from a diary he is keeping intrude on Rachel's narrative, so we get a sense of wrongness, too, and peril.
I Have Waited... effectively becomes a novel about a stalker. But just who's doing the stalking is turned on its head more than once as Rachel becomes curious about this odd man, poking into his background in the local communities like a strung-out Nancy Drew. How much Rachel might have in common with Jez - what an ugly name that is, horribly lubricious - is fully explored. Does a woman who pigments paint with her own dried blood have any right to take a potshot at an outsider with strange habits? Might a union with this man actually work? Does she perhaps have her own issues to work through - specifically, an unfulfilled longing for a child?
This is a troubling, beautifully composed novel, rich in its brevity and complex in the psychological portrait it paints. Its messages are subtle, even when seen in terms of the slow strangulation of the earth by her children, and the curious methods she might employ to keep things fecund. We're never quite told what "Momma" and her New Dawn maternity cult gets up to with all those unseen children it produces, and while our worst imaginings are addressed, they're never quite dismissed, either.
The implications for an artist's place in more desperate times are also well-rendered and no less unsettling, from the carpentry workshop that churns out musical instruments - the better for people to combat the howling wind at night - to the strange and sometimes twisted impulses that lead to the act of creation itself.