Roddy Doyle on How an Idea Makes It to the Page

Your story in this week’s issue, “The Buggy,” is about a man who sees a baby buggy—or stroller, as an American reader might refer to it—on a beach, with no adults in its immediate vicinity. When did that idea first come to you as the premise for a story?

Last summer, in the southeast of Ireland, on a not particularly warm day, I saw a buggy “parked” on a beach very close to the water, faced toward the sea. I know the beach, and knew that the tide wasn’t going to reach the wheels of the buggy, or topple it, or anything so dramatic. But I did wonder about it. There were no adults nearby, or children, no towels or bags. I thought about going down to check if there was a baby in the buggy, but decided against. I made a cup of coffee, read a few pages of a book, and when I looked again the buggy was still there—and, when I looked again a few minutes later, it was gone. I’ve a list of possible short stories, most of which go nowhere, but I added “buggy on beach” to the list. In the meantime, I was one of the judges of the 2023 BBC short-story competition, and really enjoyed the experience. I read a couple of stories a day, became engrossed in some of them, and, after the competition, I kept up the habit. I read a short story every day, into the autumn—John Cheever, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Jamel Brinkley, Bridget O’Connor. I was invited to write a short story for BBC Radio 4. It was called “Hearing Aids”—available to listen to on BBC Sounds—and, after spending two years writing a novel, I loved the intensity and precision of writing the short story. So, I went to the list to see if there was another story idea in there, and saw “buggy on beach,” and remembered myself looking at the buggy, and began to think, What if?

The protagonist of the story is a father, but his children have all grown up and left home. He recalls the time when they were still small and he himself was pushing a buggy. He was a more confident man then. Why do you think he’s lost the certainty he used to feel?

It’s a difficult question to answer because I don’t know much about the man beyond what’s in the story. I don’t even know his name. I know, being a father myself, that I went through a period, as my children grew up and became more independent, when I felt redundant—I wasn’t needed. It was a mix of pride and desolation. We don’t know if the protagonist is married, divorced, widowed—I say “we” because I don’t know, either—but I do know that, very deliberately, there is no mention of a partner. He could be grieving, and unused to travelling without companionship. Perhaps there’s a health issue that makes him nervous about leaving the house or exerting himself. Perhaps he’s frozen by the fear that whatever decision he makes, it will be the wrong one. Perhaps, like many older people, he’s been knocked sideways by the pandemic. When, last summer, I was looking at the real buggy, I was a bit indecisive, fairly certain that there was nothing to be concerned about, but wondering, too, if I should go and check if there was a baby. Would I have been quicker to act thirty years ago? I’m not sure. I know that forty years ago, when I was a high-school teacher, saying “I don’t know” for the first time in answer to a student’s question was a liberating experience, and I’ve been content enough saying it ever since. So: I don’t know.

The protagonist remembers an incident at a train station when one of his young sons, Colm, slipped between a train door and the platform. He goes on to recall a second episode, when another son, Seán, pushed his empty buggy into the road. In the first instance, the man was able to pull his son to safety, and, in the second, a passing driver sideswiped the buggy, discovering only after she’d stopped that the buggy was empty. Is it scarier for him to think about those moments now than it was to experience them at the time?

Two of the three buggy memories in the story are heightened versions of real events. When my son slipped between the train and the station platform, I didn’t let go of his hand, so was able to pull him back up to safety quite easily; it was close to effortless, after the initial shock. Looking back on it now, I wasn’t really scared. The car hitting the empty buggy is entirely fictional; I loved writing it. However, there are episodes that I seemed to deal with quite nonchalantly back then that now terrify me. I remember one of my kids running between two cars, onto the road. I could see a car approaching. I was pushing the buggy but reached out and—literally with one finger—grabbed the collar of his T-shirt and pulled him to safety. It rattled me at the time, for a few minutes. Today, thirty years later, it makes me shake and regularly pops into my head. The arrogance of youth—early parenthood, and life generally, might be impossible without it. I wish there was an arrogance of the over-sixties—or, perhaps, that’s what the protagonist discovers toward the end of the story, when he realizes that getting his clothes wet isn’t a disaster but the makings of a story.

The protagonist doesn’t know whether he should cross the beach and check to see if there’s a baby in the buggy. Is he worried about intervening—or potentially interfering—in another family’s business?

I think he’s worried about misjudging the situation, or getting it wrong. He has no confidence in his body, or in his ability to do the right thing—to act, or to act correctly. He’s lost, and very self-conscious: will he be making a fool of himself, will he be interfering, will approaching the buggy—him, an old man alone—be seen as creepy or wrong? Also, I think he’s curtailed by the insistence on being sensible, not overdoing it, looking after himself, being careful, keeping the head down. It’s also worth bearing in mind that, if he isn’t like that, there’s no story.

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