Deirdre’s Sullivan’s haunting Little Lives from her collection I Want To Know That I Will Be Okay (Banshee Press) has won the An Post Book Awards Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2021!
From an incredible shortlist compiled by our judges, Literary Agent Simon Trewin, Bob Johnston from the Gutter Bookshop and author and journalist Edel Coffey, the public have voted, and in their thousands. Deirdre Sullivan is from Galway and is now living in Dublin where she is on a career break from teaching. She has written seven acclaimed books for young adults, including Savage Her Reply (Little Island 2020), Perfectly Preventable Deaths (Hot Key Books 2019), and Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island 2017). She was the recipient of the CBI Book of the Year Award in 2018 and the An Post Irish Book Award for YA in 2020. Her short fiction has appeared in Banshee and The Dublin Review. I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay is her first book for adults. Sullivan’s first play Wake debuted in Galway in February 2019.
Deirdre Sullivan follows Caoilinn Hughes (2020), Nicole Flattery (2019), Roisin O’Donnell (2018), Christine Dwyer Hickey (2017), Orla McAlinden (2016), Donal Ryan (2015), John Boyne (2014), and our inaugural winner, Cork based author Billy O’Callaghan in 2013. We are thrilled that this award honours such a huge variety of writers and gives opportunites to small independent presses and publications both online and in print, as well as the major publishers.
This year Deirdre’s Little Lives was shortlisted alongside ‘The Leaving Place’ by Jan Carson from The Black Dreams (Blackstaff Press), ‘Worms’ by Roddy Doyle from Life Without Children (Jonathan Cape), ‘Blackthorns’ by Bernard MacLaverty from Blank Pages and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape), ‘The Wake’ by Alan Murrin from Waves of Change (Fresher Publishing – Bournemouth University) and ‘Coming in on Time’ by Stuart Neville from The Traveller and Other Stories (Bonnier Books UK).
The An Post Irish Book Awards ceremony was broadcast virtually this year at www.rte.ie/culture, do watch back if you didn’t see it!
You can read Little Lives here:
1950s, unknown brand, head and arms vinyl. Cloth (cotton) body stuffed with unknown substance, possibly a sort of putty, indented to the touch. Difficult to reshape, but can be done if left in direct sunlight and gently massaged.
Three visible holes on right side of neck, scratch across eye, discoloration and staining on the torso. All fingers and toes present. May have contained a squeaker at one time, but doesn’t now.
Some loose hanging threads. Do not snip or remove, she doesn’t like it. Though a baby, this doll is possessed of an older spirit, possibly inhuman in origin. Flickering lights, blown fuses, and a clicking sound not unlike the mandibles of something very large may disturb. May move when not in your eye-line, but never very far.
Joanne would do well as an introductory haunted doll, however, due to the inhuman nature of what is inside her, caution is recommended. Will not get along with children or pets (one fatality, possibly unrelated).
Asking Price: €450.00, plus shipping.
Photographs available on request, but Joanne may not grant permission, and with so many little lives in one location, I must respect their wishes. Contact via website, or Joanne directly through the medium of your choosing.
SERIOUS BUYERS ONLY. I AM SICK OF TIME WASTERS.
Will not accept international buyers for this one.
Beside every doll, we keep a list. Sometimes it’s a collection of old envelopes, brown to bright, and other times it is on coloured cue cards, as though the little legs would straighten up, approach a podium and give a speech in someone else’s voice. Some charges require notebooks right away, or scrapbooks where the histories have grown too long for bullet-points.
Sometimes newspaper articles are pasted in, apparently at random. Fires, drownings, deaths. Calamity. Calamity. Calamity.
I started dusting the shelves the first time Mam got sick and had no energy. She hates to dust so now it’s just my job. I clean them one by one, with special solutions, recipes my Granny handed down. To keep some instincts dampened, recharge false skin, polish glass eyes, small shoes.
The miniature clothing is not for the washing machine. We handwash it carefully. Small white cotton socks, flamenco dresses. Some things can’t be cleaned, and others shouldn’t. Certain stains increase an item’s value – semen, blood. Tears are harder to identify. They don’t yellow a thing like old, dark sweat.
Some dolls collect stains under armpits, as though they have been wearing themselves for years, soft pale stuffed bodies. As though they’re ready for another venture. They might be still for months, or maybe years. But something always happens in the end.
A little pulse.
A dash of spite.
Or something far less tangible than that. A sharp internal stirring. A sense of something you can’t put your big meat-finger on. An almost-story waiting to be told.
When I was a little girl I was still bigger than a doll. I liked the story Thumbelina because of that phrase ‘no bigger than a thumb’. I wanted to be so small it would define me. I always took up space though. Sometimes too much space and I was punished. Scratches on my soft skin in the dark. Little pinches leaving little scars.
You can convince yourself of anything. I saw this thing online about shared delusions. Psychosomatic illness. People’s bodies hurting them because they suppress trauma. And I wondered if it could be that, with some of the people we get the dolls from. The part of them they don’t want to look at going inside plastic, china, wood. Becoming something other, something else.
I mean we all have things.
There was a woman in an actual wheelchair, and she had to give up her job and no scan would diagnose what was wrong with her and eventually they found out it was the death of her brother and that was fine, but it didn’t cure her. Because she could name it but she still had to process it like meat to a manageable pulp.
I saw a flash of a film on TV when I was babysitting once, and there was this image of a woman suspended on a butcher’s hook. I flicked away. I don’t like unhappy things or scary stories. I don’t want to escape to something worse. I want a girl who is seen by someone or something kind. I want someone like me, and I want her to be okay at the beginning and a little sad or angry in the middle and then happy by the end.
I want a shining face to look at her and see her and want her.
A face that’s made of flesh with jelly eyes.
I don’t know how much Mam believes about the dolls. She says there’s money in them, and while there’s money in them we’ll keep doing them. We have ones whose stories we can trace, through years, through fires, bankruptcy, murders and breakdowns. But she’s always going to car boot sales as well. Or searching on the internet for the dolls that look like they’ve been haunted. The china ones with big dark eyes, and maybe a little crack that trails right down the centre of their face, so they look damaged. People think that damaged things can hurt them.
Maybe we can.
We have a no refunds policy. But that doesn’t mean no returns. We’ll always take returns. We can sell them on no bother, and we share the emails with the names redacted to back up how haunted the doll is. I thought about staining them with tea like we do other documents but it doesn’t work for email because email isn’t as old timey as a newspaper clipping from twenty years ago, or a photograph from the civil war.
Sometimes we get phone calls, or desperate emails begging us to come, please come to a house and to collect a doll. And when we do, Mam goes. We’ve driven down boreens and back roads in our dressing gowns in the middle of the night. To get to them before they think to charge us.
Sometimes it’s one we didn’t even sell them in the first place.
Once, on the way back from a fairly normal-looking house in town, Mam turned to me, and said, ‘Sarah, that wasn’t the doll.’
And she shivered. Something in her face I’d never seen.
The doll in the back of the car with cupid’s bow lips and one eye missing.
They’d done that to her. Inside the house.
We all like to take things out on someone.
Mam generally makes up the backstories when we don’t get them first hand. She has a voice recorder on her phone, and a dictaphone as well, the kind that journalists used to use, she says. She’s not sure if they use them any more. We don’t know any journalists. I keep track of the stories, and file them with the dolls, adding in photographs sometimes. If they’re going to America, I can use photographs of the abandoned farmhouse on the land near where we live with the odd made-up one. But we can’t use them around here, because everybody knows the story of what happened there and why no one will go inside it now.
It’s useful, Mam says, because if anyone was to come asking, no one would say a word about it and sure couldn’t it have been a haunted doll?
You can take a lot of photos in there, and depending on what angle you use, it looks like a completely different place. And there’s a lot to like. I’ve left dolls strewn in the fireplace. On top of the cracked Sacred Heart. Hanging limply from the big nail in the middle of the wall. Or standing to attention in the corner. There’s one window that looks out on the wilderness of what used to be the Mahons’ land before. Another window, differently shaped, looks out on the pools of water and bogland and the hills behind. I’ve also done one through the cracked ribcage of the roof, but you have to be careful because crows roost up in the tall old trees and the floor is spattered with their shit and it could go in your eye very easily.
And from the other side you can see the hedgerow and the dirt path and the corner of our house. If there is washing on the line you can’t see the window. But if there isn’t you can. I don’t like using that one. But sometimes you have to for variety. We live pretty far from anyone, our closest neighbours are Karl and Davey Mahon, but they’re a twenty minute walk up the road and they don’t like Mam at all.
Mam also buys old books for authenticity. You can use the paper to make old documents. Lots of books have a few blank pages either side and you can rip them out, or pull out a page covered in words but splatter ink over most of the words so it just says something spooky like ‘God Help Us.’
I find blotting out words soothing. It feels like magic, changing what they mean..
Mam likes to make up rules. And set limits. She says it encourages people to break them. When we say ‘No International Buyers’, a lot of the time someone International will think we’ll break that rule for them if they shell out way more money. We go back and forth, but they’re usually right. We got a grand for an old Skipper doll once. She had her feet gnawed off. I think she might have even been mine.
I don’t really understand why people want them. Why would you buy a problem, or a lie?
Mam makes up rules for me sometimes as well. I have to have my homework done before I get my dinner. This doesn’t apply if I get more than an hour and a half of homework because dinner is always at seven. She also doesn’t want me getting any tattoos on my arms because she has three and it can be difficult when she’s trying to seem like different pairs of arms throughout the dolls’ history.
We have a lot of dress-up clothes. Car boot sales are great for them. And estate sales.
Though estate sales always make Mam angry. Because of the English. But they’re well worth going to, unless you get someone else who’s into dolls. Which a lot of people are, apparently.
Sometimes my friends want to come and visit and I bring them over, and they always look at the big door with the symbols on it that says ‘DO NOT ENTER’ and sometimes they want to go in there, and sometimes they just ask about it. If I need to go out to take in a wash, or look for the cat, they always come out too ‘for company’. And I pretend I don’t know they’re afraid.
I do let them in if they ask. But not right away, and I make them work for it.
Like an international buyer.
She touched my face. She told me that it was dangerous to be a pretty child.
She touched my face.
Sometimes we make tinctures and solutions from my grandmother’s recipe. Mam says that she was an auld bitch but that she knew what she was doing with these lads. She means the dolls. We put vodka, ragwort, garlic, ash and fingernails into the bottle. And TCP as well. We bury it outside for six days and six nights and then we dig it up and then it’s ready. We use glass jars to bury it but we put it into a spray bottle before we use it because it’s handier.
Most of them won’t do anything to you. But you have to be careful. A bit like men, Mam says.
We got a new one.
It has a tongue.
It licked me and I giggled but it wasn’t very funny and then I couldn’t stop laughing and Mam slapped me and made me a cup of tea with lots of sugar in it and said that we mightn’t have any friends over until this one sells, love, and I said fair enough because it was.
Mam isn’t happy. The thing with her womb is back, and her hair is falling out from the stress of it. She wants it gone but if she goes to hospital again I’ll be here alone and there are a few of them we have to sell before that happens.
I pulled my jumper over my face but it kept moving closer. I could see it moving through the spaces in the wool that let in light.
One step at a time.
Granny was a normal granny, really. She made great bread. She just liked dolls. And if you have more than a hundred dolls some of them are bound to be haunted. So she learned ways to mind them. Knowing about them helped her to keep track. She wouldn’t have sold any of them if she was still alive, but she wouldn’t have minded Mam doing it. She might be glad that she has any sort of job. She didn’t have much faith in her.
Mam says that I can be anything I want to be, and she can pay for me to go to college in Dublin or Galway or somewhere else no bother. When I’m finished school, I should go off and live my life and follow my dreams.
I dreamed of a wide white mouth with flat black teeth. There was a sheen on them that was almost golden but it wasn’t gold it might have been dirt it might have been dirt it might have been dirt.
She doesn’t often bury things in graveyards but I could smell the grave dirt on her hands it doesn’t smell like muck it smells like mass.
Little pink tongue the same shape and size as mine but softer and more moist.
Bisque doll, German 1860s (RARE). Aurelia is a find for any collector, even without her backstory. Her skin is unpolished porcelain and has a matte texture. If you look at the reference photo you’ll see that she has four perfect little teeth beneath her top lip. Her body is made of porcelain and not the usual cloth and she is anatomically correct.
She was brought here by a Polish child who settled in Ireland in the aftermath of the Second World War, and was confiscated by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent De Paul. From there she ended up in a Magdalene Laundry, where more than a hundred bodies were found buried in a field out the back. We cannot guarantee she had anything to do with it but I wouldn’t be surprised. She has bitten me twice now and the wounds refuse to heal. We can always smell burning hair when she is in the room. Minimal injury so far, but there is a sense of menace and danger in the house since she arrived and therefore she is PRICED TO SELL.
Aurelia would be suitable for a sole collector, or a large family where no one would be left alone in the house with her. She would make a charming addition to a museum of the occult, or an interesting subject for a paranormal investigation. NO VIEWINGS. SERIOUS BUYERS ONLY.
Photographs of Aurelia and the bite marks are included below. She moved once while I was taking them but I couldn’t say for sure that it was preternatural movement. I might have jostled her and not clocked it.
Price available on request. To be clear, it is a four figure sum I’m after for Aurelia.
International buyers welcome but shipping is at your own expense. I’m not made of money.
I did that one, I think it’s pretty good. We got her in Age Action but she is a real antique, so she cost us twenty euro.
Mam asked me if I’d rather be here alone or would she get someone to stay but she doesn’t have many friends and I knew it would be hard so I said it’d be fine. I can look after myself. Run the business. Cook dinners. The only thing I can’t do is drive, but only because I’m too young. She’s going to get a taxi there and back. I’ll go with her for the first bit and then I’ll meet Melissa and them in town and maybe one of their parents will drop me home. It’s a really simple procedure. They scoop it out and then they do a biopsy. Sometimes it goes away without any treatment and sometimes it gets worse. The last time they sent her home the same day but it’s more complicated this time. Too many at once, and all together. She’ll definitely be gone for one day and probably for two. I’m not religious but I keep thinking about the bit out of the Hail Mary about the fruit of your womb. I imagine it like that, apricots and grapes all growing in her. She should just get the whole thing taken out, but she doesn’t have to yet, and doesn’t want to. When it’s really, really bad they don’t give you a choice, I think, like with my appendix, so maybe it will all be fine. She goes in for ultrasounds and says it’s just like with a baby but instead of a baby there’s something else growing in there and it’s not as nice. But if you didn’t know, and saw the shape, you could almost think it was a little person tucked inside.
Like us and not like us and isn’t that what’s weird about the dolls. That they’re shaped like us but aren’t us. That’s why we put the dark parts of ourselves inside them. Our crimes and our disasters. The energy. It doesn’t just appear. It comes from us.
I try to be calm but I have to go into the toilets of McDonald’s and have a cry and they all know there’s something going on but they don’t ask. Melissa’s mum doesn’t offer me a lift, so I have to get two buses and walk for an hour and a half and by the time I’m home I’m just wiped out, and there’s nothing from Mam so I make myself beans on toast and light the fire, read the internet and fall asleep.
Tiny Tim Doll (Vinyl, 1990s)
Face melted slightly. Tiny Tim is a doll that can drink water and then urinate to train children how to change nappies. Unfortunately sometimes the water that emerges has an acrid stench (possibly useful for curse-work). We were asked to remove Tiny Tim from a house in Carlow, where he had caused havoc (scans of their handwritten testimony included below). They had a druid in afterwards to cleanse it, and have had no trouble since. Tim has been quite placid since he arrived here, but sometimes around him we can hear small chirps, of the sort a cat makes upon sighting a bee on the windowsill. We cannot guarantee that paranormal activity will occur with Timothy, and are therefore willing to sell to a family with children or pets. He does not seem to dislike animals and my daughter has had no trouble with him. He enjoys being taken off the shelf and handled, and is in better form if this is done often. If you really want to annoy him, leave him alone in his box for a week or two and something bad will probably happen.
We’re letting Timothy go for €35.00 (plus shipping), but we will also be accepting higher offers.
I ring the hospital.
I get some messages from Melissa and them, asking me if I’m okay, after the crying, and I don’t respond because I don’t know what to say, it all depends on Mam and how she is.
She isn’t coming home tonight again. It took more out of her than they thought it would and they had to take more out of her than they thought they would, or something like that. I couldn’t really understand what she was saying. Her voice was far away and different than it usually is.
I packed up Sophie, Laura and Imogen to go to the post office. I can’t ask one of the neighbours to give me a lift. I don’t want them to know I’m here alone.
I think I might not like people the way that other people like people. Romantically I mean, but also in the other way. They’re such hard work.
I went in to clean the shelves and of course they were everywhere and I had to set them all back and open all the boxes and check that they were in the right order. It took a while. I listened to a podcast about sharks.
People think all sharks are bad, but no sharks are, not really.
Some just end up eating humans.
We eat other animals all the time.
They don’t sell little chunks of us to other sharks to make money.
They just get hungry.
Everyone gets hungry now and then.
My phone lost all its battery in the dolls’ room, and I’d been there for seven hours when I left. I don’t remember anything after the podcast. And that was only fifty minutes long. I hate it when that happens..
I sprayed and locked the door and put Sophie, Laura and Imogen out on the porch and locked the front door on them. They don’t do anything once they’re all wrapped up. But I wanted to be careful.
I went to sleep and when I woke up there was a loud knocking on the door and it was shaking the walls and it was like someone had their two fists against it and they were thumping, thumping and yelling, and I looked out and it was our neighbour Karl and he looked angry so I closed the curtains and left him at it. He was saying something but I couldn’t make out the words, it was like there was a pool of water or a cloud between his voice and my ears. I splashed my face with water and checked the time and when I turned my phone on, Mam had been trying to get through to me, and I thought maybe it was about that so I opened the door but it wasn’t that at all he wanted it was something else.
I don’t know how he knew I was alone.
Mam called to say that she was discharged, and so I went and got her in a taxi. It wasn’t very practical, but I really wanted to see her.
Someone bought Mabel, so we don’t have to worry about money for a while. Mabel is in a newspaper clipping from 1927 where she levitates in front of a startled girl in a little pinafore. The girl’s eyes are wide and Mabel’s face is just like Mabel’s face, all calm and blue-eyed. Mam was tired but she said they got it out and it shouldn’t be back again, not for ages, we got five whole years last time. And wasn’t I a great girl.
Her scarf smelled like roses and disinfectant. Her breath was stale.
And didn’t I do well.
‘Little Lives’ by Deirdre Sullivan from I Want To Know That I Will Be Okay (Banshee Press) 2021 winner of the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year.