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Irish Short Story of the Year Shortlist 2022 Vote Now!

Writing.ie | Magazine | News for Writers
An Post Irish Book Awards

In what was a *very* competitive year, with a longlist of incredible stories, our judges – critically acclaimed author and short story award winner Rachel Donohue, bookseller Bob Johnston and literary agent Simon Trewin – have selected the six stories for the Writing.ie Irish Short Story of the Year shortlist. Now it’s up to you, the reader, to chose your favourite story and to vote or it at the An Post Irish Book Awards website.

In no particular order, our six shorlisted stories, which have been published in both literary journals and collections, are:

Sleep Watchers by Roisín O’Donnell published in The Stinging Fly

Red Market by Sheila Armstrong from How to Gut a Fish (Bloomsbury)

Mathematics by Wendy Erskine from Dance Move (The Stingfly Press)

The Chekhovians by Rebecca Miller from Total (Cannongate Books)

This Small Giddy Life by Nuala O’Connor from A Little Unsteadily Into Light (New Island)

Miles of Bad Road by Neil Tully published in The Waxed Lemon Literary Journal

Roisín O’Donnell, photographed by Barry Cronin

Sleep Watchers by Roisín O’Donnell

The deadline for the Green Schools application is early June, so in January she panic-orders three hundred seed bombs. On the ten-minute spin from Rathanroe back to Newbridge, she listens to a podcast called Speed Rewilding. It doesn’t make much sense. At home, as the kettle boils for Aidan’s bedtime bottle, she downloads and prints a forty-page guide to native Irish butterflies. The printer tray has been left closed, so the butterflies spew out over the laminate flooring. Rory lines his diggers on top of the Common Blue. Fionn picks up a Clouded Yellow and tries to stick it to his hoodie. He asks, Is it a Dad night?

Not tonight, she says.

Once they’re all asleep, she laminates butterflies until midnight, her eyes burning and the living room smelling like warm plastic. Butterflies cooling on the sofa, she googles other Green Schools biodiversity projects. She finds six-foot murals and wildflower meadows, bird-feeding stations with chandeliers of hanging water feeders, and handcrafted bug hotels. How are other teachers so organised? 

She’s been in charge of the Green Schools project since she moved here in September, though all she’s done so far is elect the Green Team: one child from each class, chosen on the basis of their application forms. Kids such as Jack Doyle (I want to sav planit earff from dying) and Jenny Slattery (my mam is a gardner). She chose Ethan from Juniors because his drawing most resembled an actual tree, but at the first two meetings he’s just stood looking shell-shocked. They’ve made mind maps, discussed plans, and she can see their faces peering up at her now. When are we having another meeting, Miss? Have you done the application form? When’s the inspector coming out? When are we having our Green Day of Action? 

A stabbing headache starts up. She tugs her ponytail loose, pulls off her heavy grey sweater. Despite the cold, she’s sweating. Now Aidan starts hollering. He has a wet nappy, a slight fever. She scoops him onto her hip, kisses him and gives him a Tortoiseshell butterfly to hold in his chubby fist. She measures out one-and-a-half syringes of sticky Calpol. I love my kids, she tells herself. I’m doing my best. She nestles Aidan into bed beside her and sticks on the Pink Noise playlist. Heavy rain. Ocean waves. Strangers’ heartbeats.

*

Next morning, she corners Denise the Deputy Principal in the foyer and asks, Who is our caretaker, I need some help here, I can’t (bug hotel, bird-feeder station, oak sapling, wildflower meadow) on my own. I know the Green Team are very enthusiastic, but— 

The caretaker died, Denise tells her in an embarrassed whisper. Just before Covid, God rest him. The funeral was massive. You’d want to have seen it. The kids did the guard of honour, it was absolutely gorgeous.

She is really trying to focus. This is one of the many conversations since moving out to Rathanroe in which she feels the interaction might not be entirely real. She’s remembering her old school back in Blanchardstown—new build, high ceilings, Diwali lanterns and the surf-like thrum of M50 traffic. Moments like these, Rathanroe feels like a different country. They’re standing beside a massive placard of Zacchaeus climbing a palm tree. It says, WE ARE SORRY GOD.

He was a widower, the caretaker, God rest him, Denise says. His son James is living in the old caretaker’s lodge at the moment. He’s working from home. Something to do with IT? Does a bit of the caretaking for us too. Puts down mouse traps. Re-paints hopscotch lines. Nice guy, but he’s not very—you know. Helpful. 

That afternoon, she raps her knuckles on the door of the grey stone lodge by the main school gate. The place looks deserted. Flaking window frames. Slug-nibbled pansies. She is carrying that burnt-out, slightly frazzled after-school energy. She’s thinking about her own three, hungry to get back to them, braced for another evening of mayhem.

When the door swings open, it is his body she recognises first. His hands. The scar at the base of his neck, from when he fell against his goldfish tank aged five. James. The same James who shared her single bed on an almost nightly basis during their final semester in college, and backpacked around Italy with her for the summer. Even now, his face makes every blood cell in her body surge to her face.

He’s much the same, apart from the beard. His face has aged, but his eyes have not. In the sharp winter brightness, he has the blinking-mole look of someone who spends all day staring at a screen. His expression is tired, polite. He pushes his dark-rimmed glasses onto his forehead. 

Can I help?

She waits for a flicker of recognition. When there’s none, she starts on a spiel about Green Schools: biodiversity, bird feeders, seed bombs—which, in her flustered state, she’s gone and called bird bombs.

Sure, he says, I’d love to help, sure. I’ll help with the bird bombs, absolutely. He says he has tools in the shed. He’s about to take a Zoom call in ten minutes, but if she could call into him later in the week?

No problem, she says. No problem at all. 

Driving home, her head is unset jelly. Over the past year she’s been trying to wrestle her thoughts into some sort of order, but this is the opposite. Memories float, unchecked: moments caught in strobe light. Her arms raised to the pulse of the bass, then draped around his shoulders. Student halls with glittery blue shower tiles. Creaking bedsprings and throwing the duvet down between wardrobe and desk, laughing and falling into each other. Stepping into the face of life with such confidence.

She gets home and sticks on some Octonauts for the boys. War as usual over choosing an episode, but she finally has the three of them settled on the sofa with a bag of rice cakes. While the pasta water boils, she takes out her phone and pulls up a page she bookmarked months ago.

Teach Dóchas Women’s Refuge, a voice answers, how can I help?

I heard you do courses, she says. In healing? Her voice cracks, breaks. 

I left almost a year ago, she says. Stayed with Mum for a bit, then moved out here. But it’s only hitting me now. I don’t think I’ve really dealt with—what happened. 

Can I take your name?

It’s Orla.

The receptionist takes her email address and adds her to the waiting list. She cries when she hangs up the phone. Dries her face. Opens the pasta sauce. Grates the cheese.

*

She’s asked her mum if she can borrow a few of her dad’s old tools. That Sunday when the kids are with her ex, she drives out to the school. She can see the old shape of the garden. A pebble path, the outlines of beds, all taken over by ivy and couch grass. It’s overwhelming. She begins clearing a space to plant the seed bombs. She tears away sticky vines crawling up other plants, crushing the life out of them. Leaning on the shovel, she turns over the dry earth.

She’s kneeling in the mud, ramming a stake into a shrub with white and yellow flowers, when James calls over the fence: Can I give you a hand there?

Thing keeps keeling over, she says.

He hops the fence, kneels beside her.

Here, he says, and he steadies the stake while she ties the slender stems with twine. What do you call this? 

I don’t know its proper name. My dad called it LaRita. He was mad into the gardening.

Mine too. Ah shit, you’ve cut your hand.

A thin line of blood is threading down her wrist, staining the sleeve of her coat. 

Come on, I’ve plasters across the way.

In his house, she’s surprised by the soft modern lighting, skylights on the sloping ceilings. While he rummages around for a plaster in the kitchen presses, she notices the bits of computers left on the worktop like remnants from their college days. Something coconut and spicy is simmering in his slow cooker.

So you’re still trying to win MasterChef?

He laughs and hands her a plaster.

I’m sorry Orla, he says, I wasn’t sure at first. If it was you. 

You’re grand, she says, feeling suddenly conscious of her old coat, limp mousy hair and scuffed runners. I’m not sure if it’s me half the time either. 

You’ve your hair a different colour. That’s probably it.

There’s a pause and then he says, So do you reckon I could be in your band now?

*

Dark January mornings, there’s black ice on the back roads. Frost sparkles on the school roof. In the staffroom, she approaches other teachers with photocopies of scavenger hunts and nature trails. 

Great, they say. Lovely, thanks. Maybe when the weather gets a bit better? 

The school’s on a good bit of land. Playing fields out the back. Oaks knotted with rooks’ nests. She’s lived here for five months but hasn’t noticed any of this before. It hits her: sometimes you can have your head down so much, you don’t notice where you’ve landed. Driving home through a tunnel of trees, she starts to believe she could make a successful application after all, if she could only focus.

She once had some amount of focus: six hundred points, first class honours. Problem was, she believed that her focus could solve any problem. She thought if she just focused hard enough on not annoying her husband, she could make him happy, and he’d turn back into the man she met. So, she stopped gigging in pubs, going out with friends, expressing opinions, and wearing clothes he deemed provocative. Nothing worked, but still she kept trying. Boxing away her bright wrap-dresses, skinny jeans, and hoop earrings, she convinced herself that she would wear them again one day, that this was just a temporary measure. A way to buy some peace.

*

Bird feeders prove difficult. Some pupils are allergic to every seed and nut known to man. They’re liable to die of anaphylactic shock at the sniff of a bird table. 

Plus they attract rats, James says. He has the same answer when she shows him a photo of a bug hotel made out of pallets. Rats, mice, slugs, snails, spiders. 

Rats, he says. Is that what you want?

Is that what you want? She remembers him asking that question in her single bed, with the grey-flecked duvet cover, in the student halls in Drumcondra, where you could always hear doors banging, footsteps, voices. Tell me what you want, he said back then, his eyes teasing.

I want this bloody flag, she tells him now, thirteen years later, standing on his doorstep in the February mizzle.

I want this flag or else I’ll lose my job, and then what?

She hasn’t said that aloud before. Under his dead hanging baskets, it sounds kind of drastic. 

He rubs the back of his head.

I didn’t realise Seamus was such a fan of the old biodiversity.

It’s a temporary contract, she says. I’ll have to interview again next summer. There’s such competition. All these young ones. And if I feck this up—

Right, he says, I get you. Sorry, I umm. I didn’t realise it was so. You know. Important. I’ll see what I can do. Just leave it with me.

*

She’s holding a Green Meeting in the outdoor classroom. Morning sunlight catches the frost on the firs.

She asks them again, Does anyone else have any other suggestions for the Day of Action? Any that don’t involve polar bears?

Greta Thunberg? Lisa suggests. 

We could give everyone a sticker, Saoirse says.

We’re missing P.E., Miss, Jack moans.

Jenny sighs. You know Miss, we normally have meetings on Friday mornings.

But isn’t that when you have your spelling tests? 

Finally they decide on a plan of action. From then on, Bin Monitors check each wastepaper basket and hassle any kids who use the wrong bin. Energy Monitors unplug everything, regardless of whether devices are in use or not. Lights are barely allowed on. Water Monitors guard the taps. 

She holds a poster competition, and chooses the winning slogan. DON’T BE A FOOL, NATURE IS COOL! She drives up to Homebase and robs a few old palettes from behind the trolleys. Copying a YouTube video, the Green Team set up a bug hotel beside the outdoor classroom. They stack the palettes and the kids stuff each crevice with twigs and hacked bamboo. Now they just have to wait for creepy-crawlies to discover their Hilton. 

*

One teatime, a woman calls her from the refuge. 

I’m just checking in, she says.

Orla answers a few questions.

I don’t need a bed, she tells her. I have a whole house, but I’m still—he’s still… It’s just difficult. I met someone recently, someone from my past, and it’s just making me remember who I used to be. My ex has made me feel like such a horrible person. He says it was all my fault. 

The woman says, You’re not a horrible person. This is what happens. Things get twisted. Would you think about talking to one of our therapists? 

I’m not sure, Orla says. I work all day, then I have the kids in the evening. And I can’t really afford it.

This is all done on Zoom. You tell us a good time. Once the kids are asleep or whatever works. We can offer you three sessions. We only ask for ten euro. Will I give the therapist your name?

Over Zoom one night, a therapist tucks her dark hair behind her ears and introduces herself as Maeve. They are about the same age, in their late thirties. She doesn’t ask about Orla’s childhood, or root around for scars. She says, Tell me what’s happening.

After Orla has spoken for a while, the therapist says, So you weren’t allowed any friends or family in the house?

He said I was too sensitive. That he couldn’t see why I needed people over. And he hated all my friends. He said they were trying to turn me against him.

People must have been worried about you.

I don’t know. It was difficult to talk to anyone. He didn’t like me being on the phone. In the end, I just stopped reaching out.

You were very isolated. 

It became my normal, she says. It’s only hitting me now. I don’t know why.

Maeve nods, listens intently. 

It often takes this long, she says. When you leave, you’re in fight or flight mode. You’ve no time to process. And you’ve still no time, Orla. How would it feel if you told him not to message you so much, to give you some space?

He’d say it’s his rights as a father. He’d say he has a right to check in on his kids, to know what we are up to. He’d threaten to take me back to court again. He’d talk about fifty-fifty custody. 

That’s his voice in your head, the therapist says. See what I mean? You’re so used to it. To pre-empting. Now how would it feel to get his voice out of your head? What would it feel like, to listen to yourself for a change? 

After this first session, Orla thinks God help this woman. She has a near-impossible job. How are you meant to help someone who doesn’t even know what happened to them? 

An image plays on loop: sitting on their bed in her old house, three-month-old Rory asleep against her breast, a windy night at the window. A baggy candy-striped nursing nightgown. Him, towering over her, jabbing his finger, then crouching, putting his face inches from hers, saying something. Saying what? All she can see is his face, the way his jaw clicked, his pupils dilated, his eyes black. He was trying to get her to agree with something, that was it. 

Say it, why can’t you just say it. Just say it. What’s wrong with you? 

Out of thousands of moments like this, she’s unsure why she keeps replaying this one. 

Then there’s her reversing out of their drive in the rain. It can’t be a real memory, because she can see herself in it, as if it’s been filmed by a hovering drone. 

So melodramatic! he’d say to that. If I’d known you were so hypersensitive, I wouldn’t have married you. 

He never used her name.

*

Her hands are burning cold. In the cutting March wind, her face feels raw. It’s such a bright day, the Wicklow Mountains are slate, then ochre where they’re caught in sun between clouds. They’ve been working at the garden all morning. They’ve planted Cat Mint, Maroon Yellow, Candy Rose. There’s comfort, she thinks, in knowing the names of things. Sitting on a rainbow bench, drinking tea from thermos flasks, James says, So how did you end up in Rathanroe? 

It was the only school in the entire country that would give me a job.

He nods and smiles. Of all the schools in all the world, he says, then catches her look. Right. Indeed. Sorry.

He works as a coder, he tells her. He writes long bars of numbers and letters that make things happen on screen. 

Do they not have robots to do that by now?

Apparently not, he says.

Do you enjoy it?

Sure it will do, until I win MasterChef or you let me join your band. You know, you did ask me that exact same question thirteen years ago. 

 *

Mid-April, it’s raining as if the sky forgot to rain for months and is making up for lost time. Drenched daffodils genuflect along the verges. Rain bounces off the road. Classroom windows fog. She realises now that their initial approach (looking under rocks for bugs, bringing them back to class for Show and Tell) isn’t working. Re-wilding doesn’t mean searching for the animals they are trying to rescue. Instead, they have to think seriously about what a healthy environment looks like. 

The Green Team are full of ideas. Using a ruler sellotaped to a cut-off Club Orange bottle, they begin to measure rainfall. They look for buds on the apple trees, and prune back the dead branches to allow more growth. She hides the keys to the rickety lawnmower shed.

*

Early May, the swifts arrive. Normally these birds are ignored, but she’s been bigging them up to the Junior Infants for weeks, so the swifts are greeted like marathon athletes crossing the finish line. YOU MADE IT, the infants shout and wave.

By now there’s a real Green Schools buzz around the school. The older classes have been scouring the grounds with scratched plastic magnifying glasses they’ve found in the maths press, cataloguing every plant they can identify. Saxifrage. Wallflower. Rosehip. Self-heal. The lawns erupt with dandelions. 

Stand quiet in a particular spot in the yard, and the swallows swoop close enough for you to see the blush of their cheeks, the whites of their bellies. 

On May 15th, Rathanroe’s ‘Green Day’ goes even better than she could have hoped. By now, the seed bombs have sprouted. Cosmos, poppies and ox-eye daisies dance in the breeze on what was once a wasteland by the staff car park. Parents come along. Sixth class have organised a nature trail, and the Green Team hold an Eco Raffle. Prizes include Planet Earth stickers, compost bins, reusable shopping bags and soft toy animals made from recycled plastic. Her mum drives up from Dublin and brings Fionn, Rory, and Aidan in his buggy. 

Look what mammy did, her mother says.

Each class plants something different. Summer Chrysanthemums. Organic lettuce. Orla’s class plants Giant Sunflowers. On the edge of the pitch, she shows her class how to scoop a handful of compost into the potting trays. Then she places a seed into each of their palms. Some of the kids look dubious, eyeing the tiny withered husks. 

You sure they’ll grow, Miss?

They bed their seeds into the compost, burying them deep. The Brennan twins take charge of the watering. They’ve lost the sprinkler off the top of the watering can, so each tray gets flooded. Dark earth swirls and swells, the seeds swallowed far underneath. Saoirse McHugh tuts.

Ah lads. You’ve drowned them. They’ll never grow now. 

Before an argument can break out, she leads them back to the classroom. They shuffle with the sopping trays. As if transferring a sleeping baby from car seat to cot, they gently lay the trays down on a windowsill.

By the end of the Day of Action, she’s tired and sweaty and happy.

In the staffroom, Seamus says, That was bloody brilliant, Orla. Fair play. It looks class on the Facebook page.

Flying colours, Denise says. You’ll get the Green Flag with flying colours.

*

And then Shona Doyle and John-Jo Higgins from fourth class find ‘the rat’. The size of an average sixth-class running shoe, it’s splayed near the edge of the yard, under one of the basketball hoops. As happens in a primary school, the atmosphere of Utter Horror spreads fast. Yard closed until further notice. Kids kept in their classrooms, away from the blazingly beautiful May afternoon. Worse is to come. Although the rat (mottled, bared molars, mouldy or else possibly chewed?) is clearly dead, it’s not long before it’s traced back to the bug hotel. Their classy venue, intended to attract only the finest pollinators, has become a rat’s nest.

After school, she stands in James’s kitchen, crying and blowing her nose loudly on ripped-off sheets of kitchen roll. 

You told me, didn’t you? You bloody told me.

He gives her arm a gentle squeeze.

It’s alright, Orla. It’s not your fault. Sure maybe the hotel just needed to diversify—bring in badgers, squirrels, the odd snake—

Oh shut up, she laughs. And she remembers that springtime of her final year in college, when she failed her driving test, and James met her afterwards in the college bar, an envelope in hand. Inside, a card with a cartoon panda on the front. 

Driving licence or no driving licence, I’ll still love you. 

It was such a stupid thing, it made her laugh, and he ordered bottles of Corona and they fell into easy talk. He’s doing the same thing now, gently consoling in a way that makes her suddenly furious: was it too much to ask for this in a marriage? 

*

When you were asleep? the therapist says. 

On Zoom, her face has changed, taken on a new seriousness.

You realise, Orla, what happened?

Her words, the cool clearness of them, while Orla’s eyes are still burning from crying over the bloody rat in the bug hotel. This is their final session. Perhaps that’s why she’s saying things she’s never said to anyone.

And did you confront him? Maeve asks. 

I brought it up a few times, but he just laughed at me. He used to say it was my fault. That I’d no passion. That there was something wrong with me. 

She thinks of the story in Fionn’s Book of Irish Legends, about the women who get turned into flagstones on the kitchen floor. ‘The Sleep Watchers’, it’s called. These women who don’t meet expectations are turned into stone to be walked over. Swept. These difficult women, who wanted more from life. 

It’s not as if he hit me, she says. Maybe I’m just. Maybe I’m overreacting. 

Things get minimised, the therapist says. This is what happens. This is what you’re only remembering now. I’m glad you contacted us, Orla. You might have left, but leaving is only the first step.

My body didn’t feel like my own, she says. It still doesn’t feel like my own. 

The landline starts ringing then. 

Sorry, she says. It’s Seamus, my principal. I’m so sorry, I’m going to have to take this.

Orla, Seamus says. It’s tomorrow is it you have the Green Schools inspection? 

Yes, she says.

Well, there’s been a bit of an issue at the school. Now don’t be panicking. But—

*

By morning, the fire has long been out, the earth charred and brittle. 

The young lad who does the grass, Seamus says, and she thinks, Since when do we have A Lad Who Does the Grass?

I asked him to sort out removing the rat hotel, Seamus says, but sure I said remove, not set fire to. The feckin idiot. 

It was burning for over an hour and a half says James, who appears next to Seamus. Those palettes. Highly flammable.

The smoke was desperate, Seamus says. 

James is wearing an oversized hoodie. He looks hungover, sheepish.

Why didn’t you call me? she wants to ask. Then she remembers, he doesn’t have her number.

Desperate is the general consensus. Teachers hugging themselves and shuddering, turning back into the warmth of the staffroom as the singed remains of rats and wildflowers turn to blackened sludge. 

Should have asked you to do it, Seamus says to James. My own pissing fault. But I didn’t want to be hassling you, sure you’ve enough on. Is it next month Hannah’s back from the states? 

James nods.

And you’ll be starting work on your own house then, the pair of you? Sure you can’t be bothering with the school when you’ve all that on. 

The two of them retreat to the gate, and she stands still, looking at the scorched meadow.

*

There’s no time at this stage. She tries phoning the Green Schools helpline, but their office doesn’t open until nine, and the inspector is already on her way. Orla meets her at the WE ARE SORRY GOD poster, a friendly woman with silver owl earrings, The Green Team recite their green code, do their dance moves. The inspector smiles, then lays into her questions. 

What percentage of Ireland is forested? 

(Fifty percent, the kids guess. WRONG—only eleven percent. The only countries with less forest are places like Yemen and Tajikistan.)

Which wildflowers best attract pollinators? 

(Pink ones?)

The Green Team are really trying their best. The inspector probably didn’t expect Saoirse McHugh to explain the number of mouse traps, or Jenny Kane to list the six trees they cut down, or Jack Doyle to launch into great detail about the rats in the bug hotel, and the great big massive fire. 

They take her then on a tour of the grounds.

God, she says, staring at the smoking remains of the wildflower garden. Jesus. Maybe don’t mention this on your application?

*

That Friday evening, her Mum collects the boys and brings them to Dublin for a sleepover.

You look desperate, her mother had said. You need a breather. 

Once they’ve gone, trucks abandoned mid-game, there’s a roaring silence in their wake. She paints her nails, makes tea, then pours it down the sink. She pulls on her denim jacket and gets into her car. 

James doesn’t answer his door, so she follows the slow thrum of guitar around the side of his house. He’s sitting on his patio, strumming away. The evening is still warm. Sunlight fading, the white sky is streaked with coral clouds. 

She says, You’ll never get into the band. 

He laughs, puts down his guitar and stands up.

She says, Why didn’t you tell me?

Orla, I’m sorry, but in fairness you tell me absolutely nothing. Sure all we talk about is plants and compost. 

Not true, she says. You could have mentioned. 

Trees… Birds… Bird tables… Let me see, what else? Oh yeah, humane mouse traps… Butterflies… Swallows… Woodlice…

She moves towards him and pulls him to her. Time collapses. She doesn’t feel exactly twenty-three again, but she doesn’t feel thirty-six, separated with three children. She slips out of her jacket, lifts her light dress over her head, and slides her hand under his shirt.

Afterwards, they leave the skylight in his bedroom open. She hears the wind moving in the trees behind his house, and later that night, she hears the call of an owl. Her class recently learnt that the barn owl’s feathers have evolved to be almost soundless. Lying awake, she remembers creeping up the stairs in her old home in Blanch, heart banging, trying not to wake him. Tiptoeing into the boys’ room and curling up beside Fionn. Half-sleeping, keeping watch. Now, James stirs beside her. She feels close to tears. Her head is hot, her chest tight. She misses her kids. She’s not sure if she’s crying for them, or for the young woman sleeping naked beside James under a fan in Hostel Palermo. She reaches for her phone, sticks on the Pink Noise soundtrack. Rain storm. Distant thunder. 

He wakes, turns to her, Are you okay?

A warm memory fills her head. Jet hair, red lips. Busking in sunny piazzas, while he picked up shifts at Irish bars, invariably running into someone who knew someone from home. Late nights, they brought the day’s stories to each other, swapped anecdotes over beers and cheap pizza. 

She says, Next year, when I’m not here, can you de-head that LaRita?

Orla. 

And the Aster too.

*

She leaves early, to avoid being spotted by any of the Rathanroe kids. 

Driving home, she can hardly believe the life in these fields. Fox silhouettes. Darting rabbit tails. Wild primroses almost glowing in the pre-dawn. A hare and its kit, paused on the winding road ahead.

Later that morning, when her boys charge in, squabbling, hot and grouchy from the car ride, she cries with relief. Smothers them with kisses. Grabs sticky hands. Chases them up the garden. She’d forgotten the feeling of laughter in her belly. Giddy energy, like a type of early-morning flight adrenaline. It’s as if she has been asleep for the last five years and has just woken up. She calls them over to her.

Look at this, she says. Look what Mam’s got.

In the pocket of her jacket, a handful of seed bombs she pilfered months ago then forgot. 

They look like Malteasers, Fionn says. 

Aidan and Rory swerve off, chasing each other round the slide. Fionn lingers as she rakes the earth by the breeze-block wall. He helps her scatter the bombs and water them. They both crouch on their hunkers, watching. 

Mammy? Nothing’s happening?

She laughs. It’s okay, mister. These things take time.

Fionn leans his head on her shoulder for what must be a hair-line fracture of a second, before tearing after the others. 

Love you Mammy, he says.

*

Early June, a clammy heat has been building all day. She’s glad of the cool, light fabric of her purple maxi dress. While her class are busy with two pages of Figure it Out, she’s balanced on a chair, un-pinning the SPACE display. Her hands are full of laminated planets. She’s taken down the other displays already. Blank blue and green felt boards, ready for whoever is teaching in here next year. Interviews are in July. 

At home time, James is up a ladder in an Italia ’90 T-shirt, scrapping moss from the roof. It’s two weeks since they’ve spoken. He looks down as she passes with her procession of kids. For a moment, their eyes meet. The last time he looked at her like this, she had just jumped off a cliff, into a turquoise lagoon in Amalfi. She remembers saltwater hitting the back of her throat. That feeling of being bouyed to the surface. 

Once the kids have all been collected, she walks past him again as she crosses the yard. Her dress billows around her in the hot breeze. As she walks back into the school, a gust sends her hair across her face. In the shadowy corridor, blue dots dance in front of her eyes. For a second, she has to stop and catch her breath. Her body is clamouring to go back. Instead, she turns into her empty classroom, collapses onto her desk chair and opens her laptop. She has only one tab open. Her Green Schools application. 

Fingers poised over the keys, she takes a deep breath, and tries to summon the right words. She looks across the room, taking in dropped pencils, splashed paint, upended chairs, forgotten jumpers. In the recycled trays on her windowsill, the sunflowers are emerging, heads bowed, mouths sealed. She stands and walks slowly over to them, her water bottle in hand. The effort needed, she thinks. The sheer force of willpower it must take to push through the weight of dark earth and rise as they do, their heads angled to the striated shadows, aiming for the light.

(c) Roisin O’Donnell

Roisin O’Donnell has family roots in Derry and now lives in County Meath. Her collection of stories Wild Quiet was published by New Island Books. She won the An Post Irish Book Award for Short Story of the Year 2018, and her work has appeared in many anthologies, including The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. ‘Sleep Watchers’ was originally published by The Stinging Fly.  

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Sheila Armstrong

Red Market by Sheila Armstrong

red market

please – no soiled goods.

items in good working order only.

clothing should be washed and ironed.

contact agatha for more details.

The men come with their vans early on Saturday morning and dislodge piles of furniture like undigested chunks of bone. The pavement outside the building gradually fills up, becoming a child’s playground of tables and chair sets. The workers manoeuvre a set of bedframes – not quite a pair, but laid out top to tail they almost fit each other; a few wooden slats are missing from one but they can be easily replaced, a €20 discount at most. The men unload a purple futon with beaded embellishments on the arms depicting the Virgin Mary with pink cheeks and a baby-blue shawl. The sky above is crisp and clear so far and the market will be busy this weekend; Christmas is only a week away.

The large, high-ceilinged warehouse echoes as boxes are brought in and unpacked, but as the room begins to fill up with people the noise becomes more contained. Thirteen off-brand messenger bags are carried in on a sack barrow and laid out on a waiting table. A woman untangles a pile of semi-silk scarves and hangs them from the rafters above her stall. She fills two metal racks with wedding dresses in shades ranging from grey smoke and eggshell to ivory and alabaster. A prized evening suit, made entirely out of snakeskin, is hung on a hanger above a doorframe; a man sets out a sign that reads no time wasters. Beneath it, carved out of dark wood, a chest-high statue of Freddy Mercury preens, mouth open in eternal song.

A shallow podium sits at the centre of the hall with a red tin box chained to the floor beside it. On a folding table, bidding papers are stacked beside a display only sign. A stout, serious woman, Marci by her nametag, places a striped throw across the podium, and arranges a set of Le Creuset roasting trays that had come in after the closure of an old café on Clanbrassil Terrace. Beside them, on a chest-high railing, she places a particularly nice pair of designer trousers that mimic the falling fabric waves of a skirt. She straightens a selection of gold necklaces on a display rack and secures the chains at the back with a cable tie.

Marci steps back to survey the scene and stretches her index fingers and thumbs, bringing them together to make a frame. She checks her watch and calls to her twin daughters, who are restless and bickering already; their classes finished for the Christmas holidays on Friday and she dreads the thought of two whole weeks off school. Finally, after conferring with a few others, Marci directs a pair of young men to wheel in an antique diving suit, complete with weighted boots. The suit is arranged on one side of the podium; the centre is left bare. The helmet is tarnished, but the copper gleam is visible underneath, and the air around it tastes like blood.

The sun crests the roof and the final shutters go up as Aindriú, the building manager, arrives with his teenage nephew. He shows the acne-scarred boy around the market, then sends him up to the office overlooking the open plain of the warehouse to set up his computers. The boy trips on the first of the perforated metal steps, but his uncle is kind enough to pretend not to notice. Below the office, white sheets are whipped off stalls. Strong coffee is brewed in a large, scaled pot, and the hard scent of it takes the edge off the morning.

Half an hour later, a blue Berlingo takes the turn off the main road slowly, letting a pair of walkers pass in front of it, even though the pedestrian light is blinking red. The van backs up to the side of the building; parking is not yet a problem, but by noon the street outside the market will be wedged with cars and bicycles and electric scooters. George gets out of the Berlingo and stretches his legs before walking over to a group of yawning stallholders; for the occasion, he has agreed to put on a red suit and false beard and sit outside on a marble bench.

He pokes a friend in his over-hanging gut, after my job, eh, but the movement is familiar and expected, so the man dodges the full force of the jab. They laugh for a few minutes together and briefly swap stories before turning to unload the contents of the van.

The young girl’s elbows are bound together behind her back. Her shoulder blades are sharpened like the wings of a moth, and her ankles are tied to her wrists. The men carry her to the podium under Marci’s direction, and the girl is placed belly-down in the centre, in between the diving helmet and the roasting trays. The bungee cords wrapping her body are admired – you never know you need them until you really need them, isn’t that always the way? – and a few people stop to pluck the green-striped elastic out from the ridges of her skin to test the bounce. The flesh beneath them is white but blood rushes in as soon as the pressure is lifted; they snap back into a slightly different position and begin new ridges. Her thighs are held in place with heavy ratchet straps, bookended with metal clasps that are rusting around the edges.

The orange bands are the strongest, the label advises, grey for medium-sized burdens, and blue for restraining small objects, 10 kilos max. The girl expands her ribcage as far as it will go to test the chafe of the binding.

George stretches again and prepares to go upstairs to change into his outfit. He pauses on the steel steps up to the office, considers for a moment, and returns to the girl on the podium. His eyesight isn’t getting any better – if you’re not in, you can’t win, isn’t that it? – so he fills out a slip of paper with his name, address and bid and places it into the red box. The girl raises her head into a stiff smile for him as he walks away. She opens her mouth but only a dry, croaking sound comes out: her vocal cords have been numbed with an anaesthetic spray. Customs and Excise are difficult at the best of times, and George has made this journey enough times to smooth out any lumps

and bumps in advance.

More people begin to trickle in as the market officially opens and the crisp Saturday lengthens towards lunchtime; five, ten, twenty, and suddenly there is no more time for talking, only business. The crowds roil and flow around the stalls.

A woman, fat and greying, roams the vintage clothing aisles, searching for conversation; isn’t this lovely,

who would give this away, are you here every week? Her feet are too swollen for anything but house slippers and her cardigan sleeves bulge with tissues; clean and folded in the right sleeve, used and crumpled in the left. She is deaf in one ear and announces this at every opportunity, turning her head to one side like a sparrow when she speaks. She stops to lift the lid off the largest roasting tray on the podium and look into its red-stained belly. The girl shifts amiably on her stomach to make room, but the woman has no interest in flesh today, only company. Besides, the girl’s dark skin is paler than usual from the weeks it has been occluded in the journey, but still not light enough for the red market.

Outside, imitation snow is pumped from a machine into an area that has been cordoned off for children to flutter and pose beside life-sized cut-outs of frozen cartoon princesses. In his Father Christmas costume, George is doling out fistfuls of chocolate coins; knee-sitting’s out of the question these days, it’s all gone politically correct, he winks to a watching parent who is straining to look casual. Christmas songs hang in the air and the outdoor stalls sparkle with an assortment of angels, wooden snowflakes that smell like cedar and plastic candy canes that can be personalised with a loved one’s name.

For lunch, there is winter vegetable soup from a tureen, €6 per cup, and sourdough bread rolls €4 extra. A mobile falafel van pulls up between a solid-shampoo retailer and a CBD oil and cosmetics stall. On a windowsill, a platter of yesterday’s vegan pastries begins to sag in the centre; a man feeds a home-made raisin flapjack to his dog. There is watered-down mulled wine and a brazier for roasting chestnuts; the white flesh crumbles between the fingers of children, chalky and sweet.

The afternoon brings a heavy shower of rain that straddles the market for almost two hours. An awning is rolled out, but the majority of commerce moves inside. Condensation drips against the windows and the smell of wet wool becomes unbearable. The few new shoppers that appear do so only for shelter, and make repeated loops around the indoor stalls to kill time before the rain ends. Some stop to admire the girl on the podium. A student nurse fingers a foot- long scar that crests across the girl’s exposed abdomen. Pity, she thinks, the left is usually the stronger. Marci opens her palms in a helpless motion when questioned about the missing kidney; it is difficult to get undamaged goods these days, but the stitches are neat and old; besides, the girl is in good health. The student nurse considers degrees of weaknesses as she does one more loop around the market, but she returns to put in a bid for the other kidney; her uncle has been in dialysis for years and is running out of time.

Evening crawls in, but closing time is jagged and uneven, depending on how cold each vendor’s feet are and what is waiting for them at home for dinner. Sheets are stretched over piles of kitchen utensils and bootleg DVDs; bumbags are emptied and sales totted up. The outdoor stalls are stripped bare, warned by the earlier downpour and the wet melt of cardboard on the pavement. Inside, the last browser, oblivious to the falling stutter of background hum, finishes a lazy lap around the few remaining undraped stalls.

Marci calls to her daughters to come in from the cold, and goes up the stairs to collect her things from the office. While they wait, the twins paint each other’s nails with rainbow glitter polish; they are on the index finger of the bound girl’s second hand by the time their mother returns and shoos them away. Marci taps a syringe and inserts it into the girl’s left flank, massaging the skin in concentric circles, and her eyelids begin to droop. The twins play a twisting, flailing game with colourful scarves, draping them around their heads. Marci switches off the radio as the three of them leave the warehouse, and the web of fairy lights goes dark.

Aindriú comes by to pick up his nephew and lock up for the day, calling a low halloooo across the darkened hall to make sure there is nobody left in the shadows. The boy averts his eyes from the girl on the podium, blushing as he clatters down the stairs and crosses the room to meet his uncle. Aindriú turns the keys of the front and back doors, rattling them to be sure, then loops a thick padlock around the main gates. He drops his nephew home, but first they stop at the chipper for a battered sausage and a shared portion of chunky chips.

At dusk, starlings begin to flit to an ancient assortment of nests that sit just under the eaves; the dark smudges of mud and straw are renewed by the birds every year. Inside the silent building, the space heaters flick on, storing up warmth for the morning. The girl’s skin begins to goosepimple under her own white sheet. Rust-coloured urine trickles down the inside of her right thigh and seeps to the edge of the podium; it will have dried completely by morning.

At midnight the building shifts as a teenager slams his fist against the corrugated iron at the back. His not-quite-girlfriend laughs; the weed has made her lightheaded although she can usually hold herself together better than he can. The boy rattles at the door-chain in a half-hearted way and sits down on an old pink tricycle that has remained unsellable through the long, wet summer and autumn. The girl becomes hysterical at the sight of his knees folded up to his shoulders, and she staggers against the side of the building, gasping with laughter. He manages to reach the pedals and cycles, squeaking, for a minute or two, saluting her as she slides down to her bottom, taking shrieking in-breaths and covering her eyes. He gets off the bike, managing to sit on his own testicles in the process, and she laughs harder, before dropping her cold fingers into his trousers to massage the injured pieces of him. He quivers with pain but lets her continue; his mother has stayed at home every night this week and hates the sight of his girlfriend for no reason he can decipher. Inside the building, the girl’s painted fingernails catch the rising of the moon and glitter like a galaxy reflected in a dark pool of water.

Around five in the morning, a fox slinks its way through the narrow railings and makes a leisurely circuit of the outdoor area. It stops to dig a shallow hole in a pile of imitation snow, a shock of blue-white powder under the low, orange clouds. The fox’s fur is oil-slick from the earlier rain and it screams frustration at the faint scent of a younger male that had passed by a few days before. This banshee call causes the girl to shift beneath the surface of wakefulness, but some faint kindness keeps her under.

Just before dawn, a streak-chested owl plunders the starling nests, flitting from hatchling to hatchling, pulling out grey tufts of feathers and plucking red fibre from their breastbones. The market’s new CCTV system catches the display on night-vision camera and the footage will go briefly viral online a month later as an example of nature’s brutality; Aindriú’s nephew will be able to enhance the video to the point that the quick darting of the owl’s beak becomes clear, a yellow needlepoint on the end of a darkened hook.

An hour after dawn on Sunday, the first van pulls up outside the gates again with more items for sale. It unloads a set of paired futons, two black bags of clothes for sorting and a stack of 1950s pornography magazines. Aindriú is late – his cat had woken him early and he had fallen back into a heavy sleep – but he appears with the keys in the time it takes the delivery men to smoke two cigarettes. More vans appear and restocking begins in earnest. The carved wooden birdhouses have been particularly popular, labelled authentic bavarian oak but really made of plywood cast-offs from a workshop down the road. Jars of cosmetics with added fresh Irish peat are stacked in a high pyramid like soup cans, and a fill-your-own teabag station is restocked from large sacks of loose leaves.

By the time the lights come on in the building, the girl’s breath is a slow wheeze; the stretching of her arms behind her back has spread out her lungs into flattened slabs, and each inflation is an effort. White foam corners her mouth as white sheets whip off the stalls, and she has defecated on herself. Marci yawns as she walks the aisles between stalls, aiming a bottle of air freshener above her head and letting out spurts every couple of seconds. She notices the foul smell as she passes the podium and thinks for a moment – sure there’s only the rest of the day to get through – and an extra layer of lavender-scented mist falls on the strapped- down figure.

The crowds are slower this morning; the initial panicked rush of the weekend has eased. The first sale of the day is a man’s designer jacket, extra wide at the shoulders. The left-hand side of the jacket is flecked with white hairs from the previous owner’s terrier. There are a pair of reading glasses in the front pocket and a handful of glucose sweets, but the buyer will not notice until he tries it on for a friend’s commitment ceremony in February.

There is an outflow of people for Sunday Mass at the local church before eleven; a skeleton crew is left to mind the stock. Bartering is suspended under strict instructions; prices are firm in the hands of these caretakers. Taking advantage of the lull, small sheaves of money are folded and coins changed for notes. The red box continues to fill with shy bids. In the distance, the church bell sings out, echoed by the tolling of the Angelus on the battered radio.

A part-time wigmaker arrives around lunchtime. He had seen the market advertised on a friend’s social media feed, but the girl’s hair is shorter than it appeared in the picture and too curly besides. It would brighten and smooth with some shea butter, but the lack of care shown in the shipping of the product is annoying enough for him to leave, disappointed, without placing a bid. He pauses to look at a bird’s nest of cables and dislodges a PlayStation 4 controller and a disembowelled Xbox. His eldest son is showing an interest in computers, and a project could be just the thing to make him forget about the beer. His fingers trace wires, matching female to male, HDMI to VGA. He presses his lips against an old Nintendo 64 game to blow out the dust and the wet warmth of his spittle settles on the copper bars of connection.

Buried in a box of tchotchkes, a set of three black minstrels in miniature with white eyes and swollen red slugs for lips. The musicians stand together in bright blue suits on a heavy plaster base, leaning out from a central point like the fronds of a plant. One bares white teeth at an old-fashioned microphone, another’s cheeks bulge around a trombone, while the third grips a double bass between his knees. A dark- skinned child fingers their jet-black, rounded hair; his mother slaps his hand away and drags him into the next room to measure his feet against a pair of slate- grey patent school shoes. The boy stops to stare instead at the Tupperware containers filled with penny sweets – liquorice, cola bottles, red jellies and gobstoppers.

At the podium, nobody has been brave enough to try the antique diving helmet on, despite Marci’s showman-like urgings. An installation artist, having seen it advertised on the market’s website, comes by just to inspect it, stepping around the girl’s bound ankles to get a better look. He pulls open the hinge with two fingers; the glass of the viewing pane is clouded with trapped underwater breath. But the artist had a panic attack earlier in the week and the thought of actually bidding makes his throat tighten, so he doesn’t ask about the price and leaves instead, furious with himself. A week later, he will wake gasping in the night, having dreamed his skull has been forced up into the helmet, collapsed and become

malleable, like that of a cuttlefish.

At the end of the day, the pile of porn magazines is picked up by a long-haired youth in a corduroy jacket; he likes the idea of papering the walls of his band’s practice space with breasts and penises and dark tufts of body hair. The band members will rotate in and out due to a fractious lead singer, and each will add adornments to the walls: sharpie moustaches, boot marks, and palm-blood from a snapped guitar string.

Come closing time at six o’clock, the outer gates to the warehouse are locked behind the last browsers. The girl’s chest has almost stilled. Marci bends to rest the back of her hand against her cheek and raises a small make-up mirror in front of the girl’s mouth to check her breath. Moving briskly, she opens the red tin box chained to the podium, and her two young daughters help to count out the slips of paper into piles, while Aindriú’s nephew tallies the online interest from the upper office. This is the first year the market has accepted web bids; a few stakeholders were uncertain, but the offers have increased exponentially and the security questions seem to have filtered out most of the time-wasters.

The fresh corpse settles and sighs as Marci removes the glittering nail varnish with white spirit, exasperated by her daughters’ interference, but feeling a gentle warmth for them all the same. Outside, George sweeps the boot-scuffed mess of fake snow back into a pile and has just finished hoovering it up when Aindriú returns from dropping his nephew home. Together, they go inside, hoist the girl’s body on to their shoulders, careful to avoid the stains on her thighs. They carry her up the stairs and into the office for the final tally.

The organs – kidneys, liver, lungs and heart – have performed well, as expected, snapped up like an air fryer in Aldi! Marci jokes to Aindriú.

George has missed out on winning the corneas, but there has been a stroke of luck – the two highest bidders have bid the same amount, and if Marci contacts them each will likely overbid again, sensing

the closeness of seeing.

The girl was young, so her eggs are in demand, but the winning bid is from a fertility clinic that buys up the entire stock, although an undiagnosed case of polycystic ovary syndrome means that the eggs will underperform; three couples will weep in the night after the news is broken.

There is low demand for blood at the moment, as supplies are healthy, so the girl’s will be drained and set aside in plastic blood-bags, just in case. In two months, a pile-up on the M50 will upset the delicate rhizome of the donation system, but it will be too late; forty-two days is the maximum shelf-life for human blood.

The lights in the building stay on late into Sunday night, pressing against the office windows, black shadows passing behind the frosted glass like inverted exclamation marks. Finally, the strange alchemy of flesh to coin is completed and the packages are wrapped and set aside. The numbers are totted up and divided, and divided again. A small sum of money is earmarked to be transferred back along the weaving path of the Berlingo, the shipping container, across the Continent and back into a tiny village where two brothers can now afford to go to school, and a mother will weep for her daughter every night for ten years

until her heart clogs and falls to pieces while she is crossing a busy road.

In the morning, what is left of the carcass will be put in a net and anchored in the river – a small tributary of the Liffey, but hip-height in places – where bacteria and fish will whittle it down to a loose pile of flesh and bones. Afterwards, the pulp will be boiled in caustic soda to dissolve any remaining meat, before the marrow is extracted for later use. Sunlight is best for removing the yellowish tint from the bones, but the weather has turned foul again, so a pair of UV lamps will be used instead, and the windows of the upstairs office will be taped over with bin bags. The bones will cure and whiten in a week, and a quick polish with the finest sandpaper will make them shine.

The skeleton will be sold to a medical school where it will be reassembled and strung on to a nylon wire frame. It will sit in the back of a classroom; students will draw eyelashes on it and pose it with its hands on its hips. Eventually, the metal wires in place of tendons and ligaments will rust and the bones will come loose. The skeleton will be sent to a new market, in pieces, and after a scrub to clean away the scales and dust of the classroom, it will be threaded back together along new wires, fibreglass this time.

It will hang straight and true in the centre of the

red market, and it will shine.

(c) Sheila Armstrong

Sheila Armstrong is a writer from the northwest of Ireland. She spent ten years in publishing and now works as a freelance editor. Her first collection of short stories, How To Gut A Fish, was published in 2022 and her debut novel, Falling Animals, will follow in 2023.

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Wendy Erskine

Mathematics by Wendy Erskine

The drawer beside Roberta’s bed contained remnants of other people’s fun: a small mother-of-pearl box, inlaid with gold, a lipstick that was a stripe of fuchsia, a lucky charm in the shape of a dollar sign. Anything left behind in one of the hotels had to be put in a box and kept for two months. A girl who used to live in the house told her that. Didn’t matter if it was a pair of tights or a phone charger, it was put away and then, at the end of that time, it was offered to the person who had cleaned the room where it had been found. That girl had got a little clock that way. But Mr Dalzell didn’t operate like that. Mr Dalzell had said that anything she found was hers, automatically. Finders keepers, losers weepers. Except if she found a weapon. Any guns just pass them over to me, Roberta, he laughed. 

Some things didn’t make it to the drawer. Roberta would run her finger along traces of powder to see what would happen. The big flat that overlooked the river, the one with the ceiling to floor windows, was a fine spot for the powder. She often found tablets too. One lot she kept for the Saturday night when she was in her slippers and dressing gown. Her heart felt it was going to burst through her ribs. Occasionally she gave away the things she found, like the bottle of perfume that was worth over a hundred pounds. It smelled like the sawdust in a hamster’s cage. Igor took it. He puffed it on when he was dressing up for a night out. The smell hung in the hallway. But most stuff needed to be bin-bagged: dirty knickers, grey bras, empty blister packs, bottles, blades. 

One time the green-door house had syringes and burnt foil everywhere. That was sad because Roberta associated the place with families, like the people who left behind a game that she tried to play. She divided herself into two teams but even though she read them a couple of times, Roberta couldn’t understand the instructions. The family left a small box of chocolates and a card on the table, saying thank you. 

Roberta had encountered Mr Dalzell when the agency sent her to a restaurant for a three-day trial. The woman in charge there told her, and the other people entering the world of work, that it was important to turn up on time, dress sensibly and, most importantly, listen carefully to what they were told to do. They should take in every word and if necessary ask for clarification if they weren’t sure. On the first morning, the chef gave her an apron and told her to wash her hands. He showed her how he wanted her to cut the vegetables. She looked attentively at the way he held the knife. You think you can do that, love? he said. He let her practise with a few carrots. Then he said, see this bag of peeled spuds here? I want you to cut them just the same way. We are making a thing called dauphinoise potato. She nodded. So, love, do you think you can do that?

It hadn’t been easy to use the point of the knife to get the right small circular shape. When the chef came back he saw she had cut discs of potato the same size as the carrots. He smiled and said not to worry, that he hadn’t explained it very well, and that she should maybe polish some knives and forks. At the end of the day, he got one of the guys to show her how to mop the floor and clean the place down. That was what she was doing when Mr Dalzell came into the restaurant to sit down at a table with the owner and the chef. Now there’s a girl who knows how to work, Mr Dalzell said. She could hear the chef telling him about the potatoes. Followed instructions to the letter, he said. The total letter. Mr Dalzell surveyed the gleaming floor. How’d you like to come and work for me for a couple of weeks? he asked. But the couple of weeks had become over a year. 

Mr Dalzell had provided her with training. A woman called Ava showed her how to clean the rooms, change the bedding and towels. She got to know when properties were rented by schoolkids for their parties by the pizza boxes and empty cans. She got used to the sick and even the shit. There was always the box of rubber gloves. She had got used to blood. There was one time when a laminate floor had been gluey with it. Stuck to the hall was a clump of black hair. Under the sofa she found a tooth, shreds of gum still attached. Mr Dalzell had been good to her. He owned the house where she lived. He sorted out the boys. They hung outside the shops, shouted at her, threw things. She shouted back. Listen to Crackers going crackers! they laughed. Mr Dalzell got to hear about it and then their eyes slid away from her when she walked by. One boy got a face all puffed with bruising. 

Mr Dalzell got her a phone so that she could communicate with Gary Jameson. Every morning, she waited for him in the kitchen, which was always a mess. There were the plastic containers thick with the dregs of Igor’s protein shakes, the dirty dishes in the sink, the spatter of hot sauce that the girl from Donegal made down the cupboard. But she was only going to tidy things up if she was being paid. When she got into Gary Jameson’s van, he would always say the same thing: Another day, another dollar. He gave her a list of the day’s jobs and she studied it. In the back of the van there were sheets, duvet covers, pillowcases and towels, their freshness almost aggressive. 

Whoever wrote the schedule knew how long each place took to be cleaned. A little flat might only be an hour. Others, like the big three-storey place, took so much longer. Gary Jameson sometimes waited outside for her, but often he went away. There were other things he needed to do in the area. Later on, he would pick up the bags of laundry and rubbish. Gary Jameson had the keys for all of the houses on a big metal ring decorated with a cockerel. Each key had a tag with the number and street name of the house. He would take off one of the keys and give it to her so she could let herself into the next place. Don’t lose it, he said. Don’t. Fucking. Lose. It. 

In her little book, Roberta had all the addresses written down and all the buses she might need to get, if she couldn’t walk from one place to the next. It helped to put the details in the book, stopped them floating off. There’d come a time when the board at school almost looked underwater. The numbers flew out of her head, and words too. She would see them congregating in the corners of the ceiling and beg them to return to her head. They smirked, and said, nope. She started to divert her attention to the birds on the roof of the mobile classroom outside, and the tree that grew in the middle of the playground. It rustled. It looked so friendly. She didn’t like going out to play at lunchtime. Since when had they got so complicated with all the rules? No, you don’t throw it to her! We told you! You are not doing it right again! She said to him late one night, as she was going to bed, Daddy, I fell and hurt my head. It was a couple of months ago, I think. Well, that’ll harden you not to do it again! he said. 

On the Tuesday, the first place, a small flat, was spruced up within half an hour. The next one was more work because the people had stayed for a week; they had made it their home, with their toothbrushes still in the glass, the ring around the bath. There were clippings of nails on the floor. Roberta bagged up the dirty towels, put out the new ones. The third place was on the edge of the park. Ain’t nothing like a house party, Gary Jameson said, as they drove there. Party house, this place, last night anyway. Give me a ring when you’ve finished, Roberta. He gave her the key and she got the bags from the van. 

Although someone had opened a few of the windows, the house smelt of smoke. In the kitchen there was a pile of broken glass, pushed over to one of the corners. At the side of the sofa there was an old condom, the colour of frogspawn. She went round with a bin bag, filling it with bottles and cans. It had been some party, for sure. The vacuum cleaner was in a cupboard under the stairs. It needed to be emptied and Roberta did this the way she had been shown. Always so much hair: a brown bird’s nest of the stuff. After the hoovering, she polished the surfaces, then went upstairs. There was piss all over the bathroom floor and the towels were a ton weight because they were sodding wet. In the first bedroom there was another condom. She stripped the bed, which was streaked brown with fake tan, put on the fresh stuff. 

The day she hit her head they had gone to the derelict place, the old Kane garage, Roberta, her sister and Desmond Kane. They were up on the roof and next thing she woke up with the sky a burning blue and Desmond Kane’s face above her. He carried her home on his back and her sister put her in bed with a hot-water bottle. Don’t tell where we were or what happened. Her sister brought up a bowl of soup but she couldn’t drink it. It’s the flu, her sister said. You have the flu.

When she opened the door of the smaller bedroom, a little girl—about eight or nine—was sitting on the floor. She looked up at Roberta, who stared at her and then closed the door again. People had been found in the houses before. A pair had once been still asleep in one of the beds. Gary Jameson got them out pretty quickly. Roberta remembered their frightened faces. She looked to see if Gary Jameson was still outside, but he had gone. She stood on the landing before opening the door again. 

I’ve been waiting, the girl said. Waiting for my mum. 

Roberta didn’t reply.

Is my mum downstairs? she asked. 

Roberta looked at the floor. No.

Oh, the child said. 

She had a basic face, as if someone in a hurry had drawn quick features on a pebble. Her brown hair was in a thin ponytail. She wore pyjama bottoms and a school sweatshirt with a logo of three children dancing in a circle above the words Newton P.S.

Did your mum bring you here? Roberta asked.

Yes. And I stayed in the room like she said. 

You were meant to contact the police if you found a child. But Roberta didn’t think Mr Dalzell would appreciate her contacting the police. Plus, she had another job soon. Think! Think! Maybe she should contact Gary Jameson. 

Am I leaving now? the girl asked. 

The mother might have got stuck somewhere. Maybe the mother intended to come back. Maybe the mother had started feeling sick somewhere. She might have fallen in a K-hole. There was one time when the young guy who lived in the house was laid out in the kitchen after taking ketamine and Roberta thought he was dead. But a while later, he was back to normal. People might take the child away from the mother if they knew she had been left alone in a house like this. 

Where do you live? Roberta asked. 

We’ve only just moved to the new place. I don’t know the address. 

But that’s your school, yeah? Roberta pointed to the sweatshirt. 

The child looked down. That’s where I go, she said. 

Well, said Roberta. I wonder what we should do. I am going to have to make a plan. Okay, she said. I have got the plan. You are going to stay here and then I will come back for you. You’ll know it’s me because I will knock like this. Four times. Loud soft loud soft. And you will let me in. 

Okay, the child said. 

Roberta was waiting outside when Gary Jameson came. She loaded the black bin bags into the van and gave him the key. On the way to the next place, he stopped at the garage to get petrol. He ambled across the forecourt like a cowboy going into the saloon and expecting a shoot-out. Roberta’s hands were shaking as she reached down to get the big key ring. Place with the yellow fob, place with the green door, big windows, the window-box one, where could they go, where could they go, not the park place and then, yes, do it, the gloomy old place that hadn’t been used in ages, yes, thread the key off the metal before he is back. Gary Jameson was there with a bar of chocolate for her. 

Thank you, she said. Do you want a piece?

You’re okay, bird.

This next place, Roberta said. Just let me in and then go because I don’t need a lift back home again. It’s alright. I’ll leave the bags round the back for you. 

Oh, is that right now? he said. 

Yeah. 

You must have a boy on the go. 

I might well, she said. 

After, she headed back to the house where the child was. She knew what she would do. She would take her to school the next day and by then the mother might be ready to pick her up. Or someone else. A granny or a sister. She would keep her safe until then. There was no need for the police. 

Loud soft loud soft. She half-expected the child to have gone, but there she was. 

Good girl, let’s go, Roberta said. 

The child was wearing a coat. But she was still dressed in pyjama bottoms, now tucked into boots. 

Do you wear that to school?

No, the child said. I wear a school skirt and socks. But I don’t have them with me. 

Well, they would need to get those things. Roberta and the girl walked side by side when they left the house. Adult and child, Roberta said when they got on the bus, waiting for the bus-driver to query it, but he didn’t. Adult and child, she whispered to herself, as they made their way down the aisle to a seat at the back. 

In the town, they found a shop that sold school uniforms on the second floor. Roberta held up a couple of pleated skirts to the child. 

You’re skinny, she said. But I’m not. And now—she shoved the skirt down inside her coat—I’m even less skinny than I was before. You need socks too? 

Yes, and the girl said she also needed a schoolbag. Roberta paid for that, a cheap one with a cat on the front. After walking around for a while, they sat down so that Roberta could copy in her little book the bus times and the route to the house and back again. The girl watched her, gave her a smile when she raised her head from the book. She told Roberta that the school started at nine o’clock. 

When they got off the bus, there was a shop on the corner where they got cereal and milk. The girl said she didn’t need a lunch for the next day because she got dinner in school. The hall was dark when they entered the house, but Roberta didn’t know where the light was. When she eventually found it, they both looked down at the various letters on the mat, the numerous promotions leaflets and menus for takeaways. 

Well, the postman left a lot of those this morning, Roberta said. 

The living room had thick and dusty brocade curtains and a red velveteen three-piece suite. The carpet was big blowsy flowers ready to burst into bloom. The girl sat on the sofa with her legs tucked under her, staring up at the cobwebs where the walls met the ceiling. 

Is it just you who lives here? she asked. 

Yes. Just me. That’s the way I like it. 

Because it was so cold, Roberta looked around to find an old blow heater. It smelt of burnt plastic and kept cutting out, but it generated some sporadic warmth. 

Today I don’t really feel like cooking, Roberta said, so we’ll just have cereal for tea. Okay? 

Okay, the child said. 

They sat by the heater, the occasional sound of the spoons clinking off the bowls. All of a rush the child said that the reason her mum brought her was because one of the times she was left before, she tried to make herself something to eat and she started a fire because the kitchen roll got caught on the flame. People had to come to put it out and her mum was very, very angry when she came back.

Roberta considered this. Things catch fire, she said. It wasn’t your fault. Wasn’t your mistake. Eat up. 

People make mistakes, big fat Xs all over the work and that teacher always watching, even if you scowled back. They put her at a desk by herself where people from the past had gouged their names in the wood. She put her name along with them. Then they lifted her out to sit in the little room with the plant and box of tissues to speak to the woman in the cardigan who made her say numbers backwards, find words in a swirl of colour. Mistakes again, so they sent her to that other school with its buses, where she had to sit with a plastic bag on her lap because she was sick every journey. When she looked out the window, people made faces, did things with their hands. She slowly mouthed Fuck you, which surprised them. 

What time do you go to bed? Roberta asked. 

Half eight, the child said. But can I read for a while?

You can. 

Does my mum know I’m here? 

Don’t you worry, Roberta said. 

Later, Roberta prepared the room where the child would sleep. She shook the pillow, folded the corner of the duvet so it looked welcoming, wiped the chest of drawers and window sills with an apple disinfectant that she found under the sink. 

The child was at the door. Will I go to bed now? she asked. 

Yes, Roberta said. Take off that sweatshirt so it’s good for the morning. 

The child did that. She put her head down and crossed her bony arms across her chest. Roberta went outside the room, took off her own jumper, then her T-shirt, then her vest. She put the T-shirt back on and then handed the vest to the girl. 

Thank you, she said, the vest still warm in her hand.

When she climbed into bed, the child lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. 

The reading! She needed to read. Roberta suddenly realised. She bounded back up the stairs with the brochures that had been put through the door. The girl sat up to read a promotional leaflet about PVC windows and fascia. 

Thank you, she said. That’s great. 

The dark pressed against the window and Roberta put on the heater again. Cognitive, cognitive, said the woman with the cardigan. Nothing to do with falling. But if she had had a mother she would have taken her to the hospital and then she would have gone to the school with the blue blazer just like her sister. When the people talked, they thought she couldn’t hear them, but she did. Disgusting the way she went off with her fancy man, they said. What’s a fancy man? she asked her sister. 

But her sister was in Australia now. She once sent her a postcard with a wallaby on it. It was on the fridge in the house although somebody had drawn glasses on it. When school finished she went to the place where she put coffee in the polystyrene cups. Lines of them, twenty cups per row. And then after that the restaurant where she cut the potatoes. And then, Mr Dalzell. 

In the morning, when Roberta came into the room, the girl had already made the bed and was sitting wearing the stiff new skirt over the pyjama bottoms. 

Well, you can’t wear those, Roberta said. 

I’ve got no pants. 

Take off the bottoms and come down for breakfast. 

Cereal again? 

Yes, cereal. 

In the kitchen there was a blunt pair of scissors. Roberta hacked at the legs of the pyjama bottoms to fashion a pair of shorts. 

There you go. 

That was a good idea, the girl said. 

I got lots of them, said Roberta. 

The gates of the school were painted red and yellow stripes; there were posters covered in Perspex telling about safety in the playground. From a distance Roberta watched the other parents kissing the kids, checking things in their school bags. A woman swept a boy’s hair smooth from where his parting was shaved in. She hadn’t brushed the child’s hair. At the top of the stairs, as the girl was about to enter the big doors, she turned round and waved. Roberta raised her hand. 

Another bus and a walk through the park took Roberta back to her own house. When she got into the van, Gary said, Another day another dollar. What did you and your boy get up to? On second thoughts, don’t tell me. 

He gave her the schedule for the day with a cut and swollen hand. In the morning there were a couple of flats, but then later on it was the big house on the Antrim Road. On the bus, the child had said she thought she got out at half past two. There was too much to do in that house for her to be back on time. 

Could we go to that big one a bit earlier? Her voice sounded like someone else’s.

Christ, you’re not wanting to head off again with this fella? 

No, I have to go to the doctor’s. 

I can drop you at the doctor’s. How long you going to be? There’s another place to be sorted after that. 

Not sure, Roberta said. Not sure how long the doctor will keep me. What happened to your hand? 

It’s nothing, he said. Should’ve seen the other guy. 

The two flats were easy. In the first one, the lavender air-freshener sorted out the smell of smoke. The other one was as if someone had enjoyed cleaning it themselves. They had stripped the bedding and left it on the floor, placed the towels neatly on top of it. She was back in the van in no time. It smelt different today. She said so to Gary Jameson. 

Well, bird, you do not miss a trick, he said. It was new laundry people who used a different powder. The old ones had done the job for Mr Dalzell for a while, Gary Jameson said, but nobody was indispensable. These others were cheaper. 

The house on the Antrim Road she called the wedding cake because of the ceilings like icing. There were paintings on the wall of fields and farmyards. Once there was a religious group who stayed there for a week or so; they left a lot of leaflets about the power of prayer and used sanitary towels. The people staying this time did not seem to have been religious. There were some bongs made out of Lucozade bottles. There were loads of dirty dishes heaped up in the sink. She couldn’t remember how the hot water worked in this place. She would have to boil lots of kettles. Maybe she shouldn’t go to the school at all. The child could have told the teacher that she had been kidnapped by a strange woman. The police might be waiting for her at the school. Or she could go, but stand on the other side of the road, casual. There was only an inch of washing-up liquid left so she filled the bottle with water to eke it out. 

Gary Jameson was late. She looked at her phone. Ten minutes late. She wasn’t going to be there for the child and she hadn’t even cleaned that house properly at all. Corners cut everywhere. Mr Dalzell would not be impressed. 

The van swung round the corner. 

Thought you were never coming, she said, as she got in. 

Desperate to see lover boy.

I’m going to the doctor’s, she said. 

Where’s the place again?

She said it was near the Iceland shop. 

What they treating everybody with? Bags of fucking frozen peas? How long you going to be at the doctor’s? There’s still that other house. 

I don’t know. I’ll have to see. 

Check you all of sudden, he said. 

She crossed over from the Iceland car park to the school with its cluster of buggies in the playground, its semicircle of parents. When the bell rang, kids filtered out, some jumping from the top step, some clutching things they had made out of paper. And then the child was standing beside her. 

Hi, she said. 

Roberta looked around to see if anyone was watching them.

Hi, she said back. 

Are we going home now? the child asked. 

Well, I thought, Roberta said, I thought we could try to find your flat. Because your mum might be there. Now, which way do you think?

They looked up the road to the hills, and down to the shipyard cranes. That way, the girl said. That way for definite. 

There’s flats, tower blocks, up there. 

The girl shook her head. No. This way. She started talking about how a boy had got shouted at that day for lifting the giant snail from the tank and putting it on his desk. 

Maybe the snail liked it, Roberta said. 

Maybe it did, said the child. 

They walked past butchers’ shops and chemists, home bakeries and key-cutters. At one point the child indicated to turn down a particular street.

You sure? Roberta said. Doesn’t look like flats down here. 

It was a street of brick terraces. 

I thought, the child said. But I can’t really remember. 

It was starting to rain. 

What are we having for our tea? the child asked. 

You know what, Roberta said, I was going to do something called dauphinoise potatoes which is meant to be very nice, but I think we are just going to get something from the shop. 

The phone rang and it was Gary Jameson wondering where she was. She turned away from the child and said that she was still at the doctor’s. No, she didn’t know how much longer she would need to be. A police car went past, its siren sounding. Gary Jameson would hear that and know she was out in the street. 

I’ll do it first thing in the morning, she said. But he had already gone. 

The house seemed warmer when they returned to sink into the plush fabrics while they waited for their pie to heat. Roberta found raffia placemats at the back of a drawer and so she laid the table for the two of them. 

I’ve got homework tonight, the girl said. Can you help me with some of it?

Certainly, Roberta said. Important that you do your homework. 

After tea, she got out a maths book and showed Roberta the page where she had to calculate angles. 

I can do this one, and this one, but not that one.

Their faces were close as they peered at the page, biting their lips at the mathematical notation. The child turned to look at her. Do you know? she said. 

Homework’s for kids to do by themselves, said Roberta, turning away. 

Oh, the child said softly. 

*

That night the child read her English book in bed. When she went to sleep, Roberta sat on the landing outside the room, her back against the wall. The door was ajar and she could hear the easy breathing. There was the slight sound downstairs of the blow heater, some nonsense on the television, that old one with a big bulging back. She sighed. No dashing, running around, leaping on and off buses. There was no need to think about anything just at present because it would be hours before the morning light would come and she would not mind if it took twice as long in its arriving. 

On the way to school in the morning, Roberta said, I hope you remembered to put that homework in your bag. 

The girl tapped it. Of course, she said. 

There were some of the same people on the bus: the woman with the jungle print scarf, the man who was already wearing his work ID around his neck, the guy with the studded leather jacket. 

You’ll be waiting for me today, the girl said. We won’t go walking around again. You’ll be waiting for me? 

Of course, said Roberta. She tapped the girl’s ponytail. She’d forgotten to brush it again. But tomorrow. 

By the time she got back to her own house, Gary Jameson was already there. 

Dirty stop out! he shouted. I know what you’re up to. 

When she got in, she took a look at the schedule. They were starting with the place she should have done yesterday, fine. But there was a gap between the next house and the one at twelve o’clock. That would give her time to get to the shops. And then she saw that she was meant to clean another place when she was meant to pick the child up from school again. 

I can’t do that one, she said. 

Roberta, Gary Jameson replied. Roberta. You are just going to have to sweetheart, because, you cannot fucking pick and choose. You got a job to do. You want to piss off Mr Dalzell? 

They had been playing cards in this house. She knew that from the way everything was drawn round the table as if it was a magnet. She cleared that, attacked the blood on the floor in the kitchen, dried to rust. She did not want to annoy Mr Dalzell, who had been so good to her. But even so, there was time for her to get to the shops between this house and the next. 

Back on the second-floor uniform area, she lifted a five pack of kids’ pants, a two pack of tights and a cosy looking nightie for the child. It was easy enough to go down the stairs rather than the escalator, hide the stuff under her coat. Next, she went to a bookshop, wandered about until she came to the section called Study Guides. She had seen her sister with these what seemed like a long time ago. There was a shelf for Mathematics—so many of the books—and Roberta picked one that, when she flicked through the pages, seemed to replicate the problems of the other night. 

She called into another shop to get sweets for the girl. There was a queue and as she waited she cast her eyes over the magazines and newspapers, she noticed the pictures and the headlines. A footballer had hit his girlfriend. All the papers were talking about it. But then in the local paper it was different. A woman had been found strangled. Murder enquiry. She was pretty, with her hair curled like that and her smile. Roberta got the sweets and then headed towards the bus stop. 

It wasn’t until she was crossing the road that she realised. She stopped and a car nearly hit her. The man rolled down the window and shouted but she didn’t hear because she was running back to the newsagents. She lifted a paper and walked out of the shop. Josephine Claire Muldrew, twenty-six years old. There was another photo of her inside, a little younger, holding a child, whose face had been pixelated out. All that was there were her thin arms, a halo of hair. Mother of one. 

A rough hand caught Roberta on the shoulder.

Do you mind? Who do you think you are? 

He took the paper from her. 

I’ve had enough of people like you, he said. 

She gave him the money that she had in her pockets, ten pence pieces, five pence pieces. 

Cheek of you, he said. 

It was the centre of town, just after midday, and people were staring at the woman shaking and crying, looking at a notebook as if it contained instructions for living. Maybe she was on drugs. There was something not right. 

The phone rang. 

Where are you, Gary Jameson asked. I’ve been waiting this past fifteen minutes.

Sorry.

When you getting here?

I don’t know. 

He would be tapping the steering wheel with those cut fingers. 

Going to have to tell Mr Dalzell there’s a key missing, he said. You know anything about that? 

No, she said.

Okay, Roberta. And then he ended the call. 

Back at the school, no one was on the climbing frames. Hard to believe it, one said. Did you ever speak to her? Yeah I asked her where she got her jacket from once. Wonder what happened. I heard what happened. Strangled. Poor wee child. Police were at the school earlier, for the wee girl. Did you see? I know what happened. She was at one of them dodgy parties and then went off with some stranger to another house, you know? 

What’ll happen to the child? Roberta asked. 

They all turned to look at her. A woman in a blue coat shook her head. Sad isn’t it? she said. No dad on the scene, don’t know if there’s any family, maybe they’ll find a relative or else she will be put in care. 

Oh, there’s a relative alright because the wee girl has been at school the last couple of days, another one said.

The bell sounded and out came the kids, some in football strips. They shrieked, jumped in the air, swung their bags round and round. Look! a boy said, as he came to his mother in the semi-circle. He was holding a single green shoot in a yoghurt carton. Slowly, gradually, they moved off as their kids turned up. They left and Roberta stayed. She leaned against the railing, looked at where the pointed black roof met a white sky. She called Gary Jameson back, but it went to his answerphone. Ready to work! she said in a high, shaking voice. She still had the things for the child. The maths guide. A teacher came out, surveyed the empty playground, then noticed a jacket left behind near the climbing frame. Roberta sat down on the ground and opened her notebook. They had not said goodbye because there was no need to. Schools had playgrounds. In the whole of the place there couldn’t be more than one hundred primary schools. 

Hey mister, she shouted to the teacher. Can I ask you, how many primary schools are there in Northern Ireland? 

I don’t know, he said. Eight hundred maybe? About that number. Can I help you? 

She scored out one hundred. That was a lot more, eight hundred. But there were fifty-two weeks in the year, and at least a couple of years when she would still be at a school like this, wherever they sent her. The maths book would be out of date, maybe, by the time they found each other. But there were lots of them in that shop, shelves of them, for people of all ages.

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Rebecca Miller (c) Ronan Day Lewis

The Chekhovians by Rebecca Miller

The sunlight was strained through the window sashes, landing in great, trembling, buttery squares that carved up Alex’s childhood living room so that her angular body, as she passed through the grand and airy space, was intermittently striped by spindly blue shadows, then blasted by yellow light, then again painted by shadow. This was her first time on the Vineyard since she had gotten engaged, and she was surprised by how unreal it felt, as though she were standing on a set for a play. The enormous, handmade, feather-filled white couches faced each other like albino bison, quiet in the green field of plush carpet. The overstuffed chairs leaned back fatuously; the gleaming grand piano, mute since she and her brothers had given up lessons, sat stranded in the corner. And the flowers! There were always flowers, bushels of roses, their stems bundled and crowded into white vases. Occasional orchids, leaching their heady scent, perched on sills and shelves, their papery white blossoms atop long stems like pretty girls’ heads peering around to see who was watching them. She found herself blushing, observing the room through Mac’s eyes. He had arrived late the night before, and had seen only the kitchen, devoid of servants, thank God. When he came down for breakfast, though, the cheerful opulence of the Palacio household would be revealed to him.

For the previous three months, Alex had been living with Mac in his bony studio in Berlin, then in a succession of cheap riads in Tangier. She had hinted at her parents’ wealth: “My dad made a lot of money in the stock market,” she had said. “He used to be poor, so he likes to make the most of it.” But she hadn’t mentioned the tennis courts, the pool, the spa, the screening room. The staff. For the first time, Alex truly reckoned with the fact that the man she was about to marry had no idea who she was. That is, Mac knew her, of course, but he knew her outside the context of her past. Their courtship had been brief, intense, and abroad. This place, this balconied, gray-shingled mansion, jutting its chest out proudly at the sea—this place was inside her.

Alex’s father, George, the son of a Mexican gardener, was a brilliant man. He had gone to Harvard Business School on full scholarship and now had his own fund at Goldman Sachs. Nothing to be ashamed of there. Her mother, Polly, had grown up in Boston, her father a banker and fifth-generation Bostonian. She was an alumna of Miss Porter’s and Tufts and wore pearls and a little black dress to meet George’s parents in their two-family house overflowing with relatives—a story George still enjoyed teasingly recounting, proud as he was of his cultured, Grace Kelly wife.

Alex sat on one of the soft couches, crossing her bare, moisturized legs, and noticed a black smudge of what looked like soot along the creamy edge of a slipcover. She wondered at this soiling. What could it be? Her eyes roved to the fire- place. It was neatly swept. She stood and walked out of the brilliant room, down a cool, dark hallway that emerged into a kitchen bristling with stainless steel appliances. Juan, the chef, was bent over the stove. She spoke to him in Spanish, which her father had insisted all his children learn fluently.

“Juan,” said Alex, “do you know where Dorothy is? There’s a weird black smudge on the couch in the living room.”

Juan looked up, nonplussed. “Watch my onions.”

He hurried off to find the housekeeper. Alex shifted the wilted, browning mound with a wooden spoon.

Polly Palacio walked in then, wearing white workout clothes. She was tanned and glowing with sweat.

“You’re up!” she said, beaming at her daughter.

Alex noticed that her mother’s copper hair, much dyed, now had the look of cotton candy, falling in wisps to her shoulders. Her classic face had taken on a new heaviness in the bottom half, the fat in her cheeks shifting down into a pocket under her chin. Alex casually imagined lancing the pocket, draining the fat, and restoring her mother’s beauty.

“I wanted to get up earlier,” she said.

“Why?”

“There’s so much to do,” Alex said vaguely. Her wedding to Mac would take place in three days, and more than two hundred people were coming. She had no idea how it had ballooned to this size. Mac had wanted to elope, but Alex couldn’t do that to her mother. She was the only girl in the family, and she knew that Polly had looked forward to her wedding since she was a child. Yet she felt largely left out of the vast preparations, as though she were a guest offering to help when the hostess had it all under control. The truth was, Polly was so organized, all Alex had to do was show up and say, “I do.”

“Is Mac still asleep?” asked Polly.

“Yes.”

“Well, poor thing, he got here so late. Anyway, I’m happy to have some time alone with you. We can look over the bouquets for the tables; I think we should reconsider the tulips. I forgot that Daddy hates them,” Polly said, giggling.

“Who’s coming to the barbecue?” Alex asked, turning off the gas and sitting at the kitchen table.

“Oh, scads of people.”

“You said it would be tiny.”

“Well, fairly tiny. The Smyths, minus the son—”

“The singing son isn’t coming?”

“He’s in music camp.”

“Devastating.”

“The Comiskys—you don’t know them. He’s the builder that’s going to do the renovation. He’s very funny.”

“Why are you inviting people I don’t even know . . . ?”

“You know Jack and Breda Bruce, the photographers.

They love you. And of course, the Hopkinses. And I had to invite the Levis . . . and oh, the Chekhovians!”

Alex stared at her mother. “The Chekhovians are coming?

I thought they’d moved away.”

“They rented their house out for the whole of last summer, but I ran into Olivia at the market last week, and they’re living here again. She was wearing something out of Grey Gardens. A sort of a head scarf and—extraordinary. I heard myself inviting them—”

“Oh God, Mom—”

“I’m so sorry. It just fell out of my mouth. Olivia was thrilled. I always feel weirdly guilty when I see them.”

Alex nodded. The Chekhovians were a tragic family. “I can’t remember why the little boy—”

“It was so sudden.”

“Horrible.”

“Then the husband.”

“Didn’t he go off with a woman who looked exactly like Olivia?”

“Exactly. I mean it was uncanny. Same age and every- thing. Very original in that respect. I really should have been in touch.”

The Palacio family had been calling their beachfront neighbors to the west “The Chekhovians” for years, ever since Alex’s youngest brother, Etan, returned from Hotchkiss one summer, fresh from Readings in Russian Drama, and coined the nickname. He said, one slender arm draped over his chair, “Are the Chekhovians coming over tonight?” and Polly said, “Who?” and he said, “The Van Camps.” And the whole Palacio family, which was large and theatergoing, paused to think for a moment, then cracked up. They laughed so hard. Be- cause it was true, the Van Camps were like characters from a Chekhov play: Olivia Van Camp, a former actress best known for her portrayal of Chekhov heroines, now a wan beauty in her middle years who’d inherited her family’s gorgeous, dilapidated house by the beach; her older brother, Hull, a Prince- ton grad and a bachelor wastrel who spent his days arguing with their ancient handyman and making proclamations about absolute aesthetics; and her daughter, Lara, who still carried dolls around in adolescence. Oh, and a little son who’d died. And a husband who’d left. The family had an air of exhausted gentility—doomed but terribly romantic. And the Palacios—a practical, humorous bunch—held the Van Camps in high ridicule, yet they were all, in their own way, fascinated by them.

Lara Van Camp lay prone on the shore, head propped on her palm, perpendicular to the ocean, and disregarded the surf as it drew up her like a blanket, foaming her meaty legs, her round hips, then retreated, leaving her flesh glazed and shining. The girl used her free hand to trace circles in the wet sand. She had been reclining for a solid hour in that awkward place, as beachgoers stepped to the left and right of her and children sped into the waves. It was like she was in a trance, her mother thought as she reorganized the beach basket, rolling up towels around tubes of sunscreen. It was a place where one dropped something, or walked through, the exact place where the lovers in From Here to Eternity had their famous kiss; not a spot to park oneself and play with mud—not a girl of fourteen who looks eighteen. And that bathing suit was too small. Sighing, Olivia picked her way across the hot sand, to the cool edge of the water, and looked down at her daughter.

“Lara, honey. Are you all right?” she asked with her cigarette voice.

“Mhm.”

“Do you want to go for a walk?”

“No, thanks.”

“A run? Read?”

“I’m fine.”

Olivia was tempted to offer her daughter a snack to lift her blood sugar, but under the circumstances, she thought better of it. There had been quite enough snacking on Lara’s part already. What this one needed was activity. Olivia retreated to her chair, shrinking gratefully into the soothing shadow of her umbrella. The child would get sunburned; all her sun- screen was getting washed off by the sea.

At last, Lara rose. She felt the weight of her breasts, still so surprising, and the thickness of her new thighs. A little girl streaked by her, running into the water. Long legs, narrow torso, she looked like Lara eight months before. Lara glanced about swiftly to see if anyone was watching her. There was a man. Floppy hat, loose bathing trunks. He gave her a drilling, inquisitive look. It had all happened in an instant, this body. She hadn’t been prepared. She walked heavily over to her mother’s umbrella. In the glare, she could see only the long, brown shins and high-arched dancer’s feet.

“Sweet girl,” purred her mother from the darkness. “Come

in the shade.”

The girl crouched down and hopped like a huge bunny onto a white bath towel.

“You shouldn’t use these towels,” Lara said. “These are house towels.”

“I had to,” said Olivia. “It was either that or no towels at all.”

“They’ll be dirty,” said the child, curling up. “Because of the sand.”

“Why not let me worry about that,” said Olivia. “You worry about having a good time.” The girl released a snort. “What?” said Olivia. “Are you miserable?”

“No,” said the girl. “It’s just funny to worry about having a good time. Because when you’re having a good time, you’re not supposed to be worried.”

“Wrong again,” pronounced Olivia.

The girl let her torso twist back onto the towel, her hips still stacked up, and stared at the red cloth of the umbrella above, where light pressed into the weave, wanting in. One of her feet had escaped the purview of its canopy; she felt the hot sun on her skin and wiggled her toes, grinding the wet sand between them. She wondered if God knew she was there, if he saw her at this moment. She imagined lying in the palm of his hand. It made her so peaceful to think that. It felt like a kind of hammock.

Olivia was in the kitchen, slicing cucumbers for lunch. She couldn’t think of a cooler thing to do on such a hot day. The windows were open, but there was no breeze; the white, lacy curtains, which had been put up before she was born, hung undisturbed. The large kitchen, with its blue-green walls, the pearly dinette table and matching Naugahyde chairs, the black-and-white linoleum floor, seemed frozen in time. Nothing had been changed, not really, in decades. Olivia’s brother, Hull, wandered in. His thin, naked torso was spattered with light green paint. There were flecks of it in his silver chest hair. He wore a blue bandanna tied rakishly to the side of his skinny neck.

“What the hell have you been doing?” asked Olivia.

“Painting your fence with Bukowski,” said Hull pointedly. “He found three half-empty cans of Arsenic Green in the shed. We couldn’t resist.” Jed Bukowski was the seventy-year- old handyman, the last relic of a staff that had been gradually pared away as all the Van Camp money was cooked off. Originating in a nineteenth-century lead mine in Colorado, the story of the Van Camp family had been one of steady down- ward mobility for about a hundred years.

“Have you been drinking?” asked Olivia.

“Not particularly,” said Hull. “That child of yours is splat in the middle of the driveway.”

“What do you mean, ‘splat’?” said Olivia, with a hint of alarm.

“What’s the word? Anyway, she’s blocking the way in. She’s lying on the driveway, behind a table with a huge cake on it.”

“She’s trying to sell it, isn’t she?” said Olivia. “She made it herself. You ought to buy a piece. Any normal uncle would have done so already.”

“I’m going to,” said Hull. “I just need a glass of water.” He filled a glass from the tap as Olivia walked outside and stood on the splintered porch, surveying the newly green fence. It was a pretty, old-fashioned color. The hunchbacked and tremulous Bukowski was painting the last of the posts with extreme concentration. Olivia took a cigarette from the pack in her shirt pocket and lit up. Lara was lying on the driveway, staring at the sky. An enormous yellow cake melted on a rickety pine table inches from her splayed feet in their cheap blue sneakers, chosen from a barrel of shoes in a store that also sold turkeys and enormous jars of mayonnaise.

“Honey?” called Olivia. The girl shifted her head.

“Would you care for a glass of cool lemonade?”

Lara turned back to see her slender, elegant mother standing on the broken-down porch cluttered with an old mattress, a broken dryer, and a blue tricycle.

“We should sell lemonade!” the girl bellowed back.

Lara sat up and watched the little spectrums of blue and red and yellow light exploding from the cut-crystal pitcher of lemonade Olivia was carrying toward her. The ice made gentle plinking sounds as her mother walked like a doe, unfolding her lovely, somewhat wasted legs with each step. She wore shredded pink ballet shoes and an old pair of misshapen red shorts—she was beautiful, despite the outfit—and set the radiant pitcher on the feeble table, beside the cake, gently let- ting go of the silver handle.

“This cake looks so luscious,” she said to the girl. “I can’t

believe you made it.”

“I haven’t sold one piece.”

“Hull said he would love some.”

“When he pays me, I’ll cut him a slice,” the girl said solemnly, lying back down and staring up at the sky. Olivia wondered how her child had learned to drive such a hard bargain when she herself had never managed to ask for one single thing extra in her life.

Acting in the theater had been a deep pleasure for Olivia, and she had been wonderful at it. Her high forehead, delicate jaw- line, and clear eyes gave her the look of a Nordic Madonna. Her fair hair fell in fine ringlets about her face. She pierced the darkest roles like an enchanted princess entering an evil forest. Even painful parts shielded her from life. When she was in a play, she felt ensconced in the story, protected and fearless. She played Lyubov Andreyevna in The Cherry Or- chard with tragic abandon, Irina Arkadina in The Seagull with manic force, Nora in A Doll’s House with a frightening, child- like power. Her specialty was nineteenth-century women, but she was also known for more contemporary heroines. She had worked with Albee, and Kushner had reportedly loved her. When she met Ned, though, and had the children, gradually she built a new story around herself—the story of her family, like a house that sheltered her. She needed little else. With no natural ambition, only talent, Olivia drifted away from her acting career. Ned and the children were enough. Now, stripped of a husband, her little boy dead, her daughter increasingly uncommunicative, she found herself exposed and heartbroken. And also, just plain broke. The payments she had been getting from the family trust had dwindled to a trickle. She had called her old acting agent, and he seemed enthusiastic. But, despite having returned to the maiden name she was known for (and, in a rare act of defiance, changing her children’s surname to Van Camp, erasing the last traces of the husband who had erased himself), she got no offers. Never a proud person, she had gotten a job in a yarn shop in Edgartown, but she felt so approximate about every- thing, and people were so exacting. She made mistakes with change, flustered, unable to concentrate on any task, permanently embarrassed. She had lost her confidence, she sup- posed, and was quietly fired by the genteel Japanese lady who owned the shop. “Don’t take off your coat, please,” Mrs. Namiki had said softly one morning as Olivia arrived for work. She didn’t hold it against the woman. She went into the shop the very next week and randomly bought a skein of orange yarn, even though she didn’t knit. Mrs. Namiki blushed and gave her the employee discount.

Hull had already helped himself to a vodka tonic and was sit- ting on the porch, looking down at the stubborn arrangement of the child, who lay cruciform before the melting cake, waiting for customers. A car approached and Lara raised her head. When the driver didn’t stop, she dropped it back down again and stared at the shifting clouds, her palms facing the sky.

“What is going to become of that girl?” Hull mused.

“She’s not exactly a juvenile delinquent, she’s just trying to

sell cake,” said Olivia, sitting beside him with a glass of iced tea. “I actually applaud her enterprise. I never knew the value of money until I had spent it all.”

“You still don’t.”

“What do you know about it?”

“How much does this place cost us per month, more or less?”

“I don’t know that off the top of my head.”

“I rest my case.”

Olivia had inherited the beach house; Hull had sold off their New York apartment, spent what he got for it, and now lived with his sister.

“God,” she said. “You’re insufferable.”

They sat peaceably for a few moments, watching the child. “She never used to be so sullen,” said Hull.

“It’s all since she got those enormous tits,” said Olivia.

“I guess that must have been a shocker,” he said, draining his glass.

He got himself off the lawn chair and made his stiff way down the driveway. Olivia watched as he reached for his wallet, took it out slowly, and delicately, precisely removed four singles, standing over the prone girl, who sat up at last, then stood. As she rose, her arms jerked up, and Olivia saw the table lose its square shape, canting sideways, like a woman jutting out her hip, the loose joints yielding, shunting the crystal pitcher of lemonade to the right and causing it to slide downward and crash to the ground. The cake, still stuck to its china plate, rolled down the driveway, lurched left, and wobbled improbably into the road. She watched Lara run after it, hunkered down, hands waving before her, this big person, this impostor. Olivia felt despair flush through her as she scanned the remains of her pitcher, which was stubbornly beautifying the asphalt in sparkling shards.

Lara thudded down the road after the cake. She felt her limbs to be terribly heavy. Her breasts heaved and bounced as she ran. At last, the cake hit a bump and flopped over onto the plate. Other than a few chips of china embedded in its frosting, it was amazingly fine. Lara looked back to the house and saw Hull, his naked old torso constricted as he guffawed, his face red. The girl walked up the road, staring at the cake, holding the chipped plate from the bottom.

“Entirely my fault,” he said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. “But that thing is going to be fine.”

“You still want a slice?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said. “I like a little texture with my cake.”

Olivia put out ham sandwiches and cucumber salad for lunch, thinking about the crystal pitcher. It had been a wedding present to her parents. Served her right for using it so casually. She was such a vague, careless person—that was why she lost everything. Everything and everyone. She wondered what a new pitcher would cost, and her thoughts wandered to her wealthy neighbors to the east, who must have cabinets full of crystal, but none so nice.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, remembering. “Polly Palacio invited us all over for a barbecue tonight.”

“She did?” Hull asked, astonished.

“I ran into her in the grocery store. She seemed so happy to see me, I wondered if she thought I was someone else.”

“She knows exactly who you are,” he said.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, it’s obvious. George Palacio’s father was our parents’ gardener.”

“So what?”

“So you think it’s an accident that when George hits the big time, he comes back to the Vineyard and buys the house next door to us?”

“I have no idea,” said Olivia, waving her hand equivocally. “I just thought it would be nice for Lara. Lara, would you like to go to the Palacios’ party?” She looked over at her daughter, who was staring at a random point on the table, slack-jawed. “Lara, honey,” Olivia ventured. “Are you okay?”

“Hm? Yes,” said the girl. “I was just thinking.” The accident with the table outside had been caused by Lara’s new body. Her big new butt had smacked against it and knocked it over and broken the pitcher and ruined the cake. She didn’t know where she began and ended anymore. She considered how weird it was that people had bodies at all, and how the whole physical, living world was kind of unnecessary.

“What were you thinking about?” asked Hull.

“I was thinking,” said Lara, straining to put her ideas and feelings into words, “how most people who’ve ever existed are either dead or not born yet. That’s our normal condition, not having bodies. The living are the exception. And yet, we’re all afraid of dying.”

Olivia and Hull watched her.

“What I mean is,” Lara continued recklessly, her round cheeks flushed from the sun, strands of her thick, white- blond hair glued to her forehead, “if death is the normal state of things, maybe we should stop making such a big deal about it.”

“You’re right,” Olivia said softly, her eyes filling with tears. “I’ve never thought of it that way before. The living are the exception.”

Lara observed her mother as two large tears traveled down Olivia’s cheeks and she wiped them away with a trembling hand.

“You’re so damn profound, Lara,” said Hull, reddening, “but sometimes you’re also stupid.”

Lara stared at her uncle.

“Stop, just, just please stop,” said Olivia, her hands over her ears, her face crumpling. A sickening moment crept by, like traffic passing an accident.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” said Lara faintly.

Hull stood and dumped the dishes in the sink. “Come help me dry, kid.”

Alex sat on the bed beside Mac and scratched his naked back until his eyes fluttered. She had set a mug of hot coffee on the bedside table. He groaned, smelling it.

“Are you ever going to wake up?” she asked him.

“I am up,” he said, shifting. “I’m good and up.” “It’s three o’clock.”

“I had a bad night.”

“Really? You looked like you were sleeping.”

“No, that was you. I was up at two and couldn’t go back to sleep. I went downstairs and drew till six.”

She looked at his hands, the charcoal under his nails. “Where downstairs?”

“The living room, I think it was. Very large couches. Would you like to check the CCTV?” he asked as he slowly moved the cup to his lips.

“Very funny,” said Alex, irritated about the smudge on the couch.

Mac focused on her then, blinking away the sleep. He took in her tawny skin and strong limbs, her dark, thick, shoulder-length hair.

“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable nude?” he asked.

After they had made love, they lay under the large white ceiling fan, watching it churn the air slowly.

“So what’s on the agenda today?” Mac asked.

“Nothing really,” said Alex. “Tennis if you want, and/or the beach. You missed breakfast. And lunch.”

“Beach, please.”

“And then my parents are having a barbecue for people who aren’t invited to the wedding. And some who are.”

“How is it possible your parents know so many people, my love? I only know six—and we’re two of them.”

Lara’s ankle-length peach silk dress, a hand-me-down from her mother, floated around her, caressing her bare legs, her belly, as she wandered through the crowded party. Her braless breasts strained the smocking to such an extent that Olivia had nearly told her not to wear it—but that, she decided, would have been cruel. Instead, she lent the girl a silk shawl to go with it, draping it helpfully over her chest.

At dusk, Lara drifted across the Palacios’ lawn, taking in the twinkling fairy lights twisted around wire bowers arching over the patio, the faraway beacons of boats out on the ocean, the detonations, so familiar to her, of waves crashing against the shore.

She had lived her whole life on Martha’s Vineyard, apart from a few months with her mother in Paris, after her brother had died, then boarding school in Connecticut. She had come back to the house only a month earlier, for summer, and—she guessed—to finish high school on the island, because they had run out of money. But she wasn’t sure. A waiter with a tray of orange drinks stalled beside her. She took a glass, sipped. It was alcohol, she realized: bitter, sweet, strange. She hated it and liked it. She took another longer swallow and felt a kind of static buzzing behind her eyes. A man with white hair walked by, his gaze snagged by her presence. It was a look of recognition she had recently come to expect from men, as though she were famous, or they knew her somehow. His eyes lurched down her body and back to her face as he passed. The buzzing made her not embarrassed by this. She looked back at him, unblinking.

An unwashed-looking guy in round glasses appeared then. He held his body like a question mark, chest receding, hips jutting out. “I’m Mac,” he said. His mouth was large, his lips chapped. “The groom.”

“Congratulations,” said Lara.

“What about you?”

“I’m Lara. A neighbor. I’m here with my mom and my uncle.”

“Hello, Lara,” said Mac, taking a drink from a passing tray. “Have you been here often?”

“Yes,” said Lara. “We used to come to the Palacios’ pool parties. Before . . . before.”

“So you must know Alex.” “Yes.”

“What was she like when she was younger?”

“Ah . . . I always thought she was really cool,” said Lara. “I only got to see her when they came in summer, but . . .” An image of a teenage Alex Palacio, in tight jeans and a floaty top, her fascinating upper lip that never closed, her minuscule hips, popped into Lara’s mind. She had worshipped Alex back then. Everyone had.

“You’re the first person I’ve spoken to this evening who seems real,” said Mac. Lara looked at him, wondering if he was talking about ghosts.

“I’m pretty sure everyone here is real,” she said earnestly.

Mac laughed.

“I mean, you don’t seem fake,” he said. “The people I’ve met so far are polite but not genuine. Except for my girl, of course.”

“Oh,” said Lara. Mac was watching her with curiosity. Lara glanced to the ground, embarrassed. Often, she misunderstood what people were saying. She was a young fourteen, a little girl, really, hiding in the body of a woman, which created confusion for herself and everyone else.

“Good to meet you, Lara,” said Mac, and he walked away. Lara watched him as he lit a cigarette and stood at the edge of the great lawn, gazing out at the sea. Then he disappeared over the lip of land, descending, she knew, to the beach.

Lara finished her disgusting, delicious drink. She put it down and took another from a passing tray. She had never felt she didn’t care as much as she didn’t care right then. It was a wonderful feeling. She closed her eyes and listened to the waves.

Lara was a water nymph, her mother had always said. A girl who needed the sea. After a week at school in Connecticut, she had called her mother in Paris, weeping hysterically. Olivia overnighted her a plastic object from Hammacher Schlemmer that produced a cycle of remarkably wavelike sounds; Lara kept the machine going in her dorm room day and night.

She heard her mother’s voice and opened her eyes. Olivia and Hull were talking to George Palacio behind a screen of milling people. George wore a brocade jacket and dark jeans, exuding confidence. His black hair was slicked wet, his skin shone. Olivia looked up at him, her delicate arm wrapping a frothy, light green shawl around herself protectively. Hull’s worn face was pitched like a tent, held up by his worried eyebrows.

“It’s been hard,” Olivia confessed. “But in some ways, I have been happy to be home again.”

“I can only imagine,” said George. “You know, I’m glad to have a chance to talk to you both.” Lara took a small step to- ward them, to listen but not be seen. George continued: “I wanted to express to you that, should you ever have any interest in putting your house up for sale, at any time in the future, please come to me first. I would pay market price, cash, you would save all the brokers’ fees. No pressure whatsoever, I simply want you to know.”

“What would you need another house for? To flip it?” asked Hull, jutting out his chin. George smiled.

“Nothing like that. I would like to offer it to Alex and Mac, as a wedding present—or a gift at some point. It’s Polly’s dream that the grandchildren be just down the beach from us.” There was a pause. Lara held her breath, waiting.

“Do you happen to know what the market price would be,” asked Olivia, “of our house?” Her tone was strange, laced— Lara knew—with the subtlest tincture of irony.

“We would have to get it assessed to know exactly, but at least twelve.”

“Twelve million dollars.”

“At least. You’re right on the sea. A beautiful, rare property.”

“We know what we have,” said Hull.

“Of course, you may not want to sell. I mention it only in case. I would hate to miss the chance. I know—that is, I can imagine—you might want to start again, somehow . . .”

“It’s good to know, George,” said Olivia, setting her hand on his thick wrist. “Thank you.”

Lara could feel her mother’s contempt, undercut by her need. If they sold the house, their money problems would be over. Everything would be over. Lara thought of her room at home, how empty it seemed in the night without Teddy to wander in and snuggle into her daybed. She found herself walking carefully down the steep wooden steps to the beach, holding the rope banister in one hand, her third cocktail in the other. She felt cut loose, lost, like a forgotten astronaut twirling in space.

The sand along the edge of the sea was cool and moist. Lara’s feet felt rubbery as she splashed them in the silt. Every few steps, the water stroked her ankles. Her lips were slightly numb. She wondered if she had reached her house yet and looked up at the familiar bluff to see Mac sitting in the sand, facing the waves. He was right there, staring at her. She realized she’d been hoping to find him; a little balloon of happiness rose in her belly. She stopped, holding her diaphanous dress down with one hand as the fine silk billowed around her in the breeze.

“Venus on the half shell,” he said.

Lara came and sat next to him, dribbling the cocktail in the sand. “Oops,” she said.

“Just as well.”

“I’ve seen that Venus painting. Botticelli, right?” “In Florence?”

“Yes. After . . . Last year, my mother and I went on a trip to Italy. We saw loads of paintings, and that was one of my favorites.”

“You travel often?” Mac asked.

She shook her head. “I grew up here and we never really

left much, that’s my house up there, can you see it? It was my grandparents’. We lived there always until my mother moved to Paris and I went to boarding school because, um . . . my little brother died.”

“Oh, God.”

“He got a tiny cut in school when he was playing sports and then he was throwing up when he came home, and every- body thought it was a stomach bug and my mother put him to bed, but it was septicemia and he died in his sleep. He—he died in my room.” Lara had not yet spoken these words to anyone, and they came out of her with the astonishment she still felt.

“Oh, Lara. I am so, so sorry.”

It was like vomiting. For the first time since Teddy’s death, Lara felt her grief rise up and crash out of her. The hot tears ran down her cheeks and into her mouth; she licked them, tasting the salt, snot flowing from her nose, dripping on the sand. She had a vague sense of turning to liquid and melting into the ocean. The warmth of Mac’s arm against her own was the only thing reminding her she had a body.

In the end, spent, she wiped her face on her mother’s silk dress and sat, stunned, relieved to have wept at last. She had thought she was broken somehow.

“Everyone is on the brink of death.” Lara heard her own gravelly voice like a stranger’s. “Living is like walking on the edge of a knife. It’s weird how people don’t talk about that, they just act normal.”

Mac looked at her, the moonlight painting his gaunt face a greenish hue.

“You think like that because of what happened,” he said

gently. Lara suddenly felt as though Mac knew her better than anyone on earth.

She lay back in the sand, her hands behind her head, and enjoyed the helpless voyage of Mac’s eyes traveling down her body and up again. He looked back at the sea, but it was too late—he had revealed himself. Lara felt primitive pride in the power of her body, yet she’d gotten it wrong this time; that wasn’t what attracted him.

“Most people numb themselves from painful things,” he said. “From their own pain, and especially from other people’s pain. If they didn’t, the world would change like that.” He snapped his fingers.

“Change how?”

“If people allowed themselves to really feel other people’s pain, they wouldn’t be able to not help them. You look at these folks,” he said, “at this place. All this hoarding of wealth. All this privilege. None of this would be possible without a healthy dose of denial.”

“I wouldn’t want a world where no one could have a really nice house,” said Lara.

“It’s a question of degrees,” said Mac.

Lara moved her foot so that it touched his ankle.

“So why are you marrying such a rich girl?” she asked. “I’m marrying the woman, not the parents. But—I suppose maybe that’s naïve.”

“I don’t care what you do,” said Lara, looking up at the stars. “I don’t care about anything.”

Mac shifted beside her, and she saw his head obscure the sky. His face was suspended above hers for a long moment. In the dark, she could make out only the shape of his head and the glint of his glasses.

His rough lips grazed hers, then she tasted his smoky mouth. This was her first real kiss; she struggled to answer his tongue with hers. Abruptly, he sat up.

“Fuck,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He stood. “You’d better go up first.”

“You go,” she said.

“Will you find your way?” he asked. “I live here.”

He paused a moment, his shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets. “You’re really all right?”

“Yeah,” said Lara. She watched him hurry away, and actually start running, before reaching the stairs to the house, which he took two at a time until he crested the Palacios’ lawn, and a little cheer went up to greet him.

Lara stood and was dizzy. Suddenly, she was good and drunk. She swiveled around and spotted her house high up on the bluff. The moon illuminated the slate roof, the weathered shingles. The long grass that furred the dune rippled in the wind. She started for home, weaving.

The climb up the bluff, normally so natural for Lara, felt end- less. Her bare feet clawed the crumbling sand as she took each step, her body leaden. She retched, staggered forward, and lay down. Sensing sleep coming on, she forced herself to get up. She had lost her sandals and her mother’s shawl. The house was unlocked. She climbed upstairs on all fours, reached her room, and collapsed onto the bed, her eyes open. The room revolved in ghostly transparency. Soon it would evaporate. If Olivia sold the house to the Palacios, she’d move back to Paris, send Lara back to boarding school. The children of Alex and Mac would sleep in this room. Lara wondered if Teddy’s spirit could come with her wherever she went, or if he would be stuck here. She would have to live for the two of them now. She wondered why God let such bad things hap- pen in the world. Maybe he couldn’t help it. She felt sorry for God then, imagining how sad he must be about Teddy. It must be terrible to be God and yet powerless to save a little boy. She heard her mother’s car in the drive, Olivia and Hull’s footsteps running up the stairs, their voices calling her name. As her eyes fluttered shut, Lara murmured, “Goodbye, old house,” and then, a smile rising to curl the very edges of her mouth, “Hello . . .” Sliding into a dream, she read the words “new life,” in green paint, on a gray-shingled wall.

(c) Rebecca Miller

Rebecca Miller is the author of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, a Sunday Times bestseller and Richard & Judy Book Club pick, which she also adapted for screen; Personal Velocity, her feature film which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; and Jacob’s Folly.Her work has been published in 32 languages.

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Nuala O’Connor

This Small Giddy Life by Nuala O’Connor

‘Is that plastic?’ Imy taps a fingernail against the urn. ‘Trust Mam to end up in a shitty pot.’

‘It’s brass. Painted.’ I frown and rub my hand over the cold surface. ‘That’s what I ordered, anyway.’

The urn sits on my kitchen counter, the lid wedged shut; I take a knife from the block and prise it open. We peer in at the ashes.

‘Wormy poo,’ Imy says. ‘Bird plop.’

‘Cremains,’ I say, and we both laugh, the same stupid, in-unison snorts we’ve done all our lives. I close the urn and it sits there, horribly present and, somehow, vital.

‘What’ll we do with her?’ Imy asks.

‘Same thing we always did with Mam, I suppose. Put up with her.’ I sigh and push away tears with my fist. ‘The last thing she got from me was blame, Imy.’

My sister shrugs. ‘It doesn’t matter, Sharon; she was beyond understanding, you said it yourself.’ She pokes at the urn with the knife until I take it from her. ‘What sort of blaming was it?’ she asks.

I flick my hands through my hair and stare at the table instead of Imy. ‘I said, “I’ve no clue how to fit into my own life, and it’s your fucking fault, Mam.” Do you think she heard? Understood?’

 ‘She was hopped up on morphine, didn’t even know where she was. Or who she was.’

I sigh. ‘Well, none of us knew that.’

*

We move to a place where backstory is not allowed; over and again we move to this place. People are coldly civil towards my mother; she draws that out of them. Men like her well enough, but women are often hostile. Mam makes no pretence at being widowed, or still married to whomever, and she gets disapproval in return for her honesty, her lack of cover-up. God knows she hides everything else, but no one likes a woman alone in these places, especially one with two daughters. A handsome woman who might do harm to husbands; a woman who talks a lot, who asks questions, and reveals herself too soon. A woman with obvious appetites.

We move constantly because Mam is hunting down some elsewhere that will fit her and not one of these places is ever right. Up and down Ireland we drive, back and across: she needs to be near the sea; she needs the bustle of a town; she needs a friendly village; she needs the thrum of a big city; she needs a huge old house in the middle of a field, with only sheep for company. Nowhere works.

‘There’s something awful mean-spirited about Galway,’ Mam says, after five months in Connemara.

Sligo is unmercifully wet. Dublin frenetic and grey.

Villages are too native and small towns have no get-up- and-go.

On we travel.

In each new place, in the early days of our arrival, we sit in pubs while Mam cajoles information from landlords and locals. ‘Would there be a little job going in here, by any chance?’ she’ll say, offering a lipsticked grin.

The barmen lean down, all silly smirks and bonhomie. ‘Well, there just might be for a lassie like yourself. What’s this you said your name was?’

‘Margaret.’ Wreaths of smiles. ‘But my friends call me Meg.’

Mam asks barmen, too, about flats and houses, always determined to find something better than whatever shithole we’ve landed in ‘for the time being’. But the time being is the only time our mother knows; there is no past, there is no planned-for future, those are inconveniences. In pub lounges all over the island, my sister and I sit at low tables, drinking cordial from glasses Laliqued with Tayto grease, while Mam perches at the bar, preens and flirt-chatters, and sips on a small stout, sweetened with blackcurrant.

Here we are in Ummoon, County Mayo. There we are in Portarlington, County Laois. Now we meet ourselves at the crossroads at Maam, blowing away from Clifden town as fast as we blew in. Meg driving and singing ‘She’ll be comin’ ’round the mountain when she comes’, or gripping the steering wheel in grim silence, which is worse. We don’t know where we’re from, Imy and I, or where we’ll end up, and we don’t dare ask our mother.

*

‘You can get necklaces made with the cremains, you know,’ I tell Imy. ‘There’s a website. They put the ashes into glass pendants. It looks like swirly sand.’ I swizzle my finger in a circle.

Imy snorts. ‘You want me to have Mam permanently around my neck? No fucking thanks, Sharon. Jesus, the things you come up with.’

‘What? I thought it’d be nice. A bit of Meg to take back to Spain with you.’

‘Nice! But why would you want to bother? The woman drove you mad.’

I frown. ‘Not always, Imy. Her illness changed her; she wasn’t as spiky as before.’ I feel let down. ‘And she was still our mother.’

*

I first notice a waywardness in Mam when she’s turning sixty; she seems more harum-scarum than ever, yet more contained too. It’s just small forgettings at first, and muddles about objects, about where exactly she lives.

She’ll ask, ‘Where’s this I am now?’

‘Galway,’ I say. ‘Rahoon. Remember? This is your flat.’ ‘Galway? Oh!’ she replies, as if it’s a curiosity to her.

She forgets, too, to keep her place clean, and she no longer asks anything about me: my daily doings, my job, my love life. These lapses begin to link together until I see something definite in her: a solid absence. It’s as if she operates as two people: the reasonably together woman who knows me and acts like Mam, and the vague, incurious woman who appears when knowledge and truth are needed.

There’s no sixtieth party planned for her – we’ve never gone in for celebrations – but Mam rings me the day before her birthday and demands that I come immediately to Rahoon, and I can tell she’s agitated because she’s lisping slightly and snapping out her words.

I grip my phone. ‘What’s wrong, Mam?’

‘Just come over here, Sharon,’ she barks, ‘can’t you do that for me?’

Life-things have kept me away from Mam’s for a week and, when I let myself in, I’m stormed by a fruit-meat stink. Mam, though unruly in herself, has always preferred cleanliness. The bowl on the kitchen table – islanded in a sea of breadcrumbs– is packed with mildew-bloomy mandarins, and the draining board holds three opened tins of Whiskas, though my mother doesn’t own a cat.

‘The smell in here, Mam! Let me tidy up.’ I tip the oranges into the bin.

She stalks up to me. ‘That bitch at the bank won’t let me have my money.’ She’s plucking at her hair with her fingers – a recent tic – her whole face rucked to a frown. ‘I wanted a couple of grand for the party and that bitch says I can’t have it. My own bloody money!’

I pull her hands gently away from her hair. ‘What party, Mam?’

‘My sixtieth, Sharon! For fuck’s sake, what’s wrong with you?’

‘Oh. You never said you wanted a shindig. That’s news to me.’

She squints at me as if I’m the worst kind of fool. ‘It’s all arranged.’

‘But, Mam, you hate arranging things.’

‘I do not. I booked the function room at the Spinnaker; I ordered a cake from O’Connor’s,’ she says.

‘How?’

‘I rang them.’ Mam pauses. ‘I went around there. To them. I walked to the bakery.’ Her look to me is timid now, eye- slidey. ‘And to the Spinnaker.’

I frown. ‘And you’re saying you walked all the way down to Salthill to book a function room?’ She hardly ever leaves her flat. ‘Are you sure about all this?’

Mam stalls. ‘Imy organised it, actually,’ she says, jutting her chin. ‘I just need to pay now.’

‘OK, but Imy’s in Spain, so I don’t see how–’

She holds her fingers to her temples. ‘Stop, Sharon, stop! I need that money from the bank; you go there and talk to that wagon at the counter. The cheek of her! Everyone’s coming to this party. Your father. Everyone.’

‘My father?’

*

Mam lasts twenty-one months in Ennis, a long stint for us. The convent school accepts Imy and me, after a little histrionic wrangling with a sceptical nun.

‘I’m a widow, Sister,’ Mam says, squishing out a few tears.

The nun offers a brisk smile and nod, and we’re in. Unlike other schools, I settle at the Mercy and make a friend called Emer, a fellow outcast. We bond because I’m a fatherless blow-in, and Emer’s being raised by her grandparents, though her parents still live in the town. We walk home together after school and, in her company, I quit biting my nails to stumps, and sucking on my hair-ends. Emer means I can avoid home, avoid my mother and her tantrums.

Emer calls herself an ornithologist and, on our walks, she teaches me about bird habitats and behaviours, field-marks and feathers. We peer into bushes and treetops; we stake out fields and the riverbank.

‘Always watch well, Sharon,’ Emer instructs. ‘Does the bird’s tail fan? Does it wag?’ She pats her chest. ‘And look at the underbelly markings too. You need to be observant.’

We stalk every tree and bramble in Ennis.

‘Do you want to see my collection of feathers?’ Emer asks one day.

It’s my first invitation to another girl’s house and I feel sick with anticipation. Emer’s grandparents are not the ancients I was expecting; they don’t look much older than Mam. Emer’s already whispered to me that her mother was fourteen having her – our age – and we’ve giggled and grimaced over the idea of letting a boy put his smelly thing inside our legs.

Her granny waves to us when we flit through the kitchen, to get to Emer’s bedroom. There’s a fireplace in the room and all along the mantelpiece are empty stout bottles, stuffed with feathers. I trail my fingers over the tops.

‘Beautiful,’ I say. ‘They look like flames. Like flowers.’

‘I really want to find kingfisher feathers; they’re the prettiest of all the Irish birds. I’d love to see one – they fizz through the air.’ She dive-zooms her hand.

‘I’d love that too,’ I say.

‘Kingfishers foretell death,’ Emer tells me, and I nod solemnly, as if this is something I already know.

‘Have your tea here, Sharon. I’ll get Granny to ring your mammy.’

Tea in Emer’s house is egg sandwiches and cake, taken quietly around the kitchen table, on blue-striped plates. In our flat, it’s foraged baked beans and toast, or whatever Imy and I can put together, while Mam works. Emer’s granny and grandad butter slices of barmbrack and eat them without speaking. Nobody argues or accuses, shouts or rages, laughs or brings news, and I can barely swallow with the silence that echoes around my ears. ‘I’ll drive you home, Sharon,’ Emer’s grandad says, when we’re finished.

I sit behind him in his car, my stomach trouncing with nerves, not knowing whether to speak. Do the Boyles ever talk? Do they fight? How do they know what each other thinks?

Emer’s grandad insists on coming up to our flat above the butcher’s shop, with its linger of lard and blood in the stairwell.

‘I’m home,’ I call, and Mam comes out to the corridor.

She taps her hand across her hair. ‘Oh, Mr Boyle. Come in, come in.’

He follows her into the living-room, and I go to my bedroom, leaving the door ajar so I can spy. They talk for a minute about school, and Emer and me, then Mr Boyle steps close to Mam.

‘If you ever need anything, Meg, just ask,’ he says, ‘anything now. I know a woman alone must face hardships.’ His tongue pokes out like corned beef and he half-smiles. ‘Anything you need at all.’ He puts his hand on Mam’s shoulder, then slides it down and squeezes her breast.

Mam jumps backwards. ‘Well that I don’t need,’ she hisses. Emer’s grandad leaps, grabs his hat, and runs for the door. Though my cheeks are blazing, I muster nonchalance and come into the living-room. ‘Is he gone?’

‘Gone and good riddance, the old git,’ Mam says. She looks angry, but she bursts out laughing and holds out her arms to me, and I run into them. She speaks into my hair, ‘Don’t let men undermine you, Sharon. Ever. Don’t let them use and abuse you. Ever ever. Will you promise me that?’

I look up into her face. ‘I promise, Mam.’

*

I hang birdfeeders like socks on a clothesline in Mam’s yard. She sits inside at the window – a child new to television – following, in wonder, the finches and robins that plunder the nuts and seeds. I put a bird-spotting book on the windowsill beside her.

‘I don’t need a guide, the names are in here,’ she says, tapping her forehead.

‘Are they now?’ I murmur.

Names and memories, places and history have flown from her head, with no will to return, it seems. The most ordinary things are alien to her now, as if they come as news. Vacancy possesses her, and I often find her stock-still and glassy-eyed, as if she has forgotten entirely who or where she is, and none of it matters, anyway. Where does her mind flee to in those arrested moments? What’s behind the blank stare? I feel tender towards her when I notice she’s gone, everything of who she once was slipped off into some other ether. All her travelling come to a dead stop.

*

Emer and I tramp through fields to the River Fergus and sit on the bank. A mallard streaks up and down in the water and we enjoy his emerald-headed majesty.

‘Ducks are dabblers,’ Emer says.

‘Dabblers,’ I repeat. She shifts her gaze and points to the sky; obediently, I look up. ‘What is it?’ I ask.

‘Sparrowhawk.’

‘Yellow eyes, rounded wings,’ I offer. ‘A sprinter.’

‘Very good, Sharon.’ I glimmer inwardly and we watch the sky until the hawk disappears. She shifts on the grass beside me. ‘I saw you in town the other day.’

‘Oh? I would’ve said hello if I saw you.’

‘Myself and Granny were in a café, and I looked out, and there you were – you, your sister, and your mam.’ She pinches my knee. ‘She’s like a film star, your mammy, you never said.’

I wince. ‘Sure, why would I say that? She’s just Mam.’ I feel embarrassed. ‘Imy calls her Mad Meg.’ I snigger and Emer swings her head to glare at me. ‘What?’ I say.

‘I’d smother my gran if it meant I could live with my mammy, that’s the God’s honest truth, Sharon. You don’t know how lucky you are.’ I nod solemnly and, when I see that she’s crying, I squeeze her hand because I don’t know what to say. ‘My mam’s gorgeous as well,’ Emer says. ‘She really is. But Granny always says “pretty women breed chaos”. Do you think that’s true?’

My cheeks flare and bars of iron run across my shoulders. I don’t like Emer for saying this, but maybe that means it’s the truth. Chaos. Pretty women. Is Mam chaotic? A bit, yes, I suppose, she can never settle, and she gets ragey about tiny things. Is she pretty? Certainly. Her dark hair makes porcelain of her skin, and she wears clothes like a shop mannequin, though they’re all from charity shops. Chaos? Is it chaotic that Mam lashes out at us sometimes, when she’s jarred? I can brazen up to her, so none of the slaps hurt; I puff out my cheeks when she goes at my face. Imy does the same. Mam’s always sorry after, and she’ll sleep in one of our beds, snotting and sobbing into our hair, saying, ‘Never again, my little darling, never again.’ But there’s always an again.

I toss my head to loosen my thoughts. I glance at Emer and sniff deep. There’s a dirty copper smell to the air and it sits heavily above us. I jump up.

‘It’s going to lash rain. I have to go,’ I say, and I start to run.

I need to get as far away as I can from Emer and her remarks and her easy tears and her weird family and her bloody stupid birds.

*

I ring Imy from Mam’s flat.

‘You’re there again?’ Imy says, a small bit incredulous.

‘I have to be. She forgets to eat. I need to make sure there’s food inside her.’

‘Like she always did for us?’ Imy sniffs, and her stock of disgruntlements and grudges seems to make the line vibrate.

‘Do you want a word with her?’ I ask.

‘Will she even remember what I say? Nah, I won’t bother.’

I envy my sister her ability to pack my mother into such a pragmatic, practical space as this, Mam not even worth a few moments of chat. ‘OK,’ I say, ‘all right.’ But I’m disappointed

in Imy, in her lack of care for our mother. For me.

As time goes on, Mam forgets to change from her nightdress into clothes, so I start to visit daily to pull her into trousers and jumpers. She forgets to bathe, too, so I manoeuvre her into the bath and wash her.

‘I’m like a baby,’ she says, poking at suds and smiling benignly, while I gently sponge her skin.

And, despite my ministrations, when I arrive at Mam’s  door each day, she is always surprised to see me.

‘Oh, Sharon,’ she says today, as if I haven’t been in the longest time. ‘Is Imy with you?’

‘Nope,’ I say, ‘she’s still living in Spain, Mam. In Bilbao.’ ‘Huh, Spain. Imagine. Viva España.’

I giggle. ‘Viva España for sure, Mam.’

‘I’ve never liked travelling myself. All that running about,’ she says, ‘it’d exhaust you.’

‘Is that right?’

I have learned not to contradict her. She often says things like this with absolute certainty though, sometimes, her pronouncements arrive with a doubtful, far-off look, as   if she’s trying to net the veracity of her words, but failing to catch anything. Other times, disconnected comments emerge, particles plucked from the silt of memories.

‘Your father had womanly hands,’ she says now, her tone dreamy, as she stares out the window.

I’m emptying the bin and I stand with the bag noosed in my hand, gripping it tighter. I say, airily, ‘So, what was he like, this father of mine?’ But she’s already gone, ascended back into the cloud-place she occupies most of the time.

I see a fresh note taped to the press, to add to my more mundane ones for identifying appliance plugs and the contents of drawers:

‘DO NOT FEED CAT. NOT MY CAT. (KILLS BIRDS).’

I smile, impressed by her lucidity, her directness. I turn to look at her trailing one finger across the windowpane, following the birds’ movements from bath to feeder to fence. There is awe and joy in her face, and it strikes me she is becalmed, no more the rushing hawk of her younger years. Stillness suits her, makes her cheerier, a thing none of us would ever have believed.

‘It’d be lovely to be able to fly, wouldn’t it?’ Mam says, lifting her face to me and smiling. She raises her arms like wings. ‘Freedom!’ she says, laughing.

*

I let myself into our flat above the Ennis butcher. I’m soaked from my run through the thunder shower, and I can hear Imy and Mam arguing. I’d like to get to the bedroom without them seeing me; I want to think more about what Emer has said about chaotic women. I push the living-room door softly, but Mam spots me.

‘You’re not taking us out of here,’ Imy is saying. ‘I’ll refuse to go. Sharon will too.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ Mam says. ‘Yeah, we will. I’ll see to it,’ Imy barks. ‘Do that so.’

Their familiar sparring wearies me.

‘I’ll get the authorities involved,’ Imy says. ‘Sister Paschal at the convent. All the nuns.’

‘You’ll do no such thing,’ Mam says quietly, and her calm makes Imy boil.

‘The inspector will stop you,’ my sister shouts. ‘It’s illegal to be pulling children in and out of a million schools.’

Mam tuts and crosses her arms, as if waiting for Imy to say something useful.

‘Is it true, Mam?’ I ask, though I already know. ‘Are we moving again?’

‘Say goodbye to Beaky and her feathered friends,’ Imy snaps. ‘Her name’s Emer,’ I say.

‘Who gives a shite, Sharon? It’s over, we’re gone. Mad Meg has decided County Clare’s not for her.’ She flicks her hand at Mam. ‘Where to now, Amelia Earhart? What’s the next great adventure?’

‘Mam, do we have to leave? Really?’ I ask. My gut starts up its ritual churn; I suck the ends of my hair. My mother has her determination face on, and I know we’ll be in the car as soon as everything is packed. I flump onto the sofa. ‘Why?’ I say, unable to keep the whinge out of my voice. ‘Why do you have to upend us, just when things are settling?’

Mam’s hands flail and her face pinks. ‘You girls see me as a carnival duck that you can shoot at.’ The lisp has started, a sure sign of fury. ‘A duck that’ll just bob along, a smile on its face, despite your bullets.’

‘Bullets?’ shouts Imy. ‘What are you on about, Mam? Who’s shooting ducks? You’re fucking mad!’

‘Is it any wonder if I am mad?’ Mam roars. ‘You fire complaints at me constantly, Imy. You too, Sharon. I never met such critical girls.’

Imy snorts. ‘We’ve reason to be. You never listen to what we want, you’ve no respect for us.’ She goes up to Mam and pokes her chest. ‘You don’t give a fuck about anyone but yourself. You couldn’t care less about me and Sharon.’

Mam slaps Imy’s cheek so hard that I jump. ‘And what about what I want, Imy?’ she screams. ‘What about me?’ Tears bubble from her eyes. ‘Who cares about me?’

*

I go to walk the prom in Salthill, as I do every morning, and the Atlantic – solid and wild beside me – is a comfort, as always. I look over the sea to Black Head and County Clare, breathe deep on the saline wind, and up my pace. I can see one other person ahead, a small figure with streeling hair, coming towards me. It takes me a few seconds to realise that I’m looking at my mother, out on this April morning, coatless and bare-legged, miles from her flat, all a-trot as if abroad on important business.

I dash to her, calling out, ‘Mam, Mam, what on earth? Where are you going? God almighty.’ I pull off my jacket and go to push her arms through the sleeves. She holds up her fists for me to see the shells and gull feathers she’s clutching.

‘I’m going to decorate my kitchen,’ she says.

‘Oh, Mam.’ I throw my jacket around her shoulders and lead her to where I’ve parked. Her feet slip-slap along the footpath and her legs are grey from cold. ‘Bloody slippers,’ I mutter.

Mam stops walking, stoops forward to look at her feet, then lifts her eyes to mine. ‘I’m going spare, amn’t I, Sharon?’

*

We go to Clones, County Monaghan. Every few years Mam brings us here and snails through the place, looking intently at every building, exploring each street. We crawl the town and Mam surveys in silence; we never get out of the car, and we don’t visit anyone. Imy used to ask if any of our relatives were in Clones, but Mam wouldn’t say and, today, Imy is too sulky to bother. I read the names on the shopfronts and pubs, and wonder if any of these McQuillans, Earls, or Hamiltons are our people and, if they are, whether they ever think of us.

Today Mam takes a hill in the town and turns into the grounds of a church. She drives the car right to where the cemetery begins and gets out.

‘Stay here, girls.’

I watch her flit from plot to plot, crouching in front of gravestones to read their inscriptions.

‘It’s as if she’s looking for a specific grave,’ I say.

‘The cadaver hunter,’ Imy says, putting on her Walkman headphones and slumping low in the seat.

I get out of the car and follow Mam from a distance, watching her dodge behind Celtic crosses and crestfallen angels, wings cocked, arms outspread. I try to imagine a young Mam here, a girl a bit like me, wandery, chatting with herself, the way I do, her head lax and cottony. I get distracted by sunny lichen blossoms on headstones and by the pippity song of a blackbird.

‘Saffron beak,’ I say. ‘Glossy black plumage.’

It’s-me-it’s-me-it’s-me,’ the blackbird replies.

I glance at Mam up ahead of me, as if through mist, and I’m astonished to see that her arms are around another person, a woman. I come up closer. Mam is hugging this woman hard, whoever she is, and they are rocking in each other’s arms, and laughing noisily. Mam doesn’t laugh like this, and she doesn’t have friends. Other women are to be avoided. I step out onto the path to make myself known, but they don’t see me, and then Mam and the woman are fully kissing, the way soap stars kiss, eyes closed, hungry tongues clashing. I stagger backwards, but I’m mesmerised by the crush of their mouths, and I can’t look away. I’ve never known Mam to embrace anyone but Imy and me. She’s off-guard, loose, wild as a bird. She is kissing this woman like a lover and, though my shock is absolute, I find I don’t disapprove because, for once, Mam looks lost and happy, instead of just lost. The woman ends their kiss and, holding Mam by the shoulders, she looks deep into her face.

‘Meggy,’ she says, rivers flowing down her cheeks, and Mam is crying too, real, streaming tears. ‘Oh, Meg.’

And they laugh again, school-girlish titters, and they hug and sway, and then the woman sees me, and she stops all movement. Mam turns her head, spies me, and scowls. She pulls herself out of the woman’s arms and marches towards me. ‘That’s your father,’ she hisses, flinging her hand at a cross-shadowed grave. ‘Imy’s too.’ She stalks back the way we came, and I stare at the well-kept grave, evenly planted with begonias along its sides. I look up and the woman is gone. I step around the cross to read the name.

*

‘Tell me about the Clones doctor, Mam,’ I say.

She has just asked me yet again if she can get me something to eat. She has been changing the TV channel every few minutes, and I want to divert her.

‘Clones?’

‘The doctor there. In the graveyard. You told me he was my father. And Imy’s.’

‘Is that a place – Clones?’

I sigh. ‘Yes, in Monaghan, remember?’

‘Wait now.’ She frowns. ‘Monaghan. And was I there once?’

*

Imy and I can’t agree on what to do with the ashes.

‘Can you not just stick her on your mantelpiece?’ Imy glances to my fireplace. ‘Where is she now?’

‘In my wardrobe.’

‘Ooh, bold Sharon. Meg would do her nut.’ Imy looks ceiling-ward, then changes her mind and addresses the floor. ‘You’d hate that, wouldn’t you, Meg, being all quiet and ignored in some dark corner?’

‘I don’t want Mam stuck on the mantelpiece, like a useless gew-gaw.’

‘She’d hardly be that.’ Imy rolls her eyes. ‘Let’s just decide now. Come on.’

I go to the sideboard and bring two small wooden boxes I’ve bought to the sofa. ‘Why don’t we divide her equally between these? I’ll keep one box and you take the other back to Bilbao.’

‘Split her in half?’ Imy shakes her head. ‘Is that a bit weird?’ ‘Maybe.’ I think again. ‘We could bring her where she was

happiest, then. Scatter her.’

‘Was Meg ever happy, though?’ ‘Ah Imy, help me. I’m trying.’

My sister grimaces. ‘Well, which places did she like, Sharon? You tell me. I haven’t a clue.’

‘Monaghan? Or County Clare, maybe? We all liked Ennis.’

Imy stands up and grabs her jacket. ‘Listen, I don’t give a shite what you do. Let her stay in the wardrobe. Seriously. She’s no use to me.’

*

Today Mam is trying to remember where she comes from. ‘It’s up the way,’ she says, pointing to the ceiling.

‘Heaven?’ I tease. ‘The air? Or did you come down from a nest, Mam? A bird baby.’

‘No, Sharon, up, up. On the map.’ ‘Monaghan,’ I say.

‘Yes, that’s it. Monaghan.’ She closes her eyes and smiles. ‘And, before that, Maumakeogh.’

I look at her. ‘Maumakeogh? Really? First mention of that, Mam.’

‘Oh yes. Maumakeogh. The misty pass.’

‘And where’s that?’ I ask.

‘In Mayo. There, above the sea.’

I peer at her closed eyes and the beatific set to her mouth. She looks placid, content. All this memory-loosening may have brought an ease to her; an ability to rest, to stop running from the shadows that have always crowded in her wake. But I know I’m losing her, too. She’s fading. And I know that because she is more reduced, less able for the smaller things like dressing and using the toilet, soon Imy and I will have to make the decision to put her somewhere; choose her final home.

Every day I come to Mam’s flat to help and to sit with her, and every time she’s quieter, further retreated, than the last. She is busily exiting into some place where no one can follow. And I want, with all my heart, to reach a rope down and pull her back up. Just for a while. I want to winkle from her all of the things that she concealed, and I never tried to uncover. I want, mostly, to ask my mother who she is. Who I am. Where we fit in. But it’s too late, I know. I didn’t insist on those revelations soon enough, and Mam’s descent into a completely private elsewhere, some halcyon place, is now too long underway.

The bird book lies open on her lap. ‘What are you looking at?’ I ask. ‘Which bird?’

Mam’s eyes don’t open; she has drifted into one of her unbidden naps, and I want to leave her there, in the cushion of sleep. I pick up the book and examine the page.

Alcedo atthis. Kingfisher.

*

A Madeira-wine sunset, golden and warm, lights up Liscannor Bay. We took the love-knotted roads of the Burren to get here, Imy driving and me holding the urn. We sang ‘She’ll be comin’ ’round the mountain’ and I held up the urn to sway  it along to the beat, until Imy and I nearly choked on our giggles and snorts.

Imy stops the car above the sea and points to where the cliffs run out. ‘Hag’s Head,’ she says. ‘Appropriate.’

Annoyance whips my heart. ‘You don’t always have to make something bad of Mam, Imy. You could be nicer.’

‘I know I could, Sharon,’ she says, ‘but what am I supposed to do? All our lives Meg disrupted us, pulled us back and forth, took out her disappointments on us. You said yourself you blame her. She was a crap mother; nothing changes that.’

‘She had her moments,’ I say, casting around for good. ‘She was gentler towards the end, you know, softer. Mostly. And she loved us. We know that much.’

Imy sighs. ‘Well, maybe she did and maybe she didn’t. What exactly is love?’

I glance at my sister. ‘Imy, remember that time we went to the graveyard in Clones, after the great Ennis escape?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Mam told me something.’

‘Did she now?’ Imy stares out over the Atlantic, beating its way to the shore. ‘What did she tell you?’

‘She said who our father was.’ Imy’s hard-knuckle grip on the steering wheel is just like Mam’s, the same stressed-out clamp. She puts her forehead to the wheel.

‘Well?’ she says.

I look out at the heaving sea. ‘A married doctor in Clones. Years older than her. Long dead.’

Imy parps a breath through her lips. ‘So that’s that.’ ‘She also told me she came from Mayo originally.’ ‘Jesus fuck, we really knew nothing about her.’ ‘Nothing. And never will now.’

Imy looks at me and grabs my hand. ‘Come on.’

We get out of the car and walk the rough cliff path, the wind lifting our hair. I hold the urn tight to my chest and tuck my free arm through Imy’s.

‘They say kingfishers foretell death,’ I tell her. ‘And they become even more beautiful when they die. Their plumage renews itself, gets plumper, glossier.’ My sister grunts. ‘Imagine, Imy, all that russet and sapphire.’

‘Do you think Mam’s out there somewhere, Sharon, putting on new feathers?’

‘Maybe.’

Imy laughs. ‘Knowing Meg, she most likely is.’

We kneel at the top of the cliff and Imy opens the urn lid with the car key. She puts her two hands over mine, on the pot. I nod and my sister nods too. We hoosh the ashes to the waiting water and, as we do, the sunset flares to a deep orange.

‘Goodbye, Mam,’ I call. ‘Safe travels, Meg,’ Imy says says.

And out she goes, our beautiful mother, out over the sea and into the sun, glorious as any kingfisher, diving into the blue.

This Small Giddy Life

‘Is that plastic?’ Imy taps a fingernail against the urn. ‘Trust Mam to end up in a shitty pot.’

‘It’s brass. Painted.’ I frown and rub my hand over the cold surface. ‘That’s what I ordered, anyway.’

The urn sits on my kitchen counter, the lid wedged shut; I take a knife from the block and prise it open. We peer in at the ashes.

‘Wormy poo,’ Imy says. ‘Bird plop.’

‘Cremains,’ I say, and we both laugh, the same stupid, in-unison snorts we’ve done all our lives. I close the urn and it sits there, horribly present and, somehow, vital.

‘What’ll we do with her?’ Imy asks.

‘Same thing we always did with Mam, I suppose. Put up with her.’ I sigh and push away tears with my fist. ‘The last thing she got from me was blame, Imy.’

My sister shrugs. ‘It doesn’t matter, Sharon; she was beyond understanding, you said it yourself.’ She pokes at the urn with the knife until I take it from her. ‘What sort of blaming was it?’ she asks.

I flick my hands through my hair and stare at the table instead of Imy. ‘I said, “I’ve no clue how to fit into my own life, and it’s your fucking fault, Mam.” Do you think she heard? Understood?’

 ‘She was hopped up on morphine, didn’t even know where she was. Or who she was.’

I sigh. ‘Well, none of us knew that.’

*

We move to a place where backstory is not allowed; over and again we move to this place. People are coldly civil towards my mother; she draws that out of them. Men like her well enough, but women are often hostile. Mam makes no pretence at being widowed, or still married to whomever, and she gets disapproval in return for her honesty, her lack of cover-up. God knows she hides everything else, but no one likes a woman alone in these places, especially one with two daughters. A handsome woman who might do harm to husbands; a woman who talks a lot, who asks questions, and reveals herself too soon. A woman with obvious appetites.

We move constantly because Mam is hunting down some elsewhere that will fit her and not one of these places is ever right. Up and down Ireland we drive, back and across: she needs to be near the sea; she needs the bustle of a town; she needs a friendly village; she needs the thrum of a big city; she needs a huge old house in the middle of a field, with only sheep for company. Nowhere works.

‘There’s something awful mean-spirited about Galway,’ Mam says, after five months in Connemara.

Sligo is unmercifully wet. Dublin frenetic and grey.

Villages are too native and small towns have no get-up- and-go.

On we travel.

In each new place, in the early days of our arrival, we sit in pubs while Mam cajoles information from landlords and locals. ‘Would there be a little job going in here, by any chance?’ she’ll say, offering a lipsticked grin.

The barmen lean down, all silly smirks and bonhomie. ‘Well, there just might be for a lassie like yourself. What’s this you said your name was?’

‘Margaret.’ Wreaths of smiles. ‘But my friends call me Meg.’

Mam asks barmen, too, about flats and houses, always determined to find something better than whatever shithole we’ve landed in ‘for the time being’. But the time being is the only time our mother knows; there is no past, there is no planned-for future, those are inconveniences. In pub lounges all over the island, my sister and I sit at low tables, drinking cordial from glasses Laliqued with Tayto grease, while Mam perches at the bar, preens and flirt-chatters, and sips on a small stout, sweetened with blackcurrant.

Here we are in Ummoon, County Mayo. There we are in Portarlington, County Laois. Now we meet ourselves at the crossroads at Maam, blowing away from Clifden town as fast as we blew in. Meg driving and singing ‘She’ll be comin’ ’round the mountain when she comes’, or gripping the steering wheel in grim silence, which is worse. We don’t know where we’re from, Imy and I, or where we’ll end up, and we don’t dare ask our mother.

*

‘You can get necklaces made with the cremains, you know,’ I tell Imy. ‘There’s a website. They put the ashes into glass pendants. It looks like swirly sand.’ I swizzle my finger in a circle.

Imy snorts. ‘You want me to have Mam permanently around my neck? No fucking thanks, Sharon. Jesus, the things you come up with.’

‘What? I thought it’d be nice. A bit of Meg to take back to Spain with you.’

‘Nice! But why would you want to bother? The woman drove you mad.’

I frown. ‘Not always, Imy. Her illness changed her; she wasn’t as spiky as before.’ I feel let down. ‘And she was still our mother.’

*

I first notice a waywardness in Mam when she’s turning sixty; she seems more harum-scarum than ever, yet more contained too. It’s just small forgettings at first, and muddles about objects, about where exactly she lives.

She’ll ask, ‘Where’s this I am now?’

‘Galway,’ I say. ‘Rahoon. Remember? This is your flat.’ ‘Galway? Oh!’ she replies, as if it’s a curiosity to her.

She forgets, too, to keep her place clean, and she no longer asks anything about me: my daily doings, my job, my love life. These lapses begin to link together until I see something definite in her: a solid absence. It’s as if she operates as two people: the reasonably together woman who knows me and acts like Mam, and the vague, incurious woman who appears when knowledge and truth are needed.

There’s no sixtieth party planned for her – we’ve never gone in for celebrations – but Mam rings me the day before her birthday and demands that I come immediately to Rahoon, and I can tell she’s agitated because she’s lisping slightly and snapping out her words.

I grip my phone. ‘What’s wrong, Mam?’

‘Just come over here, Sharon,’ she barks, ‘can’t you do that for me?’

Life-things have kept me away from Mam’s for a week and, when I let myself in, I’m stormed by a fruit-meat stink. Mam, though unruly in herself, has always preferred cleanliness. The bowl on the kitchen table – islanded in a sea of breadcrumbs– is packed with mildew-bloomy mandarins, and the draining board holds three opened tins of Whiskas, though my mother doesn’t own a cat.

‘The smell in here, Mam! Let me tidy up.’ I tip the oranges into the bin.

She stalks up to me. ‘That bitch at the bank won’t let me have my money.’ She’s plucking at her hair with her fingers – a recent tic – her whole face rucked to a frown. ‘I wanted a couple of grand for the party and that bitch says I can’t have it. My own bloody money!’

I pull her hands gently away from her hair. ‘What party, Mam?’

‘My sixtieth, Sharon! For fuck’s sake, what’s wrong with you?’

‘Oh. You never said you wanted a shindig. That’s news to me.’

She squints at me as if I’m the worst kind of fool. ‘It’s all arranged.’

‘But, Mam, you hate arranging things.’

‘I do not. I booked the function room at the Spinnaker; I ordered a cake from O’Connor’s,’ she says.

‘How?’

‘I rang them.’ Mam pauses. ‘I went around there. To them. I walked to the bakery.’ Her look to me is timid now, eye- slidey. ‘And to the Spinnaker.’

I frown. ‘And you’re saying you walked all the way down to Salthill to book a function room?’ She hardly ever leaves her flat. ‘Are you sure about all this?’

Mam stalls. ‘Imy organised it, actually,’ she says, jutting her chin. ‘I just need to pay now.’

‘OK, but Imy’s in Spain, so I don’t see how–’

She holds her fingers to her temples. ‘Stop, Sharon, stop! I need that money from the bank; you go there and talk to that wagon at the counter. The cheek of her! Everyone’s coming to this party. Your father. Everyone.’

‘My father?’

*

Mam lasts twenty-one months in Ennis, a long stint for us. The convent school accepts Imy and me, after a little histrionic wrangling with a sceptical nun.

‘I’m a widow, Sister,’ Mam says, squishing out a few tears.

The nun offers a brisk smile and nod, and we’re in. Unlike other schools, I settle at the Mercy and make a friend called Emer, a fellow outcast. We bond because I’m a fatherless blow-in, and Emer’s being raised by her grandparents, though her parents still live in the town. We walk home together after school and, in her company, I quit biting my nails to stumps, and sucking on my hair-ends. Emer means I can avoid home, avoid my mother and her tantrums.

Emer calls herself an ornithologist and, on our walks, she teaches me about bird habitats and behaviours, field-marks and feathers. We peer into bushes and treetops; we stake out fields and the riverbank.

‘Always watch well, Sharon,’ Emer instructs. ‘Does the bird’s tail fan? Does it wag?’ She pats her chest. ‘And look at the underbelly markings too. You need to be observant.’

We stalk every tree and bramble in Ennis.

‘Do you want to see my collection of feathers?’ Emer asks one day.

It’s my first invitation to another girl’s house and I feel sick with anticipation. Emer’s grandparents are not the ancients I was expecting; they don’t look much older than Mam. Emer’s already whispered to me that her mother was fourteen having her – our age – and we’ve giggled and grimaced over the idea of letting a boy put his smelly thing inside our legs.

Her granny waves to us when we flit through the kitchen, to get to Emer’s bedroom. There’s a fireplace in the room and all along the mantelpiece are empty stout bottles, stuffed with feathers. I trail my fingers over the tops.

‘Beautiful,’ I say. ‘They look like flames. Like flowers.’

‘I really want to find kingfisher feathers; they’re the prettiest of all the Irish birds. I’d love to see one – they fizz through the air.’ She dive-zooms her hand.

‘I’d love that too,’ I say.

‘Kingfishers foretell death,’ Emer tells me, and I nod solemnly, as if this is something I already know.

‘Have your tea here, Sharon. I’ll get Granny to ring your mammy.’

Tea in Emer’s house is egg sandwiches and cake, taken quietly around the kitchen table, on blue-striped plates. In our flat, it’s foraged baked beans and toast, or whatever Imy and I can put together, while Mam works. Emer’s granny and grandad butter slices of barmbrack and eat them without speaking. Nobody argues or accuses, shouts or rages, laughs or brings news, and I can barely swallow with the silence that echoes around my ears. ‘I’ll drive you home, Sharon,’ Emer’s grandad says, when we’re finished.

I sit behind him in his car, my stomach trouncing with nerves, not knowing whether to speak. Do the Boyles ever talk? Do they fight? How do they know what each other thinks?

Emer’s grandad insists on coming up to our flat above the butcher’s shop, with its linger of lard and blood in the stairwell.

‘I’m home,’ I call, and Mam comes out to the corridor.

She taps her hand across her hair. ‘Oh, Mr Boyle. Come in, come in.’

He follows her into the living-room, and I go to my bedroom, leaving the door ajar so I can spy. They talk for a minute about school, and Emer and me, then Mr Boyle steps close to Mam.

‘If you ever need anything, Meg, just ask,’ he says, ‘anything now. I know a woman alone must face hardships.’ His tongue pokes out like corned beef and he half-smiles. ‘Anything you need at all.’ He puts his hand on Mam’s shoulder, then slides it down and squeezes her breast.

Mam jumps backwards. ‘Well that I don’t need,’ she hisses. Emer’s grandad leaps, grabs his hat, and runs for the door. Though my cheeks are blazing, I muster nonchalance and come into the living-room. ‘Is he gone?’

‘Gone and good riddance, the old git,’ Mam says. She looks angry, but she bursts out laughing and holds out her arms to me, and I run into them. She speaks into my hair, ‘Don’t let men undermine you, Sharon. Ever. Don’t let them use and abuse you. Ever ever. Will you promise me that?’

I look up into her face. ‘I promise, Mam.’

*

I hang birdfeeders like socks on a clothesline in Mam’s yard. She sits inside at the window – a child new to television – following, in wonder, the finches and robins that plunder the nuts and seeds. I put a bird-spotting book on the windowsill beside her.

‘I don’t need a guide, the names are in here,’ she says, tapping her forehead.

‘Are they now?’ I murmur.

Names and memories, places and history have flown from her head, with no will to return, it seems. The most ordinary things are alien to her now, as if they come as news. Vacancy possesses her, and I often find her stock-still and glassy-eyed, as if she has forgotten entirely who or where she is, and none of it matters, anyway. Where does her mind flee to in those arrested moments? What’s behind the blank stare? I feel tender towards her when I notice she’s gone, everything of who she once was slipped off into some other ether. All her travelling come to a dead stop.

*

Emer and I tramp through fields to the River Fergus and sit on the bank. A mallard streaks up and down in the water and we enjoy his emerald-headed majesty.

‘Ducks are dabblers,’ Emer says.

‘Dabblers,’ I repeat. She shifts her gaze and points to the sky; obediently, I look up. ‘What is it?’ I ask.

‘Sparrowhawk.’

‘Yellow eyes, rounded wings,’ I offer. ‘A sprinter.’

‘Very good, Sharon.’ I glimmer inwardly and we watch the sky until the hawk disappears. She shifts on the grass beside me. ‘I saw you in town the other day.’

‘Oh? I would’ve said hello if I saw you.’

‘Myself and Granny were in a café, and I looked out, and there you were – you, your sister, and your mam.’ She pinches my knee. ‘She’s like a film star, your mammy, you never said.’

I wince. ‘Sure, why would I say that? She’s just Mam.’ I feel embarrassed. ‘Imy calls her Mad Meg.’ I snigger and Emer swings her head to glare at me. ‘What?’ I say.

‘I’d smother my gran if it meant I could live with my mammy, that’s the God’s honest truth, Sharon. You don’t know how lucky you are.’ I nod solemnly and, when I see that she’s crying, I squeeze her hand because I don’t know what to say. ‘My mam’s gorgeous as well,’ Emer says. ‘She really is. But Granny always says “pretty women breed chaos”. Do you think that’s true?’

My cheeks flare and bars of iron run across my shoulders. I don’t like Emer for saying this, but maybe that means it’s the truth. Chaos. Pretty women. Is Mam chaotic? A bit, yes, I suppose, she can never settle, and she gets ragey about tiny things. Is she pretty? Certainly. Her dark hair makes porcelain of her skin, and she wears clothes like a shop mannequin, though they’re all from charity shops. Chaos? Is it chaotic that Mam lashes out at us sometimes, when she’s jarred? I can brazen up to her, so none of the slaps hurt; I puff out my cheeks when she goes at my face. Imy does the same. Mam’s always sorry after, and she’ll sleep in one of our beds, snotting and sobbing into our hair, saying, ‘Never again, my little darling, never again.’ But there’s always an again.

I toss my head to loosen my thoughts. I glance at Emer and sniff deep. There’s a dirty copper smell to the air and it sits heavily above us. I jump up.

‘It’s going to lash rain. I have to go,’ I say, and I start to run.

I need to get as far away as I can from Emer and her remarks and her easy tears and her weird family and her bloody stupid birds.

*

I ring Imy from Mam’s flat.

‘You’re there again?’ Imy says, a small bit incredulous.

‘I have to be. She forgets to eat. I need to make sure there’s food inside her.’

‘Like she always did for us?’ Imy sniffs, and her stock of disgruntlements and grudges seems to make the line vibrate.

‘Do you want a word with her?’ I ask.

‘Will she even remember what I say? Nah, I won’t bother.’

I envy my sister her ability to pack my mother into such a pragmatic, practical space as this, Mam not even worth a few moments of chat. ‘OK,’ I say, ‘all right.’ But I’m disappointed

in Imy, in her lack of care for our mother. For me.

As time goes on, Mam forgets to change from her nightdress into clothes, so I start to visit daily to pull her into trousers and jumpers. She forgets to bathe, too, so I manoeuvre her into the bath and wash her.

‘I’m like a baby,’ she says, poking at suds and smiling benignly, while I gently sponge her skin.

And, despite my ministrations, when I arrive at Mam’s  door each day, she is always surprised to see me.

‘Oh, Sharon,’ she says today, as if I haven’t been in the longest time. ‘Is Imy with you?’

‘Nope,’ I say, ‘she’s still living in Spain, Mam. In Bilbao.’ ‘Huh, Spain. Imagine. Viva España.’

I giggle. ‘Viva España for sure, Mam.’

‘I’ve never liked travelling myself. All that running about,’ she says, ‘it’d exhaust you.’

‘Is that right?’

I have learned not to contradict her. She often says things like this with absolute certainty though, sometimes, her pronouncements arrive with a doubtful, far-off look, as   if she’s trying to net the veracity of her words, but failing to catch anything. Other times, disconnected comments emerge, particles plucked from the silt of memories.

‘Your father had womanly hands,’ she says now, her tone dreamy, as she stares out the window.

I’m emptying the bin and I stand with the bag noosed in my hand, gripping it tighter. I say, airily, ‘So, what was he like, this father of mine?’ But she’s already gone, ascended back into the cloud-place she occupies most of the time.

I see a fresh note taped to the press, to add to my more mundane ones for identifying appliance plugs and the contents of drawers:

‘DO NOT FEED CAT. NOT MY CAT. (KILLS BIRDS).’

I smile, impressed by her lucidity, her directness. I turn to look at her trailing one finger across the windowpane, following the birds’ movements from bath to feeder to fence. There is awe and joy in her face, and it strikes me she is becalmed, no more the rushing hawk of her younger years. Stillness suits her, makes her cheerier, a thing none of us would ever have believed.

‘It’d be lovely to be able to fly, wouldn’t it?’ Mam says, lifting her face to me and smiling. She raises her arms like wings. ‘Freedom!’ she says, laughing.

*

I let myself into our flat above the Ennis butcher. I’m soaked from my run through the thunder shower, and I can hear Imy and Mam arguing. I’d like to get to the bedroom without them seeing me; I want to think more about what Emer has said about chaotic women. I push the living-room door softly, but Mam spots me.

‘You’re not taking us out of here,’ Imy is saying. ‘I’ll refuse to go. Sharon will too.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ Mam says. ‘Yeah, we will. I’ll see to it,’ Imy barks. ‘Do that so.’

Their familiar sparring wearies me.

‘I’ll get the authorities involved,’ Imy says. ‘Sister Paschal at the convent. All the nuns.’

‘You’ll do no such thing,’ Mam says quietly, and her calm makes Imy boil.

‘The inspector will stop you,’ my sister shouts. ‘It’s illegal to be pulling children in and out of a million schools.’

Mam tuts and crosses her arms, as if waiting for Imy to say something useful.

‘Is it true, Mam?’ I ask, though I already know. ‘Are we moving again?’

‘Say goodbye to Beaky and her feathered friends,’ Imy snaps. ‘Her name’s Emer,’ I say.

‘Who gives a shite, Sharon? It’s over, we’re gone. Mad Meg has decided County Clare’s not for her.’ She flicks her hand at Mam. ‘Where to now, Amelia Earhart? What’s the next great adventure?’

‘Mam, do we have to leave? Really?’ I ask. My gut starts up its ritual churn; I suck the ends of my hair. My mother has her determination face on, and I know we’ll be in the car as soon as everything is packed. I flump onto the sofa. ‘Why?’ I say, unable to keep the whinge out of my voice. ‘Why do you have to upend us, just when things are settling?’

Mam’s hands flail and her face pinks. ‘You girls see me as a carnival duck that you can shoot at.’ The lisp has started, a sure sign of fury. ‘A duck that’ll just bob along, a smile on its face, despite your bullets.’

‘Bullets?’ shouts Imy. ‘What are you on about, Mam? Who’s shooting ducks? You’re fucking mad!’

‘Is it any wonder if I am mad?’ Mam roars. ‘You fire complaints at me constantly, Imy. You too, Sharon. I never met such critical girls.’

Imy snorts. ‘We’ve reason to be. You never listen to what we want, you’ve no respect for us.’ She goes up to Mam and pokes her chest. ‘You don’t give a fuck about anyone but yourself. You couldn’t care less about me and Sharon.’

Mam slaps Imy’s cheek so hard that I jump. ‘And what about what I want, Imy?’ she screams. ‘What about me?’ Tears bubble from her eyes. ‘Who cares about me?’

*

I go to walk the prom in Salthill, as I do every morning, and the Atlantic – solid and wild beside me – is a comfort, as always. I look over the sea to Black Head and County Clare, breathe deep on the saline wind, and up my pace. I can see one other person ahead, a small figure with streeling hair, coming towards me. It takes me a few seconds to realise that I’m looking at my mother, out on this April morning, coatless and bare-legged, miles from her flat, all a-trot as if abroad on important business.

I dash to her, calling out, ‘Mam, Mam, what on earth? Where are you going? God almighty.’ I pull off my jacket and go to push her arms through the sleeves. She holds up her fists for me to see the shells and gull feathers she’s clutching.

‘I’m going to decorate my kitchen,’ she says.

‘Oh, Mam.’ I throw my jacket around her shoulders and lead her to where I’ve parked. Her feet slip-slap along the footpath and her legs are grey from cold. ‘Bloody slippers,’ I mutter.

Mam stops walking, stoops forward to look at her feet, then lifts her eyes to mine. ‘I’m going spare, amn’t I, Sharon?’

*

We go to Clones, County Monaghan. Every few years Mam brings us here and snails through the place, looking intently at every building, exploring each street. We crawl the town and Mam surveys in silence; we never get out of the car, and we don’t visit anyone. Imy used to ask if any of our relatives were in Clones, but Mam wouldn’t say and, today, Imy is too sulky to bother. I read the names on the shopfronts and pubs, and wonder if any of these McQuillans, Earls, or Hamiltons are our people and, if they are, whether they ever think of us.

Today Mam takes a hill in the town and turns into the grounds of a church. She drives the car right to where the cemetery begins and gets out.

‘Stay here, girls.’

I watch her flit from plot to plot, crouching in front of gravestones to read their inscriptions.

‘It’s as if she’s looking for a specific grave,’ I say.

‘The cadaver hunter,’ Imy says, putting on her Walkman headphones and slumping low in the seat.

I get out of the car and follow Mam from a distance, watching her dodge behind Celtic crosses and crestfallen angels, wings cocked, arms outspread. I try to imagine a young Mam here, a girl a bit like me, wandery, chatting with herself, the way I do, her head lax and cottony. I get distracted by sunny lichen blossoms on headstones and by the pippity song of a blackbird.

‘Saffron beak,’ I say. ‘Glossy black plumage.’

It’s-me-it’s-me-it’s-me,’ the blackbird replies.

I glance at Mam up ahead of me, as if through mist, and I’m astonished to see that her arms are around another person, a woman. I come up closer. Mam is hugging this woman hard, whoever she is, and they are rocking in each other’s arms, and laughing noisily. Mam doesn’t laugh like this, and she doesn’t have friends. Other women are to be avoided. I step out onto the path to make myself known, but they don’t see me, and then Mam and the woman are fully kissing, the way soap stars kiss, eyes closed, hungry tongues clashing. I stagger backwards, but I’m mesmerised by the crush of their mouths, and I can’t look away. I’ve never known Mam to embrace anyone but Imy and me. She’s off-guard, loose, wild as a bird. She is kissing this woman like a lover and, though my shock is absolute, I find I don’t disapprove because, for once, Mam looks lost and happy, instead of just lost. The woman ends their kiss and, holding Mam by the shoulders, she looks deep into her face.

‘Meggy,’ she says, rivers flowing down her cheeks, and Mam is crying too, real, streaming tears. ‘Oh, Meg.’

And they laugh again, school-girlish titters, and they hug and sway, and then the woman sees me, and she stops all movement. Mam turns her head, spies me, and scowls. She pulls herself out of the woman’s arms and marches towards me. ‘That’s your father,’ she hisses, flinging her hand at a cross-shadowed grave. ‘Imy’s too.’ She stalks back the way we came, and I stare at the well-kept grave, evenly planted with begonias along its sides. I look up and the woman is gone. I step around the cross to read the name.

*

‘Tell me about the Clones doctor, Mam,’ I say.

She has just asked me yet again if she can get me something to eat. She has been changing the TV channel every few minutes, and I want to divert her.

‘Clones?’

‘The doctor there. In the graveyard. You told me he was my father. And Imy’s.’

‘Is that a place – Clones?’

I sigh. ‘Yes, in Monaghan, remember?’

‘Wait now.’ She frowns. ‘Monaghan. And was I there once?’

*

Imy and I can’t agree on what to do with the ashes.

‘Can you not just stick her on your mantelpiece?’ Imy glances to my fireplace. ‘Where is she now?’

‘In my wardrobe.’

‘Ooh, bold Sharon. Meg would do her nut.’ Imy looks ceiling-ward, then changes her mind and addresses the floor. ‘You’d hate that, wouldn’t you, Meg, being all quiet and ignored in some dark corner?’

‘I don’t want Mam stuck on the mantelpiece, like a useless gew-gaw.’

‘She’d hardly be that.’ Imy rolls her eyes. ‘Let’s just decide now. Come on.’

I go to the sideboard and bring two small wooden boxes I’ve bought to the sofa. ‘Why don’t we divide her equally between these? I’ll keep one box and you take the other back to Bilbao.’

‘Split her in half?’ Imy shakes her head. ‘Is that a bit weird?’ ‘Maybe.’ I think again. ‘We could bring her where she was

happiest, then. Scatter her.’

‘Was Meg ever happy, though?’ ‘Ah Imy, help me. I’m trying.’

My sister grimaces. ‘Well, which places did she like, Sharon? You tell me. I haven’t a clue.’

‘Monaghan? Or County Clare, maybe? We all liked Ennis.’

Imy stands up and grabs her jacket. ‘Listen, I don’t give a shite what you do. Let her stay in the wardrobe. Seriously. She’s no use to me.’

*

Today Mam is trying to remember where she comes from. ‘It’s up the way,’ she says, pointing to the ceiling.

‘Heaven?’ I tease. ‘The air? Or did you come down from a nest, Mam? A bird baby.’

‘No, Sharon, up, up. On the map.’ ‘Monaghan,’ I say.

‘Yes, that’s it. Monaghan.’ She closes her eyes and smiles. ‘And, before that, Maumakeogh.’

I look at her. ‘Maumakeogh? Really? First mention of that, Mam.’

‘Oh yes. Maumakeogh. The misty pass.’

‘And where’s that?’ I ask.

‘In Mayo. There, above the sea.’

I peer at her closed eyes and the beatific set to her mouth. She looks placid, content. All this memory-loosening may have brought an ease to her; an ability to rest, to stop running from the shadows that have always crowded in her wake. But I know I’m losing her, too. She’s fading. And I know that because she is more reduced, less able for the smaller things like dressing and using the toilet, soon Imy and I will have to make the decision to put her somewhere; choose her final home.

Every day I come to Mam’s flat to help and to sit with her, and every time she’s quieter, further retreated, than the last. She is busily exiting into some place where no one can follow. And I want, with all my heart, to reach a rope down and pull her back up. Just for a while. I want to winkle from her all of the things that she concealed, and I never tried to uncover. I want, mostly, to ask my mother who she is. Who I am. Where we fit in. But it’s too late, I know. I didn’t insist on those revelations soon enough, and Mam’s descent into a completely private elsewhere, some halcyon place, is now too long underway.

The bird book lies open on her lap. ‘What are you looking at?’ I ask. ‘Which bird?’

Mam’s eyes don’t open; she has drifted into one of her unbidden naps, and I want to leave her there, in the cushion of sleep. I pick up the book and examine the page.

Alcedo atthis. Kingfisher.

*

A Madeira-wine sunset, golden and warm, lights up Liscannor Bay. We took the love-knotted roads of the Burren to get here, Imy driving and me holding the urn. We sang ‘She’ll be comin’ ’round the mountain’ and I held up the urn to sway  it along to the beat, until Imy and I nearly choked on our giggles and snorts.

Imy stops the car above the sea and points to where the cliffs run out. ‘Hag’s Head,’ she says. ‘Appropriate.’

Annoyance whips my heart. ‘You don’t always have to make something bad of Mam, Imy. You could be nicer.’

‘I know I could, Sharon,’ she says, ‘but what am I supposed to do? All our lives Meg disrupted us, pulled us back and forth, took out her disappointments on us. You said yourself you blame her. She was a crap mother; nothing changes that.’

‘She had her moments,’ I say, casting around for good. ‘She was gentler towards the end, you know, softer. Mostly. And she loved us. We know that much.’

Imy sighs. ‘Well, maybe she did and maybe she didn’t. What exactly is love?’

I glance at my sister. ‘Imy, remember that time we went to the graveyard in Clones, after the great Ennis escape?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Mam told me something.’

‘Did she now?’ Imy stares out over the Atlantic, beating its way to the shore. ‘What did she tell you?’

‘She said who our father was.’ Imy’s hard-knuckle grip on the steering wheel is just like Mam’s, the same stressed-out clamp. She puts her forehead to the wheel.

‘Well?’ she says.

I look out at the heaving sea. ‘A married doctor in Clones. Years older than her. Long dead.’

Imy parps a breath through her lips. ‘So that’s that.’ ‘She also told me she came from Mayo originally.’ ‘Jesus fuck, we really knew nothing about her.’ ‘Nothing. And never will now.’

Imy looks at me and grabs my hand. ‘Come on.’

We get out of the car and walk the rough cliff path, the wind lifting our hair. I hold the urn tight to my chest and tuck my free arm through Imy’s.

‘They say kingfishers foretell death,’ I tell her. ‘And they become even more beautiful when they die. Their plumage renews itself, gets plumper, glossier.’ My sister grunts. ‘Imagine, Imy, all that russet and sapphire.’

‘Do you think Mam’s out there somewhere, Sharon, putting on new feathers?’

‘Maybe.’

Imy laughs. ‘Knowing Meg, she most likely is.’

We kneel at the top of the cliff and Imy opens the urn lid with the car key. She puts her two hands over mine, on the pot. I nod and my sister nods too. We hoosh the ashes to the waiting water and, as we do, the sunset flares to a deep orange.

‘Goodbye, Mam,’ I call. ‘Safe travels, Meg,’ Imy says says.

And out she goes, our beautiful mother, out over the sea and into the sun, glorious as any kingfisher, diving into the blue.

(c) Nuala O’Connor

Nuala O’Connor’s fifth novel NORA (New Island), about Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, was a Top 10 historical novel in the New York Times and the One Dublin One Book for 2022. Nuala curated the Ulysses 100 exhibition at MoLI, –Love, Says Bloom. She is editor at flash e-journal Splonk.

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Neil Tully

Miles of Bad Road by Neil Tully

Kerins waited for a stout middle-aged woman to lock her car and head for SuperValu. Women that age see everything. That thirst for book club gossip that means even a trip for firelighters becomes an exercise in information gathering. She’d probably clocked him as soon as she pulled in – the local outcast lurking near the bike stand, holding a plastic bag, massaging his numb jaw after a visit to the dentist. Smelled him as soon as the breeze carried the sweat and smoke stink from his pores and clothes to her upturned nose. A filthy March day, few braving it until lunchtime, when they’d spill out from behind desks for chicken fillet rolls, crisps and coffees. When she was out of sight, he examined the bicycles and confirmed what he’d suspected. The lock on the black Raleigh could have been cut with a nail-clipper. Five decades he’d been stealing bikes. People never learned. He took the bolt cutters from his inside pocket, snipped the thin links without fuss, then dropped the chain. He was away.

He cycled Main Street and cut off before Donnellan’s Menswear, chewing the cold air. The dentist said he’d be numb for hours. He wouldn’t have set foot in the place if he could have avoided it, but the tooth had raged all night. A bottle of Powers and paracetamol had tried to reason with it, but it was a stubborn bastard, fed up with being alone – the last survivor of the bottom row. When he arrived at reception this morning, he was sorry to learn old Barrett had retired and that he’d be seeing a girl young enough to be Barrett’s granddaughter. He thought about bailing, until the tooth pulsed and threatened hell if he didn’t leave it behind. Credit to her, she had it out in no time. He climbed from the chair, singing her praises, but she hardly looked at him. She’d probably been forewarned, told truths and half-truths about the notorious Martin Kerins. His blackened name, sullying her pristine patient list. Oh, how familiar that disgust was, turning to her desktop computer while the nurse ferried him to reception and extracted 70 euro.

He crossed the bridge, leaving the town behind, imagining its great sigh of relief. How long since he’d gotten a handshake, a head nod or a How’s things, Martin? His shopping hung from the handlebar, and he coasted on downhill stretches, as he did as a boy with a full set of untroubled teeth, riding his only ever legally acquired mount. A black, second-hand Rollfast Ultralight brought home by his father. A few Charolais came to a wall to scowl as he passed, and the promised rain lashed against his face.

 A modified Impreza roared round the bend, young fellas jeering through the back window, and an empty can of Karpackie landed on the roadside. Kerins spat, remembering a time when he’d take on the lot of them, armed with nothing but a hurl and a forehead built for breaking noses. Another generation who’d inherited their parents’ version of the past. Their version of what happened to Anne-Marie, whose name was still whispered like a prayer or accompanied by signs of the cross.

 She was 16 when she vanished. A Sunday evening, late summer, two decades back. He’d given her lifts for years, whenever he spotted her on the road, trudging towards the bleakest dairy farm west of the Shannon, where she lived with her father and brother, a pair of animals as wild as any Kerins had met on stretches locked up in Portlaoise or Her Majesty’s in Liverpool. Bernie Farrell swore to all comers that she’d seen Anne-Marie that Sunday, out beyond McElligott’s factory, in the passenger seat of Kerins’ clapped-out Ford. Her story grew legs, ran door-to-door and spawned more versions than a folk song, where lines were added and changed, but the chorus always told of Kerins doing away with Anne-Marie. It didn’t help that he had a list of convictions as long as the Old Testament. Thieving, boozing, fighting. Helping carefully chosen cargo vanish from the docks in Liverpool, where he worked in his youth. After Terry Desmond brought him in for questioning, he was as good as guilty in the eyes of the town. Anne-Marie’s father, Cathal, promised to burn the county to the ground, building by building, until he found her. He burned himself out instead. Dropped dead in his frozen south field on a January morning two years later, leaving his sad lot to his son, Cormac, who was made in his vicious image. Cormac appeared in Kerins’ yard the night after his father’s funeral. Drunk and firing a couple of shotgun rounds at the moon, howling that one was for Kerins and one was for Anne-Marie.

He pedalled on when the rain breached his collar and chilled his knuckles. He warbled a tune, as Gaeilge, as he joined the grass-lined lane that led to his two neglected acres, hidden from the eyes of the world. A linnet flew from the hedgerow at the sound of his song. It was years since he’d seen one, the long tail and white throat like a collar. Crows looked on uninterested from telephone wires.

He dismounted and wheeled the bike into a shed. He stepped back and sized up his latest acquisition. New tyres by the looks of them. Chain and gears well-oiled. Even the chain-ring and crank set glistened. Somebody had loved it. He rolled it between some ragged bales then went to the house, reasoning that anything he stole was rightful compensation for the false accusations.

The kitchen, murky on a good day, was darkened further by trawlers of grey cloud closing in. He switched on the light and its glow caught his bachelor mess and the judgemental eyes of some apostle looking out from his dead mother’s dresser. He’d been meaning to burn the pious bastard for years. The stove door was open, revealing a sorry mound of cold, soft ash.

‘This won’t do at all,’ Kerins said, sparking the gas and putting a pan on to heat. He took some turf from a wooden basket and put it on the bed of ashes. He set a match to the tinder, then returned to the pan. A spoonful of butter hissed and melted before a whole pack of rashers were laid on. He touched his face, harder, along his jaw and chin. Still numb.

He turned the rashers and took a box of JP Blues from his trouser pocket. He put one in his mouth and leaned to the flame of the cooker to light it. He took the letter from the table and read it again, savouring it like the last fag in the box, then put the picture that had come with it on the shelf above the stove, next to the others.

The sound of an engine stopped Kerins’ as he plated up. He leaned and looked out the window at Sergeant Queenan stepping from a patrol car. He wiped his hands and went to the back door.

‘Sergeant,’ he said, as Queenan waddled across the yard, soaked.

‘Listen Kerins, I’m in no mood for it. We’ve enough on our plates without having to deal with your shite. Give me the bike and I’ll say no more.’

‘Which bike is that, Sergeant?’ Kerins said, pinching his jaw, which gave no sign of life.

Queenan gave the house a once over, as if sizing it up for a coat of paint or a wrecking ball.

‘Maybe I’ll come in for a look? See what I find. And if there’s nothing to find, I’ll still find something,’ Queenan said. ‘Or you could do the decent thing for once in your miserable life.’  He stepped forward, close enough so Kerins could smell mouthwash on his breath.

There was that disgust again. The disgust that the dentist took his tooth with, the doctor took his blood with and the old bats behind the tills took his money with. Even the postman delivered his letters, stamped with first-class disgust.

‘The bike’s round the side,’ Kerins said, knowing that the rusted skeleton of a bike stolen from Carrick-on-Shannon years ago was leaning against the gable wall.

Queenan went to the side of the house and Kerins ducked back to the kitchen, sweeping his arm along the shelf of photographs, folding the letter and putting it in his pocket. From the door he saw Queenan leaning into his car, talking on his radio, where a call had come through. He turned back to Kerins after hanging up. ‘You’re the lowest of the low, Kerins.’

He stepped from the doorway and Queenan went on.

‘You won’t care,’ he said. ‘You’ve never cared about anybody but yourself. But Brian, the young lad whose bike you stole, stacks shelves in SuperValu. He has a rotten drunk of a mother. Father long gone. He saved for that bike. Takes some pride in it. And you think a scumbag like you has the right to take it from him? I’m coming back,’ he warned, climbing into the car.

Kerins opened his mouth to speak but nothing came, as if the anaesthetic had rendered him mute. Queenan slammed his door, shook his head, and turned in the yard. The rain came like nails.

Kerins sat at the kitchen table, fire burning in the stove, window rattling, Anne-Marie’s letter in front of him. Reading it for the tenth time. She’d been bloodied when they drove by McElligott’s that evening, the town had that bit right. Her blouse torn. She probably only told him half of what went on in that house, but half was enough to put him in want of crossing the fields with his shotgun and putting a bullet in her brother and father. She talked him out of it. Asked for one last lift. To the ferry. He drove her through the night and dropped her at Rosslare where they hardly glanced at her in their rush to get everybody off and on. Kerins watched from the dock as the ferry’s huge mouth swallowed her whole.

He’d been surprised by how he worried for her. Awake nights, wondering how she was getting on across the water. Chaos kicking off locally, gossip and rumour turning to fact, to the point he nearly told them all her secret. Then the first letter came. No details, just telling him she was doing fine and thanking him for his help. They continued without order, arriving with hate-mail in March and demands from Revenue in October.

A picture of a son came a few years back, pink and howling, and Kerins saw the boy grow with every new letter. She must have gleaned some sense of loneliness on all those lifts, or realised that she’d put him in the frame for her vanishing. In her latest, she told him again that his goodness had saved her.

He went to bed early, a few cans enough to knock him out, until the ghost of the tooth came back to haunt his dreams with a dull throb. He woke in darkness, holding his jaw. He climbed from bed and made his way downstairs to the kitchen’s shadows. He turned on the light and pulled his chair close to the stove, where a remnant of heat survived. He put his head back and looked at the most recent addition to the shelf. Anne-Marie and her boy, standing outside a house on some red bricked terrace of northern England. She’d named him Martin. He leaned forward and poked the ashes, raising a glow.

When the stove turned cold, he stood and went to the door, taking his coat and hat from the hook. He stepped into the night, tightening his collar against the rain as he crossed the yard to where the bike was bundled between bales. He climbed on, cursing the downpour, hoping it would be dry for the long walk back.

(c) Neill Tully

Neil Tully lives in Cork. He has won the New Roscommon Writing Award and the overall prize at the Kilmore Quay Literary Festival, as well as other competitions. He was awarded an Irish Writers Centre mentorship in 2022 and is currently writing a novel. His work has appeared in the Irish Independent, The Waxed Lemon and elsewhere.

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