After some serious and lengthy debate, our panel of judges, Alison Lyons, Director of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, Bob Johnston from The Gutter Bookshop and Simon Trewin, Literary Agent and Partner at WME, have settled on the six shortlisted stories. They were all read completely blind, and it’s only now that we have realised that we have an all female shortlist!
It’s now down to you the reader, to vote for your favourite and choose the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2018. Previous winners are Billy O’Callaghan, Donal Ryan, John Boyne, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Orla McAlinden – who will be be our 6th Award winner? The winner will be announced at the An Post Irish Book Awards event on 27th November – the whole evening will be televised by RTE.
This year’s shortlist (in no particular order) is:
‘How to Build a Space Rocket’ by Roisin O’Donnell
You will need:
- Matches with red tips
- A paper clip (colour doesn’t matter but red ones would be better)
- The tin foil from 5 days of sandwiches
- Some scissors
Step 1: Understand what your rocket needs to do
If you want to build a space rocket, you’re going to need some matches. You could sneak them from beside the cake at Ishayu’s Annaprashana when the mums and dads aren’t looking. Your mummy and Séan’s mam are standing next to the cake with their arms folded, and if you stand very close and very still, they won’t notice you’re there.
Wind scatters pale pink snow from the tree by the fence. It blows your fringe over your glasses and flattens your shorts against your legs. Mummy’s gold sari billows and catches on the sleeve of Séan’s mam’s Dublin jersey. ‘Desperate,’ Séan’s mam is saying, ‘about that child killed on that trampoline.’
The two mums frown at your trampoline, which has been folded with its sharp metal legs wrapped in Tesco shopping bags. Sanjeev and Séan and the Polish girl from down the street are circling the trampoline, their eyes sad. Séan’s little sister Molly is bawling and snotty in her dad’s arms. ‘But – I – want… but – I – want…’
Mummy strikes the first match. ‘You know, Bimal wanted to leave it up. The trampoline. After what we’d seen on RTÉ last night. I felt sick.’
‘Shocking.’ Séan’s mam lights a match. ‘Men just don’t appreciate danger.’
The two mums’ fingers dip between candles, and they flick each dead black match onto the lawn.
‘I’m telling you, Martina,’ Mummy fixes the pleats of her pallu over her shoulder, ‘he’s driving me insane. Soon as I finish paying for this plot of land in India… Kids! Cake!’
You can grab the matches in the kerfuffle of kids rushing across the garden. Mums and dads smile behind smartphones. ‘Cheese! Say cheese! Where’s Bimal? Let’s get a family snap.’
‘I’ve no idea,’ Mummy smiles and grips Ishayu to her chest. With her white-white smile, you know Mummy will look beautiful in the photos. ‘I’ve no notion where he is.’ Mummy smiles tightly, and you realise you haven’t seen Pappy since the restaurant, when he held Ishayu’s head and helped him eat his first spoonful of rice.
‘One – two – three!’
All the kids blow and the candles smoke.
‘Good job!’ The mums and dads clap.
‘Here.’ Mummy shoves Ishayu at one of the aunties. ‘Let’s slice this thing.’
Séan’s mum laughs, ‘Aren’t we going to sing?’
‘Sing what?’ Mummy fixes her pallu again. ‘It’s not his bloody birthday. Let’s get this day over with.’
Step 2: Establish Mission Parameters
If you managed to sneak the matches into your pocket, you’d better quickly hide them somewhere safe.
Run across the daisy covered lawn, down the side passage and into the house. The bright day has made blue dots dance inside your eyelids. In the kitchen, you’re greeted by laughter, music and cooking smells. Aunties are taking foil off steaming bowls of bhuna and chickpea masala. They’re unwrapping plates of tuna sandwiches and tipping packets of Tayto crisps into bowls. On paper plates, rows of sardines stare at you with spice-encrusted eyes.
Matches rattle in your pocket. Jangle, jangle, jangle. It’s as if your skeleton has come lose. Knee bone’s connected to the hip bone, you sang at assembly last Halloween, when you were dressed as an astronaut made out of tinfoil. Up the stairs, across the landing and –
‘Keshika?’ Pappy is praying before Lord Krishna’s smiling blue picture. ‘What are you rushing around the place for?’
There are white lines threaded through Pappy’s black hair. Push up your glasses and clamber between his crossed legs. ‘Uff, you’re getting heavy,’ he says.
‘Molly was crying because she couldn’t go on the trampoline,’ you tell him, ‘and Séan and Sanjeev were sad and then we had cake.’
‘Is that so?’ Pappy says, and then he says, ‘Hey… Baba, what’s this?’
Pappy’s legs have been jabbed by the corner of the match box. He pulls it from your pocket. ‘Keshika… Don’t you know it’s dangerous to play with matches?’
‘But Pappy, how does it work?’
He tips open the box and takes out a match. ‘See this here? This is red phosphorous. When you strike it like this, it gets changed into white phosphorous. The teeniest bit of that ignites. Then the heat catches on the potassium chlorate and the match bursts into flames. Like this… See?’
‘Playing with matches?’ Mummy is standing in the doorway, her lips freshly lipsticked to an angry red. ‘You really think that’s suitable for a seven year old girl, Bimal?’ Mummy clasps you by the wrist and hauls you to your feet. ‘Outside, Keshika.’
Pappy is still holding the blown-out match that looks like a confused question mark. Mummy switches into Hindi and all you understand is FIRE, DANGER and TRAMPOLINE.
Step 3: Seek out the Experts
Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space. He was a cosmonaut and his space rocket was called the Vostok and it went round the world and back again. The flight lasted one-hundred-and-eight minutes, but Yuri Gagarin didn’t land in his spaceship. Instead, he jumped out with his parachute and floated back down to Earth, which took longer but was probably more fun.
Forgetting the matches, you’re going to need some other components. When you’re at the bank with Mummy and she lets you play on her phone, search on YouTube how to build a space rocket. The rocket in the video will say whooosshhhh and Mummy will say, ‘Keshika. Do you have to watch something so noisy?’
‘Mrs Subramani?’ The bank man in the purple shirt pronounces Mummy’s name carefully. ‘Good to see you. Sure come this way. Can I give you a hand with that?’
‘It’s okay.’ Mummy maneuverers Ishayu’s buggy into the tiny room with the big poster of the happy family holding their pink piggy bank. Ishayu isn’t crying, but he looks as if he might be seriously thinking about starting.
…aluminium foil and a skewer…
‘Keshika! Turn that down.’
‘So, Mrs Subramani, you were wanting to talk about a withdrawal?’
‘Yes, I want to make an international transfer from this account to an account in India.’
…cut off the match head as easily as this…
‘Let’s have a look. Right, I see… and this account is in a different name from your joint account?’
…tape the template to the back of a cereal box…
‘Yes. My maiden name. Is that a problem?’
…light as a feather but surprisingly stable in flight…
‘No, no, of course not, I just wanted to check… and the Indian account? Is that…?’
‘In my name also.’
‘I see… let me just bring up the right page…’
…hot enough to burn and leave scorch marks…
Just as the rocket is about to launch, the screen buzzes. A tiny envelope floats onscreen, making the video pause. You bash it with your thumb and a message opens.
‘Mummy? What does s –e – x – y spell?’
Mummy laughs and the bank man in the purple shirt also laughs and looks at his paperclips.
‘She’s learning to spell,’ Mummy says, snatching the phone off you. And Ishayu decides this is a pretty good moment to start crying after all. While Mummy is distracted, trying to calm Ishayu down, it’s time for you to be brave.
Push your fringe back from your glasses. ‘Can I please have one of those, please?’
‘What’s that, dear?’ the man in the purple shirt says, ‘A paperclip?’
Step 4: Start creating rocket designs
That night Mummy washes Ishayu’s sleepsuits and hangs them on the radiator in the kitchen to dry. The sleepsuits dangle their white legs and steam up the dark window.
‘See here, Baba,’ Pappy’s tired finger guides you back to Question Three. ‘How can we make the question?’
Cad is anam ________?
Mummy walks in. ‘You’re such a control freak, Bimal’ she says. ‘Checking my mobile! Who the hell does that?’
‘Well, if you’re getting messages like that, Latika.’ Pappy stands up.
‘From colleagues! Funny messages from colleagues in Mumbai! You’d understand that if you had a sense of humour.’
‘Colleagues, is it? And your colleagues in the HSE send you messages like this?’
When the door bangs and they go out into the hallway, you can take the tinfoil from your lunchbox. This will be an important component of your rocket, so you should hide it under the sofa. Above the mirror, there is a photo of Mummy and Pappy in hot candlelight with dark pink flowers round their necks. Pappy is looking at Mummy without any lines in his hair, and mummy is giving her white-white smile to the camera.
Step 5: Design the best rocket for the mission
Construction is the most important phase. The best time to do this is when Mummy is on the phone to India (‘I’m phoning India,’ she shouts a Pappy, ‘so could you please keep those two quiet for ten bloody minutes?’). Sitting on the top stair, take out one of your tinfoil meteorites and smooth it against your knee. Then wrap it, without ripping, around the match stick. This is tricky, but putting your tongue out in concentration will help.
While you’re busy with rocket construction, listen carefully. You won’t understand many of the Hindi words Mummy is saying, but that’s okay. Just her voice, happy and excited and lilting and lifting, will be enough. And somewhere across the dark, India is listening.
Step 6: Understand your Rocketology
When something burns, it doesn’t disappear. It turns into vapour. That’s how rockets work. They burn solid material really fast, and the gas shoots out and pushes the rocket in the opposite direction.
Mummy presses her fingers together and looks out at the sea. She likes Bundoran because it reminds her of India. Noise and crowds. Garbage and grease. Candyfloss and slot machines. She’s been smiling while you and Pappy have been riding the dodgem cars, and while you eat fish and chips sitting on a bench. Even Ishayu tries a chip, and he screws his face up as if it’s the worst thing he’s ever tasted. Everyone seems happy on the way back to the car. The grey water carries zig-zag reflections of trees.
And then on the way home, Mummy tries to jump out of the car while it’s still moving.
There’s been fighting ever since Bundoran. Fighting that even the patter of the rain, the wheeze of the wipers and the mumble of Sligo-versus-Cavan on the radio cannot disguise. Ishayu’s crying has slowed to tearless gasps. You’re swallowing the sick taste in your mouth and you’re drawing a diagram of a hydroelectric helicopter on the back of your colouring pad. Hindi ricochets around the Fiesta, pinging off seatbelt hooks and door handles, so fast that the words are mashed up and you can’t understand any of them. Pappy’s hands lift off the steering wheel to make angry swipes through the stuffy air. And then, out of nowhere, there’s the road. The road is here. Mummy has flung open her door and the rain comes grating in, and when the N12 is going that fast, it becomes smooth as space. No pebbles or gravel or road markings. Like how, if you travel at light speed, you can’t see any stars.
Mummy is wrestling to un-do her seatbelt, and Pappy tries to grab her but she shrieks and shakes her head so her hair covers her face. And Ishayu hiccups brand new tears, and the vomit you’ve been holding in your throat comes rocketing out all over your helicopter diagram and purple runners, and Pappy manages to swerve the Fiesta to a stop.
Slam-suck-slam say the car doors.
The shape made by the wipers is a rainbow with no colours. On the embankment, bushes with yellow flowers. On a bridge overhead, a queue of black and white cows.
Pappy gets out of the car and lifts you into the cool of the rain. It’s just the two of you, standing with the rain making a mist in your hair, with blown-out dandelion clocks on the embankment and cows walking overhead. Pappy kisses your forehead. ‘Keshika, love.’
You know that things are going to be okay when people switch into English.
Step 7: Choose the most sustainable option for your shuttle system
In space, it’s very cold and there’s no air. That’s why astronauts must wear special pressure suits which are very uncomfortable on Earth. A space rocket has three parts which are locked together tightly, so it can’t break, even if it’s sucked into a black hole.
‘Are you listening, Keshika?’ Mummy says. ‘Your dad and I are taking a break.’
Like small break in school. You imagine Mummy and Pappy chasing each other across a yard with no fences. You want to ask Mummy if this is big break or small break or what kind of break is it?
‘Keshika, are you listening. Stop doing that,’ Mummy jogs your arm and you exhale, spluttering. ‘Jesus, Keshika, are you okay? God, why are you always doing that? Holding your breath like that? You’ll hurt yourself, so you will.’
‘I’m practising for when I’m an astronaut in space.’
‘Right well, very nice, but just… Just be a good girl for me, okay? When we go to India next month… I’m going to need you to be brave.’
Nod your head and think about how hot it is in India. The kind of hot that wets your forehead and trickles down your back. No one there watches Dublin versus Kerry. They don’t have Tayto crisps or Club Orange. When you went to Bangalore last summer, after one day you asked your Pappy, ‘when are we going home please?’ And he laughed and said, ‘you are home Baba. This is your home.’ And you thought ‘how can home be somewhere you’ve never even been before?’
Mummy is folding Ishayu’s sleepsuits into a suitcase. ‘Keshika run and fetch me your shorts from the bottom drawer.’
From your bedroom window, you can see cubes of houses the colour of cereal boxes turned inside-out. In the garden, Pappy is sitting on the edge of the trampoline, which he has put back together so Mummy can take a photo to post on e-Bay. Pappy looks as if he hasn’t been picked for the soccer team. You tap the window with your pinky finger, but Pappy can’t hear you. Black birds lift from the rooftop, like broken pieces from a Halloween bonfire.
Step 9: Begin your journey to the launch pad
The most important factor affecting human physical wellbeing in space is weightlessness. Being weightless makes your heart beat slower and causes your organs to get up and move around your body.
Tiptoe downstairs slowly. Lord Ganesh is watching from outside the downstairs toilet. Your slippers whisper secretly across the tiles. The fridge humms and the kitchen smells of Ishayu’s drying sleepsuits and tonight’s fish fingers and baked beans.
Sneak the box of matches from the drawer beside the sink.
Open the back door slowly.
Outside, it’s so dark that you can hear it. You can’t see the dew, but you can feel it soaking through your blue Frozen slippers, and the stars look very close. Trees make shaggy shadows along the garden fence, and daisies purse their pink lips for the night. The first thing you need to do is find a flat place from which to launch your rocket, but Pappy hasn’t mowed the lawn in ages, so it’s bumpy with clover and dandelion clocks. In the middle of all this, the trampoline glows flat and perfect.
Séan’s mam once said you were bendy as a wee lizard. You can wriggle up onto the trampoline in no time at all. Springs moan beneath your weight, and you can feel the metal legs sliding about on the wet grass. Kneel down in the centre of the trampoline and kick off your slippers. Angle your rocket against the side of the matchbox, like how you saw on YouTube. Strike the match firmly, but be careful not to break it. Touch the end of the burning match to the base of your rocket and then wait.
Ignition makes you jump back.
There’s a puff of match smoke. A tiny whizz. And then it’s over. A thin ripple of bluish smoke disappears into the night air. Everything is quiet.
Flop back onto the trampoline.
The sky above Golan Mews is grainy orange. You remember when you were on the plane going to India last summer, you saw stars like spilt salt, filling every space of the sky. We’re taking a break Mummy said, and suddenly you imagine the grainy sky over Golan Mews is cracking and showing the darkness of space beyond, and you imagine a gleaming space rocket (the biggest and best one ever) pointing into that darkness, ready for take off.
You are a space rocket.
Get to your feet. Bend your knees, shout ‘IGNITION!’ and count down ‘FIVE… FOUR… THREE… TWO… ONE… BLAST OFF!’
You are a space rocket, jumping,
flying up towards the stars.
Your feet are the jets.
Your fingers make a nozzle.
‘WHOOSH!’ you shout as the space shuttle detaches, and the legs of the trampoline squeak and squeal against the grass.
Curtains fly open in Mummy and Pappy’s bedroom, making a rectangle of light, like a space shuttle window. First Mummy’s face is in the window and then Pappy’s. And in the seconds before they pull the curtains wider and come running, there’s a moment when they almost bump into each other. Before all the shouting and the other windows of the house lighting up like a slot machine, for a second, Mummy and Pappy are just standing face-to-face. From the darkness of the garden, you can’t hear them over the wheezing of the trampoline springs, but you can see their lips moving, so you can imagine them saying I love you – I love you – I love you, over and over.
Vote for HERE for ‘How to Build a Space Rocket’ by Roisin O’Donnell from The Broken Spiral ed by RM Clarke.
‘Pollyfilla’ by Mia Gallagher
The party had been thrown by a woman he’d met in college and who now worked in publishing. They’d kept in contact over the years; Seán had done a few jobs for her, she’d regularly plugged his business and, eighteen months ago, she’d drafted him in to oversee the renovations of her new house. She and her telly executive husband were childless and famous for hosting lavish dinner parties. Although Seán had been to a lot of them, he’d never met more than a sprinkling of the same people twice. He wondered if his hosts did this deliberately, blending their guests like paint colours, trying out different combinations until they hit the perfect mix. Maybe the choice was arbitrary, down to who was available and who had the flu. Up to now, it hadn’t bothered him. He’d enjoyed them, the drink and the food and the mingling with whoever he happened to meet.
Tonight, though, was different. He’d felt it in his bones the minute he walked in. For a second he wished Lola had come, to buffer with her chitchat and smiles whatever discomfort was heading his way. Then he remembered, and the wish was gone.
He wasn’t sure when he first noticed the woman in the blue dress. It must have been soon after he arrived. An ice-sweaty glass cooling the raging heart of his right palm. Bubbles of conversation rising around him, made meaningless by the thick membrane of his jangling nerves. His hostess dropping bits of him like breadcrumbs across the room as she ferried him through the crowd. He caught a glimpse of something in a corner – a swirling blue dress, a sparkling butterfly perched on a mane of red hair, a young bell-like laugh – and his hostess, reading the twitch under his skin, steered him in that direction.
‘Seán,’ she said, ‘let me introduce you to Poppet.’
Poppet. Christ, what a stupid name. Though maybe…
Her dress was made of some floaty stuff that seemed to change colour under the lights; one minute the virulent cobalt of grotto Virgins, the next the soft turquoise of the Greek sea. It reminded him of the things Lola used to put on, in the early days when she was shy and sweet, before he’d got his hands on her. This woman was wearing costume jewellery, the sort that would suit a girl: bangles, beads, long silver earrings that brushed the white skin of her shoulders. Then she turned her head and Seán’s maybes soured in a wash of irritation. Crows’ feet. Flabby upper arms. Polyfilla make-up. Late forties, if she was a day.
‘Seán’s our architect, Poppet,’ said his hostess, pressing her fingers into his upper arm. ‘Very artistic. The two of you will get on like a house on fire.’ She winked at Seán, released him and left.
A moment of awkwardness. The woman smiled. Then, at the same time, they both began speaking.
‘Sorry,’ said Seán, waving his glass. ‘Go on.’
She laughed. ‘Oh, nothing, just… You’re an architect?’
Seán swished his whiskey, longing for the satisfying clink of contact: ice on ice. ‘Mmm.’
‘Wow.’ Her lips curled, blow-job soft around an invisible straw. She had drawn a line around the upper one to make it look fuller. ‘I used to be a dancer.’
‘Oh.’ He wondered if he should make his boredom more obvious, let his eyes roam over the room, yawn, pretend to check for texts. Maybe he should go the courteous route; offer to get her a refill and never come back.
‘Aren’t you going to ask me my real name?’
She was gazing at him, intent. Her eyebrows were drawn-on, manufactured like the rest of her face.
‘Most people do,’ she said. ‘They don’t like to think of a grown woman being called Poppet. They think it’s silly.’
‘Sometimes they even throw names at me. Right in the middle of a conversation. Like a, you know, ambush.’
‘Really?’ His curiosity surprised him. ‘What kind of names?’
She smiled. ‘Why don’t I leave that to your imagination?’
His own mouth, he realised, had begun to curve in a smile; his pirate’s grin, Lola used to call it. He swished his drink again, brought it to his lips.
‘Hey, Josephine—’ he said suddenly.
The moment suspended between them. She laughed. ‘Nice try.’
‘Not Josephine then?’
She shook her head.
‘How about… Phyllis?’
Her clumpy lashes flickered.
‘No. I’ve got it. Bridget. Bridget.’
She laughed again. Her earrings tinkled. The skin of her shoulders was very white. Still laughing, she let her hands flutter up to pat her hair, as if it was a live animal she had enticed onto her head in the belief that it would be safe there.
He grabbed a refill from the tray and swallowed. Poppet had started to chatter away, punctuating her words with sideways glances, mischievous grins, dramatic twists of her fine-boned wrists. Half-listening, he smiled, laughed, making the right murmurings at the right time.
Everything about her was in motion. Her neck was full of little creases that opened and closed as she spoke. Her cleavage quivered, sand-dunes shifting in a sea of blue frills. She kept flicking her hair, touching it. Its bottle-red jarred with the changing colours of her dress, playing tricks on Seán’s eyes, making the space around her shudder. When she lifted her hands, the flesh on her upper arms wobbled. Seán imagined how it would feel, that flesh. Soft and melting as a blancmange. He imagined touching it, gentle at first, then rough, grabbing and pinching and twisting so hard that in the morning she would find bruises. She moved and panic overwhelmed him. Was she leaving? She moved back. He grabbed another drink.
A bell sounded.
They’d been placed several seats from each other; too far away to continue talking. Maybe, thought Seán, his head already mushing from the drink, that wasn’t such a bad thing. Yet every so often he would find himself glancing over at Poppet, or feel the weight of her glance on him and, if their eyes met, would catch himself smiling before looking away, as if he had just caught sight of an old, distant acquaintance on a busy street.
The food was excellent, as it always was, accompanied by a constant flow of talk. Seán listened to himself explaining cantilevers to a budding fashion designer and wondered if anybody had brought cocaine.
Dessert arrived. Chocolate tart and a sweet yellow wine from France. Seán left most of the tart on his plate. He was pouring out his second glass of dessert wine when he became aware of a change in the room’s temperature. The stream of talk had begun to falter, breaking into lesser tributaries around an intense group on the other side of the table. Poppet’s laugh faded. Seán caught sighs, murmurs, a sorrowful shaking of heads. Someone had raised a serious topic.
‘No, no, no!’ said a thin bald man at the centre of the intense group. His voice was loud, heavy with authority. Seán remembered being introduced to him earlier. A cancer specialist from the Blackrock Clinic. The last few bits of talk hushed.
‘Of course, it’s an awful mess. Inhumane. But we shouldn’t think about it in simplistic terms. If we go back to Isaiah Berlin…’
The budding fashion designer was nodding. Seán dropped his mouth to her ear. ‘What’s he talking about?’
A grinding pain begin to throb in Seán’s lower jaw.
‘With hindsight’ – the specialist was getting into his stride – ‘it’s very easy to be judgmental. But we have to remember it was an extraordinarily complicated issue at the time.’
Somebody laughed and Seán realised it was him. ‘Complicated?’
The specialist glanced over.
‘There was nothing remotely complicated about it.’ Seán’s voice seemed very far away; at the same time, louder than he’d intended. ‘It’s obvious the invasion was driven by economics. I mean, just look at—’
Murmurs began at the far end of the table.
The specialist lifted his hand. ‘No, that’s not what I—’
‘Look at the figures. Take the death rates.’
‘That’s not what I—’
‘Incredible. We call ourselves a civilised society. What kind of civilised society murders eighty-five thousand—’
Seán observed himself, as if from a height. He was leaning forward, teeth bared, index finger jabbing, statistics bulleting out from his tongue. Aggressive ape behaviour, Lola called it. The specialist was shaking his head, trying to interrupt. That’s not what I’m saying. No. no, no. That’s not— Two dots of red had begun to glow painfully on his cheeks.
Morality, Seán was saying, his voice resonant with indignation. Double standards. Greed, capitalism, cynicism. Blah blah fucking blah.
Shut him up someone, please—
‘Excuse me,’ said a third voice, loud.
The specialist, now cowering, hands spread in defeat, glanced at the doorway. Seán took the time to finish what he was saying, then looked over. The man who’d interrupted them was leaning against the architrave. There was something boneless about the way he stood there, as if he’d been flung at the wall like a piece of pasta thrown by a chef to check if it had been cooked enough. He had an expensive haircut and was wearing a Boss suit over an open-necked white shirt. Silver glimmered at his wrist.
Seán leaned back in his chair, eyeballing him. ‘Yeah?’
‘Well. See… What I was wondering…’ The man’s voice was slurred, messy, at odds with his expensive appearance.
Seán sighed, reached for his glass. The table’s attention began to drift.
‘What I was wondering was,’ said the man, louder and clearer, ‘was if you’ve actually met any Iraqis?’
Seán’s hand stopped.
‘Yourself, I mean. Personally. It’s just you seem to know so much about it.’ The man at the doorway slitted his eyes. They glittered at Seán, vicious little raindrops in a slack face. His mouth was a shark’s; a thin-lipped triangle stained black from wine.
‘All those numbers you keep saying. Very impressive. But you don’t mind me…’ He waved his hand. ‘Asking where you got them from?’
Glasses clinked. Somebody laughed.
‘Wouldn’t be the internet, would it?’
Seán swallowed his wine.
The shark’s mouth smiled. ‘I knew it.’
Everything in the room sharpened.
Keep the head.
‘I don’t know,’ said Seán carefully, ‘what exactly your problem is—’
The suit laughed. ‘My problem?’
Voices rose; some aimed at the suit, some at Seán, others trying to resuscitate safer threads of conversation.
‘Leave it, Seán. He’s had too much to—’
‘Has anybody seen the latest—’
‘You’re the one with the fucking problem!’ shouted the man at the door. ‘You’re the sort of liberal shit thinks we should sit on our arses and do nothing. Fuck Rwanda, fuck the Iraqis. You know how many people died in—’
‘Oh yeah?’ shouted Seán. ‘As opposed to—’
And they were off.
A dim part of him wanted to stop, but he couldn’t. They had armed themselves, cherry-picking atrocities from opposing arsenals, and there was no easy way out. Rwanda. Bosnia. Mugabe. Hitler. Pakistan. Belfast. Kabul. No point having weapons if you don’t use them. Their words flew, landed, exploded, maimed. Seán felt the back of his neck sear red, saw flakes of spit collect on his opponent’s lips. Once or twice, their host, perched near the kitchen door, tried to intervene, but they ignored him, blinded to everything but the need to bully the other into submission, obliterate, prove I am right, listen to me.
In the distance, the silence of the other guests crystallised around the peaks of their conflict like a frozen lake.
‘Okay,’ said the hostess, standing. ‘Brandy.’
They eyed each other. Seán’s breath was ragged. The other man’s eyes had become glazed. They could probably have taken it further but…
The suit slumped back against the door, spaghetti-soft again. Seán’s shoulders drooped.
Truce. Nil all.
The hostess smiled a tight smile and laid the cognac on the table.
‘Well,’ said the host, ‘that was lively.’
Timid attempts at conversation began to blossom. Seán sipped his brandy and let his gaze drift around the table. His eyes landed on Poppet. During the argument he had forgotten her. She had vanished, ice melting in hot water. Now she seemed all too visible, her imperfections stark in the candlelight, her garish colours hurting his eyes. He wondered how he could have ever found her, even momentarily, attractive. She was gazing at her plate, her finger chasing a last piece of chocolate around the gold rim. She looked up, catching him.
The unexpected force of her hate struck matches on his skin. Sickened, he looked away. His glass was empty.
An hour later, the party broke up, the night’s mix too flimsy to survive the brutality of the argument. The guests made their apologies, shuffled into their coats and left in their cars, swooping down the driveway like participants at a secret wartime conference, their headlamps sweeping long beams of diamond-paned light across the dining-room wallpaper. The man in the Boss suit had been one of the first to go. Seán had stayed till the end.
He began to make his way to the door, his car keys flopping through his fingers like seaweed.
‘Oh Seán, you’re not driving,’ said his hostess.
He turned and the room turned with him. ‘I’m fine,’ he tried to say.
‘No, you’re not.’
She was adamant. He had to call a cab. Eventually he agreed, sinking back into the leather sofa and letting her make the call because he couldn’t get his fingers to push the right buttons on his mobile; couldn’t get his mouth to form any sound except a grunt. The drink had soldered his jaws. His tongue was flapping around his mouth like a beached fish; disconnected, severed from its root.
His hostess put down her phone, made her way to the sofa.
‘I’m so sorry, Seán, but they’re booked solid for the next two hours. Can you believe it?’
He nodded blearily. ‘Fucking country we live in.’
Through the blear he saw the other guests – the ones who’d had the foresight to book their cabs in advance – look on, smirking.
‘Fucking country—’ he said, louder.
‘Maybe you could stay here?’ suggested his hostess. There was a pained look in her eyes.
‘Yes, do,’ said the host. He didn’t look quite so pained yet…
‘No,’ mumbled Seán, having sense enough left to do the decent thing. ‘I’ll hail one down on the street.’
Outside it was cold and murky, no moon. The air was blowing chilling little gusts up under Seán’s lightweight mac, a bad choice he’d made earlier, deceived by the evening’s golden sunlight.
He staggered down the driveway. Objects jerked into sharp focus, melted into a fuzz.
The footpath was a cold light blue, the colour of Picasso’s dejected Harlequins. Wavering through the gate, Seán stumbled over a loose brick, straightened up, stumbled again. In the corner of his eye he saw his car, long and white and useless. He thought of going over to pat its bonnet goodbye – or maybe even crawl in and sleep there till dawn – but sense arrived again, a delayed, incomplete cavalry. He had a home to go to. Lola would be waiting.
He had been walking for about five minutes when he first heard it. An odd clacking sound, coming from – his ears found it, lost it, found it again. Ahead of him? Something wooden. Some wooden thing in motion, hitting off the ground. Disjointed, uneven, reminding him of something.
A children’s story book, a—
Blind Pew from Treasure Island.
He stopped. The sound did too. He glanced behind. Involuntary. Stupid. Nothing. He let his eyes drift across the road, take in the empty tarmac, gaping driveways, sparse streetlamps. He could hear his own breath. Taste it too. Sour. He forced himself to squint up the road. The path was drowned in shadows, cast by a dense bank of beech trees overhanging a rotten granite wall.
Nothing there either.
He took a step.
The streetlamps under the beeches blurred, icy in their basketwork haloes.
Something was moving, under the trees. A smudge of black against the lighter black of the wall.
Seán stopped again. Silence ballooned into the night. His nose was full of the stink of his sweat, sharp and mushroomy. Maybe, he thought, I should turn around.
Yes. He could turn now, go back down the road to his hosts’ comfortable house and their equally comfortable sofa and lie down and sleep the drink off and leave in the morning, after honourably refusing coffee and toast and marmalade, and battle through the traffic and get back in one piece and—
His hostess’ pained face resurfaced in his memory.
He tried to gather his thoughts. It was only a matter of minutes till he reached the main junction and then, Christ, surely he’d be able to hail a cab. Once he walked slowly enough, there’d be no danger of catching up with whatever was in front of him.
Whoever. Jesus. What class of gom was he, jumping at shadows?
He started again, walking as slowly as possible, trying to ignore the clacking, the fucking clacking that had started up again when he did, the fact that it had slowed too, that with each step he took, it sounded nearer, like it was taunting him. His eyes strained. There, only a few yards ahead. The smudge, moving through the shadows. He still couldn’t make out details. It looked like one mass of black, no limbs. Maybe it was wearing a cloak.
A cloak? Who would—
A sliver of light knifed through the branches, glinting at the place where the head should have been.
Seán froze. The thing mirrored him. Now there was only a couple of yards between them.
Seán’s breath quickened. The thing began to turn, disengaging itself from the shadows. He could make out a grey oval – a face, thank God, a head after all—
Then a flash. A white hand, reaching for him. Seán jerked back.
His foot lost contact with the pavement, his spine whiplashed. Flailing, he crashed to the ground. His arse smashed into the gutter, landing him on a pile of sodden leaves. He groaned. His ankle throbbed.
He looked up. The figure in the cloak was standing above him, silhouetted against the streetlight. Seán twisted, tried to scrabble away. Useless. Pain shot through his leg. He sank back, whimpering
The figure stepped back and tilted its head to the light. A pale face emerged, the same colour as the moon. A hand lifted, making an abrupt, almost absent-minded movement, as if it was stroking a small household pet that had got trapped on its head.
‘Cat got your tongue?’ said Poppet, and laughed.
Even afterwards, he couldn’t tell whether she’d meant it as a joke.
She sighed, her sparkly veil slipping over her head as she bent forwards and lifted one foot off the ground. For a moment Seán thought that she was going to step over him, hike up her skirt and piss on his face.
Instead, she gripped her ankle and drew off her shoe. Her balance was perfect, the supporting calf strong, bunched with muscles. Cogs in Seán’s memory whirred. I used to be a dancer.
She dropped her foot, held up her shoe. It had ankle straps and a stiletto heel, and under the dull lamplight was some dark colour that looked black. She pushed at the heel. It gave way, bending inwards at a painful angle.
Blind Pew equals broken shoe.
Hissing, she dropped the shoe. Seán twisted his head. The fractured stiletto sped past his ear, landing spike down in the gutter. Seán’s nose filled with snot.
Poppet stepped forward. Her feet, inches from his eyes, looked like something from a macabre fairytale. The bare one was arched, her weight pushed onto her toes. The nails had been painted; the same noxious indigo as her shoes. The muscles in her leg twitched, rippling darts of black through her bone-white skin.
‘You remind me of my husband.’ Her voice was light in the cold air. ‘I didn’t see the resemblance at first. Did I tell you I once had a husband?’
Seán said nothing.
‘Did I?’ Her voice had hardened.
Seán looked up and gazed at the top of her head. Her shod foot lashed out, landing in his ribs. He grunted.
She laughed. ‘No. I don’t suppose I did. Then again, you didn’t give me the chance.’
Her voice was chisel-sharp now, soiled with the same bitterness that had marred Lola’s in the early days, before she’d learnt sense. ‘I lived with him for twenty years, you see.’
Oh God, thought Seán. Now it’s all coming out.
‘He used to hit me.’ She grabbed a curtain of her hair and pulled it away from her forehead, lifting her face to the light. ‘See.’
Seán wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be seeing. A tiny fault line where her nose had been broken? A slight wander in her left eye? A chipped front tooth? From where he was lying, she looked intact.
She twisted her neck, pointed to her left temple. ‘There. That’s where he used the glass.’
Seán saw cracks in polyfilla. Marks he’d half-glimpsed earlier through strands of hair; craters and bumps he’d taken for the leftovers of acne.
‘I was always fast on my feet but the dancing wasn’t much good to me when he got into his moods.’ She smiled. The black lips stretched. The cracks widened. ‘Maybe I should have learnt to box instead.’
Seán shifted his weight onto his other elbow. ‘Look.’ His teeth had begun to chatter. ‘I don’t want to – but – my ankle is—’
‘You name it, I did it.’ Her voice was light again. ‘Black glasses. Headscarves. High-necked jumpers. Long sleeves. Excuses. I had them all. Walls, stairs, doors. Clumsy Poppet. Silly Poppet. Awkward Poppet. Poor Poppet.’
‘Look, Poppet, I need to get to—’
Her foot lashed out again, the stiletto connecting with his breastbone. Seán crumpled back, retching.
‘I knew what you thought, the minute you saw me. Look at the silly bitch. Who does she think she is, the auld eejit, going overboard with the hippy dresses, pushing fifty if she’s a day. She’s not fooling herself, is she? That she’s got a second chance, the stupid—’
The stiletto jabbed again. Seán curved away. Her foot hit air. He grabbed it by the arch. It tensed under his grip, racehorse-strong.
‘Let go.’ She pulled. Seán, nauseous, clung on. ‘Let me go, you prick.’
Her face was grotesque, eyes and mouth black holes in a Scream mask.
‘I need a doctor.’ Sean’s words were coming out in clumps. Cold racing up and down his body. His mouth full of salt. ‘I need to get help—’
Her held foot jerked, trying to shake him off. He gripped tighter, his other hand reaching for her ankle. She pushed back on her heel, shook again. The motion rattled through him, snapping his neck back. He released her. She tottered. The stiletto waved, an inch from his face. If she lost her balance, she’d send the fucking thing into his eye.
The sinews in her standing leg strained. The hem of her dress billowed, revealing the white shapes of her thighs, a flash of darkness. Energy surged through Seán, hardening his cock. He glanced down. Instinctive. The erection was pushing at the fabric of his trousers, tent-pole obvious. He heard a laugh. Poppet, her shod foot still raised, had stopped tottering. She was staring at his crotch. Cracks all over her face now, raking down the sides of her nose, digging trenches across her forehead, hatching fault-lines around her lips.
She lifted her eyes to his. Her smile faded.
And then, with infinite slowness, her eyes locked on his, Poppet began to move. The movement was so small Seán couldn’t tell where it had started. A torquing somewhere in her hips, a curling of her raised foot, a slow bend of her knee. Plié, first position. Controlled, focused, her legs flickering marble as she lowered her spiked heel, letting it float towards his erection.
The tip of her heel brushed his zip. Seán made a small ragged sound.
The stiletto moved down, still light, tracing the length of his cock until it came to a rest on the ridge between his balls.
Their breathing was harsh. Little white puffs of air. Their chests moved. Up, down. Up, down.
The stiletto quivered. One jab, thought Seán. One jab and—
She lifted her foot and flicked it away.
Bile filled Seán’s mouth. His erection collapsed. He twisted onto his side and retched. The sound tore into the silence, ripping it like soggy paper.
When he turned back, wiping his mouth, she was already hobbling away, a peg-legged ballerina sinking into the darkness. Pad click pad click. A few yards on he thought he saw her stop and bend. Then she continued, noiseless.
Seán leaned over and puked into the gutter again, just missing her abandoned shoe.
He was woken by the growl of an engine and a blast of searing sunlight. A car, approaching. Groaning, he tried to push his torso up off the ground. Pain shot through him. He gritted his teeth and tried to call.
‘Stop, please, help…’
His arm waved feebly.
The car stopped. A cab. Seán sank back and watched two feet shod in dirty grey runners walk towards him. Denim legs bent. A stubbled face with red-rimmed eyes peered at him. ‘Jesus, pal. You been in the wars.’
Seán caught the smell of a mouth that had been awake all night.
‘I’ve broken my – can you – I’ve got…’ Weakly, he patted his coat pocket.
‘Okay, no probs.’
Two hands wrapped themselves around his torso, lifted him, and he screamed.
‘It’s alright, pal. I’m not far.’
The world bounced past, red with pain. A car door opened. The hands slid him inside.
‘There you go.’
The front door opened, slammed. The key turned in the ignition.
‘Vincent’s Hospital alright? It’s the nearest.’
Seán nodded, his face pressed against the cool glass of the window.
As they pulled away, something on the ground caught Seán’s eye. Standing upright in the gutter, Poppet’s shoe. In the daylight it was red. He couldn’t see the cracked heel. The cab swerved around a corner, and the shoe vanished.
A sprain, they said in the hospital, after making him wait for five hours. A few days’ rest and you’ll be right as rain.
When he got home, clinging to his crutch, Lola was sitting in the chrome and marble kitchen he had built for her, sipping coffee and leafing through the Weekend magazine.
He leant against the door and watched her. Shame crept red fingers up his throat.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said at last. ‘I didn’t mean…’
‘Jesus,’ he said. He hobbled towards her and dropped onto his good knee, ignoring his screaming ankle.
‘Stop,’ she said.
His head paused, an inch from her lap. He could smell her scent: coffee and Chanel.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said again. ‘I never—’
She sighed again, silencing him. Her hand lifted.
He closed his eyes, longing for contact. In the blackness he saw steam rise from her coffee cup, draw circles in the air, reflect silver on the dark Jackie O glasses that she always wore to cover the cracked and bleeding traces of their bond from the unseeing, meddlesome eyes of strangers.
Vote HERE for ‘Pollyfilla’ by Mia Gallagher from Shift (New Island Books)
‘Prime’ by Caoilinn Hughes
We’d only just entered Miss Lynch’s classroom the summer after Johnnie died. Mister Lynch left, mid-funeral, on a boat. On the Atlantic too, but not face-down. He got on a boat and left. We thought Miss Lynch would do the same. Or be let go from the school to spare her the torture of our easy continuation. But she didn’t.
In Cliften town, she swapped her wedding ring for a Border collie that could fetch rabbits for supper. You can teach a Border collie sign language. How to tie a tourniquet. How to separate the dill from the fennel. But you lot? She wanted more from us. We wanted more to give her. We made a bonfire on the beach of Johnnie’s desk and chair. Splinters festered in us. The dog ate a feast of deadly web-cap mushrooms in the field and died. Are there snakes in my hair? she asked, on her ragged knees. It wasn’t our place to act, besides rising above her expectations.
Death billows out like a stone plonked in water. We knew that. But we didn’t know if the safe thing was to step back out of its ripples. We surrounded Miss Lynch like a net seven souls wide. She taught us from the east side of the room to the middle to the west. Shifting at the start of each year – 4th, 5th, 6th. Three years, three metres lateral movement. The walls are a freeze-frame of slanting rain: the pencil evidence of our growth spurts. She logs our depth and breadth and height without saying what the figures add up to. We equal greatness. We are not quantifiable. We know how to be dealt an inch and to make a mile of it. But today is our last day. Out the window is the only lateral movement left.
We hear the wind whine at the glass. It lifts the whispery hair of our forearms. Our legs jiggle beneath our desks. Wild garlic Tara brought in for a Thank You bouquet stinks out the room from the sink at the back. The stuff grows rude and rampant in the graveyard soil so we all know where it came from. The spirit emits a smell as it leaves the body. The white-petalled bursts are the freeing of souls. Miss Lynch teaches us such things. Things that are difficult to know.
Out in society, she says. Out in the wide world. Light rain begins to sound like the rustling of someone drifting around a big empty house in a wedding dress. You should all know by now that mercy is an artificial flower. It looks very convincing and nice. But it has no nectar. Her eyes skim over us to the window panels. Don’t assume mercy to be real.
Out of the seven in 6th class, she knows some won’t bother with secondary school and will head straight for the till or the tractor or, for Liam that looks old enough, the quarry. Tara might sweep floors in the hairdressers in town if her auntie’ll have her. Queer sort of hay baling.
We bought Miss Lynch the biggest sunglasses on the whirly rack in the shop when she came to work after the funeral. When she put the glasses on, she asked if the insect they made her resemble (a big-eyed bug whose Latin name flew in one ear and out the other) was winged or not. Was it predator or prey? It made us ashamed, to see how fast and sloppy we did things. She wasn’t trying to shame us. She was grateful for us. Today, she lifts the glasses from her marram-grass hair, folds in the arms and sets them on the desk. The sun’s off gallivanting in another galaxy, we notice, so it’s good to see the glasses: it means there’s still light getting in that she wants to temper. Her eyes are bloodshot.
By the blackboard, the laminated What To Do In Case of Emergency is on the floor alongside its thumbtack. We try to be observant. Anything and everything can be symbolical and significant – can go to show how order isn’t always the way of things. The centuries-old stone wall doesn’t come natural to the farmer who wants the fertile soil on its farside, away from the rocks. To want such a thing all your life and never to get it because of paper. Deeds. Death certificates. Olden customs. The challenge is to see cruelty and kindness not as opposites, she’d said, but as two sides of the same coin.
Could you take the wasp that’s on your copybook outside? Miss Lynch smoothens her homemade clothes over her no hips. She’s the shape of a long, straightish banana, so the main challenge of dressmaking is cutting straight lines in the curtain fabric. Avoiding moth holes. Her winter coat is made of carpet. When hems fall, she staples them up. Oh to be a choirmaster! she says, as the dulcet tones of Mister O’Malley’s disciples come through the rear wall. [Jesus saw something inside me that I didn’t see inside myself . . . ] The commotion of our skittering stirs the wasp and it flies around berserk in this world of chalk and flesh and varnishes.
Duck, Bríona! shouts Shannon. You’re allergic –
I am not!
– she’ll go anafletic and even if we drive her to town it’ll be too late!
Bright red Bríona is standing on her tiptoes at her desk in 5th, willing the wasp to sting her. The pale brown wisps of her hair are a net. I said HORNETS! Hornets can kill you!
It’s not your fault if –
Oisín whispers down the back: Shannon has a thing for Bríona. He does bashing scissor fingers. In response, Shannon slips a finger inside her veiny jellyfish cheek and makes a pop like soup in the microwave. Miss Lynch talks quiet so that only us who lean in can hear her: The wasp doesn’t understand this bland nectarless brightness – all this wasteful, contrary movement, not in the direction of the wind.
Miss Lynch should have established order by now. Put 4th class to work so they don’t get cranky. It’s Fathers’ Day in Ghana, she might say. Find Ghana in the atlas then write cards, making no mistake as to where the apostrophe goes in your fathers. Make 5th class play Trivial Pursuit, where each team’s given a set of encyclopaedias and they’re not allowed to pass on any questions and there’s no time limit. (Her father was an encyclopaedia salesman, so we have two full sets.) But today, she seems to be waiting for something. Denying orderliness. Or is she waiting for the hymn in the next room to end?
The fact of the matter is . . . she says finally, not a single child in this school will go to heaven, however angelic their voice. She pauses. Because every single one of you spends three years with me before you leave. Three is the magical number. The devil, though, has no horns. So you needn’t fear him. He has no body at all. Only a shadow.
The whole class hushes. Outside, the cloud-cover thickens. Rain ups the ante. The wasp lands on Declan Quinlan’s hand, which is delicate and lucent as suds in a bath. He shares the front desk in 5th with Bríona who has stiff white snail trails down her face. Others will cry later at the notion of the Shadow Devil. Declan is breathing shallow and fast.
Now, Declan, Miss Lynch says. You have a choice. Don’t mind Newtonian mechanics. She waits and takes a step forward, toward the wasp or the boy, and we’re all too riveted to ask, What?
A THWACK announces a choice made. But it wasn’t Declan’s. The scream is his, though. Piercing and harrowing as a baby banshee’s. Clasping our ears and eyelids tight, we see rocks shattering windows, which is the sound of suffering the consequences. Mister O’Malley is soon stood in the doorway, crying What’s going on.
Don’t worry, Mister O’Malley. We wouldn’t let you miss an exorcism. Miss Lynch doesn’t take her eyes from Bríona, who’d brought her hardback copy of A Wrinkle In Time down with emotional force on Declan’s hand, fracturing a network of bones inside it. The wasp is wasabi. Declan Quinlan has been spared a wasp sting.
Then why on Earth is he bleeding all over his desk?
Miss Lynch turns to her co-worker with a look of beguilement. Was that iambic pentameter, Mister O’Malley?
Is that disrespect, he wonders (readable as a tombstone). He huffs at the mounting evidence that her job could be his. The woman is clearly affected. He regards us like a rock pool full of periwinkles, determining if there’s enough for a seafood linguini. I’ll get the first aid kit.
You’re very good, says Miss Lynch. And would you mind taking fourth class for me, while we clean up here and consider the death of the wasp?
Like ants, unsurprised by the load they’ve been given to carry, the children of 4th pack their bags and file out of the room, glancing sidelong as they go.
No, we inform them with our eyes. You won’t be like us. Not in two years. Not in ten. You weren’t with her in the pitch black times. Through the boxes of what to keep and what to get rid of. By the flameproof wick, through the window, on the dwindling pile of rocks.
God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Miss Lynch is short of breath from stooping down. Have you ever heard such nonsense?
We shake our heads at the egg carton of her spine as she draws a huge circle on the floor around all our desks in permanent marker. She’d tried chalk but it was useless on the linoleum. Please consider the circle to be done in chalk, as permanency is not the point. Not at all the point. But a lesser point is that you make do with the materials at your disposal, so. And disposal brings us back to impermanence. Every thing in this world is cyclical. You’ll find yourselves at the end of your lives thinking of the uterus, thinking of the buttons on your bed sheets, the conch you brought your ear to again and again like a lover’s chest, and you’ll be wishing, I bet my life on it, you’ll be wishing you’d left a neat and perfect zero in your bank account. She caps the marker and catches her breath. Nothing and nowhere isn’t worth saving for.
We don’t doubt it. We don’t question the circle. It is very comfy sitting inside it. Rain on the windows sounds like rice thrown in a pot. Sure to swell.
On the other side of the room, 5th class is cloistered around a Guinness Book of World Records with the task of coming up with five of their own breakworthy records, each. Miss Lynch had asked them to give us space. Next year it will be their turn, they tell themselves. And that future – in which they will be her luminaries – is only one metre away. They could spit that distance.
Chewing on her cheeks, Bríona finishes administering first aid (the verb ‘to administer’ is part of their lesson) and Declan’s blood-heavy dressing sits in a bucket (from the kiddies’ sandpit) so as to contain the mess. (The verb ‘to congeal’ is a part of their lesson.) The bucket is in his lap and he’s resting his head on his other arm on the desk, whimpering. He may go home if he so wishes, said Miss Lynch, who once relocated her own shoulder. He’s staying put and his classmates are being gentle. They are offering him the low-hanging world-record fruit.
Liam, Shannon, Crystal, Tara, Oisín, Macdara, Stephen . . .
The rest of the room fades out now. All there is is Miss Lynch and the inside of our circle. Her teeth are an open matchbook, the front two twisted as though she’d thought of teasing them out and setting fire to something, but had changed her mind. I’d like you to close your eyes.
It’s a kaleidoscope, the smashed mirror shards of our shut eyes. The crackle of readiness, listing and the whirr.
Envision an outdoors place, where you feel calm and content. A beach, a forest, a field of baled hay, a country lane, a currach in a still ocean, sitting perched on a cliff edge like a cormorant – an imaginary place or a real one, but you must be willing to be there alone. A place where you are self-possessed. Where you can take a measure of yourself. Away from people and duties and belongings, the external ways you understand your social standing. Are you there?
Humming. We are on rocks, connecting one beach to the next. It is our shortcut. We rockrun. Slant across the granite like the Milky Way across the universe. Like a Milky Way inside a Milky Way inside another one. From the band of us flashing to the freckle belt on our cheeks to the silver ways we alight in the rare sun. Outsiders go the long paved way. The road way. Only we know how the submerged stones keel and slither. We know where to step and where to jump.
Remember, you’re alone.
How does she know this? That we’d been together in our heads?
You are alone and contentedly so. Aren’t you?
We hear the stir of nodding over the rain.
See your place. With every breath, become immersed in your place. With every exhalation, it surrounds you. You are there. Where you need to be, for now. Your destination is very close. You have to move towards it. You can see up ahead where you want to go. The path is just wide enough for walking. It’s unpaved. As you move slowly through it, you’re a duck in water, leaving a V channelling behind you. That’s your effect on this place. You’re calm and the place is grateful in turn. Because you’re so relaxed, you move easily. Your arms swing by your sides. It’s cool but comfortable. You admire the scenery. It’s calming. Nothing surprising. As you approach your place, you see a small wooden box, in a clearing. You continue walking through your place, keeping an eye on the plain wooden box. It has no keyhole or latch. There are no barriers here in your place. There’s no need to keep any aspect of yourself out. You keep walking, approaching the box. The ground is springy as moss and you leave footprints. If there are trees, you smell bark, sap, lichen. If there is water, you smell salt. If salt had no smell, how would dogs know not to drink seawater? You smell oxygen. Oxygen smells very clean and good. It is what keeps us breathing. Any aches in your body disperse. You’re cosily tired and heavy and glad to arrive at the box and to take it in your hands and, without thinking at all, to open it . . . Without thinking at all, you see what’s there. You look at it. If you need, you may take it from the box to examine it, but there’s no real need. It is what it is. You don’t question it. Only see what’s there. No need to change it. Do not change it. It’s what you were meant to find and it is all that you’ve found. Now open your eyes.
Our eyelids flicker, like a song that wants to keep playing through the skips. Our cheeks radiate. Waiting for the words that should have come – the gentle carrying out and away as a stork lifts an infant: Notice the feeling of your clothes against your skin; turn your attention to the sounds of your environment; only when you are ready to leave this peaceful place, the awareness of your surroundings increases; as you reawaken, as you wiggle your fingers and toes, keep with you the feeling of calm and relaxation. She hasn’t said this. But we fill it in. We open our eyes just a sliver, to see if those words will come. If her mouth is moving. If her wreathed teeth show. She has lead us to such places before, toward the bonfire for getting rid of things. But she’d walked us away, after. She’d lead us very far away. Slow and sure, she ushered us, until we no longer tasted smoke.
Miss? Tara says.
Liam, Miss Lynch says. You may go first. You mustn’t lie to your friends or to yourself.
Liam frowns, glances at Tara. He does not yet individually understand, but we can help. She wants you to say what you found. Liam doesn’t speak – not since. He writes things down. Our parents lose their minds over him. A sturdy, capable young man, voluntarily mute. Miss Lynch says it’s a means of differentiating what needs to be said from what doesn’t. She says it engenders something in him but we can’t remember what because part of the lesson was the word ‘to engender’. While we wait on Liam’s report, Miss Lynch lingers over each of us, watching for alteration – signs of our brains doing the heart’s work. We don’t like having to tell her what we found with 5th class within earshot. But it’s our last day and we know how we could hurt her by withholding. She is angling for a part in the rest of our lives. Beyond this room. Liam scratches dry skin from his jellyfish-stung arms. He washes in the sea when there’s no rain because the Heffernan’s only have a water tank. This distresses Miss Lynch. Tara calls for attention again, pointing at Declan, who’s begun to go a bit wan. Leave him be. We scowl at 5th. The loud rain makes the room sound like a tent.
Tara, says Miss Lynch. Did you find a microphone, by chance? Or a mirror? Tara lifts her pointy chin. Refocuses. No. It doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, Tara, your deepest concerns matter. But there’s a reason I’m not asking you first. I know you understand. Miss Lynch’s closed lips stretched across her teeth resemble knuckles. We’ve seen how neatly her index finger goes there, in the philtrum nook. Key to lock.
Liam wrote down what he found and the note is travelling the tables. Miss Lynch carries a chair to sit among us. After soberly considering the note, we hear her swallow. Bunged guttering after a downpour. A roll of them? She asks Liam: How big of a roll? Did you unspool it and count how many cards there were?
No. This big. He makes the sign O. Smaller than a clam, bigger than a cockle.
What sort of cards come in a roll, we wonder. When it became clear he’d found scratchy cards, we were more buoyed than envious, because Liam deserves good things and because of what worse things it could have been and wasn’t. We didn’t understand Miss Lynch’s expression. She seemed to be searching the note for something plain and ordinary. A naggin. A fillet knife. We suddenly recall her telling us: Being fortunate is not the same as being lucky. Good fortune has to do with providence, but luck is a fluke. Is luck a sin, then? We hadn’t braved asking. Are we better off with no chance at all?
Miss Lynch is making us nervous with the intensity of her focus. If it was a boat’s radar, it would be too narrow and she’d thump rocks. She explains that one card represents one year of his life. One for every year. This line reminds us of the Seamus Heaney poem she taught us, where the brother (who is Seamus because poems are real) finds out while he’s at school that his small brother’s dead and when he gets home there’s a four-foot box, a foot for every year. ‘To toll’ had been part of the lesson. And how a hyphen is not the same as a dash. Our school has no bell though. Our church has no bell either. But before dinner at home we dip our heads and move our lips saying Hail Mary for the four-foot box and the boy in it. That’s what we pray for. Providence. We try not to think of worms, but it’s hard. But Liam’s healthy as can be. If he’ll only live as many years as there are scratchy cards, then he probably misjudged the size of the roll. One or two of us look across at him and smile. Let him see a small bit of our envy. It’s nice to feel you have something that others don’t and we want to let Liam have that because it’s our last day and we might not get a chance again if he heads to the noisy quarry where there’s no use for a voice. Gestures will do. We’ll run along the limestone lip and wave.
Miss Lynch wipes her nose with her mustard corduroy sleeve that was definitely once a pant leg. There are sobbing sounds in 5th and the high pitch of voices competing with reason. We get hung up on a word she said – portent (without the im-) – and miss the conclusion. Shannon’s turn goes quick because she found nothing in the box and even though no one says it we imagine her running her fingers all around the box to see is there a small diamond she missed and then we’re skittering again and Shannon doesn’t give two shites but Miss Lynch looks a bit mauled and then we feel sick because we don’t take this lightly.
Someone robbed you of it, Miss Lynch tells Shannon. Someone took it from you, and you may know who and when. She lowers her voice. How dreadful.
Shannon stops smiling and the blush drains. She holds Miss Lynch’s gaze, turning her head slowly so that she’s offering Miss Lynch her freckled cheek. Ever since Shannon found Miss Lynch taking the short-cut to the beach, facing off with a bull too far down the field to turn back, they’ve been bonded. A calf wobbling around behind the bull. Shannon gave instructions in a booming voice as she hopped the fence to help Miss Lynch out-bravado the animals. No, says Shannon. No one stole enthin belongin to me. There’s no clock on the wall and none of us has a watch. Call it a minute before Miss Lynch says, levelly:
If you say so.
I say so.
And we’re not sure if we want her to be so clipped with Miss Lynch. Anyone can see whatever Shannon’s missing she’ll live without. What was taken might be so worthless she’d never have noticed it gone. Like the dead-ends Tara’ll sweep off the floor of A Cut Above. Like taking clothes in off the line at the first lick of rain and putting out the ashes. Doesn’t she want Miss Lynch to say what it is, for the knowledge of it? The advice she’s doling out as a leaving gift.
Shannon’s defences are up, Miss Lynch says, looking at each of us in turn. As is often the way of the burgled –
Shannon bunches her hands on the table and Tara twirls her friendship bracelets made of catgut as though she’s winding a watch. She blurts out: I found a camera!
We all beam at Tara. But Miss Lynch isn’t done with Shannon – she can’t send her out to the world unadmittedly burgled. Look at me! Miss Lynch says. I’d know! She wears a scooped smile, which she holds out like a bowl . . . then drops. But not in here, with you. There’s no call for defences. When each of you walks out that door, you’ll start to stockpile defences. It’ll be your main concern. Gather gather gather. You’ll hoard them. Cars. Coats. Drugs. Tattoos. Gold Claddagh rings. Perfumes. All shapes and sizes. But don’t let them fool you into feeling safe. They’re worth nothing. Nothing and no one can protect you. That fact is the only defence worth grasping.
The wild garlic stench from the bunch in the sink is giving us headaches. We want to tolerate it, but a break would help . . . If there’s to be no break, it feels like home time should be soon. Someone in 5th pipes up about Declan. He’s asleep and should they wake him. Miss Lynch goes to inspect the hand for congealing. She looks into the blue plastic bucket and tips it to see how much blood is pooled in the bottom. A turret’s worth. Evidently the bandage wasn’t tight enough, so she redoes it and Declan wakes, whining, and Miss Lynch says fixing the bandage will sting but she’ll phone his mummy to come and get him when it’s done, and Would you like a lolly to pep you up a bit? Bríona gets a lolly from the cupboard and we all salivate at the pastel yellow-pink sherbet. When Miss Lynch is done with the hand and the phone-call, she returns, asking Tara: What sort of camera? And was the lens facing down or up?
Immensely relieved about Declan, Tara tells us it was a disposable camera, lens down, that had been all used up – she’d checked by trying to roll the little wheel thing for new film.
Do you think it means I’ll be a photographer?
Do you want to be a photographer?
The rain slants across the window behind, carrying a wet wind in it, as Tara thinks. There’s only so much you can photograph drenched. I want to work at Google.
Miss Lynch looks to be sucking on something bitter since she gave Declan the lolly. He’s zonked out on his desk and the blood bucket was emptied into the sink on top of the garlic and the wasp-paste: a good basis for some potion. His-mother-is-coming-for-him-and-he’ll-get-looked-after is the wrong message to send us away with. That is why Miss Lynch says what she says.
There is an undeveloped film inside that camera, Tara, and you won’t ever see the photographs. You’ll live with the vague sense of what’s there – the latent rumour – but it won’t ever clarify from the negative into a less-fogged image. Miss Lynch is trembling with energy and 5th class have stopped talking record-smashing and how really long fingernails coil into pig tails. The wind has moved the worst of the rainclouds along and it’s easing, but there’s a shade on the room the colour of damp heather and it feels late. Mister O’Malley’s classroom breaks into a hullabaloo, marking lunchtime, but we are not hungry. Miss Lynch continues:
A box is no use to contain it. You need to go back to the place and to dig yourself a pit, Tara. You need to fill the box with salt water or urine so the film spoils, then wrap the box in good strong skin and stitch it shut a thousand times. You need to bury the box in soil – not peat that would only preserve it – and pack the earth like a suitcase before you stamp on it. Do you get the idea, Tara?
When Tara finally nods, a tear falls onto her desk, where it sits preserved on the lacquer. It reflects all the dots of us around her, like a ladybird.
We insert all manner of bad things onto the film. We feel bad to do this. But we think it’s because Tara was his best friend. Miss Lynch might imagine it’s a film of the friendship and she wants Tara to leave it behind in this room, not to take it with her.
But leaving behind memories is hard to do. We tried it. Some stay with us against our will. The poppy bruise stays. No one’s hand is in the air but Miss Lynch says: Yes?
Macdara is holding two pencils like chopsticks, picking up a rubber. His fringe is a black feather pasted to his forehead. Chocolate wrappers, he says, uneasily, when Miss Lynch asks what he found in the box. His voice broke early when he was in 3rd class, much to Mister O’Malley’s annoyance. And today the depth of his voice sends shivers up our spines because it’s not his voice that’s out of place any longer. It’s us, here. It’s what’s in store.
Quality Street, asks Miss Lynch, or Roses?
The rubber pops free of his pencil-chopsticks and plinks to the floor like a champagne cork at the end of a horse race with money on it. Celebrations.
Right you are, says Miss Lynch. The party is over.
The rain’s stopped and it’s white out. Breaktime’s over and they’re back in class next door, doing quiet lessons. We didn’t eat yet but Miss Lynch sent 5th class to go with Declan to the gate and to sit there sharing their sandwiches till his mam comes. Our tummies grumble but in a good way.
Words that are part of our lesson: To chaperon. To divvy. To soothsay. (Not the same as soothing.) We say to close her eyes. We slot her sunglasses on her, to help block out the afternoon that’s getting bright. We say to think of an outdoors place where she feels calm and happy. A beach, a forest, a field of baled hay, a boreen with grass down the middle, a boat in a lake, the edge of a cliff where a storm petrel would sit with his wings wide. A make-believe place or a real one. She has to be there alone. With every breath in, to become immersed in her place. With every breath out, to be surrounded. She’s there, in our circle. In her place. We grin wildly at each other, giddy at how kind and graceful we wield her, at all the better things an adult imagination will find. When she’s arrived at the box, we bring her slow slowly slow back to her senses and try to sound ungreedy when we ask what she found.
An egg, hatching.
We all sip on the air. Some of us roll up our sleeves. Miss Lynch still wears her sunglasses but her eyes are open beneath them. She’s searching for an empty chair beside us to rest her concern on but there is none, we make sure. What sort of egg, Miss Lynch?
A three-dimensional circle is a sphere. A three-dimensional oval is an ovoid.
O, we say, rolling our heads.
This matches all the things she’s taught us and it’s just as matter-of-fact. A two-dimensional life is a death. She’d said this to explain the sense of choosing ashes over casket: a strange sum of what lies above the earth divided by what lies below. We make our mouths oval. Egg-shaped, Shannon says.
Shhh, Shannon, with this small talk. Miss Lynch is holding an egg, hatching. It’s our turn to explain it. What occurs to us, at first, is that she’s breaking. Her responsibilities were sent down to the gate. She’s passed the responsibility of herself to us like a bucket to be carried to the sink and tipped. She’d made us ready to handle such stuff. We brainstorm the moment. The image. Take turns expanding the sentence so that it goes all around the circle in a beginning a middle and an end: the meaning everywhere, the vocabulary nowhere.
In the box there was an egg, hatching. Once upon a time there was a mother to lay the egg and tend the egg and hide it from the father who was rash and would break it open early. The father would splash cold seawater on the egg to wake it up. To wean it off what’s warm. Later, he’d splash cold seawater on the boy to make him a man. To make the boy better reflect him. Johnnie sat in our circle and made us complete. There were eight of us and we sat two by two. Johnnie sat with Tara and dipped Ghostbuster toys into her yoghurt instead of spoons and licked the yoghurt off like ghost-goo full of germs. Even though Johnnie was quiet as Liam before Liam went quiet, we loved him. We knew why. The yoghurt was fruits of the forest which is the same colour as a poppy bruise and he had them. There was nothing we could do except to keep him out among the rock pools and streams, away from his father and his head. When he drowned we were down to seven, which is uneven, and it is also a prime number. That cannot be divided except by one and itself. We were only forming and our skin was made of thin shell. But now we are not so thin and breakable. Miss Lynch. You needn’t take our measurements and compare them to his. We are taller. We are wider. Just look at the pencil rain on the walls. It goes halfway up the windows, so we can open them. Johnnie won’t be missing tomorrow because we won’t be here. You won’t see us and count our uneven number and hear plashing in your head. In your box there was an egg, hatching.
Bubbles form in the corners of our mouths as we speak because we don’t swallow or pause for fear of losing hold of the sentence. Miss Lynch takes off the sunglasses and because her eyes are wet and red the silver eyelashes are like slivers of moon. It’s you! we say. The egg. It’s because you’re ready to get out.
Miss Lynch greets our readiness with the look of a fisherman arrived home from a storm. In one piece. Crates empty. Her limbs jut out of her centre like a huge jigsaw piece with nothing to lock into. Mister O’Malley would tell her Sing up! if he heard the vibrato of her good strong voice:
I took it into my hands to watch life break the surface, she explains. I felt warmth there, in my palm . . . A will to burst out into the air . . . but it cooled so fast. The cracking stopped. The fight petered out. There was a fissure large enough to fit my thumbnail into. And I did. I cleaved the egg open. And there was nothing inside? The sunglasses on Miss Lynch’s lap show us enlarged and reversed in their bulbous lenses. Not even dust!
‘To cleave’ is part of the lesson. ‘Peter out’ makes us wonder: Who is Peter anyway? No one knows because he faded away. We each find explanations for the nothingness but our ideas don’t really make a beginning-middle-end sense. It’s just vocabulary. All circumference. To disentangle. To ghostbust. To mince.
From all the talk, we are thirsty. Shannon turns the tap on full blast and we dive our heads into the bunch of wild garlic and drink with our noses pinched, with the sight of a boy’s maroon blood washing away. It tastes stony and cold and good. One of us takes a wasp-wing on our fingertip and blows on it like on an eyelash. What did you wish for? The answer gets gobbled by water and we don’t stoop down to recover the wing because wishes are hard to come up with. To recover. That had been part of a lesson when we were only young.
Outside, we take a hit of sunlight straight to the pupil. A fireball blooming in the void! We know it can blind us but our eyes will water and anyways we can blink. The clouds are on their way to America, like a flock of spooked sheep, and there’s so much landscape to trace we don’t need to think of the ocean. Wild yellow gorse for a road. Across the bramble and rocks, we form circles with our fingers and thumbs for the long-ranging whistle.
Because the sound we send out is real, because it assumes no mercy, all the Border collies in Connemara come pelting our way like a legion of horses galloping for the Somme
‘Gooseen’ by Nuala O’Connor
We walk along by the Liffey as far as Ringsend. The river smells like a pisspot spilling its muck into the sea. We stop by a wall, Jim in his sailor’s cap, looking like a Swede. Me in my wide-brim straw, trying to throw the provinces off me.
‘Out there are the Muglin Rocks,’ Jim says. ‘They have the shape of a woman lying on her back.’
His look to me is sly, to see if I’ve taken his meaning. I have, and our two mouths crash together and it’s all swollen tongues and drippy spit and our fronts press hard and there’s a tight-bunched feeling between my legs. His hands travel over my bodice and squeeze, making me gasp.
‘Oh Jim,’ is all I can manage to say.
‘You have no natural shame,’ he says, coming at me now with his thing in his hand, that one-eyed maneen he’s no doubt very fond of. It looks, I think, like a plum dressed in a snug coat.
‘No natural shame?’ I say. ‘Don’t be annoying me. Do you think because I’m a woman that I should feel nothing, want nothing, know nothing?’ But I dip my nose to his neck for a second, the better to breathe his stale-porter, lemon-soap smell. Span new to me.
Jim squints and smiles. I kneel on the ground before him, my face before his tender maneen, glance up at him; Jim pushes the roundy glasses up his nose, the better to see my mouth close over it. The taste is of salt and heat, the feeling thick and animal. I suck, but only for a spell, then I draw back and peck the length of it with my lips. I stand.
‘There,’ I say, ‘there’s a kiss as shameful as Judas’s and don’t tell me it’s not exactly what you wanted, Jim Joyce.’
A groan. He wants that bit more, of course, but that might be enough for today, our first time walking out together. We kiss again and he lingers in my mouth, wanting to enjoy the taste of himself on my tongue. His paws travel over me, front and back. Oh but he is relentless. So I put my hand into his drawers and wrap cool fingers around his heat. A gasp. I work him slow, slow, fast until he is pleasured, until my fist is warm and wet from him.
‘You’ve made a man of me today, Nora,’ Jim says, a coddled whisper, and I smile. It’s rare to have a fellow say such a thing and I feel a small bit of power rise up through me, a small bit of joy.
A horse called Throwaway won the Gold Cup at Ascot. So I’m told by a man whose hotel room I’m cleaning. The man shouldn’t be in the room while I’m here. Or I shouldn’t be in the room while he’s here. One of the two. But I’m so shocked by his attire that my brain can’t decide which it is. The man is wearing only a long undershirt and he appears to have no drawers on and he’s talking to me as if he’s in a three-piece suit crowned with a hat. I stand like an óinseach with a rag in one hand and a jar of beeswax in the other, trying not to gawp.
‘Throwaway!’ the man says. ‘Can you believe it?’
The man doesn’t sound Irish. He may be English. Or perhaps even American. His arms are white beneath a fur of black hair. He has a gloomy expression, a father-of-sorrows way about him. His bare legs are bandy and fat, like a baby’s. I feel my face scald hot so I turn my back to him and look for somewhere to put down my rag and polish.
‘A twenty-to-fucking-one outsider,’ he roars, and I jump. ‘And all my money thrown away on that damned nag Sceptre.’
He starts to laugh, a mirthless cascade of sound. Then he goes quiet and I hear a click; I turn my head to see the man start to hack at his wrists with a razor.
‘Sir!’ I shout.
But he keeps slicing at his arm until he draws red; I run to him. There’s not enough blood to fill a fairy thimble in truth, but he holds up the dripping wrist and cries and shivers as if he might die. I take hold of him and sit him on the bed and I run to fetch the porter for he will know what to do.
As I hammer down the back stairs of Finn’s Hotel a voice trails behind, calling, ‘Throwaway runaway! Throwaway runaway!’ on a long string of cackles.
I open the back door and in apron, cap and all I run and run until I can go not another step. At the River Liffey wall, my stomach lurches and I empty my breakfast into the water and watch it float off to the sea.
To Jim I am Ireland.
I’m island-shaped, he says, large as the land itself, small as the Muglin Rocks, a woman on her back, splayed and hungry, waiting for her lover. I’m limestone and grass, heather and granite. I am rising paps and cleft of valley. I’m the raindrops that soak and the sea that rims the coast.
Jim says I am harp and shamrock, tribe and queen. I am high cross and crowned heart, held between two hands. I’m turf, he says, and bog cotton. I am the sun pulling the moon on a rope to smile over the Maamturk Mountains.
Jim styles me his sleepy-eyed Nora. His squirrel girl from the pages of Ibsen. I am pirate queen and cattle raider. I’m his blessed little blackguard. I am, he says, his auburn marauder. I’m his honourable barnacle goose.
‘Nora,’ Jim says, ‘you are syllable, word, sentence, phrase, paragraph and page. You’re fat vowels and shushing sibilants.’
‘Nora,’ Jim says, ‘you are story.’
I am born in the Union Workhouse in Galway.
Mammy is a spinster when Daddy lures her into matrimony, promising their life will bloom and rise like the bread he bakes for a living. But the only thing that blooms is Mammy’s belly and all that rises is Daddy’s hand to his gob with the next drink and the next. When I am three, and my twin sisters are born, Mammy sends me to live with her own mother, Granny Healy, in her quiet houseen in Whitehall.
‘It can’t be helped that you’re a Barnacle,’ Granny says, ‘but always be proud of your Healy and Mortimer sides.’
But still, as I grow, she likes to spin tales for me.
‘You’re a seabird, Nora Barnacle. Born from a shell.’ She eyes me over the golden rim of her teacup.
‘Not born from an egg, Granny, like other birds?’
‘No, not from an egg at all, loveen. A shell. For the barnacle is a rare and magical goose.’
‘I like magic.’ I try to sip my tea from the china the way Granny does, heartily but with grace. ‘Where does the shell come from?’ I ask.
Granny leans closer, breaks a piece of currant cake in half and puts it into my mouth. The rest she chews herself and she looks over my head, out the window into Whitehall, as if she has forgotten me.
‘The shell, Granny?’
‘Well, girleen, that’s the most peculiar thing of all. That shell you came from grew like a fruit on the branch of a noble tree that stood by the Galway Bay shoreline. The shell-fruit got heavier and heavier until it dropped into the sea. There it bathed in the salty water until it bobbed ashore at Salthill.’
‘Do you mean our Salthill, where we walk the prom?’
‘The very place.’
I sit before Granny and imagine a pearlescent shell lying on the shore, nobbled like the conch Uncle Tommy gave me.
‘Go on, Granny. Tell me more.’
‘This beautiful shell burst open on the shingle at Salthill and inside there was a dark-haired baby, serene and curious. The baby smiled and smiled, and she had one droopy eye that gave her a wise and holy look.’ Granny leans forward and puts her cool finger to my eyelid.
‘Yes, my lovely Nora, it was you.’ Granny sets down her cup. ‘Your mother was walking the Salthill prom that day, and when she saw that fine shell she tripped down to the beach. She clapped her hands when she found a baby inside, smiling up at her. She was so happy. Your mother picked you up and brought you home, her little barnacle gooseen.’
I settle back against the rungs of my chair. Lift the china cup to my mouth and let the tea scald my tongue.
‘All that trouble I took to be born,’ I say. ‘All that falling from a tree and bouncing on waves and landing onshore and bursting from a shell to be scooped up by Mammy.’
Only to be sold off like a goose at a fair, I think. Might it not have been better if I had come more naturally, I ask myself, to have entered the family with some portion of stealth? If I had managed that, maybe Mammy would not have given me away to Granny. If I had managed that, maybe Mammy would still love her gooseen.
Monday and I lie abed, thinking of Jim, when I should be up and getting into apron and cap. But divil up I’ll get until I have let my imaginings play out. My hands wander under my nightgown, I slip a finger into my crevice and press; I knead my breasts and let my palms slide over my nipples, while keeping Jim’s sweet face fixed in my mind. He is all I need in my head.
Last night, when we walked to Ringsend, he told me he was called ‘farouche’ by a moneyed lady he knows.
He seemed hurt by the word. ‘Sure isn’t your savagery one of the best parts of you?’ I said. ‘Isn’t it what makes you the man you are?’
And he pushed me against a wall and whispered my name into my ear over and over and called me by his names for me: Gooseen, Sleepy-eye, Blackguard. He said, ‘I will make you my little fuckbird,’ and my reason slithered to pulp when I heard that and I kissed him with all the fierce light of my body.
Jim has me write letters to him but my thoughts are stiff on the page – I’m not fond of writing; words don’t slide off my pen the way they do for him. He wants to know what I think of when we are apart, to bind us closer, but it seems to me all I think of is him and does he want to read letters that are all about himself? Perhaps he does.
I slip from the bed, gather my paper and write a few lines:
At night my soul flies from Leinster Street to Shelbourne Road, to entwine with yours, Jim, I can’t bear to be apart from you and my mind conjures and caresses you every minute of every hour that I do my work, as if my heart will dry up without the balm of you to oil it. This is love, Jim, it is constant and wracking and true and I will see you, my precious darling, tonight and we will hold hands and rejoice that we found each other of all the people in Ireland, I am lonely without you, believe me to be ever yours,
I scramble into my uniform and run to catch the post for I want Jim to read my words this morning. He’s right about the letters, they do make us closer, they bring him to me. They are heart-balm.
I have the night off work and Jim’s friend Vincent Cosgrave comes to Finn’s Hotel to walk me to the concert rooms in Brunswick Street.
‘I will go on ahead of you, my little pouting Nora,’ Jim wrote to me last night, ‘dire performance nervousness will not permit me to see you before I sing.’
Outside Finn’s, Cosgrave offers me his arm and I hesitate, but then I take it. He saunters like a man following a hearse, so after a minute I withdraw my hand and increase my pace.
‘Where are you off to so fast, Miss Barnacle?’ says he. ‘You’re like yon stallion Throwaway, belting out ahead of me.’
I laugh. ‘That horse, Mr Cosgrave, seems to be the only horse I know.’
He smiles. ‘Why’s that? Go on.’
‘Well, I’ll relate to you how I first heard of Throwaway,’ I say. I slow down until Cosgrave falls in beside me and I tell him all about the man in the hotel with the razor and his distress over that very horse winning Ascot. Cosgrave laughs and I laugh too, though it was alarming at the time. ‘Throwaway!’ I bellow, just like the man.
‘And did you tell Jim that the fella was in nothing but his undershirt, Miss Barnacle?’ Cosgrave asks, reaching for my arm; there is a wicked pull to his mouth when he says it, a class of leer. I pull away from him. ‘Oh, you didn’t reveal that to darling Jim? Naughty Nora.’ He waggles his finger under my nose, then grabs my hand and tries to kiss it. I snap it back.
‘Mr Cosgrave! Jim Joyce wouldn’t be happy with these antics, after asking you to escort me.’
‘Jim Joyce, Jim Joyce,’ he mocks. ‘I have it up to my neck with the same Jim Joyce. And you, Nora Barnacle, know little about him. The same fella may tell you he adores you, but it’ll never last. Mark me. Joyce is mad for one thing – who wouldn’t be, that had to live with his father? Mr John Stanislaus Joyce, the disappointed, drunken snob.’ Cosgrave leans his head in close to mine. ‘And your Jim, you should know, is a man of particular urges and very fond of his trips to the particular houses of Tyrone Street. But the biggest thing is that Joyce is stone mad. Remember I said that.’
Cosgrave pulls back and stalks on ahead of me. I follow behind him to the concert rooms and he doesn’t let another pip out of him, for which I’m very glad; it suits me better to watch his angry back stride ahead rather than listen to his bitter, slobbery talk. I will have to ask one of the girls in Finn’s what goes on in Tyrone Street, though I fear I already know.
My face almost bursts from smiling, I’m so proud of Jim. There is not a man who can talk like him and now, it’s clear, not a one who can sing like him either. Even when the pianist bursts out crying like a baby and runs from the stage with nerves, and Jim has to provide his own piano accompaniment, he doesn’t falter. Down he sits and plays like an angel. Out of his mouth come the sweet words about the Sally Gardens and taking love easy. I know that he is thinking of me as he lets the notes roll and rise and my own heart rolls and rises with him. I would go to the side of the earth with Jim Joyce. And I’d drop off into black, starry space in his arms if it came to it.
Jim has goose-blue eyes, clear as saltwater, eyes electric from the jumps of his fierce mind. My eyes are mud in comparison, but Jim says they are like mountain pools. He says I have the eyes of a saint, a virgin, a pleasing plaster Mary.
‘Go on out of that,’ I say, ‘who’d want to look like a blessed statue?’
‘Your eyes are quiet like the Madonna’s,’ he says. ‘Even when your hand tickles me to pleasure, your eyes stay molten and melancholic.’
This is the way Jim talks. He got good schooling, away in Clongowes Wood in Kildare and then in Belvedere College and the university here in Dublin. Places for boys from moneyed families. He even went to Paris to study doctoring, but came home when his mother passed away. His Pappie had colossal hopes for Jim but the same man drank those hopes away. Money is all in fine schools and colleges, and when it’s gone you’re out on your ear, no matter how grand a sentence you can spin.
Our heads are puddled together in the marram grass, mine and Jim’s, and the Irish Sea is a nearby shush. We have different heads. Jim’s is full of song and story, questions and schemes, perturbances and dissatisfactions. Mine is full only of memories and, most importantly now, feelings. I am happy to lie in his arms and kiss, feel the soft heat of lips, his hands roaming into my drawers, mine into his. But Jim loves to talk and muse and go on about everything; he’s always bothering himself.
‘Do you think John McCormack can hold a tune as well as I can?’ he says.
‘Did that bowsy Cosgrave try to hold your hand when he chaperoned you to the concert rooms to hear me sing? Be frank with me now, Nora.’
‘He did not.’
‘Did you think Stannie was looking at you queerly that time you met him?’
‘Ah Jim. Your own brother?’
‘Do the other girls who work at Finn’s Hotel have boyfriends?’
‘Are they free with them?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But don’t girls talk about everything, Nora?’
‘They do, I suppose.’
‘So are you lying to me?’
‘Ah shut up Jim, for the love of the Lord, and kiss me again.’
He leans in and I take his tongue between my teeth and press it until he laughs. He pins the two wrists over my head and bores his own tongue deep into my mouth, poking at every tooth and lapping all around until I am liquid with the madness of it. Our breath comes fast like horses after a race and we roll in the marram and the sea gives her siren call and the air is keen and fresh. We finish kissing, mouths bruise-soft, and lie on our backs to watch the cloud shapes roll above us in the blue: here a cottony ship’s masthead, there a stippled mackerel. I take his hand in mine and squeeze it.
All my loneliness for Galway is gone. Since I took up with Jim, Dublin has opened her arms to me, taken me to her breast. My Jackeen Jim. He’s cut from Dublin as sure as Nelson’s Pillar was. But still he talks of getting away, of leaving all behind; he sees a lit-up future away from this country. I’m hoping he will invite me.
I roll on my side to look at him: the wrinkled linen jacket, the dirty plimsolls, the clever eyes, stilled now under sleepy lids. He looks serene and innocent yet he’s the same man who stole one of my gloves and brought it to bed with him and told me that it lay beside him all night ‘unbuttoned’, as if I could believe that. I gaze at Jim and wonder what Mammy would make of me lying on the seashore with a glove-caressing jackeen’s fingers roaming into my garters and beyond. What would she say to my hands powering over his maneen, snug inside his trousers? She’d be skittery with rage, to be sure. And Uncle Tommy? Well, he’d beat the thunder out of me and no mistake, like he did over Willie Mulvagh. He took out his stick and left me purple and raw and running for the first train out of Galway. Yes, Mammy and Tom would be galled to their bladders if they could see Jim and me now, carefree as birds, love wrapped snug around us like a shawl. And do I care about their imagined ire, I ask myself? I find I do not.
Though Jim is jealous of any other man whose mouth has met mine, he makes me talk of the two dead Michaels, Feeney and Bodkin, and poor Protestant Willie whom Uncle Tommy objected to so strongly. Jim loves details and takes meaning from everything: dates, songs, tiny occurrences, objects. He lifts my wrist to his nose to examine the enamel bracelet Michael Bodkin – Sonny – gave me, as if searching for clues. Mostly Jim wears me out with his investigations into my life, but I play along anyway, to please him.
‘Tell me again about Feeney,’ Jim says.
Jim and I are once more walking by the sea, this time at Sandycove where his friend Oliver St John Gogarty lives in a squat tower. I let the breeze lap over my face and remember Michael.
‘He was never a robust young fellow, there was something of the lamb about him.’
‘What I mean is Michael was pale-faced, sunken. Always a little sick. But he was gentle and he could sing well.’
‘Feeney sang for you often, I suppose.’
‘He would sing “The Lass of Aughrim” and linger over the saddest parts.’
‘Your love was thwarted, Nora, a bit like those in the song. Go on.’
I sit on the sea wall. ‘Ah, Jim, you have me repeating myself like some doting crone. Haven’t I told you all this before?’
He sits by me and takes my hand. ‘Tell me again about the night of the rain.’
I spurt air between my lips to help me keep my patience. ‘I was in bed one wet night, the wind howling, when I heard stones hit my window. I looked out and there was Michael Feeney, under the tree, shaking with the cold. “Go home, you’ll catch your death,” I said. “I don’t want to live if I can’t see you, Nora,” he said. I ran to Michael and embraced him and went back inside. A week later he was dead. It was terrible. Only a gossoon of seventeen.’
‘You loved him, Nora, I think.’
My heart babbles in my chest. ‘He shouldn’t have been out on such a squally night. He was ailing.’ I drop my head. ‘And then when Sonny Bodkin was taken too. Well.’
Jim puts his arm around me and squeezes; his look is impish. ‘Nora, my little man killer.’
I shrug him off. ‘It isn’t funny, Jim. Dying is not one bit funny.’
‘It’s not, Nora. Death descends so lightly but it’s the hardest thing of all.’
Long gone Granny Healy floats across my vision like a blot in my eye but, as she does in my dreams, she merely smiles. Jim’s face slackens and I know he is remembering his dear mother just as I think of the only woman who was mother to me.
We sit together on the sea wall, letting the jounce of the waves, their grey-green light, soothe and calm us as we conjure the dead.
‘I’m a wanderer, Nora,’ Jim said to me when I knew him first, and this has proven to be true. He skitters from lodging to lodging, now with this friend in Shelburne Road, now with that one in Sandymount. He doesn’t want to live with his Pappie and the family for they pull on him like leeches, he says. The way it is, Jim finds it hard to settle and he finds oddity hard to deal with.
‘I’ve enough foibles of my own without having to figure out other people’s,’ he told me once.
‘People are strange right, it’s true for you,’ I answered, but I thought about it for days, the business of him not getting along with others.
At the moment Jim is staying with his friend Gogarty in that old tower by the sea in Sandycove. It’s a lovely surprise to find him outside Finn’s when I step out for a minute of air.
‘Nora, I summoned you and you came!’ He grabs my hands and his look is feverish.
‘Jim, what is the matter?’ His eyes are bloodshot and the lids swollen. ‘Have you been weeping? Has something happened?’
He pulls me along by the wall, away from the hotel door. ‘Nora, I want to get out of Dublin. Life is waiting for me if I choose to enter it. Will you come?’
I take my hand from his. ‘Jim, something has you rattled. Are you going to tell me what?’
‘I walked from Scotsman’s Bay, through the night, Nora, to ask you if you’ll leave this place with me.’
‘You have the look of being up all night, right enough.’
Jim groans. ‘Will you answer what I’m asking you girl?’
I wrap my fingers around his and pull his hands down. ‘Of course I will leave Dublin with you. I’d go anywhere with you Jim.’
‘Do you understand me Nora?’ His eyes are frantic.
A tiny sobs escapes his throat. ‘Oh Nora, thank you.’ Jim kisses my hand then lights another cigarette with shaking fingers and takes several fast pulls. ‘Gogarty shot at me last night.’
‘He shot at you?’ My astonishment is total. ‘With a gun?’
‘He had Trench, that awful Hiberno-fiend, staying. Trench dreamt a panther was about to kill him and the damn fool pulled out a revolver and shot a bullet across the room. Not to be out dramatised, Gogarty snatched up the gun and shot at my side of the room, knocking a clatter of pans on top of me where I lay. I knew then I could not stay another night with Gogarty. He’s mad.’
I bless myself. ‘Dangerous is what he is. It’s lucky you’re not stone dead Jim. If I see that craythur Gogarty I’ll give him a tongue-lash like he’s never heard.’
Jim chuckles and grabs me around the waist. ‘You look uncommonly beautiful, snapping like a dragon in your white cap and apron. Perhaps when we leave you’ll pack that uniform in your little trunk?’
I push him off me. ‘Behave yourself, James Joyce.’
Jim jigs, he is shook. He brings his face close to mine. ‘Nora, I went to Byrne – the only sensible man of my acquaintance – and asked him if we should go and he said I should not hesitate to ask you and if you said yes to take you as soon as I ever could.’
I dip my head; I don’t know Byrne at all but Jim likes him and it pleases me that he spoke for me. ‘I have to go back in, Jim. If I’m caught idling out here with you, they’ll have my guts.’
He turns me to face the hotel door and pushes me playfully. ‘Go,’ he says. ‘You’ve promised now, it can’t be undone.’
‘It can’t and it won’t.’ I blow him a kiss and run inside.
The October sky over the north wall is exotic as plum flesh, yellow bleeding to rose. I am in a borrowed coat – Molly Gallagher’s best – for I have none of my own, and I know not if Switzerland is warm or cold. And though Jim has been to Europe before, he cannot say one way or the other. The gold of the wedding band he bought – and shoved onto my finger outside the jeweller’s – winks on my finger, distracting me from looking out for him on the dock below. His Pappie and some of the family will see him off. No one of mine is here to wave to me for I told no one I was leaving.
The air is salt-sweet and cool, the portholes beam light into the dusk. The deck throngs with those aching to stay and those, like myself, aching to go. My legs and my will seem determined to take me further east and further again. Away from Galway, away now from Dublin to the Continent, to Zürich, where Jim has secured a teaching post.
Jim comes aboard at last and embraces me; we stay on deck and watch twilight descend. He is fizzling, giddy, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He tosses the butts to the gulls who keen like mourning women.
‘We’re off now, Nora.’ We stand at the ship’s rail and turn our backs to Ireland. ‘Good riddance to the old sow. No self-respecting man stays here,’ Jim says, and he means it. ‘There is nothing more natural to the Irish than the leaving of Ireland. All the better to weep for her,’ he says.
I start to cry. ‘Oh Nora, Nora, have I alarmed you? Are you so sad to leave, my darling?’
I shake my head. ‘I’m all right, Jim, I’m grand.’
It’s not that I’m pained, it’s more like a wash of relief blasting my heart. Jim and I are alone together at last. Away from Uncle Tommy and Mammy and my sisters. Away from Cosgrave and Gogarty and Jim’s Pappie and brother Stannie and the rest of his large, grasping family. It feels good to leave them all behind. I weep on and the salt of my tears buoys me, as sure as if they were the sea and I a bouncing lump of jetsam. How can I explain that I am happier than I have ever been? Yes, I’m happy. I am as easy and free and content now as a goose on the wing, looking for a soft place to fall.
Vote HERE for ‘Gooseen’ by Nuala O’Connor from Granta June 2018
‘The Mother’ by Deirdre Sullivan
When Laoise was a little girl she hated men with beards, people in wheelchairs, old people loud people, visitors who smelled, disabled people, foreigners. Any sort of stranger made her scared. She didn’t cry: she pointed and she screamed. Her mother’s face would pale and she would scoop her up or try to shush her.
Her friends had all got married in the same year. The five of them from school, one after another. She had been a bridesmaid at two of the weddings, and done a reading at another. She had stuffed cards with money, walked the shopping streets for clothes and shoes and clutch bags.
Small talk at these things is always awkward, but big talk’s not much better, Laoise reckoned. People felt entitled to little bits of her. When Laoise was single, it was who she was seeing, was there anyone serious, and who she’d bring to weddings. She thought about giving up trying to pass the strange tests people set. Maybe buying a dog. Something golden, loving. A head to rub. A belly and soft eyes. The thing about a dog was that it loved you. That was just their nature. Humans wanted things. More things than love.
And then she met Jim. Are you moving in together? Do you think he will propose? Have you set a date?
Jim was a little older. They loved each other almost right away. The time was right, and love comes really quickly when you’re grateful. A warm back and a kind voice – he proposed and then it was her turn. She made him shave his beard for the big day. It was something special, in the end. Her father proudly walking down the aisle. Jim neckless in his suit, but still, so charming. The sanctuary of that. I’m there now, Laoise thought. Where people are. I’m there.
And then it was babies. Have ye thought about it? Are ye trying? Mammy wanted grandkids, Dad dropped hints as well. You next. You next. You next. Jim didn’t mind. He said he wasn’t the type to let other people dictate the way he lived his life.
We married in a church and I wore white, Laoise thought. You put a gold ring on my fourth left finger. That isn’t you. It is the weight of them. And also love.
One by one, her friends filled up their happily married wombs with little babies. Laoise bought so many tiny outfits, signed so many cards. And meanwhile they tried, Laoise and Jim, but still the blood kept coming every month. It had always horrified her a little, the bleeding. It seemed so animal, like something that should not have to be borne. She had an iPad and an Orla Kiely bag with matching wallet. She shouldn’t have to drip and hurt and stain. That’s not what life should be. Not once you’re married.
After a while they stopped officially trying, but she could see it written on his face when they made love: Look how casual this is. How spontaneous. We’re not trying but maybe it will happen. Just for us. It made it hard to enjoy physical intimacy. She felt a bit like a toaster on the blink. He put the bread in, but no toast popped out. The element stayed cold and iron grey.
She began to resent him, with his shoulders and his golf clubs and his voice. When her friends met up they all had kids and she just had a womb that didn’t work. Or maybe it did work, but not with Jim.
They hadn’t been to the doctor. It was that thing of wanting kids, but not so much that you’d look for help from other people. It felt like something they should be able to do all by themselves, together. And they had time. Not lots of it, but some.
Jim said, If you adopted, you’d wait for years and not be sure exactly whose it was, or what could go wrong, genetically. Laoise thought of men with beards, of children who were cleverer than her, or very stupid. Who failed in ways they weren’t supposed to fail. She felt the welling anger-fear from childhood. The urge to point her finger, raise her voice.
She took up Pilates, clean eating. Lost a stone and a half. After a while she stopped getting a period. Jim wanted more sex, but her body was probably less able for it. The gym made her happy. There was a satisfaction in the work that had been done, and motivation for future sacrifices.
She never said no to Jim. She touched his body and made the sounds he liked. She imagined shrinking into the sheets some times, flattening into a paper doll and lying there, not having to do anything, please anyone. When she did that, and if she focused on it fully, there was a little joy that came along.
She never really thought about Jim’s happiness. He ate his toast. He drank his tea. He told her about things. She listened. He went to matches, sometimes to the golf club. They booked weekends away and little holidays. She walked fifteen thousand steps every single day and sometimes he came walking with her. He made her laugh surprisingly every now and then, in a way that other people couldn’t. She’d roll her eyes and talk about him to her friends, or to people in the office, in the usual aren’t-men-incompetent sort of way. Half of being married was being fondly, publicly annoyed.
Their friends had a second round of babies. Laoise and Jim were godparents to one or two. Could take them to the zoo, or babysit. Hand them back, all full of love and chips. It didn’t make them sad, though Laoise could see how it could have done. If they were other people.
One day, Laoise arrived home from work, hung up her trenchcoat in the hall, went into the kitchen, took her travel cup out of her Mulberry bag and went to rinse it. Jim was in the kitchen, perusing something intently: a catalogue? Jim liked catalogues. IKEA, Argos, Trailfinders. He’d pick them up and take them home. Choose what he would buy, where they could go. And then not buy anything, go anywhere.
‘What’s that?’ she asked, scrubbing at the brown scum on the travel cup. You had to work at it, or there’d be staining, ghosts of teabags past. Some people let it build up, then used Milton. But the thought of drinking from something dirty bothered Laoise. She placed the bright white cup on the rack to dry, ready for the morning. Over her shoulder, she could see the awkwardness of Jim. Half slouched over, half turning towards her.
‘Oh. Nothing.’ He muttered, ‘It’s a bit mad.’ His face was shifty, but his hands moved slowly, wanting her to look.
‘Well, I’m a bit mad.’ Laoise smiled, taking carrots out of the salad drawer and beginning to peel them. ‘So you might as well tell me.’
‘It’s just this clinic.’ Jim was wearing a polo shirt and jeans, sipping a flat white he’d bought from the new place down the road. He’d worked from home today. They had a coffee maker, but he liked the excuse to go for a little jaunt. He took a fifteen-minute break, and a twenty-five-minute one. He set a timer for them.
He held up the catalogue. There was a baby sloth on the cover, offering a hibiscus blossom to the photographer with a wet look of tenderness.
‘Ahhh look,’ Laoise said, putting down the peeler. ‘Wait, is that the lads …’
‘Yeah,’ said Jim, ‘from the radio.’
They’d heard about it driving home from work one day, in different cars but listening to the same station. It was catching on. There were clients who were really happy. She’d see them in the parks, with small raccoons, red pandas. The odd bear. You wouldn’t really see the ones with mice or guinea pigs. For smaller ones you didn’t need a leash, harness or buggy.
When they passed they sometimes met your eye and smiled. Like, ‘Fucking judge me. I am happy.’
Laoise wasn’t sure how she should feel. It wasn’t normal. She knew that. But it made the world a bit more magical, like seeing a celebrity, or someone from the news but in real life. A slow loris with eyes as wide as saucers. A lemur peering out from a pink fleece. Small soft things were pretty. Hard to judge. And, they wouldn’t care about it if you did judge them, would they? Their brains weren’t built that way. Could be a good thing.
‘We haven’t seen a sloth yet,’ she said to Jim.
His voice was low. ‘I’d like to …’
Laoise cut across him, her voice was high. A little too upbeat. ‘We could take Ciarán to the zoo again. I mean, if you wanted to look at sloths. I know it’s not the same thing, not exactly.’ She wanted to finish speaking, but her mouth was full of words. It wouldn’t stop. ‘It’s been a while since we went somewhere like that. A day out. We wouldn’t even have to take him – Ciarán.’
‘No,’ Jim said. His eyes met hers.
‘I mean’ – and there was something threaded through his voice, an odd sort of energy – ‘I mean I’d like to think about … like: this. I ordered it. The catalogue. Online. They don’t include the full range or a price list on the website. Like wedding suppliers.’ He rolled his eyes to heaven, with a smile. Jim liked remembering the day they’d had. The work that they had done to make it happen. Laoise rolled hers back. She liked that too.
‘Oh,’ she said, and paused and took a breath. ‘Let’s have a look then.’
There was no harm in having a look. Listening to someone’s opinion. Exploring your options. It was fine. Absolutely normal. To listen to your husband. Give him time. This was how you made a marriage work. Supporting each other. The carrots weren’t cut yet, only peeled. But it was fine. This clearly mattered to him more than dinner.
‘I’ve often thought’, Jim said, ‘that a child is kind of … long-term.’
That had occurred to Laoise too. Seeing her friends so tired, bags growing under eyes and staying put.
‘And we both love animals,’ he said.
‘But you can buy an animal,’ Laoise pointed out. ‘In a pet shop. Or from a breeder. Or rescue.’ The calmness of her voice surprised her. She thought she should be more confused, upset. It should feel stranger than it did.
‘It wouldn’t be ours, though,’ Jim said. ‘This way it would be. And they say it’s very safe. Almost safer than the normal way.’
‘Really?’ Laoise asked, flashing into labour, flesh and strain.
‘Well, depending on what you go for, they can be much smaller than a baby. And we’d obviously be going private, so there’s that higher level of care involved …’
Jim had thought this through, it seemed.
But, essentially, Laoise thought, in bed at night, as his breathing slowed and deepened, it would be me. In a room. Giving birth to an animal. A freak show. She closed her eyes and planed her fingers across the flatter layers of stomach, the fruit of all her work.
Herself and Jim had watched all of Planet Earth together several years ago. She hadn’t noticed him getting broody then. Nature was cruel and devastating. Things were beautiful and complex and then got eaten.
She rolled towards Jim and took in his warmth. Breathed the smell of sweat and dust and sweet chilli crisps. Jim always snacked, he munched through everything when he was working. It was endearing, his lack of discipline. Laoise mentally listed all the things she had forbidden herself: milk, cream, cheese, butter, bread, pasta, chocolate, juices of all sorts, fancy crackers that looked healthy but were secretly one hundred calories a pop and then why would you? Anything more than a glass of wine when they were out – she’d sip it to be normal.
Laoise walked twenty thousand steps a day that week. Rang her friends and asked them for their problems, to distract her. She didn’t mention hers, they didn’t ask. The catalogue was there upon the table. She’d leaf through it. Looking at the pages he’d dog-eared. Big golden yokes, mainly. Jim liked dogs, so did Laoise. They loved you back.
She’d always thought that they were boring dogs, the ones Jim liked: Labradors, Retrievers. Loyal, companionable. Nothing wrong with that, but Laoise craved a little bit of work. A wizened Peke, a snappy Pomeranian. Something that would not be friends with everyone. Just hers.
They sat and talked about it, in the evenings.
‘Loyalty is important,’ Jim said.
‘I agree.’ But Laoise didn’t just want slavish loyalty. She wanted to earn it with love.
‘I’d like it to be clever,’ Jim said too.
‘Not too clever, though. When we’re at work all day, it would go mad.’
‘We wouldn’t leave it in the house alone, though,’ Jim said. ‘It wouldn’t be a pet. We’d have to care a little more than that.’
Fair enough, Laoise thought. We can sacrifice a holiday a year for expensive doggy day care.
‘What about a cocker spaniel?’
‘They like a rural setting,’ Jim said.
‘Next door have one.’
‘Yeah, a pet. But it probably isn’t perfectly happy.’
Her voice was soft towards him. They were so close, she felt the heat of skin against her mouth.
‘I’d like our dog to be perfectly happy,’ he said.
Our dog. It sounded nice. That night, when they had sex, it felt like love. Like two of them together in the bed, sharing a thing. She traced her fingers across his chest hair after, coming down. She stroked and stroked. It wasn’t very soft.
That Friday, a man and a woman and their panda, Daisy, were on the Late Late Show. They watched it after dinner, sipping wine.
‘We were thinking about having children, but humans aren’t an endangered species …’ the man began.
The woman started ranting about the planet, but the host directed her back to the strange thing she’d let inside her womb.
Fair play to him, thought Laoise. Knows to give the people what they want.
The couple’s message seemed to be, ‘Don’t judge us, but we are better than you and have got a certificate from a zoo to prove it.’
It was a lovely piece of paper, had that old tea-stained sheen, and they’d gotten it framed in black and white. Dublin Zoo was building a special enclosure for Daisy.
‘Parenting a different species requires a level of empathy that’s not for everyone,’ the man said, and the woman held his hand and nodded enthusiastically.
‘They’re not, like, pets. That’s what people do not understand.’
The host adjusted his skinny tie and leaned in, in a calculatedly disarming manner. ‘Anne-Marie, though … you were reluctant at first, am I right?’
‘I was, Ryan. I was. When you think of giving birth to something, you wonder about the risks. The responsibility. It’s hard to be a mother in the world.’
‘It’s true. We don’t appreciate mothers enough. Let’s take a moment to clap for all the mammies out there.’
The audience applauded.
‘And, Paul pointed out, the two of us – we don’t really like people, and the world doesn’t need more of them. And then there’s this. We get to have the experience. And it’s demanding. It is. But not as long-term.’
‘Oh, very safe.’ Anne-Marie’s eyes bulged as she said this. Paul patted her knee. She was wearing a black-and-white sheath dress. Very on-trend.
The subject changed, another guest emerged.
Laoise looked at Jim. He looked at her.
‘I don’t want a bear,’ she said. ‘Any sort of bear. I mean, imagine.’
Jim rolled his eyes. ‘I know. The notions.’
They laughed together, and while they were getting ready for bed, toothbrush sticking out between his lips, he said to her: ‘You choose the breed. I don’t care. You know the ones I like, but whatever happens, I’ll love it and you.’
And Laoise smiled. The next day, she made the appointment.
They went in for the pre-counselling – three sessions.
They signed the forms.
The night before the procedure, Laoise whispered to Jim, ‘Do you want to know, or do you want it to be a surprise?’
He grinned. ‘Surprise.’
Then, the following morning, he said, ‘I’ve reconsidered: tell me, tell me.’
‘Are you sure?’
He smiled at her. His face looked very fat, collar buttoned right up to the top. ‘I’ve never been more sure of anything.’
‘I decided to go with a …’ Laoise made a drumroll on the table. ‘Lurcher.’
Jim welled up. ‘For …’
‘… your granddad,’ Laoise finished. She was feeling quite emotional, looking at Jim’s face. She hadn’t seen him cry in years. It was nice. She’d always liked Jim’s granddad, a grizzled, druidical man who would have made a very handsome dog.
‘Hopefully it won’t be a racist lurcher,’ Jim joked.
‘Arrah, stop. He was of his time.’
His fingers brushed the top of her belly. Laoise smiled at him.
‘That’s perfect, love,’ he told her. ‘You are perfect.’
He kissed her like it was their wedding day. With sweet relief.
Laoise closed her eyes, and held her head snuggled against his chest. The feelings in them were so deep already. It would be a lot of pressure to put on a child. A puppy would be more equipped to bear that weight. It didn’t occur to her that after it was finished, her body would disgust him. That he would love the dog but hate the wife. That welcoming this spark would snuff out something. Other people’s eyes would make him cold.
All in all, though, she did not regret it.
There are things that teach you who you are.
Vote HERE for ‘The Mother’ by Deirdre Sullivan from The Dublin Review December 2017
‘The Woman Who Was Swallowed Up by the Floor and Who Met Lots of Other Women Down There Too’ by Cecelia Ahern
It was all because of the work presentation. She hated presentations, always had since she was at school and the two idiots at the back of her classroom would hiss ‘sssss’ at her flaming red face. They hurled abuse at everybody but she was an easy target – her face would burn up, blazing red, as soon as she heard the sound of her own voice and felt the layers-peeling power of eyes on her.
With age, the flaming redness had lessened, but her nerves channelled themselves through her body and manifested as a severe knee tremble. She wasn’t sure which was worse. The red face that didn’t affect her speech or the knee quiver that caused her entire body to vibrate, shuddering as if she was out in the cold, despite her sweaty armpits. Her skirts would shake so that she resembled a cartoon character; she could almost hear the bone-clattering sound, like a bag of bones being shaken. She’d have to hide her hands too, or close her fingers to make fists. It was worse if she had to hold paper because the paper never lied. Always best to place the sheet on the table, hands closed to fists, or wrapped around a pen. Sit if possible, trousers preferable to skirts, and best to wear pants with narrowly tailored legs because the less loose fabric there was to tremble, the better; how-ever the waist needed to be loose to aid deep breathing. Better to be as casual as possible, coffee or tea to be drunk in a take-out cup to avoid cup and saucer rattling in trembling hands.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t know her stuff. She damn well did. She strode around her apartment as if giving a TED Talk. In her apartment she was the most competent, inspiring deliverer of quarterly sales figures that the world had ever seen. She was Sheryl Sandberg giving her TED Talk, she was Michelle Obama saying anything, she was a woman warrior spilling facts and figures, so self-assured in her own home, at night, alone.
The presentation was going fine, perhaps not as inspiring and earth-shattering as the rehearsal the previous night, with fewer insightful glimpses into her personal life and absolutely no humour, unlike the comedic ad-libbing she’d busted out to her ghost audience. It was definitely safer and more to the point, as perfect as she could hope for, apart from her annoying repetition of the phrase ‘per se’, which she had never used in her life regarding anything, but there it was now, a part of almost every sentence. She was already looking ahead to drinks later with her friends where they would giggle over her critical yet hilarious self-roasting. They’d toast to ‘Per Se!’ and spend the night using it in every sentence, creating a challenge perhaps, even a drinking game.
‘Excuse me, Mr Bartender,’ she imagined a friend leaning across the bar, with an arched eyebrow. ‘Could I get another Cosmo, per se?’
And they would all dissolve in laughter.
But she had gotten too far ahead of herself in her thoughts, she had gotten too cocky. All had been going well in her presentation until she’d disappeared into a daydream and taken her eye off the ball. She’d left the moment. She was surrounded by her dozen-strong team, those relieved to have finished their part of the presentation, others eager to have their moment in the light, when the door opened and in walked Jasper Godfries. The CEO. The new CEO who’d never sat in a sales meeting before in his life. Her heartbeat hastened. Cue knee tremble, cue shaking fingers. Hot skin, short breath. Her entire body, suddenly in flight mode.
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ Jasper announces to the surprised room. ‘I was stuck on a call with India.’
There are no free chairs because nobody is expecting him. People shift around, making room, and she finds herself standing, facing them all and her new CEO. Knees knocking, heart pounding.
Her colleagues look at the papers in her hand, some with amusement, some in pity, pretending they don’t notice how they violently shake. Jasper Godfries’ eyes remain on hers. She tries to relax her body, control her breathing, calm her mind, but she can’t think clearly. All she can think is the CEO, the CEO, the CEO. She hadn’t planned for this in any one of her one hundred possible scenario run-throughs all week.
Think, think, she tells herself as all eyes are trained on her.
‘Why don’t you take it from the top,’ her boss, Claire, says.
The voice inside her head shrieks with panic but instead she smiles, ‘Thank you, Claire.’
She looks down at her notes, flicks back to page one and everything blurs. She can’t see, she can’t think, she can only feel. Her anxiety is physical. It’s all going on in her body. She feels trembling in her knees, her legs, her fingers. A heart that beats too fast, they must be able to see it vibrating through her blouse. A cramp in her stomach that tightens. Nothing, nothing in her mind.
Claire says something to urge her along. They all turn the pages. They go back to the start. Back to the start. She can’t do it. Not all over again. She hadn’t prepared to do this twice.
Her throat tightens, stomach loosens. Panic. She feels a bubble of air, slowly, quietly release from her bottom. She’s thankful it’s quiet but it doesn’t take long for the hot, thick smell of her panic to circulate the room. She sees it hit Colin first. She sees how he jerks and moves his hand closer to his nose. He knows it was her. It will soon reach Claire. It does. Her eyes widen and her hand goes to her nose and mouth, subtly.
She looks down at the paper, shaking violently, worse than ever before, and for the first time in twenty-five years she feels the hot red blaze return to her cheeks where it burns, burns, burns her skin.
And she hears the words, ‘per se’, leave her lips, followed by a nervous giggle. They all look up from their notes to stare at her. Every single surprised, amused, irritated pair of eyes studies her. Judges her. It’s an awful, quiet, long, loaded silence, and all she wants to do is run out of the room or wish for the ground to open up and swallow her.
And that’s when it happens. A beautiful inviting black hole opens up between her and the boardroom table. Dark and promising, deep, welcoming. She barely thinks about it. She would rather be anywhere but here.
She jumps in.
She falls through darkness and lands in darkness.
‘Ow,’ she rubs her buttocks. Then she remembers what happened and she covers her face with her hands. ‘Oh fuck.’
‘You too, huh?’
She looks up and sees a woman beside her, wearing a wedding dress, with a name badge that reads Anna. She doesn’t want to know what Anna did, she doesn’t want to think of anything but analyse her own stupid mistake over and over again.
‘Where are we?’ the woman asks.
‘Cringeville,’ Anna moans. ‘Oh God, I am such an idiot.’ She looks up, face contorted in pain. ‘I called him Benjamin. I called him Benjamin,’ Anna says, freaking out, looking at the woman as though she can understand the gravitas of her mistake.
‘His name isn’t Benjamin?’ the woman asks.
‘No!’ Anna barks, causing her to jump. ‘It’s Peter. Peter.’
‘Oh, well, that’s not even close to Benjamin,’ the woman agrees.
‘No it’s not. Benjamin was my first husband,’ she wipes her eyes. ‘Right in the middle of my wedding speech, I call my new husband the wrong name. The look on his face.’
‘No! Peter’s face.’
Anna closes her eyes, squeezes them shut as if trying to make it all go away.
‘Poor you,’ the woman cringes for her, feeling slightly better about her own embarrassment. At least her moment hadn’t been her wedding day, it had only been in front of the CEO and the people she sees and works with every day of her life. No, it’s still bad. She sighs, cringes again.
‘What did you do?’ Anna asks.
‘I panicked and farted during a work presentation in front of my colleagues and the new CEO that I was trying to impress.’
Anna’s voice shakes and the woman senses she’s holding back a laugh.
‘It’s not funny,’ she cringes, covering her flaming cheeks again. Suddenly the ceiling above them opens, there’s a blast of bright light, sand trickles down. They guard their eyes. A woman tumbles down with the sand to the floor beside them.
‘Oh God,’ the woman whimpers. Yukiko is written on her name badge.
‘What happened?’ the woman asks Yukiko, eager to forget her own humiliation and the memory of her colleagues’ faces when her fart drifted to the table.
Yukiko looks up, pain on her face. ‘I just walked the full length of the hotel’s beach with my boob hanging out.’ She adjusts her bikini at the memory. ‘I was wondering why everyone was smiling at me. I just thought that everyone was so friendly . . . I wished for the ground to open up and swallow me,’ she says, looking around.
The ceiling opens again and they hear piano music, smell delicious food.
A woman jumps down and lands on her feet. Marie. She immediately starts tugging at her skirt, which is tucked right up into her underwear, revealing the cheeks of her bottom, and she wanders off deeper into the darkness on her own, muttering in French. The three women watching don’t even bother to ask.
‘So how long do we stay down here?’ Yukiko asks.
‘Forever, hopefully,’ the woman replies, settling down in a dark corner. She thinks about her presentation again, about the expressions on her colleagues’ faces, and she shudders.
‘I’ve been here a while. The ceiling opens up to the place you escaped from and you climb back up again. Two women left ahead of me,’ Anna explains. ‘I guess they knew it was their time to go.’
‘Probably when the cringe dies,’ the woman adds, hoping it will happen at least in this lifetime.
‘Never going to happen,’ Yukiko says, sitting down and wrapping her arms round her almost naked body. She relives her moment on the beach. ‘My nipple was out and everything . . .’ she groans before hiding her face.
Another hole opens further down, and a woman stumbles into the pit. ‘Jesus,’ she holds her head in her hands. ‘You’re a bloody eejit, Nora, why don’t you ever think before you speak?’
Anna laughs, not at anyone in particular but at the situation. ‘Maybe Peter will think my mentioning Benjamin was funny. We joked about me making the mistake, but I never thought it would actually happen. Maybe I should pretend it was a joke.’
A small hole opens above her.
‘Or admit the truth,’ the woman suggests.
‘What happened?’ Yukiko asks.
‘She confused her husband’s name with her ex-husband’s name in her wedding speech.’
Yukiko’s eyes widen.
The hole above them closes instantly. Anna is not ready to go yet and they all learn how this works. Nobody leaves the cringe hole until they are ready to leave the cringe hole. They could all be here for some time.
‘You two aren’t helping,’ Anna says, covering her face. ‘Oh God,’ she groans. ‘His parents, his brothers, his horrible sister, they’ll never let me live this down.’
‘But it’s not the worst mistake in the world, is it?’ the woman asks. ‘Peter isn’t going to leave you just because you made a genuine mistake. A wedding is an emotional time, you were nervous. It was probably the one name you didn’t want to say and it popped out. And in the grand scheme of things it’s not as if one of you is ill, or cheated, or argued.’
‘Or walked up the aisle with your boob out,’ Yukiko adds.
‘Or farted in front of the entire congregation,’ the woman adds, and Yukiko looks at her with her nose crinkling now that she knows her cringe story.
Anna laughs. ‘True.’
‘It was just a mistake with a name,’ the woman says gently.
‘I guess so,’ Anna smiles, and relief passes across her face. ‘You’re right. Thanks, ladies.’
The same hole reopens in the ceiling above them. They hear a toilet flush. A man calling, ‘Anna! Anna! Please come out!’
‘You’re hiding in the bathroom?’ the woman asks.
She nods and looks up. ‘Time to face the music.’
‘Good luck,’ the woman wishes her.
‘Thanks. You, too.’
She lifts her wedding dress above her knees so she can climb up to the hole, they watch her fix herself and her dress as she stares at the locked bathroom door. As she takes a deep breath and reaches for the lock, the ground closes up and she’s out of sight.
Just as Anna disappears, another hole opens and they see a toilet.
‘Is that Anna again?’ Yukiko asks.
‘No. Different toilet,’ the woman says, moving closer to peer up.
The smell that drifts down is so awful, they skitter away covering their noses and mouths.
The woman who fell down the hole stands up and looks at the hole that’s closing over and then at them all. Luciana.
‘Oh shit,’ the woman grimaces, holding her nose. ‘That really stinks.’
‘I know,’ Luciana cringes. ‘And there’s a long line of women who just heard me do it and are waiting to get in. It’s disgusting. I’m staying down here till the smell goes.’
‘You might have to start paying rent,’ Yukiko grumbles, holding her nose.
Another hole opens and a woman tumbles down, cursing. She looks at the three women facing her. She paces, chewing on her lip, then finally pauses and looks at them. Her name badge reads Zoe.
‘I just asked a mother at the school gates when her baby is due. There is no baby, she’s just really fat. Like pregnant fat. I see her every day, it was in front of the other mums.’ She moans.
A hole opens up further down and another woman falls to the ground, whimpering, ‘I slipped on my way to the bar, walking past his table.’
A voice calls from the dark at the other end of the hole. ‘I couldn’t stop laughing at the funeral.’
And a further voice from the darkness, hollow, haunted. ‘I went in for a hug and we kissed on the lips.’
‘Oh please, that is all nothing,’ says Marie, the woman who had her dress tucked into her underwear. She has a French accent and she emerges from the darkness smoking a cigarette, like a scene from a predictable spy movie. ‘It’s not like walking through the entire restaurant with the back of your skirt tucked into your lingerie,’ she adds through gritted teeth.
The women listening suck in air.
The ceiling opens and another woman stumbles down, naked, draped in a bed sheet, with a haunted expression. On her bare chest the name badge reads Sofia. No one asks her, they don’t need to know what situation she just escaped, and she ignores the others, too lost in her head.
A fragile voice from deep in the darkness speaks up, and as the woman’s eyes adjust to the gloom, she suddenly sees a body sitting on the floor that she hadn’t noticed before. She realizes the woman must have been there since she arrived. The shadowy figure places something on the floor and slides it. It stops at the woman’s feet. She picks it up, and reads the name badge. Guadalupe.
When Guadalupe speaks her voice is gravelly, deep, as though she’s been here for some time, without water. ‘Slide it back.’
ID confidentially shared, the woman slides it across the floor and Guadalupe catches it and the name badge disappears into the darkness again. She can’t even bring herself to wear it.
‘I sent an email to the wrong person. The message was about them, they should never have seen it,’ she says, looking at them all with big eyes. ‘I keep reliving the moment I pressed send. I wish I could take it back.’ Finished sharing, she drags herself back to the dark corner she’d been hiding in.
‘How long have you been here?’ the woman asks.
‘I’m never leaving,’ is Guadalupe’s croaky reply.
Marie snorts and sucks on her cigarette. The woman decides she will not stay in this hole for such a length of time, she cannot cringe and regret her mistake forever. She has a life to live.
Another hole opens and a glamorous woman tumbles down. She’s wearing a beautiful gown for a black-tie event. She looks at them in shock. ‘I won.’
‘You won?’ the woman asks. ‘Congratulations. What did you win?’
‘An award. The award I’ve worked for all my life.’
‘That’s amazing. You don’t seem so happy.’
‘I fell,’ she whispers, still stunned. ‘I tripped on the steps on the way up the stage. In front of everyone. Everyone.’
‘Oooh,’ they all say in unison.
‘Yowch,’ Luciana winces.
The ceiling opens above them again. The woman sees the wood panelling on the boardroom wall, the table, can make out Colin’s foot, his striped rainbow-coloured sock. She doesn’t want to stay, but she’s not ready yet, she panics.
‘Hey, take deep breaths,’ Zoe offers.
The woman complies and together they do deep breathing.
‘In through the nose,’ Marie says.
‘Out through the mouth,’ Yukiko finishes.
The woman looks up through the hole. They’re just people, people she knows. She knows her stuff, she is over-prepared, she always over-prepares in case of moments like this. She can do this.
At least she didn’t call her husband the wrong name on her wedding day, at least her skirt wasn’t tucked into her underwear, at least her boob wasn’t hanging out. She didn’t ask her overweight colleague if she was pregnant. She didn’t misdirect a sensitive email. She messed up her presentation, she embarrassed herself. But it wasn’t live on television. It’s redeemable.
The remaining women in the hole watch at her, anxious for her next move. Another hole opens and a young woman stumbles down, confused. ‘Canada is in America, right?’ she pleads and in their faces she knows she’s wrong. ‘No! Of course it’s not. Idiot.’ She hits her head and mumbles, ‘Worst job interview ever.’
The woman looks back up at the hole. At least she knows her stuff. It could always be worse. Everybody gets nervous sometimes. But the fart . . . she’ll have to try to pretend it was someone else. She needs to reconcile this moment and move on.
‘You just down or going up?’ Marie asks, sucking on the last of her cigarette.
The woman smiles. ‘I’m going back up.’
‘Well, good luck, I’m never going up there again,’ Yukiko says.
‘You will, trust me. There’s always something worse that could happen,’ the woman says.
In the distance she hears a woman fall to the ground with a shriek, ‘But the woman looked like a man!’
She takes a deep breath and steps up to the hole.
In an instant, she is standing back where she was, in front of the boardroom table, papers in her hands. While time has passed for her, it’s as though she never left the room for her colleagues. All eyes are still on her. The shaking has stopped. The worst has happened. She lived through it. She survived.
‘Apologies, guys,’ she says firmly. ‘Let’s start over, shall we? I’ve outlined South Africa’s sales in the graph and as you can see we’ve witnessed a sharp increase over last quarter’s numbers, which I’m pleased with. Still, there’s enormous room for growth, which is where the proposal on page two comes in.’
As she turns the page, the women down in the black hole smile up at her, give her the thumbs up, and the surface closes over.