Category Archives: The Short Story
This feels slightly weird but in the run-up to the launch of Room Little Darker next Wednesday, 31st May (Hodges Figgis, 6pm, all welcome!) I wanted to post this author interview Catherine Dunne did with me on her website as it discusses some of the stories in the book as well as wider themes. So excuse the narcissism, and enjoy!
1 – ‘SOMAT’ is also part of this new story collection. Narrated from the point of view of a foetus, it is, among other things, a howl of outrage against the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which can reduce pregnant women in Ireland to the status of incubators. But it is the irreverent inventiveness of the language that really grabs the reader by the throat. Can you give us an insight into how you gave life to this particular voice?
J.C.: – There were two Frankensteinesque stories of women held captive in monstrous situations in 2014 that really smashed me in the gut and made me angry as hell. A woman from Texas called Marlise Munoz, who was 14 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child when her husband found her unconscious on their kitchen floor. She’d suffered an pulmonary embolism. Though doctors pronounced her brain dead and her family explicitly said they didn’t want machines keeping her body alive, officials at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth felt differently.
The law in Texas is very like ours in Ireland. It required them to maintain life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient as long as there was a foetal heartbeat. Keeping a woman alive against nature’s will (her body was essentially rotting and she had to be drowned out in ‘somatic’ medicines to keep her ‘technically’ alive) as a human incubator when the baby/foetus is in no way viable was such a hideous scenario.
Her family fought their own grief and powerlessness for eight long weeks, having to go to court several times, before she could be taken off the machines. Think of the trauma of that? And the law is supposed to be there to ‘protect’ you?
Her husband, Erick Munoz, argued that sustaining her body artificially amounted to ‘the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body’ against her wishes and those of her family. That was at the beginning of the year.
June Caldwell’s stories are the roar of fury and clarity that Irish fiction has been needing – no really, it has. You haven’t read anything like this before. You haven’t had anything before like the headspin that these stories will give you. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re gaspingly, gutsily hilarious, as well as formally brave and unbothered with the rules. Just brilliant – Belinda McKeon
At the end of the year, an almost identical situation happened in Ireland. A woman who had suffered a spontaneous ‘brain’ trauma who was 18 weeks pregnant, ended up at the mercy of bonkers legislation in an ‘unnamed’ hospital, being fought over by medical staff, legal eagles and the Catholic church. The hospital refused her family’s request to discontinue artificial life support, citing ‘the country’s strict abortion law’ as their guideline. Then there was the usual circus offerings: lawyers representing the rights of the woman and of the fetus, but not her family, said they accepted the ruling from the country’s second-highest court.
Pro-life organisations saw the lingering horror as a kind of triumph in real-time and the men in dresses were issuing statements from stained-glass windows on God’s law over woman’s fate.
It was insane and really upsetting to read about. One doctor commented that the fetus was essentially “facing into a ‘perfect storm’ from which it has no realistic prospect of emerging alive.”
Even the most cogent argument couldn’t alter the facts, the ‘baby’ had nothing but distress and death ahead. The hospital was afraid of being sued for negligence or having to face murder charges under a 1983 constitutional ban on abortion, the strictest in Europe. Keeping her deteriorating body functioning only with the help of machines and drugs deprived her “of dignity in death”.
It subjected her father, her partner and her young children to “unimaginable distress in a futile exercise which commenced only because of fears held by treating medical specialists of potential legal consequences,” the court decided.
And of course, Government officials said the ruling would be studied for possible exceptions to the blanket ban on abortion. We live in a time where we are contemplating colonies on Mars and yet there are women left lingering in this freakish state in our hospitals, with their families suffering ridiculously.
It boiled my piss.
I wanted to write a story that reflected the trajectory of horror and I felt that it was best told from the fetus’s perspective, to highlight the hideousness. After spending years in journalism and being restricted on what you could say and how you could say it, I firmly believe that fiction can be more effective, more politicised.
wrote the story in a fit of anger to the 3,000 word brief (which was hard to do and sent it into Sinéad Gleeson, who was editing The Long Gaze Back anthology).
I was really nervous about how it would be received, if it came across as offensive, if it would get people talking. It turned out to be one of the most talked about stories in the collection.
The Open University now want it on their MA in Creative Writing (fiction module) and have asked permission to use it for the next nine years. That gave me hope that I have it in me to make a difference. Up until that point I had no idea if I could write a short story or not. Writing the story helped me understand the stupidity of our laws and the need to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and go for a referendum. I hope it happens. It needs to happen.
June Caldwell’s writing is audacious, wicked and profoundly funny; her prose cracks and sizzles. The stories in Room Little Darker are literary electrical storms and Caldwell’s voice is a genuinely fresh, bold and welcome addition to the Irish scene – Nuala O’Connor
2 – The characters in your stories often inhabit a nightmarish world, such as that wildly imagined one in ‘Imp of the Perverse’. They are frequently transported there by the ferocity of sexual desire:
‘In the garden I watch the guests through the heat of amber eyes. Grasses bristle and jostle. I stretch forward to lie flat in the flimsy sunshine of early evening. The clouds are hungry and my mouth waters. Wind tears at itself as I pull layers from the sky to lay over me. Laughter grey and mocking. They do not know the danger love carries.’
Can you talk to us about this – about ‘the danger love carries’ in your stories?
J.C.: – Well, yes, in adult life we are obliged to be ‘civil’ always, aren’t we, to be well behaved?
We’re not marauding teenagers anymore.
But sometimes we can’t or don’t choose our desires and the people who counter-inhabit them. They choose us. They untangle us. They sweep in from the unconscious and take us over, eat us up, make fools of us, flood us. Crazy behaviour can only follow. Desire as the invisible puppeteer. And these desires are often strongest where hierarchies exist, where taboo beckons, where warped lust lurks. In this story I wanted to look closely at two stereotypes: the randy professor who has more choice than sense, and the love-struck MA student who at first is overwhelmed by a genuine admiration for him and his work, but pretty soon that morphs into a dangerous longing.
The longing takes over and acts as Theatre Director in the drama, leading into murky corners, embarrassing come-ons. He, of course, plays with this at first, before becoming sickened or appalled by her. He is used to seducing women with his mind, ‘pinning’ with his eyes, flinging provocative sentences, lassoing.
He sees himself as a Gingerman type character and everyone is fair game.
Until the game goes wrong.
His character is quietly psychopathic. He’s addicted to the pleasure he gets from luring people in, of women wanting him, lasciviousness. He pulls the strings, the wires, he cracks the whip. His position also allows for this. It is the milky environment of emotional cancer, the alkaline is missing. He has a vast brain and deeply abusive psychological patterns that direct him. He’s also a fail-safe opportunist.
She’s not a victim though.
She’s also very clever and plays the ‘little girl’ around him a lot, knowing he likes the dynamism of that. But then she loses control and spills overboard, along with her sanity, ending up in the freezing cold sea. The only way she can cope with the idea of him is to turn him into an animal in her head, where he is predator and she is [willing] prey.
All well and good, but the game goes wrong when she realises he has no interest in her. She cannot compete with what he normally goes for. She unravels. Self-annihilation and destruction consume her. It’s all a bit disgusting and shameful. On the surface she seems to be the gudgeon, the martyr.
But then she examines his behaviour inside the kaleidoscope of power and realises that he can behave as he likes. The expectations on her, in the ‘lower’ hierarchical role, are more demanding and rigid. She gets angry and this perpetuates even more destructive behaviour. It’s a no-win. Going back is futile, revenge is futile, going forward is futile. She is straitjacketed. He will never like her, consider her, want her. His available pool of lovelies who admire him endlessly is so large, he drowns in it. They both drown, but in different ways. In the end she wanders into the ‘den’ and has a breakdown. What will happen when she emerges from that desolate place and sees more clearly? Sees that he’s just a man (how boring!).
What then? Will she feel remorse, will she feel sorry for him? Will she learn important things about herself? He doesn’t care however, and formally complains, consequence pours in regardless. She’s punished severely for her ‘transgression’. He’s every right to do what he does.
He’s also every right to bob along never scrutinising his own behaviour because he never believes he causes damage. It’s all just light-hearted ‘stuff’ to him. Maybe he is the ‘victim’ here, maybe he did nothing wrong.
She could be just relentlessly nuts after all. I want the reader to consider the macro, to like and hate and understand both characters. The meaning of meaninglessness! I use Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Imp of the Perverse’ as a type of metaphor or structure for the story. In his original short story, which Poe wrote in part as an essay, he first discusses the narrator’s self-destructive impulses, embodied as the symbolic metaphor of The Imp of the Perverse.
The narrator describes this spirit as the agent that tempts a person to do things ‘merely because we feel we should not.’ He talks about how we are compelled to ‘commit acts’ against our self interest in life, that this is part of our intrinsically destructive impulses as human beings. The guilt that’s produced afterwards (even if we ‘confess’ to our ridiculous behaviour, our sins) is also futile. No one cares! Poe’s character eventually commits murder, gets away with it, but the overwhelming desire [triggered by an ‘invisible fiend’ pursuing him, the conscience] to confess leads him to the hangman’s alley.
I thought it would be the perfect metaphor to look at destructive desire and the crippling lonely lows it can lead us into.
I use some of Poe’s text in the story, sneakily.
It’s there in some of the sentences, but the modern context of the setting submerges the original text.
The moral of the story is that desire can be as treacherous as love is relative. We need to know how to handle it, how to bury it, how to accept defeat and walk off, how to forgive ourselves. Ultimately how to accept that sometimes we have no control. Perhaps it’s the only way we can truly learn.
This story could also be written about a priest and one of his congregation, a paedophile and a child, an alligator zig-zagging towards a juicy deer strolling aimlessly by. Ying without the Yang, sexual chemistry in a cul-de-sac.
Poe’s theory of the Imp of the Perverse is an early notion of the subconscious and repression which would not be fully theorised until Freud.
When people meet they’ve no real idea what private psychologies they’re banging off. It’s why we have boundaries in life. Rules. When we ignore them, or evade our own splurging instincts, we get into trouble. It was too tempting to have the student protagonist ‘win’ in the end by ripping him to shreds for hurting her, but that’s not realistic. The end is deliberately anti-climactic. Maybe they are both still out there and have learnt nothing in their separate dusty cubby-holes. That’s what I imagine anyway. Love, lust, desire, even the ugly deluded kind, are potentially traumatic and betraying to the delicate self. There is no midway point, no resolve, no understanding. We become marked, spoiled, swinging off the rope forever. Tread carefully and make sure there’s rubber soles on your slippers to cope with the rain.
June Caldwell’s stories are savagely inventive, full-throttle snapshots of the creepy, pitiable world it seems we all now have to live in. If the ghost of Angela Carter and a hungover George Saunders ever got together, they might turn out tales as full of the righteous ire and strychnine wit as the uproarious stories in Room Little Darker – Colin Barrett
3 – Your writer’s imagination seems to me to be a heady mix of hilarity and horror. In the visceral tale ‘Upcycle’, a daughter recalls the chilling abuse of a now-demented father. Yet the tale is leavened with a hearty dose of black humour, such as the mother’s futile attempt, long ago, to ‘poison his stew’. There are many times when the reader laughs, and then feels uncomfortable for laughing. Can you talk to us about the role of humour in your stories?
J.C.: – I always see the funny even in the horrific or even just in the ‘every day’.
Maybe it’s a feeling of healthy dislocation, but I find a lot of life ‘unreal’, and that also includes how we cope with memory. I’ve never grown up, essentially. We forget too that there are always two in a tango, that everyone bears the weight of responsibility, for their relationships, for their actions, and most tellingly, for their lack of action.
The crime of nonchalance, of missing the point of life. The ‘wife’ character in ‘Upcycle’ is portrayed first of all as a bit of a victim but really we have to ask ourselves, what’s in it for her staying with a man like that? Is it societal pressure of the time (the story swings back and forth from the 1970s and 1980s to the present day where the ‘husband’ is in a nursing home)? Again it is a story about the shifting sands of power: a man who is a bully in his marriage but is now out of control with the mites of madness eating his brain, behaves accordingly.
He loses control but tries to regain some of that control by haunting his family. Is he really haunting them or is it their own conscience playing havoc in the aftermath of a traumatic situation? The house becomes a metaphor for the man’s strong seething will and starts to break up all around them (the wife and daughter).
I guess there’s unintentional humour in that.
In the scenario itself. Fun in the absurd. We expect justice in life, appeasement, release from hard situations. It often doesn’t arrive, it doesn’t grace our doorstep.
Life tells us, ‘You picked this shit, deal with it, smell it, stick it right up your nose.’ Humour is sometimes our only saviour. Without giving too much away, by the end of the story, the protagonist realises that the father was always terrified of them, while they lived it in real time the other way around. Humour in hopelessness, the wrangle for reason.
What else is there to do sometimes but laugh? I hope that there is fun and humour is most of these stories. In ‘Leitrim Flip’ for instance, the scenario is horrific, but again the couple’s predicament in the cage is a consequence of not thinking things through clearly. There’s buffoonery in the role reversal: the ‘submissive’ character relents and accepts her fate. The ‘Master’ continually fights their predicament and refuses to accept it. Yet in his traditional role he’d expect her to handle anything he’d dream of dishing out.
In ‘The Man Who Lives In A Tree’, the tree is seemingly a ‘friend’ but Rashi soon realises that he’s a malevolent git. A Facebook friend who was sent a review copy wrote to me today to say she had ‘nightmares’ after reading the story.
She dreamt Liam Neeson turned into the tree and chased her.
I couldn’t stop laughing at that image. If I give people nightmares or make them laugh, I’ve done my job as a writer.
My 83-year-old Ma asked me why I wrote about ‘a tree who could talk’, and I said, ‘why not?’ Hippies believe that trees whisper and have voices. Maybe they do. And we, as people, as wreckers of the environment must piss them off no end. But all we feel is pity for ourselves, not for the havoc we wreak. The tree doesn’t care too much for humans, even ones like Rashi who are homeless and desperate. Why should it? That shouldn’t be funny, but maybe it is. I also feel guilty sometimes about using humour in inappropriate ways.
In ‘Dubstopia’ we should feel nothing but concern for the heroin addict character, but we end up laughing at the pointlessness of his day, at his own lack of control, at a city sizzling in menace. When I worked at the Irish Writers Centre, I remember one day standing outside in the porch to get some air, and I saw this really dishevelled junkie, he looked in a terrible state, really emaciated… and he stopped to read the menu outside Chapter One (you know, that really posh expensive Michelin star restaurant!). He looked like he’d emerged from a crumby bedsit, woken by the pains of hunger that pulled him out onto the street. He was reading the menu out loud driving himself mad! I knew it wasn’t funny per se, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
I felt bad but laughed for two days over that.
I felt ugly for my own immorality of being able to find this funny. It made me uncomfortable. I want my stories to do the same. Humour, laughter, to just plomp your face in your hands and say, ‘For fuck’s sake!’, is a great balm. We laugh uncontrollably from the time we’re babies and everything is hideous and new and distorted, to the hilarious cartoons of childhood that calm and teach us, to our mortifying teenage romances, right up to the myriad of things that can and do go wrong for us as adults. Humour is also a close colleague of pain. There is so much in life that is privately hellish or impossible to cope with. If we can take a moment to laugh, then isn’t that great? We’re all strolling towards the crematorium anyway. Imagine taking any of this shit seriously?
There is a seriously charged imagination at work here. Line by line, page by page, Caldwell brings a dangerous new voltage to the Irish short story – Mike McCormack
4 – Your stories deal with characters who find themselves ‘unmoored’ in a strange and hostile parallel universe. Although dark and terrifying, the world that you create is kept vibrant and somehow optimistic by the sheer energy of the language that you use – your metaphors are arresting, startling, illuminating. Is language or character the starting-point for you?
J.C.: – I love language!
I listen to how people speak, not formally, but how, you know, we have conversations in the pub or even in our heads (have you ever taken time out to listen to your head, it’s terrifying!) With ‘Natterbean’ for instance: that came about one day in a taxi. A junkie walked out in front of the cab and the taxi driver said, ‘I hate them fucking Natterbeans’. I asked him what he meant. ‘Every time they get into the car, they’re all ‘I’m natterbean up at the clinic and yer man said…’ and so on. It was his word for ‘I’m after been’, said in a frenzy. I thought, ‘I’m robbing that!’ Language straight off the street, right from the gob of a taxi man, you can’t get more Joycean than that.
Taxi men are the modern-day carriers of all things Ulysses.
Their warblings are a great example of how language is used to best effect in ordinary ways, in storytelling. Taxi men always tell you stories and they do it brilliantly.
We learn how to write ‘essays’ in school in Victoriana English. Short story writing is the opposite of that, in any fiction, we’re trying to mirror reality as we live and experience it. In SOMAT the foetus is not really talking like a foetus (we all know they can’t talk, right?) and the voice is peculiarly adult and ‘knowing’, but at the same time it breaks up/away into baby speak sometimes.
I wanted to give a flavour of ‘what if’. Voice for me is the most important thing in any writing. How that character inhabits their own reality. I admire writers who use language in subtle beautiful ways, but that’s not me.
My heroine in this regard is Eimear McBride, what she does with language in ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ is off the scale brilliant.
She knows how language is formed in the brain through her study of linguistics and she worked with that. It floored me. Seeing it performed on stage shook me to the core. It’s the best example of stellar use of language I can think of. I’m not in that league at all but I take inspiration from her.
I love reading a book where the character (and the writer in their role of occupying that character) seems almost possessed. Ross Raisin in ‘God’s Own Country’ or even ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold.
I hope that I use language effectively to make each of the stories different from one another. I’ve read short story collections where ‘the voice’ is the same throughout and while there’s great skill involved in achieving this, it’s not for me. I want each story to be so separate and identifiable from the next.
The average word usage for anyone using spoken English is between 20,000 and 35,000 words, but the Oxford English Dictionary lists at least 171,476 words with thousands of obsolete ones no longer in use. Look how much language has changed since the advent of social media? All those new buzz words and vowel-less offerings?
Language, like sexuality, is fluid, and it’s the writer’s job to exploit this to the best of their ability.
It’ll be interesting to see if some of the language in my ‘Oirish’ stories carries to an audience outside of here. Will it work or will it bore? Writers like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh have done Scottish street language proud. How will we move with the high-tech languages of the future and still stay true to our own unique way of expressing ourselves?
5 – After this blistering collection Room Little Darker, what’s next for June Caldwell, Writer?
J.C.: – I’ve a few short story commissions to write now (for The Lonely Crowd Welsh literary journal and Winter Papers here) and after that it’s time to return to an abandoned novella: a murderous tale about one of Ireland’s missing women, told from the dead, with a twist.
I was obsessed with the ‘triangle’ of missing murdered women that happened in the 1990s, but my story moves on a bit in time and looks at the idea of murderous intent and how so many men get away with the ultimate violence against women, and how as a country, we are still utterly unprepared to deal with that scenario.
I began the story on the MA in Belfast, but I’d never attempted fiction and it was very disparate and all over the place. That’s the next job at hand. After that, I may go for a ‘big’ novel. I also love hybrids: mixes of non-fiction and fiction. I feel like I’ve spent two decades in an incubator ‘waiting’ to write.
I can’t understand why I didn’t do it earlier. So I want to have all my babies now in quick succession. Then I’ll retire to the countryside to have as much sex as I can and look at the sea endlessly before I die. Well, hold on, I’m only in my forties so maybe there’s plenty of time to write a whole slew of disturbing books where I’ll be labelled a lunatic but one day someone will say ‘Yer one, she was a difficult narky character alright, but she could string a sentence together OK’. That to me, would be a life well lived.
Last year after the publication of my short story SOMAT in The Long Gaze Back, I was asked to contribute to various events and public readings. I decided to say a big resounding YES to anything I was asked to write/do as an important part (for me) of being a writer is taking on the challenge of reading in public. I took part in a lot of fun events, the Barrytown Trilogy Readings in Dun Laoghaire when Colm Keegan was Writer in Residence, The Bogman’s Canon Fiction Disco, Staccato, National Concert Hall, among others. (Next Monday: 7th November, I’ll be reading a new short story at The Monday Echo at The Mezz in Temple Bar. It kinda never stops! What I learnt was that writing for public readings demands a different type of narrative, one that is less complex than, say, a short story for the page, where the reader is deliberately left thinking about what is inferred – particularly with story endings – and instead these pieces should concentrate on entertaining the audience in the moment. You have about ten minutes to make yourself understood in these kind of settings. You can do this by concentrating more heavily on dialogue, making stories easier to comprehend and to the point. Who are the main characters, what’s going on, what happens them, what changes. Simple! When I was asked to take part in the Eastrogen Rising as part of the Five Lamps Festival I wanted to write about an ‘unknown’ woman who was caught up in the Rising in some way. Lots of ordinary Dubs were left short of vital supplies (no fridges, people shopped daily for their grub) and forced to loot in order to feed their families, it’s believed now that this is how a lot of the kids who got caught up in the gunfire, died. As reported in the Irish Examiner last March, most of the looting took place in the first three days, amid the crossfire between the rebels and the British, but before the fires took firm hold in the central streets. Lower Sackville St was a focal point, with clothes, sports, and toy shops proving popular. Noblett’s and Lemon’s confectioners shops were looted for chocolates and sweets; the toffee axe may have come from one
of these. The Cable Shoe Company had its windows smashed, and contemporary newspapers reported that people were seen trying on boots and shoes, and returning for another pair if the first selection failed to fit correctly. I tried to imagine a woman whose husband was a bit of an eejit, he desperately wants to pick off some of the glory for himself any way he can while she’s left at home with some leftover veg and a baby to look after, until her friend Molly calls around and takes her looting. This show is running for the last time on December 3rd at the Annesley House in North Strand as the 1916 commemorations come to a close. It’s a fast-paced celebration of those women, from Constance Markievicz to the messenger girls, the ordinary housewives and the widows of the executed men. The multi-media show includes songs, poetry, spoken word, theatre pieces, video and recorded soundscapes. Fireworks taken from Lawrence’s Photographic and toy emporium on Sackville Street opposte the GPO were thought to have been responsible for much of the fires in that part of the city centre. It was these fires, started by looters that spread from building to building, which caused the massive destruction. Here’s my short fiction piece from the show that was Highly Commended for the The Colm Toíbín International Short Story Award. Read it fast in a flat Dub accent or come to the show in December to hear me read it instead! Tickets are available at the door on the night…
‘A woman of set purpose’, he says, ‘In these stirring times Kathleen, it’s no worse a thing you could be.’ ‘Ah right’, says I, ‘Everyone lays a burden on a willing horse Jimmy, but not every Irish woman is Maud Bloody Gonne’. He flicked the baby’s snot in the fire, and prepared to leave, carrying a piece of chair leg with him. That’s what I loved about Jimmy; he could suck out the clogged pipes of a bairn in one hand, and take on the might of the oppressor with a bit of wicker in the other, and still be home in time for a shindig supper. ‘You’re not listening, it’s on for certain’, Jimmy says, ‘The rebellion, it’s full steam on’ – the whooping outta him – ‘D’ye hear me Kathleen? It’s STARTED!’
A fella shot hoisting a flag high above City Hall…crowds gathering up around Sackville Street, fixed bayonets, people digging trenches, fires scorching from pinched fireworks, running in all directions they were. ‘Pray for me darling Kathleen, that I arrive back safe in your bosom’. As last words, no less dramatic than his ideals. ‘I will,’ I says, looking at the half a sausage, butt of carrot and scabby onion on the table, that, along with a sly sup of water, was going to magic into this week’s dinner. ‘I’m hoping for all our sakes you do come back love,’ I says. ‘Not least of all so I don’t have to explain to your employer up at the Royal Barracks that they’ll have to get a new shit shoveller when your turnip gets blown off.’
That’s what got me in all this. Half dem fellas worked for the Empire or were away fighting into the afterlife for it. It’s not like we didn’t know how bad things were at home, but how would a Republic make our lives any different? We all knew scrabblers stuck in Tenements with just one flushable piss pot for twenty people! Sickness streaming down bannisters along with the dark lung. I saw a nipper feeding two childer a wet cloth to stave off the hunger, sucking a corner each, another cradled on the stone stairs in a half rag, brown smeared down the walls would turn the guts of a carthorse. A day here a day there down the docks when it came to work. I don’t mind tellin’ ye, all across the country, the men were drunk and the women were angry.
Out the door I see him swaggering towards Sackville Street to the GPO where a ‘certain comrade’ has confided in him the Big Barney is really kicking off. But knowing Jimmy, at the first sound of gunfire, he’ll drop the wood and slip down a side street until he’s at the back of The Gresham, heading north till he can knock up a couple of his cronies holed up in some kip near Dorset Street. Saluting two flags his new Citizens’ Army chums assure him will be flying on either side of the post office before he beats a sneaky retreat. Ah sure he’ll tell himself that he’s already ‘done his bit for the cause’, chucking four Lee Enfield rifles over the wall and into a blanket the rebels have spread out on the outside of the barracks. Humming ‘God Save Ireland’ until it’s drowned by the clatter of horses hooves of the British cavalry and the crick-crack of bullets whizzing to and fro. No problem to him to whistle a grand patriotic tune right up until he’s at the boarding-house overlooking the Royal Canal, hammering on the door until those bowsies let him in and invite the chancer to their card school. It’s well I remember Palm Sunday when he squandered the wages including pennies his newfound friends from Liberty Hall handed him for services rendered in the name of the Irish Republic.
It was a bitter night in January when he first brought Maud Gonne – who I later named ‘When is she gone?’ and Connolly to our lodgings. ‘Jesus Kathleen, the neighbours would be flabbergasted if they realised our company tonight!’ Jimmy said. I was flabbergasted as he expected me to have tea and brack, a drop of porter, fat logs on the fire and whatever else, and her with an accent you’d only hear back from a wall at a séance. ‘Such pretty little houses are these,’ Maud said, taking her bonnet and swishing it about her nostrils which were halfway up in the air trying to get away from the fish heads on the table. ‘And yet the enemy is intent on the wholesale destruction of these little habitats with their big brutish battering rams.’ Jimmy all impressed at her mouth swagger. ‘You should try living in one of these little houses Maud,’ I says. ‘That’s about the best way to know what you’re talking about.’ And as for Connolly! He sat there smoking a pipe like an American Indian, saying beautiful nought.
Jimmy is out prowling them streets, trying to get himself noticed with that chair leg. He couldn’t even do the decent thing and find himself a pike. There’s a rap at the window; the plump frame of Molly Gilroy crowned with a feathered hat beyond the pane. No, she won’t stop for a sup she says, when I come to the door to let her in. She’s swinging a box with twine over it dangling on her arm all excited and nodding her head to show off the fancy thing on top of her hair and a fox stole sporting an oversized head choking her neck-line.
‘They were just lying there among the mannequins in the smashed up shop and I says to myself I says ‘Go on Molly girl, now’s your chance. Even Edward’s war pension if he was to take one for King and Empire over in France would never get you into a place like this.’ Dublin’s difficulty is Gilroy’s opportunity…and yours too Kathleen,’ Molly shrieks as the booms and the bangs go off in the distance. I grab my shawl, stick the baby in his crib at the chimney and run out after her.
Molly has one hand on her hat and the other on her hip as she tea dances all the way down to the Liffey and back up as far as the shops near the bridge with their gouged-out fronts and broken glass. Oh God those Brit boyos are not going to be put off by troops of giddy blackguards swinging hurleys and anything else they can muster. Our lot are stupid as half-reared pigs with torn ears. There’s little left to scavenge when we get near Noblett’s sweet shop as all the ragged kids are wearing oversize boots and showing off stroked rings on their fingers. One lad is parading around in a liberated Aran suit from Clery’s while a jug-eared Monsignor from the Pro-Cathedral is clipping the neck of a scamp who has a box of Everton Toffees under his arm and who wont let go of his booty.
‘Take yer hand away from that chisler Father or I’ll have ya!’, Molly Gilroy bellows as she points to a green tweed cape lying amid slivers of glass outside Clery’s pavement. ‘Has there been anymore of our ones taken?’ says I to an old white head sticking out of a wool blanket in a doorway. ‘What’s all this for?’ he crackles back, looking more the worse for wear than aware. He may have been sleeping here a fair few days, more ragged ones being put out now when there’s not enough to go around. ‘Don’t you know?’ I says. ‘The Shinners have grabbed the city by its nethers this morning and they’re not going to stop until the whole place is sunk beneath itself’. He’s straining to look around. ‘Oh’, says he…’I could hear something alright, but on account of taking de drop, I thought it might be just in the ears.’ I tell him it’s going on since eleven this morning and no doubts will get hellsbells…he’d better get himself off the streets proper. ‘The Green is full of them too I hear and they’ve captured the Castle on top, and the Post Office, look at the smoke over there’. ‘My God’, he says, ‘The buggers are stirring up trouble for all of us.’
I pick up the garment Molly flings at me, her right hand now wristletted by a thick gold chain. I pretend I haven’t seen the sparkling jade brooch you’d see on one of those elegant ladies gliding into the Abbey Theatre of an evening. I’ll hide it from Molly, I’ll hide it from Jimmy. I’ll keep it planked in the pantry, maybe in the sugar bowl. If he loses at cards again this evening I’ll have something to take to the Pawn shops in Capel Street later in the week…if there’s a Capel Street still standing after all this is over.
Molly runs over and says, ‘Jesus Kathleen, your Jimmy’s up there, squeezed into a window at the very top of the GPO, screaming his lamps off, guns blazing!’ We lash up the pathway on the other side of the road, past the fruit sellers hiding under their stalls, a bread & milk van turned over, some youngones running with tins of bully beef, soldiers from our own side shouting: ‘Qut! Out! Get out of the way, looters will be shot!’, until we’re facing the main windows at the front of the building. By Jaysus there’s Jimmy, the big wide jawbone on him, and a gun alright, along with his gunner eye, pointing up into the sky shooting at any clouds that happen to be passing by. ‘He’s lighting up the sky over Ireland!’ Molly roars, busting her sides laughing, ‘Jimmy! Jimmy! The enemy’s down here!’ But he’s off with his own heavenly army in some other direction. ‘Grab what you can Molly,’ I says. ‘These are going to be tough times ahead for the likes of us, and I’ll deal with that eejit when he lands back down in the new Republic in the morning’.
Lisa Harding is a writer I truly admire. She nails *voice* like no-one else I know both in her short stories and in her newly-penned novels. This month (October) she signed with New Island Books for a controversial novel about trafficked teenagers (published next Spring) and she’s also Writer in Residence with Pavee Point in association with the Irish Writer’s Centre. I meet with Lisa fortnightly at our writer’s group in Brooks Hotel on Drury Street, so am familiar with her work and also with her struggle to stay earning while pursuing a life as a writer. I wanted to ask her some relevant questions that may be of use to other writers starting out on a similar track.
Let’s start with where things are at for you at the moment and that includes being on the radio recently to talk about your current accommodation difficulties. You made a very valid point that one in four people in Ireland rent and these numbers are growing, yet nothing solid has been done about the appalling conditions and escalating prices. You have your first novel coming out in 2017 with New Island Books; you are trying hard to contribute to society but as a freelance teacher, actress and writer, you feel that your own basic needs are being violated over. It’s a side to the writer’s life that’s maybe not talked about a lot. Can you elaborate?
This tension is a biggie for me: How to continue with my creative work while keeping a roof over my head? My balance isn’t what it used to be, and I don’t think I like teetering on that high-wire anymore…I moved back to Dublin almost seven years ago after thirteen years living out of a suitcase as an actress in London. That was all fine, then. But the time came when I wanted to move home to create some stability and focus more on writing. Since moving back I’ve had six moves in six years because of landlord’s vagaries: rent increases, taking back property for family members, selling under my feet and sometimes impossible living conditions such as no heat and damp.
How do artists live in a city where the average cost of renting a studio/one bedroom sub-standard dwelling is €1,000 a month? As Martin Doyle wrote in the Irish Times on the 7 Oct, the median income of professional authors is €12,000, but the typical median income of all writers is less than €4,000. So boohoo, some people say, grow up, get a ‘proper job’, or marry a rich man (yes, I’ve heard that one a few times!) or move out of Dublin, or share with a bunch of twenty-somethings. I love my hometown and happen to believe that the arts are an important, integral part of any society. Also, having spent over a decade in London, I don’t want to uproot again and be in a place where I know no one. Dublin has a rich tradition of producing writers, actors, theatre-makers. We pride ourselves on our culture, yet some prominent arts practitioners that I know live on less than the minimum wage.
I wish I knew the answer to this conundrum, but I know for sure that if I weren’t running around stressing and doing all my other jobs, which still don’t bring in enough for me to create a stable home I’d have much more time to spend on creating new work.
Tell us about your first novel, the genesis of the idea, how you decided to go about it?
When I was acting in Fair City, I was approached by a representative for The Body Shop to read some monologues written by girls who had been trafficked into this country. This was part of a campaign run in conjunction with the Immigrant Council of Ireland to stop the trafficking of children. I had no idea of the extent of the industry; how so many of these girls were so young and were being visited by men from all sectors of society, some of whom had daughters at home. I found the experience of reading the statements traumatic and wondered how their young bodies and minds could survive and assimilate this abuse. Or could they?
The testimonies I read aloud were true stories of girls who were now in safety, but I could feel their splintered psyches even in the simple language they used to relate the facts of their captivity. I really didn’t want to think any more on it, but I was haunted by their stories and couldn’t push these girls out of my mind. I tried. I wrote a series of unrelated short stories, but something was gestating and Iliterally felt compelled to write it. Some kind of a testament to these girls, to try to give ‘voice’ in some way. There was always the worry for me of ‘trespassing’ on other people’s misery, and not writing about something I’ve had no first-hand experience of, but once I became convinced that my motivation was coming from a pure place, I gave myself permission to write Harvesting. The novel has subsequently been read and approved of by a number of NGO’s who believe that the immersive accounts of two girls trapped in this world may raise awareness in a way that no amount of journalistic reports could.
You are currently the IWC Writer in residence with Pavee Point, what does this involve, what have you learnt so far?
My group is very varied in age and writing ability, so the sessions are mainly being mediated through discussion and aural storytelling. We are exploring the concepts of identity and purpose through the prism of inter-generational change. Some of the older women in the group are in their seventies and have lived through the enforced settlement and assimilation program of the 1960s. Others in the group are in their twenties and were born in houses and have never experienced life on the road. High levels of unemployment and suicide, are, the older generation believe, a direct result of loss of identity and purpose that the traditional traveller embodied in their roles as tinsmith, palmist, storyteller, voyager. They also cite a loss of connection with nature as instrumental in a growing depression. We are in the process of documenting these changes for each individual in the group. I want to record a series of podcasts addressing these issues, with personal resonances.
Your career before now was mainly acting, do you find that this has helped with ‘voice’ and ‘character’ in your fiction?
It’s definitely my strength in writing fiction, but also one of my limitations. I wrote a series of plays before attempting prose, and tend to approach all my fiction with that same dramatic intent. I always write in ‘voice’, even in a third person narrative, which is instinctive, but also highlights (for me) my lack of ability to write a long-lens third person, past tense narrative. I find the traditional form of the novel highly intimidating and have long put off attempting one, but now I just let what happens happen. It’s all story-telling at the end of the day, even if much more clever writers than me attest otherwise! I respond to character-driven work, where things happen on the page. I love beautiful prose too, but never at the expense of the truth of the psychology of the character or the sensibility of the world.
You write both short stories and novels. How do you manage the switch between genres?
I think everything I write is mediated through a dramatic lens, so my first short stories were really long monologues and mini-plays. Likewise my attempts at novels. I love short stories and find the process of writing them really freeing, especially with writers as diverse as Amy Hempel, George Saunders and Lydia Davis out there creating fresh forms. I enjoy writing scenes, where some conflict occurs, some tension in the central character is laid bare. Sometimes I write a series of disconnected scenes with the same characters and then lay them out on the floor like a patchwork quilt. My approach really is that lacking in technique! If the scenes about the same character keep coming then it’s more likely going to be bigger than a short story. I’m beginning to trust and luxuriate in the immersive process of living with characters for a longer period of time and fully inhabiting their psyches. I tend to step inside their skins, in much the same way I used to approach my acting roles. I don’t think I’m any good at ‘genre’ though. I just write in the way that comes naturally to me.
Do you have a writing routine?
My days are too varied, too caught up with making rent to allow a same-time-every-day approach. However, and I’ve only recently implemented this, I do try to write every day, at whatever time that particular day allows. As I’m in the process of first-drafting my second novel, I’m attempting to adapt the Stephen King approach of pushing out a set number of words a day. If I didn’t do this with the longer form, I’d lose momentum and energy. I’m also about to start into the editorial process with New Island on Harvesting and will happily carve out the time and space to do this.
You and I are both involved in Brooks Writer’s Group that meets fortnightly on a Monday afternoon. Have you found being part of a writer’s group useful? What are the pros/cons?
I have mixed feelings about writing groups as I believe sometimes remarks that come about because of another person’s need to sound knowledgeable or intelligent can be damaging, particularly at the beginning stages of a process. It’s important to be able to listen to other people’s opinions and yet not lose your instinctive flavour. I have attended groups where the tutor tried to corral writers into writing how they themselves would write. This is bad practice, and not one I would actively seek out. I have also participated in groups where the opposite was happening: where the individuality of each participant’s voice was nurtured. I believe that we are, in the main, highly critical of our own work anyway and don’t need further slamming, or excuses not to do it.
The pros of belonging to our particular group far outweigh any negatives for me, as we have a good deal of trust in each other’s motivations when critiquing. Everybody’s work is of a standard that means we can only get better by listening to each other. Also, as writing is a lonely undertaking, it’s great to be part of a group of like-minded passionate people. May I also say that I’m delighted to be debut-ing alongside yourself, my fellow Brooks Writer’s Group member, with New Island in 2017!
What keeps you awake at night?
Financial worries (and its attendant shame), family concerns, cruelty to animals, exploitation of vulnerable people… I could go on, but these are to the fore at the moment.
What [further] resources would you like to see for writers aside from workshops, retreats, etc?
In an ideal world I’d magic up more funding opportunities, particularly for writers who really are stressed financially. At the moment none of our funding bodies take the financial situation of the applicant into consideration. Perhaps some sort of a means-tested application would be helpful, alongside a foregrounding of the quality of the work of the applicant? Obviously, I wish publishing houses in Ireland were properly supported and resourced too.
Give me a few examples of fiction that really blew you away/had an emotional impact?
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Road to the Deep Northby Richard Flanagan, Eyrie by Tim Winton, Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. At the moment I’m in a manic novel-reading phase hoping to unlock the secret code! I’m currently obsessed by Tim Winton: his storytelling voice, the beauty, brutality, grace, muscularity, humour, idiosyncrasies of his prose, his flair for writing exciting storylines, for creating colourful characters. He makes me want to read on and then read back again. Gorgeous stylist and masterful storyteller. Maybe some of it will leak through by osmosis. Sigh.
Lisa Harding graduated from the M Phil in Creative Writing, Trinity College Dublin. Three plays: Starving, And All Because, and Playground were performed at Theatre503, Battersea Arts Centre, and the Project Theatre Dublin respectively. Doghouse was work-shopped at The National Theatre Studio. She was awarded an Irish Arts Council Bursary and a Peggy Ramsay Grant for Playwriting. Short stories have been published in The Dublin Review, The Bath Short Story Award Collection 2014, and online on the Irish Writer’s Centre website. Her story ‘Counting Down’ was a winner in the inaugural Doolin Writer’s Weekend Competition. Other work has been short-listed for the Bath, Fish, Listowel, Cúirt, Over the Edge, and Penguin Ireland/RTE Guide short story awards. She has just completed her first novel.
He turned onto Moore Street where his Ma slipped on a rasher and croaked. That was a good while ago now though he couldn’t be sure, it was all mushed. ‘Coconut head’, she’d called him in her fond no vodka moments, not because of the shape of his noggin but for the way his Da kicked the nelly out of it, side to side, smashing him into navy dots. Army boots with a clown’s mouth rip covered from the inside with a plastic Knorr soup packet to keep the rain out. She thought it was gas. Seemed a bit twisted to him now. He still snagged memories of her freckle-splattered arms doing the octopus sway in the bingo halls here when he was knee high to an ashtray, small as a mouse’s diddy.
Aul Ones with Rothmans-stained chins shouting, ‘Two fat ladies, go on Jimmy, get up and run, thirty one…dirty Gertie, clicketyclick, staying alive, eighty five!’ Some were able to handle four and five bingo cards at a time, marking the numbers like Phil Collins on drums. Bash bash bash. He’d lay on his spindlies gazing up their A-Line skirts, musty whiff of brown tights on an afternoon in November 1970-something. Disco lights, apples sours, dusty bin.
Now he was out of the Seventies into a new Century where the whole world had descended onto the same street. “Anthony! Anthony! over here!” yer one shouted. A right carrot top. “This way!”
He hoped she wasn’t a social worker. Bottler, not Anthony. No-one called him Anthony these days. He couldn’t stomach those smug tarts from the Health Service Executive. He hadn’t practised what to say but his choice if she gave him one would be a course on computers. They’d blinked by him the years he’d been on the gear. Missed the whole digital revolution. Couldn’t even look up The Google now. Survived on stale pineapple cake and sloppy kebabs from out-of-date food skips outside Aldi. Got by on mobile phones. Plucking them from Luas carriages. Selling to teenagers in pink lycra. He felt bad about that shit. Pinching, grabbing, punching. Felt bad about not remembering. Found out in rehab over a cup of Rosie Lee that he’d slept in a dog kennel for a year, had half his guts removed, grew a batch of holes on his tongue the length of a scallion. But his Da was right, all you had to do in this life was survive no matter what and hope a rhinoceros doesn’t shit on your head.
She was standing on the corner at Buffet 79, holding a plastic folder, looking the mutt’s nuts.
“So nice to finally meet you! I tell you what, you’re a hard man to get hold of! We’ve been writing to you for weeks. Well look, you’re here now, thank God you answered your phone. I’m Aoibheann!” She was gripping onto his arm like they’d known each other since nippers. He was throwin’ a reddener on account of her being so over fucking familiar ‘n all.
“Howayea,” he said, unhooking her. “Ye alright, wot’s de buzz?”
“This is it here, what do you think, huh?” Hadn’t a crusty what she was on about. They were outside an orange building with spitting air vents and roast duck stink. A poster with ‘group love’ on the wall and a load of slappers in red Tulip dresses dancing in a circle. She stuck a folder into his hands. Snap of a man facing sideways with a giant hooter on the cover, military uniform, oval cloud of mist behind him.
“I know what you’re thinking, not much on the outside. That was the planners’ intentions, you know, to retain the façade throughout the lane way, renovating the inside a la modern day.”
Her voice trailed off as he glanced at more posters on the opposite wall: a gold man pulling his torso apart to get to the gold coins inside him. Paul Weller looking on in dark glasses, arms folded. Two dykes sitting up on new Audis, whipping the bonnets goodo.
“There’s only sixteen apartments Anthony. You’re in the Padraig Pearse suite. Well now ‘suite’ is a bit American isn’t it!? I prefer to call them apartments or you might like ‘flats’. Whatever you’re comfortable with. Sure we won’t argue over it!”
He’d slip her one alright. Queer bit of skirt. Air bags knockers. Cheese puff lips.
“Will we head in so, shall we? Do you know who this is Anthony?” she asked, pointing again to the big-nosed spamhead on the brochure. “It’s Pearse himself! This is where it happened. Well, here and up the road…whole block is on the Record of Protected Structures now. While the main building is a good bit up, this is where a lot of the men actually died. Though it was a new beginning for the rest of us, that’s for sure, but oh God” – she stopped to grab her heart through her mint lambswool jumper – “It’s a desperate sad story. Brutality of it. Dozens fell on the stones right here. Bled to death in the gutters. O’Rahilly, riddled with bullets, managed to pen a letter in his own blood to his wife and kids. Sure you wouldn’t even have time to send a text these days, can you imagine?”
Well yeah, he could. It was in an alley just like this that they dealt with Scuttler for a €500 debt. Still gave him the night rattles. Draino sticking the knife in just above the belly. Flipping the fucker over to get to the spine. Doin’ his girdle sack, screams, like a girls’. ‘Shut that cunt up till I get the work done,’ he told him. Slicing upwards to make sure he was paralysed. Chinee sticking his head out from the back of a restaurant door and shutting it again, pronto, bolts clanking. Rain coming down, steel pin rain in goose grey, washing yer man’s wails away. Bleeding out. They lit two joints, watched him wriggle. “It’ll be over in a minute, stop stressing!” Draino roared. “I thought you’d take it a bit better than this, for fuck’s sake!”
“This is the entrance hall to the apartments,” Aoibheann explained. “The walls tell the stories of the ordinary lives, OK, not just the heroes! See this little man and woman, James Rooney and his wife Cora…they were in their eighties…braved the machine gun fire to hide some of the men in their basement that day, 29th April, 1916”. She turned to her paperwork to double check the date. Then pointed to a laundry room out the back and a shared shed for storage and locking bicycles.
“Fair balls to them,” Anthony replied, though to be honest, they looked like a right pair of spanners. The woman in particular.
“And here we have The O’Rahilly’s letter to his wife. We got a calligrapher from the National College of Art and Design to do it in gold leaf and flecks of bottle green. Beautiful isn’t it?”
Darling Nancy, I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street, took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was & I made a bolt for the lane I am in now. I got more [than] one bullet I think. Tons and tons of love dearie to you & to the boys & to Nell & Anna. It was a good fight anyhow.
Names of more hoagies doused on the plaster, fucking eejits who shot themselves trying to bash down doors with rifle butts to save their own arses. Whacked some of their mates in the scuffle. Others lying with bits of legs hanging off, firing off orders. James Connolly on a stretcher, guts dangling. Some wounded plank tripping over him with all the gunsmoke, grenades and other shit the Brits had at their disposal. Must’ve been a right bunch of psychos. Photograph of a nurse who’d booted around like a blue bottle with messages for the main boyos, trying to get them to grab the white flag. He remembered none of this from school. The Safe Cross Code, how clouds formed from condensation, Christmas carols in Irish. That’s what he remembered in eight years of primary school. Not these maggots.
“This is your apartment, No. 3, well, that was the date Pearse was executed: 3rd May, they’ve thought of everything.”
His apartment? Was she a fucking brandy snap short of a picnic? But he’d keep stum, say nothing, sign nothing. A short stroll around a sitting room painted in hospital white looking out over McColgan’s Butchers. Her talking shite about skirting boards a quarter up the wall for an easy clean, plug holes, an interactive Wi-Fi telly with built in CCTV, steam mop in the cupboard. It was a lottery system, with all their names bunged in from the Rehab gaff. Irish men and Irish women, in the name of God and the dead generations, and whatever else. His name, third pulled. Lifelong sublet deductible from the scratcher. Part of the planning regs for the commemoration block and new Insurgents Visitor Centre.
“You have twelve days to sign the lease and get the documents back to Dublin City Council, OK? The address is here,” she told him, rubbing her fingers up and down where Pearse’s hoop was at the back of the brochure. “Make the most of the opportunity Anthony. You’re a hero now in your own right, the way you’ve knocked the drugs on the head for good. How long is it?”
“Two years,” he told her. “This Christmas or thereabouts, anyways.”
“Well good for you,” she said, “You should be well proud!”
He knew plenty who died for Ireland or because of her. Hasslebat, with his ginger eyebrows lit up like hot worms in a snow of forehead. Face half eaten by his own Jack Russell after overdosing in a boat-house down the canal. Gonzo and Widearse Wendy in a car smash down the docks when they were sleeping rough in the Punto. Many more in slob fights, knife slices, ganger brawls. He’d been too out of it in those times to make any of the funerals. Didn’t see the point when they were already wormfood.
If Pearse could be President of his own Republic, then he could be too. Sixteen thousand troops swarmed into Dublin in 1916 to wreck the bleedin’ gaff. That was more than the entire Garda Drug Squad and army reserve now. Who the fuck did they think they were!? He’d call up his troops too:
Dickie who’d do anything for a six pack of Dutch Gold. Brains, the nasty little dwarf from up around Sheriff Street who’d stick a gun up your hole quick as a bum doctor in the Mater. The Finglas twins who loved to scrap for no reason, mad bitches. The preparation would have to be secret, no dribblers, no rats.
He could see himself in full Pearse pose swaggering down Moore Street commanding the charge: “We’re going to take on the Somali pushers,” he’d tell them. “Yez’ll horse up the lane here when I give the word”.
Each of them swinging a fifty euro shooter.
“We’re putting a stop to this Zimovane shite the kids are selling for €8 a pack. It’s feeding their gaming addiction. Only a matter of days or weeks before they’re snorting the yayo or chewing the gat, are yez hearing me?”
“Yes Bottler!” they’d roar. “Yes Bottler!”
“We’re gonna free all those hookers they send into Jury’s Inn to suck off concert promoters, there’ll be no women sellin’ their holes in my Republic.”
“We’re gonna clean up this town, no more stabbings or stupid fucking killings.”
“We’re gonna bring eternal peace to these poxy streets.”
“We’re striking for freedom, do yez even know what that means?”
He stared across the sitting room towards the microwave. Never thought he’d own one of those pingers. Draino would be out of the clink in two years and he didn’t forget. No matter where he was, he’d find Bottler. Oh his Ma always said he’d be kicked to death by some loon if she didn’t get hold of him first. Her arthritic claw reaching down the banisters, pulling him up onto the landing…stamping on his ankle bones when he was cowering on the ground before she’d start proper. It wouldn’t be that hard to find a plonker to sell a pizza warmer to. Had to be worth at least a tenner up around Argos. He took the SIM card from the phone, flicked it into the fancy swing bin, grabbed the keys. Snatched the €100 Dunnes Stores voucher Aoibheann left for ‘essentials’, mozied to the door.
“Losers!” he screamed at the faces pinned to the wall. “I’ve never seen a bigger bunch of fucking losers!”
** This story was short-listed for the 2016 The Sunday Business Post / Penguin Ireland short story prize. It was also read at the Bogman’s Canon Fiction Disco and Staccato Spoke Word night in Toner’s pub, Baggot St.
He knew he smelt like a sardine but that’s what Polish beer does to a man on a low wage. With names like Tatra, Tyskie, and Zywiec, he may well have been downing fermented donkey piss the night before. The smug knotty face on the bent cop who ran the offie on a privately paid for unflappable hip made him madder than an IKEA jack saw, and to top it off he woke to Gina screaming blue shite cos he forgot the green lentils – she was on a wholefood buzz since her arse went all weather balloon – but it was the thoughts of the natterbeans that was pushing him pleasantly and comprehensively into the dark place.
If he’d half a brain or a quarter of a heart he’d feel sorry for the fuckers, but the natterbeans were a type of celestial cabbage he just abhorred, and when he passed Fanagans funeral home with the overflowing bottle bins slumped at its gates and bits of torn brown tights flying from the tangled railings of an aulone’s wet dream, one of them jumped in all lickety spit and said, ‘Alright bro, you and me are mates aren’t we, you nor gonna give me no jip cos I’m having a fuck of a day like…I’ll pay ye goodo, yeah, I’ll see ye alright when I get me glasses as me old Ma used to say but I never really did know what she meant. Ma’s are fucking mad aren’t they, but you know what I’m gerrin’ at, don’t ye? Ah sure, I’ll shut me trap and we’ll probably get there quicker, isn’t that the way bud?
‘Where are we going to?’, he found himself saying, a man in staccato, in a sock of shock. ‘Just tell me where we’re heading to.’
‘Well I tell ye what, I’m natterbean up at the clinic and they was fuckin’ me around cos they says I ain’t got a prescription or that I did have one in anyways but I don’t no more so I’ve to head to this other gaff up around Meath Street and talk to a Mr. Doody who’ll sort me out at another clinic till the Finglas one get word of where their prescription went to…a bunch of jokers’.
‘Where are we going to?’ He asked again, but not so politely this time, adding that he wanted to see the cash, out with the spondoolies, pass the notes to the front for him to look at.
‘Stall the ball there bud, don’t be going all Padraig Pearse on me…you think I’m just another trackie don’t ye, but here, c’mere, I can answer most of dem questions on Deal or No Deal, do ye watch dat, do ye?’
He’d been stung too many times lately by the likes of him. The last natterbean, well he had to reef him back into the car through the front window by the scruff, so far gone, so wasted, so emaciated, he would’ve been able to do a runner through a cat flap if he’d had his jimminy bits about him. That particular night he drove like a gazelle with a rocket up its hole, through the Port Tunnel and on up past the airport, out into the spuds and strawberries for sale countryside, with its vulgar houses and Breaded Chicken Breast With Pineapple pubs, dumping him in a field without his Nikes or jacket, a few farewell slaps…he took his social welfare & medical cards just so he’d forget forever who he really was, left him there at the hem of humanity for the dawn to deal with.
‘It’s nice to be nice, don’t be all rough bud like one of dem bleedin’ leg breakers,’ he said, ‘Didn’t I tell ye we were going up as far as Meath Street. I’m natterbean up at the bank, ‘ve plenty of paper on me so I ‘av. I’ll give ye extra if ye wait for uz. I’ll give ye a tenner up front now even though yezer clock only says a fiver, how’s that fur a bargain bucket?’
‘Do me a favour,’ he said, this time pulling the taxi over at the side of the road before they headed further into the cesspit, ‘Will ye try to shut your hoop on the way, I can’t concentrate if someone is nattering constantly, nothing personal, I’m sure you’re a nice fella, blah blah blah, but we’ll get on much better if we can get there as quickly and as peacefully as we can.’
He adjusted his mirror to take a closer look. He had the same mushroom pallor and knee jerkiness as the other natterbeans, but with a thin pointy face that was extra alert; a morning fox in an industrial estate looking for crane flies. His uneven shoulders and busted nose were also a bit typical. Teeth yellow as corn on the cob, stinking of Lynx over dirt and cherry bubblegum.
‘Yeah yea yea yea what did I fuckin’ tell ye, he’s a messer, don’t mind him, fuckin’ spacer so he is,’ he whined into his mobile. ‘I’m natterbean up there with Natalie dis morning and she says it’s sorted, I’ve to go here first on a message, gizza buzz back in an hour.’
He was glaring at his phone, pressing on the buttons like a physio prat would on a scabby foot. ‘Here, bud, will ye pull over there for a second, there’s me old Homie at the corner, I owe him a fiver.’
Homie was a fat man on one leg with a squeegee of green hair you could wash a pile of dishes with in a hotel kitchen. He could hear the Honda 50 drawl of both their voices building up at breakneck speed into an ambulance ‘warrrhhh warrrrhhh warrrrh warrrr’, before he was back in the car again. He better not be messing him around. The clock was up to €14 already. He wasn’t about to bring him on a round-trip of inner city Dublin dealers in dank car parks and lurid lane-ways strewn with needles and cabbage leaf.
The last one had the wool rightly pulled, taking him to five different chemists for her ‘fy’ while robbing them of expensive face cream. I’m only trying to make an honest living like you,’ she’d said, jumping back into his car. ‘I’m natterbean in prison four times already and I’ll never go back, so relax .’ His reg was taken on CCTV and he had to call into the guards and explain. It’s not his job to ask questions as long as the punter pays up, but he got a fine from the carriage office regardless.
‘Can ye turn down here for a minute bud,’ he said when they hit the grey bulk of Christchurch. ‘There’s me mate Bottler, just want to say howayea, his Mrs had a baby a few weeks back, they had to sew up her piss bag, she’s in an awful state.’
Bottler staggered out of a doorway looking like a Grade-A psycho who’d snap yer fingers off quicker than a fat kid at de zoo would break up a Kit Kat. Natterbean gave him a man slap on the shoulder and made his way back to the car.
‘He looks a bit of a head-the-ball, that fella, if you don’t mind me saying?’ He wanted to say something to draw his attention to the clock. ‘Just letting you know with the few stops already, It’s up to €18 now.’
‘No bother bud,’ he said. ‘Here’s another Lady Godiva, I’ll give ye the rest when we get there. That fella used to be a brilliant house breaker, so he was, but the Hungarians have all that wrapped up now. They put fucking broken glass outside bedroom doors so if you hear noise in the middle of the night ye smash up yer feet if ye have a gander. Filthy stuff that is. We never did anything like that. Always straight in and out. It’s not on, some poor old prick cuttin’ his feet te ribbons, you don’t do shit like that but dem Hungarians and Russians are mad, they’ve no respect.’
At the corner of Meath Street and Engine Alley a red hoodie made a run for the window, ‘There ye are ye mad cunt!’ He roared in. ‘I’m natterbean only been talking about you to Skittles and the lads!’ He held onto the boot as the light turned, falling over on his arse and rolling towards the drain. Natterbean was punching more digits on his mobile as the chemist came into view. He thought of Gina. ‘It’s €22 on the clock,’ I’ll need paying as soon as you come out.’
He’d accidentally seen her Tinder talk a few weeks before. Gina left her pink iPhone in the newly-built utility room ironically enough thrown on top of some dirty duvet covers – he hadn’t even heard of dating apps for phones – a kind of Hailo for getting your hole. It might’ve only been a chat with this Paul fella but it still hurt like fuck to know she could’ve been that lonely or desperate after 22 years. Now this knucklehead of a natterbean was punching on his phone just like she’d done with Candy Crush. There was probably a junkie app as well, swaying thumb tacks on Google Maps for those desperate for a hit. He’d made a good few stops after all, no such thing as convenience or coincidence in their cosmos of chaos. ‘You can pay me what you owe and get out of the car.’
‘Don’t be freaking the beak,’ he said, ‘Jaysus I’m natterbean in a queue the size of a black man’s mickey, It’s pure mayhem! They’re making everyone down it in front of the nurse on account of dem wackos keeping it in their gobs and spitting it out into plastic cups to sell outside. Here, there’s thirty euro and I need one more favour in Ringsend.’
Is this what she’d been doing too, sending him off on ‘little jobs’ as she called them, all over the city, cut price curtains in Debenhams, a parasol in Woodies, while yer man was messing with her plumbing controls at home?
‘Are you dealing skank and using me as a Muppet to drive you around?’ He barked at natterbean, who was once again, punching the shit out of his mobile phone.
‘No way, no way, I’m not a scummer, not like dat bud, no way.’ He could see him now in the mirror pulling at a sausage shape in his crotch. He’d heard about heroin making them extra fertile and methadone making ye horny, it was an endless cycle of new drugs and new wombs full of babies. To think that him and Gina planned their sprog right from when her ovaries were steaming, up to the Camengo Lollipops & Animals wallpaper he’d ordered from France as a surprise after she’d done the big heave-ho. Didn’t even wet Sindy’s head so he’d be there, bolder soldier by her side. He waited til the stitches healed enough to let her home in his taxi laced with cerise balloons chasing all three of them through the cobbles of Dublin. ‘I’ll suck out de snot if I have te,’ he told her, ‘And when she gets on a bit I’ll collect her in the work limo from school so she’ll feel like a rap princess at her first gig in Wembley.’
Natterbean pulled out a wad of notes, at least a couple of grand and told him a mate of his, a good guy, a dad, a brother, a footballer before he kicked into the smack, was gonna get it in the head tonight from a nackbag worse than The Nidge…that’s where they were heading now and he’d done a collection to get him on the boat to England. ‘I’ll give ye a hundred to collect him at Ringsend and bring him to the boat in East Wall. Have we a deal bud?’
He wasn’t expecting this. ‘Sure thing, no problem, it’s no harm to help a bloke out, this town is gone rough as a nun’s moustache.’
Clippers open when they reached the docks cos it wasn’t that long since Nulty had his license swiped and car impounded by Special Branch for helping Cocaine Crispin drop off a load set for the UK jog into Europe. Matters piggery shite if the cops know you’re just a cog, they’re more likely to go after the deputies than the mofos who can afford water wheels and brass dragons outside big dirty gaffs in Meath and Kildare. Nulty’s Mrs shut the door and kept on power walking when he could no longer pay the mortgage. Never got over it, though he got back on track as a security guard after. ‘That’s it for me’, he told the lads in the Come On Inn. ‘No more fish in the fryer when ye marry your first and pray she’ll be the last. I wouldn’t know what to do with a new bird’s bits. I’d fuckin’ shit meself so I would.’
The docks had a sheeny buzz since they’d done them all up on Fine Fáil chips. No more rust bunks sitting on giant metal plinths. Through civil wars and world wars and the IRA’s gun-running gobshites on the run from themselves, they’d all hid down here. First batches of heroin were held up here. Prozzies from Eastern Europe were brought in through here, young lives spent sucking on office peckers dreamin’ of getting out in a footballer’s convertible before been shot in the head as a favour to a crack Baron in Cabra for a write-off of a few quid or other. He could even imagine the scrawny famine families dressed in linen sacks carrying malnourished mites onto ships here.
He imagined Gina and yer man up on deck staring down with grotto faces knowing they’d never be back again but being sure they’d starve to death on the way. He’d like to send her back to screaming famine and shove a pile of typhus down her gullet for good measure. Not in a million fucking years did he think she’d put out for anyone other than him. That had been the Majorca promise. Nothing but the egg smell of sewer and seaweed sea had stayed the same since those rotten times back then. There was even an apartment block now in the shape of a cruise liner for those twats that worked in Google and the likes. At night you could see the neon fish swimming up their walls as far out as Howth.
‘There’s de purr cunt there!’ said Natterbean, pointing to a plonker in a grey duffel coat, slumped up against a wet wall with black anchor chains, arguing with a seagull. ‘Breezer, over ‘ere, c’mere, ye fuckin’ queer!’ He froghopped out when the car was still only slowing. They wobbled towards each other, slap slap, mind yerself, where’s me gym bag, take care, no you take care, I’ll take care, but will you take care, let uz know. Stay gizmo’d until he heard of them getting de chop. All of ‘em uns ended up sucking worms before they were thirty.
‘I need a hundred now before we go further,’ he told him. ‘The clock’s been off over an hour.’ He drove slowly, snakily out, ignoring the fact that the gobshite was crying. ‘Junkies don’t cry,’ he thought. ‘They wouldn’t know what it meant’.
She’d be moaning the toss when he got back. Ye forgot this, ye didn’t pick up dat. Where’s me bleedin’ lentils? Didn’t I say no matter wha bring me back de green lentils. He’d be in no mood for an ear-lashing, the night shift only a few shite hours away. ‘Would ye ever give me a bitta space,’ he’d say. ‘I’m natterbean out all day working, the least you can do is shut that sinkhole of a gob and put the kettle on.’ Then he’d smile and tell her she’d a nice ripe arse.
**This ditty/story was written (in a hurry!) and performed for the Barrytown Trilogy Readings at DLR libraries in April 2015, as part of Colm Keegan’s writer in residence gig. It’s a deliberate nod to Roddy Doyle’s style of writing, with a contemporary twist, of course. I read alongside Stephen James Smith, Colm (of course), Karl Parkinson, and musicians Enda Reilly and Sinéad White. My next reading will be part of the Bogman’s Cannon ‘Fiction Disco’ on November 13th at 7.30pm in Toners, Baggot Street, where I’ll read a story about 1916 in relation to the Ireland we endure now.
Did I ever tell you about my youngfella? He’s passed now, bless him. I said, ‘Don’t go out, not today, I’m warning you, I’m a witch!’ That awful cheeky smile. ‘I won’t be late Ma!’ he roared. He was a bit of a rossi, like you. The two of you would’ve got on like nothing else. An old broom knows the dirty corners best. ‘We’re having gammon steak!’ I shouted after him. ‘Don’t be late!’ Him running like a hare on a skateboard. He loved my gammon with those fluffy crinkle chips. Actually you rarely see them around these days. Crinkle oven chips.
His friend with the one eye, always a heap of trouble, knocked up at 6 O’clock. Entire family were oddball. Red hair, rust tempers. Mother had been a bit of a pro in her heyday. Rigid as a wooden leg now. This kid was pure wild. Knife in the eye by his own hand. Said my youngfella had crashed on a motorbike up at the green. Come quick. His leg was caught. Stolen motorbike. We’re talking back in the day when the priest and the local guard could put you away for pinching a few sweets. Meaner than a butcher’s cleaver. Well my first reaction was to clout him around the ears. Give him a good puck. ‘I knew it!’ I roared. ‘I told him there’d be wigs on the green!’ Smashed in four places. Six weeks in the Mater. Pale as egg white. Hubby was furious. A wild goose never reared a tame gosling.
De hubby always kept the roof up which is more than I can say for a good few around here. Good at DIY. Planted a war garden. We’d everything out there. Marrows, even. You don’t get to see many marrows now. Marrow stuffed with spam. Marrow jam. Thrilled to the marrow I was. Then there were rhubarbs the height of giraffe legs. Spuds, peas, beans of all kinds, parsley and lots of it. He was hard on my youngfella. Very hard on all the boys. Ignored the girls. Well that’s what Louise says now. ‘No boys will queue up for the likes of you!’ he told her. She’s glad of it really because she feels around the same as a local anaesthetic for him. Though sometimes she can’t make up her mind. She’s like you. Indecisive. Rattle of fidgets and jumps. Won’t visit him in the home but wants it known to the rest of us she feels nothing. Makes a big almighty thing of it. Though I love her to the spine, she’d melt the fine hairs in your ears. I wish her luck with her own now. Her two are dreadful snobs. Though I will admit they speak very well. You can’t buy breeding and that’s the truth.
Well de hubby said he’d wait until my youngfella got home and he’d break the other leg. Took the motorbike to the Phoenix Park and went pure absurd on It. Tearing up the bark of trees, over newly planted corporation flower beds, into the groove of gates. Now de hubby can only take so much. He has a little bit of a temper. It’s not his fault. His nerves are in the ha’penny place. Always have been. I’m the only one who can deal with him. Know him like my own teeth. Never left me short of housekeeping. I always told Louise and Juliet to marry a man with money. It’s a miserable enough life. De hubby had a good job. Sure the ones around here were always saying that to me. ‘Your fella would buy and sell ye and rent your leg out in flats.’ Youngfella stayed with my aunt for a few weeks until de hubby calmed. ‘Let it be a lesson to you,’ I said to him. ‘I told you not to go out. I told you I was a witch!’
He’d ask me things after that, my youngfella. ‘Will I put in for that apprenticeship Ma?’ ‘Is there any point doing a stuntman course?’ I knew if he went off to England it’d be no good for good. This time I didn’t say as much. Sure he was a grown up, sure and simple. Years ago, before your time, people kept it fierce quiet when they went away to the sooty place. Bit of a shame attached to it. A golden ring can tie a man as tight as any chain. Aunt Florrie said the day hers left for England she had a proper wake for him at home because she knew that’d be it. Sandwiches and porter, a glass raised to the wind that carried him, may it bring him back if it had to. She was a diviner for sure. No-one down Clara way liked her. Told people they wouldn’t come back from the war. She was the one who cooked over an open fire, long after they had electric cookers. Amazing pot roasts. Caraway cake like I’ve never tasted before or since. My own mother couldn’t copy It, not for the job of trying. She read the flames in the fire. My mother, that is. Told people what might be ahead for them. What to look for. What to avoid. Who to love. Who to clear run from. Well that was her sister Florrie who was a bit of a witch. Like me.
When my youngfella went away to London, sure he was sheer lost. Never ask a fox to mind the hens, isn’t that what they say? Never buy bread from a butcher. He got the first one pregnant. That’s what they do now. Women don’t seem to take care. She ran off with the two kids up North. Got with dem Rastafarians. He never got over that. The second yoke, let me tell you, she was a right yoke of a thing. Jesus, the bake on her! You wouldn’t roast it on a fire. Upturned nose you could plant a fir tree in. That’s when the drinking got out of hand. I warned him to watch his health. ‘It’s in the family,’ I said. ‘A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.’ Oh he laughed alright. ‘Ah Ma, you still think you’re a clever old witch!’ Nonetheless he gave me that look. ‘I’m serious,’ I told him. ‘Look after your health…He who never was sick dies the first.’
Yer woman never cooked from scratch. Too busy throwing it about. I wouldn’t expect my youngfella to have a go. Sure de hubby could only boil an egg most of his life. The men need a good woman. A dishonest woman can’t be kept in and an honest woman won’t. In return my youngfella gave that yoke everything: new car every two years, six holidays a year. SIX! That’s some manner of madness. Ran off when he got too sick. Woman like a goat, woman of rushing visits. Her crowd, common as beetroot water. You could tell by the gait of them. Standoff at the grave was something else. Spread your cloth only as you can draw it. Even the priest came over to our side when he heard she’d deserted. Unheard of under the circumstances. What he must’ve gone through in that downtime, I can’t bear it! Oh Christ, such heartache! I’ve put my treacle jinx on her. Right bitch. Now I don’t say that too often about anyone. A closed mouth can only lead to a wise head. That’s how I would normally approach things.
The saddest part is that de hubby keeps asking about my youngfella now. Won’t accept he’s gone. Well that’s part of his condition. Can’t keep up. Doesn’t know one minute from the one sitting beside it. Louise says he’s half pretending. Suiting himself. A greyhound finds food in its feet kind of thing. Bit like yourself. Sure you suit yourself too, only coming in here when you’re looking for something! Must be a male thing. I told him the first few times he’d died. Then I said I’d go with it. Now I tell him he’s out planting in the garden. Trimming rhubarb so it won’t get too carried away with itself.
I saw de gettup of you earlier. If you keep behaving like that, I’m telling ye, there’ll be a sore price to pay. Be in here by 11pm. ‘Don’t be late. Don’t stay out. There’ll be wigs on the green!’ You might think fences have ears but if you’re not back in here by then, the flap is shut. Don’t blame me if you come to no good. You could get your backside eaten out there. When the sun puts her head down for the night, the raw moon is not as accommodating. I’ve seen you chasing your head in its own shadow, making a mighty show of yourself. Like a lame man’s legs which hang useless. You’d sauté your soul to grab hold of a scallywag. If the ones over the wall got hold of you there wouldn’t be a sneeze’s second before they’d savage your eyeballs, spitting them out for toast. I’m no daw. I know how it works. Everyone is wise till he speaks.
When my youngfella was lying in that hospital bed in terrible pain de hubby wouldn’t even look him in the eye. A right rossi, there is no expert without a fault, ain’t that the truth! ‘Da, I’m sorry Da, it was stupid, I won’t ever do anything like it again. I promise.’ It’s not like de hubby was extra hard, but he was the type who meant what he meant. Too much happened for him to act any different. One of the gang my youngfella hung around with ended up with The AIDS, doing half-witted robberies to feed his habit, before his lungs flooded him out of the picture. Another died at 21 from a beating in a public swimming pool in New York. Both their aulfellas were much harder than they ever needed to be.
If my two hadn’t have ignored each other for those years after – God never closed a gap but that he opened another one – the time now might be a different tide entirely. I will be honest with you here, I will, would my youngfella have been so quick to get himself over there, out of reach of here, had he have been able to patch things up? If de hubby just talked to him without the slippery ropes. Telling him that a bad path in life only rains soup and he’d have no hope going out in it armed with just a fork. But de hubby was always the belly depth of stubborn. He just stared out the hospital window into the car park beyond, the type that knows too well a silent mouth is musical.
*This story got an ‘honorable mention‘ in the Lorian Hemingway prize in the US and was long-listed for the 2015 RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland competition.
This story of how a widow deals with her grief is taken from The Long Gaze Back, An Anthology of Irish Women Writers edited by Sinéad Gleeson
She felt that she should do something to mark her husband’s passing – a personal project, some self-improvement – so she learned to drive. It was harder than she imagined. Her husband had made it look easy. He drove while consulting the map or groping under his seat for the Al Green CD he loved, one hand stroking the wheel, open-palmed. She drove with her hands clamped firmly at ten and two.
She got lessons from a boy forty years her junior from the local town. He always stared straight ahead, avoiding her eye, even when she pressed a fifty euro note into his hand at the end of every lesson. She knew it wasn’t personal; it was just her husband’s death, lingering like an awkward joke at a party. Nobody knew what to say to her.
The interior of the car looked different from the driver’s side. The seat was moulded to the contours of her husband’s body. There were remnants of him everywhere; the door pocket stuffed with music and chocolate bar wrappers; tangy traces of tobacco from his rolled cigarettes. She couldn’t bear to vacuum them away.
She practised every day; she had time, in her widowhood. Driving even infected her sleep: she dreamt of hill-starts, of endless three-point turns, of cars driving towards her in the wrong lane. She awoke with handbrake precision. When the time came she sailed through her test, and drove home feeling reckless and free.
In the last few weeks of her husband’s short illness, he told her not to be lonely. Go out, he said. Meet new people. Have a life. That’s what he would’ve done had she been the first to die. But then it was different for him. He was on parish committees and hurling backroom teams; he could hop onto a high stool at Kennedy’s and talk to whoever was beside him. The pure ease of him.
She loved him, but by no means had he been a perfect husband. There’d always been indiscretions – even a love child, about ten years into their marriage. The other woman had been local; though she didn’t know who it was, she fretted that it was someone she knew, someone she liked. When she went into town, she sometimes scrutinised the faces of twentysomethings, looking for the shadow of her husband.
She tried to honour his deathbed request. She developed a routine: every Saturday evening, she readied herself, got into the car and left. It took her two hours to reach the coast, driving in any direction. She would make for a city or a big market town. She’d wear every piece of jewellery she owned, a long dress, a shawl. She would go into a hotel bar, order a Jameson on the rocks, and wait. It was never long before a man approached, looking for company, asking if she was OK for a drink. She usually let them buy her one.
She knew she was a point of fascination. She drank steadily but was careful to never appear drunk. Men who were young enough to be her sons approached her, asking what was she doing out on her own, at her age. Their eyes skimmed over the curves of her body, the clinging swirls of fabric, her neat cap of downy grey hair. Some of them told her she reminded them of their mothers.
The men would drink themselves to the point where they had the courage to reach out and touch her face. Her skin was creased, but still soft. Sometimes she pulled back in a kind, maternal way, and they would splutter and apologise and blame the drink. Other times, she went home with them.
She thought she saw her husband, sometimes. A man coming towards her on the street, smoking a cigarette, would turn out to be a woman eating an apple. She stared at strangers who shared a trait with him: a beard, a dark coat. She began to harbour a belief in ghosts.
She willed him to reincarnate. She was alert for the way a crow might turn its head, or a cat yawn with its whole body, the way he used to. She looked into young mothers’ buggies and expected to see his knowing eyes smirking back at her. She was the one who hadn’t wanted children, and now she cursed herself for it, for failing to hold on to even a piece of him.
Tonight’s candidate watched her from across the room for two hours before summoning the courage to approach. He was in an armchair, hunched over a low coffee table, pretending to do the crossword. She bided her time.
He was a bulky man, but so was her husband. They bore it differently, though. Her husband’s heft was like a bulwark against the world; he seemed insulated inside it. This man wore his weight apologetically, like a ratty old coat. She felt a pang of pity; she allowed him in.
Later, at his apartment, all shyness melted away. When he bent her over the couch, the blood rushed to her head. She had the phantom sensation of hair tumbling, tugging at her scalp; the long hair of her youth. It was different from sex with her husband – there was no way she could pretend it was him. But she still enjoyed it.
Grief was like a creature from folklore, sitting on her chest while she slept. Her excursions began to leak into midweek. She tried to pick a quiet time when there wouldn’t be much traffic, when her only company would be the wildlife: the slink of small animals on the narrow country roads, or a flock of dark birds in the evening sky, like fragments blown from a fire.
She would enter the city in the murky dusk, the street lights just beginning to spark up, reminding her of the glow of her husband’s cigarettes as he smoked out the kitchen window before bed. It hadn’t even been the cigarettes that killed him, in the end – it had been some other, stealthy mutation. It could have happened to anyone.
Her lovers would ask her to stay till morning, offering to cook her breakfast, expressing concern about the long drive.I don’t mind, she’d reply. I like long drives. I can listen to music. Actually she did mind, travelling in the dark from Cork, from Galway, from Kilkenny, from Limerick. She minded being trapped in the dark capsule of her car, hurtling into blackness. She couldn’t see her hands on the wheel; the night seemed to invade the car. Her eyes were tricked by tail lights and she’d hallucinate hitchhikers, heavy machinery, trees blown into the road.
After every journey she’d arrive home, climb into their old shared bed, and whisper into the pillow what she’d done, and who she’d done it with. I’m meeting new people, she’d say. I’m living my life.
Six months into widowhood, she made the mistake of becoming attached. He was a tall, stringy Corkman, a businessman who told her he had no time for relationships. He said he found it hard to talk to women – except for her.
He talked about everything: how he really wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get the points; his mother’s early death; his disabled younger brother whom he worried about constantly. In return, she told him about the hotel bars, the men. How she’d been a virgin when she married. How she’d become convinced that her teeth were about to fall out; they tingled as if preparing to wrench themselves from their roots. She tongued them when she drove, daring them to make a crone out of her.
When they went back to his place, he only ever wanted to lie down, hold each other and talk. Sex was something he paid for, she gathered. She was irritated by the way he compartmentalised his life, but then, wasn’t she doing the same thing? Still, she liked him for his staccato accent, and because he reminded her of her husband – his directness, his sardonic humour.
Though she rarely saw the same man twice, this one became a habit. She would drive down midweek, or whenever he could meet. She would feel her pulse quicken as she drove through the tunnel at the outskirts of his city, with its puzzlingly inverted instructions painted on the tarmac, commanding her to LANE IN STAY.
When they were apart, she would text him from under the covers, curled up, the smartphone glow flooding her tired eyes, and thought of reading by flashlight as a child, her mother scolding her: You’ll ruin your eyesight.
He asked her to stay the night once, and for him, she broke the rules. He made her breakfast with charming nerves, checking that she had enough juice and coffee, forgetting where the spatula lived. It was a pleasure to watch him move about the kitchen, quiet and smiling, like a tall sturdy geisha. Her husband used to make her breakfast too, but with a flourish, as if conjuring French toast from the midmorning ether. This man, by contrast, made humble scrambled eggs, pouring in entirely too much salt. But she ate them with gusto, savouring the shrivelling saltiness on her tongue and lips like a kiss.
Something changed between them that morning, and they found themselves undressing again and going back to bed. The sex was warm and straightforward, like him. Afterwards, he cried in her arms and told her he’d never felt such intimacy in his life. She rocked him, dismay seeping through her. She’d thought he understood that this wasn’t about him. But he was coming undone in her arms, and she knew there was no way of explaining. She left as normal, giving him a kiss at the door, and drove home. In the tunnel, she weaved around the other cars, ignoring the directive to LANE IN STAY. As she was passing over the Blackwater, she pitched her phone into the river. She didn’t trust herself not to text him again.
She fell back into her old routine – Saturday nights only, different towns and cities, different men. She drove home from Kilkenny one night, slightly drunk, knowing she was tempting fate, that she’d be put off the road if she was caught. She wouldn’t know what to do with herself then, sitting at home, trying to distract herself with bad television, or the death notices on the radio, or by staring into the fire until her vision blurred. The things widows were supposed to do.
There was someone thumbing on the outskirts of the city, on the road that pointed home. He stood in the faint wash of a streetlight. She slowed down and squinted to make sure he was really there; most of the hitchhikers she saw turned out to be trees, or wheelie bins. But this one was real. When she saw who it was, she almost laughed – it was the boy who’d taught her to drive, whose name eluded her. He looked tired, unsteady on his feet. She stopped the car, skimmed her mind for his name. It was a new-fangled name – Darcy or Bradley or Cassidy – more a surname than anything.
Davin, she called, easing down her window. He looked shocked that someone had stopped for him, even more shocked that it was her. He ducked his head and peered in the window, and her heart quickened, keeping pace with the tick of the indicator.
She’d only ever really seen Davin in profile before, sitting sullenly beside her during driving lessons, deliberately not looking at her. But his eyes, the cast of his brow – they were achingly familiar.
I’ll take you home, she said. He got into the car.
He made small talk, though in her jolted state she’d have been fine with his usual silence. He’d been at a college friend’s birthday party, he explained. But there’d been a fight. Something stupid and drunken – he could see that now – but he’d stormed off, and it would just be hassle to go back. He’d been planning to walk home if necessary – all the way back to their sinkhole town in the midlands. It would have taken all night. She smiled at this. Aren’t you lucky I came along?
She looked at him; no longer the boy from the driving lessons, but a revelation. His arms looked coiled with strength. His jawline, dark with stubble, revealed no acne. He couldn’t see her watching him in the dark.
You’re a good driver, he said, but you’ve been drinking. He must have smelled it on her.
When they were nearing home, he turned to her and looked at her in a way he never had through all those lessons. He said he was sorry for his gruffness before; that he hadn’t known what to say to her. I don’t know if you know this, he said, but your husband – he was really good to me.
The turn for their town was coming up. The night sky spattered onto her windscreen; she flashed the wipers.
He was friends with my mother, he went on, and I suppose he was always kind of like an uncle to me.
They stopped at a set of lights. There was no other traffic this time of night. He seemed unaccustomed to talking about emotional matters and he stalled, puttering out of words like a broken engine. She put her hand on his knee, the way she used to with her husband when he drove.
Do you want me to take you home? she asked.
He didn’t object when she pulled up to her house, not his, and unlocked the front door. He followed her mutely. Inside he was nervous, asking for a cup of coffee – if it’s not too much trouble; it might sober me up.
When she came back from the kitchen, steaming cup in hand, he had taken off his jacket. He was crouching beside her husband’s CD storage tower, running his fingers over their spines. Her eyes lingered on the hollow between his shoulders, a space that would fit the flat of her hand exactly. He stood, holding up a CD. Sly and the Family Stone, he said. I love this record.
She took it from him in exchange for the coffee. His shy smile as their fingers touched nearly undid her. Davin, she thought – the one she’d brought home. She wondered if her husband had named him. She shrugged off her own coat, inserted the CD in the stereo, and pressed play.
Eimear Ryan’s stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Town & Country (Faber) and Young Irelanders (New Island). She is co-editor of the literary journal Banshee. From Co Tipperary, she now lives in Cork
**This story was published in The Irish Times today. Eimear Ryan’s stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Town & Country (Faber) and Young Irelanders (New Island). She is co-editor of the literary journal Banshee. From Co Tipperary, she now lives in Cork The Long Gaze Back – An Anthology of Irish Women Writers is published by New Island, €19.99
Dubstopia is a long short story where nothing and everything happens junkie Gonzo as he wanders around Dublin – and his head – on a dodgy errand. It’s deliberately ugly & experimental and has plenty of swear words, bad grammar and other unsavoury linguistic bits flung in. It was written on a short story course at the Irish Writers’ Centre a few years ago now and was published recently [in April 2014] in US journal Literary Orphans, ISSUE 12: Swift (Ireland & the Irish). The journal also features work from:
–Background Art & Illustration for this story is by Zak Milofsky
–Photo Art of building by Sarah Hardy
Scrambled egg beside a steaming gee-pad Carol left on the mattress. Lidl brownie with ants. Two packs of Amber Leaf. Wet jeans. Sun tearing in the window through an A-Line skirt she stole from yellow teeth bag-face in Oxfam. Book of Yeat’s poetry open on a fumble in a greasy till and add a halfpence to the pence. Leather Joe’s address book with dead dealers whacked by the Nike gang in Finglas. A picture of his granny curled on a couch holding a bunch of Chrysanthemums; monster Holy Mary in a Punto blue dress peering down her seersucker top. Carol’s shoe stuck in an antique trumpet. His passport. Loose turf. Sunglasses mounted on a Stanley knife.
It was too late in the morning to leave The Old Bank: PinStripe would be downstairs showing clients around giving it the high-dough this and that: sash windows, safe room intact, De Valera around the corner, locked horses on the towpath, ladies with hats, worth a packet when the stock market convulses back, priceless mirrors, legend says there’s a ghost, sixteen rooms; would make a cracking hostel, Real McCoy Victorian chimneys. Gonzo decided to hang back a while and have a wank.
He wanted to bang the nurse in The Mater who took bloods. He wanted to bang her cos she talked down to him. He wanted to bang her cos of the dirty way she leant over and smacked the vending machine, pillow tits blobbing all over the gaff and well she knew it and well the old codgers with the fucked hearts knew it and well the pleated receptionist with the tall latte knew it and well the trolley-pushing hunchback in plastic green knew it and well he knew it: they’d jelly when he gave it to her goodo. She’d have to shut the fuck up saying shit about Hep-C, muscling, skin-popping, if Carol took mushrooms when breastfeeding the day the baby died. He wanted to bang her for saying things he didn’t understand – subcutaneous – posh words for abdominal bloating and liver damage, infertility and testicle shrinkage. He wanted to bang her.
She’d be down at the Old Mill on the canal sucking off Leather Joe for a bag. Willy would be there too with the scab-ho wrestling over a lukewarm tin of Stonehouse, suckin’ her face off. Beamer the old tramp with the no veins. Hasslebat, his ginger eyebrows lighting up hot worms in a snow of forehead. Smell of piss hacking the sun-up. Widearse Wendy with her tales of Berlin, before Guzz floated down the river with a bag of leaves in his mouth. Guzz who survived winters in Leeds in the eighties sleeping under truck stop Lorries, draining antifreeze through slices of white bread under the engine holes. Phib, their Jack Russell in a rusty pram lickin’ stolen Satsumas. They’d be swaying by now, talking bollox, tapping passers-by. ‘Scuzzz me scuzzzz me scuwizzzzmeee. Do you want me to be like you? Is that it, do you want me to be like fuukin’ you?’
He didn’t mind what Carol did as long as no-one came in her. She’d be back with the gear in the afternoon, giving it the full candy: ‘Darlin baby I fuckin’ lurv you, d’ye know dat? I’d fuckin’ keel over fur yew.’ They’d lie on the wet mattress and roll into the Mournes biting sweat gashes off rivers, green slime, bits of broken helicopters, church bells in ears, cold tinny blue and God’s feet, big as cheese urns, landing unceremoniously in a crumpled scared heap, pulling at Carol’s scraggly hair to see was it a bastard lion’s head, vinegar swish-crash, fluff cellophane greed stirrup blood mount. Sometimes the bank would turn into a spinning barrel turning shrill pork belly with them naked rolling and banging into the ridges with running whiskey gag, the wood burner he nicked farting out leftover specks of fire on cling-film skin, until they couldn’t breathe alone or together and then Carol would hear the ghost of the bank inside the old windows, telling her to pick up the horse shit and bring it to the man in the Botanic Gardens for the flowerbeds.
“D’ye hear hiyim?” she’d say.
“He’s in heeyore, talk’n aggen.”
“Curse he is, shurrrup an’ he’ll go ‘way, fuuksaike!”
She’d hear the dead baby too, asking for his doo doo. ‘Gimme boy doo doo, doo doo mine!’, and he’d have to pretend to hand the absent baby something, anything that might look like adoo doo and then he’d slap it into her to get her to stop seeing the baby and she’d ask for another one – tits well gone since they’d started using again – nipples were teacher’s eyes squintin’ at the crap way he pronounced Irish words. Sometimes he’d bash them, but she never seemed to give out about that.
“Gimme a baybeee, I want mi babee back”.
He stopped bursting into her cos all three kids were reefed away. No way would he be doin’ that again. So he’d pull out and squirt on the wood floor, and she’d slip on it going to the jacks and call him a ‘prick’, falling asleep until the others came later. He’d collect them on the fire escape, one by one, no way hosay during de day in case PinStripe got to know about the squat. Couldn’t use the burner until late at night cos of the smoke snakin’ and they weren’t able to cook in it just on a camp hob so over and over again went without food for days sambo’d into a lot of other days. Lucky to have de place. Most had to sleep in the bandstand on the canal or in de laneway behind Doyle’s Pub that burnt down, sausaged in giveaway blankets with Leather Joe screamin’ inside night terrors of ginger arse rape Da until the sun flew up over the broken roof tiles and car beeps gnashed at them, pong of Spar hash browns, burnt dry, useless as donkey pelt.
By three o’clock the pains were rippin’ and no sign of her, so he lashed down the ladder with its shitbag of miry snails, out onto the North Circular Road. Chink Man was outside his shop with its windmill of sweeping brushes, Jesus clocks and Sudoku toilet roll. ‘You no come in here!’ he shouted. Carol dipped him too many times, taking a slash-swipe at his Mrs another time when she was packing the window with animal motion sensors. ‘Mine’s a beef satay bud!’ Gonzo hissed back, sticking his middle finger up in the air. ‘You complete b.a.s.t.a.r.d!’ Chink Man roared. Only once did Gonzo wonder why he hated him so much for taking a job he’d never want.
Quick glance down Goldsmith Street and onto more bump of side road. Every step up step down hurt like fuck. Fatsos by the cattle-cart stomping into Curves gym to the lyrics of I Will Survive. He sang along to stop the pain from slit-sucking out his intestines. And now you’re back from out der space…I jus walked in to find ye ‘ere with dat sad look on yer face. ‘C’mon now ladies, knees up and up and up again, that’s it, keep going, let me see those knees!’ The Russian tattoo shop and Made By Mary with its calf hole carvery, Brenner in De Joy on the left, IRA prick, dying for Mother Ireland in a 15 X 20 exercise yard, the hospital with its wheelchair morgue; militia of swollen ankles, around by the battered yellow flower shop and on and on, holding onto his guts like a stolen Christmas present. Sweats horsin’ down under denim, face the dye of fresh snot. Passed the launderette where his Ma used to wash the boy’s clothes on a Saturday before packet potato soup with dinosaur lumps. ‘Don’t sit on the machines Patrick, what did I tell you Patrick, are you listening to me Patrick?’ When he was small enough to be growing that snorkeler that would give him ‘Gonzo’ for all his days. He’d probably never see her again. She certainly didn’t want to see him again. Most days he’d clear forgot what she looked like.
Outside Reproductive Choices on Berkeley Street: he could see a scrape-load of them, redder than Mars moons, holding up placards for their right to life like taxi drivers at Dublin airport on the pick-up. He read in The Sun that Obama got rid of aborted baby cell flavours in fizzy drinks, the ones that make you belch. Bowed de corner onto North Frederick Street bucklin’ to puke; stream of moss green gooey liquor pouring into slick brick. “Look at de state of ‘im!” he heard a voice bellow from a basement flat. Gonzo wiped de puke with the corner of his jacket, using the other sleeve for his eyes. The worst was the misery of desperation. Digging up dead people for pocket watches, the scrap metal run, bashing old people in old houses for a twenty euro bag. He could hear more voices. More laughter. More bawl. Howling from inside the ancient sewers under Dublin filled with fibre-optic cables, calp, acorn turds, fermented Vikings, diagonals of dead birds flying through Centuries of tidal pools to get here to nowhere. ‘Down here ye wankorrrr! Gonzo, ‘ere!’
At Bustlers’ Gym, the ugly bake of Dessie Kearney peekin’ up, a cortege of dagged ewes geekin’ out from the slip of lace curtain with meringue holes for suckin’ in the day. ‘Have you got any gear?’ Gonzo asked. ‘I’m in de bads’. Dessie beckoned him down the spinal. In the sitting room on the table, he could see the spoon, tang of cotton fever. Plug-in neon wolf picture on the wall to send heads carroty spinners. Two cans of UHT cream on de mantle. Skinner in a Sideline jacket handed him a leprechaun head of Nescafé. They could sort him out, Dessie said. He could sort them out too, with a favour. Gonzo wasn’t known, or wasn’t that known, or cared about. Bob’s your uncle. Fannywollop’s your aunt.
Dessie held him down like a barber might do with a six year old boy. ‘Scank the Russians are sellin’ is drivin’ the cops plinky plonky,’ he explained. ‘Low grade cack that makes punters scrabble around dem streets like hogs. Dublin City Council having a right old mickey fit with collapsing junkies everywhere and those Triad muppets fucking about chopping gigot chops off wackos owing as little as a tenner. Kip so it is. It’s not how we ever did things. Even dem grannies are gettin’ in on it selling horse tablets down the Boardwalk till new stashes arrive. Bitches used to be happy shifting cauliflowers & pears. All of it needs sorting or we’re toast’.
Skinner piped up: ‘Going for a song as well, so it is. And they’re lobbing chemical splatter into the gear Gonzo. No competition. More addictive than Big Whippet or Mullingar Mud’.
The drug scene in Dublin had got boiled egg bad. Four friends in as many months had dropped dead from bad gear. He looked at Dessie who was eyeing two lesbos on the couch. One of them, skinny as rashers, was pretending to grate her tongue. ‘Yewer fuukin’ gas’, she said to her mate, bending over to kiss her full on the gnashers. Both wore matching Dolphin necklaces.
‘There’s small kids farting about on bicycles picking iPods like apples off O’Connell Street,’ Skinner told him. ‘Muggings are up a thousand per cent, robbed cars selling for under €500, all cos of this new shit that’s on the streets. Havoc. Operation Stilts Gardaí are calling it. Clamping down like steel clips on a dirt-bird’s nipples’.
Gonzo hated Dessie even in school when he lobbed custard out the window at passing priests and pensioners, chasing after seagulls on de Buckfast zig-zag, giving his 15 yr-old girlfriend a black eye for buying de wrong smokes. Skinner was worse, he could tell. Grade-A psycho who’d snap yer fingers off quicker than a fat kid at de zoo smashes a Kit Kat. Now they were turkeychesting with Russians dealers, taking on the entire muscle-for-hire empire. Russian gangsters in silver jackets trafficking teenagers by day, raping dogs of an evening. Ghetto of mayhem and fear papers were calling it. Funnel-dump from ringworm roads right up to Talbot Street, Gardiner Street and down the flank of docks to Fairview, casting into surf and howling out of rust-caked eyes into waves, sand shifting beneath drug boats, narrow little sea gods sucking at gravel and dancing a slithery leap. Low-cost booze and spat-back-up methadone from lippy whores in slippery capsules was all you could see in the city centre before one o’ clock in the day. By early afternoon the needle peddlers creaked into the gush of lanes behind Moore Street, Abbey Street and beyond, sliding to a stop the same way drops of water do on Carol’s shampooed hair. Cops didn’t give a gypsies’ as long as people like him hurried de fuck up and died. Junkies only made news when they snuffed out at tourist sites or were found lynching from concrete tongues high up between those buildings on Dame Street.
He didn’t take much convincing. Skin’s hands spread his furry cheeks apart to do the business. Arse was a humongous burger, the ones he used to get in Wendy’s in O’Connell Street when it first opened in 1987: spongy warm baps, melted Easi-singles, hot pickle sauce. Slip slop, slip slop, up with de cacks. Three bags of scank in his butcher’s bin, street value: €90,000. He’d drop de sludge and be back by three ticks, home to Carol for around five.
The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said, out loud. Pains fostered out elsewhere, he felt boundless, happy. Met her roight here with a gang of inner-city boys from de flats around Dominic Street, drinking cans and dancing to U2 songs on a ghetto-blaster sometime in the middle of 1994. She’d weight on her then, chubby sweet smile, horse-tail of hair whooshing from end to end in de sunbeams. They kissed for an hour without stopping: wet balmy tongue slosh he’d never done with any other burd. Sometimes he still felt guilty, but Leather Joe said, ‘There’s no stopping some, and ye never forced her to take it.’ The counsellor from NewPaths also explained that ‘damaged people have a knack of stumbling on one another no matter what, in the way that water always seems to meet its own level.’ It made sense that first time they tried to get off it together. Both their dads were alcos and bashed them. Both their Ma’s couldn’t see anything wrong with their Da’s and bashed them. Few weeks later, they fumbled and gorged and slopped into one another under the flat-leaf bushes in the Gardens. ‘What ye doin’ to me boy, wot ye bleedin’ doin’ to me!?’ Lads circling de railings, clutching chimps, uuumphin’ them on. ‘Slapper! Do her one!’ Afterwards they said Gonzo was a right grunter, like those fuckin’ mating seals on RTÉ. ‘It’s you and me babe, no-one else babe, you’ll do me babe.’
At the edge O’Connell Street where pigeons shat on the cement noggin of Charles Stewart Parnell, a crowd of mallets warbled about pay cuts. Aulone clutching a salad cutter was ranting blue horror about pension rights. ‘Sixty four billion to those feckers in the banks so they can fix their own balance sheets!’ Grey-haired Sinn Féin geezer smellin’ of haddock was giving it welly about Éire needing a game changer. Group of girls, no more than five or six with banners: It’s My Ireland Too. Normally he’d stick around for de dip, but Dessie warned him not to feck about, get it done & dusted ‘pronto’. Skinner held onto his social welfare card and Carol’s dead Ma’s gold locket she asked Gonzo to keep safe for always. Cash and more gear when the job was done.
Gonzo wolfed sideways shrieking his childhood battle cry: ‘Me head! Me head!’ He spottedHot Wok on North Earl Street, stomach doing a Hare Krishna pink salmon drum. Thai waitress with ladyboy lips looked like a hot slapper off the internet with a rake of sausages slithered in so her shaggy wangle was a filtering system inside an astronaut’s suit. He sat at the window starin’ out at so many formless faces, then back down at strips of steaming courgette. ‘Tolkuchka’ was the word Dessie used to describe the Russian drug cartel that had taken over. All those words ended in a choke. Carol had done a few down the canal when they were clear out of dough…said they were rough as horseshoe crabs, cocks reeking of sauerkraut.
‘Every bit of ‘em smells like a belch,’ she said. ‘Love slappin’ their wimmin’ as well’.
Pumped up on steroids, egg hatch maggot breeders, dripping sex trade, artificial money, begging scams. He could even see those Soviet-bloc prozzies too, a whole PVC red army of them soggy-spread over the back seat of metallic Audis’, slurping on mafia peckers. Head nut was like Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects except taller again, well able to giraffe over the walls of Mountjoy Prison, boiled eggs in his gob crammed full of heroin, dropping straight into famished jaws. Baba Yaga they called him, because of his man boobs. Lived in a steel hut at the edge of Rooster fields in North County Dublin. A gaff that stood on electronic chicken legs, garden fence emblazoned with teeth he’d personally knocked from debtor’s heads.
When the crowd in Foley Street got this new gear that Dessie and Skinner had messed with out onto the streets, napalm vomit and bedlam would rain down on Dublin town. Hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land, both man and beast. ‘Nuclear button is up me crack,’ Gonzo murmered. He had a looming vision of advancing Russians from every stone wall and crevice in Ireland, marching into Dublin, fat knuckles fisting indigo sky. There’d be black smoke meandering their necks, hiding bricks in plastic bags, Glocks in socks, AKs, MAC-10s with their spray and pray facility, lumpy grenades, nail bombs, acid pellets, even animal traps to pull down the enemy at window displays outside Cleary’s. Вы ирландского народа умрут самой ужасной смерти! Где твой Бог сейчас!
He spotted Widearse Wendy out de window crouching down at the door of Dunnes, knickers on display, damp with piss maps of the Philippines. She was swinging a bottle of Old Cellar at passing shoppers scouting cut-price gizmos from the pop-up shops. ‘Gonzo, ah me old bud, GONNNNNZO!’ she spattered.
‘Carol was reefin’ for ye,’ she said. ‘Some onion head lookin’ for you, says ye owe him a wormload of Euros’.
She was sitting with a Roma pleb, trombone full of bronze; old feet smashed up for begging bone pickle. He was only ten minutes now from de clop. ‘I owe no-one nutin’,’ he said, trying to figure out who yer man might be. ‘Is Carol alright?’ he asked. ‘Hope she’s not giving dem uns much grief?’ She could get snarky sometimes when juiced up to de girders. ‘Ah she was givin’ Phib a bit of a kickin’ cos he was in and out of the water,’ Widearse said. ‘Leather Joe says yez should get rid of the smelly little fucker, more mischief than worth. But I says ‘no way’ sure it wouldn’t be nutin’ round ‘ere without him, mad little yoke. Ah Gonzo ye shoulda seen him, in and out of dat water, de little ears on him, smellin’ of knacker nappies so he was. Have ye any odds for uz?’
Gonzo told her discretely he’d no spondoolies but he’d soon be in de loadser if a certain thing worked out later on. They’d have ‘em around the squat in de morrow, beer and boiled cocktail sausages, Bord na Móna goat turds in de burner, enough gear so they could all stay stub for a few days, sopping in boogie. He leaned over slowly, down to her waxy ear crack where he murmured de score as a morning prayer O Lord open our lips told her what was inside him in anyways in the darkness of this age that is passing away. If she said ought to any fucker dem Russians would make sure he was floating beetroot body parts in a stinkin’ pot of Zharkoye in some nameless side-door soup kitchen down the quays.
‘You always end up on your feet while the rest of us are on our bleedin’ heads,’ Widearse Wendy laughed, handing Gonzo de Old Cellar. Then she bowed over and whispered in Trombone’s ear. ‘Don’t be tellin’ that cunt anything of a consequence!’ Gonzo snapped, sorta raging now she’d trust a metal nicker with anything he prized on dem der Russians. ‘Don’t be a mean bollox! Ferka’s me good pal an’ he doesn’t have an easy go of it ‘ere’. He looked at Ferka who was by now grinding his teeth, some of ‘em small wallets of gold. Gonzo wondered if he picked this patch deliberately cos it looked out onto the towering stainless steel spire stuck in the Vena cava of O’Connell Street. ‘Him and his crew are probably going to melt dat fuckin’ thing down and live off de pickings for the next forty years and you won’t see him for angel dust!’ Gonzo told her, taking another glug. Metal was big business for his lot and they seemed to be spreading across Europe melting whole cities and trapping as much heat as possible. ‘Youza faggot fucker!’ Ferka roared, punching him in the crotch with his trombone. ‘I’ll bash de fucking granny outta ye with dat poxy yoke!’ Gonzo said, lunging at Ferka, crushing Widearse Wendy in the push forward. She started roaring and banging at the window: ‘Stop, will yez fuckin’ stop dis!’
Two security guards ran out of the shop to see what was going on. Big black blokes in fiend blue, large dangly batons, torches on their belts, fortified faces, boulder braces mineral ore. ‘If it isn’t the all-important rent-a-cops!’ Gonzo quipped, still gripping Ferka’s greasy swab of hair. ‘Dis fucker needs to know his place, but it’s nothing to do with youse, no trouble here.’ Widearse was beside herself, leaping about like Marlin. ‘He’s not bashin’ my mate’s head in, he’s not!’ she told the taller security brawn, smashing Ferka from Gonzo’s grip. ‘They’re both having a go for no bleedin’ reason,’ she wailed, deep now in her tiny grief of fly speck and goose egg, big fat smelly daddy raging up into life to bang her head off the rusty washing machine one more time in the small Cabra garden. Rolling around she was – from Marlin of the Seas off Cotez to a cuntarse cement mixer in an industrial sandpit on the outskirts of a Cappagh horse camp – too drunk to see what was really going on.
‘Get out of this doorway now! Our customers do not appreciate this!’ Ruby eyes looked like he’d seen his fair share of gang rape and coercive migration. He was pointing his liverwurst finger up the road where the curtains flailed in the wind outside Guineys’. ‘Fuck off back to Bangurawopa or wherever it is that youse eat one another, fukksake,’ Gonzo said, trying once more to kick one over at Ferka’s head. Ferka had fear soldered onto his face: wankstain nomad from North India following the Bisto fart of Alexander the Great to fertile lands where they settled on roundabouts melting metal and washing scarves. ‘It’s in his trousers!’ Ferka began to roar, ‘He is up to no good that bastard!’
Wendy bundled up the street, her chondrite meteorite arse blocking out the sun. Ferka too, gone in search of iron seraphs. Arms grabbed Gonzo from behind, smashing him forward, bursting his face open on the pleated gravel below. Arms, maybe even more arms (the city seemed so full of them) reefing his jeans down. ‘Fuck’s sake, stop it, I ain’t done nothing!’ But still the voyeurs fanned in, mud-puddling butterflies to blood. Three, maybe four or more fingers…drilling turnin’ twisting into his insides deep inside his trousers. Never crazed up pain like it. All the fists he ever knew in the big clench of years: priests, uncles, mad burds, the fat cat who owned the billboard company and beat the bollox out of him in front of faces outside Mass, nothin’ was worse than the arms smashin’ him up in this dirt-bucket of Dublin day. Blood, a lot of blood, that’d grow darker with the afternoon, if he ever managed to get out of it.
‘Shut it or ye’ll get it in the head,’ one of the arms said.
An aulone in brown bandaged legs shouted, ‘Bowsies, feckin’ bowsies!’
There was no way he could explain this to Dessie and his Basement Bandits. Already he could see Carol’s head mashed open; these cunts didn’t mess about. Arms conked like a discarded doll in the playground up de flats, broken bottle rammed right up there for good measure. He was flung and rolled, rammed and kicked down the street into a side lane, where the bashing went on for barbed eternity.
‘I’m fucked, I’m fucked!’ Gonzo roared as he saw two teenage girls pointing, laughing.
Dilly no douse no dee, dilly no douse no douse no douse dilly no douse no deeeeeee.
‘Yez ‘av no idea, I’m a gonner!’
Did he tell Dessie & Skinner where the squat over the bank was? Was he boastin’ about the gaff before they iglooed his arse? Carol would be back by now, pissing the mattress, eating a batter burger, waiting on Gonzo to come back with new gear. ‘Yer nothin’ but fuckin’ trouble,’ she’d say, ‘useless prick like ye, and ye gave dem yer card?’
Ring stinger, so much so, he could barely toddle up Church Street. Now he knew how she felt the first time he gave it to her in the arse. He had to use HB ice-cream to cool her down after. A seagull played the bodhrán gliding up the street squawking about ham. Nothin’ would ever be the same. These were serious heads. Dangerous heads. Mavericks. Think nothing of using shooters. Maybe they’d be OK just hidin’ out in the bank for a while. Rest of Ireland was doing the same. Stay gizmo’d until he heard of them being popped. All of ‘em uns ended up popped. Time & time again, saw it rolling. He wasn’t going back inside either, leaving her to her own devices.
The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. He didn’t know if he was here already an hour ago. He didn’t know where he’d end up or how he’d come down and if he was really here or half here an hour or more ago. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said. They’d have to lay still when he got back home, until a different kind of light shined. ‘Come out of charity, come dance with me in Ireland,’ that cunt Yeats said in the book under the mattress, but he didn’t know jack shit about the skank or de Russians or fiddlers like Carol, all thumbs and kettledrums, sucking off ghosts at the window in The Old Bank on Doyle’s Corner.
I will be reading more fiction in Cavan town on May 6th:
Balloon faces from years on the gear; bodies so thin they could thread through gaps in gates all across the lit grid of suburbia. They squalled and mauled their way around the city in the limp hours, hassling the likes of him trying to live out a life on his own. Most were just passing through the bend at Broadstone; heading on south towards Smithfield to score, or back down the crack in the road to Phibsborough and Finglas in the direction of home. “Story, bud!?” they’d shout up at him in unison, “Story?”
He wondered how they’d managed to spot him at all. For six months, four days and a couple of lean hours, he’d peeled off the pathways entirely and headed up the tree beside Comiskeys’ pub and the old abandoned factory that looked like a Sealink ferry flopped on its side. There was a small patch of avocado grass on the bend, where the houses tattletaled behind a hairy park, in front of redbrick flats (mostly boarded up) and the bulk of bus station with its kinked parked army poking out above a tall Victorian wall.
In the squiggle of high branches he laid out a single-plank bed using pilfered council clothing full of cotton wool to pinion him in. On the lower branches he flung bits of clothes, old bags, photographs, a leather satchel his father used as a revenue man, a tablecloth he’d stolen from Jury’s Inn, letters from his mother, Euro-shop tool kits, grilled crisp bags, and a lifelong collection of medals. If he lay on his side he could watch the locals paint their lungs in russet outside the pub,crowing about monies owed and goods stowed.
On his back, the 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 overcooked stars that seemed to have a lot in common with him. When he closed his eyes he was still able to muster up Lorna in their flat in Camden, pirouetting across the floor to Kate Bush’s The Whole Story, goading him about reconstituted spuds.
“One, two or ten?” she’d ask, cocking her leg behind her in a kind of chef-jest. “They taste of nothin’ but poxy water!”
For an entire summer they lived on tinned potatoes and Fray Bentos pies. She was taking a course in Contemporary Dance at a small amateur getup in North London and liked to prance about in the evenings in her blue knickers & bra, cooking up the same leaden fare on the one-ring cooker over and over. He adored her milky boobs and olive eyes, her animal cackle and the fact she could only fuck with her clothes on because she was so ‘County Wexford shy’.
On those smoky summer nights in ’88, he sprinted all the way from the building site in the still sweltering glare of evening to pin her to the bed for as many hours as he could. She found it impossible to look at him straight on but he’d stretch her elfin hands out behind her as far as the bed bars, jammed like a butterfly, until she gave in, squealing. He’d kiss and lick the sweat off her for ages afterwards. He would’ve sucked her up whole through a straw if he could.
It was a good six weeks before the tree spoke to him. Speckles of information at first: age (169 years); classification: Grey Willow; planting date (as yet unknown, same too for exactly how he got in the ground); how he loved the rain and sodden soil beneath him; the classic oval-shaped leaves that tickled all year ’round; his greyish green fleece-like belly; the sawflies, aphids, caterpillars and leaf beetles that populated his arms and legs since the primary days; things he’d seen and witnessed: famine, republican marches, car crashes, building booms, child rape, dog snatches, stabbings, carnivals, Christmas celebrations, guided tours, industrial strikes, Luftwaffe raids, surreptitious deals beneath his bough when the chickpea moon was at full-flourish; his hopes and dreams for any kind of future at all.
“Is me being here dragging you down?” he asked Willow, and the tree told him that all was “grand & dandy” as long as he didn’t spill chemicals on him or cut into the branches with any sharp objects. He handed back tips on the art of being indistinguishable, what was the best time of day to leave the tree to find food or other sundries he may need, all kinds of kind advice he never expected from anyone anymore under any circumstances at all.
Willow also told Miller about the escalation of drugs in the area, gangs hawking their trade in the all-encompassing daylight. “They’re as brash as you like,” he said,”knack-bags dropping off stacks of cash and even guns, young kids from the flats flailing about in the grip of addiction, that bloke form over there who bit off the security man’s ear outside McFrowans where nurses go sniffing for prison officer husbands.”
It was all drink, drugs, litter, loss and mayhem, according to Willow.
“The residents have a right pain in their hole,” he explained, “.complaining 24/7 that there’s nowhere safe for the kids to even kick a ball”.
The old abandoned railway line was now off limits even though all plans to develop the Northern Luas line had fallen off the government’s fiscal arm like a scab.
By early evening Miller was gathering his bob-bits from the grass from under the scrag of bushes beside Comiskeys. Across the way Lower Dominick Street was coming alive, the plywood apartments with artificial fireplaces and hoary Formica kitchens emptying residents out through the gates in search of something to do. He’d lived up that stink of road before, sold himself when his mother composted him for good and he could do nothing but guzzle himself into more torpor after Lorna’s death.
“You can’t stay around here destroying yourself, making a show of us, not caring a damn,” she whined. He understood. She had, after all, seen his father do it for a bucket of years.
German men on ‘culture holidays’ looking for a group jiggle, brawny truckers with a furtive hunger they’d prefer their A-line wives not know about, the mobile phone boss who needed to be sucked off before bi-monthly stock flotations. There was more sex on the streets of Dublin than could ever fit in the snug mousy insides. It didn’t bother him much, it even worked for a while, and he was able to pay for a small room in an apartment in Parnell Street near the cinema. But two winters in he’d been roughed up too many times and found himself back out on concrete, living at the back of a wall beside a restaurant fan. There was always food in the laneways, a vortex of throwaway, and some of the foreign workers would leave dregs out for him after they’d cleaned up the spillage of nightshift: bits of sloppy burrito, jerk chicken, wild wilted spinach and other khaki leaves plucked from the roadsides of Wicklow and Meath for the benefit of three stars in Dublin.
“Take it out here and be good to it,” Dhudha would tell him, passing out plates of food through the ventilator hole. All the way from Uttar Pradesh, his English was hilariously bad and nothing he emitted made sense. “My boss says you are the baggabond! He kill me if he knew I food you!”
Sometime in 2010, the Somali dealers moved in around the laneways of Parnell Street pegging their needle-loads to the retro-famished. A lot of the restaurants closed down because of racketeering. He never saw Dhudha again but dreamt he was back in India in a jam-packed town selling clunky wooden toys to foreign children on the side of a hill, spending afternoons pointing his donkey-skin feet into the eggy sunshine. Three people were done with blades in the laneways and two men pretty much like him were hospitalised after been beaten to beyond what he thought might be the level of atoms. It became a tracksuit catwalk of mêlée & mayhem – not a ruddy-faced Garda in sight – so once again he moved on to the porch of a deserted banana factory at the back of the Four Courts and later, when the gang of teenagers began throwing cans at him when he was out for the count, moving up towards Broadstone to a bandstand in Temple Gardens.
“You are better off here in any case,” Willow told him. “I’ll watch out for you in case those scallywags come back.”
How could he intervene if they did more than shout at him this time? Willow was begotten to the earth shaking him and not the other way around. And lately, just lately, he’d asked for a cut of Miller’s street profits. “This way, we’re both self-respecting,” he explained, but Miller was becoming less sure. There were even nights where Willow was ‘finding’ punters for Miller and in the depth of agladdening sleep, he’d be hauled out of the tree to do the business.
“Come out Tarzan ye mad yoke!” the punters would roar, and Willow would gently push him towards them with his large hairy branches.
In truth, he was exhausted running away for a living, worn-out with people badgering and hassling, of voices following and shadows prickling him. He be even better off as an addict himself, as if he could ever afford it! He didn’t get why they were so angry in general but also at him, blaming the recession on everything. It’s not like they even worked during the good times, like he’d done for so many years; and as for the women in the flats across the road who started shouting abuse out the barred windows at him: “Get off the grass ye mentler!” “Stop scaring the kids!” The old guys from the pub who said he was upsetting the little ones making their First Holy Communion; babe-in-arms bouncing in meringues on rubber apparatus to the side of the bus station, and the traffic cop who told him that the man driving the Ghost Bus almost swerved when he saw him up the tree. He could wring all their necks at once.
“There’s nothing illegal about me being here,” he told Willow. He’d looked it up in the National Library, the new-fangled anti-loitering laws; there was only mention of being firmly on the ground, outside ATMs, beggars holding out their hands to collect money in polystyrene cups, Roma who live on roundabouts. Some of the laws were so old at this stage even though it was surely teetering on an epoch of hovercraft; the statute books in Ireland still insist you carry a bale of hay with you to feed your method of transportation. No-one could tell him he was doing anything wrong and Dublin City Council itself was not aware of any deeds for the tree.
He imagined the end would come just as he was dozing off, when he rested his tender neck on a gnarl for the night, faint buzz of white noise approaching. Dosed up on blue and green shots, glops of Goldschlager, gobs of Guinness. The gang would hunch up the road from Parnell Street banging the railings with sticks and bars, jokes and jars, in search of him or anyone like him. It was the coke too, sending them clear bats.”Let’s kick the living shite out of him; head right open, the seagulls will have his brains scoffed by morning.”
In front of them Lorna’s ghost is teaching his dead mother how to dance: two sets of legs, knitting needles in the dark, clanking. Willow wakes in a rage, sees what’s happening and spurts his tree sap all over the gang and the ghosts, submerging them beneath the ground. How funny that Miller’smum didn’t know the jive before now. “Like this Mrs Malone!” Lorna tells her, “Just let yourself go!” They would dance on for him even when he lay on the grass, wholly broken.