Thursday 21 September 2017

Hennessy New Irish Writing: Home by Nathan O'Donnell

Home by Nathan O'Donnell
Home by Nathan O'Donnell
John Fitzpatrick

The Peacock is hopping. You can always rely on that much. You'd go for a drink on a Sunday afternoon in Dublin and even with a big gang of us it's dead. It's depressing is what it is. But back home, back in the Peacock, with the girls, the place is to the rafters.

I needed this, after the week I've had. People from home. Barry in his pillarbox jeans. Claire dancing next to him, giving it socks. Bit of music. People make the effort. Sandra with her lace collar dress and her beehive - and the fringe - she does my head in but yeah, she looks topper.

We have our drinks in the smoking area, where everyone goes. They pump the music through. Claire and Barry are dancing already, and it won't be long til they're joined. You can catch up with people, have a laugh. Most of us are in Dublin these days, working. Some of us aren't. Some of us you wouldn't like to ask. You already know the answer. Living at home, doing f**k all, cans any day of the week. Nobody wants to talk about that now. People make the effort, get dressed, for a Sunday at the Peacock. There's a bit of music. The sun is shining. You feel happy to be in the middle of these people, all these different colours.

It's only me, Carla and Marie so far at our table. Carla's a beautician now but she did fashion so she's got something to say about everybody's outfits. Marie's all work-talk these days. You'd swear no one had ever gotten a job before her. But today she's outdoing herself, the talk's exploding out of her. I know she's doing it for my sake. I imagine them sitting here, before I arrived, saying that very gravely to each other, preparing each other: her nan's died. She won't want to talk about it. And then I arrive, and every little thing I do, they're thinking, she's upset. Straight to the bar: she's upset.

Fidgeting with her smokes: she's upset. It's funny. I'd never realised til this weekend how intrusive other people's sympathy can be. Still, their hearts are in the right place. And I am upset, I suppose - though I hardly need to be quite so nursed. I mean, my nana, she was 93 years old. She was old. In the funeral home on Friday, the way Gerry and the brothers were carrying on, you'd have thought she was in her prime or something. The drama! I mean, the way I see it, you live that long, you should be thankful. And the way she was at the end: that's no way to be. I think, when you get to that age, it's more of a relief.

Of course I'm not about to say so. Nobody wants to hear about it. I don't want to f**king hear about it, and it's nana! And anyway, it's easier for the girls to think I'm heartbroken. They like that, thinking I'm 'just holding up', thinking they're helping, yammering on about the office, and what they've been eating, and who they saw this week and who they didn't.

'Was I telling ye, girls, I ran into Amber on Tuesday. Yeah - that Amber! She's the same. She tried to blank me in Dunnes Stores, of all places. Would you believe that? I was having none of it. I chased her down the frozen aisle and slapped her in the back of the head. "Jesus, Carla," says she. "It's you. I didn't know you."

'I'd say you f**king didn't, you slag. So I says, "How come? Do I look different or something?" O, you should have seen her squirm.'

'Ah, priceless! Priceless,' shouts Marie. It isn't really priceless, now, but Carla has a knack for a story. She'd have you in convulsions and all she's talking about is the price of a bag of chips.

'I've missed you, Carla. The both of ye,' I say. 'I swear to God I needed this.'

I mean it too. I needed it. It's not that I'm grieving or anything. I'm not one for that brand of theatrics. But the whole thing, funerals, afters, those miserable sandwiches on platters on the cheap paper tablecloths? It'd tire you out. And then it's hard hearing people crying, even if it is Paul's wife, who hated nana. And the coffin sitting there in the middle of the room? Gerry came over to me at one point and put his arm around me and I felt like saying, would you pull yourself together, Da? Would you get a f**king grip?

Thank God I didn't. It's his mother at the end of the day. I guess that's never easy no matter what age you are. I felt bad afterwards, for getting angry with him, for letting the thought even cross my mind. I'm not heartless or anything. I mean, I know it's sad. Death. But something about the whole process, the whole rigmarole, for a woman who's ninety f**king three, seems like just a long bad joke to me. It doesn't seem real. What do you need to be howling for? Still, I felt bad for Gerry. I should have hugged him back. But there wasn't time: they were bringing in Nellie on the wheelchair and he'd to up and help.

I felt Marie reach across the patio table and stroke my arm. Like the way you'd stroke a baby who's spilt their bottle. The face on her. Scrunched up, commiserating. She wouldn't chance a move like that in a million years if she didn't think I was vulnerable. She's a busybody, she is. In everybody's business. I just have to grit my teeth and bear it, I know, but it's difficult. I give her a look of studied incomprehension.

'Yes, Marie?'

'O! Nothing. Nothing. I - I was just going to go to the bar-'

'I'll have a vodka tonic.'

'Right.'

She stands to go, her own drink still half-full, and mine. I hold a straight face til she's gone, then I crack up laughing. Carla doesn't laugh. Instead she makes a face, squinting like she's in pain. She has Marie down to a tee.

'You poor love,' she croons.

She'd have you in fits. I've to stop and catch my breath, wipe my eyes, I'm laughing so hard. She sighs, sits back on the bench. 'Still, it's good to see you,' she says, seriously this time, and I believe her, and I appreciate it. That's the difference I suppose.

'I saw your da at Tesco. I didn't like to ask him though. How's Nellie?'

'O, Nellie? Jesus. Carla, that was the hardest part. They brought her in to see nana in the coffin. I don't think she knew what was going on. You can't tell - what she understands and what she doesn't. To think of her. On her own now.'

'Ah that's rough. That's rough.'

It was rough. Poor Nellie. In the funeral home the three brothers made a ring around her, helping her up. I don't know what she thought was happening. They said afterwards she understood alright, but it didn't look that way to me. They brought her over to the coffin. And she's looking over the side of it, not sad or upset or anything, just looking. And the brothers are signalling her to do something, like it's something they've already told her to do, like they're waiting for her to follow some instruction, and she says, 'Bye bye, mammy.' And then she looks around the room, and it's the same, not sad, not upset, none of the things people are expecting, and she says, 'Mammy's gone. Mammy's gone up to John.' She says it like she's explaining it to the others, like she can't understand why they'd be crying. She's saying it, in fact, like she's repeating how it's been explained to her. Poor Nellie.

She's nearly 70 now. They put her in an institution when she was still a baby. John, the old c**t used to call her 'the dummy.' 'We were in to see the dummy,' he'd say. He never even bothered to learn sign. What's the point, he'd say. What's she going to have to talk about? They left her in that place for nearly 40 years. He died when Garrett Fitzgerald was Taoiseach. They all said he couldn't bear to see Fine Gael in government. He keeled over and died, not long before I was born: thank God I never had to lay eyes on him. And you know what? Nana was straight into St Michin's and had Nellie back home with her before he was cold in the ground.

Marie appears back at the door of the beer garden. The music is up so she has to jostle through the dancing to get to us, three glass held up, ice clinking, straws, slices of lemon and lime. Just the colours alone would make you smile. She shimmies over to us, singing, lays the drinks down in front of us and offers us both a Vogue. We take one each. We let her light them. I take a deep pull out of the mint and I hold it in.

'Nice one, Maz,' says Carla. I exhale.

'You'd long for this,' I say.

I mean the whole thing: the drinks, the sun, the music. Not just the cigarette. They nod, blowing smoke through their nostrils. We'll be dancing before long. Marie turns like she's just remembered something.

'How's the house? Where is it again - Fairview?'

'Yeah, it's Fairview. Out towards Clontarf. The house - yeah, the house is OK. It could be worse.

'There's some bad neighbourhoods either side but in Fairview you're in the middle so you're OK.

'Some nice shops. A nice coffee shop, my housemate says. To be honest, I haven't even had a chance to explore it properly. I'm working every hour God sends these days.'

They both nod like they know exactly what I mean, and immediately I'm fit to hit the roof all over again.

'Are ye busy, are ye, yeah? Marie? In the office? Yeah, I'd say so. The new place I'm working in now is chaos. Absolute chaos. You can be doing 12 hour days now with these kids, and all of them with different disorders, all just lumped in together. It's non-stop. I'm destroyed-' I lift up my skirt to show them the worst patch, and I can see they're paying attention now, and suddenly I don't know why I'm saying all this, like I'm bragging or something, but on I go '-with bites, scratches.

'The works. I mean, you put a bunch of these kids together, and you know, every one of them needs different care, but there's no resources, there's just the three of us trying to look after them. Me and two other girls, on shifts. We're all f**king exhausted. You wouldn't believe it. The screaming and shouting. All night, some of them. There's one kid. You can't shut him up. Screaming, kicking. Biting the other kids. There's no controlling him, honest to God. Poor little cratur. He's just lost and screaming and lashing out. He's not being looked after properly. We haven't the resources. We do our best but. . . Well, it's hard. You try to tell him off, when one of the kids has come to you, but when you say a word to him, like, one hard word, you see his face just changes, it goes so serious, big eyes like he's going to cry, eyes that'd break your heart. And he starts off that kind of wail, he's kind of humming, I wanna go home, real drawn out, like he's getting his strength up, and then the next minute he's off, big tears, bawling, I want my mammy I want my mammy I want my mammy - and that sets off the others, they're all crying now and it's just, it's a nightmare - and of course you have to stay cross with him, you've to tell him not to do it again, you've to be strict - this sort of scowl on you - looking at him, squirming, Jesus, the misery off him, and all you want to do is pick him up and hug him and say to him "You know what" - and don't laugh, don't laugh at me now - "You know what? I want my mammy too".'

I stop. They're looking at me the way you'd look at someone who's just told you they had cancer.

She's upset, they're thinking. We need to rush in. Fuck them. The thing is, I'm not upset. I'm not upset at all. I'm actually, and this is hard to explain, but I almost feel - and it's the only word will do - astonished. Astonished that we're here. It's a good feeling, a positive feeling. It's a good kind of astonishment, in spite of everything. I'm happier than I've been in a long time. I couldn't tell you why. I get up, put my drink down, reach my hand out in invitation.

'Will we dance,' I say.

Nathan O'Donnell

Nathan O'Donnell completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Sussex in 2007 and a PhD earlier this year in Trinity College Dublin. 

He has had stories in The Manchester Review, Wordlegs, The South Circular, and was included in a 2008 anthology of emerging LGBT writers, Whoosh! His first novel, Letters to Lucy, was nominated for the 2014 Novel Fair at the Irish Writers' Centre. He has also had articles and reviews published in a number of magazines and is currently co-editor of an Irish journal of contemporary art criticism, PVA.

Couple in a Car Park

As I wait in the car park

outside the DIY Superstore

to listen to the end of my poetry podcast

about the Essential American Poets,

I'm distracted by two shoppers

emerging from the store

with large items in their arms,

one following closely the other.

Something about the space between them

makes me need to classify their relationship

until I discover there is none -

just that their cars

have parked alongside each other.

But they both fall into an exchange

as they load their goods into their car boots,

prompted perhaps

by earlier sightings across the aisles, a flicker of recognition of something

to bring them each to want to exchange a word,

delay the moment of departure,

car boots remaining open as they speak,

keys not yet retrieved,

each sometimes approaching minutely,

sometimes retreating,

all of the time calculating, recalculating the depth of the other,

hoping to get some sounding back,

until it becomes no longer tenable without something more than tentative,

and one, or the other - it's not clear which loses their nerve

or interest, and signals retreat

or defeat, with a glance to the distance,

wrist or phone,

as they then both do in almost unison,

sealed by open smiles of relief, as though it were a drink of hope and disappointment mixed and raised and clinked

on such occasions.

And now it's all about the leaving

well alone:

keys, car doors, seat belts,

rear-mirror manoeuvring,

the detestable safety of the drivers' seat,

the wondering by whom and how

the brief and final locking of eyes will precisely

be arranged, to say:

of course we would…

yes, I could have… and maybe some day…

John FitzGerald

John FitzGerald was announced this week as the 2014 Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Competition winner. He was runner-up in last year's competition.

John, who works as university librarian at University College Cork, was also commended in the 2014 Gregory O'Donoghue Prize and longlisted in the 2014 UK National Poetry Competition and in the 2014 Fish Poetry Prize.

He lives with his family on a farm in Lissarda.

Curiosité - un Regard Moderne

The latest Sotheby's email

sale announcement

proclaims the chance to

obtain a pair of Aepyornis

maximus (Elephant Bird) eggs,

an exceptional complete

Moa (Megalapteryx didinus)

[sic] skeleton, or even a collection

of Nô masks: 'Get the last of

your eggs, bones n masks'

you can almost hear the criers proclaim

at the gates of the chateau

in Dampierre of the impecunious

latter-day Duc de Luynes.

Fields

There's a place on the ­Dublin-Cork line

where woodland opens out to fields within the wood

- two or three,

irregular in shape and ­secretive in their deep ­surround,

unperturbed by the sudden pulsing passing-by of trains.

And then they've gone.

I always seem to lift my eyes at just this point in the journey,

signalled by some animus of field

and its possession of me since a child,

for all the fields I have traversed

and loved and lost.

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment