July’s winning story
Benbulben had already turned its green shoulder on them and they were speeding towards the cemetery at Drumcliff. This meant they were about 20 minutes away from her boarding school and soon she’d have to give an account of her weekend to the other girls in her dorm. She lowered the sun visor to check her appearance in the mirror. She reached up to retie her ponytail, strangling it onto the highest point of her head, trying to make the tip fall down over the spot on her temple. But this action made her grey sweatshirt ride up so her midriff was exposed and “UMBRO” was written across her breasts. She pulled it down but then the diamond-shaped logo looked like it was drawing a connecting line between her nipples. “Frigid tits” — that’s what Brenda Delaney had called her. She glanced at Tom to check he hadn’t noticed her flashing her stomach, but he just stared at the road ahead.
She had wanted to take the bus back to school. On the bus she could eat junk food and listen to her Walkman. If she listened to her Walkman now it would seem rude, even though it was clear Tom had no intention of making conversation. But on Saturday her father had returned from golf and said that Tom was driving down to Galway and had offered to drop her off in Sligo and wasn’t that great, because Tom could bring her right to the school — she wouldn’t have to walk back from the town in the dark. When she had complained, her mother said, “Sure what would be wrong with you, getting chauffeur-driven to the door in that big, new car?” But that was a jibe at her father because Tom’s car was bigger and newer than theirs. Tom owned a construction company and most of the buildings that went up around the town had the ‘Gallagher’ sign on the scaffolding. Her mother had said he was “only a cowboy” but her father liked him and when he’d pulled up at the house to collect her she’d heard them sharing some joke about golf, one man’s laughter mimicking the other’s. Tom always dressed like he was going golfing. He wore short-sleeved shirts with V-neck jumpers, light-coloured trousers with loafers. “He fancies himself, that fella,” was what her mother had said.
She heard a clacking noise and looked down. Tom wore a bracelet of gold links that swung against the head of the gearstick where his hand rested. Dark hair coated his forearm. He reached for his cigarettes and flicked open the carton, coaxing a cigarette out with his index finger and placing it between his lips. He pressed the car lighter, waited for the click, brought it to the tip of the cigarette.
“You haven’t started, have you?” he asked.
“It’ll be when you start taking a drink. That’s when the temptation really kicks in.”
“I’ll never smoke.”
“Ha,” he scoffed.
She looked up at his face. He was smiling to himself.
“Are you going to the Limelight yet?” he asked.
“No,” she said, folding her arms and sinking down in the seat.
She had asked her mother when she got home from school on Friday evening if she could go to the Limelight disco, and her mother had responded so volubly it was clear she’d been anticipating this question for months. The bus to the Limelight was packed with young ones plying each other with drink, she said. Only two weeks ago, Master O’Connor’s son, who had never said boo to a goose before, was hauled off to have his stomach pumped. It did not matter how well behaved Orla was. It was not Orla she was worried about. It was the crowd she would fall in with when she started going to the discos.
That her mother thought she knew even the first thing about what happened in a nightclub was disgusting and embarrassing to her. And the fact was, Orla didn’t even want to go. She would hardly know anyone there and she’d end up standing in the corner like a hologram of herself with everyone looking through her. But the other girls in her dorm had started attending discos at the weekends, and Brenda Delaney had come back one Sunday evening and said she’d been fingered by a Protestant. All that week Brenda kept fainting on to her bed, overwhelmed by desire. Orla had grown tired of this performance, and told her as much, and that’s when Brenda had called her “frigid tits”.
Orla squirmed in her seat, glancing up at the rear-view mirror. She saw that Tom had one eye fixed on her.
“How old are you now?” he asked.
“Sure it’s time you were going to that. You’ll soon be too old for it,” he said. “I let my youngest go when she was 14. Mind you, she had a sister a couple of years older so she could look after her.”
“Mammy and daddy don’t want me going because they think there’s ones drinking at it,” she said.
“There’s worse than that going on, I’m sure.” He laughed, exhaling smoke in short, sharp breaths. “I’ll tell you, that’s where you’d learn the facts of life.” He stubbed his cigarette out and straightened himself in the seat. “How old do you think I am?” he asked.
She was wary of these questions. Whenever adults asked about their age, there was always some trick implied. “I don’t know,” she said.
“You could have a guess.”
She stole a sideways look at him. “Forty?”
The corners of his smiling mouth drew down. “Forty? You think I’m 40?”
“So why did you say that then, when you know I’m not 40. Do I look 40?”
“Do I look that much younger than your father?”
“No,” she said. “But … you are younger than my father?”
“Yes,” he said. She heard his teeth bite together.
He indicated left, and turned off the main road. A sign pointed them in the direction of Glencar waterfall. They were still a few miles away from the school yet and she wondered if he was coming at it from a different direction, if there was some other road or shortcut he knew. But then he turned on to a narrow laneway that faced them back in the direction of Benbulben.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“We’re just making a pit stop,” he said.
The road was lined with brambles that seemed to stretch all the way back to the foot of the mountain. She scanned the distance before them but there was no sign of a break in the bushes, not a single house on either side of the road. Tom pulled the handbrake and got out, leaving his door open and the engine running. She thought that he was going to come all the way around to the passenger side but he stopped in front of the car. He unbuttoned his trousers, pulled down his zip and tilted back slightly, projecting a high arc of yellow into the air. She looked away but she could still hear his piss cascading on to the brambles. When the noise stopped she heard a cough and then he was back in the driver’s seat, slamming the door, the smell of the cold damp air upon him.
“Seatbelt,” he said.
She looked down — her right hand was grasping the buckle, her thumb pressed on the red button. The silver end of the belt lay across her thigh.
For the rest of the journey she did not lift her head, she just stared at the two wet spots drying on the knee of his beige slacks.
Orla touched the ends of Alice Devlin’s red hair, bleached blonde by the awful strip lighting that lined the roof of the dorm. Alice had come to lie on her bed and had placed her head on Orla’s leg and although the weight of Alice’s skull sent a hot pain through her thigh, she did not say anything in case she moved away. Their dorm was divided into cubicles, two beds in each, and on the opposite bed sat Brenda and Janet. Orla watched Janet running her fingertips across Brenda’s wrist and down the back of her hand. Clive had not phoned Brenda and she couldn’t understand why. Clive was the most Protestant name Orla had ever heard, and she thought that fingering someone at a disco was probably a very Protestant thing to do.
“He’ll phone you next weekend,” Alice said.
“Yeah, he’s in fourth year,” Janet said. “They have way more work than we have. He’s probably really busy.”
Brenda leaned back against the wall, lifeless, her long black hair pouring over her shoulders. She was like a propped up china doll that might loll forward at any moment.
Orla had been waiting for a space to open in their talk. She felt she had left it too long and now anything she said would sound misjudged. She had decided during study hall when she was unable to concentrate on her homework that she would blame the failure of her weekend on her mother. She would wait for the girls to start sharing stories and then she would bluster — call her mother a bitch, recount the argument they’d had with a few added details of her mother’s hysterics. But she would not tell them about her scraping her father’s dinner into the bin because he had come home late from golf. It was OK for your mother to be a little highly strung, but this could elicit a different kind of pity — like when Janet’s mother got drunk at prize day and started crying at the back of the concert hall, and the following week no one could look Janet in the eye.
But now it seemed that nobody had done anything of consequence that weekend, and still Orla had nothing to contribute, not even some words of kindness and encouragement for Brenda.
“My life is so boring,” Brenda said. “All I did was stare at the phone all weekend.”
“God,” Orla said, seeing her chance and bounding towards it, “the most excitement I had was when my dad’s friend drove me back. He stopped on the side of the road and got out and did a big piss like a horse.”
There were a few spontaneous giggles. Other girls in the dorm overheard and stepped into the cubicle.
“Ugh — gross,” Alice said. She sat up and placed a hand on Orla’s shoulder. She leaned back from her and looked into her face with a mixture of sympathy and disgust.
“He got out and did a piss on the main road?” Janet asked.
“No,” Orla said, “he drove off down this laneway. I didn’t know where he was taking me.”
And then Orla watched Janet draw her hand away from Brenda and turn her face to the window. The girls who had come to gawp, backed out of the cubicle and carried on unpacking and getting ready for bed.
“Did you get a look at it?” Brenda asked.
“I did not! I wouldn’t be looking at that. He’s as old as the hills.”
Brenda rose slowly and walked off to her bed and Orla felt that she had disappointed her somehow.
When the lights went out and she closed her eyes, she was back in the car, and she was on that laneway again. But this time she was in the driver’s seat and she was alone. And she was moving the gearstick and pressing the pedal but there was nothing she could do to slow the speed of the car. And she was driving faster and faster, aiming for where the mountain lay in shadow and its dark curves purpled like a bruise.
Alan Murrin is a writer from Donegal. He has an MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia. He was the 2021 winner of the Bournemouth Writing Prize. In 2020 he was awarded an Arts Council literature bursary. His work has been published in the ‘Cardiff Review’. He has been shortlisted for the Irish Arts and Writers Festival Short Story prize, the New Irish Writing in Germany prize, and was longlisted for the University of Essex International Short Story prize. He is based in Berlin.
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty and appearing in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to four poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected will receive €120 for fiction and €60 for poetry. You can email your entry, preferably as a Word document, to. Please include your name, address and contact number, as well as a brief biographical paragraph. Only writers who have yet to publish their first book can be considered.