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New Irish Writing

Life on Pluto by Jennifer McMahon

New Irish Writing’s winning story for February


Illustration for Life on Pluto by Evan Connolly

Illustration for Life on Pluto by Evan Connolly

Jennifer McMahon, writer of Life on Pluto, the New Irish Writing short story pick for February

Jennifer McMahon, writer of Life on Pluto, the New Irish Writing short story pick for February


Illustration for Life on Pluto by Evan Connolly

In late October, Casey’s Hotel is a scarecrow. When I pull into the car park in the afternoon for my shift, the sky is already darkening over the Wicklow Mountains. The heights hold the mist like grief, and there isn’t a breath of wind to shift it. In the evening, it’ll roll down on us, and drench us in an impenetrable wall of wet. You loved when beauty was this stark, the soundless beat of it, the way it wrapped you in introspection. Mountains make big thoughts seem small, you always said. Mountains are our humility.

I prefer working the late shift, because that’s when it hits me most, that you’re gone. Your key won’t scrape in the lock at home, you won’t call my name as you open the door. I won’t answer from the kitchen, to tell you that I can’t be bothered cooking, so let’s order in. Evening was our time, now it’s work time, because I can’t bear to be home. Not that there’s much work to do, apart from organising breakfasts, counting up the cash, and balancing everything out. We have the regulars in the lounge, locals who drink too much and pay with coins, mute couples who sit looking into their glasses because there’s nothing left to say, an occasional businessman who dithers over his pint as he scribbles in the Times crossword.

I feel the bite of the air as soon as I get out of the car. There’s a dampness to it, the sort of cold that cuts through clothes and nibbles at joints. My left knee still gives me trouble, remember? From that time we were walking in the hills, and I tripped while climbing over a log. You ran to me, and helped me up. I never saw you more worried about me than you were that day. Your face was red with it, and when you held me close, I felt your heart rattling in your chest. I leaned on you all the way back to the car, but refused to go to A&E, saying we’d be waiting hours. When we got home, you wrapped my knee in gauze, tight as a mummy, and I rested it on your lap for the rest of the day. Now when it aches, I’m glad, because nothing is more real than pain. It makes you real too, and tells me that I didn’t just dream you.

You remember Rebecca, the other receptionist? The tall one with the attitude like she’s God’s gift, and the crop of blonde hair that falls to her ass? Well, she’s finishing up the early shift. I find her in the back office, totting up the cash. Her coat is already on, ready for road. She glances at me, but her lips are still counting the crisp banknotes that are slipping between her thumb and forefinger. When she reaches the end, she says, “Two hundred and seventy,” then jots down the figure in the cashbook. “All done. Peadar O’Hagan is in the lounge again, slumped over in one of the snugs, snoring like a horse. You’ll have to get his wife down from the mountain, to take him home.”

“Do horses snore?”

“Everything snores.” She grabs her bag from the floor beside her, then rises from her seat. “I’m out of here. Sail her true.” It’s one of our jokes, as if we’re afloat in a great passenger liner. With it, she’s gone, and the door swings shut behind her. I set to counting the cash, and balancing it myself. That’s how it works, she counts out and I count in. No one trusts anyone any more.


The mist falls, thick as cream, and I go outside to look. It drifts in silver strokes, painting itself on to the canvas of the valley, sketching tiny rainbows under the external lights. I imagine you can see it through my eyes, and I hope they have mountains and mist wherever you are, if you’re anywhere at all. I heard something on the radio yesterday, about the discovery of ice volcanoes on Pluto, and how they might support primitive alien life. If that’s true, then maybe you can be somewhere too, but maybe there’s nowhere other than here, no time other than this evening, and no one else in the whole world other than the passengers aboard my fog-bound and becalmed ship.

When I go back in, I telephone Mrs O’Hagan. “Who is this?” she answers, all wary and suspicious.

“It’s Sharon, from Casey’s. If you could come and collect Peadar...”

Her breath escapes in a drawn-out sigh. “Can’t you keep him for the night?”

“Put him up as a guest, you mean?”

“It’s just, the roads are bad. The fog. You know, right?”

I know she wants me to say that it’s OK for her to leave her husband sleeping among strangers tonight, and I do. “It’s best not to travel. We’ll look after him.”

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“Thanks, Sharon. How’ve you been?”

“Oh, okay. You know.”

“It must be six months, now.”

“Nine,” I say.

I can almost hear the sad shake of her head. “An awful loss. I’ll say a prayer for you, and next time I’m in the church, I’ll light a candle for his soul.”


I go into the lounge to tell Peadar what his wife said. The fire is lit, and there’s a candle on every table. Peadar is awake again, and sitting on a stool at the bar. He isn’t old, but alcohol and sorrow make him appear so, in shades of yellowing skin and a streak of hair that’s turned grey before its time. He and Mary lost one child to drowning, and another to illness. Can you imagine the weight of that, the way it must cling to them like grease? That’s how losing you feels to me, like it’s a robe I can’t shrug off, or a mist trapped down in a valley. When I enter, he’s expounding on the nature of God for the benefit of Edith and Sammy Byrne, a young couple who live nearby. Her head is bowed, and her fingers are twisting her glass around and around, as if they’re winding an old clock. Sammy’s mouth is slightly open in amusement, and his arms are folded over his chest.

“God’s nothing but a fucker,” Peadar declares, swinging around on his barstool, swiping his arm wide.

“A thief,” he says. “Takes the best of us, and in their prime.”

There’s a fresh pint before him, black with a creamy white head, and a small pile of coins. Billy, the barman, glances at me, and throws his eyes up to heaven.

“A devil,” Peadar shouts, his hand in a tight fist, raised in the air.

Sammy chuckles, and Edith bows her head just a little lower, sinks her chin a little closer to her breasts.

“But what’s the point?” Peadar says.

“What is the fucking point?” Billy says, as he runs a damp blue cloth across the bar.

“The point,” and Peadar leans towards him. “The point, my good man, is that we’re lost, and there’s not a thing, blessed or otherwise, that can save us.”

“There’s not a thing’ll save you,” Sammy says, shaking his head, “if your wife hears you talking like that.”

There’s silence between them. Peadar locks hard eyes on to him. I hear water dripping down the gutters outside, to rattle through the downpipe and scuttle away into the shore. A log crackles and gives off a puff of smoke as it shifts. Edith lifts her gaze, and looks at me.

“I want to go home,” she says.

Sammy doesn’t answer, but stays wrapped in that space between him and Peadar. I step into it, and Peadar turns away, to count the coins he has left.

“You’re to be our guest,” I tell him. “Mary can’t get down the mountain.”

He winks at me. “A fine thing. Next one goes on my bill.”

“Haven’t you had enough?”

He taps his glass with a fingernail. “And what’s enough?”

“About two less than you’ve already had.” I perch myself on the stool beside him, and as I do, my knee gives a stab that makes me groan. He purses his lips, and studies me.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Old war wound. The damp gets to it.”

His hand falls on to my knee. At first, I feel the sting of cold, then there’s a growing heat that spreads up towards my thigh. “My father had healing hands,” he says. “Who knows? Maybe he passed it on to his only son. Wasn’t it on a night like this that your Michael was killed?”

I look at his hand, and decide that, for the moment, I don’t mind. “It was,” I say.

“He was crossing over the Wicklow Gap?”

“On his way to Blessington.”

“A bad road, even in good weather. Have a drink with me.”

“I’m still working, but I’ll have one when I’m done.”

“What I said. About God.”


“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

Sammy puts on his coat, and holds Edith’s hand as they go out the door. Water drips, and Billy throws another log on to the fire. There isn’t much work for me to do, so I stay with Peadar for a long time, him raising his pint with one hand while the other rests on my knee, me thinking about you, about the comfort of intimacy and the dry companionship that sorrow brings. Mountains make big ideas seem small. Ideas like God, like there being life on Pluto, like there being a life for me after you.

For now, maybe it’s enough that there’s still some primitive life here, on a ship adrift on fog-bound waters. I know you’d appreciate the humility in that, and how the faint flickering of a candle can save a soul, and maybe even light our way home.

About the author

A recent winner of the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair 2023, Jennifer ’s words appear in the Oxford Prize Anthology, Solstice Literary Journal and Books Ireland Magazine. She has won both the Bray Literary Festival and the Books Ireland Magazine flash fiction competitions, and was a top ten finalist in the Oxford Prize. Her stories have been shortlisted for Heimat Review, the Anthology Short Story Award, the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize, the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards and the Women on Writing Flash Fiction Prize. Jennifer was also shortlisted for the Literary Consultancy Scholarship in 2022, and was longlisted in Fiction Factory’s Novel First Chapter competition, and in both the Retreat West Flash Fiction and Short Story competitions. She lives in Co Wexford.

How to enter

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 newirishwriting68@gmail.com. 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.