The Favour, a short story

ID-100309798

Naming is claiming. This was the parting idea for my short story, The Favour, which was published in The Irish Times on Saturday as part of the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition. I was interested in the statement of freedom and ownership first expressed by parents when they choose a name for their child.

It is the first decision an outsider (and everyone is an outsider to new parents) may object to, though usually not openly. Many more life-shaping decisions will follow. But what if the parentage of the child was unconventional? How much more complex and fraught the situation could be if someone else was involved in bringing the child into the world.

Please be my guest and read the story here before I reveal too much.

In this story Maeve does a large favour for her sister that turns out to have unexpected dimensions. Maeve came to me as a fully-formed character. She sees herself as strong and free-spirited, capable of great things. And yet she finds her life slipping by with no sign of the great things. When the opportunity comes along to do something noble and momentous, she grabs it. Her grand gesture is a means of securing life tenure of the good sister role. But can she impress her emotionally unavailable mother?

It’s important to say that my story is just an imagined set of circumstances, which are not meant to make a definitive statement about the reality of surrogacy. However, if you are interested in the subject, this fascinating radio documentary, first broadcast in July 2015 on Irish public radio is worth a listen. Seven Years and Nine Months is an unvarnished account of a couple’s quest to have the family of their dreams through surrogacy.

I wrote The Favour a year ago and the story spent many months languishing on various submission piles. I hope this will encourage other writers who believe they are on the right track to keep polishing their work and searching for the right home.

While on the subject of the short story, I have to recommend a wonderful new anthology of Irish women writers. The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island, is a collection of 30 stories spanning four centuries, that showcases all the amazing possibilities of the form (review to follow on the blog).

Finally, a word of thanks to Niall McArdle (fellow Hennessy New Irish Writing finalist) and Cathy Brown for suggesting I include this blogpost in their annual celebration of Irish culture, The Begorrathon.

(Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

 

 

 

 

The Laws of Love by Clare O’Dea

Some children start out unwanted but are soon loved and cherished. It was not so with me. Once unwanted, always unwanted. When I reached an age where I could question this, I could only conclude that I was missing the loveable ingredient possessed by other children, and no amount of eagerness to please would make up for this.

If my eldest brother is to be believed, my parents were happy in the early days. There was laughter and fun, there were callers and outings. Ten years later, when my newborn cries were keeping everyone awake, there was bitterness and want.

I developed a system of good and bad luck omens. Walking home from school I would fall back from my brothers and sisters and bet my wellbeing on chance variations in detail along the route. If the Currys have sheets on the line I will get a smile from mother, if it’s clothes I’ll get a clout, if it’s nothing, I’ll get nothing. I had the odds well worked out.

Mealtimes were quiet. There was none of the grabbing and rushing people associate with big families. We had our portion and we wanted to savour it. Not to forget my mother’s temper, which had a civilising effect on us all. I did not go to bed hungry although if I woke in the night hunger was lurking. We had clothes to wear, we washed. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

Escape was a room in a boarding house in Dublin 7, a house of straw as it turned out. I got shop work and independence, blighted at first by unwelcome attention from men in the neighbourhood. I faithfully sent money home and scraped by. A new room in a new house and life turned a corner. I met your father.

Shall I recite for you the list of his virtues? You could not know them all, for what child does? In the order in which I discovered these sides to him: he was good company, true to his word, thoughtful, tender and compassionate. He was in love with life and with me by association, and so together we built a house of sticks. What you saw between us was less than we started out with, to be sure, but it was still something good.

When I discovered that I was expecting – pregnant was considered a coarse word in those days, much too blunt – I felt the deepest and fullest satisfaction of my life. Those were my glory days.

Nothing could match my zeal. I was going to be the perfect mother. I was determined to shield you two from any harm at any cost. You placed your fervent baby love in me; I mixed it with my anxious adoration and gave it back to you in dangerous measures. It is not an exaggeration to say that I worshipped you. The light that shone from your eyes was my sun, moon and stars. I feasted on your purity and beauty. Your father could only watch and pray.

No doubt many mothers delight in every gesture and utterance of their children. But if they do, there is a counterbalance – feelings of criticism and irritation. This was missing in me. I bathed you in love and subjugated myself to you and your needs. There were no tensions between you children because I fulfilled your every desire. My purpose in life was to see that you wanted for nothing. I am truly sorry.

Wherever I was in the house I ran at the first cry. I smoothed over every conflict, made equal room on my lap for victim and culprit. When you stumbled I caught you before you hit the ground. I cooked only your favourite foods, bought your favourite toys and shoes, protected you from challenges and disappointments. I was ever vigilant. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

School was torture for me – hours of the day when anything could be happening to you, and all out of my control. I redoubled my efforts at home. There your spirits were replenished before you went out to face another day of adversity without me. Your father, Lord rest him, could not compete with my fanaticism. He retreated into his own life outside the home, which suited us, didn’t it?

This has been the way of our family until now. And look where it has taken us. For all the love I heaped upon you growing up, your cupboards are bare. Your every action motivated by self-interest, you can only muster mean-spirited possessiveness and call it love. Christopher is the worst offender, the newspapers are sure of that. What he did to that poor girl is one thing, but who can fathom his lack of remorse? No-one, apart from the woman who nurtured that weakness over many years.

What about you Paula? The results may not make headlines but I have failed you just as badly. When I think of all your father’s virtues, you match each one with the opposite vice. You navigate your way through life with wilfulness and spite. People are drawn to your narcissistic ways and then hurt by them. Your children suffer, their father too. I have my reasons alright.

Now that your father is gone, the house reverts to me. When you get out of prison Christopher there will not be a home here for you anymore. I am selling and plan to buy a small house of bricks for myself. I will not be passing the address on to either of you. Paula, get a nanny. If it’s any consolation I blame myself.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction. I haven’t posted any short stories for a while because I discovered that publishing on a blog breaks the ‘previously unpublished’ rule for most journals and competitions. All the same, sometimes it’s nice to send a story out for its own sake.

“Too much statement and not enough suggestion”

Photo_6AEE6DB4-F527-CC2A-DF23-B7EF820BC320

This is what many writers are getting wrong, according to Irish short story writer Claire Keegan who passed through Bern this week. Keegan, a woman of strong convictions and deep thoughts, gave a talk and read from her award-winning story Foster.

I couldn’t believe my luck to hear that such a well-respected author was in town and that I could manage at the last minute to go along and listen to her. For Keegan, it is clear that writing is not something to be taken lightly. She spoke passionately about life, love and literature.

Foster is a story, about a poor young girl sent to live with more prosperous relatives for the summer. Written from the child’s point of view in the present tense, the story manages to convey that gulf that exists between children and adults and the disadvantage that children have in their inability to understand what’s going on in the adult world around them. It’s all the more poignant in Foster because the girl comes from a neglectful home and she is being looked after in a loving way for the first time.

As Keegan pointed out: “Love can come from anywhere, it doesn’t matter where.” The author sees herself as a critic of her society. Foster, set in 1970s rural Ireland, is in part a commentary on the plight of families forced, because of religious dictates on contraception, to have more children than they could love.

As I writer I was naturally curious to hear what Keegan, who has lectured in creative writing, had to say about the craft of writing.

The first thing that surprised me was that she goes through about thirty (!) drafts before she considers her stories finished. More proof that writing is rewriting!

During this process, Keegan does not give her work to anyone else for feedback, although she did admit she would like to have someone who would look at her manuscripts as closely as she does but from another perspective.

She explained that having spent decades reading attentively and developing her own taste, she trusts her own taste. A good place to be.

On the subject of what new writers are getting wrong, Keegan was very precise. In her view there isn’t enough priority given to the story, to the point that the story can be completely buried by the writing or even missing altogether.

Keegan is quite a purist when it comes to storytelling and confessed that she mostly preferred reading “dead authors”. For it to be a story something has to happen in a defined space of time, something irreversible that the character would take back if they could, she said.

Nowadays there is “too much statement and not enough suggestion”. Readers have to endure pages of analysis about the character before they even have a chance to go through something with them. In other words the analysis has not been earned.

Keegan is a great believer in “turning down the sound” and observing what people do with their hands and feet and eyes. That’s where the truth is, she said, and that is what she writes about. She won’t tell us someone is miserable and proceed to tell us why over many pages. She will show that misery and the context and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Finally I liked what Keegan had to say about the elegance and efficiency going hand in hand in good writing. Not something that can be achieved in every blog post, but a good standard to aspire to in fiction.

The event was held under the auspices of the Swiss-British Society, Bern and SATE (the Swiss Association of Teachers of English).

I never liked you anyway

DSCN0951

Don’t you just love confrontation in fiction? Those flashpoints of drama, whether it’s a blazing stand-up row or a subtle exchange of fire unnoticed by the rest of the crowd, when the characters are pushed to extremes and the reader has the best seats in the house. Of course most of the time the conflict is underlying, like the thrum of an engine on a ship. That’s what makes it so satisfying when the tension surfaces.

I’m just coming to the end of Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage and marvelling at her mastery of every aspect of the craft of writing. In scenes of confrontation she has an amazing ability to convey the build-up of tension between characters, through facial expressions, dialogue, the character’s own commentary and the things that are left unsaid.

Take one brief scene in the short story Family Furnishings. Two women meet for the first time at a funeral. One of them, the narrator, whose father has just died, is a writer who once wrote a story based on a personal experience in the life of an older cousin called Alfrida. It turns out that the other woman who approaches her is Alfrida’s daughter, given up for adoption when she was a baby.

Munro describes the moment after the woman (only ever referred to as ‘the woman’) breaks the news of her identity.

“There was some sense of triumph about her, which wasn’t hard to understand. If you have something to tell that will stagger someone, and you’ve told it, and it has done so, there has to be a balmy moment of power. In this case it was so complete that she felt she needed to apologise.”

From there the conversation becomes more edgy as they reminisce about an old family story, involving the narrator’s father and his first cousin Alfrida, and it transpires that their versions of events do not match.

“… that feeling of apology or friendliness, the harmlessness that I had felt in this woman a little while before, was not there now.
I said, “Things get changed around.”
“That’s right,” the woman said. “People change things around. You want to know what Alfrida said about you?”
Now. I knew it was coming now.
“What?”
“She said you were smart, but you weren’t ever quite as smart as you thought you were.”
I made myself keep looking into the dark face against the light. Smart, too smart, not smart enough.
I said, “Is that all?”
“She said you were kind of a cold fish. That’s her talking, not me. I haven’t got anything against you.”

It’s such a perfect depiction of something we are all familiar with. The gap between our true feelings towards others and what is actually revealed (in some cases even to ourselves). People may go through life harbouring ill-will towards people close to them without ever giving an outward hint of their animosity. If those true feelings are ever expressed the effect is dramatic. And when I say people, more often than not it is family. Like this exchange between another set of fictional Munro cousins, Polly (single and left behind with an extended family to care for) and Lorna (married with children and comfortably off) in the story Post and Beam.

Fresh tears came welling up in her eyes. She was a mound of misery, one solid accusation.
“What is it?” Lorna said. She feigned surprise, she feigned compassion.
“You don’t want me.”
Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears, her bitterness and accusation of betrayal, but with her outrageous demand, to be folded in, rocked, comforted.
Lorna would sooner have hit her. What gives you the right, she wanted to say. What are you leeching onto me for? What gives you the right?
Family. Family gives Polly the right. She has saved her money and planned her escape, with the idea that Lorna should take her in. Is that true – has she dreamed of staying here and never having to go back? Becoming part of Lorna’s good fortune, Lorna’s transformed world?
“What do you think I can do?” said Lorna quite viciously and to her own surprise.

I think with conflict the real challenge for a writer is to stay on the right side of the line between drama and melodrama. I’m still working on that, and trying to eliminate clichés is part of the challenge. In my novel, Counting the Days, the main character, Laura, cannot accept how unemotional her sister Kate is about their brother’s disappearance five years before. They’ve just spend a day and night together, the first time they’ve been under the same roof overnight since Kate left home for college. For most of the visit they manage to steer clear of expressing the resentment and misunderstanding that lies between them, until a few minutes before Kate has to leave when they finally get to talk about their brother, falling back on the same old arguments until there’s nothing more to say.

“It must be time for you to go.”
We stand in silence, indifferent now to the gentle glory of early summer gathering around us.
Moving closer, Kate puts her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry. You did a good job with the campaign. No one can say you didn’t try your hardest.”
Pushing off her touch, I glare at Kate. “If you could just once show that you cared, that you still felt something. Where is the love for God’s sake?”
Kate shakes her head slowly and looks at me, her bewildered eyes full of reproach.
“You’re too much for me,” she says and walks back to the house.
A short time later, the sound of car doors closing cuts through my cloud of resentment and I hurry back towards the yard, almost tripping in the tangle of undergrowth in my sudden desperation to make amends. Kate opens the passenger window of the car for a final word. “Can I say something? You’re not going to like it.”
“Go ahead.”
“I saw your diary.”
A sudden fury passes through me like a spasm. The lack of respect, I am not imagining it.

First and last time I put my writing on the same page as Alice Munro’s! Some of the participants in the writing course I attended in Dublin last year have got together to meet fortnightly as a writers’ group and I am really pleased to be taking part by Skype. It’s difficult to know when a novel is finally ready and then to let it go. I’m hoping that this routine will give me the motivation and discipline to get the novel polished for submission.

In other news, I have a new writing buddy – Lucky. Isn’t he lovely?

Good boy!

Regrets, I’ve had a few

suit

One of the highlights of English class in secondary school for me was being introduced to short stories. One that I remember vividly is Brendan Behan’s The Confirmation Suit, a story about regret that beautifully illustrates the dilemma of being caught in a social bind. When reading this story, most of us were fresh from doing our own Confirmation (a coming-of-age ritual in the Catholic Church in which a lot of importance was placed on the new outfit bought for the occasion). Behan couldn’t have found a more receptive audience (albeit posthumously) for this iconic Irish story.

The boy in Brendan Behan’s story was obliged to accept a kindly neighbour’s offer to make a suit for him for the big day. An elderly seamstress who normally made funeral habits, Miss McCann was not blessed with a great sense of fashion and the writer gets great comic mileage out of the child’s embarrassment and his father’s amusement at his predicament. This must be why the unexpected sad turn of events produces such a memorable punch.

This description comes half-way through the story:

When I made my first Communion, my grandmother dug deep under the mattress, and myself and Aunt Jack were sent round expensive shops, I came back with a rig that would take the sight of your eye. This time however, Miss McCann said there wasn’t much stirring in the habit line on account of the mild winter, and she would be delighted to make the suit if Aunt Jack would get the material. I nearly wept, for terror of what the old women would have me got up in, but I had to let on to be delighted, Miss McCann was so set on it. She asked Aunt Jack did she remember father’s Confirmation suit. He did. He said he would never forget it. They sent him out in a velvet suit, of plum colour, with a lace collar. My blood ran cold when he told me.

The stuff they got for my suit was blue serge, and that was not so bad. They got as far as the pants, and that passed off very civil. You can’t do much to a boy’s pants, one pair is like the next, though I had to ask them not to trouble themselves putting three little buttons on either side of the legs. The waistcoat was all right, and anyway the coat would cover it. The coat itself, that was where Aughrim was lost.

I’ve just finished reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver and it wasn’t until I finished the book that I realised how personal the story was to the writer. She wrote the novel after her older brother died of obesity-related illness. Shortly before he died, when it seemed he might recover, Shriver considered taking him. She enquired about bariatric surgery at the hospital where he was being treated and even imagined bringing him home to recover in her house in New York. In the end her goodwill was never tested because her brother took a turn for the worse and died.

But Shriver went on to write a story about a woman who gives up her home and marriage to move in with her morbidly obese older brother to help him lose weight. The book is steeped in regret and raises that difficult question that often arises after the death of loved one: could I have done more?

In the story I have written, the main character has always had strong motherly feelings towards her younger brother and she feels enduring grief at his disappearance, for which she partly blames herself. In that sense it is about regret but later it explores the problem of how far it is possible to save another person bent on self-destruction.

I’ll leave you with the image of Behan’s boy standing in the rain wearing that silly suit. It encapsulates what is tragic about the end of childhood – the loss of innocence, the feeling of being misunderstood, the first taste of regret.

I needn’t have worried about the suit lasting forever. Miss McCann didn’t. The next winter was not so mild, and she was whipped before the year was out. At her wake people said how she was in a habit of her own making, and my father said she would look queer in anything else, seeing as she supplied the dead of the whole quarter for forty years, without one complaint from a customer.

At the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and I stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.

June Sailing (flash fiction)

What does a writer want? To be read. Since I started this blog I’ve written several short stories, some of which are short enough to qualify as flash fiction. My submission strategy is a bit haphazard, something I need to work on but it is based on the sound if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed principle. So I’m delighted to say that this weekend I saw my first story published online as part of National Flash Fiction Day UK. The link to June Sailing is here http://bit.ly/11XiU9g and there are lots of other stories to browse through if you’re curious. But if you only have time for my 500 words, read on!

June Sailing by Clare O’Dea

Nancy stuffed the ferry timetable under the tea towels when she heard the key in the door. Careless of her to be looking at it so late in the afternoon. Not that she needed to check this month, there was a sailing every day, sixteen down, fourteen to go. Quick as a cat, she sprang into the kitchen. It was important to be doing something when he arrived. She opened the fridge and started checking expiry dates. Bill appeared in the doorway, filling the space.

“Tea in ten minutes,” she said, gripping a milk carton. A welcome calm settled over the kitchen as the three men fell on the food. You could call them three men now; the boys had lost any echoes of childhood grace. Almost overnight they had changed into gruff creatures with hard arms and hard hearts. The spit of their father, people liked to say. Nancy leaned against the sink as usual, watching for a moment before she turned to start on the washing up. Bill spoke with his mouth full.

“Cut out the pot-walloping Nance.” She turned off the water immediately. Sometimes the noise bothered him, other times not. A minute passed, the men chomping, Nancy trying to gauge the tension. Hunching her shoulders slightly, she approached the table to pour the tea. No reaction. She melted back to her place at the sink. Her hands crept into her apron pocket where she started to pick furiously at the skin around her nails.

Nancy felt the first dull tug of period pain and her heart skipped. This little monthly victory was always welcome. Twelve years ago she was told she would never bear children again. ‘Can I have that in writing?’ she asked the doctor.

“Good grub,” Bill said, pushing his plate away. Nancy risked eye contact. He was smiling. In fact he only lost his temper once a week at most, and one of the things that set him off was her being timid. A more intelligent woman would know how to handle him better.

“You do a shopping today?” Nancy’s cheeks flared red, her terrified blood started to run for cover. This was his way of saying he knew. Bill took another slug of tea.
“Did you get the shaving foam?” False alarm, he hadn’t noticed her panic.
“It’s in the bathroom,” Nancy said, standing back to let her sons leave the room. The television went on in the lounge but Bill stayed, watching as she cleared the table.

“Here, you should get some new clothes,” he said, holding out a fifty. Nancy looked at the money as if it were something unfamiliar before reaching for it. Bill grabbed her wrist gently.

“Am I going to get a thank you?” She let him pull her in and sat on his lap for a kiss. That fifty brought her to her target. It would pay for the taxi to the ferry in the morning. Our last kiss, she thought and wrapped her arms around him.

Together Again

There it was, the scrape of the curtain pulley. Rosemarie braced herself as the unkind morning light pounced on her closed eyes. Why did the day have to start so early? You would think the old folk with empty diaries would have earned their rest. Now was her chance to say she didn’t feel well and ask for breakfast in bed; Ronnie had encouraged her to get his money’s worth. But she felt her customary shyness clamp down on her throat and the attendant was gone. Rosemarie didn’t like to think of how much that reticence had cost her over the years. By a happy twist of genetics her daughter Melissa turned out to be brash and demanding, a fact which never ceased to please Rosemarie.

Taking it nice and slowly, she got up and used the en suite bathroom. Then she tackled getting dressed. The tricky bit was getting anything onto her feet. If she could just go barelegged, it would save a whole lot of effort. Finally, with her tights on, hair brushed and glasses ready on a chain for the morning crossword, Rosemarie made her way to the mirror by the door. Fuchsia had always been a good colour on her, today she wasn’t so sure. When did her hair get so white? A dab of lipstick brought her face back into focus.

Breakfast was the best meal the place offered and Rosemarie was pleased to still have a good appetite. She was having diplomatic trouble choosing a table though, with two groups vying for her company. People with good hearing were in demand. Coming into the dining room was always a tense moment. The best thing was to be first there and let the others play musical chairs. This morning the Crowleys had made it down first. They beckoned to her and she took a seat between them. The dining room had the appearance of an English B&B, the kind of place she would have stayed in with Maurice thirty years before. Look what you’re missing out on darling, she thought. Bert and Tess looked at her with matching what-did-you-say expressions. Luckily they were distracted by the morning girl, Rosemarie’s favourite, come to pour their tea.

Conversation ran out as breakfast finished. Rosemarie looked despairingly at the scattered crumbs and spots of jam on the tablecloth. It was too blowy again for a walk; three-and-a-half hours until lunch. She excused herself and trundled over to reception with her walker to pick up the newspaper. Mr Farley beamed in his ingratiating way and handed her a letter. Letters were like gold dust these days. Rosemarie tried not to look at it, almost snatching the envelope out of his hand. She laid it face down on her walker tray and hurried to the conservatory, where she plonked herself down in an armchair half turned away from the rest of the room.

It was from Loretta, postmarked London. Her handwriting hadn’t changed since boarding school, bold and artistic even then. The three years they overlapped at the Ursuline Convent had been the happiest of Rosemarie’s life. Despite the age gap they had spent most of their free time together nattering and laughing, celebrating their joint relief at having escaped the stifling atmosphere at home. Since then they had never lived in the same country, and after Loretta took off with her husband on a succession of postings abroad there were years between visits.

The words danced in front of Rosemarie’s eyes – coming home, got the brochure, room for me. She blinked away the tears and reread from the beginning. Loretta wanted to come and live in Glengoran Lodge. She was selling her house, under pressure from the children to move somewhere supervised. The time has come to return to Dublin sis, if you’ll have me. Always so careful to be thankful for the small comforts and pleasures left to her, Rosemarie had tried hard to stay positive since she moved to the lodge. Now she sank back in her armchair to bask in the long lost feeling of happiness. A laugh bubbled to the surface and Rosemarie covered her mouth like a schoolgirl. The Cully sisters, together again.

The Hedgehog News

Everyone knows if you find a dead hedgehog it’s yours. So why is Manny taking over? Because he’s a robber, that’s why. Actually the hedgehog didn’t look that badly hurt the day I found him; only the left back bit was squashed so from one side he looked perfect. I just couldn’t leave him there on the side of the road. Vultures might get him. Now the whole street is coming to look at him under the hedge. Manny is explaining stuff about the maggots and poking with a stick. It’s the last secret I’m ever telling him. I think it’s all because no one else is just my age. Other ages don’t understand the same things. My Mum is sorry about this. It’s just a fluke, she says – twelve houses, twenty-one kids but not a single other seven year old. We weren’t to know, she says. I’m kind of not trusting Mum at the moment since I found some of my Christmas craftwork in the bin. They’re supposed to love that stuff.

When Dad said he was going to a place called Dubai, I laughed. It didn’t sound like a real place – Doob I, Do Bye – I was sure he was joking. But he just looked away for a couple of seconds like he was thinking hard what to say next and then he told me to get the atlas. Maybe he thought I was annoyed he was leaving but at first I was more annoyed about not knowing Dubai was a real place. I know loads of capitals, even really strange ones like Venezuela and Moldova. He taught me them when I was small and we had fun surprising people with that.

Now I’ve learnt a new word which is temporary. But if something is really temporary you should know when the end is. They said he would visit all the time. One week every three months is not all the time. I have a calendar in my bedroom. It’s got pictures of street children in Brazil. One of them definitely looks seven. It’s a pity he doesn’t live here. I’m starting not to like families with Dads living at home but I don’t tell people that.

Everyone keeps telling me isn’t it great we have skype. I don’t know. It might be great if you didn’t have a three-year-old sister. Hannah ruins every call. She climbs over me and taps on the keyboard and talks really loud. Dad doesn’t even understand what she’s saying. Also I don’t like the looking thing. You can’t look at each other properly. I don’t think Dad knows what to ask me.

It’s all because of the mortgage, according to Mum. Mortgage is another word for house. We’d lose the house if Dad didn’t take this job. I mean the house is OK but maybe we could move to a street with more seven-year-old boys. Would that be so bad? Mum didn’t like this question. She is not interested in things like hedgehogs but if Dad was here he would come and see him with me. Then he could tell me Manny is wrong and this doesn’t happen to people too.

Finally I did get skype time alone with Dad. Mum had this idea he could read a chapter a night so we’ve started a great old fashioned story called Kidnapped. The good thing about this is that Hannah is in bed. And the looking thing doesn’t matter; I just watch his face while he looks at the book. I asked Dad last night did he know what happens to hedgehogs after they die. He went quiet for a while and then started talking about animal heaven and it got a bit complicated and I didn’t want him to feel silly. I guess I won’t tell him about the hedgehog after all.

A Long Way From Home

The shelter was in a field behind a fairly new prison-style gated apartment block and a derelict red-brick hospital building. Walking through the old hospital gates, Natasha was surprised to see a relatively wide stretch of wasteland so near the city centre. Soon it would be swallowed up by the new technology park. It was a one-night shelter, with a first come first served policy and there was a queue of about fifteen men outside as Natasha stepped into the pool of light at the entrance. A few girlfriends were also hanging around, with their buggies and skinny children. Most of them were probably staying in B&Bs and would return to their rooms later. It was only a quarter to seven and these men were giving up the possibility of any other evening activity to guarantee a bed for the night. What they would do when the place closed down was anyone’s guess.

Natasha nodded with a rueful half smile at the group, as if they were fellow mourners at a funeral. The atmosphere was subdued, the only noise coming from the children playing on some rubble fallen from the high stone wall. The men concentrated on their cigarettes and some of them finished cans of beer or cider, their last drink of the night. The metal door had a square cut into it at eye height. Very conscious of her intrusion and her accent, Natasha rang the bell and introduced herself to the face that appeared on the other side.

She found herself in a small entrance hall. The security guard who had let her in ushered her into a side room with a cheerful grin. The man behind the desk looked up with a guilty expression. “Just getting ready to open up, last minute cup of tea, you know.” He introduced himself as the administrator of the shelter, Maurice Sheils, and gave Natasha a minute to get her recording gear out. “My job is to check everyone in, keep the records and all that. Derek here helps me make sure the clients all stick to the policy of no drink or drugs. We have a cupboard where we can hold onto the clients’ works overnight and we give the bits and bobs back to them in the morning.” He unlocked the little cupboard on the wall to the right and showed her the numbered empty ice cream tubs inside.

“We’re very strict on the whole question of drugs, and weapons of course. Anyone who’s caught using or with a knife after they’ve checked in has to leave. No exceptions, we have to consider the security of the volunteers.” Maurice’s pale eyebrows danced around as he spoke, his tone growing more theatrical as he warmed to his subject.

It was time to open up and Natasha squeezed into the space behind the desk to the left of Maurice, perching on a filing cabinet. The first two men didn’t mind her sitting in on the welcome chat but they didn’t want their own voices to be recorded. Natasha got some of Maurice’s patter on tape and watched the procedure patiently. The third client, Martin, was nineteen and just out of prison after a short sentence for larceny. It was his first time in this hostel but he didn’t appear to be shy or nervous, having spent plenty of time in various institutions from a young age. He didn’t mind being recorded and winked at Natasha when he started to debate, with mock outrage, the rights and wrongs of having to pay the nominal charge for his stay.

When Martin went off with his sheets and towel, Natasha went with him, interviewing him along the way. The first task was to choose and make the bed. The rows of iron bed frames gave the place the appearance of an old-fashioned hospital ward. If you disregarded the eight-foot high partition between the two eighteen-bed dormitories, the men were all sleeping in the same room.

One by one, new arrivals continued to trickle in and soon the place was a buzzing with activity. Some men made straight for the showers, preferring to wash the evening before rather than first thing in the morning. A television jutted out of the wall on a metal arm and a soap opera was holding the attention of several older clients, as Maurice called them. Natasha wandered around a bit, recording atmosphere for her radio report and feeling more at ease.

Derek appeared again and brought another willing talker with him. As Natasha listened to the gaunt young man complain at length about his ex-girlfriend, her attention was caught by one of the kitchen volunteers. He looked very familiar but she struggled to place him. She was trying not to be rude but had to stare. Pausing in his work for a moment, he ran his hand over his cheeks as if rubbing in moisturiser, a gesture she knew so well. In a flash she recognised him – Mr. Byrne. He had put on some weight since she saw him last but it was definitely her old English teacher. His classes had been the highlight of the week in school; Mr Byrne was the one who encouraged her to write. Natasha interrupted her interviewee expertly and gathered up her equipment in a rush. She wanted to leave just after dinner began; she had plans to meet friends in a pub nearby. What a stroke of luck to meet Mr. Byrne, Natasha thought. Such an articulate man, he was sure to say something compelling she could use.

Mr Byrne was setting places at one of the long trestle tables, absorbed in the task. Natasha felt slightly star struck as she approached, seventeen again. She had admired this man so much in school, craved his praise and attention. And here she was working as a journalist; he would be pleased. “You’re a long way from home,” she said, pulling out a chair for her gear. He looked up at her, blinking nervously. She gave him a moment to recognise her, then saved him the effort it was clearly costing him and introduced herself.
“Natasha Cullen,” he repeated, unsure.
“You taught all of us, remember? My three older sisters too,” Natasha smiled. “It’s great that you’re volunteering here, how long have you been coming to the shelter?”
Mr Byrne glanced around the room and looked to the cutlery in his hand for an answer. “Not long,” he said. “It’s one of the better places.”
“Yes, you do good work here,” Natasha said. “The producer sent me because of those tragic deaths last month. I can’t believe they’re closing the place down.”
Mr Byrne nodded. “Hard times,” he agreed. “And who are you working for?”
“Radio Nation, 101.7. Would you mind?” Natasha dug out her microphone and started untangling the lead.
“Sorry Natasha, I’m going to have to decline. We’re about to serve up here,” Mr Byrne moved up the table, placing knives and forks.
Natasha wasn’t expecting resistance but she switched automatically to persuasion mode. “Two lines will do, one even! Just give me something about hard times for the homeless. Please.” Mr Byrne shook his head and kept moving.

Five minutes later, dinner was being served and Natasha gathered the last of her audio material – an institutional din of cutlery scraping plates. She said her goodbyes to everyone she’d spoken to and Maurice walked her to the door. Natasha shook his hand warmly and they locked smiles for a moment. “Are you sure you won’t hang on ‘til I finish so I can walk you to your car? Honestly, I only need another 20 minutes and I’m all yours.”
“No need, it’s fine. I’ve got to be somewhere,” Natasha said.
“Are you happy with how the evening went?” Maurice unlocked the door and opened it to the cold January air.
“Yes everything was great, thanks. I’m just sorry Mr Byrne didn’t want to say a few words. It would have been nice to include one of the volunteers,” she said.
“Do you mean Robert Byrne? No he’s not a volunteer,” Maurice said as Natasha stepped outside. “He’s a regular client. Nice guy. Well goodnight then.” The door clanged shut and Natasha leaned against it. For a moment it seemed impossible to leave the comfort of that light. But only for a moment.

Circle of Stones

On her way across the green in the middle of her estate, Julie stopped and looked around her. She was due to leave for Cork with her mother in a few minutes and she wasn’t supposed to be outside. She gave up the pretence of walking somewhere purposefully. There were some children out playing, doing stunts on their bikes with an improvised ramp. They paid no attention to her. Julie knew every family in all the houses in this part of Chestnut Glen. She had sneaked out here because she wanted to say goodbye to something – she wasn’t sure what. All the kids her age were either still in bed or off doing their Saturday jobs.

This is it, she thought. I’ve let them take over and this is where it’s brought me. She sat down heavily on one of the small boulders, dropped there in a rough circle not by a glacier but by the developer of the virgin estate back in the 1960s.

Cork. The only person she knew there, apart from her mother’s awful cousin, was her first love from Irish College three summers ago. What sweet letters Marty used to write. Those few weeks away on the west coast had been exotic, enchanted. Not only the language was different – the air, the sky, the rain. Marty was staying with a neighbouring family. They used to walk home from the dances together, the boys from his house, the girls from hers. She remembered his pale face in the grey light of dusk. For a moment, she let her imagination take off. Dreaming up rescue scenarios had become her favourite pastime.

Somehow she would bump into him in Cork, and he would be filled with concern for her plight, realise he still loved her and decide to help her out. Marty would have matured beyond his years, he would have a proper job and his own place to live and they would set up family together. No, she didn’t like the last bit. The baby didn’t fit well into that picture.

Better if she stole some money from her mother’s cousin and escaped. She could rent a caravan somewhere by the sea in Wexford. There she would lay low and wait to turn eighteen, as long as the baby didn’t come first. She would turn up at the local hospital, a mysterious case. The staff would be intrigued. A nurse would take pity on her, offer her a room. They would become friends – and the baby, the baby. Julie felt the muscles across her swollen stomach tighten. It’s not looking good baba, she whispered.

If I had a giant camera, I would zoom out, Julie thought. First you would see this circle of stones in a field surrounded by houses, then up and up, the surrounding suburbs, the coastline, the hinterland of farms. Then Ireland surrounded by clouds and swirling blue sea, farther and farther away until the world looked quiet and harmless and nothing mattered anymore.

It was time. Julie walked slowly back towards the house. Her bag was packed, the adoption agency papers inside it. She would remember that walk; find echoes of it throughout her life. Each step leading her away from something open towards something closed. She recognised it when she walked down the aisle ten years later and the bitterly cold day when she walked into the doctor’s office to get her biopsy results. The moments when you realised the world was turning and you just had to walk with it.