Building Skyscrapers by Dara Thomas Higgins

The light unravels outside, spills in the windows, across the floor of the hotel bar. The carpet has become golden with day. What’s it trying to prove? We order another round. I’ve switched to whiskey. It’s more formal. You’re telling me about yourself, like an American would.

-In the eighties, you say, I built skyscrapers in Manhattan.

In the eighties I needed to know that, for the kids on the street who pointed and laughed and said you have no da, you have no da, the kids whose fathers came home and painted purple the eyes of their mothers, the bitter tang of chips and booze on the their tongues, the fucking indifference of the world in their ribcage somewhere. Twanging away, rattling around, bouncing off those bones, playing them like the keys of a xylophone. This dismemberment of maleness. But if I’d known, I could say, me Da’s in New York and he’s building skyscrapers. Fucking skyscrapers. And what’s your da building? A car park, maybe. A shopping centre near Cabra. Maybe his week revolves around the dole office, the promise of a few hours queuing in the blue air for a handful of notes and a trip to the bookies on the way home. My Da, single-handedly building skyscrapers. So high and bright, the sunlight twinkling off the glass, the sky fucked by them, these huge things. Single handed. My Da.

-Well, that’s interesting, I said. And I was interested, maybe somewhat impressed. Pictures of workers on a lunch break, perched on a crossbeam, the vista of New York below them popped into my head. I pictured you there, lunch pail beside you, among the other Irish and Polish and Italian lads. Putting down a real legacy, something that will last and be a source of wonderment for years to come. Something even as it’s being demolished will be a spectacle.

-After that, I went residential. Huge gated communities in Massachusetts.

Somehow there was more money to be made in these prosaic sprawls than in five hundred feet tall skyfuckers. Less magic, more money. Isn’t that always the way? And suddenly I’m disappointed, as if you’ve let me down somehow. As if this is your crime, your talk of millions.

The Irish would never, not even from your generation, bandy digits about with such insouciance. I never have money. I don’t know what it’s like. I know, for example, I couldn’t afford these drinks you’re paying for, the largesse of your tab. Or those chinos that hang elegantly off your slim hips. Or the Ralph Lauren shirt. The heavy gold watch. I couldn’t afford it, I wouldn’t want it.

Maybe things are different for you in America. Here old peoples’ maturity is earned in boredom and submission, and worn across the ordinance of their faces. The American male’s greatest misfortune has been an abundance of choice, the niggling doubt you may have bought the wrong thing, perhaps imparted too much of yourself in that television. Oh, you went with the Sony? Yes, I went with the Sony, what’s wrong with the Sony? There’s nothing wrong, per se. I just went with the Samsung. The fear, the fear.

-What about you, you ask. What about me. I’m ordinary, in the way everything is ordinary. It’s a struggle. It’s a succession of minor failures and harsh lessons, this life. It’s a grind. I read French philosophers and complain to walls life is meaningless. That’s me.

-I read a lot. I listen to music.

-What kind?

You see, that’s disappointing. Small. There’s no genre to me. I’ll listen to anything. I don’t mind, I’m just looking to be moved, and it’s the notes that do it. But seeing as you’re asking, I’m an Arcadia man, before the Power Station. Beatles before Stones. While we’re on it, Paul before John. Beethoven over Mozart. Mozart’s just pop music. Right?

You nod. You tell me how you used to hang on Baggot Street as a youngster, still in school. How you’d sneak in to O’Donaghues and sit there during the epic, legendary sing songs with all the greats. Luke Kelly and Anne Briggs and the like. I picture the yellow walls, the smoke an indoor nimbus and the porter on the tables and the mouths open, the decayed teeth and the singing and the singing, and I wish I’d been there, part of something. There’s nothing here nowadays. No scenes.

-Have you ever mentioned me to your other kids?

-No, I have not. I’ve meant to you know, you say, and rest your head on a folded hand for a second, with some intense middle-distance staring that tells me how difficult it is for you. –When I left here. A pause. –I really felt as if I couldn’t come back. It took years. Then my mother became ill. I came back for the funeral.

Great, another family member I didn’t even know I had bites the dust. Corpses are piling up. I’m beginning to think it’s me.

-And then I saw the country was changing. It wasn’t the same grey, hopeless place I left.

You left me to no hope?

-Have you brought them over? Your other children.

-Sure. Ellen met her husband over here, if you can believe that.

Hold on, my sister, prowling for men in my hometown. Perhaps…

-I will tell them. When we’re all together.

-I’d like to, I start. And then I pause and try the intense inward looking, as you have done. But you misread it or disregard it and plough on, telling me how it’s hard to get them all together with the various ex-wives involved, some less accommodating than others.

-Lana never had any more children? You ask. Lana, my mother. Her death left me orphaned on this continent. Precipitated our meeting. I shake my head. -I was sorry to hear…

-It’s fine. She was sick for a while, so it was a blessing.

I’ve said those words to Lana’s friends repeatedly over the last few months. Save your sorrow. Her life was a painful, the end was a release. But whose suffering ended that day? Mine or hers?

You mumble something about how she was a good woman, and you’re sure she made a good mother, but it’s numbing to me. You stretch, the bad leg, the one with veins that had to be removed, wince almost imperceptibly. You flick an eye towards your watch, and pick up your glass, the ice melted. You swirl it around and neck the remains with a calm finality. You’re telling me this meeting is over, as you must have done hundreds of times before in board rooms across the East Coast, discussing the millions and billions required to shelter humans and their belongings.

-I’m glad we did this, you say, and manage to make it sound almost like you mean it. Here in your hotel, your itinerary didn’t even need to change. To get from the plush, combed velour of the couch here in the bar to your suite is a mere matter of a few steps to the gilded elevator, even after your operation.

-I’ve never been here before, I say uselessly. –It really is as nice as they say, I add, for extra uselessness.

-I stay here every time I’m back.

All those times, and where was I?

A regal twist of your wrist and the waiter’s at your shoulder. You place your tumbler on his tray.

You stand and I stand and we’re separated now by only a couple of feet of foot-deadening pile. We admire each other for a moment. I’m taller than you, broader, but you still have your hair and mine is a chimera, wisps plastered across an all too exposed pate. Grandfather, mother’s side, was a chromedome. Not your fault. Your shoes are polished, my Adidas leak. You’re lithe, an animal quality, as if always poised, even with the stick to aid your recovery. We shake hands. I give it everything I have, but yours is rock solid.–It really was good to see you.

-And, uh. You. And I wonder, should I say anything else. What else does one say? –Maybe I’ll drop into you when I’m in America.

-Sure, you say, with a wide, over-bright smile and a twinkle that says: as if that will happen, and I wonder, briefly, if the bank would be quite so accommodating with their pre-approvals now, post-crash, and sure, isn’t it worth a go. Get out a few grand, head to America, meet the family. Try again. Try life again. Fail life again. Fail it better, American style.

-If you’re ever in New Hampshire, you start. But then you stop, and look out the window at the park across the road, the suffusion of golden evening light. Summer in Dublin, its last breaths. The autumn closing in on us, every syrupy sunset coming earlier and earlier. There’s a look that travels across the smooth, soft sheen of your face, as if something simple has occurred to you. Something so simple and so true, something that’s been there for ever and you haven’t noticed. You’re still holding my hand, and suddenly you grasp me. I grasp back, I don’t know what else to do, and when you fall, you pull me down too. I disentangle myself. You’re convulsing, mouth opening and closing, no sounds in there. A waiter reacts quickly. He drops to his knees and listens to your breathing and thumps your chest. I too am on my knees, leaning over.

-I need some space, says the waiter. –Please.

-He’s my dad, I say. The words I have never uttered previously. They sound strange, too weighty, as if unearned by me. The waiter pummels your chest.


Someone else from the hotel runs over. A man returning from the gym who’s a veterinarian offers his help. An ambulance is on its way. I watched your face turn blue, a strange hue of polished cobalt. The bustle of hotel staff removes me from your side, and I have to stand, stumbling backwards, falling into a chair as I watch. Within ten minutes the paramedics are there, which is impressive. I imagine they had a special hotline, places like this, with their exclusive clientele of the wealthy and the privileged. There’s overdosing junkies on Thomas Street being ignored right now. And rightly so. Here is a son of Erin, a captain of industry, who did more than the gombeens he left behind here on this sod. He left, he conquered. He accumulated a few wives, as they do over there, and seven children, upon whom he dotes, and a business portfolio, of which he’s equally proud. He won. He deserves his life.

The paramedics are working furiously. Some other patrons are down the back of the bar, looking on idly. The barman hasn’t stopped pouring drinks. I go to him, and ask for another whiskey. He pours silently, freely, not using the little pewter measure. He nods at me, and I back. I upend the tumbler and suck it all down at once. –Stick it on the tab, I say.

There’s nothing for me to do here. I’m no undertaker. I leave. They don’t notice me, any of them. The paramedics are wheeling in a gurney, less enthusiastically now. Outside is dark. Hours must have passed. I take your gold Rolex from my pocket and check the time. I think of the funeral. I wonder will it be here or in America. I’d like to go to America. Start again. Start life again. Maybe get it right this time.

Dara Thomas Higgins is a writer and musician based in Dublin. He currently writes screenplays for State Broadcaster RTE and plays bass guitar for Ireland’s premier psycherock group The Jimmy Cake, among others. @Diplah

Image Credit:  Rohit Tandon


Currents by Jamie Stedmond

They lay there in bed together in the pale sunlight of a seaside morning. He woke first, and she after him. Her head was a warm weight on his chest. She could feel his heart beat slowly; slowly, at least, for a heart. They lay together entangled in white hotel sheets: soft, thin and cool.

She was the first to get up, swinging her legs around and over the edge of the bed. She let out a little gasp as her feet touched the cold tiles, tiptoeing as quickly as she could to the bathroom. He squinted out at the balcony, which forecasted good weather, judging by the sunshine on the white plastic furniture. His eyes slowly adjusted to the daylight as he ignored the dimness of the room and continued to watch the balcony.

“You alright?”
“Yeah, jus…”



The nothing was said without much meaning, absentmindedly and morning slow. He moved himself to sit on the edge of the bed and stretched his shoulders as he yawned. She took her phone off charge and scrolled through a feed with lazy concentration. He searched through a bag on the floor for clothes for the day.

“Did you see?”
“Joany’s sister, she got her thing”
“Oh, right”

He began to get dressed, slipping into a pair of shorts and a shirt, and after a couple of confused mid-morning misbuttons he was ready. The fabric felt fresh and tactile on his skin, his holiday clothes were nicer than his everyday clothes, which struck him as impractical at that moment. He asked her what she fancied doing today and she said that she didn’t mind. She tossed her phone somewhere into the swell of sheets on the bed and went out onto the balcony. She watched the wind whip the water further out at sea, the sun making millions of dazzling little pinpricks of light on the surface.

“Actually, I fancy a walk, down to the beach maybe”

She could see the water lapping gently over white sand at the shore. It wasn’t like the beaches back home. Back home most beaches were rockier, long strips with floors of wet pebbles clumped together. It seemed strange to her to use the same word to describe them both. She remembered swimming in the sea back home, so much colder, both of them would come out of it all red, panting and laughing. Then they’d sit together in warm dry clothes, still a little wet and shivery, eating bland, watery chips in a cafe. Loading them up with sea salt was the only way to eke a bit of flavour off them. She almost started to ask him if he remembered the chips, the phrasing came together in her head, but the words died off in her throat.

He always said she looked beautiful with her hair wet. It would go from brown to black and form a tight cap on her skull, leaving dark tendrils clinging to her back. The sun there had dried her hair out a bit, she was aware of its frizziness but unbothered to brush it.

“You ready?”
“Gimme 2 minutes”
“Alright, I’ll wait outside”

He stood waiting for her in the corridor outside the room. The hallway was long and anonymous. He always found it strange how hundreds of people were staying in these rooms and yet he never saw anyone in the halls. He felt the same way about estates. He’d said this to her before and she’d made the point that they themselves only spent a few minutes each day actually traveling through the estate, coming and going. They were as invisible as their neighbours. He’d said she was right, he just wished they somehow weren’t such lonely places.

“You look nice”

Their sandals made a slapping sound as they walked down the hallway to the lifts. The first lift they called opened to reveal a maintenance man with a large bucket and trolley filling its space. After a little while another one, empty this time, gave off a soft ding as it reached their floor. It was cool and silvery in the lift and music played from somewhere. She hummed along with the tune, he didn’t know it.

“I used to be scared of lifts when I was a kid”
“I remember you told me that yeah”

That had been a long time ago. He’d wanted to take the stairs and she had said that it was too many to walk up. When he told her she asked was he still scared and he said no, he was just very used to taking the stairs now. He said he used to lose his sense of orientation when the lift moved, and was left feeling like he was vibrating in place, falling and rising at the same time, being phased out of existence. It had made him very uneasy; he had thought it felt like dying, but he’d only been a child and didn’t really know what that meant. Poor baby, she had said, smiling and taking his hand to lead him to the lift.

The lobby contrasted the corridor greatly, it bustled with the life that hotel hallways and housing estates lack. Children ran between cheap, ornate couches, being chased slowly and laboriously by bent-over parents. The people sitting on the couches watched the two large televisions on the wall, one showing a football match, the other a 24hr news channel. Groups of people stood together drawling the day’s plans back and forth at each other, streaks of suncream visible on their faces which were shielded from the sunlight by the brims of large hats, receptionists beamed friendly smiles at guests whose own expressions ranged from polite to confused and enraged, porters wheeled trolleys of luggage back and forth between it all, weaving through the crowds without ever changing course, on a separate plane of existence to the rest. They made their through the lobby, not talking to, or taking great notice of, anyone within it.

“Yeah, wow, hot out”

The sun swooped down on them as soon as they came out of the hotel, cloistering them in muggy feathers of heat. They felt the breeze brush over their skin, the air was hot and crisp. They began to make their way downhill, toward the sea, sauntering along steadily, their sandals sometimes slipping on the smooth white tiles that lined the roadside. At one point she almost came tumbling down, as her yellow flip-flop slid too far on the surface and upset her balance. He reached out to help steady her, a little too slowly. Instead she grabbed hold of a nook in the wall beside her to avoid falling.

“You okay?”
“Yeah… just, my hand, a bit”

Her palm was slightly grazed. Furrows of torn epidermis had been traced across her hand, and at select points, little blooms of blood were coming through. She hid her hand from him. She knew the sight of blood him made nervous. He’d always get a bit faint whenever he saw anyone bleed, whether it was from a nick he’d given himself peeling potatoes, or a gunshot wound staining a shirt on the television. The only time it didn’t bother him was around the water. The seasalt stung and sealed, it smarted and healed. This was just as well, they were always coming out of the water with little scratches and scrapes. Little cuts, from the thrust of the waves, the craggy rocks that lined the beach, the detritus of the shore. Little cuts, on arms, and on elbows, and feet.

One thing that had mesmerized her was when his feet bled. She felt there was something so strangely beautiful about his feet: broad, pale and wrinkled, with trails of blood swooning down them, the deep red turning almost orange as the seawater met and calmed it. Something so strangely beautiful about his face: usually distant and panicked at the sight of blood, especially his own, smiling and satisfied, prepared to let his blood stain the sand, to let himself be content and things to run their course.

Upon reaching the beach she was forced to revisit her tiptoeing motion from the morning, this time to skip across sunbaked sand. He kept his flip-flops on, and walked calmly behind her. She always put them in her bag once she got to the beach, to save them getting sandy. He followed her further down the beach, closer to the water. She found a spot a little back from the lapping waves and seemed satisfied. She unfurled her towel, and when he got there, he unfurled his, next to hers. Then they lay there for a little while, in the sun, silent, little drops of sweat beginning on their foreheads.

“Do you want to go for a swim?”

It was the night after a swim the first time she’d said it.
“A swim”

and this first time she’d said she loved him it had been a shout. Her words had floated across the dark, like wind in a void; the first and only thing he would ever have called magic

“Hmmm, not really”


and when he said it back he said it quietly. He said it softly, like he was afraid of breaking its bones. His words exploded in the vacuum and she thought that she could see him by their light; the first and only thing she would ever have called real.

“You sure?”
“Yeah… don’t feel like getting wet”

and then they’d kissed and since then the days had skittered by electric: running for the train their coats fluttering behind them like capes and drinking wine in bed at night and holding hands in the dark of the cinema and walking along wet and lonely streets at night and laughing and shouting and warming their hands with cups of tea and he’d drink earl grey and she drank breakfast tea and she’d hold him when he cried in the mornings and he’d wait for her bus when he had nowhere to go and she called him at odd hours whenever they were apart and his voice made white noise of everything else around her and night after night and day after day and they’d burst up out of the water together like geysers and send spray up to the heavens and they’d ignore the current whenever they swam towards each other and

“What’s wrong?”
“I’m fine”
“You’re crying”
“Is this about last ni-”



“Please, what is it?”

I’m sorry
I know, It’s okay.

The nothing was spoken, and in itself, as a word, hadn’t much meaning there, particularly. But words and meaning were different… words changed, broke down, drifted away… somehow, meaning, was always preserved, like ancient honey; insects in amber; bogbodies. Water lapped at the sand, the sun retreated and gave way to cloud. Now there was meaning.

Slowly, the sky became completely clouded over, and they were dwarfed beneath its cover, as if under the foliage of great trunkless grey-leafed trees, lost in a forest, it’s leaves and branches dampening the sound of nearby sea.

Jamie Stedmond is a young Irish writer, currently based in Dublin. Jamie is pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at University College Dublin, through which he is working on a debut novel. Previously published on Paragraph Planet, and Cagibi, as of January.

Image Credit: Sam Wheeler

The Piano by Sorcha Fogarty

My husband is deaf. Once, he asked me if snow made a sound when it fell, and I lied. We have been married 11 years today, and I am leaving him.

He is in the bakery on the corner where it is warm and they know him well. He will return within the hour to our apartment with a box full of little cakes which he ordered especially for this day. He will walk through the door and toss his keys into the little ceramic bowl on the hall table. I am the only one who ever hears the sound of the keys as they fall into the bowl. He will place the cakes on the second shelf of the fridge and seek me out, but I will be gone.

There is a violent rip in the couch. A giant piece of leather hangs off the armrest like a tongue. It has ruined the couch, but we never bothered to get it repaired.  Just like us. One violent rip has divided us forever. We love each each other differently now; we just remind each other of what is missing. Each time we look at each other, an inexorable ache rises up from deep inside both of us. It is tangible. It pollutes the air between and around us. We have almost completely stopped looking at each other. Instead, we look through each other, or behind each other, or around each other. The ashtray is empty and now only decorative in function, and it tempts me to smoke again. My lungs are hollow and empty and long for the weighty, constricted feeling of being a smoker; just to feel something, anything. Just to feel a feeling that isn’t interminable, unresolved sorrow.

He plays the piano every day, and I am taking it with me. It was made in 1783 in Prague. It sits quietly in the corner now, poised for exile. We’ve moved home three times in eleven years, and each time, the piano goes out of tune when it enters a new environment, as if it were afraid of change. My husband once told me that in the darkness of its body, deep in its belly, there is a piece of him which is living secretly, breathing, pulsating, fed by scherzo and allegro. I am taking the piano for exactly this reason. Inside, quiet as dust, a part of my husband anticipates resurrection, while I have given up completely. I do not want him to have the benefit of resurrection when I know I will never experience such merciful relief.

He is watching the fat baker squeeze the icing in the shape of tiny red hearts onto the little cakes that we are supposed to share with our friends tonight, in celebration of our anniversary. He once told me that he loved me because I was the only thing he could hear. He can feel the vibrations of the piano strings through the soundboard, but I am inside him, he said. I am a song soaked into each bone of his secret body where the world has never been able to wander.

The fat baker is packaging the cakes. He places them delicately into a pink box, tying it up in white ribbon with a flourish. I want to leave before my husband returns, otherwise I will be swayed by the sadness in his eyes and have to wait yet another year. I am running out of years. I have to be on my way to the airport; the piano movers should have been here half an hour ago. I do not want my husband to find them struggling on the stairs with a part of his soul. I want no scenes.

I have already burned all the photographs; they made a crackling sound and set off the smoke detector, which I promptly smashed. He won’t need it because he is deaf and it gives off only a minute vibration, too mild for him to notice. I have written down all the reasons why I am leaving, and I am overcome with a sad longing for the world, to be a part of it again, because I have not spoken to anyone for weeks. I must go now, I can’t wait for any more tomorrows. My feet barely touch the ground as I take a final sweeping look around the apartment. My heart is in my mouth. I can feel it throbbing and taste the pulse.

For some unknown and annoying reason, the moment we met fills my mind. He was giving a recital. I was with friends, eager to see and hear this deaf pianist, like a sort of modern-day Beethoven. I felt like a voyeur, not really caring about the music, but fascinated by the idea of this man. He played several pieces, but the only one I recognised was Chopin’s Nocturne op.9 No.2, with its beautiful, discordant notes. And I was mesmerized by the way he played. It was as if he was listening to every single note, his head bent towards the keys, his eyes half-closed. His fingers dancing like little ballerinas, so delicate and long and elegant. After the show, I went up and introduced myself. I couldn’t resist. I wanted to hear if he could speak at all. It was crass and nosy of me, but he could speak; with palpable strain and effort, he forced out a melody of muffled sounds in an awkward staccato rhythm. I complimented him on his Chopin rendition, and he told me it was his favourite, that he played it every single day. He invited me for a glass of wine. We went to a wine bar, one of those little places that plays quiet but lively jazz in the background, dimly lit by candles on each table. It was there that he asked me the question whether or not snow made a sound when it fell. He wrote it on a napkin, and underneath his question, I wrote, “Yes. It sounds like angels falling”. But of course, he would never hear an angel fall. It was an in impossible answer to an impossible question. But he took my hand immediately, and tears filled his eyes. And he said “Thank you”, with his stunted, strangled voice. A trickle of red wine stained the napkin as we continued our evening. I kept that napkin for years. But today, I burned it with the photographs.

Albert Camus suggested that we would not love if there was no lack within us, but we are offended by a similar lack in the other. Expecting to find the answer, we only find the duplicate of our own problem. And, as a result, we become disgusted, disappointed, and try to flee from the other in an attempt to flee from ourselves also. Inside my husband, outside him, all around him, is the duplicate of my problem. I can never be free, I know that, and I know I can never flee from myself; but I can at least flee from his hopefulness, from his will to force life to go on, which only serves to exacerbate my own emptiness.

The piano movers arrive. They are brusque and professional and ready to get on with the job. They manoeuvre the antique piano down the winding staircase of our apartment building with cautious, studied movements. As they make their descent, the door to an apartment on the second floor opens, and a frail Russian woman called Ida who has lived in the building for over thirty years puts her hand on my arm and looks concerned.  She sees my eyes, she sees the panic and the longing. She wants to know has there been any news. She always wants to know has there been any news. There is never, and there will never be, any news.  I am also escaping from her. I am escaping from the constant questions, the pitying looks, the awkward silences, the stilted conversations on the stairs or outside her apartment door. I tell her, babbling, making no sense at all, that my husband is in the bakery buying little cakes iced with tin red hearts, and I have to be in the taxi on my way to the airport before he returns. I tell her it is our eleven year anniversary and I am leaving him. This makes her gasp; her eyes water, and she lets me go, offering some support or strength or affirmation with a slight squeeze to my shoulder.

I shut the front door of the building behind me. I have no bags, except for a small handbag which contains my passport, my aeroplane ticket, some money, and the address of my new home written on a scrap of paper. I don’t want to take anything with me. Just the piano.

He was playing it the moment the phone rang, eight years ago. A little girl had been found, lying on the wrong side of the footpath, face-down on the road, blood seeping through her little blue coat. Our phone number was in her bag, in her little notebook with the birds and the rainbows on the cover. She had wandered from school. Whoever hit her, whoever killed her, just drove off and left her there. The driver was never found. Her ponytail was sticky with dirt and blood. A tiny bird, broken and forgotten. She was there one minute, perfect and small and dressed so smartly in her little blue coat, and gone the next. He was playing the Chopin Nocturne when I hung up the phone and went to find him. With shaking hands I spoke to him, my fingers trembling as I made the shapes of the letters because I could not speak. My mouth would not work, my tongue dry and lifeless in my mouth.  He never played Chopin again.

I can see his face now, as he enters the apartment, and sees the space where the piano once stood. I can imagine the emptiness that will follow him around. I can imagine him sitting him at the edge of our bed, her photo, the only photo I didn’t burn, in his hands, as he too remembers the night that he asked me if snow made a sound when it fell. He makes his way to where the piano used to be, and, sitting on the stool which I left behind, he holds his hands out in front of him, poised over the no-longer-there keyboard. Closing his eyes, he mimes Chopin’s Nocturne op. 9 No. 2.

The pink box of little cakes iced with tiny red hearts sits forgotten on the bed, her photograph beside it.

Originally from Omagh, Co. Tyrone and presently living in Cork City, Sorcha Fogarty completed a PhD on “The Affirmative Nature of Impossibility in Jacques Derrida’s Work of Mourning” in 2010, and spent several years teaching Undergraduate English in University College Cork. She has previously had academic articles, based on Jacques Derrida, published on The Literary Encyclopedia, an online journal. She has spent the past six years teaching Creative Writing in various libraries around Cork City, and presently works as an Assistant Librarian, while continuing to teach Creative Writing. 

Image Credit:  NeONBRAND

A Diet of Feathers by Paul Whyte

If a bar is not kept at all times moist to the touch it will grow feral, dangerous. 
       Think of it as a type of sessile organism, a compact colony surviving only on the odd sobs of stout and the dead skin of patrons.
     This particular bar has pulled the fibres from the knit of my jumper and planted them upright in the mahogany so that they sway like sea creatures. Poor thing must have been starving.
     It’s St Stephen’s day morning and I’m consulting the paper. First meet is 11. 
     I use an inch-long pencil to circle names. My first pick is a tip from the radio, 6/1.
     Neil returns from the bathroom preening with dull satisfaction. His paper wagging beneath his arm like the tail of one of those strange fish that sticks to the bellies and backs of sharks.
   I can see his picks, circled with red pen so that his choices cannot not be easily erased or forgotten.
   He pays for his drink and while he does I catch the contents of his wallet – a loyalty card for the only barber in town and a balance of cash for the day, all big notes. His bank cards are at home. He knows better.
   We leave and walk to the bookmakers, two doors down, last year it was five.
   Neil is shorter than I am and going bald in the most unfortunate of ways, thinning in strips instead of patches. This doesn’t seem to bother him. He lets it grow until it’s unbearably mossy.
He has pale pocked skin and a sturdy crest of a nose. Sometimes when you call to the house for him, his brother will answer and tell you that Neil is out the back breaking blocks with it.
   Right now he has the look about him of someone confident, canny.
   The bookies is packed and has the visual palette of a stuffed ashtray. It smells of insoles and devastated carpet. 
   The only female here is the cashier, Joanna. She has the kind of calm in her eyes that you see in nurses and first responders. 
   Once on the carpet Neil doesn’t respond to verbal signals. He will not discuss picks or winnings. Men are invisible in this place.
   At 2 o clock I tell him that I’m hungry. He seems agreeable. This must mean he’s up.
   We go back to the pub and eat vegetable soup, crumble in soda bread that’s thick as scones. We have a carvery lunch and a pint of free cordial each. There is discussion of Ibiza.
   He tells me that he’s going to get a job in the new year, that he’d like to come with us on the holiday. Says though, that it’s hard with the Mother the way she is. I sympathize, but secretly I know that if it wasn’t this it would be something else. Neil has the sort of mind that subconsciously seeks labyrinths. It’s not broken, it just does what it does with a ruthlessly efficiency.
   He’s never been out of the country. He’s never eaten pasta or drank barista coffee. To my knowledge he has only ever been to the cinema that one time with school. He likes football and playing poker online, thinks he’s better at both than he is.
   We step outside for a smoke. I rub my belly and tell him what the Father told us over Christmas dinner.
   He told us that when he was thirteen years old his Dad organized a job for him in a plant nursery somewhere between Aherlow and Lisvernane. They supplied food and accommodation for the summer and a couple of quid would go back home.
   The meals weren’t much, spuds and bacon, mustard from a tube if they had it. Breakfast was porridge and tea without milk or sugar.
   He told us that he would be so hungry that by lunchtime he would start to eat chips of wood from the handle of his shovel and in bed at night he would sometimes chew the feathers from inside his pillow.
  The story has Neil shaking his head, ”Different times.” he says.
   Back in the ashtray the smell has evolved to include the bizarre body odours of farmers fresh from the field. 
It’s not wholly unpleasant. It has a spicy quality to it, something cheap splashed against a hairy throat on the way into town.
   Later myself and Neil huddle in the doorway as a heavy shower leathers the blanked out windows. Threads of rainwater drop from a clogged-up gutter and clap against the pavement. Even the smoke we’re blowing wants nothing to do with the weather, it circles our faces, seeks shelter in our pores.
   Neil is about as happy as Neil gets. Tells me he’ll put the deposit down on Ibiza tomorrow, maybe he’ll even get a deal in the sales.
   When the bookies close we make our ways back to the pub. Neil keeps walking. 
   I pat his back dutifully, offer to buy him a drink, curried chips if he’s hungry. He doesn’t answer me, just carries on down the street, trans-illuminated by a connect-the-dot forest of birches wrapped in fairy lights.
Once inside, I go to the bar, run my hand across its skin. It feels dewy, fed. I knock it once to see if it answers, thumb the vinyl-like groves in the wood. A voice comes; I order a stout. 
 I think of Neil, walking alone in the country dark. I bet he’s starving. 

Paul Whyte is an emerging Irish writer. Originally from Tipperary, he currently lives in Dublin with his wife and two children, where he is working on his first short story collection – Brazen Head. Paul has been writing for about 10 years. He works mostly on speculative literary fiction.

Image Source:  Tommy

Our Chimera by Clare Diston

We built a bookcase from the pieces of the crib.

            We found it in the corner of a bric-a-brac shop. The crib was smooth and wooden and boxy, a rectangle on rockers, and it was filled with dozens of discount scatter cushions. We loved it the moment we saw it.

            It was delivered on a Sunday. We carried it, laughing, in the seagull-screech afternoon as the wind blew the hair into our faces and we tripped over cobbles and brushed past green carnations, up the little path to our house.

            “We’ll never get it inside!” we hooted. “We’ll have to cut it in two!”

            But we didn’t, of course, although we did end up bent double with laughter when we tried to get it up the stairs.

            For a while it lived on the first floor, covered by a sheet, as we feathered the room around it with fresh paint, new carpet and triangles of rainbow-coloured bunting. We liked to go up there early in the mornings and watch through the steam from our mugs as the sparrows hopped on the window sill and the breeze ruffled the sheet like it was trying to look inside.

            We held hands, and for now the secret was ours.

Three months later, it happened, so we took the crib downstairs. This time it caught on every corner and dug into our limbs, until one of us could not hold up the end properly and our hands slipped and we lost control. It slid, carelessly, all the way down and landed with a crack. For a moment we looked at it, immobile at the bottom of the stairs, one rocker broken and hanging limp. We replayed the sound of the crack in our heads. Then we picked it up and put it on end in the large cupboard under the stairs, and we snapped off the broken rocker and put it inside.

            We pushed it back, squashing everything behind it, and closed the door.

            Like swans we tucked away our heads and let our bodies get on with the business of living. Calmly we took down the rainbow bunting; quietly we packed up the clothes and linen. But our composure exhausted itself before we could get to the understairs cupboard, and as time passed our grief gathered like dewdrops around the only thing we had not dealt with. The crib sent out ripples, lapping us softly every time we passed the cupboard door, until we could not even look at it. One of us tried to tell the other that it was just an empty box, something which only carved up air, but that did not work at all – it was an empty box, it carved up the air.

Then one day one of us said, “I need something.”

            “Then go and get it,” said the other. “What are you looking at me for?”

            “It’s under the stairs.”

            Even though we knew where it was, we searched the whole house first and even rooted through the car. A turtle dove watched us, purring in the highest branches of a tree. At last we went back inside and stood in front of the understairs cupboard.

            We took each other’s hands and it was a surprise and a comfort.

            The thing we were most afraid of was that it might have changed somehow. Perhaps it had tilted forwards and would come tumbling out on top of us the moment we opened the door. Perhaps it would be bigger than we remembered, or worse, smaller.

            But when we opened the door it was exactly as we had left it, standing on its end, the broken rocker inside, framing an emptiness, but not one that wasn’t familiar to us already. In fact, seeing it again felt like alighting on a branch; at last we had something to push off against.

            We pulled everything out of the cupboard and found what we needed. Then we put the crib back in, right way up, and filled it with everything that had been crammed behind it. Now when we closed the door it didn’t feel like a weight against our hands, and when we walked past there was no need to curve our steps towards the far wall. Brushing against the handle was no longer the worst thing in the world.

            We allowed our caged grief to take flight, until it was time again.

One of us had an idea and did not know how to tell the other. One of us stood in the upstairs room – repainted, refurnished, refilled – and knew that something had to go in the empty corner. In the end, when we spoke, one of us decided the what and one of us decided the where.

            We took the crib out from under the stairs and emptied it of everything but its own broken rocker. Then we carried it back to the upstairs room, and it bumped into edges and the soft parts of ourselves until we had it upside down on a sheet, helpless, belly exposed. We had never seen it like that before, and even as it stirred our pity, we found ourselves hating it.

            We wondered whether we were angry enough to claw the thing apart with our bare hands.

            “Why don’t we do it like this?” asked one of us.

            “It would be better this way,” said the other.

            The screws were old and rusted, but with enough force they could be turned. We detached the second rocker and began to take out the screws that tightened the sides to the base, but we saw straight away that it would not be so easy. Ridges of hardened opaque glue squeezed out of the seal between the base and the rest of the wooden frame, and we ran our fingers along them and pecked at them with our nails. But we carried on anyway, one of us dropping loose screws onto the sheet, the other putting them into a little dish. Of course, even when the last screw was out, the structure still held fast.

            “Why would anybody glue this?” asked one of us.

            “They probably never expected it to be taken apart,” said the other.

            We attacked the seam with screwdrivers, which we jabbed into the glue and worked and worked so that we could get the points between the two pieces of wood, and then we levered up and down and side to side, mashing the wood and pulping the dried glue, loosening the base enough that we could force our fingers into the join and really wrench and tear until, finally, it came apart.

            We sat back, breathless, on our heels.

            “Do you think we’ve damaged it?” asked one of us.

            “Let’s go and have lunch,” said the other.

            When we returned there was a collared dove standing on the window sill, cooing and bowing its head. Now and again it paddled its little feet like it was excited about something. When we opened the window it flew away.

            The frame of the crib now became our work table; we laid the base across it and trimmed off the ruined edges with a jigsaw, and then we cut the base into strips which became the shelves, secured with nails and glue. The old screws, some scattered on the floor, some collected neatly in the dish, all ended up in the bin. The crib’s old rockers became an unexpected decoration, added to the top of the new bookcase like deliberate wooden moulding.

            When we had finished we stood it upright and examined our creation; the product of our plan, hatched. It bore the scars of our work, certainly, but it was sturdy, perhaps even sturdier than before. To begin with it was difficult not to see it as a bottomless crib standing on end, but as we stared at it we stopped seeing the shape of what it had been and began to see it in its most basic elements – pieces of wood, nails and glue – like looking at a word for so long that it loses its meaning and all that’s left are the empty letters.

            Right then we wanted nothing more than to fill the shelves with books, but it had to be left to dry. So we went downstairs and out into the garden with mugs of tea, and the air was so crisp the steam looked like feathers. We stood among the violets and looked up at the open window. A breeze stirred the curtain and we knew it was setting the glue.

            “Do you remember when we thought we would have to cut it in two to get it through the door?” asked one of us.

            “I remember it all,” said the other.

            We held each other’s hands as a distant cuckoo started to call.


Clare Diston is a freelance writer and editor through her business, Human Voices. She received her MA in Creative Writing in 2011 and she loves reading (and writing) literary and science fiction. She blogs about all things books at This is her first fiction publication.

Image Source:  Kari Shea

Audio Guide by Ronan Hession

“Are you sure you’ll be ok?”

“I’m fine. Honestly.  My folks are coming over later so I won’t be on my own.  Go on. You’ll be late.”

I left Angela to rest up, her body still getting used to itself after the miscarriage.  Everything had changed so quickly.  Last week, we had been living a life of plans, talking  about the arrival of a baby who was in fact already in our bed, inside of Angela; a little nineteen-week-old grapefruit.  But what can you say when there’s no heartbeat?   When the scan shows indecipherable black and grey shading and the baby is still there but without that pulsing, characteristic pattern that is supposed to last a lifetime?  I was full of questions, trying to talk my way out of things, but Angela just settled into a profound, personal realisation that was inaccessible to me.  That deep wisdom of the body once it knows, truly knows, that everything has changed.

As we sat at home, waiting for the tablets to work, I texted my sister: “We’ve lost the baby.  Can you tell people?”  We sat through the unreality of trying to find something decent on TV, of having run out of bread, of drying some spare pyjamas for Angela in case she needed to go back into hospital, which she did, for a D&C later that day.  I phoned my boss and said that I had a vomiting bug and would be out for a couple of days, instinctively knowing not to tell the truth.  The following days were filled with the practicalities of medicine, and that closeness you find between two people who have been through a lot together.

The world seemed stubbornly normal as I made my way back in to work. It was autumn and Dublin looked well; the leaves turning the colour of Georgian bricks.

“Here he is! The only man to catch morning sickness when his wife is pregnant – how’s your bump Ger?”

“Hi folks.  Thanks for your sympathy. Don’t come too close, I’m not sure if I’m entirely over it.”

“So brave.  What a pro.  Here he is back after only three days in his Superman pyjamas.”

The first morning at the office filled itself with routine: looking through the end-quarter numbers before they were sent to the West Coast; querying payments made while I was out; clearing annual leave for the girl who worked for me.  Little pieces of normality that I operated by remote control from inside my grief.

At lunchtime, I passed on an invite to go for a curry with the others, answering them with a pantomime pat of my supposedly recovering stomach.  Once the office quietened down, I logged out and left for a walk.  Outside, the bockety streets were full of that midday busyness: people texting their lunch dates to say that they were running late, something had come up; charity fund raisers flirting for Africa; and Italian students in puff jackets walking five abreast, full of continental obliviousness.

I stopped outside the National Gallery.  For months it had been barricaded by hoardings during its renovation, but now, like me, it was slowly beginning to engage with the world again.  It appealed to me as a safe place where a person could go and look like they were doing something, even if they were not really taking anything in.

The lobby was busy with tour groups and people with bags being told that they would need to use the cloakroom.  The Perspex donation box stood awkwardly, half full with unfamiliar currencies. I decided to rent a recorded audio guide to insulate myself from the chatter and close off my interior world.  I put the old-style foam-covered headphones over my ears and clipped the device onto my belt.  It was still set to German so I had to fiddle around and find the English setting, but it played automatically once the language was selected.

“The National Gallery first opened in 1922, after the Parliament building had been bombed, leading to a reorganisation of city centre properties under the control of the State . . .”

The crowds were all drawn to the big names on show at the visiting exhibition of Art from the Low Countries, so the rooms of lesser known Irish art were pretty quiet – mostly rural scenes and large landscapes.  The audio guide explained that Irish landscape paintings typically devoted an unusually large amount of space to the sky: the mercurial weather providing the variety and drama that painters loved.

“Number 41.  This painting depicts working men stopping for lunch.  Their dark skin and weathered clothes indicate that they may have been day labourers, or Journée men . . .”

Standing still, my arms hung loose and my body felt torpid.  I needed some rest, but I also knew that I needed to begin the process of rejoining the world.  Any more time in that house and I would have become too sad.

“ . . . Notice how the woman to the rear of the painting, wielding the soup ladle, stares straight at the viewer.”  

-She looks sad.  On her own among all those men.

“That’s because she is sad.  She’s wearing a black scarf over her head, which indicates a family bereavement.”

-Is one of the men her husband?

“Unlikely.  Perhaps her husband has died and her sadness is because she must work among other men in his absence.”

-That’s a powerful interpretation.

“What do you think?”

-I think she might just be exhausted to the point of sadness.

“No. 59.  This portrait depicts the Earl of Longford, James Hassekemp, with his hunting dogs.  The landscape in the background alludes to his Dutch protestant heritage and the style of the Dutch masters . . .”

-Is he famous?

“Only in the sense that he was rich in the nineteenth century and so his history is recorded and his family name remains in the area.”

-Is that the only reason his picture is here?

“Do you feel drawn to him?”

-I don’t know.  I’m not sure.  I think I like the painting though.

“It’s well executed, but somewhat stiff.  Why do you like it?”

-It’s just so big.  He looks so tall.

“Why is that important?”

-It makes him look substantial.  Unaffected by things.

“Number 73 is titled ‘Woman with a Guitar and Tears’.  This is by Irish painter Lily Oster, who travelled and studied throughout Europe and who was married to the famous sculptor, Daniel Bard.”

-Why tell me who her husband was?

“He is very famous, and the better known.”

-He always will be if you keep describing her like that.

“It’s a Cubist painting. Do you know what that is?”

-I think so. I mean, I know it’s modern art and it’s made up of shapes and different perspectives and all that.   I wouldn’t be able to tell it from other schools of abstract art, but I know as much as I need to.

“How does the painting affect you?”

-It’s ok.  Only ok.  On a different day I might feel engaged intellectually, but the way I am today it just sort of washes over me.

“Does the fact that she is crying mean anything to you?”

-I suppose it’s meant to mean something, but to me it just looks, I don’t know.  Just a painting.  I’m not getting anything from it.

“Some say she looks like a sad Mona Lisa.”

-Let’s move on.
“The next one is number 80. We can skip this if you want.”

-It’s ok.

“I thought it might upset you.”


“Because of your baby.”

-My little grapefruit.

“We don’t have to do this one if you don’t want to.”

-Tell me about the painting.

“It’s by Ulick Grey.  It’s called the ‘Child’s Wake’.  It was his last painting and was unfinished at his death.  The child and the adult figures were done by Grey, but the details of the room had to be completed by one of his students.  This is the first time it has been shown here.”

-I haven’t seen it before.

“Grey mostly painted landscapes.   Even though it’s not particularly well executed, the choice of subject is original and profound, which makes it arresting.”

-I see what you mean. The child’s face is wrong though, isn’t it?

“How so?”

-It looks like it’s sleeping, rather than dead.  It’s too peaceful.

“How should it look?”

-I don’t know. But not too peaceful.

“What about the mother figure?”

-She’s not difficult to do.  Everyone knows what a heartbroken mother looks like.

“And the father?”

-He’s not looking at the child.

“Why do you think that is?”

-I think I know.

“Go on.”

-At some stage he will have to choose the exact moment to pull the blanket over the child’s face.

“Should we move on?”

-I have to go back.

“Can’t you stay?  There are two more rooms on this floor.”

-I can’t.  I wish I could bring you with me.

“They won’t let you.”

-What would happen?

“I don’t know.  I don’t know how things work from your side.”

-I’ll just bring you back.  I suppose I have no way of knowing if I’ll get you the next time I come here.

“I guess not.”

I returned the audio guide at the counter, where a woman with a steel grey bob hung it among the others, without breaking off the instructive conversation she was having with some tourists.  It was hard to see exactly where she had hung it or to tell which one I had given her.

Stepping outside into the street again, my ears felt the cold.  Things seemed calmer now, with a few people here and there, making their way with an easy randomness.  A school tour passed by, the children each holding hands with the kids in front and behind them, looking like a string of cut-out paper dolls.

I was in no mood to go back: not yet ready to accept that part of returning to normal was getting back to doing the things that I didn’t want to do.  I sent two texts:

“Hi love.  Am taking a half day.  See you in an hour xx G.”

And to my boss:

“We lost the baby.  Can you tell people?”

Ronan Hession is an emerging writer based Dublin – his work has previously appeared in The Honest Ulsterman. As Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, he has released three albums of storytelling songs. His third album Dictionary Crimes was was nominated for the Choice Music Prize.

Image Source:  Igor Miske

LACES by Iseult Deane

In the corridor beside the gantries, she hid with her hands in Oliver’s shoes. She leaned right down, till her cheek was on the carpet, feeling the spread of her fingers where his toes would be.

Downstairs, on stage, the performance was coming to the end of Act I. She sighed, sat back up, and put the shoes back under where the rest of his Act II costume was hanging. She liked to stay here during the show, officially as costume designer ready for quick changes. In this small theatre building they were renting, nothing was soundproofed. No one wanted it to be their footsteps or their conversation that threw off a whole performance. The actor’s voices created a silence that was like a spell; complete and unbreakable. For this, she thought anyway, Oliver’s voice was the most effective because he made it softer. She felt like he understood the potential of the building, forced it to breath in time with him by drawing back just a little. Under this spell, no one could ask her what she was doing with shoes on her hands; no one was supposed to walk this way at all. In this silence, her secret, her adoration, breathed with the building, with Oliver.

She followed his lines on her script:

Malachy: I want you with me Niamh! When you go, I want you with me.

Niamh: But where can we go? What’ll we do when we get there?

Malachy: We’ll go as far as we can. I want to beat those fucking rain clouds Niamh. I can’t take more cold! If we try to leave now, it’ll be hours before anyone notices. We can disappear, and no one will even know it. Maybe no one will even mind, in the end Niamh.

She loved how Oliver said “Niamh”, with two syllables, like Nee-Uv.

She didn’t, though, like the play all that much. It was sentimental and new, and the director was a fretful angry man; David. He came to every rehearsal in the same denim jacket and sat there with his laptop out, covered in the stickers you get from Amnesty International when you sign a petition in the street. She’d seen him, peering over that screen, leering at Molly. Molly was playing Niamh, and Niamh seemed some kind of fantasy for him, following Malachy all the way around the world with her dark hair and her sweet, quick heart only to die on a tiny boat in the night in an unfamiliar sea. David screamed and shouted and ran things over by an hour, or cut them short when everyone had got up at 7am. She hated him for his cruelty, but more for what he had written into life. It was only the second night, and already rumours about Molly and Oliver were falling off the stage and into the real world.

She waited until she heard the murmur of the crowd before standing up and tucking her script away back into her bag. Molly was the first up the stairs from backstage at the bottom of the corridor.

“How’s it going?”

“Alright I think, bit low energy maybe”, Molly replied, taking the tights she was holding out to her and starting to pull them on under her skirt.

“It sounded good from here anyway”. She held out the rest of the costume.

“Thanks a million Laura” Molly said, and turned towards the dressing room. Laura watched her go for a moment. Molly was tying her hair up; she hoped she hadn’t been on stage this whole time with that bobbin on her wrist.

“Could you give me a hand with this?” Oliver. Laura had made him a shirt for Act II, but had put the fastening very high up on the neck by mistake, so that it was hard to do up yourself. She nodded.

He was taller than her, and now she was eye level with his chin, feeling his breath on her hands. Laura felt lately like there was a flood that followed her, that she was only ever just about ahead of. Here, she felt it rise, coming to rest just under her nose as she did the fastening. He lifted his chin to give her space, and she wanted to throw her arms around his neck and lift herself up, away from the flood, up to his height where it couldn’t get her. She took a small, extra second, and stood back from him. The water sank a little.

“There” she smiled.

“Thanks!” he said, and bounced away down the corridor. The water drained down the stairs after him. She smiled to herself that he didn’t feel the need to check his costume in the mirror.

She heard a shout for their five-minute call, and watched the rest of the cast traipse past her, back downstairs. The lights went darker, and she sat back down and took her script out again.

There was never much of a routine before the play started, always a lost pair of shoes, or a new tantrum from David. No one really noticed then, except Laura, how late Oliver was on the fourth night. Ten minutes until open, her breaths were coming shallow with worry, and David stormed into the corridor. He seemed not to notice Laura, but she felt like he knew someone was watching. He was performative, like an angry person in a film, pacing around on his phone

“Fucking nothing!” he screamed, and kicked the piping running along the wall. “Molly!”

Molly came out to the corridor then. Laura liked Molly. They had been in the same class at college. They always commented nice things on each other’s pictures on instagram. Once they had run into each other leaving the library and gone for a drink and Molly had cried about her sick cat to her.

“I can’t get through to Oliver, have you heard from him?”

Molly shook her head.

“If he doesn’t show up in the next like two fucking minutes then I’m gonna do his part tonight. Just to give you a heads up”.

Laura saw real fear cross Molly’s face at the thought of acting across from David, of acting in love with him.

David could no more do this to Oliver than to Molly. He was too cruel to stand where he stands, say his words in his clothes.

She gathered Oliver’s costume up, waited until the cast came out and started downstairs, before slipping into the middle of them, four pins in her mouth so that she’d look like she had a task to do. Downstairs, she got changed in the dark backstage, rolling up the legs of the trousers, pulling the shoelaces as tight as she could, pinning the shirt at the back to make it fit better. The fire announcement began as she stuffed her hair into his hat, patting around the edges for strays. She could hear David stomping around upstairs, and hoped that he’d still care enough about the play to stop making noise soon.

She waited for Oliver’s, or Malachy’s, first scene, running over his lines in her head. She knew them perfectly. She had studied them like they were sacred the past few days, had come to far more rehearsals than she really needed to hear Oliver say them. Her hands shook with worry, with the burden of filling his place, with disgust at the thought of David standing in these shoes.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around. David was there, with the rest of the cast peering at her from behind him. Without waiting for even a gesture from him, she turned and slipped on stage, too early for her scene, and paced at the back. As she became Malachy , her anxiety dissipated. She was safe here, in Oliver’s place, holding something precious for him.

The performance went completely smoothly. They heard from Oliver at the interval; he had been knocked off his bike and had a concussion and a broken ankle. He was safe, and she imagined Molly texting him later about what had happened, and him seeing her name and imagining her in his clothes.

Oliver couldn’t come in the next day. When Laura arrived, Molly and David were screaming at each other. She waited in the corridor, with his costume clutched to her chest. She heard a door slam and footsteps and Molly rushed into the corridor. She said that David had left, that we were to run the show ourselves tonight.

“Thank you so much Laura”. They hugged, the bundled costume caught between them.

The same thing happened the next few nights, until David seemed to give up on the whole production. He stopped even watching, spending the whole show smoking on the balcony and then only going downstairs at the very end to collect his praises and his ticket takings. The cast was grateful to her for creating such a distance between them and David. Every night they flocked around her, chatting, asking for help with their hair, laughing with her. She thought all the time of Oliver, wondered what he was hearing about what was going on, if he was curious enough to come watch, feeling that same flood rising and falling around her.

She still changed backstage in the dark for every show. She preferred it to be dark; it made it easier to forget herself, to inhabit Oliver. On stage, she tried to copy everything, his accent, his gait, squinting slightly to change the shape of her eyes, and always looking out, past the yellow lights, to where he might be in the audience. As she walked home and as she fell asleep every night she thought of nothing but his eyes on her.

On the thirteenth night, the second last, she changed as usual in the dark. As she was tightening the lace on her shoe, it snapped off in her hand. She had pulled too hard and it was only cheap and elastic. The break pinched her skin a little. She tested the shoe; it was very loose, much too big for her. She tucked the raw end of the lace inside and stood up as the fire announcement came on.

As she stepped out, gripping the inside of the shoe with her toes, she went closer to the edge of the stage than usual, so she could see better beyond the lights. The audience was small tonight; he was not there. The weeks’ worth of hoping and getting nowhere weighed heavy on her; she was tired. It was her line but she waited, let the silence grow. She walked out of step with Oliver’s blocking, and took her hat off, feeling her hair fall down around her shoulders. She didn’t pay much attention as the scenes passed her by, always looking outwards, wide-eyed.

She turned, at last, to Molly:

Malachy: I want you with me Niamh! When I go, I want you with me.

She stepped forward, and left her loose shoe behind. She used her foot to loosen the other one.

Niamh: I can’t leave here, what will I do? Where will we go?

As she spoke, Laura untucked and unbuttoned her shirt. She faced forwards at centre stage. Molly was backing away, until she was outside the line of the lights, almost off stage.

Malachy: As far as we can. I want to beat those fucking rain clouds Niamh.

Laura felt herself begin to shout. The rest of her clothes began to come away. They were not hers and they didn’t fit her. They slipped off without her trying.

I cannot take more of the cold. If we try to leave now, it’ll be hours before anyone notices.

Laura stood on stage naked, the trail of the costume behind her, staring

straight into the yellow lights above her.

We can disappear and no one will even know it! Maybe no one will even mind, in the end.

Iseult Deane is 20 years old and a third year English and Philosophy student at Trinity College Dublin. She has lived her whole life in Dublin. She works in a cinema at the moment but likes theatre a lot more and would like to be a costume designer. 

Image Credit: Peter Hershey

Fugue:  A Fragrance by J. T. Townley


A woman, blonde, blue-eyed, glides down a white-sand beach.  Waves crash.  Sea breeze tousles her long tresses.  Her translucent sarong flutters.  Her tiny white bikini covers very little.  Her thigh muscles ripple with each graceful step.

A man, chiseled, bronzed, pads toward her across the wet, white sand.  He wears a confused expression.  Breakers roar.  His unbuttoned white tailored shirt whips in the wind.  Close-up:  pecs, abs, face, abs, pecs.  From neck to navel, sweat droplets bead and run.

A jaguar, lithe, limber, races through the lush jungle beyond the beach.

Cue the strings.

The woman and man embrace in slow motion against a backdrop of tumultuous surf.  His fingers dance up her spine.  Her lips gnaw at his stubbly chin. “Passion.”  He holds her cheek in his hand.  She wraps an arm around his waist.  “Pleasure.”  He brushes her locks out of her eyes.  She paws his tight rump. “Destiny.”  They tumble into the sand in a passionate heap.

Sunlight refracts through sea spray.  Surf pounds the beach.  From the edge of the jungle, a jaguar preens and roars.

“Fugue.  The new fragrance.  For men.”



A woman, chiseled, bronzed, pads across the wet, white sand.  Her unbuttoned white tailored shirt whips in the cold tropical wind.  It’s snowing.  Close-up: breasts, abs, face, abs, breasts.  From neck to navel, goosebumps.

A man, blonde, blue-eyed, plods down a white, snowy beach.  He wears a confused expression.  Waves crash soundlessly.  Cold wind tousles his long tresses.  His translucent sarong flutters.  His tiny white bikini covers very little.  His thigh muscles ripple with each plodding footfall.

A jaguar, loose-limbed, lissome, races up the snow-covered sand in a red Alfa Romeo Spider.  The top is down.  He sports Ray-Bans.

Cue the harps.

The woman and man embrace in slow motion against a backdrop of gathering storm.  Her fingers dance up his spine.  His lips gnaw at her stubbly chin. “Passion.”  She holds his cheek in her hand.  He wraps an arm around her waist.  “Pleasure.”  She brushes his locks out of his eyes.  He paws her tight rump. “Destiny.”  They tumble into the accumulating powder in a passionate, shivering heap.

Sunlight refracts through blowing snow.  Ice crystals form in the surf swell.  The jaguar spins donuts around them in his bright red convertible, roaring.

“The new fragrance for men:  Fugue.”



A blonde, blue-eyed ski bunny glides down a snow-covered slope.  A thick crust of ice glistens on the surface of a mountain lake.  A cold wind tousles the long tresses trailing from her stocking cap.  Her white bikini covers very little.  Her thigh muscles ripple with each graceful turn.

A man, chiseled, bronzed, pads toward her across the wet, white slope carrying hot toddies.  He wears furry boots and a confused expression.  His unbuttoned white tailored ski jacket whips in the icy wind.  Close-up:  pecs, abs, face, abs, pecs.  From neck to navel, goosebumps.

A jaguar, svelte, supple, races up the snowy shore in a red Alfa Romeo Spider.  The top is down.  He sports a snow-leopard suit and Ray-Bans.

Cue the banjos.

The woman and man embrace in slow motion against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains.  His mittens dance up her spine.  Her chapped lips gnaw at his numb, stubbly chin.  “Passion.”  He holds her cheek in his mitten.  She wraps an arm, blue with cold, around his waist.  “Pleasure.”  He slides off her stocking cap, pawing at her sweaty, matted locks.  She pokes him in the tight rump with the handles of her ski poles.  “Destiny.”  She loses her balance, and they tumble into a heap of poles and skis and awkward, icy passion, hot toddies spilling in the snow.

Wind whips powder into stinging clouds.  Ice on the lake creaks and moans.  The jaguar in the snow-leopard suit adjusts his Ray-Bans, revving the engine of his bright red convertible and roaring.

“Men:  The new Fugue.  For fragrance.”



A blonde, blue-eyed farmer’s daughter splashes up out of a river.  Summer sun carries the secret scent of tilled loam.  Snow-capped mountains tower over the valley.  She wrings out her long tresses.  Her tiny, non-existent white bikini covers very little.  Her thigh muscles ripple as she lies back in the soft riverbank grass.

A man, chiseled, bronzed, pads toward her across a fallow field.  He wears a confused expression.  Cicadas hiss and rattle.  His unbuttoned tailored white overalls flap and sway in the warm wind.  From neck to navel, sweat droplets bead and run.

A jaguar, spry, lithesome, races through the cornfields on a red Alfa Romeo tractor.  The top is down.  He sports a straw hat and Ray-Bans.  In his paw, a .12-gauge shotgun.

Cue the fiddles.

The farmer’s daughter and man embrace in slow motion against a backdrop of cornfields, river, and snow-capped mountains.  Her spine dances down his fingers.  His stubbly lips gnaw at her chin.  “Passion.”  She holds his hand against her cheek.  He wraps a sweaty waist inside her arm.  “Pleasure.”  She brushes his eyes out of her locks.  He rumps her tight paws.  “Destiny.”  They tumble to the grass in a disheveled heap.

Sunlight refracts through dust clouds.  The cicada clatter swells.  The straw-hatted jaguar barrels toward the lovers at full throttle, adjusting his Ray-Bans, cocking his .12-gauge, and roaring.

“New.  The fragrance for men.  Fugue.”



A woman, blue-eyed, blonde, glides down a bright, white street.  Cars crash.  Fetid subway wind tousles her long tresses.  Murky late-autumn sunlight casts a glare on mountains of snow-capped dumpster garbage.  Her translucent thigh muscles flutter.  Her tiny white bikini covers very little.  Her sarong ripples with each graceful step.

A man, bronzed, chiseled, pads toward her across the wet, white sidewalk.  He wears a confused expression.  Traffic roars.  New Yorkers, too.  His unbuttoned white tailored shirt whips in the fetid subway wind.  Close-up:  pecs, abs, face, abs, pecs.  From neck to navel, raindrops bead and run.

A jaguar, limber, lithe, races through the concrete jungle, blowing stoplights and cutting off cabbies, in a red Alfa Romeo Spider.  The top is down, despite the drizzling rain.  He sports Ray-Bans and can’t see where he’s going.

Cue the jangly electric guitars.

The woman and man embrace in slow motion against a backdrop of rush hour road rage.  His fingers dance up her spine.  Her lips gnaw at his stubbly chin. Drivers honk, bleat, and make obscene hand gestures, then someone throws a bottle, which explodes in a spray of jagged glass.  “Passion.”  He holds her cheek in his hand.  She wraps an arm around his waist.  Rats squeak and scurry, gazing at the lovers from their snow-capped mountains of dumpster garbage.  “Pleasure.” He brushes her locks out of her eyes.  She paws his tight rump.  A divorced secretary in a no-nonsense gray skirt and glowing white Reeboks shoves them accidentally-on-purpose and yells, “Get a room!”, face plastered with disgust and envy.  “Destiny.”  They tumble to the filthy, glass-shattered pavement in a passionate heap.

The trickle of rain turns to sleet.  The air feels cold and greasy.  The jaguar stands upright on the hood of his red Alfa Romeo Spider, Les Paul sunburst in his paws, a Marshall stack big as a bus behind him, strumming jangly power chords and roaring.

“Fugue for men.  The new fragrance.”



A woman, bronzed, chiseled, pads down a wet, white sidewalk.  Traffic roars.  Mimes, too.  Her unbuttoned white tailored shirt whips in the sweet spring wind.  Close-up:  breasts, abs, face, abs, breasts.  From neck to navel, sweat droplets bead and run.

A man, blonde, blue-eyed, glides down a bright, white street.  He wears a confused expression.  Buses hit delivery trucks hit cars hit motorcycles hit mopeds hit bicycles hit pedestrians.  The unfamiliar wail of Parisian sirens.  The wind off speeding emergency vehicles tousles his long tresses.  His translucent sarong flutters.  His tiny white bikini covers very little.  His thigh muscles ripple with each graceful step.

A jaguar, lissome, loose-limbed, races through the concrete jungle in a red Alfa Romeo Spider, spinning around the Arc de Triomphe and slaloming down the Champs Elysées, a smoldering Gauloise between his lips.  The top is down.  He sports Ray-Bans, a jaunty-angled beret, and a crooked smile.

Cue the accordions.

The woman and man embrace in slow motion against a backdrop of other women and men and women and women and men and men embracing in slow motion.  His spine dances up her fingers.  Her stubbly chin gnaws at his lips.  “Passion.”  She holds his cheek in her hand.  She wraps her waist inside his arm. “Pleasure.”  She brushes his locks out of his eyes.  Her tight rump slides beneath his paws.  “Destiny.”  They tumble into the tulips in a passionate heap, along with at least two other couples.

Sunlight refracts through Gauloise smoke.  The warm breeze carries the scent of daffodils, crêpes, and fresh espresso.  In his bright red convertible, the jaguar barrels down the steps of Sacré-Coeur, smashes through the Louvre, and drives straight up the Eiffel Tower, roaring, “Sous les pavés, la plage!”

“Fragrance:  The new Fugue.  For men.”



A woman, blonde, bronzed, glides down a giant golden dune.  Sunshine assaults her.  Hot, arid wind tousles her long tresses.  Her translucent kaftan flutters.  Her tiny white bikini covers very little.  Her thigh muscles ripple with each graceful step.

A man, chiseled, blue-eyed, pads toward her across the sandy void.  He wears a confused expression.  The wind howls through a bleached human skull.  A javelin sand boa constricts around a wayward goat.  The man’s unbuttoned white tailored shirt whips in the wind.  Close-up:  pecs, abs, face, abs, pecs.  From neck to navel, sweat droplets bead and run.

A jaguar, supple, svelte, races up and over the vast dunes in a red Alfa Romeo Spider.  The top is down, despite the blowing sand.  He sports Ray-Bans and a turban.  He sips sweet mint tea.

Cue the ouds.

The woman and man embrace against a backdrop of spitting camels, endless sand, and empty sky.  His fingers dance up her spine.  Her lips gnaw at his stubbly chin.  It’s 120 degrees, and there’s no shade.  “Passion.”  He holds her cheek in his leathery hand.  She wraps a sunburned arm around his waist.  The blue dome of sky stretches and shimmers.  “Pleasure.”  He brushes her locks out of her eyes.  She paws his tight rump.  On the horizon, an enormous sandstorm rages. “Destiny.”  They tumble down that golden dune in a flailing, passionate heap.

The roiling wall of sand blots out the sun.  The wind carries the scent of recent slaughter.  The jaguar presses a button, transforming his bright red convertible into a bright red coupe in which to weather the storm.  Sand and wind hammer the windshield.  He preens in the lighted vanity mirror, roaring.

“Fugue.  The new fragrance.  For men.”


J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals.  His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia.  To learn more, visit

Image Credit: Jakob Owens

My Friend Meredith by Myra King

The almost garden of the house that my friend Meredith wanted to break into, was one dying bush, a dirty rock and two pot plants with spider ferns crawling up their sides. I knew they were spider ferns because our gardener grows them behind his cottage but he grows them in an old tub, one of those claw types although it’s not so old. Anyway, my friend Meredith didn’t even lift one of the pots because she says that’s too obvious a place for keys and poor people don’t like to look too obvious whereas rich people don’t think of it either way.

After we knocked on the door and no one answered, I lifted them both up just in case. As usual, Meredith was right. She always knows about these things. She’s fourteen and much smarter than I am.

We found the key under the windowsill at the back of the house, in fact the key found us, because we stepped on a loose porch-board and it hit the sill and the key popped out and we nearly missed it because it was rusted the colour of the house. Meredith told me she didn’t want to use a key anyway because then it wouldn’t be bona fide ‘break and enter’, so she put it back.

There was an empty house next door where we didn’t need a key, we just walked through a wall or where a wall would have been if it hadn’t fallen down with neglect. Some people are so neglectful.

We waited there watching the house,  for what seemed like too long but of course time drags too much when you just wait and have nothing to do and Meredith made me be quiet, by placing a finger over her mouth every time I started to speak and then by putting her hand over my mouth when I kept on talking.

A man soon came along pushing a wheelbarrow with a large sack of potatoes and two cabbages perched on top. He went behind the house with the spider ferns, propped up the wheelbarrow and opened the door. I saw Meredith’s eyes narrow when he didn’t even use the key. She had pushed the key so far back it had fallen through and under the house but he didn’t look for it because the door had been unlocked all along. The man was wearing denims with knee worn holes and a dirty shirt. Maybe he was one of the dirty men Meredith’s mother warned us about. Although I know it’s not that kind of dirty but maybe the dirty dirt shows the other kind of dirty. He also had tattoos like sailors have, but I couldn’t see if they were of naked mermaids or not. Meredith’s eyes opened wide but of course she wasn’t scared. Meredith’s not scared of anything.

The man came back out, tossed the bag of potatoes over his shoulder, and we could see how he got dirty, because the bag puffed out dirt, kind of like smoke and the dirt went all over his shirt and down his back. He picked up one of the cabbages in his other hand and went back inside his house. Some people always eat cabbage. And they often smell like cabbage. An old man who sat next to us on the train smelled like cabbages .

Here’s what happened next. Meredith ran out and grabbed the other cabbage, she tossed it to me and kept running, but I dropped it. I could see Meredith’s eyes going as black as her clothes, her eyes always go black when she’s cross with me so I snatched up the cabbage and tossed it back over to her. She ran around the side of the house where we’d been hiding and threw it as far as she could into the backyard, which was all weeds and rubbish, then she grabbed my hand and dragged me into the empty house.

The man came outside again and looked at the wheelbarrow for ages, kind of like he thought the cabbage would rematerialize. If he’d started shaking his head we wouldn’t have been able to hold back our laughter, it would have all been just too ghastly, but then he walked over to where we were hiding. I ducked down but Meredith just kept standing and staring. I wondered if she was going to use her little-girl voice but she didn’t.

“Hey you. There,” the man said, lifting his hand in half a wave. “Do you know you’re trespassing?” Meredith and I exchanged a glance which said of course we do but then Meredith did go very little-girl. “No, please, mister. We thought nobody lived here anymore.”

“Well,” the man said, “that may be by the by. But folks don’t always live where they own. And someone owns this house.” Meredith grabbed at my hand; kind of grazed it, not held on and I followed her out. She stood in front of the man, with her hands behind her back, eyes lowered and her head tilted sideways and one of her feet hooked back over her other ankle.

The man was having none of it. “Go and get that cabbage you threw away,” he said, his hand doing a wide arc across the yard. We both took a short breath and looked over at his house; he must have seen us from his window.

“If you knew I had thrown it why did you stare at the wheelbarrow then, like you thought the cabbage was coming back?” said Meredith. That’s how Meredith is.  Now she didn’t have her little-girl voice; she sounded like her mother, all vowels and sniff nosed.

The man shook his head; he looked at me and then at Meredith. Longer at her because of how gorgeous she is. I’m used to folks doing this between me and her. Then he turned away and strode over to the yard and came back out of the long grass carrying the cabbage. He plucked a slug from it, flicked the slug to the ground and went back into his house without looking at us. Meredith followed and I followed her. That’s how we have fun talking to these people. Although we’ve never gone into their houses to talk to them and maybe that’s what Meredith meant about ‘doing a house,’ not just stealing. Anyway, the man couldn’t be dangerous if he didn’t even kill slugs; our gardener puts all the snails and slugs into buckets of salt and they shrivel up like they’re burning alive and he doesn’t give a toss.

The man had gone into another room and didn’t see us come into his house and we walked like we do when we’re trying not to wake everyone up when Meredith sleeps over and we sneak out for midnight feasts in the park. He had the ball game going but his television was inside and we didn’t see any beer.

Meredith put her finger to her lips again as the man went back outside and we watched him pass by the window and go down the street, pushing the wheelbarrow. The little grocery store was a ten minute walk so we figured we had time to look around, but there was nothing interesting and everything smelled like cabbage even the potatoes cooking in a huge pot on the stove. It was quietly bubbling, Cook calls that simmering and sometimes she boils up bones like that for father’s hunting dogs. Meredith poked through the drawers in the kitchen and held up a leaflet: Help The Homeless, it said. Saturday Soup Kitchen 6 pm. There was an address circled in red ink, of course we had never heard of it and of course Meredith wanted to go. I had to remind her we had to be at the station at 5 o’clock to meet her mother, but she said her mother was always late which was true. I had never known her mother to be on time but then we were never on time either so we really didn’t know if she was late because she was always there waiting. Anyway it was only 2 o’clock, so we had lots of time and then we saw the man coming back.

His wheelbarrow was full of wooden slatted boxes, the kind Cook uses for kindling; they were stacked on top of each other but balanced so they toppled a little bit to one side. The man kept stopping and straightening them, we could see this from the window but soon he was at the backdoor. This is how Meredith is; she hurried over and locked the backdoor from the inside, there was this little slide-across bolt the kind they have in public toilets sometimes, especially here in this part of town.

We held our breaths and watched the door. We could hear the man twisting the knob and pushing on the door, it rattled the bolt but the door held, and then after he’d done it lots of times Meredith opened the door and the man fell inwards nearly knocking into her. But I’d jumped back and hidden behind the other door and pushed my fist into my mouth to stop from laughing aloud, it was all just too ghastly.

The man did a strange thing, he didn’t yell at Meredith, like I thought he would but spun around, shut the backdoor and pulled the bolt across and then he took out a key; it was a different key from the one Meredith had lost. This was a shiny key but he didn’t use it, he just stood with his back braced up against the door like someone was trying to get in from the outside. Meredith, this is how fun she is, said “Please mister I’ve come about the Soup Kitchen. My friend’s gone home but I want to help.” He nodded kind of slow and smiled and instead of arguing like I thought he would, said, “Sure, sure you do.” And went over to the huge pot cooking on the stove and stirred the potatoes with a long handled spoon. I thought it was a bit strange he hadn’t got cross because he seemed crosser when we were just trespassing in the deserted house next-door. And it was kind of like we had broken in to his house but Meredith said, you have to break something like a door or a window to actually break in, so maybe that’s why.

Meredith half looked at me hiding behind the door and touched her lips with her finger, she went over to the sink and started to chop up the cabbage with a large wooden handled knife. The man came over and told her to do it this way. “Just like this,” he said, his voice low and different. His arms went around her from behind and he directed her hands. Then Meredith turned on the faucet and washed the cabbage. The water spluttered and the pipes whined and rattled and screeched like someone trying to get out.

Myra King lives along the coast of South Australia. Her poems and short stories have been published in many literary magazines and anthologies. She has won the UK Global, come second in the Cambridge Fiction Awards and been shortlisted for the US Glass Woman Prize and the Scarlet Stiletto AUS. / @MyraGKing

Image Credit:  Andrew Neel

The Narcissist by Tara Sparling

“Miss Bay says I’m a narcissist.” Leah picks at a quick on her left thumb, which is still wrapped around her phone. “Like it’s a bad thing.”

I look at her, my first-born, my life-changer: she’s troubled, and inches away from another selfie. As though a picture could take away the trouble, packing it behind a honeycomb of pixels.

Leah’s highlights need re-doing. I’ve said it several times, but she’s waiting for me to make the appointment. I know I will make the appointment. I will also drive her to the salon and give her money to go shopping afterwards with Petra and Ellen. I will not tell her father what it costs.

“Do you know what the word means?” I turn my back and look out the window over the kitchen sink. My Japanese Maple bathes in the honey of an Indian summer, the sun behind sinking slowly as though begging for ten minutes more, just like Leah used to resist bedtime when she was small. The water has gone cold and I coat my hands with soap suds, rolling them through the water for a moment like surfacing whales, before I extract the last few teaspoons hiding underneath.

She’s back tapping on her phone. The faint clink-ping-whoosh! of messages and updates and pronouncements catapulted to and from her phone at lightning speed, to the far corners of Dublin, where she wants them to go, and the world at large, which she does not think about. “Sure. Miss Bay doesn’t know me. She probably thinks makeup makes you a narcissist. She’s always giving us these mad communist lectures about how much our bags cost.”

I don’t have a designer handbag, but my sixteen-year-old daughter does. The Michael Kors was a present, when she finished her exams in June. I didn’t tell Kevin how much it was.

When I was her age I was so afraid people would say I was up myself. I put handbags and make-up in the same category as matchy-matchy outfits and high heels: outward signs of high maintenance that would mark me out as ‘other’. Not one of the lads I so desperately wanted to be. I had decided to be down-to-earth. As much of a construct as my poor Leah’s profiles online.

“Do you know anyone you’d say is a narcissist?” I pull the chain for the stopper and let the water run down the plughole. There are too many suds. It’ll take an hour for them to disappear on their own, and they’ll leave a scum in the sink which will look dirty.

“There’s a few Fourth Years who are always putting up pictures in bikinis and stuff? And Jessa Conway told everyone she was scouted in Dundrum for a London agency. But there’s no way that happened, because she’s got, like, an underbite.”

Jessa’s mother and I once shared tea duty at a parents’ evening in the local primary when the secondary schools came to set out their stalls. She seemed fairly set on St. Blaise’s, as was I, and I wondered if our girls would be friends. Apparently not.

“Do you worry about how you look, love?” I keep my voice light. By the time I reached sixteen I had already decided that I was never going to be pretty, so there was no point in trying. Jane Shaw and Niamh Haydon would attract all the attention, but when they were done, I would be waiting in the background, being sound. Being down-to-earth. A friend with boobs.

“Why, should I?”

I turn to face my daughter and her eyes have narrowed, staring down the barrel of suspicion, her ravaged thumbs poised in mid-air, arrested in their strategic operations.

“Of course not. But too many girls do worry, that’s why I’m asking you.”

The thumbs descend once again, emitting clicks and whistles and zips to the world outside my kitchen. “No. I know what I look like.”

I’m not sure what this means. From my daughter’s dark roots down to her eighty-euro-pedicured toes, she’s doing far better than I ever did. Even I haven’t seen her without mascara in months. It’s the last thing to come off at night, the first to go on in the morning, together with the full coverage anti-bacterial foundation we spent two days trawling through cosmetic counters for, running outside to check each sample in daylight. Two exhausting, fraught, blissful days.

“Good,” I hear myself say. “Because you’ve no need to worry. You’re a beautiful girl.”

She rolls her eyes and swipes furiously at the screen of her phone, but doesn’t leave the kitchen. I tell myself that this is what counts as I take out the chopping board. Other parents tell me their daughters spend every hour they’re at home locked in their bedrooms, talking to God knows whom and doing God knows what on their tablets and laptops and phones. My Leah tends to hang around downstairs quite a bit.

I’ve met Miss Bay, Leah’s soft-spoken but severe Economics teacher. Her wardrobe rolled off the production line at some point in 1987, full of hard-wearing, starchy fabrics. I imagined her taking each item off every night and diligently sponging it down before hoisting onto padded hangers, gaps left between garments for airing. Miss Bay would rather die than take a selfie. So would I, but I think I understand better than she does what it is to be a teenager in this new high visibility world.

“Oh yeah. Petra’s coming over. We have a project thing to do. Okay?”

“Sure. I can do some extra veg.”

“Oh, Mom,” says my firstborn – and without looking, I can feel the bored resignation – “she’s not going to have dinner with us. Petra eats at lunch.”

And Petra has an eating disorder, I think, but I say nothing as I chop the carrots into batons because Kevin doesn’t like rounds and I cut florets of broccoli into equal sizes for steaming because Sam says when it’s boiled it tastes wrong and I roll the grass-fed organic diced beef in seasoned flour and place it gingerly into the casserole dish to brown. My mother could lay her fingers right into the pan and feel nothing; she’d say I’d gone soft.


When Petra walks in the door I have to stop myself from groaning, because she’s wearing the tracksuit top Leah wants. There’s no point in hoping that will put Leah off. Petra is too poised to care who copies her. I can also tell by the way Petra is modelling it that it will not suit my flat-chested daughter, but that doesn’t change the fact that I will have to find another ninety quid before Saturday to undo the damage.

I clear away the dinner plates as Leah makes coffee. Petra lounges against the counter with ease. She has never been afraid to be in this house.

“Casserole.” Her button nose turns up, not unattractively. I know she’s not being rude: not intentionally, anyway. Petra turned vegetarian when she was eleven. I put my foot down with Leah. Nobody in my house may deprive themselves of anything, not least protein.

“Yes indeed,” I say. “Lovely hunks of moo-cow in silky stew sauce.” I laugh. I’m not afraid of Petra either. “Leah says you have a school project?”

The bunny nose twitches again. “Social media awareness. Really random.”

“I would have thought you girls were extremely aware of social media,” I say. I take the milk from the fridge and hand it to Leah. Neither girl takes sugar. “Unless you’re inventing a new one.”

“Mom.” Leah warns me with a glance. I shouldn’t be talking about this stuff, not after what Miss Bay said. But I’ve seen their profiles. That picture in the bathroom of Hungry Pete’s. The look in Ellen’s eyes which didn’t match the smile on her lips. I always said as long as I saw more face than cleavage I wouldn’t worry. But wherever one girl goes, the others follow. Isn’t that what they say?

Kevin passes back through the kitchen in his shirtsleeves on his way to the study. “Hi, Petra. How’s life?”

“Oh, you know. Due to start any minute now.”

Kevin laughs, and it’s a new laugh. He never used to feel the need to try with their friends. He was just a dad, an older man in an older shirt, perfectly acceptable in an affable sort of way. I’m still waiting for that stopping of time, be it with Petra or Ellen or anybody else, the meaningless glance which isn’t glancing at all. And it disgusts me that I’m waiting for it. Like I’m staging a selfie of my soul I’ll later regret.

“You need a hand, love?” he asks me, followed a split second later by, “No? Excellent. I’ll be in my cupboard.”

Leah hands Petra her coffee and they make for the stairs, leaving me to it. Petra’s leggings are skin-tight and leave nothing to the imagination. Leah doesn’t wear them and I worry that she doesn’t like her legs. She takes all her selfies from a point above her head, looking down from some magically flattering, leg-obscuring angle. I marvel at how she gets around these things. They are ingenious, these girls, in so many ways.

I squirt washing up liquid into the enamel casserole dish and run the hot water tap. Decades of Sunday dinners have aged it black, but I remember my mother cutting chunks of dripping into it when it was still a sky-blue colour. On one day of roast beef and mashed turnip, just after I met Kevin, I asked her what her pregnancies had been like. First she said she didn’t remember. Then she laughed, saying she thought I was too selfish to want children. I remember looking at the beef sizzling wildly as she browned it in the red-hot pan, fat spitting out in every direction like a Catherine wheel. The soft underside of her wrist and forearm caught the worst of it as she pressed the beef down into the dish, but she didn’t even flinch.

Before she died I used to bake my mother queen cakes. Plain sponge, devoid of raisins or sultanas or chocolate chips. She liked the way the uniformly wan flesh disappeared in a mouthful of tea. I baked them the way I was taught. Flour and eggs, soft margarine and sugar. Not overbeaten. Baked until just golden but never ever crisp. Each time she said, “Oh, you shouldn’t have gone to any trouble.” As if the queen cakes were the trouble.

​A familiar tom cat stalks across the decking, tail pointing cockily at the sky. He looks up at me, disdain dripping from each gleaming whisker, then turns sharply without breaking eye contact and walks away towards the back fence. He’ll come back in the middle of the night, when I can’t see him. Too late to tell Leah, I think: cats are the true narcissists. They don’t even care if anyone’s around to watch them being fabulous.

“Mo-OM!” Leah roars at me from halfway down the stairs. “Where’s your Chanel lipstick?”

Somewhere online there is a mother who grins wryly at this. The social media project must be going well, she thinks, laughing as she bakes another batch of perfect buns, because teenagers are so predictable, especially when they think they’re not.

That mother is not in my kitchen. The mother in my kitchen is thinking that her daughter and her daughter’s friend are in her private en-suite, rooting through physical evidence that parents are people too, adult partners who wash and pee and bleed and have sex. She does not want them there. Her en-suite and her marriage are not a social media project.

“Try the red vanity case!” I shout back. I stare stonily at my reflection in the darkening window. My mother’s shadow gazes back at me and I blink, scrubbing hard at new stains branding the old enamel.

Tara Sparling writes fiction and satire. Her blog looks at book humour, bestselling book trends, the realities of traditional and self-publishing, writing follies, character and genre stereotypes, marketing, author success stories and spectacular failures. She can also be found lurking @TaraSparling on Twitter.

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Stop Staring by Alison Frank

Home at last. Funny how these plush red carpets now seem normal. The building made such a grand impression on me when I moved here, even if the flat I rent within it is small and unremarkable. As I ascend the main staircase, I spot my neighbour, Pete.

‘Evening, Sarah.’

‘Hi Pete, how’re the stuffed animals today?’

‘Behaving themselves. If one of them starts talking back, you won’t be seeing me round here no more! I’ll check myself into the loonie bin.’

He smiles and adjusts his wire-framed glasses. I avert my gaze from his long fingernails. The muscles contract down my back whenever I see them. Women’s long nails should creep me out in the same way, but they don’t.

‘How’s the world of publishing?’

‘Same old slush pile. Actually, an unusual manuscript was delivered today – one full of pictures that might interest you. It’s from a hipster taxidermist in east London, all about the weirdest commissions she’s ever had.’

‘Oh yes, these hipsters. Tell you what, I’m happy to have the competition. Ten years ago, it looked like my trade was dying out, but what with all these goths and dandies and modern Victorians, there’s been more than enough business to go round. What’s the author called?’

‘Delilah Rose.’

‘Don’t know that name. Bet she wasn’t born with it. Maybe I should’ve come up with something a bit snazzier than Pete Hawkins. How was I to know that taxidermy would become so glamorous! You tell me when that book’s coming out. I’ll gladly read it. By the by, did you ever watch those films?’

‘Yes, they were fantastic. I’ve been meaning to knock on your door to give the DVDs back. I can go and get them now if you like.’

‘No rush. I’ll be getting on, let you enjoy your evening in peace.’

He turns away with his careful, precise steps, the keys to his flat ready in his hand.

It’s mind boggling, the things you can find out about the unassuming people that surround you. In the early 80s, Pete worked with a Polish animator on stop-motion films of rabbits. Whenever I see stuffed rabbits in natural history museums, they always looked royally pissed off: maybe it’s hard to arrange that cleft lip and buck teeth into a natural expression after death. But Pete managed it: his dead rabbits had expressions that were dignified, amused, even beatific. I’ve never been inside his shop on King’s Road: stuffed animals still creep me out, however skillfully crafted. When he lent me those DVDs, Pete said, as if reading my mind, ‘I won’t invite you in to watch them. You must wonder what a bachelor like me gets up to, with his dead animals.’ I laughed at this, maybe a bit too much. ‘I’ve a mind to show you round some time to disabuse you of your morbid fantasies. I assure you, no deceased creature has ever passed this threshold. Excluding, of course, old Mrs. Hanson, the previous tenant, 30 years ago.’

I eat my dinner at the little table next to the window as usual. Munching away, I look up at the creeping patterns of sunset clouds. My gaze falls to the jagged rooftops, and down another level to the windows. The buildings opposite are a good 25 metres away, allowing lots of light and an illusion of privacy. You can see people’s shapes but not their expressions.

The majority of us have never met, but there’s a sense of shared community. If I caught sight of a burglary or a murder, I hope I’d call the police right away, and that my neighbours would do the same for me. My gaze shifts from one window to the next. It’s like sitting in a cafe, watching strangers pass by.

As dusk falls, the windows illuminate. Loud music leaks from an open sash in the building opposite, one floor below my own. The lights in that flat blaze more brightly than in any other. Irresistibly, they draw my eyes. Young women in beautiful dresses start to jive. A young man with slicked back hair opens a bottle of champagne. Someone mimes spanking someone else’s bottom—or maybe they’re actually doing it. I avert my gaze to my plate. When I look outside again, translucent curtains have been drawn across the flat’s six windows.

A very thin woman, maybe just a teenager, peeps around the edge of the curtain and seems to look straight at me. I feel a little unnerved, but I don’t want to do anything obvious in response, like pulling my own blind. I casually move away from the window, switch off the overhead light and turn on the small lamp beside the armchair. Sitting there, I can’t see my neighbours, only the sky, still purple and pink with the sunset. After five minutes, I creep up to the window, let down the blind without showing myself, and kneel on the floor. I just have to see what’s going on down there – are they all standing around the windows now, curious about the weirdo who was watching them? I can’t see anyone. I crawl into bed with a hot cup of tea and a new comedy podcast and try to forget the uneasy feeling of that slim girl’s stare.

In the morning, I luxuriate in the thought of a weekend free from commitments. Maybe I’ll treat myself to some fresh croissants, buy the weekend paper, and peruse it for most of the morning with a hot pot of coffee at my elbow. I start setting the table, which is bathed in the mid-morning sunshine I normally miss while I’m at work. I glance outside where a square of white paper catches my eye. There’s a sign taped in the window of the flat where they had the party last night. ‘STOP STARING’.

I put on a tracksuit and a big pair of sunglasses and go out. As I walk briskly and take in big breaths of air, I start to feel less nervous. Why should I be ashamed? I have a right to look out of my window. They’re the ones drawing attention to themselves, even more so with this stupid sign. What egotists, to imagine people have nothing better to do than look at them! If you don’t want people to look, draw your curtains or don’t have such a big party. I almost start hoping my neighbours will confront me, so I can vent my outrage.

There’s a tall couple immediately ahead of me in the queue at the bakery. The man’s hair is combed smooth and the woman’s in a form-fitting dress that exposes her tanned shoulders. It looks like they’re wearing clothes from the night before; perhaps they’ve been at a party that lasted until dawn and they’re rounding it all off with breakfast. Could these be my neighbours? I back towards the door and step on the foot of a man coming in. ‘Careful!’ he cries. The couple turn around to look at me. I mutter an apology as I dash outside.

‘Excuse me!’

The man with perfect hair is loping across the street after me.

‘Do you live in this building?’ His face is eager, almost amused. His girlfriend is standing outside the bakery holding their shopping.

‘Yes, why?’ Immediately I’m on the defensive. This wasn’t at all how I imagined our confrontation.

‘This is terribly embarrassing, but my girlfriend insists on speaking to one of your neighbours. Actually, I’m probably the one who’s going to have to speak to him. She says the man in the flat opposite is staring at her all the time. She put up a sign this morning – maybe you saw it. I tried to talk her out of it; you don’t want to provoke that sort of person. I thought perhaps if I had a word with him, we could sort something out, man to man.’ He smiles ironically at his own old-fashioned turn of phrase.

His girlfriend joins us. Her towering high heels look extremely uncomfortable, but she wears them as though they aren’t.

‘Do you live here?’ she asks.

‘She does,’ says her boyfriend. ‘Sorry, how rude of me, my name’s Max and this is Chloe.’

Chloe extends a cool hand. ‘Has Max told you I’ve been having problems with a voyeur?’

‘I did,’ says Max. ‘And this lady has been listening very patiently and, I think, might be willing to let us in so I can have a word with him.’

‘Would you?’ asks Chloe, with imploring eyes. ‘I’d be so grateful. We’ll be literally five minutes.’

I lead them through the front doors and up the stairs, stopping one floor before mine. Max looks around to get his bearings. ‘I’m pretty sure it’ll be flat…8.’

‘I can easily identify him. I’ve seen his horrible face so often, I’ll never forget it.’

‘You girls stay here,’ says Max, striding down the corridor. I hide around the corner. It’s Pete’s flat.

‘I’ll be so relieved when this is all over,’ says Chloe. ‘I’ve been on the point of moving, it’s become so bad. Every time I look out of my window, there he is.

Normally I keep the blinds at the back closed, but we were having a party last night, so we wanted a cross breeze. My friends all saw him, staring at us really intently.’

‘That must be terrible.’

‘So whereabouts in the building do you live?’

I wave my hand vaguely. ‘On the next floor.’

‘I hope our party didn’t disturb you last night.’

‘No, no – this neighbourhood can be so dead. It’s nice to hear some signs of life.’

‘You should come over next time we have a party!’

A brief vision of myself framed in that window, wearing an elegant dress, fooling around with new friends in their extravagantly large flat.

Max comes striding back down the corridor, pink in the cheeks but hair still in place.

‘Did you talk to him?’

‘Complete waste of time. Denied everything.’

‘Now what? Should I start taking photos as evidence?’

‘Like I said, you don’t want to provoke that sort of person. He can guess which

flat you live in just as easily as we guessed his.’

‘But it was definitely him?’

‘I think I know a pervert when I see one!’

I follow Chloe and Max back to the front door.

‘Thanks so much. I’ll drop you a note once we’ve sorted all this out. And an invitation to our next party!’ Chloe takes my flat number and grins, flashing me a thumbs up.

I go home, grab the DVDs and creep down to the second floor. Silently I place them on the carpet outside Pete’s flat. Will they be stolen if I leave them there? I hammer on the door and disappear down the service stairwell instead of the plush front staircase. I emerge at the back of the building and take the long way round to the newsagent’s. Wandering along King’s Road, I stop to gaze at fancy dresses in the shop windows. The sales will start soon: then I can afford a new party outfit. Chloe and Max are so caught up in themselves, they won’t notice if I only have one dress.

Alison Frank studied creative writing with George Elliott Clarke at the University of Toronto. She lives in London and her published short stories include ‘Roman School Trip’ in The Literateur, ‘The Rupture’ in Hotel, and ‘Dance Lesson’ in Moving Worlds. You can follow her on Twitter @alisonfrank

Image Credit:  Jamie Street