The task of reducing all entries to 12 finalists was assigned to a professional writer and editor who indicated that, because of the high quality of submissions, the final selection was extremely difficult. Indeed, this highly experienced individual was most impressed by the excellence of writing demonstrated in the entries. Each entry was judged initially on three criteria: premise/plot, structure and overall impression created by the piece. On the basis of this initial screening, 21 entries were selected for a second reading and re-evaluated. Inevitably, there is an element of subjectivity in any judging process, but the reviewer is satisfied that the process has been fair and that the short-listed entries represent the best of an outstanding field.

Please see below (in alpha order) the 12 selected shortlisted entries:

The Finalists

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A Great Absence

She wasn’t particularly fond of hunting, but there was a beauty to the process that she appreciated. She always found the rifle to be ridiculously heavy, yet she marvelled at how something relatively small in size possessed such power. Hunters respected and admired wildlife, while also enjoying the rush of adrenaline from shooting a gun or the search for a dead boar in the morning with bloodhounds. They would freeze in awe in the presence of a stag, royally strutting about with its mighty antlers, admire the beauty of some roe deer playing in the field and prancing about, or appreciate a heron flying overhead.
The watchtower was quite a small box, about one metre wide. They were both seated side by side, burrowing their noses into the collars of their jumpers. It was starting to get cold and they could both feel it in their feet. Her boots were much too tight, making her numb in the toes. She was used to this. She always brought a book with her to read, flipped through the pages until dusk made it impossible to see the letters, unnoticeably hid it away in her pocket without any sound, and then soaked in all of the nocturnal life surrounding her.
It was quite a strange November. The weather was still fairly warm during the day, and the leaves were a deep orange, as if summer had just only slipped into autumn. Yet, in the evening, the grass was still coated with frost. The mighty trees of the forest swayed gently, sending random gusts of wind through the leaves. It was so quiet that a stray mouse or a pheasant sounded like an elephant trudging through the foliage and snapping the branches. Overhead, the sky was a violet colour, dappled here and there with velvet clouds, and a soft mist hovered over the clearing.
He scanned the area with his scope and then propped the gun up in the corner, after deciding that there was nothing around them that warranted his attention except several horses grazing. He plunged his hands into his pockets and listened for game. The only noise identifiable were distant gunshots, which annoyed him quite a bit because these were the worst type of hunters. They were reckless, shooting near the roads and highways, and killed for sport. They were also quite old and had atrocious hearing after all the years spent shooting without any gear to protect them with. Most of them claimed to have never missed a shot or missed once or twice, and bragged about that one stag they shot without even looking.
Somewhere to their left they heard a branch snapping. His head turned first, then she did. It was probably some mouse or hedgehog. After a few minutes, more branches were snapped but they seemed too large for the size of a mouse. Suddenly, they were both alert, eyeing the forest and waiting, waiting, waiting.
He was thinking of ending things and she had known it for weeks yet ignored even the thought of it. She couldn’t think about anything else, smiling through her teeth at him and hoping it was a fleeting whim. She did everything for him, gave him everything, worshipped him. She always wanted to be the one that was loved more, but it eluded her. She looked at him, wondering how was it that she came to resent him.
He wanted her to be the one, he really did, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not shake the feeling. Lately, he did not understand her at all. He did not want to understand why she was so irate at his failure to do more, his failure to buy her flowers on a whim, his failure to be romantic or his failure to kiss her enough. He did not see why she was annoyed about him being quiet during their conversations. He did not understand why she would cry her eyes out when he didn’t compliment her efforts to make a ridiculously complex meal or to look nice for him. Knowing that what he offered her had not been enough haunted him and humiliated him.
“How did we end up like the rest of them?” She whispered. He took her hand to warm it up. Their marriage was not rotting from the core, it was not loaded with misery. On the contrary, it was full of elegance and grace, a mutual respect for one another in a bubble of consented vulnerability.
“I don’t know. Maybe we tried too hard.” He spoke to her but not at her, looking away because he knew he would get too emotional. Why did she always have to choose the wrong moment? It’s as if she enjoyed purposefully twisting the knife in the wound, craving the attention because he knew that secretly, she relished something so dramatic happening to her.
“Don’t do that. Stop trying to make yourself look better.” She jerked away her hand.
It annoyed her that he considered giving up an act of heroism – the whole ‘if you love someone, then let them go’. She couldn’t live with herself knowing that they didn’t exhaust all of the options, knowing that there could have been something more. He preferred to end on a high note.
“You don’t love me. You always just loved the idea of me.”
“That is probably the most insulting thing you have ever said to me.” She was the one trying to salvage their marriage while he gave up weeks ago. She wouldn’t be surprised if he had fallen in love with someone else. He stopped kissing her or hugging her, he even stopped wanting her. Her birthday was a complete failure and she ended up crying all evening and going to the cinema alone. He did take her out to a fancy dinner but he forgot the most important part. He didn’t enjoy it or want to make her happy, but just tick the box and get back to work as soon as possible, which he did, in the evening.
“If you did, then you wouldn’t try to keep changing me. I am incapable of being the man that you need at this moment. Maybe, somewhere, we stay together forever and I’m sorry that we can’t be like them.”
“You keep taking these stupid executive decisions all alone without every talking to me and then it just eats you from the inside until you end up leaving me, just like the first time.”
“You’re the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. You gave me purpose. But I can’t keep seeing you cry so often because of me. I have to protect you from me.”
“Is this your stupid hero’s complex coming out again?!”
“You’re going to scare away all the game. This isn’t the right moment, let’s talk about it at home.” He sighed.
Tears rolled down her face. He brought his hand up to brush them away, but she turned her head. They became cold with the temperature drop.
“You are beautiful and deserving of love.” He whispered, lowering his dark eyes to the ground. She remained silent, staring ahead and hurting everywhere.
Suddenly, they noticed a roe deer creeping tentatively out from the trees. Of course, his instincts being better, he saw it a few minutes before she did. To him, it was miniscule, its legs frail and shaking as it stepped out, frightened of the world. Its hooves were covered in muck and foliage, and its ears perked up knowing there was an intruder, and then it went back to eating the grass, eyes glancing from side to side to check for danger. It was slightly stupid and looked pathetic.
She found the roe deer exhilaratingly beautiful, despite the fragility. It had glossy brown fur and elegant legs that stretched out smoothly as it attacked the tuft of grass with its lips. Her heart began to beat faster, as she kept her gaze locked on the poor creature, praying he wouldn’t shoot it, wouldn’t end its life, yet fully aware of the fact that there was no going back.
He took one look through the scope and without hesitation, pulled the cool trigger. The bullet pierced the air and the roe fell on the ground, barely making a noise, eyes wide open. She was so transfixed by the doe that she forgot to cover her head before the gunshot, leaving her with a ringing in her ears. It was over, extinguished so easily. It was so fragile, so gentle, so easy to stifle. They sat there for as long as they could, hand in hand, the cool air falling over then like a heavy blanket. The great absence they felt was incomparable to the presence of life and death around them. They were now two familiar strangers bathed in the cool darkness that kept their secrets, watching life flow out in a crimson colour. Maybe, things weren’t so beautiful after all.

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Blushing Unseen

She ushered Bríd and her mother Margaret into the ward's family room that had been repurposed as a staff lunchroom since the beginning of the pandemic.
“‘Tis very hard on all a’yee, very hard. ‘Tis a big shock, a’course, a’course. Y’see, the thing is, he doesn’t have anything left in reserve to fight it off a’tall a’tall. The antibiotics wouldn’t do him any good at this stage, the poor aul’ créatúr. Ohh sure, we’re so so sorry...”
“Can he be moved to the palliative care ward?”, Bríd proposed while nodding patiently during the doctor’s fatal message.
“Ohh sure lookit, we would absolutely do that but there’s no free beds. Nothing! I can’t

see any beds freeing up now in the next few days. The moving itself wouldn’t be the best for Dan, so the thing now is to keep him comfortable. What we’ll do now is, we’ll go out now, and we’ll talk to the nurses. See if we can get some arrangements so you can stay wit’ him, even wit’ the restrictions.”
“And could one ask, how long do you think he has left?”, Margaret managed to express, clinging to her handbag and scarves. Margaret was no stranger to hospital waiting rooms the past few years. In fact, she felt quite entitled navigating from one ward to another, knowing almost the blueprint of the hospital, especially the chapel and canteen.
“Ohh it’s very hard to say...maybe two or three days.”

“And would you be able to put his false teeth in when he does, you know, pass on? I heard that you only have a small amount of time after a person goes to put their teeth back in, or else the jaw might stiffen and it becomes very hard to get them in then.”

Bewildered, the nurse affirmed they would remember that.

Bríd concentrated all her attention on the periodic rise and fall of his chest. It seemed to be the only useful function she could serve now. It was also the only real indicator left to observe, as he entered a deep sleep. Every now and then he would open his eyes and search the room. Bríd assumed that he was straining to find Margaret, which he always did. During these brief moments of alertness, Bríd wondered if he knew where he was, what was going on, that his departure was close. She liked to comfort herself by thinking that he had no fear and he was calm. But in her heart, she believed that he would be scared, if the past few months were anything to go by.

On the first night, Bríd assured her mother to get some rest and that she would dutifully stay awake and watch over her father. Margaret successfully drifted off a few times during the night as much as an erect hardback leather chair would allow. If alone or with her partner, Bríd would have permitted herself to let all the emotions swallow her up. But it was different when she was with them. She didn’t want to see her mother in any more pain, and she somehow thought that her father, beyond all the
morphine-induced sleep, would sense her anguish, too.

Prayers and rosary beads inserted themselves into the nighttime routine. Whispers every now and then to her father when he sounded like he might have been in distress.

By the time morning arrived, Bríd had messaged her older sister Julianne to swap places with her for a few hours during the day so she could go home and rest.

Julianne gently entered the room armed with a bag full of water bottles, grapes, sandwiches, biscuits - all the things necessary to make it through the worst days of their lives. She was quite caricature-like in her features. Ultra-slim, plum hair, pale complexion and eyes bursting with resilience and practicality. She had had her own battles in the last ten years with her health - autoimmune diseases, fibromyalgia,
post-natal depression. Her and Tom were tireless advocates and naturally adept parents to their two children with autism. Julianne tore down walls everywhere - social, educational, emotional - to get her kids into the right doctor’s, physiotherapist’s, teacher’s and speech therapist’s offices. She made it her mission. It was unclear where she sourced so much energy but then again, Bríd didn’t know what it felt like to love a child. Julianne completed two years of college at the local Institute of Technology before taking a full-time sales job in a mobile phone shop. She was a surprisingly prolific saleswoman; she soaked up the mobile phone specifications without trouble and eagerly recited them to unsuspecting prospects. Independence suited her; she loved the busyness that a salaried life offered with all its nuisances of paying rent, buying gifts for loved ones, designing her own life. Tom and Julianne had been together for two years or so when Annie came along. They accepted all the turbulence along with the gift of their new family associate. Annie had not been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum until years later, after lengthy waits for five-minute hospital consultations. As an absentee aunty, Bríd was not privy to all the daily obstacles that needed surmounting in their household. She just knew it must have felt unending and thankless. Bríd had fled home at eighteen, headed for university life in a different part of the country. She travelled, deliberated about different career paths, invested her time in expensive hobbies and rarely gave much thought to the daily hardship that her sibling faced. Only

possibly one time did she dwell on the idea that her older sister might be struggling, when Julianne broke down in tears on a Skype call while Bríd and her boyfriend were teaching English in Cambodia. After finding out about her auto-immune disease condition, Julianne wept on the video call and said that “she just didn’t know anymore”. The punches just kept coming and for once, she leaned into hopelessness. Bríd remembered that moment, but at the time, only lingered on the sadness probably for the night as she had many selfish pre-occupations in her life, like whether her boyfriend still fancied her or what she would do after travelling around South East Asia.
Together in the hospital room now, Julianne had redoubled her efforts at composure and crafting an impenetrable shield of strength. She was firmly in control, her emotions in check, and her protective-mode dialled to eleven.

On the second night, Bríd settled into her duties as a daughter once more. Tiredness did not present itself as she had expected it would. When there were so many memories to think back on, and when living so much in the present by watching a person’s breathing, time reliably tiptoed forward.
The next day’s promised reward of sleep was unsatisfactory. When in the daytime hours, news headlines crept in and Bríd had the opportunity to inspect herself and ruminate. She determined that her breathing was heavier, her temperature higher and her energy depleted. Although her diet was obviously disastrous during the last few days
- trying to find vegan produce during the night while not being able to leave the hospital floor - she attributed her growing sense of foreboding to the incubation of the virus inside her.

On the last night, she met Julianne at the hospital floor’s elevators. She presented the evidence: tiredness, chestiness, headache. What if she was harbouring the illness? After all, she had spent the majority of the past 48 hours mostly in a holiday resort for the virus. What if by staying by her father’s bedside, she developed worse and worse symptoms? She just didn’t know what to do; she didn’t want to fall sick herself. The moment she spoke the words, she instantly felt the cowardice infiltrate her body. She felt so weak, so pathetic. Even in his last few moments, she continued to prioritise herself ahead of the pack.
Julianne did not give any hint of disappointment or outrage. It was as though she had actually embodied the level-headedness and inner peace that all her adversity had gifted her. No signs of judgment. Instead, she offered:
“It’s okay, Bríd. Don’t worry. I can stay tonight, too. I’ll text Tom and let him know. If you don’t feel well, you don’t feel well. If I get COVID, I’ll deal with it. Don’t worry about me.”
Something tripped in Bríd. Perhaps Bríd was not used to getting this type of reaction. It dawned on her - she hadn’t won an argument or a pitch; she hadn’t won anything.
Almost instantaneously, the realisation hit her. She had been incredibly selfish and

self-absorbed, showing so little empathy for her dying father and her overburdened sister. She was astonished and stood speechless for a few moments.
“No, Julianne. Forget what I said, I can’t do that to you. I’ll be grand.”

“Are you sure? I can get some food and wait in the car for awhile and you can let me know how you are feeling?”
“No, no, honestly. I’m just being overly-anxious. Honestly, you must be wrecked. Go home and get some sleep and I’ll text you in the morning. Thanks, Julianne.”

Bríd couldn’t seem to escape the loop that she had been trapped in for most of her home life of not being able to tell her close family how she really felt. Even when it was positive, she couldn’t alter the pattern. All she wanted to do was tell Julianne how much she loved her, how proud and stupefied she was of her determination and strength, how sorry she was for always taking her big sister for granted and for thinking she was somehow of lesser calibre for not having an over-inflated job title or living in a big house and being cosmopolitan. She was so sorry.
Bríd was too impoverished, spiritually and emotionally, to know how much of a lie she had been living. Caught up in the reckless ambition and pleasure-seeking of her life, she had adjudicated on the most important elements of her life - family, caring for her parents and being friends with her siblings - so badly.
Dan passed away the following morning, ten minutes before Julianne arrived back in for the morning rotation. Bríd felt a deep well of loss open up, but also a relief that her father had safely transitioned. Julianne arrived into the room that morning with her bags of supplies. She said her goodbye to their father.
Bríd looked on. She had lost so much. Yet, she felt comforted by Julianne’s presence. Something was transformed.
She decided that her father’s generosity and servitude had completed its transmission to the best of them. It was not just that morning it had begun transmitting; it was downloading their whole lives. Julianne had unwittingly become the heir of his rich kingdom.
“Bríd, I brought you a VitHit and falafel. It’s vegan.”

***

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Flat White

Door chimes jingle as I open the door into the café. Condensation sets on my glasses as the shop’s warmth washes over me. I join the end of the queue. The café is always busy at this time of day.
Throngs of college students and modern yuppies hover around art deco tables, sipping plant milk lattes from reusable cups before mid-morning classes and office meetings. Stay-at-home mums rock heavy prams and gossip idly as their children gawk at each other through wide eyes. The line moves forward quickly and I find myself face to face with the barista, a young woman with an immaculate bob of brunette hair framing a rosy, round face.
“Hello! What can I get you?” she asks, through a well-practised Duchenne smile.

“Hi, uh, can I get a medium flat white for here please?” I reply, for some reason with another question.
“Sure, that’s three sixty-five.”

I pay with some lose change and move to the side of the counter while the barista makes my drink. I watch her weave from the espresso machine to the milk foamer, gliding around behind the counter like a trained dancer. She places the mug down in front of me, steam rising gently from the foamy beverage, before whisking off to take another order. Taking my drink with me, I find an empty table by the window. The first sip of coffee hits me hard, and I feel the rich aroma and warmth travelling through my body.

People continue to come and go through the little shop. The myriad characters passing through the café create a kaleidoscope of human activity. I’ve always found it fascinating to watch the different people in the shop, and imagine what their lives must be like. A young woman in a pink beanie hat passes by my table grasping a reusable coffee cup. She looks like a Saoirse, I think. I can imagine her as a final year Trinity student, grabbing a strongly needed caffeine boost before attending lectures on Descartes and Voltaire. The Hodges Figgis tote bag drooping from her shoulder is desperately trying to contain the mix of Moleskin diaries, college textbooks and cigarette packs as

she walks out into the street. She’s probably heading into the college campus to meet up with her classmates before a tutorial, or to lounge outside the Arts Block, cigarette and coffee in hand. As she leaves a harried looking man enters the café, cloaked in a debonair grey overcoat. His hair falls loosely about his face, on which rests round horn-rimmed glasses. He strides quickly into the queue, furtively glancing at his watch as he does so.

He looks more interesting than a Seán or a Jack, I muse. Perhaps a Matthias? He takes his coffee, a solitary espresso shot, and seats himself a couple of tables away from me. He pulls a pocket book from his breast pocket and begins taking copious notes. I imagine he’s a writer, gathering observations for his next piece. He could be noting down fashion trends for his next contemporary novel, or perhaps remarking on the wonderful proliferation of independent coffee shops for a local newspaper. He glances up occasionally, before turning studiously back to his notes. I wonder if he’s working to a strict deadline. His hand is gliding expertly across the page, leaving looping traces of black ink that cover nearly every inch of paper. He downs his espresso shot in one neat gulp, barely pausing to appreciate its complex flavours. This is a man for whom coffee is the means, not the end, I think. He pulls the attention of a passing waitress, and gesticulates with his espresso mug. Minutes later the waitress places another shot on his table. He eagerly drinks this down too, only momentarily pausing his ceaseless writing.

My attention is suddenly drawn to one of the mothers I had noticed earlier, rocking a pram back and forth as she attempts to sip from a comically large coffee mug. The loud colours of the pram, the brash blues and grotesque greens, stand in contrast to the grey yoga pants and black gilet sported by its handler. The woman coos into the pram, eliciting garbled laughter from its occupant, whose face is hidden from me by a large sun canopy. Her brunette hair is tied back tightly in a ponytail, held in place by a bold crimson scrunchie. As she lifts the mug back to her lips, I notice that her rose nail polish is chipped and cracked, like broken tiles. She seems like a Samantha? No, a Shannon, I

decide. I contemplate her life as an overstressed stay-at-home mum, juggling raising a baby with raising perhaps a teenager or two. She appears the sort to while away her days in Pilates sessions and cooking classes in between collecting her kids from school and Parents’ Association meetings. Her decadent sipping of her latte suggests this is one of her few peaceful moments, a chance to simply relax and enjoy the intense sensuality of arabica coffee, before soft moans from her baby call her back to real life. Meanwhile the bustle of the café continues, and I swallow the last dregs of my coffee, vacating my seat for its next occupant.

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iGrl

Keith struggled through the door of his tiny flat, panting after the exertion of the two flights of stairs. He was in a sweaty mess, having misjudged the weather when he went out that morning (if midday still counts as morning; it did to Keith). He always now wore a woolly hat outside to hide his premature balding, which had the rest of his stringy hair running with perspiration.

As he wrestled the faulty latch, the soft clack of high heels were coming around the flat’s single corner. They had been set in motion by the Bluetooth sensor on Keith’s phone. Riding the footsteps easily was a stunningly beautiful woman of about twenty-one. Her hair was straight and raven, if a little mussed, and she wore a figure-hugging red cocktail dress to match her shoes, like the girls on the ads for cheap online outfits. Her sallow skin did not fit the local climate, nor did her inky doe eyes. Her body undulated as she approached, eyes fixed with longing and a hint of relief on Keith.

‘’Reset’’, said Keith aloud, without looking at the girl.

Without a word she swivelled 180 degrees, with just a hint of relaxation in her face, and went back the way she had come, heels scratching the dusty linoleum floor. Keith was focused on removing his tattered boots and filthy socks, as well as emptying his pockets of keys, wallet and chocolate bar wrappers onto the already-cluttered table. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a torn and stained armchair, salvaged from a nearby skip. It bore Keith’s imprint like trauma.

Freed from the paraphernalia of leaving the flat, Keith belched, snaffled his last mini-Milkyway and followed the girl into the flat’s only other room, his bedroom. He studied his phone as he went, checking apps for updates now that he had WiFi again.

Keith’s room was a tip, strewn with dirty laundry and fermenting takeaway containers. If Keith’s nose were not long-desensitised to it he would have been struck with a rank, stuffy smell; but the room had no window to air it out even had he thought to. He absentmindedly pushed the door out behind him as he sat heavily on the edge of his creaking bed, the only uncovered spot. As he did so he revealed the girl, standing motionless in the corner of the room, still dressed to the nines. The room only had one outlet for induction charging and it was there.

Keith continued flicking through social media apps but he had no messages, only newsfeed updates and a few irrelevant conversations in his group chats. Still eyeing the phone, he said clearly ‘’Natasha’’.

The girl swayed over to Keith and perched lightly on the bed beside him. With a loving smile and an exhalation she oozed into him, and began kissing his neck softly, her supple torso reaching to meet his pear-shaped one. Her manicured fingers stroked his greasy locks, and she said under her breath ‘’Keith baby … oh Keith …’’ in an Eastern European accent and in dulcet tones.

Keith continued flicking through his phone, but after a few minutes found himself checking apps he had already browsed; it had been a taxing morning and his brain was frazzled. Tossing the phone aside he leaned back, his hands finding an empty energy drink can and a soiled hoody. Natasha read the movement and lowered her head to Keith’s crotch, deftly pulling back the elasticated waists of Keith’s tracksuit bottoms and boxers in one movement to access his cock. Keith was supposed to score Natasha on the AppGeek app for her dexterity whenever she did this to help improve the algorithms, but he was not a conscientious user.

It took Natasha a few moments of expert sucking to get Keith to stiffen. But as he had been away from her for several hours he was quite horny, and soon got fully hard. Natasha responded with a pleased murmur and upped the pace. Her left hand reached beneath Keith’s T-shirt to rub the fat rolls, while the right, where Keith had snapped off her fingernails for added softness, teased underneath his ballsack. Keith looked up at the familiar, mould-damaged ceiling and began to relax.

Just then his phone began to buzz and jingle—it startled him at first as he was called so rarely and set no alarms. Picking it up he didn’t recognise the number.

‘’Pause’’ he said aloud, touching the green phone icon to answer. Natasha sat up with a dreamy look in her eyes, watching Keith with her legs curled up beneath her.

‘’Hullo?’’ Keith said into the phone, regarding his softening cock. He listened for a while, face slowly draining of colour as the other speaker faintly burbled. Once he tried to ask a question, but the conversation remained one-way until its conclusion. When the line went dead Keith stared at the phone with his mouth hanging open, and Googled a few words he hadn’t understood. The call had confused him no end, but he knew that it was bad news.

Natasha hadn’t moved or spoken but to try to comfort Keith by stroking his leg and looking sympathetic, pouting her engorged lips. After a few minutes, Keith remembered to say ‘’Unpause’’ and Natasha with a delighted squeal resumed fellatio. As Keith began to get more stressed about the implications of the phone call, her moans and grunts rose in volume.

‘’Mute!’’ Keith snapped, and Natasha quietened mid-moan. The only sound now was of her mouth smacking around Keith’s hard-again cock, but she had been out of imitation saliva for weeks and the blowjob suffered as such. Keith stressed further as he realised he would have to take her for a full service tomorrow, which would be expensive and require leaving the flat again. ‘’Fuck’s sake …’’ he muttered to himself, reddening, but Natasha brought him back into the moment with some eye contact and a few tosses of her shiny hair.

The service was way overdue, and he would have to lay out 50 quid for the works. Natasha would be cracked open along her invisible seams and receive a thorough clean and electrical check. The waste receptacle in her thorax would be replaced, and she would get refills of mock saliva, vaginal lubricant, tears, sweat, and even blood (although Keith rarely played rough enough to use much of that up). Of course, she would have a full hair and makeup treatment. Keith would choose a different look this time, perhaps a bottle blonde with bubblegum pink lips and nipples. Natasha’s classic au natural skin was boring him. A skimpier outfit this time too, better to show off her tits and ass, as well as for easier removal and redressing. What had he been thinking with this welded-on cocktail dress? It was so awkward to put on Natasha that he had taken to leaving it on her just to save himself the effort. But that was hardly getting his money’s worth.

He could get the service done cheaper by the Pakistanis down the high street, but he was locked into one of those expensive contracts with AppGeek that takes the money straight out of your universal credit before you get it. Dearer, but what the hell else did he need the money for? And it meant he would qualify for an updated model in six more months.

That brought Keith’s mind back to the phone call, and whether he would even be around in six months. With a sigh, he finished in Natasha’s mouth and reached out to stroke her flushed cheek. He realised that he should get as much use as possible out of Natasha after this service, while he still could. ‘’Just you and me baby’’ he cooed to her sarcastically, and she smiled sweetly and told him she loved him.

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Lewis

“I know how this looks, but I don’t do drugs. I’ve never done drugs. I’ve never hurt anyone. I don’t know why I did what I said I did, and I don’t know if I did what you say I did.”

My voice tremors like my breath and the rest of my body. My chest burns, collapsing on my thudding heart. I cannot look them in the eyes – even if I could, my vision is disfigured with tears encapsulated in blackness.

I had been living with Lewis for two weeks. The apartment was sumptuous, bordering on ostentatious compared with the other dingy outfits I had viewed in Dublin 1. It was owned by Lewis’s parents. When I first visited, the week prior to my move, I was overwhelmed with a sense of consternation – “How much did you say the rent was?” The pair chuckled and quoted the same price as before – well within my budget. Well within anyone’s budget. Their smiles were warm and amiable, but their eyes betrayed a sense of fatigue, of desperation. Lewis was out of town, they told me.

I did not meet Lewis the day I moved in. Or the day after. In fact, I did not meet Lewis until nine days after I had moved in. When Lewis’s parents came to welcome me, they seemed upset to find me sitting on my duffle bag slumped against the front door. They swept the apartment and left in a hurry – on this occasion their eyes overpowered their weak smiles. They returned morning and night for the next two days.

One Tuesday evening, while watching a documentary in the open-plan living space, the sound of a key, first tapping against the door then twisting in the lock, catches me unsuspecting – Lewis’s parents have not been around for almost a week now. The resulting jolt triggers a frenzied explosion of popcorn onto the plush leather couch, the marble tile floor, the crystal glass coffee table. A tall, scrawny, stubbled man of my age stumbles through the door. He slams it shut behind him and staggers towards Lewis’s room.

“Hey! You must be Lewis.”

As he turns, I am struck with a putrid smell, then with two surprisingly strong hands to my chest I am catapulted backwards and through the coffee table. When I regain consciousness the back of my head is sticky, and the credits roll on my documentary. Internally my back aches. Externally it stings. The apartment is dark and quiet. I make it to my bed before passing out again.

When I awake it is bright out. My head is throbbing. I drag my legs over the side of the bed, planting my feet firmly on the ground. When I rise, my vision abruptly fades to black and I once again descend, ungraciously, to the floor. I pause until my eyes permit my brain to decipher shapes. I crawl through the door and back into the living space. My phone, in better shape than I, rests in a blanket of shattered glass and blood-soaked popcorn. I unlock it, through the shallow web now permanently tattooed on its display, and dial Lewis’s mother. I spend three nights in hospital.

Upon my return, the apartment is immaculate once more, minus the coffee table. It does not matter - I scurry to my bed, where I sleep until the bright sun has been replaced by a crescent moon. A crack of artificial, yellow light interrupts its gentle white glow. When I enter the living space, I flinch at the sight of Lewis. It does not go unnoticed.

“I was high, before you say anything. Honestly, I don’t even remember. I’m Lewis, by the way.”

“I didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Let me make it up to you.”

He hands me a small pill. I eye him suspiciously. He intervenes before I can reject his kind offer.

“It’s nothing serious. It’ll help with the pain. Look, I’m not even drinking. It’s just water!”

Dejected, I place the pill on my tongue and take the glass from him. I swallow. I feel nothing. Not nothing – I feel the same as I did before.

I do not remember going to bed. I will never forget waking up. The horrified scream. My heart pounds as I scramble from my bed and from my room. The scene is not dissimilar to the morning after my first encounter with Lewis – blood on the floor once again. But where my phone rested in a blanket of shattered glass and popcorn before, now rests Lewis. He is not breathing. In his right hand, a pistol. In the open doorway, his mother.

Lewis had been there for 57 hours.

He was left-handed.

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On Procrastination

I suppose I ought to start with my credentials: I have been avoiding doing things since my life contained anything I could avoid doing. This very essay is, in a sense, a way of avoiding doing two other essays that would actually constitute a part of my degree program – and, perhaps even more aptly, I’m writing this essay on the 28th of November, two days before its deadline. Other things I’ve skilfully dodged include (though are not limited to): therapy appointments, making dinner, showering (I’m not proud of that one), doing homework, doing housework, reading one of the plethora of books that I continue buying (despite already having too many) – I’ve now even given up on making this a comprehensive list. So why? Why do I bother to not bother? What do I gain, or more likely lose, by putting things off until the last moment? I suppose I’ll find out as I write this – and I’ll offer a pre-emptive apology if the answer is depressing.

I’ll begin by describing the two aforementioned subjects of procrastination; two essays in the field of international relations that are due in 4 and 8 days respectively. The first is a collaborative effort towards a literature review regarding climate refugees (1,600 words), the second a historical investigation into Cold War intervention in Latin America and the Middle East (1,300 words). Both are of major interest to me, both make up part of a bachelor’s degree that I chose, and both are essay topics that I selected myself. Surely, of all things, these should motivate me to work. However, what needs to be acknowledged is the presence of much more interesting things to be doing.

Did you know they sell marijuana in the Netherlands? I do. Did you know that the average college dorm contains more homosexuals than makes broad statistical sense? I was quite satisfied with the answer to that one. Did you know that there exists a constant flow of people uploading a variety of jokes, animal pictures, and strange observations (alternatively called: “bad takes”) to reddit.com? Lockdown made me extremely aware of that. The point that I’m dragging out is that, oftentimes, my mind is less likely to observe the long-term satisfaction of career, or academic, success, being more likely to seek the short

-term satisfaction of my immediate surroundings.

Having said that, I still value academic success to a point that has been described

by myriad psychologists as ‘troubling,’ ‘signalling desire for external sources of self-worth,’ by a particularly astute, insightful, and inebriated friend of mine as ‘fucking intense.’ I’ve always attached much of my self-worth to my school results; which is likely, itself, a result of being a quiet child who never engaged with anything other than the studious aspects of education. Though, in my teenage years, I rejected all of that in favour of the Dionysian. A punk rock aesthetic seemed preferable to the intelligentsia that I had previously aspired to join. So, during that time period I held almost everything in negative value – until the sudden realisation that my education would have an impact on my life (as well as a desire to differ myself from my non-formally-educated and abusive father) drove me to actually work. Though, in truth, such an epiphany was exclusively facilitated by a bout of illness leaving me bed-, then home-, then wheelchair-ridden for several months. In that time, I tired of the typical videogames, memes, and masturbation that had characterised my previous sick days; so I decided to study calculus (go figure). I never lost my taste for punk debauchery though, so the conflict between a desire for education and a desire for hooliganism became the defining conflict of my life.

This is definitely a major source of my procrastination. The two spheres of my life – being there, and being square – are not easy to combine. It’s hard to study while listening to pseudo-political guitar riffs and it’s hard to wax poetic in a crowded nightclub (it’s been harder to do both since the beginning of this year, but my point stands). So I end up with days that favour one, and some that favour the other. However, recently the depravity has taken hold of most of my time. The issue is that, while initially the depravity was expressed through drinking with my housemates (as lockdown prohibits true excursions), since they have begun to take their academic careers seriously (as they should), I mostly end up sleeping in, playing on my phone, and failing to read anything. I know I have things to do, but I can rarely find the motivation to do them.

As a result, I have decided to start attending therapy. As of writing this, I’ve attended one session where I had to describe all of the negative, and psychologically unhealthy, aspects of my life thus far. This was, naturally, extremely draining; and thus led to me being unable to work for the remainder of that day, and much of the next (this was the period of time in which I was supposed to begin the Cold-War essay). The routine of ‘severe negative emotion’ followed by ‘severe lack of output’ has become ubiquitous in my life. Insomnia, nightmares, and anxiety cause me to feel terrible, feeling terrible prompts me to play hard instead of working hard, and that results in a lack of healthy sleep. I’ve assembled for myself a cycle of inactivity that always culminates in a frantic rush to accomplish everything in the eleventh hour – like this essay.

These harmful emotions that keep stalling my productivity originate from a similar place as my rebellious thrill-seeking – that is, a less than stellar state of mind; resulting from a less than stellar state of life. When I try to sleep, I remember the worst of the worst from life thus far. When I try to work, I hold onto those same worse than worse things as signs of my inability to succeed. Much of my time as a young person was spent worrying about my family: a father who would disappear, a sister who was extremely unpredictable, and a mother who was trying to hold it all together (a task she took to heart when it got difficult). As well as that, my aforementioned homosexuality was not extremely conducive to an easy time among my peers. I have a lot of memories that I would rather forget, and a lot of forgotten memories that rush back to me late at night.

Even now, having left home for another country, I feel as though I’ve brought these issues with me. While this makes sense given the short time frame (as of writing this I moved out roughly four months ago), it still feels like whiplash. As a coping mechanism, I had always told myself everything would change when I left home. I’ve left home, but I’ve not changed – and that fact makes me feel like nothing will ever change. I get the sense that I will remain in this cycle of effort-lacking, ever-slacking, self-attacking, habitual stasis. It simultaneously feels like this is something I’m doing to myself, while also seeming like some horrific external force acting upon me.

So I do nothing, because to resist the cycle is to resist my nature. I sought education as a way to be different from my father – yet I’ve ended up all too similar to him. After losing his job to the financial crisis of 2007/8, my father entered a severe depression that only accentuated his already present bipolar disorder. I look at myself now and I see that same man who would fail to provide the most basic of things to his family. I am failing to feed myself, the same as he failed to feed me. I am failing to clean my surroundings, the same way he failed to clean his. I am failing to love, or even like myself, as he failed to do to me (and himself too, most likely).

Why would I create when I am incapable of creating anything valuable? At least, that is what I tell myself. However, the logical (or ‘square’) part of my brain knows this question to be built on a poor foundation. A year or two ago, I began writing poetry. I enjoy the process of writing it, and moreover, I know that at least a handful of people have enjoyed the process of reading it (though a few exceptions are sprung to mind by the emotional (or ‘there’) part of my brain). I managed to perform well enough in my exams to get a scholarship, as well as get into a degree program that I love. Perhaps most startlingly, I’m still fucking here, alive and kicking – a fact that myself from anywhere between two and six years ago would’ve found improbable at best. During my spirals into the hatefulness that lives deep inside me, I forget those things. Instead, I reduce myself to the poor little faggot that got beat up in a bathroom, or the person who couldn’t get out of bed for weeks, or the sad sack that would rather air my dirty laundry in the pretentious form of a personal essay than ‘just get on with things,’ as my mother has advised. I say these things not to brag, or seek pity, but to emphasise that I can find infinite justifications for both the notion that I am an able, young man who can overcome anything, and, simultaneously, the notion that I am too far gone to be worth saving.

I procrastinate because I don’t know if I’m able to do anything. I even avoided saying anything in such certain terms up to this point, because I feared I would be unable to do so convincingly. The irrational fear of failure – irrational not due to its impossibility but rather, its inevitability – has paralysed me. What I mean by that is, of course some parts of my life will be difficult, of course some elements of myself will be ugly, and of course I will not always be able to achieve everything – but the fact that I can at all ought to be enough to try.

My life is not who I am, it is simply what I’ve experienced. The only thing I can control is what I do now. So now, I give reason to my future self to stop stopping and to continue continuing: you may feel like you can accomplish nothing, and you may find evidence for that idea, but inaction due to a fear of failure is far worse than the actual failure avoided. It is better for you to do something, and be unable to do it, than to do nothing and waste away. I hope that the memories of your days spent idle, and the pain that brought you to write this at all, can serve as proof enough for that.

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Silent Disco

It all starts when you turn eighteen. Your passport (or any other form of identification) becomes a golden ticket, opening each and every door for you. You feel invincible, and why wouldn’t you? You’re eighteen now, you’re an adult, yet you still lay claim to the pleasures of childhood. Who wouldn’t feel amazing?

I can tell you I did. It was a relief, washing over me like a wave. The looming idea of having to use a fake ID was no longer a lingering thought in the back of my mind.
And now I could enjoy the best thing about being a young person in Galway - attending the silent disco in Roisin Dubh.

Now, I realise you might not know what a silent disco is. So I will elaborate - basically, you get a pair of headphones when you enter, and on the headphones are two buttons used to switch between two channels of music. It’s such a novelty, the first time you get them - pointing up when the best song is on the upper channel, taking them off and seeing the crowd singing and dancing to two different songs.

The summer of 2018 will be one I never forget. I think these are the times people would say I was ‘in my prime’. Yes, the summer was hot, I was young, and every Tuesday there was another silent disco, each one as fun as the last.

The venue itself was a labyrinth - the staircase winds around the three floors, dragging you along as it curves and swerves through the building. There’s posters of old or just forgotten bands lining the walls, there’s the downstairs dance floor with the

photobooth (an endless source of entertainment), the upstairs dance floor, the smoking area (which is a place to chat more than anything), the bathrooms (which again are more of a place to chat), and the ever-present ‘guy-over-forty’. A new one each time, but still the same nonchalant head bop as they listen to the latest hits.

Every Tuesday from the day I turned eighteen until school started again was a routine. Every week, I would get up at six in the morning to work until twelve, come home, change, do my makeup and hair (less is more, silent discos were not about the fashion), take the twenty past five bus into town. There I would meet some of my friends, go for dinner, and we would all head off for the silent disco. Or ‘sisco’, as us kids say. Oh, all the money I would spend! Eating out every week, buying new outfits, paying for the tickets… but such is life! And we all know that another pleasure of youth is the ability to make all your money (and your parent’s money) disappear!
But nonetheless, we went every week without fail.

With nearly every over seventeen year-old in Galway attending these silent discos, every week we met a new person. There was Cliona, a UCD student (we weren’t sure why she was in Galway, to which she responded “But it’s the Roisin Dubh!”), Saoirse, who had found herself a boy from London (plot twist, it didn’t work out), the gals from work (acting not so professionally), the entirety of the Trading Faces Stage School (not quite as dramatic as I hoped), and so on, so forth. It was always an adventure, a night out to beat all other nights out, a story with only highs and not a single low to be found.

It would end around two in the morning, and that’s when the feast began. Pizzas galore! To warm your belly, to be the cherry on top of the sisco sundae. And there may have been the odd muffin with ice cream… but hey! When you’re young you don’t have to count calories, especially when you’ve been dancing all night long.

Galway’s West End became our own little corner of the world. There wasn’t the daunting experience of a nightclub, nor the mess of teenage discos, instead it was the place to be, the Mount Olympus looking over the rest of the world, a haven. It was one of the greatest pleasures of my youth and some of my favourite secondary school memories. I am sure to have a lot of great nights out in my life, but I don’t know if they will have that special something that silent disco had and always delivered.

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Steve

I first saw Steve on October 24th. After my last lecture, I had hurried to Aldi to do my weekly grocery shopping, shoulders hunched against the steadily pouring rain. While mentally checking items from my shopping list, I noticed Steve in the vegetable aisle, near the ‘Quality Extra-Large Halloween Pumpkins’. I felt an attraction spark between us immediately as I involuntarily stared at his flawless skin and breathtaking body. He wouldn’t mind that I was shy and small and awkward; I somehow knew that. He was the one.

After a dreamy, fairytale-worthy introduction, Steve accompanied me to the till, always by my side as I paid absent-mindedly. He willingly came out into the rain and didn’t mind me bringing him home with me. Houses, trees, the canal passed by me in a blurry haze; I was only aware of Steve’s skin touching mine. As we walked across the campus and through town, I could feel people’s stares as they acknowledged my newfound companion. Children pointed; old ladies squinted through their spectacles short-sightedly; teenage boys barely concealed their sniggers.
Let them stare, I thought. I have Steve and that’s all that matters.

I brought Steve into the kitchen of my student house. The timing was impeccable; all of my housemates were out. My heart was beating so hard that I wondered if it could suddenly burst out of my chest and land at my feet. Steve could probably feel my hand sweating, clinging to him desperately.

Steve waited while I went upstairs to get what was necessary for what lay ahead. My fingers trembled as I clumsily fumbled with the keys to my room. I had never done anything like this before. This was my first time; it had to be perfect. I knew that Steve was the one.

Upon my return, Steve allowed me to gather my thoughts. The rain splattered against the window, kamikaze raindrops smashing into tiny droplets against the glass. I caught myself staring at the raindrops slowly crawling down the windowpane, as if in a trance. Time to begin, I thought, and turned to Steve, who was sitting on the table.

I pinned him down to the tabletop so that he was unable to move. I could be unexpectedly strong for my size and stature. I reached into my pocket and brought out the Opinel knife I kept for special occasions, when the ordinary knives in the kitchen were insufficient. My father had given it to me as a gift when I started college. It snapped open with a satisfying click, the spotless blade gleaming under the light.

I began by removing the top of Steve’s head. It was tiresome work; the blade of the knife was small, and my entire weight was needed to help push it through. I carefully placed the cap on a plate beside him; it would be needed again later. My stomach began to churn as I stared into the cavity of his head. Knowing there was no other option, I took a deep breath, rolled up my sleeves, and plunged my hands inside.

I had observed my mother countless times; doing this myself was a completely different experience, exhilarating. I was in power; I had control. A stringy, gooey mess came out as I retracted my hands. I needed somewhere to put it. As I glanced around, my hands dripping, my eyes landed on a packet of freezer bags on the counter. Perfect. I stuffed the contents of Steve’s skull inside, admiring the jelly-like texture and occasional chunks of flesh.

Next, I moved onto his body. This was going to be tough; Steve needed to be adequately hollowed out. After ripping out most of the insides with my hands, I used a sturdy tablespoon to scoop out the remainder. I wondered what my housemates would say if they unexpectedly walked in, seeing me bent over the kitchen table, up to my elbows in Steve’s body. A wry smile crept across my face.

After several minutes of strenuous digging, my arms began to ache. I straightened up, sighing as my back popped deliciously, and examined the fruits of my work. The smell was overwhelming; several plastic bags filled with gooey slime had accumulated beside Steve’s body. I had read about this in advance, but no website or book could describe the stench that filled my nostrils.

Using two critical fingers to test the thickness of his skin, I finally decided he was sufficiently carved out. Not for the first time, the thought crossed my mind that I could have become a surgeon; to my perfectionist’s eyes, my precision was remarkable. Instead, I was an Arts student, the lowest of all life forms, performing amateur experiments in my student house’s kitchen.

The spoon dropped out of my hand and clattered across the tiles, jolting me out of my daydream. Not finished yet. I picked up the knife again, now slippery and smeared with gore, and returned to Steve’s face. Scraping out the eyes proved the most difficult; I could allow myself no slip in concentration. His teeth required similar care. When I was satisfied with the result, I replaced his skull cap in its original position.

By now, the kitchen looked like a slaughterhouse. Now for the fun part. Not. I glanced around and saw a tea towel crumpled up on the counter. As I made to snatch it, my ears pricked up. Voices. A quick, furtive glimpse out the window confirmed that my housemates were returning. I lunged around the table, madly rubbing at the slowly drying carnage which seemed to cover every exposed surface, before hastily cramming the towel into the already bursting washing machine. I could hear the key turning in the outside lock. The front door was pushed open. I propped Steve up in the centre of the table and barely managed to rinse my hands and arms under the tap, when the door opened and my housemates

Spinning around, I observed their expressions, which changed from confusion to amusement.

‘Meet Steve’, I announced, proudly indicating my freshly carved Halloween pumpkin.

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The First Day

The first day was full of excitement.

The cage opened and out he burst, tongue hanging and tail wagging. “Sit still!” they giggled,
patting his side as his attention darted this way and that. But there was no time to waste! Breaking away, yells mingled with the pitter patter of paws on wood as he explored the labyrinth. He turned every corner to find new wonders of red, green and blue. Strong smells over here, silence over there. Wide eyes took in a new home.
They called him back, sit still and smile, his adventures put on hold. An angry silver eye was held before him, the dark pupil causing him to sniff the air, a cautious step… a bright flash! And there he was, on the black block, an imposter with black nose and blue eyes! The envy of friend, family, and neighbour, a “truly precious thing” they declared with lovingly warm smiles.
“Ooo’s” and “Aww’s” filled the air as he made quick work of his first delicious meal. “No’s!” and “He’ll ruin the cushions!” shortly joined the symphony as he leapt onto the couch. They shooed him away, so he lay before them, an obedient gaze settled on his masters on their throne. It didn’t take long before all objections to join them on the couch melted away.
His first night was spent curled up among the cushions before the roaring fire.

The first week was full of uncertainty.
Two days after arriving, a mysterious bed appeared on the floor in the corner. The plush cotton appeared soft and alluring, a comfortable place to lay his head. But the bed was occupied! His ears perked up at the blue monster with an unwavering smile grinning at him from the centre of the bed. Black horns poked from the top of its head, sharp white teeth glistening in the light. The beast eyed him, never blinking.
A light growl and the monster was tossed aside. Curled up on the warm fabric, he remained wary of the monster’s retaliation despite its unfazed smile. Days passed and every evening the monster moved from its spot on the floor to the comfort of the soft bed. And every evening, the monster was tossed out of it with a deft flick.
One morning however, he awoke to the infernal beast lying in bed beside him. He growled low, moving to once again toss the monster aside. But he received no growl in response.
Tilting his head, he sniffed the monster cautiously with a twitching nose. He noticed the grin was not mocking. The eyes were wide with glee, not spite. They stared at one another, a mutual agreement passing between them.
Suddenly, a commotion began that ripped him from his thoughts. All of his owners dashed to and fro, yelling from all around the house. He joined their chorus, his light barking echoing around him. They all met in the largest room, where he greeted them with a wagging tail. Saying “Good boy”, they gently pat his head before breaking away.
His owners left the house that day.

He waited by the door for their return, never calling out. As the light dimmed around him, his wagging tail slowed, his ears began to droop and worry began to set in. They would return soon. They had to. His legs tired so he retreated to his bed, a mild grumble in his belly. The blue monster stared at him, a silent companion in the sullen quiet. He merely continued to stare at the front door.
He let out a little whine as the door burst open hours later, the night-time rushing in alongside his owners. He leapt to his feet, his overwhelming relief and joy launching him into a frenzy. “We missed you, buddy!” mixed with his soft whines.
He slept in bed with the monster that night, grateful for the company.

The first year was full of adventure.
The house began to shrink, making it easier to traverse the maze of rooms he had come to know so well. The walls began to tighten around him, the trees and grass outside the house beckoned to him from his perch atop the couch, a promise of fresh air and freedom. As he lay sprawled on couch or bed, his eyes tracked his owners as they rushed about the house. They rubbed his head as they strolled by. “Good boy” they said with warm smiles before opening that door and leaving for the day. His sadness lingered when they did, the isolation and loneliness subsided by his blue friend gripped tightly in his mouth.
They always returned. He just had to wait. And when they did, he would bound down the hall and greet them with licks and whines, the same relief washing through him as it had that first night.
One month after arriving, he joined them in the world beyond the house.
The door was left open, hollering from beyond inviting him to cross the threshold. A tentative step, and then another. The sunlight hit his fur as he set his paw on the grass for the first time. It was so soft! Soon he was running, rolling, dodging and diving around the garden to the laughter and glee of his owners. A ball was found, tossed around, sometimes so fast it was lost to the wind. He played for hours, yapping until orange light began to mark the sky and he was called back in, his laboured pants only ceasing while he devoured his dinner.
He went outside every day for the next nine years.
Now his tired body lay sprawled in his bed, his eyes still tracking his owners, still full of energy and vigour. The monster lay close beside him, an eye missing and his skin now grey with age, worn from years of play. They rubbed his head as they strolled by. “Good boy” they said with a warm smile. He closed his eyes as they left for the day.

The last day was full of happiness.

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The Last Roman

Today marks my last attempt to rescue Aodhán.

The sound of the November sea is one never-ending explosion. Our boat lurches to the left, then the Atlantic makes a fist and punched us upward. My stomach reaches my shoes on the way down.

Another wave surges over the side. Bright fingers of water slither across the deck, like the hungry arms of a squid. I grip the nearest handrail, and my knuckles turn fish-belly white. In any language but the sea, that would signal surrender.

Derek calls out from the helm. ‘Straight ahead, Adam.’

I slip wet hair out of my eyes. The storm, drunk with wind, acts sober for a second. The mist in front of us thins. The lighthouse appears.

Carrickderry Lighthouse towers like a stick of pearl above the waves. Located ten miles off the Cork coast, it earned a name as the last rock—a speck of Ireland so mad the rest of the country hurled it into the sea in some naïve attempt to tame it. Of course, when the sons of the famine built the lighthouse a century ago, none guessed it would take the title of the last rock literally until the end.

The other lighthouses modernised decades ago. Most were younger structures, and like youthful prize fighters, took to the lights and the cameras with all the usual fanfare. Carrickderry is more of a journeyman. The sea has knocked her down a dozen times, but she keeps getting back up again. Because she knows no other way. Carrickderry simply refuses to go.

‘Easy does it,’ I say, as we near the lukewarm safety of Carrickderry Cove.

Derek kills the engine. The boat gives a death bed shudder, thudding to a stop in the sand.

I secure the bow to the rock. Over the course of twenty years, the act has become sacred. But as with all religions, rituals at Carrickderry are conducted primarily out of fear.

Derek foists the supplies onto the shore. Food, clothes, and fresh water. If either of us had a rifle, Aodhán would accuse us of invasion.

‘Do you want me to come up?’ Derek asks.

A genuine offer, but I wave it away. Derek is skittish on a good day, flapping around his cabin like it’s a cage. A meeting with Aodhán requires a level head. Given the keeper has spent most of his life alone, a familiar face helps too.

‘Stay here. I won’t be long.’

Derek breathes a sigh of relief. Decades working as a fisherman mean the sea fits him like well-worn gloves. It’s the land he mistrusts. Land makes men promises—doom disguised as deliverance. And no land has doomed as many men as Carrickderry.

I reach the top of the cliffs in a huff. A nameless trail leads to the lighthouse. Low walls either side keep the frustrated wind at bay.

I pick my way along the path. Soon, I’ve shaken off the shock of the sea. Unlike Derek, the water strips my nerves, like copper wire pulled from the walls of an old house. By comparison, Carrickderry is a refuge.

In the summer, the rock becomes a haven for real. Up here, beneath the naked Irish sun, a man forgets the invisible enemy below. But the sea has immortal patience, and summer never lasts. At Carrickderry, winter comes for every man in time.

I’ve been trying to reach Aodhán for a month. Twice last week the weather turned us back. It would have again this morning were this just another routine supply run. But this time I bring news. A great storm is forecast, meaning Aodhán is no longer safe at Carrickderry. I must convince him to come home.

My bargaining chip is my spare room. Niamh or Sam won’t mind. Niamh left six months ago, and Sam is off studying history at Trinity. At times, I wonder whether I’m lonelier than Aodhán. At least his isolation was a choice.

The door to the lighthouse stands ajar. Like a hermit returning to the monastery, I lower my hood and enter. At the kitchen table, Aodhán doesn’t so much as start.

‘You’ve gotten fat,’ he says.

I hug my stomach. ‘I took up running lately.’

Aodhán keeps his focus on his lunch. He grips his knife like a Neolithic hunter but wields it like a surgeon. The sandwich doesn’t stand a chance. ‘Run faster.’

I set down the supplies. I make a show of each item, like Aodhán is a druid, and the supplies a sacrifice. His eyes land on a small shopping bag.

‘Digestives weren’t on the list.’

I place the biscuits on the table and nudge them forward. There are no olive trees in Ireland, and so no branches. This is as close to a peace gesture as we get.

‘I won’t tell if you don’t.’

Aodhán’s frown deepens. He’s bald as topsoil and his leathery skin is tanned terracotta from the sun. The wrinkles of his face read like ogham script. But as he takes the biscuits, he betrays a rare smile.

‘I suppose you’ll stay for tea?’

I stare at the pot in the sink. There is no electric kettle on Carrickderry. Time isn’t as valuable here. At sea though, time is the most precious currency of all. I’d be a fool to delay.

‘No thanks.’ A practiced breath. ‘I must hurry back.’

I feel a twinge in my side. Guilt shouldn’t follow honesty, but with Aodhán it does. I search the room for something to say. My eyes find a map of Ireland on the wall. Aodhán has stuck every lighthouse with a pin. A red dot marks his spot on the frontier.

‘How’s work?’

Aodhán glances at the chart. He studies it like a seasoned commander, confident of where the next attack will land. Little does he know his sector is about to be overrun.

‘Hundred and forty ships last month.’

I can’t bring myself to call out the lie. Most of the shipping lanes changed a decade ago. In a graveyard of trade, Carrickderry is just another skeleton. A glorified retirement home. A candle holding vigil over nothing.

My gaze finds the blank space on the wall. I swallow.

‘You took down the photos?’

Aodhán answers with silence. But even noiseless, the lighthouse isn’t hollow. There are decades of thoughts stuffed up in here. On the mainland, Irish teenagers ping snippets of consciousness up online, and like willow-o-wisps they vanish. At Carrickderry, thoughts fester like sores. The worst ones were here before Aodhán arrived, and god knows they’ll linger long after his passing. For negative emotion, Carrickderry is a tomb.

‘I read that book you got me for Christmas,’ Aodhán says, in a voice that tells me that’s his penance. He places his hand on the hardback as if to swear an oath.

The spine reads “The Second Fall of Rome”. At the time, I figured Aodhán might enjoy the chapters on Byzantine ships and trade. Still, I remember the briny fingerprints I left on the cover, when the shop assistant asked me was the book a gift for someone special. Aodhán continues without so much as a glance my way.

‘Did you know the Byzantines used beacons to signal enemy attacks? Imagine that, one man in Anatolia, an empire in his hands.’

I’m tempted to remind him Anatolia did fall, and beacons did little to save it. Obligation tells me I should. Its cousin duty warns me I shouldn’t.

‘Seen any barbarians lately?’

I kick myself for the comment. The sea doesn’t wage war for conquest. It takes life as often as it gives it, but never out of malice or desperation. The tide comes in, and goes out, as fundamental a process as breathing. It’s a casual kind of violence. A kind Aodhán respects. My mind jerks to the task at hand.

‘Listen, I meant to ask, would you not spend time at home this year?’

‘Home?’ he asks, like it’s a conspiracy theory.

‘Cork.’

He sets his sandwich down. ‘Sure all my bags are here.’

‘Derek and I can sort that.’

‘And the food you brought?’

‘We’ll pack it all up again. Save you a trip to the shops.’

The suspicion sets in. Aodhán, like the last of a dying species, greets outsiders with fear. There is a darkness beyond the light of the fire where he dares not go.

‘I’d have nothing to do all day.’

I want to scream at the old man that he does nothing now. I want to club him over the head with his book until he understands the cost of pride. I choose diplomacy instead.

‘I could always use help on the farm.’

Aodhán scoffs. He’s spent his whole life wielding the spear. He isn’t going to trade in for the spade now.

‘Where would I stay?’

The moment to burn the bridge behind me arrives. But with all the kindling gathered, I hesitate to drop the torch. ‘You—you can spend Christmas with me.’

As expected, Aodhán erupts into flame. ‘Absolutely not. Out of the question. Couldn’t impose—’

‘There’s a storm coming!’

The ears of Carrickderry prick up.

‘A storm?’ Aodhán says, making accusations now.

‘A big one,’ I say, abandoning all pretence of composure. ‘The worst in decades. You can’t stay here. It’s too dangerous.’

Aodhán doesn’t pale. Danger is a dog he scratches behind the ear. He’s back on familiar ground. ‘You’re too young to remember the storm in ’82. The sea was as black as rum. By Christ we said our prayers then—’

My throat closes over. I know I’ve lost him, because he’s easing back in his chair, and his eyes are glazing over, and he has that fucking sandwich in his hand again, and—

‘Would you shut up!’

Aodhán rocks. I tremble too, because I’ve never raised my voice to him before, and the nervous exhilaration is like what I imagine it feels like when heroin takes hold. A pity l can’t savour it.

‘You’re not a lighthouse keeper. You’re not a soldier. You’re just a bitter old man who can’t let anything go.’

Aodhán rises. He looms up over the table, then over me, and soon I worry even Carrickderry can’t contain him. The grudges of his predecessors take one look at him and bolt.

‘Get out. Get out!’ He flings the digestives at my face. ‘Take your charity and never come back!

I grab the empty packs and go. Outside, the sky has turned dishwater grey. Derek is already untying the boat by the time I reach the cove.

‘Jesus, where were you? We have to go. Storm warning. Category four.’

The news hits like a freak wave. I cast a glance to the lighthouse. At that exact moment, the lantern flickers into action. The beacon is lit.

‘Change of plan.’ I chuck the packs into the boat. ‘I’m staying.’

‘What? Are you mad?’ Derek says. ‘Why?’

I shrug. ‘Aodhán offered me tea.’

Derek opens his mouth to protest. He knows nobody can reach Carrickderry in winter, meaning I’m stuck here until spring. As the boat slips away, he tries one last ploy.

‘I know he’s your father, but you don’t have to do this. What if something happens? What do I tell Sam?’

The great eye of Carrickderry sweeps the sea. The white beam lands miles away. It illuminates times I’d long since chosen to forget.

I remember them now. Childhood nights at the pier, scanning the horizon for sign of Carrickderry. Teenage years keeping the house warm in case Aodhán came home. That special dinner at the farm, when he did come round, and we all broke bread like a family in Asia Minor a thousand years ago. Niamh was laughing into my shoulder. Dad was playing with baby Sam in his cot. Later, he fell asleep on the couch, wrapped in purple, a future emperor cooing in his arms.

I smile. ‘Tell Sam Rome belongs to him now.’

image

The Men

Fr. McGeogh clumsily shifted the rosary beads along his fingers as he sat in the confession box. It had been an unusually busy morning, but he was thankful for it. He had been so engrossed in the sins of others that he had little time to think of his own. But now he found himself alone in black cold silence, face to face with his thoughts. “Which do not,” he noted to himself, “make good company.”

She would be sixty today. Six-oh. He turned sixty last month. They had a party for him in the parish hall, complete with the obligatory helium balloons and under-cooked sausage rolls. He smiled and said what a lovely surprise. Really he just wanted to dump the tea over their heads. Especially over the head of old Mrs. Ryan. He was sure she only organised the whole thing to spite him. He explicitly told her in the sacristy the previous Sunday (what she was doing there he didn’t know. That woman seemed to live in the sacristy, much to his annoyance) that he hated birthday parties. Nobody likes to be reminded that they are crawling nearer towards that 6-foot hole in the ground. She had presented the birthday cake to him with a glint in her snake green eyes akin to that of the man who confessed to beating his wife to within an inch of her life that morning. Both seemed to relish in his discomfort.

His thoughts flickered back to Marie. She would’ve loved a party. Or would she? People change with age. He certainly had. His once raven-black hair was now more of a seagull grey. “An almost bald seagull at that” he grimaced. He stopped listening to rock music too. Changed to country and western. “Less rebellious” he acknowledged to himself. “More slow and depressing, a bit like - ”

“Father?”

He was jolted out of his daydream. It wasn’t the presence of another person that caught him off guard, for he had heard the wooden door of the confession box squeak as the man entered. However, the accent, distinctly Belfast, gave him a fright.

“I’m going mad” he remarked to himself. “After all, what would a Belfast man be doing in - ”

“Are ya there Father?”

Definitely Belfast. He hoped he didn’t know him. He took a deep breath, and in the best neutral monotone voice he could muster he replied:

“Yes sir, what is troubling you?”

“Well, ya see, I was down visitin’ the cousin, and she said you’re a Northern man, and I thought you might understand me sit-chee-ation …”

So much for a neutral accent.

“Yes?” Fr. McGeogh replied, afraid of what answer he was going to get.

The voice next door sighed. “There’s somethin been on my mind for a while now, and I’m not sure if t’is a sin or not, but just to be sure…”

The priest leaned forward in his chair and peered between the holes in the grate, anxious to catch a glimpse of the man behind the voice. However, he remained ambiguous, hidden in the darkness.

“T’was early ’72, and me and a few of the boys decided to start a band. Ya know, the oul’ rock and roll type of a thing. Called ourselves the Roundcats.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar. He might have seen them in a pub once or twice in his youth. He couldn’t remember if they were any good. Seemed as if every young man in Belfast those days was joining a rock band. Or the Provo’s. Or the Priesthood. “Or God forbid”, he recalled shaking his head, “there were lads joined all thre- ”

“Father, are ya still there?”

“Oh yes”, Fr. McGeogh coughed. “I was just thinking about something you said. Continue on.”

“Well, I was just askin did ya hear of us?” asked the man, sounding irritated that that the priest was appearing to drift away in the middle of his story.

“I think so. There was so many…”

“Indeed there was. Sure we all wanted to be rock stars” the man laughed. “As I was sayin, we played in the pubs and the like, hoping we’d get our big break at fame.”

The priest could sense the regret and sadness in his voice. Still, he wanted to know where the story was going.

“What’s this got to do with sinning?” inquired the priest. “Surely your music wasn’t that bad?”

“I’m getting there” snapped the man. He didn’t find the priest’s joke amusing. “One night we were due to play in the Hut bar near the city centre. Did ya hear of it?”

Fr. McGeogh’s heart stopped. Of course he had. It was one of the extremely few pubs in the city that was frequented by both Catholics and Protestants alike.

Until they blew it up.

The man didn’t wait for his reply.

“We played there a few times. The money wasn’t great but it got our name out there a bit. The pints were fairly decent too.”

He paused, waiting for the priest to chip in. Fr. McGeogh remained frozen, hanging on to his every word. The man continued;

“We were due to play that March weekend. My brother came to me that mornin’ and warned me. ‘Don’t take the band out tonight Joe’ he said.”

The man had a name. Joe. That fact now seemed irrelevant to Fr. McGeogh.

“Did you go?” he asked, perched on the edge of his seat, his nose almost inched from the grate separating the two men.

“My brother and his friends weren’t the type of people you disagreed with …”

Fr. McGeogh knew that the man’s tale wasn’t going to have a happy ending right from the moment he started speaking. Despite this, its impact was still enough to render him almost speechless.

Almost.

“Did you warn anyone about it? Tell anyone?” the priest choked, the words barely making it out of his mouth.

“Just the lads in the band.” He paused.

“Well, not even. Told them my throat was too sore to be singing. That’s why I’m here. I want to tell God I’m sorry. And to ask for forgiveness.”

There was a sense of desperation in Joe’s voice. A longing for someone to tell him that everything was alright. That he was forgiven.

But the priest’s mind was somewhere else. It was back in Belfast on that fateful March night. He should’ve convinced Marie not to go into town with her friends. But he let her go. He had wanted her to go. It left him free to call around to Kathleen O’Connor’s house without getting caught. He had been in a band himself those days. ‘The Men.’ Not like any of them behaved like real men. He had no aspirations for a career in music, nor had his friends. It was only a means of attracting women. “Worked very well too” he acknowledged to himself. “Too well.” He’d been courting Marie for a year when one or two others caught his eye. Or three or four. He was far from a saint those days. After Marie died, becoming a priest was his form of atonement.

Not that he made a very good one.

“So Father?”

He had forgotten about Joe, sitting anxiously on the other side of the grate.

“So what?” Fr. McGeogh croaked.

“Am I forgiven?”

The sixty-year old priest exhaled slowly.

“God might forgive you, but I certainly won’t.”

image

Window

My son is born during a particularly hot July. Our new eco-friendly house is designed for west coast winters. We sweat away in futuristic humidity. I become obsessed with water.

I sit by the nursery window, rocking this warm bundle to sleep. Outside, I can see trees, a mountain, the ivy clad wall of an abandoned building. We live in town, so I am lucky to have a view like this. I’m trying to make a habit of reminding myself how lucky I am.

I can also see two streetlamps.

By day I don’t notice them, but by night, when the day’s heat breaks into a vicious, urgent rain, the lamps bring water into focus. They look like light peeking through a crack of an open doorway. Two doors in the sky. 

It seems to rain only at night. The summer is late in its ending, the days still hot, people still filling the beaches. But at night, rain. The water, white in the light, sprays.

Perhaps this is one of the things I’m not noticing properly.

The nursery, dimly lit and quiet, feels hermetically sealed from the world. It is too dark to see if drops are hitting the glass. The triple glazing blocks out all sound. All I can hear is the gentle pant of the baby’s breathing. His breath is warm and milky. A little sour, not in a bad way, like a rich yoghurt.

Outside, through window, I see the two white torches of furious rain. I wrap my son in a blanket and nudge the window open to the cooling splashes.

When morning comes, I forget to look for the street lamps. There is too much to do. Changing feeding laundry pain medication bathing rocking burping repeating. It’s easy to forget things.

When I look out the window by day, I see the mountain, the ivy, the relentlessly blue sky of this summer that will not end. I hear the traffic cutting through town, on the way to and from the beaches that hug the bay.

*

The town is a baby. Lulling asleep in the cradle of the bay. The two mountains, postcard iconic. To the north, the father’s table, and closer, softer, the mother. Atop the woman mountain the queen’s grave is perched like a mocking nipple.

*

In the hospital they wanted me to feed faster. They have me use shields, little plastic hats for my nipples. Now the baby gets confused by the softness of my skin. His world is plastic, bottle teats and silicone, while I milk myself, a sore and heavy farm animal. 

*

At night my son sleeps well. I know this because I watch him. Sleep when the baby sleeps, everyone says. Ha. I sit in the rocking chair in the nursery, the small weight of heat asleep in my arms. I vary, to keep me alert, between watching my son, and watching the white of the doorways fill and empty with rain.

*

I watch my son in the bath. His shocked face is soothed by the warm water. He knows this better than the cupping of my hands or the rotating light projections on the bedroom ceiling. This is familiar to him. Not two weeks ago he was a creature of water. 

*

The sound of the rain fuels the obsession. A rhythmic pelting on the windows, like a jar of pennies spilled on the floor.

When the baby is unsettled, I pat his bum and make shushing sounds. In the womb his bum was close to the beating of my heart. The shhhhing lulls him like the lap of amniotic fluid.

*

One day, I bring the baby to the sea. It doesn’t rain and I’m disappointed. He sleeps in the sling and I look at the blue waves, the kite surfers, the children collecting shells. I’m glad he’s asleep, this isn’t the sea I want to show him. 

*

I use a silicone breast pump. It suctions around my breast and the ducts tingle at the force of the milk letting down. Through the clear silicone I see how it sprays like a garden sprinkler. The bottles fill the top shelf of the fridge. Curvaceous. A flock of plastic swans. The first milk of the day is blueish, translucent like Poe’s beautiful dead woman. Later on, as the breast empties, the bottles are topped with a thicker cream separating on the top. Fatty. I imagine a cat sticking her head in a tin pail. There’s more than he can drink and it curdles in the fridge.

*

One o clock, three o clock, five o clock. I open the window. After weeks of heat. Sweaty wards. Waking up sweating. Swollen hands and feet. Blood hovering constantly just under the surface of my skin. The heat of healing on torn tissue. 

Now, the nights hold hours I have lost. The unravelling of cold, a full emptying and refilling of my lungs, like a dying animal at a watering hole. There is time to listen to the baby’s fast and steady breathing, to watch the water fall from the sky in its certainty.

*

I throw away the shields. He drinks for longer. He drinks in his sleep. I open the window so the rain will keep me alert. 

Sometimes the rain is so gentle it looks barely there. There are no drops on the glass of the window, but in the crack of light I see it. Swirling in the gusts like dust particles in a ray of sun.

*

As August runs into September, it rains. On the other side of the world the Amazon is burning. The lungs of the earth. We're running out of air. 

*

The more I stay awake the less I can sleep. Sleeping becomes abnormal, neglectful.

*

On still nights, the doors in the sky show the plumb line trajectory of the raindrops. One after another after another. Without the influence of wind, they can’t help but fall straight down.

*

Most days I feel like I am, in one way or another, neglecting my child. If we stay in, I worry he is sheltered, not getting enough vitamin D. When we go out, he may sit in a nappy longer than usual, or inhale fumes while waiting at traffic lights. If I meet every need, I worry he'll be precious. In that way, love itself becomes neglectful. I'm starting to think I'm the problem.

*

I stay up all night. When it grows light, we go for walks. Him, oblivious, wrapped to my body. Around the corner and up the hill. Grey pavements. We walk around the grounds of an old convent. Here, the trees are old and there’s a smell of home. Pine resin and drizzle. The baby turns his face up to the droplets. The velvet of his brow crinkles. Like everything, this is new to him. 

*

When the baby latches, I am instantly thirsty. It’s as if the association of drinking reminds me how little water I've consumed today, like how the sound of waterfalls makes people need to pee. Later, I read that the release of oxytocin causes thirst as a woman needs to drink more to keep up with milk production. I haven't fact checked this yet. I keep forgetting to. 

I also forget to fill a glass of water before sitting down to nurse. It's like there's a hole in the pocket of my mind, my only focus is the baby, looking after the baby, everything else (work, wonder, little tasks) is spare change. 

At times my let down, the rush of milk from duct, takes the baby by surprise. When I pull back my breast so he can cough, the milk shoots up, a white geyser, and soaks us both. More often than not I just wear underwear. It’s too hot anyway.

The days end prematurely. Heat hangs in the dark. The clouds gather and break. The doors in the sky open.

*

The light inside the house is blue. A duck egg. A bruise. I drive to the sea.

With the baby in the sling, I walk the promenade. He sleeps. The waves roll in and in and in. I taste salt on the wind.

There are people in the water, even though it’s autumn now, and the temperature has dropped into single digits. Their heads dip in and out of the water, like cormorants. I imagine the cold coating their scalps with each kick of the swell, the body’s involuntary shiver, as if unexpected fingers were running through your hair.

With that kind of cold, you feel the heat in yourself. The inside of your mouth, your stomach. The beat of blood in your ears.

In the sling, the baby stirs.

*

There's a storm. The first of a new season. The wind drives the rain at speed. I rock the baby and hover by the window, opening it just a fraction of an inch.

The rain becomes chaotic. I have to focus to be sure it isn’t a blizzard, a sandstorm. The wind is coming from different directions, like sea currents. The movement reminds me of murmuration of starlings, flying over the dunes at dusk, a thousand individuals moving as one beating wing.

On my chest the heat of the baby is causing localised sweating.

The doorways in the sky illuminate the rain as it falls harder. At my breast the baby sighs. There's milk on his eyelid, smeared on one cheek. The fluorescence catches the sheets of water, turning them white. The slices of light show what’s happening somewhere constantly, just out of sight.