Monthly Archives: December 2018



This was published in The Lune Journal, 02 Dislocation, December 2018



   There’s not much poetry in potatoes. Even less when they rot and turn black. It was the English, of course, who called our style of planting ‘lazy beds’. You can still see them, snaking up the hillsides, the pattern of the ridges etched into the land; but now it is only grass that flourishes where we heaped up kelp and sea shells to feed the soil. That was the year they call Black ’47.


Mary was born 100 years later. Rode on the back of her uncle’s motorbike, in her mother’s belly, before ever she got out into the wide world. How the vibrations must have travelled through Kathleen’s body, her thighs clenched against the metal, her breasts pressed up against her brother-in-law, and the tremors shaking her uterus. Quite an exciting start, I suppose, and suggestive of much more excitement to come. Which it didn’t, I’m afraid, or at least not for a good many years. The house in which she was born was in a slum, one of the poorest parts of the city. Kathleen had come over to England to stop Sean carrying on with another woman, so he had to carry on with his wife instead. Mary was born, therefore, out of retribution and guilt, not love at all, which cancels out the glamour of that pre-natal motorbike ride. Makes her a sort of penance, doesn’t it?

The London of her childhood was a grey and shattered place. On bus rides into the city, Kathleen would have to climb the stairs to the top deck, clutching her shopping, the handrail and the little ones, so that the children could look out and down upon their world. Bomb sites gaped, the ragged sides of houses sliced open, their walls and roofs tumbled into jagged heaps. These ruins were left for so long that the children thought them part of a normal city landscape. When Sean moved the family out to Essex, their new places to play were abandoned gun sites at the edges of the fields, and Anderson shelters which their stories turned into dungeons. He would take them for spins in the car across deserted airstrips where grasses were beginning to reassert themselves in the broken slabs.

But that 100 years is important. For if Sean and Kathleen had lived a century earlier it is likely that none of them would have survived. Or they might have been American.



  Think of it, now. More than three million quarters of corn. That’s over 24 million bushels. And those four thousand ships, carrying peas and beans, rabbits, salmon and honey. Think of the poetry of it. Four thousand ships laden with salmon and honey.


Kathleen’s father had fine moustaches that tickled her when he kissed her goodnight, and a nice wave to his hair. She danced her childhood through his fields, and in the streams and mountains of her homeland. So her heart never could embrace that grim city. She would bundle the family back some summers, the long roads winding through the Welsh mountains, the night crossing and the seasickness. But they began to be too many and the younger ones knew little of Ireland except in stories.

‘But if it was so lovely,’ you ask, ‘why did they ever leave? And why did they never go back there to live if it was such a paradise?’



   T’wasn’t only the people that left. The ships were crammed with livestock – with sheep and swine, oxen; horses and ponies, cattle. Think of the comedy of it, coaxing the terrified horses up the gangplank. All those sheep milling about on the quay, the dockers turned shepherds in case they tumbled themselves into the water. A regular Noah’s Ark tossed across the Irish Sea.


I was telling you about the father, the one with the moustaches. Now he did come back, transformed into an American in the meantime, but he did come home. It was hunger and disappointment that had driven him away. Not the Great Hunger. That came earlier. No, just the regular hunger of poverty and oppression and stolen land. You will be wondering who it was who killed his father. Well, uniforms do not go down well with the Irish, so maybe that was enough. But then, what was it killed his grandfather? And where was the rest of his father’s family? It is back there, at the beginning of that hundred years, that we would find them. But, trust me, that is not a time where you would want to be.



   And there was corn and alcohol distilled from grain. And butter – great golden tubs of it stacked in the holds. Why, they even loaded potatoes on board. Now, all things considered, that’s a fine sort of irony. So many good things to eat and to drink. Fair makes your mouth water.


But we are heading in the wrong direction. There are the neighbours to meet and the priest. There’s the solicitor and the farmers. If you stepped into any of their homes there would be a welcome. Tea would be brewed, in all likelihood stronger than you care for it, but you cannot say so, as the thick dark liquid streams from the spout; and great plates of bread – dark rounds of malt loaf and the flour-dusted discs of soda bread. There will be a scrambling in the kitchen and the women of the house emerging with dishes of bacon and cabbage, mounds of potatoes decked with a slide of melting butter and a glitter of salt. And afterwards, when you are trying to ease your belt a little to give your belly a bit more room, there will be the offer of that alcohol, grain distilled. No point in refusing, the glass will be handed to you anyway. It goes down smooth and hot and you don’t refuse the second, so that the next morning you will be lying in bed wondering how many you had and why does your head hurt so.

Perhaps it is to drive out the memory of that hunger that they give you so much to eat and to drink.



   Some died on the ships to America. But the ones to Canada, dear God, they were worse. Coffin ships that bore twenty thousand corpses. Twenty thousand stinking, dying Irish, fevered and starving and pestilent.


So, going forwards again. How they spread out. Some went to Australia and others worked in America. It the women married they tended to stay, to die there. But some of the old men, single, childless, made the mistake of coming home to a land where they did not fit anymore. Mary, she who rode a motorbike before she was born, drifted from London out to Essex and you’d think she was the dullest of the lot, but appearances can be deceptive. Imagine, now, if she became a ballroom dancer, winning trophies with her young partners when she was in her sixties, scandalizing her sisters. They had their adventures, too, wandering around Europe and Africa, cutting loose from their religion, one of them even getting divorced. But their mother, Kathleen, rarely stirred abroad. She had moved from one country to another and that was enough, except for the occasional pilgrimage to Lourdes.

The younger generation would go back an odd time – to the farm with its little mountain and its lake; to the cousins by the fjord at Leenane; to weddings in Dublin. Usually, news of funerals came too late so they missed those. A shame, for there’s nothing like a good Irish funeral.

Sean went back for his mother’s, of course, but he had turned into a Londoner now, almost an Englishman, with the faintest of accents and an odd beard, long and bushy but no moustache. Could he have been someone else if they’d stayed at home? There’s promise in that photograph. A tall, well-made man, just out of his youth, with a hint of gangliness left in the dip of his head and the sheepish smile. The sleeves of his jacket are too short and the bones of his wrists stick out.

Kathleen stopped liking him after that business with the other woman, which must have left him lonely. And as the children grew they went from loving him unconditionally as their daddy, tall and loud and funny, to a mild contempt for the old man.



   Emigration, eviction, starvation. The imported maize made them sicken. And the corn was unfit for human consumption. Public works were instituted so that the dying could earn their keep. They were set to build roads that went nowhere. That came from nowhere. You will not find them on maps, these famine roads, but if you search, you may find their traces. Part the rose bay willow herb. Lift aside the travellers’ joy, the old man’s beard. While you are gathering sloes or blackberries, mind out for the thorns, but remember to look under the brambles. And while they were digging and starving and dying, bodies lying by the road side, swollen and ripening for the grave, those ships set sail for England, their holds full of the goodness of the land. Salmon and honey and corn and butter and livestock.



Paradiso. Diaspora.


Women and Children First

This was the editor’s pick 11 November 2018

Women and Children First

It’s a regular morning, nothing special. A boy sits at the breakfast bar eating cereal, watching the cartoons that dance across the big TV screen. There’s his mom, at the table, scrolling through her phone as she drinks her coffee. Lisa is an ordinary looking sort of woman, carries a few more pounds than she should, so not very active, I guess. Her hair is bobbed and shiny, and she’s dressed for work, a tailored cardigan over a neat blouse, a straight skirt in some dark colour, flat shoes. They haven’t spoken for a while, Jake and his mom, but as soon as she notices the time it will start.

‘C’mon, Jake, gonna be late. Hurry up now or the TV’s going off. You still gotta brush your teeth, and where’s your stuff? I told you to get it ready last night.’

It’s a familiar litany, chanted most mornings, the ‘stuff’ varying from books to gym kit to show’n’tell, whatever it is Jake has failed to organize.

He likes school but Jake never makes a move on the first warning. He’s about six years old and his big, dark eyes are hypnotized by the cartoons. He smiles as the figures run and tumble and slam through walls. Sometimes, when his mom looks down at him, her heart is stopped by the beauty of the curve of his cheek and the dark sweep of his long eyelashes. But that’s usually in the evenings, when she sits on the side of his bed, Jake propped against her and beginning to doze over his bedtime story. In the morning she is irritated by the sight of him, his spoon arrested en route to his mouth as the cartoon action hots up and Jake has to pause to see what happens next.

Mom has to repeat herself, her tone sharp, as she moves around the kitchen gathering up his lunchbox, his pencil case, his jacket. It’s nearly Christmas and the temperature regularly drops below freezing, so his jacket is warm and thick, quilted, with a fur trimmed hood.

‘Your other shoe, Jake? C’mon, hurry. Where’s your other shoe?’

She gets cross at this point, really cross. Why can’t he keep both shoes together? How can you just take off one shoe, wander to another part of the house and then remove the second one? They can leave the house without most of the other items Jake mislays, but one shoe?

‘Dammit, I told you. Put them together when you take them off. I tell you every night but you still . . .’

Jake has bounded off upstairs so he doesn’t hear her. Maybe he enjoys the shoe hunt, for this is the quickest he has moved this morning. He finds it, the shoe, at the end of his bed and comes down grinning with triumph. But Mom is still tetchy.

‘I’m late now.’ She’s not smiling. ‘You’ve made me late. Goddammit, why . . .?’ But Jake has tuned her out. She bustles him out the door, piloting him by his shoulders. Jake clambers into the passenger seat, his belongings heaped at his feet, and she belts him in. He can’t see out of the windows, that’s how small he is. Mom reverses down the drive, craning her neck for pedestrians and the cyclists that seem to appear from nowhere on the tree lined street. It’s a nice neighbourhood, the spacious houses set back on lawns that slope down to the road.

School is not far, but this is America and nobody walks. She drops him at the gate and watches as Jake wanders in. He’s such a dreamy boy, she thinks. Lives in a world of his own.

When school ends Jake will go to club and wait for his mom to pick him up in the afternoon. That’s what usually happens anyway.


‘He was a student at the town’s high school. Some class mates have described him as happy and very smart. A friend who hung out with him at the school’s technology club, said he was probably a genius.’


Amy is flying around the playground, weaving in and out of the other children. Her coat is buttoned at her throat but her arms are free so that it can swing out behind her. Amy is being a superhero. Already she has wrecked the neat arrangement of pink ribbons that her mom spent ages plaiting into her hair. She cannons into Jake in passing. He is momentarily knocked off his course but soon recovers and sets off in pursuit. Amy looks back over her shoulder and laughs. She knows he cannot catch her, even if he dumps his lunch box and his clutch of possessions. She is very fast, the fastest in her year, and Amy particularly likes beating the boys.

This does not please Amy’s mother. She worries that her little girl is a tomboy, that she will never have boyfriends or a husband. She dresses her daughter in frills and bows, Amy shifting impatiently from one foot to the other. Hair brushing is a torture, the skeins to be untangled and returned to the shimmering golden river of tresses that her mom tells her is her crowning glory.

‘Ouch. That’s too tight, Mom. You’re hurting.’

The hair is teased into curls or restrained in a French plait; it is lassoed into a high pony tail or cute bunches that wrench at her scalp. Mom puts it in pigtails before Amy goes to bed but they have always come loose by the morning, Amy having spent her night dreaming of running and flying and being free.

Amy’s mom is quite right, of course. She will never have a boyfriend or a husband. But not because of the running.


‘There are indications that high functioning autism, or a degree of Asperger’s Syndrome, could have been part of the behaviour that some interpreted as the eccentricity that went with his smartness. But nothing has been confirmed.’


Maria and Jimmy make love while it is still dark. She has woken to find him hard against her, and turns sleepily into his arms. They do not put a light on or even speak. It is a week day so they know they need to be quick. She wriggles out of her pyjama bottoms and his hand moves from her breast to slide in between her legs. Maria tries not to groan as his fingers move inside her. She buries her face in his neck to muffle the sound. It would never do for Mama to hear, or any of the boarders in the house.

Her breath is coming faster now and Jimmy rolls her over. Maria kneels, lifting her butt up to meet him, her face in the pillow. With one hand he opens her labia and she braces herself as he slides into her.

Jimmy does not notice the thump of the head board that alerts Mr Connelly, in the next room, to their lovemaking. Maria does, and she tries to hold herself back, but Jimmy is going faster now and she wants to keep up. Mr Connolly knows the faint mewling sound that Maria makes when she comes and he has already got his dick good and stiff when he hears her. Like a kitten, he tells himself, as he fantasizes that it is him in the bed, on top of her, Maria helpless with desire as he pumps into her. He imagines her dark hair spread across the pillow and her wrists tied to the headboard.

Maria helps to serve the breakfasts before she sets off for the school. She feels sorry for Mr Connolly, who seems to her a very old man.

‘He looks at you funny,’ Jimmy tells her, but Maria only laughs. He never has time to sit down and eat breakfast, just grabs a coffee standing up in the kitchen before he goes off for his shift at the garage. Maria works at the elementary school as a substitute teacher. Things will be easier for them when she gets a permanent job, but in the meantime she helps Mama in exchange for rent and Jimmy has a second job in the evenings.

As the boarders finish, Maria scoots dishes out to the kitchen. Then she runs upstairs, gathers her school things, yells goodbye to Mama, and is off. Joanne picks her up at the corner and then she is able to relax. It is a relief to sink down into the car seat and not have to do anything, just for a few minutes. As Joanne’s voice washes over her, Maria smiles a little at the memory of that morning’s lovemaking. The day ahead beckons her but her thoughts leap forward to tonight, Jimmy waking her up as he slides into bed, tired from his evening’s work but easily roused as she wriggles into his embrace. But that isn’t going to be happening tonight.


‘Adam and his elder brother were said to be left depressed over their parents’ breaking up, though their mother was described as “working hard to protect her sons.” Their aunt said her nephews were raised by nurturing parents who wouldn’t have hesitated to call in psychological help if they thought it was needed. This contradicts the comment of a former babysitter at their home who described the young Adam as a “rambunctious” teenager, capable of severe mood swings and temper tantrums, who required medication to control his behaviour.’


‘Maybe Maria can come up with something around dance. The board are not happy with our performance assessments, and, well, she is Latino . . .’ Mrs Karnau shrugs as the principal straightens up, one eyebrow raised and her lips tightened in disapproval. ‘You know what I mean, Anna. It’s not just that . . . she’s young, she’s fit.’ Mrs Karnau sighs. ‘It’s been years since I did any dancing.’

The two women are in the principal’s office, bent over a litter of pages, matching the curriculum framework to the board’s report.

‘They’ve been very literal,’ Anna Lambert says, then she sighs. ‘But I can hardly tell them that.’ Pushing the sweep of hair back from her forehead, she yawns. ‘Let’s just get through this week, eh. Boy, am I ready for the vacation.’ She stands up and stretches, then walks over to the window. ‘I never thought it would happen to me, Mary, but would you believe I am actually looking forward to retirement.’

The winter semester is always hard, half the staff catching colds and flu from the kids, who are wound up all the way from Thanksgiving to Christmas. And Anna is worried about her husband. Jeff is losing weight and has begun to mention stomach pains. It is twelve years since the first cancer and they had thought they were safe. They are bracing themselves for a visit to the oncologist but Jeff had pleaded that they leave it until after Christmas.

‘And let’s not tell the boys yet. Not until we know.’

Anna is afraid that she already knows. The thought never leaves her throughout the day and the weight of it disturbs her sleep. But she will not have to worry after today.


‘The brothers had not met or been in contact for two years, suggesting their relationship was not close. But Ryan’s own evaluation went further: he told the police that his brother was suffering from a “personality disorder”.’


Nathan Greene slides the car into the kerb. An assortment of parents clutters the sidewalk. They fuss a little over their kids, checking books and bags, tucking in scarves. As the children are dispatched, most of the moms and dads leave, only a few stopping to chat.

Nathan is weary. He hasn’t the energy to get out and shepherd Ben into the playground, or to exchange cheery greetings with the other parents. He turns round to make sure Ben has collected everything that he had dumped on the back seat.

‘We’re making gingerbread houses today, Dad. Like in Hansel and Gretel, you know? And Mom says . . .’

He zones out, adjusting his face into a listening attitude, for Nathan is worried about the upcoming meeting and has more to think about than Ben’s school day.

‘See ya,’ he says, as Ben slams the car door. ‘Be good.’ The boy is quickly lost to view as he moves between the parents. But Nathan is not looking. He pulls out into the road and heads for the office, working through the morning’s activities in his head. The meeting is not until 11 and he has two appointments before then, plus several calls to make. He’ll need to go through the Miller file as soon as he can and maybe see if he can find out what John thinks before they have to go upstairs.

Waiting at the lights he tries to ease the tension out of his neck and shoulders. Nathan’s complexion is florid and Joan worries about his blood pressure. His soft belly balloons out over his belt, straining the buttons on his shirt. Nathan is worried too, but he never admits this to his wife. She is stick thin, active, full of energy from all the fitness classes she takes. Because Joan always goes to the gym before work, Nathan does the morning school run. He drops Ben before 8:30 and rarely thinks about the boy until he is on his way home in the evening, adjusting back to family life. But things will be different today.


‘Her son knew him. “He just said he was very thin, very remote and was one of the Goths.”’


It only takes Adam half an hour to get to the school.


Maria’s class is buzzing with the excitement of their cookery task. She has already covered reading, the story of Hansel and Gretel yesterday and today the recipe. They have weighed and measured, which is math, and she has devised a writing exercise to describe the project. But the making of the gingerbread house is the best part. They are working in small groups and each house will be different, ‘so we can have a gingerbread village,’ she tells them. Maria is worrying that she has got them too excited at the start of the day. Jake has got syrup in his hair already and Amy is sprinkled with the glitter of sugar.

‘Now, how did you do that, Amy? You’ve even got sugar down the back of your sweater.’

Amy looks up at Miss, unwilling to be distracted. Her mom would be so pleased to see her, hands plunged into the bowl of dough, flour dusting her apron. So feminine. But Amy is creating an earth monster, or maybe the Incredible Hulk, she hasn’t decided yet. Each time she brushes the hair out of her eyes she deposits some of the dough in her fringe.

Ben is getting too loud, bossing his group, and Maria has to intervene when he shoves Hadley away from the table.

‘But she’s doing it wrong, Miss. Look at all the butter . . .’

She calms him down for now but he’ll need an eye kept on him.


Adam has got through the security door.


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Anna Lambert hears the first shots. She is still working through the curriculum guide and has pencilled in a meeting with the program leaders to discuss changes. She and Mary Karnau stiffen. Yes, they recognize the sounds. Anna runs across the room and switches on the intercom.

‘Security,’ she yells. ‘Intruder firing. Lock your doors. Now, now.’

She and Mary run out into the corridor. He is already there.

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Is it because they are invading his space that he shoots the two women?

They are both dead before they hit the floor and the blood begins to spill and stain. Adam is a good shot, well practised. All those sessions at the range with his mom have paid off. Hell, it is even her guns he is using. He moves on and enters Joanne’s classroom next. She does not have time to save the children. Or herself.

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The gingerbread has to be left to cool. In the meantime they are going to make drawings of their proposed houses, labelling the decorating ingredients, the flaked almonds, the chocolate fingers, the coloured sweets. Maria jerks upright as the intercom blares but now she, too, can hear the shots.

‘Quick, kids, here.’ She spreads her arms, trying to gather them to her. The cupboard? Under the desks? What to shove against the door? She is thinking fast, moving fast.

But so is he. He is already here.

‘No,’ Maria says. He doesn’t say anything. He opens fire. A Sig Sauer carries five rounds, a Glock 17. But you can’t beat the good old Bushmaster. 30 rounds. His weapons of choice, the serious confidence weighty in his hands, so he can enjoy great performance and convenience.

The bullet rips through Maria’s brain and her movement is frozen for a few seconds before she collapses. She falls back over a table and a bowl of gingerbread dough crashes to the floor with her. Then he shoots all the kids. They scream and try to run, but there is nowhere to go. They die terror stricken, not understanding, painfully. Bullets are quick, but there is still time for them to hurt. Amy cries out for her mom but now there is blood in her hair as well as gingerbread dough. Ben’s sternum is shattered and it takes him several minutes to die, slumped across Hadley’s body. Jake has the added horror of being the last.


He shoots himself. He has not spoken. He has been in the school for less than ten minutes.


‘Joe Navarro suggests the authorities should be looking at the psychology of murder-by-proxy; that he murdered 20 schoolchildren because of their emotional associations with his mother.’


It’s a scramble to contact the parents. They come fast, racing through the traffic, trying to still the panic and their galloping heartbeats. Lisa Vanbrugh, Jake’s mom, listens to it on the car radio. Some fatalities, no numbers yet, police and medics on site. Her mouth is dry. Not Jake. Dear God, let it not be Jake. Her husband is there ahead of her. As she runs from the car Lisa sees Pete moving round among the groups of parents who have found their children. He turns as she grabs his arm.

‘He’s not out yet. They don’t know . . .’

His face is grey, his eyes bleak with worry.

‘His class?’ she asks. ‘Are any of them . . ?’

‘I haven’t seen . . .’

Neither of them can get to the end of a thought.


Jane has circled the playground several times but they won’t let her go into the school. Nathan is not taking his calls and she is getting hysterical. She keeps asking,

‘Ben? Ben Greene? Has anyone seen him? Is he still in there? Please? He’s six years old, quite tall for his age, curly hair. He’s wearing . . .’

Some of the children are crying. But these are the saved. Inside the police have taped off the two classrooms where the small bodies lie. Messages are being radioed back and forth, and the count has begun.

Outside the press has arrived. The world will know the story before Jimmy or Nathan.


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