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Almost Love By Louise O'Neill

Louise O’Neill has always written complicated women – jealous and selfish and too much and too little – and in Almost Love, her first novel aimed squarely at adults, she gives us Sarah. Sarah is an artist who hasn’t quite been able to follow through on her promise and has become a teacher. The most important thing about Sarah – as she sees it – is that she is in love. And she uses that love (for Matthew, a largely unavailable man, 20 years or so older than she is) to fill the gaps in herself, to damp down the doubts and the worry and the sadnesses. Of course, as the title suggests, it isn’t really love at all, but obsession – and O’Neill’s compelling novel examines what makes a woman think that a destructive fixation could ever be a good thing. LE

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ALMOST LOVE

Louise O'Neill

£14.99, Riverrun

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Louise O’Neill has always written complicated women – jealous and selfish and too much and too little – and in Almost Love, her first novel aimed squarely at adults, she gives us Sarah. Sarah is an artist who hasn’t quite been able to follow through on her promise and has become a teacher. The most important thing about Sarah – as she sees it – is that she is in love. And she uses that love (for Matthew, a largely unavailable man, 20 years or so older than she is) to fill the gaps in herself, to damp down the doubts and the worry and the sadnesses. Of course, as the title suggests, it isn’t really love at all, but obsession – and O’Neill’s compelling novel examines what makes a woman think that a destructive fixation could ever be a good thing. LE

Chapter:

One

NOW

Sarah lay on the bed, watching Oisín as he slept. This is it, she thought as she looked at his face, his slack-jawed, drooling mouth. This is the man I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.

‘Baby.’ Oisín yawned, rubbing sleep from his eyes. ‘Babe, are you awake?’

‘Of course I’m awake,’ she said. ‘I’ve been awake for hours because someone came home demented drunk at four o’clock last night.’

‘Sorry,’ he said, nestling into her, stroking her stomach. ‘You know I didn’t do it on purpose.’

‘No, Oisín.’ She pushed his hand away. ‘I’m not in the mood.’

‘You’re never in the mood anymore,’ he said under his breath.

‘What did you just say to me?’ Sarah asked, even though she had heard him.

‘Nothing,’ Oisín replied, even though he knew she had heard him.

Sarah sat upright. The curtains were still open, and outside blue skies promised a perfect June day, the sort of day that other couples would want to spend together – reading the newspaper in bed, going for walks in their local park, taking selfies and counting how many Instagram likes their love could collect.

‘I’m pissed off with you, Oisín.’

‘I know.’

‘You said you’d be home straight after work yesterday.’

‘I texted you about the leaving party, didn’t I? I had to go.’

‘I’m surprised Bryant has any stockbrokers left, the amount of leaving parties you “have to” go to.’ Before, Oisín would have wanted her there. It’s not as much fun without you, he used to tell her when he came home early from a night out with the lads. Nothing is as much fun when you’re not there, Sarah.

‘We were supposed to go to the cinema,’ she said. ‘I bought the tickets and everything, like we agreed.’

He took a deep breath. ‘Okay, can we stop? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let you down. Will you forgive me?’

Sarah folded her arms, reluctant to give in so easily.

Oisín tried again. ‘So, what did you get up to yesterday? Did you get into the studio at all?’

‘I didn’t have time.’

‘But I thought we said you would—’

‘We?

‘Sarah . . .’ Oisín swung his legs over the side of the bed so he was facing away from her. ‘Sarah, I can’t—’

‘I met some friends for lunch yesterday so I didn’t have time to paint,’ she interrupted him before he could finish his sentence.

‘What friends?’

‘What do you mean, “What friends”?’

‘I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just that I met Fionn and Robbie in O’Donoghue’s last night and they never said anything about seeing you for lunch.’

‘Fionn and Robbie were out? Together?’

‘That’s what I said, isn’t it?’

‘Whatever. I do have other friends, you know,’ Sarah said. (No, I don’t.) ‘We went to Dun Laoghaire. To Harry’s.’ (No, we didn’t.)

‘That’s nice,’ Oisín said as he got out of bed. ‘I hope you had fun.’

He stood with his back to Sarah as he stretched, razor shoulder blades biting through the flesh. Oisín was so thin; he couldn’t seem to gain weight no matter what he ate. Last year, Sarah didn’t mind. She couldn’t get close enough to Oisín then, as if she wanted to unzip his skin and settle inside his body, make a nest for herself there. (I carry your heart with me, Oisín had recited to her, touching his fingertips to her chest. I carry it in my heart.) No one had ever told Sarah that being in a relationship could feel like coming home, that love didn’t have to mean feeling scared all the time. But now, as she watched Oisín pull off his underwear, throwing it in the general direction of the laundry basket – because putting it in the basket, like she had asked him to do a million times, would be far too difficult, clearly – she began counting the knuckles of his vertebrae. She imagined doing that every morning for the rest of her life, itemising each bone, and she could feel her throat closing over.

After his shower, Oisín grabbed his laptop bag and leaned over the bed to kiss Sarah goodbye.

‘Where are you off to, then?’ she asked.

‘I have to go into town. I need to get a haircut before the wedding next weekend. Alannah has very specific ideas about how she wants the groomsmen to look.’

‘Why do you have to go into town for that? What’s wrong with the barber in Dun Laoghaire?’

‘I have to go to someone who actually understands what to do with my hair, Sarah; you know that.’

‘But it’s Saturday,’ she said, pouting. She was copying an actress, she thought, from a French art-house film that Fionn had forced her to watch with him, although she couldn’t remember which one. ‘Saturday is supposed to be our day.’

‘You just got your summer holidays; every day is a Saturday to you right now.’ Oisín ruffled Sarah’s hair and she glared at him.

‘My job is actually really fucking difficult. I’d love to see you try teaching for one day; see how long you’d last.’

‘Babe, I didn’t mean it like that.’

‘No, just fuck off.’

‘Sarah, you can’t just tell me to fuck off. That’s not how people in healthy relationships communicate with each other.’

‘Oh, Jesus Christ. Have you been reading Oonagh’s self-help books again?’

‘For once, just for once, Sarah, can you leave my mother out of this? She’s never been anything but lovely to you.’

‘Oh, really? Like when she walked in here unannounced without even ringing the doorbell?’

‘She thought you had gone home to Dunfinnan for the weekend.’

‘But what was she even doing here in the first place? It’s like she wants to check up on me every second of every day, make sure that I’m not wrecking her precious house.’

‘Sarah—’

‘Trekking mud through the hall.’

Sarah—’

‘Keeping livestock in the kitchen, I suppose.’

‘I’m not having this conversation with you again,’ Oisín said as he left the room. ‘My mother likes you. You need to get over this.’

Sarah waited for him to come back, to say he loved her and he hated fighting with her and he couldn’t enjoy his day unless he knew that she had forgiven him. She waited until she couldn’t wait anymore.

She dressed, applied her make-up, lining her lips in bright red. He used to tell her that she had ‘blow-job lips’, usually while she wiped her mouth clean, after he came. He liked it when she swallowed, so Sarah did. Sarah always did what that man liked her to do. She walked downstairs, pausing in front of a canvas splashed with reds and purples, a woman’s face screaming in the swirling colours. Open-mouthed, her tongue cut out; silenced forever. One of Oonagh’s creations, naturally. Everything in here belonged to Oonagh.

Stripped wooden floors, Aztec-print rugs, exposed brick walls, a neon-pink light fixture that made everyone look like they had rosacea but she was sure had been hideously expensive. Sarah hated all of it. ‘It’s a bit obvious,’ she had said to Fionn, whispering, ‘New money,’ under her breath, and Fionn told her she was a spoilt brat. Maybe Sarah was being a brat, but it was hard living in a house where everywhere she looked was evidence that people could make money from art, that being an artist was a viable career. If you were good enough.

Sarah reached out to touch another one of Oonagh’s paintings, the coagulated oil like clots of blood beneath her fingers. The hopelessness that she so often felt in this house began to return, as if it was embedded in its very walls. She needed to get out of here, she decided. She needed to go to the sea, to taste salt on her tongue. She would be able to breathe there.

She locked the front door behind her, smiling at Mrs Morrison from next door, who was watering her flowers. The Morrisons had a gardener who came every Thursday, Johnny, but Mrs Morrison liked to pretend that she was responsible for his handiwork. ‘Natural green fingers,’ Sarah heard her tell friends who admired the pink and yellow roses sneaking up a trellis against the stone house when they came to visit.

‘Going somewhere nice, Aine?’ Mrs Morrison said, peeling off her pristine gardening gloves.

‘Why does she keep calling me Aine?’ Sarah had asked Oisín when they moved in to the house.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he replied, pouring her a glass of champagne to celebrate this next step in their relationship. But Sarah couldn’t let it go.

‘Who is Aine?’ she asked again. ‘Who is Aine? Who is she?

That had been their first fight.

‘I think I’ll go see Oonagh and William,’ Sarah said, surprising herself. ‘It’s such a nice day.’

‘Isn’t that lovely?’ Mrs Morrison said. ‘Giving up your Saturday to spend some time with your in-laws. I wish my Damian’s Paula was half as conscientious about keeping in contact with me.’

Sarah pushed out the creaking gate as she hmmmed her disapproval of Mrs Morrison’s daughter-in-law, a lovely woman who left the Morrisons’ every second weekend with a haunted expression on her face.

On the DART, she sat by the window, watching the sun inch as it hit the flat sea. The train passed Blackrock, Dun Laoghaire, Glenageary.

Killiney, she told herself. Killiney. I’m going to see Oonagh and William.

She would get off the DART at Killiney station and walk to Oonagh and William’s mansion, with its turrets hewn out of stone, the facade designed to resemble a medieval castle. Ostentatious, and not to Oonagh’s taste – she had admitted as much to Sarah. ‘I loved the house in Booterstown,’ Oonagh had said over brunch in Avoca, which she insisted on paying for. ‘I didn’t want to leave. But William . . . Anyway,’ she said, picking up the dessert menu, ‘marriage is about compromise.’ Sarah had wanted to ask her why it always seemed to be the woman who was expected to compromise.

The train stopped at Dalkey and, almost unbeknownst to herself, Sarah stood up. She waited for the other passengers to disembark before her: a group of teenage girls in high-waisted jeans, an elderly woman after them, her mouth wizened, like Nana Kathleen’s when she took her false teeth out.

When Sarah reached Sandycove, she sat on the wall at the side of the tiny beach and checked the time on her phone. He would be going for his Saturday-morning walk soon. He was a creature of habit, she knew; he didn’t like anything or anyone to disturb his daily routine.

Two skinny-limbed children were building a sandcastle, screaming with tears when an older kid ran across them, scattering their creation to the wind. Their mother lay back down on her striped beach towel, keeping her sunglasses on so that she could comfortably ignore the children while gesturing at the man with her to go help. The father, in his swimming shorts, sheer from too much washing, went hand in hand with the knee-high boy and girl towards the water, and the screech of ‘Too cold! Too cold!’ began as waves splashed against toes. It made Sarah think of her own first time at the seaside. She was young then, and her mother was still there.

‘We’re going to the beach today,’ Helen had told her that day. ‘Are you excited, my lovely Sarah?’

Sarah remembered a light cotton dress, sandwiches buttered in the kitchen, a long car journey with the windows rolled down, sweat beading at the back of her neck and dribbling down her spine.

‘We’re here,’ her father said eventually, carrying the icebox and two collapsed beach chairs, Sarah’s mother holding her by the hand.

Sarah remembered standing at the shoreline, the view fractured by rainbow-coloured windbreakers and half-falling- down umbrellas. People shrieked as the rickety rollercoaster at the edge of the beach swooped low and she inhaled salt and seaweed and coconut-scented suncream.

‘Do you want to go for a dip?’ her mother asked her, and Sarah said no. All she wanted to do was stand there and look.

Being by the sea always made Sarah feel small, insignificant in a way that was comforting somehow. It made her think that none of this would matter, in the end.

Time passed. Ten minutes? Half an hour? And then a shadow fell across her. And she knew it was him.

Two

‘Sarah?’

She looked up at him. ‘Hey,’ she said, and something in her broke, yet again. How did he still have the power to do that, after all this time?

‘I thought it was you, but I wasn’t sure. What are you doing here?’

‘What?’ She pretended to look confused.

‘Not exactly your neck of the woods, is it?’

‘I’m living in Booterstown now.’

‘When did you leave Portobello?’ he asked.

‘I was living in Stoneybatter before, actually.’

‘Oh, right.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said quickly. ‘Listen, we should catch up. Do you want to grab a coffee?’

He checked his watch. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘I have some time.’

As they walked down Breffni Road, he said, ‘I haven’t seen you in ages. I can’t even remember the last time we met.’

It had been three years. We can’t break up, Sarah, he had said to her, three years ago, when she decided to stand still and to ask him for more. She had pretended for so long to be sterile, clean, to have no needs of her own except to please him. She couldn’t do it anymore. But we can’t break up, he had said to her while she tried not to cry. He didn’t like women who cried; it was messy, undignified. We can’t break up because we were never in a real relationship in the first place. They had only seen each other one more time after that, a stolen evening in an expensive hotel. But Sarah didn’t want to think about that night and how it had ended. What he said. How he had looked at her.

‘Yeah, it’s been a while,’ Sarah said now.

‘You look great,’ he said.

He had always commented on her appearance, but it wasn’t in a weird way, she used to tell Fionn. Being admired by him didn’t feel like when other men would look at her, teeth bared as if they wanted to devour her. Smile, love, men would shout as she passed them on the street. You’d be so much prettier if you smiled, as if a performance of joy was the price Sarah had to pay for existing in a female body in a public space.

‘You look well too,’ she said.

‘Thanks,’ he replied. ‘I’m feeling uncharacteristically relaxed. Just back from Paris with Flo and Harry.’ He held the door to the cafe open for her. Oonagh would have hated that, Sarah thought. Chivalry is an outdated concept that only perpetuates patriarchal myths, she’d said at one of the insufferable dinner parties William threw regularly. The beautifully arranged dining table at the Killiney house, linen napkins and silver cutlery, a single orchid in a short tumbler at each seat. The walls were laden with photos of Oonagh and William in their twenties and thirties, impossibly young and glamorous: Oonagh holding a placard above her head, demanding divorce or abortion rights, waving at the camera as she and a group of equally rebellious women set off on the train to Belfast to procure illegal condoms. That’s why I’ve made sure that the men in this house know that housework isn’t a woman’s job, Oonagh had said as Oisín stood up to clear plates. All the men. She’d winked at William and he reached across the table to kiss her.

‘Paris,’ Sarah repeated. The coffee shop was small, wooden tables with jam jars full of wild flowers. The waitress gave them menus when they sat down. She was attractive, blonde hair and excellent teeth, and Sarah looked at him to see what his reaction would be.

‘I don’t need a menu,’ he told her. ‘I’ll have an Americano.’

‘Are you sure?’ the waitress replied. ‘Our gluten-free brownies are fab.’

‘I’m sure they are.’ He leaned back in his seat, looking at her more closely. ‘But, sadly . . . What’s your name?’

‘Luna.’

‘Luna? That’s an unusual name. But very pretty. I must say, it suits you,’ he said, and the waitress blushed. ‘But sadly, Luna, I’ll have to refuse.’ He looked at Sarah. ‘What’ll you have, Sarah?’

‘A chai latte.’

‘And a chai latte for my friend.’ He handed the menus back. ‘Thank you, Luna.’

After she left, he lowered his voice. ‘What kind of name is Luna?’

‘Maybe her mother was into Harry Potter.’

He didn’t answer, and checked his phone instead. That was rude, Sarah thought. Oisín would never do that. Oisín’s manners were impeccable; his mother wouldn’t have stood for anything less.

‘So. How was Paris?’

‘Paris is Paris,’ he said. ‘Harry enjoyed it though, and that’s the main thing.’

‘It’s cool the three of you went on holiday together.’

‘Oh, we’re terribly modern.’

‘Was Daniel all right with Florence going away with you?’

His jaw tightened. ‘No idea.’

‘Well, I’m glad it went okay – for Harry’s sake.’

‘I’m glad too. Although I will say seven days is too long to go without getting laid.’

Sarah wasn’t sure if she had heard him correctly, but then he smirked at her, confirming her suspicions. She knew that, later that evening, she would be able to articulate exactly why this had hurt her feelings, but for now, the perfect response was somehow just outside her grasp.

‘I’m sure you can survive seven days,’ she said, wishing her drink would arrive so she’d have something to do with her hands.

‘I think we both know that’s not true,’ he said. His eyes met hers and, for one moment, it was as if nothing had changed.

‘Here you go,’ the waitress said. She banged Sarah’s chai on the table, the milky liquid splashing onto the saucer. ‘Sorry,’ she said to Sarah, before gently placing his coffee down.

‘Is that everything?’ the waitress asked him.

‘Perfect, thanks, Luna.’ He didn’t look at her this time, too busy scrolling through his camera roll.

Luna faltered, her smile fading, and Sarah almost felt sorry for her.

‘Here,’ he said, holding his phone out to Sarah.

She could tell instantly it was one of Fionn’s paintings. If Sarah had spent her life trying to make the sea true on the page, then Fionn had attempted to do the same with the sky: swashes of inky blacks and midnight blues. His paintings were intense to look at, as if you were being swallowed whole, the paint swirling in your mouth and crawling up your nose until you thought you might suffocate in the world he had created.

‘Sure, there he is,’ Sarah said, but she looked away from the photo as soon as possible.

‘Isn’t it incredible? This fantastic place called Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac had a piece of his in an exhibition of up-and-coming artists. If you’re ever in Paris, you should check it out.’

‘If I’m ever in Paris?’

‘Yeah. You’d love this gallery. So a Coppola was a guest curator a few years ago.’

‘Did you go to Père Lachaise again?’

‘What?’

‘Père Lachaise?’ Sarah asked again, but his face was blank. ‘Did you buy anything by Fionn?’ she tried. ‘Or is it still only the one piece you have?’

‘I bought this one,’ he replied. ‘It was cheap as chips, really, especially compared to the Oonagh MacManus I bought the day before. I was afraid Flo was going to demand extra child maintenance when she saw the price of it.’ He took another sip of coffee. ‘What do you think of MacManus? I know some people say it’s just hype, that she’s more ideology than actual talent, but her work never decreases in value, does it?’

‘That’s weird that you would mention Oonagh.’

‘Why so?’

‘I’m dating her son,’ she said, watching him carefully.

‘The black kid in that terrible band?’

‘The Principles aren’t terrible; they’re really popular.’

‘They’re popular in Ireland,’ he said. ‘Playing Vicar Street and small pubs down the country. They’re not going to set the world on fire, are they?’

‘I don’t know,’ Sarah said. ‘Anyway, that’s Domhnall. I’m with Oisín, his older brother.’

‘Very good.’ He caught the waitress’s eye and made a scribbling motion in the air: Bill, please. ‘That’s why you’re here, is it?’

‘What?’

‘Are you here to see the Wilsons?’ he asked. ‘She’s an attractive woman, isn’t she? Still has it, even at her age. I met her when we sold them that house in Killiney.’ He shuddered. ‘What a monstrosity. It’s like something an itinerant would buy after they won the lotto.’

That’s not funny, she would have said to anyone else, but he would have laughed at her. So Sarah stayed quiet and giggled, a high-pitched noise that announced what an easy girl she was – an easy, lovely girl. Sarah had always done that with him and she had always hated herself for it afterwards.

The waitress brought the bill and he insisted on paying.

‘Don’t be going on with that feminist nonsense, Sarah,’ he said, ushering her outside into the sunshine, his hand in the small of her back, and she fought the urge to lean against him and murmur her thanks. She wasn’t allowed to do that anymore.

‘Well, look who it is.’ A short, balding man was walking towards them, overdressed for the heat in a royal-blue suit.

‘Michael Gleeson, how the hell are you?’ He moved away from Sarah to shake the other man’s hand.

‘I’m good, I’m good,’ Michael said, wiping sweat off his brow. ‘How was Paris? Florence told Yvonne that you went shopping. Naughty, naughty.’

‘I did. They’ll sell on well, particularly the MacManus. How’s Noah?’

‘Ah, he’s grand.’

The two men talked about Harry and Noah, how relieved they were that Transition Year was over and the boys were finished with work experience and mini-companies and trips to Kolkata to feed starving children in slums. Yvonne was sick of having to chauffeur Noah around to rugby training and to the disco and she couldn’t wait until Noah had his full driving licence, but then you worry about boy racers, don’t you? Almost makes you wish you had a girl.

Finally, all talk of Noah’s rugby-kicking technique exhausted, Michael nodded his head at Sarah. ‘And who’s this?’ He didn’t remember her, Sarah realised, even though she had taught Noah for two years at St Finbarr’s before she left.

‘This is Sarah Fitzpatrick,’ he told Michael. ‘She’s a friend of mine and an artist. You should keep an eye out for her.’

I’m not an artist, Sarah thought. Artists create art. Sarah’s art was trapped in her fingertips, like dirt gathering beneath her nails.

‘Just a friend?’ Michael winked at him.

‘Behave yourself, Gleeson,’ he replied. ‘Sarah is involved with Oonagh MacManus’s son.’

‘Oonagh MacManus?’ Michael said. ‘I’ve been trying to get in contact with her for months but her agent is so bloody over-protective. Will you give her this, the next time you see her?’ He handed Sarah a business card, silver font on green. ‘My gallery is on Kildare Street.’

‘I know where it is,’ Sarah said, and she could hear how coarse her accent was, how country, Dunfinnan strangling her vowels. ‘Kevin’s place is only a few doors down.’

‘Kevin Walsh? How’d you know him?’

‘I’m friends with his boyfriend.’

‘Ah, Robbie, of course,’ Michael said. ‘Does that mean you know Fionn McCarthy as well?’

‘Sarah and Fionn went to Dublin Art College together,’ he interrupted, and Michael whistled.                                                                                    

‘You know all the important people, Miss Sarah Fitzpatrick,’ he said. His phone beeped and he pulled it out of his pocket, grimacing as he read the text. ‘I’d better go; the wife is looking for me,’ Michael said. ‘You’re a lucky man; no ball and chain for you, is there?’

He laughed. ‘Good to see you, Michael. Tell Yvonne I send my regards.’

‘I will, of course,’ Michael said. ‘And nice to meet you, Sarah. Stay out of trouble.’

He waited until Michael was out of sight before he took a step towards her. ‘Stay out of trouble? You?’ he said. ‘Never.’

He was getting old, Sarah realised, the creases around his eyes cut deep, his teeth almost yellow in his thin-lipped smile. He was forty-seven now, and he looked every year of it. What was Sarah doing here?

The wind blew her hair over her face and he brushed it away. ‘You dyed it.’ His voice was surprised, as if he had only noticed now.

‘Yes.’ Blonde. I dyed it blonde, like you preferred.

‘It suits you,’ he said. ‘But, listen, I have to go. Duty calls. Do you need a lift to the Wilsons’ place?’

‘I’m grand,’ she said. ‘Thanks, anyway.’

‘Be good, Sarah,’ he said, walking away from her. She waited for him to turn around and look at her, one last time. But he didn’t.

Matthew, she thought.

Matthew. Matthew. Matthew.

Three

THEN

Dread was creeping through me, using my veins as a map to spread through my entire body. I blinked once, twice, the room seeming to melt until I felt like I was caught in a Dalí painting. A fan of Freud, I could almost hear a lecturer at college say, this piece underpins all of Salvador’s attempts to render his hallucinatory dreams real. Themes of death, decay, eroticism. Dalí believed he could simulate craziness while maintaining his sanity.

I am going to be sick.

‘Is it possible to die of a hangover?’ I whispered to Stephen. We were in the staffroom, listening to Mrs Burke, the principal, explain the protocol for this evening yet again.

‘I thought your New Year’s resolution was to drink less? That didn’t last very long.’

‘Oh, shut up.’

‘Is there a problem, Sarah?’ Mrs Burke asked me.

‘No, Mrs Burke,’ I said.

‘Good,’ she said. ‘These might only be the first-year parent–teacher meetings, but I hope you realise that we always expect a certain standard of professionalism here at St Finbarr’s.’

I used to think that leaving school meant never having to do what a teacher told me ever again. I used to think a lot of things. When she’d finished her lecture, I pushed myself off the plastic chair, every muscle in my body aching.

‘I know,’ I said to Stephen, who was packing his notebook and teacher’s diary into his briefcase. ‘Self-inflicted, you have no sympathy for me, blah, blah, blah.’

‘Good luck this evening,’ he said. ‘All those mothers, giving out because their sons are head over heels in love with the new art teacher and can’t concentrate on their studies.’

‘Please, they only fancy me because they know it’s completely out of the question. You lot are all the same. ’

‘Oh, are we now?’ Stephen said, trying not to laugh.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Men always want what you can’t have.’

Stephen held the door open for me, nodding at a few parents who were hovering outside the assembly hall. These students might only be first years, but their parents paid incredible fees and demanded equally incredible results, and woe betide the teacher who failed to provide them. In the hall, tables with rusting legs had been set up in a semicircle, most of them already occupied. I had been assigned a desk by the door, two empty seats in front of me. There were always two in case both parents decided to come, but it was usually women who led through the doors. Do any of the dads ever come? I had said to Stephen after my first PT meeting, for sixth years in October, and he had looked puzzled, as if he had never thought about it before.

I should have been getting off the bus now, putting my key in the door of the terraced house on Oxmantown Road.

‘We can’t live here,’ I had told Fionn when he first found the place two years before. He was giving me the grand tour: the peeling wallpaper, the rotting carpet in red and black check, the filthy kitchen. ‘This isn’t Angela’s Ashes,’ I said.

He brought me into the final room, an airless, windowless box. ‘The rent is cheap, Sarah,’ he’d said, ‘and we can use this space as a studio. Can’t you see it?’ And I told him I could.

The lads would be watching TV now, empty pizza boxes strewn at their feet. ‘Here,’ Fionn would say, if I was at home, handing me the bong and a lighter. I would take both and I would feel better, forgetting about the students and Mrs Burke and the eternally dissatisfied parents. I would forget about Dunfinnan and my father. I would forget who I was. Sometimes, that moment of forgetting was the best part of my day.

‘Hello,’ the first mother to approach me said. ‘I’m Max Aherne’s mother.’

‘Hi, Mrs Aherne,’ I said. ‘I’m Sarah Fitzpatrick, the art teacher.’

‘Oh, yes; you’re the girl who took over from Mrs Moloney, aren’t you?’

‘That’s me,’ I said, opening my diary and gesturing at the seat in front of me. ‘Do you want to sit down? I’d like to talk about Max’s results in the Christmas test.’

Mother after mother after mother. Oh, my Ollie is such a sensitive boy, and, I don’t see the point of art if they’re not going to pursue a career in it, and, Poor Beckett says that you’re very hard on him. I tried to express what I hoped was a suitable amount of distress for upsetting ‘poor Beckett’, a monster of a thirteen-year-old who was either going to end up in jail or running for president.

‘Are you all right?’ a mother asked me when I twitched involuntarily. I glanced at my notes. Adam Higgins: thin, paints a lot of World of Warcraft fan art. I suspected he was on the spectrum, but it hadn’t been confirmed yet, which was unusual. They loved a good diagnosis at St Finbarr’s.

‘I’m grand, Mrs Higgins,’ I told her. ‘That time of the month.’

‘I can’t go out,’ I had told Fionn the night before. ‘We’re only just back from Christmas break and I have parent–teacher meetings tomorrow. I have to be on my best behaviour.’

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Just the one.’

Just the one and just the one and just the one. In Mulligan’s, talking about our time at DAC, Fionn wistful.

‘We could just paint back then,’ he said. ‘No worrying about what was “commercial” or what gallery owners would like. The freedom of it, like.’

I smiled, pretending that I agreed, but for some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about the orientation day in first year. I didn’t know Fionn then, I didn’t know anyone, so I ducked into a nearby pub afterwards to grab lunch by myself. And I saw them: Olivia and Matilda.

‘Hey,’ I said as I approached their table. ‘You’re in first year at DAC too, aren’t you? I saw you at orientation earlier. Can I sit with you?’

‘Sure,’ they chorused, moving coats and bags and books out of the way to make room.

What school did you go to?’ Matilda asked me, Olivia squealing with excitement when I told them.

‘No way!’ she said. ‘My grandmother was from just outside there. That’s hilarious. I haven’t been to Dunfinnan in years. Did you know Kitty Purcell? She died about five years ago.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Sorry.’ Then I sat there and listened to them talk about art in terms I had never heard before.

‘I love Ana Mendieta?’ Olivia said. ‘And, like, Judith Bernstein? But I’m obsessed with Carolee Schneemann. Interior Scroll was a really important moment for me as an artist.’

‘Totally,’ Matilda said. ‘I mean, the way she questions the crippling lack of interest in women’s art in what is supposedly a post-feminist utopia?’

They turned to me. ‘What do you think of Schneemann?’ they asked.

There was an awkward silence when I admitted I had never heard of her.

‘She is a bit obscure, I suppose,’ Olivia said.

And I had smiled, getting to my feet. ‘I’ll see you around,’ I said.

‘Hello.’

My head snapped up when I heard a male voice. The man standing in front of me was at least six foot five, with the kind of shoulders that I was more accustomed to seeing on cattle farmers in Dunfinnan than on businessmen in expensive suits.

‘Hello,’ he said again as he sat down. He was so large that he looked as if he was sitting on a child’s play seat. ‘I’m Matthew Brennan.’

Brennan. I scanned my teacher’s diary, but I couldn’t find any child in my first-year class with that surname.

‘I’m sorry,’ I told him. ‘I think you might be looking for someone else. I’m the art teacher.’

‘Yes, I know,’ he said. ‘My son is in your class.’ The chair creaked in an alarming fashion. ‘Harry.’

‘There’s only one Harry in my class, but he’s Harry Kavanagh.’

Matthew Brennan stiffened. ‘I think you’ll find his name is Harry Kavanagh-Brennan.’

I didn’t have to look at my notes to picture Harry: tall, gangly, very talented. He was also very famous.

‘I have Harold Kavanagh’s grandson in my class,’ I had told my father after my first day at St Finbarr’s last September. It was late, almost 9 p.m., and I knew Dad would be sitting in front of the television in his worn-out socks and tracksuit pants, a microwavable meal in his lap. I could picture the sitting room, the diamond-patterned lino, the dying embers in the stove. He would have been waiting for my phone call, putting the TV on mute as soon as my name flashed up on his old Nokia. ‘That’s former President Harold Kavanagh,’ I said.

‘Oh, former President Harold Kavanagh,’ my father replied. ‘My goodness, Sarah, you have been blessed.’

‘Very funny,’ I said. ‘Anyway, the grandson is called Harold too, but he goes by Harry. He seems like a sweet kid, totally normal,’ I said, and my father had snorted.

‘Sure, why wouldn’t he be, Sarah?’

‘I’m sorry about that,’ I said to Matthew Brennan, grabbing a biro from my pencil case. ‘I’ll get that fixed on my records.’ I made a note in my diary. ‘My name is Sarah Fitzpatrick.’

‘Sarah? That’s a pretty name,’ he said. ‘But I must say, it suits you.’

‘Wow, thanks,’ I said. ‘Sarah is a super-unusual name all right.’ I looked over his shoulder. ‘Mrs Kavanagh-Brennan not with us tonight?’

‘She’s not “Mrs” anything anymore,’ he said. ‘And we decided we would take turns coming to these meetings.’ He pushed his jaw out, like a belligerent teenager. ‘He’s my son too, you know.’

‘Fair enough. And speaking of your son,’ I said, ‘let’s talk about Harry.’

‘Yes,’ he said, leaning his huge frame forward, so that I feared for the chair’s very survival. ‘Let’s.’

‘He’s incredible. He’s the best student in any of my classes, bar none.’

Matthew Brennan smiled. ‘That’s nice to hear. You’re the only teacher to say anything positive about him tonight. The rest have said he doesn’t concentrate, and he’s failing maths and lacks any kind of aptitude for languages. I told them I hated maths too when I was at school and it didn’t seem to do me much harm, did it?’

‘Well, he certainly has an aptitude for art,’ I said. ‘I know he’s young, but I think he should be considering art school.’

Matthew nodded. ‘I agree.’

I had suggested art school to a very select number of parents previously and this was the first time it hadn’t been met with outright derision. I guessed, with the Kavanagh money behind him, it didn’t matter what Harry did. His mother would buy him a beautiful studio and she would urge him to follow his dreams. Don’t sell out, Harry, she would tell him. And he wouldn’t have to. He wouldn’t even have to sell.

‘Did you go to art school?’ Matthew asked me.

‘I can assure you, Mr Brennan, I’m perfectly qualified.’

‘I have no doubt that you are, Miss Fitzpatrick. I was just curious. Where did you go?’

‘I went to the Dublin Art College for my undergrad.’

‘And then?’

‘And I stayed at DAC for my postgrad in education. I graduated last year.’

‘Are your parents artistic?’

‘My mother is dead,’ I said, without thinking. Shit. ‘Mr Brennan, I really think we should—’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘It was years ago; I hardly ever think about it anymore.’

‘What age were you?’ he asked.

‘I was ten.’

‘That’s very young.’

‘Yes. Now, if we could just—’

‘I was five when my mother died,’ he said. ‘It never gets any easier, does it?’

‘Hmm,’ I said, tapping my pen on the table, trying to figure out how I could get rid of this man as fast as possible.

He tilted his head to one side. ‘I hope you won’t mind me saying this, but you don’t look very well.’

‘Let’s have some proper fun,’ Fionn had said last night. A bathroom cubicle, a group of women giggling when they saw us go in together, no doubt imagining trousers around ankles and me bending over the cistern while Fionn fucked me from behind. But it was a key offered out, a dusting of powder. The smell of soap.

‘I’ve told you before, I hate ketamine,’ I said, acid dripping into the back of my throat like a promise, and Fionn had laughed.

‘It’s only a tiny bump,’ he said. ‘You’ll be grand. I’ve seen you take way more than that before.’

‘I have a twenty-four-hour stomach bug. It’s not contagious, don’t worry,’ I said to Matthew Brennan. ‘Now, do you want to go through Harry’s school journal? I presume you or Mrs –’ I caught myself – ‘Harry’s mother have signed any notes I sent home?’

‘Of course,’ he said, and then, abruptly, ‘Who is your favourite artist?’

‘I fail to see how my favourite artist is relevant to Harry’s performance in my class.’

‘Come on, Miss Fitzpatrick.’

‘It’s Ms.’

‘Oh, a feminist, are you?’

‘No, I just—’

‘Humour me,’ he interrupted. ‘Who is your favourite artist?’

‘Fionn McCarthy,’ I said, to shut him up.

‘I’ve never heard of him.’

‘Not yet,’ I said. ‘But you will.’ I closed my diary. ‘Anyway, is that all okay?’

‘There are a few other things I would like to discuss.’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Brennan—’

‘Matthew, please.’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Brennan –’ I pointed at the line of mothers queuing behind him – ‘but I’m afraid we’ll have to finish here.’ He stood up. ‘It was nice to meet you, Sarah. Thanks for being so kind about Harry. He loves your class.’ His face softened when he mentioned his son. ‘It means a lot to him. And to me.’

I nodded, beckoning another parent to come forward, crossing Harry off my list. ‘Hello,’ I told the next mother, ‘I’m Sarah Fitzpatrick, the art teacher.’

‘Oh my God,’ she whispered, pushing back her fringe. ‘That was Matthew Brennan. Isn’t he so good to come to the parent–teacher meetings? Most fathers wouldn’t be bothered, would they? And he must be so busy. Fair play to him for making the time.’

‘He’s fantastic altogether,’ I said. ‘Now, what’s your son’s name?’

‘Matthew – Brennan,’ she repeated. ‘Don’t you know who he is?’

‘Mr Brennan is the parent of a student in this school,’ I said. ‘The same as you.’

‘He owns MBA,’ she said.

‘The estate agency?’ I asked, surprised, thinking of the black and silver triangle of the ubiquitous For Sale signs littering most of the countryside. Everyone in Ireland had heard of MBA.

‘I know,’ the mother said, staring after Matthew Brennan. ‘He’s beyond rich.’

***

The front door was swollen with damp, so I had to force it open; I then had to climb over Aaron’s bike, helmet and a collection of waterproof jackets, muddy runners and gym bags spilling their guts out onto the wet floor.

‘It’s like an obstacle course getting in here,’ I said in the living room.

Robbie looked up from his laptop to shrug an apology at me.

‘Are you wearing a hairband?’ I asked.

‘Give it two months and all the gays in Dublin will be wearing them,’ Aaron said as he passed me, his iPhone buzzing. ‘I’ll have to tell my buyer to put in an order for a thousand of them tomorrow.’ He answered the phone. ‘Hey, baby, how was your day?’ he said as he climbed the stairs, using the creepy voice he reserved for his girlfriend.

‘Do you hear that, Rob?’ I said. ‘Penney’s will be stocking your hairband by March. All dem gays will be copying you.’ I sat down next to Fionn, throwing my legs over his. There was an exposed spring in the couch, niggling into my spine. I was sure that Matthew Brennan didn’t have to put up with cheap furniture that was past its expiry date. It must be nice to be ‘beyond rich’.

‘Hard day at the office?’ Fionn asked.

‘The worst. Why did you make me go out last night?’

‘Make you?’

I elbowed the back of the sofa, as if that would somehow help me settle. The snap, snap, snap of a failing lighter, a small flicker of heat, a bubbling sound.

‘You want some?’ Fionn asked, smoke wreathing his face like a halo.

‘Nah,’ I said.

‘You sure?’

My blood was moving too quickly, like it was spitting through my arteries. I felt agitated, restless in a way that was familiar but worrying. That restlessness had only brought trouble in the past. ‘Maybe later,’ I told him.

In my bedroom, I changed into faded jeans and a bleach-stained sweatshirt. I hadn’t worn them for so long, these clothes that I kept for this specific purpose. I hadn’t needed to. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door to the studio and stared straight ahead. I didn’t look at Fionn’s work.

Empty cans of Red Bull. Twisted tubes of paint. An old jam jar of water. Oils on the palette. Crouching over the splattered ground, I moved brush across canvas.

– It never gets easier, does it?

– Triangle, black and silver, and silver and black triangle.

– It never gets easier.

Time disappeared, dissolving into the oils. This had always been another way for me to forget.

‘Hey,’ Fionn said when I was finished, and I sat back on my heels, fighting the urge to cover it up.

‘How long have you been there?’ I asked him.

‘Long enough.’

‘I’m sorry for using your paints. I should have asked first.’

‘Sarah.’ He knelt down beside me. ‘This is good,’ he said. ‘No blues?’ He took a quick look at the palette. ‘Or greens?’

‘It didn’t feel like a sea type of day.’

‘I thought every day was a sea type of day for you,’ he said, but I didn’t reply. I was spent, tired, but I felt perfectly still. It had been some time since I had felt that still.

‘Fionn?’

‘Yeah?’

‘You won’t forget me when you’re famous, will you?’

‘Of course not, Fitz,’ he said. ‘You’re my best friend.’

It was only then that I allowed myself to look at the paintings stacked in the corner of the room, Fionn’s brilliance strewn on the floor. He had never been precious about his work. He had no fear because he knew he could always create another one, that there would always be another sky and another sky and another sky that he could reach for, pull down from the heavens and pour on his canvas, each one so utterly different and yet always so recognisably Fionn.

‘It really is a good painting,’ he said.

And I knew he was telling me the truth. He did think it was good.

But it wasn’t good enough.

Four

NOW

It was a lovely wedding, Sarah supposed, as weddings went. June behaved itself and it didn’t rain, the day dawning overcast but warm. ‘We have the wife to thank for that,’ Justin Senior told anyone who would listen. ‘The Child of Prague has been out in the garden for about two months now; the face is melted off it.’ Justin Junior at the altar, his red curls damp with sweat and gel, joking with Oisín.

‘JJ wants me to be his best man,’ Oisín had told Sarah a year ago, when JJ and Alannah announced their engagement, trying to hide his excitement. ‘Can you believe it?’

‘Of course I can believe it,’ Sarah had said, hugging him. ‘You’re such a great friend, Oisín.’

After the ceremony, the guests lined up outside the church to tell the bride she looked beautiful and to kiss the groom on the cheek and tell him not to worry, that he looked very handsome too.

‘Will you be okay?’ Oisín asked Sarah before he left with the wedding party for the official photos on the beach.

‘Oisín,’ Aifric said, rolling her eyes, ‘Sarah is a grown woman. Don’t be weird.’ She linked arms with Sarah. ‘You can come in my car, babes; I haven’t seen you in ages.’

‘I was going to check where . . .’ Sarah tried, but Aifric had snaked an arm around her waist, propelling Sarah forward.

‘New car?’ Sarah asked when they climbed into the front seats of the Jaguar. It was fire red, sleek lines, low-slung seats: a car that commanded attention. A bit like its owner, really.

How is Aifric Conroy even Irish? Sarah’s friends in Dunfinnan used to say when Aifric was pictured at a launch party in VIP or RSVP magazine. She’s too beautiful.

‘Birthday present from my father,’ she told Sarah.

‘That was generous of him.’

‘Hmm,’ Aifric said as she pulled out of the church car park. ‘Anyway, tell me more about you. What’s been going on? Are you going to Tipperary any time soon?’

‘Yeah, I’ll probably go down in the next few weeks,’ Sarah said, gripping the sides of the car seat. Aifric drove at a pace that suggested she believed in immortality, like neither death nor a speeding ticket could stop her.

‘I want you to make more of an effort with Aifric,Oisín had said this morning when they were getting dressed in the hotel.

‘She’s painful,’ Sarah told him, ‘and she’s never liked me. Probably thinks I’m too much of a culchie for her to bother with.’

Oisín sat on the bed beside her. ‘Aifric has her own problems,’ he said, ‘but will you try, anyway? For me?’

Sarah knew that Oisín understood that when she said ‘Aifric is painful’, what she really meant was Aifric is better than me and Aifric makes me feel bad about myself. That understanding made Sarah remember why she had fallen in love with him in the first place. With Oisín, she had finally felt like she could stop pretending.

‘Tell your dad hi from me,’ Aifric said to Sarah, handing her keys to the valet at the hotel entrance, pointing at her suitcase in the back. The valet, a man in his early twenties, dropped the keys when he saw who it was, stammering his welcome. Aifric Conroy, Sarah knew he would tell his friends later, and she was even hotter in real life, I swear to God. ‘Eddie was so cute at that barbeque in your house last year. He couldn’t stop talking about how proud he is of you. You’re lucky, Sarah,’ Aifric said, pushing Tom Ford sunglasses into her hair.

There was champagne at dinner, beautiful food served in tiny portions. (Where’s the rest of it? Sarah’s father would have asked, poking suspiciously at the foie gras with his fork. I’ll be starving after this, sure.) Speeches were made.

‘Doesn’t Oisín look great?’ Aifric said, turning to Sarah and smiling too brightly. ‘You’re so lucky,’ she said again. ‘He’s mad about you.’

‘What are you getting up to these days, Sarah?’ a friend of Oisín’s from Blackrock College asked her. ‘You’re on your school holidays, right?’

What did she get up to these days? Waking up, a dry mouth; Oisín gone to work; burrowing under the duvet, thinking of the day ahead, so long, so many hours to fill.

‘I’ve just been hanging out with friends,’ Sarah said, ‘you know, visiting art galleries . . .’

Opening kitchen cabinets and telling herself that she should have a kale smoothie or porridge or granola. Be healthy today, Sarah; respect your body. Still in her pyjamas, staring at one of Oonagh’s paintings. My work was better than that, Sarah said aloud, brave when no one was there to hear her and tell her she was wrong.

‘I’ve been working on some new stuff myself . . .’ Sarah said.

Sitting in the dark. Ashes in her chest, thinking of Matthew. The way he had treated her. Hair pulled and flesh slapped and her head thrown back, swearing that she loved it, asking him for more. Sarah was afraid that he might have broken her and she was afraid that she might have been the one who asked to be broken.

‘So, yeah,’ Sarah said. ‘Just taking it easy, really.’

‘That sounds amazing; it’s great that you’re getting the time to work on your own projects,’ Aifric said. ‘Oonagh was just saying the other day that she thinks your job is perfect for an artist.’

‘Did she now?’ Sarah said. ‘When did you meet Oonagh?’

‘We went out for lunch last week,’ Aifric said, smiling at the waiter who took her plate. ‘My mom hasn’t been well.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Sarah said, wondering why and how her own name came up in conversation between Oonagh MacManus and Aifric Conroy. She stood up. ‘I need a toilet break.’ Restroom. She should have said restroom; that was what Matthew always said.

‘You okay?’ Oisín asked, walking towards their table when he saw Sarah get up. She fought the urge to tell him to leave her alone, to stop fussing over her; she knew she couldn’t do that with everyone watching.

‘Aww, you guuuuuys,’ one of the Blackrock gang said as Sarah cuddled into Oisín instead, smiling up at him. ‘When are you two lovebirds going to give us a day out?’

‘When you get married, you have to get William to make a speech. Can you imagine?’ Aifric said, clasping her hands together. ‘It’ll be so beautiful.’

Sarah could imagine it. William in a new Louis Copeland suit, hair greying at the temples, the very picture of the distinguished gentleman. Writing a speech would be easy for him. Words are my great love, he told the Paris Review when his last book was published. That’s one of the reasons I am so fond of my adopted country: the Irish possess such an affection for language. Every guest at their wedding would be spellbound by William’s eloquence, utterly rapt. Then Sarah’s father would stand up afterwards. Eddie would look uncomfortable and he would mumble, his voice barely audible, and the crowd would get fidgety, coughing, looking longingly at the empty bar. Sarah knew that Eddie would spend twice as long as William writing his speech, that he would find it twice as difficult to speak in public, but she knew too that this wouldn’t change how she felt. She would be ashamed of her father on her wedding day and she would hate herself for that.

Sarah led Oisín away by the hand, making sure they were out of earshot.

‘Are you having a good time, baby?’ he asked.

‘It’s a wedding,’ Sarah said. ‘It is what it is.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You know – bad food and warm cava.’

‘What?’ He pulled away from her. ‘The food was amazing; JJ’s dad wouldn’t have it any other way. And it was champagne, not cava.’

‘Oh, God forbid they serve cava, how déclassé. And then, to add insult to injury, I had to sit with your supermodel ex-girlfriend.’

‘Aifric and I broke up twelve years ago, Sarah, and she’s always been nice to you, hasn’t she?’

‘Of course Aifric has always been nice to me, super-nice; Aifric is just perfect. Saint fucking Aifric.’

‘Jesus, Sarah,’ Oisín said, suddenly sober. ‘What do you want from me?’

She didn’t have an answer to that.

‘I have to get back to the top table,’ he said.

Sarah watched him walk away from her before she remembered that other people might be paying attention, whispering about the state of Sarah and Oisín’s relationship. Not long for this world, I reckon, she imagined Oisín’s UCD mates saying to each other. She quickly ducked into the nearest bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, she took her phone from her bag. Don’t do it, Sarah; this is pathetic. But she couldn’t help herself. Florence Kavanagh, she typed in. It was always Florence she googled. It was always Florence’s face she ended up staring at in toilet cubicles and deserted bus stops and at night when she couldn’t sleep, Oisín snoring in bed beside her. Florence’s cut-glass cheekbones. Florence’s ice-blonde hair. Florence was what Matthew wanted and so Florence continued to be the yardstick against which Sarah measured herself.

What do you want, Sarah? she heard Oisín’s voice saying as she stared at herself in the bathroom mirror.

‘I want you to be nicer to your boyfriend,’ Sarah mouthed at her reflection. ‘I want you to forget about Matthew Brennan. I want you to grow up and move on.’

It seemed so simple when she said it like that.

Sarah knew that she should find Oisín, apologise for being cruel to him, but where would she even begin? It had been a year of small cruelties, subtle digs and put-downs, months of rolling away from him in bed because Oisín insisted on looking into her eyes and telling her that he loved her. Their sex life was gentle, tender, and a part of Sarah wanted Oisín to be more forceful, to do what Matthew had done and use her body for his own. Sarah wanted to be able to drift away and pretend like this wasn’t her boyfriend, this wasn’t her body. This wasn’t her life. She wanted to pretend that none of this was happening to her.

She slipped down the corridor outside the bathrooms, a narrow alcove lined with photographs of Irish authors (All male, of course, Oonagh would have complained. Female artists are never given the respect they deserve). She would go to bed, she decided. She would take off her make-up and get into her pyjamas. She would not look at her phone. She would take a diazepam and she would sleep.

‘It’s not the same anymore.’

Sarah stopped. There were a few voices in this world that would snap her in two with recognition, no matter how distracted she was. Her Nana Kathleen had been one, her father, then Fionn. Her mother, for a time. And now Oisín. Matthew’s had never been one of them. He had never given her enough time to learn his voice. Sarah saw there was a room tucked away here, the walls lined with bookshelves. JJ and Oisín were sitting on the leather couch, bottles of beer in hand.

‘I thought it would be different when—’

‘I know, Ois.’

‘It’s like nothing I ever do is right.’

‘I know,’ JJ said again.

‘I’m tired,’ Oisín said. ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this.’ He covered his eyes with one hand. ‘Fuck, I’m sorry to dump all of this on you, today of all days.’

‘Man, don’t be stupid. It’s obvious to all of us that . . .’

Sarah left before JJ could finish. It might not have been how it sounded, she thought to herself, the possibility of what she had heard (might have heard, Sarah) too overwhelming to deal with right now. She pressed the button for the elevator, smiling at the elderly couple who got in the lift with her. Yes, yes, what a gorgeous day; yes, you’re right, I’m on the groom’s side, and didn’t the bride look fabulous, and the food was great; it’s hard to get food right for that many people, but I guess you’d have to expect that from the O’Mahoneys, they know their food; to be fair, Jay’s Tavern does have a Michelin star and you don’t get Michelin stars if you don’t know your food. Sarah got off on the third floor, telling them to enjoy the rest of their night. Card in door. Not working. Trying it again, the red light flashing. Sarah jammed the card into the door again and again, until, finally, it worked.

She walked up the spiral staircase inside their suite and grabbed the small make-up bag on the bedside locker. She took her contraceptive pill and a diazepam, plugging her phone in to recharge. She swiped through her apps, telling herself this would be the last time she did this, the very last time. Matthew Brennan had checked his WhatsApp at 00.14, she saw. Was he out with friends? Dinner at L’Ecrivain, drinks afterwards, Matthew nursing a single glass of whiskey as the others’ eyes turned bleary. And there would be women. There were always women.

She felt the badness rise in her, a hungry thing. She had failed. She should have kept her mouth shut and her legs open, she should have taken whatever crumbs Matthew had been willing to give her and been happy with that. She had wanted too much and she had lost him and now she would lose Oisín.

Sarah looked at the four-poster canopy bed, the white linen draping to touch the floor, the cavernous wardrobe that looked as if Narnia might be waiting if you ever found your way to the back of it. Oisín’s clothes were thrown on the floor, expensive sunglasses on top because who cared if Sarah accidentally stood on them and broke them? They’re only things, Oisín would say. I can get another pair. Sarah used to find that endearing, Oisín’s blind acceptance of his wealth. Not even endearing, she had found it intoxicating. Matthew had had money, of course, but she didn’t have access to it; she wasn’t Matthew’s girlfriend, or his partner. She was nothing to him. With Oisín, Sarah had begun to understand that there would always be enough. She had felt safe.

But she wasn’t safe because it wasn’t her money. She wasn’t the one paying for the ocean-view suite in this five-star resort. She wasn’t the one whose parents gave them a house in Booterstown to live in, rent-free.

‘Isn’t it cool?’ she had said to Eddie before she moved in, showing him photos on her phone.

‘Very nice,’ he said. ‘And very generous of Oisín’s parents to let you two live there, but I hope you’re paying your own way, Sarah.’

And she had tried, in the beginning. She would pay for half of dinner at Blowfish or Jay’s Tavern or whatever restaurant ‘the lads’ said was the new cool place, but after a while she didn’t even make a half-hearted reach for her wallet. She couldn’t afford it and Oisín didn’t mind. He liked to be generous with his money – or with Oonagh’s money, to be precise.

Sarah pushed the heavy curtains back, cream embossed with the faintest imprint of lilac owers. Beautiful, her Nana Kathleen would have said, caressing the fabric, but fierce impractical. Sarah wished that she didn’t always think about how much things might have cost or whether or not they were good value for money.

‘Jesus,’ she’d said to Oisín when she had first seen the ivory-white carpet in their living room. ‘How on earth are we going to keep that clean?’

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘Magda comes twice a week. She’ll take care of it.’

Sarah smiled, but she had felt embarrassed that she didn’t automatically realise that of course there would be a Magda, that there was always a Magda for people like Oisín.

She opened the patio doors out onto the balcony. There were column candles in glass urns, rolling the air into vanilla and musk. She sat on one of the wooden rocking chairs on the terrace, pulling the cashmere blanket up to her neck. The diazepam was softening her limbs, making her mouth tender. She would sleep, she told herself again. She would sleep and, when she woke up, everything would be fine. She would love Oisín and she would forget Matthew. Easy.

Sarah stared blankly at the black sea, at the moonlight lacing its glimmer through the waves. She wished Fionn was here. He would hold her hand in the silence, and Sarah would feel calm. But Fionn wasn’t here. Sarah had fucked that up too.

She tried to stand, but her body was limp. She wanted to be nearer to the water, to wind seaweed through her hair like ribbons. She would be a mermaid, she would be a siren calling men to their graves. She would live forever in the depths of the ocean’s belly.

She would forget. She would forget all of this.

Five

THEN

‘Miss? Miss?’

‘Yes, Aodhán,’ I said. ‘What is it now?’

‘You have a hole in your tights,’ he said, hinging his chair on its back legs while clinging onto the desk for balance. He grinned, revealing spinach stuck in his braces from lunch.

‘Yes, Aodhán. I’m aware of that, thank you.’ You little asshole. ‘Now, could you please stop—’ The final bell rang. ‘Okay, boys. Please leave your work on your desk, but put all the chalk pastels and any other supplies you were using back in the supply cupboard. And remember, I expect that coursework to be completed when you come back after the midterm.’

The scrape of chairs against the tiled floors; boys grabbing the back of each other’s jumpers, tripping one another up; screams of laughter when one of them fell to the ground. I stayed in my seat until they left, an indistinguishable mob of sloppily untucked shirts and oddly vulnerable-looking necks exposed by buzzcuts. I smiled at the one or two who told me to ‘Have a good weekend, miss’. And then there was quiet.

I walked through the room (I should . . .), weaving my way around desks covered in graffiti, Jamie fingered Rachel and Miss O’Brien is hot etched into the wood with a compass or scribbled with permanent marker (I haven’t talked to him in . . .), staring at the pathetic attempts at sunsets and ice-capped mountains and swans floating on glass-still lakes (he’s by himself in that house and I . . .), gathering the pieces of paper up and resisting the urge to tear them to shreds. Whatever I might have told their parents, I did think talent was more important than the kids’ ‘creative expression’.

I sat at my desk again, holding my iPhone in my hand. What would Nana want you to do, Sarah?

‘Hello?’

‘Hi, Dad.’

‘Sarah? Is that you? Your voice sounds different.’

‘How does my voice sound different?’

‘I don’t know. It’s been a while since I’ve heard from you.’

‘I rang you last Friday; that’s not a while.’

He coughed into the phone, scraping mucus from the back of his throat. I knew what a good daughter would say: That’s a bad cough you have, Dad. Are you all right? Do you want me to come down to Dunfinnan to mind you?

‘How’s work?’ he asked. ‘I’m proud of you, Sarah; it wasn’t easy getting such a good job teaching, and straight out of college as well. You’re mighty, do you know that?’

‘Thanks, Dad,’ I said. ‘What are you up to for the weekend?’

‘Not much. Mass on Sunday, I suppose.’ My father would go to twelve o’clock Mass, like he always did. He stood outside the back entrance of the church, nodding at his friends. They never talked to each other, they just stood there in a respectful silence, only going inside when it was time to get Communion. They left immediately afterwards, the Host barely dissolved on their tongue, their duty done. ‘It’s a pity you can’t come home for any of your break, Sarah. I’d love to see you.’

‘I would if I could, Dad, but Fionn needs me right now. The exhibition opens in ten days.’

‘Ah, sure I know; I’m delighted for Fionn.’ He coughed again. ‘Have you been doing any painting yourself these days?’

‘No.’

‘Right.’ He paused. ‘Well, tell Fionn I said congratulations. It was very nice of him to send me the invitation to the opening.’

‘It was.’

‘I could still come, you know. I’d like to be there.’

‘But you have the cattle mart the morning after, Dad.’ I gripped the phone tightly. ‘No point in changing your plans at this stage.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s true.’

We talked for another few minutes, or rather he talked and I listened.

‘Ah, you do know him, Sarah, he’s one of the Mahers, his father died last year and there was fierce trouble between the sons over the will. I told you all about it. Massive funeral. We were queuing outside the funeral home for hours and it was lashing rain . . . You do know him. They have the big stone house a half a mile past the old convent . . . See? I told you that you knew him . . . What? Oh, nothing. He was just asking for you, is all. Said he never sees you in Dunfinnan anymore. Apparently his sister is in Dublin too; she’s working for an accountancy firm up there. On big money, eighty grand a year, he said, but she comes home every weekend. Which is nice, I thought . . . No, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty . . . I never said that . . . I never said that, did I? You’re being silly now . . . Sarah, please don’t shout at me ... I said don’t shout at me ... I can’t talk to you when you’re in one of these moods. I have to go . . . I do . . . I do have to go. Bye. Bye . . . No, I’m not angry. Just come home soon, will you? . . . Okay . . . Okay. Bye . . . Bye byebyebye.’

And I sat there, thinking of all the things I should have said to my father.

I don’t come home because I still haven’t forgiven you, Dad, even though I know it wasn’t your fault. I know you didn’t mean it. I know you were sick and sad, and Nana Kathleen said you were trying your best, but—

‘Sarah, isn’t it?’

‘Jesus.’ I banged my knee off the desk with fright, hissing with the pain. ‘You scared the fu—’ I stopped myself. ‘You scared me.’

‘I’m sorry,’ the man standing by the door frame said.

‘I didn’t hear you come in.’

‘You were busy,’ he said, and I could tell by his tone that he’d heard me talking to my father.

‘Well,’ I said, trying to regain my professional bearing, ‘how can I help you, Mr ...? How can I help you?’

‘You don’t remember me, do you?’

‘Of course I do,’ I said, trying to buy some time. Tanned. Ridiculously tall. Handsome, I guess, for an old man. Broad shoulders. Shoulders. ‘Harry’s father.’

‘Correct. Glad to hear that I’m not entirely forgettable.’

‘Right,’ I said. ‘What can I do to help you, Mr Brennan?’

‘I came to collect Harry.’

‘Harry wasn’t in class today.’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ve just been made aware of that.’

He stood there, watching me. Had he come here to hit on me? Besides the fact that I was his son’s teacher, I was about a hundred years younger than him. Why did men think that was in any way acceptable?

When I was in college, our lecturers encouraged us to go to exhibitions and gallery shows to ‘network’ with more established artists. It’s important to make contacts, they said. Cramped spaces and sitar music and young girls in black, circulating with warm white wine. The artists at the events were generally men in their fifties and sixties and sometimes even their seventies. They would talk about their careers, how their wives didn’t understand them and their children resented them for devoting more time to their work than to helping with homework or shouting encouragement from the sidelines at school matches. The art scene is unfair, they would tell me. It’s all about who you know. They could see I was talented, they said, and they wanted to make sure that I succeeded.

If I had taken their ‘help’, would I be a working artist now? Men like Fionn made it on talent, but women like me had to entertain a decrepit predator, their eyes trained firmly on my tits as they talked about how skilled I was with my paintbrush. Or was I just making excuses? Other women I knew made art, art that sold, art that was lauded by critics and buyers alike. It was unlikely that all of them had fucked their way to success. Maybe, as ever, the answer was simple: I wasn’t good enough. I never had been.

‘I was walking past the classroom,’ Harry’s father said to me, ‘and I heard a raised voice. It sounded like you were upset.’

‘I’m fine. Just a disagreement with my father.’

‘Fathers can be easy to disagree with,’ he said, peering at a painting that he had obviously identified as Harry’s. ‘We were supposed to be going to Boston today.’

‘What?’ I said.

‘Harry and me. We were going to Boston. It’s his birthday on Monday and it seemed like the perfect excuse, what with it being the midterm as well. But Flo wants him to stay with her and that’s that, apparently.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘birthdays are important to some mams. They like to make them special.’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They do, don’t they?’

***

It was nearly 6 p.m. by the time I finished, waving goodbye to Mrs Burke as I passed her office. She was sitting at her desk, the computer tinting her face green.

‘Only leaving now, Sarah?’

‘Yes, Mrs Burke; I thought I might reorganise the supply cupboard. I like to keep it nice and tidy,’ I said, to impress her.

‘Well –’ she looked at the paperwork on her desk – ‘you were late in this morning.’ Damn, I was hoping she hadn’t noticed. ‘I’m sure you had some catching up to do.’

Night had fallen outside, thirsty for any patch of light and sucking it dry. I didn’t feel like battling the February winds to the DART station, so I joined the pushing queue onto the bus instead. I stood, clinging on to a tiny section of a steel pole, pressed in between two office workers in sensible shoes and beige trenches. The bus smelled of sweat undercut by an orange that an elderly woman was eating, dropping the peel to the floor. No one else said anything, earbuds in and staring at the ground or their iPhones or their Kindles.

‘Honey, I’m home,’ I said back at the house. I threw my coat over the banister. ‘Fionn?’ I ran up the stairs, inhaling paints and methylated spirits as I stood by the door to the studio.

‘Hey,’ I said.

He didn’t reply.

‘Fionn,’ I said again. ‘Fionn?’

‘What?’ he snapped. The canvas looked as if black wax had melted all over it, sucking you into the unrelenting darkness. ‘I’m trying to work.’

‘I can see that. It’s intense,’ I said. ‘But that kind of stuff doesn’t sell, does it?’

‘Nah. Too “uncompromising” to be commercial, according to Kevin.’

‘Isn’t it a waste of time, then?’

‘It’s good for the soul. One for me,’ he said, then pointed at the stack of paintings behind him, ‘ten for them.’

‘Listen, do you want some smoke?’

‘I’m flat out, here,’ he said, bending over to scrape at the paint with his fingernail. ‘Ten days to show time.’

‘Cool,’ I said. ‘Good luck with it.’ I left, going into my bedroom and closing the door behind me. Stupid, I told myself. That was a stupid thing to do.

I looked at the murals that Fionn painted last year, touching my hand to the wall. We’ll never get our deposit back, Aaron had said, fretting so much I had to promise him that I would lock the door anytime the landlord came to visit.

Fionn had decided to turn my room into the sea, so that my bed would feel like a raft in the middle of the ocean. ‘You can float away anytime you want, that way,’ he said, once again demonstrating an understanding of who I was that no one else ever seemed to be able to match.

It had taken him weeks to complete the mural. I would stand and watch, mentally reciting the names of the paints he used: Cobalt Blue, Windsor Green, French Ultramarine, Oxide of Chromium, Cerulean.

‘No,’ I said when Fionn handed me a paintbrush and asked me to join in. ‘No, you do it. You’re so much better than I am.’

When he was finished, he guided me into the bedroom with his hands over my eyes. ‘What do you think?’ he had asked, and I tried not to cry out when I saw it, at how easily he had rolled water around his paintbrush. I could never capture the truth of the sea, not the way that I wanted to, and I knew then that I would die wanting to try, and I would die being too afraid to even begin.

‘It’s perfect, Fionn,’ I told him. ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’

But today the walls felt as if they were squeezing around my narrow bed. Panic had its hands around my neck, resting its fingertips at the base of my throat, like it did when I was a child. ‘He’ll be home soon,’ I used to whisper in the dark. ‘He’ll be home soon. Hold your breath and count to one hundred. He’ll be home when you wake up for school in the morning and everything will be okay.’

Why won’t you come home, Sarah?

Why won’t you come home?

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BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
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Louise O'Neill
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