Asking For It By Louise O'Neill: Book Review
If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have said there were certain books that couldn't be published.
And if they were, they certainly wouldn't be a smash hit.
Asking For It by Louise O'Neill (the award-winning author of Only Ever Yours) is one such book.
Mean girl Emma is queen bee in her small Irish town and ruthless about staying that way at any cost.
Then she is gang-raped and dumped half-naked on her doorstep, the pictures are all over social media and nothing will ever be the same again.
O'Neill takes all the received "wisdoms" about victims of sexual assault and kicks them remorselessly to the kerb.
A brilliant, important, utterly fearless book – read it and then make sure you pass it on.
Asking For It By Louise O'Neill: Book Extract
My mother’s face appears in the mirror beside my own, bright red lips on powdered skin.
Her hair is still in its neat bob despite the sticky heat. She gets it done every Saturday. ‘I deserve a treat,’ she says as she leaves the house. ‘I don’t care how expensive it is.’
Karen Hennessy gets her hair blow-dried three times a week. She never mentions the cost.
I’m flushed, patches of red breaking out on my cheeks, the greying vest top I wore to bed sticking to me. I look from her face to mine.
You’re so like your mother, people always say. You’re the image of her.
‘Morning,’ she says. ‘What are you doing, just staring at yourself in the mirror?’ She frowns at my chest, at where the nipples are outlined through the sweat-stained fabric.
‘Nothing,’ I say as I wrap my arms over them. ‘What do you want?’
‘Just checking you were awake.’
I point at my desk, my open laptop, the folder full of notes, a copy of Fiche Bliain ag Fás and an Irish–English dictionary next to it. ‘I’ve been awake since five,’ I say. ‘O’Leary is giving us an oral test today.’
Jamie will get full marks, of course. O’Leary will close his eyes as she speaks, leaning back in his chair. He always looks surprised when he looks up again and remembers who is talking. He can never quite believe that the best Irish he has ever heard from a student is coming from someone who looks like Jamie.
‘Oh, never mind Diarmuid O’Leary.’ She half smirks. ‘Does he know you’re my daughter?’ I don’t answer.
‘I brought you your vitamin tablet,’ she says. ‘You’re supposed to have it before your morning meal.’
‘I’ll take it later.’
‘Emmie, come on. The Health Hut had to order these in especially for you.’
‘I know that, Mam.’ Her lips go a little thin, so I make myself smile at her. ‘And I really appreciate it.’
‘I’ll leave it here, shall I?’ She places the tablet and a glass of water down on my bedside locker, next to my iPhone and a collection of mismatched earrings.
She stands behind me again, placing one hand on my left hip, the other at the base of my spine, and tucks my pelvis in. ‘You need to watch your posture, pet.’ She smells of flour and cinnamon, undercut with the same floral perfume she has used for years. I can still picture her sitting at the vanity table in her dressing area, a silver silk dress spilling over her body, a slash of bright lipstick, her pale brown hair twisted into a chignon. Her hair was longer then. Dad would call up the stairs, ‘We’re going to be late, Nora,’ and she would reply ‘I’m coming, dear,’ using that special voice she used with him, with all men. (And I would wonder why she never used that voice with me.) The last thing she would do was take her perfume, unscrewing the gold top, and spray some on to her wrists. I’d sit at the top of the stairs, watching her hips move under the silk as she walked down towards Dad, waiting for her. His eyes never left hers, not even when I started to cry as they left, arms flailing as the babysitter restrained me.
Her fingers rest on my stomach. ‘Do you have your period?’ she says. ‘You look a little bloated.’
I push her hand off me. ‘You don’t need to worry, Mam. I’m not pregnant.’
I walk away from her and check my phone. Ali has texted. Again. Even though I still haven’t replied to her last two messages.
‘Please don’t speak to me like that.’ ‘Like what?’
‘With that tone.’
‘There was no tone.’
Her shoulders are tense, and I know that she’s ready to go downstairs and tell Dad, tell him that I’ve been disrespectful and rude. He will sigh and tell me that he is disappointed in me. He won’t listen to me, no matter what I tell him, no matter how hard I try to explain. There are no ‘sides’, he’ll say. Please treat your mother with more respect.
There is only one side in this and it’s never mine.
She pauses. ‘Take that vitamin,’ she says, ‘and then come downstairs to join Daddy and me for breakfast. He wants to see you before he goes to work.’ She turns at the door to look at me, her gaze working up my body, lingering on my face. And I know exactly what she is going to say to me.
‘You look beautiful this morning, Emmie. As always.’
The door closes behind her and the air in my room turns to soup. I wade through it, pushing up my sash window in search of relief, and I can taste the tang of sea salt on the breeze. There are six other houses curving around the bay like a wishbone, all painted in the same canary yellow with black window frames and doors; sensible, boxy cars lining the glistening tarmac drives, Toyotas and Volvos and Hondas in black or silver, as if any other colour would attract too much attention. Nina Kelleher from two doors down is herding her daughters, Lily and Ava, into the back of a station wagon, a slice of toast between gritted teeth as she slams the door behind Lily, waving at Helen O’Shea who is on bended knees in the next driveway, retying her son’s shoelaces. ‘God, the state of the place,’ Jamie had said last year when we drove past a council housing estate on the outskirts of Ballinatoom, the neat houses crammed together, carefully tended flower baskets on the windowsills, gangs of snot-nosed children playing red rover in the small patch of green in the centre of the houses. Maggie had just gotten her driving licence then, and the four of us had piled into her parents’ Volvo, giddy with the sense of freedom, that we could go anywhere or do anything we wanted, although we never went much further than Kilgavan. We drove around Ballinatoom, through the roundabout, up Main Street, past the church, left at the garage at the edge of town, past the playground, down the bypass, and then we were at the roundabout again. We went around and around and then around again, eating penny sweets and watching out for boys we knew in other cars, Maggie insisting we turn down the music as we passed O’Brien’s funeral home, a thin line of people queuing up outside to pay their respects. ‘It’s just so yellow,’ Jamie said, turning to look out the back window as we drove past the estate. ‘Is there some sort of rule that says every housing estate built in this country has to be painted in bright yellow?’ Out of the corner of my eye I could see Ali, sitting next to her in the back, elbowing her, jerking her head at me.
‘Here,’ I said, turning around and handing Jamie the iPod. ‘Choose something else to put on, I’m sick of this playlist.’ And I could hear Ali breathing a sigh of relief that there hadn’t been any fighting, not this time.
Jamie wouldn’t say that now. She would be happy to live in our estate now.
‘For fuck’s sake, Mags,’ I say when I open the passenger door, shoving empty Tayto packets, a hockey ball, her mouth guard, a leaking red pen and about twenty balled-up pieces of paper out of the way.
‘You say that every morning. And yet it’s still the same.’ I take a book out of my bag to sit on to protect my skirt from the red ink. ‘It’s roasting in here. Are all of the windows opened?’
‘Yes,’ Jamie says from the back seat. ‘Such a pity you’re not allowed to use the Volvo any more, Mags. That has air con, doesn’t it?’
‘I brought some of Mam’s muffins,’ I say. I don’t want to talk about the Volvo. I reach into the bag and hand one to Maggie.
‘They’re still warm. God, your mom is amazing,’ she says, steering with one hand as she takes a bite.
‘Yeah,’ I say, looking out the window. ‘She’s the best.’
I turn around to offer the sandwich bag to Ali and Jamie. Ali pushes her blonde hair extensions back off her face. ‘No, I shouldn’t.’ She takes a sip of coffee from her Nespresso travel mug. ‘Mom has signed us up for this paleo food challenge thing.’ She bites her lip. ‘Emma?’
‘Are we OK?’
‘You never texted me back earlier. I was just wondering if you were mad at me or something.’
She’s wearing too much eyeliner, black gloop crusting in the corners of her eyes. Her dad bought her a Mac beauty case a few months ago, like one a professional make-up artist would have, filled to the brim with products and brushes. ‘Just because,’ Ali had told us with a shrug. Maggie had squealed with excitement, grabbing a liquid eyeliner to practise on Jamie. ‘Cool,’ I said. My fingers gripped a highlighting cream I had wanted for ages, but Mam said was too expensive. ‘Although I always think the Mac girls look like trannies.’
‘God, Ali,’ I sigh. ‘Get a grip, will you?’
I hold out the muffins to Jamie. It doesn’t register, so I wave the bag at her. ‘Hello. Earth to Jamie.’
She hesitates, looking at the bag and then at me again. She pulls a muffin out and takes a huge bite, almost swallowing it whole.
‘Take it easy,’ I say. ‘Even Maggie didn’t eat hers that fast.’
‘Shut up,’ Maggie says. ‘I had swim club at 6 a.m. I think I can have a muffin if I want one.’
‘I don’t know how you get up that early,’ I say. ‘I got out of bed, like, ten minutes before you arrived. I’m a disaster.’
Jamie crumples the muffin case in her hand. ‘I was up earlier than that, Mags,’ she says. ‘I had to study for the Irish exam we have today.’
‘Oh shit,’ I say. ‘I totally forgot about that. I am so screwed.’
‘Didn’t you forget to study for physics last week as well?’ Jamie narrows her eyes at me. ‘What a coincidence.’
I got seventy-eight per cent in that test, Mr O’Flynn placing the booklet on my desk with a wink and a murmured ‘Well done’. I left it on my desk so everyone could see it. ‘And then in first place,’ he continued, ‘congratulations, Jamie.’ Jamie took the booklet from him, ‘93%’ scrawled across the front in red marker. Her expression didn’t change as she shoved it into her school bag. I looked at my own again, and it was as if the number drifted off the page, rising towards me, searing itself into my eyes. I wanted to rip it into fifty thousand pieces.
‘Well done, J.’ I smiled at her, in case anyone thought I was jealous. ‘God, I wish I had actually studied now.’
‘Did you get new sunglasses?’ Maggie asks when Ali reaches into the yellow Céline backpack her mother bought her in Paris to grab a pair of tortoiseshell Ray-Bans. ‘What happened to the Warby Parkers your dad got you?’
‘It’s weird,’ she says, and I make my face stay very still. ‘I can’t find them anywhere.’
‘Ah, no,’ Maggie says as she turns into the car park.
‘Can’t you just get a new pair?’ I ask, and my voice sounds normal. She can afford it.
‘You can only get that style in the US. I told you that.’
‘Oh yeah, I think I remember them.’ I hang my backpack off one shoulder and start rooting through it to find my Irish textbook. ‘They were a bit big for your face anyway, hun.’
St Brigid’s Secondary School lies ahead of us, a grey concrete building with square windows glinting in the sunlight, squat prefabs lined up beside it. The gym, tennis courts and car park are to the front; steep grass fields at the back, cows mooing frantically whenever students sneak behind the gym to smoke. The nuns had sold the land to fund a new convent at the other side of Ballinatoom, the remaining five rattling around the cavernous building, just waiting to die. I look around me at the hundreds of girls getting out of cars, flushed and uncomfortable. The dark grey pleated woollen skirts, grey knee-high socks and dark grey blazers are not suited to this heat, but Mr Griffin, the principal, made an announcement over the intercom yesterday that ‘the uniform must be worn in its entirety, girls, no matter what the weather. There are no exceptions to that rule.’
All the students walk forward, laughing and linking arms and rifling through backpacks and yelling out at each other to wait up. I nod at the girls passing who call my name, say hello, ask me where I got my sunglasses, or what lip gloss I’m wearing, or how I’m feeling about our Irish exam today. I smile, telling them, ‘Thanks, you’re such a pet,’ and doling out compliments in return. I imagine them whispering to themselves once I’m out of earshot about how nice I am, how genuine, how I always seem to have time for everybody, how it’s amazing that I can still be so down to earth when I look the way I do. Next chapter
By the time the final bell rings, I am exhausted. I have to smile and be nice and look like I care about other people’s problems or else I’ll get called a bitch. People don’t understand how tiring it is to have to put on this performance all day.
Ali: Where are you now?
Ali: Did you get my last text, hun? I’m not sure if it delivered.
Ali: Hey, just checking if you got those last 2 texts I sent you. Where will I meet you guys after class? I’m waiting over by the Home Ec rooms.
‘Hey.’ Ali is lying on the concrete by the Fiesta, using her blazer as a blanket, her skirt rolled up and shirt open to catch as much of the sun as she can. ‘Did you get my text messages?’
I check the time on my phone, putting my hand above my eyes as I squint back at the school.
‘For God’s sake,’ I say, ‘where is she? I don’t have any suncream. I’m going to start burning if she doesn’t get here soon.’
‘Shit,’ Ali says. ‘I didn’t bring any with me. I’m so sorry. I should have thought.’
‘You know how delicate my skin is,’ I say, holding my blazer over my head as a shield. ‘And remember what Karen said about sun damage, she said those UV—’
‘Yeah, if I wanted a lecture from my mother, I’d ask her for one myself.’
‘Emma!’ I wince when I hear that squeaky voice. ‘Hi!’
It’s Chloe Hegarty, her hair standing up in a halo of frizz at her hairline, breakouts all around her jaw and chin, one patch of acne crusted over with yellow pus. I wish she would go and see a dermatologist. I turn away, pretending I need to get something from my bag.
‘Ouch,’ Ali says as Chloe slinks off.
‘Whatever,’ I say. ‘Oh, thank Christ, there they are.’ I see the girls coming out from the prefab nearest to the gym. Maggie’s head is bent over her iPhone already, her fingers keying furiously, Jamie trailing behind her. ‘Hurry on,’ I call out to them.
‘Sorry,’ Maggie says when she reaches us. Her blazer is wrapped around the straps of her bag and she fumbles underneath it for her keys without looking up from her phone. It beeps again, and she lets the satchel fall on the ground, her face softening as she reads the new text.
‘Mags,’ I say. ‘For fuck’s sake, I’m roasting. Can you at least open the door first?’
‘Sorry,’ she says again. ‘Eli says he’s going to be in the park at five with the lads if we want to meet him there.’ She puts the phone on the bonnet of the car, placing the bag next to it as she searches through it. She pulls out three tattered copybooks, old tissues, a leopard-print headscarf, an iPod, Tic Tacs, a leaking lunch box and an A4 pad. ‘They’re definitely in here somewhere,’ she mutters, using a tissue to wipe away the oily residue of her tuna sandwich from her fingers. ‘Wait! Here they be.’ She opens her own door first, recoiling as a blast of hot air hits her in the face. She crawls into the car, opening the other doors from the inside.
‘Jesus,’ Jamie says as we get in, cranking all the windows open. ‘When are you getting your new car again, Ali?’
‘Only three months to my birthday!’ Ali takes out her iPhone and swipes through her camera roll. She holds up a photo of a brand-new Mini Cooper in baby blue, and Jamie and Maggie ‘ooh’ in appreciation.
‘I feel like you see Mini Coopers everywhere these days,’ I hear myself saying. ‘They’re so popular now.’
Ali’s hand drops to her lap, the photo still open on her iPhone.
‘Slow down,’ I tell Maggie as we drive through the narrow main street of Ballinatoom, with its skittle-coloured buildings on either side, pubs and butcher shops and greengrocers all crammed in. A group of lads from St Michael’s are clogging up the footpaths, ignoring an elderly man trying to navigate his way past them with his walking stick. Their navy V-neck sweaters are tied around their waists, showing off sunburnt arms, sweat patches on unbuttoned white shirts, and blue-and-yellow striped ties hanging loosely around their necks, brown bags of penny sweets and cans of Coke clutched in their hands. There’s a large banner strung between two buildings, in black and gold, announcing a country and western music festival. It’s the same every year, hundreds of middle-aged fans from all over the country arriving in Ballinatoom wearing cowboy boots and Stetsons, humming Nathan Carter songs under their breath. ‘Aren’t you lucky to live here?’ they ask us, breathing in the country air. Why? I want to ask them. Why are we lucky to live here? But I know the answer that I’ll get.
It’s so beautiful here, they’ll say. There’s such a sense of community. People look out for each other.
It’s true, I guess.
Within minutes we’re at Connolly Gardens. There is a square of grass with a narrow ribbon of concrete path looping around it, and a marble fountain in the middle. A curved terrace of large Georgian houses surrounds the square, all painted pastel shades. We park outside Maggie’s house, a pale azure colour with cream window frames, a black cast-iron knocker in the shape of a lion’s head on the cream door.
‘Aren’t you going to come in?’ Maggie asks as she pushes the front door open and only Jamie follows her. Ali sneaks a look at me, waiting until I shake my head before saying, ‘No, I’m good, Mags. I’ll wait here with Em.’
‘And will you get suncream?’ I call after them. I don’t want to have to talk to Maggie’s mother. The last time I called, she disappeared into her ‘client space’ to get a ‘book that I think will really speak to you, Emma’. Hannah had caused quite a stir when the Bennetts moved here from North Cork five years ago. She was heavily pregnant with Maggie’s baby sister, Alice Eve, her bump bulging underneath tight T-shirts, and she didn’t seem to care that old ladies tutted and averted their eyes when they saw a flash of swollen belly. Everyone whispered about the new arrivals, about how the mother was ‘a play-therapist, whatever that means’, and the father was ‘an accountant, and must be doing well for himself if they can afford that house – you should have seen the price of it’, and that the other daughter was twelve or thirteen, and really pretty. I had been worried when I heard that until I saw Maggie and realized that, yes, she was pretty. But she wasn’t prettier than me.
‘I hear the wife is very attractive,’ Mam said to Dad the night they arrived, passing him the mashed potatoes at dinner. ‘And I do think it’s brave of her to allow herself to go grey so early.’
‘Ready?’ Maggie says when she opens the front door again.
‘Oh, you look so cool,’ Ali says. Maggie is wearing that men’s checked shirt she bought in a charity shop as a dress and her metallic silver Doc Martens. She has a paisley scarf holding her curls back, wrapped twice around her head and tied in an oversized bow on top, almost the size of her head, and multiple silver rings on her fingers.
‘Jesus,’ I say. ‘You look like you’re Amish or something.’
Maggie takes a look at herself in the oval mirror hanging above the spindly-legged hall table. I hate that stupid mirror, with the affirmation ‘You are beautiful on the inside’ scored into it in silver cursive script. I always want to scratch it out.
‘Savage,’ she says happily. ‘I love the Amish look.’
Connolly Gardens is quiet at this time of day. There are three women sitting on a bench at the other side of the green, all wearing black Lycra leggings, skintight vest tops and Birkenstocks, rolled up yoga mats and brown paper bags from the Health Hut at their feet. Another woman in cropped combat trousers and a baggy T-shirt is chasing after two toddlers, holding out suncream and wide-brimmed hats; some older children in swimming togs are running around the fountain, barefoot and shrieking.
‘Hey, sexy.’ A boy in a baseball cap leans out of the window of a car parked at the entrance to the gardens, his friend in the passenger seat throwing his head back in laughter. We keep walking, pretending we didn’t hear. I look back over my shoulder, and of course he’s pointing at me.
‘What’s wrong?’ he calls.
‘Then smile a little. I bet you’re even more beautiful when you smile.’
‘Christ,’ I say, when there is enough distance between us. ‘Why is it always me?’
‘Maybe because you were the only one who looked back and made eye contact with them?’ Jamie says, and Maggie starts laughing.
‘Come on, J, don’t be so hard on her. Maybe she fancies one of them.’ Maggie presses her lips together to stop herself from giggling. ‘The guy in the white tracksuit was a total ride. Just your type, right, Em?’
‘Ha ha,’ I say as she and Jamie laugh. ‘Very funny.’
Ali doesn’t join in, turning her face away from us. ‘It’s so hard being your friend,’ she told me at one of Dylan Walsh’s parties last year. She was wasted, slumped over the toilet bowl. ‘It’s like I don’t exist when you’re around.’ She retched again, and I checked my phone to see if anyone had texted me. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ‘And sometimes –’ she took a deep breath – ‘I think that’s why you like being my friend.’
I told her not to be silly. I told her she was wrong.
‘To be honest, Al, I’m sick of being harassed,’ I told her.
‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘it must be so difficult being told you’re gorgeous all the time.’
‘It’s superficial,’ I said, because that’s what you’re supposed to say when people tell you you’re beautiful. ‘It doesn’t mean anything.’
Ali stops suddenly, Jamie slamming into the back of her. ‘Shit.’
‘Jesus, Ali. Watch it, will you?’ Jamie says, taking a step back.
‘Shhh,’ Ali says, then lowers her voice. ‘Look who’s over there.’
Sean Casey and Jack Dineen are in a corner of the park, hidden behind the fountain. They’ve taken their shirts off and are throwing a rugby ball between them, their bodies lean and tight.
‘Sean is gorgeous,’ Ali sighs.
‘Sean needs some suncream,’ I say.
He looks up at this, his face going even redder when he sees me.
‘Hey, Emma.’ He waves at me, and I wiggle my fingers at him in return.
‘You shouldn’t encourage Sean,’ Maggie told me on Skype last week. ‘You know how Ali feels about him.’
‘I’m not encouraging him,’ I answered in exasperation, ‘but what am I supposed to do? Ignore him? I don’t want to hurt his feelings.’
(I don’t want him to think I’m a bitch.)
‘I’ll check us in on Facebook,’ Ali says when we find an empty bench. I sit at one end, Jamie next to me, both of us using the shade of a small oak tree behind us to block out the sun. Ali takes off her blazer to use as a blanket on the grass, Maggie borrowing mine to do the same. She gives me the fair-trade, fragrance-free, chemical-free suncream Hannah uses, and I pour some between my palms, rubbing it into my legs. I look up to see if Jack Dineen has noticed, but he’s tackling Sean to the ground, trying to wrestle the ball off him.
‘Eh, I think that’s rubbed in at this stage, Emma.’
Jamie squirts some suncream on to her legs and starts to massage it into her skin. ‘Oh yes, yes, yes,’ she says. ‘That feels so good.’
‘Oh, shut up,’ I say. I close my eyes, the world around me fading into sound. I can hear the cars driving past, a horn blasting. ‘Do you think he likes me?’ Ali asks Maggie. ‘Has Eli ever said anything to you? Did he say if Sean ever mentions me?’ Maggie’s reply in soothing tones, breaking off mid-sentence every time her phone beeps, a fly buzzing near me that I’m too lazy to swat away, one of the mothers calling, ‘Fionn, come here right now, it’s time to go home.’ I’m only half listening as Ali tells a story about some girl in the States who had her webcam hacked while she was touching herself and she took an overdose.
‘Ugh,’ I say, screwing my nose up. ‘That is so gross.’
‘Hannah says that masturbation is a normal thing for people to do, men and women,’ Maggie says as she checks her phone again.
‘What, so you do it, do you?’ I wink at her. ‘When I rang you last night and you said you were “in the shower” you were actually rubbing one out?’
‘No!’ Maggie’s face is turning red. ‘Of course not.’
‘I don’t,’ Maggie says. ‘I don’t. Hello, I have Eli, don’t I?’
‘Anyway, back to the story,’ Ali says. She hates it when we interrupt her like this. ‘The hacker sent this girl the video of herself and told her if she didn’t, I don’t know, give him a blow job or something, he’d post the video on Twitter and send a link to everyone at her school. So she killed herself.’
‘How did she do it?’ Jamie asks, leaning forward on the bench until her belly touches her thighs, but Ali just shrugs.
‘It’s a pity it wasn’t Sarah Swallows.’ I stretch my arms out over my head. ‘She would have been only too delighted to help, the dirty slut.’
‘Who’s a dirty slut?’ a boy’s voice asks. It’s Eli, Conor and Fitzy behind him.
‘Hi, Eli.’ I push my sunglasses back into my hair and smile at him. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m good—’ he begins, but Maggie screams as if she hasn’t seen him in years, and jumps up into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist. He manages to sit down with her still like that, murmuring hello to her through kisses. He doesn’t finish his sentence to me. Conor sits beside me, of course.
‘Hey, Emmie,’ he says. I raise an eyebrow at him. ‘Emma, I mean.’
‘Hey.’ I lower my voice so none of the others can hear me. ‘How’s your mam?’
‘She’s fine. Still very tired, but I guess that’s to be expected. Thanks though.’
‘For asking.’ He looks at me intently, his left shoulder grazing off mine.
‘Lads, would ye get a room?’ Fitzy says to Maggie and Eli as he sits next to Jamie.
‘Sorry.’ Maggie breaks away, but only barely, their faces inches away from one another. She brushes a hand over Eli’s tightly cropped Afro. ‘I can’t resist him.’
My phone beeps. Ali has checked us in again, this time including the boys. I roll my eyes and stretch out my legs, only half listening as the heat melts through my bones.
‘It’s roasting, isn’t it . . .’
‘Suncream . . . factor fifty . . . fair trade . . .’
Laughter. A patch of sun breaking through the trees, the sky moving. The buzzing fly is back, landing on my legs, tickling my skin.
‘. . . and I can’t get the exact right shade of blue. I want it to look exactly like . . .’
‘. . . yes, I loved that piece, even though Mr Shanahan said he thinks the Turner Prize is worthless these days.’
‘Mr Shanahan is basically mentally unstable.’
Fitzy and Maggie have become really good friends since Fitzy had to get a special dispensation to come to St Brigid’s so he could take art for his Leaving Cert. ‘She’s cool,’ he told me at his last birthday party. ‘She’s pretty, but she’s still smart and funny. Let’s face it, you can’t say that about too many girls in Ballinatoom, can you?’ I couldn’t think of a response for a second, and he looked triumphant. ‘Maggie’s the best,’ I said at last. ‘Although I’m surprised to hear you think she’s pretty. I didn’t think you were into . . .’ He stopped, fear freezing his features, and I felt a grubby joy. ‘Never mind.’ I smiled, and took another slice of birthday cake. ‘You don’t mind if I have some more, do you?’ I looked around at the nearly empty room. ‘I’m sure there’s plenty left.’ Next chapter
There is a screech of brakes, tyres against concrete. A blast of heavy metal music, a girl’s voice screaming over it, ‘I’m warning you, if you . . .’ A car door slamming, a horn blaring. ‘Fuck off, you stupid cunt,’ a boy’s voice yells as the car speeds off.
‘Dylan and Julie?’ Ali says, without even sitting up to check.
‘God,’ Maggie sighs, reaching to give Eli a kiss on the neck. ‘I’m so glad we’re not like that, baby, aren’t you?’
‘Aw, baby,’ Fitzy does a perfect imitation of Maggie’s voice before a rugby ball whizzes past his face, almost hitting him. He fumbles over Conor’s outstretched legs, Jamie snapping, ‘Hey, watch it,’ as he falls against her. He apologizes, shaking his hair out of his eyes, and gets to his feet, brushing grass off his rolled-up chinos.
Dylan runs towards us, Jack and Sean close behind him. He rescues the ball, tossing it from one hand to the other. He doesn’t even look at me, just stares at Jamie.
‘Hey, Jamie,’ he says. ‘How’re things with you?’
She ignores him, slumping down in her seat, tucking her chin into her chest.
‘I said, “Hello, Jamie,”’ he says again. ‘No need to be ignorant about it.’
‘Take it easy, Dylan.’ Maggie pushes her round John Lennon glasses up into that mane of unruly hair and squints at him.
‘Who asked you?’
Eli stands up, his six-foot-four frame dwarfing Dylan. Eli used to get into a lot of fights before, whenever some kid decided that calling him the N-word seemed like a good idea, but he promised Maggie that he’d learn to control his temper. ‘He says that he’d do anything for me, that he’s never felt like this about anyone else before,’ she told us when they first started hooking up, almost three years ago now. I wanted to tell her that boys always say that, in the beginning.
Eli starts to say something to Dylan when his phone beeps. He looks at the screen and frowns.
‘Who is it?’ Maggie asks.
‘Mum. She can see all of us out here.’ He turns towards a primrose-coloured house in Connolly Gardens, three doors down from Maggie’s, and waves at a shadowy figure in the front window. ‘I have to go home. Dad’s on nights this week and she needs me to mind Priscilla and Isaac.’
‘Do you want me to come with you?’
Eli helps her stand up, untangling her sunglasses from her hair and gently placing them back on her face. It falls silent once they’ve left, and I try and think of something to say. Emma O’Donovan is hot, I overheard a boy in my year say when we were fourteen and had just started going to the Attic Disco, but she’s as boring as fuck.
‘How are you guys feeling about the match tomorrow night?’ I direct the question at Jack, still standing at the edge of the group. His dark hair is spiky with gel, despite the heat, his navy T-shirt clinging to his torso. He’s a bit short for a boy, about five foot eight, but he’s built. ‘My dad told me there’s a rumour that a Cork selector is going to be at it.’
‘Well, he’s Ciarán O’Brien’s brother, so he’d be at the match anyway.’ Jack shrugs.
‘Still an opportunity though,’ Sean butts in. He comes closer to me, smelling of sweat and grass, and sits by my feet. ‘We had a team meeting about it yesterday.
‘Speaking of the match,’ he continues, ‘I’m going to have a party afterwards. My parents will be out of town.’ Ali sits up, but Sean’s eyes never leave mine. ‘What do you say, Emma? Are you up for it?’
I’ve told him that I’m not interested in him like that, that I’m never going to be interested, because Ali likes him. ‘But I don’t like Ali,’ he said that night when he cornered me outside Reilly’s pub. ‘I like you.’ I pushed him away. ‘I would, Sean. You know I would,’ I said. ‘But Ali’s one of my best friends. I couldn’t do that to her.’
‘It had better be a good show,’ Dylan says. ‘Especially after my last party. Am I right, Emma?’
‘Yeah, it was good.’
‘Just good?’ He raises an eyebrow at me. ‘That’s not what Kevin Brennan said.’
(Kevin, throwing me against a wall at the party, his teeth sharp.)
‘Why?’ I say. ‘What exactly did Kevin say?’
( . . . he is dragging me into a dimly lit bedroom that smells of Play-Doh. Tripping over a headless Barbie. A candy-pink duvet, people laughing outside. Let’s get back to the party, I kept saying.)
‘Oh –’ Dylan smirks – ‘just that you had fun.’
(Kevin’s hands on my shoulders, pushing me down, saying, Go on, come on, Emma. It seemed easiest to go along with it. Everyone is always saying how cute he is anyway.)
‘What kind of fun?’ My voice is tight.
(Afterwards I made him swear he wouldn’t tell anyone.)
‘Well, I don’t know what Kevin said, but nothing happened,’ I say.
‘That’s not what he told us.’ Dylan looks to Jack for confirmation.
‘Then he’s a fucking liar.’ I stop. ‘Look, whatever,’ I say, making myself sound calm. ‘If he has to invent stories to make himself feel like more of a man, that’s not my problem.’
‘Girls are all the same,’ Dylan says, rolling his eyes. ‘Get wasted and get a bit slutty, then in the morning try and pretend it never happened because you regret it.’ He directs this at Jamie and I laugh, a little too loudly.
‘I have to go,’ Jamie says, grabbing her school bag. A notebook and a tin pencil case fall out and Ali jumps up to help her, but Jamie waves her off, shoving the stuff back into her bag. ‘I have to get to work.’
‘OK, hun,’ Ali says, sitting back down. ‘Call me later?’ Jamie doesn’t reply, just walks away alone. Dylan stares after her.
‘Come on,’ he says to Sean and Jack when she’s out of sight. ‘Let’s get out of here.’ And they leave, throwing the rugby ball between them. None of them looks back at me.
‘I think I’m going to head,’ I say. ‘Wait . . . shit. Maggie said she’d drop me home.’
‘Mom texted me ten minutes ago. She’s in town,’ Ali says. ‘We can go meet her in Mannequin? She’ll drive you home once she’s finished.’
It’s always the same when we meet Karen there. Pushing open the black door, hit by the cool air and the vanilla-scented candles; our school shoes sinking into the plush cream carpet, expensive clothes draped off black jewelled hangers. The manager looks up, the ready smile on her face dimming when she sees the grey uniform. ‘Yes, girls?’ she’ll say, her voice clipped, until Ali comes closer and she sees who it is. ‘Oh, Ali,’ she’ll coo. ‘You should see what your mother is trying on. It’s divine.’ Karen will push back the heavy cream curtain of the dressing room, wearing yet another dress, or coat, or a T-shirt that she literally has to have. She’ll force Ali into a dressing room then, handing her a pair of jeans to try on, and you can see she’s trying not to wince when she looks at the size. Then she’ll turn to me, and insist I try something on too, and my head will swim when I see the price tags (That’s obscene, I can almost hear my mother say, and with people starving in the world), but Karen will tell me not to think about that, just to pick whatever I want. There’ll be a dress that looks like nothing on the hanger, but when I try it on it moulds to my body like a second skin, and Karen’s jaw drops when I come out of the dressing room. ‘You look stunning. You could be a model,’ she’ll say as she stands behind me, and the two of us look so good together in the reflection that I can pretend for a moment that it’s really us who are mother and daughter. ‘You have to have it. Will you let me buy it for you?’ she’ll ask, and I’ll want to say yes. I will want her to buy me one of everything in the shop. She can afford it. But I won’t. I can’t.
‘I can give Emma a lift,’ Conor says, and I nod at him.
‘See you later, guys,’ Ali calls as we walk away. My phone beeps.
Ali: Are you going to score Conor?
Me: Ugh, no.
Ali: But he looooooves you.
Me: Fuck off.
‘Emmie.’ Conor clears his throat to get my attention. ‘Sorry, Emma. We’re just here.’
‘It’s very . . . clean,’ I say as we get into his car.
He flicks the Lisa Simpson-shaped air freshener with a finger. ‘Is that annoying you? I can take it down if it is. I know perfumes can make you—’
He reaches into the glove compartment to get his glasses, then reverses the car, his hand on the back of my headrest as he turns to check behind him.
I stare out the window as the closely packed houses of the town centre melt away into a narrow road, curved trees on the right hanging over us, clinging to the ditch. The tide is out, turning the bay on the left to marsh, patchy with green weeds.
‘It’s good to see you,’ he says, turning the radio down.
‘I feel like I never see you any more.’
‘I know. I’ve just been busy, you know, schoolwork, blah blah.’
‘I meant what I said earlier.’ His hands tighten on the steering wheel. ‘About being grateful to you.’
(The O’Callaghan house. A smell of disinfectant. Dymphna smiling as I give her the paisley headscarf I had bought in Dunnes for her.)
‘It was nothing, Conor.’
(Sitting on his bed, staring at the Anchorman poster on the wall. He started to cry. I didn’t know what to do. Be a big boy, my dad used to tell Bryan. Stop that. Wrapping my arms around Conor, heads pressed together.)
‘It wasn’t nothing to me,’ he says. (His head turning slightly then, his breath on my cheek. And I could feel something melting inside me, something that I needed to keep under control.) ‘I want you to—’
‘Yeah, cool,’ I interrupt as the car pulls into our estate. I look through the Kellehers’ window, Nina and her husband Niall thrown on the couch, each with a glass of wine in hand. They’re clinging to either side as if they’re afraid they might accidentally touch. One of the kids runs in. A hand sneaks down, a ruffle of her curly hair, eye contact with the television never breaking. My gaze drifts across all the houses in the estate, a similar scene playing out in each one, chairs and faces focused on their TVs.
Conor parks next to his dad’s Merc, and I have the car door open before he has a chance to pull up the handbrake. He reaches across me, grabbing my wrist. ‘You shouldn’t have laughed.’
‘What are you on about?’
‘Earlier. When Dylan said that about Jamie. You shouldn’t have laughed.’
I can see my mother through the window, a neat lace-trimmed pink apron on, waiting for my father to come home.
You’re just like your mother, you know.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, Conor,’ I say. ‘It was just a joke. Lighten up, will you?’
(Jamie’s face in the park, stricken.)
(Jamie coming to my house after it happened last year, crying and crying. What’ll I do, Emma? What am I supposed to do now?)
And I wish I could go back to that moment. I would tell Dylan to fuck off and leave Jamie alone. I would stand up for her. I would be better.
‘What do you mean?’ I lean back in my seat, knowing my unbuttoned shirt is revealing the edges of my black lace bra. Conor glances down, and then looks up again just as quickly.
‘I mean, I’m just, I mean . . .’
‘Yes?’ My voice is soft. I shift forward, a strand of hair falling in front of my face. He puts his hand up to brush it out of place, then jerks back.
‘Thanks for the lift, Conor.’ And I get out of the car.
My bedroom is immaculate again. The oak four-poster bed has been remade, the lilac patchwork quilt neatly tucked in and turned down. The magazines have been stacked at the base of my bed, the tops of my make-up bottles put back on and organized on my vanity table, any streaks of foundation on the white wood washed off. Even my earrings and necklaces have been tidied away. I open the doors of my wardrobe and find everything has been neatly folded or hung properly on the good, wooden hangers. Mam has been at work.
A good daughter would feel grateful. (I didn’t say she could come into my room.)
It was a nice thing of her to do. (But I never asked her.)
(I won’t be able to find anything, she’ll have put stuff away in the wrong places, like she always does.)
I wish . . . I don’t know what I wish.
I lie on my bed, staring at the constellation of glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling, the back of my legs sticky against the damp material. The heat is oppressive, almost like it’s pressing down on me, like it might make an indentation in my skin. I turn on to my front, then my back again, then curl on my side, but nothing helps.
I lie there for hours. Next chapter
After school, the four of us are in Maggie’s car again, rolling down the windows to let the hot air escape, Jamie and Maggie bickering over whether to listen to Kate Bush or Taylor Swift. We drive through Ballinatoom, and around, and up Main Street again, and around again, over and over. I watch the sunlight on the bare skin of my forearm resting on the open window, anticipation licking my stomach. Maybe this will be the weekend something, anything, happens.
Ali grins at me. ‘Wait, I totally forgot to ask you about Conor O’Callaghan.’
‘What about Conor?’
‘Did anything happen when he dropped you home last night?’ I groan out loud as she waggles her tongue at me.
‘Ugh, no. As much as he wanted to, obviously.’
‘Oh, obviously, but of course, mais oui,’ Maggie teases. ‘The menfolk can’t resist your charms, you sorcerer, you.’
‘Seriously though –’ Maggie glances at me in her rear-view mirror – ‘Conor’s a good guy. You could do a lot worse.’
‘You have done a lot worse,’ Jamie mutters under her breath.
‘Keep your eyes on the road, please, Mags,’ I say. ‘And yeah, Conor’s cool and everything, but I’d never actually be with him.’
‘I thought you had scored with him already?’ Jamie asks, jabbing at the volume control on the radio.
‘Conor? No, we’ve never been together. What made you think that?’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ She shrugs. ‘You’ve been with everyone else. It’s hard to keep track.’ She laughs, like it’s only a joke. She pulls down the sun visor and watches me in the mirror to see my reaction. I laugh too. (Fucking bitch.)
‘I’d better get home,’ I say, looking at my phone.
‘I thought we were all going to the match together?’ Ali says. ‘I thought we’d agreed.’ She leans forward so her head is between the two front seats. ‘You two are still coming, right?’
‘I don’t know,’ Jamie says. ‘I promised my mother I would give her a hand with Christopher. He’s being really clingy at the moment.’ She looks at me in the mirror again. ‘And I have a shitload of homework to do as well. Not all of us are so lucky that we can just “forget” to study and still come out with A’s.’
‘What’s that supposed—’
‘Why don’t we go back to my house?’ Ali says quickly. ‘Come on. Just the four of us.’
‘I’m in,’ Maggie says. ‘I want to see the new swimming pool.’
‘I don’t have togs with me,’ I say.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ Ali says, ‘we have loads of spares.’
I can’t think of any other excuse, so I nod, ignoring Ali’s squeal of delight. We drive almost five miles away from the town centre until we get to Ali’s house, the Old Rectory. It’s surrounded by high brick walls, and she leans out of the window to key in the code on a silver flat-screen set into the wrought-iron front gates. There is a gravel drive, almost a mile long, surrounded by acres of empty fields. Her parents keep buying up more and more of the land around them. You could fit my entire estate in here.
Maggie parks beside the porch. The three-storey red-brick house has huge windows with white latticed frames covered in climbing wisteria and roses. Did you see the price of the place the Hennessys bought? my mother asked my father, waving the property supplement at him. He took it from her, putting on his reading glasses so he could see. It was all anyone could talk about for months afterwards. You’re rich, the other kids would say to Ali in school. My mam says your dad is a millionaire. She would get flustered, drop her school books or her bag or her lunch box, her face aflame.
Being wealthy is wasted on someone like Ali.
We pass the sculpture of a naked woman draped against one of the stone pillars on the porch, her belly bloated and full. Apparently it’s of Karen when she was pregnant, something Ali denies, of course.
‘I still can’t believe you have your own swimming pool,’ Maggie says as Ali opens the front door.
‘Mom’s idea,’ Ali says, leading us through the reception area. It looks like a lobby in a posh hotel, with the Waterford crystal chandelier and what Karen informed us is a Persian rug on the stripped wooden floorboards. It was embarrassingly expensive, girls, she told us, but I just had to have it.
I close the door of the bathroom behind me, the swimming togs Ali has given me in my hands. It’s in its packaging, Melissa Obadash scrawled across the front, the price tag still attached.
More money than sense, my mother’s voice says in my head.
I run my hand over the wallpaper, embossed magnolia with gold flowers etched on it. There’s a freestanding bath with gold claw feet, the toilet paper folded into a point by Magda, the housekeeper, Aveda hand wash and hand cream by the deep cream sink, the taps plated in gold. There’s an antique dresser painted in cream, a selection of perfume bottles on top. Coco Mademoiselle perfume. I’ve wanted that one for ages, But you’ll have to wait until Christmas, Mam told me, or save up your own money for it, Emma.
I spray a little on my wrists.
(They won’t even notice.)
I open my school bag.
(It’s not like they can’t afford it.)
And I stuff it in so quickly I barely even notice myself doing it, so it’s like I didn’t do anything at all. I stand up straight, staring at myself in the mirror. I am beautiful. I mouth the words at my reflection. That is something Ali’s money can’t buy.
We walk through the new sauna, Ali opening a wooden door into a long, narrow gazebo, closed in on all sides with frosted glass. ‘What the . . .’ She steps back, ignoring my hiss as she crushes my toes beneath her feet.
Inside there’s a photographer standing on a step going down into the pool, up to his calves in water, his camera clicking as Karen swims towards him. He backs up the steps, almost knocking over a skeletal woman with peroxide-blonde hair who is sorting through a rail of bikinis, each one smaller than the next. Karen, never breaking eye contact with the camera, emerges from the water, her chestnut hair slicked back off her angular, fine-boned face. She is completely naked.
‘Mom,’ Ali screams, and the spell is broken, everyone turning to stare at us.
‘Oh my God, Ali, you scared me. What’s wrong with you?’
‘You’re . . . You’re not wearing any clothes.’
‘Calm, darling,’ Karen drawls. A mousy-looking girl in shorts and white Converse darts out from behind the rail of clothes and hands Karen a fluffy white towel. ‘I have a bikini on.’ She pulls at the fabric. ‘See, it’s just flesh-coloured.’
‘Mom,’ Ali’s lip starts quivering, ‘what are you doing? I thought we—’
‘Oh, sweetie,’ Karen says, ‘don’t be like that. This shoot is for a different magazine.’ She gestures at the assistant to get her something to drink. The girl rushes over to the desk running the length of the clothes rail, laden down with snacks and bottles, and brings Karen a Diet Coke with a straw in it, holding it out for her to sip from.
‘Hi, girls!’ Karen disappears behind a free-standing room divider, slapping the wet nude bikini over the top as the stylist hands her a silver suit. She steps out from behind the screen, her perfect body barely covered by the one-piece. The stylist moves around her, with a mouthful of clamps, adjusting the material to make sure the fit is right. ‘Jamie, how is Lien?’
‘We haven’t seen her at Yogalates in ages, I was—’
‘My mother is fine, Mrs Hennessy,’ Jamie says, ‘but I’ll pass on your regards.’
With that she stalks out of the gazebo, Ali hurrying after her, calling her name.
‘Oh God, I’ve said the wrong thing, haven’t I?’ Karen says, looking after them. ‘Ali will probably kill me later.’ She bites her lip. ‘I’m always saying the wrong thing. I really didn’t mean to offend her.’
‘Why would she be offended?’ the photographer says, looking up from his laptop.
Karen lowers her voice. ‘There’s a lot of drama going on for poor Jamie at home. Her father’s Christy Murphy.’ He looks at her blankly. ‘Christy Murphy,’ she repeats. ‘Don’t you ever watch the news? He was in property, building, hotels, the whole lot. Lost everything in the crash.’ Both he and the stylist give a dramatic intake of breath. ‘I know. God, can you even imagine? And Ali told me that Jamie has to work part-time now to help out, you know, financially. The whole thing is so awful. And it’s awkward – I don’t know if Lien even wants to see me. If it was me I’d be too mortified to face anyone, you know?’
‘Maybe the daughter could do some modelling?’ the stylist offers.
‘What?’ Karen looks surprised. ‘Jamie?’
‘Why not?’ the stylist says. ‘She’s tall enough, and Asian girls are so on trend this season.’
I wait for Karen to say, No, not Jamie. If anyone is going to be a model it should be Emma, but she shrugs, and lies down on a striped sunlounger, pouting at the camera.
‘Come on,’ I say to Maggie. ‘Let’s go.’
‘So,’ Maggie says as the door to the swimming pool slams behind us and we go to find the others, ‘do you think Jamie would want to be a model?’
‘You heard what the stylist said.’
‘I doubt it. I mean, being a model is a bit desperate, isn’t it? You’d want to really love yourself, like.’
‘Do you think?’
‘Jesus, I thought you’d be totally against it, as a feminist. Isn’t it just more patriarchal bullshit?’
‘All right, all right.’ Maggie holds her hands up in a gesture of surrender. ‘Calm, girl.’ There’s a pause, and she has the same expression on her face Hannah does when she’s about to ask you a personal question. ‘Are you OK?’
‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘Totally fine.’ Next chapter
‘You can’t park there.’ A sunburnt man in a high-vis jacket, shorts, socks and sandals barks at us as Maggie pulls her car up as near to the entrance to the GAA pitch as she possibly can. ‘That’s reserved.’
We look at Ali, but she stays quiet. She hasn’t said much since we left her house.
‘Hey.’ I nudge her, then tilt my head at the man. ‘He says we can’t park here.’
‘Oh, sorry.’ She shakes herself out of her daze, reaching into her handbag and pulling out a neon-pink piece of cardboard. ‘My dad gave me this?’ She hands it to him, and his eyes narrow as he looks over it.
‘And who exactly is your dad?’ he asks.
‘James Hennessy?’ Ali mumbles, and he splutters an apology, waving us through.
The pitch is nestled in a valley, surrounded by sloping hills on three sides, the grass yellow and parched. I don’t understand how in a country that gets as much rain as this one does, we can be having a drought, have you ever heard the like of it? the old people keep saying to each other as they pay for their groceries in Spar, their Calvita cheese, cooked ham and white sliced pan in their hands, ignoring the queue of customers behind them, talking too long to the bored shop girl who just wants them to leave so she can go back to reading her magazine. We walk past a group of sixth years from St Michael’s, all wearing the blue-and-yellow Ballinatoom jersey with ‘Hennessy’s Pharmacies’ stitched on the front in red, nudging each other as I pass.
We climb halfway up the hill on the left and settle in front of the clubhouse. A soft cashmere blanket from Avoca is pulled out of Ali’s wicker carrier basket. (Be careful, I could imagine Mam saying if that was ours. Don’t get any stains on it. It’s for good use.) ‘One for you, one for me,’ she says as she hands me a bottle of factor-fifty suncream, keeping the SPF6 oil.
‘Ah, the old skin cancer in a bottle.’
‘And one for you, one for me.’ She ignores me again, giving us a packet of Haribo Tangfastics, grabbing the medjool dates for herself.
‘I can’t eat these,’ I say.
‘Why not?’ Jamie sighs.
‘Eh, because of the gelatine?’
‘Oh my God, are you still pretending to be a vegetarian?’
‘How is it pretending when I—’
‘I have popcorn,’ Ali says. ‘That’ll be OK, won’t it?’
I take the bag off her. (I should smile. I should say thank you.) ‘Fine,’ I say.
We lie down, propping ourselves up on our elbows, and pretend to watch the match. The ball goes back and forth, players taken off and brought on, the crowd baying for blood, then proclaiming them gods for our time.
‘They’re not playing very well, are they?’ Ali says as the old man next to her, wearing dark tweed trousers and a matching jacket despite the heat, starts screaming obscenities at the stupid cunting ref and, Will ya look, Campbell, will ya just fucking open your eyes and look around ya?
Campbell’s mother, standing two metres away from us, winces at that but she doesn’t comment. ‘They’d better get their shit together for the County,’ I say. ‘I want to go to the Winner’s Gala ball again.’
‘You were so lucky to get to go last year,’ Maggie says. Sean Casey asked me, and I told him I’d have to talk to Ali first. I could tell she didn’t want me to, but I knew Ali would never say no to me. Fine, she said, her shoulders slumping. Go if you want to.
‘Sure what’s the point of bringing the Dineen lad on at this stage?’ the old man grumbles as one of the Ballinatoom players limps towards the dugout, moving sluggishly in the hazy heat. I sit up at the mention of his name. ‘I didn’t think much of him at the friendly against Nemo, but if Ciarán O’Brien, in all of his fucking wisdom, thinks Dineen will make such a difference . . .’ The rest of his sentence is drowned out by the crowd’s screaming, and I snap my head back to see Jack weaving around the exhausted backs, the ref blowing the whistle pretty much as the ball hits the back of the net.
‘That Dineen lad is brilliant . . .’ I hear people saying as they start walking towards the clubhouse.
‘. . . there’s talk that the young Dineen lad is going to make the Cork team . . .’
‘. . . he has to, doesn’t he?’
‘I haven’t seen footballing like that in years.’
I beckon my girls together, waiting until we’re in a close-knit circle.
‘I’m going to score with Jack Dineen tomorrow night.’
‘Oh my God, like,’ Jamie says. ‘Does he even stand a chance?’
I wait a beat. ‘Nope,’ I say. ‘Not a chance.’
And we all crack up laughing, Jamie too, and for a second it feels like nothing has changed.
There’s a sudden ear-splitting scream. It’s Dylan Walsh in front of the clubhouse, with Julie Clancy thrown over his shoulder. She’s banging on his back telling him to, Leave me down, but she’s laughing so hard she can barely get the words out. He drops her a little and she wraps her legs around his waist, his hands holding her up by the ass as they kiss.
‘Dylan Walsh is so gross.’ Maggie’s face is screwed up in a grimace. ‘No offence, J, but I don’t know what you were at.’
They move ahead of us, chatting loudly about the outfits they’re going to wear tomorrow, Maggie telling Ali she’s thinking ‘lots of checks, you know?’ Jamie has stopped dead, dozens of other supporters milling around her.
‘Come on,’ I say, reaching out to grab her hand. ‘We agreed it was best not to—’
‘Fuck off,’ she says, pulling away from me. I check quickly to make sure the others haven’t heard, but they’re at the entrance gates, chatting to my dad. He’s still wearing his pinstriped business suit, but has taken off the jacket. He has patches of sweat around his armpits. You should buy him special deodorant, I told Mam last summer. You can get this stuff that, like, means you never sweat. I’m sure I read that causes cancer, she had replied, as if that had anything to do with the conversation.
‘There’s my princess.’ He puts his arm around my waist and gives me a kiss on the cheek.
‘How are you, Jamie?’ Dad asks. ‘Did you enjoy the match?’ She murmurs yes. ‘That Dineen lad is in your class, isn’t he?’
‘You don’t say “class” any more, Daddy. We’re not in national school.’
‘Sorry. Your year then.’ I nod. ‘He’s a handy player for someone so young.’ Dad grabs a handkerchief from his pocket and dabs at his brow.
‘Sean Casey is in our year too,’ Ali pipes up.
‘Yeah, but sure he’s only a sub,’ I say.
Dad’s eyes drift over my shoulder, and he breaks into a huge smile. ‘And here’s the man himself!’
I spin on my heel, but it’s just Ciarán O’Brien, his shock of hair suspiciously dark for someone of his age.
‘Ciarán, congratulations! Great game. Your lad played well.’
‘Ah, we were grand. Still a bit weak in the forwards,’ Ciarán says. ‘No chance of Bryan coming back for us?’
‘Ah,’ Dad looks embarrassed. ‘He says the UL team is enough for him at the moment.’
‘Hmm,’ Ciarán grunts. He looks at each of us in our turn, smiling extra widely when he sees Ali, enquiring after her dad.
‘And is one of these lovely ladies your own daughter?’ he asks, and Dad gives me another squeeze around the waist, saying, ‘This is our youngest, Emma.’
Ciarán looks me up and down. I probably shouldn’t have worn such a low-cut top.
‘Well, well, well.’ He winks at Dad. ‘You have a heartbreaker on your hands there, Denis. I’d say you must be bating them off with a stick.’ He tilts his head in a hello to a passer-by, shaking a couple of outreached hands, then makes a drinking gesture at Dad. ‘Pint?’
‘God, did you see the way Ciarán O’Brien was checking me out?’ I shudder as we watch them leave.
‘Well, what do you expect, princess?’ Jamie says. ‘You’re about to take someone’s eye out.’
(Jamie and I getting ready in my bathroom. She fidgets nervously with her dress. Do you think it’s too short? she says, spinning around to see herself from the back. Don’t be stupid, I say, handing her another drink. With your legs?)
‘You really are your dad’s pet, aren’t you?’ Ali says, a little wistfully. ‘All those hugs and kisses. My dad is so not a hugger.’
‘I wouldn’t mind if he was,’ I say. Ali’s dad, James, is an absolute ride. She groans in disgust and shoves me as hard as she can, cackling with laughter when I stumble against a girl walking past me.
‘Eh, excuse me.’ It’s Susan Twomey, surrounded by ten of her friends, all slim and tanned, with long hair spilling over their shoulders in various shades of blonde. All of them are wearing what looks like the children’s version of the Ballinatoom jersey, minuscule shorts and wedge sandals.
‘Susan,’ one of the WAGs mutters under her breath, ‘Paul’s coming.’
He runs up to us and grabs Susan around the waist, although how he can pick her out of this line-up is beyond me, and gives her a massive kiss, ruffling her hair and saying ‘We won, we won!’ as if the rest of us hadn’t been at the match.
‘How come you didn’t go to the clubhouse?’ He turns to one of the others. ‘Ben was looking for you too.’ The girl looks guilty, her eyes darting to Susan and then to the ground.
‘Ugh, baby,’ Susan says. ‘It’s so gross in there – that rag they use to dry the glasses looks like it hasn’t been washed in twenty years.’
He smiles at her, then glances at the rest of us, doing a barely perceptible double take when he sees me. He looks me up and down, just like his father did, running a hand across his brown buzz cut. Susan grits her teeth.
‘Emily, isn’t it?’ she says, walking towards me.
‘It’s Emma, actually.’
‘You must be freezing, Emily.’ She gives a sympathetic shiver, standing so close to me I can smell the biscuit tang of her fake tan. She unwraps my cardigan from around my waist and places it around my shoulders, hoiking up my crop top to cover my cleavage. Her friends snicker, and my ears start to burn.
‘Thanks for your concern, Sharon,’ I say. I take off the cardigan again, wrapping it around the strap of my bag, and pull the top even further down. ‘But I’m not cold at all.’ I direct this at Paul with a smile. And as I walk away, my legs tremble with an adrenalin rush so strong I almost feel sick from it.
‘There you are,’ Mam says. She’s sitting at the kitchen table, tapping at the iPad. ‘I’m trying to watch something on playback and it keeps freezing. What’s wrong with this thing at all?’
‘Did you ask Bryan? He’s better at stuff like that than I am.’
‘He’s not feeling well. Food poisoning.’
‘Food poisoning?’ I say as I go into the TV room after I tried in vain to help Mam fix RTÉ Player. ‘I did that already,’ she snapped when I suggested turning it off and back on again. ‘And put a jumper on yourself.’ She handed me Bryan’s UL hoodie. ‘You’ll embarrass your brother if you go in to him like that.’
Bryan is thrown down on the black leather sofa, a blue plastic basin next to him and one of Mam’s patchwork quilts in red gingham pulled up to his neck. His skin is tinged with grey, his dark curly hair coated with sweat and sticking to his head. ‘Looks like someone had fun last night.’
‘Tesco value vodka,’ he croaks. ‘May as well have been drinking lighter fluid.’
I nudge his feet off the sofa so I can sit next to him, yanking some of the quilt away from him.
‘Ah, the poor Bryany.’ I pat him on the head. He grunts, turning his attention back to the TV. ‘You look very skinny. Maybe I should come visit you again, feed you up.’
‘And give me food poisoning for real? No, thanks.’ He pulls the quilt off me, looking a bit more awake. ‘And anyway, you’re not allowed back to UL, not after your visit at midterm.’
‘Are your roommates still pining after me?’
‘They’re managing to survive, somehow.’
Ali: Today was fun, wasn’t it?
Ali: I’m so bored.
Ali: Anyone want to Skype?
I tell Bryan to turn up the volume as Graham Norton flips an unfortunate-looking girl off the Big Red Chair.
‘The state of her,’ I say. ‘You think she’d have got her hair done or something if she knew she was going to be on TV.’
My phone beeps again. Ali has tagged me in a photo on Instagram, a selfie of the four of us at the match captioned ‘Me and my girls, fresh as fuck.’
I look at the photo closely. I’m definitely the prettiest out of the four of us.
(It’s just because Jamie is tall. Models need to be tall.)
(It’s just because Asian girls are on trend this season.)
I turn my phone on silent and put it face down on the armrest.
‘How’s Jen?’ I ask.
‘You can ask her yourself tomorrow night. She’s staying over.’
‘What, like a sleepover?’ I joke, but he doesn’t laugh. ‘Wait, are you serious? Do Mam and Dad know?’
‘That is so unfair. As if they would ever let me have anyone to stay.’
‘That’s different, Emmie,’ he says. ‘Anyway, they won’t be here. I got them a deal for a night’s stay in a four-star down in Killarney. It was Jen’s idea – she and Sean and Laura got the same one for their folks because it’s John Junior’s anniversary this weekend.’
‘Oh yeah, Sean did mention something about that at the park,’ I say, turning my mouth down. ‘Won’t it seem a bit random though? You just buying Mam and Dad a hotel voucher?’
‘Hardly random.’ He presses mute on the TV. ‘It was for their wedding anniversary.’
‘What? When was that?’
‘Today, you moron. They’re thirty-five years married.’
‘Oh shit.’ I try and think of what I’m going to do. ‘Can I go in on yours? Ah, please, Bryan. I’ll sign the card and I’ll give you the money later.’ He raises an eyebrow at me. He’s forever slipping me cash and I tend to ‘forget’ to pay him back.
‘It’s too late, Emmie. I’ve already given it to them.’
I’m about to argue with him when Mam comes into the room, her mobile phone tucked between her cheek and her shoulder, a large tray with three cups of tea and a plate of biscuits in her hands.
‘Oh, I know, Bernadette, it’s ridiculous.’ She places the tray on the coffee table in front of us, straightens up and takes her phone in her hand. ‘OK, I’d better go here. Bryan’s back from UL for the weekend, he’s so good. I know . . . I know . . . Yes . . . Yes . . . OK, bye bye bye bye bye.’ She hangs up and places her hand on Bryan’s forehead. ‘Are you comfortable? Do you want more water?’
‘I’m grand, Mam.’
‘Well, I made your favourite biscuits.’ She points at the tray. ‘Oatmeal and raisin.’
I hate raisins, I want to say. I haven’t eaten raisins in about ten years.
‘Did you get it sorted?’ I ask her.
‘Oh no, I’m going to wait till your father gets home.’ She frowns at me. ‘Emmie, give your brother some room, he’s not feeling well.’ She flops into the leather recliner next to the sofa as Bryan starts demolishing the cookies, his appetite miraculously returned.
‘Where’s Dad?’ he asks.
‘He’s gone for a drink with Ciarán O’Brien.’
‘Ciarán O’Brien, is it? Or Ciarán, King of Ballinatoom, to give him his official title.’
‘Ah, stop that now.’ Mam takes one of the cups from the tray and throws two cubes of sugar in it.
‘Mam,’ Bryan looks at her incredulously, ‘how can you say that, after what happened with Eoin Sayers and—’
‘Well.’ Her lips tighten. ‘You weren’t exactly innocent in that little escapade yourself now, were you? And you would have been expelled too if Ciarán hadn’t intervened on your behalf.’
‘Oh yeah, I’m sure he did that out of the goodness of his heart. Nothing to do with the fact that we had the college’s All-Ireland and—’
‘Well, if Eoin had played football, I’m sure Ciarán would have spoken up for him as well.’
‘Jesus, Mam, that’s the point—’
‘Bryan.’ Her voice is razor sharp and we both start. Mam never gets cross with Bryan. ‘Ciarán O’Brien does a lot for this town, and he’s very well respected. You were lucky that he stepped in when he did.’
She gestures at Bryan for the remote control, stretching across to get it from him, and changes the channel, ignoring our protests.
‘No talking,’ she says, ‘not while The Late Late is on.’ We fall silent. ‘Isn’t this nice?’ she says. ‘I can’t remember the last time we all sat in together on a Friday night; it must have been last year some time. You two are always so busy these days. Why I—’
‘Shhh,’ I say. ‘The Late Late is on.’