Acts of Desperation | Megan Nolan | Granta

Acts of Desperation

Megan Nolan

When I was a child and my cat was hit by a speeding car which didn’t stop, he lay out in the shed that night waiting to be buried.

I crept out into the damp mossy darkness after everyone was asleep and drew back the blanket he was beneath. I put my hand on his familiar ginger stomach but of course it was wrong in every conceivable way; freezing where it should have been warm, stiff as new cardboard where it should have been soft.

Feeling this wrongness I knew it was true at last, and couldn’t believe it. I kept on stroking and stroking him, making deals with god. Thinking, ‘if I stand here all night’, thinking maybe if I stroked the awful, dead-thing stomach one thousand times exactly, thinking ‘please, please god send him back to me, give him back to me, I’ll never stop asking’.



I had been living in a constant bargain with Ciaran for months. Every day that passed in which I was easy to be with, and accommodating, and a good girlfriend, was a ritual offered up. My body expected them to work, expected the perseverance to mean something. And suddenly it was clear to me that my intentions were meaningless, and I could no more magic him into loving me than I could an animal back to life.

When I looked back at him from my collapse he had hardened.

‘For God’s sake,’ he leaned forward and hissed. ‘Don’t be a child,’

I looked back down miserably, unable to shake myself off, quickly, smilingly, as I usually was.

There was a scrape as he pushed his stool back and moved past me.

‘Wait,’ my mouth was saying instinctively.

I wish I could step inside this memory and steady myself, put a cool reassuring hand on my own and convince myself to wait. Have another drink, calm down, go home. But my body was moving without thought, scurrying under the bar to gather my belongings, running outside onto the tram tracks, peering either direction. I saw him walking quickly down past the National Museum. He was moving steadily, betraying no sign of the drunkenness from a moment before. I ran after him, feebly calling wait, wait, and grasped for his shoulder when I caught up to him.

He shook me off so violently I stumbled backwards and then I was crying and saying please over and over again.

Ciaran found crying repulsive. Whatever distaste he already felt for me during arguments, the sight of tears sharpened it. His eyes would narrow and lose any residual warmth or compassion. He would turn away from me, refuse to witness.

Was he right to be disgusted? Was it all a show, a ploy to get sympathy? I can only say if it was one it was both unconscious and misguided. It never succeeded in eliciting any good or compassionate feeling, and yet I kept doing it. I never wanted to. It seemed as impossible to restrain as vomit, and its ability to repel him only made me do it harder.

It was, I think, that loss of control that made him hate it so much. To see an adult really cry is a perverse experience. The wailing adult is both childlike and pathetically defeated in a way that is alien to childhood (cursed by the breadth of their experience, lacking the single-minded purity of a child’s grief).

I can see his regal body bearing over my cringing shadow, my hands open and upturned, appealing to him as though for coins, scraps.

Some part of me had already decided to live for him and let him take over the great weight of myself. I was also so frightened of him and what he did to me that I could never admit this decision, neither inwardly nor to him.

And so in moments like this one when I was unexpectedly confronted by my own need, my reaction was to deny – to hysterically deny – that it existed. Hence the wailing of sorrys and pleases, the desire to make him forget at once I had ever demanded anything of him.

In these moments – for this was only the first of what amounted eventually to hundreds, whole months, years, of prostrating – I pled with him to see how small I really was.

I said through my huddling and hiding that I was nothing, and I was happy to be nothing if nothing was what pleased him best. If nothing was the least trouble, then I would be it, and gladly. I would be completely blank and still if that was what worked, or as loud as he needed me to be to take up his silences. I would be energetic and lively if he was bored, and when he tired of that I would become as prosaic and dully useful as cutlery.

I didn’t ask love of him. I didn’t want him to look in my direction and see me; for there was no thing I could say with confidence was me. I panicked when my need shone through because it was real.

The need was a true and human part of me, but I could feel nothing else of myself to be true or human, and so the need seemed ungodly, an aberration.

He walked home and did not actively discourage me from following him. He ignored me, which I could tolerate, in that moment even enjoyed, the better to demonstrate how quiet and good I could be. When we reached his house he stopped outside and turned to me.

‘You can come in, and you can stay, but I do not want to talk about this tonight or ever again. Freja and I are adults. We’re older than you. We have a complicated relationship, but it has nothing to do with you and it does not affect you. Understand?’

I nodded eagerly. I didn’t speak again that evening, brushing my teeth and undressing in silence. I allowed him to turn away from me in the bed, as I had known he would, without protest.

I woke at dawn. It was a bright and sterile grey outside. Christmas wasn’t long away.

I looked down at Ciaran, frowning in his fretful sleep. He seemed so young when he slept, his skinniness more apparent in the tight old tee-shirt he wore. The damp heat he radiated was that of a child sweating out a fever. It is still especially easy for me to love him when I think of him this way. He seemed somehow pre-historic, still-becoming, an animal not yet ready to exist, with whom there was no point in being disappointed.

I crawled out of bed carefully, my stomach a pit of nausea and dread. I walked out into the front room and stared out the window, stretching and reaching towards the ceiling. My body was battered from hunger.

I glanced around and thought about eating some muesli when I saw Ciaran’s phone lying on the table. The sums were done in seconds. He was in the deeper part of his sleep; I would hear him getting up; his phone didn’t have a lock key.

I knew I was entering new territory from which I couldn’t return. I was invading him and his privacy, just as I had tried so hard to imply that I wouldn’t with my submission.




This is an excerpt from Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation, out with Vintage. Shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award 2021.


Image © Tambako

Megan Nolan

Megan Nolan lives in London and was born in 1990 in Waterford, Ireland. Her essays, fiction and reviews have been published in the New York Times, the White Review, the Sunday Times, the Village Voice, the Guardian and in the literary anthology, Winter Papers. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman. Acts of Desperation is her first novel.

More about the author →