Tonight there is a moon-rind, a nicotined fingernail, hanging low over the lake; above it, a Swarovski sparkler of a star. The three seem aligned – moon, lake and star – in some perfect ternion of universe, mood and happenstance, their very threeness a sign of good things. The car streams forward transforming Siobhán’s view of all three and each different aspect embeds power deeper into her.

What celestial abandon gave rise to this? Siobhán recites to herself. This is a favourite quote and she murmurs it often, hoping to find some situation where it will be one hundred per cent appropriate, one hundred per cent appreciated. She could say it now, to see if her American man reacts in a pleasing way, but more than likely he won’t. Siobhán turns to gaze at him; she likes that she can see him despite the dusk-light of the car as he drives this bog road.

He is embarrassingly American, this man: close-shaven, white-shirted, hair inert as a doll’s. And he is as hard to read as any Irish man, but without the soft edges of ready laughter, the softer edges of drunkenness. His manner is aloof; he carries a permanent aura of loneliness. Does this, she wonders, mean he is a loner, or a maverick, or is he just plain standoffish? He is driving her home, both belly-full after a dinner in a castle in the next county, and he will come into her bed tonight, into her.

Siobhán turns back to the view. The lake wants to pull the moon into its depths, it croons like a siren, but the star keeps the moon in place, pinning it to the navy sky.

‘What celestial abandon gave rise to this?’ she says at last, keeping her voice low.

‘How’s that, Siobhán?’

‘Oh, it’s nothing really. A quote.’

‘Shakespeare?’ He turns to her and exposes his good American teeth in a smile, then returns his eyes to the road.

‘Not every snappy sentence is Shakespeare. If you really want to know, it’s a line from a story about a baby with cancer.’

‘Wow, Siobhán. Happy.’

She shakes her head. ‘Never mind.’

‘OK.’ He takes his hand from the steering wheel and places it on her leg; Siobhán locks her fingers through his – a wifely manoeuvre, she thinks.

Being in the passenger seat of her own car makes her jumpy, the dimensions of the space have shifted and it feels like she is sitting on an outcrop. The road seems extra narrow, the ditch too close. She looks out the window but the moon-slice is hidden now behind a scarf of cloud and the last lip of the lake is behind them.

The man’s name is Conrad, like the hotel chain, as he said when they were introduced. She has tried to call him Con but he won’t have a bar of it.

‘Conrad. Please,’ he has said, more than once, and she imagines him performing this little whine with everyone he meets.

She is glad of her own name and she likes the way he repeats it when he addresses her. Siobhán, Siobhán, Siobhán. Irish men don’t say your name, or never with such care, such emphasis.

 

*

 

She had walked him around her hometown in Laois. They ambled the streets, he noting, she felt, every collapsing gutter, every whited-out shopfront.

‘It’s so different,’ he said and she agreed that it was. Different to Dublin, different entirely to the States.

She spotted her granny coming out of the butcher’s and breathed a low ‘Fuck.’ There was no escape route and, anyway, Granny saw them and came barrelling along to see what she could find out. Siobhán stopped, kissed her, and stepped back.

‘This is Conrad, Granny. This is my granny. Alice.’

‘Pleased to meet you, ma’am,’ he said, and shook Granny’s hand.

‘Conrad’s from America. Chicago.’

‘Yes.’ Granny cocked one eye at Siobhán, then studied Conrad. ‘I hope she’s showing you more than the insides of pubs.’

‘Oh, we’ve been to Trinity College. And beyond.’

‘Enjoy yourself now,’ Granny said to Conrad; she nodded at Siobhán and walked on.

‘I’m in for it,’ Siobhán said.

Granny rang the house that evening.

‘I nearly burnt down the church,’ she said, ‘I lit that many candles for you.’

‘Why was that, Granny?’

‘You know well why.’

‘Do I?’

A pause. ‘Where did you get the Yank?’

‘America.’

Granny sucked air through her lips, a long-familiar derisive sound with many meanings. ‘He has hair to sell. I’ll give him that.’

Siobhán looked at Conrad, where he sat on the bed beside her, at his thick hair. ‘He has.’

‘He’s married, Siobhán.’

‘What makes you think that, Granny?’

She tutted. ‘Isn’t it written all over him?’

‘It could be worse, Granny; Conrad might be from Dublin. Or, worse again, I could be a single mother because of some Dub.’

‘If you were an unmarried mother we could get rid of it. This is here for everyone to see.’ She grunted. ‘Walking him down Main Street like a prize bull.’

‘Ah, Granny.’ Siobhán sniggered, but felt glum once she had hung up. Conrad rubbed her back for the duration of the phone call and after it.

‘She’ll get over it, Siobhán,’ he said. ‘Funny, I never imagined we might bump into your relatives. One of your students, maybe, but not family.’ He leaned in and kissed her neck. ‘I bet the boys are hot for teacher.’

‘I’m the saddo science nerd back in Smalltown. There is nothing remotely hot about that.’

Conrad kissed her full on the mouth, made a rope of her hair with one hand and tugged it. ‘Why don’t we leave here, take a road trip? Head west.’

‘OK,’ Siobhán said. ‘Why not?’

 

*

 

He is childlike in sleep, this man of America, all properness abandoned with limbs akimbo and tiny farts released like whispers. She watches the fretful throb of his pulse and wonders if he dreams. He doesn’t talk much or, rather, he talks plenty but doesn’t say a lot. Nothing about his wife or daughter, little about his lab work, zero about how he feels. Nothing much about anything. Is he, Siobhán wonders, the most restrained man on the planet? Would you call him taciturn, even? She wonders why she likes him at all. What’s to like? His Gitanes-blue eyes, maybe. That crop of dark hair. The very reticence that also drives her mad, because there is comfort in his silence, in the absence of detail and, therefore, knowledge.

Siobhán gets up to use the toilet; it surprises her that the hotel room has the same sour, feral smell of any morning bedroom. She pees, returns and clicks open the window; she fancies she hears the rush of the Shannon over a weir, but maybe it is only the Athlone traffic advancing on the town to rouse it. The marina sits below the window and already there are sailors readying their boats for the day. It is June and the light has been good for hours. She looks up – the sky is a lid of planished zinc but no rain falls.

She slips back under the quilt and Conrad wakes, squinting one eye to study her. He smiles. ‘Hey.’

She holds up her mobile to show him the weepy-cloud icon on the screen. ‘My phone is raining.’

‘What’s new?’

‘It’s dry outside, though.’

Conrad is irritated by the poor Irish weather; fed up with its constancy and soak. Is he irritated with her too? She has concluded that he doesn’t like Ireland much and, by extension, Irish people. He had an idea of the country – ancestral, genuine – that has not lived up. He was very Emerald Isle about it when they first met in Chicago. Siobhán had tried to lay out some realities before him: drug wars, high unemployment, dormitory towns, asylum seekers left to rot in camps, the rich getting richer, rampant corruption. But he chose not to hear, or, not to believe her. Then, in Dublin, he was shocked by Starbucks on Westmoreland Street; he stood outside it for a whole minute to allow himself be fully offended.

‘You guys have Burger King,’ he said, on another of the Dublin days, and it was an accusation.

‘We have credit cards too,’ she said, and he snorted lavishly, this Midwest-via-Florida man, with his pristine manners and spotless self. He snorted often, so she didn’t take offence, it seemed to be his idea of an acceptable answer to many things. She linked her arm through his. ‘The far west of Ireland is wilder, more traditional,’ she offered, as consolation.

Now Conrad pushes his hands over his face and through his hair. His physicality stuns Siobhán, the slender impeccability of it – he is lean, has lush hair in all the appropriate places and is freckled sporadically on smooth-as-milk skin. He is what Granny would call a well put together man.

He turns to her, his face close. ‘Is obesity a problem here, Siobhán?’

‘Here in this room?’

‘No. What are you talking about?’

She runs a hand over the belly that she knows will never disappear because she will do nothing to help it. Conrad sees this movement and he tucks his hands into the small of her back to pull himself flush to her. He kisses her nose and presses her head to his chest, one hand tangled into her hair. He doesn’t smell of anything – not sweat, not artificial scent. His non-odour makes her aware of her own smells: caramel feet after a day in runners; acidic underarms; the creamy scent between her thighs. How can he possibly smell of nothing? Maybe she has imagined this person, this stench-less demigod; her loneliness has conjured him out of the air.

‘Do you want to have a little hot fun?’ she says, parodying a Southern drawl.

‘I sure do,’ Conrad says, leaning back to look into her eyes. ‘Great!’

He says great a lot. ‘I fancy some Tayto,’ Siobhán might say.

‘Great,’ he’ll reply.

‘Let’s go to the round tower in Glendalough; it’s a phallic wonder.’

‘Great.’

‘This is the Book of Kells.’

‘Great.’

Despite all the greats, she feels Conrad is not charmed enough by her country’s assets, or she is not doing a sufficient job of unveiling them. Nothing is really as great to him as his repetition of the word might imply. She wants to try harder.

‘You’re not easy to impress,’ she said, in The Long Room library in Trinity College, when he gave the Book of Kells an impassive gander. He stared at her and said nothing, but he moved his pelvis into hers and put his lips to her mouth, then a lizard flick of the tongue that she grabbed at, curling her own onto his until both were engrossed in the kiss, hooked there, his groin pushed against her in the middle of the library. They stayed there for moments, aware of the mob of tourists flanking them, determined to see the monkish luminescence that had lured them. But Conrad stayed where he was and kissed her and she loved him for that.

 

*

 

‘What about Sliggo?’ Conrad says, studying the map on his phone at breakfast.

‘It’s “Sligo”,’ Siobhán says, trying to cut edible corners off a greasy hash brown.

‘Sliggo, Sligo. Potato, potato.’

‘Except no one says potato, the same way no one says Sliggo.’

Conrad shrugs. ‘Anyway, let’s go there.’

‘I feel I should warn you, it never stops raining in Sligo. I mean never.’

‘It never stops raining anywhere in Ireland, so what’s the difference?’

Conrad drives again and Siobhán slumps in her seat watching cat-fluff clouds and the skein of jet contrails. The ditches are summery with squads of pink valerian and buttercups, cow parsley and ox-eye daisies.

‘Did you know,’ she says, ‘that “daisy” was originally “day’s eye”?’

‘I did not know that, Siobhán. Hah.’

‘I suppose the yellow centre was the sun.’

‘Sure.’ Conrad nods.

‘The all-seeing sun.’

He taps the steering wheel and keeps his eyes forward, the road, apparently, more alluring than conversation.

 

*

 

Sligo does not excite Conrad much.

‘It’s very small for a city,’ he says.

‘Small is good,’ Siobhán says. ‘And anyway, it’s a town.’

Even the combed flank of Ben Bulben, the mystic hulk of it, does not seem to move him. Siobhán can feel her ire nest and sprout like a pit in soil. But it is mixed up with her lust for him, which is a constant jangle, and forgiveness comes with that. She scrabbles for fresh wonders to lay out before him – kite surfers at Rosses Point, the Metal Man lighthouse, the bronze woman mourning those lost at sea. He likes it all well enough but his restraint about everything – except sex – is starting to rile her. A roadside pietà near Drumcliff becomes a signal to her for where they should go next.

‘Let’s head south instead,’ she says.

‘Great,’ Conrad replies.

He turns the car and Siobhán sets the satnav. The place names on the way are bewitching and they recite them to each other.

‘Curry.’

‘Curryfule.’

‘Cloughvoley.’

‘Lismaganshion.’

‘Meeltran.’

‘Shanvaghera.’

‘Addergoole.’

‘Sallyhernaun.’

‘Cloondace.’

‘Knock.’ Conrad giggles. ‘Knock-knock, who’s there?’

‘Knock-kneed.’

He splutters, ‘Knocked-kneed who needs knocking-up in Knock.’

‘Knockers,’ Siobhán says, scrunching her hands in front of her breasts.

‘Knock,’ he says. ‘I really can’t get over that.’

 

*

 

Knock Conrad likes. Knock, County Mayo, the time-warpy, priest-bejewelled village of Ireland’s most notorious BVM hallucination.

‘Now you’re talking,’ he says, and walks the place with a beatific smile, taking everything in. He dips into religious shops and pauses at each stand to examine the contents: scapulars, statues, holy medals and water fonts. ‘Wonderful,’ he says, fingering a twirl of glass rosary beads.

At the Apparition Chapel they watch a Mass-in-progress through the huge windows; the priests are Asian, the congregation enormous. They see other people – pilgrims – put their hands to a section of the chapel’s exterior wall and pray. Conrad queues up to do the same; Siobhán stands back. He closes his eyes and presses his hand to the brick, like a man possessed and grateful for it.

‘Are you even Catholic?’ she asks when he returns to her.

‘Yes. Well, no, not practising. My daughter goes to Catholic school.’

His daughter, ah. So he does think of her; she who lives so far away, she who sprung not just from his wife, but from him. Siobhán shakes her head to rid herself of the lit-up image of his family, a trio that holds in her mind, a perfect, luminous ternion.

They walk on through the grounds of the shrine, drawn with the crowds toward the grey-spired basilica.

‘Look at it,’ Siobhán says. ‘The Titanic of churches.’

‘They spent eight million on it,’ he tells her, more than a soupçon of approval in his voice; she is clapper-clawed into silence. How does Conrad know this exactly?

‘Eight million? Eight fucking million on a basilica and there are families who can’t pay their rent living in cars?’

He snorts. ‘Wiki says the village hosted a Christian rave at Easter-time. Could that be true?’

‘What do you think, Conrad?’

She links his arm and they wander into the church; they stop at the largest Virgin statue.

‘She reminds me of you,’ he says.

‘What? Of me?’

‘The same melancholy.’ He points to the Virgin’s face and stands contemplating her with reverence.

‘I need to get you out of here,’ Siobhán says and drags him by the arm back out to the street.

Conrad insists on exploring yet more tat shops. He buys a mug with ‘Póg mo thóin’ inscribed on it. She wonders if its bare-arsed leprechaun will be a talking point in his Chicago break room. She buys a tiny rainbow-robed Jesus for the dashboard of her car.

‘Why?’ he says.

‘He looks gay.’

‘Again, why?’

She shrugs and pockets the Jesus. Conrad grabs at her fingers and they walk hand in hand through Knock.

‘Showcasing our unhallowed union in the presence of the holy hordes,’ Siobhan says.

He stops, takes her shoulders and kisses her full on the mouth, causing a welcome swell between her thighs.

 

*

 

Their B & B is called Divine Mercy, which delights Conrad. He goes to explore the house while Siobhán lies on the bed, her body weighted down by a dinner of pork belly and turnip. Conrad returns to their room holding a statue in a red gown.

‘Look, it’s Madonna of the Pomegranate! The family has a whole collection of different Marys. They’re everywhere.’

‘Put that back,’ Siobhán hisses, she sits up and shoos him out of the room. Her mobile rings and she whispers, ‘What?’ into it.

‘Why are you whispering?’ It’s Deirdre, her sister.

‘Because I’m in a fucking B & B in fucking Knock.’

‘Jesus Christ. Why?’

‘Never mind why. What do you want?’

‘It’s Granny, Siobhán, she had a fall. She’s above in the hospital. Mammy said to ring and tell you.’

‘Oh God. Is she bad?’

‘She might be. Mammy sounded shook but she wouldn’t really say. She wants you to come.’

When Deirdre hangs up Siobhán skitters along the B & B’s corridor, looking for Conrad. He is in the lounge, talking to the landlady; she can hear him through the glass door.

‘We really love Knock,’ he says.

‘Isn’t that marvellous? But your wife, now, she’s Irish, isn’t she?’

‘My wife?’

They both turn to look as Siobhán enters the room. Conrad is perched on the arm of a chair, cradling a mug.

‘I have to go,’ Siobhán says. The ‘I’ pings across the lounge and back to her, resonant as a tuning fork.

Conrad stands. ‘Go?’

‘Excuse us,’ Siobhán says to the landlady, beckoning to Conrad to follow her back to their room.

‘What is it, Siobhán?’

‘Granny’s in the hospital. I have to go to her.’

‘Not tonight, Siobhán, it’s too far. And it’s late. The hospital won’t even let you in. Am I right?’

She sits onto the bed. ‘I suppose. I’ll leave first thing.’

 

*

 

Sleep does not come; Siobhán stares through the window. The moon is a fatter slice now, a nursery rhyme crescent with a butter-glow.

‘Poor Granny, I give her an awful time.’

‘How so?’ Conrad pulls her into him and she can feel the hard length of his cock in the small of her back.

‘Granny doesn’t like modern life to encroach on her world; she’s the black and white telly, daily Mass, headscarf-wearing kind. I say things to shock her all the time but I’m embarrassed by it, as much as she is.’

‘What kind of things?’

‘Oh, stupid things like “I think I’ll go and get preggers”. But I blush saying it and Granny never answers, so my words always hang. Insincerely, you know? I don’t know why I do it.’

‘You’re just reverting. You’re back in your home-place and you feel you shouldn’t be.’

‘Yeah. And I’m stuck there now. I wish I hadn’t bought that fucking house.’

Conrad rubs her arm. ‘You mention kids from time to time. Is that on the cards?’

‘I’m not looking for a womb-filler, if that’s what you think.’

‘Thank goodness for that,’ he says, and laughs a little.

‘God forbid I’d ask you for anything,’ she mutters.

‘Look, County Laois is a lovely place, Siobhán. You can make a good life there.’

She turned onto her back, forcing him away from her. ‘Like your good life, is it? Mister Happily-Married-in-Middle-America?’

‘Chicago is in the Midwest, actually. Middle America refers to –’

‘Oh, fuck off!’

‘Whoa!’ He flops onto his back and closes his eyes.

‘That’s right, blank me out. Make yourself blind. You don’t know me at all, Conrad, and you don’t even want to. If I dropped dead in the morning you wouldn’t be able to say one true thing about me.’ She wanted to tell him he didn’t know himself either but the words wouldn’t form.

‘You’re all wound up, Siobhán.’

‘Jesus Christ, Conrad. Am I to be blamed? Just leave me alone.’

 

*

 

Conrad’s flight to Chicago is the day of the wake; he offers to change it but she refuses. It’s better this way; Granny would spin to think he was there, as if he belonged to Siobhán, as if he was a part of things. The candle heat in Granny’s bedroom makes her queasy, and the tension and tiredness after Conrad’s visit courses through her. So many nights of little sleep, of booze, conversation and sex. She kisses Granny, small and snug as a baby in her coffin, and returns to her own house. The bed is still tossed from her and Conrad’s last morning in it; the wine bottle has left burgundy rings on the bedside locker. Something he said in the car on the way back from Knock flickers through her mind; a comment about the Irish being full tilt.

‘Roguish living is fun but tiring,’ he went on, with a yawn.

‘Would you like the joy bred out of us?’ Siobhán answered.

So he was tired, ready to go back to the real world. Did he ever say anything kind to her, anything good or interesting, or deep? She struggles to remember and concludes that there is no getting to the bottom of the man because there are no depths to flounder in; Midwestern surface is all there is. She falls into a deep sleep.

 

*

 

Siobhán rises early for the funeral. The postman has left a parcel outside the front door, not wanting to disturb her; she heard him drive up, then away. She sits at the kitchen table, still in her pyjamas, and unwinds brown paper and screeds of sticky-taped bubble-wrap. There is a box inside and in it a statue of the Virgin, her feet on the ball of the moon, on her head a starry crown. Siobhán reads the card: ‘I can’t give you much but have this melancholic beauty. C x.’

Siobhán holds the statue to her breast and opens the back door, pleased to find the moon a cottony wedge above the house. She holds up the statue and studies the solemn, pretty face. Melancholy indeed. Clutching the statue by the base with both hands, she swings it back and forth in front of her chest, further each time so that she can hear it whoosh as it passes her ear.

Finally, she launches it skyward, calls out ‘Hail Queen of Heaven!’, and watches as it plummets to the ground. The statue smashes against the footpath in a trio of satisfying chunks. Moon. Body. Stars.

 

Photograph © Josh Holmes

A Discussion of New Irish Writing
Black Milk