They Tell You They Love You | Niamh Donnelly | Granta

They Tell You They Love You

Niamh Donnelly

James is braced for pain. He leans over the barbell, back straight, hips hinged. In a wall-length mirror to his left, he checks his form. Solid. He breathes deep.

At the same time, his phone, cradled in a grey half-zip on the floor, buzzes, and he can’t help but spy the three angular letters glowing from its surface. Amy.

So, she is talking to him again.

He slackens, releases, picks up the device.


In a photo onscreen, Amy’s mouth is turned in a pout. Michael, their new pet guinea pig, is cupped in one hand above her cleavage. ‘Baby’s thirsty x’ reads the caption.

James zooms in on the image, hovering over her lips, her tits, the guinea pig’s glassy black eyes. Chalk smudges the phone’s screen. He puts it down a moment, wipes his hands on his shorts, removes his tank top, then retrieves the phone and opens the camera. The gym is empty save for a man at the squat rack, dipping and rising, and releasing a ‘she, she, she’.

Turning to face the mirror, James takes a photo of his tensed torso. He takes another, and another, until he is satisfied with the angle and lighting.

‘Home soon x’, he writes, in a message beneath the image, and sends it to her.


In the shower, the water is cold and then hot; a relief that makes what had seemed unbearable retrospectively necessary. He aches. It hurts to raise his arms too high, to move too fast or too forcefully.

He rubs gel over his skin and watches the suds form around his feet. Over his ribs, the flesh is astonishingly tender. Even breathing brings on soreness. But there is a kind of glory in this feeling – muscle tissue tearing and knitting back together – pain’s latent promise: that you will become better for it.


He half-listens to a podcast as he walks up Camden Street towards the bus stop. The guest speaks about his swift ascent to astonishing wealth.

James passes two bookies, an upmarket supermarket, food outlets that were formerly other food outlets, pubs that have been there forever. The streets are already starting to buzz with a frantic Christmas energy; people shopping, going for impromptu drinks, bringing children to see Santa.

Passing Devitt’s, he spots Kearney standing outside under the awnings. He has a near-full pint of Guinness in one hand, a vape in the other. Seeing James, Kearney at first raises his pint amicably, but soon a guilty pallor falls over his face.

‘Ah Jesus, man, I meant to text you,’ he says. ‘Few of us were meeting up for a quick pint.’

‘It’s grand,’ says James, removing his earbuds and allowing the podcast to play on.

James has recently discovered his mates are part of a group chat without him. Rags2Riches, they call it. There is another chat, the shamelessly titled Pussy Destroyers, of which James is a member, but it has gone quiet, meaning the banter can only have migrated.

Rags2Riches, James knows, has been set up as a betting group. The lads use it to organise group accumulators, but because James is notoriously bad at betting – he is a famously unlucky guy – the group’s administrator and general alpha, Dots, vetoed his admission. ‘Having you in there just doesn’t make sense,’ he said, laughing, when James had enquired.

Kearney, who is not like Dots, is now saying something about how bad he feels. James shakes his head and swipes his hand through the air. He has been trying very hard not to care.

‘Do you want –’ begins Kearney, but then stops, narrows his eyes, and looks closely at James’s face. ‘Jesus, what happened?’ he asks. He brings a hand to his cheek, cupping his fingers gently over his eye socket.

‘Oh,’ says James, mirroring Kearney’s gesture, but he can’t think of anything to say in response, so he laughs.

Kearney laughs, too, but in an awkward, panicked way.

A film of sweat forms over James’s clean back. It is warm for December. ‘Here, look,’ he says. ‘I’ve got to get back. Amy will be waiting.’


At home, Amy is already in her silky little pyjamas.

‘My pussy missed you,’ she says, in an innocent voice, which gets James going.

She wants sex a lot lately. James thinks it is because she is bored. She has yet to find a job in Dublin, having moved a month ago, when the long-distance thing, and the not-so-cheap-flights between Dublin and Sheffield proved too much.

‘How did the job hunt go?’ he asks as he deposits his gear bag by the door and hangs his coat.

Amy takes his hand and leads him towards the bedroom. ‘You want to talk about that, now?’

He shakes his head, obedient.

Amy spends very little time searching for jobs. She is trying to get something going on social media, and often spends hours editing photos. This doesn’t bother him, really. He wants her to be happy. Sometimes he feels he should thank her for being his girlfriend.

In the bedroom, a poky space in which the bed takes up most of the surface area, he removes his clothes and then hers. The fairy lights around the headboard – Amy’s doing – give the room a childlike glow.

She lies back. Having sex with Amy feels in equal measures thrilling and terrifying. She is so petite he feels like he might break her. When she breathes in, her ribs protrude through the soft skin beneath her breasts.

He tries to be gentle with her, which she doesn’t like.

‘Go hard,’ she says. ‘Hurt me.’

He can’t bring himself to do as she instructs.


Afterwards, he examines his face in the bathroom mirror and sees what Kearney saw: a purple bruise manifesting under his eye. He opens the cabinet, wondering if any of the lotions Amy keeps in there might help to cover it, but there are too many bottles, tubes, palettes, brushes, and he has no idea where to start.

James has never lived with a woman before. He is twenty-eight and has spent the years up until a few months ago sharing a room with his younger brother in the family home in Cabinteely. He has a large family and doesn’t get on with most of them. Amy is his great escape plan.

There are things that surprise him about the whole endeavour, like the amount of effort she puts in to looking the way she does; the hours she spends waxing, plucking, walking around shiny with serums. Sometimes she asks him to apply fake tan to her back, and he slides his hand into the foam mitt and smoothes the substance evenly over her skin.

He likes to be useful to her. He buys her things: bracelets, earrings, lingerie sets from an online store. She thanks him by opening the box, then closing it again, retrieving her phone and recording ‘unboxing’ videos, which she posts online.


The next morning, as he is gathering his things for work, Amy calls him back.

‘Wait there,’ she says, before going to the bathroom and producing a bottle of what she calls BB cream. She sits him on the arm of the couch and, using her fingers, applies some of the cold beige liquid to his face. ‘Don’t worry, it’s subtle,’ she says.

She doesn’t mention what caused the bruise, or that it exists at all, but when he looks at himself, later, in his phone’s selfie camera, he sees that it has been transformed to a barely visible shadow.


Over the next few days, Amy’s mood is uncommonly sunny. She keeps his WhatsApp furnished with suggestive messages and raunchy photos. Something lifts in James, too, and at work he moves about as though holding a happy secret, his mouth threatening to break into a smile as he checks emails, conducts client calls, makes his way through spreadsheets.

The women he works with are not like Amy. They are feminists. They often share links to articles with headlines like How the Gender Pay Gap Affects You, and listen to true crime podcasts. Because there are only five employees – four women, and James – he is included in their email thread. He tries to engage with their banter – ‘no gender pay gap around here,’ he joked, when that particular article was shared – but his contributions are usually met with some form of head shake; a smiling ‘Oh, James’, as if he will never understand.

Before meeting Amy, he thought he never would understand. He didn’t know how to talk to women, and always felt slightly irritated in their presence. Dating apps were a disaster. He was shorter than many of his dates, and the way they looked at him was unbearable. But when he met Amy, on a strip in Ibiza, she was brimming with boldness. She showed him a tattoo, centimetres above her pubic area, that said ‘lucky you’. She was small, which made him feel confident, and she liked to say things that were non-PC. Also, she had great tits.

Still, he likes his job, and the women he works with, well enough. His role involves selling ink to large companies over the phone. It isn’t as impressive as the jobs his mates have. Some of them work in tech, some are trainee solicitors or doctors. But when he talks about this job in their presence, he tries to spin it so that it seems serious, important, well-paid.


On Friday – performance review day – his supervisor, Agatha commandeers the staff room, and instructs James and his colleagues to visit her, one by one. Agatha has only recently been promoted. She has long fingernails that flicker about madly when she types. Sometimes she produces a can of deodorant in the middle of the office and sprays her armpits, plumes of the stuff rising behind her with its sweet pungency.

‘Very formal altogether,’ James remarks, as he enters her make-shift office. Last year, the performance review was conducted by a man named Colm, who didn’t work in the building, but held some adjacent, higher-up post. He visited them at their desks and noted their answers to his questions on an A4 sheet. At the end of the meeting, each employee was handed an envelope with a bonus, in cash.

The bonus is what James needs, this year, more than ever. With no job, Amy’s contributions to the rent are coming out of her savings, which are dwindling, and James needs to provide for her.

He and Agatha move through a series of topics. In each case, James is supposed to evaluate his performance. Has he met or exceeded expectations? Does he need improvement? He isn’t sure how earnest Agatha expects his answers to be. He tries to focus on sales targets, which, he is almost certain, is the unspoken imperative. As he speaks, Agatha makes markings on a sheet behind a clipboard which she tilts upwards, so he can’t see what is being recorded.

At the end of the meeting, Agatha thanks him.

‘I assume everything’s all right with the bonus?’ he says.

She flicks her eyes down and then up. ‘It doesn’t do well to assume.’

Doesn’t do well to. . . It spooks him, sometimes, the way these women use words.

‘Did Theresa get hers?’ he asks.

‘That’s not for me to discuss.’

‘And Mona? They got them, didn’t they?’

‘James,’ she says, sternly.

He sinks back into his chair. ‘I just thought. . .’ he says. Then his chest starts to tighten, and he becomes acutely aware of his hands.

‘Seriously,’ he says, and there is an unexpected authority in his voice. ‘What’s the big idea? I’ve met my targets.’

‘You’ve done your job,’ she qualifies.

‘I need the money,’ he adds, more timidly.

‘I’m afraid bonuses are not guaranteed.’

‘Unless you’re a woman.’

‘Excuse me?’

He didn’t realise he was going to say it until it came out.

‘I get the feeling, James, that you’re not taking this very seriously.’

‘Seriously?’ he replies. ‘Seriously?’

She brings her face forwards and rests it on her fist. She seems to be watching for what he might do next.

James holds her gaze. Something is dawning on him. He feels a little ill with it. All these months, he has sat in the company of these women, shared their pots of tea, engaged in their conversations, gossiped about clients, divided his rubbish according to their ecological preferences, washed their mugs, wished them nice weekends, asked after their parents, children, other halves, and all these months – all along – they have been conspiring against him. It is the distortion that makes him queasy; the idea that he has been there to witness their betrayal, and seen only niceness.

‘You know what,’ he says, cracking the knuckles on one of his hands. ‘Fuck your bonus, and fuck your job.’

He sees something move behind Agatha’s face that might be the beginnings of a smile. It makes him feel crazy. A tremor rises through his body like a stadium’s roar. For some reason he can picture Amy, nodding at him, saying the words: there you are.

‘Fuck you, Agatha,’ he says. ‘You stupid fucking feminist.’ He tries very hard not to slam the door as he leaves.


That night, a plate hits the wall.

He is sitting at the table, eating some leftover dinner, when Amy comes in and tells him she found a job.

He is happy for her. What he says is: ‘Oh, thank god.’

‘Thank god?’ she asks, frowning.

‘Well,’ he says, almost laughing. ‘I just quit mine.’

He is about to stand and go to her when he hears a smashing noise. He looks around to see if he has knocked something but soon realises the wall by his head has been struck by a plate.

It is a plate he had owned since his youth, emblazoned with the crest of the football club his father supports, or, more accurately, lacking the crest, since it has by now faded to virtually nothing. But when that plate smashes, James realises he feels very attached to it. The bit he loves is long gone but still, he wants the rest of it intact

‘Wait,’ he says, standing up. ‘What’s wrong? You have a job. We’ll be fine, won’t we?’

‘We?’ she says, her Sheffield accent growing stronger as her voice grows louder. ‘We? What makes you think it’s up to me to look after you?’

‘Oh,’ he says. It occurs to him then that she might be another one of those feminists, like the women he works with. The podcaster he listens to warns against women like this. They can get away with saying and doing whatever they want because they have big vocabularies and a whole internet of righteousness to back them up. James does not have a big vocabulary.

Then another plate hits the wall, and another, and another. He has to dodge to avoid them. Smash, smash, smash. She is frantic, livid. Eventually, he moves forward and grabs her around the torso, pinning her arms to her side. She can do nothing but bury her head in his armpit and sob.

She sobs until she can’t breathe. It is one of those panic attacks. He escorts her to the bed, sits her down, and mimes the action of sucking in air through the nose and releasing it through the mouth, until she copies him.

She whimpers something and he says ‘It’s okay’, retrieves her pyjamas from beneath her pillow and hands them to her.

He leaves her alone to change and get into bed. In the kitchen, he reclaims his place at the table, among the broken shards, and finishes what is left of his dinner. He can’t bring himself to clean. His mind is curiously blank. With the food eaten, he deposits the lunchbox in the sink, then opens the fridge, in search of nothing. All that is in there, anyway, is some gone off lettuce for the guinea pig. He brings it to the creature, who is beginning to stir now that it is evening time. He has been reading about guinea pigs on the internet. They are ‘crepuscular’, meaning they come alive at dawn and dusk. Also, they don’t like to be kept alone. He didn’t know this when they bought Michael, but now that he knows, the creature’s weird electric whine has the power to make James feel inordinately sad.

‘I’m sorry, little guy,’ he whispers, scratching his furry head. ‘We’ll find you someone.’

He thinks about the years he spent alone, before Amy, and how miserable he was.

He sits, once again, at the table, and listens to her move about the bedroom. To pass the time, he produces his phone. He places some bets using his betting app – a fiver on one of this weekend’s Premier League games, a tenner on an upcoming UFC fight, €7.50 on a game of World of Warcraft that will begin at 5 a.m. He has been placing little wagers like this lately. Secretly, he is holding out for something that will prove him worthy of whatever the lads think he lacks.

When he is certain Amy is sleeping, he creeps into the bedroom, and lies down very still beside her.

The ache from the gym is growing worse. Delayed onset muscle soreness, they call it. He thinks how strange it is that pain can live like that in your body; hiding and then manifesting after it should be gone.

Because he can’t sleep, he pulls out his phone again and resumes scrolling through the betting app. After a time, Amy wakes and strokes his face.

‘What are you looking at?’ she asks.

‘I want to put a bet on. Who do you think I should pick?’

She asks him to explain what the odds mean, then points to a team whose odds of winning the league are 5000/1. ‘Pick them,’ she says. ‘Then, when we win, we’ll get lots of money.’

He shakes his head. ‘Those odds mean we have no chance. Anyway, I don’t want to bet on them because their centre forward is an annoying prick.’

‘We might win. You never know,’ she says. ‘Do it for me?’

He places a tenner on the team whose centre forward is a prick, thinking about how stupid the lads would think he was, if they knew. But her fingers move down his neck, his torso, his belly, and he feels, then, so tenderly towards her, so glad she is here beside him, and he is not alone.


Days pass. Some of them are good, some not so good. She goes to her new job, manning the desk of a beauty salon. He looks for work and tries to find the right moment to invest in a crypto currency.

They drink, they fight. They sober up. They make up.

Weeks pass. There is no activity on the lads WhatsApp group. He hasn’t seen any of them since spotting Kearney outside Devitt’s.

This might be for the best. Sometimes, in the shower, he finds new and surprising bruises, whose origin he can’t place. He only ever remembers the feeling that she is freaking out, and in pain.

He wants to help her. He forgives her. There is nothing, he believes, to forgive her for.

Later, he will ask himself how this whole situation started; did he provoke her? Repulse her? Fail her? But it is pointless, like trying to find the moment humans began to destroy the earth.

And anyway, her father used to beat her when she was young. And anyway, her mother has a thing with alcohol. And anyway, she doesn’t mean any of it, really. Besides, he is a man, who is bigger and stronger than her.

So, things continue.


At Christmas, she puts on a glitzy dress and behaves herself in front of his family. He gets drunk and has an argument with his father.

‘If you don’t pull up your socks, that girl of yours will leave you,’ his father says to him, which rattles around in his mind for days.


In January, Amy’s mother comes to visit. The three of them go for dinner at a chain pizza restaurant. James tries to be polite, but the woman is standoffish and aloof.

After, Amy and her mother go to a pub and James claims to feel ill and goes home. Amy is supposed to stay in the hotel for the night, with her mother, but instead she arrives home in the early hours of the morning, so wound up she seems possessed. She screams at James, speaks words that make no sense, and goes at him with every sinew of her body.

It is the blood that makes things seem different this time. She nicks him with something – one of her nails, maybe, or her ring? Whatever the cause, when he touches his eyebrow, his finger comes back with a bright red stain.

Maybe it is squeamishness. Maybe it is seeing something from inside him out in the open. Either way, he feels like a balloon whose air is slowly releasing, and that feeling is enough to make him grab his keys and coat and go outside.

Where will he go? He is not leaving her. It is nothing like that. His hand, he notices, is shaking. A coldness has fallen, after a slew of warm weeks, and now the paths are icy, and the air is biting.

He won’t go home. He can’t bring this news, this blood, to his father.

He finds himself, half-an-hour later, outside Kearney’s house.

Kearney, like most of James’s mates, even the ones with real jobs, lives at home with his parents. Kearney doesn’t have a ‘real job’. He is a sales assistant in a store that sells soap, candles, bath bombs. He often smells strikingly fresh.

James’s hand hovers over the doorbell but won’t press. He sees, out of the corner of his eye, a glow in the window. There is Kearney, earphones on, a pallid, religious gleam on his face from the television screen, where a game of FIFA is ongoing.

He looks so ordinary and content that James’s life, this problem, this blood, seems surreal and dirty. He can’t bring himself to ring the bell.

But as he turns to leave, he hears a rapping on the window, and there is Kearney, giving him a little wave.


Kearney says nothing when he opens the door, just frowns, taking in the sight of James. Quietly, as if there is a baby sleeping somewhere, though more likely because he doesn’t want to disturb his parents, he takes a coat from a hook and some keys from the hall table. He is wearing, James notices, granddad slippers – tweed with a rubber sole – and in any other circumstance James would dutifully made fun of him.

He follows Kearney across the gravel driveway. Kearney points the key towards his mum’s Opel Corsa, and it blinks. The two of them sit in. Kearney begins to drive.

‘Can you even see?’ James asks, because the windows are fogged up, the road in front of them almost invisible.

‘Sure, I know the way,’ Kearney jokes.

James smiles.

Kearney quickly adds ‘sorry’, glancing at James through the corner of his eyes.

They make no more conversation after that. They drive through new suburban estates onto hilly country roads until they reach a carpark. It is a deserted place, halfway up the mountain near where they used to go to school. James has no idea why Kearney has driven them here. He is sure Kearney has no idea either, except that it feels right, because it is deserted, spooky. The city lights blink down below.

When Kearney turns off the ignition, an eerie silence lingers. Kearney unbuckles his seatbelt and turns to face James. His throat catches as he speaks, and he has to clear it and try again.

‘What’s going on, man?’

He is looking at James pityingly. His eyes are narrowed like a detective who already sort of knows the answer to the question he is asking. But he doesn’t know. How could he? James will have to spell it out; make a sentence of it; a statement; a confessional.


‘Please,’ James finds himself saying, after he has stammered an explanation of his situation – the gash over his eye, the bruise, how things have been with Amy, for months now. ‘Please don’t tell anyone.’

Kearney rubs his face with his palms. ‘I don’t understand. She’s fucking . . . she’s a fucking . . . ’

‘Please,’ James says again.

Months later, when he thinks everything through properly, James will realise how large a thing he is asking of Kearney. He has brought this problem into their friendship like a dead body, or an almost-dead body, and he is asking Kearney to keep it a secret.

When James thinks, later, about what he wanted Kearney to do, the answer is always: tell someone. By keeping his secret Kearney is implicating himself in the whole mess. But abuse is a word neither of them can put to it, and in this moment, every pore in James’ body yearns for it to remain unexpressed.

‘I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to,’ Kearney whispers. His breath turns to steam in front of his mouth.

James feels the desperate squelch of his heart at the back of his throat. ‘Thank you,’ he says.

He thinks of asking Kearney to let him stay in his house that night, but he doesn’t. He goes home.

Amy has calmed down by the time he gets there. She promises she will never do it again. She holds her head to his chest, he squeezes her tight, and later that night she gives him a slightly terrifying slightly erotic, blow job that he knows will fuck him up for a long time.

‘Please,’ he hears himself say, in a fit of desire; but he doesn’t know what he desires, only something other, that isn’t really a possibility; that isn’t contained in the world of blow jobs.


Kearney keeps texting him after that, telling him he needs to get out, saying he will help, and James, who feels a great load has been lifted just by recounting his problem to another human, tells him he feels okay now, it is all okay.

It is weeks before Kearney cracks and tells his girlfriend, and everything comes crashing down.

They are at an afterparty at Dots’s house (Kearney now makes sure James gets the invite to all parties), it is 5 a.m. and they are drunk.

Dots lives in a large, detached house in the Dublin mountains. It is his parents’ house, but they spend six months of the year in Portugal evading taxes.

The house is a good place for parties. It has an open-plan kitchen with underfloor heating and a large corner couch. They are sitting on this couch watching music videos when the mood starts to turn. Amy is dancing drunkenly, provocatively, embarrassingly in front of the TV, and Kearney’s girlfriend is muttering how much she hates her, and another of the girls is saying how unfair this assessment is – how unfeminist – saying that she can dance as provocatively as she likes – and James gets up to go for a smoke, just to be outside, in the cold, damp air, where he knows he will be invisible from within.

It is quiet out here, and dark. The garden furniture is covered in waterproof sheeting, and looks, in this light, like sleeping animals. He lights a Marlborough with a tiny match and can see everything continue in there: Amy still dancing, Kearney’s girlfriend and the other girl, whose name is Siobhán, still arguing, and further in, behind the island unit, Dots and Kearney and some of the other lads talking, and looking over here – they almost certainly can’t see him, he reminds himself – or maybe they can see the tiny light from his cigarette – either way, he feels it all silently ending, like the deafness of a bomb exploding all around.

Dots comes outside first.

‘Giz one of them,’ he says, and James hands him a cigarette.

They smoke quietly for a few moments.

‘What the fuck man,’ Dots says, turning to look at him. The air is damp, cold, 5 a.m. air. Smoke billows and then their breath, like smoke, billows after it.

‘Yeah. I don’t know.’

‘I had no idea,’ says Dots.

James shrugs.

‘You have to get out of there.’

‘I know.’

‘I added you to the betting group on WhatsApp,’ Dots says. ‘In case you need anyone to talk to.’

‘Thanks man,’ he replies, unable to summon whatever emotion this is supposed to provoke.

Dots keeps shaking his head, shifting from one foot to the other, drawing in air as if to speak but finding no words. ‘They tell you they love you,’ he mutters, looking dolefully at the ground. For some reason, this makes James want to laugh.


James and Amy leave together that night. They stay together the next night, and the next, and the next. They carry on. They push through. There is no last straw, no full stop. It is tiredness, pure exhaustion – that is all – that finally leads James to take some things, get on the bus, and, like an animal seeking a bed of straw on which to die, go home.



Snow comes in March; tiny quiet droplets sinking onto pavements, benches and grass. Weather is not something James usually notices, but this is not subtle. It gathers. He spends days in his childhood home, watching the line of white across the patio door reach new heights.

The country is hilariously unprepared for weather like this. It grinds to a halt. Nobody goes to work. They are trapped in their houses, making meals with whatever unusual combinations they have left in their cupboards.

Outside, the world is a different planet – a blank and desolate one. Cars are useless here – most have been transformed into snowy dunes.

Things are awkward with his family; with his father especially. They don’t know how to act around him. They watch every time his phone lights up, in case it might be her. They hate her, of course, but the power of this hatred makes James feel oddly sentimental towards them.

He doesn’t like to be too close to these feelings. Some afternoons, when he needs to get away, he wraps up in a coat, hat and scarf, leaving only his eyes visible. He sets out to Dots’s house, which is about a mile away, and where the lads have taken to gathering as they enjoy the unexpected time off work.

The journey is strenuous. Visibility is poor and it is less like walking than climbing. He lifts his knees high on each step, wading through the thick snow.

The weather hasn’t reached the UK, so the Premier League continues. Following it gives James a great sense of calm. The groan of the crowd, their chants, the occasional bleat of a horn. The formations and tactics. The professional tackles and dives. The crying injustices. The goals that build for ninety minutes before finding the back of the net in the dregs of injury time.

One afternoon, as they watch the ad break at half time, James mutters, ‘I have a tenner on these to win the League.’

The team are doing well. They are climbing the table at an unprecedented rate. Just last year, they were in the Championship.

James mutters the words so quietly that at first no one hears him, or no one appears to hear him. The commentators come onscreen and start debating the veracity of a yellow card that has been issued. Then someone says ‘What did you just say?’

James feels his face burning. He tries to shrug nonchalantly. ‘I have a tenner on these to win the league.’

There is silence.

‘When did you put it on?’ Dots asks.

‘Dunno,’ he says. ‘Before Christmas.’

‘Jeeeesus Christ . . .’ someone whispers.

‘Fuuucking hell,’ someone else says.

‘You don’t. You fucking don’t.’

He just sits, with his eyes glaring widely at the TV, and nods.

There will be pain soon. Something in the deepest part of him knows it is coming, and is preparing him slowly, the way explorers administer minor calamities to the body in preparation for a big expedition. There will be anger, too, resentment, regret. But James feels something else, as he sits there on the couch among friends. The snow outside continues to fall. It builds like a buffer. The world is hidden, on mute. And at his core, is a sort of emptiness; an absence, that is neither good nor bad, but slightly thrilling; like a lung that has cleared itself of air and is ready – desperate – for its next breath.

‘How much will you win?’ someone asks.

‘You have to cash out before the League’s over,’ pleads someone else.

But he thinks: no. I’ll wait. I’ll see.


Image © Stuart Caie

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly is a writer from Dublin whose fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review, New Irish Writing, The Ogham Stone and elsewhere. She is also an arts journalist and critic, with regular bylines in The Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Business Post. She is at work on a novel.

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