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Deirdre Shanahan
Deirdre Shanahan

The Night Breathing

With a pen knife, Diarmid flicked out caked mud from the ridges in the sole of his trainer. His hair hung over his eyes as he held onto the cooker and tried to stand without knocking up against the bags of dirty washing. The whiff of boiled spuds and cabbage hung around from last night along with the heavy, sweet smell of Guinness from the used cans.

            ‘Shit.’ Blood beaded over the pale skin of his finger. He fell to the sofa bed, licked his finger and ran it the length of his trousers, spreading a dark stain.

            ‘Watch yourself,’' his mother called, splashing perfume behind her ears. A little bottle stood on the window sill along with a broken mirror and packaging from hair dye. ‘Honey Blonde,’ in gold letters. She leaned forward to view herself, smoothing on face cream. ‘You should have brought along the lads. They`d have had a great time.’

           ‘They didn`t want to come.’ 

           He forced himself back against the seat. A blue dress shuddered on a metal hanger. Soon he would be at the old house. Free of her father. Out of here.

           ‘They didn`t want a good time. It’s their miss. Did you see my lipstick?’ She swept down to the sofa bed.


           ‘Did you see it, dad?’ She turned to him, in bed propped up against the pillows.

           ‘I didn`t notice a thing.’ He raised his face, his eyes sore and red. ‘Why d’you think I`d want the likes of that?’

           His worn, brown cardigan hung over red and blue striped pyjamas. He had the thickest brows of anyone Diarmid knew.

           ‘Where did I put it? ‘Fiesta’ is me best.’ She rose in a whirl, knocking against a pair of shoes sticking out from under the sofa- bed. ‘There’s not a bit of room in this damned trailer.’ And she gave them a good kick.

           A hard object jabbed into Diarmid’s behind. He pulled out the lipstick from under him.

           ‘How’d it get there?’ She grabbed it, and swiped a gash of red across her lips. ‘I look better already. I may feel like a load of bones, but I look better.’

            She moved her head from side to side in the mirror. Her thick, newly blonde hair fell about her shoulders. She was girlish and wide eyed with arching brows. The cheeks he’d kissed as a small boy used to be fresh and light with just the faintest of powder. 

           ‘Yeah. You look …,’ he began.



           ‘Good. And this’ll top me up.’ She reached for the bottle of cherry brandy on the sink, raised a glass to her lips and slumped into the seat between the cooker and the window, her legs stretched out. ‘I don`t want to overdo it. Only being back with dad, I want to mark it.’

           ‘Diarmid, set more bread in the toaster,’ said his grandfather. ‘We must feed you plenty, for you’re a big fella, tall as tree, the way my own father was. You put a fine name on the lad, whatever else you did, Eva.’

           ‘I gave him one of your own, so he’ll know who he is and he’ll know you.’

           ‘He’ll know himself soon enough, whatever it is you called him. He’ll make his own way in the world. Does he have any learning?’ He shovelled four teaspoons of sugar into his mug.

           'He has a lot, for I sent him to school over.

           'Of course, for he needs the reading and writing. Not to be like myself, leaning over a paper trying to make out the letters.’

           Diarmid flicked through old magazines. He wished they would stop talking about him.

           ‘I’d say he’s like …’ his grandfather began.

           'Myself?’ his mother asked.

           'How can I say, for I haven’t seen the other side of him?’

           Diarmid could not recall his dad and whether he had straight or curly hair. He did not know if his eyes were brown, or blue like his grandfather`s. His mother had said he was tall and well built; a good size for a builder with a strength that had brought him to London from the west of Scotland.

           ‘D’you see any one of them we used know, dad?’ 

           ‘I do not. There`s another crowd around these days. I wouldn’t know any one of them.’

           ‘No word…. of Delia?’

           ‘The last I heard, she was outside Sligo. She had roamed away off up the country with the Mangan crowd. They were never from our part of the country. Besides, I was off on my own ways.’ 

           ‘She`d the funny brother? The one who’d the great thick knitted cap?’

           ‘She had. He was with her till he died.’

           ‘D`you ever see him?’

           ‘I can’t keep up with the living or the dead. That’s the pity of it.’

           ‘You didn’t catch sight of the young one, since?’ she asked, in a low, strained voice Diarmid barely recognized.

           ‘How would I, when I’m years out of the place and traveled the length and breadth of the land? I haven’t laid eyes on the pair of them with a good bit and I’d never know her if I did.’

           She put down the glass, her fat arms plumping out as she relaxed in the seat. Layers of blue and green sequins glistened like the scales of fish. At least it would cover her knees. The scuffs on her red high heel shoes were visible. She was not well. Not properly, the way mothers should be. When he was twelve, she ran off to Liverpool with a man who had a Ford Transit, who said he was getting her a job, that he knew people; had contacts in catering. She ended up crossing the Mersey and spending a few days in New Brighton. When she came back home, she lay on her bed for hours, crying, unsettling him. It made him want to run out of the flat. 

           Diarmid shifted on the seat, flicked through ‘Hot Shots’ and ‘Glitz’. People were always moving. In the couple of weeks since they arrived, three families had shifted off the site. His mother had declared it was not like the days when everyone knew what other families were doing, knew the traces they made as they crossed the country. He pushed the magazines to the back of the sofa. He needed to get out. He stood and began to search the cupboards above the beds for a clean tee- shirt, making the framed photograph of a woman on the wall wobble.

           ‘Here, lad, watch what you’re knocking against,’ his grandfather shouted.

            ‘Who’s that?’ Diarmid asked.

           'Herself. Kate. Your grandmother.’

           Diarmid peered into the dulled black and white tones. He had not seen a photograph so old and with no colour. It was watery, indistinct. It’d merge into the air if he touched it.

           ‘She`s tall. She looks nice.’

           ‘God Rest Her Soul. She was more than nice. D’you mind the fine meals we had, Eva, by the grass verges, when we’d the two horses and we’d fly along the roads to Donegal?’

           ‘I do.’

           ‘I wish I`d her along with me to be combing over them days. Be careful how you’re putting it back and don`t let it drop.’

           Diarmid put the picture of his grandmother back on the wall beside one of a young girl who stood awkwardly, one arm raised against the sun.

           ‘Who`s this?’ he asked.

           ‘Your mother,’ his grandfather said, struggling out of bed.  

           She could not have been so young. Her dress floated out. Her face gazed seriously ahead.

           ‘You look…different.’

‘Of course. Aren’t we all changing?’ his mother said.

           'Like myself. You`d never think I was a dapper fella once, in fine waistcoats.’  His grandfather’s fingers, thin as flex, ran down the sides of his chest, preening himself.

           ‘She has a very old fashioned dress.’

           ‘That was the style. I often wish things stayed the same. But to want time to stand still’d be like trying to swim to Mongolia. You can keep the picture for it`s more use to you than to myself. Put it somewhere safe.’ 

           ‘In here.’  He opened the mouth of his grubby sports bag where he kept his good stuff – CDs and his new trainers – and sank it into the bottom. '

           A picture of the Sacred Heart looked down on him. Another, made of shiny sweet wrappers, showed the Holy Family; Mary was in bright blue, Jesus in silver, but Joseph had the best of all, lavender.

           ‘I`ll make the most of tonight, anyways. You never know who I might meet. Where are you off to?’ she asked as Diarmid pulled on a jacket.

           ‘The old house.’ He drew away from her, the grasp of her painted finger nails catching his wrist.

           ‘That place. It`s only fit for cats and dogs and sheep. You want to look out for yourself there with all them droppings. It wouldn`t be good to be bringing them around with you.’

           ‘I haven’t seen any sheep around there.’

           ‘You wouldn`t know one end from the other, if you did,’ she said.

           He pushed into his backpack tins of peas, mushrooms and soup, a pair of trousers and two tee-shirts.

           ‘Stay. You`ll enjoy yourself. There’ll be a good crowd.' She combed through her hair and put down the hand mirror. 'What’ll I do without you?’

           If he did stay, he might get a bigger stash of food to take back to the lads and then he would need not come back for a while.

           ‘All right,’ he said, slinging his bag on a chair.

           He followed her out to the field, beyond the trailers, where a crowd was gathering. Two men nipped and circled each other. The taller was thin and wiry, and moved edgily about the shorter, bulky, larger man whose hair was spiked and who was from the trailer that had the window boarded up by a sheet of wood. A woman with a red scarf goaded them on. But a man with ginger hair and a beard stepped between them, telling them to calm down. The man next to Diarmid told him there was a long-running quarrel between two families about a woman who had married into one of them but now wanted a separation.

           The atmosphere lightened when a lad with a broken nose handed around a few pounds of bananas he had lifted from a supermarket. An old man began to sing the low guttural words of an Irish song  and an older woman with a flourish of dark hair brought out an accordion. Notes throbbed through the light summer air. Two younger men started a fire. An older man threw on broken boxes, legs of a chair, parts of an old high chair and a small table. Flames jumped and spread, casting shadows on faces and legs. Men and women with children drew towards the heart of the flames as night came down, velvety and thick.

           Diarmid sat on an upturned box and was warmed. His mother appeared on the other side of the circle. In the firelight, he saw a slow smile on her face. She moved between people, talking and laughing.

           A thick-set older man with a frizz of black curly hair and a check shirt stood on a makeshift stage of planks and metal cases and called out. ‘Does anyone have a song? Do I hear any takers? There must be one of you willing?’ 

           His mother walked from a clutch of women, towards the stage. He wished she would sit. The women clapped and cheered. One took the scarf from around her neck and shouted, ‘Give us a good one.’

           ‘I will. I'll give it a whirl,’ his mother said. 

          ‘Mum, no,’ he attempted to hang on to her arm.

          ‘I`ve a great voice.’ She waddled off, the dress shiny across her body.

          He wished one of the men would get to the mike before her, but the man with the curly black hair greeted her with a kiss on the cheek and handed her a small microphone.

          ‘Tell us the name of the song, darling.’

          ‘I’ll sing, “She Moved Through The Fair”.’

          ‘That’s a beauty. Let’s have it, then.’

          Torn between wanting to run back to the trailer or pretend she was no relation, Diarmid stayed standing in the crowd. She swayed, humming to herself while shimmers of light swam off her dress. She cleared her throat. Twangs of a chord started, but she was not ready, so the thin, wiry guitarist nodded and started again. The rhythm increased but no words came. Her mouth opened and closed, like a fish breathing in deep water.

          ‘Sorry,’ the guitarist said, pushing away a clump of hair from his eyes.

          ‘I’ll start again … and my mother won`t slight you till our wedding day…’

          Her voice was small. Even Diarmid could tell the words were not right. They skeetered out of control.

          ‘That was great. A big clap for Eva.’ The man moved back, in an attempt to shepherd her offstage. ‘Anyone else give us a song? We'll have a job finding someone to follow you.’

          ‘Will I try another …? I’d love if Dad could hear.’ she said, approaching Diarmid.

          ‘I haven’t seen him,’ he said.

          ‘He must’ve gone in somewhere for a chat. Never mind. I’ll start anyways.” She started towards the stage and climbed back up. ‘As down the glen one Easter morning, to a city fair rode I …

          The words came sharp and clear. She looked like a child who did not know what was going on. She was going to become a fixture, delighting in the new found attention. He wished he could run up and get her off, but when she finished, the man approached.

‘Eva, thanks. We'll be seeing you,’ the man said, leading her from the platform.

          Diarmid was relieved. Lights from cars passed on the road and beyond.

          ‘How did I do?’ she asked.


          ‘D`you think anyone of them’d want my autograph?’ Her eyes were strangely bright in the shadowy night.

          ‘If anyone does, they'll come. Don`t make a show of yourself, mum.’

          ‘Why shouldn’t I enjoy myself, for what else is it we’ve come all the way over for, but to be with our own?’

          The music continued and she pushed out into the crowd before he could stop her. She glided off into a gang of people, chatting and cackling. She was no longer his mother, another person had taken hold.

          ‘Take a photograph of us, Diarmid?’ she shouted over her shoulder. ‘Go on. Get out the camera.’

          He ran to the trailer and found the camera among his grandfather`s clothes in a cupboard. The old man had rescued it from a skip but it still worked.

          Back outside Diarmid looked through the viewfinder, saw her within the square of glass and pressed down the switch. Light flashed. Caught in shadows, as she skirmished near the fire a flame leapt to her dress. A tracery of the flare crawled along the hem, making it ragged with slashes of orange. She did not notice the tigers of fire trapping her.

          ‘Mum,’ he called, dashing forward.

          He threw a handful of earth at the dress. It scrawled a muddy trail, catching in the glittering sequins. Charged with energy, she danced towards the fire. She was taller, willowy, like a reed caught in the trip of the wind, strained and lost; yet she moved like a flame. Her frenetic movements were dizzying. The verve of her body as it tilted towards the fire scared him.



Gone midnight, light from other windows shone through the flimsy curtains, keeping Diarmid awake. Girls from the trailer next door passed by, wearing necklaces which glowed. He wished he was still out there, but it would mean being with her. In the morning, he would collect a couple of tins and bread and scarper back to the lads.

A thud. The old woman from next door, making her way back from the toilets; or the man with stringy grey hair in the trailer across the path. He slept most of the day and rambled around at night, knocking into things or cursing the water  pipe for its poor flow.

          A voice travelled into the darkness, ‘  … far away from the mountains, far away from the foam … That step’ll kill me,’ his mother said. ’Let me in, can`t you?’ She pushed open the door. Droplets of blood flowered on her hand.

          ‘What happened?’

          ‘Nothing but a graze on my knee.’

          ‘You’re drunk,’

          ‘I’m not. I’d a wee drop to wet me lips,’ she loosened the stole from her shoulders. ‘Blast it and a hole in my tights as well. Have we a plaster? Give a look in that tin.' She used her foot to push a rusty mint tin from under the sofa-bed towards Diarmid.

          ‘Here,’ he said, finding one.

          ‘Them high heels. Not a one’d help me.’ She kicked off the shoes. He supported her fat arm and thick waist, managed to get her to sit down though she was a weight.

          ‘You’re like your grandad, all fuss.’

          ‘You'll probably be ill in bed from the cold for weeks.’

          ‘Suits me fine out. Would there be a man with it?’ She said with a gutsy, low laugh.

          ‘I wish we didn’t have to be here,’ he said.

          ‘There wasn’t much choice. And what harm, anyways? It’s warm and we’re looked after. We’ve all we want and away from the police. We couldn’t have made a stand against them in London. You might’ve ended up in those prisons.’

          ‘Remand Centres.’

          ‘And look at what happens to the young fellas. They commit suicide.’

          ‘They don’t,’ he said, falling back on the sofa.

           ‘Don’t make a fuss. You’ll wake the old fella. He’ll be roarin’ at the pair of us.’

          ‘He isn’t back yet.’

          ‘He must’ve got stuck into a good night of it, then. Fair do’s to him. I wish I could’ve and not to be coming back wounded.’ She struggled to get out of her dress.

          ‘Put out your arms.’

          ‘I can take off my own clothes,’ she said.

          A bruise, a purple cloud on the thin pale skin of her thigh showed when she yanked up the dress. Her face twisted with pain from the fall or remembering, he could not tell. She removed her tights and loosened her underclothes.

          ‘Where did you get to?’ he asked.

          ‘I ran into a fella from Dingle, a nice looking one with fair hair. He lent me ten euros, said he was a plumber and thinking of building a house. Do they have plumbers in Dingle? I never heard of one. He’d lovely brown eyes and a little ear ring on him …’  Underarm hair fuzzed as she pulled a night-dress over her head. ‘I’d have had an easier time if I’d headed for America. The gadgets there do save a woman’s body.’ She picked up a CD. ‘Put on a bit of music, for there’s nothing else to make me feel better.’

          He put it into the player.

          ‘ … Night and day, you are the one. Only you `neath the moon or under the sun …’ She swayed as Sinatra washed over them.

          If Pauley and Shane saw him, they’d laugh. If his mates in London knew …A sweep of hair fell from a slide at the back of her head. A cascading effect, she used to say, for some blokes were worth dressing up for, especially the one who gave her the last cleaning job. He had been a good bloke. He had taken her to Brighton and she had delighted to be by the sea, though she had only bothered with him, she had said, for comfort.

          She lay down and he pulled a blanket over her fat breasts and sagging stomach.   

          She dozed until she pushed herself up from the bed, reached up to the sink and grasping the washing up bowl just in time, vomited. A spay of mucky dregs fell on the two bulging plastic bags she kept her underwear in. She had got worse since Christmas when she had drifted from one pub to another.

          ‘God help us. My head’s spinning,’ she said.

          He knelt to clear the mess, steering her feet out of the line of it.

          ‘He was nice with a good piece of land, he said – from his cousin who had the farm and could go back anytime. A few sheep and a dozen cows and a pig, or was it pigs, a dozen sheep and a ram? My head’s pounding like a hammer’s beatin’ on it.’

          She sank back. Sunk in the dope of sleep, squirls of tiny purpley veins wrote themselves in whispers on her calves. Near her ankle, a deep, blue vein stuck out like the wire in an electric flex. Getting old was horrible. He did not want to end up worn out in the back of a trailer. He folded her arms in. Her skin was soft as a puppy and she looked as though she was praying. A tattoo, which a Puerto Rican guy had made, of a strange flower of grey and blue petals with three thorns, showed on her slack upper arm. Her breath stank, full and deep from the muddle of blankets.

          He lay back down on the cramped, narrow sofa bed. Worn out from the day and its arguments, he twisted and turned.

          ‘Darling one,’ she whispered, like wind under the door.

          She stretched in a difficult patch of sleep. Her closed eyelids flickered. She would make the man bugger off, if one was pestering her. She had with others, uttering a few slick, well-chosen words about a friend or a brother who was a boxer or who had a fleet of trucks.

          Rising, she walked towards the window and parted the curtains. She stared into the distance, letting in a dim flow of light before the thin fabric fell together, hiding the dark. Returning to bed, she lay down. His eyes tingled with the strain of watching.

In the total quiet, her voice came, like the way she used to draw a brush through her hair in the mornings, or like a whimper, someone in pain or the wind flying. As soon as he could, he would leave, even if he did not have food to take with him, he had to get out of the place.



In the morning, he pulled away the hard edges of the scratchy blankets to find her face blotched from crying. The old man snored big gollops of breath. He must have crept in when they were sleeping.

          ‘What's wrong?  Diarmid asked.


          ‘Someone upset you?’

          ‘They did not. I`m all right.’

          A squall of blankets were heaped up on her and the smell of drink came off the damp night dress, whose ribbons should have been tied in a bow, but instead hung down.

          ‘You`ve been drinking, already,’ he said.

          An empty bottle rolled from under the bed into the streak of light from the gap in the curtains. The gold ‘Jamesons’ label gave her away. He picked up the bottle and slung it in the bin.

          ‘A wee drop only to steady me for I didn't feel well.’ She stretched to grab it.

          ‘Get dressed. You’ll feel better.’

          ‘Better than what? I feel like an old sack of potatoes and no amount of dressing up will change that.’ She perched on the side of the bed, twirling a brush through her hair. Strands stood on end, dry and frizzy, with the blonde grown out. Nothing affected her; or if it did, she was doing a good job of concealing it, pressing everything she felt back to the bone. He kept in his words, for if she shouted back, they would wake the old man.

          She rose and pulled on a baggy tee shirt. ’Jesus. My old heart is giving out.’ She clutched her left breast. ‘I feel a flutter.’

          ‘It must be the coffee. Palpitations.’


          ‘Pauley said his dad… oh never mind.’

          ‘Is something the matter with me?’ she asked.

          ‘I don`t know. You were up in the night?’

          ‘Was I? It must be the strangeness of being here.’

          ‘You were talking about someone.’

          ‘Probably a one I met who was blackguarding me.’ She grabbed a cardigan and swept it over her shoulders. ‘I’ll be fine soon.’ She tried to roll up her  tights but her legs did not want to fit in.

          Home. He did not know where that was. Not here. And not in the cramped rooms and flats they had left behind.

          ‘It was on my mind for years to come back and my old brain’s having a hard time taking it in,’ she said, edging off the side of the bed. 

          ‘Don’t get up too soon, Eva. The doctor over told you not to overdo it,’ his grandfather said from under the pile of blankets.

          He pulled a worn cardigan over his pyjamas, got up and put the kettle on to boil.

          ‘The scut of a man. What does he know?’ she said.

          Out the small window, the quiet sky was airy, a hard, sharp blue; branches cast deep, thick shadows.

          ‘Watch yourself, Eva, look out …!’ his grandfather called.

          She lay on the floor, a tipped heap; all arms and legs. Diarmid leaned towards her.

          ‘That’s better, I`m fine. Fine out,’ she said, easing herself up and sitting on the bed. She pushed a pillow behind her head.

          As soon as she was settled, Diarmid gathered his clothes. He rummaged in the low cupboard for tins. Those two could look after each other. If he took more stuff, he would not have to be back for a while. He wouldn’t have the smell of damp socks and tea cloths to wake to, or the sickly milk his mother had forgotten to put back in the fridge.

          ‘Where are you going?’ she asked.


          ‘Out where?’ Her face strained.

          ‘Just … out.’

          ‘We could have a day together. Play Pontoon.’ She stretched an arm towards him.

          ‘I can’t.’ He pulled back.

          ‘Why not? We’d have a great time,’ she persisted, her face pinched with the pain of knowing the inevitable. ‘You want to watch yourself with them lads. You don’t know anything about them. There’s a lot of wild people around …’

          He went. Shut her behind. His grandfather had her, and she him. At least she had a father. He could not remember the last time he saw his; he had ghosted into his life when he was so young, he could barely recall him. Diarmid would not leave a kid when it was small. No way. He would stick around. 

          He ran past the yellow trailer up near the road; the brother of the woman in it was in prison. Its side was dented. He passed the black Mercedes parked midway along the track, making it difficult to drive up into the main part of the site. An abandoned mattress sank with the weight of rain and the hood of a rusty, old pram with a bent wheel, was bashed in. On the scrubby land, two little girls yelped and ran, circling each other. One rode a small trike, balancing dangerously. They were pretty in different ways. The tallest had straggly, curly hair; the other was thin with blonde hair bundled into a pony tail. Their silence when he passed told him he was a stranger.

          One of the older girls from the trailer with the rusty door, a few pitches up, walked towards him carrying her baby. The girl was not much older than him, but looked about his mum’s age. The baby cried as the girl walked towards a trailer and disappeared into it. He continued on past the field where the grass was scorched to pink. 








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