About the Book

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn’t the drink that killed him – although that certainly helped – it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house, in the winter of 1968.

The Gathering is a novel about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and limitless desire, and how our fate is written in the body, not in the stars.

About the Author

Anne Enright was born in Dublin, where she now lives and works. She has published two collections of stories, collected as Yesterday's Weather, one book of non-fiction, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, and four novels, most recently The Gathering, which was the Irish Novel of the Year, won the Irish Fiction Award and the 2007 Man Booker Prize.

Also by Anne Enright


The Portable Virgin

The Wig My Father Wore

What Are You Like?

The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch

Taking Pictures

Yesterday's Weather

The Forgotten Waltz

The Green Road


Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood


The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (editor)


The Gathering




About the Book

About the Author

Also by Anne Enright

Title Page

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39




I WOULD LIKE to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.

My brother Liam loved birds and, like all boys, he loved the bones of dead animals. I have no sons myself, so when I pass any small skull or skeleton I hesitate and think of him, how he admired their intricacies. A magpie’s ancient arms coming through the mess of feathers; stubby and light and clean. That is the word we use about bones: Clean.

I tell my daughters to step back, obviously, from the mouse skull in the woodland or the dead finch that is weathering by the garden wall. I am not sure why. Though sometimes we find, on the beach, a cuttlefish bone so pure that I have to slip it in my pocket, and I comfort my hand with the secret white arc of it.

You can not libel the dead, I think, you can only console them.

So I offer Liam this picture: my two daughters running on the sandy rim of a stony beach, under a slow, turbulent sky, the shoulders of their coats shrugging behind them. Then I erase it. I close my eyes and roll with the sea’s loud static. When I open them again, it is to call the girls back to the car.

Rebecca! Emily!

It does not matter. I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns. All I have are ravings, more like. She loved him! I say. She must have loved him! I wait for the kind of sense that dawn makes, when you have not slept. I stay downstairs while the family breathes above me and I write it down, I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean, white bones.


SOME DAYS I don’t remember my mother. I look at her photograph and she escapes me. Or I see her on a Sunday, after lunch, and we spend a pleasant afternoon, and when I leave I find she has run through me like water.

‘Goodbye,’ she says, already fading. ‘Goodbye my darling girl,’ and she reaches her soft old face up, for a kiss. It still puts me in such a rage. The way, when I turn away, she seems to disappear, and when I look, I see only the edges. I think I would pass her in the street, if she ever bought a different coat. If my mother committed a crime there would be no witnesses – she is forgetfulness itself.

‘Where’s my purse?’ she used to say when we were children – or it might be her keys, or her glasses. ‘Did anyone see my purse?’ becoming, for those few seconds, nearly there, as she went from hall, to sitting room, to kitchen and back again. Even then we did not look at her but everywhere else: she was an agitation behind us, a kind of collective guilt, as we cast about the room, knowing that our eyes would slip over the purse, which was brown and fat, even if it was quite clearly there.

Then Bea would find it. There is always one child who is able, not just to look, but also to see. The quiet one.

‘Thank you. Darling.’

To be fair, my mother is such a vague person, it is possible she can’t even see herself. It is possible that she trails her fingertip over a line of girls in an old photograph and can not tell herself apart. And, of all her children, I am the one who looks most like her own mother, my grandmother Ada. It must be confusing.

‘Oh hello,’ she said as she opened the hall door, the day I heard about Liam.

‘Hello. Darling.’ She might say the same to the cat.

‘Come in. Come in,’ as she stands in the doorway, and does not move to let me pass.

Of course she knows who I am, it is just my name that escapes her. Her eyes flick from side to side as she wipes one after another off her list.

‘Hello, Mammy,’ I say, just to give her a hint. And I make my way past her into the hall.

The house knows me. Always smaller than it should be; the walls run closer and more complicated than the ones you remember. The place is always too small.

Behind me, my mother opens the sitting room door.

‘Will you have something? A cup of tea?’

But I do not want to go into the sitting room. I am not a visitor. This is my house too. I was inside it, as it grew; as the dining room was knocked into the kitchen, as the kitchen swallowed the back garden. It is the place where my dreams still happen.

Not that I would ever live here again. The place is all extension and no house. Even the cubby-hole beside the kitchen door has another door at the back of it, so you have to battle your way through coats and hoovers to get into the downstairs loo. You could not sell the place, I sometimes think, except as a site. Level it and start again.

The kitchen still smells the same – it hits me in the base of the skull, very dim and disgusting, under the fresh, primrose yellow paint. Cupboards full of old sheets; something cooked and dusty about the lagging around the immersion heater; the chair my father used to sit in, the arms shiny and cold with the human waste of many years. It makes me gag a little, and then I can not smell it any more. It just is. It is the smell of us.

I walk to the far counter and pick up the kettle, but when I go to fill it, the cuff of my coat catches on the running tap and the sleeve fills with water. I shake out my hand, and then my arm, and when the kettle is filled and plugged in I take off my coat, pulling the wet sleeve inside out and slapping it in the air.

My mother looks at this strange scene, as if it reminds her of something. Then she starts forward to where her tablets are pooled in a saucer, on the near counter. She takes them, one after the other, with a flaccid absent-mindedness of the tongue. She lifts her chin and swallows them dry while I rub my wet arm with my hand, and then run my damp hand through my hair.

A last, green capsule enters her mouth and she goes still, working her throat. She looks out the window for a moment. Then she turns to me, remiss.

‘How are you. Darling?’

‘Veronica!’ I feel like shouting it at her. ‘You called me Veronica!’

If only she would become visible, I think. Then I could catch her and impress upon her the truth of the situation, the gravity of what she has done. But she remains hazy, unhittable, too much loved.

I have come to tell her that Liam has been found.

‘Are you all right?’

‘Oh, Mammy.’

The last time I cried in this kitchen I was seventeen years old, which is old for crying, though maybe not in our family, where everyone seemed to be every age, all at once. I sweep my wet forearm along the table of yellow pine, with its thick, plasticky sheen. I turn my face towards her and ready it to say the ritual thing (there is a kind of glee to it, too, I notice) but, ‘Veronica!’ she says, all of a sudden and she moves – almost rushes – to the kettle. She puts her hand on the bakelite handle as the bubbles thicken against the chrome, and she lifts it, still plugged in, splashing some water in to heat the pot.

He didn’t even like her.

There is a nick in the wall, over by the door, where Liam threw a knife at our mother, and everyone laughed and shouted at him. It is there among the other anonymous dents and marks. Famous. The hole Liam made, after my mother ducked, and before everyone started to roar.

What could she have said to him? What possible provocation could she have afforded him – this sweet woman? And Ernest then, or Mossie, one of the enforcers, wrestling him out through the back door and on to the grass for a kicking. We laughed at that too. And my lost brother, Liam, laughed: the knife thrower, the one who was being kicked, he laughed too, and he grabbed his older brother’s ankle to topple him into the grass. Also me – I was also laughing, as I recall. My mother clucking a little, at the sight of it, and going about her business again. My sister Midge picking up the knife and waggling it out the window at the fighting boys, before slinging it into the sink full of washing-up. If nothing else, our family had fun.

My mother puts the lid on the teapot and looks at me.

I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling – somewhere between diarrhoea and sex – this grief that is almost genital.

It must have been over some boyfriend, the last time I cried here. Ordinary, family tears meant nothing in this kitchen; they were just part of the general noise. The only thing that mattered was, He rang or, He didn’t ring. Some catastrophe. The kind of thing that would have you scrabbling at the walls after five bottles of cider. He left me. Doubling over, clutching your midriff; howling and gagging. He didn’t even call to get his scarf back. The boy with the turquoise eyes.

Because we are also – at a guess – great lovers, the Hegartys. All eye-to-eye and sudden fucking and never, ever, letting go. Apart from the ones who couldn’t love at all. Which is most of us, too, in a way.

Which is most of us.

‘It’s about Liam,’ I say.

‘Liam?’ she says. ‘Liam?

My mother had twelve children and – as she told me one hard day – seven miscarriages. The holes in her head are not her fault. Even so, I have never forgiven her any of it. I just can’t.

I have not forgiven her for my sister Margaret who we called Midge, until she died, aged forty-two, from pancreatic cancer. I do not forgive her my beautiful, drifting sister Bea. I do not forgive her my first brother Ernest, who was a priest in Peru, until he became a lapsed priest in Peru. I do not forgive her my brother Stevie, who is a little angel in heaven. I do not forgive her the whole tedious litany of Midge, Bea, Ernest, Stevie, Ita, Mossie, Liam, Veronica, Kitty, Alice and the twins, Ivor and Jem.

Such epic names she gave us – none of your Jimmy, Joe or Mick. The miscarriages might have got numbers, like ‘1962’ or ‘1964’, though perhaps she named them too, in her heart (Serena, Aifric, Mogue). I don’t forgive her those dead children either. The way she didn’t even keep a notebook, so you could tell who had what, when, and which jabs. Am I the only woman in Ireland still at risk from polio myelitis? No one knows. I don’t forgive the endless hand-me-downs, and few toys, and Midge walloping us because my mother was too gentle, or busy, or absent, or pregnant to bother.

My sweetheart mother. My ageless girl.

No, when it comes down to it, I do not forgive her the sex. The stupidity of so much humping. Open and blind. Consequences, Mammy. Consequences.

‘Liam,’ I say, quite forcefully. And the riot in the kitchen quiets down as I do my duty, which is to tell one human being about another human being, the few and careful details of how they met their end.

‘I am afraid he is dead, Mammy.’

‘Oh,’ she says. Which is just what I expected her to say. Which is exactly the sound I knew would come out of her mouth.

‘Where?’ she says.

‘In England, Mammy. Where he was. They found him in Brighton.’

‘What do you mean?’ she says. ‘What do you mean, “Brighton”?’

‘Brighton in England, Mammy. It’s a town in the south of England. It’s near London.’

And then she hits me.

I don’t think she has ever hit me before. I try to remember later, but I really think that she left the hitting to other people: Midge of course, who was always mopping something, and so would swipe the cloth at you, in passing, across your face, or neck, or the back of the legs, and the smell of the thing, I always thought, worse than the sting. Mossie, who was a psycho. Ernest, who was a thoughtful, flat-handed sort of man. As you went down the line, the hitting lost authority and petered out, though I had a bit of a phase, myself, with Alice and the twins, Ivor-and-Jem.

But my mother has one hand on the table, and she swings around with the other one to catch me on the side of the head. Not very hard. Not hard at all. Then she swings back, and grabs for the counter, and she suspends herself there, between the counter and the table; her head dipping below the spread of her arms. For a while she is silent, and then a terrible sound comes out of her. Quite soft. It seems to lift up off her back. She raises her head and turns to me, so that I can witness her face; the look on it, now, and the way it will never be the same again.

Don’t tell Mammy. It was the mantra of our childhoods, or one of them. Don’t tell Mammy. This from Midge, especially, but also from any one of the older ones. If something broke or was spilt, if Bea did not come home or Mossie went up to live in the attic, or Liam dropped acid, or Alice had sex, or Kitty bled buckets into her new school uniform, or any number of phone messages about delays, snarl-ups, problems with bus money and taxi money, and once, catastrophically, Liam’s night in the cells. None of the messages relayed: the whispered conference in the hall, Don’t tell Mammy, because ‘Mammy’ would – what? Expire? ‘Mammy’ would worry. Which seemed fine to me. It was, after all, of her own making, this family. It had all come – singly and painfully – out of her. And my father said it more than anyone; level, gallant, There’s no need to tell your mother now, as if the reality of his bed was all the reality that this woman should be asked to bear.

After my mother reaches over and hits me, for the first time, at the age of seventy to my thirty-nine, my mind surges, almost bursts, with the unfairness of it all. I think I will die of unfairness; I think it will be written on my death certificate. That this duty should devolve to me, for a start – because I am the careful one, of course. I have a car, an accommodating phone bill. I have daughters who are not obliged to fight over who is wearing the other one’s knickers in the morning before they go to school. So I am the one who has to drive over to Mammy’s and ring the doorbell and put myself in a convenient hitting position on the other side of her kitchen table. It is not as if I got these things by accident – husband, car, phone bill, daughters. So I am in a rage with every single one of my brothers and sisters, including Stevie, long dead, and Midge, recently dead, and I am boiling mad with Liam for being dead too, just now, when I need him most. Quite literally, I am beyond myself. I am so angry I have a second view of the kitchen, a high view, looking down: me with one wet sleeve rolled up, my bare forearm lying flat on the table, and on the other side of the table, my mother, cruciform, her head drooping from the little white triangle of her bare neck.

This is where Liam is. Up here. I feel him like a shout in the room. This is what he sees; my bare arm, our mother playing aeroplane between the counter and the table. Flying low.


The sound keeps coming out of her. I lift my arm.


She has no idea of how much has been done for her in the six days since the first phone call from Britain. She was spared all that: Kitty running around London and me around Dublin for dental records; his height, and the colour of his hair, and the tattoo on his right shoulder. None of this was read back to her as it was to me, this morning, by the very nice bean garda who called to the door, because I am the one who loved him most. I feel sorry for policewomen – all they do is relatives, and prostitutes, and cups of tea.

There is saliva falling from my mother’s bottom lip now, in gobs and strings. Her mouth keeps opening. She keeps trying to close it but her lips refuse to stay shut and, ‘Gah. Gah,’ she says.

I must go over and touch her. I must take her by the shoulders and lift her gently up and away. I will squeeze her arms back down by her sides as I push and guide her to a chair, and put sugar in her cup of tea, though she does not take sugar. I will do all this in deference to a grief that is biological, idiot, timeless.

She would cry the same for Ivor, less for Mossie, more for Ernest, and inconsolably, as we all would, for the lovely Jem. She would cry no matter what son he was. It occurs to me that we have got something wrong here, because I am the one who has lost something that can not be replaced. She has plenty more.

There were eleven months between me and Liam. We came out of her on each other’s tails; one after the other, as fast as a gang-bang, as fast as an infidelity. Sometimes I think we overlapped in there, he just left early, to wait outside.

‘Are you all right, Mammy? Will you have a cup of tea?’

She eyes me: very tiny, in the big chair. She gives me a narked look and her head twitches away. And it comes down on me like a curse. Who am I to touch, to handle and discard, the stuff of a mother’s love?

I am Veronica Hegarty. Standing at the sink in my school uniform; fifteen maybe, sixteen years old; crying over a lost boyfriend and being comforted by a woman who can not, for the life of her, remember my name. I am Veronica Hegarty, thirty-nine, spooning sugar into a cup of tea for the loveliest woman in Dublin, who has just had some terrible news.

‘I’m just going to ring Mrs Cluny.’

‘Ring her?’ she says. ‘Ring her?’ Because Mrs Cluny only lives next door.

‘Yes, Mammy,’ and she suddenly remembers that her son is dead. She checks again to see if it could be true and I nod in a fake sort of way. No wonder she doesn’t believe me. I hardly believe it myself.


THE SEEDS OF my brother’s death were sown many years ago. The person who planted them is long dead – at least that’s what I think. So if I want to tell Liam’s story, then I have to start long before he was born. And, in fact, this is the tale that I would love to write: history is such a romantic place, with its jarveys and urchins and side-buttoned boots. If it would just stay still, I think, and settle down. If it would just stop sliding around in my head.

All right.

Lambert Nugent first saw my grandmother Ada Merriman in a hotel foyer in 1925. This is the moment I choose. It was seven o’clock in the evening. She was nineteen, he was twenty-three.

She walked into the foyer and did not look about her and sat in an oval-backed chair near the door. Lamb Nugent watched her through a rush of arrivals and instructions as she removed her left-hand glove and then picked off the right. She pulled a little bracelet out from under her sleeve, and the hand that held the gloves settled in her lap.

She was beautiful, of course.

It is hard to say what Lamb Nugent looked like, at twenty-three. He has been in the grave so long, it is hard to think of him innocent or sweating, when all of that is gone to dust.

What did she see in him?

He must be reassembled; click clack; his muscles hooked to bone and wrapped with fat, the whole skinned over and dressed in a suit of navy or brown – something about the cut of the lapels, maybe, that is a little too sharp, and the smell on his hands would be already a little finer than carbolic. He had it down, even then, the dour narcissism of the ordinary man, and all his acts of self-love were both subtle and exact. He did not preen. Lamb Nugent watched. Or he did not watch so much as let it enter into him – the world, in all its nuance of who owed what to whom.

Which is what he saw, presumably, when my grandmother walked in through the door. His baby eyes. His two black pupils, into which the double image of Ada Merriman walked, and sat. She was wearing blue, or so I imagine it. Her blue self settled in the grey folds of his brain, and it stayed there for the rest of his life.

It was five past seven. The talk in the foyer was of rain, and what to do with the jarvey and whether refreshments would be required; after which the knot of arrivals was pulled in a string through the front lounge door, and the two servants were left behind to wait; she in her neat chair, he with his elbow on the high reception desk, like a man standing at a bar.

In which position, they stayed for three and a half hours.

They belonged to the lower orders. Waiting was not a problem, for them.

Ada did not pretend to notice him, at first. This may have been the polite thing to do, but also I think he would have had it from the start, this trick of not existing much. And the rages he suffered in later life must have been, in 1925, the usual run of passions and young hopes. If Nugent suffered from anything, in those early days, it was decency. He was a decent man. He was not a man much used to hotels. He was not used to women who showed such twitching precision in the way they worked a glove. There was nothing in his history to prepare him for Ada Merriman. But, he was surprised to find, he was ready for her all the same.

Behind the high desk, the little concierge hung a key on his board, then clicked away to check a bell. He came back to the desk, wrote a note, and left again. A maid came out of the back kitchen carrying tea on a tray. She mounted the stairs and turned on to an upper corridor and never came back down. They were alone.

Such discretion. Because Dublin was full of proud women as well as decent men, and you could be loud about it or you might, like this pair, be easy and silent. And in the quietness of their attention they each realised the strength of the other and the fact that neither would be the first to walk away.

There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty, have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given us to love and they all stick.

So there is Nugent, stuck to Ada Merriman before the clock strikes the quarter-hour. And she to him, by implication – although she does not know it yet, or does not look as if she knows it. Meanwhile, the light fades and nothing happens. The maid who never came back downstairs comes through the foyer with another tray and she mounts the stairs again and disappears one more time into the dark of the top corridor. In the room behind the reception desk they hear someone open a door and enquire after a Miss Hackett. And Ada Merriman looks into the respectable middle distance, where Lamb Nugent does not believe a single word she says.

The air between them is too thin for love. The only thing that can be thrown across the air of Dublin town is a kind of jeering.

I know you.

But it is too late for all that. It has already happened. It happened when she walked in the door; when she looked about her, but only as far as the chair. It happened in the perfection with which she managed to be present but not seen. And all the rest was just agitation: first of all that she should notice him back (and she did – she noticed his stillness), and secondly that she should love him as he loved her; suddenly, completely, and beyond what had been allocated to them as their station.

Ada reads him with the side of her face; the down on her cheek bristles with all that she needs to know about the young man who is standing on the other side of the room. It is the beginning of a blush, this knowledge, but Ada does not blush. She looks at her bracelet: a narrow chain in rose gold, with a T at the clasp, like the fob of a watch. She fingers this small anomaly – a male thing on her girl’s wrist – and feels Nugent’s disbelief weigh against her. Then she lifts her head very slightly to say, ‘So?’

Quite brazen.

He might hate her now, though Nugent is too young, at twenty-three, to put a name on the emotion that sweeps through him and is gone, pulling in its wake a change of air. Something open. A zephyr. What is it?


At thirteen minutes past seven desire breathes on the young lips of Lamb Nugent – hush! He feels its awful proximity. The need to move surges through him, but he does not move. He stands his ground while, across the room, Ada’s stillness becomes triumphant. If he is very patient, she might look at him, now. If he is very humble, she might state her terms.

Or maybe she won’t. Nothing has been said. No one has moved. It is possible that Nugent is imagining it all – or that I am. Maybe he is a pathetic thing at twenty-three; all hand-wrung tweed cap and Adam’s apple; maybe Ada doesn’t even notice him there across the room.

But this is 1925. A man. A woman. She must know what lies ahead of them now. She knows because she is beautiful. She knows because of all the things that have happened since. She knows because she is my Granny, and when she put her hand on my cheek I felt the nearness of death and was comforted by it. There is nothing as tentative as an old woman’s touch; as loving or as horrible.

Ada was a fantastic woman. I have no other word for her. For the set of her shoulders and the way she trotted off down the street, with her shopping bag flapping at her hip. Her hands were never empty, and you never saw what was in them; whatever was to be folded or washed or moved or wiped. You never noticed her eating either, because she was always listening to you, or talking; the food just disappeared; like it didn’t actually go into a hole in her face. Her manners were perfect, in other words, and contagious. Even when I was eight years old, I knew she had charm.

But how did Nugent know it, before she ever opened her mouth to speak to him? I can only suppose that it did not matter, that there were phases and stages to his attachment (he hated her, after all, before a quarter past seven), each of which he must re-enact in longer cycles – years long, or decades – he must move from love to a kind of sneering, he must be smitten by hatred and touched by desire, he must find a final humility and so begin with love again. Each time around he would know more about her – more about himself perhaps – and nothing he learned would make any difference. By fourteen minutes past seven, they are back just where they began.

But what of love?

Nugent does move now, quite suddenly. He ducks his forehead down and rubs his hairline at the roots. Is it possible that she might love him too? That they return to the moment when she walked in the door, and rise above these petty concerns of exchange and loss?

Ah yes, says the side of Ada’s sad face. And she thinks about love for a while.

Nugent feels it stir in the deep root of his penis; the future, or the beginning of the future. No one interrupts them, now. Someone has strangled the maid in an upstairs room; the puppet concierge is thrown on a chair. There are fourteen feet of carpet between them. Nugent thinks of the swell of his glans easing out from its sack of skin and Ada thinks about love, while the hotel clock slips, and softly grinds, and whirrs into the quarter-hour chimes.

Dee dee de dee dah!

Dah dah de dee dah!

Revived, summoned, the little concierge trots into the gloom of the foyer with a small footstool which he places under a lamp on the wall. He trots out again and comes back with a spill held aloft, its flame made dingy by the last light of day. He stands on the stool to remove the shade, turns on the jet, fumbles the spill and, before it is altogether too late, manages the flame to the gas. It hisses hollow and blue before settling into the yellow-green glow of the mantle, and the light dips and then bounces out into the room. The foyer is sick with the smell of gas, followed by the warm smell of burnt paper, as black flakes scatter from the man’s quick fluttering fingers. He replaces the shade, moves the stool under the next lamp, and leaves.

In his absence, the room pulses darker. And darker again.

He returns. Nugent and Ada both look at him as he completes the ritual of the lamp and stool; his entrances and exits; his ghastly self-importance as he moves around the walls towards the fourth and final lamp, which is above the chair in which Ada sits. He sets the stool beside her feet, as though bowing, and eases himself away again. After a long moment he comes back with the flame he might, but did not, take from the fire burning in the grate. He didn’t want to bend over in front of them, perhaps, though he has no compunction about making Ada stand. He pauses before her, dipping the spill one way and another, saving and coaxing the flame back along the paper. He looks to her face. And waits.

Ada’s dress rustles loose from her lap as she rises to her feet. And it may as well have fallen altogether on the floor; the dress might have been made of water, it might have been a puddle of colour around her feet, so naked does she look now. Nugent stares quite frankly while she clasps her hands in front of her, and looks down. At first he pities her, and then he does not. He shifts at last, at the side of the desk, and takes comfort from the smell that escapes in a sigh from under his shirt. Thank God for that. It is not his fault.

He was at the Pro-Cathedral that morning, for early Mass. He walked in a line with other men for Holy Communion. The look on their faces was as hungry as poor men queuing for soup. And when he got up from his knees, he did so like a decent man: slow in the haunches, heavy with the weight of his life on this earth, sad for the people he loved. Brave.

It is Lent. Nugent has given up rashers, sausages and all kinds of offal for the duration, also strong drink. His body has been cleansed by the workings of his soul – so the smell that rises from under his shirt has something of the spring air in it, a whiff of early morning soap, the quiet ming of a day’s toil. The cloth of his suit is decently worn and the collar of his shirt is decently clean, and his life stretches ahead of him decently waxing into a solid middle age.

With one small interruption – because there is nothing decent about the glint in his baby eye, looking at Ada Merriman in the foyer of the Belvedere Hotel.

She has looked back at him. Standing – as it were, naked – with her hands clasped in front of her, she has lifted her face and looked him in the eye.

This is the shock. The shock is the complete self of Ada Merriman. Her pupils widen to receive him; they rush open, and Nugent is glad of the support, beside him, of the desk’s wooden wall.

Then they smile. Ada smiles. Like there is some joke in the room, that she wants him to share.

Nugent looks at her. He wonders which part of her body she finds so amusing. Is it her breasts, or her throat? Either she does not realise she is naked (she is, after all, fully dressed), or else she does not care. She may be laughing at the little man who is lighting the lamps. Or she may be laughing at him – standing there like a gobdaw with a lump in his pants. And Nugent’s eyes swell with the unfairness of it, and with the force of love denied.

Except – as the little lamplighter might tell him – she has not denied him anything yet. She has not denied him, at all.

The gas lights burble and faintly hiss as the stool is lifted and the man withdraws, angled slightly towards these lovers in cynical courtesy, as if he can see it all, the coupling (such squelchings), the money, the lies that they have already begun to tell. Oh, if it was a song you could sing it. If it was a song you could batter it out on the spoons. Especially in Dublin, in 1925.

This is all my romance, of course. Everyone had a beautiful grandmother – something to do with sepia and the orange blossom in their hair. Also the steady look in those old-fashioned eyes. We do not know how to be brave, any more, as a bride was brave in those days. Here is Ada’s wedding picture: she wears the low veil of the 1920s and the silk of her dress shows its tender, hand-sewn stitches in a line of dents around the hem. She was pure and she burned. Ada Merriman, my modest, ardent grandmother, was the thing poets wrote about, in 1925.

She has my feet. Or I have hers: long, with scraggly toes. Also the large-boned ankles and endless, flat shins that made me feel so gawky at school, before I learned how to put them to use. I have an expensive body, I realised, sometime in 1979. It isn’t a sex thing. Lawyers want to breed out of me and architects want me to sit on their new Eames chairs. Nothing too big at the front, just rangy and tall. So I dress up well, I suppose – though nothing would persuade me into a skirt that stopped mid-calf, to show my transvestite ankles and my poor knobbly toes.

So there is something pathetic about Ada’s big feet in satin shoes. She is married. She is happy. Or so I fancy, as I put her photo back into the shoebox that holds all that remains of her story, now.

She did not marry Nugent, you will be relieved to hear. She married his friend Charlie Spillane. And not just because he had a car.

But he never left her. My grandmother was Lamb Nugent’s most imaginative act. I may not forgive him, but it is this – the way he stayed true to it – that defines the man most, for me.


I RING THE bereavement people in Brighton and Hove from Mammy’s phone in the hall, and they give me the number of an undertaker who, very nicely, takes my credit card details while I have it handy. There is the coffin to consider, of course, and for some reason I already know that I will go for the limed oak – a decision that is up to me, because I am the one who loved him most. And how much will all that cost? I think as I put down the phone.

Mrs Cluny comes in from next door, utterly silent. She swarms through the hall and into the kitchen and closes the door. After a little while, I hear my mother’s voice start up, very low.

I don’t have the patience for the old, circular dial, so I switch to my mobile and walk around the house as I go, ringing the lot of them, in Clontarf and Phibsboro, in Tucson, Arizona, to say, ‘Bad news, about Liam. Yes. Yes, I’m afraid so.’ And, ‘I’m in Mammy’s. Shocked. Really shocked.’ The news will be discussed along lines too slight and tender to trace. Jem will ring Ivor, and Ivor will ring Mossie’s wife, and Ita will source Father Ernest, somewhere north of Arequipa. Then they will all ring back here later – or their wives will – for times and reasons and gory details and flights.

I walk through the dimness of our childhood rooms and I touch nothing.

All the beds are dressed and ready. The girls slept upstairs and the boys on the ground floors (we had a system, you see). It is a warren. The twins’ bunk-beds are in a little room on the left of the hall door – the one where baby Stevie died. On the other side of this room is a doorway to the garage extension, with its three single beds. Beyond that again is the garden passage, where Ernest slept on a mattress on the floor, then Mossie, when Ernest left, and Liam last of all.

The slanting roof of the passage is made of clear, corrugated perspex. The mattress is still there, pushing up against the yellow garden door, with its window of pebbled glass. Liam’s Marc Bolan poster is gone, but you can still see the soiled tabs of Sellotape dangling from the breeze-block wall.

I had my first ever cigarette in here.

I sit on the mattress, which is covered with a rough blue blanket, and I ring my last, baby brother.

‘Hi Jem. No, everything’s fine. I have bad news, though, about Liam.’ And Jem, the youngest of us, the easiest and best loved, says, ‘Well, at least that’s done.’

I try Kitty’s again and listen to the phone ringing in her empty London flat. I lie down and look at the corrugated perspex roof, and I wonder how you might undo all these sheds and extensions, take the place back to the house it once was. If it would be possible to unbuild it all and start again.

When Bea arrives, I open the hall door and take her by both forearms, and we swing around like this as she passes me in the dark hall. I follow her into the kitchen’s yellow light and see that my mother has aged five, maybe ten years in the time it took me to make the calls.

‘Goodnight, Mammy. Do you want to take something? Do you want a doctor now, for something to help you sleep?’

‘No, no. No thanks.’

‘I’m going over there, to sort things out,’ I say.

‘England?’ she says. ‘Now?’

‘I’ll ring, OK?’

Her cheek, when I kiss it, is terribly soft. I glance over at Bea who gives me a dark look, full of blame.

Don’t tell Mammy.

Like it is all my fault.

My father used to sit in the kitchen watching telly until eleven o’clock, with the newspaper adrift in his lap. After the news he would fold the paper, get out of the chair, switch the telly off (no matter who was watching it) and make his way to bed. The milk bottles were rinsed and put on the step. One of the twins might be lifted on to a potty and tucked back into sleep. Then he would go into the room where he slept with my mother. She would already be in bed, reading and sighing since half past nine. There would be some muted talk, the sound of his keys and coins as he left them down. The rattle of his belt buckle. One shoe hitting the floor.


There were girls at school whose families grew to a robust five or six. There were girls with seven or eight – which was thought a little enthusiastic – and then there were the pathetic ones like me, who had parents that were just helpless to it, and bred as naturally as they might shit.

Instead of turning left outside Mammy’s, I turn right for the airport road. I don’t think about where I am going, I think about the rain, the indicator, the drag of the rubber wiper against the glass. I think about nothing – there is nothing to think about. And then I think about a drink. Nothing messy. A fierce little naggin of whiskey, maybe, or gin. I float towards it in my nice Saab 9.3 – towards the idea of it, flowering in my mouth.

I am always thirsty when I leave that house – something to do with the unfairness of the place. But I won’t drink. Not yet. Kitty was so slammed when she rang earlier that all I could hear down the line was a stupid yowling.