A Letter To A Young Reader

Almost a year ago, a young reader wrote to me looking for advice on how to become a writer, of SF and fantasy in particular, and what to do if you don’t think you can come up with any new ideas.

Recently, in looking through some old emails, I came across my reply. I thought it was filled with the sort of timeless advice I give everyone who asks me questions like these, and then I thought: why not put this advice on the blog, for everyone to see?

So, here you go. I’ve obviously redacted all identifying information relating to the sender of the original query, but the majority of this post is exactly reproduced from my letter, sent last October. I hope, if you’re full of questions, that it will help you too.

The Eye of the North meets some of its older cousins. (Photo: SJ O’Hart)

How Do I Become A Writer?

I’m delighted to hear you’re interested in writing. I get asked all the time where my ideas come from, and to be honest the answer is ‘from everywhere’. What I mean is, I’m a person who pays attention to the world around me, and I’m insatiably curious. I’m forever asking questions, wondering about things, needing to find things out, and I try to learn all the time. As a kid I loved to read dictionaries and encyclopedias and books of facts (I just loved  to read in general, really) and all the interesting bits would sort of stick to the inside of my brain, where they’d eventually grow into story-seeds. The Kraken from The Eye of the North, for instance, was something I first came across in a book of myths and legends I read as a seven-year-old, and it stuck with me for decades before finding its way out in a story. So, my tips would be:


-Read as much as you can, and as widely as you can. No reading is ever wasted.


-Think about things, daydream, wonder, ask yourself questions and find out the answers, cherish the things you’re interested in and dive into them as deeply as possible. All those nuggets will go into your memory bank and could eventually turn into a story.


-Keep a notebook handy. When you’re out and about, take notes and/or doodle the things you see, hear, and smell. Listen to how people talk. Eavesdrop as politely as possible! Get a feel for the rhythms of language by listening as carefully as you can. 


-Cultivate your curiosity. Notice things. Don’t walk through the world with your head down – look up and see the cat sitting on the window-ledge, or the rainbow peeking through the clouds, or the old couple holding hands in the park, or the runaway dog with one ear turned inside out… look for all the beautiful detail in the world and soak it all in. Ideas are everywhere. Writers are just the people who notice them. (An addendum to this: make sure to use all the senses that are available to you, and don’t neglect your senses of smell, touch, and taste!)


-Whenever you get a little story-seed – so, a character name, or a good sentence, or an interesting image, or a setting, or even a line or two of dialogue – write it down. But if you only get a little ‘flash’, don’t worry, and don’t push it. Put it aside. Lay it down in the warm darkness of your imagination, and let it grow. You’ll find, eventually, that it’ll start bugging you so much that you’ll be itching to write the story!


-Don’t worry too much about originality. There are no new things under the sun! That old saying has a lot of truth in it. Nobody comes up with ideas that are completely unique – I didn’t invent the idea of a girl going after her kidnapped parents, or an Arctic setting, and I certainly didn’t invent the Kraken! But perhaps the way I put them together, and the fact that the story was written in my ‘voice’, made it mine. Anything you write will have your stamp on it, and if you infuse it with the things that are special to you, the things you love and are passionate about, it will always have a fresh feeling to it. 


-Don’t judge yourself too harshly. Write for the joy of it, and know that any story you create is a huge accomplishment. Be proud of it. Don’t throw anything away, even stories that don’t work, because there’ll be something useful in everything you write. And don’t expect things to work first time, all the time. If it’s frustrating you, put it aside and come back to it in a week or a month; don’t give up. Writing can be hard work. It often is. Every story and every published book will have a hundred thousand ‘wrong’ words behind it. I did so many drafts of all my published books, and they were edited in depth by multiple people! They didn’t pop out of my head as they appear on the page. 


– As for tips for writing fantasy/sci-fi/humour – my best tip is to read those sort of books and watch those sort of movies. Every story you take in will teach you something – how stories work, what makes a funny line so funny, and what ideas have been a bit overdone. I really recommend Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ursula le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, Catherine Fisher, Justina Ireland, Karuna Riazi, Hannah Alkaf, Sarwat Chadda and so many more, but those authors are a great place to start. I get a lot of my humour in my dialogue, and the only tip I have for that is to listen to people, enjoy accents, and take pleasure in funny, new words and in language overall.


I hope this helps!


Keep reading, keep wondering, and keep dreaming. The stories will come.


Warmly yours,
Sinéad  

Skyborn Is Published!

Today is June 10th, 2021. For many, that won’t mean much. But for me?

Today’s the day my third – third! – novel publishes with Little Tiger Press. *shocked and amazed emoji face*

Skyborn is released into the world today. It’s available wherever you get your books (ideally, a bookshop… a real one, in a proper building, with tax-paying staff and proper toilet breaks and all that stuff… but no judgement if you choose otherwise) and I very much hope this book reaches an audience, that it’s read and enjoyed and that it brings a sparkle of magic and wonder to the world.

Skyborn cover, designed by Sophie Bransby and drawn by Sara Mulvanny, published by Little Tiger Press, 2021

Skyborn is a prequel to my first book, The Eye of the North, and tells the story of Thing (who you might remember from The Eye of the North) during his earlier life, before we get a chance to meet him in Eye. If you’ve read Eye you’ll know that, in that book, we follow Thing – a mysterious character with no proper name, and fragmented recollections of his family – as he travels to Greenland in the company of the brave Emmeline in order to try to save the world. Skyborn takes the reader back to those fragmented recollections, fleshing them out into the full-bodied story of Thing’s childhood in a circus and his discovery of a deeply-buried secret from his mother’s past which threatens his own future, and that of everyone he loves…

As Skyborn is a prequel to The Eye of the North, please don’t feel you have to have read the earlier book in order to read Skyborn. In fact, they work better the other way around! It’s great to finish one book and have the sequel ready to go.

All my books have been fun to write, and I’ve loved the creation of all of them in different ways, but Skyborn has been such a wonderful journey. It’s a book I never thought I’d write, a story that I discovered as I put it together, one that draws on the deep loves of my childhood in the same way as everything else I’ve ever written but which had the added benefit of being about a character I’d already created, and one that I already loved. Its circus setting comes straight from the circuses I found so magical as a child; the walled city with its long-held secrets is excavated from the stories and movies I adored growing up; the characters – particularly Crake, who I love so dearly – have threads of my own beloved people in them. All these shining flecks of the story were taken from my own strange story-cauldron where I keep all the ideas I get in the hope they’ll germinate into something wondrous. I think, in Skyborn, they truly have.

This is a book I’m proud of. Thank you, so much, for all the support you’ve given me since I began this writing dream almost a full decade ago. I’m (incredibly) on my fourth book – my third full-length novel – and I have no intention of stopping just yet. I hope you’ll stick with me as I figure out where to go next.

Now. Roll Up, Roll Up – you’ve got a front-row seat! The performance is about to begin, and The Skyborn Boy is ready to fly… Alley-oop!

Five Cool Facts About SKYBORN

My new book, Skyborn, is coming from Little Tiger Press in just over three weeks – on June 10th, to be precise! So, I decided to make a short video: Five Cool Facts About Skyborn, to introduce you to the book and its story world, and to give you a flavour of what it’s about. I hope you enjoy!

And don’t forget: if you pre-order your copy of SKYBORN from Halfway Up the Stairs Bookshop in Wicklow or from the Rocketship Bookshop in the UK, you’ll receive a signed and personalised bookplate to stick into the book, thereby transforming it (ta-daaaah!) into a signed copy. But, of course, you can pre-order SKYBORN just the same as you can pre-order or order any book: by calling into, or phoning, or emailing, or using carrier pigeons, or in any other way contacting your favourite bookshop or bookstore and asking them to organise getting a copy of the book to you. Booksellers are magicians, people. They can find literally anything. Try it!

Anyway. Without further ado, here are FIVE COOL FACTS ABOUT SKYBORN!

Roll Up, Roll Up… It’s SKYBORN!

The wonderful Gavin Hetherington (of How To Train Your Gavin fame) revealed the cover of my new book, SKYBORN, earlier today over on Twitter. I’m immensely grateful to him, and to the team at Little Tiger Press, for organising such a stylish and exciting unveiling!

For anyone who missed it, here it is… *drumroll*

The cover was designed by Sophie Bransby and drawn by Sara Mulvanny, and here’s what you can expect in its pages:

It’s rare, my friends, to come across a talent so incandescent as the one you’re about to see. You think you’ve seen performers in the air? You think you’ve seen artists on the trapeze? Prepare yourselves for skill beyond compare. Without further ado, I present to you the young man known only as… The Skyborn Boy!

The circus has seen better days, but for Bastjan it’s home. He will do anything he can to save it, even if it means participating in a death-defying new act. But when that fails to draw in the crowds, the ringmaster makes a deal with a mysterious man by the name of Dr Bauer.

In exchange for his help, Bauer wants a box that belonged to Bastjan’s mother and came from her birthplace – the faraway island of Melita. Bastjan is desperate to keep his only memento of his mother out of Bauer’s hands. And as he uncovers more about the strange objects contained within, he realizes it’s not only the circus that’s in terrible danger…

This book is coming from Little Tiger Press on June 10th, 2021, and if you’d care to pre-order it, I’m partnering with The Rocketship Bookshop in the UK and Halfway Up the Stairs bookshop in Ireland (click the shop name for a link to their website) to manage pre-orders (hopefully, we’ll have a little personalised touch to send with copies ordered through these bookshops). Other pre-order links are HERE and HERE, but of course you can also pre-order through your favourite local bookshop via phone or email, if they’re able to send books through the post/mail or offer a click and collect service (they’d be very glad of the business). Pre-orders are so welcome for new books, particularly during these sad bookshop-less days, so it would make my year if you’d pre-order your copy. I hope you’ll enjoy reading the story of Bastjan, his friends Alice, Wares, and Crake, and their perilous quest to save not only their circus, but also a mysterious young girl with incredible powers, from certain doom…

Thanks so much to Sara Mulvanny, to Sophie Bransby, to my editor Ella Whiddett and my former editor Katie Jennings, to my agent Polly Nolan at PaperCuts Literary Agency and Consultancy, and to everyone at Little Tiger Press (especially Charlie Morris) for their help in bringing this book to the world. Alley-oop! Off we go!

Happy Book Birthday to The Ravens’ Call!

It’s the first of two book birthdays this year for me. My book The Ravens’ Call is published today, and I’m really happy to see it out in the world. Click the link below to find out a bit more about it, and to purchase a copy if the mood takes you:

The Ravens’ Call is a banded reader, designed for use in a classroom setting, and it comes complete with brilliant resources at the back to aid pupils’ understanding of the story and their enjoyment of the themes around it. But you don’t have to be a pupil or a teacher to read or enjoy the short tale – it’s a great story about a brave girl named Alys, her clever raven friend Cuthbert (and all his raven friends), and their quest to find the King in time to deliver a very important message.

Will they reach him in time – and will the King heed the ravens’ call?

Cover of The Ravens’ Call, written by Sinéad O’Hart, illustrated by Maria Brzozowska, published by Harper Collins Children’s Books 2021.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve found a copy of The Ravens’ Call on your travels, and particularly if you’ve used it with your class or read it with your own kids. I’m working on a selection of activities to complement the book, too, so keep an eye on my Resources page.

Happy book birthday to me!

Fan Mail!

I recently received a really lovely piece of fan mail from a reader named Ava. Here’s her letter, with some identifying bits covered with stickers:

I was very happy indeed to receive this gorgeous letter, which arrived via email – the picture was taken by Ava, or one of her adults – and I would love to respond, but Ava didn’t leave me her full postal address. If she happens to see this, and if she’d like to ask a grownup to send me a message with her full postal address so I can write back to her, that would be great.

It’s now my policy (which I’ve fully outlined on my ‘Contact Me’ page) not to respond privately to anyone who is under the age of 18, in order to be compliant with the best Child Protection guidelines.

So – in the hope that Ava will see this! – I wanted to reply to her here.

For those who might not be able to make out my scrawl, here’s what I wrote:

Dear Ava,

Thank you so much for your very kind letter! It was wonderful to receive. I’m very pleased you found my book in your school library – libraries are the best! – and that you enjoyed reading it.

I enjoyed writing ‘The Eye of the North’ very much, and the scene where Emmeline falls off the ladder is one of my favourites, too. I worked hard to make sure every chapter had an interesting bit in it and that there were plenty of moments where a reader might have guess what would happen next. It’s brilliant to know you enjoyed guessing, and that you thought the plot was interesting.

I have written another book called ‘The Star-Spun Web’, about Tess and her friends who must save the world – and lots of other worlds! – from a terrible war. In June 2021 I have another book being published which you might enjoy if you liked ‘The Eye of the North’ – I hope you’ll check it out!

Until then, thank you so much.

Yours in stories,

SJ O’Hart

Ava also said she liked books set in the North, so I’d like to recommend some books to her. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has a Northern setting for some of the story (and the books are amazing); you could also try Cathryn Constable’s The Pearl in the Ice, H.S. Norup’s The Missing Barbegazi and Claire Fayers’ The Accidental Pirates: Voyage to Magical North.

So, thanks to Ava – and thanks to all the children (and their grownups) who have ever been in touch with me regarding my books, my work, or anything else. It’s a great privilege to hear from readers, and one I never take for granted. Happy reading to Ava, and to everyone – stories rule!

WonderFest!

In case you hadn’t heard…

There’s a brand-new Festival in town!

Well. Technically, it’s in every town, everywhere, because – yes! – it’s Ireland’s First Digital Children’s Literature Festival. It’s called WonderFest. It’s happening very soon – like, next week, November 20th to November 22nd! It’s a celebration of Irish children’s literature, particularly of all the amazing books that have been published in 2020 so far. And it’s full of brilliant things like Go Animal Crackers – Animal Tales and Draw Along with Alan Nolan, Margaret Ann Suggs and Jennifer Farley! There’s also Eggcorns and Bumbumbees: Word and Art Play with Chris Judge! There’s Lunchtime Tales of Wonder with PJ Lynch, Kieran Fanning, Marianne McShane and Lindsay Sedgwick! There’s a Live Q&A with DEREK LANDY! There’s a Dead Zoo Draw-Along with Peter Donnelly! There’s another Lunchtime Tales of Wonder with Celine Kiernan, Eve McDonnell and Catherine Doyle!

I mean… I need to sit down after all that excitement. While I’m recovering, here’s a photo of the fab Alan Nolan, on the hunt for stories (as is his wont).

(Photo Credit: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

Loads of the events have already sold out, but never fear. There’s so much more still to explore. If you (or your grown-ups) have access to Zoom, then you’re all invited to take part in WonderFest. It’s going to be WonderFul, and so much fun. Get your tickets through the website, tune in at the right time, and a world of Wonder awaits…

#SignForOurBookshops

As Ireland and the UK re-enter Coronavirus/Covid-19 lockdown, many retail outlets not deemed ‘essential’ have had to close their doors again, or resume doing business online or via click-and-collect. One of these non-essential businesses, unfortunately, is my absolute favourite: Bookshops.

I’m not going to get into the philosophical ins-and-outs of how essential books are (to my mind, they’re next to air and food and water), because – of course – the primary consideration here is keeping bookshop staff and customers safe during this time of crisis. Having said that, though, there are a lot of people who do need books, and there are a lot of bookshops who desperately need customers, and so in order to do a small bit to help, the author Holly Bourne got several of us writery-types together in a campaign to help bookshops and customers survive Lockdown II. I’m proud to be doing a small bit to help.

The campaign involves authors committing to send signed bookplates to customers who buy their books from an independent bookshop during the period of lockdown, and/or sending signed bookplates to bookshops who’d like some (while stocks last!) So, in order to play my part, I’m offering to send a signed bookplate to the first ten customers in the UK or Ireland who:

  • Buy one (or both) of my books from an independent bookshop (ideally) during the period of lockdown in their country;
  • Send me a photo of their proof of purchase, along with their postal address and the name/s they’d like me to put on the bookplate/s;
  • Are willing to wait a week or two to receive their post from me (soz).

I’ll also be reaching out to some of my favourite bookshops to see if they’d like a bookplate or two, but if you’re reading this and you’re running an indie bookshop anywhere in Ireland or the UK and you’d like a couple of signed bookplates from me, drop me a line.

This CONTACT ME page is the best way to get in touch. https://sjohart.wordpress.com/contact-me/

Some other things to consider:

For the purposes of this campaign, books bought on Amazon or Book Depository won’t count (though I thank you very much for your purchase). The campaign aims to support bricks-and-mortar bookshops.

I’m happy to send a bookplate in whichever design you prefer – I have a snazzy blue-and-tentacle one for The Eye of the North and a super-dooper gold-purple-starry-webby one for The Star-Spun Web, but neither plate has the name of the book on it so feel free to take your pick.

Stocks of bookplates are, sadly, limited so, if you’d like one, the sooner the better you get in touch.

Follow along on Twitter – the hashtag is #SignForOurBookshops – and if you fancy shouting about the campaign and throwing us a bit of support, that would be fab.

Meanwhile: Keep on reading!

Some Recent Reads

I’m lucky enough to be on the radars of several Very Important Publicists (and fellow authors), so occasionally I’m contacted and asked to read proofs, and/or early copies, of forthcoming books. I can’t always say ‘yes’ to these generous offers, but I do my best to accommodate requests as often as I can. It’s a huge privilege, for which I’m very grateful.

The cover of the proof of GLASSHEART, by Katharine Orton, art by Sandra Dieckmann, to be published by Walker Books UK in November 2020

Glassheart

One of the brilliant books I’ve read in the past few weeks was Glassheart, by Katharine Orton, which is coming from Walker Books UK in November this year. I loved Katharine’s debut, Nevertell, and her second novel is even better – a heartfelt, poignant and powerful story about grief, and war, and the power of sadness to both build up and to destroy. It tells the story of Nona, niece to a master glazier, who helps him work to try to repair the damaged windows in buildings torn by war. On a new job in Dartmoor, they encounter strange and inexplicable magic, which seems to have taken over Nona’s uncle. It’s up to Nona to get to the bottom of the mystery of the wild power, and to unravel its connection to the windows her uncle is labouring to complete. This book is a solid 5/5 for me – I loved it, and I can’t wait until it’s out for everyone to enjoy.

Return to Roar

Anyone who (like me) loved Jenny McLachlan’s The Land of Roar last year will absolutely devour the sequel, Return to Roar. Crowky, one of the best and scariest villains around, makes a welcome – or unwelcome – return, and the story is stuffed with the same spills, thrills, and wildly imaginative adventures as the first book. Arthur and Rose are on a week’s holidays in Grandad’s house, and so what better way to fill their days than to make a return visit to the land of imagination they cooked up as younger children, and which somehow exists for real through the special portal in Grandad’s attic. They think Crowky is gone, but then they realise he may not be – and that the key to him finding his way back through the portal and into the Real might be dangerously close… Another 5-star read for me, Return to Roar is currently available.

The Hungry Ghost

H.S. Norup’s The Hungry Ghost is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – certainly, it’s one of my favourites from this year. Telling the tale of Danish girl Freja, who arrives in Singapore during Hungry Ghost month, it’s an incredibly well-crafted story of family, loss, grief, and love – as well as having a healthy dollop of adventure, mystery, and intrigue, too. Freja meets an enigmatic, mysterious, and not a little spooky girl in a white dress during her time in Singapore, and alongside her new friend discovers hidden secrets in this new city, as well as an entirely forgotten chapter to her family history. You may need tissues by the end… The Hungry Ghost is genuinely stunning, with evocatively-written settings and extraordinary character building. An absolute 5-star read.

The House at the Edge of Magic

Amy Sparkes’ The House at the Edge of Magic is a delight. Coming next January from Walker Books UK, it’s a genuinely funny story, but not one lacking in stakes, excitement, or pathos. We follow Nine, a pickpocket who lives in the Nest, a run-down ‘shelter’ for pickpockets like her, where their bed and board must be paid for with trinkets and treasures. Nine only has one treasure, which she’s had since she was a baby, and she hasn’t been lucky, lately, with the pockets she’s tried to pick. Then, she sees a young lady in the streets and tries to steal from her, only to discover a tiny house in her pocket – which very rapidly grows into a huge house, home to Flabberghast the magician and his motley crew of raggle-taggle beasties. This story had me glued to the pages, with a grin on my face throughout. If you’re a fan of Diana Wynne Jones, particularly Howl’s Moving Castle, this book should definitely appeal.

Elsetime

Eve McDonnell’s debut novel Elsetime is nearly among us! In fact, I think my pre-ordered copy is already on its way to me… *excited face* I was lucky enough to be asked to read the proof of Eve’s book several months ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. Her characters – particularly her gorgeous-hearted, brave, stalwart Needle, and feisty apprentice jewellery-maker Glory Bobbin – are wonderfully crafted, and this twisty, fast-paced story will keep you guessing right to the end. A time-slip adventure, utilising a very clever mechanism for travelling from one era to the other, Elsetime is the tale of Needle, a mudlark, who discovers a very unusual treasure in the muck one day – a treasure that brings him somewhere he could never have imagined, tasked with saving people from a flood only he knows is going to happen. Based on real events around the Great Flood of London in 1928, this is a unique and memorable book – which should be available very soon!

These are only a flavour of the excellent books I’ve been treated to over the past few months, but I hope they’ll give you some inspiration to go out (or stay home) and support your local independent bookshops; they need the help, and your brain needs these stories. Happy reading!

Skin

Last week, my family suffered a bereavement so profound, I don’t know if any of us will ever fully recover. This person was actually the second member of our family to pass away since the start of 2020, both of them young people, both of them parents, both of them loved and missed and cherished. It’s been a hard year, so far. A few nights ago, I found my mind wandering back to my childhood, and I remembered this story – one which I’d had published in a now-defunct online zine called wordlegs back in 2013. It’s one I feel a deep attachment to, because it came directly from my memories of being a little girl. Somehow, despite the story’s subject, it brought me comfort; it brought me back to a time when my lost family members lived and breathed and shone with the beauty of their youth. I’m proud of it. The story’s no longer available anywhere online, so I’m republishing it here, with thanks to Elizabeth Reapy, wordlegs‘ editor, who was the first person to see potential in it. Thanks, Elizabeth. (Coincidentally, Elizabeth’s second novel shares a name with this story, though they’re not similar in any other way! I recommend you check it out, along with her first novel, Red Dirt.)

A rabbit on a background of grass

Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash.com

Skin

When I was a child, I had an uncle who hunted. He lived next door in what had been my grandmother’s house, which meant I saw him a lot; somehow, though, we never talked much. He had hounds who followed his every move like acolytes worshipping at the feet of a god, despite the fact that all he did was kick them and call them filthy names. Whenever he walked by their cage, they’d eat each other for the chance to get near him, and they’d howl like nothing on earth. Hearing it made my chest tighten up, like I’d suddenly taken a breath of cotton wool. My mother was always asking him to come in and have dinner, just to come next door for a little while and sit with his family, but he never did. He liked to eat with his memories instead, which didn’t bother me.

I thought my uncle was cruel, though people laughed at me for being ‘soft’.

‘Go on, you old eejit,’ my mother would say. ‘There’s many a dinner we owe to that uncle of yours.’

‘But he hurts his dogs,’ I protested.

‘Arragh, now. Dogs are used to that sort of thing. And anyway, they’re working dogs, duck. They’re not pets.’

I knew that. I knew they didn’t sit in front of his fire at night, snoring gently in the heat, like our dog did. And still, I worried about them.

I worried about everything.

 

About five weeks after my father’s accident, I came home from school to find Mam crying quietly in the sitting room. I stood in the doorway watching her for a while, feeling dizzy and far away. Eventually, she looked up, and she jumped a bit when she saw me.

‘Jesus! Pet, don’t stand there like that. You frightened the life out of me.’ She laughed, a short and hard sound, like a pebble in a shoe; then she hurried to wipe her eyes, rubbing them roughly with the tea-towel she still had in her hands.

‘What’s wrong, Mammy?’ I asked, afraid of what she might tell me.

‘Ah, now. Nothing at all. I just got a bit sad.’ She slapped her hands against her thighs, shoving herself upright in a businesslike, everything-is-great manner. ‘Will we get the dinner on? Are you hungry?’ She messed my hair as she strode past me towards the kitchen. ‘Did you have a good day in school?’

‘Mam, is Daddy all right?’

‘Grand, love! He’s grand!’ she said. But she didn’t turn around and tell me to my face, and that’s how I knew she was lying. She had a thing about looking people in the eyes when she was telling them the truth.

 

My father worked in a factory that handled heavy chemicals. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t really know now, exactly how his accident happened, but it had something to do with a pressure gauge and an over-filled tank, and probably his own negligence in not wearing his safety gear. He’d often told me he and the other men didn’t bother with things like eyeguards and ear-protectors.

‘Sure, I have to be able to hear if the machines are labouring,’ he explained to me once. ‘How can I do that, if I’m all muffled up? If I can’t hear the motor, it could go, and it could kill the man standing beside it. My ears’ll be nice and warm, but someone else’ll be going home on a shovel.’

But it had been my dad who’d been rushed out of the plant in a screaming ambulance, one which had hit the road in spots as it flung itself around the bends on its way to Dublin. It had been him who’d been burned, him whose flesh had melted. Him who was driven out of his mind with the pain.

Him.

Mam hadn’t let me see him for ages, and when I was allowed to visit all I could think about was mummies in ancient Egypt. We’d been doing them in school. Dad’s bandages looked cleaner and whiter, I thought. Other than that, he’d do in a museum.

‘I love you, Daddy.’ I remember telling the tiny square of scarlet I could see peeping out between the swathes of material. ‘I love you.’ I wanted to kiss him, but Mam told me ‘no’. Dad told me nothing, because he couldn’t talk. Anyway, I don’t think he was even awake.

‘Good girl,’ said Mam as we left the hospital, ready for the long journey home. ‘You did very well.’

I wondered all the way home what I could have done better.

 

I was at the kitchen table one evening trying to think about my maths homework when I heard the keening of my uncle’s hounds. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Mam, who was sitting at the far end of the table over a cold cup of tea said, ‘He’s home early. He must’ve had a good hunt.Why don’t you go and have a look, and say hello?’

I swallowed as she spoke, my spit tasting sharp and sour. ‘But Mam – I’m doing my homework, I have loads.’

‘It’s Friday, hon. You’ve plenty of time to do your homework. And your uncle’s been so good. Go and say hello, he’d love it. He’s very fond of you, you know.’

‘No, he isn’t,’ I said. ‘He hates me.’

‘Now, that’s just silly.’ She got up, grabbing her cup of tea, and crossed to the sink to throw it away. ‘Go on outside now, just for a few minutes, and I’ll have a treat for you when you come back in.’

‘What sort of a treat?’ I didn’t move from my perch in front of my copy book. I drew a line under my sums, carefully, and kept working. I still couldn’t add up properly without drawing dots beside the numbers like a baby out of Senior Infants, but at least I’d learned to draw them lightly so I could rub them out afterwards. I hated maths, but it was my dad’s favourite thing in the world besides rock and roll. I wanted to show him how good I was at adding and multiplying when he came home from the hospital.

‘God, Claire, I don’t know,’ snapped Mam. ‘A bit of apple tart. I’ll make you some custard. All right? Just go on outside, just for a few minutes, and talk to your uncle. I’ll call you when you can come back in.’

I slapped my copy book shut and shoved myself out from the table, making the legs of my chair stutter and skip along the lino. The sound of it normally drove Mam crazy. Today, she said nothing. She just stood and watched me as I stamped over to the back door and wrenched it open.

‘Good girl. I’ll only need a minute.’

 

I crept out of our back yard and into the lane, watching my uncle beat his dogs into his garden. It wasn’t a bit like ours, full of greenery and flowers; my uncle had covered his over with roughly-finished concrete after my granny had died, the shed that had been her pride and joy now a falling-down monstrosity beside the pristine dog pen. I hung close to our back door until he’d corralled the last hound, thwacking and slapping at them with a thick stick, shouting until they listened to his voice over the red-misted pounding of their own hearts.

They all had names, these dogs, despite the fact that all my uncle ever did was abuse and hurt them. But he gave them all names.

Over his garden wall, a clutch of freshly-caught rabbits lay. I didn’t touch them, but I felt sure they’d be still warm and supple, their eyes still bright. Perhaps their last breath hadn’t been fully exhaled. I felt a sour taste in my mouth again, and I swallowed hard against the rush of sudden liquid up my throat.

‘Howya,’ said my uncle as he slid home the lock on his garden gate, nodding vaguely in my direction. I returned the greeting, and perched on our back step to watch him. I tried to think about things I could say to him, but he made me scared, so I didn’t say anything.

He started to sing under his breath, huffing out through his nose, as he grabbed his huge knife from its holder on his belt. He wiped the blade once or twice on his trouser leg before severing the twine that bound the rabbits together. They plopped wetly onto the stone slabs he’d untidily cemented on the top of the wall.

Despite myself, I watched.

‘Time to drop your drawers,’ my uncle muttered, taking one of the rabbits in his hand. He held it up, the rabbit swinging gently as he turned it this way and that, appraising it. Then, he laid it flat on the wall and swiftly, as easily as if he was tying his shoelaces, he ran the knife around the rabbit’s legs, one at a time. He worked at the carcass with his fingers for a few minutes, the movement looking almost gentle.

When he pulled at the rabbit’s pelt, ripping it away from the body like he was removing a sock, I screamed so loudly that I gave him a fright. He dropped the knife and turned to stare at me. Perhaps he’d forgotten I was there.

It was the redness. The rawness of the flesh. The muscles, clearly visible; the sinews and tendons. The colour, so private and painful. Something I should not be able to see. White bandages flashed into my mind, white bandages and scarlet skin. Scarlet skin and pain, and pain equalling death.

I ran for the door to my house, slamming it, not caring about the noise.

My mother was on the phone in the hall, clutching the tea-towel to her eyes. I ignored her and ran for my room.

 

‘Claire,’ I heard her say, much later. ‘Come out here, please.’ My closed door muffled her voice.

I was buried in my duvet, my face swollen and sore. I’d cried all evening. My mother’s phone call had been brought to a swift end after I’d burst back into the house, but she’d mentioned ‘doctor’ and ‘treatment,’ and she’d wept, before she’d been able to hang up. I’d stuffed my head under my pillow, trying not to hear, but I had anyway.

‘Claire,’ she said again, knocking gently. ‘Come on, please. I want to speak to you, young lady.’

Every muscle ached. I felt like a piece of paper, crumpled up so badly it could never sit flat again. I stumbled to the door and pulled it open. My Mam’s eyes were full of tears, and that set me going again. I let her wrap me up in a hug, her belly warm and soft. I tried not to wet her jumper, but I didn’t really manage it. My face was soaking, and covered in snot.

‘Your uncle is downstairs, love. He wants to talk to you.’

My heart jolted, and I shook my head, grinding my eyes shut. My mother soothed my sobbing shoulders, stroking me gently. She kissed the top of my head. ‘Shush, now. He wants to say sorry.’

She evicted me from the embrace and stood me back from her, arm’s-length away. She rubbed my clammy cheeks with her rough thumbs.

‘Try and smile, pet. Try and be nice.’

I nodded, two more hot, fat tears spilling out. Mam wiped them away.

 

My uncle stood in the kitchen, looking out of place. It was like seeing a clown saying Mass. He had his flat cap scrunched in his hands, and something else too. I couldn’t see it properly.

‘Claire, Uncle Paddy has something he wants to give you,’ Mam said.

I glanced up at my uncle’s sun-darkened face. I noticed, for the first time in my life, that he had bright blue eyes. Brighter even than Dad’s.

‘I’m awful sorry, duck,’ said my uncle. His spoke quiet and low and liquidy, like he had a cold. ‘I should’ve thought.’

I felt Mam shove me from behind, her fingers sharp in my back.

‘That’s all right, Uncle Paddy,’ I said. I ran my fingers over my hot and sticky cheeks, wiping away the last traces of tears, suddenly feeling shy.

‘Here you are. Your Da was always saying how much you loved reading. I haven’t a lot of time for it myself any more.’ He cleared his throat with a sound like someone taking their foot out of a cowpat and held out a roughly-wrapped brown paper parcel.

‘What do you say, Claire?’ Mam asked.

I looked up at my uncle again. He had grey in his hair, all around his ears just like dad had, and soft wrinkles around his eyes that were so familiar.

I ran my hands along the jagged edges of the tape he’d used to wrap up my gift. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered.

‘Now,’ he said. ‘I’ll be gettin’ on, so.’

‘Will you not stay for your dinner, Paddy? I’ve plenty in the pot.’

‘Not at all, not at all. Sure I’ve my own bit made, inside. I’m grand altogether.’

‘All right so, Paddy. If you’re sure,’ said Mam, eventually.

My uncle nodded and started twisting his cap again, looking down at his muck-encrusted boots. ‘I’m after draggin’ half the field in here,’ he said.

‘Never you mind. It’s only a bit of muck. It’ll all be grand. Won’t it, Claire?’

I smiled up at my uncle, and he nodded at Mam before throwing me a wink. I clutched my book to my chest as my uncle turned towards the door.

‘Yes, Mam,’ I said, as my uncle slipped out the back door into the evening.