Donal Ryan's short stories pick up where his acclaimed novels The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December left off, dealing with dramas set in motion by loneliness and displacement and revealing stories of passion and desire where less astute observers might fail to detect the humanity that roils beneath the surface. Sometimes these dramas are found in ordinary, mundane situations; sometimes they are triggered by a fateful encounter or a tragic decision. At the heart of these stories, crucially, is how people are drawn to each other and cling to love when and where it can be found.
In a number of the these stories, emotional bonds are forged by traumatic events caused by one of the characters - between an old man and the frightened young burglar left to guard him while his brother is beaten; between another young man and the mother of a girl whose death he caused when he crashed his car; between a lonely middle-aged shopkeeper and her assistant. Disconnection and new discoveries pervade stories involving emigration (an Irish priest in war-torn Syria) or immigration (an African refugee in Ireland). Some of the stories are set in the same small town in rural Ireland as the novels, with names that will be familiar to Ryan's readers.
In haunting prose, Donal Ryan has captured the brutal beauty of the human heart in all its failings, hopes and quiet triumphs.
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About the Author
Donal Ryan, from Nenagh in County Tipperary, is a recipient of the 2015 European Union Prize for Literature. His first novel, The Spinning Heart, was published to major acclaim. It won the Guardian First Book Award and the Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards; it was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize. His second novel, The Thing About December, was a finalist for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year and Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. Donal lives with his wife Anne Marie and their two children just outside Limerick City.
Read an Excerpt
A Slanting of the Sun
By Donal Ryan
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2015 Donal Ryan
All rights reserved.
SHE CRIES SOMETIMES, without noise. I know not to talk, only to leave my hand under hers on the gearstick. Where were you all the time before the court case, she asked me once, early on. In my room, I said, I slept a lot. She said she'd heard I was seen below in the Ragg and inside in Easy Street in Nenagh as bould as you like. She wasn't accusing, just telling me what she'd heard. I said I wasn't, and that was enough. You'd hear lots of things, she said. People thinking they're helping. I look sometimes at the side of her face when she cries, the straightness of the line the tears make slowly on her cheek, the red of her lips, and I want to touch her cheek, to wipe away the mark of her sorrow. But I never do.
My mother and father don't know what to say to me. Will you go back training? My shoulder, Dad, I can hardly lift a hurl with my right hand. Oh, ya, ya. Sure of course. More physio, maybe. And I say something along the lines of It's fucked for good, Dad. And he clenches his jaw and I'd say he thinks to himself He must have got that roughness in jail and God only knows what happened to him in jail and I'd say me in jail is all he thinks about ever since the day I was charged and still he won't ask me about it, never, ever. Would you not go out for a few pucks below in the field maybe or against the wall beyond and maybe it'll come right? And I say nothing and he taps his forehead with his forefinger like he doesn't know he's doing it and asks will I eat another cut of fruitcake.
They make me fries in the morning and give me plates of tart and cream and cups of scalding tea for my elevenses, as they call it, and we have dinner for lunch and dinner again for dinner and the leanness I got in jail is nearly gone. I'm melting out to fat. I'll have to do a bit of something soon that wouldn't call too heavy on my shoulder, running or soccer or something. But Bonny's brother plays for the juniors and I'd see him at training and it wouldn't be fair on him.
My mother stands and twists tea-towels in her hands as she watches birds out the back window, and gives out about the way that oul bad bitch of a cat lies in wait for them, crouched on her haunches in behind the trees. A dead wren she left on the back porch step the other day and Mam cried at the sight of it. The little darling, she said. And she wouldn't give Puss her supper no matter how much yowling she did at the kitchen window and rubbing with her paw. She can go and shite now, the murdering little rap. Then she softened a bit when Dad said She killed that bird for you, Moll, and left it there for a present for you, because she's so stuck on you. But still Puss wasn't fed.
You'll have to call out to those people, my father had said once, long before the inquest or the court. While there was still bandages on me and a cast on my arm. Why will he, PJ? My mother exploded from silence, giving him a shock. He hadn't known she was there. To see to know can he make amends in some way, to let them know how sorry he is. Lord God almighty, she said. Sorry? Sorry? Sure for the love of Jesus Christ isn't it plain to see he's sorry? What do they want? Wasn't it an accident? Tisn't as if he meant it, is it? Is it? Is it? And he never repeated himself, and I stayed in my room for most of that year, clinging to the edge of my childhood bed. They have their pound of flesh well got now, that crowd, I heard my mother say after I got out. They can put away their wounded faces. My child was taken off of me as well and he was gave back different. Toughies, that crowd.
The first day in court I pled guilty and the judge looked at me for ages before she talked. Guilty, are you? Ya, yes miss, yes ma'am, yes your honour, then I remembered the solicitor said to call her Judge. Yes, Judge. When I looked up from the floor I could have sworn she was smiling a bit at me. There was more talk and a date was given to come back. My father put his hand on my arm walking back out. Jim Gildea had called up to our house in the squad that morning even though he's meant to be retired to say there was a wild uncle over from England, the mother's brother, he had two days given on the batter inside in Limerick already, to watch out for him at the courthouse, a foxy lad, butty, wide across the shoulders. He said he'd ring the lads in Nenagh the way they'd be warned, but to be on the lookout all the same. Thanks, Jim, Dad said. Jim shook hands with me and wished me the best of luck.
It was Jim came on us that night, and he'd cried while we waited for the ambulance, and he'd held my hand and I'd whispered Bonny, Bonny, Bonny, and I couldn't move and Jim told me She's gone, son, she's gone, just keep looking, keep looking at me.
The uncle appeared from behind a pillar at the courthouse door. He had a suit on him, and he had no drink taken, the Nenagh boys said afterwards in mitigation of themselves. He even had a manila folder in his hand, as much as to say he was a lad with legitimate business with the court. He squeezed through a gap that was barely there between a cop and a solicitor, slashing sideways through the air; I felt the hot breeze of him before I properly saw him. He was a small red man with big fists and he had three digs in before I felt the first one. Four shades fell on the uncle and I was at the bottom of them and my back was flexed at an awful angle from the top step and my bad shoulder burned and when they dragged him off he was still kicking and Dad was sitting on the ground and trying to get up and there was a thin line of blood from his nose to his mouth and there was no one helping him.
The second day in court the judge made a speech about young men being in a hurry even when they were going nowhere and she asked about my apprenticeship and Bobby Mahon put up his hand and half stood with his face all red and said nearly in a whisper that I was in my third year with him and just about to get my papers and Pawsy Rogers went up to the stand and said I was a great lad and a fine hurler and a good worker and my people were the salt of the earth and he looked sideways in guilt and sorrow at Bonny's father and brother and sister and her aunts and uncles and her grandfather and still Pawsy went on that there'd be only more damage done if this boy was given a custodial sentence and there was a half a minute or so of shuffling and shouting and someone was crying and people were escorted out and the judge got a bit wicked then I think and her hammer near splintered the wood of her bench and she thanked Pawsy but she didn't sound a bit grateful and there was no mustard cut and a fella in a blue shirt and navy tie caught my elbow gently and asked into my ear did I want to go straight or go home first and I said I'd go straight and I called my mother Mammy and my father Daddy as they held me tight as pale as ghosts and the lad in the blue shirt said Okay, come on now, and as the van doors closed in the small car park at the back of the courthouse I felt a lightening inside me, a letting go, like I was stretched out flat and floating on a gentle swell.
I wasn't a week out of prison the first evening I drove out that way in the mother's Clio. I was only thinking about calling. Trying to test out the feeling I'd have if I was to call for definite, to see how much I'd shake and how sick I'd feel in my stomach. I had a jumble of words in my head, lines of things to say that wouldn't stand in any order for me. I'd thought maybe I'd write down some things and learn them off by heart, but then I had an image of myself in my head reeling off things, like a child saying tables, with my face red, getting stuck and shaking with fear and embarrassment and they all standing up looking at me, and they more embarrassed than me even and only wanting me to go away and stop reminding them of their agonies.
It was raining and she was standing by the pier of their gate wearing a mackintosh with a see-through hood pulled up over a headscarf like an oul one, waiting for a lift to town I suppose. I was shocked to see her there and slowed and stopped without thinking and wound the window down, and when I looked out and up into the rain where she stood I hadn't a word in me that was ever known and she was just as silent and her mouth shaped itself as if to speak and her green eyes widened a little bit and as mad and unexpected a thing as it was it didn't seem one bit wrong when she walked around to the passenger side. She gave a glance back to the house the way you might expect to see something or someone that might stop her or call her back to herself. But there was no one or what empty space was there didn't have enough pull on her, and she gave her head a small shake and sat in beside me and I saw she was wearing red shoes with a bit of heel and a skirt that was shorter than her loosely buttoned raincoat and she smelt like rain and cold air and perfume and soap and some other thing that made my heart beat like a madman at the wall of a padded cell. Drive out as far as the Lookout, she said, and I parked there on the hillside above the lake and we sat and looked across at the Clare Hills and the darkness falling across them. And all she said was Were you going too fast? And I said I was. And I tried not to move or make a sound as I cried and she put her hand on top of mine for the first time and something rose up inside in me, like bubbles in a bottle that was hard shook and opened too fast.
There was a prison officer who trained the Roscrea minors and he used to work in the aluminium factory with my father years ago. He was in charge of maintenance in the prison. He'd give me jobs to do during the day, scraping paint or sweeping or picking up papers, or if he'd a complicated job going on he'd leave me in my cell and say Tip away there at your oul books like a good lad. He stayed back my first night in even though he was finished his shift and brought me over to the games room and came in with me and asked did I want to play a game of pool and he pointed at a few quare hawks and said Look after this boy for me, all right? And I could hardly breathe for fear when he went away. But those lads were sound enough and I soon learned to look mostly at the floor and to stay out of things.
I told her these stories over a good few drives, about the courthouse steps and what it was like in prison, and she listened without saying anything. She hadn't known the things that had happened, or even that her brother had been home. She'd been taking things the doctor gave her to stop her going mad and they'd made her lose herself for a good long while. I told her about the watery food, the hospital smell in the corridor, the wicked-looking fucker two cells down with the scar diagonal across his face, from his chin through his lips, along his nose as far as his forehead. Even on his eyelid it was. He screamed some nights and cried like a child and three or four screws would walk him away down to the infirmary with a blanket around his shoulders. She said How did his eye survive? I didn't know. I didn't ask him. It must have been closed tight when the knife went along it. I told her about the nights spent lying there in the half-light in a bunk bed underneath a man who wouldn't payhis television licence and farted and snorted all night and loved being in prison.
I sit there and she sits there and she puts her hand on mine and sometimes it feels cold if she's been waiting for me too long. She said once, You know the way Our Lord suffered His Passion and the flesh flayed from Him? Well, that's the kind of pain I wish I felt and not this ... this ... And she had no name for it nor has she still. There's no words, I suppose. There's definitely none in my head, anyway. Some evenings she says nothing at all and I sit and look out through the windscreen at the lines of rain or at the sunlight that gets stuck on the smears on the glass that I keep meaning to wipe off. But her hand is always on mine and it's always warm after a minute or two and feels like it's a part of me.
She says things sometimes out of the silence suddenly, words on their own that make no sense, and then silence again. Sometimes she picks the words up again, like she's after thinking for a while about the idea that the first words represented. The heat, she said one day. Then nothing for miles. You have double it now, maybe. And Bonny has none. I can feel it off of you. Maybe it's the way you were given hers to carry. Maybe, maybe. I can feel it off you, coming from the bones of your hand, even when your hand is cold. It goes into me.
And that's all she ever said about heat. She says things now and again out of the blue that sound like questions but I can tell those days from the tone of her and the way her head is angled away from me that she's not asking anything of me. She mightn't even know she's talking out loud. I wonder what you know about me, she said one day. I wonder what Bonny had you told. Did ye talk at all to one another, I don't know. Ye were always very quiet above in her bedroom. How long were ye doing a line?
And I nearly answered her that it had been eleven and a bit months and she'd been impatient for it to be twelve and she'd wanted a Claddagh ring for our one-year, she'd had it picked out and all below in Fitzgibbon's Jewellers, but she started again talking just as I opened my mouth, saying Oh ya, sure didn't ye start going out shortly after her debs? How's it you didn't take her to her debs, I wonder. And she's wondering still because I offered no answer and nor do I think was one expected of me.
She's all I think about, all I have in my head, all day, every day. I count down the hours and minutes and seconds until I can ask for a lend of the car and lie that I'm only going for a spin or to meet the lads or to give someone a lift to training. I have a picture of her right thigh burnt into the inside of my eyes and the black tights on it and her skirt riding up along it as she sits in without a word and I feel shame at the ache in myself, I pray to God sometimes to take away the hardness, the wrongness. Sometimes we have miles driven before she speaks, if she speaks at all, or we're parked up in Castlelough looking out at the lake and the dark hills or we're in the car park of the shopping centre in Limerick or out at the Clare Glens surrounded by trees and the singing of birds. I think about her eyes and the greenness of them and her lips, swollen like they were stung by a bee. How she looks like she's crying even when she's not. About the straightness of the line the tears make slowly on her cheek, always that. About the feel of her hand on mine, the warmth of the blood pulsing through it.
Girls and their mothers are either the best of friends or else they can't bear one another as a rule, she told me. It's always either one or the other, there's no middle ground between the women. Not like the men, the way they can rub along with each other, never falling out nor being too wrapped in one another. It's all or nothing. She was only nineteen when Bonny was born. Bonny was two years younger than me. That mad bint we had for religion inside in the Brothers. She said something one day I often think of now. Mankind will evolve to the point of something. Something. Something. Apotheosis. Until then we're driven chiefly by animal wants. Is that all I am, an animal? Imagine doing these things and feeling nothing only worry about the day that's surely coming when I'll no longer be able to do these things. Sit in a car beside her, touching lightly off her, filling up with some pain that's the sweetest thing I ever felt. A still, silent animal, waiting.
I never know until I see her standing still against the high wall at the unseen end of the old mill out past Ballinaclough Cross whether she'll be there or not. Some days she is and more she isn't. And I think I'll have someday to explain to someone somewhere how I could live with it, the awful wrongness of it all, the terrible, unforgivable joy I felt each time I saw her waiting there. And Bonny dead, lovely, lovely Bonny, her daughter, and I having killed her, and I hardly remembering her face any more. I'm going to scald for an eternity in hell and I don't care.
Excerpted from A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan. Copyright © 2015 Donal Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Other Books by This Author,
Tommy and Moon,
Nephthys and the Lark,
From a Starless Night,
Hanora Ryan, 1998,
The House of the Big Small Ones,
Crouch End Introductions,
A Slanting of the Sun,
About the Author,