The Thing about December

The Thing about December

by Donal Ryan


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The Thing about December by Donal Ryan

While the Celtic Tiger rages, and greed becomes the norm, Johnsey Cunliffe desperately tries to hold on to the familiar, even as he loses those who all his life have protected him from a harsh world. Following the deaths first of his father and then his mother, Johnsey inherits the family farm, and a healthy bank account, both of which he proves incapable of managing on his own. Village bullies and scheming land-grabbers stand in his way, no matter where he turns. Though companionship, and the promise of love, enter his life as a result of a hospital stay following a brutal beating, Johnsey remains a lonely man struggling to keep up with a world that moves faster than he does.

Set over the course of one year of Johnsey Cunliffe's life, The Thing About December breathes with Johnsey's bewilderment, humor and agonizing self-doubt. Readers will fall in love with Johnsey in a bittersweet tale that serves as a poignant reminder that we are surrounded in life by simple souls who are nonetheless more insightful and wise than we realize, or can even imagine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781586422288
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 08/26/2014
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 511,218
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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

The Thing About December

By Donal Ryan

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2014 Donal Ryan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58642-229-5



MOTHER ALWAYS SAID January is a lovely month. Everything starts over again in the New Year. The visitors are all finished with and you won't see sight nor hear sound of them until next Christmas with the help of God. Before you know it you'll see a stretch in the evenings. The calving starts in January and as each new life wobbles into the slatted house your wealth grows a little bit. It'd want to – you have to try and claw back what was squandered in December on rubbish that no one really wanted. The bit of frost kills any lingering badness. That's the thing about January: it makes the world fresh. That's what Mother used to say anyway, back when she used to have a lot more to say for herself.

EUGENE PENROSE and his pals were sitting on the low wall in front of the IRA memorial again. Isn't it a fright to God to say a man can't walk home without being tormented by yahoos every single day? A few times lately Eugene had clipped Johnsey's heel as he walked past them and he had stumbled and nearly fallen. How could they be always there anyway? The dole is great, Mother says. It allows thugs to live like little lords. How's it he couldn't be a proper man, besides creeping along like a red-faced child, afraid of his own shadow, with tears of shame stinging at his eyes? Daddy wouldn't have put up with it, that's for sure.

People used to be afraid of Johnsey's father. He'd give ground to no man. He loved a good row at the mart or at a match or above in the yard about the worth of a player or the price of a beast or anything you could imagine men might argue about. But he was as well known for his kindness as for his fury. His kindness was never taken for weakness, though: Daddy was a tough yoke. He'd shouldered many a big forward into the middle of next week in his days playing hurling; Johnsey had often heard that said or something like it. Once he had worn a hurley off of a lad in pure-solid temper and the same lad was never again right after it. Johnsey had only heard that said once, and when the man saying it saw that he was listening, he stopped talking and looked into his glass of whiskey and turned red.

IF HE THOUGHT about something else while he walked the hundred-odd steps from the start of the low wall to the far end of the churchyard he could nearly cod himself that they weren't there at all, watching him coming, looking forward to making little of him. Like the deep pool in the stream down past the weeping willow at the far end of the river field as you start towards the Shannon Callows where he and Daddy used to swim. Sometimes Johnsey wondered what would it be like to lie down under that water and, when all the breath in his lungs was gone, just stay down there and breathe in water instead of air. Maybe a miracle would happen like the ones that happened below in Cork years ago where the statue of the Virgin Mary came alive and said hello to everyone and cried blood over the state of the world. Mother said it was the state of the hairy mollies gawking up at her that made her cry. Wouldn't you cry too if you had that shower roaring the holy rosary up at you night and day? Maybe, instead of drowning, he'd discover he had superhuman powers, that he was able to live under the water and could control the streams and the rivers and the sea and all that lived there, and he could live there himself and be a king, with a deadly-sharp three-pronged fork, and loads of beautiful mermaids swimming around with no bras on and making him his dinner and kissing him.

Maybe when he gets home Mother will have a tart made for after the dinner, and she'll be just taking it out of the oven when he arrives. He'll eat a huge cut of it and she'll stand behind him with a mug of tea (just a tiny drop of milk, otherwise it's ruined, Mother says) and tell him how them apples were still growing outside not even an hour ago. He'll tell her it was a lovely dinner and she'll say Was it, pet, I hope it was, you need a good dinner after your hard day. These days, though, nearly always, she would have his dinner left in the oven and it would be blistering hot or freezing cold; she sometimes left the oven on too high or forgot to leave it on at all, and she herself would be above at the Height where Daddy was buried, saying prayers and cursing at the weeds. All the prayers she was saying for him, he must be getting no respite above in heaven. Father Cotter said at his Mass that there would be a fine house ready for him above and he'd probably start a fight with the angels over the design of it and want it knocked and built again to his own specifications. The neighbours all laughed at that. Some of them even looked at each other and smiled knowingly; sure he was a divil for exactness, you couldn't do a job right for him.

Mother wasn't home. There was a shepherd's pie in the oven, at a proper temperature, covered in tinfoil, and cutlery on the table. He ate it fast, and gulped a glass of milk. There was that thing on telly at seven about holidays, and that blonde lady would be on it. Sometimes if it was quiet enough, if Mother was out and there was no cat scratching and meowing at the window, he could imagine she was talking to him, she was his girlfriend, over in some hot place with palm trees and he was going to be going over to join her once he'd finished building their big mansion of a house. They were talking on a special phone with a big video screen. She was describing it to him, the place where they would spend their holidays. You couldn't watch her properly when you were eating your dinner, you had to keep looking down at your plate, and then you'd miss whole seconds of her standing there with her shiny blonde hair, in her clothes that only barely covered what needed covering and, sometimes, clear blue water lapping up around her bum in lucky little waves.

Just as it finished, thank God, Mother arrived in. She wanted to know was it busy below, what kind of form was Packie in, any word of the Scottish lady? Packie's eldest daughter was supposed to have eloped to Scotland with a foreign fella. She was now referred to as the Scottish lady. Like a man who went to work in America for a year or two would forever more be known as the Yank. Packie's daughter used to hang around the co-op some Saturdays, letting on to be helping. All Johnsey ever saw her at was inspecting her fingernails and chewing gum and pressing buttons on her mobile phone. She never really looked at him or talked to him, except once she offered him a Rolo and he said okay (why did you say okay, you spa?) and she held the packet out to him and the blasted Rolo got stuck in the packet and his hand shook like crazy and the Rolo was nearly melted before he got it out and now he could feel his cheeks burning hot again just thinking about it.

Packie had had no time for foreigners before the big elopement, but now he had a special hatred for them. You could nearly feel a heat off of it as it burned inside in him. You'd see them now sometimes, brown-faced people, or even proper blacks, driving through the village, on their way to town to cheat the system, according to Packie, sure tis a great country. If they were outside the co-op at the time, bringing in a delivery or something, Packie would nudge him and point with a tip of his forehead. There'd be a wicked shine from his eyes and it was then you could nearly feel that heat, like Packie's soul was already burning in eternal fire for the sins he was committing in his mind. The foreigners might look back, but you could see nothing in their eyes to give away what they were thinking. They're probably Hoo-Toos, Johnsey, Packie would say. He'd spit the words out like you would something you coughed up from your lungs. Probably they killed a rake of Tootsies and they're over here now, hiding. Johnsey would laugh and agree away with him, and a picture of the dole boys laughing at Eugene Penrose's stupid jokes would form in his mind and he'd feel sad and ashamed of himself. What in the name of God were a Tootsie and a Hoo-Too, anyway?

They never stopped and came in. Not into the co-op. Sure why would they? Maybe the Spar below did better in the foreigner stakes.

MOTHER DIDN'T really listen to his answers to her fired-off questions any more. She hardly heard her own questions. She asked them in a listing way that reminded Johnsey of the whole class reeling off the times tables in school years ago. He could have said Sure it was a grand day, Mother, I planted an axe in Packie's forehead, took all the co-op money, went off in the jeep and drove over Eugene Penrose and all the dole boys, killed them all dead, and now that I have the supper ate, I'm off to town to be a cool bigshot and get off with girls. She would probably just stay folding clothes and tightening up and nodding and not seeing him and not hearing him. Good luck so.

He went out in the yard to practise driving. Mother's old Fiesta was going grand, and she let him drive it over and back across the yard. She wouldn't insure him on it, though. Insurance for lads like you now is about twenty thousand pounds, Johnsey. Twenty thousand? Would they know he was thick? Was that one of the questions they asked? Yes, Mister Cunliffe, hmm ... seeing as you're a bit of a spastic ... (there would be clicks of computer keys and sighs of impatience) ... it'll be twenty thousand million billion pounds for basic insurance on that clapped-out heap of old shite. Okay? So stick to your laps of the front yard. All right? You fat gom. Click.

He thought better of the driving practice. Mother was complaining the other day about the price of fuel, and anyway it was only a frustration that he couldn't keep going past the gate and roar off down the road. He considered walking up through the long acre and down the river field to the stream. There was something satisfying about the crunching noise your boots made when you walked through grass that was decorated by frost. There was a spot down there by the stream on a rise above the little beach of muck formed by the thirsty cattle, under the weeping willow where you could sit, surrounded by light-green branches, where no one could see you. If you sat still enough you could imagine you were a tree too. No one ever called a tree a spastic or tried to trip it or gave out stink to it for stacking things wrong. Daddy said all life depends on trees. They make the air we breathe.

He was nearly over the stile when he thought of Dermot McDermott, and changed his mind. He was leasing the farm but you'd swear he owned the place, the swagger of him. When Johnsey met him on the land, it was as if he, Johnsey, were a trespasser. He'd ask where was he off to, and he'd never call him Johnsey, only always John. He was too cool for auld peata names. And he'd consider Johnsey with a quick up and down of his slitted eyes and a bit of a smirk. He'd be probably thinking Look at this ape, his father dies and he can't manage the bit of a farm that's left behind! I'm here driving my big tractor over his birthright! What a waster!

Mother says people who give their sons names like Dermot McDermott are up their own arses. As much as to say we're the real McDermotts and our boy is Dermot, son of Dermot, descended directly from the High Kings. Thinking they're two cuts above the hi-pull-eye and one cut at least above their neighbours. Mother says the hi-pull-eye is the people who live in the council houses outside the village on the end of the Ashdown Road. They nearly all have mongrel dogs and loads of children. Or loads of dogs and mongrel children, Johnsey wasn't sure which Mother said.

THE LOCK on the door of the slatted house was broken and the wood was warped from dampness and rot, so the door was stuck half open. Even after three years it was strange to have the slatted house empty in January. The cattle made their beds in there every winter; they'd be cosy and warm and safe from the cold rain and the stinging frost, all squashed in together and using each other as big radiators. And their shite would flow away down a pipe all winter and into an underground tank to be sucked back up and spread on the land to feed the grass that they would eat and turn back into milk and shite again. Whenever the teacher would describe the Nativity in school, Johnsey always pictured the stable in Bethlehem as the slatted house that neatly divided the front yard from the big yard, and the three wise men as Daddy, Paddy Rourke and Mister Unthank. The baby Jesus would have been fine and warm and safe in there.

There was enough light allowed in so that Johnsey could see the stout crossbeam that dissected the roof. Would it take his weight? Things was built right in them days, Daddy always said. He was very fat, though. Imagine if he did it arseways and fell on his hole and broke his leg! And Dermot McDermott found him, say. And called Mother. And the fire brigade. And Father Cotter. And then Eugene Penrose and the rest of the dole boys would arrive on after seeing the brigade flying out. The whole village would be standing in the yard for a finish, waiting for a turn to look in the door at the fat eejit on the floor of the slatted house with his leg bursted and cocked at a quare angle, crying like a small child, his face purple and swelled and the rope still tight around his neck, and they'd point and shake their heads and roll their eyes until someone kind would break it up and push them away and try to help him, and their kindness would stab him deeper than the laughter of the rest, because he didn't deserve it, and they'd know it, but be kind anyway.

Father Cotter was that way, and the Unthanks. Packie Collins wasn't. He told Johnsey every day that he was only allowing him work in the co-op out of respect for his father, Lord have mercy on him. He was a liability. Johnsey often heard Packie muttering about him to customers, who'd look around and smirk, and if he caught their eye they'd salute him, but in a way that was too friendly, as fake as that cake in the window of the wedding shop inside in town. As fake as a three-pound note, Mother would say. Father Cotter's job was to be nice to people; he worked for God, who gave strict instructions to all to be good and nice. And Mister Unthank was Daddy's great old friend; they'd palled around together since they were small boys. He'd stood at Daddy's coffin for ages in the funeral home, with his hand on the rim, just shaking his head and saying, really softly, Jack, Jack, Jackie, and tut-tutting, like Daddy used to over things being wasted and things that weren't right, and Johnsey saw a tear rolling off of Mister Unthank's chin and landing on his father's cheek, so that it looked like Daddy himself was crying.

DADDY HAD ALWAYS SAID to be honest. Daddy wasn't able to tell a lie. Once, years ago, an auld biddy from the village rang to know would Mother be able to bake twenty tarts in a hurry for the ICA show and Daddy told them hold on and put down the phone and went out to the chicken coop in the haggard to ask her and Mother said to tell that old biddy make her own tarts, no, tell her I'm gone to town and won't be back till nine but Daddy said No, Sarah. You know I can't tell a lie. And the way he said it, it was like the priest saying and the Word was made flesh: it was a fact, a given thing; there could be no argument. Mother stomped into the hallway, raging, and had to tell her own lie. Then she told Daddy that now he had her feeling terrible and she had to go as far as town for a finish so as to make her lie into truth, and stay there until nine o'clock to make doubly certain that truth prevailed that day. That was one of the things about Daddy: he could make you feel bad by being so good, so that you had to try to be good like him.

He couldn't think properly abroad in the yard or around the buildings or even in the dark of the slatted house. The whole place smelled of Daddy. Whenever he looked up the yard he expected to see him striding towards him, saluting with his stick and full of news even when there was no news. Everything in the yard seemed to have died with him, as though they had only existed to serve him. But still all these things were shaped by his weight and worn by his touch so that no one else could quite fit them: the rut along the yard where he had tramped the same track over and over every day where visitors often stumbled, unaware of its presence until its sides caught their soles; the shiny, paintless edges around the handles of the doors to the slatted house and the milking parlour and the workshop where every day for years on end he had flung them open and closed; the seats of the tractor and the jeep, moulded by the burden of him into a hollow; the very walls of the buildings that seemed to stand now only to honour the memory of his stony strength.


Excerpted from The Thing About December by Donal Ryan. Copyright © 2014 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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