John O'Donnell

John O'Donnell, Barrister, Poet and Author

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In the darkened hallway Roland could smell the roses. The firm had sent them, last Monday; it was a little personal touch they prided themselves on, sending bouquets to the wives of the partners who’d been forced to work the whole weekend in the office. Again. They lay on the hall-table, still in their cellophane, along with the accompanying card. “To Nikki”, it said, “compliments of Sweeney Fletcher Anderson & Co.” She’d torn the card in two. It’s their way of saying sorry, he’d tried to explain the first time they’d sent them; that, and the bonus. Especially the bonus. “A couple of years, that’s all”. Already Roland was the youngest partner ever; if he kept going he’d soon be Managing Partner, and then…. “Just, no more roses, ok?”, Nikki’d said. “Of course”, he’d soothed. But still the flowers arrived, even though he thought he’d told them not to. Or maybe he’d just forgotten.

He headed out the front door and sat into the car. As he gunned the engine he felt a small dart of pain in his foot. Really, he thought, this business with the flower was her problem, not his. All those tears and broken crockery were because her career had… well, stalled. ‘Resting’, wasn’t that what actors called it when they couldn’t get any work? Maybe this new play would make something happen for her; and then again, maybe it wouldn’t. “€urobola” was about a deadly virus which is spread by handling money. “It’s a, a, a …searing indictment of the world wuh, wuh, wuh…we live in”, Reggie had stammered over the white tablecloth in the restaurant where Nikki had dragged Roland along to meet the proud author-director. “Do you think Sweet FA might wuh, wuh, wuh…want to sponsor?” ‘Dweeb’, Roland had wanted to scream but didn’t as he looked across at Reggie’s earnest face, his ridiculous sideburns, his cheap school-swot glasses and expensive shoes (what kind of anarchist wore Tuttys, anyway?). “Sweeney Fletcher Anderson”, he’d replied, ignoring Reggie’s casual deployment of his firm’s nickname, “have always been committed to the arts”. Maybe the firm would throw a few quid in; he might even ask – after he’d seen off Cronin. Cronin was Roland’s one remaining rival for Managing Partner; fair-haired, plump, old-school, first in the car-park, last in the office. And no fool; Cronin had very nearly caught Roland out a couple of years back, when Roland’s draft of a merger agreement failed to take account of a recent change in M & A legislation. Roland had managed to blame his trainee, a girl named Andrea Harper who’d later the same day been escorted red-eyed from the building, but it had been a narrow escape.

The city glittered in the violet pre-dawn. A red traffic-light briefly halted his progress. He nodded amiably at the driver of the sleek new car beside him: white shirt, vivid tie, a dark suit jacket hung in the back. How prosperous this city had once again become, with more and more men like him – and even some women too, he thought – rising and dressing in the dark, on the road before daybreak, determined to make their mark, to take what was rightfully theirs. After the bleakness of the last five years it was like landing on the shores of a new world, a world in which he and those like him were the new conquistadors, while old-timers like Cronin were left for dead. Conquistador: he liked the sound of that. Might be a good name for a yacht.

His car glided through the junction and up onto the bridge past the sleeping forms huddled under blankets against the railings. The great galleon of the building came into view. Around the shimmering lake waters of the entrance plaza artfully-placed bronze ducks maintained their Zen stillness. The firm’s title hung above the main doorway, in letters of block gold; how might the names be reconfigured, he wondered, so as to accommodate his own? As he descended the ramp into the underground car-park he noticed once again the little stabbing pain, in both feet now; was it some sort of gout perhaps, or even something worse? He was young and fit, but maybe he should visit the firm’s surgery for a check-up, just in case. Three of the partners had had heart attacks in the last eighteen months, including Quinn, the Managing Partner, now about to retire, whose job and corner-office would surely soon be his. And anyway, thought Roland, as he eased the cart into its usual spot, he’d need to be in the whole of his health from here on in, now that he was going to be a father.

He undid his belt and sat for a moment smiling ruefully to himself. Nikki hadn’t told him her secret, but he knew. They’d had the children/no children conversation two years ago, soon after they’d married, Nikki agreeing then there was no room for a baby. But lately he’d known something was up; she really was a pretty hopeless actor. He’d found the box for the testing kit while he’d been putting out the rubbish-bins two days ago. At first he’d been furious, although he’d managed to restrain himself from confronting her. At least this explained her curiously unsettled mood, and her lack of enthusiasm between the sheets in recent weeks, which she’d claimed were down to the intensity of rehearsals with bloody Reggie. He had begun then to imagine how it might be: the swaddled bundle of life in the crook of his elbow, women simpering around him. Someone (a boy, Roland was certain) to… do things with. His own father had been remote, austere; but he, Roland, would be different; he and Nikki. Thank God she hadn’t developed a sudden craving for toothpaste, or kiwi fruit, or coal. Even this morning, as he’d dressed as usual in the dark, groping beneath the bed for his shoes, he’d almost said it to her; he’d almost leaned over to kiss her on the forehead as she slept, and whispered I know. But in the end he hadn’t bothered.

He exited at the seventh floor and hurried down the hushed corridor. Outside it was still dark, but he could see out over the river a seam of light breaking in the east. He loved the way the city came alive in the mornings, a jewelled beast awaking from its slumber, although the view was not as good from his office as from Quinn’s. Briefly he allowed himself to dream of how his appointment would happen: the farewell party for Quinn, the stirring applause as his name was announced, and the frozen silence which would greet Cronin’s “retirement on health grounds”. As he stood at the window, he became aware of how uncomfortable his feet were; maybe if he gave them room to breathe whatever swelling there was might go down. He perched on the swivel chair and lifted his left heel onto his right knee. Undoing the lace of black leather brogue he noticed a small scratch he’d never seen before. The shoe did not come away easily. He undid the other shoe: a scuff mark on the toe was definitely new. Again an extra effort was required to prise the shoe off, although the pain disappeared almost immediately. Maybe it wasn’t gout after all. He picked up the left shoe and looked at it. The eyeholes, the thin laces, the elaborate stitch patterns, these were all familiar, but there was something not quite right. He peered inside; there on the underside of the tongue in gold lettering was the manufacturer’s name, faded in parts, although the “T” and “ys” were still visible. The dark luxurious interior of the shoe made it difficult to see in further where his size – 9 ½, always and forever – was also inscribed. He opened the laces and lifted up the tongue.

A gust of rain rattled the window, as if someone had thrown pebbles against the glass. The forecast had mentioned the possibility of showers. The early morning sun was beginning to leak onto the streets, and in the slanting rain the high glass and shining steel of the offices across the river were burnished in a melancholy copper light. Roland sank back in his chair, his mouth slightly open. He could feel his heartbeat racing now, his face suddenly heating as the blood rushed to his cheeks. Something was wrong here, something was terribly wrong. He stared into the shoe once more, as if by staring hard he could will the number he could see, the holed comma of the number 9 – alone – to disappear. Where in God’s name was the ½, he asked himself: the glass ½ full, the second ½, the other ½ – ah yes, indeed, his “other half” – and what the fuck was going on? Slowly he lifted the other shoe, widening the sides so as to inspect the ox-coloured cave of its interior. Again he saw gold letters, the “Tutt” still visible – and again as well he saw the single digit, the one dialled in emergencies, a balloon adrift trailing its string, the tiny foetal embryo that was – and only was – the number 9. Now he held them up together, side by side, the shoes he’d dug out in the darkness from under his own bed that morning. If not mine, he thought, then whose, although in truth he already knew. In disbelief he gazed into them, the 9s in either hand morphing into a pair of immaculately-trimmed sideburns on a stammering, bespectacled, would-be theatre impresario. In his bed. With his –

“Everything alright, Roland?” said Quinn, who’d exercised the Managing Partner’s prerogative of entering without knocking. He looked disdainfully at Roland’s stockinged feet. “Boardroom in fifteen”, he continued briskly, “it’ll be official then, but I can tell you now, of course. I’m sure you’ve guessed anyway. May I present our new Managing Partner!” Roland nodded glumly as Dympna Cronin appeared over Quinn’s shoulder, smiling wanly. “A great choice, no doubt you’ll agree”, said Quinn. Cronin glanced demurely at the carpet. “Anyway, I’ll leave you two to it. See you in the boardroom”. Cronin remained just inside the door. “Well…congratulations, Dympna”, said Roland, extending his hand. “Thank you”, said Cronin. She turned a polished heel and was about to leave when she stopped. “By the way”, she said, waving a piece of paper she was holding, “we might have a word about this. Andrea Harper: she’s suing us. Well, you, really”. She tapped the piece of paper. “Not great reading, to be honest. Maybe you should take time off while we see if we can sort if out. We’ll get you lawyered up, of course”. Unable to speak, Roland was aware of a small flesh-coloured hole in the toe of his left sock. “All the same”, said Cronin, shaking her head, “I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes.”
John O’Donnell

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John O’Donnell wins Fiction prize, Cuirt New Writing 2016

She’s standing over me and I can smell ThreeNines off her, his cheap cigars, the faint whiff of Old Spice. “Get up”, she says, “get up, Con”. “Leave me be, Ma”, I say, turning over, but she whips the duvet off me and suddenly I’m Baltic. “Get up, would you”, she says, “your lift’s downstairs”. Hoppy: I can hear him, smarming up to my sister. “Fifth Year, is it? I thought you’d finished school”. She’s buying it as well, smirking at him as she chews her hair in a way she doesn’t know is lovely. “There you are”, says Hoppy, looking up at me as I’m barrelling down towards the front door, still buttoning my shirt. “We’re off so, Mrs Kearney”, he says to the old doll, before turning to my sister. “Bye, Siobhan”, he says, flashing her a grin, his teeth a row of crooked tombstones. “Bye, Hoppy”, says Siobhan, smiling back.
“You’d better have that for me later”, Hoppy says, “or I won’t be responsible”. The interior of the Skoda is grimly pristine, like that room in “Silent Witness” where your one cuts up the stiffs. “Next Turn Garth Brooks Plaza”, says the road-sign. Hoppy veers left and the white roof rises up ahead of us, a giant stetson. I’ve no chance of finding him a monkey by tonight, and Hoppy knows it. The old doll’s not got it, nor Siobhan neither; an even if they had they wouldn’t give it to me, not after the row about Siobhan’s babysitting money going missing from the Father Ted DVD. “I already told you”, I said to them, Siobhan bawling her eyes out and the old doll waving the empty DVD case in my face, “I don’t have your stupid money”. I didn’t have it either, not by then: Doncaster, 3.30, Compagnero, 8 to 1, and for all I know it’s out there still, or else it’s sliced and diced and stewed in its own juices in some tin. Like I’ll be if I don’t get Hoppy back his money. Because that pair he kicks around with, they don’t mess about. The Twins.

Oh sure, I could tell ThreeNines. Tom Nyhan, Sergeant; NyhanNyhanNyhan, some smart- arse called him, and ThreeNines now, for short. My old doll’s squeeze these last two years. He knows I hate him. He’d be leaning on the counter in the station and winking back at Kennedy, the other blue. “D’you hear that, Kenno? Dolores’s young fella owes Aidan Hopkins five hundred”. The way he says the old doll’s name; I can’t stand it. “For the ponies. And now Hopkins is saying if he doesn’t get it back this evening, he’ll have young Con here done for”. Kennedy, the little scut that he is, would be smirking and rolling his eyes to Heaven inside in the office. “I’ve packed it in”, I’d want to say then, “I’ve packed it in and I’m never having another bet, so fuck the pair of ye”. And I’d walk out, leaving the both of them sniggering behind me. With the €4.30 I have left still in my pocket.

Way back before it became Boylesports it was Meaneys. “The best name for a bookie yet”, my father’d say as he’d push open the door and we’d step in. “Howiya, Ram”, Fonsie Meaney’d say to my father, watching as he thumbed over the notes. Then, the first time that he tossed a stray fiver in my direction: “Try this”, he said: Navan, 4.15, Just Kidding, 6 to 1. I could feel their eyes on me as I filled out the docket; Fonsie, and my father, and Higgins, the solicitor’s apprentice with his arse propped up against the wall. When I walked over to the counter I could hardly reach back then, it was like being on parade. He was beaten a short head. “Wuh-hoh!” said Higgins, who’d backed the winner, or was letting on he had anyway. But by then they had me, and they knew it: the bays and chestnuts, the candy-coloured silks, hunched and steering, the flying clumps of kicked-up turf and the screeching of the commentator, rising in excitement; and the rising up inside of me as well, where winning was the best, but nearly winning was nearly as good, was almost better, because of the win that was certain to come next . “We’ll have to put a block on young Con’s head to stop him growing”, Fonsie’d say each time I was in there after that, until I grew tall enough to look him in the eye, although I never did, not even after my father died, and sometimes I wished they’d tied a block around my ankles, to stop me going in.

But I’m finished with all that now. A mug’s game, I keep repeating to myself, the way they tell you to; never again. And anyway, €4.30: there’s no longshot would’ve got me out with Hoppy on that, not even up in Boylesports. So how much damage could those two gorillas do to me, I’m wondering as we head in the back-door of the Plaza to get changed, and then I think of MacNamee, barely breathing when the blues found him at the bottom of the quarry, and I start praying that Roz has put me on Till 6. Because that’s my only chance.

The roster’s up already, though, and Roz’s black and neatly looping hand says I’m on Till 5. I’m doing up my tunic when she comes waddling towards us, carrying her clipboard. “Anyone seen Mac?” she asks. Silence at first: does she not know about the quarry? “Sure he’s above in hospital”, Hoppy says eventually. Roz’s foot taps out a tiny drum tattoo. “Ok, so”, she says in her Shift-Leader voice, “you do 6 today, Aidan. Con, you do….actually, no. Con, you do 6. Aidan, you’re on 5”. Winner alright, winner alright, the fuzzy tannoy in my head is saying; and where he’s gone to most times I don’t know, but maybe after all there is a God.

The best marks are the young lads, especially if they’re with a young one; they’re so busy showing off they hardly ever check. Palm the twenty, turn away, ring up ten. Oh no, sir, definitely a ten. Here’s the print-out, sir; and look. You hit the return key with a flourish, and the drawer springs open, showing the stacks of tenners and not a single twenty. Till 6 is just outside the cctv’s range, so there’s no way Roz can see even if someone complains. By First Break I’ve €100; by Lunch-Break I’ve €360. The Plaza’s humming. They roll in off the motorway, pasty-faced, exhausted; you could serve them up the leg of the Lamb of God and they wouldn’t notice. At the break Hoppy is talking to The Twins in one of the banquettes. I can see him point in my direction as the two of them stuff their faces, splotches of the dark- red burger sauce spattering their uniforms. Storm Security, the black jackets say, and there’s a little bolt of lightning high up on either sleeve. They’re not even brothers, although that’s no consolation to MacNamee stretched out above in the Rehab after the trimming thateverybody’s saying was from the pair of them. “See you in Queallys, Hoppy”, I say, real friendly, though Hoppy just says nothing, and later on the Skoda wheelspins out of the carpark. The afternoon is quieter, but they still come piling in and I still keep piling them up, those beautiful twenties the colour of a summer sky stashed inside my pocket. By six o’clock when I clock off I’ve €540, and I walk the mile of road back in to town. Because before I go to Queallys there’s something that I need to do.

I push in through the door. The place is tumbleweed; the only other punter in is Higgins, thinning now on top, in his plum suit and scuffed shoes. “Any luck?” I say. “Cartoons”, he says, nodding at the virtual racing on the screens. I pass the pinned-up pages from The Sporting Life, and the sheaf of dockets; I take a twenty out and walk up to the counter. “Hi Aoife”, I say into the glass. And for the first time today I smile. Aoife Meaney: she’s with MacNamee, but there’s something in those hazel eyes that makes my own eyes water, always has . “Hi Con”, she says, smiling. She has a bruise on her left eyebrow that she’s tried to hide with make-up. “For Rubin”, I say, pushing over the twenty. Her son; he’s special needs, and it’s his birthday tomorrow. “Awh, Con. Thanks”, she says. She smiles at me again, a real big smile this time. “How’s Mac?” I say then. She shifts in her seat. “The same”, she says. She looks away, touches the bruise. For a moment neither of us say anything. “So”, she says,
recovering herself, “are you having….” “No”, I say, real proud, “no bet”. I turn to leave, and then I look over my shoulder. “Maybe see you in Queallys later?” I say, and she grins back. “Yeah”, she says, “maybe”.

And I’m almost out the door when a car goes up the street: the Skoda, with Siobhan in the back, still in her school uniform, and someone else in there beside her. But it isn’t Hoppy driving; it’s the taller of the two, and I can just about make out the flash of lightning on his sleeve. I’m about to run up after them but the Skoda disappears, leaving the street emptier than before. So I’m standing in the doorway trying to work out what my next move will be when a little gust of wind in off the street catches the corner of one of The Life’s pages, and I see it: Crayford dogs, 6.52, Take Your Marks, 3 to 1. And it’s swelling up inside me now once more like organ-music, the feeling that you get when you know your luck is in. I’m in control here, I tell myself as I turn back towards the counter, snatching up a docket and pulling out a fistful of the twenties, I’m in total control.

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The Lucas Planet No.33

The Lucas Planet No. 33

                                             i.m. Seamus Heaney



Say first a sup of kerosene, poured deftly into the squat casing

at the base, and then a match scratched into action, held flare-headed,

steady-handed in the opened porthole, your other hand turning

the handle so that the wick rose like a cobra charmed to greet

the flame, the enamelled blackness of the chamber suddenly aglow

in its own solstice. The cover then snapped shut, the spring-hinge

bracket-clipped beneath the handlebars and you’re off,

a leg swung easy over the saddle, your wavering front beam

diminishing the evening lengthening between us until you disappear.



Then say another oil, a different kind of light:

sweet balm of chrism and the spear-tipped flames of candles,

white flowers hushing the room, and you in your good suit,

as ready as you can be for the journey, the ditches lined

with curious schoolchildren and stout policemen saluting as you pass

on your way north to where we lay you down between sycamore and ash,

low prayers and beak-twitter and murmured choked goodbyes,

and afterwards the hydraulic stutter of the digger,

its swung bucket a hero’s empty helmet, scooping up and filling in

the opened ground; a lifetime’s earth.



But now the way ahead is unlit, unapproved; no knowing

what may come hurtling without warning from the hedgerows,

oblivion in wait behind each trembling leaf, and nothing equal

to the darkness of this grief except perhaps the Lucas Planet No. 33,

the long-gone manufacturer’s proud boast emblazoned on the box it comes in:

We make light of our labours”, and for a moment the world is once more lit

by the power-surge of your grin, delighting in the pun, and crediting as well

the credo of all art: to make the effort made seem effortless while going

to the heart of what matters. Actual and emblem, this venerable bicycle-lamp;

sturdy, trustworthy, the heft of it a kind of grace, and this time I take off,

unsteadily; still sad, and fearful, yes: uncertain where I’m going

but gladdened by this ghost-light, the road before me brightening

in its occult and familiar gleam. Wheel-spin; spoke-song.

The consolation that what’s well-made endures, and shines on.


John ODonnell