John O'Donnell

John O'Donnell, Barrister, Poet and Author


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THE IRISH TIMES

“Captivating…the detail of the writing makes the stories sing… a high-octane debut from a natural storyteller” – Irish Times

Strap yourself in for a high-octane journey before opening John O’Donnell’s debut collection. The 15 short stories here are written with a flair for the dramatic, in keeping, perhaps, with O’Donnell’s day job as a well-known senior counsel in Dublin. (The author is also an award-winning poet, whose latest collection, Sunlight: New and Selected Poems, was published by Dedalus in 2018.) His stories have won him the Hennessy New Writing Award for emerging fiction and have been published in the Stinging Fly and the Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, among others.

Some of these stories feature in Almost the Same Blue, a collection that ranges from moving, fully rounded pieces to tales more anecdotal in style. All of the stories, whether literary or commercial in nature, succeed in entertaining the reader. O’Donnell is not a writer who holds back. Many of the stories contain multiple tragic strains where the darker sides of human nature are examined. There are drunk revellers, grieving fathers, paramilitary murders – and that’s just in a single story.

Sometimes, as with the compelling Ostrich, it all comes together, but elsewhere there is too much going on for the length of the pieces. With so much drama – suicide bombers, adulterous popes, cheating spouses, plane crashes – the reader can become desensitised to the pain. The stand-out stories are those where the pain is front and centre.

O’Donnell is skilled at voice – young or old, male or female – and his stories have a sense of immediacy

O’Donnell is skilled at voice – young or old, male or female – and his stories have a sense of immediacy, landing us in the plight of his narrators. The exceptional Promises tells of rugby player Neil (21), on the cusp of playing for Ireland when a collapsed scrum leaves him in a wheelchair.

His team-mates come and visit him: “They crowded into the apartment; hulking, good-humoured, decent men.” His girlfriend stays with him at the start, “but the visits became shorter as she became more and more distracted by what he’d long since realised: that this was it. The pressure-sores and the spoon-feeds, the rhythmic, constant wheezing of the ventilator pumping air in through the hole in his trachea.”

The dramatic ending will divide readers into those who like a twist in the tale and those who prefer a quieter, more realistic finish.

O’Donnell is a fan of dramatic irony, a la Roald Dahl, and frequently his stories come to an abrupt and surprising finish. Ostrich begins in medias res (“By then there were nine of us left on the minibus”) and what follows is a tense story of loss and violence that ends quite literally with a bang.

Titles often have clues or double meanings as to likely outcomes – the poignant titular story of a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped; the obnoxious lawyer in Partner who may not be as secure as he thinks in his marriage or his job; or Away Game, with its story of adultery set against the backdrop of an Irish match abroad.

The detail of the writing make the stories sing. A man awaiting trial for the death of a banker describes his prison cell: “The window’s so small and so high up it looks like a stamp at the top of a postcard.” In Rainbow Baby, a woman desperate for a child remembers a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage: “The bone-deep tiredness of it, sinking me to the bottom of the sea, my eyes closing until I’d wake to find the ultrasound technician twinkling at me as she manoeuvred the transducer over the globe of our new world.”

“Desperate” is a word that could apply to lots of the situations O’Donnell’s characters find themselves in. They are often on the wrong side of the law, and as expected from a writer of his background, the many legal details are interesting and realistic. Just as senior counsel must sell their story to a jury, O’Donnell is quick to hook the reader with each tale.

O’Donnell chooses stories that make for sensational headlines, and then goes behind the scenes to give a different perspective entirely

 The brilliant opening story, Mark, is a case in point. Within a few paragraphs, we understand the bleak, broke world of Hoppy, a gambling addict, and what he and his family will lose if he doesn’t get his act together soon.

Trying to cover his debts and to protect his younger sister, Hoppy short-changes the customers who come to his checkout: “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.”

The award-winning story Shelley, meanwhile, asks us to consider the case of a teenage boy charged with molesting a neighbour with a disability.

O’Donnell chooses stories that make for sensational headlines, and then goes behind the scenes to give a different perspective entirely. Almost the Same Blue is, beyond a reasonable doubt, a confident debut from a natural storyteller out to please.


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SUNDAY INDEPENDENT

“O’Donnell’s stories hit you like little bullets of astute observations, tightly wrought explorations of complex truths, narrated in beautiful, fluid, uncomplicated prose” – Sunday Independent

Like most people at the moment, my attention span is shot. But I coaxed myself to sit in my garden and read John O’Donnell’s debut short story collection Almost the Same Blue, and I’m delighted that I did. Not only is it an engaging, compulsive read, it also kick-started my reading habit again, and that is where you will find me most days now, in a sheltered spot in the garden with only the resident robin and blackbird for company, and a diminishing to-be-read pile of books.

But short stories are more than just a quick fix of fiction for the time-strapped or attention-deficient. They are like little silent bombs exploding in front of you, cracking open a slender gap in your reality or reducing to rubble your previously held perceptions, allowing you to see things in a new and fresh way. O’Donnell’s stories hit you like that, little bullets of astute observations, tightly wrought explorations of complex truths, narrated in fluid, uncomplicated prose.

Reflecting O’Donnell’s long experience as a barrister, his stories tend to be populated by people on the fringes of society: gamblers, swindlers, petty thieves. But despite their shortcomings, we end up sympathising with them. We know we should feel repulsion and horror at some of the situations but, instead, we come to realise that nothing is black and white, every action and reaction a result of complex realities.

The opening story, Marks, is a tense, pacy tale featuring the aptly named Con, who runs foul of some loan sharks, who help fund his gambling addiction. Despite being a thief who skims money from the till at work, we root for him and hope he succeeds in letting go of debt-inducing ways. O’Donnell achieves this with his beautiful prose, eliciting our sympathy through tiny significant details, like his love of his teenage sister, who “chews her hair in a way she doesn’t know is lovely”.

Shelley is narrated in the voice of a 12-year-old boy, who appears not to understand the gravity of his crime, but again, although the situation should be clear-cut, O’Donnell manages to make us feel ambivalent about the outcome and a measure of sympathy for the boy’s plight.

Away Game is a twisty, dark tale about a cheating husband whose tryst in Paris is disrupted by a news flash on the TV, while The Truck Driver’s Wife shows us a different side, the personal stories behind other news items. A Great Big Bible Wind delves into the familiar themes of jaded marriages, the death of a child and the ties that bind, and Ostrich, set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has a surprise ending that reminds us of a past we’d like to forget.

The titular story, Almost the Same Blue, wraps itself around you, making you want to believe, like the protagonist, that the returned girl really is her lost daughter, and Kane flits between harrowing memories of schooldays, young love and a betrayal of friendship. It’s a powerful piece, well crafted and wonderfully nuanced, a whole life caught within its tight structure.

Overall, this collection made for very enjoyable reading, perfect for these housebound times.


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THE BUSINESS POST

“Sharply observed short stories that catch the complexity of life…O’Donnell’s maturity as a writer shines through… rich enough to read again and again, Almost the Same Blue will surely find readers who delight in doing so” – The Business Post

There are some short stories that appear not to have been written, but “caught”. The subject was already sitting there, the writer simply needed to angle his shot. It’s an illusion, of course, but a pleasing one, this fencing off of what seems like reality.

In his debut collection, Almost the Same Blue, John O’Donnell seems to have slipped through a crack in the doorway of life and caught it in the act. His stories read like candid snapshots, incriminating photos – slight and contained, yet fully complete; enough to tell you everything.

A senior counsel by trade, O’Donnell probably has more experience than most of the cruel undoings that hide beneath the skin of normality. Two twelve-year-old schoolchildren involved in an inappropriate tryst, a disenfranchised citizen implicated in the murder of a banker during the recession, a childless woman impelled to kidnap a baby from a shopping centre – these might make clear cases from a legal perspective, but in story form, all that’s obvious is how complex and sad life can sometimes be.

Some of the stories in this collection are inspired by real events – Ostrich, about a bus that is intercepted by gunmen on its way home from a work party is based on the Kingsmill massacre, while Promise, about a rugby player who suffers a spinal injury and convinces his friend to take him to Switzerland, got its prompt from a newspaper clipping.

But for the most part they seem born of the question authors so often play with: “what if?” What if my husband were a suicide bomber? What if I were working so hard I didn’t notice my wife was having an affair? What if my child were kidnapped? O’Donnell’s what ifs are compelling, if often outrageous. More importantly, they’re positioned just so, so that they pulse with tension.

At times, while reading, I was tripped by the brevity and subtlety of the writing style. “She’s standing over me and I can smell ThreeNines off her” goes the opening of Marks. Initially, I thought “she” was a lover and “ThreeNines” was the lover’s perfume (in fact, they are the protagonist’s mother and the mother’s partner, respectively). There is no room for fumbling on the part of the reader. The stories expect us to be as careful and precise as the writing on the page.

It’s a fair exchange. Collect each fact, pay attention to each marker, and you shall be rewarded.

Though this is O’Donnell’s debut as a fiction writer, he is already an accomplished poet with four collections to his name, and a radio documentarian – last year, Back to the Rock, about the 1979 Fastnet Yacht race, was part of RTÉ’s Documentary on One series. His stories have won the Hennessy Award for Emerging Fiction and the Cúirt Festival of Literature New Writing Prize for Fiction and have been published widely. Thus, despite his “debut” status, O’Donnell’s maturity as a writer shines through.

Language is a major preoccupation. The sentences in this collection are frank and then at brief, well-earned moments bursting with poetry. In Young Woman With Unicorn, which features a pregnant portrait model in renaissance Rome, a sentence like “I lie back on the bed and wait for what comes next, the kicks inside me getting stronger, like hooves approaching from a distance” strikes a strange and perfect blow. In Away Game, the description of bathwater as “silky, warm” is simple, yet lingering.

Words often have double meanings. This can be humorous – Meaney’s is “the best name for a bookie yet” – or touching: the image of a ringing phone displaying the word “Home. Home. Home” is a moving emotional cue, while the “say nothing” motif in Ostrich refers, poignantly, to both the Troubles and the death of the protagonist’s child.

Admittedly, some stories in this collection – Away Game, Ostrich, Into the Red, Shelly – spoke to me more than others. Yet there is a coalescence to the work as a whole. Allegories, words and motifs ping across the pages. Though written over the course of ten years or so, these stories speak to one another naturally. There is much to be dug for beneath the surface. Slim enough and rich enough to read again and again, Almost the Same Blue will surely find readers who delight in doing so.


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IRISH INDEPENDENT

“Versatile debut collection shows many sides to the short story… a very good anthology… enthusiastically recommended” – Irish Independent

Almost the Same Blue is the debut short story collection from Dubliner John O’Donnell, though he has previously published (and won awards for) individual stories, as well as books of poetry. It’s a very good anthology, 16 tales of deceit, regrets, bad memories, reckless passions, fatal misunderstandings and, in some cases, hopefulness and beauty.

Unusually for a short fiction collection, Almost the Same Blue contains a high quotient of actual stories. The format usually lends itself to vignettes: impressionistic little sketches where, as the saying goes, the reader arrives after the action has begun and leaves before it reaches a conclusion.

This isn’t any kind of problem, by the way. Personally, I love how short stories hint at things, alluding rather than explicitly describing, and leave a significant space for the reader to step into the piece and flesh it out and imagine possible futures. In other words, we co-write the story to some extent.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with a ‘proper’ beginning-middle-end narrative, either; the restricted length can give real punch and tension when you have to wrap it up so briskly.

Almost the Same Blue, published by Connemara-based Doire Press, has several fine examples of both types of story.

‘Away Game,’ for instance, pulls the kind of black-humour twist that wouldn’t go amiss in an episode of Tales of the Unexpected. A cheating husband, on a Parisian tryst, discovers that the plane he had told his wife he would be on – travelling to a match in England – has crashed.

Similar in tone is ‘Partners,’ in which a strident boor, confident of promotion and contemptuous of his wife’s artistic friends, feels his world fall apart with each perplexing pinch of his expensive shoes.

These pieces are misanthropic, mischievously wicked and often funny.

The title story is a taut, dreadful (in the literal sense) account of a missing child and the mental acts of will that a bereft parent will make when needs must. ‘After Pandora’ updates the old tale of sailors adrift at sea, drawing lots to see who will live. ‘Ostrich,’ meanwhile, is a nerve-jangling piece about a van of workmates being stopped by hooded men during the Troubles; again with a twist, though this time it’s not funny, just horrifying. 

For all that I enjoyed these ‘straight’ stories, though – and being the contrary sort that I am – what stayed most in my mind were some of the less linear, more open-ended works. ‘Marks,’ about a chronic gambler, is a simultaneously grim and, in a strange way, sort of rapturous by turns; ‘Promise’ is sweet and sad, exploring the bounds of friendship and duty in the face of medical catastrophe; ‘A Great Big Bible Wind’ is like a Harold Pinter play in miniature, with unspoken truths and simmering resentments at a two-couple dinner party.

The standout piece is ‘Kane’. It starts out, you think, as a harrowing recollection of brutal schooldays; then deftly swerves into unexpected territory of transgressive romance and dwindling faith; then swerves again into something floaty, almost like a reverie. It’s all rendered with great precision: the reader feels physically present in the car during the final scene – gazing out the window, dreaming about the potential a single life can hold.

As mentioned, O’Donnell is also a lauded poet. Happily he wears that lightly. The writing is clean and subdued; there are no performative pyrotechnics that put language ahead of story, character and theme.

Not every piece worked for me, although that’s probably inevitable in a collection – subjective taste is everything – but overall Almost the Same Blue is enthusiastically recommended.


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SUNDAY TIMES

‘His prose is elegant, frictionless and pleasingly direct…While langorous anatomisations of the dating scene command much of the attention these days,  O’Donnell’s stories show that there is still room for others to articulate what William Faulkner called the “eternal verities” of the human heart.’  Sunday Times

John O’Donnell’s gifts as a lyric poet are widely celebrated in Ireland. His talents in the short-story format may be less so but that could change with Almost the Same Blue, his first collection.

As you would expect, his prose is elegant, frictionless, and pleasingly direct. There is no conscious striving for big effects, and little truck with the postmodern tricksiness that characterises so much contemporary short fiction. Instead, there is a plain-spoken, slightly old-fashioned allegiance to the beginning-middle-end cohesion that typifies great short-story writers such as William Trevor and John McGahern.

Trevor famously defined the short story as “the art of the glimpse”. O’Donnell tends to offer the whole picture. Some of his stories are more like mini novellas, with a broad cast of characters, complex plots, and quirky twist-in-the-tale resolutions.

Thematically, the stories could hardly be more diverse, encompassing meaty subjects that might test the unwary writer’s susceptibility to easy melodrama. O’Donnell, who is a practising barrister, resists the temptation admirably.

In Away Game, two lovers find their cover blown when the pretext for their secret trip to Paris goes up in flames. The plane he was supposed to catch crashes, and with his family frantically texting for news he wonders how he will explain his survival, while his abandoned lover languishes in their hotel suite.

Promise portrays a rugby player disabled through injury who decides the “keep fighting” platitudes will never be enough and opts for assisted suicide. As he is “carried from the chair for the last time t the pristine-sheeted bed”, the profound moral dilemma facing the friend he has conscripted to help is achingly portrayed.

The standout story is Kane, in which a middle-aged man reads an obituary of his former schoolmaster, a priest, which triggers bittersweet memories of his adolescent passion for an older woman. We discover the passion was shared by the teacher. Here, O’Donnell undercuts the old expectations of brutish priests in a story full of poignant epiphanies.

In short-story mode, O’Donnell seems to hold in check the exuberance of the poet but in places it bursts through: lawyers in court are all “standing around like great black birds”; a full ashtray contains “a cairn of butts”; as a car passes, we hear “the slish of tyres going by in the rain”. His way with telling details holds our attention through what are often quite dense and convoluted stories.

What is really striking is how the author seems to swim upstream against the current of the contemporary Irish short story. Even the notion of a middle-class author writing about middle-class subjects will seem deeply suspect in some quarters. Throw in the equally suspect question of the “male gaze” exemplified in Martin’s Mrs Robinson-style desire for Mrs Rock in Kane and all kinds of red lights start flashing. Some of the stories have first-person female narrators, a further heresy. While languorous anatomisations of the dating scene command most of the attention these days, O’Donnell’s stories show that there is still room for others to articulate what William Faulkner called “the eternal verities” of the human heart.

Bert Wright


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

Marks
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

 

I

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.

 

II

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.

                                             

                                                  III

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