John O'Donnell

John O'Donnell, Barrister, Poet and Author


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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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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