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2020 winner


'Love Many'

That November I had pressed against the deadweight of depression – of a broken heart, the post-broken-heart universe, ringing tepidly with rain – and downloaded Tinder. I went on a date with an American who said, I could put my hands around your waist, and then, when the wine list came, pointed at the wine list and squeaked, halfsies?

I went on a date with a man from Cork who had lived in Boston for one year and acquired an accent so accurate and bulletproof I could not believe he was really from Cork. This man also had a low lisp, which made much of what he said sound malevolent and sexually exciting. He rented an extraordinary apartment near the Peppercanister church, a section of converted townhouse with a ceiling that stood on columns of yellow plaster, scrunching at the centre to a vortex of snowy garlands: the sash window opened onto the fire escape and the Boston-Corkonian sat in a chair, smoking out of the window, holding forth. By two in the morning I felt exhausted and deranged by his strange monologues. I lay on my face and proceeded, for the rest of the night, to play dead.

I went on a date with a man who let me pay for both coffees and then said, I’ll get you back some time. I went on four dates with a thought-tormented programmer from Saint Petersburg who was, he told me, looking for a wife, but could not understand how women worked. He had a graceful and melancholy physique, like an expensive instrument.

I went on dates with scrofulous Irish boys who had bags of laundry at the feet of their beds, one bar of Palmolive soap in the shower tray.

I went on dates with imported Google and Facebook workers at Grand Canal Dock, goofy Italians and sardonic Georgians and play-fighting French. They knew about cheese and collecting vinyl and seemed so absurdly uncomplicated I could not find a use for them.

I went on a date with the editor of an anti-establishment magazine who chided me when I told him I had just bought tea for a homeless man. The homeless man had looked at me and said, in a whine of wet ts, could you not get me some sweets?

I went on a date with a nice men I kept meeting at plays afterwards. Only ever plays.

And then, I went on a date with Timothy.

It was a Friday night, dark and cold out, with a clear shot of the stars. I asked him to meet me in Fallon and Byrne, thinking of the wine bar in the basement, but when I arrived he was sitting with his jacket on in the deli-café, which was closing, a waitress upending barstools and cellophane stretched across bowls of couscous and potato salad. He was texting and pouring idly from a pot of peppermint tea. He was spry but surprisingly attractive, with curly hair, combat boots, and dark eyes, and, when he turned to me in introduction, he scrunched up his face: I don’t much like this place, he said, can we go somewhere else?

Yes, but not far, I cautioned, pointing to my stiletto heels.

I like those, Timothy said to the shoes.

We found a hotel bar on the corner so crowded we had to sit in plastic-backed chairs, around defanged banquet tables, in the corridor. Daring one another to complain. Isaid, Sparkling water please, and he said, Sure, sparkling water for two, and so neither of us even had a proper drink in the well-lit lobby, leaning over laps on plastic chairs. I was wearing my passive-aggressive firstdate ensemble of plain blouse and faded jeans, with no jewellery and a plaque of lipstick, pillar-box red. We spoke competitively about the occult. Timothy told me an apocryphal anecdote about Alistair Crowley, who had persuaded someone, an acolyte, apparently, that you could find money by walking around and training your eyes to the ground: to keep at it, if you could, would mean money in hand within days.

Have you tried it out? I asked.

I did for a bit, he said, but you could go mad, couldn’t you?

I tipped back to laugh, then, surrendering at last, and he smiled because he’d succeeded in making me laugh.

I will tell you what I’m doing this weekend, he said, looking about, but you might think it’s strange.

Go ahead.

I’m going to a farmhouse, in the back of beyond, to take psychedelics, as part of a ceremony.

That, I said candidly, is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.

Some nights later, Timothy returned from the back of beyond and dropped into a bashed-up antique chair in the same hotel, leaning his elbow on the table-top, which had a short leg and clattered crankily against the floor. I could hear this even over the froth of conversations.

How was it? I asked. Tell me everything.

As strange as ever. He looked bashful. I have to think about it. I am still – he wiggled his fingers – in it. I mean, it’s still there.

But what did you see? I pressed. Was it like last time?

He was looking at me and I could not read the look. It was between compromise and pity, for himself or for me I couldn’t tell.

It’s just … I am incredibly – tense, now.

Oh. I laughed awkwardly.

And frankly I just want to, you know, get a cab to my place with you. Would you like to come?

I sat up straight and felt my spine align as I went with the dark webbed wont of instinct.

Yes, I said. OK. Fuck it.

We hailed a cab and chatted to the driver affably, relaxed. Timothy smiled at me with what looked like tenderness. They complain about the doors slamming late, he said as we entered his house-share, so go easy on the doors. He made tea in an astonishing galvanised pot and showed me some sculptures he’d made, of polystyrene and car parts – small car parts, intricate and poetic as the dowels and triggers I had seen inside old clocks – and we climbed the stairs with the tea, to a small room that was touchingly neat, tidy and clean, so nice it was almost feminine, which surprised me. It was the first time I had ever been brought to the bedroom of a man and found a bed made, not only properly, but thoughtfully, with pillows arranged. We sat lotus and drank tea and spoke remotely and politely to one another. I wondered when it would begin. He put down his cup and reached over to stroke my collarbone. He turned his face to me and the expression, now, was daring, as if we were children who would misbehave. It began.

Reclining afterwards I said, you are so nice.

I try, he smiled.

I was looking at him with wonder. I felt good. The whole thing had been such a sudden luxury, I mistook it for grace or serendipity. I said, shall we do this again?

I’d like to, he said. But – his voice sped up, like a caveat in an ad – I don’t want a relationship.

It seems silly to say this, but I felt as though the breath had been pummelled from me. The depth of this response doubled onto itself at once, accusingly, because why, I thought wildly, should I care? Why, why, what was I thinking this was to be? But I was ashamed: heat crawled into my face, over my ears, and I knew that I was blushing.

(Suddenly I recalled another scene: in the BostonianCorkonian’s bedroom as I searched for my clothes in the morning after enduring his monologues, dipping about in rising panic because I could not find my underwear, clutching the dress to my chest in an attempt at modesty, and the false American said, Hey, can we do this again? I tried to laugh kindly, before saying, Oh dear, I don’t think so! I went without underwear in the end and threw on the dress, snagging and sour against bare skin, to accelerate my departure, and snap-snapped last-night’sshoes to a franchise café, where I ate a croissant and toasted myself with tea and began at once to rearrange the trauma into a palatable anecdote.)

I felt like saying, to Timothy now, I have no need of you, or of anything. But it was too late. He had seen my expression, and seemed ashamed.

It’s not you, he said quickly. You see, usually, with a girl like you, I would say straightaway, be my girlfriend, I would jump right into it.

Yes?

But I can’t do that anymore, Timothy said. It never works. It comes apart in the same old patterns, in the same way. I want to be different, I want to do all the work now. I was, he tried to smile, very different when I was younger. When I was your age. I was all over the place. I let people down. Women.

Alright. I was stepping into my tights.

So – all the same, I like you, it would be nice to see you again.

I am sorry. I stood up. But no. I’m not doing that. This was nice. Goodnight. I had not planned to play this part, that of the outraged and old-fashioned girl, but it came to me warmly and generously, a compensation. This, I thought fleetingly, might be a nice kind of person to be, full-time. This kind of person was not petty. This person stooped to kiss him sweetly on the lips.

Goodnight comrade, I said.

I found a cab easily. He didn’t walk me to the door. Afterwards I would remember this – that he did not walk me to the door, that he did not show courtesy in that regard – and use it, like so many thing, to lash myself: to say, stupid woman you are, in such cases you walk and you keep on walking and you never turn around and you never rethink it nor question yourself. Because of course I did. Because of course I questioned myself, that Friday night, standing in a gay bar at the moment of the magic shift, when the room went from waggish to sheer eschatological, when enough drink and cocaine had been taken to make the crowd around me pound with vicious zeal and barely-concealed hate, when I was standing in the slurry of bodies with a glass of mineral water and staring blackly ahead, though the bodies and walls and the winding streets of the city, through the throbbing swab of passing cabs, through mortar and mortgages and shopfronts to the socket of the sea, though all things, staring from the sternum, at sea; of course I thought: I want something, something, to be annihilated – of course I misjudged this, of course I thought, I want to see him.

And of course I caught a cab to Timothy’s place – all these cabs, all these tenners, Jesus wept – and said let’s go then, heyho, and of course I fell into doing this with a mechanical regularity and we became platonic lovers and, moreover, friends. Sort of. Timothy, it turned out, was a thinly chivalric man. He preferred to meet in town for coffee or to go to the cinema ahead of the inevitable tea and intimacy, sessions of academic inquiry during which we did not look each other in the eyes, and after which we watched television and spoke about our respective states of psychological distress. Or I did, and Timothy described the ways in which he was getting much better, learning to deepdive into meditative states. Timothy tried everything. Timothy tried iboga, which made him paranoid and panting on an Amsterdam–Dublin flight, and silene capensis, which did basically nothing, and cacao, which was too gentle for him; Timothy tried kambo, which made him pass out for twenty-four hours, and foraged mushrooms, which were ‘fun’, and kundalini yoga; he tried trance states and aphorisms and slept, for some time, with a scapular. I fingered it against the hard bones of Timothy’s chest.

If you die before you wake, I mused.

Do you know what it is?

My grandmother gave one to me, Isaid, when I was a little girl. Which in retrospect was quite dark.

Do you still have it?

Oh god no, it’s long gone.

Timothy’s past was a haunted forest that grew realer and more malevolent the more I tried to press into it. It was not scenery; it was flesh, and blood, and violence. Timothy’s manhood was now being spent, I felt, finding the courage to plunge into it. The more I came to understand this, the more desperately tender I felt towards him. The more tender I felt the more frightened I also felt and, early in the spring, I was pleased to be able to tell him: I am going away you know, for ten days, on a residency. It’s in Monaghan, in the back of beyond.

I spent ten days away in the countryside. I wrote.

After this I set out for home on a bright and brittle afternoon and at Monaghan bus station discovered there was a whole hour before the bus. I drank sour coffee in the canteen, seemingly unchanged since the nineteen-nineties, like some archaic form of vernacular speech: cake-prices on star-shaped slices of paper, blue hygienic light, a steel tureen. I had nothing to read and despair was imminent. I stood in one spot, then another, on the concrete forecourt. Squads of people came and went and caught the small buses to Galway, to outlying towns, as I grew angry at being thwarted; at being withheld, or withheld from; at being detained; at having less than absolute control over everything, the mounting morbidity of it spreading beyond this petty instance of delay and becoming fucking existential. I was circling the building once again, prowling frankly so that everyone could read the irritation in my movements, when an ancient man in tweed and layers, carrying a plastic bag so stretched with weight it had become translucent, advanced across the forecourt with what really did look like a shillelagh. He used the shillelagh for slow navigation, like a saint. The day was still dazzling; the sky was clear over Monaghan.

Hello, hello, the man called out to me. It had been inevitable since he had rounded the big barnyard pillars of the forecourt before I had a chance to duck out of his sight. I was a young woman who demonstrably had nothing better to do.

Hello, hello, my dear, please help me, please!

Hello. I walked over to him, putting out my hand.

No, no, he said, as I attempted to take the bag. He smelled of soiled bedsheets but not terrible, considering.

If you could take my arm to steady me, he said, I’d be much obliged. He smelled of scalp and woodsmoke. We advanced slowly and I could feel his weight, the degree of weight he was placing against me, shifting skilfully over the bones, on my arm; I had to introduce strength from my shoulders and core. Aren’t you a kind woman, the man said.

To the bench, is it?

It is, and then you can do something for me. You can run in and ask about the bus to Newbliss. But first, but first, tell me, what is that accent? Dublin? Well aren’t you a kind woman. Let me guess. Let me guess. Do you work – let me guess. Are you a teacher?

It seemed easier to say, simply, yes.

I knew it! There you go.

Oh Paddy, said a young man as we approached the benches with their hooves of brackish cement. Always a hit with the girls.

Never mind that blackguard, the old man waved. Newbliss. It should be ten or so minutes, am I correct?

I checked, returned, and said: correct.

Now sit down until I thank you, the old man said. I sat on the bench by him neatly, smiling in surrender. But when the man began to root in the plastic bag I held my hands up and said, no, oh no, thinking he was hunting for money.

It was not money. It was a fat, half-rotted leather ledger of parish newsletters and prayer cards. It was held together with dirty elastic. Now, now, now, the old man said. For you I have to choose. What is your name? Very nice. Let me see.

I was laughing quietly and blushing because everybody was looking, but no one was helping me.

Paddy you’re desperate, remarked the same man who had spoken earlier. Advice for you, said the old man suddenly. He had straightened up from the shopping bag and was staring firmly into the distance, nodding to himself. Love many, he said. Love many, but trust few.

He drew a packet of feathering postcards from the pack and extracted one. It was a picture from a medieval manuscript, showing a tight-lipped ikon sheltering lepers in the outsized folds of his cloak. He carried a basket of bread loaves. This, said the old man, is Naomh Lorcán ua Tuathail, Saint Laurence O’Toole. He passed it to me. For the Dubliner, he said.

Thank you, I smiled. I was afraid to say anything more, lest the old man rattle into more conversation, but he pointed, then, beyond me, and said simply, to the bus. I half-hauled him to the door and passed him to the bus driver, who seemed to know him well.

God bless, god bless, the old man waved gaily. Love many, trust few!

I half-thought someone would joke with me about the old man and his antics when he had left, but the crowd were silent or insular again. The bus to Dublin swung into the forecourt suddenly and changed the atmosphere. There was movement and self-interest, the forming of a queue. I tucked the little Saint Laurence O’Toole into a pocket at the front of my suitcase and wondered if there was meaning in anything, if there was meaning to a day like this at all.

In my room in Cabra, the room I had left cold and clean, I unpacked quickly and leaned my forehead on the louvred wardrobe doors to feel a dreadful strain spreading through me, stretching electrically, but then I washed and changed and reported to the bus stop, an LED screen on the corner, where the night was lowering; I travelled into the city and waited for Timothy in the basement bar of a sushi restaurant. When Timothy arrived he was smiling and sprightly and said, wincing in apology, I don’t really like this place, can we go somewhere else?

On the pavement, in the spangled air of Friday night, I began to cry uncontrollably. It happened from one moment to the next: I was quite placidly intact and then, all at once, crying openly in the street.

Oh god, I said. I’m sorry. Oh my god.

It’s alright, Timothy said. Actually, he smiled, it’s quite nice. I laughed. The laughter was wet. My vision was wet.

Let’s walk, he decided.

The night was without wind, as if a lid had been placed temporarily over everything. This was unseasonably reasonable for early February. It was February by then; it was almost Valentine’s Day. There, on Aungier Street, close to where we stood, the Friary, the Carmelite Hall, the caramel-coloured columns of an urban church, the gold-painted statues set into the caramel columns of the urban church: there, mere yards away, the shrine of Saint Valentine. Closed, of course, on a Friday night. We walked in the other direction, through Dame Lane, for it was pedestrianised, with cobbles and no cars, and suggested itself as a sensible byway into the night. I felt strongly that I should go home. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I said. But I did not want to go home either, because home was so much worse, the abjection of the bedroom, of everything – perhaps I would carouse with any number of men to avoid going home.

The lane was alive with smokers outside pubs, people sitting on stools that barked against the cobblestones when moved. Timothy did not touch me or comfort me but smiled politely into the evening as we walked, as Isobbed continuously, shaking out, as I wrongly thought, a broken heart for the first-and-last time, until I found enough wherewithal to say, I am worried about someone, about my ex.

And, something happened in November, I might have told you about.

Would you like to get something sweet? he asked. I’d like an ice cream. Timothy had the sweet tooth of a child. He was conscious of it and wont to judge it in others; at the cinema one time he cried to me, Jesus, will you eat that much pick-and-mix?

We walked now to Temple Bar as a shimmer of rain began to fall. It was hardly there, just twinkling like a swarm of midges, shining in the fringes of passing girls. Outside one of the new gelaterias, a shopfront punching light into a side street, there were babbling language students. All of the language students had something earnest and pressing to say, loudly, at speed, tracking one another with impatience and tucking long lengths of hair behind their ears, caught in rich single units of arousal, talking over one another, making me want to hit them, to send a spoiled daughter into the centre of the cobblestoned road, to catch her with a thwack at the back of the skull, to say, Pay attention, you silly little cunt. It was a strange impulse but I watched it sidle blithely through my mind, detached, without judgment.

What would you like? asked Timothy. You can have any flavour you want. I pretended to look about me avidly. There were troughs and dishes of coloured ice cream, and the staff all looked tired beneath their paper hats.

Mint, I decided.

Are you sure? You know, he placed a hand confidently on the cabinet, you can have more than one scoop per cone.

Mint, pure mint, I insisted.

When he had bought two cones we stepped into the street and he handed me a neat fold and a bulb of pale ice cream.

Now then, he said, I’ve bought you an ice cream, so shut up. I laughed. I had stopped crying anyway.

I felt better, and he often made me feel better after that. But when he got close he would flit away shortly afterwards – leave suddenly – be somewhere else with other women, leave me to myself. On his last day in my life he walked briskly, compulsively, around my apartment, describing every view from the many windows, facing the day like a pioneer. I sat buttering toast and realized he could not sit still, he could not sit down.

Months later, from California, he brought me two small rocks: volcanic, or perhaps meteoritic. I didn’t quite understand. He had wrapped them in a reusable teabag, a linen pouch, because being a vegan and pious and mildly paranoid he had plenty of these. One of the rocks was ringed with a rind of extra rock, like a ring of Saturn. Timothy said, they are male and female you see. Hold them close together – he demonstrated – and they repel each other, magnetically. Can you feel it? You can feel the charge, when they are close.

I keep the rocks in a box with the Laurence O’Toole and a Tarot pack. I take them out sometimes and crack them together. They are heavy and warm. In the pouch they look not unlike loose knots of cartilage or perhaps testicles.

He will dash back and ask me, are you free? And of course I am free.

A little bit about Niamh Campbell

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Niamh Campbell was born in 1988 and grew up in Dublin. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The Dublin Review, 3:AM, Banshee, gorse, Five Dials, and Tangerine. She was awarded a Next Generation literary bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland, and annual literary bursaries in 2018 and 2019. She holds a PhD in English from King's College London and has been a postdoctoral fellow for the Irish Research Council at Maynooth University. Her debut novel This Happy is forthcoming from Weidenfeld and Nicolson in June 2020. She lives and works in Dublin.