‘Girl Grief’. Short fiction by Cathy Donelan

Thick hands grope with ownership among the small thing, curled in an armchair. Body too young, to hold the same amount of whiskey as seasoned hands. Clatters ring from iPhone speakers, throbbing the beat behind liquid eyes. 

Earlier, Emily had dragged Chloe back to her latest fella’s house. Him and his friend had bought more drink for the girls on the way out of town. The morning light was just beginning to spill in through rips in the tarnished yellow curtains, lighting up the small teacup pattern scattered over the fabric. A large circle of sunlight focused on a crack above Chloe’s head. It bore a strong resemblance to the Eiffel Tower, albeit a crooked version. Like the one they saw on the school tour, when Naughton was a right auld bitch.

Chloe pushes Damien’s friend off her feet, his body enacts a resounding thump as he flops onto the warmness she leaves upon the sunken couch. His movement shudders the fishbowl in the corner. Dark green sludge coats circular patterns inside the plastic encasement. She’s still trying to figure out if some life is hidden, deep inside its depths.

‘Leave her be, Damien,’ she says, swinging back the rest of the cider in her can.

‘Fuck right off, Chloe,’ Damien snaps without looking up from the task at hand.

‘I’ll do just that. But she’s coming with me. We’ve to sneak back into her house before her Ma wakes up.’

‘Ah. It’s only five. Can’t you just go yourself? Take her keys. I’ll drop her home in the morning.’

‘And how am I supposed to explain that? Her Ma thinks we’ve been in her room all night, watching an OC marathon. She might get sussed at the banged up, white transit van rolling her half-comatose daughter onto the front lawn in the morning.’

Damien stalls, from his clumsy attempt to force Emily upright. His eyes bore a hole through Chloe, with a disturbing glint in them. ‘Whaddya say about my van?’

‘That’s what got your attention?’ She pulls Emily up and grabs her bag. Make-up and hairbrushes come rolling out. Knocking over the pyramid of Dutch Gold cans in the corner.

‘Fuck sake. It took me weeks to build that.’

‘I’m sure you’ll build another fairly quick, love.’

Damien’s eyes bulge out of his head. Crimson red spreads from curly black hairs on his chest to his forehead, matching dark red stains on his Fred Perry shirt, small splatters of somebody else’s blood.  

‘Put her down and get your arse out of my house,’ he shouts, following them into the hallway, 

‘Not a chance.’

The snoring lad on the couch grunts, smacking his lips together, murmuring sounds too low to register with Chloe but it grabs Damien’s attention for a moment. He pauses with a cock of the head in the direction of the friend. Chloe’s hand swings open the door, a cold breeze snaps Damien back into focus, eyeing the young things escaping his house and its sweat-fuelled stench. He lunges with a stride after them but Chloe already has one foot out the door.

She throws Emily as far as she can, landing her head first in the overgrown garden. ‘Jesus, she’s heavy for something so small,’ Chloe mutters to herself. The door slams, just missing Chloe’s hand by a hair. The weight of Damien slamming into the other side of the door strains its hinges, sounding a squeeze on the wood. 

Chloe tries to catch her breath on top of the soggy doormat. She kneels for a moment, until her heart stops racing. She focuses on the worn ‘Home Sweet Home’ in grossly curved lettering. It seems too misleading for Damien’s house. She throws it over the garden wall with a silent whisper to the man behind the door, ‘fuck you’.

The waking Sunday morning jolts Emily out of her drunken haze. She shivers beside Chloe as ear-piercing tweets fill the silence between them. The waking birds echo the clacking of heels, too unsteady for young feet.

‘My fuckin’ head. Why have I a lump on my head?’ Emily finally speaks.

Chloe looks at her exasperated, ‘You can ask Damien later, I’m sure he’ll have a good story to tell.’

‘He’s so nice, isn’t he?’ She says, with a proud smile on her face.

‘Nice isn’t a word I’d choose to describe that lad,’ Chloe replies.

‘He paid for all our drinks. You could at least be appreciative of that. And he snuck us in the smoking area door. You would have never got in without him.’ 

‘Seriously? The sheer amount of rape-y, creepy vibes off Damien, you can’t actually see him again. He’s not right in the head.’

Emily rolls her eyes at the last statement and pouts the rest of the way. Not one for acknowledging the blindly obvious truths. Emily likes to surround herself with characters, but always characters in her own world. People only held value if they had something to offer. Damien, for all his faults, had a free gaff, the ability to walk into The Drinks Cabin to buy Emily a naggin and most importantly, a van to drive her places. Even a scummy looking thing would do. 

Chloe enjoys the fresh taste to the air around her, its chill a relief from the hot summer they’ve been having. As they walk past St. Michael’s church, a small movement catches Chloe’s eye. A sallow face is rolled in a black trench coat. One dark boot sticking out the end beside a black and white, chessboard patterned sock.

The design reminds Chloe of her Dad’s house. Her new step-mum, Lea, was into her retro décor and re-tiled the kitchen in monochrome diamonds. Her Dad calls it ‘nesting’. After school last week, Chloe had found her waiting outside the hot press, huffing over a face towel. Apparently the cream one, the only cloth Lea will use, was out of reach on the top shelf. She’d stood there with a face like a bag of cats, while Chloe had burst out laughing. Her Dad then sent her to her room for the night. Between Betty Boop statuettes and Elvis Presley wall fabrics, she’s effectively erased any trace of the women who came before. Including his daughter. Chloe’s bedroom is now used as a storage for the baby gifts, a half-formed cot is restricting access to her wardrobe. She only got away with disappearing tonight because she knew he’d be in the maternity ward half the night. No one will notice her missing.

The sleeping man is perched under the large wooden crucifix, built on a mound of pebbles outside the Church. He mimics the sprawling arms of the man above him. Chloe breaks arms with Emily and runs over. She roots through her bag to find the treasure she stole from Damien’s house, the half bottle of whiskey and places it beside the sleeping man with a smile. Reddened eyes flicker open and he grabs her wrist.

‘Sophie?’

‘What did you just call me?’ Chloe pulls against the hand. 

The man lets her go roughly. ‘Get home. You shouldn’t be out at this hour.’  

She falls backwards, rubbing the burning sensation around her wrist. He closes his eyes and rolls away from her with a snore. Chloe watches him, frozen after hearing her little sister’s name. Trying to figure out if she just imagined his words and grasp, if the drink in her system is just fuckin’ with her head. 

‘What are you at? We need to get home. Like now.’ Emily shouts from the path, checking her phone to see if Damian has messaged yet.  

‘Jeez, I’m coming, chill out,’ she mutters under her breath, running back to her friend, holding down her tartan skirt in the light breeze. She grabs Emily’s arm and shrugs off the sleeping man’s words. 

‘Can we just agree not to go back to Damien’s house, like, ever again?’ 

Emily only smiles at her. ‘We’ll see.’

 Once at Emily’s gate, they slip off their heels and tip-toe around the outside of the house. Emily’s bedroom window is open, only slightly. The two girls are, again safely on the white fluffy carpet.

‘Those stones nearly took off my toes,’ Chloe sighs rubbing her feet over the softness. 

‘All I want is bed. And to sleep until next Sunday,’ Emily says, throwing her bag and shoes on her white desk. Above it hangs a photomontage of extremely skinny young women cut-out into vision boards, with a picture of Emily’s smiling face at the centre. A shrine to starvation with Emily as its saviour.  

The two girls collapse into the purple-flowered duvet, wrapping themselves into a cocoon of cottony sheets. 

‘Night, babes,’ Emily whispers through a yawn. 

‘Night,’ Chloe mumbles back, as she wraps her arms around a miniature giraffe teddy. She twists around for a few moments, coming in and out of sleep, the echoes of nightclub speakers still ring in her eardrums. She finds a soft spot for her aching feet and drifts off.

‘If I could just get this yoke to work, again.’

Chloe fumbles with the old Walkman, taking the batteries in and out again, slamming it on the table in frustration. The slap on its plastic frame does the job and the tape springs to life.

A man sings a song in a language foreign to the girls, the music of his voice spreads a smile on Chloe’s face as she roots through the old shoebox for the tape marked ‘Christmas 1981’. Emily taps her foot on the leg of the kitchen table in annoyance.

‘Is this it, like? I thought it was going to be something more than a bit of diddly-aye the way you’ve been going on about it. This is ancient crap.’

She pulls one out and blows the dust off it, into Emily’s disgusted face. ‘This Christmas one is hilarious, Granny is taking the head of my auntie because she refused to do a dance or something and then a there’s a duck wandering around their kitchen,’ Chloe fumbles with the Walkman again as the sound of her Grandpa fades out to a stuttering tone. ‘Ah, for fuck sake. This thing is useless, how’d they cope with this shite.’

Lea gave Chloe her old Walkman when she couldn’t find anything to play the tapes on. She had called it finance for all the babysitting of her new little sister. Even though it’s a shite hand-out, at least she gave her something. Chloe was getting fed up of her laziness around the baby, wanting to fuck off on weekend breaks instead of dealing with her new family. Her dad has been just as useless. It’s like he has forgotten Sophie even existed. He stopped helping their Mother with the missing child campaign weeks ago and keeps talking about her in the past tense. As if she never really existed to Chloe, that she wasn’t her half-sister but some sad story he sighs at on the radio as her mother’s sob comes from its speaker every week on Galway Bay FM. He ignores her missing family member and the new baby screaming the house down every night. Chloe would leave but she can’t bear to be in her Mother’s house. The grief hits her every time she walks in the door. It hangs thick, creeping into the rooms and over anyone who enters.

‘Alright, give it here,’ Emily says pulling the Walkman out of her hands and shoving it into her schoolbag. It slots neatly in between the bottle of vodka and her homework journal. ‘Later, babes. We got shit to do and boys to meet.’

‘Can’t they pick us up, it’s still pissing out there. Who’s dropping them in?’ Chloe walks to the window and scrunches her nose at the view, the garden is flooded and her old rusting trampoline is slowly sinking into its depths, under the dull grey sky above.

‘Already on it,’ Emily taps her phone at speed, her nails clink in rhythm off its glass. ‘I’m not destroying my hair for that lot.’

‘Please don’t be texting Damien again, I’d rather walk in the river Suck than be stuck with that lad.’

‘Ha, I can drop you off on the way if you prefer. Nah babes, Eddie got a car now.’

‘Ah, so that’s why you’re giving him the time of day, is it?’

  Emily rolls her eyes as Chloe winks at her.

‘Shane is coming by the way.’

‘What? You never said he was coming, I haven’t even put on proper make up.’

A car horn sounds outside as Emily hops up.

‘Trust me, you don’t need it. That lad never stops staring at ya. Especially since all that drama with your family on the news and that.’

‘Fuck sake, Emily! Could of gave me a heads up, like?’

They pile out of Eddie’s jacked up Civic in the abandoned grounds of St. Bridget’s psychiatric hospital. Chloe is glad to be touching solid ground again and legs it to the stone archway.

‘Canavan, ya fool. Don’t be pulling wheelies with girls in the back,’ Shane says pulling him back by the jumper.

‘Ah, here. You can walk home.’ The two try to headlock each other then give up as the rain gets worse. ‘Get the cans and I’ll sort the door.’

Eddie follows him with the wire cutters, flicks up his school collar and winks at Emily on the way. She watches him with a smirk on her face and leans against the stones behind her, revelling at his adolescent form of anarchy. The five teenagers roar in appreciation as Eddie pulls open the door to the old hospital wing. The walls inside are peeling lemon and mint curls of worn paint. The flakes come off under Chloe’s fingers as she runs a hand over them. They turn to dust under wet skin.

They run through the barren hallway to an old room with the rusted bones of a hospital bed in its corner. Cement blocks are laid around its centre, someone was here and already claimed this space, even made their own version of a fire pit. The lads pull apart a window frame until the wood comes off in bulk, wood-lice crawling through its hollow fibres, they flick them on each other and scream like girls.

Emily rolls her eyes and makes them a spot by the blocks with her school jumper. 

‘Boys are tools.’ 

‘Yup,’ Chloe replies. ‘Open the bottle, need to zone out your fella’s voice.’

‘Ah, is it too high-pitched for you? Is it Shane Farley’s you’d want to be listening to instead?’

‘And, don’t you fucking know it?’

The girls fall back in fits and swing the vodka. Chloe watches them try to light a firelog in the block pit and fill it with the tattered window frame. They settle and drink. Cans are passed around, then a joint, then whiskey. The storm lulls out under the tunes from their phones, the outside darkens and their movements paint shadows on the lifeless walls. Eddie tells a ghost story about the mad bastard patients of Bridget’s. Emily feigns fear till he sits beside her and they sing along to the tunes as the lads’ corner off Chloe. Eddie already claiming Emily with a hand edging at her skirt, the others understand he’s marking her as territory.

‘What the fuck is this?’ Eddie pulls out the yellow Walkman from Emily’s bag.

Chloe freezes and Emily laughs. ‘That’s what she’s been obsessed with all week.’

‘Is this yoke older than ya? What’s in it?’ He rips open the Walkman and pulls out the tape. Chloe lunges for it.

‘Don’t fucking break it!’

Eddie hops up and waves it above her, seeing he’s hit on something with her. ‘Christmas 1981…and what happened in Christmas 1981, Chlo? Anything deep and devilish going on there like.’

‘Don’t be a dick, Canavan,’ Shane pulls it off him and tries to fix its hinge but the yellow plastic is cracked and won’t sit right for him. ‘C’mon,’ he says to Chloe, ‘I’ve something in the bag to fix this.’ Shane grabs the bottle and takes her over to the doorway where they dumped the schoolbags and pulls out a screwdriver and some masking tape. ‘What’s on it anyway?’

‘It’s stupid really. My grandparents used to send these tapes to my Dad when he travelled around Australia. It’s a bit odd I know.’

‘This should do it.’ He fiddles with it, messes with the screws and a wire inside its box frame. Chloe cradles it for him so he can get a better look inside. She can feel the heat off him at this closeness, his breath on her fingers and the Walkman hums into life again.

‘Oh my god. You know how to fix this thing? Shane Farley, you are class.’

A blush spreads up his neck at her compliment and he presses play handing her a headphone.

‘Can we?’

‘Yes!’

They sit against the wall on the mound of bags and listen to her Grandpa’s voice come through. Shane laughs and Chloe eyes him, wary of the kindness. The bottle exchanges hands, Chloe grabs it over his fingers and enjoys his smile when she does it.

‘This is deadly. I wish I had something like this. Never even knew my grandparents. Mam’s a fucking looney and started some shit with them years ago and they never bothered after that.’

‘Sounds like this one my Dad married. She’s in a league of her own.’

‘We should set them up. A play date in reverse. Then we can hang out,’ Shane winks and she tries to hide her smile.

‘You’ll have to find the bitch first. I’m getting fed up of babysitting for my her and Dad, the two of them use me as free day-care.’

‘God love ya, that’s tough. My cousin’s baby was around last week, was a fucking nightmare, the thing never stopped crying.’

‘Bell is the worst, the child is never happy,’ Chloe laughs and takes the bottle off Shane for another taste. Shane takes it back and slips a hand around her. She leans into his shoulder and his warmth as the other’s dance around the burning fire-log, the whisky weighs her eyelids down. She tries to forget the sister that’s still missing and the one invading her quiet home. Shane rests his head on hers, his jaw jittering against her scalp from whatever he ingested as they stay in silence. Chloe listens to her Grandpa tell them about Christmas day in 1981, and the duck dancing in the kitchen, drawing their bodies together, quietening her mind for the first time in months.

About the contributor

Cathy Donelan holds a BA in Arts & Creative Writing and an MA in Playwriting & Dramaturgy, both from NUI Galway. Her fiction & poetry has appeared in many journals. She was shortlisted for a playwriting development programme in The Abbey Theatre, ‘Abbey Begins’ in 2019 & her first play featured in the 2019 Galway Fringe.

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1 COMMENT

  1. “Emily likes to surround herself with characters, but always characters in her own world. ” A stand out line in a story full of stand outs. Well done.

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