Summer fiction: Mizpah by Fionnuala O’Leary

Six years in New York have not stopped Gráinne loving the man she left behind in Dublin

Gráinne starts loving Shane the day she leaves him.

She is always a little empty in other people’s company but the absence of him fills her right back up. He is a Dub, the 6′1-blue-eyed, clean-shaven type, with a father too fond of the drink and a mother who doesn’t drink enough. She left him with bags in hand and no solid purpose. She was 26.

I was too young, she thinks, and cannot remember who told her that.

Shane adored her in the loyal and plodding way Irish men have of loving their women.


She constructed a dread of the wedding he never suggested and a phantom house in some generic gray estate. The prospect of losing him still seemed improbable before she went.


She arrived in New York on a cold December day in 2016 when the city seemed fed up with itself, all peeling bodegas and personal injury ads. A new beginning, she thought, but it is harder to pin down endings: how the spiral of nights in a Phibsboro pub went from f**king him to leaning over the Tolka River and daring herself to jump. The recollections all blur around the last time they met, a kaleidoscope of images centred around a table in some Drumcondra cafe.

“You’re heartless,” Shane said, their coffees sitting frozen and untouched.

“Cold-hearted, like. You only care about yourself and that’s facts. God, everyone must think I’m some dope. You’ve been planning this the whole time? Just gone, like. It’s unreal. The selfishness – you could have been honest. All that shite about ‘this being it.’ A load of crap, obviously.”

“There are no journalism jobs here, there’s literally nothing here for me –”

“Well that’s a laugh. You have an interview lined up over there, Gráinne, not a paying job. I’m here. You have an internship here, a starting point. Your whole life’s here – your family. Is there someone else? Tell me now, it’s the least you can do f**kin’ off to New York out of nowhere – after everything, Jesus. After everything we’ve gone through this year? After nearly having a – "

He falters. She waits.

“You’re heartless.”

“I feel nothing and everything at the same time, Shane. I can’t look at this place anymore, I can’t be here – it’s everywhere for me.”

“You feel nothing, no? Don’t want to bother to fight for us anymore, is that it? All that for nothing? You’re unreal. Unreal.”

Gráinne does not meet his eyes as she pulls back the chair and walks. The waitress pretended that she was not staring at their table when Shane followed her outside. It was 12 hours until her flight.

“F**king heartless,” he shouted again as she hailed a taxi, his arms long and helpless.

He banged his fist against the wall of the restaurant as the car drove off. Gráinne did not look

back at him until years later.

It has become a comfort to imagine herself in Shane’s Glasnevin bedroom, warmed by the light of the Woodies space heater in November, or his white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel bringing her back to her mother’s house on Griffith Avenue. She sleeps with men who look like him in her creaky Park Slope walk-up now, the American accent still flat and bewildering.

“That was nice,” one says.

The first summer is too hot. So is the fourth. She wakes in the half-light beside strangers and tells them her tiny studio is bare because she is a minimalist. She cannot remember leaving the bar and considers tweeting the fact to make this life seem more real.

“Awesome,” another man tells her, his semen cold on her stomach. “My place though, covered in maps – all over the walls, everything. I’m not a fan of bare walls. They seem a bit unfinished to me but I get why you like the space aspect of it, I get that, I do…”

While he talks, she pictures pub grub christenings at The Tolka House. They would have picked an unusual Irish name and lived in a semi-detached house on Botanic Avenue with a big back garden and high ceilings. She often scrolls through old WhatsApp conversations and dares herself to type or call. She even considers email because there is something romantic about not knowing if and when he would read it. She does neither. Email is too permanent a dent. Instead, she types out a “Hi-how-are-you-xxx” to her sister Deirdre who is also living in Brooklyn. She leaves Gráinne with a blue ticked silence that hurts less than if it were from Shane.

Gráinne has no real circle in New York, just acquaintances in a temporary orbit, a dinner here, a text there. She leaks herself away in forgettable conversations until she feels her insides age into old and ugly instruments, forming words that are not hers. Crossing the Manhattan Bridge every morning, she misses the idea of women at home, how they would love the view here, the roar of the subway and the faraway memory of 10-packs smoked in Stephen’s Green.

They’ll be married mothers by 37, their old selves hidden beneath ESB bills and baby weight, lives beaten down by the threat of someone else’s timeline.

The city air is ripe with the stench of sun-cooked piss and old cigarettes, of clean slates and old wounds, but the thought of home makes Gráinne breathless, lost seconds stabbing at her chest as a distant D train thunders through a tunnel. She knows memories are not real: they are echoes of the first time it happened until the thought topples, hollow and broken with use. Her chest is heavy with fatigue and something else.

Shane said Gráinne made choices based on other people eighteen months before she booked the flight to La Guardia in 2016. He snatched the laptop out of her hand when the email confirmation came.

At this appointment you will see a member of our medical team to choose the sedation option.

“Think of what’s best for us, not your f**kin’ friend’s mother – it will change everything, for God’s sake. Who cares what Michaela Feeney’s mam would say? Who cares what your lunatic of a sister thinks,” he said. “Why do you care, Gráinne? They don’t matter: we matter, our future matters – "

“I don’t want It,” she replies, folding her hands into a prayer.

... we respectfully ask you to refrain from bringing children to

the Centre on the day of your appointment ...

“Typical,” he replies. “Typical.”

“I have college. My masters –”

... If you are unable to keep the appointment or have changed

your mind, please inform the Central Booking Service ...

“This is bigger than college, Jesus – it’s our lives. It’s bigger than us, than a course. You can always go later – you can still go now, like! There’s time – there’s time.”


“God, will you say something?”

Their only trip abroad together was that flight to England for a procedure that lasted minutes.

“I want my mam,” Gráinne told the nurse who had instructed Shane to remain in the waiting room below, as everything went black.

She started the UCD course two weeks later. Within days, she used a razor blade in the bathroom and left red plumes all over her mother’s cotton towel like a smack of bleeding jellyfish. Gráinne told Shane the bloody scabs criss-crossing her thighs were stretch marks but he buried his face in her shoulder, holding her so tightly that her left arm was tender and bruised afterwards.

“Don’t,” was all he said, gripping her wrist. “Please don’t again.”

There was a time in secondary school when dark eyeliner and harm became fashionable. One girl used to cut her legs and breasts, the red-raw stem of the oldest wound always visible just above the collar of her shirt. Grainne too developed a taste for blood there.

As an adult, she hides her scars under trousers in the summer heat. She walks purposefully to forget them, avoiding bikinis and harsh bedroom lights, she redirects roving hands to a deeper but less invasive target. Running her finger along them at night, she thinks of Shane as if he is etched into her skin. An echo in her womb.

Six years ago, New York was still an abstract idea while he weathered the aftermath of Manchester. Shane stayed with Gráinne through Christmas and New Year’s Eve with her refusing to eat and glued to Kitchen Nightmares reruns on the days she managed to get out of bed. Her mother rang him to come over one night where she was hunched and screaming into her bedroom floor clutching the scan she should never have kept.

“How? How? How?” she roared, over and over again, waving the photo in his face as spit and tears ran down her chin.

“Gráinne, I’m here. I’m here. You’re ok. It’s ok,” Shane said, gently taking it out of her hand and wrapping himself around her heaving body as if she was a baby.

But today, she is 31 not 25. She moves between their past with a jerk in her bed, leaning into the ghost of him from 3,175 miles away. She gets ready for work, washes her body in the shower with a calm methodology she does not feel. The water scalds her but she smells the milky remnants of men and scrubs her inner thighs until the skin becomes raspberry raw bumps.

She runs her fingers over the angular lump on her left breast, the dimpling skin around it, an immovable but familiar mass.

You are too young, she thinks, and wonders if her mother told her that. It has been two days since the Sloan Kettering doctor butchered her name and used words like “mutation” and “treatment” and “months” as she sat motionless and thought only of Shane.

Her hair is kinked at the back from no sleep and humidity when she leaves the apartment this morning. The walk to the subway never changes so she doesn’t notice arriving at the midtown station either, or the dull rush of hot air as the doors open and close behind her.

She knocks against strange shoulders on the stairway and onto the too-bright street to the building, travels up the seven floors to her office and sneaks past the receptionist, a loud 20-something from New Jersey, who is fond of Birkenstocks and conversations that go on for 10 minutes too long. The computer. The flight. Home. This is all that matters now until the Aer Lingus booking confirmation comes, the number and 5 letters that will send her back to Dublin for a cool $765.

“I’m not feeling well,” she tells no one in particular and pulls away from her desk.

“Oh no,” says the news editor Rachel, raising her forehead over the monitor’s ledge to flick her eyes over Gráinne’s face. “What’s wrong – "

“Oh, no – you poor thing,” another chimes in from her own blinking device, two sets of editor eyes flickering over the loss of approximately seven 400-word posts today. Gráinne is the only churnalist on duty this morning.

“Dunno – I’m just not feeling great? I feel sick – Not well. I need to leave,” she says, rushing out of the office, her chair spinning. She passes the receptionist again, whose compulsive Instagram scrolling is reflected in her glasses, like two bright television screens.

Gráinne boards the plane with no suitcase three hours later on what should have been her lunch break. She sees the Slack notification from Rachel as the phone buzzes uncontrollably with updates.

9:39am: G, is everything ok? We’re worried about you.

10:30am: Can you work remotely by any chance this evening? I know you’re not feeling well but we’re really short-staffed today.

11.45am: G let me know if you’re good for tomorrow - will have to gor freelancer

11.46am: *get freelancer

Gráinne turns off her phone before the plane leaves the ground.

A lifetime ago when she was still at college, she got the bus back from Galway to Dublin to see Shane one evening, just a few hours after he dropped her off at the City Link stop facing the Liffey. The wheels had taken forever to turn until finally she arrived back where she started and texted: Guess where I am.

His white car had rolled up by the Quays within minutes, this boy she had met in a bar only three months before. He pulled down the window laughing in the evening air and said: “You’re mad, hun!”

But that was 2014. The year she was fat with love for him. The autumn she finished an arts degree that gets a person nowhere in particular and he sold software that companies didn’t really need. When she trawled through Flood Street antique shops for a WWI keepsake in case they could not cope with being apart.

Throughout those first few heady months, she would imagine losing him and feel inebriated with the weight of it as they f**ked in the puddle of evening sunlight on her bedroom floor, all damp skin and cheap strawberry-flavored lubricant. She made him elaborate Valentine’s Day cards with Coldplay lyrics and watched blonde porn stars moan to please him.

The conkers from their walks in Albert College Park were now buried in a battered Clarks shoebox, along with concert stubs and a passport-sized photograph of him that sits dormant and untouched in her old wardrobe like a cardboard gravesite.

Gráinne bought him a Mizpah brooch to mark their first Christmas together, their covenant. The Lord Watch Between Me and Thee while we are absent from one another, the bronze inscription read. He left it in the drawer beside his bed and she wonders now if he threw it out or kept it. He spoke of his mother’s affair often, his dad’s drinking. Gráinne first mentioned her father’s death and her sister’s immutable rage at her inability to remember it on one of those blurry Sunday mornings. Cocooned in his bed, Shane stroked her cheek.

“That’s sad,” he said, eyes never leaving her face.

Time has moved away from them too fast. Gráinne doesn’t remember the plane landing or getting out of a taxi until she is outside his mother’s house. The first thing she notices is a shiny maroon Ford she does not recognize with a 2017 registration. The second is that the house feels removed from her, as if she had never been there at all.

Suddenly, she dreads Shane being here but sinks at the realization that he is probably not. A man like that deserves to have a view of the Poolbeg chimneys at 34 and not his mother’s box room. He should have a petite wife from a small town, a woman who is tumour-free and devoid of jagged white scars, someone who can cook a Sunday roast without charring steel pots black.

The driveway is the same, straight and gray and lined with potted plants that will not last long in winter. Shane’s mother Angela is bent over a hanging basket on the ground with gardening gloves and her ash-colored hair tied back. Gráinne hears a dog bark and breathes in the hint of a bonfire on the air that always signals it is September in Dublin. She tears a strip of skin from her index finger to push her forward from that dead stop at the end of the garden.

Gráinne watches Angela work for a few moments, observes how the green-handled shovel pierces soil as she replants tiny shoots. The air is thick with something fizzing on her skin.

“Mam, where’ll I put this one, the red one – where’d you want it?”

“Ah, just over there somewhere, Shane, where the others are. I have three more in the boot… "

Hearing his voice now pierces her chest.

Six years, six years, six years, Gráinne tells herself, over and over.

He looks just like her well-worn memories in the doorway: black hair thinning at the temples slightly now, keys swinging, and brow knotted with the weight of navigating his way through the maze of terracotta pots in his mother’s green garden. Shane has kept the North Dublin swagger of a man who has grown up in Na Fianna and knows that he is loved. She sees a childhood mapped out on his face, each hurt and harsh word that led to the faint new lines around his eyes.

“Right, well if they’re not as heavy as this one, I’ll head off and – "

The sudden silence crackles over Gráinne’s skin: she feels the deep intake of breath as his mother rises from the cobbled path and they look towards her.

“Gráinne … " she hears Shane say. “Jesus Christ, what are you doing here? When did you – ?”

His eyes are soft and wary as he walks towards her. Years melting in a movement.

Fionnuala O’Leary is a journalist from Dublin living in New York City. Her first short story, Manageable, was The Irish Times New Irish Writing short winner for May 2020. Her articles have been featured in The US Sun, The Irish Times, Irish Independent, The Wave newspaper, the Irish Daily Mail, and the Irish Mail on Sunday. She lives in Brooklyn.