Hennessy New Irish Writing winner: June 2017

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done, by Ruth McKee

Ruth McKee was joint winner of the Irish Novel Fair in 2015

He kissed me when I was bleeding.

Later, we lay still, afloat on his bed.

We’re just like Yoko and John.

He meant that black and white photo of them, where John is lying in a fetal position against a supine Yoko.


Yes, but I’m a better songwriter than Yoko.

He squeezed me slightly, I could sense him smile.

You know, you could write me another song. I've written you – he counted on his hand so his fingers pushed against mine – four, and you've written me, what, the grand total of one?

True – but in fairness my song was very good.

Fuck off.

We talked nonsense for another half hour before starting again; there was blood on his fingertips, on mine, on the bed sheets.

When I was 12 or 13, I had a vague understanding about menstruation, which was a word like philistine – I wasn't sure if I should use it or not. My dad's spade-calling was a rural inheritance. He'd grown up with animals, a routine of mating, milk, dying and meat. Despite that, he referred to women's things; he said it the same way a plumber said female items, when the toilet got blocked some years later.

My mother used white cotton breeze blocks that reminded me of baby stuff – lotion, cotton wool, nappies, the rancid smell of milk that repulsed me; I didn't like babies but I was told that I would, one day. She disapproved of magazines for adolescent girls. Just Seventeen wasn't allowed, which was where later I would learn about periods properly, along with pregnancy, premature ejaculation and how to use hair removal cream on your girl moustache.

I had an older friend who saved me with a packet of Fastidious, Immaculate, or Untouchable, whatever it was they were called. They were slim-line versions of the bricks my mother had – or used to, by the time I started, which was around the time she was angry and sad all the time. My father showed me a rose off the bloom, and shook it so the petals fell, leaving the gaping stamen dried and brown.

He kissed me when I was bleeding.

With my body I thee worship, he whispered in my ear, afterwards.

To have and to hold, I joked, touching him, eyebrows raised.

He wasn’t having any of it.

In sickness and in health, he kissed my eyelids.

Okay, then, I whispered, you got me.

He looked at me then, serious. I looked at him, with all the solemnity the moment required, touching his face.

Let’s skin up.

Fuck off!

'Til death do us part, I said quietly later, when he was asleep.

The blood in my church was sanitised. Jesus wasn’t on any of the crosses, ostensibly to symbolise his resurrection, but I think it was to expunge notions of blood, guts and agony. Something as incredible as a man crucified and coming back to life was made as ordinary as fig rolls and cups of tea in the parish hall. I longed to be Catholic. They got to drink the actual blood of Christ. Protestants were missing a trick in my book. The guilt was bad and there was no priest to work as a travel agent. I had a shot at redemption but it didn’t work out. At 13 the only thing that rang true was the idea of sacrifice. It made sense to me, the way linguistics and Lacan would later, the way labour would. But I didn’t find grace there, the thing that’s supposed to save you.

So much blood since. The blood that comes after birth, the volume that is okay (half a litre) and the volume that is not okay (one and a half litres, two, three). Facts don't help when the emergency buzzer is pressed, faces crowd around you and there's the prick of a line going into your arm, a voice saying losing it and everything goes sick and black. Then for days you bleed and bleed and bleed and those brick-sized wads your mother used to have wedged between your legs. There's blood on your gums too, on your back tooth which is loose, because you lose one per baby.

He kissed me when I was bleeding.

I was a day early and didn’t realise until I rolled over, saw the maps of blood, fresh and bright on my inner thighs, tasted the tannin on his tongue when he kissed my mouth.

No one tells you there comes a time when you put your packet of tampons in the shopping basket like a badge of honour. I am still fertile, I am still of value, I am still – sometimes – visible. They don’t tell you that you will praise Jesus for every period, every middle of the cycle stab in the guts, every five days of wanting to fuck a goddamn tree; there should be a name for the stage between fertility and menopause, like pubescence in reverse.

I say nobody tells you about these things, but they do, all the time, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, make hay while the sun shines, beauty is fleeting, time flies. They are clichés because they are true but you don’t listen because another cliche which is true is that you never think it will happen to you – time running out, loss, sickness, guilt. But it will. It will happen to you.

I didn't want to reach the end of my childbearing years. My mother reached the end in her late 40s. I thought I'd pre-empt it, not wait for the hormone shifts, loose skin, insomnia, sweats, not wait for the atrophy of my vagina, not wait until he looked at me and thought, you used to be beautiful, not wait for him to do what he is genetically programmed to do and look at childbearing hips, childbearing tits.

I did it the right way, vertically. There wasn’t as much blood as I thought there would be at the start. Did you know that during pregnancy you increase your blood volume by 50 per cent? The blood made coloured swirls in the water (of course I did it in the bath, I majored in literature) but it was nothing compared to the pools of it I watched hospital auxiliaries mop up off the floor. Vanity is the first thing to leave you on the delivery table; odd that it stays around at the exit. It mattered that I was clothed in something (your body can look mottled), it mattered that my hair was clean, and fell over my shoulders, it mattered that I had mascara on (waterproof, I thought ahead). I took an enema, because I had seen crime dramas.

He kissed me when I was bleeding.

I bit him hard on the lip so that I could taste his blood too, so we could mix our type O positives like kids in a pact.

This is as close as I’m going to get to you saying yes, isn’t it?

Yes, I said, biting him harder.

My arms were heavy, my head light with hallucinogens.

Everything was beginning to fragment – not like glass, sharp and bright, but like things dropping away, a steady exhaustion of my brain, a slowing of my breathing.

Was that his voice? I wanted to put my hands across my chest, to summon him there, a comfort. I couldn’t move my arms. I thought of him then, his tongue on me, the knee of one leg turned out, silenced by something so beautiful I didn’t have a word for it. Was I conscious or unconscious? I fastened on the dreamlike movement of the water, staring into that darkening ebb. I felt a blush of sound like a shell to my ear, repeating words in urgency, in tenderness. I wanted to reply but I felt in a deep sleep, the kind when you tell your body to wake but it refuses, and the dream continues regardless. I could still hear him, the words dimming, like the falling cadence of a song. I wasn’t sure if he spoke them in hope-or despair.




Ruth McKee is a writer and editor of spontaneity.org. She was joint winner of the Irish Novel Fair 2015 and is working on her second book