Book club taster: chapter one of The Closet of Savage Mementos

Extract: The Irish Times Book Club is reading The Closet of Savage Mementos by Nuala Ní Chonchúir, published by New Island. Here's an extract from chapter one. We'll be discussing the book on next week's audio podcast and webchat. Why not read here and join in

Illustration: Getty Images

Illustration: Getty Images


Extract from chapter one of The Closet of Savage Mementos by Nuala Ní Chonchúir, published by New Island


In the church on Ardmair Street, the Blessed Virgin has a Western European face – she is chubby and big jawed. Her form is so familiar to me that I feel comforted and safe, as if I am in the company of an old friend. There is a pink carnation threaded through her fingers, its head is lopped and barely clinging to the stem; the flower is forlorn looking and, to cheer up the statue, I want to pluck it from her hands and replace it with a whole blossom. I have come to pray for Dónal; he is soaking my dreams and I feel close to him all day afterwards, as if he is at my shoulder. He turned up again last night; he stood across my bedroom from me, not saying anything. I watched him and waited for him to speak. I said ‘Hiya Dó’, but he remained silent.

The statue’s robes are made of real fabric – a spangly gown topped with a teal velvet cloak – and tears bubble on her cheeks. She has a halo of light bulbs and one of them is unlit. The prie-dieu digs into my knees and I lean forward, trying to get some relief. I like the sweet, resinous smell in this tiny church; it is different to the incense that lingers in the parish church at home. Here there is only one Mass a week, for the few Catholics who live in the village. I bow my head, close my eyes and search my mind for a prayer. I stopped calling for godly help years ago but, since Dónal’s death, the need to pray has crept back in. If God exists, I imagine that He is considering my prayers wryly, the sinner looking for succour when it suits her. But I pray anyway: for Dónal, for my mother Verity, my brother Robin, and for myself. As my Granny King liked to say, praying certainly can’t do any harm.

I wonder for a moment if Dónal can hear me, then I dismiss the thought. He hated the church and all about it. He would laugh at me now for being a hypocrite, for being soft. I look up at a squinting portrait of Christ – he looks sceptical in it, as if he is debating something strange that someone has said. Turning back to Mary, I bring my hands up in front of my face; I can feel tears heating the back of my eyes. I push them away and breathe deeply. The statue looks robustly healthy, like a country nurse; she hasn’t got the lissom orm of Our Lady of Knock. I wonder if she might be the Virgin of Scotland.

‘Help me,’ I say, not realising I have said the words aloud until a man who is kneeling at the altar hurls a vicious stare in my direction. He stands, genuflects three times, blesses himself over and over, then leaves the church, tossing angry looks at me. I get up, rub at my knees and walk under the stained-glass windows that scatter cheery yellows and blues in my path. I go outside into the welcome saline air and trot the length of Ardmair Street, back to my room in the staff house.

I lie down on the bed to think about Dónal. Missing him is a dull, never-ending buzz in my brain, even six months on. I can’t let him in during my day-to-day, but I have to bring him back to me at times. I love the nights when he turns up in my dreams, but think-dreaming him in the daytime – conjuring him up – lets me take him back from death for a while. 

Dónal’s mother came over to me in the hotel after the graveyard, to thank me again for putting together a memorial board of photographs for the church.

‘You did a great job, Lillis; everyone’s saying so. Didn’t she, Robin?’ 

‘She did,’ said Robin, putting his arm around me.

‘He looks so good in those photos you took,’ Mrs Spain said, ‘so like himself. He was mad about the two of you. Always.’ She shook her head, still afraid to open her mind to the fact of the accident; to realise that Dónal was gone.

‘We were mad about him too, Mrs Spain,’ I said, and she nodded. It was hard to look at her and I wished she would go away, back to where her husband was sitting with his limp, empty face.

‘I’ll go over to Daddy. He’s not in the best at all. Devastated.’ She nodded and gave me a tight hug. ‘You’re a smashing girl, Lillis. Give my love to Verity.’

‘She was at the church this morning,’ I said, but I knew my mother had slipped away after the Mass. She always said that graveyards made her feel guilty for being alive. Mrs Spain squeezed Robin’s arm, forced a smile and then she was gone.

Me and Dónal, stripping the brambles of blackberries, putting as many into our mouths as into the bowl, decorating our faces with their mulched juice. Verity screeches at us when we surprise her with purple-painted faces. Me annoyed with her for being annoyed with us.

Me and Dónal, visiting our elderly neighbour Miss Salmon, to see what goodies we can get out of her. We listen to her girlhood stories of fêtes and dances, charming men and carnivals. Swizzing back the lemonade she gives us, we throw each other looks over the rims of the dusty glasses, and leave Miss Salmon’s cold parlour as quickly as we are able.

Me and Dónal and Robin, jumping in and out of the edge of the river, with bellies full of egg-and-cress sandwiches and diluted orange. 

Both sets of parents drinking beer and smoking on the riverbank, looking young and happy. The boys throwing a beach ball over my head in the water, making me the endless piggy-in-the-middle, until I cry. ‘Sissy’, they say and ‘Sap’ and ‘Girl’, as if being a girl is the worst possible thing. 

Mr Spain chases them and takes the beach ball away. Me sitting on a picnic blanket close to Verity, listening to the adults’ coded talk about The Big C and how much the Spains sold a car for, until my mother shoos me away like a wasp.

Dónal and Robin, pissing in high yellow arcs over my head and giggling madly, then shaking their willies in front of me to get rid of the last few drops. Them making me feel bad because I have to squat to pee; me wetting my knickers, because I need to do it quickly, so they won’t catch me there in the bilberry bushes. Me miles behind them when they run off to explore the riverbank, my calves scraped by the low branches of each bush.

Me and Robin, sitting on Dónal and thumping his arms, his face red with fury, until he can wriggle away from us and run home. Him calling back to us, ‘You’re a pair of bastards’, from a safe distance up the lane. The three of us back together again later the same day, hunched on the ground concocting plots and plans, schemes and adventures, soaking hand-drawn maps in tea. Later, we set fire to leaves and twigs with stolen matches, hoping for a blaze.

Me and Dónal, racing our bikes over gravel and skidding hugely, then we compare the marks in the churned-up stones.

We cycle to his granny’s house in the next village, swallowing the diesel fumes from the buses and lorries on the main road. Cosy at Granny Spain’s table, eating shop-bought cake drowned in pink icing, with the sweetest of jam sponging the halves together. Me warily watching Granda Spain who sits by the fire, dribbling onto his shirt like an overgrown baby. 

Dónal lying on the grass after a fall into a stand of nettles, crying quietly, his legs a honeycomb of red and white welts. Me rubbing at them with a dock leaf that leaves a snot-coloured trail on his skin.

Robin standing over the two of us. ‘I never pushed him,’ he says. Me giving him a look; an I-know-all-about-you look.

Me and Dónal, sucking on fag butts together, choking and smellymouthed, pretending to enjoy them. Robin inhales noisily and blows the smoke into our faces. Me ratting to Verity that Robin smokes. Both grounded for a week and Robin taking it out on me with sly digs and pokes that leave bruises like ever-changing tattoos. 

Dónal and Robin, down the back field on a damp afternoon, swigging cans of lager culled from Verity’s stash; they topple and laugh, sing and talk gibberish. Soon, lavish vomiting all over the grass.

More laughter. Me keeping my distance, hugging my anorak around me, the tip of my nose cold and drippy.

Dónal and Robin, posing for my camera: preens and primps, frowns and grins. Robin, prancing like a pop star; he puckers his lips and minces. Dónal, hazel eyes merry under a crown of red hair, his face a smiling moon. Me enjoying my first shot at portraiture.

Dónal who loves a lake of parsley sauce to go with bacon; who calls socks ‘stocks’; who doesn’t read books. Dónal who talks about his big brother Cormac like he is a god.

Me and Dónal, walking home from the school disco through the dark, his arm sneaking around me when we stop outside his house. His hands grip my elbows and he rushes a kiss: dry, hard and passionless.

He runs inside and slams the door. Me awake all night, running my fingers over his imprint on my mouth.

Dónal working. Me still in school. Him swaggering with the big boys in the village, smoking and spitting, slagging and cursing, calling out to girls. Me stopping to say hi and him looking right past me.

Sniggers from his new friends send me skeetering away, hot cheeked and hollow.

Dónal lobbing stones at my bedroom window until I open it, him shouting ‘I’m sorry, Lillis’ over and over, waving a flagon of cider in one hand and a bag of chips in the other. Me saying, ‘Shush, will you?’ and laughing. ‘Go home, you dope.’ 

Dónal in my bedsit, me under him. The wet from our sex seeping beneath me. Him begging, ‘Be my girlfriend or I don’t know what I’ll do.’ Me saying, ‘Stop hassling me, Dónal.’ Some of my last words to him.

Dónal, manly in leather, head snugly helmeted, speeding on his motorbike on an icy New Year’s Eve, smashing into a wall.

Dónal, the photogenic. Dónal, the energetic. Dónal, the funny, the silly, the adventurous, the clever. Dónal, my first love. Lovely, goneaway Dónal.



Closet of Savage Mementos

Nuala Ni Chonchuir will be our featured writer on the Book Club podcast on Tuesday Jan 13th, here on Listen in to hear her discuss her book with two of our Book Club readers.

If you'd like to continue reading The Closet of Savage Mementos, Eason's has it on sale here with free postage and packing, while Hodges Figgis book shop in Dublin is offering 10% off to members of The Irish Times Book Club

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