This thing

This month’s winning short story in the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition is by Ellen Kelly

She has her alarm set for 5.30 but there’s no need for it. She’s awake anyway, waiting to hear it ping, then she silences it before it has a chance to get going. Straightaway she sets a knife to the orange, stashed overnight beside her, splicing into the skin, quartering it. She sucks the juice from one segment and then another before wrapping the remaining half orange in some tinfoil and slipping it into a pocket of her school bag.

Outside a wood pigeon coos. She listens to it blasting its rhythm out into the quiet dawn. Summer is not far off now, but there is much to be done before its arrival. She thinks of how it is only the wood pigeon and herself that really seem to know this. She removes the homework notebook from her bag and flicks to last night’s section. Each piece is ticked off in red pen. Only the signature of a parent is missing. She turns to the back cover where she has stuck a study timetable for herself. Geography. This morning between 5.45 and 7.15 she will study glaciation. First though, she treads softly down the stairs to the kitchen and switches the kettle on. She pours coffee granules, tinkling, into the bottom of a brown glass cup and before the kettle boils she fills the cup. It would be too hot if she waited and anyway, she doesn’t want to waste the time. As she sips from it on her way back up to her bedroom she thinks, not for the first time, how much better it tastes now that she has stopped taking milk. How the milk disguises the true flavour. How it sweetens it and muddies it and removes the tobacco bite from it. Black coffee. Why didn’t she do this years ago? Why doesn’t everybody do this?

This is a question that spins in her. Since she began this thing a great deal of clarity has come to her. It is there, within each person’s grasp. But she watches as they grapple and they struggle. As they weigh themselves down and flounder. She feels, at times, as if she is outside a big bubble, floating, looking in and shouting at the top of her voice to those slowed up inside, clouded by useless exhalation. Out here she can breathe. She is hyperalert. She can do anything. It must be, she thinks, a bit like a runner’s high. Only it lasts and lasts. Why don’t they all just do this?

She files her colour-coded index cards on glaciation. Blue for causes. Yellow for processes. White for features. Pink for effects and benefits. She puts her uniform on, pulling her black socks up to her knees, the pleated grey skirt hanging down over them so that no skin is on show. Other girls in her year have taken to rolling their skirts up at the waist. She would have been one of them, she thinks, before. Inviting attention when not deserving it. Doing nothing at all to work for it. Just thrashing about in a pool of muddied sameness – look at me, look at me. Not now. Now attention comes her way as she tries to deflect it. Now, despite pulling her socks right up, she is stared at wherever she turns.

Back in the kitchen she grabs a handful of dry All Bran, seals it in a sandwich bag, and packs it along with an apple. A fruit bun and cheese sandwiches have been left on the counter for her. She passes the bun silently to her younger sister, even though she has one of her own. She watches then as her sister scoffs it on the spot and she is flooded with relief at how simple it is. Then with the other thing that swings in to join the relief, runs alongside it for a while. Some sort of guilt. Because since she began she has noticed this. This inverse relationship. Or is it a symbiotic relationship? Something she has learnt in science anyhow is taking place before her eyes. In order for her to go one way, someone else must go the other. A see-saw. But she knows she is getting more from her end, being light and high up. She is waiting for her sister to join her. She could show her the way. Yet she seems extra dozy these days. There’s a new ruddiness to her cheeks. She moves about sluggishly as if nothing really matters much. Why can’t she see how easy this is?

On her way into school she tosses the cheese sandwich into a street bin. At break-time she digs her hand into her bag and crumbles little bits of All Bran, powdering it into her mouth. She can make it last this way. Today there is a visit from Sister Bernadette, the form head, a nun in her sixties. She has come to give them a talk. She likes this nun. How she seems to be out on her own, powered by something other than religion. How her tiny frame moves spritely through the old building, buffeting the cabbage-stale air. Today though, Sister Bernadette seems solemn. All goes quiet. Then she starts to speak.

“I’ve seen it,” she says from the teacher’s desk, “and it is not what it seems. It does the opposite to what you think.” In a back corner of the classroom, her cheeks begin to tingle. She knows now what this is.

“Instead of getting more attractive you end up losing your looks,” Sister Bernadette says, careful not to single her out by looking straight at her. But she feels the weight of this non-stare. This is her mother’s doing. Her mother has ratted her out to her favourite nun. She feels her classmates’ gaze on her even though they’ve their backs to her. Everyone knows why Sister Bernadette is here. There aren’t too many in the class as successful as she is with this thing.

“Your eyes get sunken and a fluffy hair grows on your face and body to keep you warm. But you do not see this when you look in the mirror. You see something which is not there. A prettier you.”

She would like her favourite nun to be better informed, she thinks, clicking the knob on the top of her red pen, a little staccato accompaniment to the talk. This is not about prettiness. Not now at least.

“Your lovely hair thins and your nails become brittle, breaking easily.”

She would like to have the courage to whisper the truth of this thing. If she could, she would tell her about the discipline and control that it brings. A nun would understand that. Maybe it is even a bit of a spiritual thing. Self-denial. Helping her to see the light. Looking at Sister Bernadette now she wonders, as she has often, whether she too has a touch of this thing. She has the hollowed eyes, that’s for sure.

“Before long your menstrual cycle ceases. It shuts down. A starving animal cannot conceive and carry offspring.”

She would like to tell her that nothing is a problem anymore. She is achieving straight As. She is fixing things at home. She has chosen this. Almost.

“And I have seen it take the lives of beautiful, bright young pupils of this very school,” Sister Bernadette says, with eyes darting to the back corner now, fixing a fleeting glance, before swinging her head left and then right in a show of all inclusiveness.

“Any questions?”

She pulls the sleeves of her jumper down covering her hands, even though they are under the desk. Sister Bernadette forgot to mention the fingers. How they can betray you when you least expect it with their bluish tinge. She has no questions. But she does have plenty to say. She knows the exact moment of her choice, she would like to tell Sister Bernadette. This thing has not come in and taken over. She would tell her that she decided on this the moment her mother passed that comment. It was as if someone had flicked a switch. As simple as that.

“Look at you, you’re getting thunder thighs,” her mother had said to her one day. Thunder thighs. It hung there, stinging the air. She glanced down at her faded jeans, a little tighter on, it was true. Then she looked her mother square in the eye and decided. No. I will show you.

She has her mother to thank for this thing, really. A gift of sorts. If it wasn’t for that comment she would be in the dark. Like all the others, shuffling along, weighted and miserable. Just like her mother.

A silence hangs in the classroom air with Sister Bernadette’s parting shot. The death card. She is disappointed that her nun resorted to playing the death card. As if a touch of this thing could lead there. She would like to tell her that she has never felt more in control of her life than now.

“Get on the scales,” her mother says to her that evening. She steps on the scales, not for the first time that day. But now as she does so she places her right hand under the shelves next to her, as if to steady herself. Instead she pulls on them, adding to the weight.

“Jesus Christ, you’re only seven and a quarter stone.” Her mother’s fiery green eyes lock with hers. It is as if she’d like to take back the gift. If only she could offer the same thing to her mother, she thinks. Instead she watches her slathering butter and raspberry jam on batch bread, stuffing it into herself and repeating this, as if on automatic pilot, throughout the day.

No wonder he left us, she thinks now, as she does often.

“I’ll weigh you every day. I want to see you put on a stone, at least, or I’ll be taking you to see someone.”

As if, she thinks, looking passively at her mother while inside her a kind of mirth is bubbling. Put on weight and wade back into the mud. She laughs into herself, picturing her thrashing around with her mother, smothering, losing. Her father wouldn’t notice her then either on his visits. Whereas now he says little things. Little gems that she sparkles in. How’s my best girl then? He gets it. She knew that he would. She has taken to timing his visits on her stopwatch lately. Three extra minutes he spent last Tuesday. He’s more interested in staying around now and this is down to her and this thing. She is mending the hole. If only her mother could see that.

The spaghetti carbonara is heaped twice as high on her plate as on the others. Her sister gives her a knowing roll of the eyes. Look, she is saying, at our ingenious mother’s ham-fisted solution. Right here, right now, there’s that pang of love mixed with guilt at the pudge layered over her sister, courtesy of her own surpluses. She’ll help her out of it though. When she’s good and ready for it. Their mother scrutinises, until every last morsel of the white sludge is gone. No bother, she thinks, as this will be gone, gone. In truth she is a little bit disappointed with her too. To think that her own mother would not suspect her next move. That her mother would think that she would accept tacitly this force feeding of mounds of calorific horror. Accept it and deplete her new sense of power and control. Accept it and see less and less of her father. Now why in the world would she do that?

The gurgling pains wake her as they do each morning now. It pleases her to wake in this state, in spite of last night’s force feed. She fears that the purging did not rid her of it all. That some of it lurks in her obeying her mother’s wishes. Tilting the scales back towards chaos. So today she splices her orange but only allows herself to sniff at it. Her father will visit tonight and he will notice and he will stay longer. She breathes the orange in and fills herself with it. She listens to the exuberant coos of the wood pigeon and today she joins in, quietly mimicking her friend up in the tree. She takes out her homework notebook to find that she is to study biology. Blood and the heart. But first she tiptoes down the stairs to put the kettle on. Today the bite of black coffee will be enough to sustain her.

Ellen Kelly is a sociologist. Her short stories have been broadcast on RTÉ Radio One as part of the Francis MacManus competition, 2013, and published as winners in an anthology Second Chance, Original Writing, 2015 – and by Creative Writing Ink, 2014. She was shortlisted in the inaugural Sunday Business Post Penguin Ireland competition 2016, and has been longlisted three times in the RTÉ Guide Penguin Ireland competition, 2012, 2013 and 2015. She writes a blog about the exploits of parenting five boys ( as well as articles for