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Author Andrew Meehan Concept&Graft

The Irish Read: 'Summers were for plants and foolishness, autumns for oblivion'

Read an extract from Andrew Meehan’s latest novel, Instant Fires, published by New Island.

THE IRISH LITERARY scene has long been a source of national pride, but it’s in particularly rude health at the moment. Yet with so many books to catch up on, it can be easy to lose track of what’s out there.

Enter The Irish Read, where we feature an extract from a piece of work by an Irish or Ireland-based author.

The taster from a novel or short story should spur you on to find out more about the writer and their work.

The writer

Instant Fires is written by Andrew Meehan, whose debut novel One Star Awake was longlisted for the 2018 Desmond Elliott Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for debut novelists. His second book, The Mystery Of Love, a reimagining of the relationship between Oscar and Constance Wilde, was published in 2020. Andrew was born in Dublin and lives in Glasgow, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Strathclyde. Fans of writers like Kevin Barry are sure to find a lot to enjoy in his latest novel, Instant Fires.

The story

“After 15 years in a relationship with a man she did not love, Ute Pfeiffer has returned from Ireland to find her father, Julius, in decline and her mother, Christa, more distant than ever. The last thing she needs is to fall for another Irishman. But when she sees Seanie Donnellan driving over a hen in her parents’ yard, something seems to shift in her cautious heart. Ute has given up on love and Seanie has never really known it. He
also knows nothing of her family’s unspoken history during the war, nor how Ute muted this sadness with a sheltered life that she hated.

“But Seanie is a strange and charming young man with emotional aches of his own, confounding all of her expectations and daring her to hope for the first time. As her father returns to a kind of childhood, and her mother’s longing spills over in the revelation of a family secret, Ute must decide if falling in love is something that happens to other people or if it’s a choice only she can make.”

The extract


Dad’s Donegal suit for the chauffeuring, dead man’s suit cinched at the waist just the job.
Seanie was taking it slow before work, slowly stepping through the air, fathoming the Neckar, its meek sway, and a pair of rowers pulsing through it.

The river, was anything down there apart from pike and anacondas, Goebbels and shopping trollies and all the rest? A long walk off a short pier, being hauled out on a riverbank somewhere in bastard Liechtenstein.

Float through the darker channels for more than a minute, and you could count on a call from home. 

She’d been on already, but you were as well asking for a clatter about the head than answering before nine in the morning.

—You having a summer? Dead here.
—The storms would take the head off you. Then it’s like nothing happened.
—Well for you. There’s hogweed up through the kitchen floor. I’ll wake up strangled by it some morning. If your father was here, he’d know what to do.
—He’d say get someone in, Mam.
—Lot of use you are. And some shower them Germans. Suppose they know they’re going to win, they do? They’ve the look of people who’re going to deliver you a beating.

—This win was a long time coming.
—You reckon?
—I do.
—How much?
—Any money.
—Steady on, she said.

Seven–one was seven–one for a finish. People not much given to excitement had been finding the smiling getting the better of them. But optimism was lethal in the wrong hands.

—What do you know about football, pray tell?
—Been picking bits up, pray tell, he said.
—It’s your ideas you’d want to be picking up. I’ll tell you why they won. You know what they did for themselves. They took their own water. They took German water to South America. I’d be inclined to say that gives them an unfair advantage. And you a
Brazilian trying to run your own business, and Bavarians showing up places with their own bottles of water.
—I think they stick to their hotel.
—Bring their own mattresses as well. Their own Hoovers. All of this says to me they’re not going home without the cup. That’s as clear as night. It’s all in the mind, that’s where success stories begin.

The new doctor told me I feed on negative thinking.

What do you think of that? My own doctor calling me a battleaxe? But when a man like that talks you have to listen, on account of them being straight with you. Which is a rarity. So the news is I’m on a different path. I’m expressing gratitude.

—I’ve a nice positive thought for you. I’m working this morning.
—Butter wouldn’t melt.
—A bit of driving, chauffeuring. Dignitaries.

Mam’s answer amounted to: who am I, a fucking mental patient?

But Seanie’d found himself a bit of part-time work in getting said dignitaries to and from a conference at the old university. Nobel-prize winners, aged science types with wastrel hair, a procession of them with helplessness the general air. Not a great deal of eye contact in the Laureate world. Gazes trained on the rooftops in case of minute adjustments to the cosmos.

He was a great believer these days in the universe, and a great believer in its cruelty. Mam’s keratoconjunctivitis, her Yankee candles, his father’s ashes left in a lump by the Standing Stone. Seanie of late was a great believer, too, in miracles, the great miracle of the body. His hair was long lamented, a fine head of it at thirty-one, bald as a hen’s egg at thirty-two.

Out in clumps it came. Dad’d said it took the wild look off him.

Each week Mam was duty bound to ask,
—How’s the diploma?
What got to him always was the tone: Come out of the way there, Seanie. The want about you, would you ever get it seen to?

For our hero had spoofed his way through two undergraduate degrees and a master’s. Depending on the time of the day, he was or wasn’t about to start doing a PhD in metaphysical poetry. He could speak, he could read, five languages. At home, in Cloonfad, they called him Google Translate. Speaking all those languages would make him an excellent diplomat, Mam had said. Or an excellent barman, according to his dad, landlord of the pub Seanie was born above.

—Not a diploma exactly. But it’s on hold while I figure a few things out. While me and Hannah figure a few things out.
—Hannah and I. And why should we all suffer while you float through life?

The call ended then, Mam saying something about checking Dad’s grave for hogweed.
It was a bank holiday he died. Days after finishing the Airtricity half-marathon in a personal best, Noel Donnellan was stone dead of a heart attack.

They’d been all weekend at the pints, tempers rising. Whenever he lost the head it was like spicy beans being forced into Seanie’s larynx. There’d been word that someone had got into a snot and gone into the kitchen at Donnellan’s and taken hold of a baking tray (the one they used for turkeys) and he’d flung it through the window of Tony Mannion’s

The talk about the place was he lamped his own father, that Seanie Donnellan had sat down to his pint after hopping Noel in the head with the baking tray.

Mam said she knew by looking at him that Seanie done it, from his mien: freshly cast out of Eden, tender, a maddened dog. She’d felt it in her spine but the bare truth of it was that this messer hadn’t touched anyone.

Dad was dead of fright anyhow, giving new meaning to the phrase you’ll be the death of me. 

Before the month’s mind was out, Seanie, who could have been a diplomat or a barman, got reefed out of the place.

He took himself off to Germany. Nothing to his name apart from one of Dad’s old deodorants and an anthology snatched from the bedside.

Lo, a man of letters was born.

Haunting the antiquarians, flinging out the poetry left, right and centre. Not above stealing books either, the pale purple, the lilac of poetry, the cool blues of the novel, the deep greys of the essay, the wild fucking blackness of his brain without someone else’s thoughts to fill it.

You’d see him above on the Holy Mountain, on the Philosophers’ Walk half-rising into the sky. The heart sunken into him. Helplessly talking to the dead dad. A hallucination, you might have called it, a gentle hallucination always. Bold as brass Dad would appear, drinking a bottle of tea to himself on Untere Straße.

He’d make appearances in the boudoir, too, so to speak. He had a great snout for altercations in the sack. Fine woman that Hannah, he’d say, if you could only keep up with her. I’d be inclined to ask if she had any sisters. 

Other times Noel Donnellan was pure philosophy, pure nature boy.

A geography teacher in his day, before hearing the call of the saloon, and a bar with his name above the door. A certain stool in Donnellan’s, him being a certain Donnellan. The first brown dinner of the day eaten in the bar, get the news and in company reflect upon it. Not before muting the Angelus, a small bowl of sponge and custard, and home then for
the other dinner, the first dinner being purely ceremonial. Afterwards, elements notwithstanding, out to the garden. For Noel Donnellan’s roses people came all the way across north Connacht. His way of calling you friends was giving out cuttings. An acre of
garden, a house, the pub with his name above the door, yet in the greenhouse he’d spend all of August.

The tomatoes colouring, Noel cooing them into being. 

It was a fine balance with the calcium shortages and the potassium. Hosepipe ban? Fuck your hosepipe ban. Noel Donnellan had a greenhouse to look after. He would have to be coaxed out of there with the last of the tomatoes for ripening on the sill.

The jumper on and back to the bar for the Angelus and the remote control. Summers were for plants and foolishness, autumns for oblivion. You wouldn’t see him for the real dinner. Nothing in him apart from a small tin of ravioli every other day. By no means an alcoholic, Noel Donnellan hating drinking seemed to be the point of it all. Off it again after Christmas dinner, relieved to hit the top of the year, and a new man by the Epiphany. Seed catalogues coming in from left and right. From Holland they came. Better Boys, Creoles, Big Boys, Early Girls, Brandy Wines, Celebrities, Lemon Boys. Oxhearts.

Above all it was the variety in the tomato world that would keep you going.

Instant Fires is published by New Island and is out now. 

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