The deadline for the Green Schools application is early June, so in January she panic-orders three hundred seed bombs. On the ten-minute spin from Rathanroe back to Newbridge, she listens to a podcast called Speed Rewilding. It doesn’t make much sense. At home, as the kettle boils for Aidan’s bedtime bottle, she downloads and prints a forty-page guide to native Irish butterflies. The printer tray has been left closed, so the butterflies spew out over the laminate flooring. Rory lines his diggers on top of the Common Blue. Fionn picks up a Clouded Yellow and tries to stick it to his hoodie. He asks, Is it a Dad night?

Not tonight, she says.

Once they’re all asleep, she laminates butterflies until midnight, her eyes burning and the living room smelling like warm plastic. Butterflies cooling on the sofa, she googles other Green Schools biodiversity projects. She finds six-foot murals and wildflower meadows, bird-feeding stations with chandeliers of hanging water feeders, and handcrafted bug hotels. How are other teachers so organised? 

She’s been in charge of the Green Schools project since she moved here in September, though all she’s done so far is elect the Green Team: one child from each class, chosen on the basis of their application forms. Kids such as Jack Doyle (I want to sav planit earff from dying) and Jenny Slattery (my mam is a gardner). She chose Ethan from Juniors because his drawing most resembled an actual tree, but at the first two meetings he’s just stood looking shell-shocked. They’ve made mind maps, discussed plans, and she can see their faces peering up at her now. When are we having another meeting, Miss? Have you done the application form? When’s the inspector coming out? When are we having our Green Day of Action? 

A stabbing headache starts up. She tugs her ponytail loose, pulls off her heavy grey sweater. Despite the cold, she’s sweating. Now Aidan starts hollering. He has a wet nappy, a slight fever. She scoops him onto her hip, kisses him and gives him a Tortoiseshell butterfly to hold in his chubby fist. She measures out one-and-a-half syringes of sticky Calpol. I love my kids, she tells herself. I’m doing my best. She nestles Aidan into bed beside her and sticks on the Pink Noise playlist. Heavy rain. Ocean waves. Strangers’ heartbeats.


Next morning, she corners Denise the Deputy Principal in the foyer and asks, Who is our caretaker, I need some help here, I can’t (bug hotel, bird-feeder station, oak sapling, wildflower meadow) on my own. I know the Green Team are very enthusiastic, but— 

The caretaker died, Denise tells her in an embarrassed whisper. Just before Covid, God rest him. The funeral was massive. You’d want to have seen it. The kids did the guard of honour, it was absolutely gorgeous.

She is really trying to focus. This is one of the many conversations since moving out to Rathanroe in which she feels the interaction might not be entirely real. She’s remembering her old school back in Blanchardstown—new build, high ceilings, Diwali lanterns and the surf-like thrum of M50 traffic. Moments like these, Rathanroe feels like a different country. They’re standing beside a massive placard of Zacchaeus climbing a palm tree. It says, WE ARE SORRY GOD.

He was a widower, the caretaker, God rest him, Denise says. His son James is living in the old caretaker’s lodge at the moment. He’s working from home. Something to do with IT? Does a bit of the caretaking for us too. Puts down mouse traps. Re-paints hopscotch lines. Nice guy, but he’s not very—you know. Helpful. 

That afternoon, she raps her knuckles on the door of the grey stone lodge by the main school gate. The place looks deserted. Flaking window frames. Slug-nibbled pansies. She is carrying that burnt-out, slightly frazzled after-school energy. She’s thinking about her own three, hungry to get back to them, braced for another evening of mayhem.

When the door swings open, it is his body she recognises first. His hands. The scar at the base of his neck, from when he fell against his goldfish tank aged five. James. The same James who shared her single bed on an almost nightly basis during their final semester in college, and backpacked around Italy with her for the summer. Even now, his face makes every blood cell in her body surge to her face.

He’s much the same, apart from the beard. His face has aged, but his eyes have not. In the sharp winter brightness, he has the blinking-mole look of someone who spends all day staring at a screen. His expression is tired, polite. He pushes his dark-rimmed glasses onto his forehead. 

Can I help?

She waits for a flicker of recognition. When there’s none, she starts on a spiel about Green Schools: biodiversity, bird feeders, seed bombs—which, in her flustered state, she’s gone and called bird bombs.

Sure, he says, I’d love to help, sure. I’ll help with the bird bombs, absolutely. He says he has tools in the shed. He’s about to take a Zoom call in ten minutes, but if she could call into him later in the week?

No problem, she says. No problem at all. 

Driving home, her head is unset jelly. Over the past year she’s been trying to wrestle her thoughts into some sort of order, but this is the opposite. Memories float, unchecked: moments caught in strobe light. Her arms raised to the pulse of the bass, then draped around his shoulders. Student halls with glittery blue shower tiles. Creaking bedsprings and throwing the duvet down between wardrobe and desk, laughing and falling into each other. Stepping into the face of life with such confidence.

She gets home and sticks on some Octonauts for the boys. War as usual over choosing an episode, but she finally has the three of them settled on the sofa with a bag of rice cakes. While the pasta water boils, she takes out her phone and pulls up a page she bookmarked months ago.

Teach Dóchas Women’s Refuge, a voice answers, how can I help?

I heard you do courses, she says. In healing? Her voice cracks, breaks. 

I left almost a year ago, she says. Stayed with Mum for a bit, then moved out here. But it’s only hitting me now. I don’t think I’ve really dealt with—what happened. 

Can I take your name?

It’s Orla.

The receptionist takes her email address and adds her to the waiting list. She cries when she hangs up the phone. Dries her face. Opens the pasta sauce. Grates the cheese.


She’s asked her mum if she can borrow a few of her dad’s old tools. That Sunday when the kids are with her ex, she drives out to the school. She can see the old shape of the garden. A pebble path, the outlines of beds, all taken over by ivy and couch grass. It’s overwhelming. She begins clearing a space to plant the seed bombs. She tears away sticky vines crawling up other plants, crushing the life out of them. Leaning on the shovel, she turns over the dry earth.

She’s kneeling in the mud, ramming a stake into a shrub with white and yellow flowers, when James calls over the fence: Can I give you a hand there?

Thing keeps keeling over, she says.

He hops the fence, kneels beside her.

Here, he says, and he steadies the stake while she ties the slender stems with twine. What do you call this? 

I don’t know its proper name. My dad called it LaRita. He was mad into the gardening.

Mine too. Ah shit, you’ve cut your hand.

A thin line of blood is threading down her wrist, staining the sleeve of her coat. 

Come on, I’ve plasters across the way.

In his house, she’s surprised by the soft modern lighting, skylights on the sloping ceilings. While he rummages around for a plaster in the kitchen presses, she notices the bits of computers left on the worktop like remnants from their college days. Something coconut and spicy is simmering in his slow cooker.

So you’re still trying to win MasterChef?

He laughs and hands her a plaster.

I’m sorry Orla, he says, I wasn’t sure at first. If it was you. 

You’re grand, she says, feeling suddenly conscious of her old coat, limp mousy hair and scuffed runners. I’m not sure if it’s me half the time either. 

You’ve your hair a different colour. That’s probably it.

There’s a pause and then he says, So do you reckon I could be in your band now?


Dark January mornings, there’s black ice on the back roads. Frost sparkles on the school roof. In the staffroom, she approaches other teachers with photocopies of scavenger hunts and nature trails. 

Great, they say. Lovely, thanks. Maybe when the weather gets a bit better? 

The school’s on a good bit of land. Playing fields out the back. Oaks knotted with rooks’ nests. She’s lived here for five months but hasn’t noticed any of this before. It hits her: sometimes you can have your head down so much, you don’t notice where you’ve landed. Driving home through a tunnel of trees, she starts to believe she could make a successful application after all, if she could only focus.

She once had some amount of focus: six hundred points, first class honours. Problem was, she believed that her focus could solve any problem. She thought if she just focused hard enough on not annoying her husband, she could make him happy, and he’d turn back into the man she met. So, she stopped gigging in pubs, going out with friends, expressing opinions, and wearing clothes he deemed provocative. Nothing worked, but still she kept trying. Boxing away her bright wrap-dresses, skinny jeans, and hoop earrings, she convinced herself that she would wear them again one day, that this was just a temporary measure. A way to buy some peace.


Bird feeders prove difficult. Some pupils are allergic to every seed and nut known to man. They’re liable to die of anaphylactic shock at the sniff of a bird table. 

Plus they attract rats, James says. He has the same answer when she shows him a photo of a bug hotel made out of pallets. Rats, mice, slugs, snails, spiders. 

Rats, he says. Is that what you want?

Is that what you want? She remembers him asking that question in her single bed, with the grey-flecked duvet cover, in the student halls in Drumcondra, where you could always hear doors banging, footsteps, voices. Tell me what you want, he said back then, his eyes teasing.

I want this bloody flag, she tells him now, thirteen years later, standing on his doorstep in the February mizzle.

I want this flag or else I’ll lose my job, and then what?

She hasn’t said that aloud before. Under his dead hanging baskets, it sounds kind of drastic. 

He rubs the back of his head.

I didn’t realise Seamus was such a fan of the old biodiversity.

It’s a temporary contract, she says. I’ll have to interview again next summer. There’s such competition. All these young ones. And if I feck this up—

Right, he says, I get you. Sorry, I umm. I didn’t realise it was so. You know. Important. I’ll see what I can do. Just leave it with me.


She’s holding a Green Meeting in the outdoor classroom. Morning sunlight catches the frost on the firs.

She asks them again, Does anyone else have any other suggestions for the Day of Action? Any that don’t involve polar bears?

Greta Thunberg? Lisa suggests. 

We could give everyone a sticker, Saoirse says.

We’re missing P.E., Miss, Jack moans.

Jenny sighs. You know Miss, we normally have meetings on Friday mornings.

But isn’t that when you have your spelling tests? 

Finally they decide on a plan of action. From then on, Bin Monitors check each wastepaper basket and hassle any kids who use the wrong bin. Energy Monitors unplug everything, regardless of whether devices are in use or not. Lights are barely allowed on. Water Monitors guard the taps. 

She holds a poster competition, and chooses the winning slogan. DON’T BE A FOOL, NATURE IS COOL! She drives up to Homebase and robs a few old palettes from behind the trolleys. Copying a YouTube video, the Green Team set up a bug hotel beside the outdoor classroom. They stack the palettes and the kids stuff each crevice with twigs and hacked bamboo. Now they just have to wait for creepy-crawlies to discover their Hilton. 


One teatime, a woman calls her from the refuge. 

I’m just checking in, she says.

Orla answers a few questions.

I don’t need a bed, she tells her. I have a whole house, but I’m still—he’s still… It’s just difficult. I met someone recently, someone from my past, and it’s just making me remember who I used to be. My ex has made me feel like such a horrible person. He says it was all my fault. 

The woman says, You’re not a horrible person. This is what happens. Things get twisted. Would you think about talking to one of our therapists? 

I’m not sure, Orla says. I work all day, then I have the kids in the evening. And I can’t really afford it.

This is all done on Zoom. You tell us a good time. Once the kids are asleep or whatever works. We can offer you three sessions. We only ask for ten euro. Will I give the therapist your name?

Over Zoom one night, a therapist tucks her dark hair behind her ears and introduces herself as Maeve. They are about the same age, in their late thirties. She doesn’t ask about Orla’s childhood, or root around for scars. She says, Tell me what’s happening.

After Orla has spoken for a while, the therapist says, So you weren’t allowed any friends or family in the house?

He said I was too sensitive. That he couldn’t see why I needed people over. And he hated all my friends. He said they were trying to turn me against him.

People must have been worried about you.

I don’t know. It was difficult to talk to anyone. He didn’t like me being on the phone. In the end, I just stopped reaching out.

You were very isolated. 

It became my normal, she says. It’s only hitting me now. I don’t know why.

Maeve nods, listens intently. 

It often takes this long, she says. When you leave, you’re in fight or flight mode. You’ve no time to process. And you’ve still no time, Orla. How would it feel if you told him not to message you so much, to give you some space?

He’d say it’s his rights as a father. He’d say he has a right to check in on his kids, to know what we are up to. He’d threaten to take me back to court again. He’d talk about fifty-fifty custody. 

That’s his voice in your head, the therapist says. See what I mean? You’re so used to it. To pre-empting. Now how would it feel to get his voice out of your head? What would it feel like, to listen to yourself for a change? 

After this first session, Orla thinks God help this woman. She has a near-impossible job. How are you meant to help someone who doesn’t even know what happened to them? 

An image plays on loop: sitting on their bed in her old house, three-month-old Rory asleep against her breast, a windy night at the window. A baggy candy-striped nursing nightgown. Him, towering over her, jabbing his finger, then crouching, putting his face inches from hers, saying something. Saying what? All she can see is his face, the way his jaw clicked, his pupils dilated, his eyes black. He was trying to get her to agree with something, that was it. 

Say it, why can’t you just say it. Just say it. What’s wrong with you? 

Out of thousands of moments like this, she’s unsure why she keeps replaying this one. 

Then there’s her reversing out of their drive in the rain. It can’t be a real memory, because she can see herself in it, as if it’s been filmed by a hovering drone. 

So melodramatic! he’d say to that. If I’d known you were so hypersensitive, I wouldn’t have married you. 

He never used her name.


Her hands are burning cold. In the cutting March wind, her face feels raw. It’s such a bright day, the Wicklow Mountains are slate, then ochre where they’re caught in sun between clouds. They’ve been working at the garden all morning. They’ve planted Cat Mint, Maroon Yellow, Candy Rose. There’s comfort, she thinks, in knowing the names of things. Sitting on a rainbow bench, drinking tea from thermos flasks, James says, So how did you end up in Rathanroe? 

It was the only school in the entire country that would give me a job.

He nods and smiles. Of all the schools in all the world, he says, then catches her look. Right. Indeed. Sorry.

He works as a coder, he tells her. He writes long bars of numbers and letters that make things happen on screen. 

Do they not have robots to do that by now?

Apparently not, he says.

Do you enjoy it?

Sure it will do, until I win MasterChef or you let me join your band. You know, you did ask me that exact same question thirteen years ago. 


Mid-April, it’s raining as if the sky forgot to rain for months and is making up for lost time. Drenched daffodils genuflect along the verges. Rain bounces off the road. Classroom windows fog. She realises now that their initial approach (looking under rocks for bugs, bringing them back to class for Show and Tell) isn’t working. Re-wilding doesn’t mean searching for the animals they are trying to rescue. Instead, they have to think seriously about what a healthy environment looks like. 

The Green Team are full of ideas. Using a ruler sellotaped to a cut-off Club Orange bottle, they begin to measure rainfall. They look for buds on the apple trees, and prune back the dead branches to allow more growth. She hides the keys to the rickety lawnmower shed.


Early May, the swifts arrive. Normally these birds are ignored, but she’s been bigging them up to the Junior Infants for weeks, so the swifts are greeted like marathon athletes crossing the finish line. YOU MADE IT, the infants shout and wave.

By now there’s a real Green Schools buzz around the school. The older classes have been scouring the grounds with scratched plastic magnifying glasses they’ve found in the maths press, cataloguing every plant they can identify. Saxifrage. Wallflower. Rosehip. Self-heal. The lawns erupt with dandelions. 

Stand quiet in a particular spot in the yard, and the swallows swoop close enough for you to see the blush of their cheeks, the whites of their bellies. 

On May 15th, Rathanroe’s ‘Green Day’ goes even better than she could have hoped. By now, the seed bombs have sprouted. Cosmos, poppies and ox-eye daisies dance in the breeze on what was once a wasteland by the staff car park. Parents come along. Sixth class have organised a nature trail, and the Green Team hold an Eco Raffle. Prizes include Planet Earth stickers, compost bins, reusable shopping bags and soft toy animals made from recycled plastic. Her mum drives up from Dublin and brings Fionn, Rory, and Aidan in his buggy. 

Look what mammy did, her mother says.

Each class plants something different. Summer Chrysanthemums. Organic lettuce. Orla’s class plants Giant Sunflowers. On the edge of the pitch, she shows her class how to scoop a handful of compost into the potting trays. Then she places a seed into each of their palms. Some of the kids look dubious, eyeing the tiny withered husks. 

You sure they’ll grow, Miss?

They bed their seeds into the compost, burying them deep. The Brennan twins take charge of the watering. They’ve lost the sprinkler off the top of the watering can, so each tray gets flooded. Dark earth swirls and swells, the seeds swallowed far underneath. Saoirse McHugh tuts.

Ah lads. You’ve drowned them. They’ll never grow now. 

Before an argument can break out, she leads them back to the classroom. They shuffle with the sopping trays. As if transferring a sleeping baby from car seat to cot, they gently lay the trays down on a windowsill.

By the end of the Day of Action, she’s tired and sweaty and happy.

In the staffroom, Seamus says, That was bloody brilliant, Orla. Fair play. It looks class on the Facebook page.

Flying colours, Denise says. You’ll get the Green Flag with flying colours.


And then Shona Doyle and John-Jo Higgins from fourth class find ‘the rat’. The size of an average sixth-class running shoe, it’s splayed near the edge of the yard, under one of the basketball hoops. As happens in a primary school, the atmosphere of Utter Horror spreads fast. Yard closed until further notice. Kids kept in their classrooms, away from the blazingly beautiful May afternoon. Worse is to come. Although the rat (mottled, bared molars, mouldy or else possibly chewed?) is clearly dead, it’s not long before it’s traced back to the bug hotel. Their classy venue, intended to attract only the finest pollinators, has become a rat’s nest.

After school, she stands in James’s kitchen, crying and blowing her nose loudly on ripped-off sheets of kitchen roll. 

You told me, didn’t you? You bloody told me.

He gives her arm a gentle squeeze.

It’s alright, Orla. It’s not your fault. Sure maybe the hotel just needed to diversify—bring in badgers, squirrels, the odd snake—

Oh shut up, she laughs. And she remembers that springtime of her final year in college, when she failed her driving test, and James met her afterwards in the college bar, an envelope in hand. Inside, a card with a cartoon panda on the front. 

Driving licence or no driving licence, I’ll still love you. 

It was such a stupid thing, it made her laugh, and he ordered bottles of Corona and they fell into easy talk. He’s doing the same thing now, gently consoling in a way that makes her suddenly furious: was it too much to ask for this in a marriage? 


When you were asleep? the therapist says. 

On Zoom, her face has changed, taken on a new seriousness.

You realise, Orla, what happened?

Her words, the cool clearness of them, while Orla’s eyes are still burning from crying over the bloody rat in the bug hotel. This is their final session. Perhaps that’s why she’s saying things she’s never said to anyone.

And did you confront him? Maeve asks. 

I brought it up a few times, but he just laughed at me. He used to say it was my fault. That I’d no passion. That there was something wrong with me. 

She thinks of the story in Fionn’s Book of Irish Legends, about the women who get turned into flagstones on the kitchen floor. ‘The Sleep Watchers’, it’s called. These women who don’t meet expectations are turned into stone to be walked over. Swept. These difficult women, who wanted more from life. 

It’s not as if he hit me, she says. Maybe I’m just. Maybe I’m overreacting. 

Things get minimised, the therapist says. This is what happens. This is what you’re only remembering now. I’m glad you contacted us, Orla. You might have left, but leaving is only the first step.

My body didn’t feel like my own, she says. It still doesn’t feel like my own. 

The landline starts ringing then. 

Sorry, she says. It’s Seamus, my principal. I’m so sorry, I’m going to have to take this.

Orla, Seamus says. It’s tomorrow is it you have the Green Schools inspection? 

Yes, she says.

Well, there’s been a bit of an issue at the school. Now don’t be panicking. But—


By morning, the fire has long been out, the earth charred and brittle. 

The young lad who does the grass, Seamus says, and she thinks, Since when do we have A Lad Who Does the Grass?

I asked him to sort out removing the rat hotel, Seamus says, but sure I said remove, not set fire to. The feckin idiot. 

It was burning for over an hour and a half says James, who appears next to Seamus. Those palettes. Highly flammable.

The smoke was desperate, Seamus says. 

James is wearing an oversized hoodie. He looks hungover, sheepish.

Why didn’t you call me? she wants to ask. Then she remembers, he doesn’t have her number.

Desperate is the general consensus. Teachers hugging themselves and shuddering, turning back into the warmth of the staffroom as the singed remains of rats and wildflowers turn to blackened sludge. 

Should have asked you to do it, Seamus says to James. My own pissing fault. But I didn’t want to be hassling you, sure you’ve enough on. Is it next month Hannah’s back from the states? 

James nods.

And you’ll be starting work on your own house then, the pair of you? Sure you can’t be bothering with the school when you’ve all that on. 

The two of them retreat to the gate, and she stands still, looking at the scorched meadow.


There’s no time at this stage. She tries phoning the Green Schools helpline, but their office doesn’t open until nine, and the inspector is already on her way. Orla meets her at the WE ARE SORRY GOD poster, a friendly woman with silver owl earrings, The Green Team recite their green code, do their dance moves. The inspector smiles, then lays into her questions. 

What percentage of Ireland is forested? 

(Fifty percent, the kids guess. WRONG—only eleven percent. The only countries with less forest are places like Yemen and Tajikistan.)

Which wildflowers best attract pollinators? 

(Pink ones?)

The Green Team are really trying their best. The inspector probably didn’t expect Saoirse McHugh to explain the number of mouse traps, or Jenny Kane to list the six trees they cut down, or Jack Doyle to launch into great detail about the rats in the bug hotel, and the great big massive fire. 

They take her then on a tour of the grounds.

God, she says, staring at the smoking remains of the wildflower garden. Jesus. Maybe don’t mention this on your application?


​That Friday evening, her Mum collects the boys and brings them to Dublin for a sleepover.

You look desperate, her mother had said. You need a breather. 

Once they’ve gone, trucks abandoned mid-game, there’s a roaring silence in their wake. She paints her nails, makes tea, then pours it down the sink. She pulls on her denim jacket and gets into her car. 

James doesn’t answer his door, so she follows the slow thrum of guitar around the side of his house. He’s sitting on his patio, strumming away. The evening is still warm. Sunlight fading, the white sky is streaked with coral clouds. 

She says, You’ll never get into the band. 

He laughs, puts down his guitar and stands up.

She says, Why didn’t you tell me?

Orla, I’m sorry, but in fairness you tell me absolutely nothing. Sure all we talk about is plants and compost. 

Not true, she says. You could have mentioned. 

Trees… Birds… Bird tables… Let me see, what else? Oh yeah, humane mouse traps… Butterflies… Swallows… Woodlice…

She moves towards him and pulls him to her. Time collapses. She doesn’t feel exactly twenty-three again, but she doesn’t feel thirty-six, separated with three children. She slips out of her jacket, lifts her light dress over her head, and slides her hand under his shirt.

Afterwards, they leave the skylight in his bedroom open. She hears the wind moving in the trees behind his house, and later that night, she hears the call of an owl. Her class recently learnt that the barn owl’s feathers have evolved to be almost soundless. Lying awake, she remembers creeping up the stairs in her old home in Blanch, heart banging, trying not to wake him. Tiptoeing into the boys’ room and curling up beside Fionn. Half-sleeping, keeping watch. Now, James stirs beside her. She feels close to tears. Her head is hot, her chest tight. She misses her kids. She’s not sure if she’s crying for them, or for the young woman sleeping naked beside James under a fan in Hostel Palermo. She reaches for her phone, sticks on the Pink Noise soundtrack. Rain storm. Distant thunder. 

He wakes, turns to her, Are you okay?

A warm memory fills her head. Jet hair, red lips. Busking in sunny piazzas, while he picked up shifts at Irish bars, invariably running into someone who knew someone from home. Late nights, they brought the day’s stories to each other, swapped anecdotes over beers and cheap pizza. 

She says, Next year, when I’m not here, can you de-head that LaRita?


And the Aster too.


She leaves early, to avoid being spotted by any of the Rathanroe kids. 

Driving home, she can hardly believe the life in these fields. Fox silhouettes. Darting rabbit tails. Wild primroses almost glowing in the pre-dawn. A hare and its kit, paused on the winding road ahead.

Later that morning, when her boys charge in, squabbling, hot and grouchy from the car ride, she cries with relief. Smothers them with kisses. Grabs sticky hands. Chases them up the garden. She’d forgotten the feeling of laughter in her belly. Giddy energy, like a type of early-morning flight adrenaline. It’s as if she has been asleep for the last five years and has just woken up. She calls them over to her.

Look at this, she says. Look what Mam’s got.

In the pocket of her jacket, a handful of seed bombs she pilfered months ago then forgot. 

They look like Malteasers, Fionn says. 

Aidan and Rory swerve off, chasing each other round the slide. Fionn lingers as she rakes the earth by the breeze-block wall. He helps her scatter the bombs and water them. They both crouch on their hunkers, watching. 

Mammy? Nothing’s happening?

She laughs. It’s okay, mister. These things take time.

Fionn leans his head on her shoulder for what must be a hair-line fracture of a second, before tearing after the others. 

Love you Mammy, he says.


Early June, a clammy heat has been building all day. She’s glad of the cool, light fabric of her purple maxi dress. While her class are busy with two pages of Figure it Out, she’s balanced on a chair, un-pinning the SPACE display. Her hands are full of laminated planets. She’s taken down the other displays already. Blank blue and green felt boards, ready for whoever is teaching in here next year. Interviews are in July. 

At home time, James is up a ladder in an Italia ’90 T-shirt, scrapping moss from the roof. It’s two weeks since they’ve spoken. He looks down as she passes with her procession of kids. For a moment, their eyes meet. The last time he looked at her like this, she had just jumped off a cliff, into a turquoise lagoon in Amalfi. She remembers saltwater hitting the back of her throat. That feeling of being bouyed to the surface. 

Once the kids have all been collected, she walks past him again as she crosses the yard. Her dress billows around her in the hot breeze. As she walks back into the school, a gust sends her hair across her face. In the shadowy corridor, blue dots dance in front of her eyes. For a second, she has to stop and catch her breath. Her body is clamouring to go back. Instead, she turns into her empty classroom, collapses onto her desk chair and opens her laptop. She has only one tab open. Her Green Schools application. 

Fingers poised over the keys, she takes a deep breath, and tries to summon the right words. She looks across the room, taking in dropped pencils, splashed paint, upended chairs, forgotten jumpers. In the recycled trays on her windowsill, the sunflowers are emerging, heads bowed, mouths sealed. She stands and walks slowly over to them, her water bottle in hand. The effort needed, she thinks. The sheer force of willpower it must take to push through the weight of dark earth and rise as they do, their heads angled to the striated shadows, aiming for the light.

Roisín O'Donnell

Roisín O’Donnell has family roots in Derry city and now lives in County Meath. Her collection of stories Wild Quiet was published by New Island Books. Her short fiction has won the An Post Irish Book Award for Short Story of the Year, and has appeared in the anthologies The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. Most recently, one of her stories was adapted for the stage by Big Telly Theatre Company, as part of the Belfast International Festival.

About Sleep Watchers: I’ve recently begun to take an interest in gardening and, in the spirit of curiosity, I planted some seed bombs this spring. Within weeks, I was faced with a conundrum: wildflower vs weed. How do you tell them apart? I was caught by the irony here. While biodiversity has become a buzz word—even petrol stations now run biodiversity sticker campaigns—we’re pretty choosy about the type of wildlife we want to encourage. In trying to ‘re-wild’ a landscape, we might just be taken aback by what actually grows.

While I was thinking about all this, I was drawn to the idea of a story pushing through the cracks, like weeds/wildflowers growing where they are not supposed to. The spill of a story, where a voice has been silenced for so long and then begins to speak. For my protagonist Orla, her loss of self has been staggering; the feeling of being untethered from the person she used to be. Her inner voice has been replaced by the harsh, critical voice of someone else. Pre-empting has become a safety mechanism, difficult to stop.

In ‘Sleep Watchers’, I was taken by the idea of someone in Orla’s position being given a mammoth, hands-on, physical task with a tight deadline. I wondered how this challenge might create distraction, pushing aside that critical voice, creating enough space for hope to step back in. Initially, the story took the shape of an application form. I imagined Orla sitting at her desk, filling in her Green Schools application, at a stage when their bid was doomed. It didn’t matter what she wrote, and so she began typing with complete abandon.

Somewhat unusually for me, I fired through the first draft, not turning back to edit until the very end. It felt like I was being carried along by the momentum of Orla’s story. When James first opened his door, I was as surprised as she was. It was only as I got further into the story, I realised the importance of his reappearance, and her subsequent reawakening of memory