No-Knead to Panic. Fantastic Irish Bread Recipies Spelt Out!

No knead speltThis month’s blog is by food writer and cook Valerie O’Connor, author of Irish Bread Baking for Today, the handy paperback based on bestselling and hugely praised cookbook Bread on the Table. Why not try out one on of her fantastic recipes for Easy No-Knead Spelt Bread?

I bake this bread constantly at home and in my baking classes – it’s so easy when you don’t have to do any kneading. This is a great introduction to yeast breads as you get all the benefit of a good rise with none of the effort. This bread freezes really well, so if you’d like to make two loaves and freeze one, simply double everything.

Ingredients:
500ml/18floz tepid water
1 tsp honey
1½ tsp fast-action yeast
500g/18oz wholemeal spelt flour
Approx 50g/2oz porridge oats
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp mixed seeds
Preheat the oven to 200C/390F/Gas 6
Prepare a 2lb loaf tin
1. In a jug measure 200ml/7floz hot water, dissolve the honey, then top up to 500ml/16floz with cold water, add the yeast and leave it to ‘sponge’ (froth up) for 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl mix the spelt flour with the oats and salt, pour in the yeasty water and mix well to combine. The mixture will be wet and puffy, a bit like a thick porridge.
3. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, sprinkle the mixed seeds over the top, cover with a tea towel and leave aside for 40 mins to 1 hour until it has risen to just below the top of the tin. Any warm, draught-free place is good for this. Have the oven preheating for 30 minutes before the loaf is due to
go in.
4. Put the tin into the oven and bake at 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 10 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and bake for a further 50 mins.
5. When the loaf is baked, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for about 20 minutes. Run a knife around the inside of the tin, tip out the loaf and return it to the cooling oven to crisp up the crust.

Val O'Connor plantsValerie O’Connor is a cook, food writer and photographer; she has cooked in professional kitchens from Brussels to Malaysia. She is a qualified organic horticulturalist and tutors in food growing, cooking and baking. She is widely published in the press and has appeared as a guest critic on Masterchef Ireland.

The Root of Inspiration

Author and award-winning illustrator Matt Griffin talks about the inspiration behind his debut novel, A Cage of Roots.

The process of writing A Cage of Roots began with a walk. This is something I do whenever I’m faced with a big illustration project or anything that requires a high degree of creativity. I need the air, the motion, the colours, and most of all I need to start the walk with a blank slate. For the first kilometre or so, I probably resemble an extra from The Walking Dead. So effective is my ability to turn off any distractions, such as thinking, that I am often in danger of forgetting that thinking is the reason I went for a walk in the first place. And so it was that I shuffled zombie-like along the paths of Lees Road Park in Ennis with a mission to create my own dark version of ancient Ireland.

As ever, when I pick up the pace, my brain follows suit and the cogs grind into action. I start to see things. Not like a movie, as such – more like the visions you have when you’re reading a book and you forget that you are actually reading. Random scenes flash before my eyes, and as I walk, they coalesce into a narrative. It may sound cheesy, but the story presents itself to me and I just watch. Then I rewind and replay, not just to refine it but to make sure I don’t forget. It’s probably quite a frightening sight for my fellow walkers. I’m sure joggers go off-piste into the undergrowth to avoid me. But in those moments I am completely and utterly lost in the story, and nothing less than a nuclear explosion would distract me. It is a happy time.

Emma Byrne, the brilliant Art Director at The O’Brien Press, was the first person to suggest that I might try writing a story of my own. She could tell from my illustration work at the time that I had a penchant for both Irish myth and the darker side of fairy tales. I had written in a journalistic capacity in my twenties, but I hadn’t written fiction since school. I did, however, keep stacks of notebooks filled with concepts for stories. I never had a shortage of ideas – but this was a real chance to show that I could bring a book from concept to finish. It was a challenge I gratefully accepted, suffered panic at the hands of, and eventually relished in. I went for my walk, dreamt up the bones of the story, and got to work.

It needed some refining.

As a first-time writer, I needed guidance. I could put nice words in the right order, but building a story, with arcs and strands and consequences, was next-level. It took hard work and the wisdom of people who know better. I had learned a lot from a friend of mine, the director/animator/puppeteer Damian Farrell, with whom I had worked on a feature film concept. But I was still wet behind the ears. Thankfully, once again, The O’Brien Press had faith, and my editor, Susan Houlden, helped me develop from a potential writer to (I hope!) a writer. Without that guidance I couldn’t have done it; it’s that simple.

Being an illustrator first, it was imperative that I have art in my book. These kind of books don’t often have illustrations, it was argued, but my dream from early childhood was to make my own world in words and then to be allowed to show glimpses of it with drawings. (As an impossibly cute young scamp, I obsessed over Tolkien’s artwork in The Hobbit as much as the story.) As it happened, I heaped incredible pressure on myself to produce my best work, and as your best work is always ahead of you (lesson there, folks!), I am already dissatisfied with it. That is my lot as an artist, though – I am never happy with my work for longer than a day.

I was also allowed to design the cover, and I would probably be dissatisfied with that too if it wasn’t for the embossing. That saves it. (Thanks, Emma!)

So now it’s on to the next story in Ayla’s adventure. I’m already knee-deep in it, having walked and dreamt on a clear day halfway up Mullaghmore in the Burren. This time, the drawings will be my best work ever. For a day at least.

Matt Griffin was born in DMattGriffinublin in 1979 and grew up in Kells, Co. Meath. After a brief attempt at third level education he spent eight years in London working in the media, before moving home to Ireland in 2008 to pursue his dream of becoming a fulltime illustrator. Since then he has garnered a reputation as one of the most eclectic graphic artists in contemporary illustration, collecting awards and accolades for his work in publishing, advertising and, in particular, the field of poster art. His passion for visual design was always married to one for writing. He lives in Ennis, Co. Clare, with his wife Orla and daughters Holly & Chloe.

 

Under the Spell of the Hawthorn Tree

Earlier this month, Today FM posted on their Facebook page an original copy of Under the Hawthorn Tree, which got a phenomenal response (over 25k likes in a couple of hours!). Michael O’Brien, The O’Brien Press Publisher, talks about how the bestselling book and its iconic cover came to be.

Looking back on 1989, when I introduced artist Donald Teskey to Marita Conlon-McKenna, she was virtually unknown and he was in the early stages of his career as a painter.

Marita had submitted Under the Hawthorn Tree, a brutal yet brilliant story based around the Irish Famine, the question raised was, would parents want their children reading about starvation and death in 1840s Ireland. This made the illustrating of the novel critical, to set the right tone when capturing the tragedy which caused one million deaths and one million to leave Ireland’s shores. It needed an illustrator who could capture the drama and action of the three children fleeing across Ireland to save their lives, yet in a style that would encourage them to read and enjoy the book, rather than be scared by the hardship depicted by Marita.

My first experience of Donald Teskey was through the café his wife Kim Bloom ran in Terenure; on the walls she displayed wonderful drawings by him showing the urban life of Dublin at the time – gritty yet beautiful. I was greatly impressed! This was before Donald’s exhibitions in the early nineties, which launched his stellar career as a landscape painter. When Kim introduced me to Donald and I saw his portfolio, I was blown away and I asked him to illustrate some O’Brien Press children’s books, including Under the Hawthorn Tree.

Recently, I asked Donald about illustrating Marita’s books, and he said he was influenced by Louis Le Brocquy’s Táin illustrations. He said: ‘I wished to give the reader an inkling of what was going to happen – to capture the humanity of the story.’

Donald went on to create similar illustrations for Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home to complete the trilogy.

Since those days, Donald Teskey’s reputation and work has spread internationally to major centres of art: Paris, London and New York. He elected a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy and is represented in major collections including the Arts Council, Irish Museum of Modern Art, AIB, Limerick City Gallery of Art, KPMG, Butler Gallery, The Ulster Bank, OPW and The Ballinglen Arts Foundation.

O’Brien Press is printing a limited edition of Under the Hawthorn Tree with the original cover. Check it out here.

 

Weaving a Spell for World Book Day 2015

Erika McGann catches up with us about what it was like to write her first novella, The Fairytale Trap, for World Book Day 2015, as part of her award-winning magical series.

I had an inkling of an idea for a fourth novel when the possibility TheFairytaleTrapcame up to write a short book especially for World Book Day. I didn’t know yet if a fourth novel was wanted, or if I wanted to write it, but when I was asked to do a novella for WBD in March it seemed the sensible thing to follow it with a new book in September.

So I sat down to write the novella – about 10,000 words – thinking it would take no time at all. But I had a problem with the story almost right away. I liked it, and the more I jotted down notes and possible twists in the plot, the more I thought that this story would do better as a novel. Having my school in Dunbridge engulfed by a real-life fairytale had loads of scope for subplots, character development, funny scenes and scary moments; but I couldn’t do that in 10,000 words. So I switched storylines. The fairytale plot became the fourth novel, and the fourth novel plot became the WBD novella.

So I sat down to write the novella, thinking it would be dead easy. Until I hit a problem with the story. I liked it. A 1930s-style carnival arriving unexpectedly in the dead of night – withered and fading tents, a creaking ferris wheel, a sinister ringmaster, a bearded ballerina, a haunted music box and a wicked hex – had lots of room to take the storyline wherever I felt like taking it. And the more notes and ideas I scrawled in my notebook, the more I realised I couldn’t fit it all into 10,000 words.

So I switched storylines. Again. The fairytale went back to being the novella, the carnival the novel. I won’t bore you with the details but suffice to say I switched again, more than once. I remember sitting outside in the sunshine, the cursor on my laptop flashing impatiently, worried that whichever story I picked to be the shorter, I’d regret it.

In the end, I realised I had to be sensible about it. The carnival was on Dunbridge Green, so the carnival story would feature the town, the school and probably the girls’ homes. The fairytale story trapped the girls in school – although it would take on the appearance of a medieval village, the school grounds would be the only setting. The carnival had to feature an array of new and strange characters. The fairytale plot would include references to Red Riding Hood – the granny, the wolf, Red Riding Hood herself – but it had to be limited in terms of new characters. In the carnival story the girls’ magic lessons would continue, meaning the introduction of new spells and skills. In the fairytale story their powers would be bound, and they would have to escape their predicament without the help of their usual repertoire of magic tricks.

It was obvious the fairytale story lent itself better to a novella.

So I sat down to write this short book, presuming that any challenges were now overcome. I hit the first problem a couple of chapters in. There was a clear opening for a lovely little subplot, so I began writing it and, after a few hundred words, realised it was eating into my word count. So, pained, I deleted the subplot. The next issue arose barely a chapter later, when a new character caught my fancy and I decided to expand on him. Until he started chomping through my word count. I deleted him too.

I determined that writing a short book is constrictive and terrible, and no-one should ever do it ever. Like a sulky teenager I slaved away on this cruel project, adding nothing extra, allowing no superfluous words, sticking only to the main storyline. Embracing my inner angsty teenager, I decided I was a literary martyr.

About halfway through, I began to enjoy my martyrdom. Without distractions and subplots, I had to rocket through the story, my characters leaping from one scene to the next like action heroes. What had been frustrating became a bit like a rollercoaster ride – I moved so quickly through the plot that I was tired but content every time I closed my laptop.

My writing got neater too. Keeping the number of words to a minimum meant my descriptions had to be clear and to the point, no waffling on and getting caught up in the moment when describing a pencil. I abandoned those naughty little adverbs that you know you don’t need, and cut out incidental characters that added nothing to the story.

I’ve since determined that completing a novella is binding and difficult, and everyone should try it. It is excellent practice, and guaranteed to show you where you’re liable to veer off the point and get a little sloppy. In short, it was a great writing experience.

The book was humbling, and took some getting used to, but The Fairytale Trap was a joy to write. And I hope that makes it a joy to read.

Erika McGann was the winner of the Waverton Good Read Children’s Prize 2014 for The Demon Notebook, the first in her magical series about Grace and her four friends.

The 2015 CBI Design-a-Cover Competition Winners

Congratulations to the 2015 Children’s Books Ireland Design-a-Cover Competition Winners!

Back in October 2014 we teamed up with CBI for the annual Design-a-Cover Competition. The book chosen was The Lost Fairy by Marian Broderick – it’s a story about a very vain Christmas tree fairy who falls off her perch!

We asked school children across Ireland to send us their designs for a new cover and wow, the caliber of the entries was amazing! It was tough, but we chose a Winner, 2nd place and 4 Runners Up.

In first place is Shelagh Jessica Gilbourne from Cork, whose artwork will appear on the cover of the book!

TheLostFairyCBI

In second place is Jasmine Carroll from Ardee, Co. Louth whose work will appear on the back cover.

JasmineCarroll

Runners up, Kayla Brady, Saibh Scorr, Orla Fitzpatrick and Sarah O’Beirne will see their artwork used on the inner back cover page of the new edition of The Lost Fairy!

KaylaBrady SaibhScorr OrlaFitzpatrick SaraOBrien

Well done to everyone and thank you for entering!

The new edition of The Lost Fairy will be out in April.

Viva Judi Curtin!

This month we catch up with the bestselling children’s author on all her latest projects.

1)          You’re the author of the ‘Alice & Megan’ series and the ‘Eva’ series (among other books). After a break from writing about Alice & Megan (during which you wrote four books about Eva and her friends), you returned to the world of Alice & Megan this year with Viva Alice. How did it feel to return to these characters after a break, and what inspired you to do so?

Alice and Megan were my first child characters, so they will always be special to me. I know this sounds sad, but I returned to them because I missed them. I felt as if their lives were suspended, while they waited for me to return. Writing about them again was like spending time with old friends.

2)          Though each of your books stand alone and can be read independently of each other, the characters grow and develop from book to book, and there are threads that run through the whole series. One of them is Megan’s relationship with ‘mean girl’ Melissa. Tell us a bit about how that relationship develops in this book.

In Alice Next Door, I created Melissa to show how vulnerable Megan was when Alice moved away. As time went on though, I found myself wondering about Melissa and her motivation. Does she have any good points? Why is she so mean to Megan? In Viva Alice, I tried to answer both of these questions.

3)          Viva Alice is your eighth novel about Alice & Megan. Has the experience of writing them changed over the years? From meeting readers, do you think the interest and preoccupations of your readers have changed in this time?

The writing experience hasn’t changed in any big ways. I think young people still enjoy reading about school, family and friendship. The only changes are minor ones – especially anything related to technology, which has changed greatly over the years.

4)          The ‘Alice & Megan’ series has always had a very distinctive ‘look’. With the release of Viva Alice, the whole series has been repackaged with new covers by Nicola Colton. Do you have a favourite cover from the new-look series?

In the older versions, Alice in the Middle was my definite favourite. This time around, I love them all, with maybe a slight preference for Don’t Ask Alice. (The squirrel is very cute.)

5)          I know writers can’t choose favourites from their books – but do you have any favourite characters from your two series? Who are your favourite major and minor characters from each series and why?

This is a cruel question, and I’m not sure how to answer it. I definitely can’t choose a favourite major character, as that would be like choosing between my children. Some minor characters I particularly like are Maggie from the Eva series and Kellie from the Alice series.

6      Have you ever created a character who started out with a minor role, but ended up taking on a life of their own and playing a bigger part in the series than you’d planned?

Domino is probably the best example of this. She strayed into Megan’s life when she was very sad and upset, and she never left. In Alice to the Rescue, she is a huge part of the story.

8)      What are you working on at the moment? Any new books planned?

At the moment I am working on a new Eva book, which hasn’t got a title yet. As always, Eva works hard to help people who are in trouble. This time, with Ella’s help, she has to sort things out for Ella’s granny, and a Nigerian girl called Aretta.

Judi Curtin is the best-selling author of the ‘Alice and Megan’ series. She is also the author of the smash-hit Eva series: Eva’s Journey, Eva’s Holiday, Leave it to Eva and Eva and the Hidden Diary. With Roisin Meaney she has written See If I Care. Judi has also written three novels, Sorry, Walter, From Claire to Here and Almost Perfect.

We Are All Charlie: Text of International Publishers Association press release

IPA Press Release

We are all Charlie Hebdo: Arab and international publishers unite in defence of freedom of expression

Geneva, 7 January 2015

Murderous attack on French satirical magazine is an attack on publishers’ shared values.

The global publishing community is appalled at today’s brutal attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, where editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier and cartoonists Jean Cabut, Bernard Verlhac and George Wolinski were among twelve people killed.

Assem Shalaby, President of the Arab Publishers Association condemned “this ‎vicious attack that contravenes the principles of Islam and the message of its prophet.”

“This is a horrible crime committed against humanity, freedom of expression, Islam and Muslims” said Ibrahim El Moallem, Chairman of Dar El Shorouk, the largest Arab book publisher. “It is an attack against civilization.”

IPA President, Bloomsbury’s Richard Charkin, said “the attack on Charlie Hebdo is an attack on publishers’ core values: freedom of expression, freedom to publish and the right to criticise and polemicise. IPA calls on all publishers, authors, journalists and cartoonists to stand together and defend these values. We are all Charlie Hebdo.”

Vincent Montagne, President of the French publishers association SNE said “we are profoundly shocked by today’s murderous attack against authors, journalists and cartoonists. Barbarism and fanaticism will not have the last word”.

Ola Wallin, Chair of IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee said “today’s assassination in Paris is a crime against the entire publishing industry. The workers at Charlie Hebdo sacrificed their lives for freedom of expression.”

IPA Secretary General Jens Bammel said “we should not allow radical minorities to besmirch the message of all major religions: that of peace, compassion, love and respect. The publishing world’s thoughts are with today’s victims and their families.”

Thank You!

Ivan O’Brien talking at the recent O’Brien Press 40th Anniversary party. Michael O’Brien, Frank McGuinness, Alice Taylor and Robert Dunbar also spoke.

We would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone for all of the messages of support we have received since the news broke about O’Brien Press being singled out for a dramatic 84% cut in our Arts Council funding for 2015. We have been inundated with emails and letters from the writing community, both here and abroad. We greatly appreciate your offers of support and were especially heartened by two Letters to the Editor published in the Irish Times and the Irish Examiner in the last week.

Arts Council funding has been crucial in our ability to build and grow our children’s publishing programme and, more recently, our acclaimed general fiction list. The impact of that support being withdrawn would have devastating consequences for Irish writers and writing. The O’Brien Press has always sought to develop new writing talent, and we are delighted to have published the first novels of authors such as Eoin Colfer, Marita Conlon-McKenna and Frank McGuinness, and hundreds of other talents. Commercial success is, however, far from guaranteed, which is why Arts Council funding is so important for both our children’s fiction and Brandon Fiction programmes: without it, we cannot imagine the long-term impact on Irish writers. In particular, Irish children’s literature is being blatantly downgraded, while other areas of literature are not. The entire sector is jeopardized by this funding cut, and it is far too important for us to stand by and let that happen.

We’ll keep you updated on our campaign to have our funding restored to an annual category. Words of support from the writing community have been a huge help.

If you’d like to add your voice, you can contact both Arts Council Director, Orlaith McBride, and Chair, Sheila Pratschke, at bernie.oleary@artscouncil.ie, and you can find email addresses for your TDs here, and Ministers here. It would also be useful to get in touch with any contacts you may have in local or national media.

We greatly appreciate your support.

#Supportirishwriting

Quality Time

SurgeA story by Madeleine D’Arcy, taken from Surge: New Writing from Ireland

If only one of those idiot nurses would turn his television on. All he had to contemplate was the ceiling above him. That dreadful ceiling, with its banal magnolia paint. Supreme blandness, but for a daub in a slightly darker shade right above his bed. An oddly shaped imperfection – the result, he was convinced, of something more sinister – blood from an exploding vein, a leaping spurt of pus, an ejaculation? The reason for the overlay of paint obsessed him daily since he’d found himself stretched out on this hospital bed, helpless and utterly immobile.

The multiple ignominies of the past week made him seethe with impotent fury, but at least the lackeys had not overlooked his Laya GoldPlus health insurance, so he had a private room. His field of vision was limited to the upper part of the door on his left and of the window on the right, that dratted ceiling, the helpless emergency cord dangling like a neglected toy barely visible in the corner of his eye and, thankfully, the television, hanging on its metal limb high up on the far wall.

On duty today was the one he called Nurse Wretched. If only he could speak, he’d have a thing or two to say to that bitch. He detested all the nurses, in fact, except for little Nursie Tinybones, with her soft plump hands and incongruous scent of bubblegum and flowers. And Patchett, the physio, was not a bad sort – at least she provided the only smidgen of bodily ease he’d experienced since that blasted stroke.

If only bloody Nurse Wretched would switch the dratted TV on. The careless cow had also left his door ajar. He could hear the enervating clatter of the underlings outside and smell some disastrous boiled vegetableness floating in the disinfectant air. Even more excruciating was Wretched’s fake-sincere chatter with some female in the corridor outside.

‘So, here he is, and won’t he be delighted to see you, the poor poppet!’ Nurse Wretched squealed as she swung round the door and into the room, hovering over him, showing him off as if he were Exhibit A.
‘Now, look who’s come all the way from London to see her dear old dad!’ she cooed.
If only Wretched would drop dead.

‘Thank you, nurse.’ The other woman’s voice seemed unaccountably familiar, despite the slight English accent.

‘He can’t turn his head, dear.  You’ll have to get in close so he’ll see you.’

A middle-aged woman leaned over him. There was something distinctly recognisable about her.

‘So … this is a Diving Bell and Butterfly scenario, is it?’ asked the woman in her Englishy accent.

‘What?’

‘Am I correct to assume that he knows what’s going on even though he can’t move or speak or … well, do anything?’

‘He can move his eyes, dear, but that’s all. That’s how we know he likes to watch the telly.’

The Englishwoman looked at him, and he rolled both his eyes at her.

There, he thought. See what you make of that, girlie. See what you make of that.

‘And all these tubes?’

‘Well, pet, he can’t breathe properly without them.  We have to feed him intravenously as well.’ Nurse Wretched lowered her voice. ‘He has to wear an incontinence pad down below, of course.’

‘And you don’t know how long this condition will last?’

‘No, dear … well, I’m not allowed to say.  You’ll have to talk to the Consultant.’

‘I understand. Thank you, nurse.’

‘Right, then. I’ll leave you to it.’

Exit Nurse Wretched. The door clunked shut behind her.

The Englishwoman leaned over, so that he could see her face again.

‘Well, well, Dad,’ she said. ‘Long time, no see. It’s me, Trisha.’

Yes, it was his daughter, Trisha. He recognised those bitter little eyes, the bone structure of her face, the still-beautiful hair. She must be almost forty now, he supposed.  Well preserved, all the same. The lovely smooth blonde hair – a shame she wore it shorter now – what was the name of that style? A bob? The outfit was pitiful, somewhat like the clothes that Wifey used to wear. A blue denim jacket over a white blouse. Did they still call them blouses? Cheap dangly earrings. No class. How could she? Wifey had no class either. In the end, he had despised Wifey. Though not as much as she despised him, he supposed. He blinked. I’m still here girlie. See what you make of that.

Trisha looked almost afraid, but she recovered within moments. ‘You’re in there all right, aren’t you? You’re still there, Dad. Not that you deserve to be.’

The colour of his daughter’s hair was darker than he recalled. Ash blonde, was it? In his memory, she was a fairytale child with long golden tresses. From this rancid bedtrap he could still imagine – almost feel – the smooth ripeness of her hair.

‘Trust you to have great health insurance. Just as well, I suppose.  You’re going to be here for a long time.’ She walked around the bed, and from the other side she leaned over again to peer into his face.

‘Can you hear me?’ she asked, loudly. She looked into his eyes. ‘You’re in there all right, you bastard.  Yes, it’s me, your daughter. Let’s spend some quality time together, shall we?’ She straightened up and walked back around the bed. She sat down in the chair. He could barely see her now, but he could smell a faint lemony perfume.

‘Hilarious that you can’t talk,’ she said, in a hard voice. ‘You used to have plenty to say, didn’t you? Hardly ever stopped ranting at Mum and upsetting her.  When you were in the house, the only time we had peace was when you read to me. But the books you chose – I couldn’t understand half of them. Remember Don Quixote? Tilting at windmills. I had no idea what it was all about. I was probably only four then. I just listened. I’d do anything to keep you in a good mood.’

He remembered, quite suddenly and clearly, the cover of that book: a daft old man on a horse, wearing yellow armour, and little Sancho Panza, his underling, bound to obey a lunatic who was out of control. The tale had amused him once.

‘I remember the way you brushed my hair and counted. Forty slow brushstrokes on each section, and then you’d … oh God …’ She put her head in her hands.

He thought she might be crying.  What the heck was she fussing about?

‘I wish Mum could see you now – the state of you – but she can’t. She’s dead. She died two years ago. Did you know that? I didn’t bother letting you know. If only she had had your medical insurance – but the NHS wasn’t too bad.’ She wiped her eyes.

He heard the door open. Nurse Minnie Mouse squeaked in, all pert and businessy as usual.

‘Just got to do his bloods,’ she chirped.

How he hated them all.

At his side he felt, rather than saw, Trisha rising from the chair.

‘No need to move,’ Nurse Minnie Mouse said. ‘You can stay if you like. So long as you’re not squeamish.’

‘No, I’m not a bit squeamish. Thank you, nurse.’

He felt her sit down again, a small flow of air and that lemon fragrance, with a hint of flowers, perhaps lilies.

‘You’re the daughter, aren’t you? Call me Barbara,’ Mousey said cheerfully, as she jabbed a needle most painfully into the flesh of his upper arm. How he longed to roar at that despicable woman. All her persnickety tidiness and yet she was clueless about the most basic of tasks. That small rodent face of hers was asking to be hit.

‘I hear you only just arrived from London,’ said Mousey to his daughter. ‘You must be exhausted. I could bring you a cup of tea, if you like?’

‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m fine, thanks.’

‘So, whereabouts in London do you live?’

He wished Mousey would quit sticking her nosy little nose in. He hated her even more than Nurse Wretched now.

‘Muswell Hill.’

‘That’s North London, isn’t it? I used to live in Clapham once upon a time.’

‘I lived there too, for a while, when I was ten. Then my mother met my stepfather, so we moved to North London when I was twelve.’

From his stodgy static bed he felt intensely vexed. So Wifey had met someone else, the bitch? Surely it couldn’t have lasted.

‘And do you come back to Ireland very often?’

‘Not really,’ said Trisha.

‘Well, at least you’re here now, that’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ Nurse Minnie Mouse squeaked.
He could not see what the nurse was doing, but he could hear her fannying about beside him, probably fixing adhesive labels on the vials of his still-warm blood.

‘Yes,’ said his daughter, absently.

The nurse fumbled at the bottom of the bed. She wrote on a chart with a blue biro before returning the pen to her breast pocket and replacing the chart.

‘All done for now,’ she said. ‘I’ll leave you in peace.’ Exit Nurse Minnie Mouse with a see-through envelope containing his blood.

As soon as the door closed, Trisha spoke again. ‘She’s left us in peace, Dad,’ she said. ‘Pity you never left us in peace.’ She stood up and began to pace. ‘Mum was never right afterwards, you know. She tried. God help her, she tried. But she always went for the wrong men.’

Wifey was an idiot. That had become obvious over time. He could not conceive now of any possible reason why he had ever married Wifey, but it was hardly his fault she was an idiot.

‘Mum was so naive,’ his daugher continued. ‘Of course, people didn’t talk about things in those days.’ There she was again, at the side of the bed. She leaned over and stared into his eyes. ‘Can you hear me? Yes, you can, can’t you? So, let’s see, how many years is it since we had some quality time together? Thirty, maybe? Can you cast your mind back?’

How sarcastic she was, the little bitch.

‘Of course, Mum should have faced up to things, but she didn’t.  You got off scot-free.  You probably went on doing the same kind of thing all your life. Men like you, they don’t stop, do they?’
A phone rang out, a cheerful cha cha cha tone.

‘Hang on.’ She reached down, and he could hear a zip being unzipped, some fumbling sounds. She stood up and plonked her handbag on the bed. ‘Yes, that’s fine. I’ll be there,’ she said, into one of those new-fangled phones, before replacing it in the bag. She took out a handkerchief and blew her nose, before continuing. ‘Poor Mum. I blamed her for a long time, you know. She was so naive. In spite of those enormous blue eyes she couldn’t see what was going on under her nose.’

She got up again and began to pace up and down. ‘I wanted to tell her for so long, but you wouldn’t let me.  You said I could never tell.  You used to stroke my hair. Remember? You washed my hair too. That was one of your jobs. Then you’d plait it.’

Ah, yes, he had loved every hair on her little urchin head. He used to brush it for hours and smooth it into two beautiful princess-like ponytails or plait it in various delightful ways. He could almost feel the sap rising now. How delicious it was when her little friends began to ask him to arrange their hair too, to fix it in pretty plaits like hers. Perhaps he should have been a hairdresser. In his day, only women did that job. It was a sissy job, though, and he was certainly never a sissy.
‘My friends all wanted plaits like mine. Mary Kate came to our house, one day, to play.  You came home early from work, remember? Mum said, “Great, you’re back early. I’ll just pop out to the butcher’s.” You plaited Mary Kate’s hair, and then she went home, and then you took down my hair and brushed it straight, and you said my hair was the prettiest and that you loved me more than you loved anyone and that we had to be nice to each other.  You said it was our secret.  You’d have to cut my beautiful hair off if I told, and I’d have no hair left, and I’d be ugly, and I’d look like a boy, and that would be horrible.’

She sounded almost out of breath as she paced around the room. He couldn’t see much of her, but he could feel a minuscule flow of air as she moved back and forth somewhere near the foot of his bed. Maybe she was waving her arms. A windmill daughter. Or maybe a Don Quixote daughter, tilting uselessly at windmills. Once upon a time, she had sat on his knee while he read that book aloud. She was too young to understand the story, but he read it to her anyway.

‘The shock of it. I can’t describe it. Seeing my friend, Mary Kate, with her hair shorn. Stubby little haircut, like a boy’s. The look on her face. “I’m never going to your house again,” she said. “I can’t be your friend any more.” I knew it was your fault, but I said nothing.  You cut my hair off anyway, in the end.’

He remembered that little spoilsport, Mary Kate, who had told her mother about the fun they’d had. The little brat. She had had the most delicious chestnut hair. She told her story once, but she refused to tell it again, because he’d warned her, you see. Hair first, neck next, he’d whispered in her tiny ear. Ah, the overwhelming pleasure of that thick rope of hair shifting in his hand. Oh, the sheer joy of the blades working through the sheaf of chestnut brown. No choice but to do it once again, with his own, the blonde.

‘What did you do to her? What other awful things did you do?’ She leaned over him and stared right into his eyes. ‘How could you live with yourself? I can hardly live with myself, and I did nothing wrong.  You bastard.’

She moved out of his view again and paced while she spoke. ‘You know what, I was jealous. Can you believe it? You always said you loved me the most, and then I found out you were doing the same things with Mary Kate. Crazy, isn’t it? But that’s the way it was.’

She stopped and faced the window. Her smooth blonde hair touched the collar of her blue denim jacket. Shame it was so short now. ‘We were lucky.  We got help in London,’ she told the window. ‘A great charity. I still donate. Only for that place we’d have been on the streets. The thing is, I’ve had therapy since then – loads of therapy – but I can’t get over it.’ She paused and took a deep breath. ‘I still feel guilty,’ she continued. ‘We just ran away.  We left you there to do as you pleased. That didn’t solve anything. For men like you, there’s only one solution.’

He heard her unzip her bag again. There was a metallic swishing sound. ‘See what I have?’ she said, towering over him now with a large chrome scissors in her hand. ‘Chop chop.’ She snipped the scissors open, closed, open, closed, right in front of his face.

‘How do you like this?’ she said. ‘All these tubes. I could snip them all.’

Finally, he was afraid. It would be a painful death. Such hatred in her eyes. As usual, no Wretched Nursie, no Minnie Mousey Nursie, no little Nursie Tinybones. Like buses, there was not a single bloody nursie around when you needed one.

He felt cold air on his lower body. She had raised the bedclothes. He could only imagine the pathetic sight: his bare old legs, the hospital nightdress, the bulge of his hospital diapers underneath. His warm urine flowed along a catheter, and there was an itch somewhere on his left foot that he would never be able to scratch.

‘I think I’ll take your nappy off and give you a snip,’ she said. ‘I could do a right job on you, couldn’t I? I could snip, snip, snip your dirty great thing right off.’

He felt the bedclothes being replaced carefully.

‘Hmm,’ she said and leaned over. She snipped the scissors several times, efficiently, in front of his face. Then she stopped and looked straight into his eyes. ‘Not today,’ she sighed. ‘I can’t be bothered today. Snip snip. I’ll take my time about it. See you tomorrow.’

She picked up her handbag and held it high, so he could see her place the scissors carefully inside. ‘Toodle-pip and toodle-oo,’ she called, as she left the room.

Damn it, he thought, his heart racing. He had once accused Wifey of having a fancy man. He’d even tried to slap the truth out of her. He’d been certain the child was not his own. Now, he realised he had been wrong. This girl was flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. The same feisty spirit. That zest for danger. The delicious tension. The tantalising feeling that a nurse could walk in on them at any moment.  What a cunning little vixen. He was almost looking forward to her next visit.

But now the television was blank. That blasted Nurse Wretched. He wished she’d hurry up and turn it on.

Madeleine D’Arcy worked as a criminal legal-aid solicitor and as a legal editor in London before returning to Cork in 1999 with her husband and son. She began to write short stories in 2005. In 2010, she received a Hennessy X.O. Literary Award for First Fiction as well as the overall Hennessy X.O. Literary Award for New Irish Writer. Madeleine’s story ‘Dog Pound’ has been made into a short film, starring Frank Kelly. Her short-story collection, Waiting for the Bullet, was published by Doire Press in April 2014. She is a student on the inaugural master’s degree in creative writing at UCC.

Watch out for Erika McGann!

We catch up with the award-winning children’s author on all her latest projects.

This autumn sees the publication of the third book in your supernatural series, The Watching Wood. This time Grace and the girls get caught up in the Witch Trials. Tell us a bit about their adventure.

In the new book the girls get sucked into a magical world full of witches, faeries and creepy ghost children. Grace and her friends are forced to take part in the Witch Trials, a kind of supernatural Community Games, and unwittingly make enemies of a rival team. They soon discover that there are more dangerous things in this new world then a spiteful team of witch apprentices – the woods nearby are filled with faeries, magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, banished by witches and hell-bent on revenge. With the little magic they’ve learned so far, the girls must survive the Witch Trials, navigate through the faery-filled woods and pay the mysterious Ferryman’s price to make it back home.

Your next book after The Watching Wood will be a mini-adventure with Grace and her friends, The Fairytale Trap, a 2015 World Book Day Book (you can pick it up for FREE with a WBD voucher). What were the challenges you had in writing this adventure, compared to writing The Demon Notebook, or your other full-length novels?

This was a fun one to write – a little magical mishap to drop into the girls’ school year – but keeping it short was a bit of a struggle. You’re always tempted to elaborate, build up the atmosphere slowly and add a few subplots, but this was a novella, not a novel, so it had to be quick and to the point. I enjoyed that though, there was no lull in the pace. The girls leap from one scene to the next without stopping. It kept me on my toes!

So what’s next for Grace and the girls? Are there more magical adventures to come?

Yes, there’s a fourth novel in the series due out in autumn next year. I haven’t really started on the text yet (I need to get a move on!), but it’ll centre on an old-style carnival that arrives unexpectedly in Dunbridge. I love the idea of a carnival – it’s fun and exciting, with just a little bit of creepy.

Have you any other plans for books outside the magical series you’ve created?

I’d love to have a go at a few other things if I could find the time! At the moment, the Dunbridge books are keeping me busy, but maybe in a year or two …

You do lots of events up and down the country – what’s your favourite part of these readings and visits?

The Q&A that comes at the end of each session (or in the middle of the session if I’ve got a chatty group!). I like talking about books and writing and how I got started, but it’s really the conversation with the kids that’s the fun part. I’m happy to talk at a group, but talking with them is much more enjoyable.

This summer you travelled to the UK to pick up the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award 2014. How did it feel to win the award? And what did you get up to while there?

It was a wonderful couple of days in a beautiful part of England. The organisers were lovely and made sure I saw plenty of the country while I was there. I got to watch the vote for the Waverton Award for adults, which was really interesting (plenty of rivalry between the advocates of each shortlisted title!), and I did a short talk with them. I met some of the kids, of course, and they were a fantastic bunch; full of chat and enthusiasm and a real love of reading. It was a great trip and I was so delighted to win the award.

You are pretty active on Twitter and Facebook – it seems like social media is a part of a modern-day writer’s life. Is it a part of ‘the job’ you enjoy?

It’s a part of ‘the job’ I still have to master. I try to keep up-to-date as much as possible on both, but I should be posting more often. It is definitely compulsory for the modern-day writer – social media is the quickest and easiest way to reach people, and being good at it can make all the difference to your writing career. I vow to become more proficient this year!

The Demon Notebook was recently published in the USA and it is to be translated into Spanish for the Mexican market. What was it like to see the USA version of the book? Would you be worried how the book will change when it is translated?

I adore the USA edition, it’s absolutely gorgeous. And I had great fun during the edit, learning what Irish phrases mean absolutely nothing outside of Ireland and why I had to change them. I actually wrote a piece for gobblefunked.com recently about that and what happens when your work is translated (this was before the Mexican deal was signed). I considered that a translator is like a co-author you never get to meet – someone who rewrites and arranges your text for a brand new audience. I’ll never get to appreciate how the book reads in Spanish, but I still can’t wait to see it.

What advice would you give to emerging authors who’d love to write a book for children?

Write what you love and what got you excited about reading as a kid. I think when you write for children you regress a bit and experience it as you would have back then. And that’s when it works best – when you read your own text and know you would have gobbled it up when you were young.

Erika McGann was the winner of the Waverton Good Read Children’s Prize 2014 for The Demon Notebook, the first in her magical series about Grace and her four friends.