September Creative Writing Competition Winner


Trisha McKinney

My sister Holly’s belongings are on her bed. Four neat piles of clothing and the navy holdall she bought in the army surplus shop back in June.  I watch her packing the way I would a boxing match. One part transfixed, the other pulling away.  And I think to myself, next time it’ll be me.

‘I’m not staying with them,’ I say.

Holly lifts her jumper and places it in the bottom of her bag.  Her jeans and tracksuit go in next.  I turn my face towards the wall.  There is a swell pushing against my ribs.

‘You’ll be fine.’

I’ve pulled the sleeve of my top so much it has a hole now running down the inside seam.  And I think ‘nothing will ever be the same.’

We share a room: two single beds separated by a battered white dressing table.  The sort of place that’s easy to leave.  In the alcove there’s a hawthorn stick with a cluster of metal hangers and two polka dot dresses we wore when we were kids: blue and white for Holly, red and white for me.

All summer, Holly’s planned departure had been closing in, silent and thick as sea mist. The more she tried to train me, the worse it got.  With every failure came flashes of insight into some weakness or other in my own character.

I wasn’t able to handle him and her, Jack and Jill, Mum and Dad. Holly could.  That summer I discovered I was more like them: cowardly and unable to make decisions.

They were Siamese-bound by alcohol: their minds and bodies shrivelled from booze and cigarettes. They looked out onto the world through brittle faces and the world looked back in disdain.  Their skin was so dehydrated I wanted to soak it in something clean and pure.  ‘Yeah. Petrol,’ Holly once joked after they’d been on a five day binge.

Over the years I’d stood by and watched her pour whiskey down the sink then fill the empty bottle with tea.  In winter, she would close the curtains at four o’clock in the afternoon and tell them it was night.  We walked around in our pyjamas, to try and make it real.

She did things and faced the consequences.

She was brilliant.

But it changed one night while I was doing my homework at the kitchen table.  They staggered in around nine o’clock.  Within minutes, she was snoring in the armchair: her broken mouth open. She was his wife first, our mother second, though Holly said she could remember a time when it was the other way round.

He was on the sofa opening and closing his legs.  I’d seen him at it before: getting himself all worked up for nothing.  He started telling me I was the best looking girl in the whole of Leitrim.

I had one eye on the door, just in case he started playing with himself.  Holly said he was harmless and she might have been right, but I didn’t want to be stuck in the room with him. The wind slammed the rain against the window pane so hard I flinched.  I felt sort of beaten. I could hear his legs moving in and out in a frenzied rush, see his knees coming together and separating. The words on the page blurred in front of me from too much staring –the sides of an equilateral triangle are equal to …

He called her name.  ‘Ella, Ella.  Are you sleeping?’

She didn’t answer.

I could see his zip bent upwards in a semi-circle.  The cloth of his trousers stretched taut with the pressure.

Then he looked at me like I was somebody else.

A crevice opened in my chest.

‘What’s going on here?’ Holly opened the door and threw her voice across the room like a disc: flat, round, lethal.  His legs locked and his head dropped.

‘What are you saying?  Is that you Holly?’

‘Oh for God’s sake fix yourself up.’

She was magnificent.

‘Come on,’ she said.

I stood up and started to laugh with relief.

‘We need money for chips.’


‘We need some money,’ she told him.  ‘For dinner.’

‘I haven’t a penny left.’ He tried to jam his hand into his pocket but it didn’t fit.  He took it out again and let it hang limp.

‘There might be something in here.’  Holly prized the handbag free from our mother’s clutch.

‘That’s your mothers’.’

‘I know.’ Holly answered, taking a fiver out of a packet of tissues.

‘Get your coat,’ she said, ‘you’re skin and bone.’

We walked the mile and a half to the town and ate our chips on the bridge wall.  The wet stone seeped through my jeans, but I didn’t care.  It felt like I’d just won something.

‘I’m not going to be around for much longer.  You need to be able to handle them. Do you hear?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘College hopefully. If I get the points.’

‘I’m coming with you,’ I said.

‘You can’t. You’re too young.’

‘I’m not staying on my own with them.’

‘All you’ve got to do is take charge,’ she said, punching my arm.

Everything felt different after that.  She made me practice being more like her.  I tried to take control but they just laughed or got mad at me for being cheeky.

‘You have to be firm with them.’

‘I can’t do it,’ I told her, after another botched attempt at playing the parent. ‘I’ll find my own way.’

Her exam results came out in August.  She didn’t get the points.  I was sad for her but relieved too.  She would have to repeat the last year of school, or so I thought.  Holly had other plans.

‘I’m getting out of here,’ she said.  ‘Plan B is   Australia.’

‘Where will you get the money?’

‘I’ll go to London first.  Get a job.’


‘I have a stash,’ she said.  ‘I took a few coins here and there.  Over the years it built up.’

‘Are you serious? How much?’

She laughed.  ‘€892.’


‘You should start doing the same.’

She left two weeks later.  I walked her to the end of the road.  We almost hugged when the bus arrived, but we changed our minds.

‘You take care of yourself,’ she said.  ‘I’ll write as soon as I find a place to live.  I’ll be back for Christmas.’

I watched the bus pull away and felt my insides had been scooped out.  I lost my appetite.

I stayed in my bedroom for two days looking at the new lock she’d insisted on putting in.

‘Make sure you use it.  You don’t know what sort of characters they invite back half the time.’

I started sleeping in her bed and looking over at mine, pretending I was Holly and it was me that had gone.

Ten days after she left her first letter arrived.  I wrote back. Halloween came and went.  I was counting the days.  Then a Christmas card saying she wouldn’t be coming.

‘The flights are too expensive and I’ll earn more if I work over the holidays,’ she wrote.  ‘I should have enough for my ticket to Melbourne in the New Year.’

It was too much. I spent days avoiding them or sitting home alone wishing they’d return.  I couldn’t face Christmas.  I wasn’t strong.  I started thinking about the video we’d seen in school.  It was about a Christmas tree that went on fire.  The sitting room was burnt to nothing in 47 seconds.  In less than a minute it was all over.  The temperature rose to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

‘Heavy smoke builds up and makes hot gas,’ the presenter explained.  ‘The sofa is normally a good source of fuel.’

I was thinking how much easier life would be that night I walked into the sitting room.

His arm swung out in my direction.  ‘Come over here to me.’

He glanced over at her and laughed.

‘Don’t mind your mother.  She can’t take her drink.’

I took a step closer.  ‘Can I have a cigarette?’

‘Don’t tell me you’ve started already.’

‘Just sometimes,’ I lied.

‘Take a few,’ he said holding out the packet.  Maybe he saw it as a sign of friendship –having a cigarette with your fourteen year old daughter.  I held my hair back and moved towards the flame of his lighter.  He lit one himself.
I coughed.

‘You’re not able for the strong ones yet,’ he laughed.  He seemed pleased about that.  Something he could do.  Something to be superior about.

I took a drag and blew out as much smoke as I could.

His eyes closed and his head bounced up and down, then his chin came to rest on his chest. The ashtray was balancing on the arm of the sofa.  His cigarette burned between his fingers.

I just stood there for a minute and watched them sleep.  I dropped my cigarette into the ashtray then slid it under the sofa.  It was raining so I took my coat.  I walked a mile and a half to the town in search of a warm bag of vinegar-soaked chips, then sat on the bridge until every last one was gone.