Jackets and blurbs ...
The original 1990 edition ...
Reading Group Guide ...

Some notes from the author ...

Reviews ...
A review of the original 1990 edition, from the Literary Review UK

Read an extract: Chapter Five: Nighttime in Kilbrack ...
Read a joke: of lesbians and avocados ...

Amazons ... should you choose to purchase.

Jamie O’Neill home
At Swim, Two Boys
Short Stories

Kilbrack home ...
Chapter 5

Nighttime in Kilbrack

Later that night, much later, as O’Leary Montagu climbed the stairs on his way to bed, he realized he was drunk. Very drunk. He couldn’t remember if he’d locked the front door of the pub even.

And he realized he was drunk because his thoughts, rather than arranging themselves in concise diary memos, continued to slug it out with him in what Mary used to call ‘a strong dose of the Detectives’.

He froze on the stairs. Jelled, like a French blancmange. His eyes narrowed. He looked like some alley cat on edge. Below, you could hear a pin drop. He glanced behind. Nothing. Had he locked the door?

‘Oh please no,’ he groaned. ‘Anything but the Detectives ...’

He fought frantically to steady his mind, to shape his thoughts into decent diary memos. But all that came out was:

He stood there, like a fly on a fly-paper. He had to pull himself together. It’s no duck soup being a private dick. Sure he was tough. But the job showed. He mopped his brow. Hell, he was sweating like some hog in a Swedish sauna.

The door of course had been locked all the time. O’Leary cursed and once more made his way up the stairs to his bedroom. And all the while, he was fighting back the dreaded Detectives.

He fought. Sure he fought. But any schmuck coulda told him. The dice was loaded. He was on a one-way ticket to noplaceville.

One hour later, he closed his book, turned off the light, rested his head deep in his pillow. How beautiful, he thought. How melancholily beautiful. He felt so close to the Mistress. He was tired now: tomorrow would tell. Tomorrow he would visit to Knight’s Kilbrack, her childhood home. And who could tell, other than Fate, what wonders might befall him there? Before he closed his eyes, he tested his cogitation.

Diary Memo: Testing, testing ...

Yes, it was all right. There were no more Detectives. Nancy Valentine had worked her usual magic. And O’Leary Montagu might safely drowse, to worry in peace about Livia.

You bet, said the Detectives.


Across the landing, in her room, Nellie Maguire lay awake on her unmade bed. She had little left. She had sold all the land, the great tracts of land her great-aunt had bequeathed her. The pub was on the market two years since, but no one would buy in this God-forsaken hole. Kilbrack was dead. She was fast approaching flat bottom of her savings. She felt old. Old and withered. She was sixty with the worry of it.

She got up, dragging her slippered feet from the bed, shuffled over to the dressing table. She cleared a space, took down the mirror, polished it with a blouse that was lying draped nearby. She opened the drawer where she kept Downey’s little envelopes that looked like Beecham’s Powders, chose one. Then she dismantled her leg razor and carefully withdrew the blade.

Tuesday nights were the worst, with their yawning of emptiness. Wednesday mornings could usually be relied on for a ticklish tang of expectation. But this morning she’d had hardly the vim even for that. Wednesday nights were the best. The bounty of her supply would normally disburden the heftiest of her worries. Tonight she just felt old.

She rolled up the ten pound note and sniffed the thin white line of cocaine from her mirror. And sniffed. And sniffed.

And in the first rush of menthol down her throat the world was realigned to its truer significance. She remembered the starving souls in Africa, and compared to them, what worries had she? She was alive, she was young, she was beautiful, she was happy, she was. . . .

And she leapt back into her bed with the hop-skip-and-a-jump of a ten-year-old.


In his cramped bedroom above the pharmacy, thin old Downey muttered in his sleep. ‘O table,’ he said, and turned, sweating. ‘Genitive, mensae, of the table; mensarum, plural, of the tables. . . .’

For Downey was suffering his nightmare. He was a schoolboy again. On the door hung his Christian Brothers purple blazer. His shoes were polished. A clean shirt was laid out, a tie. His satchel was ready, packed only with his lunch. Tomorrow he’d need no textbooks. For tomorrow he’d sit his highers. Latin One – language and composition – in the morning. Latin Two in the afternoon – literature and Roman history. There was only the Latin left and if he passed his Latin he’d be half-way home to medical school in Dublin. Oh, wouldn’t his mother be proud of him then. She’d always wanted that. A doctor in the family. She’d made him promise. And what a fine cut of a doctor he’d make too, and no two ways about it, that was for certain. He’d only to scrape his Latin.

He turned, tossing in his sleep again, his mind a riot of declensions and cases. ‘Mensa, mensa, mensam,’ he muttered, ‘mensae, mensae, men –’ And he woke, screaming from his jactitation, ‘Hell and damnation! By, in or from: what’s the ablative?’


Bridie O’Toole lay stiff in her queen-size bed, her eyes wide open, staring at the maps of dampness on the bedroom ceiling. Beside her, Jim lay snoring away. It was a good bed, iron-sprung, with a horsehair mattress. As a child Bridie had slept in that bed, along with her brother. And when their parents had died and Jim had suggested Bridie move into the parents’ room, Bridie had told him where to get off. It was her bed as much as it was his. And so, now both past their fiftieth birthdays, they still slept in the same bed they had shared as children.

And now this stranger had come in their midst, asking questions, poking his nose, working incognito. Where was he from? If only the great lump of bacon beside her would shut up his snoring she might be able to work something out.

‘Shut up your hootering,’ she said and gave Jim a terrific poke in the ribs.

‘What?’ said Jim.

‘Button your nose, I said.’

‘Go to sleep.’

‘With that racket?’

‘Go to sleep, why won’t you? I was busy dreaming of the seven seas.’

‘None of your seven seas gob. You was snoring.’

‘I was nearly happy.’

‘I’ll cross my eyes on you.’

‘You wouldn’t dare,’ said Jim, fearful suddenly. ‘And me poor ribs too.’

‘See if I daren’t,’ said Bridie, and she crossed her electric green eyes.

‘No!’ blurted Jim, and he squeezed tight his own eyes. ‘Don’t cross them, Bridie! Please!’ But he could feel Bridie bringing her face closer to his. And he could feel through his closed eye-lids that her eyes were crossed, eyeing him crookedly, gruesomely.

‘They’re crossed now, Jim. Open your eyes and see the truth.’

‘No!’ squealed Jim. ‘Stop it, please!’

‘All right, then. You’ll shut up your hootering, will you?’

‘I will, I will!’

‘Very well.’ She withdrew her face. ‘You can open your eyes now. I have them uncrossed.’

And gingerly Jim opened his eyes. But he’d known it all along. He’d known not to trust her. ‘Agh!’ he cried. ‘You fibber!’

‘’Tis no worse than you deserve.’

‘I’ll get a button,’ said Jim.

‘You wouldn’t,’ said Bridie. But less sure of herself now, she added, ‘Where?’

‘I’ll rip a button off me pyjama tops and throw it on the floor.’

‘You wouldn’t.’

‘I will.’


‘I’ll do it now.’ And he ripped a button off his pyjamas and tossed it flat on to the middle of the linoleum.

‘Agh!’ screeched Bridie, squeezing shut her own eyes. ‘Pick it up! Pick it up!’

‘I won’t! Agh!’ For he’d spotted her crossing her eyes again.

... And so they wrestled, their eyes pinched and squashed till it hurt, the one terrified of the gruesome crooked sight of his sister’s crossed eyes, the other appalled at the thought of the sight of a button lying monstrous on the floor.


In her bedroom at the Rectory, stout Mrs Cuthbert knelt before the figurine of the Virgin Mary, lit by the flame of the Sacred Heart above, and she prayed as Father Michael had instructed her.

‘Holy holy queen, mother of mercy, hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs. ...” When she’d finished the Salve Regina, she felt she had fulfilled enough of Father Michael’s strictures for the moment, and could begin to pray in her own more genteel fashion. She relaxed slightly on her cushion. ‘Well, Lord,’ she said,’at least he’s a man ...’

Outside her bedroom window, dimly discernible in the moonlight, she could make out, if she cared, the bare ruined spire of St Ciaran’s, whose Protestant parish was her late husband’s cure and benefice – Kilbrack.

Cure and benefice, she thought. It had been their ruin. Anyone could see it was hopeless. Wasting money, squandering it away like that. She wouldn’t have minded so much if he’d used his own money. But of course he didn’t have any money of his own. Oh no, it was her coffers he’d raided, her dowry. It was wicked. That wicked man, wasting her money on that pile of rubble. God knows, he could have built fifty brand new cathedrals with all the money he’d wasted trying to repair that wrack, that ruin.

And even if he had restored it, who would have worshipped there? They and third cousin Valentine were the only Anglicans remaining in the parish. Who?

‘Why, Charity, one labours for God.’

‘I asked who will use it.’

‘Why, Charity, it is we who will worship there.’

But she had fixed that. Of course she had. If he was prepared to see his family pauperized, laughing-stocks of the county – well, she knew what she’d do ... And she had done it.

‘... And Lord, even Father Michael would agree: it would be such a waste for her to be a nun. And remember the lamps and – well, of course You remember – the lamps and the bushels. I know it’s my fault she’s a Catholic, but how was I to know she’d take it to heart so? Just a little marriage, that’s all I ask. You’ve surely got enough hand-maidens as it is.’ She paused for a moment. ‘Oh, and don’t forget, he’s got to be reasonably wealthy.’ She wondered a moment was there anything else. ‘No, that’s it,’ she said. ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’ Anyway, she thought, Father Michael’s due for lunch tomorrow. She’d ask him to come early. He’d sort her out if anyone would. Although, Father Michael, it was no use denying it, Father Michael had changed since he had joined the Bishop in his Palace ... She sighed and blessed herself again. Only time would tell.

And having blessed herself twice, she climbed stiffly to her feet, heaved herself into her bed. She toed the hot-water bottle down to her feet, reached under her pillow for the bar of chocolate she kept there.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘It’s in God’s hands now.’


For a prospective hand-maiden to Christ, even Livia thought it odd sometimes that instead of a Bible or some devotional writings, she kept under her pillow only architectural sketches. But the sanctimony with which she handled these wrinkled old drawings betrayed her almost religious veneration of them. She didn’t open them out, just held them in her hands, pressed to her bosom.

‘It’s hard sometimes,’ she said. ‘I know I promised retribution, I know I made that solemn vow to you, your avenging angel. But sometimes it is so hard. She is only human, after all, the dust of the ground. But I shan’t give in. If it’s marriage she’s set her heart upon, then marriage is the battle-ground and I shall never wed. She murdered your dreams till you died. I’ll smother hers. I miss you, Daddy. I miss you so much.’


At the gates to the big house, Knight’s Kilbrack, the two pillars, generations of ivy crumbling their stone, stood gaunt in the night. They rose proud from the lane to end suddenly in a capital supporting – nothing. The two heraldic birds had fallen years before. In the moonlight in the undergrowth they could still be discerned – armed, guardant, displayed – glowering upwards, as if poised for attack, disdaining to acknowledge their cracked and chipped wings. Oddly, these birds were not eagles or any other of the conventional charges; but were magpies, stylized to ferocity, but still discernibly birds of the field. They lay unmoved, tansy through their talons, ragwort through their wings.

Nothing could be seen of the big house. It was as if the pillars and their sentinels denied even the moonlight entry. The path led in from the gates and the derelict lodge, darker and narrower, crowded in by the pressure of thickets, trees overlapping overhead. All was dark, silent, deserted.

Save for the old mongrel bitch Nancy who smuggled through a hole in the demesne wall. She sniffed the night air. But there was nothing of interest. Far better to return to her master’s bed and snuggle up to Valentine’s warm body. She padded over to one of the fallen magpies, pee’d, and sneaked back into the demesne.


O’Leary Montagu tossed in his sleep. His room, unused over the years, was an unlikely mixture of damp and dust. It was chilly, but at the same time the air felt stale, unaccustomed to movement, breath. It wasn’t, however, this discomfort which troubled his sleep. It was his dream.

For O’Leary Montagu was dreaming as he had dreamed obsessively every night for the past eleven years ... of the accident.