Christmas is an excellent way of testing a character. The in-built structure of Christmas, with its romantic and familial expectations, its association with heavy drinking and the anti-climax and nostalgia many readers will remember from childhood, means it is a festival that serves the short story well. Claire Keegan’s first collection Antarctica makes strong use of Christmas and New Year in the stories ‘Quare Name for a Boy’, ‘Men and Women’ and ‘Love in the Tall Grass’. Her writing is very precise and takes the reader right inside a way of life, right to the heart of a character and their particular seasonal agony.
‘Quare Name for a Boy’ is a post-Christmas story, a memory of an unconventional Christmas during which a couple had a six-day fling “to break the boredom of the holidays”. The story takes place when the woman, who lives in England, returns to Ireland to meet the man in a pub and tell him that she is pregnant. Her memories of their time together at his mother’s house are wonderfully atmospheric:
I wore nothing but your mandarin-collared shirts that came down to my knees, your thick brown-heeled football socks.
She sits up in the night and listens to cars passing through the slush. The story carries an entire country’s history of sexual relations inside it: “Irish girls should stay home, stuff the chicken and snip the parsley,” but the narrator is unwilling to snare the man like a fox and live with him “that way”. She doesn’t want to look into his eyes “years from now and discover a man whose worst regret is six furtive nights spent in his mother’s bed with a woman from a Christmas do.”
The tension builds as the “green wood hisses in the grate” and the man carries their drinks “like a man carrying the first two bucketfuls of water to put out a blaze in his own stable”. This is a story about Ireland’s future, too – the narrator doesn’t want to be the woman “who shelters her man same as he’s a boy. That part of my people ends with me.” Equally, (spoiler alert) there will be “no boat trip, no roll of twenty-pound notes, no bleachy white waiting room with women’s dog-eared magazines.” Published in 1999, it is especially moving to read this story in 2018 – a year in which Irish people voted to repeal the eighth.
First broadcast on RTE. First published in Antarctica, Faber 1999
Chosen by Hannah Vincent. Hannah is a novelist and playwright. Her first novel, Alarm Girl, was published by Myriad in 2014 and her second, The Weaning, was published by Salt in 2018. She teaches Creative Writing on the Open University’s MA and life writing on the Autobiography and Life Writing programme at New Writing South.