We're delighted to present an extract from the short story Pinning Tail on the Donkey, taken from Mia Gallagher's new collection Shift.
Prowling the streets, bedrooms, parks and schoolyards of a grubby uncertain city, where madness lurks just under the skin, men, women and those in-between enter an unsettling dance of encounters.
It’s important for later, little one, that you understand. We’re all going to have to live with each other for a very long time, so you must realise that, no, not I, that Maisie never acted out of, hush, it’s fine, spite. This procedure with the invitations, one at a time, enough for almost every corpocitizen in the class, but not all, was just a, yes, game for her. One of her yes, no, yes, her Party Games, but in advance. It didn’t change how she behaved towards any of us during those four weeks. She was still the same kind, clever, friendly Maisie.
But I had changed, completely. I couldn’t concentrate on anything except coming in to school and finding one of those precious invitations on my desk. I, yes, obsessed. Everything else in the world became a blur. The fresh green grass, the trees, the blue sky, so soft compared to the sky in the Other Part where we’d come from, this fertile landmass oozing with capital old and new, so miraculously rescued from Outragesterity by the technocrats, had become as a nutshell to me. My parents had hinted we would each get personal smarts for winterfest, but even the promise of a personalised Glass or smartsong felt hollow. All I wanted was that invitation. It grew in my Mind’s I and my cursed overproduction of the fantasymone fed it until it was all I saw. The more real invitations landed on other children’s desks, the clearer and bigger my magined one grew, until it blanked out everything else.
I knew, yes, somewhere, that I was not the only one who was anxious. I dared not glance at those others who had not been invited. I could feel their no, yes, loser status projecting out of them with such dangerous intensity it could almost be touched. What if I were to lock eyes with one of them and instead of my magined invitation, brand my Mind’s I with their, yes, it’s nasty, but, untouchable image? Would the desperation we shared snake between us, binding us into an unholy whole? Or worse, would that other child’s lack depart them entirely and transfer onto me, leaving me its sole repository? And what if someone else saw? We were all familiar, as you must be, little one, with the Michelson-Morley experiments on light: the act of observation changing what is observed. If an invited child were to pass me and the other, yes, loser in that moment, see our eyes solder in mutual need, would our combined worthlessness then become magnified, and – oh, shame – captured through the shutter of, say, the invited one’s blink, burn into the code of our cells, altering us forever?
No. Head down was the only possible route.
Besides, it was not just us, no, yes, losers who were worrying. I would often catch the invited ones from the corner of my I, huddling and whispering face-to-face verbal in the toilets at break-time. From time to time when I had the opportunity to plug in, I would even, yes, low, lurk on the intercloud, stalking their eye-ems and posts as they fretted about Maisie and the party and the gift they had to bring. I was familiar with their qualms: how Maisie was the kind of girl who was impossible to buy for, how you couldn’t give her knick-knacks or little jewelleries or games or kindlebooks because she had everything; how everything she didn’t have you didn’t dare get because she was so unique, it would probably be wrong; how, if you got her something new, she’d think it too flashy, something too old, you were mean. Yet I was so obsessed with my own need that the realisation of these others’ agonies only made me even more yes, yes, jealous instead of comforting me.
Even my parents noticed something was Up. Here, said my father, offering me his new smartsong. Have a look at some kittens getting stuck in baskets. That will cheer you up. Oh, by the way, he said. Don’t use the capture app yet. It’s not quite ready.
Thanks, I said, plugging in. Too late, I remembered I should have asked him for his password. But he’d already forgotten I was there, and was talking instead to my oldest
sister about the biochem degree she was thinking of asking Shell to sponsor her for. So I went ahead, hearing again the plaintive startupwail as I keyed in his code.
A catmeeme was flashing at the bottom of the screen, beside an icon for what must have been my father’s unready app, an oldschool plate camera on three sticks. This I ignored. What use was it to me? The only thing I wanted to capture was an invitation from Maisie. I clicked the meeme.
When, finally, hours later, I looked up from the kittens getting stuck in baskets, which, it was true, had cheered me up somewhat, my father was gone. Out on another face-to-face with the right people, my sister said. But it couldn’t have been that, for he hadn’t asked me to give him back his device, and he never met those right people without his smarts.
Shift by Mia Gallagher (published by New Island) is out now.
About The Author: Mia Gallagher was born in Dublin, where she lives and works. Her novels are HellFire (Penguin, 2006), awarded the Irish Tatler Literature Award 2007, and Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016), longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Award 2016, and published in the UK by Head of Zeus in 2018. Shift is her first short-story collection.