In this story, one of 10 shortlisted for this year's RTÉ Short Story Competition, two young Belfast women's friendship is sustained by a mutual obsession with Henry Joy McCracken, Wolfe Tone, and other figures of Irish history...
Author Gráinne O'Hare says: "This story was inspired when I was taking walks around Belfast during the first lockdown and started looking into the history of some of my favourite places."
Muddlers by Gráinne O'Hare
Test me, says Kate, thrusting her notes forward.
Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Henry Joy McCracken, lists Martha. She looks archly at Kate. Shag, marry, or kill?
Martha is regularly reprimanded in lessons for encouraging debate around which Irish revolutionary is the biggest ride. Sir, tell me honestly that you wouldn't risk it all for a night with Maud Gonne. Their History teacher refuses to engage in this discourse although Martha notes he has several sepia-toned photographs of Constance Markievicz, in military uniform and feathered hat, taped to the side of his filing cabinet like pin-ups in a teenage locker.
Martha and Kate sit on a grassy slope near the top of Cave Hill. It is early June 2009. Their last exam is tomorrow. In an hour or so, the sky will blush and bruise with a sunset that looks like a biblical backdrop. (Martha once tried to capture the scene using the camera of a slimline pink flip-phone, with limited success.) Kate had the idea of bringing a picnic blanket until she investigated and found her parents didn’t actually own a picnic blanket; they are making do with a very old, very patchy S Club 7 beach towel that she found in the back of the hot press.
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Martha volunteered to supply the peach schnapps because she wanted an excuse to use her new fake ID. Until now, she has always had to bribe a loan of ID from older girls who look faintly like her, reciting their name and birthdate if tested by suspicious nightclub bouncers. This is also, she’s discovered, a good way of remembering names and dates for exams; memorise them as if she’s trying to get into Stiff Kitten with a borrowed provisional driver’s license belonging to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (date of birth: 24th of May, 1877).
I’ve taken it for granted there’s going to be an essay question on the Cave Hill Compact, Kate frets, rifling through her index cards. But maybe that’s too obvious? Maybe they’re going to ask something really obscure? Kate seems convinced that the exam board sets their essay questions like a writers' room workshopping the devastating plot twists of a gritty crime drama.
They’re honestly not that bothered about catching us out, Martha dismisses.
But what if they do?
You know enough. Just wing it.
Martha’s feedback from teachers praises her lively, confident writing style; Kate’s comments say things like extremely competent and unpack this further. Kate writes essays like she’s talking to a boy she has notions for; she never claims an opinion as her own in case it’s the wrong one. Kate doesn’t start to speak with conviction until she’s had half a bottle of West Coast Cooler and has no inhibitions about telling the nearest available person how she thinks Avril Lavigne’s latest album has been unfairly maligned by long-term fans simply because its lead single courts mainstream pop. She considers what might be the benefits of tanking the rest of the peach liqueur before their exam tomorrow morning in the hope of it giving her some Dutch courage.
Fun fact, says Martha, the phrase Dutch courage comes from the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century when soldiers used to drink Dutch gin before going into battle.
How do you know that?
I read it somewhere. See? If I can remember some random Christmas-cracker trivia I read once, you can definitely remember your revision tomorrow. What pseudonym, Martha tests Kate, did the United Irishmen use when they started meeting?
Kate’s jaw visibly locks with frustration. I know this one, she says.
You do know this one, says Martha. I say it all the time.
Martha often shortens the Muddlers Club to refer to the Irish rebels on their History syllabus as the Muddlers in much the same way as she collectively terms her friends the lads. Kate wishes she could recall details with that easy familiarity, wishes her study notes would embed themselves in her brain like song lyrics from her lifelong favourite albums. She can still flawlessly recite Geri’s Spanish rap from If U Can’t Dance without missing a beat and yet struggles to remember the date of the 1798 rebellion. It’s called the 1798 rebellion, Martha says. The date is literally in the name.
Kate is told off for coming home late and tipsy the night before an exam. She is threatened with a month-long computer ban unless she divulges who she’s been out with. No-one likes a tout, Martha commented once, when they learned in History that Henry Joy McCracken was offered a lesser punishment than hanging if he sold out his rebel brethren.
He didn’t, though, Mr McFarlane told them cheerfully.
He died, though, Kate pointed out.
The point still stands, said Martha.
Ten years later, a statue of Henry Joy stands on a modest plinth outside the pub Martha works at.
Would you still shag him, asks Kate. She sits inside at the bar, Martha on shift behind it.
State of him, scoffs Martha. They did my boy dirty. He looks like Cillian Murphy drawn badly from memory.
Kate laughs. Do you want another? Martha asks, pointing at her empty lemonade glass.
Can I get a virgin mojito? Kate occupies herself with the cocktail menu while Martha fetches mint leaves. Dutch Courage, she reads out. Whiskey, absinthe, bitters… No gin?
No comment. Good memory, Martha remarks, smiling. She likes these moments, when a decade-old joke pulls taut between them to remind them of their bond and its longevity. Want to try it? she asks.
Whiskey and absinthe? You’ll be driving me to A&E.
You’ve swallowed worse poisons, Martha retorts good-humouredly. Back in a sec, she adds, turning to serve a couple at the bar. They order cocktails, and she begins an adroit juggle of liquor and syrup and soda, snatching up bottles and spinning to replace them just as swiftly.
Martha can remember every drink she and Kate have ever shared; her memories are arranged like spirits on a shelf and she can reach down any given one without so much as needing to check the label. Every sickly, sticky plastic tumbler of cherry red and electric blue they sloshed around the students’ union, every dirty pint ingredient from a blurry deluge of house parties. Cheap white wine in a watering-can in Filthy McNasty’s. Cinnamon-flavoured sambuca shots in Wetherspoons the night they saw Foy Vance in Custom House Square. The lethal concoction they threw together with brandy and Crémant at Martha’s last birthday party, which makes her uvula sting when she thinks about it.
The archives have somewhat thinned in the last few years; the sesh seems to call to Kate less than it used to, Martha’s observed. Kate passed all her law exams and works for the PPS. She uses her Instagram story largely to post squiggled Strava maps of daily 5k runs. She owns a Burberry coat and several thriving plants and when she does drink, she asks for the wine list instead of blindly trusting house is grand, thanks.
The customers leave with their drinks, and Martha returns to Kate. Mojito, was it?
You shouldn’t joke about that.
Jesus, fine. Virgin mojito.
You know what I mean. It’s not funny.
What did I say?
'You’ve swallowed worse poisons’? Very subtle. Quality gegs.
Kate ran into Fergal Donnelly at Shit Disco in the Limelight when they were out celebrating the end of their uni exams five years ago. It was Martha who pointed him out to her: Ten o’clock, looks like a young Stalin. Didn’t you shift him at the St Malachy’s after-formal in upper sixth? Kate flirted carefully with him at the start of the night and did other things less carefully with him towards the end of it. Three weeks later, when she realised the gravity of what had happened (and what was now happening inside her), Kate and Martha turned a booth in the corner of Aether and Echo into a temporary situation room on a quiet Wednesday evening. Martha thumbed through her phone and promised efficiently, It’s going to be fine. I’m ordering the pills for you.
Kate glares at her now across the bar. Perhaps to Martha, that episode is just another quirky anecdote from the shared folklore she has imagined for them both. Martha is an avid reader of essays and memoirs by women in love with the personal circus of their own twenties, women who mythologise their friendships with excruciating hyperbole and style their partying as a glittering tumble of hedonism charged by supermarket-branded prosecco. More and more as they get older, Kate cannot help feeling that Martha only wants to have wild nights out because she wants fresh material, because she wants to hold court to an audience of their peers while she regales them with Kate and Martha’s Latest Caper.
I meant, Martha says, slowly understanding, that you are the woman who once drank Aftershock out of my menstrual cup as a dare and yet one delicately-blended cocktail offends your fragile sensibilities.
Kate swallows thoughtfully. I thought you meant -
I know what you thought I meant. Jesus, Kate. My jokes are shit but they’re not that kind of bad. Martha lifts a glass from behind the bar. So. Mojito?
Kate is grateful for the change of subject; she caves. One. Go on.
Martha starts to press the mint leaves into the bottom of the glass, and Kate continues, I want to start making proper cocktails at home. I need one of those. She points a finger at the steel pestle in Martha’s hand. Can you get those in Ikea?
Do you know what this is called? Martha holds it upright.
You know this. I say it all the time.
Martha remembers the succession of bitter rosés and industrial-tasting vodkas and inevitable tequila shots that night in Aether and Echo when Kate told her what had happened. At one point Kate vanished to the bathroom for almost fifteen minutes; when Martha stumbled in after her she assumed Kate was boking, but found her sobbing instead.
What the f**k did we do? Kate gasped, mascara pooling beneath each eye.
Martha was swaying with tequila sea legs but stayed calm. Like you said. It’s my name on them. I’ll take the heat, there’s no sense both of our lives going in the toilet.
You’ve got to be joking, there’s no way -
It could have just as easily been me. And it was me that ordered the pills, so I’ll get lifted as an accessory regardless.
Accessory, Kate couldn’t help snorting. You’ve been watching too much SVU, it’s not like we m-
She stopped short of saying murder, but they both heard it anyway. No, it’s not, said Martha. But a judge won’t see it that way.
It’s called a muddler, says Martha now, swivelling the steel cocktail pestle in front of Kate.
F**k off, says Kate.
I’m serious. Two seconds, Martha excuses herself, turning to serve a pair of young-looking girls.
Two double vodka lemonades, one of them demands.
Can I just see some ID there, please? asks Martha. The girl who spoke rolls her eyes under a spiky fringe of false lashes, digging in her purse and handing over an electoral card. Martha looks at it. What’s your date of birth?
Both girls shoot filthy glares and curses at Martha when they’re told to leave. Honestly, she says to Kate, joining her at the end of the bar again. If you’re going to use a fake ID, at least do the homework. She looks at the wilted leaves and sweating ice in Kate’s empty glass and asks, Do you want another?
I don’t see it on the menu, muses Kate, but do you know how to make an Aviation?
I don’t, says Martha, but if you tell me what’s in it, I’m sure I can, as it were -
If you say muddle through I’m going to throw this over you.
About the author: Gráinne O'Hare is originally from Belfast. She works an office job by day and moonlights as a PhD candidate in 18th century women's writing at Newcastle University. Her fiction has been published by Another North, Severine, and Púca Magazine, and her short story Motherland was shortlisted for the 2020 Bridport Prize.
Muddlers was read on air by Ali White on Friday 1 October as part of the RTÉ Short Story Competition series 2021 in honour of Francis MacManus which runs weeknights on Late Date from Monday 27 September to Friday 8 October at 11.20pm on RTÉ Radio 1.
Tune into Arena with Seán Rocks at 7pm on Monday 27 September to hear the judges, Lucy Caldwell, Declan Hughes and Lisa McInerney discuss this year's shortlist and announce their overall winners.