Elaine Canning

Elaine Canning is a writer, editor and public engagement specialist who was born and grew up in Belfast.

She is currently Head of Special Projects at Swansea University, which include the Rhys Davies National Short Story Competition, and the international Dylan Thomas Prize.

Her external roles include membership of British Council Wales’ Advisory Committee. She has published several short stories and authored a monograph and papers on Spanish Golden-Age drama.

Her debut novel, The Sandstone City, publishes with Aderyn Press in November 2022. She is also editor of Maggie O’Farrell: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (forthcoming, Bloomsbury).

Day 0: Mahogany Overcoat

I’m lying in the box waiting for them to open the lid. I know full well they’ve positioned me next to the bay window of our cramped front room. My Annie will have given the orders, though she’ll say they come from a ‘higher place’. Never met a woman like her for her faith. 

This isn’t a space I normally inhabit – nor is the box, of course. Annie always kept me away from the window; she said it was for the best, for prying eyes only gave rise to tittle tattle. I never understood whose eyes she was talking about: whether she was more concerned about me seeing, or being seen, but I knew better than to question her. God knows I knew better. I also knew better than to ask what she was doing hanging about in front of the window when it took her fancy, all those times over the years. From my chair by the hearth, I could always see out into the street painted black with marching mourners, or blazoned white with the day’s bride, or snuffed grey with bonfires or someone’s burnt out vehicle. It never mattered whether her slender frame was in the way or not. Sometimes it was better that my Annie didn’t know everything. 

Today’s a special day, however. Today, in death, it’s imperative that I’m on display. I am so thankful that my eldest daughter Chrissie was the one who picked out my clothes and it wasn’t left to the other two. Mary and Catherine, not an ounce of sense between them. I know I will be in my best grey suit, the one Maginty knocked up for me a few years back. 

Knocked up. Jesus, what a term. Almost enough to make this stiff, useless body recoil. Implies some desperate botched job, the kind I used to fall for, especially when it came to the house or business. Always when I was trying to give some young lad a turn. But Maginty knew people, proper tailors like. 

‘I’ll keep you straight, Michael, don’t you worry yourself,’ he’d say. 

I’ve always been fond of a good suit, certainly since my twenties. I’m sure it comes from my days in the war – nine months of being forced to wear a filthy, louse-ridden, ill-fitting uniform is more than enough to make you crave a well-cut jacket and decent pair of trousers. My daughters always said I had some sort of compulsive disorder, sitting about the house all dressed up with nowhere to go. Now that sounds strange, talking about the girls in the past tense. 

I feel different. Pain-free, thank God, in the physical sense, though not so sure about responsibility-free. Does responsibility ever leave any of us? And this oul’ heart of mine, its beat might have ground to a halt, but there’s still plenty of love in it if I’m given half a chance to share it. 

The trickling shush of my Chrissie’s voice coats the air like dripping butter. I know she’ll have matched my grey suit with a starched white shirt and one of my nice silk buttonhole hankies, even though I didn’t have time to instruct her. I didn’t expect to go so soon when it came down to, you know, actual dying. She knows me inside out, that girl. 

I’m lying here feeling all regal-like in a top-quality mahogany overcoat, courtesy of O’Halloran and Sons. Their parlour is just a stone’s throw from the Estate. I called to check them out almost a year ago, several months before the awful poison took over my entire body. Poison, aye, that’s what I’ve always called it. No point in trying to give it some fancy medical term, dressing it up when it’s stripping the life clean out of people. Poison pumping through me that was too much for doctors, consultants, even prayers to control. But sure, I mustn’t complain. Poor kids eaten up by it when they’re only small. No life at all. And then there’s me: Michael Doherty, eighty-eight years of age – a decent oul’ number – and my three girls and Annie all healthy, thanks be to God, and the five grandchildren already up and the wee great grandchildren doing well. 

It’s the youngest of the O’Halloran lads whose face I see as they lift the lid. Martin, I’m sure he’s called. God help him, he can’t be more than sixteen years of age, wearing a look you might call compassion that’s probably been forced into him. Unless he takes after his mother – not a kinder soul could you meet than Sissy O’Halloran. She was with Annie the first day I laid eyes on her. 10th June 1941, it was, the two of them bathed in a golden sunlight that couldn’t do a thing to salvage the eyesore of a factory behind them. That dungeon of a place was as dismal on the inside as the outside, though I didn’t know that then. Nor did I know that Sissy and Annie had been cooped up in it all day, shedding and picking yarn. I’d no idea that for every imperfect product, management docked their wages. All that would come later. All I knew in that moment was the sight of the slim copper-haired beauty sharing a cigarette like a Hollywood diva was doing something to my heart. Something I’d only experienced once before – in another place, another lifetime. 

‘Nanny, sure c’mon and see our Granda. Look how handsome he is in his suit.’ 

Our Declan, my Cormac’s eldest, always the same, always looking out for his grandmother. Always looking out for his own mother and aunts too, despite being a soft touch of a lad. He’d only just become a man, hit the big eighteenth birthday, when his father was taken, God bless him. 

I listen for the familiar lilt of my Annie’s voice, but I know it won’t be forthcoming. Even grief can’t unnerve her, not when the house is rammed. She’ll save her tears and talk for 

the middle of the night when – if – we’re alone. Sixty-five years, two Annies, one reserved just for me.