‘Calm with Horses’* is a lengthy short story in the ‘Young Skins’ collection by Colin Barrett.
The stories are set in contemporary rural Ireland, many decades ahead of The Quiet Man or The Field, and somewhat reminiscent of Kevin Barry’s and Donal Ryan’s themes. I enjoyed this collection first for that reason–Dublin often figures in literature, but rural Ireland without the leprechauns, not so much.
Calm with Horses opens as Dympna decides to teach Fannigan a lesson and encourages his right-hand-man Arm to rough him up. The descriptions, even when describing violence, are elegant: ‘His punches travelled with just the right weight and restraint, and they had a bounce to them when they landed, the way raindrops splash.’
Arm is revealed as a gentle soul, despite the fact that he and Dympna are small-town drug dealers and likely to inflict violence at any time. He has an ex-girlfriend that he seems to care about still, and a five-year-old son, Jack, who he visits regularly and takes to the park. Dympna doesn’t come across as gentle but he is protective of his sisters, hence the revenge on Fannigan who ‘didnnnn efffin ged, ged haa nnnnnnickers off!’
We are drawn into these character’s lives as their dope suppliers get antsy and Arm decides to solve the Fannigan issue once and for all, which brings them up against Dympna’s uncle Paudi, a nasty piece of work. We don’t trust Paudi from the moment we see the Alsatian that has been stung by a wasp. ‘Stung him, it did, inside his throat or deeper down. His tongue is all fucked up and he’s been wheezing and stuck lying there since yesterday.’ Arm may have killed a man but we’re on his side against the uncle who’s going to let his dog die rather than call a vet.
While the main story trundles towards disaster, another story weaves through the narrative – that of Jack and the horses and the rider. We’re obliged to give this eponymous thread some thought. Arm might have been a different person in other circumstances. He is perhaps on a mad gallop through his own life, lacking control, hoping the horse will decide to stop of its own accord.
Colin Barrett’s collection was published by The Stinging Fly and has since been picked up by Jonathan Cape UK and Grove Atlantic US for UK and US editions. This Irish author is clearly very talented and I’m looking forward to his debut novel.
* You know you’ve lived too long in France when you see the title and read ‘clam with horses’ and think ‘mmh interesting menu choice.’