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EXTRACT: Holding her breath by Eimear Ryan

By July 2, 2021July 4th, 2021No Comments

Our extract this week is Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan

Chapter One

She has the whole pool to herself.

She has seen the others off: the rugby players in for their recovery swim, who splash around for twenty minutes and then retire to the sauna; the slow, steady pensioners who breaststroke endless laps. Beth counts them leaving, one by one, as she sluices through the water, flipping tautly at each end.

It will never leave her, she thinks: the need to win.


The DART passes on the bridge that stretches over the complex, momentarily turning the pool nightclub-dark. She breaches the surface to adjust her goggles. The lifeguard makes eye contact and then looks pointedly at his watch. She swims another five laps before getting out, her skin drum-tight.

It feels illicit somehow, being alone in the water. No coach towering over her at the pool’s edge, saying surely she can do better than that. Now she does as she likes. After a hundred laps she feels calm and rejuvenated, her body pinging with the tremors of exercise. An old, good feeling.

She started again last winter, doubtful at first, not telling anyone. Poking the pool’s calm surface with a toe as if test- ing a bath for temperature. But as soon as she slipped into the water she felt her body relax in a way that it hadn’t in months. It wasn’t the act of swimming that had been the problem, it turned out; it was everything around it. It was the spectre of her potential rippling after her, impossible to shake off.

Her new on-campus apartment is opposite the sports complex. Her bedroom overlooks the climbing wall with its brightly coloured footholds. This morning she sat in her window and watched. It was raining and it seemed as if the climbers were in danger of being engulfed by the raindrops that streaked down her window. Later, she will fall asleep to the rumble of the DART and – she imagines this part, at least – the slosh of water in the dormant pool.

She crosses the street to her new home, her wet hair hardening in the autumn breeze. Her mother was hurt when Beth announced her intention to move into rooms, an hour by train up the coast from the family home. It would have been possible, she supposes, to commute – but the room came with the sports scholarship. This is a chance for independence, however fleeting, and she owes it to herself.

So far she’s only had momentary glimpses of Sadie, her assigned room-mate, who’s perpetually on her way out to the various Orientation Week activities (Treasure Hunt! Table Quiz! Giant Jenga!) that Beth is too shy to attend on her own. But in some ways, they are already on intimate terms. The shower drain is thatched over with Sadie’s dark red hair, the bathroom cabinet full of palettes and butters and serums that Beth can barely identify, much less apply.

Her wheelie suitcase and assorted cardboard boxes stand in a loose ring on the bedroom floor like a Neolithic monument. She considers the window, the narrow bed, the empty shelves. The room is a clean slate.

She goes into the tiny kitchen that bridges her room and Sadie’s. Fills the kettle, flicks it on. Sadie’s door is slightly ajar; if she shifts her weight, it might creak open.

The first thing she notices is that Sadie has moved her furniture around, managed to wrestle the room’s formation into something less utilitarian. Breezeblock walls broken up with vintage posters of Some Like It Hot and À Bout de Souffle. Fat luxury candles in defiance of the stern fire safety talk they had to sit through on day one. Cushions and beanbags sprouting everywhere like colourful spores.

Beth takes a sort of pride in her own stripped-back decor. What sort of person is her room-mate, that she has to advertise her personality so forcefully? A person who wears band T-shirts. A person who reads old paperbacks in public and hopes to be asked about them.

Sadie’s bed is unmade, which reassures Beth somehow. She sits on the rumpled blankets to examine the built-in bookcase. Her attention is immediately drawn to a familiar bright yellow spine: Benjamin Crowe’s Selected Poems. Absent-mindedly, she pulls it out.

Most of the shelves, however, are taken up by DVDs: The Lodger, Cat People, Gaslight, The Hitch-Hiker, Diabolique. Unlike the books, the movies aren’t alphabetised. It bothers her, an itch she wants to scratch.

The apartment door opens. She has no chance of making it back to her room unnoticed, but she plants her feet anyway, tensed for flight. The book, incriminatingly, is still in her hand.

Half of Sadie’s face is obscured by a striped scarf, which she unwinds with whirring efficiency. Her features, when they emerge, are fiercely defined: strong brows, big glasses, heavily glossed lips.

‘Oh, hello, Beth,’ she says.

‘Yes. Sorry. I came in to get . . .’ A tampon? A hair-tie? ‘Don’t worry.’ Sadie drops her satchel on a tiny, perfect footstool. ‘I’ve creeped many bookshelves in my time. They’re arranged by year, by the way, not by title or director.’


‘The films. If you want to borrow any.’

‘Oh. Thanks.’ The kettle clicks off. Beth nods towards the kitchen, grateful for the cue. Sadie blocks her way. ‘Stay and have a chat,’ she instructs.

Sadie is doing English, in a two-subject moderatorship with Film Studies. She’s from Laois and her accent sounds flat to Beth, almost terse.

Sadie gestures at Beth’s wet hair, her dampening T-shirt. ‘Are you just out of the shower?’

‘I was swimming.’

Sadie nods. ‘You’ve powerful shoulders on you. Here, what was your last name again? I want to add you.’

Her phone is out, her fingers probing the screen. Beth says ‘Crowe’ before she remembers how pitiful her social media presence is.

‘Any relation to your man?’ she says, gesturing towards the Selected Poems. Still she scrolls.

‘He’s my grandfather. Or was.’

Sadie gapes at her. ‘Fuck. Off.’

‘Yeah, it’s no big deal really. I never knew him or anything, because obviously . . .’

‘It’s . . . kind of a big deal? He was one of the few poets

on the Leaving Cert that wasn’t an absolute dose to study. “The Sea God”? The fucking “Sea God”, man. It destroyed me. What’s your favourite of his poems?’

Beth folds her arms and looks at the ceiling, hoping to convey the difficulty of choosing. ‘“Skiff”, if I had to pick one? I’m not as familiar with his work as I should be, to be honest.’

‘That’s allowed,’ Sadie says, leaning on her desk. ‘Sure you were reared on him. There was probably no getting away from him.’

‘Exactly.’ In truth, ‘Skiff’ is the only one of her grandfather’s poems that really speaks to her, because of its description of the small pointed boat: ‘a knife for cutting through water’. The phrase sometimes pops into her head when she’s swimming, like a mantra.

With Sadie, Beth’s relationship to Benjamin Crowe seems to be an asset. In school, it was different. Kids mockingly recited lines from the poems within her earshot. When she objected, they’d just laugh. Calm down, Beth. Don’t off yourself. Studious types complained about her ‘unfair advantage’; teachers asked her in front of everyone if Crowe would come up on the exam this year, as if she had any way of knowing.

He had come up, in the event. Beth had hesitated for a moment, then chose the Elizabeth Bishop question instead.

They are lounging on the beanbags, half-watching The Lady from Shanghai on a retro DV D projector. At some point Sadie produces a bottle of wine from under her desk and pours them each a glass. Beth has not done much drinking in her life, and as the wine takes effect her movements feel slow and deliberate, as though she is underwater.

‘So it’s just you and your mam at home?’ Sadie asks, after describing her own household. Though Sadie claims to be ‘well shot of them’, to Beth Sadie’s family life sounds idyllic: dogs, farmland, precocious twin brothers.

‘My gran lives with us too. In the attic.’ Beth realises how that sounds, but cannot seem to rescue the sentence.

‘Is that Ben’s widow?’ Sadie asks. ‘She’s alive still?’

Beth nods.

‘Whoa. Well, I’d probably retreat to the attic too, to be


‘She’s definitely a bit reclusive these days.’

For as long as Beth can remember, Lydia has been dis-

trustful of outsiders. Even now, whenever a new article or seminar comes around, suggesting the usual things – alcoholism, womanising, bouts of rage – it is curtly dismissed. ‘These people didn’t know your grandfather,’ Lydia will say.

In her drunkenness, Beth becomes sentimental, and eases the yellow-spined book from the shelf. She studies the author photo. Ben is standing, she realises, in front of the gable end of the house he lived in, the house she grew up in – something she’s never noticed before. He is wearing a thick woollen jumper, trying out a beard. Behind thin gold- rimmed glasses he’s looking at the camera, through the camera, beyond it. He’s looking out to sea.


Holding her Breath is available now