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This Happy: An extract from Niamh Campbell’s debut novel

Our extract this issue is from contemporary fiction writer Niamh Campbell. This Happy, which examines relationships and life’s defining moments, was described as a “glowing hot” debut.

One day in autumn when I had been married for less than four months I saw the landlady. I saw her
in Cow Lane – such a strange place to be, cobbled self­-consciously – and when I caught sight of her I turned and pretended to be distracted by the surplus of a shop door, a banal glass-­panelled door, swinging and
releasing people with shopping bags.

The landlady was standing on the pavement. It had been raining, all was shining, it was mild: she was pausing and reading something on her phone. In the years since I had seen her last, when she oversaw my disgrace, she hadn’t changed. Even without preparation – nothing that had taken place during the day to indicate this encounter would occur – I felt generosity rise within me, a desire to tell her so – to tell her, you look great, you always do, you have such style. She must, I thought, be fifty now at least.

I weighed my options and eventually pivoted, prevari­cated, walked away. I swept off before she could see me. My footsteps clacked on the cobblestones. Dame Street was like coming ashore, and here I halted. I began to click the fingers of my hands. This is something I do when I want to summon a decision from within or without me. Behind, the chute leading back into Temple Bar was desultory. Buses broke from the Cathedral and brayed towards College Green.

Even now, I thought. Even now this minute I feel ex­hilarated to think about it, all of it, although I must confess it had been crushed into a kind of pinhead, a pinprick, apunctum, something severe, a tattoo: but when released, it was a rich green wave of memories, flaming seams and flaming seals.

And at that point I hadn’t seen her, nor Harry, for something like six years. I was thirty now – over six years – although nonetheless of course I remembered it all forensically. I was going just then to meet my husband of four months – less than four months – but found my footsteps slowed, which was strange, since typically I hurried everywhere. And there was a general slowness then, after I had seen the landlady – a distension, it
was almost like horror – like everything in the environment was a sign.

I wasn’t married long. Things had happened suddenly. I was going at that moment to meet my husband.
I continued, pressed, on my way, against the crowd, as the cathedral bells erupted and the birds scattered and gulls opened, as supple as crossbows, looking for scraps from tourists on the grass. I wondered how much I had told my husband about the episode with Harry when I was twenty ­three. Little, I reckoned; hardly anything. But it had happened, certainly, to me.

It seems funny to say I have never listed the facts. This is because they make me sound foolish. When I was twenty ­three, and studying in London, I met a man who was older than me – a married man, a writer – and fell in love. Things happened suddenly then as well. We left London, this man and I, and travelled to Ireland, where I am from.

We had met in April, in the first bit of mild weather; we went to Ireland in August. We came to stay in a cottage at the bottom of a tubular lane, the type in Ireland called a boreen. The cottage was his; he rented it, he knew it well. I have taken apart every panel of this, like an ornamental fan. But we stayed in the cottage for three weeks only, just three weeks, because it was cut short you see – cut short after just three weeks,
when I’d left my entire life behind.

Afterwards, for years, things brought it back to me, the cottage, suddenly: dusty aubergines; a copse
against a cold bloodletting sunset in Phoenix Park; the smell of burning timber, or of damp. Once in
the film institute I was folding my coat under my chair and when I sat up I could smell it – the cottage – smell smoke, wood smoke, on someone’s clothes, and I was seized with strange autonomous ecstatic grief.

I think of it in certain atmospheres. A species of spacious evening, in the countryside especially; the sky stretched and pillared, wet scents of land­water, wet dog, wet dock, steeped leaves, and earth rippled up by hooves or bicycles or boots. I remember standing in the lane barefoot, bath­ time, the lustful chill and coming discomfort of nightfall – the slow rich reclamation of the fields and hills by dark­ ness, threaded starlight, night coming on like someone filling a bucket with dark sand.

I could stay here forever! I thought. I could live on here, forever! I was young back then. I was always
so wound up.

But when I saw her, the landlady, in Cow Lane, when I had been married for four months and six years had passed since it all, it was not that things came flowing back to me. In fact it had been with me, close to me, sewn into decisions like signatures, for years: redrafted, redesigned, streamlined, all confusion
corrected, all forgotten details simulated, supplemented, quantified.

And so the sight of the landlady in a marvellous moss­ green coat – the kind woven in Donegal and treasured for a lifetime – looking no older, looking more beautiful really, the sight of this was a source of grace or abrupt unasked­for glee. Like I had been waiting all this time to be rediscovered.

This Happy by Niamh Campbell is published by Hachette Ireland and is out now. Buy it here.

Photo by Alfred Lutz on Unsplash