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Lea McCarthy

I am sitting in Eleanor O’Sullivan’s living room in my gym vest and shorts and my favourite socks, those ones with the cartoon dogs on them. There’s not much in here; just one window with a ripped curtain pulled over it, a big bookcase, the ratty old sofa that I’m sitting on and the little table in front of the sofa. On the little table she left a sandwich for me and I wish I could have a taste of it, I haven’t had jam in so long. I lick my lips. But I won’t. I’d have to use my hands to pick up the sandwich and I can’t because I’ve been holding the last reserves of orange for about five hours now and even though my fingers are cramping, I’m not letting go of it.

I clench my teeth and my knuckles. Even though there’s nobody here but me; you never know who might come through the door. I have to keep the jar hidden behind my back, the orange is very precious.

(Colours — like orange — are unstable these days, and they run like your nose when you have germs. You try to sniff it all back up — revolting Mam says — and you can’t, the colours become clear and cold like that)

Eleanor O’Sullivan doesn’t have a telly or else I’d be watching it. I s’pose it’s good she doesn’t because Mam says you get square eyes watching telly and when that happens you have to hide away and live forever in the basement and never have any friends over. Mam says I don’t want that do I, and I say could I watch a load of telly then cause my eyes would already be squares wouldn’t they, and Mam gave me a smack for cheek on my cheek. I was really proud even though it stung because it was dark red, the most colourful thing on the whole school bus morning. I was even showing off a little bit, holding my head super high so everyone could get a good look, even Mary and Carla sitting at the back. I never saw anyone else on the school bus with such a pretty red slap like my one. I never met anyone with square eyes either. I guess all of them are locked up in their basements though, like Mam said.

I really want some sandwich now; I think I’ll probably die of starvation if I don’t eat a little bit, I’ve not had anything since breakfast. I stand up, get off the sofa, and very very carefully put the jar on the ground, between my feet. The dogs on my socks look like they’re helping to guard it.  I gulp down the sandwich with all that delicious jam, though I keep my eyes glued on the jar- that doesn’t really mean glue, I just heard someone say it once.

The jar is the kinda thing that’s tricky to hide. There’s a lid to stop spills but the lid has all these breathing holes punched into it. If I was careless with it, then everything could tip out, or if I hid it under the dotty blanket on the couch, I could even block the breathing holes- and then where would we be?

The good thing is I got a report from school, and even though Mam didn’t read it, I did, and Teacher wrote that I am a timid but caring child. Caring is the same as careful; it just means you care for emotions. We did ‘caring’ for Dictation the day we were doing all the ‘ing’ verbs and I actually got a star for Dictation that day. We never did emotions for Dictation because they’re more difficult to write down — they’re even hard to see sometimes, more you feel them. Like Mam’s sad drip drip tears on my shoulder. Or my angry fists thumping the table when Mam says come on now it’s for the good of us all, you need to give up the last reserves of orange. I’m better at ing verbs than I am at emotions.

My star from school was white — because schools’ colour budgets have been bled fucking dry, I heard Teacher say and also: God knows she’d help more but aren’t they spread so thin?

Sounds like the last palest bit of butter on a hard bit of bread. Or jam but I’ve finished all that now. I lick my lips again, hoping for leftover crumbs and smears but there’s none so I pick up the last reserves of orange, and sit back on the sofa, again with my hands behind my back, hiding the jar from view. They already ache even though they just had a rest. It’s getting cold in here.

I heard Teacher say those things that time I got taken to the headmaster’s office because Mam took my green out of my eyes while I was asleep. I was sitting outside the room for hours while Teacher and the headmaster were talking. That’s another time I was angry. Mam said it shouldn’t matter because I wasn’t even using my green but it was still mine. Then Mam said quit whining and she told Teacher it wasn’t any of her business. But now it’s different because I am using this colour, the orange, so I can be as much angry as I want. Anyways, I was the fourth person in my class to get a star in Dictation so that’s pretty good. The star used to be stuck to my vest, and because my vest is faded and dirty and the star was white, like I said, it shone really bright against my vest. Cold bright though. I wish I could have a star in a warm colour.

(Government people collect the running colours and put them into a big machine chomp chomp and it chews them up and spits them back out.)

Mam told me that she needed to take away the last reserves of orange this morning, and I screamed at her and ran to my room and grabbed the jar, and I ran out the apartment, down the metal stairs. Mam isn’t as fast as me on the stairs because of her bad ankles but she shouted after me you’re just a child, you don’t understand and would you just oh fuck it shit bollocks fuck off you little fuck.

I got onto the bus and into a fight with the driver because I forgot my bus pass and I think he was even more fighty about it because of my used-up eyes which is a sign of poor and bad people.

(Taking hair and eye colours is allowed but like I say, it’s a bad sign. If you use up all your colours, even your skin and your blood and the final thing is your heart, they take you away, probably put you in a big machine I think but I’m not sure, no one will tell me. There are people in the street with almost no colours left and they’re so scary.)

My heart was beating hard though that cheered me a little because I was getting worried maybe Mam took the colour out of it while I slept but she must not have. Then I got to school and told Teacher what Mam said and she was very shocked; she covered her mouth with her hand. She told the headmaster she needed to run an errand and took me to her house to hide. Turns out that she isn’t just Teacher, on her days off she’s a different person called Eleanor O’Sullivan, who must not have to stay out of my business. I read her mail that’s how I learnt about the names.

Eleanor O’Sullivan’s house has even less colours than our apartment; it’s all been drained down to greys and blacks and whites. That surprised me because she has all her colours still bright in her eyes and hair and cheeks, when she comes to school being Teacher. She even always wears a little blue scarf, though she hides it under her coat on the walk there, so the scary people don’t come begging for it. Class only begins once she hangs up her coat and you can see the little scarf, and then she fixes it in place with a black pin and she sighs.

(The government sell the colours to the Pri Vet Seck Tore, which the shouting people on TV say is not fair, taking colours from us and giving to them that have loads, with flamingos on their lawns, but the government people say they need the money to run the chomping machines or for bus passes even though I forgot mine today and it was fine in the end.)

It’s really cold now, getting dark outside. I pull the dotty blanket off the back of the sofa and curl up, hugging the jar in my arms, tucking it under the blanket a little, so it’s hidden but not covered completely. No one would see through the window now anyway, though I keep looking over, just making sure. On the windowsill, there are pinecones in a row, all colour-gone. They look like dead people bones, cracked and horribly pale. They’re making my stomach feel sick. I turn my back to them and I look at the bookcase, mostly greys but there’s a little china dog with patterns in blue and white flowers. I bet that’s really precious for Eleanor O’Sullivan, probably from when she was small in olden days when things were better. I bet you anything her favourite colour is blue.

The dark makes me a bit scared and shaky, and shaky hands are bad for the last reserves of orange. I tell my hands be still and not spill and then, to check and make sure it’s worth all the hiding and clutching, I unscrew the lid off the jar containing the last reserves of orange and have a good look.

The little goldfish, perfect orange scales, no colour-run pinecone, though smudged at the edges, flitting about in the water. Yes, still worth it.

So, I’m in Eleanor O’Sullivan’s house not-watching-telly and caring, being careful. I hope Mam doesn’t find us here.

Lea McCarthy is a 25-year-old LGBT writer from Sligo, with a degree in Creative Writing. She has had work published in Skylight47, Sonder, Ropes and Paper Lanterns and was shortlisted for the Redline Poetry Prize 2022 and Poems for Patience 2023. Day to day, she manages storytelling projects in Italian primary schools.

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