Read an extract from Sebastian Barry’s new novel, Old God’s Time, described in the Guardian as a ‘sublime study of love, trauma, memory and loss’.

If he wasn’t exactly sleepless – he kept nodding off and waking abruptly – he couldn’t sleep properly. Tomorrow he would go in and see Fleming. Or the day after, when he had got the flat sparkling. He had cooked himself frankfurters and mash, a great favourite, and now they lay in his belly like an early pregnancy. His pyjamas were old but all pyjamas seemed to be born old. His even older stomach was mottled here and there with skin tags and dark, round, coinlike things, which the good Deansgrange doctor, the indefatigable Dr Brownlee, had declared to be benign. They were still unsightly. But who was there to sight them? No one. The burden of getting older was borne alone, but also as if by someone else, because he often couldn’t recognise bits of himself he caught in the mirror. Whose newly scrawny legs were those? Why was his head sitting further forward on his neck? Was it really kind of the gods to do this to the skin of his face, as if a child had been let loose with a brown marker? Beside his old bed, on the bedside table much prized by June long ago – ‘though no one sees it but ourselves,’ she had said, in the old house, the day they moved in, and rolled out the carpets, oh momentous day – was the book he wasn’t reading, just wasn’t, though it had attracted his eye in one of the boxes. It was a newish history of Ireland but he didn’t have the strength for it, the signal within.

‘He was so happy to be going off and getting out of Ireland, so happy, after everything that had happened, and though Tom was stabbed by the happiness in a way, ah yes, but, he understood it.’

Who was he anyway, he didn’t know. Was Kettle even his name? Was it even a name? A pot in the kitchen. Joseph was well up on Native American kettles, though they didn’t use them in New Mexico. This was the sort of thing Tom liked to know – so-called useless information. He couldn’t be told about enough useless things. Before Joseph got the final nod for his green card in ’91, he had been looking for books about tribes, because the only job on offer was as a locum on a pueblo near Albuquerque. He was so happy to be going off and getting out of Ireland, so happy, after everything that had happened, and though Tom was stabbed by the happiness in a way, ah yes, but, he understood it. Adventure. Renewal. Give the whins to the plough horse and turn the earth over. ‘Mind the rattlesnakes,’ he said, as his son went off that day at Dublin Airport. ‘I will, Da,’ said Joseph. They were both smiling and laughing. Tears brimming, tears brimming.

They didn’t have long in the new house in Deansgrange, in truth, before the little changes. At night she would go to sleep like a body interred – he could barely hear her breathing. She lived so lightly the traces were hard to see. He would hunt for signs of her. Traces of June. Later, a good few years on, he’d come home of an evening and go about the house, looking for her and the children. When he called out to her she mightn’t answer, because sometimes she wasn’t there. In the last times, when he called out, and she was there, she never answered either. Even alive she was every so often like someone you remembered that you had loved. There was the stick of mascara in the loo without its top screwed back on. As he would make that good, he might wander then into their bedroom, and there might be a pair of her jeans left in a heap, like she had suddenly evaporated. Winnie got out of big school at five, Joseph little school at four. She began to go on epic bus rides with them, he knew not where. He had no way to reach her sometimes, even when she was home. She’d be like a telephone not plugged in then. Billy Drury at work, a Roscommon detective he had a great grá for, and who he could just about talk to, said she had the blues, the blues, the housewife blues. But Tom didn’t think she had the housewife blues. That was another thing. He liked to do the housework anyhow, in the evenings, running the carpet cleaner around the place, rackety rackety, having a bit of a scrub at the loo. She gave the kids a bath, which they adored, and dried them cyclonically in the big white towel, and smothered them in a dust storm of talcum powder, and read to them in their beds, their happy, sleepy faces still smudged with white. Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, he used to eavesdrop on the stories, liking them well enough himself. Sally Henny-Penny, have you seen my pocket handkerchief?

Or was it himself read the stories mostly?

‘It was a disgusting case all told, a beautiful young woman left like rubbish in a big grain sack, in a weedy corner of the quiet yard. Wolfsbane, summer-stocks and giant dock leaves, trying to make a decent guard of honour for her.’

In the early days she was as right as rain, wasn’t she? As right as Irish rain. And to him everything had been verging on the miraculous. He was so old, all of thirty, and he had long given up hopes of a deep love like that. And it was a deep love. She was just a girl that worked at the Wimpy café in Dunleary. He and Billy Drury were down there for three long weeks trying to dig out evidence about a murder. Another girleen had been found murdered in a graveyard, and himself and Billy were much exercised to uncover the villain. It was a disgusting case all told, a beautiful young woman left like rubbish in a big grain sack, in a weedy corner of the quiet yard. Wolfsbane, summer-stocks and giant dock leaves, trying to make a decent guard of honour for her. The hands were only found years and years later in the Dublin Mountains, dug up by a Labrador on his walk. But they never found out who the girl was. She had been killed in an atmosphere of total anonymity. They thought she had maybe just arrived on the mailboat from Holyhead – in despairing moments, they wondered had she dropped from the heavens? An angel with severed hands. In the sixties it was so hard to put names to the dead sometimes. And around 11 a.m., having traipsed about from house to house, up and down Patrick Street, the curious snake of York Road, which started among the working-class houses and their damp little yards and ended among resplendent mansions, hanging gardens, he and Billy would drag their sorry arses into the Wimpy café, and get that weak coffee in the opaque glass cups, white as seashells, and stick their sore legs under the Formica tables, and Billy liked to play the jukebox, and that’s how they got talking, himself and June, mocking his dubious taste in country and western.

‘Nothing wrong with Johnny Cash, though,’ said June, in her blue outfit, and the white bib thing like a nurse’s nearly. He would laugh, and Billy, being an easy-going head enough, yes, he was a lovely lad really, would laugh, and call them bolloxes, under his breath, because he didn’t want to give scandal to the schoolkids that infested the plastic benches. Joe Dolan and the Drifters. And Billy would go on writing his notes, his endless notes – he was the best, most meticulous writer of case reports in Harcourt Street. And then there was the famous day – famous for evermore in his heart, anyhow – when he and June went walking down into Monkstown, on a sort of date, and went out far onto the pier there, where the summer grasses were left to grow like a long narrow meadow, and the sun was so hot on the wooden seats that the blue paint blistered. And they sat together smelling the salted air that was stocked so thick with fishy smells because just a few yards across the oily water was the stubby pier for the trawlers, the heroic fishermen of Dunleary, with their wellington boots as creased as the skin of elephants, and the boxes of otherworldly ice. They sat together, picking at the paint blisters with their fingers, June’s bare legs covered in an almost imperceptible suggestion of downy hair, also something of a strange meadow, and her skin as brown as almonds, and her cotton dress on her trim form, and the crazily perfect face, as it seemed to him, someone so lovely he could barely breathe to think she was with him, him, a mere copper of dubious extraction in his thirtieth year.

The touch of her hand not obviously like fire but burning him all the same, burning his hand.

Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time is out in hardback on 2 March 2023.
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Sebastian Barry

From the Sunday Times bestselling author of Days Without End and The Secret Scripture, and one of our most soulful living writers, Old God’s Time is an extraordinary novel about memory, love, mystery and reckoning.

About the Author

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. The 2018-21 Laureate for Irish Fiction, his novels have twice won the Costa Book of the Year award, the Independent Booksellers Award and the Walter Scott Prize. He had two consecutive novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, A Long Long Way (2005) and the top ten bestseller The Secret Scripture.

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Barry, Sebastian_c Hannah Cunningham