All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

Read an extract of Donal Ryan's moving new novel All We Shall Know


Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He's seventeen, I'm thirty-three. I was his teacher. I'd have killed myself by now if I was brave enough. I don't think it would hurt the baby. His little heart would stop with mine. He wouldn't feel himself leaving one world of darkness for another, his spirit untangling itself from me.

At seven weeks or so a foetus starts to move. Imperceptibly, they say, but I swear I felt a stirring yesterday, a tiny shifting, a shadow-weight. I've been still and silent all these weeks, listening for him. I sit here with the curtains drawn and the TV muted, waiting for a hint of something in the soft glow of things detonating, people bleeding, corpses being carried swathed in flags by dark-eyed men, people arguing and kissing and driving in cars, people opening and closing their mouths.

I've measured his time from the actual minute, not from the first day of my last period, like a doctor would, where a woman would be having normal sex, a normal life, and wouldn't know one moment from another. But all my moments now are marked and measured, standing out in unforgiving light to be examined.

Pat came back yesterday evening from weeks of work around the country, installing water meters. They had to stay in digs, he said; the work was round the clock. The day he left he bent and kissed me on the cheek. His lips were cold; he paused before he straightened. I can't remember if I looked at him. That was on the second day of the seventh week.

I stood at the TV-room door last night and looked at him, stretched along the couch in his tracksuit bottoms and Liverpool jersey, barefoot, unshaven, soft-bellied, defenceless. I'm pregnant, I said. He swung his head towards me and there was a sharp light in his eyes - was it maybe joy? - that extinguished itself after a moment, as he remembered. I told him the father was a man I'd met online, in the voice I always use to make him know I'm serious. Low and even.


Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. 

He's seventeen, I'm thirty-three. I was his teacher.


He sat up, then stood before me and shouted, JESUS! just once. Then he raised his fists as though to punch me, but he pulled back and punched the air before my face instead, and he said, I'll kill you, I'll kill you, and he put his fists to his eyes and cried, very hard, teeth bared, eyes closed, like a little boy who's just felt shocking pain.

There wasn't much more to be said or done then, so he left. He was white as he walked with his gear-bag towards the front door, two small discs of livid red in the centres of his cheeks. He looked back at me from the open doorway. He was ghostly, washed in pale-orange light.

Are we even now? His voice was low, almost a whisper. I didn't reply.

I always loved you, Melody Shee, he said.

All I said back was, Goodbye, Pat.


I slept deeply last night, for a while at least. I didn't dream, or if I did I don't remember. My body has started to do its own thing, to do what needs to be done. I'm twelve weeks gone, and two days. I announced my pregnancy at the twelve-week mark, as is customary. At twelve weeks the immediate danger has passed, the child has learnt to be, to cling, to grow and grow. Around this time a baby starts to taste. I feel I should be spooning sugar down, to sweeten his world. I tried some ice cream earlier today but it felt too cold in my chest and too hot in my belly, and a few minutes later it came back up. I have a craving now for bacon, wrapped in white bread, with butter and ketchup. He prefers savoury, so.

Pat's father let himself in here sometime in the hour after dawn. I got up and walked around behind him, like a ghost he couldn't see. He took a bagful of clothes from the walk-in wardrobe he'd made for us himself as a first-anniversary gift. He took Pat's hurling helmet and togs and boots, and his laptop, and his pile of folders and papers from beside his desk in the small spare room. He left the front door open to ease his quarrying, armful by armful, of his son's life. He forgot the power supply for Pat's laptop, so I unplugged it and wound it neatly and handed it to him. He looked at me for the first time. His face was red with anger and embarrassment, and his breathing was heavy and ragged. I wanted to make him a cup of tea and rub his arm and tell him not to worry, and hear him calling me love and sweetheart, and see him smiling fondly at me, the way he always used to.

I'm sorry, Paddy, I said. I could almost feel his palpitating heart, rippling the air between us. I wanted to tell him to go easy, to mind his poor heart.

Ah, look, he said. Look. And he had no more words for me, nor I for him.

His car was backed into the yard, boot open, engine running. Fumes curled inwards along the hall. I thought, That would be a way to do it. He drove out and stopped on the avenue and walked back to close the gate. Like a protective grandfather, like a man who might say: Better keep that oul gate shut, for fear at all the child might run out in front of a car.

Yesterday's ripple of sickness is a great wave today, rolling in and crashing over me every few minutes. A terrible tiredness came on me this morning and I say on the couch for most of the day, with a basin at my feet. I rinse it out every now and then, in the kitchen sink. My muscles ache each time I walk, and my head spins when I get up and when I sit down, and pins and needles prick my goosebumped skin. I don't remember eating, but I must have, because there are crumbs on the kitchen counter, and the rind of an orange.

Morning sickness my arse. The vomiting subsides in the early evening. I slept last night in my dressing-gown, cocooned in doubled-over duvets. The air in our room is always cold, except for a few weeks in midsummer. Pat always loved the coldness of the air: he said it made the bed more cosy to have a bit of yourself cold, your toes or the top of your head; you could appreciate being in bed a lot more. Oh, Pat. All the fights fought and the terrible words spoken, all the years of nicks and cuts and scattered days when we tore each other so vicious and so deep. And this is what I've done to end it. Announced from the TV-room door that I'd let another man do what you couldn't. I've been on my hands and knees for numberless hours. This is more than I can bear and less than I deserve. We'll slip away to darkness soon enough, and live inside it, just us two, once I have all my loose ends neatly tied.

This morning I stood barefoot on the decking, drinking tea. The sickness was gone. I thought about having a fag. My body felt neutral, except for a twitch now and then from the muscles in my abdomen, as though aimless electrons were pulsing along it, shot from some confused gland that had been sleeping up to now. The air was clear and clean and there was a faint smell of mown grass. Someone nearby doing their first cut. I looked at the clay flowerpot at the far corner of the decking that Pat used for years as a giant ashtray, without ever thinking to empty it, overflowing with butts and black muck. My stomach churned a little bit.

I imagined the decking to be a gallows, the wooden planks beneath my feet its trapdoor. An audience of thistles and tufts of grass. I touched the belt of my dressing-gown. I thought of the high hook on the bathroom wall. I wondered how long it would take and how much it would hurt. I wondered if there were Stanley blades in Pat's virgin toolbox in the cracked, untreated shed. I thought about a deep bath of roasting water. Why does the bathroom seem to be the natural place? The water and soap and disinfectant, the white tiles on the floor and walls, easily cleaned, the clouding steam. There's something attrative about the dark inversion of leaving the world and curling myself into a cramped, warm space.

I ate: a boiled egg and dry toast. It stayed down. I slept.

Find out more about the author

All We Shall Know

Donal Ryan

‘Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I'm thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough. I don’t think it would hurt the baby. His little heart would stop with mine. He wouldn't feel himself leaving one world of darkness for another, his spirit untangling itself from me.’
Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. Her husband doesn't take her news too well. She doesn't want to tell her father yet because he’s a good man and this could break him. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming – larger by the day – while the past won’t let her go. What she did to Breedie Flynn all those years ago still haunts her.
It’s a good thing that she meets Mary Crothery when she does. Mary is a young Traveller woman, and she knows more about Melody than she lets on. She might just save Melody’s life.
Donal Ryan’s new novel is breathtaking, vivid, moving and redemptive.

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