Louise O’Neill: Only My Body

The sixth year girls of St Brigid’s realised that not only was it unrealistic to hope for dry weather, it was verging on lunacy to dream of clear skies and sunshine. Most of them were 18 years old. They could vote, they could get married, they could tut at the fifth years ordering pints in O’ Reilly’s and mutter under their breath about underage drinking. They were adults, and the time for making wishes on falling stars was long past. If they wanted a sunny day for the debs, then a random Monday in November would probably have been a better idea than this; the middle of summer.

But the debs at St Brigid’s had always been held on the second Friday of every July. It was tradition. Their mothers had held their debs ball on the second Friday of July, as had their grandmothers before that. As children, the girls had spent hours paying dress-up in ancient taffeta gowns, yellowing and musty, fantasising about their own debs dresses, what boy they would bring, how beautiful they would look. There was only one thing certain – it would be held on the second Friday of July. Things didn’t change in Ballinatoom.

So here they were, on the second Friday of July, and they had spent the last week glued to online weather forecasts. There had been frantic recitals of half-forgotten Novenas over the last week and grandmothers asked to light candles. The colour of the night sky and the behavioural patterns of the crows had been closely monitored, and Poppy, the Wiccan expert in sixth year, had done countless Tarot card readings to predict the chances of sunshine. Chloe O’ Rourke, the president of the Debs committee, captain of the camogie team, future medical student at Trinity College Dublin and unfortunate owner of unruly hair that tended to frizz had even offered to abstain from having sex ever again (or at least until marriage) if please please please please God let it not rain for once in this godforsaken country. Looking out at the dense fog and the light drizzle that was beginning to fall, Liam, Gemma O’ Rourke’s boyfriend, gave a heavy sigh.

Grand, soft rain. A typical summer’s day in Ireland.

Sarah was too busy examining her reflection to give much thought to the weather outside. Her bedroom did not usually contain a mirror, but for today’s occasion she had dragged her mother’s into her cramped room. The mirror was an old one. Their neighbours had thrown it away a couple of years ago when refurbishing their own flat and Mandy, Sarah’s mother, had rescued it from the rubbish tip. It had a large crack down the centre, which always made Sarah nervous. Mandy had reasoned that as the neighbours had been the ones to break the glass, it was to them that the bad luck would fall.


No offense to the neighbours, but Sarah and her mother were not exactly in need of any more bad luck.

Outside a mist was forming, pressing up against the window as if asking permission to enter. It found an open window and curled in, turning everything it touched grey.

Yet, somehow, Sarah remained untainted, her canary yellow dress almost shockingly bright in the dullness of the room. She smoothed down the front of the dress, admiring how small the dress made her waist seem, how much the colour flattered her olive skin. She was flushed with excitement, and it made her beautiful. As she gazed at the cracked mirror, Sarah could almost believe it.


Sarah flinched. She hadn’t heard Mandy enter the room, and wondered how long she had been standing there. She turned to face her mother.

“Yes, Mam?”

Mandy was leaning against the frame of the bedroom door. She moved over to stand behind Sarah, shuffling in her threadbare slippers. She stood a minute looking at the broken image in the mirror.

“Did I say you could borrow my mirror?”

Sarah shook her head.

“Put it back.”

The slam of Mandy’s bedroom, the creak of the bed springs. Then the room was silent again.

The mist twisted through the window, turning over and over, clouding the mirror. Sarah  wiped its surface clean, the glass smearing slightly from the warmth of her hands. She looked at her reflection. She was just herself. Just Sarah.  A cheap viscose dress and some lip-gloss could not be expected to change that.

The door bell rang, the tinny tone shattering the dead of the flat.

And there he was. Standing outside her front door, waiting for her.

She, like every other girl in St. Brigid’s, had been infatuated with Jack Doyle since he had moved to town ten months ago. He was tall, he was handsome, and he was the best player on the hurling team. Much of the credit must be given to Jack Doyle for their success, the Examiner wrote after Ballinatoom won the country final for the first time in fifteen years, he has the potential to become the finest hurling player this county has ever produced. He could have had any girl he wanted in St. Brigid’s but for some reason it was Sarah that he had chosen.

“Hey.”  Thrusting a huge bunch of  lilies at her, Jack grimaced and wiped at the pollen dust on his suit. As she placed the flowers on the hall table, he tried to peer past her into the flat and Sarah quickly closed the door behind her.

“So, are we ready to go?”

“Eh, cool,” he said, “Do you want to introduce me to your Mam or anything?”

He looked a bit uncertain. He was probably expecting champagne, a clucking mother and over-protective father, photographs with dozens of relatives. She shook her head and they walked down the steps of the apartment block.  She had asked Jack to meet her at the hotel where the Debs was to be held, but he had insisted on collecting her from her house. It was the only way that his father would lend him the Merc, he had said. And she, unwilling to argue with Jack, couldn’t say no to him. He smiled at her as he revved the car engine, his teeth very white against his tanned skin.

“Happy?” he took his left hand off the steering wheel to squeeze hers.

“Of course,” Sarah replied, making herself smile at him.

Jack liked it better when she was happy.

When thinking about her debs years afterwards, Sarah would find it difficult to remember specific details. She knew that Jack drove them to the hotel. They posed for photos in front of a cheap tie-dyed cloth background. She smiled at friends, she had laughed, danced to some terrible music chosen by a local DJ that the debs committee had insisted upon because he was Chloe O’ Rourke’s cousin. They sat down for dinner, but Sarah was too excited to eat much and Jack kept filling her glass with some concoction from a silver hip flask all night. Girls kept approaching them all night to tell Sarah how pretty she looked, ohmigod you are perf, I just want to be you, you are literally goals. Jack leant in close to her, and she could smell his aftershave, and she felt a wave of dizziness run through her.

“It’s true,” he said. “You are so beautiful.”

Sarah barely even noticed when the music finished, and all the others started to filter out. She and Jack were curled around each other in a dark corner. She shivered slightly as he kissed her shoulder, and as he inched his fingers up her thighs she couldn’t think of anything but the heat that was emanating from the very centre of her being. 

“Do you want to?” he asked her.

Sarah had waited such a long time. She had sat at break time, listening to her friends discuss sizes and positions, trying to offer solace when they freaked out over suspicious rashes and blisters, but she had felt separate, left out. Left behind.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” her mother had repeated over the years. “Men only want one thing. Once they get that, you’ll never see them again and you’ll be like me, stuck with some screaming baby you don’t want at 16.”

That won’t happen to me, Sarah had wanted to tell her mother. I’ll never be like you.

“Do you want to?” Jack repeated, a note of impatience creeping into his voice.

He had booked a room in this hotel for tonight. “No pressure,” he said when he showed her the room key, but his eyes were narrowed.

He waited for her response.

(There were plenty of other girls who wanted to be with him, plenty of other girls who didn’t have reservations about losing their virginity at the advanced age of eighteen. What was she waiting for? It wasn’t a big deal.)


If she said no, she might lose him.

“Yes,” she croaked.


She cleared her throat. “Yes,” she said again, more clearly. He grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet.

Would it hurt? The girls said that it hurt. Lily, her best friend, had bled, staining the sheets, and the boy had told all his friends. They had laughed about it. Sarah’s stomach felt bloated, and she tried to focus on that; it felt real in a way the rest of the world did not. Jack led her out of the function room. There were a group of lads finishing off pints at the bar and they started whooping when they realised Jack and Sarah were heading towards the bedrooms. 

They climbed the stairs to the first floor. She kept her head down, focusing on the grubby carpet. It was a sky blue with darker patches staining it here and there. She wondered what the stains are. Vomit? Urine? The yellow paint on the door was peeling off. Jack attempted to close the door behind him but it wouldn’t close properly, as if the wood had warped and was too large for the frame. The door was slightly ajar.

“The door?” she asked.

“Yeah, that’s as good as it’s going to get, I’d say.”

She wanted to tell him that she’s afraid someone will pass by and see them.

She wanted to tell him she was afraid.

She sat on the bed, her legs suddenly incapable of supporting her weight. Jack turned off the main light but she could still vaguely see him, the light from the landing dimly illuminating the room. She could hear the rustle of material against skin as he started to get undressed, hanging his trousers and shirt in the wardrobe, leaving his socks and underwear on the floor. He took a packet from his wallet – a condom, she presumed – and she could hear something tear.

“Hey,” he said.

He sat next to Sarah on the bed, the mattress sagging under his weight.

He kissed her, then turned away to put the condom on. He turned back to her and started  kissing her again. Sarah wished that the euphoria of earlier to return. She wished for desire to swallow her fears whole but she felt cold, his tongue felt heavy in her mouth. He unzipped her dress and shoved it down over her hips.

“Wait,” she said when she heard the sound of material tearing. This dress had been expensive, for her anyway, but he was oblivious. He took off her bra, catching the hook in her skin as he did so.

“That hurt, Jack, I —’

He pushed her onto the bed. She could feel the roughness of the worn out cotton sheets beneath her.

He pushed himself into her and she felt as if she was being torn apart. He thrusted in and out, each time breaking a little more of her. In and out. His hands were under her back and he lifted her up, moving her further up on the bed.

He tensed, his face contorting, and then moans. Collapsing on top of her, his weight squeezed all the air from her lungs, leaving her fighting for air. He remained like this for a minute, then rolled over. Within seconds, his heavy snores echoed in Sarah’s ears.

She was very still. It’s over, she told herself, that’s done with now. No big deal. It’s dark in the room.

It’s nothing, she said silently. It’s only my body. Only my body.

The bile rose in her throat. No, no, no, no. She looked around in desperation. Reaching for a waste paper basket next to the foot of the bed, she retched, vomiting up her dreams, her wish that tonight, tonight, would be different somehow.

Who was she to have dared to dream? Who was she to have wished for something better?  Her mother might have asked her.

She lay slumped at the foot of the bed for what could have been minutes, hours, days. Only the slow beating of the clock on the bedside locker reminded her that she was still alive, that she had not fallen into purgatory like Alice tripping down the rabbit hole.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

She looked at the time.

It was 3am. All was quiet.

Louise O’Neill is an award-winning YA novelist. Her latest book, ‘Only Ever Yours’ is out now.

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