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Published: Mon Sep 11 2023
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
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The Handrail

“Please, hold the handrail” is a useful sentence to summon when walking downstairs in the dark. It’s also handy to incant on the evening Green Line in Boston with only a few far-flung straps and poles for ballast. The injunction is made by a female voice steering a short escalator journey for passengers in Dublin Airport’s Terminal 1. At least, that’s how I’d been recalling the phrase. Another year had slipped by since I last passed through T1, and things change rapidly in the callous age of cheap air travel. Because I care more about mood than plot, I will lean on this handrail while I reflect on the atmospheric elements of my fiction collection, The Hour After Happy Hour: places of waiting, limbo spaces, the disappointments and defiance entailed in immigration.

2022 was the Irish summer of strained operations, flight delays, and suitcases lost in the legions. Anyone who didn’t have to go through Dublin Airport watched the Six One News in righteous satisfaction and the Nine O’ Clock with an increasingly filthy peace of mind. “I wouldn’t go abroad if you paid me a million!” As it turned out, my July evening in T1 was busy but moving, and keeping moving was essential to not straining operations to a snapping point. There was no time to check if that woman’s voice still haunted the escalator, though during less strained operations I’ve taken the escalator twice to be sure I heard what I heard. Where else but an airport would you need such a wise and solicitous voice? The T1 woman is an expert in the weird jitters of transit. She knows about time killed in liminal spaces. In many ways she is an entity I’ve been supplicating and writing toward for a very long time.

T1, the older, more storied terminal, is a place where spectral things happen because horrible things have already taken place. In late 1975 a bomb exploded in the toilets of T1 Arrivals, killing Aer Lingus worker John Hayes and injuring nine others. A second bomb was defused. The Ulster Defence Association—a loyalist paramilitary group—claimed responsibility. “Please, hold the handrail,” the escalator woman entreated, excellently low and persuasive in her cadence. She intimated doom round the corner and barbarity long passed. She knew loss and grief and endurance.

In July of 2022, her earnest appeal wouldn’t have mattered much, safety being moot in the scramble for Faro or Cardiff or Kos. In a photo I took some feet from the security gates, a sticker gummed to the floor says SEÁN FALLON in assertive felt-tip letters. Did it mark the spot where Seán Fallon had died of interminable waiting? The rubber toe of my stepdaughter’s high-top stubs the corner of the photo, as if noting a grisly clue. Nine years ago, at Pittsburgh Airport, this same girl tested the logic of a moving walkway in the way only six-year-olds can pull off.  She walked against the grain, advancing hand over hand along one handrail. She moved forward and got pulled abaft for as long as she could. It was tiring, futile work, and I loved her implacable effort to resist the laws of conveyance and goodbyes.

Seán Fallon had left us a message from the unincorporated region of the afterlife devoted to airports. We must stand warned. Or maybe the disheveled sticker meant Seán had secured passage and so we too should maintain hope. We forged on and found food and avoided toilets in the deteriorating but still cheery situation at the departure gates. We had gotten this far without handrails and prayed to the holy relic of Seán Fallon that we might get as far as Galicia, where our friend Keith was driving northwards late at night to collect us.

These days I willfully recall the escalator woman’s words differently. “Please, please mind the handrail” is how I quote them—and I do, with some frequency, except that I emphasize the second “please” and offer “mind” rather than “hold” as the more piteous verb in an already serious situation. My sensibility deepens the warning, though I’ll never get the timbre right.

No such voice guides a person down the steeper escalators to United States Customs and Border Control in Terminal 2. If I can’t remember a voice escorting me down to Pre-Clearance, it’s because every passage through that T2 hangar is at once edgily new and queasily familiar. The protocols repeat the protocols of forty-five minutes ago. Just when you think you’ve zipped up for the day, prepare to deconstruct your rig-out again. Get ready for immigration questions that begin in routine, homespun banter and might escalate into a mild argument about Lionel Richie’s birthplace. “No,” I’ve said, “not Tuscaloosa. He’s from Tuskegee.” Both are Alabamian cities and I have adopted the former as my home. I happen to know that Lionel is Tuskegee’s only son to have gone dancing on the ceiling. But wouldn’t it be easier to agree with the officer and move along? Instead, I set my shoulder to the test and get ushered into America without having left Fingal ground. (Fingal: one of three counties into which County Dublin was divided in the 1990s; medieval Fine Gall, place or race of foreigners.)

Unable to conjure a voice for that T2 escalator to Pre-Clearance, I recall in its place a real voice, a voice spoken from a body in that very same Tuscaloosa that’s not the birthplace of Lionel Richie but where I have lived for a decade. This voice addressed my husband and me as we descended an overgrown path to the public library one evening. We’d lit out for our typical walk late in the week, except this was during the first year of the pandemic. There were fireflies, so it must have been May or June. And that Stygian path is a very good place to watch their bioluminescent backsides making the rounds for mates. The man coming towards us became visible only when we drew level with him. I pegged him for one of the revenants who share sleeping space in the gulley with foxes and groundhogs and possums. Gaunt and haunted, they come into view just after dawn but hours before school buses brighten the morning. They carry bundled bedding and a human funk, smells that tell stories they can’t share with the rest of us who are comfortably housed and haven’t seen the same horrors.

The revenants I speak of are timeless in the way war itself never ceases. Their hair is raw, and their voices get louder as soon as they move beyond earshot. “Y’all ain’t gonna make it to the goddamn street,” said our revenant on the downslope to the library. His is another voice I’ve been writing toward recently, trying to reach its despair and intuition. That evening in 2020, we got to the street without incident, down where the library was locked against the darkness. Over our shoulders the gulley rustled with heat and furtive creaturely life.

Gouged through Tuscaloosa in June 1866 by the heaviest rainfall ever recorded at the time, the gulley, a thoroughfare for tenacious animals and phantom men, is known very dully as the Big Gully. A humdrum 1949 book of Alabama history recounts a series of failed revetment solutions after the flood. The book mentions that “Two Irishmen Zack and Tom Jones laid the first brick retaining wall, but they proved to be only good bricklayers and the job required real engineering.” If we believe that these Jones brothers were Irishmen, then the man coming towards us might have been one of their ghosts. I don’t know if these men who put their backs into shoring up a town with short-term stopgap handiwork were immigrants. Did they have any clue about building a retaining wall of any magnitude, let alone that of a flood-threatened town?

Well, their work didn’t suffice, so they’re posted as Irishmen in the history book. I’m ready, and unfairly so, to hear the mockery needling through the historian’s words. I imagine a life of shabby disappointment for the Jones brothers, Irish or not, the remainder of their lives cursed by amateurism, falling short of the goddamn street. Writers are enchanted by such voices, be they the emanations of an escalator woman or prophecies given unbidden along a dark path.

Back in T1 in summer 2023, killing time in the rainy caesura between arriving from Nimes and catching a bus into Dublin, I revisited the escalator. It no longer sounded as it used to, either because the diction had been reprogrammed or I’d heightened its urgency during the intervening, estranging years, when I haven’t visited Ireland as often and all that while have pressed poorly recorded memories into the service of fiction. “Attention,” the woman says, followed by a dramatic pause. “Please hold the handrail.” I’d like to assume that Seán Fallon made his flight last summer and has since then been living his best life in Brussels. But the forking paths of fiction have me concerned that he ran aground in Bergen, Bologna, or Bilbao, another one of the beloved disappointees of my fiction.

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Mary O’Donoghue, an Irish writer living in Boston and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is senior fiction editor of AGNI and has been part of the editorial team since 2010. Her fiction has appeared in GrantaThe CommonSubtropicsThe Georgia ReviewKenyon ReviewThe Irish TimesStinging FlyDublin Review, and elsewhere. Her short story collection, The Hour After Happy Hour, is published by Stinging Fly Press in 2023. She has published poetry collections with Salmon Poetry and Dedalus Press, and her translations of Irish-language poetry appear in volumes from Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Bloodaxe Books, and Yale University Press. Her novel, Before the House Burns, was published by Lilliput Press in 2010. Her awards and recognition include two Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowships, residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and an Irish Times prize for short fiction responding to economic crisis. She is professor of English at Babson College in Massachusetts. In 2023 she held the Heimbold Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University. (updated 6/2023)

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