Touchy Subjects: Stories

by Emma Donoghue

The twenty stories are about some of today's touchiest subjects. Donoghue delves into private dilemmas and contemporary controversies of all kinds, from religion to money, social lies to family secrets, sexual confusion to facial hair. Two recurring themes are animals and all they mean to us, and babies (whether and how to have them). Several stories replay Biblical plots in surprising modern contexts. Set in Ireland, England, Canada, the USA, France and Italy, these stories feature a wide variety of men, women and teenagers bluffing and blundering their way through their lives.

Set in rural Louisiana, 'Enchantment' is a Cain and Abel story about two crayfishermen (one black, one white) who become rivals when one of them has a near-death experience and - on the Lord's instructions - sets up as a swamp guide. It explores the silences in male friendship, the absurdities of tourism, and the discomforts of religion.

'The Dormition of the Virgin', the diary of a nerdish English student on a mini-break pilgrimage to Florence, is about the gulfs between different nationalities and generations. Absorbed in great art and his own self-important insecurities, the boy is oblivious to a drama going on in his hotel.

In 'Necessary Noise', the Gospel story of squabbling sisters Martha and Mary and their temporarily dead brother Lazarus is transposed to an Emergency department in present-day Manhattan. It probes the complex relations between three teenage siblings whose mother has run away.

'Baggage' recounts a Limerick woman's strange weekend in Los Angeles, trying to track down her missing gay brother. It tests the ties of identity and affection, and looks at the dark secrets of a traditional family.

'Lavender's Blue' is a marital power struggle about the apparently trivial issue of what colour an African-American couple will paint their house.

In 'The Cost of Things', a Canadian lesbian couple hit the rocks when their beloved cat becomes mysteriously - and expensively - ill. This story explores the roles lovers and pets play, and the crucial importance of that thing that isn't supposed to matter: money.

'Pluck' follows an Irish stay-at-home father's descent into a morbid obsession with a hair on his girlfriend's chin. It is about the frustrations of parenting and partnership, and the changing face of gender.

'Good Deed' sets the parable of the Good Samaritan in downtown Toronto, where a busy executive happens across an unconscious homeless man bleeding from the mouth. This story is about the ethical embarrassment of a middleclass man brought face to face with poverty and squalour.

'The Sanctuary of Hands' is the name of a prehistoric cave in the South of France where an Irishwoman on a guided tour is mortified by having to hold the hand of one of a group of 'special needs' visitors. The story probes the covert revulsion of the able-bodied for the disabled, and asks questions about human identity and human contact.

'WritOr' (sic) is about a cheerfully arrogant Writer in Residence at an American university whose first semester turns into a descent through Dante's hells. Tutoring a variety of talentless, needy, would-be novelists and poets, he finds himself losing faith in people and in writing itself.

'Team Men' is set on a Yorkshire boys' soccer team, where new star player Davy is many things to Jon: an easygoing mate, a rival for the approval of Jon's authoritarian father (their coach), and an object of desire. Based on the Old Testament tragedy of David, Jonathan and Saul, this story explores the mute thrills and terrors of a highly macho environment.

'Speaking in Tongues' is about the unexpected, nervous, mutual seduction of a 17-year-old student and a 34-year-old poet at a Galway conference on bilingualism. It looks at the psychology and ethics of lust across a generation gap.

'The Welcome' is the name of a Manchester feminist housing co-operative. In this peculiar little world, young Luce, precise and virginal, falls headlong for her enigmatic new housemate, and finds herself drawn into a domestic war. This story is about the awkward process of forming a self, the blurred line between love and friendship, and the struggle to remake gender.

In 'Do They Know It's Christmas?', an Irish academic couple besotted with their three 'babies' find their wary relationship with the man's parents erupting into conflict when the dogs are not invited for Christmas. This farcical story is about the serious issue of what defines a family.

'Expecting' starts with the tiniest of social lies: an Englishwoman out shopping lets an elderly male stranger think she's pregnant because she can't be bothered correcting his mistake. Drawn into a friendship both touching and distressing, she can't see any way to extricate herself. This story is about our choices (big and small), our glimpses of parallel lives.

'The Man Who Wrote on Beaches' is a American, 'born again' at 43, who feels obliged to rethink his whole life, and decides to marry his partner and have children after all. It concerns the jarring disjunctions between religious and secular mores, and the risky venture of making a baby.

'Touchy Subjects' brings together Padraic and his wife's best friend Sarah in a glamorous Dublin hotel room for a discreet assignation. All she wants is his sperm, but self-insemination proves a tricky business, logistically as well as emotionally. This story explores a very contemporary situation in all its funny, hurtful and embarrassing ramifications.

'Oops' is what James thinks when he carelessly presses a button on an electronic contraceptive device in his oldest friends' bathroom. When he learns that they're expecting, his private guilt gradually gives way to a fondly committed relationship with the child. This story plays with the idea of consequences and responsibility, and the lifelong effects of a secret.

In 'Through the Night', Una has what so many people want, a beautiful healthy baby, but sleep deprivation and post-natal anxiety have brought her to the brink, and a visit from her Irish mother only makes things worse. This story is about the fierce controversies and contradictions in modern childrearing, and the ambivalent tie between mother and daughter.

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547607498
  • ISBN-10: 0547607490
  • Pages: 288
  • Publication Date: 05/07/2007
  • Carton Quantity: 1

About the book

In this sparkling collection of nineteen stories, the bestselling author of Slammerkin returns to contemporary affairs, exposing the private dilemmas that result from some of our most public controversies. A man finds God and finally wants to father a child-only his wife is now forty-two years old. A coach's son discovers his sexuality on the football field. A roommate's bizarre secret liberates a repressed young woman. From the unforeseen consequences of a polite social lie to the turmoil caused by the hair on a woman's chin, Donoghue dramatizes the seemingly small acts upon which our lives often turn. Many of these stories involve animals and what they mean to us, or babies and whether to have them; some replay biblical plots in modern contexts. With characters old, young, straight, gay, and simply confused, Donoghue dazzles with her range and her ability to touch lightly but delve deeply into the human condition.

About the author
Emma Donoghue

Born in Ireland, national bestselling author EMMA DONOGHUE spent many years in England and now lives in Canada. Her books include Room (basis for the Oscar-nominated film), Slammerkin, and The Pull of the Stars. Her novels have been translated into eight languages.


Touchy Subjects


Sarah’s eyes were as dry as paper. Jet lag always made her feel ten years older. She stared past the blond chignon of the receptionist in Finbar’s Hotel. Twenty to one, according to the clock on the right. One take away eight was minus seven. No, try again. Thirteen take away eight was five. Twenty to five, Seattle time. Morning or evening? Wednesday or Thursday?

 She shut her eyes and told herself not to panic. A day either way would make no difference. Please let it not make any difference.

 “Ms. Lord?” The Germanic receptionist was holding out the key.

 Sarah took it and tried to smile. There were four different clocks behind the desk, she realized now. The one she’d been reading was New York, not Dublin. So here the time was a quarter to six, but according to her body clock it was . . .

 Forget it.

 Bag in hand, she stumbled across the marble floor towards the lifts.

 A young assistant porter in Edwardian stripes brought up her double espresso ten minutes later. Sarah felt better as soon as she smelt it. She even flirted with the boy a little. Just a matter of “That was quick,” and a tilt of the eyebrows, just to shake herself awake. He answered very perkily.

 Even if, to a boy like that, thirty-eight probably seemed like ninety. Every little hormone helps.

 Her heart thudded as the caffeine hit home. She dragged the chair over to the window; sunlight was the best cure for jet lag. Not that there was ever much sunlight to catch in Ireland, but at least it was a clear evening. Her eyes rested on the long glitter of the river as she drained her espresso. Time was you couldn’t even have got a filter coffee in Dublin; this town had certainly come on. You could probably get anything you needed now if you paid enough. She winced at the thought: too close to home.

 Knotted into the starchy robe, she flexed her feet on the pale red-and-black carpet and considered the dress spread out on the bed. She knew it was comical, but she couldn’t decide what to wear. This was a big night, most definitely, but not the kind of occasion covered in the book on manners her mother gave her for her eighteenth birthday. (Sarah still kept it on her cookery-book shelf in Seattle; guests found it hilarious.) Whatever she wore tonight had to be comfortable, but with a bit of glamour to keep her spirits up. Back home, this sleeveless dress in cream linen had seemed perfect, but now it was creased in twenty places. Like her face.

 Sarah was tempted to keep on the dressing gown, but it might frighten Padraic. She wished she knew him better. Why hadn’t she paid him a bit more attention at all those Christmas do’s? She was sure there was a chapter on that in her etiquette manual: Take the trouble to talk to everyone in the room. Last year her entire corporation had undergone a weekend’s training in power networking, which boiled down to the same thing, with motives bared. Work the party. You never know when someone might turn out to be useful.

 Was she using Padraic? Was that what it all amounted to?

 No more bloody ethical qualms, Sarah reminded herself. This was the only way to get what she wanted. What she needed. What she deserved, as much as the next woman, anyway.

 The dress was impossible; it would make her look like cracked china. She pulled the purple suit she’d traveled in back on; now she was herself again. Cross-legged on the bed, she waited for her heartbeat to slow down. Six twenty. That was OK; Padraic was only five minutes late. All she wanted was to lie down, but a nap would be fatal.

 There was that report on internal communications she was meant to be reading, but in this condition she wouldn’t make any sense of it. She stretched for the remote and flicked through the channels. How artistic the ads were, compared with back home in Seattle. Sarah paused at some sort of mad chat show hosted by a computer. Was that Irish the children were talking? How very odd.

 Please let him not be very late.

 The Irish were always bloody late.


Padraic was relieved that Finbar’s Hotel was way down on the quays opposite Heuston Station, where he was unlikely to bump into anyone he knew. He stood outside for a minute and gawked up at the glistening balconies. He remembered it when there was only a peeling facade, before that Dutch rock star and his Irish wife had bought it up. What would it cost, a night in one of those tastefully refurbished rooms? It was a shame all the yuppies had to look down on was the Liffey.

 The first things he noticed when the doors slid open were the white sofas, lined up like a set of teeth. Ludicrous— they’d be black in a month. Padraic grinned to himself now to relax his jaw. Greg in marketing had this theory about all tension and pain originating in the back teeth.

 Padraic was the kind of man who always wore his wedding ring, and it hadn’t occurred to him to take it off. But as he stood at the desk and asked the receptionist whether Ms. Lord had checked in yet, he thought he saw her eyes flicker to his hand. He almost gave in to a silly impulse to put it behind his back. Instead, he tugged at the neck of the Breton fisherman’s jumper he had changed into after work.

 The receptionist had the phone pressed to her ear now. She sounded foreign, but he couldn’t tell from where. What was keeping Sarah? What possible hitch could there be?

 Poor woman, he thought, for the twentieth time. To have to stoop to this.


 He leapt. He felt his whole spine lock into a straight line. Then he turned. “Máire, how are you! You look stunning! I don’t think I’ve seen you since Granny’s funeral. Didn’t I hear you were in England?” The words were exploding from his mouth like crumbs.

 His cousin gave him a Continental-style peck on the cheek. “I’m only back a month.”

 Her badge said MÁIRE DERMOTT, RECEPTION MANAGER. He jabbed a finger at it.


“You’re doing well for yourself.” If he kept talking, his cousin couldn’t ask him what he was doing here.

 “Oh, early days,” she said.

 “It all looks fabulous, anyway,” he said, wheeling round and waving at the snowy couches, the bright paintings, the rows of tiny lamps hanging like daggers overhead. He edged away from the desk, where the receptionist had got Sarah on the phone at last.

 “So how’s Carmel?” asked MÁire. “And the boys?” Padraic was about to give a full report on his respectable family life when the receptionist leaned over the desk. “Excuse me, Mr. Dermott. If you’d be so good as to go up now, the room is 101. And please tell Ms. Lord that the champagne is on its way.”

 He offered MÁire a ghastly smile. “Friend of Carmel’s.”

 His cousin’s face had suddenly shut down. She looked as snotty as when they were children doing Christmas pantomimes and she always made him play the ox.

 Padraic gave a merry little wave of the fingers. “Catch you later,” he said, backing away.

 On the way to the lifts Padraic glanced into the establishment designated as the Irish Bar, which looked just like the one he and Carmel had stumbled across in Athens. He pressed repeatedly on the lift button, then put his hand against his hot face. It was god’s own truth, what he’d told his cousin about Sarah being a friend of Carmel’s. But it was also, under the circumstances, the worst possible thing to say. His father’s side of the family were notorious gossips. Once a...



"Every now and again, a writer comes along with a fully loaded brain and a nature so fanciful that she simply must spin out truly original and transporting stuff. To get lost in a book by one of these rare folks is to experience true happiness-and genuine relief that we can access such eccentric, untethered genius on a page, instead of, say, in person across the breakfast table. Emma Donoghue is such a writer."