Read a New Short Story from The Incubator

Get an early taste of the Irish literary journal's new issue with an exclusive piece of flash fiction by Dublin writer Nollaig Rowan

The Incubator is a new quarterly literary journal showcasing contemporary Irish writing, with a focus on short stories. Edited by Newtownards author Kelly Creighton, who just recently launched her debut novel The Bones of It, the publication also offers a platform for poetry and plays as well as featuring interviews and reviews.

Ahead of the launch of its fifth issue at Belfast's Black Box this Sunday, July 14, the publication has selected a sample extract in the form of a short piece of fiction by Dublin-based writer Nollaig Rowan. Several of Nollaig's works have previously been broadcast on radio, including RTE's Francis MacManus Short Story Competition, and later this year one adapted for screen will premiere as a new short film.

'In Flame an awkward and anxious teenager encounters a glamorous and sophisticated family friend,' says assistant editor of The Incubator Anne Caughey of the piece featured in the latest issue. 'The author roots the story in intimate detail and well-defined characters, while the strong narrator's voice shares her insecurities and yearnings.' 

'This evocative story takes a fresh approach to the idea of a transformative moment. A great example of how much can be done within a piece of short fiction.'

Read the piece below. The Incubator is open for submissions for issue six until the end of June.

The Incubator 2

Every few years Mum’s friend Valerie visits us from New York. She's at the kitchen table now, all earrings and burnt orange hair, flailing her arms while she tells my parents about her patients in the Women’s Clinic in Harlem. I’m watching her eyes, trying to figure if she wearing false eyelashes. 

She’s a petite woman who looks younger than Mum, although they’re both fifty. I never say much to Valerie, mostly because I’m in awe. My older sister, Kate, is quiet too, although she’ll probably ask a question – a profound, intelligent question – to show that no one intimidates her.

Valerie is laughing, great snorting laughs, as she recalls her youth in Dublin with my mum. She’s slapping the pink table-cloth while her eyes dance. 'Do you remember that time, Eileen...we took off our knickers...' 

Mum’s lips are tight, her eyes steady. I wonder if she knows what’s coming next. '...and mooned from your gate! What a hoot. What were we? Six or seven?' Valerie shakes her head as if to rustle up more memories. Mum relaxes. Dad clears the dinner plates.

“So, Sinead, tell us what you’re up to?”

I hate this question, especially from Valerie.

“Any hot dates?” she adds, in her acquired American accent.

Well, Valerie, I’m in Third Year in secondary school. I’m a nerd. Want to do Medicine, like you. I’ve a science exam tomorrow and I’d much prefer to be upstairs studying right now. And, by the way, I know I’m different.

I could say this, but I don’t. I pull my phone out of my jeans pocket pretending I’ve received a message. Just then, Mum serves her pavlova meringue and everyone oohs and aahs.

'This is the best!' Valerie is prone to exaggeration. 'Eileen was always great at Domestic Science. Sr. Xavier’s favourite pupil ...'

Funny she doesn’t notice that Mum is not joining in on these reminiscences.

Now Valerie’s talking about her partner, Chris. My heart leaps. I imagine Chris with short, grey hair, full breasts and a row of silver studs on her left ear lobe. I see them driving across the States in an open-top car and...

'Sinead!' It’s my mother. 'Valerie’s talking to you.' 

'Honey-buns, I’ve brought a few things for you girls. Just some stuff you might get a wear outta.' She’s pulling Macy’s bags from her hold-all and poking her face into them. 'Kate!' She throws a plastic bag at my sister. 'Sinead!' A bag lands on my lap.

My present is a jumper in loud colours, striped like a deck-chair. I predict it’ll be too tight for me, now that my body has filled out, what Mum irritatingly calls 'puppy fat'.

Kate is sliding something long and silky from her bag. It’s a dress, deep-red like fuchsia, with tiny pearls. “Wow, Val,” she coos, “this is amazing. I’m going to wear it to Pete’s twenty-first.”

So now it’s ‘Val’ and her boyfriend has suddenly become ‘Pete’. I’m sick. Kate studies Drama in Trinity. Fair enough. But does she have to be such a drama queen at home? She holds the red dress up against her slim body and parades around the kitchen.

'Honestly, Kate, you’re welcome to it,' says Valerie. 'That dress has seen me to balls and award ceremonies. It owes me nothing.'

Later, when the adults (and Kate of course) are having coffee in the sitting room I spy the red dress, folded on a chair in the hall. Stuffing it into my school-bag I rush to my bedroom. Inside, I lock the door and strip to my skin. I pull from the back of my wardrobe a lycra body stocking which I secretly bought last month. I haul it up my body, smoothing the bumps and securing my breasts into the cups. Then I step into the slinky evening dress which clings to my new shape. The neckline has a soft scoop. The side slit is open to the top of my right thigh. I adjust the pearl cummerbund above the waist. I let down my hair. I twirl. Rummaging in a drawer I find one of Mum’s old lipsticks, Flame. I touch it delicately to my lips. I tie up my hair again. Finally, I have the nerve to approach the long mirror on the door of my wardrobe. I like what I see.

I close my eyes. There is a waft of expensive perfume mixed with a whiff of cigarettes coming from the fabric and I am drawn into another world. I imagine this dress in Manhattan, in important places doing illicit things, enjoying itself thoroughly. Something of its power is seeping into my skin and I am ready to embrace it. Ready to be different. I see Valerie, in this dress, dancing with her girlfriend, an orchestra playing behind them. I imagine a tall woman at my elbow. We’re entering an ornate assembly hall where The American Medical Association is holding its annual award ceremony. We’re both...

' up!' It’s Kate. I rush to unlock my door forgetting that I am wearing her dress. 'Take it off, you weirdo!' she shouts, pulling at the delicate straps. 'How dare you! It’s mine.' 

I evade her clutches but she continues to stand there hands on hips. I’m crying now as I pull the dress over my head, fearing my tears will stain the fabric. She snatches the dress.

'Who do you think you are!' she sneers at my underwear.

Stripped of the red dress I look ridiculous but somehow its aura remains in my bedroom. I have inhaled confidence and the nerve to be myself. Taking off the lycra underwear I throw it to the back of my wardrobe where I am happy to let it remain. I pull on my old jeans and hoodie and settle down to my books, although I know I won’t concentrate on science tonight. Without a mirror, I paint Flame deliberately on my lips.