With tenderness and verve, Elaine Feeney tells the story of how one boy on a unique mission transforms the lives of his teachers, and brings together a community

Jamie O’Neill loves the colour red. He also loves tall trees, patterns, rain that comes with wind, the curvature of many objects, books with dust jackets, cats, rivers and Edgar Allan Poe.  

At the age of 13, there are two things he especially wants in life: to build a Perpetual Motion Machine, and to connect with his mother Noelle, who died when he was born. In his mind, these things are intimately linked. And at his new school, where all else is disorientating and overwhelming, he finds two people who might just be able to help him. 

Written by Elaine Feeney

Publication date and time: Published

Jamie said: When I grow up I will be as tall as these trees and he sprawled fast like a salamander along a trunk. He climbed to the first branch when Eoin said: Whoa, Jamie, careful, and lifted the boy back to the ground. 

Eoin, Jamie said, did you know that resin from trees makes arrow tops and they are so hard they can go right through you?

No, I didn’t know that, Eoin said.

Jamie nodded furiously then dragged his damp nose along the red sleeve of his anorak, saying: Did you know that trees turn into all the things?

Tall trees were Jamie’s current favourite: the Scots pine matured fast, lived for centuries and housed red squirrels. Jamie loved the colour red. He also loved patterns, books with dust jackets, cats, rain that came with wind, the curvature of objects, Edgar Allan Poe and rivers.

Jamie hated sunny days and the red sky that slung about the trees today was a good sign that a shower threatened. He liked rain pelting his face, soaking the layers of his clothes until they were sopping and heavy on his skin. Winter was Jamie’s favourite season, November his favourite month, for November was predictable: nothing happened but a heavy darkness covering the town like a weighted blanket, and the sideways rain was ferocious. Winter was bare and unburdened, leaves disappeared from the big oaks and the River Brú, an unspectacular river, grey on a grey day, blue when the sun shone, became so white on a day of blanket fog, you could not see the opposite bank, an infinite and uninhabitable space.

The white fog excited Jamie, like an infinity of ghosts

(though he did not believe in ghosts)

infinity excited him (he believed in infinity)

and ferocious things terrified him, setting alerts flashing in the crevasses of his busy brain.

Soon Jamie and Eoin passed the ​­stone-​­corbelled ​­ice–house. Its earthen domed roof was overgrown with tufts of grass and knotweed. Here, the river bends and carves into the horizon and Jamie liked to walk this far to get close to the estuary. And though he had never been on a boat to feel its energy beneath him, suddenly he was filled with an urge to do so.

Elaine Feeney

When Jamie began to speak in his third year, after making hardly a sound at all until then, he spoke in full and elaborate sentences, mostly poetry, and mostly the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe

They watched a man sail past in a currach and wave at them. Jamie considered whether the boat looked more like a black slug or an upside-​­down sea monster. He settled on likening it to a pirate hat he had to wear last year at Terry’s sixth birthday party, just shortly after Terry arrived in Emory. The party hat’s thin elastic pinched Jamie under his chin until it burned his skin. He ran outside screaming and eventually sat in silence at the end of their garden, watching rumbling cement trucks roll past to new estates until Eoin came and rescued him. And in turn, rescued the party. Terry’s mam was saying: I am so sorry, and trying desperately to hug Jamie, his face mashed up against her.

He spun on the heels of his wellies and said: Can we come back tomorrow and go swimming in the river, Eoin? I think if we swim out far, he said, busy waving his arms behind his head, we can get to America. I’ll wear armbands … Then suddenly he grabbed Eoin by the back pocket of his denims: Watch out, Eoin, your laces are open, and he thought about kids in school who called them lacers.

Thanks, Eoin said, now ssshhh or you’ll wake the river, and he put his finger to his lips and felt a sudden tightness across his chest. He unzipped his jacket and bent down to tie up his runners.

Jamie said: Rivers do not sleep, not the River Brú anyways and he blew his lips out and said Brú again. He liked the way it vibrated. It bursts sometimes, did you know that? My teacher said when that happens it makes a mess. And did you know that Brú means crushing? Jamie said, slamming the heels of his hands together. Did you know that? My teacher said that is what it means and that it is good because rivers are important, but also bad, because if it is strong, he dragged the nose again, it might crush fish and rocks and boats and that’s not good, way way not good if everyone is gobbled up. He looked at the river and said: Or crushed.

Eoin was distracted by the band of pressure across his chest.

And I looked up Brú in the irishenglishenglishirish dictionary and it means hostel too, Jamie said, stopping abruptly and pulling at some eyelashes catching his eye. We have never been to a hostel, Eoin.

Jamie spoke to Eoin at length about various scenarios in any given moment, yet for a chatty child, his teacher said he did not like being among other children for sustained periods of time. She also said that when he had something to say, it was important he spoke fast in that very moment. Eoin argued that this is the way of all children, but nevertheless monthly targets were drawn up: Turn-​­Taking. Wait and Listen Time. Develop and Maintain Peer Relationships. Still, Jamie was often captured by something and blown off-​­guard and there were numerous events in his life that while often beautiful and spontaneous, were intense.

Eoin said: We’ve never been to a hostel because there’s many people crammed together in dorms. You’d hate it.

How would you know if I have never been? Jamie replied.

Good question. But I’ve been, Eoin said. And they’re very packed.

Like when you were a boy stuffed up with other boys in school?

Yes, Eoin said, like dorms and too much noise for a busy boy like you to sleep. Besides, you love tents. Now how about I bring you to the swimming pool tomorrow?

But unlike ​­rainwater – Jamie hated the public swimming pool.

When Jamie began to speak in his third year, after making hardly a sound at all until then, he spoke in full and elaborate sentences, mostly poetry, and mostly the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. He had found Poe in the library and was drawn to a bird perched on a blood-​­red cover. Jamie loved the library, the hum of the lights, the red carpet, the plastic yellow furniture. It was warm and smelled of feet. He gobbled up books and so his grandmother Marie took him every week, and afterwards for tea in the hotel on the Square with biscuits wrapped in tartan plastic. Marie was drawn to books with women on the cover and sometimes they were accompanied by men with loose ties around their shirtless necks and Jamie could never figure out how she read so many pages in one week and managed to clean every house in Emory. Walking home, he’d sing out: Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore, Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted​­ – until Marie banned Poe.

On the day of Jamie’s birth, Marie rushed to Christ’s College to alert her son that his girlfriend had gone into early labour. It was an oddly sunny day for February and Eoin was bored in a final-​­year Latin class. All spring everyone was saying: Oh, your exams are just around the corner.

But for Noelle Doyle and Eoin O’Neill this turned out to be untrue.

Noelle deferred her exams at the request of the girls’ school, who insisted pregnant students did not attend class due to the message it gave to others. Her promising swimming career was paused.

When Marie banged at the class door, Eoin legged it, leaving his school bag and a lunch box full of chicken sandwiches behind. He never returned. For in the hectic moments after giving birth, Noelle Doyle’s blood pressure rose. Machines beeped and the baby, swaddled like a warm shoulder of pork, was handed to Eoin as Noelle was taken to the Intensive Care Unit, where, ​­fifty-​­five minutes later, surrounded by her large family, she died. Her family tumbled out through the doors in blind anger, and screamed at Eoin who held the baby tightly in his arms. One of Noelle’s older sisters, the one with corkscrew curls, spat at him, then lunged at him in a half-​­hug, half-​­punch, common with grief until security guards separated them and he was still holding the baby when the family walked out of the hospital without looking back or noticing that underneath the small hat on his head, Jamie O’Neill had a mass of auburn hair and furrowed brow, just like his mother.

One New Year’s Eve, close to the countdown, Eoin was sat by Jamie on the sofa. He muted the telly and watched an old clip of Noelle competing in a swimming gala. There had been hundreds of clips. Noelle laughing after school. Noelle walking in the woods. Noelle soaked to the skin on a picnic. Noelle pulling faces outside the cinema. Noelle painted like a Dalmatian at Halloween with a black-​­and-​white hair wig. But after a rare night out with the soccer club, Eoin, angry and lonely and drunk in his small, dark living room, deleted the phone’s contents. After which, he placed his phone on the laminate floor of the two-​­up-​ two-​­down and smashed it hard under the heel of his foot. After which, he vomited. After which, he passed out until morning when he woke frantic and pacing about with a dry mouth and a pounding headache, and in a lather of sweat and overwhelmed with the desire to disappear. But Jamie woke, crept downstairs and began asking so many questions that Eoin had no choice but to recover and get on with the getting on a young boy requires. And for years after, Eoin replayed each deleted clip in his mind before he’d fall into a fretful sleep, until the clips grew so hazy and faint and there came a time when Eoin couldn’t visualise Noelle’s face at all,

and though he tried to (re)build it:
smile, red hair, eyes, freckled nose, wide shoulders
parts of her vanished until it was finally impossible to recreate her.

The ​­swimming-​­gala clip had survived as it had been uploaded to her school’s website.
So Jamie, watching his father’s face change, grabbed the phone to look for himself. And as 2013 arrived, the year when he would turn seven, he met his mother, all two minutes and eight seconds of her, for the very first time.

Noelle warms up by the side of the pool, whirls her arms and stretches her shoulders back, lifts dark bug goggles onto her broad face, fixes her hair under a red swimming hat, plucks her red Speedo costume from her thighs, does it once more, hops three times on the balls of her feet, finally moves her head side to side. The spectators are filled to the roof in the stands, mostly in school uniform, screaming her name, as though their lives depended on this one mad brief moment, and she dives, and moves quick like a red admiral in the summer sky.

Jamie watches it every day and just before the end where she punches the air, he pauses the clip, then he plays it, and she turns to Jamie and smiles.

How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney