Eilis Long


Eilis Long was born in Birmingham in 1991. Her writing combines fiction with memoir and touches on themes such as childhood in the 90s/00s; Birmingham; the Irish in Birmingham; and how weird it’s been growing up with (and living vicariously through) social media and the internet.

She has an English Literature degree from the University of Bristol. She is currently working on her first novel and studying for an MA in Creative & Life Writing at Goldsmiths.

Email: eilislong@hotmail.com

Website: morrighankiely.wordpress.com

View as PDF: Eilis Long - Tom McCabe

Tom McCabe 

‘When someone dies, what’s left of them afterwards?’

I asked my mum this when I was sitting on the floor in Café Rouge on Harborne High Street. She nearly choked on the chocolate frothy bit of her cappuccino. I was about ten and developing a social conscience; I wanted to know if people were okay after they died and I thought it was unfair to sit on chairs because poor children didn’t have chairs.

My mum didn’t say anything at first, so I went on: ‘And is it different when a kid dies or a teenager dies, or is it the same? Like does their body rot the same or is it slower because they’ve got no wrinkles to start with?’

I can’t remember what her answer was – I think it was something about heaven and the afterlife and ‘maybe you should think about that, Morri.’ She was always careful not to push her Catholic upbringing onto us; she didn’t want to make us resentful of religion like she was. And then she pulled her phone out, probably to text my dad and tell him I was asking funny questions again.


That was over a decade ago and I remember how deadly serious I was. And it wouldn’t have mattered what answer she gave me – a religious one or an honest one – because I know the answers now. I know what happens when old people die and when young people die. In fact, it wasn’t long after that day on the floor in Café Rouge that I found it all out for myself.

The way I always saw it, people that were lucky experienced the death of someone their own age when they were super old – when they were eighty-five and thinking about death quite a bit themselves. But when I first knew someone of my age to die, I was eleven and so was he. Tom McCabe. He was my lifelong best pal – or I was his. And it seems a little cruel now to call it ‘lifelong’ because his was the shortest life I’ve ever known. The worst thing is, as I look back now on everything that I remember in the months before his death – the den, the time the horse attacked us, when we ran away, the day I watched him, and the last time I saw him – it all feels like an unstoppable countdown, like I knew it was the end of the world but I was too stupid to do anything about it.


The Den

August 2002 

Tom and I spent whole afternoons in the privacy of the den. We called it the den but really it was a tent that we pitched in the middle of his parents’ garden which was in a nice bit of South Birmingham. Sometimes we let my sisters or his brother come in and help us with our pictures or share the stale Jaffa Cakes that we stole from my Nan’s pantry.

Most afternoons we drew maps of countries that we made up. Tom would come up with the names and I’d mainly colour in. We tried making up a secret language for one of the countries but we couldn’t agree on any of the words so we gave up. Our maps of Doomsville (where it was always dark except for the fires that people lived in) and Jaffa Land (where everybody was made of Jaffa Cakes and could eat each other) were interesting enough without language.

I don’t know what we planned to do with the maps. Sometimes we pretended the countries were underneath the garden – the entrances were through nextdoor’s hedge or under the tree stump. I was reading a lot of Enid Blyton at the time and Tom was seriously into Tolkien. We were more interested in our alternative realities than the world we lived in – a world we knew very little about.

One afternoon we were plotting the topography of a mountain range in eastern Doomsville when we heard our parents on the patio.

‘Morri are you in that tent again?’ my mum called. ‘Mick, I told you. Jesus wept, they’re in that bloody tent again.’

My parents, Pat and Mick, had known Tom’s parents, Geraldine and Stephen, since the 70s which they called the old days. They didn’t know each other from school; my mum said that all Irish kids in Birmingham just knew each other somehow – through family, church or the Irish pubs. They were like one big secret club.

But I’d noticed that my parents didn’t always get on with Tom’s parents. Geraldine and Stephen had a much bigger house than us and they drank wine when my parents drank beer. My mum said that she and Geraldine started having kids at the same time so the friendship stuck, which was pretty lucky for me – otherwise Tom and I would never have met and hung around with each other ever since we were tiny babies.

‘You want to have them move that thing Geraldine. The lawn’ll be a right state underneath it,’ my dad said. Geraldine didn’t answer. She was stressed out because of Tom’s behaviour last term at school. He had pushed over a vending machine and he’d threatened to punch a teacher. She’d taken him to counselling that week – the final week of summer – but he insulted the counsellor and ran off. When Geraldine went to pick him up he was sitting on a garden wall opposite the Birmingham Healthy Minds facility playing on his Gameboy. I asked him what happened with the vending machine and the counsellor.

‘They both had it coming,’ he said. And then he changed the subject.

A few weeks after that I was using the water fountain at school but it stopped working. I clicked the button down but nothing came out and I started thinking about Tom and the vending machine and whether he had felt frustrated like I was right then. So I did it. I checked to see no-one was around, then I gave the base of the water fountain a good kick with my right foot. But I don’t think I did it properly because I didn’t feel any different except that my toes hurt.

That was the summer before everything started getting really weird. I suppose it was already a bit weird because we spent up to seven hours a day in a tent and Tom was planning his tunnels and escape routes into other worlds with manic glee. But apparently that wasn’t enough to get alarm bells ringing.


When the horse chased us

February 2003

‘Right, I’m saying we go to the top of the hill and see what’s on the other side,’ Tom said.

‘Won’t there just be another field?’ I said.

‘Could be anything. We’ll never know unless we have a look.’

‘What if my shoes get all muddy and ripped?’ I said. I was wearing new Converse trainers that I was pretty proud of but Tom was already climbing over the fence. He turned and locked eyes with me and was smiling like a nutter.

‘Shall we?’ he said.


We had arrived there on half-term holiday two days before – the Shropshire countryside. That day we had wandered off from the old house to look around the grounds. It was about two in the afternoon and my big sister, Maria, had come with us but I don’t remember why.

‘Morri, come on,’ said Tom.

Maria had joined him on the other side of the fence. ‘Don’t be a wimp,’ she said.

I couldn’t stay behind so I pulled myself over the fence and into the mud and brambles.

A minute later we were halfway up the hill, huffing and puffing. Maria was ahead. She was fitter than us and had much longer legs.

‘What if the other side is rocky and muddy – and dangerous?’ I panted. I think I was becoming more worried about getting into trouble than wrecking my trainers.

‘Don’t be a big massive loser,’ Maria shouted back.

I felt my cheeks get all hot. I looked sideways at Tom and he smiled. He knew what Maria was like. When we were alone he called her Sergeant Major Maria.

A few steps on and we were almost at the summit of the hill. And that’s when Maria heard it. She stopped. Tom and I crashed into her. We were inches away from seeing what lay on the other side but Maria was backing away. She shushed us – she liked shushing people – but this time she wasn’t being bossy. She looked scared.

‘Listen. And stay completely still,’ Tom said.

From the other side of the hill there was a rhythmic thumping noise. As Maria stepped backwards, Tom walked further up the slope. I tried to grab his t-shirt and pull him back but he was just out of reach and the noise was getting louder. The ground rumbled like a big belly. Then we heard a grunt, and emerging over the crest of the hill, here it came, a lolloping head of grey hair on a thick battering-ram neck.


Tom grabbed my arm and we turned and legged it. He was faster but he pushed me in front of him, putting himself between me and the big scary horse. Within seconds Maria was back at the bottom of the hill, thirty or forty metres away – I saw her swing her legs over the fence and turn around – she seemed to be watching Tom. But for me, looking up was a mistake because I lost my footing and fell on the floor. On my way to the ground I saw Tom, just behind me; he slowed down, almost like he was letting the nutcase horse get that close to him, and then it butted him straight in the back, sending him flying.

I looked up from my spot, flat out on the grass. I saw the soles of Tom’s shoes metres away from me. He looked dead, sprawled out on the floor like that. The horse snorted and then ran off.

‘It’s old Smokey!’ Maria shouted from the safety of the tarmac driveway.

Tom and I had already worked that out: we’d heard the same stories about Smokey the wild horse for years on these holidays. I ran to Tom to help him up. He was winded and his hands were cut.

‘Are you okay? Did it hurt?’ I said. Tom coughed and nodded which meant – ‘yes but stop fussing’. When we reached the driveway, I noticed that Maria had watery eyes. The three of us walked back to the old house in silence.

In the years since, Maria and I have never discussed how quickly our games became dangerous. We’ve never mentioned, though I know we both saw it, how Tom stopped, just for a split second, in Smokey’s path, long enough to get head-butted into the rocky grass and brambles.


When we ran away

February 2003

The day after the horse incident was quiet but Tom finally broke the silence between us.

‘Let’s do a runner,’ he said, like someone off Grange Hill.

‘To where?’

‘That’s not the sort of thing people living beyond the law think about when they do runners.’

‘Okay, so how do we do it then?’


The day we ran away is important, not because of how long we were missing or how our parents rang the Shropshire police and had three search parties out, but because of the azalea plant we found and what Tom said when we were inside it.

The azalea plant was hollow and you could move the smaller branches just enough to climb in. There weren’t many new leaves on it yet but it still made a canopy that kept out most of the rain. Compared to our tent at home, nature did a better job at keeping out the weather. So there we were in our bowery home from home, deciding what to do next.

‘Do you ever think about dying?’ Tom asked me, although I could hardly hear him over the rain. I told him that I did but it wouldn’t happen for ages so it was nothing to worry about really.

‘It’s like nothing forever and ever and ever. You won’t know that time is passing. Like, the future will happen but you won’t even know about it.’

He had lost me a bit. I felt bad sometimes that I was the only person that always listened to him, but I didn’t always keep up. Then he said:

‘Don’t you realise that when you’re dead you won’t know you’re dead – you won’t even be able to think about being dead because you’ll just be dead and that’s that?’

I hadn’t thought about it like this and doing so for the first time made my belly drop.

‘Hundreds and zillions of years will pass and you just won’t exist. It’s crap.’

‘Oh yeah,’ I said. I was back with him again, ‘really crap.’

I felt a bit dumbstruck then so I sat there – probably with my mouth open – staring at him while it got dark and while he carried on talking about dying, about everything and everyone dying and how much it might hurt and what’s the point of anything if you’re just going to die and that if everything is really that rubbish then what’s the point of sticking around?

I listened to him and to the rain and thought about what it might be like to die right there and then in that azalea plant in the middle of Shropshire, but I said nothing.


When I watched him

February – March 2003

Eventually our parents found us. We’d been gone for seventeen hours and had fallen asleep inside the azalea.

From that day on I kept thinking I’d find him dead.

The next morning I crept into his bedroom. I held my breath and prayed to hear him breathing. And later I checked the first aid box for paracetamol then hid them because the mother of someone in my class at school had taken lots of paracetamol and nearly died and I had told Tom about it. I couldn’t think of many other ways to die on holiday so instead I watched him closely. When everybody was eating dinner at the pub or telling us off, I looked at him and monitored his behaviour and followed him to the toilet. But the next day when our parents packed up the cars and we drove back to Birmingham to our separate houses and schools, there was nobody watching him anymore. He was free to do as he wished, and who could stop him?


The last time I saw him

April 2003

On the Saturday before the end of the world me, my parents and sisters, arrived at the McCabes’ as usual for dinner and to watch Blind Date.

I went straight to the front room to find Tom.

‘The other day,’ he said, ‘I finally stood up to Mr Drury. I didn’t do the homework because he’s a big fascist and he lost it with me. He screamed at me – all smelly coffee breath so I climbed out the window and sat on the football pitch for the rest of the lesson.’

I laughed. I didn’t mean to, because I didn’t know what fascist meant and because I’m not sure I believed him. I enjoyed his stories but they never seemed like things that really happened.

I know now that that he always told the truth.

I asked him how he got away with it or something rubbish like that. Tom stared at the computer game he was playing. He didn’t blink very often.

‘What topic had you chosen to make him so angry?’ I asked. As usual I was eager to keep his attention.


‘Anarchy?’ I’d never heard of it but it sounded important.

‘No laws, no rules.’

Actually, it sounded terrifying. ‘You argued for no rules in school then?’

‘Yes. And to overturn the Government, the state, the BBC. Free the people from CCTV and oppression. Take out Blair, then Bush. String them all up – that sort of thing.’ I could tell he was serious because he still hadn’t blinked and all this sounded very clever.

But then he put his handset down and turned to me.

‘Not one, not two, but four idiots in my class did projects on Manchester United. How come mine is the one they won’t listen to?’

We laughed and I sat next to him and we played Crash Bandicoot on his PlayStation until dinnertime. Tom’s family always ate late and drank lots of wine – white wine before six, red after six. When dinner was finished we watched an episode of Buffy with my sisters; we were all really into vampires. Half an hour later my mum came in and said: ‘Dad’s had one too many – we need to make a move.’ I got ready to leave and went to the loo but by the time I came back everyone was getting in the car so I rushed out, shouting bye to Tom.

Bye,’ he said from the living room. He didn’t say it very loudly or get up and come to the door and that was the last time I saw him, or heard him.


On the 30th April 2003 Buffy the Vampire Slayer was airing for the last time and I was experiencing something a bit like grief.

Me and Tom had been with Buffy through death, love, fortnightly apocalypse and had watched her die and come back to life twice. At school kids teased me for being into vampires; ‘For god’s sake, I‘m the slayer,’ I’d tell them and I’d show them the plastic stake I carried around with me until it got confiscated. A vampire was the last thing I wanted to be. Tom understood this and he told me to ignore the kids at my school because they sounded really stupid and uninteresting.


I arrived home from school as I had the day before and the day before that. I kicked off my shoes and went to the fridge. I went to the living room and turned on the telly and smiled at the scripted jokes of a waxy game show host. I played along, guessing at the questions. I switched over to re-cap a few Buffy episodes ahead of that night’s finale; I had recorded the episodes and accidentally taped over Maria’s video of The Sound of Music. Then the phone rang, my mum answered and something about the tone of her voice made everything go a bit grey and muffled.

The phone fell out of my mum’s hand and hit the floor, but it didn’t break because we still had the green carpet in the hall and it was matted with hair so the phone bounced a little.

I moved into the hall and my sisters were already there. They had their hands on mum. They were pulling her up into a standing position, or maybe they were making her sit down on the bottom of the stairs. When I got close enough I noticed that their eyes were bloodshot and I thought about how gross it is that there’s blood in our eyeballs. My little sister Roisin was crying or maybe she had a cold.

Then I watched the words drop out of my mum’s mouth. Her lips were covered in Vaseline – the aloe-vera one – I could smell it.

When I realised he was dead I felt a mixture of things that I hadn’t been expecting: shock, a bit sick, really awkward, slight relief, and then nothing. I felt it in my stomach most.

I could hear the Buffy theme tune starting up in the living-room, like a sort of fanfare playing out the end of an era. Things like telly seemed trivial on that first evening but I went back to the living-room and watched the final episode because of Buffy because that’s what I’d planned to do and plans are important when you can’t control much else.

When I went to bed that first night, I lay on my back like a vampire in the dark and I thought about all the ways I had helped to kill my best friend.

Part 2: Why?


When someone dies, what remains? I asked myself this question again a couple of years after Tom died. But I realised that the question had two parts to: What remains of the dead? And what remains of the living?

The latter was easier to answer. Ask anyone who’s lost someone and they’ll tell you what remains: grief, anger, guilt, despair; lots of unanswerable questions about human-ness; a funeral to organise and a headstone to visit; a room full of belongings to sort through and financial and legal details to work out. They’ll tell you that amidst the grief, what remains are long lists of practical problems. What remains for the living is an absence, and admin.

But for a child who’s grieving, there’s only absence. Apparently you’re mature enough for death but not for the admin.

But what remains of the dead?

There are the physical remnants: the decaying bones buried underground in a box or the cremated ashes scattered somewhere pretty. If I’d had something as good as ashes I’d have kept them in my room forever.

What else remains? A headstone in an over-spilling cemetery? Possessions that are no longer possessed? Or do the remains of a dead person exist only in the memories of the living?

I didn’t go to Tom’s funeral, because I didn’t understand why people loved funerals so much and because I couldn’t handle the awkwardness of adults crying or the obscene smallness of the coffin.

When I was about fourteen I came across the story of Arthur Hallam who died from a brain haemorrhage, aged twenty-two, in 1833. He was lucky because his best friend was Tennyson who, over seventeen years, composed In Memoriam in memory of him. After Hallam died people did lots of writing and talking about his ‘remains’: Tennyson wrote of ‘my lost Arthur’s loved remains’; in the letter Tennyson received that told of Arthur’s death it said Arthur’s ‘remains come by sea’ and on Hallam’s tombstone was inscribed: ‘the mortal remains of one too early lost for public fame’. Hallam’s remains were everywhere and that’s because his remains had become the words that memorialised him.

Through those words he still exists.

Hallam belonged to those who wrote about him because they created and reimagined his remains. In Memoriam is the textual remains and the final resting place of Arthur Hallam; Tennyson possessed the memory of Hallam and built him a grave out of words.

What could be better? Owning the memory of someone; this is the grieving will of the friend, of the person writing and trying to force life back into someone that’s dead.

And there’s something else I learnt from Tennyson: that it’s okay for grief to be weird and long and delayed for years, because when a really young person encounters the death of another really young person, to try and cope can be all-consuming; it is not natural for a kid to become so aware of her own mortality.

So these words are Tom’s remains: instances of a person that actually existed, that attest to the importance of a life, the legacy of a life and the life that I have lived in honour of him. They’re the remains of one dead and the remains of one living.

In Memoriam made Arthur Hallam live forever. If only we could all do that for our friends. We may try, and start by remembering.