I shake the last of the aftershave into my boots and begin a mental list of wishes, stopping after one item. I put the boot to my face and smell sweetness, sweat, clay.
I apply some moisturising cream and a light foundation to my cheeks, without much care or precision. I tell myself that these little cosmetic touches are necessary. It seems true: my hair is tough and ungovernable, like a swathe of charred wheatstalks after the autumnal scorching of fields. And recently my skin has failed me too, erupting in cysts about my eyes and flakiness around my mouth. But these are not the worst afflictions, I tell myself. I am quiet now, contemplating worse afflictions.
I have found that by staring at myself in the mirror long enough I can change into an exotic figure. Circumstance has forced the finding of such pastimes upon me. I am doing this now, my cysts transformed into beauty spots, my mouth becoming strong and manly. I stare at the bathroom mirror so close that my breath condenses on it. Mammy calls my name from the kitchen and I start, somehow reminded that I’m still half-naked.
My grey trousers, recently ironed by Mammy, are now deckled with talc which I attempt to dislodge with a stealthy backhand. I am unsuccessful and unconcerned. I look myself up and down once more. Hair is awry. Will have to do. I say to my mirrored self I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, I do not think they will sing to you. Beyond the frosted window some rain gurgles, ventures down a drain. I find it difficult to understand the free movement of water or the persistence of rain. I think of myself as a poor poet and as one who compares unfavourably to other men, to other sons. These thoughts accompany me as I wander down the darkened stairs.
In the kitchen Mammy comments on my trousers, how well they’re hung.
—They’re very well hung, I say and she hands me a plate of sausages oblivious to my attempted wit.
She begins to throw more sausages on to the pan, gratuitously, since there are only the two of us to feed. Mammy being widowed, I being an only child.
—Whyfore more sausages Mammy?
—Oh I don’t know, says she, perhaps you’ll be hungry later, perhaps you can take them with you. I’ll wrap them in tinfoil, you can take them with you, she decides.
—But I’m meeting Cara, Mam. For a drink…to the pub…with my girlfriend.
I often speak in ellipses when I have something to say. Mammy pauses, considers my protest.
—Well I’ll make some for her as well so, don’t worry…
All of the sausages look like parabolas along the plate edge’s arc. My mother speaks tangentially, sadly making no point. This is the geometry of dinner, I propose quietly, but fail to amuse even myself.
It is some minutes later when Mammy brings out an old Eason’s bag, from the ageing press where the yet older pots are kept. It contains my certificates and degrees and awards and other chronicles of my success in disciplines of no importance.
—I found something for Cara, she says, and holds the bag out. Her arms are infirm, bones of kindling beneath skin of masticated rubber.
—A bag, I say, humourlessly.
Mammy ignores me. She takes from the bag, in the latest in a long line of unsolicited actions, a brooch. On this brooch is an effigy of a soaring eagle, battered into stillness on to would-be brass. Mammy proffers it to me.
—Just a little something, it’s nothing. Six weeks only… she natters these things pleasantly to herself, tripping over her slippers as she moves into the hallway.
It is eight o’clock. Mammy has my scarf ready and tries to correct my hair as I brood in the hallway, checking my doleful countenance in the warped hall mirror. My shoulders are sagging and my neck is stooped as though something of unearthly weight had been applied to them at birth.
—Will you say it to Cara about the dress? Tell her it’s as good as the day it was first worn, a grand dress. She wipes my cheek.
—Dress? What dress? says I.
—Bride’s, she says.
Outside the rain falls without compassion. I cower my head further into my hooded coat. Mammy bids me enjoy myself and give Cara a kiss for her. Be good, I say, and move slowly from her, though I’m getting wetter and wetter for not running, the spills of rain outpacing me down the garden path. There’s no hurry, I say to my warm coat and my heap of sausages and my book of poems, time is for the passing.
At the avenue’s end is a series of pea-coloured railings and an arrangement of dog-litter around which old dogs chase a collie in heat, stumbling off the pathway and into the lampposts in haste. Beyond the railings is the park. In a poem once I called it a verdant seraglio. I curse myself for this habit of unnecessary embellishment.
Some minutes later I find the opening in the railings and squeeze through. This is not the way to the pub, I imagine the sausages saying to me. Indeed, say I. I find a quiet spot where the scent of wet pine cones and aments is yet, a dry spot on the bench. Lovers’ initials are coupling on the seat beneath me. I inspect the brooch that Mammy has given me for Cara and think of the past that it has had and the years that Mammy has shared with it. I wonder if Daddy had given it to her and what it means to her now and then I throw it into the hedgerow.
I sit there for four hours smoking stolen cigarettes, then make the return journey home, saturated, cold, thinking I should have borrowed some whiskey from the drinks cabinet. Entering the house again-the same route four hours given being now recovered, the same steps in negative Mammy fixes me with a look I cannot initially translate.
—I can smell the drink off you, she then says warmly. Here’s soup, she adds and, having inspected the cup, I give mute agreement to the proposition.
I look beyond her at my reflection in the mirror.
—That’s a cold one, I say.
—So the radio says, she replies and turns out the light. She yawns; an affected yawn.
—How’s the bride-to-be? Nerves?
—Is she nervous do you mean?
I shake my coat as though I can thus dislodge the damp.
—She’s in good form. Said to say hello.
Mammy nods in acceptance.
—And the dress, did you think of mentioning it to her?
—And? I slap my face a few times to encourage feeling.
—Said she’d think about it.
—Sure she’s a lot on her mind at the moment…
—She sure does, Mammy, certainly.
The clock intervenes, murders a minute with good grace. We stand in the hallway without word or animation.
—I’m turning in, says Mammy finally. You’ll dry your self off won’t you, before you…
—Sure, sure, I say, fixing the soup a stare.
My hands are still cold. She yawns again.
—I’ll call you at half-six, she says and mouthing god bless she goes upstairs.
I watch her faltering progress until she blends with the dark landing and I hear her bedroom door close. Later I drink some whiskey and write the following eulogy to her:
you begat me
a fleshy excrement
all tranquil fat
your love was evident
in your cluttered womb
and the wound over my eye
and in the touching sentiment
of my cut lip.
Upon re-reading it I apologise and promise to retract all slanders on Mammy when the time comes. But for now I am going to bed, giving way to tiredness. Three months waiting on park benches has taken its toll on my health.
Cara and I – if ever she had taken the trouble to exist – would have been Bonnie and Clyde; dressed in dynamic leather, chrome metal pistols strapped to our hips, leather glove in lace glovelette. She would have had chestnut corkscrew curls and, alternately, shorn black hair with ears curved and small like the handles on a toy doll’s cup. But, whatever her excuses, she couldn’t quite manage to be born and was lost somewhere in the womb of my imagination, an umbilical cord taut around her little neck. Just another of my crass poetic images.
That she never came to pass reflects badly on my midwifing abilities and owes something to an antecedent of hers, with whom, some years far too hence, I fell in love—or into one of love’s faulty prototypes, perhaps.
I recall, not for the first time, the day we parted, this girl and I. We had walked by crow-filled trees to her house down pathways once familiar to me. I listened to her talk and offered my best smiles and my awkward shrugs as response. She often chastised me for my incommunicative ways, mistaking it for pride or self-sufficiency whereas it was simply fear and incompetence. Her house was stately in size but tending to dereliction; damp and rot competed for supremacy on its large facade and the cheap paint could not conceal it. Snow benignly threatened to fall. Inside, verdigris tinsel on a mildewed wall connoted Christmas. We sat cozened in her front room, bulbless and someways empty.
Only the Christmas tree lights worked, their little iridescences speculating on the colour of her eyes: green red-gold-blue, in sequence. Rumbling music came from her CD machine. She sat on the floor, cross-legged, half-dressed, pouting little curses at the present she was trying to unwrap. Open damn you! Under the tree’s illumination, her damp hair seemed all-coloured. It fell over her eyes in knotted fronds only to be swept away with a free hand. Her fingers blanched at the task of peeling the tape, a nail threatened to break.
—Whoever sealed that knew what they were doing, I said, listening to my voice surprise the dark and myself.
—Yeah, such a fuckin’ troublesome yoke. I swear… but she didn’t swear anything then because the seal gave way.
She tore the bundle of shining paper asunder and in so doing mocked the delicacy of the operation just performed. She held aloft, as a victor might a trophy, a pair of oversized lace underwear. The tree lights blinked, as shocked as I was.
—I knew it but I still don’t believe it. Every Christing year the same, she said, overpronouncing every syllable, making a bad attempt at looking exasperated.
—What? the same pair every year, my voice resurfacing.
She laughed, I think, and I felt glad.
—My mother just has no idea. I mean not even a little idea…l’ll bet there’s some bubble bath and a big fucking doll in here as well. She won’t let me grow up, she said, and began scavenging through the parcelled heap, watched by the indifferent pulse of the tree.
Her elbow rested on my knee and I could smell the moisturiser recently applied to fend off the threat of sweat. She breathed deeply, turned to face me, shaking some ornaments from the tree’s branches.
A green light caught her face, making an emerald strobe on her cheek where the skin was tight against the bone, reflected in her eye which was very close. I saw myself in it. Inactive, desperate and amazed at her closeness and its effect on me.
Green is for go, said the lights. Go. And then the light turned red and showed the development of a tear in the canthus of her eye, and then the corruption of her lower lip and the abandonment of her close warm breath into sobbing.
—ls this nonsense going to happen every year till kingdom come? she said to her presents and not to me.
She refused my comfort before I could think to offer it and instead resolved to destroy every present under the changeful tree. I asked her angrily how she thought her mother would feel and she said she didn’t care and I swore at her, expressing emotions that I no longer possess, and she asked me to leave and not to return.
I’ve seen her once since we parted, her pencilled eyebrows turned to a runny calx by the rain and she was bearing a clenched fist for something or someone. She told me there was something wrong with me and I told her I felt complimented. In truth, I said no such thing but that is the memory of the encounter that I have decided to store.
Mammy had been happy when I told her I was seeing a girl. She paid me more attention and more respect in deference to my new found virility. She had something to tell her few friends that would accord us both some pride and give to our family situation the appearance of normalcy. Mammy had been happy to think that I could find another to love me and Mammy deserved to be happy no less than did I.
Morning. Carbolic soap-scented pillow. The hands of the clock are flirting at half-past six. The day doesn’t know whether to break or not and I have no advice to offer it.
Having drunk too much the night before there is a monotone whistling in my ears. I think once more that there should have come a time to resolve all this. I look at the mammy-chosen wallpaper, its indecipherable patterns, heraldry symbols and baroque twists. No clues given as to the best form of egress.
I am in bed still. I smoke some more of Mammy’s cigarettes and cough up some more phlegm. To every action there is an equal yet opposite reaction. Ha ha.
Last night I was questioned for loitering with intent, my continued presence in the park going noticed by somebody with the public interest at heart. Being caught with a pamphlet of bad poetry, I had no defence. The sergeant took sympathy on me when he read the doggerel. I saw in him another budding poetic failure. I smiled and gave my name though I could not think of any intentions, invidious or otherwise, to which I could truthfully confess. It all amuses me in the blackest way until I think of Mammy. I can see the end of this deception. I can see the look upon her face. Even in anticipation hurting her is too much to contemplate. But the end is surely coming and it is about time.
Now I attempt to rouse myself. Walking to the bathroom on the sides of my feet because the floor is so cold. Without shaving I apply the new aftershave that Mammy has bought. From the kitchen comes the sussurrous shuffling of feet that Mammy has become. A frying pan sizzles, a clock chimes once.
I can’t look at myself in the mirror anymore.
In the kitchen Mammy speaks of priests, ceremonies, dresses and next week in one long and garbled sentence. As she bends down to pick up a fallen portion of marmalade the shawl that covers her thinning hair drops from her head. She can hardly pick it up. It seems as though the preparation of my huge unwanted breakfast takes her day’s quota of energy. As the milk is curdled so too are her eyes; rheumy, faintly useless things. I think to myself that I should be glad that she can no longer see clearly as there is no longer much for her to see. Then I feel guilty in presuming so much about her relationship with the world and of what causes her happiness and comfort. It is hard to know a mother and harder yet to discern what things she herself knows.
I am upstairs again, packing a bag, choosing from a heap of identical shirts, affecting the manner of one discerning good from bad. A book of poems joins them in the holdall, so too some few cigarettes, one packed lunch, one flask of tepid tea and some nicely packaged razor blades. I pull the zipper with an air of finality and bid the room an unsentimental goodbye. I doubt my own intentions as I throw the bag out of the window onto the mismanaged lawn.
In the hallway Mammy kisses me feebly on the cheek, asks if I’ll be home for lunch. I hold her for a moment longer than usual. I cross the front door threshold and, upon seeing the bag, I question once more my ability to expedite my new plan. On the underside of the bag is a snail, crushed by the bag’s plummet, punished for its inability to react quickly. An apt commentary, I say to myself. Chance always had a nicer eye for metaphor than I ever will.
And I pick up my bag and resolve to embrace this new fate that I have concocted for myself and I think of how final it is and how unsuited to my character is such an act of drama. I try not to think of Mammy. I head towards the park. I should be grateful for something to do, I try to tell myself.
Three months have passed since then. Three more months passing unheeded and discreetly. I am sitting at the kitchen table. Picture me. A boiling kettle is trying hard to be noticed in the background. I close my eyes and imagine them bloodshot.
With one hand on the formica top for support, Mammy is standing beside me, her face as deathly and expressionless as an alabaster mask. Until recently she had retained some vestige of youthfulness. That is no longer the case. Now her movement about the house seems preagonal, ceremonial, laboured. She looks often at the clock with an expression that comprises surprise and horror, like someone who expects, upon examining a smiling face, to find tokens of friendliness but, instead, finds traces of derangement and malice. She is expectant; pregnant with her own death.
The wedding dress, encased in camphor balls, is now incubating in a treasure chest. My smoking habit and eczema are developing nicely. Mammy makes fewer sausages these days. She looks at me in a different way than before, when she looks at me at all.
—Will you chance a cup of tea? she asks.
—Sure. I’m feeling brave. Mammy obliges, collecting teabags, milk and sugar from where they repose.
—I heard a report on the radio about that hepatitis, she tells me above the pouring of boiled water.
I raise both my eyebrows in acknowledgement.
—Dreadful dose it is, she goes on.
—It is dreadful.
She pauses, labouring over the opening of the milk carton.
—Is it C or B that Cara has? she asks.
I say C without delay.
—Well, at least that’s some consolation, the B is the worse dose, I hear.
My ears have become filled with shrill whistling again.
—The wedding would have taken a lot out of her, you were as well to postpone it. July will bring the good weather, you were lucky in that sense.
In an isolated moment of wakefulness I recall the birth of this new deceit, the reconceived wedding, the falseness giving rise to falseness.
Mammy stirs in the milk in decreasing circles and adds a heap of sugar. She is examining me. She can’t have long left, I think. Now is the time to tell her.
On the side plate is an extra biscuit for me. The cup is shaking in her hands. The eyes shrunken, the smile less sure. Now is the time to tell her, to give truth its chance. Before there is no more time. I lift the tea cup.
—It could hardly have turned out better for us, Mammy, all things considered, I say.
The tea is cloying, too sweet. Mammy’s smile seems to acknowledge as much.