Her mother’s room was on the second floor with a view of the river and the Coca Cola bottling factory on the opposite bank, neat rows of red and white trucks resembling from this distance a child’s toy collection. Aileen had planned to deliver her news on Friday evening; that way, if things didn’t go well, her mother would have time to come round before Aileen had to leave again on Sunday. But fog at Heathrow delayed her flight and then there was a queue at the car-hire desk in Cork and a problem with a form, so it was almost 8pm before she arrived at the nursing home. ‘Aileen,’ her mother said, ‘you’re late.’ Her mother was propped up in bed, her slight frame barely denting the pillows. Settled by her bedside, in the room’s only chair, was Eily, one of the other residents. Eily was tall as well as broad, her white curls adding several inches to her height, and when she leaned forward in the chair, she eclipsed Aileen’s mother almost entirely. ‘Sorry,’ Aileen said, ‘my flight was delayed,’ but her mother and Eily had already resumed their conversation. It was something about the new podiatrist, and his tendency to be rough with the pumice stone. Her mother’s problems, being terminal, were far beyond the reach of podiatry, but still, she debated the subject of calluses with an intensity that was unsettling. Aileen went to stand by the window while she waited for them to finish. Their conversation had a curious dynamic—a decorous yet vaguely malicious chipping away at each other, the way a child might pick slyly at a scab. It occurred to her, fleetingly, that were she to deliver her news now, Eily’s presence might possibly temper her mother’s response. It wasn’t that her mother had anything against grandchildren; but Aileen’s sister Janet had already provided four and the circumstances of Aileen’s pregnancy—43, unplanned, married work colleague—were not what her mother would have hoped for.
The nursing home had once been a convent and it retained a cloistered feel. Cell-like rooms branched like pods off narrow stalks of corridors and in the wall behind her mother’s bed, there was a curious rectangular indent where it looked like a door had been papered over. Usually when she was home from London, she stayed in her mother’s house in Ballyphehane, empty these days apart from a cat the neighbours had been entrusted with feeding. But Janet, her sister, had rung earlier in the week to say that this time Aileen should book a hotel. There was now a tenant in their mother’s house, because, as Janet had rather bluntly put it, it wasn’t as if their mother would be moving back in. Aileen imagined a stranger, a girl—because for some reason she was sure the new tenant was a girl—working her way through the house, opening first one drawer, then another. ‘I guess this is what it feels like to be burgled,’ she’d said to Janet.
Janet had sighed. ‘It’s nothing like being burgled,’ she said. ‘Why does everything have to be such a drama with you? I was only saying that to Mam the other night.’
‘So Mam knows?’
‘About the house? Gracious, no! We were talking about something else.’
‘But what about my things?’ Aileen had said. She’d pictured the girl—in clearer relief now: fair-haired and fine-boned and dressed like a cat burglar—finding diaries from Aileen’s teenage years, items of greying underwear forgotten in the hot press.
‘You haven’t lived in that house in twenty years,’ Janet said. ‘What things could you possibly have there? If it makes you feel any better, I moved a lava lamp and a box of ornaments up to the attic.’
It was late May and the evening was still bright. Outside in the grounds, neatly pruned shrubberies descended into briars and mounds of fermented grass cuttings as they approached the river. Since Aileen’s visit the previous month, floods had taken away part of the boundary fence, and someone had bridged the gap with a length of blue rope, tied between posts like a finish line. It was tempting fate, Aileen thought; it was downright irresponsible in a place like this. She imagined her mother and Eily, shuffling and elbowing, as they tumbled downhill to land head over calloused heels in the black mud of the riverbed.
Eventually, Eily stood up, gathering her dressing-gown around her, and shuffled towards the door. She paused to raise a hand, hip height, in half-salute, though her expression was so vexed the gesture could just as easily have been interpreted as a threat. When Aileen sat in the vacated chair, it still held traces of Eily’s warmth, and she took off her coat and folded it underneath her to serve as a cushion.
‘I knew all the Dennehys from Liscarroll,’ her mother said, ‘and there was never any of them a dentist.’ A filigree of bruises from the hospital drip was visible on the inside of one arm. ‘There was a Dennehy a vet all right,’ she said, ‘a vet of sorts, but never a dentist.’ This was her mother’s latest pastime: scrutinising Eily’s ancestry. Each new fragment was committed to memory to be dissected in Eily’s absence, inconsistencies hunted down with a doggedness usually reserved for war criminals. Her mother’s hand crept across the blankets and beat up and down at the edge of the bed. ‘Janet brought me a book the other night…’ she said, ‘You might as well take it away.’ The book, a copy of The Road—a curious choice for the terminally ill, Aileen thought—had fallen to the floor and Aileen picked it up, put it back on the locker. ‘Take it with you when you’re going,’ her mother repeated, ‘Things only go missing here,’ and she rolled her eyes in the direction of Eily’s room.
From the corridor came the squeak of rubber-soled shoes, and a trundling of wheels. A young woman in a blue aide’s uniform parked a trolley in the doorway. ‘How are we this evening?’ she said, squeaking her way across the floor. She lifted Aileen’s mother’s hand and placed a finger on the underside of her wrist. The finger was plump and fat. Aileen’s mother’s skin was almost transparent, veins winding in blue rivers beneath the surface.
‘Dorene,’ her mother said, ‘this is my other daughter, Aileen.’
Dorene let go of her mother’s hand and took a pen from the pocket of her uniform. She wrote something on the chart clipped to the bottom of the bed. ‘Daughter?’ she said, as she peeled back the blanket and sheets on one side, ‘why, you could be sisters.’
Aileen felt offended, then immediately guilty, for was her mother not entitled to this at least, this small, transparent lie? She watched Dorene place a hand on her mother’s back and roll her onto her side, as her other hand pulled taut the undersheet. There was something supremely confident in the way Dorene, who couldn’t be more than thirty, moved her mother: easily, matter-of-factly, a careless squandering of touch as if this was something she did every day, which of course it was. Aileen suddenly felt very tired; tired and incompetent. If she could lift the baby out now she would. She would pass it, red and dripping, across the bed to Dorene. Dorene would know what to do with it. And Aileen knew then that she wouldn’t be able to tell her mother about the baby this evening; she wouldn’t be able to tell her anytime in this strange place that was half-motel, half-mortuary.
‘I thought we might go for a drive tomorrow,’ she said, as soon as Dorene had gone. ‘Just you and me. I thought we might go to the seaside.’
‘I could ask Janet to drive us,’ her mother said next morning, as they stood in the porch of the nursing home. As she spoke, she patted the outcrop of silver curls at the nape of her neck, a nervous habit she’d had since Aileen was a child, though the curls had been brown then, and thicker.
‘I know how to drive, Mam.’
‘It would be no trouble to Janet,’ her mother said, staring at the car parked beside the kerb. ‘She could be here in twenty minutes.’ Aileen knew then that her mother had already asked Janet; that Aileen’s driving—the likely hazards of it—had been debated in apocalyptic fashion until all her mother’s troubles, even her illness, had paled beside the threat of a daughter home from London in a rented Fiat. Reminding herself that she mustn’t fight with her mother, Aileen said nothing, just linked her mother’s arm and walked her to the car.
They drove south along the coast with the sea on one side and on the other, ditches swollen with gorse and the lush, wanton grass of early summer. Last night, in a three star hotel on the edge of the city, Aileen had taken out a map and decided they would go to Courtmacsherry where her mother’s family came from and where her mother had holidayed each summer when she was a child. Her mother was a poor passenger, flattening herself back against the seat every time they rounded a corner. Her hand flew to her throat if they overtook a lorry. Not a driver herself, she wasn’t prepared to believe Aileen was one either.
Janet texted to say she would meet them for coffee in Kinsale. Couldn’t she have allowed her this one day alone with their mother? Aileen thought. But there was no safe way of saying this to Janet, no way that mightn’t end in a row, so she’d said yes, of course, yes, please join us. Aileen and her mother were first to the café and sat at a table by the window. Aileen ordered coffee and a scone. Her mother ordered a pot of tea and a boiled egg, though boiled eggs weren’t on the menu, then went to use the bathroom. Aileen thumbed through a copy of a local newspaper. She’d noticed a shift these past few weeks, her gaze falling on things previously skipped over, and now it settled on an article about hatches in Germany where women could leave their babies. She imagined something like the clothes recycling unit outside her office. Babies tipping over into warm, scented heaps of other babies, downy and milky and sleeping; babies plopping into warm darkness, the occasional soft cracking of skulls like eggs.
From behind the bathroom door she heard the muffled drone of the hand-dryer, a drowsy, muted buzzing, like a bee trapped in a curtain fold. It stopped, started up again, stopped again. Her mother came out, wiping her hands on a paper tissue. ‘I don’t know why they bother with those things,’ she said. She sounded more relaxed now, heartened perhaps by the fact that they had arrived unscathed. She took a plastic tub from her handbag and shook a blue, cylindrical pill into her palm. Placing it on her tongue, she took a mouthful of tea and tipped back her head in a quick, jerky movement. She pressed a napkin to her lips, held it there a moment.
Janet’s car pulled up outside. The eldest child, Keith, the one who looked most like Janet’s husband Richard, was in the passenger seat, the other three strapped into booster seats in the back. Janet took a while to parallel park, the people-carrier awkward and cumbersome, grazing the bumpers of the cars in front and behind. Then she swivelled round in the driver’s seat, presumably, Aileen thought, to shout at the children, because she seemed to shout at them a lot. Instead, she produced from somewhere on the floor of the car a multi-pack of crisps and proceeded to distribute them. She got out of the car, locked it and hurried up the steps of the café. ‘I couldn’t get a babysitter,’ she said, ‘but we won’t be long, will we?’
Now that Aileen saw her mother and sister together, there was a likeness— something in the nose, the chin—that she hadn’t noticed before. The four children stared in from the car, eyes fixed on their mother, aunt and grandmother. The older ones expertly ferried crisps to their mouths with small hands while the baby pulled at the teat of a bottle. Janet appeared to be expanding at the same rate that their mother was shrinking. Her sweater, one that Aileen had given her the Christmas before last, was at least two sizes too small. Janet settled herself in the chair beside her mother, directly opposite Aileen. ‘How are things in London?’ she said.
‘Pregnant,’ Aileen wanted to say, ‘things in London are pregnant,’ but she didn’t. She wondered how Janet would react when she, in turn, learned the news; pregnancy up to now had been Janet’s territory. But Janet wasn’t listening for her reply. She was looking out to the car where Keith was force-feeding crisps to the baby. ‘I’ll crucify him,’ she said, and Aileen had an image of the boy nailed to the wall outside the café, blood dripping onto the flower boxes below. Janet jumped up and banged on the glass. ‘Stop it,’ she shouted. Inside the café, conversation ground to a halt, but outside, the children carried on regardless. Janet ran outside, tugged at the locked car door. She felt her pockets for the keys she’d left on the café table. ‘Open the door,’ she screamed.
Aileen’s mother looked on with the detached air of a spectator at a bullring who was waiting for the main event to start. ‘She’s got very fat,’ she said. ‘She didn’t used to be that fat.’
It was then that Aileen noticed the window above their table was open. ‘She’d want to watch out,’ her mother said, ‘or Richard will look elsewhere. I always wondered about her marrying a younger man. I worried about it.’
Aileen stood up and, too late, pulled the window shut. ‘He’s only three years younger,’ she said.
Her mother seemed to take this as encouragement. ‘Well, yes, but three years is three years,’ she said, ‘And he’s a man. Men are different.’ Their food had arrived and she took her boiled egg, began to strike it with a spoon all around the shell in sharp, brisk movements. Outside, the children had unlocked the door and now Janet was half in and half out of the car, walloping the children in turn, all of them except for the baby; walloping them with a force that made Aileen’s hand go instinctively to her still-flat stomach.
Her mother took a mouthful of egg then put the spoon down. ‘She used to be so pretty,’ she said. ‘She’s let herself go.’ It was true, Aileen thought, looking at her sister, Janet used to be beautiful. ‘It’s not easy to keep a man,’ her mother continued, ‘she’d want to be careful. Tidy herself up a bit.’ Aileen’s father had died when she was three, so it wasn’t as if their mother had had to worry too long about keeping him, but Aileen didn’t say this. Janet slammed the car door and began to walk back towards the café entrance.
‘It’s the children, of course,’ Aileen’s mother said, ‘children do that to you.’
Janet delayed for a while in the café porch. She appeared to be studying the posters on the notice board, advertisements for local fundraisers and sports fixtures and missing pets. When eventually she returned to the table, her eyes were red-rimmed.
‘You need to get Richard to have a word with that lad,’ her mother said, inclining her head towards the car where Crucifixion Keith was now crying in the passenger seat. ‘Otherwise he’s only going to get worse.’
Aileen imagined Janet putting their mother in a hatch and running away, their mother rolled up like a rug, her head tucked into her tummy, the soft, almost noiseless thud as she landed. And then, as if they’d been discussing something different entirely, as if Janet was not sniffling furtively beside her, their mother looked across the table at Aileen and said: ‘Remember those dolls you had when you were young?’
‘Yes,’ Aileen said. It was hard to know where her mother might be going with this.
‘I was only thinking about them the other day,’ her mother said. ‘You were still playing with them when you were twelve or thirteen. I used to worry about that. I thought maybe you were a bit slow.’
‘I collected dolls, Mam. Lots of girls did back then.’
‘Yes,’ her mother said, ‘possibly you’re right,’ and she nodded, but slowly, as if even now, thirty years on, she was still not fully convinced. ‘They very possibly did.’
They said goodbye to Janet and the children and left the café, driving further south until they reached Courtmacsherry and the sweep of the bay, the white fleck of waves, the boats rising and falling along the pier. There was a small public beach—a narrow strip of pebbly sand—and a hotel set back from the sea behind a line of rocks and a bank of low sand dunes. Access to the beach from the public car park was along a sloping path and Aileen helped her mother out of the car and linked her arm as they made their way down together. Her mother moved slowly and with care, her eyes following the progress of her own feet over the sand. A dozen or more elderly women were gathered at the shore, hotel residents, Aileen presumed, because they all wore matching red swim caps. They were watching an instructor, a man young enough to be their grandson, demonstrate swim strokes. And then, as though a nudge from providence, a way into the conversation Aileen had determined she would have with her mother today, she saw in the water a pregnant woman. There was something loud, almost indecent, about her large belly, as if a hologram of her impregnation were stored beneath the skin. As she made her way in to shore, a strip of seaweed drifted across her path and she flung it away without breaking her stroke. How easy she made it look, Aileen thought, how effortless. She wouldn’t have been surprised if the baby had swum out of her right then, without struggle, without pain, a small, shut-eyed thing carried in on the tide like a jellyfish. ‘She’d want to be careful,’ Aileen’s mother said. ‘She’s quite far along. I’d be worried about that.’
‘I’m sure she’ll be fine,’ Aileen said. ‘She seems to be a strong swimmer.’
‘She’s young, at least,’ her mother said. ‘She has that going for her. Too young, maybe. I doubt there’s a husband.’
They had reached a cluster of flat black rocks. Her mother’s pace was slowing, her breath coming in ever shorter gasps. Aileen looked at her and thought that she seemed to have shrunk since they left that morning. She wondered if the trip had been a mistake. But she’d asked Matron before setting out and Matron had said it should be fine, adding—rather curtly, Aileen thought—that she’d already told Janet the same thing. She helped her mother lower herself onto the flattest of the rocks to rest and for a while they sat looking out at the sea and at the elderly women who were now moving further out, yellow flotation devices tucked under their arms.
‘I’m worried,’ her mother said.
Aileen waited. Over the years, her mother had so devalued the currency of worry that it was impossible to guess what might come next.
‘About… you know…’ her mother said, ‘about what will happen.’
‘What will happen when?’
‘You know…’ her mother said, ‘what will happen at the end.’
This was the first time her mother had addressed, directly at least, the fact that she would soon die. ‘I’m afraid that there will be nobody there,’ she said.
Aileen thought they were about to embark on a spiritual discussion, but her mother said: ‘Not you, not Janet, not anybody.’ Her grip tightened on Aileen’s hand. ‘There was a man from the ground floor died last week,’ she said. ‘Eily told me they couldn’t find a vein in the end, and he was screeching for an hour before the ambulance arrived.’
Aileen thought of the pregnancy chat-rooms with their grotesque tales of forceps and episiotomies and thirty-hour labours. ‘Mam,’ she said, ‘don’t be talking like that. You know I’ll be there.’
‘You won’t. You’ll be in London.’
‘They’ll contact me when…’ Aileen wasn’t sure when they would contact her. Because how, at this point, could they know, really know, from one minute to the next when the end might be? ‘They’ll contact me when the time comes,’ she said, ‘and anyway, Janet will be there.’
‘There’s something wrong with Janet,’ her mother said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but there’s something wrong. I’m worried.’
Aileen reached across and took her mother’s hand. Further up the coast, a kite surfer ploughed a white furrow through the water. Aileen followed the plume of red and orange twisting in the sky above him as if the answer, the words she needed to next say to her mother, might be found up there. They sat in silence for a while. At the end of the day, Aileen thought, this was all she and her mother could offer one another, the comfort of being frightened together.
‘I noticed you had a camera back in the car,’ her mother said, ‘I’d like you to take my photograph.’
In the house in Ballyphehane, there had only ever been two photos of her mother: one taken on her wedding day, the other some years earlier in a cousin’s drawing room when her mother was still only a girl in a gingham dress and ankle socks, hair so fiercely parted it might have been done with a knife. ‘Yes, of course,’ Aileen said, ‘a photo would be lovely. I’ll go get the camera.’ She looked at her mother. ‘Will you be okay here by yourself?’
‘Certainly,’ her mother said, ‘why wouldn’t I be?’
The afternoon had turned cold and as she walked, Aileen pulled her jacket tighter about her. She was passing through the dunes when a sudden dizziness struck, accompanied by the nausea that her doctor kept insisting was a good sign. She sat down for a moment and lying back on the grass she closed her eyes. Here, by the seafront, the neat lawns of the hotel gave way to scrub colonised by clusters of yellow-eyed daisies and celandines. Back in London,
the father of her child—how strange those words still sounded, her child—would be taking the younger of his two sons to a violin lesson. He’d accused her of being heartless, selfish, in her plan to have the baby. ‘The boys are six and ten,’ he’d said, ‘have you considered at all what this will mean for them?’ The nausea worsened and she tried to still her thoughts, to breathe slowly and deeply, but was foiled by the clamour of the gulls, circling and wheeling above the dunes. Their cries were sharp and high-pitched, almost human. As she lay there in the grass, they seemed to grow louder and shriller and she sat up with a start, realising that what she was hearing was not gulls, but women.
She ran back through the dunes to discover her mother in the sea, up to her waist in water. The hotel swimmers were making their way towards her, calling to her, their red bathing caps bobbing like stray buoys as they approached. Aileen ran down the beach, sliding and stumbling over the stones. She saw her mother tumble face-forward and disappear for a couple of seconds beneath the surface. The instructor and one of the women had reached her now and were attempting to lift her, the water churning white in a mess of flailing arms and limbs. As Aileen waded out to meet them, they faced for shore and began to make their way back in, carrying her mother between them. They laid her down on the jetty wall and Aileen looked on as her mother coughed up water, spluttered, choked, coughed up some more, her hair plastered in wet strands to her skull.
They carried her mother to the hotel, up a long, straight avenue, with mature trees bordering the lawns on either side. Two peafowl, a hen and a cock, were foraging along the grass verge; they gently nudged and butted each other and raised their heads in lazy ambivalence as the party went by. Her mother was brought to a bedroom and the hotel manager organised a robe and a pot of tea. One of the women offered a change of clothes—underwear and an over-sized cardigan and skirt—which Aileen promised to return by post. Feeling nauseous again, she excused herself and went to the bathroom where she vomited a little and splashed water on her face. She came out of the bathroom to hear her mother reciting her local pedigree to the other women as if she were a stud animal, delivering it in a sing-song voice, like a poem learned at school. Aileen thought she could probably recite the list herself at this stage, she’d heard it often enough, though over the years her mother had become a little devious. Every so often, by way of erratum perhaps, or downright lie, she would slip in something hitherto unheard of, some small, brazen embellishment.
When they were left alone, her mother ran a bath, refusing Aileen’s offers of help. Every so often, Aileen knocked on the door to ask if she was all right, if she needed help washing her hair, but her mother said she didn’t. ‘Call me when you want to get out,’ Aileen said through the door. She sat in a chair by the window and watched gulls stalk the lawn outside, and a group of children play tag on the beach, moving amphibiously between pools, cliff path and rocks. After a while, she heard the gurgle of water down the plughole and pictured her mother attempting to clamber unaided from the bath, slipping on the wet floor. She went over to the bathroom, but when she put her hand to the door, she discovered it was locked.
Later that evening, back at the nursing home, Aileen got her mother into a nightdress and helped her into bed. At her mother’s insistence, she went downstairs to Matron’s office and fetched some brown paper to package up the borrowed clothes. ‘You’ll send them tomorrow, won’t you?’ her mother said. ‘They’ll only go missing here.’ Eily, mercifully, hadn’t yet made an appearance this evening. Aileen topped up her mother’s water glass. Beside the bed was a softly rounded groove in the floorboards. They were the original boards, eighteenth-century oak according to the nursing home’s brochure, and were peppered with small knot-holes that spiralled away into blackness. To the end of the bed was another, identical, groove. A different bed must once have occupied this space, its ordinances closely but not exactly mirroring the one in which her mother now lay. Some other woman, perhaps a whole series of women, had lain here, night upon night, year upon year, mouths parted slightly in sleep, all the time pressing this memento of their existence into the timber.
Her mother took a sip of water then lay back on the pillows, closing her lips tightly against the offer of more. ‘You forgot to take that book last night,’ she said. ‘Don’t forget it this time. There’s nothing safe here.’ And as Aileen picked up the book and put it in her bag, it occurred to her that these might very well be her mother’s last words.
On the way back to her hotel, she took the slip road for Ballyphehane. Her mother’s house was a modest, two-bed mid-terrace in a not-so-fashionable area, and she wondered now how Janet had managed to find a tenant for it. She parked directly outside. She would be polite, she told herself; calm and polite. The tenant—the girl—would understand; Aileen would understand if it were her. She would say that she knew it was the girl’s home now, that she, Aileen, only wanted a look around, that she had come all this way. As she sat in the car, she rehearsed two speeches: one for if the girl turned out to be pleasant, the other for if she was rude. All the time she was rehearsing, she saw the girl as clearly as if she was standing in front of her, still fine-boned and blonde, still dressed like a cat-burglar.
She was about to step out of the car when she noticed that the front garden was straggling and uncared for, her mother’s precious lupins listing sideways and choked by weeds. She experienced a sudden burst of anger towards the girl, who she decided now would most likely be rude. To one side of the front door an overflowing bin was disgorging its contents onto the path. The curtains were missing from the living-room window—she could imagine what her mother would say about that—and she could see beer cans on the coffee table and the silhouette of someone on the couch watching television. But the silhouette was not of a girl, fine-boned or otherwise. It was that of a man and when, perhaps having noticed the car, he stood up and came to the window, she saw that it was Janet’s husband, Richard. The garden was small, no more than half a dozen yards from porch to gate, and she knew he must have recognised her. She waited, wondering if he might go to the door and invite her in, but he remained at the window and after a moment she turned the key in the ignition and drove away.
At the end of the street she went east, skirting the edges of the city as she made her way back to her hotel. Tomorrow she would say goodbye to her mother at the nursing home and would catch her flight back to London. The nausea that usually renewed its onslaught at this hour was missing this evening; her doctor had told her it would go in time, that she shouldn’t worry when it did. She found that in its absence, without its bitter-sweet niggling, she felt nothing, no sense of anything beyond herself and so she tried to summon an image. All that offered itself was a grainy composite of other women’s scans, a shadowy thing floating in a sea of amniotic fluid. For a moment, as she waited at traffic lights, it took on features, morphed into a girl, fair-haired and fine-boned. Its eyes were tightly shut, the way her mother’s eyes had been when she came out of the water that day, steeled against the sting of salt. Her mother, who, it had seemed to Aileen, had been striking out with the last of her strength, her arms raised in resistance against her rescuers, her face set to open sea.