We settle into our seats at my mother’s kitchen table. The three of us are celebrating a wedding anniversary though none of us are married. My father died when I was twelve. He’s dead longer than he was married to my mother but every year we shuffle the same stack of photos, spreading them across the table. Their gloss has been muted with time and the back of each is grainy with dust.
My mother carries a pot of tea to the table where Granny and I sit with an empty chair between us. Her arms are stretched forward, holding the pot straight in front of her. It’s too heavy for her and there’s a tremor in her hands that irritates me. I’m afraid that she’ll drop the thing and it’ll smash and her hands will fly to her ears and she’ll look so much like a child I’ll want to roar. I stand to take the pot from her.
She’s fifty-eight. I’m equal parts baffled and embarrassed by the anger her premature frailty causes me. Surely I should feel sympathy or concern or some other emotion that might evoke a softness. Surely this softness exists.
It unnerves me looking at these photographs. In ten years’ time, I will have outlived my father and that leaves me feeling very unsafe, very insecure. It’s like watching your parent cry or be humiliated by another adult. It’s confusing and unnatural, to grow older than your father ever was. And my mother is like a child herself, God love her. We all humiliated each other in our family, I think. She was always so easily embarrassed though, getting dressed and undressed behind her towel.
She isn’t very creative but she’s great at imitation. My bedroom floor was always filthy but the walls looked tidy, covered with her drawings of buildings and pieces of furniture she copied from magazines. During the night, you could be tricked into thinking that the fine black lines were insects scurrying up the walls, to escape the floor’s chaos.
She’s fantastic with words but not stories. When I was eleven, I went to the kitchen for a biscuit and saw her standing at the sink, her fists clenching the tea towel under her chin. She had bought a bundle of school copybooks for me and began writing a story in one of them, she said, about a woman who was lonely and married. My mother closed her eyes and waved her hands around her ears while relaying this, as if to dispel the idea altogether. She explained that my father found the copybook, in the hot press, under the towels. He asked her about it the following morning. She was always sharing these exchanges with me, justifying herself, as if I were the one she needed to make amends with. I could picture the two of them, shrouded in the privacy of their bed sheets. He must have tried to conceal anger and hurt and recognition with curiosity, but it was unbearable for her, she was mortified.
I’ve never been able to hold my own presence with men. It’s like I steal something from each one I sleep with. They fill me up and replace some part of me with themselves. I emulate them, adopting their interests and opinions, becoming a paler reflection. When the next man comes along, I draw on these borrowed facets during the benign chat that serves as a precursor to whatever it is people do in the light or dark above or below the bed sheets together. And they are surprised and impressed by my wit and my sharpness. I believe they enjoy me because I act just like them while still possessing an otherness that they can’t hold but want to touch, making me a novelty.
I must have inherited imitation from my mother, though it has manifested as dishonesty. Both are simply variations of presenting an artificial version of yourself. My father found the copybook because I showed it to him, went running to him, giddy, thrilled. Let’s laugh at silly Mammy together, I thought. She’s written a story, I said. But I got a fright when I saw him grow rigid while reading it. I didn’t know then that men could have their feelings hurt as badly as women, as badly as small children. I didn’t know how easily hurt could be supplanted with anger.
How is it that she and I are almost the same and yet while she offers me an unfaltering and unconditional love, I cannot forgive the person she is? Even when I know the house she came from. How can I forgive Granny’s negligence and my father’s strange anger but withhold the same from her? What does it say about her that she tolerates it? My gaze falls to a picture of her and Daddy at the beach. With a burgeoning worry I wonder what it says about me.
I am flanked by my mother and daughter at my kitchen table. I can feel a hot pain in my eyes as the sun dips below the end of the garden and I know I should switch on the big light and root around for my glasses. But I cannot tell you how reluctant I am to move from sitting between the two of them chatting and pointing and pausing. I’m afraid to move from the rare and tentative happiness, to come back and find that it has passed me. Even the tender spot beside my ear where there seems to be a pimple blooming beneath a darkening mole doesn’t distract or upset my mind as it did this morning. My mouth watered with fright and sickness when I ran my fingers across it, something so small and probably innocuous.
How do people not die earlier? There are so many things that can go awry in our bodies. The intricate systems within us keep on working, until they don’t.
As a small child, I would sit beside my mother while she sunbathed on the step in our front garden, her bare legs stretched before her. I was fascinated by the risen map of veins traversing her feet, the blood of them chasing the heat beyond her thin skin. I poked them cautiously, terrified they might rupture, delighted and revolted by how freely they wriggled but how unyielding they were to damage. The rest of her body rarely produced anything but damage. Her stomach grew and rounded and shrank again like a heaving chest without creating a child who lived, apart from me and my brother Michael.
For months, I was left to sit beside Michael as he slept during the day in my parents’ small, hot bedroom. My mother gave me a small mirror to hold above his mouth. If the reflection wasn’t blurred by the fog of his breath I was to call to her immediately. Then what? Well, he lived anyway. Not that he’s ever thanked any of us for it. The frameless mirror left pink ridges on my palm and when the cramp in my wrist became too much I would roll away and lie belly down on the dusty carpet. I used to sign my name over and over on edges of newspaper before scribbling it out for fear someone would find it and my vanity would be exposed.
I’m looking at a photo now of me, my husband and my daughter on Dollymount Strand. I don’t know if I knew how happy I actually was then. I was so beset by some vague worry and it seemed to occupy my consciousness more than any other emotion. I’ve never been able to grasp it by its bony shoulders and identify it. I’ll turn with a grim sense that it’s trailing behind me to barely catch its silhouette slipping back around the door or the wicked tail of it snaking beneath the bed.
Obviously that’s not how I described it to Michael’s wife. She’s forever finding new things to be interested in and this year I notice that she frequently talks about ‘practising self-care’ and ‘being mindful’. She thinks I’m suffering from delayed grief. Nothing delayed about it, I said. It’s prolonged and if it’s grief then it was pre-emptive because I carried it from my mother’s house to my husband’s. All that has changed is that people expect you to talk about not liking yourself now. And if you’re going to talk about it, you must surely follow this up with a moment of clarity during which you realise you are perfect and always have been. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?
This tall and gentle woman, my brother’s wife, she asked me to think of a tree. Did I think the tree worried if other trees didn’t like its branches? I gave her the same smile I give to that poor header who hangs around Cleary’s Newsagents and barks random abuse at everyone who passes him. I smile because I’m too polite to tell him to leave me alone. Michael’s wife nodded slowly, satisfied, maybe assuming she had achieved empathy. She didn’t press me any further.
Trees don’t question their worth in the world for the same reason I don’t sprout leaves out of my backside: it’s not in their nature.
I am moved by a picture of my father standing beside us on our wedding day. He was an affable sort of man, slow to lose his temper. Why is it that women only marry men like their father if their father is a demon? I married a man like my mother. My husband’s anger was quiet but vast. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff, you were always close to being whipped from the brink of safety.
I loved him though, even during the senseless gulfs of silence between us. And my little girl adored her daddy. When we walked home she might be inconsolable with exhaustion and the sight of his car in the driveway was a relief. Oh, oh, look, there now, I would say, pointing ahead, towards the house in an attempt to soothe her. There’s Daddy’s car! There, now! On those days, it sounded like I was begging.
I loved hearing them play together. It was a joy that eluded me if I ever went to join in. The breathless, hysterical laughter came to an end because now that I was done with the bits from dinner, couldn’t I put her to bed? With that she would tumble from his lap and he would sidle by me. I would know that she was looking at me wishing I had made a start on some other thing in another room to lend her another moment to play alone with him.
There will be no more moments for them now. He was gone before ever having to pretend not to know she was jarred coming home at sixteen, before her obsession with weight loss drove me to tears. He missed her first job, her cleverness, her cruelty and her kindness.
My mother’s anger was usually only visible from the corner of my eye. But I remember at twelve becoming aware of the new, unpleasant odour that accompanied the first few months of bleeding. I was uneasy and self-conscious, wanting to know how I should properly conceal it but feeling too ashamed to seek guidance. That kind of conflict seems insignificant now but it was a great source of distress for me at that age.
One evening, I was sat next to my mother on the sofa. My brother was lying on the floor in front of the fire and my father was in his armchair. My mother lowered her head to mine without looking away from the television to tell me I was never to go to school smelling so disgusting again. There was a bath upstairs for a reason; not using it was the height of laziness. In her revulsion, she became angry and I couldn’t understand why. Michael looked up to my mother, to me and then my father who stared straight ahead. I sat in the blue light of the television, unable to move from of the shock and the creeping shame.
These eruptions abated when she felt they had served a purpose. Michael and I had grown and married and left and she could relax, good for her. It’s a pity that I couldn’t but I might yet.
It’s ridiculous to feel this hurt at my age, by a woman as old as her. But even sitting here now, I feel redundant and flustered. The cautious contentment slips. The lump beside my ear throbs. I feel like I’m still gripping that mirror, clueless as to what I would do if the fog didn’t appear.
My granddaughter must think I’m about to die. She never invites me to anything. We meet on the anniversary every year in my daughter’s house so I don’t know why she rang to ask if I was going. Before she hung up she said that she loved me and I felt very frightened.
We’re very fond of each other and we’re great pals but I see her give out to her mother and I see myself doing it, years and years ago. My daughter is a meek sort of person. But that unpleasantness really was a very long time ago and I’m upset with her for not forgiving me, for not understanding me.
At my age, I forgive myself. The marriage bar was a terrible thing for us. The worst part about leaving your job after the wedding was waiting for the babies to come and fill you up. I was waiting a long time. The loneliness was relentless. The first four times were like a run and jump to reach the other side of a ditch, only on the fifth one did I manage to clear the thorny void.
When I try to remember my daughter as a small child, it seems we spent so much time in bed together. The both of us lying on our side, her bum against my belly and her rough little heels pressed to my shins. Her father was off working for a farmer in the country during the August that she was three. I had her beside me in the bed and a sibling inside of me, the pair of them separated by nothing more than a cloak of skin. Maybe the comfort and warmth of the sheets drew the little one out because we woke, hot and sticky, to blood staining my thighs and her calves. She screamed because she thought the blood was hers. I sobbed because I knew it was mine and someone else’s. Of all the times, that was a shock. I denied her father afterwards, for the winter.
That Halloween, I dressed her as a mummy, her little arms rigid as I bandaged them. Her father went off with her around the houses. I stood at the front door for a while after they went. Tom O’Cuiv next door stood at his own step, the pair of us separated by the garden wall. He was from a place near Dundalk. I liked his nearly northern voice, his widening of vowels and his hushing of sibilants. We had chatted like this plenty of times before tonight. But by now, things had well and truly soured for me. The children from neighbouring houses had passed us, carrying oranges and monkey nuts. Would you come in to me, Tom? And he made his way down his narrow path and up mine. As he brushed past me and over the threshold I turned away from the door jamb I was leaning on and closed us in from the smoky air.
It was a brief opportunity, creating a sense of urgency. The moments beforehand were strange; we stood on opposite sides of the hall. I hadn’t thought he would be so nervous. While he was still speaking, I lowered my head and hooked a finger between two buttons on his shirt to draw him in. When I raised my eyes to him, I realised that he hadn’t been sure what he wanted to do with me until just then. Rather than thinking of myself as beguiling, I felt foolish for having assumed he was submitting to a long held desire. And why did it hurt that he hadn’t shared the same designs I had from the beginning?
It was just the once, which makes me think of us both as ridiculous. I held him close to me as I felt him quiver and shudder to an end, a foolish little act.
There were two months of no blood. In January, I put my hand on my husband’s chest and tipped my chin towards him as if he were the one to have withdrawn from me. The whole thing happened with his reluctant pleasure and a determination to get what he wanted from the final moments. It was like watching him touch himself. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Imagine. The two of them will be looking at pictures of me soon. Or maybe not. I drop three or four photos that I had been shuffling, though my hands have not been shaking, and they land face down. I lean to gather them but my daughter places her hand on my arm to stop me and reaches for them, while still speaking to my granddaughter, uninterrupted. They smile at me and then glance at each other. I catch my daughter press her lips together tightly and I wish she would be honest, I wish she would stop concealing her harm, the harm she thinks I’ve done her and the harm she wishes me, however small and private and unspeakable it may be.
And why should I know any better than what I’ve done? Am I to ask for some absolution? I doubt she will afford it to me.
The truth and experience of things are as evolutionary as words. They shed and then accrue meaning over and over as they are echoed through time and distilled through the cupped hands waiting to claim them, to derive significance and resonance, even when this is painful or futile.
There’s a tether that exists between the three of us and I don’t know if it’s divine or coincidental. But it has been fused ever tighter by our discord. It has grown thick and twisted and sophisticated, beyond reversal, a knotted weave as impossible to undo as all the things of which it is a consequence.