My parents were hijacked before I was born, just two nights prior, and I think it’s important. I don’t know why.
They were driving out of the city on a road that got suddenly narrow, a bad artery, and then they were stopped in the road by a clot: people with masks and crowbars.
My dad was driving so it was my dad who braked.
The people in the road yelled: GET OUT OF THE CAR.
My dad said: Paula. (That was all that he said. He wasn’t good at reassurance; when the dog died, he was supposed to break it to us gently, but we said: How is she?, and he said: Dead.)
The people with the crowbars yelled: GET OUT OF THE FUCKING CAR.
My dad got out. One of the people took his wallet and checked his ID. (They wanted to be sure they were only hijacking Catholics. His license said Michael Madigan so they took the car.)
They said: What’s she doing?
My dad called: Get out of the car, Paula! (I think this is funny: if you can’t beat them, join them.)
My mum hadn’t got out. She was pregnant with me. The seatbelt had locked tight against her, and she couldn’t find the belt’s plug in the darkness. Her breathing was horrible. She was very scared.
My mum maybe said: Michael, or maybe: I’m stuck. She didn’t say anything that could be heard.
The men with the masks moved in close. They smashed the windscreen. My mum didn’t scream but tiny bits of glass got stuck in her face and her neck. She thought she might never move again but then the seatbelt finally gave and she moved like she was melting.
My dad took her over to the side of the road. They stood by the hedge (where blackberries grow; where badgers’ bodies rot).
The guys with the crowbars drove off in the car.
My mum and dad stood in the dark. The night was very cold. It was before mobile phones but my mum wouldn’t let them stop at a house to use someone’s landline. She was too scared.
I was born two nights later. In the photos I am pink and Michael Madigan is smiling and my mum has those cuts all over her skin, just scabbing (like co-ordinates/freckles).
My dad told us about the hijacking. (He died when we were starting to be proper people: Bernie was eight and I was twelve.) He said it was because of tensions at the time.
The Orange Order wanted to march through Catholic areas and the people in those areas didn’t want them to. He thought that this was what it was about because of the timing/location/target.
My mum’s never mentioned it. If it were up to her, we wouldn’t know.
But I think it’s important. I don’t know why.
I feel it in things, as though it’s not over. Mum’s something distant/something scared. If it were up to her, we wouldn’t know about anything, like she thinks that’s progressive, like she thinks we’ll be safe. She won’t let me wear GAA stuff; she’s made Bernie do hockey. She talks about how ugly Irish is. She says things like: they’re completely different down there, saying down meaning ROI, meaning Free State, meaning (depending on where we are): East, South, North, West.
It bothers us both but Bernie’s more straightforward. She says: You’re a partitionist, Paula!
It affects us both but I see that hijacking everywhere. I feel it in the way my mum loves Bernie (fervid, uncomplicated) and the way she sees me (holds me apart).
She says, suddenly: Jackie, do you have a girlfriend?
She says over the TV: Jackie, are you still eating meat?, and she waits for the answer because she doesn’t know, she hasn’t noticed, she can’t tell.
I don’t think that she blames me. That would be stupid. But I wonder about it. I think it’s important.
If she hadn’t been pregnant, she could have got out of the car. The glass wouldn’t have cut her. She wouldn’t’ve bled. If she hadn’t been pregnant, she wouldn’t have been stuck on her own in the dark, watching the men in the masks come closer. She wouldn’t have seen Michael Madigan get out of the car and leave her in it.
I’ve tried to tell Bernie. She doesn’t care. She says: Oh my fucking god, Jackie. She says: You can’t psychoanalyse everything. She says: See if you say this is why you can’t pass your driving test—
Bernie doesn’t hate me for it, but she wasn’t there.
We have lectures called Housekeeping. It’s hard to find the way to Anatomy because they want it hidden. (People have tried to steal bones.)
I don’t know that I like the people I’m with. I let what they’re saying move over me until I can decide. We sit together, stretched out in rows. Everyone has a laptop. The people in front of me are biting their nails.
The professor’s name is O’Brien. He has the letters of eight qualifications after his name. He has a PowerPoint of photos of different tools/instruments: pincers, surgical scissors, scalpels on a steel tray. The colours are bleached coming through the projector.
He talks about the importance of Anatomy. He shows us sketches from da Vinci’s notebook. He says these are crucial; he says these are key. (I saw his sketches in the museum. They were horrible: he drew sketches of Travellers as predators, as thieves. Nobody in the museum seemed to think this was bad. They framed them and labelled them, printed on thick expensive paper: ‘A Man Tricked By Gypsies’.)
O’Brien says the most important thing is respect. He says that if we miss a session, we’ll be disciplined. He says that what we’ll cover in the sessions is vast. He speaks in abstracts, vague definitions. (Nothing he says means much at all.) He says that he once had a student expelled for coming to Dissection chewing gum.
This is when the people I am sitting with poke me. The girl named Rachel, sat at the far end, grins, and when we have all turned, like sunflowers, she blows a bubble with pink slabbery gum.
The others think this is great. I am so embarrassed to be with people who find this funny that I start to sweat. After the lecture, they stand together in a group, making plans. I don’t want to dislike them so soon (it’s Week 2), so I keep my distance. I start walking home.
I get in well before Bernie’s back from school.
I turn on the TV. I don’t care who’s talking.
I get bored.
I log onto Blackboard on the computer. There’re videos that’re compulsory to watch. O’Brien said he’d refuse admission to anyone who hadn’t seen them, and that Blackboard can tell him that information. (Bernie would say: A surveillance state.)
The videos are three minutes each. Whoever filmed them has chosen an over-the-shoulder angle, so they look a bit like Facebook Tastemade videos. They show: pale hands holding a scalpel, turning it round as the voiceover explains certain features; pale hands and the scalpel moving to the flat surface below them, getting closer as the camera picks up freckles, hair follicles, and the surface is skin; the scalpel slicing through skin as though through soap; substituting scalpel for pincers to peel back the first thin layer.
I don’t mean to lose focus, but the video is slow and unreal. There’s glare all over the computer screen, fingerprints and marks from where Mum’s tried to wipe them.
I check my phone (the first sign of lack of respect).
There’s a notification from Mum. She forwards me and Bernie stuff she’s sent on WhatsApp: weird jokes, clips, 2-minute-long videos (‘The Ulster Fry’). There’s always that warning above, forwarded many times.
She’s sent these things by people she works with, some people she’s still in touch with from college/school, and she forwards them on because they all do. WhatsApp is, for her age group, what chainmail was to me and Bernie when we were small: pictures/animations/stories sent on and on and on, jumpscares, Thinking Of You prayers, badly spelt, long-winded threats: send this to fifteen people or the Killer Clown will be above your bed when you wake up—
That was when Michael Madigan died.
They’re not really connected, him and the chainmail, it was just the same era.
Me and Bernie sat at the computer, pushing the back out of the swivel-chair, and our mum sat on the sofa minding Michael Madigan, syringing things through the RIG tube to his stomach: pain-relief, water, pastes that could feed him.
She cleaned around the RIG twice a day. She did it very slowly because Michael Madigan couldn’t say when it was sore. It was always infected, the skin always raised, the pus always yellow, and the nurse used to say, as though shifting blame: this doesn’t happen with RIG tubes. I’ve never seen this before.
She used to poke it. She called it Proud Flesh. An excessive formation of granulation tissue.
She used to say things to my mum like she wanted her to fight back, but my mum used to say: I don’t know, Karen, I’m not a nurse.
I don’t know, Sandra. I’m not a nurse.
Michael Madigan needed course after course of IV antibiotics and Mum thought we were too small to leave at home by ourselves so she drove us all to the hospital and wheeled him in.
At home she sat beside him on the sofa in front of us, wiping his proud flesh with sterile alcohol pads.
It sounds bad, that the RIG was always infected, but if he hadn’t had it, he’d have starved a lot sooner. He lost fat from places I didn’t know you had it.
When Auntie Shauna had her boys, and they were tiny babies dressed in blue, everyone said things like, ohmygod, aren’t they mini, and it seemed so impossible that everyone once was that size, that everyone’s grown up from something so tiny, but by the end Michael Madigan was so skinny that it made perfect sense; he was nothing but bones making a frame, and it seemed like if you only folded him up right, he would still be the size of those premature babies.
Flesh melted off Michael Madigan’s wrists and hands and fingers until his wedding band couldn’t even stay on his finger, and that was with the RIG, with the pre-packaged feeds going through it.
His body hated them, though less than solid food. His body was always trying to send the liquids back: he vomited and vomited (which was horrible, and dangerous, because he couldn’t always swallow).
Jackie, says Bernie.
She makes me jump.
You left the front door open, she says. Not wide open, but like. Still.
I log out of the computer.
She goes to the kitchen and puts bread on to toast. She stands against the counter on her phone, waiting for it.
I say, Do you remember Rowan?
She doesn’t want to look up, but in the end, she says, The dog?
She says, Is that why you look like that?
There are big stretches between her sentences.
I say, I was thinking about Dad.
Bernie says, About Michael? Why?
She puts spread on the toast. She only eats Flora. She says, Are you in again tomorrow?
Yeah. 9 to 4.
She lays down on the sofa and eats her toast. She looks sorry for herself, that she’s had to come home to this (me). She looks at her phone. She doesn’t get up.
Mum gets in later. She’s not in bad form.
She says, I could eat a horse, which means she’s going to eat toast.
She says at my bag on the table and my boots on the floor, It looks like a bomb’s gone off in here, Jack.
She sits on the sofa and crunches on toast. She says, Bernie, love, any bizz?
Bernie says something about teachers. She builds to a punchline and my mum cackles.
When there’s a pause, I say, See this weekend, I’m going up to Shauna’s. I want to see the farm.
The atmosphere changes so fast it feels physical.
Bernie says, Why?
My mum stands up. She brushes crumbs from her workclothes. She says, Well, Jackie, you’re a big boy now. You can do whatever you wish.
She goes upstairs.
Bernie’s looking at me like I’m a freak.
I snap: What?
She says, What are you doing? But she doesn’t want an answer, she’s only answering me.
The stairs in this house are so steep that they’re dangerous. My mum going angrily upstairs still has to take her time. She fell down the stairs when they first moved in here, down a whole flight, and she broke her ribs. They can’t set ribs like another fracture. Even now, sometimes, she’ll groan when she’s moving.
When Michael got sick, he couldn’t even try them. He was grounded on this floor (like Rowan the dog used to be). Mum got him a bed by the sofa. Sometimes Mum slept down here with him, and sometimes, when she was too tired, she went upstairs by herself.
When we were little, she used to say she could feel something on the landing: a presence, a person who used to live here. She said they were friendly and we shouldn’t be scared.
I never felt it. Bernie said she did, but she just meant she was afraid.
Nobody said it again after Dad died. Ghosts are only interesting if you haven’t any yourself.
We’ve been emailed group allocations. I’m second. At the lockers, we put on coats and IDs, and the first group comes out through the big double doors.
I see Rachel. She’s started going out with your man she was sitting beside in the last lecture. She says to me, going past, It’s really good!, and she smiles with teeth that are visibly wet.
There’s a graduate who checks our IDs at the door. She scans us in with a barcode reader. She says, Grab a seat, as we’re going past her, and people take stools at workbenches, as though the benches don’t have yellowed chunks of person on top.
Harris sits beside me. He’s almost my height. He says, YalrightJackie?, all one word.
Our workbench has a laminated label: STATION 8.
There are questions on Harris’s side: kidneys/their survival; sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous supply; blood vessels, lymph, their sources and drainage.
On my side is somebody’s whole abdomen. It’s dry/embedded with silicon. It’s old, so some of it is coming off in plasticated flakes. It smells.
Harris puts his face down close. Whatdyouthink? he says, Renal Artery? Yeah?
I breathe through my mouth (in and out, in and out).
STATION 6 is someone’s leg, cut off at the thigh and running down to their shin.
STATION 11 has questions about salivary glands but what it is, on the table, is somebody’s head.
One half of the face, split down a vertical line, is hollowed out, to show the glands, but the other half is just normal, just a cold waxy face: a scrunched-up nose, an eyebrow, eyelashes, nose hair in the nostrils, their naked scalp from a head shaved.
Harris picks up the head.
I have my stomach pushed tight against the table.
He asks me a question.
I say, I don’t know.
O’Brien said in the lectures, in the series called Housekeeping, that every body in this Department was given as a gift. People thought about the Uni and gave us their bodies.
I know this. I know what O’Brien said. But it doesn’t feel like that now I’m here, looking around.
Did they know they weren’t going to stay whole? Did they sign that it was okay to saw their head off at the neck? Did they know the Uni’d display their scarred ovaries beside this cut torso, sit them by a penis (pubic hair still intact), by limbs and digits, yellow and flaking, that they’d be split over benches with laminated pages and questions (a Treasure Hunt)? Did they believe that their gift would cure cancer?
I mean, they can’t tell me. They just lay there. People my age (hungover/flirting) lean over them, try to answer questions they don’t understand. Nobody knows anything.
The time drags on. People start to leave early.
There’s a girl snapping bones together. Her partner asks a question and she says brightly: I’m just playing!
Harris asks me if I want to get lunch when this is over. I say, No.
I know things, but not the people. So they’re not stories to me, they’re just Things That Happened, facts one-line long: my dad’s dad Jackie and his older brother Felix were interned. Jackie died seven years later. Felix managed eleven.
I’ve looked online so I know some of the things the British Army did to the hundreds of civilians they took away and held captive, held without charge: water-boarding, injections, electric shocks, mock-executions, starvation, sleep-deprivation, sensory-deprivation, harrassment by dogs, dragging people behind vehicles.
I don’t know that all of these things happened to Jackie and Felix, but I know they were interned and then they were never the same. I know that they died (seven/eleven years later).
I don’t know what these things did to Michael Madigan.
Felix was one year older than Kate, who was two years older than Michael, who was four years older than Shauna. So when British soldiers came through the door and dragged out Jackie (who was forty-three) and Felix (who was eighteen), my dad was fifteen and Shauna was eleven and Kate was seventeen (but she emigrated, so what’s she to us now?).
I know that Felix died when he was twenty-nine.
Their dad died before, when they were all still so young (though not as young as me and Bernie were when Michael Madigan died). Their dad died seven years after the raid/internment. Shauna was still in school. My dad was in Belfast, at the Tech. When Jackie died, Kate went to America and never came back.
This is all I know (flat lines, small words, Things That Happened, black typed on white).
I send Shauna a message on WhatsApp. She still lives near where they grew up, and it’s she has the farm and what’s left of its house. Her husband Roy has cattle on some of the fields that are turning to rushes.
She messages back pretty fast. She says: O hello my gorgeous nephew! it wld be brill to see you & Bernadette!, though I didn’t mention Bernie.
She says I can go, so I’ll go.
Bernie comes up to my room. It’s late. She lies down on the bed as though it is hers.
I messaged Shauna, I say.
So you’re going, she says. She rolls over so her back is to me.
You can come if you want.
Yea, she says. I know.
Sounds come out her phone. There are people shrieking on Instagram stories and noises from dances/TikToks/reaction videos. Then she puts the phone down, and it all goes quiet.
The room’s dark. Her breathing sounds vaguely asthmatic.
I can’t be fucked to wake her. She’ll get cold in a bit.
Bernie snores. She talks in her sleep. We shared a room for a stupidly long time because Mum didn’t want to change Michael Madigan’s study, with the computer and the vinyl and all his beloved DVDs. Sometimes Bernie used to say my name and it woke me up.
Once Mum found her out on the landing with her eyes wide open. Mum said, Bernie, love, what are you doing?, and Bernie said: Who are you? Why am I here?
Mum said the normal things you say to someone sleepwalking: Come on, let’s go, you’re dreaming, back to bed, but Bernie was angry and stressed and upset. She said, Where am I? Who’re you? Leave me alone!
Mum brought her back into the room. She said, Jackie, don’t get up. She sat on the bed with her and said, You’re alright. Shh, bird, you’re alright.
Bernie sounded like she was crying. She said, I don’t understand. Leave me alone.
Mum sat there until Bernie was quiet and then she went to bed.
Today is the first day that we have Dissection. Before was Prosection, where somebody else had done the cutting for us. I see Harris at the lockers. He looks hungover. Rachel passes us when we’re getting our white coats on. She’s with her boyfriend and a new group of people. It’s 8.57am. I focus very hard on buttoning my coat and holding my ID card at the right angle so the barcode hits the scanner, and standing at an okay distance from the person in front of me but when all of that’s done, I have to go into the room like everyone else and the chill of it makes me sad and afraid.
The room is huge. It has a very high ceiling, like a vault, and it’s cold as a fridge. In front of us, in rows, are stainless steel tables on wheels, each one holding up a shape covered with plastic sheeting. It looks like a morgue/a nightmare and it smells like a butcher’s but with chemicals mixed in.
Professor O’Brien is here, though he says he’s not staying long. He’s going to pass us over to his assistant, Golda. He says, If you feel strange, you can leave, and I start to feel stressed, like I am going to do something I can never undo.
Golda says, Everyone find a table. She motions for us to move ourselves over to the stations, to attach ourselves to the bodies, their masked/hidden outlines, in groups of, she says, No more than five.
I go with Harris to one in the far corner. Two other boys come over. They obviously know each other from before, from school. They have their ID cards stuck to their white coats’ breast pockets. They’ve both used photos of themselves from Sixth Form, with their hair permed into curls on top and shaved short at the sides.
I feel as though there’s something pooling up in my lungs. I want to bite my nails but we’re all wearing these thick blue gloves. I think of the video I watched, of fingers holding scalpels.
O’Brien says: Everyone, pull back the covers. He demonstrates his intention on the table nearest to him. He pulls back the covers, three layers of different plastics, and he shows us a naked body with the top half of its head completely gone, that is: with none of its brain or the skull that held it.
Harris pulls back our covers.
We meet a naked woman with half a head.
The Professor says something to Golda. They say quiet things to each other, so people at the bodies start talking to each other, too. Harris says to the other boys: What school did you go to?
Professor O’Brien leaves. Golda takes his old spot in the middle. She’s tall, taller than a lot of the boys in this room. She’s wearing a white hijab, and a white coat with her initials sewn into the breast-pocket, and thick blue gloves that ride right up her arms. Okay, she says, Everyone relax.
She says, Slowly, now, just whenever you’re ready, I want you to touch your body, and she presses against the skin of the body closest to her.
The Inst. boys look at each other. I know that they’re going to touch the woman first. They press on her forearm (first gently, then hard) and they kind of laugh.
Harris touches the woman’s shoulder. He rubs his gloved fingers together. He says, Does this remind anyone else of Granny In The Graveyard?, and the Inst. boys laugh hard.
They’re not looking at me but I know that they know I don’t want to do it. I push my finger against the woman’s upper arm. Even through the glove, it feels hard and strange. Her skin is like leather from the embalming.
Golda is talking about scalpels.
She is cutting into the man’s skin, peeling away layers, working her way down into adipose tissue. The people near her bend their necks in round the body, wanting to see everything that she does. Already people are like that: dying to be ahead.
Golda picks up a large metal bowl, stainless steel like the table, and says, This is very important! Is everyone listening? Everything you take from your body must go into the bowl at the end of your table. Have a look! Every table has one, you see? You must put everything from your body into your body’s bowl because the contents of these bowls get returned with the person to their family. It is absolutely critical that all their tissue is kept together and not mixed up.
Then she places skin in her body’s bowl. She drops in white fascia and curds of yellow fat.
Harris’s stomach rumbles and the Inst. boys piss themselves.
I look at the woman. She only has half a face but there’s enough left to see her nose, which is broken, bent to one side from the weight of her body lying down on itself for however many months it was before she was ready.
One of the Inst. boys says, I’ve heard all the fluid gathers in certain places. Like wherever there’s fat gathered, it completely liquifies in the embalming, so when you cut in it’s all fat and formaldehyde, liquid together, and you cut in and it hits you with splashback. Swear to god. It hit my brother in the eyes.
That’s all for today.
Golda watches us go.
The dog died two years before Michael Madigan. He picked us up from primary school the day after the night Mum’d rushed her to the vet’s. The dog was called Rowan. She was huge and kind (a rescue greyhound).
Bernie and I were in the back of the car, strapped into our seats, looking at each other. We were quiet/waiting to hear when she was coming home. He had to tell us sometime.
But he didn’t.
In the end we said, at once, over each other: Where’s Rowan? Is she sick? Is she home?
He said: She’s dead.
He didn’t say anything else. Maybe once, Awk, Bernie, because Bernie was crying (she was howling with grief). He drove. We got home. Mum came out to the car and she picked Bernie up (even though she was, like, six).
He said, She’s dead, but not to be mean, or cruel. He said it pretty softly, and only because it was true.
When we were those ages, six and ten, Bernie still had a booster-seat, and she sat directly behind him, but I was the other side, so I could see him at a diagonal. I could see some of his face across the way, and I remember how he looked in ways that maybe she doesn’t (dark beard, light skin, freckles, the arm of his jumper, rolled up at the wrist; bitten nails, freckled hands).
I remember him in ways that she can’t.
He steers with one hand, keeps both off when he can. When there’s sun for a second, he winds his window all the way down and sits with his whole arm out of the car. He drives as though it is the simplest thing in the world. He drives as though he could as well be dreaming. If someone cuts him off or won’t let him out or we’re stuck in traffic coming home from school, he doesn’t care. He turns his CD on. His favourite band in the world is Simple Minds. His favourite album is Street Fighting Years and he plays it, non-stop, from 1 – 11.
It’s not his favourite, but he doesn’t mind ‘Belfast Child’. He drums his fingers on the wheel, keeping time with the songs, and he moves his head but it’s all, always, so out of time. He speaks the words along to the singing.
I didn’t know he was going to die. Nobody did.
He drives and Bernie’s loud in the back of the car.
I call him Michael Madigan as though that makes him Not My Dad. I’m sorry about it, but it puts distance between us. He ended up paralysed but I can’t afford to be too.
He nods along, erratically, to music that’s neverending, to Track 11 as it becomes Track 1, over and over, again and again, driving us home and home and home.
I can’t stop thinking about Anatomy. There are dozens of faces there, cold, like at a wake, turned to face me from their tables and I am supposed to say: I can identify the submandibular gland, poke and point, as though that is normal and healthy and good.
I look at my hands and I see Michael Madigan’s. Freckles, chewed nails. His hands, turned over, had palms of calloused skin. He used to have a wedding band, before it wouldn’t fit him anymore.
It’s Friday. Bernie goes into school but I don’t get up. I have some lectures but I’m not going in. There’s a block of lectures called Communication Skills starting this week. We’re to be taught Active Listening: nodding, saying sorry, expressing empathy. We’re to be taught to hide the fact we’ve cut open bodies. We’re to be taught how to cover up what we’ve done.
This week coming, on the days we don’t have Active Listening & Communication Skills, we will cut into a person, peel back their skin and work down to the fat (adipose tissue). I think of the rooms (fridges), all their fragmented wakes. I’m scared that I’ll do it. I’m scared that I won’t mind.
Bernie gets home at four but she doesn’t come find me.
When my mum gets in, they talk, and then my mum comes up the stairs, taking them slowly. She opens my door and stands at it awkwardly. She says, Bernie said you were up here. Have you gotten up today?
I say, Mm.
She says, How’re you doing, anyway? Bernie’s told me she’s worried.
There are really long pauses when we speak to each other, like a time delay as we reach each other’s continents or the time-lag needed to run messages through translators.
I say, It’s gross, I guess. It’s heavy. All these bodies and heads and you’re not allowed to be bothered.
My mum says, Jesus Christ, Jackie. Is that it? It’s your course?
You don’t like it, she says, shrugs. Well, it was your bloody choice.
I go downstairs later to make beans on toast. She and Bernie are watching a DVD on her laptop, each with one half a pair of white earphones. It looks like the Princess and the Frog on the screen. Bernie’s kind of a baby like that.
She tries to crack, sometimes, that she’s named after Bernie Sanders. She has his book (Outsider in the White House). To be fair to her, she shares some of his facial expressions. (To be fair to her, she thinks all people are people/deserve things like Rights.)
Nobody can ever have believed her. There aren’t many socialists in our part of the city. But there aren’t many Catholics either. Who’d ever name a child after Bernadette?
Mum said once that it was Dad’s idea. Jackie was his dad, but it was her idea to name me after him. When Bernie was born, it was he had all the ideas. He really liked Bernadette. He couldn’t even explain why.
There are things about the saint that Bernie found out on Wikipedia: she didn’t know any French until she was 13; she spoke Occitan (Bernie said, A Minority Language Queen).
But we don’t believe Michael Madigan meant the saint at all. He meant Bernadette Devlin, whether Mum knew it or not: Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.
She was twenty-one and expelled from her Uni for her work in the Civil Rights Movement here.
She was imperative, says Bernie. She was key.
These Bernies are part of how she sees herself. I think it’s important. She holds her Bernies in palms outstretched, like the icons of Jesus have him carry holes in his hands.
She needs them like Mum needs her. Mum’d have hated only me.
For example, when there was the leak that wrecked Michael Madigan’s vinyl, and Mum cried for so long that she was almost dehydrated, and she called it The Flood, and she said bleak things like, Why me?, it was Bernie who was good at rubbing her back and saying, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I am.
I couldn’t do that. Because the vinyl itself is plastic, so it was unharmed. I know the covers were ruined and they started to mould and that was hard because those were the sleeves that he used to hold, that Mum was always going on about him being so careful with, and he’d moved all of them with them from student house to flat to this one, and they held traces of him on that maybe aren’t anywhere else.
But the actual vinyl is plastic, and it’s okay.
We still have the music that he wanted to listen to, that he paid for with his money and chose out of the shop.
And she called it The Flood, which it just wasn’t, and couldn’t be, not in any objective sense, though nothing with regards to Michael Madigan is objective.
We cleared out his study, finally, after that.
It took a long time.
I sleep there now.
What Michael Madigan died from was this really weird wasting disease. It’s so rare I don’t think it’s got a name except, like, Syndrome X. It was just something, some gene, some misfolded protein, that ate all his muscles up inside out and then, when he couldn’t move, ate up his brain.
At first, it looked like there wasn’t much wrong, and there wasn’t really, except that his hands shook and sometimes he fell going down the steep stairs. That was what he went to the GP about. He thought he’d need meds/maybe glasses.
But then his body was just like a doll’s, lax and unmoving, and he had no weight, no fat, nothing but bones and joints popping out and the plastic tube that stuck out from his stomach, and then it was like, he didn’t even know who we were. He looked at things but he didn’t see them.
There were things that couldn’t be proven without his input, so it was like: is he blind? Can he hear us? If I hold his hand and I squeeze it until it’s warm, can he feel that? Does he exist in that body anymore?
It’s nice to think that he could. It’s nice to think that he was thinking things about himself and about us, saying into himself, I love you, when we told him goodnight.
But I don’t really believe that. I never did. If he could have spoken, if he still had thoughts, I think they would have been like Bernie sleep-talking: nothing any of us could comprehend.
Bernie’s eyes are puffy when she’s just woken up. She groans. But she gets out of bed because she’s coming with me. We walk into town and get the bus from the centre. It’s going to take an hour and a half going out. I text Shauna, and she meets us at the bus stop when we get into the town. She’s made her sons get out of the car. Boys, she says, these are your cousins!, and she beams at us as though none of us have ever met.
Wow! says Bernie. You’re so big!
Nine, says Shauna, like it’s a miracle.
We have met them before, but we don’t see them often. They were three when Michael died, so they won’t remember.
Shauna calls Bernie Bernadette.
We get into her car and she drives us home.
Her house is rural and new. It’s big in that way which is kind of needless. For example, it has lots of granite in the kitchen, and tarmac on the driveway, and a tap with water that comes out boiling (things that are ugly and very expensive). But Shauna is nice. She talks a lot. She says, What’ll youse have to eat? Some toast? Butter? God, it’s awful early.
She talks so much that it starts to move over me, and Bernie shoves me because I’m not answering questions.
Did you want to see the farm, Jackie? Shauna repeats.
She’s very nice.
I say, Yeah.
She nods. You’ll enjoy seeing round it again, I’m sure.
Shauna’s husband Roy gets in. Shauna says he’s been golfing. He smiles, but he doesn’t bother making small talk (things like saying: Hello). Shauna asks if he’s free to Babysit The Boys and he hesitates.
When she’s finally let go, she drives me and Bernie. Bernie sits in the front, which makes Shauna laugh for some reason, and I sit behind her, looking at Shauna through the diagonal.
She talks a lot, even when she’s driving. We pass new-build houses that she says were never there before. A house in every field now, she says, in a tone like she doesn’t herself live in a new build sat in an old field.
It’s been so long since we’ve been up here that I don’t see it coming and the turn-off is sudden. Shauna parks up on grass and says, We’ll walk on up.
She waits for me and Bernie to get out of the car, talks about bugs on her windscreen, about how there are barely any now. Used to be in September your screen would be smoky with them, she says. But I guess you guys don’t remember that.
Bernie shakes her head.
Shauna sighs. Well, my boys are big into their science. They say when the bugs go, we all go. And that’s that.
We follow her up the hill. Me and Bernie aren’t in the right shoes. Shauna points at Roy’s cattle in the next field over. She says that this used to be meadow, but the land is all rushes now and she doesn’t know why.
We keep walking. There are two bent-over trees with no leaves, and two falling down out-buildings, and then what’s left of the house. From this distance, it looks like the roof is green, but then we get closer and it’s lichen/moss/rotting roof tiles.
It’s a bungalow. The windows are smashed and the front door is broke open. I go up to the door. The hall takes a sharp right. There’s a Sacred Heart of Jesus looking back at me, an old red lamp beneath it that used to glow red.
The wind is fairly loud and brutal. It’s cold.
Bernie talks to Shauna, and I can hear in her tone that she’s angry with me. She asks Shauna about the house.
She says, Was this not quite small for all of you?
Shauna says, Oh God, yeah. Of course. Sure, the four of us were in one room for the longest time, and then when we were too grown for that, me and Kate were put into the room with our parents and the boys had the other room. It was always two to a bed.
They talk about small things. Bernie wants to know when they got a TV, and did they know their neighbours. I wait until it seems like there is no time left and then I say it, I say: When they were interned, Jackie and Felix—
Shauna says, at almost exactly the same time: I don’t remember, love. Honestly, Jackie, I don’t.
Bernie’s staring at me. It’s so cold.
Nobody says anything.
I’m very loud inside my own head. I think of people (innocent) dragged out of houses, apartments, red-brick terraces, driven away down old lanes to internment camps. I think: Jackie and Felix. Michael Madigan.
I want to meet them. This is home, isn’t it? This is where we all come from. So why aren’t they here? Why’s there nobody here?
Shauna says, There was one night when we were in the car and your dad was driving. It was after he’d gone to the Tech but he was up for the weekend. It was me, Kate, your dad, and a friend of mine. We got stopped at a checkpoint and they made him get out. It was raining. They made him strip right down to his pants.
Shauna says, They just thought it was funny. He didn’t speak to us after. He couldn’t.
Bernie says, Mum told me about, like, a night raid? Soldiers woke everyone up and took your parents outside. Dad told her about it.
Shauna says, With their big guns. They think they’re so brave. They do it to mess with your head. She says, And doesn’t it work?
Which is as close to what happened to Felix as she’s willing to get.
I stand very still. The wind is angry. There’s nobody left who can answer my questions. So how can I tell them that I still feel it? They’re here, inside me, clots, lumps, valves in my heart that never quite close, things unspoken as though that makes them unseen.
I look at the house (horrible windows, broken door) and I see British soldiers. I look at that Jesus (I hear prayers/I see lights).
Bernie is saying, And have you read about what the Brits did in Kenya? You cannot imagine it. You literally can’t.
She stops kind of awkwardly. She says, Jackie, what’s wrong?
Shauna says, Oh, Jackie. Oh, Jackie, love.
She comes over to hug me but she can’t reach very high.
I think Bernie will say something (Gross!) but she doesn’t.
Shauna says: It’s hard, pet. I know it is.
She’s so nice.
It’s sad seeing it like this, she says.
I say, Yeah.
I don’t know what I expected.
There was a gene, a misfolded protein, something inside him that ate him up. Does it live here? Did it follow him into the city? Why am I thinking about him?
It’s all like this: wasted, rotted, reedy, broke. There can be nothing rewound or undone.
Shauna says, You’ll stay for a good lunch, at least. It’s cold up here, you know. She says quietly, like someone other than us might hear her: It’s a bit morbid.
When he was driving us places, he’d make us spell random words. He’d say Combine Harvester or Industrial Estate or Pedestrian. Bernie was shit at it but then she was always younger than me.
I had a teacher at primary school who told us that we had to love God more than our families. I took it to heart; that is, it worried me. I asked Michael Madigan if he loved God, and he hesitated.
I want to know more than anybody can tell me. Was he happy? Was he content? Was he satisfied with his life when it started ending? Was he angry? Was he angry about Jackie, and Felix, and internment, the night the soldiers stripped him with his sisters in the car, the night they broke in, every night there’s ever been when things were horrible and wrong? Who was he? Who does that make me?
Did he miss me?
He had a beard and freckles and big dark eyebrows. His hands and his arms were not pale at all. When he got sick, Mum kept his face shaved. He didn’t look anything like himself.
Did he know how fucking shit this would be, with him being dead forever and ever, there never being a day of its easing, never one hour when I can see him again, when he can just sit on the sofa and do my head in and for once in my life, I can breathe?
I said I was thinking of him and Bernie said, Why?
I remember more than her, but that just makes it lonely.
Mum used to be melted at Michael a lot but also, most of the time, she was joking. She said his name in this certain way, like, she’d kind of laugh to herself.
He wasn’t old. Even now, he’s not old.
There was a day when Shauna came up to see him. She didn’t bring Roy and she didn’t bring the Boys. It was when he was sick but we didn’t fully understand how.
Shauna was very nice. She said, Paula, I’ve just been listening to this beautiful song in the car. I could only think of you. Here, give it a listen.
She passed it round to all of us. The song was called ‘Song Of Bernadette’, by Jennifer Warnes. It was one of those very Catholic songs, like that’d be sung by a part-time choir at mass, very warm, as in, nothing really at all.
When we had all listened, Shauna said, Here, I’ll give it to Michael.
Mum said, Well. She said, Okay. She put the earphones into his ears.
I said, He’s going to hate it. He loves Simple Minds.
Jesus, Jackie, said Mum. He’s such a Debbie Downer, she said to Shauna.
They sat down at the table. Mum’d made us all tea.
Shauna talked about her work. She talked about Roy. She talked about the farm: Roy’d spotted some reeds in one field; he didn’t know what they were from.
I’ve been racking my brains, said Shauna. But there just never were any reeds there before.
She talked about the Boys. They were still very little, but growing in accordance with what the GP expected. Mum asked if Shauna would eat a few Birds Eye potato waffles and Shauna said she wouldn’t say no, Paula, she wouldn’t say no!
By the time we remembered about Shauna’s music playing into Dad’s ears, he had listened to the song called ‘Song Of Bernadette’ eleven times. He would have been spitting. He hates that kind of song. He would have been saying, For fuck’s sake, Shauna, you call that music!
He would have been saying, I’ll show you music, taking out vinyl from their paper covers.
Bernie started laughing and that set me off. He’d listened to ‘Song Of Bernadette’ eleven times, we were pissing ourselves, Shauna was hands-at-her-mouth laughing.
But that was only how it started, because it turned out, actually, that it was one of those things that is funny at first but then you accidentally think about it too much and it’s horrific, it is so sad that it could make you vomit just to think about, it is literally horrible, so horribly sad.
One of the last things he ever wrote, when he couldn’t speak but could scrawl, was on a notepad in the kitchen. He couldn’t remember spelling but you could make out the words. He wrote: lok afer yorselfs.
LOK AFER YORSELFS.
Mum shredded it one morning. It was an accident.
In the car on the drive back to Shauna’s house and her Boys, Bernie sits in the front and they talk about Bernie’s friends. Bernie tells Shauna the kind of stories, rising to crescendo, that Mum loves to hear and Shauna says, Bernadette Madigan, you are only hilarious.
It makes me think about Mum and Bernie, the way that they fit together. They’re like those ornaments made in two parts: you can take Bernie away, and she’s still whole, but taking her away leaves Mum with this crater, this shape down her side where Bernie should be.
One of the things that I’ve read about Simple Minds, specifically the song called ‘Belfast Child’, is the same criticism levelled at groups like U2, who wrote about the Troubles while being, themselves, completely unaffected: that they tried on people’s trauma as a costume change, in an attempt to give their work higher meaning, to show that they cared, that their music was healing (which it wasn’t).
But I think the criticism is only valid when it comes from certain people; that is, when it comes from certain places (these six counties). Because often it seems that the criticism comes from people from elsewhere, somewhere sat tight in the Free State, also unaffected but entirely unbothered by what was happening to people who weren’t them.
It seems like it bothered them that people from Dublin and Glasgow wrote about it because it made them feel, for the first time, sitting under their skin like acne not ready to burst, that maybe they should care, and it didn’t fit with what they believed, which is that Nothing Happened In The North and It Was Their Own Fault Anyway and What’s Done Is Done And In The Past.
It’s like people unironically posting IRELAND UNFREE SHALL NEVER BE AT PEACE on Instagram on the Anniversary of the Rising, as though changing the definition of Ireland could be the same as freeing her. It’s like people my age thinking they have the right to choose to let us be Irish or not, as though that’s in their power (Bernie says: you’re a partitionist, Paula!).
I’m not saying I can’t understand why they do it. Do you think I wouldn’t pick out every clot that is knotted into me if I could?
I know it must’ve been easier not to care when the British Army shot a 15-year-old boy twice in the head/a 13-year-old girl in the Springhill Massacre/a 23-year-old, in the back, on his way to Gaelic.
I’m not stupid.
When the nurses came to see Michael Madigan, I hated it. Bernie sat on Mum’s lap, and how was that fair? They had each other. It was alright for them, when they could wrap around each other like a Celtic Knot.
When the hospice people came, I said I was sick. I said I had diarrhoea if I had to. Mum wanted me and Bernie to speak to the staff on our own so that we could say anything that was on our minds, but Bernie had this way (I think she’s forgotten) of saying all in one gulp: When is he going to die?, in the exact tone she said, What’s your name? Are you a nurse?
I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to know anything. I didn’t want to sit on the sofa while Bernie asked when my dad would die and the nurse gave her a sticker or a sweet or held her hand (I don’t know, I never went).
Shauna drops us at the bus stop. She says loud things to Bernie about school, and AS levels (they’ve bonded).
Before I get out of the car, she says: You’re awful like him, Jackie. You know, like The Quiet Man.
He’s driving me back from an eighth birthday party. It’s only me and him in the car. He says, well, Jackie-boy. Let’s see if you can pass this test.
I’m excited/kind of nervous.
He turns down the music so I can hear him clearly.
If someone came up to you and said, excuse me, sir, I’d like to buy your dog. Here is one hundred pounds. What would you say?
You wouldn’t sell Rowan?
He’s driving, and talking, and it’s all for me.
Good, he says. What about if someone wasn’t asking for money, they just really, really wanted her, needed her even, what’d you say then?
I don’t say anything.
You don’t know?
I don’t think so.
Need more context? he says. That’s good, too.
He stops looking ahead. He looks at a diagonal, straight into me.
What’re you doing, fucking about with that Anatomy stuff? he says. It’s gross. And you’re not doing it for me. Do you think I’d give a fuck about you being a doctor?
I don’t say anything.
The people are weird, he says.
Are you happy? he says. Are you content?
Michael Madigan reaches his arm out and pokes me. Jackie, he says, you don’t even remember what I sound like. You’re guessing right now.
I say, So?
I say, That’s not my fault. It’d’ve been fine if you’d just lost your voice all at once, but you did it so slowly we all kept adapting. I don’t remember what you sounded like at the start, but it’s like Mum says, boiling frogs. None of us do.
He says, I would never speak this much.
I look at him. I watch his hands on the steering wheel. Da, I say, I wish you’d tell me something.
Michael Madigan yells, Get out of the car, Paula!, and falling glass hits us with the burn of acid rain.