I was reading in bed, while Izzy leaned out the bedroom window, smoking. I could see the jut of her vertebrae through the thin fabric of her nightshirt. She was given to waving her hands about when she was angry, and the tip of her cigarette swooped and dipped in the dark, as if engaged in a mating ritual with the red light of the burglar alarm on the house opposite. ‘What are we going to do with your mother?’ she said.
‘We’re going to have lunch,’ I said.
‘You know what I mean, Tom.’ I watched her stub out her cigarette and pull the window shut. Even though she was cross, I liked that she’d said ‘we’; it suggested a shared responsibility. It reminded me of a verse I’d heard at a wedding once, something about your people will be my people.
‘I wish we weren’t going,’ she said, ‘I feel like we’re condoning something.’
‘Nobody’s condoning anything,’ I said, ‘we’re visiting my mother. We’ll have lunch, stay a couple of hours, and come home.’
‘Are you going to speak to her about what she said on the radio?’ she asked.
‘Come on, Izzy,’ I said. ‘What could I possibly say that would make any difference? She’s seventy-eight.’
Izzy had rung me at work on Wednesday afternoon. I’d been in the staff common room correcting a batch of essays on Plato’s Republic. ‘Your mother’s on the radio,’ she said, ‘being racist.’ This had surprised me; the radio bit. My mother had an aversion to talk radio. I’d thought Izzy must be mistaken, but no, I went outside to my car and tuned in, caught the end of my mother’s contribution. My mother, it turned out, was objecting to an Integration Centre for asylum seekers opening near her house in Saint Alban’s Drive. Not just my mother, but a number of her neighbours too, people whose names I hadn’t heard in years, people I hadn’t realised were still alive.
Izzy got back into bed beside me. She picked up her sketchpad and resumed where she’d left off. Her bedside lamp had a 100-watt bulb because this was how she liked to work, whether in bed or in her studio. The teeth she was drawing were human, but oversized and hyperreal. Milk teeth, adult teeth; blackened, chipped, filled.
She’d read about a fire in a refugee camp in Calais where the bodies had to be identified from dental records. She’d asked me to bring home half a dozen dental textbooks from the university library. Her drawings would be a visual testament, she said. I couldn’t see how this was going to help anyone, it certainly wasn’t helping her.
‘Try and get some sleep, Izzy,’ I said. ‘It’ll be a long day for us tomorrow.’
She put down her pencil. ‘I keep seeing them going up in flames, bits blown all over the place,’ she said. ‘They’d more mobility as ashes than they had as human beings. It’s like a bad cosmic joke. And everybody else just getting on with their lives, standing on particles of bone on their way to buy milk, not even realising.’
I put my arm around her, pulled her close. ‘Please,’ I said. ‘Let’s talk about something else.’
She raised her chin from my chest and looked at me. ‘Remember when the students made a bonfire in Gallow’s Field?’ she said. ‘I’d left the sheets out on the line and they were covered in black specks and I had to wash them all over again.’
The bonfire had happened the summer we’d moved in together. She’d come running in from the yard with an armful of sheets, more sheets draped over her shoulders. She was wearing sandals that evening, and I was reminded of Queen Dido from the Aeneid which was on the undergrad syllabus that semester. The white cotton studded with microscopic particles of burnt tyres the wind had carried across town. The ruined bed linen, the flush of temper in her cheeks. It all seemed like yesterday although it was over two years ago. I waited for her to say something else about the bonfire but she pulled away from me and switched off the lamp. ‘I wish we weren’t going to your mother’s,’ she said.
I tried to sleep, but images of charred enamel flickered behind my eyelids. Six of the refugees who died in the fire at Calais were children. As a young boy, it had been one of my chores to clean out the grate in the kitchen before going to school. I’d poke through the hard bits left among the ashes, imagining them as fragments of human bone, because I knew that turf came from bogs and I’d seen the bog men and women curled all leathery in their cases in the National Museum.
We were already on the road the next morning when my mother rang to say a neighbour would be joining us for lunch and bringing her small grandson. It was the child’s birthday, and she thought I’d like to know in case I wanted to bring a present. I didn’t ask her why the kid was spending his birthday at her house. And on Dad’s anniversary, too. I’m an only child, and for the past five years, since Dad died, I’ve gone home to spend the day with my mother. Usually, it was just the two of us, though last year, I’d brought Izzy. Dad would have liked Izzy.
I took the slip road off the motorway and drove to the large toy shop in the business park on the way. ‘You know what the worst thing is?’ Izzy said, as we walked down an aisle full of board games. ‘The worst thing is we’ll have to sit there listening to her telling us how she’s not racist. Talking about that black woman in her book club who’s a radiographer.’ I considered the day ahead. It was easy to picture several other even worse things.
Izzy was a few steps ahead of me, reaching out randomly to shelves like one of those coin-operated claw machines. Her hands advanced and withdrew, her fingers hovering above toys, picking them up, dropping them again. She stopped in front of a wall of staring, brittle-lashed dolls. ‘Wouldn’t you just love to bring this?’ she said, holding up a black doll with braids.
‘Don’t even…’ I said, but she was already laughing and putting the doll back down.
Before she could suggest anything else, I grabbed a book about dinosaurs and took it to the till.
I’d suggested to my mother that I reserve a table at a restaurant, but she’d said no. ‘I’m rostered for the day,’ she’d said, and I tried not to think about what that might mean. We drove west, Izzy quieter than usual in the passenger seat. As we were passing through Oughterard she said: ‘Your mother really shouldn’t have told them to go back to their own country.’
‘She didn’t actually say that, to be fair,’ I said. ‘The presenter asked her if she wanted them to go back to their own country, and she said she thought that that would be best.’ I didn’t need to look at Izzy to know that she was fixing me with a raised eyebrow.
‘There must be some way you can diplomatically have the conversation with her,’ she said.
As diplomatic missions go, I thought I’d rather be sent to talk Hannibal out of the Second Punic War. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘my mother’s thoughts are not your thoughts. It’s not your responsibility to change them. My mother is allowed to have her views.’
‘And what about the children in refugee camps?’ Izzy said. ‘What views are they allowed have?’
I wondered if I could pretend that there was something wrong with the car, one of those noise-in-the-engine things that more mechanically minded people are always hearing, but I don’t seem to have an ear for, not until it’s too late. I could claim that I heard something now, a generic sort of complaint, maybe a ticking. I could pull over onto the hard shoulder, spend a minute or two under the bonnet, and then we could turn around and go home. If it was any other day I might have done just that.
At Saint Alban’s, there was a barricade of cars across the entrance to the proposed Integration Centre. I parked in front of my mother’s house. ‘I still feel we should be taking a stand,’ Izzy said.
‘How, exactly?’ I said.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘I just feel… grubby, that’s all.’ Her eyes were on the line of cars. ‘It feels like we’re passing a picket or something.’
‘What picket?’ I said. ‘Do you see any picket? There’s no picket.’
‘It’s like I’m passing one in my head,’ she said.
‘Things that happen in your head don’t count,’ I said, and then, because she was giving me that familiar narrowed stare, ‘I mean things that happen in one’s head don’t count.’ When she made no reply I said: ‘Listen. Can we just go in?’ because already, I’d noticed the curtains twitching in the front room.
‘Promise me if she starts on again you’ll say something?’ Izzy said, and I managed a half-hearted nod as I got out of the car.
My mother opened the door and hurried us inside. In the kitchen, she introduced us to a wiry woman named Rosie in a lilac tracksuit who, she said, was working on ‘the campaign’. The woman was operating an apple corer in a way that meant business. Something stirred on the sofa and a small boy of about five emerged from behind the screen of a tablet. When I handed over the book we‘d picked up on the way, he didn’t exactly whoop with joy, but he didn’t immediately put it down either. He climbed onto a chair at the kitchen table and began to turn the pages.
We sat down to lunch almost immediately. The table was set with the silver cutlery my parents had received as a wedding gift, and which was only brought out at Christmas and, in recent years, on my father’s anniversary. My mother, I could tell, was making an effort. She admired Izzy’s hair, said it was much nicer now that it wasn’t so short. She complimented her on not being a vegetarian. The child quietly read his book, pausing to nibble at a slice of apple. It was possible that it might be a pleasant lunch after all, or if not pleasant exactly, then at least with an absence of out and out hostilities. I wished I knew how to convey to Izzy that my mother was a good person, generous, and always quick to donate to collections for the poor in Africa, or Mongolia, or tsunami victims in Indonesia. It wasn’t like she was rounding people up in trucks.
‘I was telling Phyllis about our problem,’ my mother said, taking her seat opposite me. ‘Phyllis is the radiographer in my book club. She’s black, you know.’
I sensed Izzy tense beside me, but before she could say anything, the doorbell rang.
‘That’ll be our man with the petition,’ Rosie said.
My mother went to the door and returned with a man in a Barbour raincoat and fedora. From under his coat the man produced several sheets of A4 paper stapled together. The pages were lined, each line bearing a number and a scrawled signature. ‘I got most of the estates on this side covered before the rain started,’ he said. ‘There’s just yourselves and a couple of houses on the avenue left.’ He spoke half proudly, half shyly, like a child handing over a school report.
‘Good man yourself,’ Rosie said, signing her name on one of the few remaining lines.
The man blushed. ‘Just doing my bit.’
‘This is excellent timing,’ my mother said, adding her signature. ‘My son is visiting, so he can sign too.’ She pushed the petition across the table.
I stared at it, wordlessly. Izzy kicked my shin, hard, and I registered the pain as if from a distance, as if it were happening in another body and my job was simply to monitor the gauges. When I didn’t react, Izzy said: ‘Tom, don’t we have something we wanted to tell your mother?’
‘Oh?’ My mother’s gaze flitted to Izzy’s left hand, then away again. I couldn’t tell if she was disappointed or not.
On the petition were the names of so many people I’d once known, people I’d gone to school with and grown up with, a who’s who of my childhood and adolescence. There was Leslie Beecher. Was she still living here? I’d have thought she’d have escaped by now. The three McCauley brothers. No surprise there, those boys were never going anywhere. Kevin and Janet Donnelly—hadn’t they adopted two little girls from China? ‘Don’t spend your youth at it,’ my mother said. ‘This man will want to get home and dry off. He’s on leafleting duty at 6.’
I thought that if this were happening on Twitter, it would all be so much easier. I could simply block my mother.
Rosie offered me the pen and I accepted with a grimace.
‘Tom…’ Izzy said, warningly, and her boot connected, again, with my shin. It occurred to me for the first time that I’d chosen a woman very like my mother. Both had the same intensity of focus; both summoned the same zeal in defence of what they believed. It was unfortunate that they were on different sides.
‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Izzy,’ my mother said, ‘But I’d rather you didn’t sign, if that’s all right. Seeing how you’re not a local.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it,’ Izzy said.
I have never been good at thinking under pressure. Thinking from a distance is what I do best, ideally from a vantage point of several thousand years. I could tell you anything you want to know, for instance, about the first performance of Euripides’ Medea. Bringing the petition close to my face, I adopted an exaggerated squint. ‘I need better light,’ I said.
My mother was pushing back her chair, reaching for the light switch, but I was already on my feet and headed for the hall, taking the sheets of paper with me. I could hear her calling me to come back, that the bulb was gone out there, that she’d been meaning to fix it. I kept going, along the hall, and on out through the front door. Walking down the garden path I felt rain on my face. It must have been raining all the time we were at lunch, and now water was pooling in the gravel beds of my mother’s rockery, and in the potholes of Saint Alban’s Drive.
At the gate, I stopped. I heard my mother’s voice from the doorway, telling me to come in out of the rain, that I’d catch my death. It occurred to me that I could let the pages fall. They would soak up rain like blotting paper. Or maybe they’d be carried away by the wind, ink leaking from one line into another as they cartwheeled down the road.
Two women came into view carrying placards and candles in jars. They were too far away to tell if they were for the Integration Centre, or against it. The wind gusted down St Alban’s Drive and the candlelight danced and flickered, and the women put their hands over the tops of the jars as if to stop the flames escaping.
When I was a boy, my father had taught me to twist newspapers for the fire, and this was what I did now with the pages in my hand. Behind me, my mother was shouting from the doorway, asking what was I doing, did I want to get myself locked up? I’ve never smoked, but since meeting Izzy, I always keep a lighter on me. She’s forever losing hers. I took one from my pocket now. It sparked, but didn’t catch, and so I tried again, and this time the flame held. I could hear my mother telling Izzy that my father, too, had been a bit like that, there was a streak on that side of the family, it was bound to out every so often.
The women with the candles were drawing closer. One whispered something in her companion’s ear, and they crossed to the other side of the road. The wind blew ash into my face and hair, and onto my good white shirt. Izzy had told me once that every lungful of air contains molecules of the last breath of everyone who has gone before. I stood on St Alban’s Drive, on my father’s anniversary, and breathed in deeply. I thought how sad it was that he never got to meet Izzy. And I thought of Dido on her funeral pyre, how the flames were seen far out on the Mediterranean, how something of her must have carried on the wind to Aeneas, even if he never knew it.
‘St Alban’s Drive’, read by Marty Rea, was first broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 in February 2021 as part of the SPOKEN STORIES: Independence series, which was commissioned by Clíodhna Ní Anluain. All of the stories in the series are available to listen back to on the RTÉ website. ‘St Alban’s Drive’ is available here.