He loved to look after her. He saw it as his responsibility. He was small, yes, but she was smaller. Everything and everyone else towered over them. He knew how she felt like no one else could. 

Their mother saw that he took his responsibilities seriously and she approved. They were let run wild. The house was big enough to roam through and that was before you even got outside. They lived in the countryside near a lake. She wore his old clothes up until they were ten, twelve years old. 

The small school in the village was the first place he felt that maybe he was different. He was frightened when he started, and then bored and hemmed in as he grew. She felt the same, two years behind him, and on the day she started junior infants he was sad to see how she cried, but also relieved to see she had no time for any of this either. He wanted to get home where they could float sticks in potholes in the driveway and bounce pennies off milk gone rubbery in teacups under creaky beds in never-used rooms. Their mother didn’t bother much with housework and so the house softened around them, breathing and exhaling, rattling in the wind in winter, full of pools of sun and shadow in summer. When he went to other people’s houses, his head would ring, the spaces were so small and all he could feel in his nose was cleaning fluid and furniture polish. 

He was so happy to live where he lived with the people he lived with. He felt sorry for the other kids in their small normal houses, other kids who didn’t want to spend all their time with their brothers and sisters, other kids who wanted all the time to go to other places and to be with other people. Other kids with their mams who worked and their dads who worked, not like his mam who never worked and his dad who was retired now, and more like a grandad than a dad but that was fine by him, he didn’t have any grandads so his dad was like dad and grandad both. 

And he and his sister never had to worry about making a mess or being quiet, there was space and time enough for them to do pretty much as they pleased, and who cared if sometimes the house was cold because they couldn’t afford to heat it or that their TV was black-and-white and had only the two channels. He felt so lucky to have all of that and it was puzzling but also funny to him that no one seemed to see how lucky he was. When the other kids made fun of him for the holes in his jumper or not knowing who He-Man was, he just looked out the window towards home, the big house up the road and down the lane. 

A blackbird in the hawthorn in the spring. That’s what she wrote about in her essay. He remembered that she was called up in front of the school to read it. It was just one page long, homework they had been given, and he of course had not even tried to do it. Their school was so small that when he was in sixth class and she in fourth they were taught by the same teacher, and that was when he realized that not only was she better able to do all the school things than he was, but that she cared about all of the school things. And other people admired that she cared. 

Her plump, dimpled face, brown and freckly from all the time outside, flushed with delight as Mrs Carson called her name. She won the English Prize that year and she told their daddy it was the first time someone in fourth class had won it. Their mam was so delighted she poured sherry into tiny dusty glasses and they all drank some, just a thimble-sized amount for him and her; to my little poet, their mother said by way of a toast and their dad grinned and clapped. 

After that, it all changed. He went to secondary school and the black clouds came in and didn’t lift. It was an all-boys’ school. He was short and quiet and uninterested in team sports and lacked academic talent. He didn’t know how important it was. His parents had forgotten to tell him. They seemed to think that all that mattered was getting on with your own business. They had forgotten to test his spellings, do tables. And now it was too late. He was ashamed of his poor handwriting, he was impatient with chunks of prose, numbers swam before him on the page. He was in the lower stream which was full of boys from the town, boys who called him Landlord because of his big house and his mam who had gone to university and talked different. Landlord’s coming, they’d say and they’d start banging the lids of their desks because they knew it drove him wild, he was frightened of loud noises. He could not cry so he’d bark, bark like a dog and then howl and then the teacher would come in and look at him with intense dislike and he’d be sent to the head and he’d sit there and look at the head who looked back at him and said, you’ve no excuse for this kind of carry-on, no excuse at all. 

And with her, it was just the opposite. She soared through the girls’ school and he heard it whispered more than once, more than twice, that it was good for her to be away from him, that she had her own friends now, that it was all much healthier. But they never stopped being kind to each other. They never fought, they still went on their long, quiet walks and when he started smoking weed she happily joined in even though he knew she didn’t really like it—it wasn’t her style, she didn’t like the way it made her mind bend—but he did and that was the start of it. 

And in the dark tumult of the years that followed it was only her who kept him breathing, who kept him alive really. And even when he went through the phase—and it was a long, terrible phase—of blaming her for everything (if only she’d stayed on his side! Why did she have to go and be happy in the world, why couldn’t she have rejected it like he did, why did she have to be such a success, a doctor it turned out, a doctor like their mother’s father had been), even in those years, when he actually saw her, when she would come home and they’d walk down to the lake, he realized he couldn’t hate her. When he was with her all of the hatred and frustration that marked his days eased at least a little, but she never stayed very long; he heard her say once to a friend on the phone when she thought no one could hear that she couldn’t bear it, it was too sad with Daddy getting on and with Mam more dreamy and absent than ever and the place so dirty, and with him— and she just said his name and stopped speaking as if his name were enough, as if his name stood for all kinds of sadness and regret. 

He was numb and resigned to it all now, and it was the way it was. One day, after their dad had died and he was rooting through some old boxes, looking for some tools, he found a stash of papers and in the stash which he had started looking through, thinking he might find a bank statement revealing some secret money, he found the Blackbird essay. And he read it and it was actually about two birds, he’d no recollection of there being two birds. And even though it was a silly, childish story, it amazed him how he had not recalled that there had been two birds in it, one serious, the other a joker, and so he called her up and they talked about it and laughed together as equals for the first time in many years, perhaps the first time ever. 

In her practice, she saw many children who struggled. And so she naturally thought of him, and what would have or could have been different for him, if he had encountered an adult like her when he was a child. 

Their mother would have resisted diagnosis, their mother did not believe in labels or in trapping children among the complexities of adult neuroses. Her mother’s gardens ran wild and she always boasted about how many more bees she had because of it. 

In London, to get additional funding and help for children who might struggle in school, many parents sought to get a diagnosis of some kind of learning disability for their child. It was often understood by these parents that their child was not ‘really’ whatever it was they felt they must say they were. And so the meaning of the words stretched and sometimes she worried they would stretch beyond all sense entirely. It seemed to her a ludicrous approach but she could not think of a better one. And so she played her part. 

Her own children were regular, as far as it went—two girls, long hair, battles over tangles in the morning, intense friendships. They spent a lot of time outdoors in well-maintained public parks, always supervised, parents shrieking the minute they lost sight of them for even a moment. She and he had roamed outside alone for hour upon hour at the same age but she could not fight against an entire culture so she performed the same fear whenever her girls wandered out of sight too, she even felt it. But the deeper fears she really felt around them were different; they were to do with a sapping of meaning, of a lack of viscerality, a lack of something she could not identify, a lack of a lack—what was that fear next to the fear of a paedophile or a boy with a knife? 

You don’t know you’re born, she heard her mother say, in her head. 

But in fact her mother did not say things like that, in regards to the children. Her mother felt very sorry for them, and she felt very sorry for her. Her mother liked to come to London, but she did not enjoy its parenting culture. Too many children in museums, she said. A museum is for people who need to be reminded how to look at things. Children already know how to look at things. 

It was easier when they went home. She had not visited very much over the years, but as the girls got bigger, she began to find that going there was the perfect holiday for them. It was too hard to try and be different in that house, so she let herself be, she took baths in the middle of the day with a paperback while the girls wandered off. Amuse yourselves was the phrase she threw at them back in London and there they whined intolerably, but here they didn’t need to be told twice. 

Once, a friend of hers drunkenly said that she would be too nervous leaving her children with an as-far-as-they-knew celibate uncle such as her brother was. The friend was totally pissed and she wasn’t, but she pretended that she was so that she could tell her to fuck off. This friend had never met her brother, this friend said she was sorry but that it was clear from the statistics that uncles did things like this. Especially ones with difficulties like the ones her brother reportedly had. 

She recalled then that her brother at age seventeen had had a love affair with a thirty-four-year-old woman from the village, a woman whose marriage had broken up, a woman whose own child was not much younger than the boy she was sleeping with. 

She had caught them in the woman’s car, down a country lane narrow as a tunnel, the car parked in front of a rusting gate, sunk amid the riotous green of midsummer. It had been raining, she had the sudden shocking sense of them as animals writhing in the silvery profusion of the hedgerows. She saw the woman’s face through the windscreen, a dreadful contortion, she was fifteen herself and had known people did things like this but had not yet begun to believe it. 

He told her all about it five or so years later, one late night sitting up at the kitchen table, drinking fortified wine and chain-smoking. The woman had been sweet to him, and lonely, and he had been kind to her, and even lonelier. But then the husband came back and there had been an altercation, he laughed as he said that, and there was a lot of pride in that laugh. He still saw the woman sometimes but they crossed the street to avoid one another, yet another reason to stay out of the village, he’d said. 

She thought about telling the drunken friend that—to prove her brother was not a weirdo, to show that he was capable of ordinary love, of feeling and inspiring ordinary, transgressive passion, but she couldn’t be bothered. Instead she just left the parenting WhatsApp group through which she knew this woman, without any word of explanation to the other women in the group, hoping that they would feel the hatred and wrath that she had for the paedo-obsessive, hoping they would learn in time how ugly that woman was. 

She came home for a month the year her marriage ended. It had faded away like a photograph left in the sun. They had lived in a large semi-detached house in a prosperous suburb built in the early 1920s. The house had stained-glass windows tucked into triangular eaves, generous door frames and the trees in the garden were large and wide-branched. It had appreciated indecently in the years during which they owned it, and thank god it had because she couldn’t face working full-time any more, she was too tired. They sold it, and she wept like a baby the day they all moved out, but then she and the girls moved into a modest seventies flat in a less fashionable borough and she never thought about that house much again. 

She had come to realize that there was nothing more she could get in life that was going to make her happy. She had her daughters, she had a job that could always make her money, she had her peace of mind. Her husband had met someone else and she didn’t mind particularly, she would have stayed together for another five years or so, until the children were a bit older, but he insisted that he couldn’t live like this any more, that he had to follow his heart. She was amused by these remarks. And envious. How marvellous to feel that strongly about anything. But she couldn’t shake the sense of him as ridiculous, as some kind of stroppy teenager; she half-expected him to start lecturing her on her politics. 

They flew home via Belfast and rented a car and drove down South; the Britishness of the North visible and bare and fragile and tense, always such a weird contrast to the relaxed, self-deprecating version she lived among in London. She was always relieved to get over the border and then off the main roads to the country roads and then eventually to the turning that led to another turning and then down the lane. The girls in the back on the iPads she had resisted for so long, thinking they should spend hours looking out car windows like she had done in her childhood, but then feeling like a miserable old bitch she relented, and they reached the end of their seven-hour journey with barely a word exchanged between them. This was the first time they had done this journey without their father. 

Her mother disappeared into the village a few minutes after they arrived, mumbling something about milk. Her brother welcomed them with a shy smile and broad hugs for the girls. He looked at her directly and she could sense the way her failing at something so epic as marriage changed things between them. She would have felt angered by this—why should she have to be humiliated by life for him to be nice to her—but that would have required an energy she had lost, perhaps for ever. 

He had never liked her husband and he didn’t bother asking much about what had happened. He just asked if she was all right, and she said, yes, surprisingly, and they had both laughed at that. That laugh seemed to put them on the same side again. 

He had fashioned a place for them to eat outdoors: a simple corrugated-iron roof nailed onto some branches. On their second evening there, they all sat quietly at a wooden table also made by him, eating hungrily in the endless dusk. Behind them, the long grass teemed with frogs and insects. Her eldest daughter started weeping silently. Daddy, she whispered. Daddy. 

She felt a surge of irritation. She knew what Daddy would say if he were here—he would say something like shanty-town chic in relation to the cobbled-together shelter, he would tell her that he couldn’t sleep at night for the dust in the house. He had never liked coming here, and he had used the unease she felt about it to legitimize his criticism, his snobbery. He was from a prosperous English family, his mother had been a researcher for the BBC, his father the headmaster of an independent boys’ school. Their home was immaculate, they had many friends, they had a house in France. 

Her child continued to weep. Her mother, late to the table as usual, wandered in, wiping her nose on her sleeve. This was one of those habits that had always infuriated her. 

She stood up and ran. She ran towards the lake. The soft rain misted around her face, and the low hills on the far side of the valley were still. She felt like she could reach over and touch them. 

She sat and waited for her brother on the gravelly shore where they used to smoke together. But the evening gathered and it got dark and he didn’t come. She felt weary. She had done so much work to keep herself together, and it was painful to be reminded that keeping herself together was only the smallest part of her job now. She would never be able to ensure her children were okay. She would never know what it felt like to be them. 

When she got back to the house, she was annoyed to find everyone still sitting under the corrugated-iron roof, with the dinner things still on the table in front of them. It was long past bedtime, did she have to do everything herself? She recalled all the times she had put herself to bed as a child, she recalled all the times she had wished for a more normal mother, a more confined and protected existence. She didn’t like to recall that feeling, it made her seem weak and ordinary. She had fled wildness for order and she didn’t know if there was any coming back from that. She didn’t know if she wanted to, or if she should want to. 

A torch hung off one of the branches that held up the roof, shining a dim light across the table. Her youngest child was fast asleep in her grandmother’s lap; a tiny spider crawled over the new freckles on her nose. Her brother was making shadow puppets with his hands, and getting the still-awake daughter to guess the animal shapes he made. 

She slid back into her chair feeling mutinous but humbled, like a scolded child returning from the principal’s office. She and her brother looked at each other for a moment, and her daughter squealed, eagle! and he nodded. Her daughter turned to her and there was delight in her face, the tears from earlier dried and forgotten. 

Mammy, she said. It’s your turn now. 

Niamh Mulvey

Niamh Mulvey is a London-based writer, editor and writing coach from Kilkenny. She has previously been published by The Stinging Fly, Banshee, Southword, Little Atoms, the Irish Times, the Bookseller and Unherd. “Blackbirds” appears in her debut story collection, ‘Hearts and Bones: Love Songs for Late Youth’, which will be published by Picador in June 2022. Her first novel, ‘The Amendments’ will be published in 2023.

About Blackbirds:
I’ve been working lately on some useful feedback from my editor. Again and again she reminds me that I have a bad habit of working up towards big moments of tension or conflict in my fiction, but then backing away, like a frightened horse, refusing to depict them. My stories circle back to these moments after they’ve occurred, at which point I can write about them in detail and at length. But I find it hard—almost impossible—to narrate these moments in the present, as they’re happening to the characters. When I write scenes like this, they feel fake and tinny, as if I am trying to convince myself of something.

‘Blackbirds’ is a story about childhood, a time during which everything happens in the moment. Sometimes, I think that everything that matters to a person happens in childhood, and that we are cursed to spend the rest of our lives circling it, picking over it, trying to remember if it really was the way we thought it was. I hate the idea that it is only possible to remember things once—and that every other time thereafter we are merely remembering the memory. I hate this idea so much I fear it may be true. 

If this is true, then one antidote to this terrible lack of stable meaning is: siblings (if you have them, that is). They were there too. They also know. We can compare our knowing to theirs.

This story is not—directly, at least—inspired by my relationship to my own siblings. It’s actually inspired by a few fragments someone told me once about their sister. But that doesn’t matter, this story is not about those siblings now either.

Whatever it’s about, I think it’s a hopeful story, even though it tends to make people cry. It suggests the past as a place of discovery, one where we can find clues about the reality of the way things were. Sometimes, I think such clues can even point towards a better future, if only we can let ourselves really listen to those who were there too.

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