The Sum­mer of Wasps

Win­ning po­etry is by May’s win­ning story is by and This month’s Il­lus­tra­tion:

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Hen­nessy New Ir­ish Writ­ing Maeve McGowan

Ravel­ling, they call it. A per­son on their deathbed will start to pull and pick at their blan­ket and their clothes close to the end. When my mother started pluck­ing at her white sheets the re­spect­ful si­lence in the room in­ten­si­fied. I thought she just looked con­fused at her bed of white. White bed­ding had seemed more ap­pro­pri­ate than her usual pink and yel­low flo­ral de­signs. I re­gret it now. Why shouldn’t she have what she likes around her? I should change it. But how to sug­gest such a whim­si­cal de­tail to these Death Maidens.

I do not mean Death Maidens in an un­kind way. Old friends, aunts and car­ers who had a right to be there at the end, they looked af­ter her dur­ing her last months, so they were en­ti­tled to a piece of the most in­ti­mate mo­ment of all. I am a vis­i­tor and as such there is noth­ing for me to do. Why should there be? I was used to her leav­ings. When I was five she left in spirit, at 13 she left in body. In my twen­ties she turned up on my doorstep in Mu­nich want­ing to re­con­nect. Then there was no sign of her ex­cept for that shadow at Dad’s fu­neral.

A phone-call at work one day from the el­der aunt told me mother had been in a nurs­ing home for a while, but she was close to the end and I should come home to see her. Am­bigu­ous at best, to­tal lock­down at worst, Aunt Pat held the keys to the fam­ily fortress. Cer­berus in a house­coat. There was no point in ask­ing the ob­vi­ous ques­tion of why I had not been told she had been back on the fam­ily radar. Or maybe she had never left. Ei­ther way, the hered­i­tary tribal guilt be­gan just as I boarded the plane home.

My mother was the only one of the three sis­ters to marry. Aunt Pat was the el­dest and Aunt Joan fol­lowed in age and body. Pat led the way and Joan watched her back. If any­thing in the town needed to be in­ter­fered with, they were there. Mar­tyrs to the cause, they ob­jected to coun­cil im­prove­ments, the drama so­ci­ety’s choice of play and the ho­tel’s New Year cel­e­bra­tions. First their ar­dent let­ters of protest were hand­writ­ten by Joan, as Pat hovered and dic­tated. I re­mem­ber mother talk­ing about the day the type­writer ar­rived. The town knew a month of respite. Joan’s laboured two-fin­gered typ­ing and the drama of the rib­bon change landed her in an evening typ­ing course. She re­turned to the task like an old mas­ter play­ing Rach­mani­noff. Later I in­tro­duced her to the world of emails and Bon­nie and Clyde, as they called them­selves, went in­ter­na­tional with their com­plaints.

I have a mem­ory of you in a yel­low two-piece swim­suit. We splashed on the edge of the At­lantic sea, the sharp sun above the cliff shut­tered with your danc­ing head. You were in the mo­ment, care­free and joy­ous. I was happy be­cause I was in your mo­ment too, part of it. Then you would tell me of pluck­ing cock­les ripe from rocks and eat­ing them, fish­ing in rock-pools and catch­ing buck­ets of crabs with a stick and string from the pier. The far­away look in your eyes would ap­pear and you would be gone. Your past was a for­eign land which I could never visit. And that’s how it should be. How deep into each other’s skin do moth­ers and daugh­ters need to be?

Here we are now, though, in your past. Your old room and your old bed amongst your sis­ters. You were never caught in Pat’s or­bit like Joan. Veer­ing off on your own tra­jec­tory, you brought Dad home where his easy charm won the sis­ters round. That and his de­scent into the well to res­cue Sheba the dog. Or­pheus they called him af­ter that. I would be told that story over the years. With other tales which I came to re­alise were at­tempts at gen­er­at­ing a fam­ily feel to my child­hood mem­o­ries, tribal leg­ends to give me roots.

I paid no heed when you left at first. You swayed in and out of my con­scious­ness as it was. It wasn’t un­til I saw how sad Dad was that first Christ­mas with­out you, I re­alised some­thing was miss­ing. The years moved on, Dad re­mar­ried and set­tled down with a new fam­ily. I could have gone with him but I chose to stay with my Aunts. Per­haps there I felt I would be closer to a rea­son why you ceded your role as mother.

You al­ways said I was an anx­ious child. While you were preg­nant you said you wor­ried about the sense of bring­ing a child into a world with the dark brood­ing cloud of the atom bomb hov­er­ing above. The bomb be­came a presage of a new world un­furl­ing and you, young and preg­nant, were filled with a bit­ter dread. You claimed this sense of fore­bod­ing some­how leaked into your womb, cre­at­ing an angst-rid­den child. The im­pli­ca­tion be­ing it was not quite your fault. In fact, I was some­how in my em­bry­onic state com­plicit in my emo­tional for­ma­tion.

A corona gleamed around the cur­tains’ bor­ders. The dron­ing and ran­dom tap at the glass em­pha­sised the sense of clos­ing the win­dow de­spite the heat. The wasp pop- ula­tion thrived that year. They swarmed on bon­nets of parked cars and wheelie bins. Quiv­er­ing black and yel­low bod­ies thronged around ev­ery heat-re­tain­ing sur­face. One would fly in­doors, al­most stag­ger­ing in its flight, drunk with sun­light. The room was stuffy and heavy. The susurra­tion of the rosary and the tap-tap of the wasps started to lean on me.

The death­watch bee­tle got its rather doomed name from a time when si­lence was more nor­mal. The qui­etest time even then was also dur­ing a vigil over some­one’s end­ing. The wood­borer would set up deep in a rafter and tap out its ex­is­tence, and so avail­abil­ity for love. But these bee­tles did not live close to each other so some­times they got a re­sponse. Some­times their tap­ping echoed out into an un­car­ing uni­verse.

From the mo­ment she stood on my Ger­man doorstep, she seemed on the verge of try­ing to ex­plain some­thing about her­self, her life. It would be­gin with a gen­er­alised over­view, ac­com­pa­nied by hints of per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, then fol­lowed up by air. I re­ally didn’t care, I was so used to her ab­sence her pres­ence was bur­den­some. Al­though, there was one evening with her and some friends, walk­ing back to my apart­ment af­ter balmy beers in a lus­cious beer-gar­den, we talked of fu­ner­als. It started off with anec­dotes of hi­lar­i­ous mo­ments dur­ing se­ri­ous and som­bre oc­ca­sions. Then we got to what song would you most like at your own fu­neral. Maybe be­cause she was the old­est in the group or be­cause her choice was the best, we all re­mem­bered it.

I had to get out of the room. I stood, then with a dig­ni­fied lurch I ar­rived in the hall. I made for the stairs and my room. I closed the door and sat by the win­dow open­ing it wide. Wasps or no wasps, I needed air. As I sat there con­tem­plat­ing the lack of im­print my use of the room had, my gaze set­tled with an epiphany on the yel­low flow­ers of my sheets. I re­mem­ber ly­ing in bed sick and you donned the role of at­ten­tive mother like a new dress. It was lovely. You were lovely, but by day three I could tell the per­for­mance was wear­ing on you, so I speeded up my re­cov­ery. I had a warm glow for days af­ter, and you seemed a bit hap­pier in your­self for a while too. That splurge of love and un­der­stand­ing sus­tained me for a long time. And that is all there is. We are plan­ets me­an­der­ing in our own or­bits, com­ing close enough to pro­pel each other off again to our soli­tary prom­e­nade amongst the stars.

In all my years liv­ing in an­other coun­try, I never felt home­sick. It was like my past be­longed to some­one else, a story writ­ten by a stranger. I wasn’t there at the be­gin­ning and I cer­tainly didn’t know how it would end. I have brooded over the with­er­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of moth­ers and daugh­ters. And like a jilted lover I peeled back lay­ers, hop­ing to find the mo­ment where it went wrong. Then I stopped pick­ing at the scab and let it heal over.

I took the sheet off my bed and folded it, then down­loaded her song on my phone. I would don a new dress now. Down the stairs I went, get­ting into char­ac­ter. In the kitchen I plucked a bot­tle of wine from the fridge, and swiped two glasses. There it is then, the daugh­ter is as mad as the mother.

As I ap­proached the door of the room, it opened. Aunt Pat led the way, as the oth­ers half car­ried Aunt Joan out. She had fainted, and I was to go stay with my mother. I closed the door be­hind me, savour­ing my good luck. She lay there, awake but quiet. She had not, could not, speak a word since I ar­rived. She heard me turn the key in the lock, though. She limply turned her head to­wards me. Her eyes moved to­wards the bun­dle un­der my arm, the bot­tle in my hand and then re­turned to mine.

She couldn’t drink but we poured her a glass any­way. She stroked the flow­ery sheet I had laid about her, and then I played her song. She looked at me then with pure love. Not the un­con­di­tional gaze of a mother for a daugh­ter, but the re­al­i­sa­tion of find­ing some­one who truly un­der­stands you. And there that per­son was un­der her nose all along. At least that is what it seemed to me. Who cares? We held hands and stared into each other’s eyes for the first time. Syzygy oc­curs when the sun and moon are in con­junc­tion. She died then as we lis­tened to Peggy Lee.

“If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep danc­ing.

Let’s break out the booze, and have a ball.”

Maeve McGowan was longlisted twice in the Fish Pub­lish­ing Short Story Con­test. She is cur­rently work­ing to­wards her first col­lec­tion

Hen­nessy New Ir­ish Writ­ing How to en­ter

In all my years liv­ing in an­other coun­try, I never felt home­sick. It was like my past be­longed to some­one else, a story writ­ten by a stranger

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