Mum’s the word

This is the fourth of eight short sto­ries by writ­ers from over­seas liv­ing in Ire­land and by Ir­ish writ­ers who live or have lived abroad

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS&BOOKS - Philip MacCann

Mother woke me this af­ter­noon by rap­ping the front-room ceil­ing with her stick. My eyes opened wide and I shouted down in my best sen­si­ble voice.

“Yes, I’m up­stairs!” I had been hav­ing an­other flash­back in my sleep, and it was plea­sur­able. I do not see my­self as a bad per­son. I stood against my door and hur­riedly pulled on my trews. Then I peeled back the edge of my roller blind and peeked out at our cul-de-sac. I could see no po­lice. Ev­ery­thing looked grey, even our lit­tle hedge was colour­less, and it was all dry and still. The kids were sit­ting idle on the roof of an­other burnt-out car. I stepped back and rubbed my face and mous­tache which were itchy with dry sweat. I could hear ev­ery sound – chip­ping against the car, an oc­ca­sional laugh, and crows from the nearby wood. I stood fid­get­ing with my ring, turn­ing it round on my fin­ger. It was vi­tal I caught the lo­cal News on my tele­vi­sion, but it was not yet evening. I had time to kill. From the room be­low I heard her groan­ing and then a cough­ing fit, so I went down.

But why did the cur­tains have to be open in the front room when any­one can see us from the Walk? The gi­ant clouds were high and metal-grey be­cause it has not rained for weeks. I hung back in the door­way and blinked to clear my eyes. She sat on her hot wa­ter bot­tle on the bureau stool, both hands on her guts and a ci­garette be­tween her fin­gers. There was no wig on and her tuft was show­ing. She must have dragged the cof­fee ta­ble and wooden pouffe out of the room and lifted out the lamp for there was noth­ing but a space in the cen­tre. Th­ese guess­ing games wear me out. The tea trol­ley was pushed back against the skirt­ing board and on the car­pet lay some­thing we had been look­ing for. She spoke quickly be­fore grunt­ing from her pains. “The crusher.” At the very sound of that word I made a deep rasp and shot her a black look. Her uten­sil has an ob­vi­ous shape which al­lows me to crush her large tablets into a pow­der. It has all the as­pects of a thing which we have a proper word for in this coun­try. I was bit­ing on my fin­ger from an­noy­ance. I think any im­ple­ment which has an oval belly at­tached to a han­dle must, by def­i­ni­tion, come un­der the gen­eral banner of a spoon. For a long time I had wanted to give her a piece of my mind. A sin­gle stride and I was in the empty cen­tre, com­mand­ing the room. I cleared my throat. I had not even time to open my mouth.

“I see I’m ask­ing too much from you.” Her face screwed up and she leaned for­ward. “I bet­ter take them all at once.”

I felt a drop­ping sen­sa­tion in my chest and heav­i­ness gather­ing in my feet. In my con­fu­sion I found my­self kneel­ing on the car­pet clutch­ing the uten­sil. From the trol­ley I took a wider serv­ing spoon which made my fin­gers long and thin. On this I ground a few tablets with the lit­tle crush­ing spoon and I scooped the pow­der onto her tongue for her to chew. I got to my feet again and stood back in the door­frame. My head was reel­ing and I had com­pletely for­got­ten my main thread. Her twisted hand dan­gled be­fore her chin and she was like some spec­i­men float­ing in a jar.

This evening I went out to scrub at the words “GET OUT” which were painted on our front wall. The black boys stood taunt­ing me over our hedge. “Here‘s Freaky!” “Hey, don‘ t touch that!” I did not stay long and went back in­side and locked the door. My heart pounded un­der my cardi­gan. I could still hear their voices. “Come out!” “You missed a bit!” At the hall mir­ror I combed my mous­tache into dif­fer­ent styles, all of which I hated.

Af­ter her nap Mother felt bet­ter, there were no more games from her. I opened a tin of al­pha­bet spaghetti and she heated it. Af­ter din­ner I es­caped up­stairs to try all the sta­tions on my tele­vi­sion. She in­sists I am ruin­ing my eyes but I need to be alert and fol­low de­vel­op­ments. Most men my age even have their own com­puter. There was no men­tion on the News and it was with re­lief that I switched off. It seems we are to have a sum­mer storm. I look for­ward to rain ham­mer­ing down on the roof and the sound of rustling leaves in the woods. It will cleanse the air. Be­fore bed­time I took a cup of tea up to the bath­room and locked my­self in un­der the flick­er­ing yel­low lamp. Be­low, Mother was play­ing her cas­settes and I ran the shower to drown out the racket. All around steam col­lected on the tiles and the shush­ing sound calmed me. It was like wind in the trees. I sat on the mouldy car­pet with my cup and tea­spoon be­tween my legs. Has it ever been said that a spoon ly­ing flat is not un­like a prostrate hu­man body? The arch and slen­der han­dle are el­e­gantly fem­i­nine. Where it ta­pers to a blunt end it is like two feet trussed to­gether, while the bowl re­minds me of a gap­ing face, frozen in ter­ror. This af­ter­noon I de­cided to see Shibani in the greasy caff on the edge of the hous­ing es­tate. I peered out the front door. The sky was over­cast but fiery red and it seemed even drier than yes­ter­day. The air tin­gled on my skin and it was pleas­ant. I wheeled the bike out the door and up our short path. From in­side the burnt- out car two kids emerged. Briskly I steered out the gate. I was not quick enough, how­ever, and they shouted out. “Stop, you!” “Freaky!” I leapt on and ped­alled my fastest up the Walk. They were the same im­mi­grant boys from Africa with round heads which pro­trude from their shoul­ders like ugly lit­tle knuck­les. They frighten me. I wish I could stran­gle them with wire. They jeered and threw stones and a ter­rier be­gan yap­ping and ran along­side my bike. I ended up hav­ing to ride in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, away from the take­away, past still heaps of sand and gravel on the streets they never fin­ished build­ing. I saw a sin­gle but­ter­cup break­ing through a crack in the as­phalt and I crushed it un­der my front wheel. Where some streets come to an end is where the trees be­gin. There is a ru­mour that they are to cut down the woods and build a shop­ping cen­tre, but so far no one has done a thing. I hope that one day ev­ery­thing will be wiped away.

To re­cover, I swerved into an empty gin­nel where no one could see me. The fences of the back gar­dens are high. They smell of cre­osote and have oc­ca­sional lit­tle holes I can peep through. I dried my face with paper and re­mained for a lit­tle while stand­ing there. All the houses in the es­tate are the same grey peb­bledash and it is over a mile’s walk to the main road where buses are scarce. I un­der­stand only too well there is lit­tle for young peo­ple on the es­tate to do and imag­i­na­tions fes­ter. We are so far from the city, right on its edge. All we have is the new mosque and the old shops. In sum­mer a trav­el­ling fun­fair comes and sets up in one of the fields and the am­pli­fied pop mu­sic keeps Mother and me awake. There are not too many English peo­ple left on the es­tate. Most are from very for­eign coun­tries and speak in all kinds of tongues. They will al­ways be strangers to me be­cause my mother tongue is plain and sim­ple English.

I walked down to the bot­tom of the gin­nel where flak­ing rail­ings run along the back of my old Com­pre­hen­sive. To peer through, I pressed my face against two bars which made my cheeks rusty. In the play­ground I saw a still fig­ure I recog­nised, seated on the witch’s hat. How much time has passed! My school friend is now a mid­dle- aged man with a belly like a car tyre un­der his T-shirt. But lit­tle else has changed. I could see there were no kids at all in the school so I locked up my bike and I scaled the rail­ing where there is a breeze­block to help get a leg-up. As I walked to my friend across the foot­ball pitch he took a swill from a beer tin then looked down quickly. He still has a fat baby-face and blond curls which make me think of mashed pota­toes. I reached the witch’s hat and climbed on a plank across from him. He crushed his beer tin, belched loudly and said, “Oh, is that you, Freaky?” I replied, “No”. The only com­ment he could think of was: “Good,” which he spat out from the back of his throat. I could not help won­der­ing if he had heard some­thing on the News and I was anx­ious. He added, “I don’t talk to strangers.” I merely mut­tered, “Is that a prom­ise,” and he replied, “Nah.” He hopped off the seat to the flag­stones so that I im­me­di­ately dipped down. He looked straight at me as he said, “I don’t keep prom­ises.” Then he turned to the climb­ing frame. Over his shoul­der he called back, “It freaks you out when I call you Freaky, doesn’t it, Freaky?” From the side of my eye I saw him snatch at a bar and try to pull him­self up, with­out suc­cess.

I breathed deeply so as to stay calm. I did not want to start wor­ry­ing over noth­ing. Wilf is al­ways un­friendly when he drinks beers and, like Mother, he smokes cig­a­rettes. He also col­lects mag­a­zines about knives and other weapons. He has his own com­puter which he can use to look at women’s bod­ies but it must be ten years since he showed me some. He is un­help­ful. It is not easy to meet peo­ple round here. On the whole I have only ever re­ally so­cialised with my mother. When she and I used to go on hol­i­days to­gether ev­ery other year to the board­ing house – which is an hour and a half by bus out the road – we never talked to a soul. She al­ways used to say there is no sub­sti­tute for blood, and I agree. I have stayed faith­ful. I have seen that blood is thicker than wa­ter. But it is point­less to start dig­ging up the past. I like to think that my life is just be­gin­ning. Once a week I new learn skills, I want to find out about com­put­ers and if ev­ery­thing set­tles down again, I hope to find a job and es­cape from the es­tate. It was dark when my eyes opened. I saw a grey ob­long which I knew was my roller-blind. From the dis­tance I heard yells, screech­ing tyres. For some rea­son my mind was ex­cep­tion­ally clear. While I lay still I had no doubt that one day I too will die. I had a grim pic­ture of my­self ly­ing in a cof­fin on a ta­ble in the empty cen­tre of the front room, with the clock tut­ting. They were star­ing down at me, Mother and some­one who at first was Wilf and then was a po­lice­man. I sat up and switched on my bed­side lamp and soon th­ese seemed like silly thoughts. But two hours must have passed be­fore I fell asleep again.

When I woke it was al­most evening. I re­mem­bered I had the op­por­tu­nity to meet two women and I was ex­cited, I had to hurry out. I stood near the bot­tom of the stairs and could see Mother in the liv­ing room re­clined in her arm­chair. Around her shoul­ders her heavy blan­ket and the coal-ef­fect fire was on full- blast in the hearth. I squeezed into my shoes in the hall and called out in a ca­sual voice. “Just pop­ping out for a bit.” No an­swer so again I wor­ried about what was on the News. I went to the door­way.

“Need any­thing from the top shop?” Still, she did not look up. I stepped right into the room. The tray had slid off her lap and I spot­ted her uten­sil and some tablets on the car­pet. Her head was to one side and her nightie had fallen low, re­veal­ing the wrin­kled V of her bo­som. I did not know whether to touch her or not. I had never be­fore seen her in that way and I al­most snig­gered. But I did not feel good at all, I had the heav­i­ness in the pit of my stom­ach. I left the room won­der­ing what to do. Sud­denly it all seemed un­real, but im­por­tant, like some­thing they would show on tele­vi­sion. I peered at my wor­ried face in the hall mir­ror, my heart thud­ding. I could not be­gin to think what would hap­pen to me now, I did not want to think. I shot up­stairs to Mother’s bed­room and flung open her wardrobe. At the back I saw her slim cane with the fine bone han­dle which can open the at­tic hatch. I thought she had got rid of it long ago when I had my first bother. I rum­maged through her ugly dresses for my favourite grey silk shirt which she once took from me. She called it too bold be­cause it is soft and semi-trans­par­ent. I pol­ished my ring on the silk be­fore but­ton­ing it up my bare chest.

Down­stairs I wheeled my bike out the front. The boys were scat­tered all over the Walk. As soon as they saw me they shouted again. “It’s him!” “Sexy man!” The lit­tle ones danced about with their knees high and their tiny stupid but­tocks tight as pins. An eerie, high-pitched wa­ver­ing note came from one of their throats. They all joined to­gether in a strag­gling line, forc­ing me to steer tightly be­tween them. I nearly fell as they plucked at my shirt. And all the time the yap­ping ter­rier and that pierc­ing high pitch. All at once a bolt from the car struck the back of my head. Be­fore I knew I had swung off my bike. I let it fall. They darted back into the tiny gar­dens but I vaulted over a fence. I had one boy’s scrawny neck in my grip and he could not get away. His eyes were dart­ing, his dark face looked grey.

“You lis­ten to me,” I hissed. Then I no­ticed how quiet and still it had be­come. There was noth­ing I par­tic­u­larly wanted to say and I was in a hurry so I re­leased my hand. He tripped over his feet as he ran away and I re­turned to my bike. As I cy­cled through the es­tate my knees shot up and down. Al­ready lights were on in some liv­ing- rooms. Gleam­ing tele­vi­sion sets showed the same News but I could make noth­ing of it so I sim­ply watched the ground streak be­low me. I was breath­less as I turned out onto the main road. There, smoke from ex­haust pipes puffed in my face just like from Mother’s cig­a­rettes. I kept on for an­other quar­ter mile be­fore I reached the tuck shop where she used to buy my tof­fees. The years have brought lit­tle de­vel­op­ment. This, the take­away and a Rape Cri­sis Cen­tre are the only shops open in this row. Oth­ers are boarded up and the end gable is propped up by a huge wooden stan­chion.

I locked my bike to a lamp­post clear of some bro­ken bot­tles and pat­ted my face. By keep­ing to one side and cran­ing my neck, I was able to peep into Tikka Way with­out be­ing seen. It has a high counter and just two plas­tic ta­bles with bot­tles of ketchup and vine­gar and no cloths. Shibani was lean­ing against the wall and gaz­ing at her phone, a dark girl from a strange coun­try. My chest tight­ened. She glanced out the win­dow and might have no­ticed me so I hur­ried past to the end of the row where a dark car was parked.

I pushed open the door of the Cen­tre. A lit­tle bell tin­kled above me. The re­cep­tion­ist was be­hind a desk. She said, “Fred, is it? You’re a lit­tle late.” I guessed she was the woman called Liz but she was old and only a midget who looked thin with worry. My shoul­ders shrugged. She lifted the tele­phone and I heard her say, “That’s Fred now. Is that OK? No bother.” Then she said to me, “If you want to go ahead,” and ges­tured. She sounded for­eign. She fol­lowed me into an of­fice where the other woman I was to meet looked just like a man. She sat in the cen­tre on one of three plas­tic chairs which faced one an­other in a tri­an­gle. Liz wedged the door wide open and made an­other ges­ture that I should take the chair whose back was to the door­way while she sat fac­ing it. She asked af­ter Mother. I had to think how to an­swer.

“A lit­tle poorly.” They both said they were sorry to hear that and asked if I was al­right. Liz of­fered me a big mug of tea and said, “Sugar?” and I mum­bled, “Just a spoon.”

The other one asked, “What’s wrong?” “He wants a spoon,” Liz told her. “A spoon, is it?” I folded my arms tight. “Are you all right for a mo­ment if I go out?” “That’s fine.” While Liz left the room the woman re­marked that I had re­spon­si­bil­ity to help my mother. I guessed she was some kind of so­cial worker but she made me think of a butcher. I replied that I did help. She said they wanted me to keep help­ing her. I cleared my throat and told her that I will. She said that, in the same way, they wanted to help me if I could help my­self and tell them ev­ery­thing I re­mem­bered in good­will. I thanked her and ex­plained that there was noth­ing to re­mem­ber. At that she sucked in her cheeks then her throat blew out a lit­tle. “And what about all them al­le­ga­tions?” “Just words.” She nar­rowed her eyes and said, “Well that’s not what the po­lice think, is it?” She sounded less friendly now. I did not like her in­sin­u­a­tion. “I was with Mother.” “All right, if that‘s true. Is that what she’ll say?” I was wor­ry­ing about this when I heard foot­steps be­hind me and a long thin drink spoon dropped into my tea. My shoul- ders stiff­ened. Liz sat be­fore me and the woman told her, “I’m ex­plain­ing to Fred that we could maybe help if we hear his side.” “That’s right,” Liz told me. More qui­etly she added, “Mum might tes­tify for him.” Liz fixed me with strange lit­tle doll-like eyes. We were both think­ing as we stared at one an­other.

“Is there any­thing you want to get off your chest? That‘s what we’re here for.” I am not good at chat­ting to women. I do not put them at ease when I talk. And I was up­set think­ing of Mother and how un­lucky I al­ways am, my whole life long. I wanted to change to a lighter sub­ject. I stirred my tea, lifted out the long spoon and stared at it. I tried to make a joke.

“That’s a nice one, thanks. Very long in the neck. But it curves nicely fur­ther down…” My voice died away and Butcher was writ­ing some­thing. I knew then I shouldn’t have opened my mouth, I had said too much. Liz was glow­er­ing at me.

“Just say it, can’t you!” I only shrugged and sud­denly she be­came rowdy. “Is it just too aw­ful for you to re­mem­ber? What did you do to her!”

The other set a ruddy hand on Liz’s leg and said, “I think this is where we should pause,” and put the cap on her pen. Liz pressed some fin­gers on her fore­head. They both stood up and ex­changed a few se­cret words un­der their breaths. I knew now they had no feel­ings for me and that they were not go­ing to take my side. With­out a word, Liz un­locked the main door for me and I stepped out. The dark car was still there. Some light re­mained in the sky. I felt so heavy with dis­ap­point­ment that it was an ef­fort to walk back along the row where I had locked my bike. I thought I heard a faint roll of thun­der. I won­dered what would hap­pen now. I had no hope.

Through the win­dow of the take­away I saw a fat woman mop­ping the floor and the young girl but­ton­ing her light red jacket. My hands fum­bled with my bi­cy­cle lock. With­out glanc­ing back at the car, I took a chance, I cut round the gable.

I rolled down the hill be­hind the shops and over a bump right into the trees. As soon as I caught the murky smell of leaves I felt a stab in my gut. It is painful to re­mem­ber, yet in a way I also find it sweet. The path is un­even but well-trod­den be­cause peo­ple use it as a quick way back to the es­tate. My bike rat­tled and leaves crack­led un­der its wheels. When bram­bles nar­rowed the path I hid the bike be­hind trees and car­ried on by foot as far as the fallen sycamore.

Now the sky van­ished, ev­ery­thing was blurred. My mus­cles tight­ened one by one as I knelt down among branches. Th­ese closed around me and leaves stroked the back of my neck so that a tingle ran down my spine. The ground was sharp on my knees. My pulse was a riot in my ears. I could not tell if any rain had started yet be­cause I was drenched with sweat. The thought that Shibani would soon be gig­gling in my arms made my groin burn. I had to keep still, to con­tain my­self. In the grip of one hand I had the long han­dle of the spoon. I know women are happy when I si­lence them be­cause I un­der­stand bet­ter than most men what women want. But some peo­ple do not wish to un­der­stand that I care for women, that is just how I am.

I sat on the edge of my bed that evening lis­ten­ing to the es­tate. Chant­ing of many voices and whis­tles sounded in the dis­tance and they seemed to be get­ting louder. Tins rat­tled in the wind. There were yells just out­side, glass smash­ing and the ter­rier be­gan bark­ing. I was fright­ened. Then there were loud raps. I did not dare switch off my lamp and look out my win­dow. I sat rigid but jolted by each thud of my heart. A drop of sweat trick­led down my tem­ple. I kept my hands on my knees and stared at the new sil­ver ring on my fin­ger. It fit­ted loosely over the other, a smooth cir­cle with­out a join and the part that is meant to face for­ward had five di­ag­o­nal grooves. In time, the dog be­came quiet. There was no more knock­ing. The chant­ing grew louder but even­tu­ally it faded.

I crossed the land­ing to the bath­room and stripped down to my underpants. I flung the rest of my clothes and my shoes in the bath and poured bleach all over them. Blood ran off the clothes. I ran wa­ter and still more blood ran off. It took time to wash it down the plug­hole. Then I poured bleach over my hands and with my eyes closed splashed it on my face and in my hair and on my body. My face stung and my fin­gers felt numb as I stuffed the wet clothes in a plas­tic bag and tied it with a tight knot.

From Mother’s room I fetched the nar­row cane. I reached up with it un­til I caught its han­dle in the hook of the at­tic hatch. Once I pulled, trick­les of saw­dust fell on my face. The lad­der squeaked as I drew it down and two full bags dropped out with it, then an­other. I stared up past the bare bulb into the dark­ness. Wind was whin­ing through gaps in the roof. I gath­ered the bags in one hand. With each foot­step a rung of the lad­der creaked. From the last rung I stretched across the boards and stuffed the bags be­tween all the other ones at the front of the pile. I paused to catch my breath and my shoul­ders loos­ened. I raised my fin­ger to my lips and let my tongue run over the grooves of my new ring. It smelled only of bleach but it was still sweet to me. It com­forted me to wear my rings, it gave us a con­nec­tion. But I felt I had no choice. I tore them both off my fin­gers and threw them far to the back of the at­tic. I climbed down to the bot­tom of the lad­der. Through the rungs I saw Mother star­ing at me.

One of my knees gave way but my hand gripped the lad­der. I stood rigid. It was her hard face, eye­ing me all over as I stood in my pants. At long last, she rasped and turned to the ban­nis­ter. On her way back down the stairs I heard her mut­ter­ing, “Too much to ask.” My knees and my hands be­gan to shake. It was an ef­fort even to move. I was stiff and slow as I pushed the lad­der up into place. I had to fum­ble with the cane to shut the hatch. I walked into my bed­room in a daze. I stared into my wardrobe. For a minute I stood with some clothes in my hands won­der­ing if I now had any hope. I felt sorry that I had lost my rings. I pulled on my trews, quickly but­toned up a shirt and then I fol­lowed Mother down to the front room to pick up the crusher.

I am not good at chat­ting to women. I do not put them at ease. And I was up­set think­ing of Mother and how un­lucky I al­ways am, my whole life long

Philip MacCann’s de­but, The Mir­a­cle Shed (1995), a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, won the Rooney Prize for Ir­ish Lit­er­a­ture and in 2000 he was awarded the Shiva Naipaul Me­mo­rial Prize. He lives in Dubai.

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