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
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.