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10 minute read.
The emigrants are huddled on the quayside, rain lashing in from the East. Some are heading across the Atlantic, others across the Irish Sea. The old Irish sounds more comforting, a home from home. Their eyes seek me out in the clouds of amniotic fluids. I am a regret or a promise. Time will tell. They beseech me to stay. How can I help? What can I do? Remember them, but is that enough?
Mother is running, legs arched, arms swaying. I presume this is what birth will be like, rudely awoken from my womb-dreams. I mimic her movements, my shadow limbs keeping time with hers. The flapping of her slippers on the tarmac, the squeak of the garden gate, up the path to the door, knock, knock. Don’t leave us here, my ancestors cry. What can I do, I say again? I am being wrenched in two, just as mother will be.
For a split second I think she is talking to me. But it is weeks until my due date.
“Quick, quick, it’s Mary,” mother speaks through the hole. “She’s not responding.”
“Oh right, hang on,” comes the gruff reply.
Stamping of a foot, turning to look back, then inside the door. Mother is so nosey and impatient. She should try being stuck in here. Did I mention that I am feeling a little claustrophobic?
“Hurry! Come on, please.”
“Just give me a second.”
The man brushes past, moving quickly, throwing a jacket over his shoulders. Dressing for the occasion. He flings the gate open so hard it swings back and bashes his knee. A barely concealed yelp, a shuffled run retracing the way we came. In the hallway, the man looks left and right, unsure.
“Along the corridor, at the end, on the right,” mother says. “Follow your nose.”
In the bedroom, he leans over layers upon layers of sheets and blankets, the smell sharp and sweet, listening, touching the visible bits, nothing else. Such a large body, it’s hard to know where to go in search of a pulse.
“Have you got a mirror,” he asks?
Mother goes in search. The one in the bathroom needs cleaning. She spits on a length of ripped-off toilet paper and rubs, stands still, waits. Dallying and daydreaming will be the death of you. They all said that. It got monotonous.
The man holds the mirror over the old woman’s mouth – my grandmother, that’s who she is, though I hardly knew her, so there will be no crocodile tears from me.
I am reading mother’s mind as she reads his. I am only half formed within her and yet we are one. On a bad day I can see and feel and smell and touch everything, it’s like molten lava, like rotten potatoes, like the noise starlings make at dusk – running water made of broken glass – like being spoon fed that jelly inside pork pies, like drowning in love, like surfacing into despair, like every single atom in the universe shouting, “me, me, me, look at me.“
“Didn’t you notice there was something wrong?” he asks?
“No,” mother says. “When everything is wrong it’s hard to tell when something is more wrong than usual.”
He’s looking at mother a little furtively, noticing her expanding waistline. One so large she couldn’t shift from her bed, he is thinking, another fat enough to go the same way. What a strange household. I should have paid closer attention.
Are we interesting, I wonder?
The last time mother saw my grandmother’s flesh, the arms and legs resembled a large herd of seals, lying on grey, slippery rocks. My mother spends most of her days out taking photographs of old trees or of people who are unaware they are being caught on camera. She doesn’t mind the wind and rain, I’ll give her that. In her womb the weather is permanently snug and warm, if a little suffocating.
“I’m so unsuited to the role of carer,” mother is saying to the man. Does he have a name – it doesn’t matter, man will do. “It should never have fallen to me,” she rambles on. “She knew that perfectly well and revelled in my frustration, the struggle I had learning an acceptable degree of empathy.”
“Why was she in bed anyway,” he asks? He does ask a lot of questions this one. “She wasn’t ill,” he adds, “not in the beginning.”
“Lying in bed for ten years gave her all the ailments she needed,” mother says matter-of-factly. “I tried to persuade her to take some air, but she just said, ‘it’s a cold house, so why would I want to leave my bed and, besides, when you’ve walked the lanes, you’ve walked the lanes’. She joked that it was like going into confinement. But to what end? What on earth did she imagine she would deliver unto us at her advanced age? History perhaps. An offering of sorts.”
Mother is starting to talk nonsense. I make a mental note and can only hope it’s a one off and that it’s not hereditary. She’s getting hysterical. I feel it in her fluttering lashes, her fastening pulse. It is the woman’s “complaint“ when she deigns to show any real emotion. How do I know that?
“I’d better call the doctor,” the man says.
There isn’t a phone in our house – I say “our“ though I haven’t officially moved in yet. He leaves with his eyes on his feet, struggling with the impulse to put an arm on mother’s shoulder. He must decide it’s a bit risqué, not the done thing old chap. Instead, he kicks a stone into the hedge as though it were the hedge’s fault that people live and die. Leave the hedge alone! Mother feels grandmother’s spirit rising up. Just like that. What’s it like, being dead, she asks the air. What an odd question. Ask me what it’s like being just alive. Just dead and just alive are probably about the same.
She has plans to travel. I was going to say embryonic plans, but there isn’t room for any more of those. She is mulling over them, little sketches she returns to with an inky pen, making a mess. She thinks she is being so secretive and cunning but she’s no match for me. I don’t really want to go, of course, that’s what she keeps telling herself. Flee, flee, flee. I chant the word night and day.
Now that grandmother has passed, mother can moan and whine to her heart’s content. I meant to tell her about the baby. No. stupid. I could never have told her. Talking to herself. A recurring theme. Then what? Pretended to get fat. She would have loved that: “eating all my food.“ And when the child was born, I’d say I found it in a ditch. The crying would have kept her awake, but she’d secretly not mind too much. Makes a change from the hymns on the radio.
The words are getting mixed up, mothers’ words and mine. It’s becoming hard to differentiate. It irritates her, having a head full to over-bursting with conflicting emotions.
“Why don’t you pester your father for a change and give me some peace?” she demands.
I see the spokes on his wheels spin, sparks flying from contact between metal and stone. The sweat on him, hat tilted back, nodding when mother speaks, looking up until, pausing, he stretches and smiles, shuffling his hat backwards and forwards, stamping his feet as if he were about to dance. A colourful character. Laughed at his own jokes.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have it. Mother once more. No, I mustn’t think that. But, then again, what do I know about myself, let alone the world. It had never even occurred to me that I could have such thoughts. It will have its revenge: a difficult birth, full of twisted elbows and knees.
I hadn’t even thought of that. I could make my entrance doing a cartwheel or pretend that I am a crab or an octopus. How many feckin limbs does this child have?
The days follow in a purposeful muddle. At least I presume they have some purpose. Lots of big men arrive to remove the body. Are men always so big, so burly? They stink of sweat and stout, muscles straining as they put her in a wooden box. Off she goes. Cars, roars of engines, heavy doors, people talking, talking, non-stop talking. Tears. Mother can hardly breathe sometimes. The neighbours come with food and endless cups of tea. Did they creep out of the woodwork? I will hear nothing but the pouring of tea, she thinks, the scraping of spoons, the sipping and blowing, the steady warmth clung onto for dear life.
What a relief when they are all gone, and mother and I can converse in peace.
“It will be your first big adventure,” she is telling me, her unborn child (I hope to be christened Maria: she doesn’t like the name, so I’ll have to work on her a little). “But,” she says, making herself laugh, “I don’t need to buy you a ticket or reserve you a seat.” Her laughter soon turns to tears: “your grandmother never knew you existed.” The tears turn to reflection: “the first thirty-five years of my life have been lived in a kind of suspension.” Blimey, she’s hard work, though she can also be genuinely funny. She used to refer to our home as “the zoo,“ and to her duties as that of a “zookeeper.“ I guess I am part of the menagerie. But the star attraction has died, so what now? No one came to visit anyway, so maybe she wasn’t much of an attraction.
Mother too easily forgets who she really is. What she is. You are more than a carer, a wiper of arses, I shout, banging my feet hard against her distended belly. You are an artist. Think of all those dark, moody photographs. Later, as she sleeps, I stare at the inside of her eyelids. I realise that wherever we end up, a part of her will always be watching the spiders make their webs in the hallway, the snails’ slow march across the bathroom and the kitchen. And she will always be listening out for grandmother, calling to be read to or to be served gin-soaked mash.
We talk telepathically. An important development. It means she looks less gormless. I soon grow bored of even thinking the words. When I ask mother if she will miss any of the familiar, by which I mean mostly smells and touches of everyday objects, she starts a long and rambling account of previous generations who have made the crossing. I pretend that I don’t know my history, but I do, I do.
For her most talking is often a form of evasion. She doesn’t like being pinned down: “don’t put me under a microscope.” I’m the one under the microscope mother, in case you hadn’t noticed. As she packs the one suitcase we will take she sings and tells me stories. A space is left in the case for the fairies to make themselves comfortable, she explains. I’m not a baby, I want to protest. But I am.
I move ahead of her, a scout checking out the lie of the land. And I move back through time. There isn’t much else to do, and I am bored. The waiting is interminable. Her movements and thought processes are so dreadfully slow.
I am the sparrow hawk sitting in the branch of an old ash tree. I watch the bodies of those who have fled the famine, as they sleep on the open grass, their fire almost out. Fresh off the boat, they make camp as best they can. What a funny bunch they are, so formal in their raggedness. In the middle of the night, the youngest spots torches moving up the hill towards them. The children are put on look out as the adults panic.
If you add the close family members who fled to America and will never be seen again, to those they buried back home, the dead walk side by side with the living in equal number. That’s what they wanted to tell me from the quayside. I hear you.
Mother’s stories become our imagined past. “Picture a flock of magpies,” she says, “their Sunday best worn on top of their work clothes, waddling along the verges. The houses they pass keep a close eye on anything that glitters. When a horse rider approaches, they avoid eye contact. Polished boots get wet in the long grass. Trouser legs and the hems of skirts pick up seeds, sticky grass and insects.”
The key turns in the front door for the last time, for us at any rate. Mother leaves it with the man next door. We are getting a lift to Dublin with the friend of mothers from the old days. I didn’t know she had old days. I hope I get to have them too. They are late, whoever they are.
“Will you miss this?” I ask her again.
Note to self – I am becoming rather needy and insecure.
“I have you,” she says, “that’s all that matters.”
The journey by car is long and still and quiet. I sleep and dream I am helping our distant relatives push their cart up a mountain. At the top we see England for the first time. A band of rain in the distance forms a curtain at our likely entry point.
“It can’t possibly be wetter here than back home,” someone says. Muted laughter, but the atmosphere is edgy among the three extended families. The two Branagh brothers made a break for it in the night, hoping they would fare better and travel quicker than the group of twenty that must walk at the pace of a toddler and a grandmother. The younger, Trevor, will be found in a ditch in three days’ time by a stranger, knifed in the guts for his wedding ring and boots. Before disbanding we will get lost on mud flats, lost in woods, lost on roads – funny, if you think about it, as Irish labourers will build railways in this country running east, west, north and south, taking travellers almost anywhere they could possibly want to go in a nice straight line.
For now, I am as helpless as they are. Together, we scramble for hours towards the lower ground, the trees thickening. Branches are pushed forward or held back, the tension passed from hand to hand. Reaching a clearing of grass, a new day breaks through the clouds. Where the hell are we, unmade voices ask? I think we’ve been going round in circles is my silent reply.
The light and space sways like a giant bear sitting up on its haunches. The children break through the undergrowth. The smallest is carrying a dead rabbit, its body half eaten away. One of the men throws it back from where it came. The women line the children up and clean faces and hands, spitting on rags kept deep in the pockets of skirts.
England looms. If we stop, the ancient travellers whisper to me, we will be transformed into trees. Our legs will become rooted to the ground, our arms left to envelop only whatever we can touch. We will stand for centuries upon end, our faces straining towards the light at the top, our hearts cast into perpetual darkness beneath the canopy.
We spend the night in a drab bed and breakfast, smuggling bread and cheese back in to the room against the strict regulations pinned to almost every wall. The next morning the streets are so busy and the noise so intense I momentarily lose my sense of mother. People are selling lighters and apples, bicycle wheels and hats. My muscles tense with hers, my heads pounds in unison.
The ferry is early and it is a relief to be on board. The clanking rails of the gangplank tell me … what … nothing … only that it is man-made, all of it is man-made, and we are no more than water boatmen – or water boatwomen, if there are such things – skimming the surface of the unknown world.
“Oh, stop being so melodramatic,” mother says. “This is the start of our freedom. A new life for you and me. There will be no looking that way again.”
And indeed, there isn’t. We spend the crossing with our eyes pinned on the open sea and never so much as glance back towards the Irish coast.
I see our forebears approaching a church, the wrong denomination, but still, beggars can’t be choosers and all that. Tiptoeing inside, the men arch backs to appraise the craftsmanship, while the women shake their heads at the plainness of the white-washed walls.
Outside they wander through the graveyard.
“There are so few children and bairns buried here,” they mutter to one another, pointing at the dates engraved on stone. “Perhaps they lie at rest somewhere else, in a special spot that catches the sun and wind.”