Elaine Feeney

today I become mother

Girl in a White Dress by Sir William Orpen

whenever mam left for her holidays in the garden shed, she walked the long path that weaved around the clothes line and the back of the over grown patio, weeds and slop bursting through the cracks of the grey green octagon slabs. himself used to weed it once or twice a summer, and then he’d hoe out the vegetable bed, that housed only potatoes in the ink black soil. mam used to say things like, do you remember the carrots, and he’d say they were the best carrots in the west of Ireland and then she’d say, and the tomatoes, and he’d say he never cared much for tomatoes. I love tomatoes and I thought it was a pity he didn’t care for them and mind them. he was the exact same with the new baby as he was with the tomatoes. when he weeded she was in a happy mood standing for a while beside him in a yellow dress with short ankle socks and canvas shoes and then she would sit on a white patio plastic chair for the afternoon and lean back laughing until we could see all her black fillings, other times she went on her holidays, she sprinted fast straight through the grass.

himself is gone, I said quietly. twenty past twelve, my noon weight hanging off the white plastic fridge. mother shoved open the scullery’s paraná pine door into our small kitchen with the underside of her ox blood shoe that came high up on her foot, grazing her thin ankle. the blood filled the white ball of her foot and returned to her cheek in the time it took her in and out breath. her hair matched the shoe, black, down to the wine loose scrunchie at the nape of her pale neck like the black leatherette shoe add on, a flower, or a skull, though it was hard to make it out now. the shoe had been drenched so many times. she’d gotten the shoes second hand from the vincentpaul people who came to our door with the faces all sad and jokey at the same time. especially the young girl who looked most jokey, said she was here to do experience and then she called our michael, a lambkin. though he looked more like a rat. mam wore the shoes everywhere, out to the clothesline or to the doctors with the baby inside her and then outside her or on the school run or to the shed at the end of our short garden where she sometimes ran.

john is the eldest and he’s getting a moustache, he would laugh when he watched her run, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. he’d say; ah there she goes again not taking the famine road, the fool. I got fizzy feet and hands when he spoke about mam using the word she.

I piece mam together at night when I can’t get to sleep with the hail or the wind though it’s usually the silence that keeps me awake, the summer silent bright nights that allows me to hear the breathing as though the heavens had just opened. mam’d run to the shed, hands over her head, I imagine her laughing, saying to himself, ah here, I’ve just had a blow-dry. as I looked out the window, standing there like the child of Prague, head intact. but mam probably wasn’t speaking at all, that’s just what I used to think when I was five and six, and besides if she was saying something, I couldn’t hear it with her back to me, running away.

and it made me wonder if famine road makers could ever hear each other. they say the ears are the last to go, but I don’t know about how a body dies when it’s hungry. I think you’d try your very very best to turn your tummy off first and then your nose and then your ears. I think it would make you hungry listening to other people saying they were hungry. and having six brothers meant you had to do a lot of listening – whether you wanted to or not.

mam always said it’s proper manners to look at someone when you speak to them, and I like to have good manners. you had to specially look hard at joanne casey because she spent her time trying to read our lips. joanne casey is a deafdumb, himself said, and he said they were the most aggressive type ‘a disabled people, so I looked at her at a face to face, terrified she’d lash out at me, a 180 degree angle. mr. o’ neill was teaching us about angles last may when we wore ankle socks to school and davy the caretaker was always out cutting the grass so we could lie on it at break time and get green all over ourselves.

if I don’t look at joanne casey like I’m the cracked mirror in the loo, she wouldn’t know a thing I was saying. sometimes we’d catch her out by pursing our lips into p’s and b’s and she didn’t understand a thing. it looked like our mouths were blowing up like little sadam hussein bombs. almost unreadable anyway, like little mouths bombs, constantly going off. everyone’s always talking about hussein and war. my mother is terrified about nuclear war. and that the garden shed is too light to withstand a war.

I never did it to confuse joanne casey, the letter bombs. I just followed what the other girls did. usually to try understand things for myself. how we can speak to each other without shouting and still understand, learning about all the things himself had said with his lips tight like the cat’s hole, and then himself running after mam on the famine road to the shed. I could never make out from his back and arched shoulders if he was laughing or shouting. far from a garden shed you were reared you hoor, I heard him say once.

mam didn’t have a shed growing up, with all the people living over them and all the people living under them. that’s why she spent so much time in our one. it was new. at least new to my mam. the way the boys liked dens and hideouts. I didn’t like hideouts as much, I liked to be seen, sometimes. they never decided who the small garden at the back of the mervue flats where mam grew up, belonged to, so in the end it was used for the bins and the cats and the girls with the leather shirts and the bangles on their wrists and the boys smoking ciggies. either way they both looked ridiculous, himself and mam, and not at all like adults in my school reader books and how they looked, with dotty aprons and dads sitting at the tv with the paper and slippers and a granny shoving her head around a corner with a steaming apple tart. a granny with grey hair.

my granny has yellow hair, and smokes cigarettes in a navy fleece jacket that says DIGITAL on it. she’s as thin as a rake, telling me to study, how am I meant to study without a desk? nonsense she says. didn’t her father study under a bushel in some field? sure how would I know, I said back and that ended my study. I was a cheeky mare who’d come to no good like my mam she’d say. I thought my mam was great I said back to her and she wrinkled up her nose lighting another ciggie with her back to our kitchen window. she was always asking mam if she’s slept in the shed. I loved sleeping in the shed, but with a baby in your belly, you weren’t supposed to. or so my nan said.

when mam came in from the scullery she carried a plastic grocery bag far out from her body as if disgusted by it. it was poorly filled with a loaf of cheap white bread, a package of ham freshly sliced from the deli counter, also in a plastic bag that would be ripped open, not opened politely from the red tie that comes from the large steel dispenser ( I imagine joanne casey’s mam opens her ham properly and puts it neatly back in the fridge to have more later, like they do on the tv) and mike in the shop would whirl the bag around almost making the ham slices dizzy and a block of cheap cheese. himself used to scream at her about the cheap cheese. you can’t make a toastie with this shit he’d say. it goes to rubber like a fucken welly boot, he’d say.

mam shopped in the Apple Bag, the local, when himself forget to leave fifty pounds on the plastic brown draining board of the kitchen on his way out to his shift, twenty minutes late, and carrying his tan lunchbox she’d picked him up at her sister’s tupperware party back in november. her sister had a microwave and a vacuum cleaner with no bags and a soda stream maker. I was glad we didn’t have a soda stream maker, I was terrified when you had to release the lever and catch the bottle while at the same time not catching your own finger. and besides I was sure the fizz would kill one of us, probably one of my six brothers, they were all nearly drowning, especially in the shower, because it was just brand new and the other brothers said they weren’t able to control their breathing in the new shower, like when they were crying and ran out of breath until only their shoulders moved like a see saw.

mam used to spend hours figuring out what stopped himself remembering to leave out the fifty-pound money. she’d curl up her hair to see if her preferred it straight. I told her she’d be a lot better off if she asked him which way he liked her hair best. but she said it wasn’t this simple. but it wasn’t the hair in any case, so I guess it wasn’t simple at’all. besides he always grabbed her hair as if he hated it, so I wasn’t sure any hairstyle was going to work. she tried using lipstick but you could never see it, and the very last time he forgot was the same day he’d circled the breasts of a woman in the Sunday World newspaper in james’s red tip marker and left it on the breakfast table. mam screamed, for all of us to see. she screamed at james most of all, for leaving the marker under his nose. but it was the, ’for all of us to see’ that set her spitting into her cornflakes. I’d seen breasts since I was a never age and all the boys had sucked mams at some stage, so it wasn’t a big deal. but this had made her cry the most, and she seemed sure that he would forget the money again on Thursday.

before I grew up I would to try to put my arms around her waist, but after falling in the schoolyard when I was six, I learned the last thing people want when they’re crying is someone squeezing them out like an orange.

himself is gone, I said again, still swaying off the fridge door. mam didn’t notice I was swaying, hoping she’d scream at me, tell me I was letting out the cold, and the food would warm up, like our bellies when we drank soup. mam would say you eat soup, but we’d all laugh at her, and my brothers would pick up the bowls and drink it. I used to eat mine from a cup, because we only had six bowls. and then john let one fall and we had five, and then michael let one fall and we had four and all the bowls started falling and on and on it went until we all drank or ate our soup out of mugs with handles. it was lovely when it went down to the powdered bits at the end, hard green peas and shavings of sweet carrots and you would eat these bits, with your teeth. it’s not an eating food unless you need to use your teeth. himself never ate soup, he ate eleven potatoes, crushed down and smattered in black pepper with butter and some fried liver thrown over it. sometimes mam’d leave him garden peas in a cup beside his place at the table, on his place mat of the map of Ireland with the north coloured out in black marker. but he used to just pour them out, the peas, like he was dumping a bucket of water and flick them all over thee kitchen with his thumb and pointing finger. I hated that finger the most I liked his one with the coin ring. we’d scramble to pick them up. once we blinded folded each other and it was good fun, trying to find the peas on our hands and knees, but mam lost it with us after she tripped over michael and fell. we had mushed them into the lino and into the corners of the kitchen where the lino came up like my english story copy edges and all the peas and cat’s hair were mushed in like the filling of an old pillow.

mam began filling the cheap draining board with the few messages she had in the bottom of the bag. she arranged it with the sliced pan as a smile, the bag of ham made one eye, the cheap rubber block of cheese making the other. then she turned it into a van, which she said just meant looking at it from a different angle. I supposed I had to think of myself as joanne casey to imagine this. mam was silent when I said that I preferred the man to the van. after some time passed, gnawing on the quick of my girl thumb on my right hand, where a long sharp scar was imbedded like a thorn from a hurley unsanded, she said slowly, yes I agree I prefer the pretend man too but he looks so sad with his mouth just straight across. I had to agree. It looked like the pole on our high jump fence on the patio.

my brother is a high jumper and he sewed sixteen oat canvas bags together last summer and filled them all up with straw. himself thought it was a thick-as-fuck idea, as the middle of the straw could go on fire, mam said she thought that just happened with hay, but he asked her what the fuck she’d know being from the city and all and he’d make hay of her if she went on disregarding him under his own roof. and we all agreed with himself. mam, that face of the bread and ham kind of looks like himself, I said, would you like me to leave it on the counter I said, then it won’t matter so much that he has gone.

but this made her tear up again and I was so fucken mad with myself.

ah he’ll come back, I said, even though he told me he’d never set foot in this hole of a confounded house again, and something about burning it down with us all in it, he was always talking about burning it down with all of us in it. but I knew it was damp, and it wouldn’t light at all, and she wailed. and I told her the crying would make the house even damper so in a way we were all safe and she laughed and grabbed my cheeks and asked me to put on soup for my brothers. we had one packet left in a USA biscuit tin until the stairs.

everything of importance was kept in under the stairs. the sacred heart of jesus amen with a light. the carpet sweeper that was brown and cream and did the job of a hoover without the lecky bill going through the roof. all of our coats and all of our outdoor boots. paint cans bitter chocolate brown and magnolia. a dartboard and a deranged looking football that one of the brothers had in the very back corner, beside the pull down cord to turn the overhead light bulb on. the cord was dumb it had to be found before the light could go on. but mam said everything in the bungalow was a fuck up because everything was done on a shoestring that was in a rush. it was plain to see why shoestrings often rushed places, but I never understood this till now.

I put the powder in the orange le creuset pots, a gift from the other granny, granny anne, himself’s mother, though we hadn’t seen her in some years now and himself shouted loudly and often about her not calling, as if mam could go outside and ring the door bell and pretend to be her. we didn’t have a phone to call her on and once or twice mam drove to the phone at the top of marshal’s hill to ring her but she just sat in the car and smoked a benson and hedges fag, putting on lipstick after and gloss in a glass bottle that she had for ages and ages. tell himself i let the phone ring out for twenty-five rings. and we did, later that evening we would say she was ages and ages in the phone box but that some lads came on bikes and started throwing stones at the car so we had to leave, as james and patrick were on the back window and they were afraid. james and patrick never came to the phone box, or michael or john but just me and mam. she knew I could lie well. a lie is usually better than the truth when you’re a wife, she’d tell me every day.

where do you think he’s gone? I asked her. the boys were coming in dribs and drabs and putting their runny noses over the soup pot. it was watery and made to feed four not eight according to the back of the packet but mam said it was better for you watery, good for your skin tone. she was often talking about her skin color and said it was gone an awful blue color from the benson and hedges, I told her she had the nicest skin in the whole world, well maybe not as nice as the baby’s arse, because that was really lovely and was like his fat cheeks now he was getting the large back teeth. don’t let it fucken burn, she said, and I was just happy she was noticing.

but then mam went silent.

that was the end of it, and the start of it and the middle of it. she got up and took the whisk from my hand scraping the almond inside of the pot, and she said you’ve only gone and let it fucken burn, and I said, I hadn’t, and she said, swear and I said I swear on the holy bible and all the saints and on our lady and on the souls above at the cross in the cemetery, swear on me, she said, I said I swear on you, swear on himself and he out on the country roads tonight. I swore on himself. out loud I said I swear on himself and his safe passages back to us. and in my head I begged for him to be ran over, right across his heart so it mushed into the road. and over his head so we could just about make out his deadpan puss.

and john was splitting his sides laughing, saying she’s gone right fucken cuckoo this time, and her watery soup, think the cunt could get us some burgers or a rib eye, ever hear of a rib eye mam? and michael joined in laughing and then they started to point their fingers at her. and I screamed at them to leave her alone, leave her be, I burned the soup and she’s just upset as a it was the last packet in the USA tin but john said, could I give a fuck about that tin. everytime I look in the press I think we’ve a biscuit, and then some packet of powder. and everytime I look at her with her hands over her head.

and michael started laughing in the same way they do when they mock joanne casey and I got the fizzy feet and the baby was crying and I knew his nappy needed changing or he was hungry so I thought about giving him a bottle with warmed sugar-water but my hands were too shaky.

I took the whisk out of the grey with the green bits and the orange bits and it reminded me of the flag in the school and all the teachers that beat their chests when they pass it and I beat my chest and I waved the whisk in their faces and I can’t remember what I said spinning around on the lino, but I know I said under my roof and I know I screamed and then they left the kitchen. and I know everyone was quiet, even the baby with the shitty hole.

and the day mam went silent she moved in under the stairs. I was sure if she moved anywhere it would be out to the garden shed, again, but she didn’t. she sat in under the stairs behind the bitter chocolate dulux cans and all the important stuff and I told john and michael to go out and clean out the garden shed. and they asked if mam was going to move out to the garden and I said she certainly was not, in her tone. I kept the whisk down in my welly from now on and I told them when it was cleared out to let me know. the baby stayed on my hip and conor sat in the front room watching snow on the telly until three o’ clock when it would come on.

patrick and james were joined at the hip and they’d go off for long days and come back with kindling for the fire in the shape of a tyke or a ricking horse, people seemed to be forever throwing things out in the countryside. the oldest two were told to put the high jump sacks into the garden shed, that because they were the oldest they needed their own house now. john seemed angry that it leaked and I told him to solve it. I told him that if I was the boss of the house now that they had to move out, but I’d still make them sandwiches, now there was not soup left. we had a few tea bags and a half a cup of sugar and we had enough bread for the week if we were really careful. it was hard to be really careful though and I knew it’d be gone in two days if I didn’t mind it so I put some twine on it, and slung it around my waist and carried it on the other hip to the baby who was forever reaching over his fat stumpy hand to pull at it, it was a game that made him happy.

for the first two days I made goody. breakfast, dinner and tea.

first I tore up a bread slice each and sprinkled over a half tea spoon of sugar and then I stood on my school bag and lifted my hand up over my head and poured fox-red tea from granny’s teapot from a great height. it splashed around but everyone seemed ok about the tea and the goody. I added a splash of milk. no one was washed for days except for face and hands, I had no idea how to use the new shower, and so I frog marched them to the kitchen sink like mam used to do with the other babies, not so much with this one on my hip, who was always a grubby mess, and scrubbed at them with a left over brillo–pad. I was sure michael and john wouldn’t arrive for goodie or for wash up, but they came, each evening, and waved in at mam under the stairs and she waved back once and we were all delighted.

I told the two boys that when the sun went down and the grey fell on the front room window and the smell of september hung around panicking me, for soon it would be school again, and who’d mind the baby, I said; we need to have a meeting. I know people have them to solve problems and we need to have a meeting. the boys didn’t seem to agree or disagree and the baby was swinging at my hip and there were only the two heels of bread and a slice-in-between left now. and the meeting began with us all standing in a triangle. I said the bread is running out. and john said fuck this fucking hole, and I wish I was dead, and you’re going around like a cunt not letting me have the cheese (I was keeping the cheese for the emergency days that were hours ahead) michael didn’t copy john, and said, I think we need to do something, and suggested he call in on mr hynes up the road, and maybe that we go to the phone box to ring granny again, and this time let it call out for twenty five rings, and then hit the large black button and then let it ring out again and keep doing it until it gets dusk and jog home. he seemed happy there was a plan at’all.

I knew the biggest problem we had was that mam under the stairs was soaking wet and the smell was so bad. last night I decided to leave the light on all night because I couldn’t bear passing her out to get to the cord to pull it down and I knew this upset her. I had tried to fit in john and michael’s single mattress but this way too large and damp and I knew it might make her sick. she was always saying that the damp mattresses were making everyone sick so I didn’t think she needed to get the chest sick as well as the head sick. mam, mam, I said, I’m so sorry I waved the whisk around and I burned the soup. I really am sorry and conor drew a picture of himself on the plastic bag with himself’s old shoe polish, and it looked like him.

will I leave it in here under the stairs with you.

she waved her narrow hand at me, a ring on every finger. communion ring on her baby finger, wedding ring on her ring one, her granny’s wedding ring on her pointy one and a large coin on her thumb.

himself had given her the large coin one when she turned eighteen and had a birthday in the country shack on the main road, where the lights were always bright day or night and the diner fed people at all wired hours of the mornings when they went on trips. once mam brought the seven of us to the shack at the middle of the night, or the middle of the morning. stacey behind the counter had said good morning, whispered to mam who was throwing herself over and back and sent us all off again with a white cardboard box of buns.

and himself and mam slept in the shed at the end of the garden for two days after that. she came in once to bring the baby outside thought we all wanted her to leave the baby with. conor said nothing at all. that was when john was nice and liked mam.

I’m sorry about the soup, I’ve cleaned the pot and I haven’t broken a cup, I pleaded, my body half in the press trying not to gag. mam, you need me to wash your clothes. you need to pass them all out to me. conor was beside me, and asked if we needed to leave in a bucket or a basin or something, I said that was a great idea, and that he should sing to her. he grabbed the lug of my ear tight and it hurt so much, mostly because I didn’t have my ears pierced like all the other girls in my class, but now it was too late. beside himself said only tinkers pierce their ears. conor told me he couldn’t sing because the smell was hurting his throat. so I boiled up a pan of water and washed mam. I cut off her stone wash denims and her cerise pink top. I hated them on her anyway and her hair streeling down her back. I cut off her knickers, but left on her bra and I pulled on one of michael’s back to the future t-shirts that the vincentpaul’s gave us last christmas and this made her smile.

I pulled up conor’s pajamas pants on her that himself had given him, but she didn’t seem to mind. conor hated them anyway and went back to the front room watching telly. there was snow on the screen and I had no idea how conor could watch snow all day long. I went the famine road to the shed and poured some gasoline on the clothes and watched them burn. I knew I didn’t have the stomach to wash my mothers clothes. I knew I would use the whisk again too and that I wasn’t at all sorry but that mam liked it best when himself had once said sorry for knocking out a back tooth and the sorry filled up the hole of the back tooth well and dandy so I said it to her.

not to lie, but to do the good lie like she had taught me.

eventually john came back from the phone and he was damp like the mattresses and he said that she would come tomorrow and I was a part happy and part fizzy and I looked in under the stairs, I said, mam, mam, anne will come tomorrow, and she can bring me for groceries, if she has any money, but maybe I can tell her it’s thursday and she can get himself to come and leave the money on the counter, and I’ll go to the shop with the baby on my hip and a trolley. I’ll push a trolley and ill fill it up. I could make fifty pounds go a very long way I told her that I might have enough left for a fry’s turkish delight for her. but she started fucken crying again and I left her so. and I left on the large 100-watt bulb. and sometimes if it over headed it smashed into a thousand little pieces like all the flour particles leaving a bag or a thirteen o clock in o haras field and I wanted it to smash. i wanted it to smash to at least a thousand pieces, so one could hit her beautiful eyeball. I don’t know if eyeballs bleed but if you only had one eye, you might be more inclined to use it. you might look better, or her ear, if one hit her ear and the blood was so warm that it woke her up. I said to the boys to run and turn on every light I the house and even the transistor and boil me a pot of water, I said to john that it was an emergency and that I would put the water into a rubber hot water bottle anne had left the last time she’d arrived, and told us all to put them in our beds. she had brought three, to share. and when I told john he could have one he was delighted, it was cold in his new house with michael at the end of our garden. and I knew if the bulb smashed mam would know and she’d had to leave her home under the stairs and we could put her into bed, and tell anne she had the hand foot and mouth everyone in the school has.

but the lights went out.

and the bulb under the stairs hissed like the cat and then whirred and then cooled down.

like himself.

and john found the butt of three candles from knock shrine and we lit them. it was dark and I could see my hand shadow as only the light was flickering mad and I put the baby in the crib. himself and mam’s bed was cold as the outside of the shed wall. and I told john he couldn’t have the hot water bottle now. besides, it was luke warm, and luke warm does more danger than the cold. he said he’d never hear that, but I waved my whisk at him and he stopped. I put the bottle in their bed and the baby cooed and sucked his toes.

michael was under the stairs by now. brushing mam’s hair, he was brushing it softly and running his hands through the opposite sides, stopping often, it was knotted and clumping and conor got a sponge fro the kitchen and washed down the rest. john shouted at him that he was nothing more than a puff but soon he was holding her feet and blowing hot air at her, and james decided he would play the tin whistle but it sounded sharp and raspy and patrick took it off him and showed mam how his teacher gives his the knuckles with the tin whistle and we all laughed. and we laughed and he said he gets the knuckles everyday. I waited for mam to wake up although her eyes were wide open and tell patrick to shove the tin whistle up his teacher’s hole. teachers were always giving knuckles or wallops for the thickest things. himself gave it for mad things too. and I couldn’t understand these faults at all. I didn’t want to be a grown up at all, but if I ever became one, I would have my whisk and my lies,

I think she’s trying to get up, john said, mother was shifting on her arse and I was afraid that she was going to dirty herself again but she put an ankle under her and grabbed at michael’s forearm, and I noticed he was getting a moustache too, like john.

michael didn’t stop brushing her hair and went on an on until she was on all fours and we were all peering in at her, only michael and herself left in under the stairs and she grabbed his other arm and michael’s hand had left her hair now and she see saw sobbed the way children do and ran out of breath. but I knew this was a start, now I was mother.

and the hot water bottle was in the bed.

and I would send them all off to school in september, now I could make food, and I could manage the day with mam in bed and the baby, growing out of my hip.


About the writer:
Elaine Feeney is an award winning writer and according to Fionnaula Flanagan (California) is “one of the most important and provocative poets to come out of Ireland in the last decade.” She was educated at University College Galway, University College Cork and The University of Limerick and teaches English Literature at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Feeney won the Cúirt Poetry Prize, North Beach Nights’ Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for The Fish Poetry Prize amongst others. Her work has been widely published, translated and anthologised, including recent publications in Poetry Review (UK), Oxford Poetry (UK), Stonecutter Journal (US), The Wide Shore, A Journal of Global Women’s Writing (US), The Stinging Fly (IRE) New Writing (Canada), Pilgrimage (US), The Manchester Review (UK) and Solas Nua (US). She has published four poetry collections, Indiscipline (2007) Where’s Katie? (2010, Salmon) and The Radio was Gospel (2014, Salmon) and Rise (2017, Salmon Poetry). In 2016, Feeney was commissioned to write the narrative to a feature production by Irish Choreographer, Liz Roche and Film Director Mary Wycherley. It has been shortlisted for the 2017 Bucharest Film Festival and the Underwire Film Festival Prize, UK and has been shown toured in the US and Europe. She is a comedy script writer for a pilot show, The Fannypack which was highly commended by BAFTA. Feeney has just finished her first novel, SIC [K].

Image: Girl in a White Dress by Sir William Orpen (1878-1931). Oil on canvas. No size specified. Before 1931. Public domain.