MOTHERS DAY



H
er Father is walking slower now.
 She supposes she has noted it in stages, a grimace as he settles
 into the car, an intake of breath when he moves, a half stretch that he cant complete without wincing. She wonders how long she has not noticed. She studies him as he comes over. 
He does not look his age.
“Oh” he says. “You’re here already”.
“I am”
“Jesus. It’s bitter out.” He sits in his drenched coat and scarf and places his wet cap on the table.
 “I hate them armchairs” he says. “They’re too feckin low for me.”
“I’ll get you one of those big leather cushions they have” -
She looks around and locates one across the room and walks back dragging it. Her Father is standing again to place the cushion and looking lost.
“Would you not take off your coat? How can you go back out in this weather afterwards” she asks.
“I’m perished!”  
As they manipulate the giant cushion in the armchair she stands near him and can smell the rain and damp from his coat, but underneath it something unsettling.  It’s a smell of head and damp, and musty house and wet dog.
 It’s the smell of her Grandfather.
 It’s not the smell of her Fathers citrus aftershave and laundered shirts. She remembers the smell of the ironing and the steam and the heat in the kitchen and a lump forms in her throat. 
They sit. 
They read menus safe for a minute or two in isolation.
  She regains her composure.
“What are you going to have Dad?” she asks brightly looking over his shoulder at the blackboard of specials that she knows by heart. She knows he will say just something small as he did in every European capital they visited showing the incredulous waiters the size of his palm and speaking louder than normal. 
“Just something small”
She suppresses a sigh. She wants to look at him.
 The way she looks at strangers. She wants to watch him and find out how he is. She wants to find out who he is.  She wants to reassure herself almost that he is functioning and ok.
 More than anything she needs him to be ok. She cannot maintain eye contact. She fills their glasses with iced water and adds orange cordial from the tray on the bar to hers. 
It tastes of childhood.
“They have a nice bit of fish up there, in a white wine sauce. She says. “I saw it earlier”.
“I’m sick of fish. I had it for lunch.”
“Well, would you like the roast.  Its beef” - 
A couple are weaving their way through the tables to them on their way out for a smoke.  She has met them before but can’t remember their names.  Her Father is animated and smiling and full of questions about exactly where they are from and if left alone at this task would somehow finally be able to place them. Placing is important to him. She takes advantage of their banter to study him.  She notices how sparse his hair is, and that he has grown a brown mole on the side of his head and  looks tired. His eyes are red rimmed.  She is filled with remorse and regret. The couple move outside laughing.
“What did you do last night eh?” she asks.
“Just watched the late late. That curse of jasus dog tore up his box again. I settled it all lovely for him and even put a new piece of carpet in it”.  He sighs.

The Latvian waiter arrives to take their order. He looks wrecked. There is stubble on his chin and a shine off his work pants. He looks like he was up all night drinking yellow cans of lager in a smoke filled room.  She smiles a lot and flirts outrageously. She is overly familiar. She finds it improves the service and the coffee refills.
“You talk a lot of shite” her Father remarks when he leaves.
As cutlery and napkins are placed on their left her Father reaches for the complimentary Irish Times on the chair beside him that has please return to coffee dock written across the masthead in red biro and turns to the crosswords.  She wonders when it became acceptable to have dinner with someone who held a newspaper aloft between you.  She wonders why he cannot look at her and when that started. She wonders if she has started to resemble her Mother.  


                                                            ******************

They stop outside the nursing home in the disabled parking bay. He has a wheelchair sticker on the car now. Despite her protestations to the contrary he said he was entitled to. 
“I’m just saying if someone with an actual wheelchair comes along there could be words is all” she remarked.
“Whisht will you”
She would normally wait for him to extract himself from the car. Unfolding himself stiffly and groaning. She would wait with her collar up in the unchecked wind while he took out his bag of tiny bite size  marshmallows  and belgian chocolates - “Mam doesn’t really have a sweet tooth” she would offer.                                           
He would not reply.  
She would look at the low building and the complete flatness of the landscape and the cloud formations in the impossibly big sky with interest while he locked the door and set the alarm.  There would be a politeness at the glass door with the wind chimes behind it and a smell as a soon as you stepped inside of heat and baking and lavender and piss.  Along the plant lined hallway with its photographs of long dead residents having knives held in their ancient hands, cutting cakes they couldn’t eat at parties they couldn’t remember - gurning into disposable cameras surrounded by staff, she would walk to the room with him shoulder to shoulder.  She knew she was definitely not growing taller.
Today she walked ahead of him on the pretext of giving way to an elderly priest shuffling past on a walking aid. She thanked the heavens for a chatty nurse stopping him to moan about the snow.  It was important to get to the room first. 
Damage control.
She used to think that maybe it was because she was complicit in their minute neglect, or maybe it was because she felt his heart had been broken into enough pieces. In her head she knew it was the latter.  Some days it felt like a walking race . Some days they were neck and neck . A photo finish at room 16. A dead heat.  Vying for a glimpse of her.  Today she had him beat.
The first glimpse of her Mother never failed to make her breath catch in her throat. Sitting underneath the window in her air cushioned chair she looked as tiny and vulnerable as a child.  She had fallen completely over to one side and her head was tilted at a very awkward angle. An angle impossible to fall asleep at but she was soundly and deeply asleep. She would plug in the mulled wine room scenter and light the yankee candle in the big glass holder . She would straighten the throws and arrange the soft toys on the hospital bed which thrummed quietly as the air in the mattress hissed in and out. She would take her to the bathroom and change and wash her.   She would turn off the horrific bright overhead light and plug in the lamp she brought from home. By then he would have finished chit chat and enquiries to medical about meals and meds.  By then he would be at the door. And the look on his face would speak volumes.       
His face. 
                                                                                                                                 


She sits in the visitors room by the fire exit door smoking in the snow.  The door has to be open but it’s a moot point as the room is freezing and only smokers come in here. The fields are covered beyond all recognition in a heavy fresh fall of snow and the only sound is the hum of the kitchen fridge. Down the hall tomorrows lunch has been prepped on a work bench, huge sides of beef defrosting and turkeys stuffed. Buckets of peeled and eyed potatoes sit in starchy water and vast saucepans of shredded cabbage and chopped carrots are lined up in a row. The puddings are simmering on the 8 ring cooker and she can hear the cleaning staff asking each other if they’re all set for Christmas.  They are.  They have been laying away toys and bikes and computer gadgets and God only knows what all since the summer. And their club paid out.  One, the dark one she has christened Pocahantas comes in for a break.  She fumbles in her handbag and finds her cigarettes and lighter. She is a stunning looking girl. Slim with dark hair and eyes with that perfect skin that tans easily but asks and answers questions with her eyes focusing on a spot  just inches to the side of you and never at you.
“Oh hiya hun, I didn’t even know you were out here. Lord, its freezing ain’t it? How’s your poor Ma eh?” she asked the handle of the window.
“She’s good. Yeah, she’s good thanks. How are you doing? Are you all set for Christmas?
“Jesus I so am. I get my lads stuff from when they go back to school in September. Your heart would be broke though wouldn’t it though”?  she asks the notice board that has JOBS FOR TODAY on it.
“Well, I don’t have children so I would not know myself. What have they asked Santa for?”
Pocahantas blows a plume of white smoke down each nostril and sighs before answering. Her breath is fogging up the cold window.
“Well last year the twins wanted these special bikes, a fortune they were. Fancy ones. I saved for months and got them. They were in bits by New Years.”  She told the right lapel of a jacket.
“Well, boys will be boys!”
Pocahantas inhaled and coughed. She looked at the lockers.
“Actually they’re girls”

                                         **************************************


O
n  evenings when she wandered the empty house alone, picking up and putting down familiar objects like talismans, opening piles of books at random and instantly losing interest or the page or both, standing at the sink scrubbing coffee mugs and feeling the heat of the bubbling water warming her through she would think.  She would realise that she had been standing in a trance staring at the spire of the church framed against the stark winter skyline outside her window for ages.  She would wonder where she had gone and when the days had formed such an uneasy alliance with time.  It was a feeling of treading water. It was a feeling of being in a state of suspended animation. A vacuum.  Almost, but not quite everything had taken on a different hue, a shade, a tone, unlike any other. It was bright.  Bright too from the all pervasive whiteness from a soft blanket of snow that was piled high outside. The streets were deserted. There was not a single footprint to claim the virgin path.
She was drawing stick figures in condensation on the icy windows when the door bell shocked her. She had become immune to poignancy imbueing it instead with a sense of tragi-comedy.  She laughed out loud at inanities. She railed at circumstances. She tilted at windmills.  She pissed and vinegared. She drank. Alone. Singing old refrains. She looked at her brother in disbelief as he stood banging the snow off his boots on her wooden floors.  He was moving from foot to foot like a dog with an itch he can’t scratch.

“I’m just saying you’ll have to deal with the fallout of this later so it would match you better to wrap your head around it now. You have not seen her in weeks” she said.
“Jasus............ I just can’t look at it. I can’t cope” he replied.

She arched an eyebrow at him.
He had been defending his inability to visit.  This 6ft man child, this blue eyed boy, this giant baby who sat sobbing into the cold ash of a dead fire while his children slept above him dreaming of childish things, this favourite son, this only son, cannot do it.
She watches him pour a mug of espresso and top it up with cold water and sit awkwardly to roll himself a cigarette.  She notices the hair around his temples is grey as is his beard. When did he get to be this age? Where is the plump cheeked boy from the photographs who was practicing his wink?  She wonders when they grew up and can they go around again?  Maybe if they’re good. Please Sir, I was only messing. Can we go again? He can’t or won’t look at her and sits grunting monosyllabically to the titbits she dripfeeds him.  His stock response is “Oh” with the inflection varied to denote mood change and reaction.   
His talk is all of pubs and who said what to who and when and where and all the idle talk that people share. The elephant in the room has gone for a lie down in a pile of its own dung. There is a war chest of things here that are skirted around and danced around like a country polka. Topics that come with a huge clanging warning bell around their neck. Things that will remain unsaid.  So the afternoon is measured out in coffee cups and it is dark as night at four o clock.
“We’re in for another belt of it by the look of that sky” he observes stooping to look out the small window   There is an orange halo round the spire from street lights and snow. It looks like a portal.
“I’m going to head off. I’ve a thirst on me you could photograph and the tide is out”

      
                                                       ****************************.


The big sky is charcoal.
 Skeletal trees and a distant purple mountain shrouded in bulging black clouds sits placidly observing.   The people carrier with the tyre chains on inches slowly down the glasslike lane. The windows are fogged with condensation.  She is in the back with the children.  They slide to a skewways stop.  At the glass doors with its tinkling wind chimes they read a hand written sign.
Closed due to winter vomiting bug. Please ring bell.
The nurse with the thick ankles comes finally as they freeze.   She shouts through the glass.  They pass the bottles and bags in through the top of the open window and drive slowly away.

                                                      

All that Saturday evening she had spent hours listening to jazz while  prepping the Easter lunch, scoring a leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary, roasting parsnips and potato.  Now in the steam filled kitchen she whips cream and slides a rhubarb tart into the oven to warm. The table is dressed and lit. Set for two.   She thinks about families eating together today around big tables in homes and hotels and remembers on Good Friday as a child she and her Mother had spent all afternoon listening to the Easter Ceremonies from the Cathedral on the radio as they baked and talked.  A Black Fast back in the day. Not a scrap of meat or chocolate to be consumed on this day. The phone rings. Her Fathers voice is faint on his mobile. 
“So she asked me would I stay and have a bit with Mam on the day that’s in it......... and I said yes.”

She surveys the waiting room and the hours of wasted work and suppresses a sigh.
“It’ll keep............”
She blows out the candles and turns off the oven and walks out the hall door.

                                                                     

There are fat green strawberries growing on the window sill in the baking sun. The dry heat from the radiator underneath has made the clay as fine and powdery as sand. She uses the stale water from the untouched water jug to drench the parched leaves.  The room is full today.  There is a proliferation of bodies and bags nestled together on the bed.  Half cups of tea and melted biscuits are dotted around the floor. It  is a pilgrimage. Her Uncle is having treatment for cancer but it is never referred to, rarely if ever mentioned, as if to do so would give creedance to the unnamed. He leans forward on the bed with the cup balanced on his knee, steadied by his large hand. His suit is hanging from him. He is the historian, the keeper of the archive, the holder of the information gleaned from narrative, recall and the still youthful faces in grainy sepia photographs. He has documented and collected the memories of his family for generations.  His wife has put yet another dark rinse in her cropped hair and her white roots have turned orange along the scalp and at the temples. Her sallow face is lined and creased like a soft brown paper bag that has been folded and refolded many times.  He tells a story of them as children on bicycles out on the Barrow path on a summers evening. Rounding a corner at the rivers edge cycling three abreast they had collided with an elderly gentleman taking a refined constitutional .
“We took the two shins off him with the pedals”
In an apolexy of pain and indignation he had taken to his heels and with coat tails flying beat a path across the railway tracks to their family home where he had literally danced up the path and stood hopping and cursing at the front door. He complained bitterly and at length and with such profanity that a very timid ladylike neighbour had been forced to pop her head out the top window next door and enquire
“Excuse me, Mrs Whelan, who’s doing all the “fucking” out here?”     
The sisters exchange a look over their Mothers head. They are looking at a deep indentation at the base of her thumb.
“This is new.”
“Its called a snuff spot, for obvious reasons......., her sisters voice tails off. She is tired today. Tired of treading water and wondering how many more surprises are in store for them.  She can do without surprises now. 
They work as a double act, one holding the glass and one wiping the liquid that seeps out the side of their Mothers lips. There is opera  on the stereo and candles burning in the window sill. The sky has darkened and is swollen and tumescent with the promise of rain. Clouds are scudding across the almost full moon and a single star is shining beside it. Her sisters boy child lies on the bed with his nintendo. Escaping from what he sees in front of him, this child who has never known the woman he calls Nana, has no memory of her well and draws and sketches in his own little memories on the flickering screen.
In the dining room the red faced kitchen assistant pushes the old priest closer to the table so that his shaking hands can find the buttered bread.
“Fawder, you’re nearly in the far field” she exclaims as she removes the cling film from the slice of ham and tomato.
At the assisted feeds table the women wait to be fed their bowls of mush. The first time she left her Mother there with the giant blue bib she had to be taken out into the garden to have a cigarette and a cry.  The lady who waters the plants has had an operation for cataracts and is now wearing shades and the plants are dry and withering in their pots. She hates to see living things curling up and dying for the lack of a drink but there is just so many of them and the watering can so heavy.

                                                           *******************

The waiter is clearing away plates and proffering dessert menus. They order and she walks over to remind him to make the coffee strong. Then she walks back for iced water.  And fresh napkins.
“Christ, will you sit, you’re up and down like a dog at a fair”
She bites her tongue or it will develop. It gets out of hand very quickly sometimes.  The desserts come and she looks ruefully at the cream. 
“Oh well, sure there’s no wrinkles in a balloon”.
He does not respond.
She is used to this and attacks the plate instead. 
“I’m after being every way this day looking for a Mothers day present for Mam. I don’t know what all to get her.”
She thinks for a moment.
“Perfume would be good – the other stuff is nearly gone. You cant leave it on the window sill in the sun, and when you are sitting there could you water the plants? The strawberries are dead.”
He huffs and blows. They both know he only waters the pot plant he brought for the anniversary. It is dying from saturation.  He pushes the table away and pulls himself up.
“I’ll have to go now to make it out in time for mass and to get the blue seat by the piano.”
“Grand, I’ll be out later on”
“Grand, I’ll be out later on”
“What time though” he asks.
“I don’t know ............ whenever I can blag a lift off some craythur”
He hitches up his coat to get at his arse pocket and removes his wallet and puts a fifty on the table.
“Go over and pay for that  will you?”
She stares at the note and does a quick calculation in her head. She could just about manage it.
“No, it’s ok, I have it covered.”
She beckons the blonde waitress with the tight black pants.
“Here, here take this” he offers again but she is too quick for him and passes her laser card to the girl with a smile.
He puts on the damp cap and folds the paper under his arm.
“I’ll see you after so” he says and she watches him walk away, through the revolving doors and then run through the rain to the car. She enters her pin number on the machine and waits nodding while the girl makes small talk about the length of her shift.  
She puts the receipts absentmindedly into her purse and gathers her bag and phone and book to go sit in another seat.
 One where she will have her back to the wall. 
 She will need time to figure out what the hell she is going to do.




 Michelle Dooley Mahon 2011. 

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