There is no response when I knock on her bedroom door. I wasn’t expecting one, really. I leave the cheese sandwich and mug of coffee on the floor outside her room anyway. They’ll disappear at some point and I’ll know she’s at least eaten something. I struggle to recall what the trigger was this time. I used to think it was me. Something I said, or did, or didn’t do. Took me a while to realise that she needed me to pick the fight with, to give her the excuse to withdraw when the darkness came. It doesn’t lessen the impact of the words when they come though.
I cross the hall and close my own bedroom door after me. The purple Milk Tray box is under my bed, a bit dusty so it must be a while since the last time. I’ve never kept track of dates. I tear a page from my jotter and write you’re the living image of your father. I fold it in half and add it to the box. She’s said worse.
I lie on the bed and stretch my arms until I can just about touch both walls. The box room is always mine. This is one of the smallest I’ve had, barely wider than the single bed. But I have some privacy at least. The boys have always had to share. Sometimes I’ve had to share with them. Sometimes I’ve shared with her. So I appreciate this five by seven space that’s all my own. The walls are an uncomfortable blend of peeling, regency-style wallpaper and my surreptitious attempts to paint over it, one tester pot from Woodie’s at a time.
The lampshade is looking dated now but I remember the treat it was when I got it. Pastel pink with flying birds in purple silhouette. It didn’t fit with the goth look I’d adopted the following year. I’m now in the bunking off school and getting wrecked with Emer phase. Not sure of the appropriate aesthetic for whatever that is but this lampshade isn’t it.
She’d given up smoking. So proud of herself. Not buying forty a day meant there was a bit spare, so she decided that each week she’d buy something tangible to show for her efforts. Something for each of us in turn and maybe something for the house. Not herself. Never herself. I remember the high she was on, the trips to the shopping centre to pick something out. Our reticence, her insistence.
Come on, she’d say, I’m feeling flaithiúlach.
It didn’t last. Of course it didn’t last. Something happened. A trigger. A nudge back to the dark place. The kitchen filled with fug again. Our asthmatic wheezes returned.
I rouse myself and try to think about dinner. I got chipper chips last night but there’s only coppers left until I get paid. I’ll get tips tonight though so tomorrow will be taken care of. If I smile sweetly enough at the middle-aged blokes. Humour the ones who tell me to get the pints from the bar, where they’re 5p cheaper than the lounge; 5p presumably being the value of my service. But the tip is always more than the difference and they enjoy feeling magnanimous. I pretend their comments about my arse are hilarious banter and sashay a little in my tight black skirt as I walk away. Oulfellas like them.
But before work I have to feed the youngfellas. A search of the fridge reveals two Findus crispy pancakes stuck in the crud at the back of the freezer bit and there’s a pack of savoury rice in the press. That’ll do. I can grab something at the pub. If I’m lucky there’ll be a function on upstairs and I can graze the buffet for the leftover curly egg sandwiches.
Sometimes she acknowledges that I’ve used my own money to keep us alive, mostly she doesn’t. There’ll never be a thanks or apology but one day she’ll just start talking to me again and I’ll know it’s over. I open the kitchen windows in a vain attempt to freshen the air. I’ve been trying to save for London but I give up so much of my earnings anyway just to cover the bills, I’ll be 18 before I’ve even got the ferry fare. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so flaithiúlach with the chips but I just could not be arsed food shopping.
When she’s in an up mood she’ll sometimes decide to do something huge. Make a dramatic change to her life. Turn everything around. She’ll apply for a new job or a training course and be so excited when she gets it. Then I’ll have to ring them, on the morning that would have been her first day. I have developed a cheerful, everything is perfectly normal, demeanour for these phone calls.
I’m afraid Mam can’t come in today. No, she’ll be off for a good while so she said to give the job to someone else. No, really, there’s no point. She’s after breaking her leg.
I used to think their reaction, audibly shocked, genuinely concerned, was a bit OTT for a broken leg and then Sharon O’Donoghue fractured her femur and was off school for months. She came in to watch sports day towards the end of term. They sat her on a chair with her plastered leg on a stool, bored out of her face and simmering with resentment. She looked pink and bloated. When the cast came off after the summer, her healed leg was slimmer than the other. She was still using a stick sometimes and it would be months before she’d be able to play basketball again. But she broke her leg is easier to say than my ma is depressed and won’t come out of her room. Even if the habit of lying to protect the family hadn’t been drilled into me, I’m not sure I’d even have the vocabulary.
Do the boys even notice? We never talk about it. It’s just normal for us. I think it happens less often than it used to but like I said, I don’t keep track. Sometimes it gets to a head and she’ll be taken in for a rest my auntie says. We used to be scattered when that happened, never taken as a unit. The boys would go to one set of cousins, me to another.
Years ago it used to be my Gran’s house we’d go to but that came to a halt the summer I knocked on another bedroom door. Tell Áine the dinner’s ready so I ran upstairs and called her name as I knocked. No response. I tried the handle, found it locked. No sounds from inside. I knocked louder, screamed her name, crying, frantic. The house was full that day, I’m sure at least three uncles barged the solid wooden door until a panel cracked and they could reach inside for the key. I was scooched out of the way but not before I’d had a glimpse of my favourite auntie, her pale face lolling.
I’d loved Áine’s room. She had Audrey Hepburn prints on the wall and white furniture with cameos on the doors. She’d let me try on her chunky costume jewellery and her sixties’ heels in zebra print and gold, with impossibly pointy toes like a cartoon genie’s feet, and squirt perfume from dusty bottles with tassels. I’d bunk with her when we stayed in Gran’s, the two of us sharing a not quite double bed and chatting into the small hours. She taught me French rhymes and told me long stories with lessons that I didn’t yet understand. She was every sophisticated thing I wanted to be when I grew up. I had no idea of the reasons that had brought her home from Brussels, to live in her mother’s house again.
I heard my aunties saying she hadn’t really meant to do it, that she was only looking for attention. That she wanted us to find her in time. That, if she had really wanted to, she would have waited until the house was quieter, when she was alone with my Gran. It was decided then that she was too fragile for us to be staying in the house. So the next time, we got farmed out.
It wasn’t bad though, living with cousins. I never had to cook or look after the boys. There were no fights, the way I remember it. My memories are of sprawling summer games of Red Rover with every kid on the street, lasting until the light had leaked from the sky and we were called in. Now I’m older, I can handle it without the aunties. Sometimes they show up and bring her out for a drive, or sit in the kitchen smoking with her. But other times they’re back of the neck and she won’t even have them in the house.
Work passes quickly. I know the drill well enough now to leave my mouth on flirty auto-pilot while my brain goes to places I’d rather be. I’m thinking about tomorrow, the slip outside after the one o’clock bell, wriggling out of our uniforms (designed to make us as unattractive to the lads in Drimnagh Castle as it’s possible for wool and serge to do) behind the trees at the far end of the hockey field and stuffing them in our bags, the shared can on the paranoid walk to Rathmines, the initial recoil at the grot of Mick’s flat, then that first greedy drag on the joint, the loosening in my bones as I exhale.
It occurs to me that we never contribute to the cost of the five-spot we share. Mick lets us hang out with him most days, smoking his stash and eating his pizza. He claims to work freelance, in something obscure enough to explain why he’s at home whenever we turn up. We met him at the Indie night in McGonigle’s. He had his hair in a quiff then and wore lace-up docs and spoke authoritatively about 4AD bands we pretended we’d heard of. Not my type but Emer was kinda into him. I go to keep her company, mostly.
Coming home after my shift, there’s a light on in the kitchen. I hang back for a few minutes, trying to brace for what may come. Dozens of these moments compress in my chest like a folding telescope. I sit on the low wall of the driveway, inhaling the soft night air as deeply as tomorrow’s promised joint.
For a mad minute, I contemplate the possibility of arriving at Mick’s door at one in the morning. Movement catches my peripheral vision and I make eye contact with a briefly-startled urban fox, before he resumes his unbothered stroll towards the strip of derelict wildness behind our estate.
Resigning myself to what lies ahead, I dig the key out of my bag and go in. Through the half open kitchen door, I see her sitting at the table with a coffee, a smoke and a crossword. Closing the front door as gently as I can, I pause in the hall.
I take it it was you that cleaned the kitchen.
My throat catches as I try to gauge the tone. It could be a peace offering or I could be trapped in another screaming match I never know how to get out of. I say nothing but my heart’s like the clappers. I ready myself to go into mea culpa mode if I have to. She looks up and gives me a weak, weary smile.
You’re a good girl. Sure what would I do without you?
Gill Ryan blogs and tweets about under-told histories and mythology @TheWildGees and writes Wikipedia articles for ‘women in red’ who do not yet have one. She writes academically on open education and refugee learning, and creatively draws on her own history and family mythologies. Originally from Crumlin in Dublin, she currently lives in Perth, Scotland.