By Tara Murphy
Art By Ash Clancy
Margaret is cutting weeds in her front garden, plucking out the imperfections within her flowers. My breath hitches when I see her face. The lines are stronger now, her neck swollen with age, but I know it’s her. Kitty drives slower, and I put my head down to have one more minute of peace.
“Daddy doesn’t know anyone around here, does he?”
I need to check again, even though this is the third time I’ve asked this question in the last ten minutes. Kitty looks at me through the mirror and fumbles with the steering wheel as the car pulls to a stop – she’s never been skilled at parking.
“Look Erin, there might be a woman up the street who knows him, but she’d never say anything.”
Her seatbelt pops before it zips back to the side of the car emitting a loud bang. Margaret hobbles over to the window waving a gloved hand. The green rubber looks stupid as it waggles around when she spots me. I nearly laugh and scream but instead, I open my door and step outside.
“She’s the picture of Annmarie.”
I melt onto the pavement and swim inside her house whilst Kitty drives away. Half an hour she told me. I wind my watch to thirty minutes and take a seat at the kitchen table.
“Let’s get you a treat,” Margaret says. I gulp, It’s begun.
There’s a pregnant angel on the mantelpiece in front of me. She rests on the wooden surface, pink hands over her balloon belly – are angels even allowed to be pregnant? I don’t think they are. Margaret is behind my chair, scuttling around the kitchen as she prepares a treat for me. I used to call her Nanny, but I think Margaret is okay for now. I’d never say it to her face of course, only in my head where I can provide distance when necessary. Like when she touches me. Her hands are clammy, almost like worms wriggling out of nowhere to attack me, they feel foreign. Not loving, only demanding – I shouldn’t be here, it’s not right – not allowed. A glass of water is placed on the chequered tablecloth in front of me alongside a slab of cake. It’s homemade, dollops of fresh cream hiding chunks of tart fruit between two delicate sponges. I think I’ll throw up if I take a bite, yet I do it anyway as my stomach hasn’t been filled since last night and shouldn’t I be polite? Maybe just sit here and pretend this is all so normal, that I do this every week instead of the first time in nine years. Each bite is saccharine-sweet, wet paste sliding down my throat in a sickly slush. “More cake,” she says but it’s not a question as a new slice slides onto my plate. I excuse myself, “bathroom,” I tell her with a smile as anxiety churns within my stomach. Rolling endlessly, like waves vanquishing rocks into the ocean.
The bathroom still has sapphire tiles scaling each wall, and the fuzzy white mat has been replaced with one depicting a prayer. I don’t know which one, it’s not Hail Mary or The Lord’s Prayer so I’m clueless, lost in the mirror. My face looks like a fish, gaping and pale against a decadent aquarium wall. The only lively things are my eyes – stormy and wet, but I’m not going to cry until I get home. I open the wooden lid off the toilet and puke as cleanly as I can manage into the bowl. A mess of pomegranate seeds stares back at me within the mush, meticulously hidden in the clotted swirls. I laugh, sucking my fingers back down my throat as I scratch my esophagus, letting the bile rise before splashing into the toilet. This time, it is messier, but I feel pristine. She wasn’t smart enough to keep me here, locked in the ghost of her dead daughter. Cleaning the porcelain seat, I get up.
“Erin, are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” This time I feel it as I watch the remnants of my anxiety swirl down the toilet.
Margaret knows I’ve been sick; she’d know that awful retching sound anywhere after listening to my Mam for over a year before she died. She knows but doesn’t say anything, instead, she places her wormy skin on my lower back and leads me to the sitting room. Her hand is too close to my behind and I despise it, despise her for not having enough boundaries to know it’s wrong.
“I’ve kept all your things safe.”
She says this as we enter the stained-glass door, the green-red light marbling my fingers as I trace them across the roses embedded inside their translucent chamber. I used to love this room – how it felt like a mini haven in which I could scoff myself with homemade pancakes and devour episodes of Timothy Goes To School. But now it feels like an homage to a dead woman, photographs of my mother on nearly every surface. In one she’s a tiny tot feeding brown-speckled hens, in another a woman whose head is wrapped in a silk scarf, she ages through them until she stops. Frozen in time like a cruel trick of the clock. I stay away from the steel frames and shrink onto a pastel ottoman. If I look at the photos I’ll cry, if I look at her I’ll cry – and that’s not going to happen. So, I sit on pink geraniums and pick at loose threads, watching as Margaret comes along clasping a tiny pear in her right hand. I know what it is, of course, I do and yet it comes as a shock to me when she opens the top up to reveal a ladybird.
“Remember you and Andy used to fight over who got to open him up?
“Hmm, It was a while ago.”
She says it in an off-handily manner, tweaking at a tablet on the coffee table but I understand she’s hurt. And yet I know it was her own doing that we had to stop our visits. Why does she expect me to care now? I never stopped loving her, but I was hurt too. I turn my head away.
“I have some pictures I want you to see.”
She plays the slideshow and I clasp my pear egg, focusing on the amber speckles dotted on the wood as the screen begins to move. Me, Andy, Mammy, me, Andy, Andy, Mammy, us all together, us with Margaret. No Daddy, never Daddy. When I was four she stripped the colour of my hair with a bottle of dye in the upstairs bathroom. The enameled base had jellyfish ribbons running down the drain and my hair was black like my mother’s. Like it was an offense that I had inherited my father’s genes.
The room is quiet as the slideshow begins again and I feign an exaggerated yawn checking the time on my watch. 13:43, I’ve been here for twenty-four minutes now.
“I need to go; I’ve got somewhere to be later.”
“Let me show you upstairs.”
I let Margaret lead the way, passing a line of paintings diagonally scaling the wall of the stairs. A sprinkle of landscapes, glass jars, and wildlife, done by either Margaret or Mammy. The textured paint looks splotchy in several areas but as I head closer to the landing, the strokes become precise and even.
“I wish you could show me some of your paintings.”
No, she doesn’t, I can’t paint let alone draw but I smile and nod anyway. Mammy’s room faces the estate, and I can see a group of children running around the green. Everything looks brighter outside, almost an idyllic parody of liminal places. I wonder if the children are real or if a puppeteer is dangling strings from the sky. The radiator is on and there’s a soft melody playing from the tape player – “With the birds, I’ll share this lonely viewing” croons into the background whilst I glance around. The room is basic – wooden presses, carpeted floor, and a sky-blue duvet on the bed. The corner is tucked over in a neat triangle as if to invite me in, to just rest for a little while. Margaret reads my mind.
“Come for a sleepover sometime, you can have her room. Ask Andy too, I miss my grandson.”
I walk towards the bed, drawn to a large sketch of a near-naked man. His charcoal-infused eyes speak of a man who looked into the soul of the woman who created his paper form.
“Anne-Marie won a competition for that piece, first place they gave her.”
“She deserved it.”
She really did. Suddenly I’m in my nanny’s house and it doesn’t feel so forbidden anymore, I know the guilt will come again when my dad rings, but I think it’s necessary. I’ve learned my mother was always talented at drawing, she had a hen named Molly and her family was richer than I thought. My watch starts beeping and I hear a car pull up outside – time to go.
Margaret starts crying when I get inside the golf, her mouth twitching in disbelief. Why didn’t she expect this? She never should have tried to get full custody of us, she never should have fought with my Dad. If they acted like adults then I could be here every weekend talking about how my mother used to go through a shortcut to get back from the hospital, how she left art school in favour of a more lucrative career. I’m the one who has to learn about my mother from other people, I just wish they had let me. Through my own tears, I see Nanny crying as the car pulls away. She looks down at her flowers and I seal the image in my mind knowing I won’t come back. Kitty swings the car down the driveway, and I lower myself into the backseat clasping my pear egg as the tires punch pebbles into the road. Maybe I should get Kitty driving lessons for Christmas. She opens her mouth.
“I kept a promise to your Mam today, Erin, thank you.”
“I did it for her.”
“I know. She’ll want more visits now.”
The car shuttles on, and Kitty turns on the radio, rolling down the window to let a cool breeze in. I close my eyes and exhale, letting my mind be empty for a while longer whilst I listen to the birds singing outside. We pull up to the service station and Kitty goes inside for a few minutes, emerging with ice-creams.
“She’d be proud”, she says with a smile, holding a mint cornetto in front of me. She hops in the back beside me, and we sit there for over an hour laughing at stories about Mammy, the guilt beginning to ebb away.
Tara Murphy is a third-year English with Creative Writing student studying at UCD. She fell in love with books at an early age and plans to publish her own in the future. Through her writing, she aims to tackle difficult topics such as her mother’s bereavement in hopes that she makes children in the same predicament feel less alone.