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Maria McCarthy
Maria McCarthy

Maria writes short stories and poetry. Her first full collection of poetry, Strange Fruits, is published by Cultured Llama and WordAid. She has recently completed a collection of linked short stories. She has been published in The Frogmore Papers, Equinox, 14, in the Night Train anthologies (University of Kent), and has self-published two collections of prose and poetry: 'Learning to be English' and 'Nothing But'. She has also written and broadcast as a columnist for Radio 4's 'Home Truths' (as Maria Bradley). She has an MA in Creative Writing  from the University of Kent. She writes, and occasionally teaches, in a shed at the bottom of her garden.


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As Long As It Takes


The dust took months to settle. Every time I polished the furniture, it was covered again within a couple of hours, like salt sprinkled on an icy path.

          Bill had taken a sledgehammer to the brown-tiled surround in the living room and built in a York stone fireplace. We kept the old mirror, a wedding present from Bill’s mother, and hung it on the chimney breast. You know that saying she’s not herself? That’s how it was when I looked in that mirror, wondering who the woman was that stared back through the dust.

          I started to go into the baby’s room whilst Bill was at work. I’d stand at the end of the cot, threading my fingers through the holes of the blanket that my friend Maura had crocheted. Bill found me in there early one evening when I should have been making the dinner. I’d lost track of time, shaking out the folded nappies, refolding them, ironing the smocks, dusting the tins of talc, bottles of baby lotion, tubs of zinc and castor oil, all with the seals unbroken. ‘It’s time we put a stop to this,’ he said, and he ripped the cot apart with big, angry moves, like when he’d knocked out the fireplace, and he made a bonfire in the garden. I stood on the back step and watched the flames, lighting the next cigarette as soon as I’d finished the one before, leaning against the doorframe until my shoulder went numb.

          The next morning’s post brought two items: a letter from home, and a parcel wrapped in brown paper with the required number of stamps and sufficient coarse string to hold it together. Nonetheless, it had been delayed by several weeks. Inside, a yellowing christening gown last worn by my brother Sean, and a note in my mother’s careful handwriting: Sorry I can’t be there. God bless. I lifted the gown by the shoulders, shook it softly, cradled it across my arms, and draped it over the back of the kitchen chair. I lit a ciggy before tackling the letter, postmarked a few days before. It was from Sean. He made brief mention of my ‘troubles’ before moving on to the latest news on Mother’s state of health. I ground my cigarette into the curved edge of the ashtray, then lifted the christening gown from the back of chair, replacing it in the brown paper in the same folds that it arrived in, closing the flaps of the parcel, knotting the string. I carried it upstairs, lifted the suitcase from the top of the wardrobe, and laid the parcel in the bottom of the case, burying it beneath the clothes and shoes as I packed.

          The night before I left for Ireland, Bill heaved away on top of me as if I wasn’t there, his head buried in my shoulder. And I lay still as he cried afterwards, big shuddering sobs on my useless chest, where the child should have been nursing.

 

Bill saw me as far as the ticket barrier at Euston. ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back,’ I said, picking a stray thread from the lapel of his jacket. ‘You know how it is. A dying woman takes as long as she takes.’

          He smiled; wrinkles puckered at the corners of his eyes. I wanted to raise my fingers to them, smooth them away. ‘You’ll be back when you’re ready,’ he said, and squeezed my hand before passing me the suitcase. I watched his broad shoulders as he turned, leaving well before the train was due to pull out.

          The ship, The Hibernian, was more fit for carrying cattle than people. There weren’t enough seats for everyone in second-class, whole families exposed to the elements with only wooden benches to perch on, children balanced on bags and cases on the deck amid the pools of vomit. I hugged the rails, skulking round the edge of the ship, moving on if anyone had a mind to smile or speak to me. I could feel a rise and fall in the pit of my belly. I placed one foot on the lower rail, and climbed up to the second; the wind blew so hard it felt like my teeth would be shaken out from the roots. I leaned over and spewed a thin gruel of tea with lumps of the egg and cress sandwiches I’d eaten on the train. I reached into my handbag for a hankie to wipe my mouth. That’s when I saw her, a small child, three or four years of age, picking her way around sleeping, stretched-out legs. She toddled around like a drunk, swinging this way and that. She was no bigger than Brendan, Maura’s boy.

 

I’d taken him in that spring when Maura went into hospital. I decorated the room before he arrived, pale blue. It hadn’t been changed since I lost the first child. There were no scans in those days, you had to wait and see, so the room was painted lemon. I'd prayed for a boy, and that was what I lost, seven months gone, nothing to do but go through with it, though he was already dead. I never got to see him: taken away and thrown in the hospital incinerator; no picture to hold in my mind of what he looked like; no grave to visit to mourn my child.

          Brendan was gorgeous. I could have eaten him for dinner. Dimpled, with red hair and freckles; he could have passed for mine. I slipped him sweets and titbits, bathed him, and cuddled him up in a fluffy towel. I loved to smell his hair after I’d washed it in Silvikrin Green Apple shampoo – just like him, a ripening fruit – and I’d tickle his squashy tummy until he giggled, then into his pyjamas for a bedtime story. He hadn’t that sort of attention at home, with the five of them.

          When Maura came out of hospital, I offered to keep him for a while. She wasn’t too good; wouldn’t say what had gone on, just that there would be no more children. You’d think it would be a relief, she’d more than she could cope with, and her Jack, God love him, wasn’t much cop as a father. He could make them, all right, but after that… the drink always came first.

          So it would have been for the best if Brendan stayed with me, but Bill wasn’t so keen. ‘You’re spoiling that child,’ he said, when he found the new clothes I’d bought, and when I gave him a proper World Cup football. ‘Sure, he’s barely big enough to handle a beach ball. What does he want with a leather one?’ And I suppose he was right. Kieran, Maura’s oldest, got hold of it: kicking and scuffing it around the street with his mates.

          Brendan stopped coming around after a while. Maura said it wasn’t fair to give him presents; the others would get jealous. I saw less of her as spring turned to summer, and when I did see her, it was like she wasn’t listening, just staring into the distance. I missed Maura. I’d other friends, but none as close as we’d been. I’d wander around the town alone, all dressed up and nowhere to go, stopping for a milky coffee, chatting with whoever might be at the next table. But the English girls, they look at you strange if you try to strike up a conversation, like you’ve escaped from the asylum. There was a girl with a baby and toddler in the Kings Shade Walk Cafe. ‘You look like you could do with a hand,’ I said. She was struggling with shopping, and trying to keep her coffee cup away from the grabbing hands of the toddler. I picked him up and put him on my lap, breaking off a bit of my toast for him. Jesus, I’ve never seen a woman move so fast.

          ‘I can manage, thank you,’ she said, snatching the child, turning her back on me, more content with the whingeing of the two children than my company.

 

I walked across the deck towards the girl, and lifted her to sit on my hip. ‘Where’s your mammy, then?’ I said, and we wandered around until she wriggled from my side, reaching towards a sleeping woman, two children draped around her and a dented pile of coats on the deck, where the smallest one had slept.

          I shook the mother awake, ‘Is this little lady yours?’

          ‘Siobhan!’ she said and pulled her close. ‘She’s a devil for staying awake; fights sleep every step of the way. She nodded off, so I took a chance and caught forty winks myself.’ The child was squirming to get down, and the mother with big dark circles beneath her eyes. I looked around, and I saw many more like her, mothers with four, five, six children, luggage, coats and cardigans, and no men around to help.

          I made myself useful for the rest of the crossing, holding Siobhan whilst her mother slept– Anne-Marie her name was – taking the older ones to the toilets, getting us hot drinks from the tea bar. And we travelled on together from Dun Laoghaire, on the train to Limerick, parting at the rail station. She went on to County Clare, and I set off for Mother’s.

 

She had her boys around her, gathered like a scene from an old film. Her lips were sunken, her teeth in a glass on the nightstand. Her skin was yellow, dotted with pale brown patches, like her freckles had joined together. Her hair was in need of a brush – not the sort of thing a man would think of.

          I took a breath and breezed in, as cheerful as I could be. ‘What’s the story, getting me over here when there’s not a thing wrong with you?’ I plumped up her pillows, hauled her up to sitting, tying her bed jacket where the ribbon had come loose.

          ‘Will you ever stop fussing,’ she said. ‘Get me a drop of that water.’ Sean held a tumbler to her lips. Liam kind of nodded in my direction – never much of a one for words. He disappeared into the kitchen, and soon there was the familiar whistle of the kettle and the rattling of teacups on the old tin tray.

          I followed Liam into the kitchen. I picked at the loaf on the side. I hadn’t eaten since the day before, yet my stomach felt tight, and I wasn’t sure if I could get a crumb down my throat. Liam had laid out three cups; I lifted a fourth cup from the press. It was marked with brown stains, and blobs of sugar stuck to the bottom. ‘She can only take water now,’ Liam said, taking it from my hand. Our fingers touched. He looked at me for a second, then his mouth crumpled and he turned his back as he stirred the teapot. He’d appeared older than his years for as long as I could remember, but now the lines were deeper, and his once-black hair was threaded with silver.

          ‘She’s drifted off,’ Sean said, pulling a third chair to the table. He scooped sugar into his cup, and stirred it for longer than necessary. ‘You can have my room, Joan. I’ll go in with Liam.’

          ‘Grand.’ As the tea hit the back of my throat I felt a wave of exhaustion. ‘I’ll go and lie down then, so.’

          As I lay on the narrow bed I felt the roll of the ship, the waves starting at my toes, rushing to my head, then sweeping down to my feet again. I remembered the days before I left for England, assembling the clothes and shoes to fit a single suitcase: two of everything. Packing and repacking, listening to Mother’s speech, repeated several times a day, not knowing how she’d manage, ‘with your poor father gone.’ I recalled the turn of her head as I left, unable to see me to the door, unwilling to wish me well.

          A fine, meaty smell rose through the house. Liam tapped on the door and placed a cup of tea on the bedside table. ‘There’s some lamb stew heated up from yesterday. You’ll have a plate then, so?’

          ‘I will. Give me five minutes, and I’ll look in on Mother.’

          Her eyes were closed, but there was nothing wrong with her hearing. ‘You took your time coming over from England,’ she said, as soon as I crossed the threshold of her room.

          ‘I didn’t at all. Sure, it’s only days since I got the letter, and I’d things to sort out at home.’

          ‘What things would they be?’ She pronounced the word ‘things’ as if she were spitting out something sour. ‘You’ve only himself to look after.’

          ‘He has to have something to eat in the house, even if it’s only eggs and rashers.’ But she wasn’t listening; she’d slipped away again, so I went downstairs for my dinner.

          The stew was good and hearty. I cleared my plate and Sean dipped the ladle into the pot to refill it. I didn’t refuse. ‘She took it hard about the babies, God rest their souls’, he said. He made the sign of the cross. Liam cleared his throat, looked sideways at Sean. A silence fell as we finished the last of the stew, the light fading through the kitchen window.

          ‘I’ll look in on Mother,’ Liam said after a while.

          I clattered the plates into the sink, and held up a tea towel that had seen better days. ‘I’ll wash, you wipe,’ I said to Sean. There was a look of protest on his face. ‘Sure, you look like you did as a child when you were asked to fetch the wood, or do anything at all.’ He broke into a grin and flicked me with the tea towel. I filled the sink with hot water from the kettle on the range. ‘So, are you courting?’

          ‘There was someone, but…’

          ‘Ah, a handsome man like you, there’s plenty of girls.’ I nudged him with my elbow. He dropped his head to his chest, his cheeks reddening.

          ‘You know how it is with Mammy.’

          ‘Yes, I know how it is.’

 

I hung my black costume and good white blouse on a wooden hanger in the wardrobe. At the bottom of my suitcase the christening gown lay in its brown paper with the knotted string, cradled between my black shoes and my make-up bag. The paper crackled as I lifted it, just as when it had been parcelled at the kitchen table below, the string cut with her good scissors, the small lined notepad taken from the drawer.

          I passed Liam on the landing at midnight, him on his way to bed, me to sit with Mother. A rosary was draped over a statue of Our Lady on the night stand, hands joined, fingers pointing Heavenwards, her perfect features serene in eternal suffering. I sat with the parcel on my lap, my fingers playing with the knotted string, the room lit by the soft glow of a small lamp. Mother’s body looked twisted, and she grimaced as she shifted, so I took a pillow and placed it under her arm. There was little flesh left between skin and bone. I reached across with a pillow for the other arm. Her brow wrinkled, then relaxed. ‘What’s that?’ she said, looking to where the parcel lay, within reach of her hand.

          ‘I’ve brought the gown back,’ I said.

          ‘Ah, you’ll be needing it soon enough.’

          ‘No, Mother, I won’t.’

          Her lips were dry and cracked. I lifted her head, and held the glass to her mouth. It took all her strength to swallow. ‘Don’t be talking like that,’ she said, ‘You’ll keep trying.’

          ‘No, Mother. Bill and me just have to accept…We can’t go through all that again.’

          She pressed her lips into a line, her eyes flickering beneath closed lids. ‘You can and you will.’

          ‘No, Mother.’

She winced as I raised my voice as if every sense was working overtime, the dim light too much for her eyes, the sound of my words too harsh for her ears. ‘It’s a woman’s life. What else will you do if you don’t have children?’

 

The boys and I stood by the coffin as the people of the village paid their respects, each shaking our hands and finding some good words for the dead woman. I dreamt that night of a never-ending procession of hands in black sleeves, squeezing my hand until it too worked free from my body, and I left it clasping the hands of the mourners while I crept into the darkness.

          I scrubbed the house from top to bottom, and bundled up Mother’s clothes, making good use of the folded squares of brown paper in the kitchen drawer. I sat with the small pad of notepaper and a pile of envelopes, wrote to those who needed to be told, and thanked those that had helped at the wake.

          The boys walked me to the bus stop. ‘Now you’ll give that kitchen a lick of paint, and if the house gets too much, get Molly Ryan to give it a clean once a week.’ I gave Sean a good hug, and got a firm squeeze of the hand from Liam. ‘You’ll come and visit us in England. Stay a while.’

          ‘When the farm allows,’ Liam said.

          ‘Sean, you’ll come, stay longer. Let the English girls have a look at you.’

          He waved my comment away, grinning all the while. ‘Maybe you’ll be blessed by then,’ he said.

          I leaned against the window of the bus and watched the fields and towns through the drizzle. The glass was cold and it rattled a rhythm through my skull, never still, never quiet, faster, higher, a steady hum, then dropping down the scale, the bus shivering as it loaded and unloaded its charges. As the bus emptied at Limerick I remained with my cheek pressed to the glass. It was still now, just the bustle of the bus station below the window.

          ‘This is as far as we go, unless you want to go back where you came from.’ The driver tipped his cap to the back of his head. There was a dent across his forehead, the skin whiter above than below.

          ‘No, I don’t want to go back,’ I said, but made no move to rise.

          'Come on now, you can't stay on the bus.' He handed me my handbag from the seat beside me, and I followed him out to the side of the bus where he unloaded my case from the luggage space. I stared at the case on the pavement. 'It won't walk by itself,' he said. He picked it up. 'So I'll take it along to the cafe at the railway station , and see if you follow it.'

 

          ‘Now, it’s nothing fancy here,’ he said, placing a cup of tea in front of me, ‘but they’ll do you a sandwich or a fry.' I listened as he chattered on the other side of the table. He might as well have been talking Chinese for all I took in, but it was comfort enough, the company and the drone of his voice, and the badge on the front of his cap to focus on as it lay on the table. 'I’m away now, but Norah will look after you, won’t you Norah?’ A large woman with frizzy red hair and a tea towel draped over her shoulder nodded in my direction. The badge and the cap disappeared from the table, and the talking stopped.

          I sat all afternoon, smoking, drinking cup after cup of tea. Norah brought poached eggs, and I managed a few mouthfuls, though I gained no taste or pleasure from them. The boat train was announced and left, and I stayed, my case tucked under the table. Norah emptied the ashtray for the second time, wiping it round with a grey cloth. ‘If you’re that keen on this place, I’ll put you to work,’ she said. I took her at her word, and began to clear tables and wipe them down.

          There was a room that Norah knew of, not far from the café: a single bed, bare walls except for a crucifix, a wardrobe and a chair. I did nothing to enhance it, the only sign of inhabitance my clothes in the wardrobe and my shoes at the side of the bed at night. The summer passed in the spitting of fat, the steam from the tea urn, and wiping crumbs and spilt sugar from the tables. July turned to August, and September was approaching on the day that Anne-Marie came in with her brood. The children, God love ’em, were talking with Irish accents that’d fade soon enough when they were back in their English schools, once their lips had forgotten the taste of Tayto crisps and red lemonade.

          ‘So you didn’t go back, after your mother…’ Anne-Marie said.

          ‘Sure, what have I got back there?’ I ruffled each of the little ones’ hair in turn, and them ducking away from my hand in the way that kids do.

          She stopped her teacup at her lips and placed it back in the saucer. ‘Honest to God, Joan, they’ll be frantic back home. And what about the old man? He’ll think you’ve left him.’ I wiped the next table, clearing the plate before the women there had finished her last mouthful. ‘Have you left him, Joan?’ I wouldn’t look at her, carried on with my work, but she wouldn’t stop giving out. ‘For God’s sake, Joan, you’ve got to go back.’

          I didn’t take it in at the time, but as I lay in bed that night the words went over and over in my head: He’ll think you’ve left him… have you left him? And in the way that people do when they’re rehearsing for a play. Have you left him? Have you left him? Have you left him? Have you left him?

          But in Limerick no one knew me as Joan, the woman who’d lost three babies; I was Joan who served up sausage, egg and rashers. And they were passing through, on their way to somewhere else. So I carried on frying, buttering, and pouring tea.

 

The rain came down in torrents the first week of September. It sounds stupid, but what turned me around was the lack of a warm jumper and a good raincoat. I only had light clothes with me when I arrived at the end of July, and as the autumn chill arrived one Monday morning, I searched for my mustard sweater before realising that it was in the bottom drawer of my dressing table back home. I thought of the new raincoat I’d bought at C&A in the spring sale, and my good umbrella that wouldn’t turn inside out in the wind. I sat on the edge of the bed in my little room and cried for the lack of an autumn wardrobe, for the mirror above the fireplace that Bill had built, for the cot that he’d burnt in the garden, for the romper suits that went to the jumble sale to clothe someone else’s child. I cried for Bill, for my babies, and finally I cried for myself: big, mascara-stained tears mixed with the drippings from my nose, falling unwiped onto my skirt.

          I brought down my case from the top of the wardrobe. The parcel with the christening gown was still in there, and I slipped it into a Dunnes Store carrier.

          The sun was setting on the bay as I arrived for the crossing, and a damp breeze ruffled my hair as I walked the gangplank. I could see the dark water swirling below through the gaps between the planks. I found a place at the back of the ship, looking back on the bay as we pulled away from my homeland. I lifted the parcel from the carrier, untied the string and cradled the gown across my arms. I traced my fingers over the greying lace, the satin ribbon threaded through the bodice, peeping out then disappearing. And it slipped from my fingers to the waves below, fluttering, dancing, riding the foam, appearing, disappearing.


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