I have the kind of mind that would kill me if it didn’t need me for transportation.
In this case to Ireland.
I had no conscious desire to go anywhere near the place but somehow I found myself sucked into the subway, placed on a plane and bundled onto a bus for Kilkenny. Before I was even fully awake, I was faced with the house I grew up in and a sky cracked with crows. Would I be welcome? Had I any right to be there? Why was I so nervous? Who was that in the upstairs window? I was thrilled to see it was my oldest brother Brian. It meant that I wouldn’t have to sound the alarm-like doorbell and wake the rest of them up.
Anticipating his sarcastic signature handshake, in which a folded index finger wiggled against the interior of my palm, I selected my wryest smile. But it was wasted, since his hand merely gestured where I’d be staying. I’d be sleeping on a little fold-up camper-bed nudged against a radiator that, as far as I could remember, had never felt heat. This was because the good room was reserved for visiting priests and was therefore rarely used. Placement here defined you as an outsider.
I normally slept upstairs, but since Connor, my other brother, had moved back a few months previously, my old room was now his. Vapor leapt in and out of Brian’s throat. As a dedicated member of datemedotcom, I was relieved to hear that thanks to his online poker habit, there was now quite a decent Internet connection in the house. I had already sent countless cut-and-paste emails to childless women under 34, no taller than 5’8”, with bodies described as thin, presenting my trip home as a sort of voluntary international one-man rescue mission. I looked forward to checking my inbox for the gush of approval that would surely follow.
I unpacked my “Williamsburg bestseller” debut novel and my “cure for second-book-syndrome” and arranged them carefully on a chair by the camper-bed. They would ward off evil. Almost immediately a shadow fell over them and a figure filled the doorway as the good room got one degree colder. Was I expected to believe this was Connor? He was so very changed and old-looking. Squeezing the hardened hand he offered me, I felt his index finger tickle my palm.
“She’s too much, I’m going to have to move back to New York.”
I had no idea how to react, since the handshake seemed to ironize the information. It didn’t help that we’d hardly spoken in ten years. A phone call at Christmas, if that.
“Welcome home,” he said, “such as it is,” and released my hand at last. Unable to think of anything to say, I nodded far too cheerfully.
“We’ll need forty Euros for the kitty at some point, but don’t worry about it now.”
He was referring to the communal fund for groceries he’d put himself in charge of.
“Why? Do we have a cat now?” I said and immediately regretted it.
“I hope you come up with better lines than that in your books,” he said, nodding at my little library. I produced the rashers and eggs I’d bought for breakfast.
“Oh that’ll go down well. We’ll deduct it from your weekly amount. You don’t have the receipt do you?”
I confessed that I did not. He nodded professionally, as if making a mental note of a new employee. One to watch out for. It wasn’t official yet because he was still waiting for a means test and an interview but there was a very good chance that Connor would get paid a salary to pretend he gave a shit about his mother. It was a phenomenon reverently referred to in social service circles as A Carer’s Allowance.
“So you’re a writer now.”
The sarcasm was conspicuously absent.
“I suppose so yeah.”
“I went to a play the other night and I definitely got the bug. So you might find I’ll be getting into the writing game meself. . . . Ahh, yes, the thee-at-tur.”
It was irritating to hear him go on about how he’d already been writing for years, as if I were the one copying him. He had always been viciously competitive and, even now, looking depleted enough to be one of mother’s contemporaries, he could siphon up my insecurities. What if he managed to write something decent? How mortifying for me. Could he actually do it? He also talked about doing stand-up. This was something he might actually be able to pull off. The Annual Kilkenny Comedy Festival would provide the perfect platform for his talents—talents that were still very much in evidence. Over a breakfast of rashers and eggs, Brian, the least talented storyteller in our family, took it upon himself to relate how one night a fucking hipster made the mistake of bragging to them in the local pub.
“I co-own an arts collective,” he says. And guess what Connor said?”
I shook my head.
“We co-couldn’t give a fuck.”
Connor held my gaze as Brian enthused but there was no pleasure in it for him. I felt deep shame over my kitty comment and sympathy for the hipster. I knew what it was like to be broadsided by Connor. The familiar feeling of humiliation warmed me up.
I was home.
At least he wasn’t talking about converting the house into a bed and breakfast.
He had always talked about how the Yanks would pay a fortune to stay in an Irish house. Lose this wall, it wasn’t load-bearing anyway, and re-hang those doors to face the front, bung in a few extra beds and you’d be all set. There was no mention of how he drank his own house from under himself in the Bronx.
If I could just get through the following few weeks I’d be back in New York where I hoped to get a play of my own happening. A Broadway producer had asked me to adapt Diary of an Oxygen Thief for the stage. It was where my attention belonged. All I had to do was soak up some authentic Irish heritage and nod convincingly left and right for a few weeks and there’d be no need to show my face for another six years.
Maybe even longer.
Meanwhile Brian’s email describing mother as frail and bitchy proved accurate.
“Oh, there he is. Is he still bald?”
“Yes ma he is.” I started to remove my woolen hat.
“Oh Jesus leave it on I don’t want to see it. Who bought the rashers?”
She had deflated since I’d seen her last. Her knuckles were new to me.
“Turn on the television. It might warm up the room.”
Every program talked about the economy or the lack of it and how to conserve energy or the lack of it and who was bankrupt and how generally fucked we all were and how maybe we deserved it for being so fucking cocky in the first place. Even Gay Byrne had been jolted out of retirement to do interviews with fellow fuck-ups who lost all their money to bad investments. Drunk driving was no longer tolerated (one pint and you lost your license) and smoking was actually banned from pubs. Lavish banquets in legendary venues went unattended, since punters preferred to hold parties at home. Strange days indeed when an Irish pub went unsuckled. It made me wonder how Connor could still afford to drink. And smoke.
The answer was right in front of me. I pretended to be preoccupied with my phone as he supervised the signing over of our mother’s pension to him. Had he waited for me to be present to do this? Was I in fact a witness? Her signature authorized him to withdraw a weekly cash-payment from the post office. She was getting too old to pick it up herself and this supposedly saved her the trip. He was also newly empowered to pick up her weekly doctor’s prescription from the chemist. Representing in excess of four hundred Euros a week and an endless supply of free drugs, I’d have thought he’d be a little more civil, but her refusal to wear a hearing aid was an invitation, not just to shout at her but at all of us. Opening the door to the hallway, Brian gestured to me to follow. The shouting continued from the kitchen as he lowered his voice to a whisper.
“It was worse when first came home, he came home rat-arsed one night looking for his cab fare after losing seven hundred Euros playing poker. “You brought two addictions home with you,” I said. “Drinking and gambling; either you stop or you can fuck off back to the States.”
He let this sink in.
“He’s been a bit better since.”
I shivered at the thought of Connor leeching off a life that even our mother didn’t want. She longed to be with her late husband. To her, the very act of eating postponed their reunion.
“He’s hoping to hold out until his allowance comes through,” I said. “In the meantime he’ll get by on her prescriptions.
It was my turn to let it sink in.
“I see this all the time in AA. Someone’s mother gets cancer and the son drops everything to come home and help out with the free supply of morphine patches.”
Brian looked as if the idea was ridiculous. But not impossible.
“You think he’s that bad?”
I had plenty more to say but decided instead to get myself to a meeting. The town’s depressing atmosphere was refreshed almost hourly by what appeared to be grey paint drizzling from the sky. At every turn I was confronted with stunningly beautiful girls smiling from inside carefully lit posters. Girls so far removed from the reality of what wobbled past me on the streets of Kilkenny, someone should have been prosecuted for fraud.
When I got back, I was told that mother had fallen and hit her head on the downstairs bathroom sink. Brian bandaged her with what he could find: kitchen-towels and sellotape. I didn’t ask where Connor was.
My sister Grainne was due for a quick visit but she never stayed in the house. Over the years she’d learned to make other arrangements, partly because there was no room and partly because the house was so cold but mostly because her husband was so unwelcome. She stayed across the road at the Shannondale Hotel. Rates were even lower than normal now since the country was more bankrupt than usual. I fantasized about using the shower over there. No way I was ever taking my jacket off in that house so the idea of stepping naked into a shower was laughable. Even in my creaky little bed I wore my woolen hat and socks. I couldn’t think of worse conditions for an eighty-six-year-old woman; a freezing house with two life-sized parasites feeding off her.
Three, if you counted me.
But within a half-hour of Grainne’s arrival, mother soiled herself on the threshold of the upstairs bathroom. The smell was strangely sweet and disgusting at the same time. She had almost made it. Ordinarily she used the downstairs toilet but perhaps wanting to impress her well-to-do daughter she had embarked on the ardous expedition upstairs.
I had to admit I was glad to have been at another meeting at the time (I was going to one every day now) and Brian had to be happy to be at work. The Carer was not available for comment, which meant Grainne wasn’t home an hour before she had tears in her eyes and shit on her hands. She had lost her unpopular husband to cancer the year before and was somehow expected to take this in her stride because Grainne was a trooper and nothing gets Grainne down.
It should have been unbearably sad but I had become hardened. My own tribulations of heartbreak and penury in New York had inspired all manner of fortification to the point that I was now pretty much unbreachable. My priority was to inflect Grainne’s understanding in the same way I had done with Brian.
“An alcoholic will steal your money and help you look for it,” I said.
“You should know,” she said quickly.
Connor and Grainne had always been close.
Every evening after dinner Connor and Brian flanked their mother with identical laptops and headphones playing online poker while she watched mostly news on TV. I edited them both out of my carefully crafted cut-and-paste messages that portrayed me as the heroically returned son who could be relied on by his poor ailing mother for at least the rest of the month. The fireplace was worried over like a sick child and gave out about as much heat.
But all I got was one hesitant response from a shapely looking tutor of French literature and film. I was far from procuring the sexual attention I had hoped since my brutally honest, tell-all fictionalised memoir had become a liability. She had no desire, she said, to become the “latest conquest in a darkly hilarious cult classic.” Fair enough, but what was the point of writing a book if it didn’t get you laid?
I began to master the art of sleeping.
The solution was simple. When the various inmates tottered off to their cells, you sleep in the common room. Brian frowned when I brought up the idea of sharing Grainne’s hotel room for a few nights.
“Don’t put her in that position.”
Pretty rich coming from a guy living off his mother but I was happy to hear the firmness in his voice since it meant that he might stand up to Connor when the time came. As the eldest brother, he was the natural father figure and I was secretly happy that he seemed OK with this. I was a child all over again testing out the barriers of what I could and could not get away with and it was a relief to reach the limits of my rebellion. He did however approve of my using the shower. The very idea. A hot shower in a warm bathroom with fluffy white towels and . . .
“Don’t forget you still owe me forty Euros.” Connor’s voice was urgent behind me.
It might have been jetlag or sleeplessness or frustration at being harassed for a debatable debt, but my mouth opened and out it jumped.
“Go fuck . . .”
He had smoked me out. The real me, the one he knew I was hiding. The old me. The real me. His suspicions were confirmed. All my AA bullshit was just an act. And he had yet to hold me up to ridicule for being arrogant enough to announce myself as a writer. The laughable idea that the thoughts and ideas slithering around in my wet brain were worthy of preservation. I steeled myself. Surely this was his chance. But no tirade came.
Instead I was allowed to marinate in my own juices.
Was it a ploy? He was preparing the ground for his own writing career. Any success I had would pave the way for his own. The moment I heard he’d moved back home I wanted to cancel my trip but it would have been too obvious and anyway I had already booked it. Ever since I quit drinking we were deeply uncomfortable in each other’s presence. And there he stood not quite looking at me but allowing me to look at him. The better to register his disappointment.
I needed a wash.
Brian got up at 7am every morning and drank a cup of tea in the gloom. Having denied himself electric light and the warmth of a gas heater he was only just worthy of the power it took to boil the kettle. I had just finished stowing away my camper bed when a letter shoved itself surreally through the letter-box. Immediately apparent were the three blue castles of the Kilkenny County Council logo. I placed it on the kitchen table where Brian would see it when he turned around.
“Do you want to bring it up to him?”
It was a sly suggestion that might help diffuse the built-up tension between his younger brothers but I only agreed because there was a good chance it contained a rejection. The exhaled stink of alcohol and tobacco was thick in the air as I approached the hump of blankets on top of what used to be my bed. I waited for him to wake up and curse me but instead he was uncharacteristically polite as he fingered the letter open. I stood there like a royal messenger looking directly ahead and there on the wall was a picture of myself at twelve years old making my Holy Communion. The word freak was written in biro across my forehead.
He was approved to proceed to the next stage of his application. Means-test and interview date to follow. Within seconds he began to worry that my presence in the house would affect his chances.
“You’re not mentioned anywhere in the application, it could get tricky if . . .”
If what? Was I supposed to agree that I was in the way? Would I have to pretend to be a fucking lodger? A tenant from the States. I’d lost weight since I stopped drinking and as a result I now looked more like my brothers than ever before. For years there had been a standing joke that because I was so unlike my siblings I had to have been fathered by the milkman. Mother would shriek with delighted laughter at this, especially since the milkman was no oil painting. She could be an evil little fucker when she wanted to be. A few weeks before I arrived home while waiting for Connor to have his neck looked at by her doctor (on her insurance) she had grown impatient.
“What’s he doing in there?” she asked the receptionist. “Fucking him?”
Connor told this story as evidence of the hardships he’d had to endure and yes he might have made it up but she was capable of it.
I consoled myself that there had to be a great Irish play in all of this.
It had all the prerequisites of misery, penury, rivalry and alcoholism.
Granted, someone might need to starve to death or drown in a river but with three weeks left there was every reason to be optimistic.
As the narrator of the play I’d make it clear that though I portrayed my brothers as living off my mother I too was guilty of mining the situation for all the Hibernian hubris I could scrape onto a page. In this way the very subject of the play would become evidence of an Irish mother’s innate ability to provide for her sons.
Something to ponder on the way to another meeting.
Later that evening Grainne dragged her mother across the road for a free dinner at the Shannondale Hotel. This left all three brothers to dine together for the first time without maternal supervision. A terrible silence descended over the dinner table. We were like strangers forced to sit together in a very bad restaurant. Brian was the first to break the silence.
He could have been agreeing with something one of us had said but we hadn’t.
No one could say he hadn’t kept up his end of the conversation. I felt Connor’s eyes on me like guns. He was not what you’d call a good cook but he was extremely sensitive so it was necessary to take great care which expression you wore while eating.
“Hmmm,” said Brian again or maybe this time it was “Mmmm.”
I volunteered to wash the dishes because I knew this was something that would receive universal approval. It inspired another “Hmmm” from Brian, but the carer was less enthusiastic.
“You’ll still have to pay your share of the kitty though.”
I diverted my rage onto the plates and pots.
The next morning, as I waited for Debbie Barrington to drive in from Thomastown to meet me for breakfast, I studied my face in the window of the High Street Café. Only a week home and I already looked like a rasher-faced culchie. I felt better when she entered though. Her face looked even more ruddy and spud-stuffed than mine.
Her body was a different matter.
It was the product of a different culture. A potato-free democracy that the engnomed inhabitants of Ireland only saw on telly. Its hostess was a youngish history professor who, ignoring the sexual etiquette of the rooms, began chatting to me after an East Village AA meeting. Being newly sober she voiced concerns about an upcoming trip to Ireland to research a book on Oliver Cromwell. Because I knew she’d need staying sober in a country whose national emblem was indistinguishable from a Guinness logo we exchanged details. More to the point I wanted to do to that body what Cromwell did to Ireland.
After a comparatively pagan breakfast relying on the combined sacrifices of an average Irish farmyard (everything but the farmer) we toyed with the idea of making Cromwell a more sympathetic character. Maybe he was just an over-enthusiastic philanthropist. Could he have been ahead of his time? An early proponent of euthanasia, perhaps? A precursor to Doctor Kevorkian. A misunderstood enabler of voluntary and or assisted suicide. Surely the fact that he was associated with so many dead only proved how sought after his services were. It was common knowledge that sixteenth-century medical care was nonexistent and so the majority of his patients would already have been suffering from all manner of terminal illnesses. It might well transpire that the much-maligned General, far from being the cause of woe, had instead facilitated an end to much suffering. In light of these findings Professor Deborah and I might feel duty-bound to petition for his canonization.
“Blessed Oliver Cromwell would certainly be a provocative title.”
“You got me out of bed today,” she said, still laughing.
“Which is ironic,” I mewed, ”because my intention was to do the opposite.”
She bought two signed copies of my books and paid for breakfast.
Connor needed to keep mother alive in the same way a kidnapper needed to keep a hostage healthy. Brian needed to keep a close eye on Connor in case he drank the house out from under all three of them. Mother welcomed the presence of both sons, especially since the alternative was a nursing home.
Son number three suckled on the narrative possibilities.
Maybe Connor’s play would interrupt mine in mid-performance. Choreographed to perfection, there would be a sudden but elegant exchange of characters. The actor playing me would now be uglier and considerably fatter, while Connor’s new ambassador would be noticeably more muscular, not so much old now as wise. He’d start getting all the good lines while I spent more time downstage only feebly lit by an iPhone. Brian’s role would no longer be that of paternal compass but of a weak-willed and easily-led man-child. The hearts and minds of the audience would be drawn to center stage, where Connor’s soothing voice helped us navigate the quagmire we had created around him. Brian’s failed marriage. Me and my alcoholic self-obsession. Thank God for an embattled hero who sacrifices the freedom and independence of New York so that his mother might enjoy some peace in her final days on this troubled earth.
Or maybe I wouldn’t even get a mention, like on the application form.
He didn’t appear in my so-called tell-it-all fictionalised memoir, so why should I expect to be featured in his hilariously charming, heartrendingly honest play?
But one character would be consistent in both productions.
The old woman melting into her chair.
Back in the real world, Connor, angry at the very air around him, bellowed left and right while mashing potatoes like the heads of enemies. Apparently he had not been looking forward to my coming home. According to mother he was jealous of me. Even more so, now that I resembled a younger version of him. It occurred to me that whenever I had played down my successes it had always been at her insistence, not his. Was she pitting us against each other? This had been going on for years. It was true he got all the love. What there was of it.
Brian signed up for a speed-dating event but instead of meeting a girl he came home with a friend called Kevin. He announced that he and “Kev” planned to order Chinese that Friday night so there would be one less person to cook for. Connor, grateful for the advance notice, could now more effectively manage expectations of the event.
I caressed my return ticket. If I could just get through the following nine days I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this. I was just a visitor. All I had to do was breathe from the stomach. In. Out. In. Out.
But then he asked for money again.
At first I was calm. I replied reasonably that I’d rather pay my own way and remain separate from the kitty. Not very practical, of course, but I hated the idea of being under his command. It wasn’t about me, or him or the kitty any more. It was about his active disease of alcoholism versus my active solution for it. I represented the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous here. I was a diplomat. I had to show him he couldn’t get away with manipulating me or my mother or the situation.
“Fuck you . . . and your fucking kitty.”
He stood back, the better to regard me.
“You expect to stay here for free? Is that it? Fine, I’ll pay for your food. Would that be OK with you?”
This was delivered, for maximum effect, with mother still in the room but because I was still smiling he took a different tack.
“You’re so cheap, so fucking chee—”
His face quivered.
“What have you done with him? I mean who the fuck are you?”
He nodded sadly to himself.
“OK, I see . . . you know what? I don’t need this shit either. You can do it . . . see how you fucking like it. I’ll go up to Grainne for the week, get the fuck out of this madhouse.”
“Fine . . . fuck off up to Grainne, at least we’ll have some peace.”
“Fine. You can do the cooking, see how thankless a job it is.”
Mother spoke suddenly.
“She doesn’t want you either.”
There was no time to react to this because the gas heater started to sputter.
“Now . . . see? That’s more money.”
The unbearable pressures of professional carer were back in his face.
“That’s another thirty Euros for a new bottle but you don’t have to worry, you’re outside the kitty, we’ll pay for your heating, too, don’t worry.”
Now that I was effectively excluded from not just the kitty but the family itself he felt comfortable enough to ignore me.
“Ma, do you have thirty Euros for a bottle of gas?”
Vibrating inside her cardigan, she prepared for the epic inconvenience of standing up.
“You can just tell me where it is, I’ll get it for you.”
His voice was pleading. I couldn’t tell if it was a son’s frustration at the sight of his immobilized mother or an addict’s panic at the notion of money he couldn’t get to.
“No,” she said too emphatically. “I’ll get it meself.”
“A houseful of fucking lunatics,” he said, genuinely perplexed.
Up until now he had been comparatively content. Yes, he was loud and angry and frustrated and flustered, but things were generally going his way. His strategy up to that moment had been to conspicuously position himself as indispensable and, generally speaking, he had succeeded. But here was a battle best fought covertly. While he enjoyed a well-earned week off, I’d be invited to disgrace myself further by failing as the resident carer. He and Grainne would discuss the sorry situation over free drinks while he went after the deeds to the house.
I was astounded at how quickly I metamorphosed into my eleven-year-old self. Connor sneering at me with his vicious fight-starting face. Revulsion at the very sight of me. But instead of taking it all on like I used to when I was a boy I saw the man behind the mask instead. The clever frightened bully. The master manipulator capable of making the very puppets he controlled love him for it. And then I saw my own behavior in him and I didn’t like that at all. No wonder I’d gone into advertising. It was the perfect occupation for someone trained in the art of covert manipulation. As the ridicule rained down I remembered my father’s courage when he resisted my vicious alcoholic fits of rage. Even through the befogged windscreen of my careering juggernaut, I remembered being impressed to see that there was someone willing to stand up to my bullshit. Could I provide my brother with a similar epiphany?
It was official. He was gone for the week.
Brian dropped him at the bus station so he could go and annoy Grainne in Ballina. Meanwhile it quickly became obvious that the newly liberated territory would require careful governing and exhaustive administration, and though I was unsure about how to proceed, I was determined not to complain about it. Sacrifice and service. That was the AA code. Try to be of service. I had nothing better to do for my last week anyway and it was more practical and much cheaper than going on my own.
Mother was surprisingly mercenary about the whole thing. It didn’t seem to matter who did what as long as she was taken care of. She began kissing me. Quick little pecks like an inexperienced girlfriend. She had never been so affectionate when she was alive. Brian became stoic and set his jaw against the inevitable battles ahead. I googled Alanon Ireland (for the relatives of alcoholics) and found a meeting for him on Tuesday nights at 8:30pm. Not that he’d attend. He’d continue to spend his evenings couch-bound and blue-hued in front of his card game. Why would anyone volunteer themselves bodily to the cold wet walls of that house? What did he lack in himself that he allowed it? And who was really in charge here? I began to feel tricked. Like someone was laughing at me. Maybe I’d been wrong-footed into doing exactly what Connor wanted.
Was he that good?
Either way I had a tough week ahead.
Mother demonstrated an almost clairvoyant knack for waiting until I was about to sit down before demanding that a door be closed or an orange be brought or fuel be fetched for the fire. I had to remind myself that it was she who put together the original program that controlled all our interpretations of events. She was almost literally the motherboard. No wonder she was so good at finding sensitive spots to prod.
“Will you be getting an apple tart?” she asked innocently as I psyched myself up for the weekly shopping trip.
“Maybe. Yeah I’ll look for one. We’ll see.”
“Because I‘m not making one,” she said before the chance to hurt evaporated.
Even in her half-alive state she could still instinctively orchestrate a one-two punch like this. She hadn’t forgotten my near-obsessive fondness for her apple tarts and, having reawakened my hopes the day before that she might actually bake one for me like she used to in the old days, she was now effectively denying any such conversation ever took place. It was a test perhaps to see if the subject had any emotional currency still attached. I hid my disappointment without really knowing why. I couldn’t allow her to know it was a sore subject because it might encourage her to bring it up again. This was how I remembered my adolescence. Never give her anything to work with. Keep it all in.
The doorbell shook me.
I had always been stupefied by her slick transformation when visitors dropped by and now, a quarter of a century later as I noticed a small white-haired woman through the hall door, Medusa drew a hairnet over her snakes.
“Answer that will ya pet?”
My nervousness concerning the imminent weekly shopping excursion was alleviated by the news that I was to be accompanied by my mother’s one remaining friend, Shiela. I was a source of great surprise to Shiela, since she’d been told I was fat and bald.
Even so I was invited into her little green car.
“I’m taking you downtown,” she said, mimicking a thirties detective. Or at least I think she was mimicking.
Compared to mother she was spritely, probably in her seventies. If I was going to succeed as the new carer, I needed her know-how. And she certainly knew how. Which biscuits were preferred, what brand of tea to come home with, the approved sweets, the correct lettuce, the accepted shade of brown for the bread. Connor had managed to make the weekly shopping excursion sound so intricate and stressful it was like diffusing a nuclear device. For once he hadn’t exaggerated.
And I wasn’t aware that mother’s first appearance each morning was heralded by the ceremonial dropping of boots, handbag and walking-stick from the upstairs landing. The heart-stopping phump as they hit the hall floor exploded in my mind in the form of a self-centered thought: She had fallen and died and I’d be blamed for her death.
Did she do it on purpose? While I was fetching tea and biscuits for them both, (“Fill it up halfway with hot water and leave the teabag in it you clown.”) I heard her tell Shiela that she was breaking me in. And as she descended the creaking stairs I learned how I had managed to fuck up her precious electric blanket settings and as a result she hadn’t even had “.. . . . one . . . fecking . . . wink . . . all . . . night.”
She witheld the punch-line for the foot of the stairs.
“Oh I wish Connor was here.”
“Good morning,” I said, determined not to rise to the bait.
But I wished he was here too.
Could I really take a week of this? After all, in New York I lived alone. Nobody bothered me. I’d broken up with countless women in favor of privacy and now here I was tethered to a relentlessly needy old hag who not only smelled of piss at the best of times but took an almost sexual pleasure in pointing out my defects. We might have been married. Something occurred to me. Had Connor tampered with the settings on her electric blanket? Why leave your constituency in good shape for the new regional president? Obviously I would now need to call him after only his second day away and beg him to come back. How gentle his journey home, confident in the knowledge that I had fucked up where he was already proven. He’d be magnanimous and forgiving. Let bygones be bygones. No need to rub salt into wounds. My last week would be a week of humiliation and ridicule by omission. There was no fucking way I was letting that happen.
But it was like being shoved onto a live cookery show without a script.
Suddenly I was baking lamb chops for three and fretting about whether to baste, marinade, season or grill. I googled recipies feverishly. Were my lampchops boring? Careful. Don’t get too tricksy, she’d spit it out if it got too trendy. Incinerate and serve. That was the way ahead. I needed a meeting.
A Latvian who insisted on saying Jaysus every few seconds gave me a lift home. It probably made him feel more Irish than he had a right to. I had already walked halfway before he caught up with me in his car. How could he afford a car when he had just shared in the meeting that he was on disability? It turned out he’d been hit by a truck when he was drunk and had broken his back, after which he spent three years in a wheelchair and two more in physical therapy and now he was three weeks sober.
“Jaysus,” I said.
He looked over at me approvingly.
Ashamed of my high-class problems I was grateful to him for a lot more than just the ride home. We shook hands meaningfully. In Ireland, a recovering alcoholic is like an undercover agent in enemy territory.
“One day at a time,” I said, slamming the door heroically.
I immediately tripped over something and fell. Since my last visit home rubbish bags had become the subject of careful curation. New European regulations required them to be reverently positioned for weekly collection. Heavy fines encouraged compliance. And since bonfires could now be spotted from the sky households risked retribution meted out with almost divine accuracy. Mother related these concerns with the awed conviction of a medieval villager. The result was that sacrifices were dutifully placed beneath twinkling sky and under the feet of mortals such as myself. The neighbors probably thought I was back on the booze.
Neighbor 1: “He was always fond of a drop.”
Neighbor 2: “The same fella would drink off a sore leg.”
The next day I heard my name called from the living room and when I walked in my mother was sitting on the ground like a fifties starlet smiling sweetly up at me. She’d fallen over again. I waited for the gush of guilt and remorse that would surely follow but none came. She might have been a piece of furniture that I lifted and replaced. If I ever wrenched an accomplishment from the jaws of adversity like a job or a raise or an award, her response had always been the same.
“Oh that’s great, but don’t tell Connor or he’ll be jealous.”
When I was growing up Connor was my idol. Maybe this explained the depth of my rage towards him. There was a sense of betrayal involved. Like I’d been lied to. He was the reason I went into advertising. I’d make it big and then we’d fucking see. But all the awards and the six-figure salaries were useless if I couldn’t brag about them. So yes, fuck him and his kitty.
My phone vibrated.
It was a message from jacquleine124.
“The irony is not lost on me that my limp was caused by a lack of oxygen at birth.”
This referred to the title of my first book, Diary of an Oxygen Thief, and its source was a pretty girl from datemedotcom who was already insisting on picking me up from the airport. Why was the idea of a girl with a limp such a turn-on? Perhaps because it meant the normal rituals could be dispensed with. If she was damaged, I could be my unadorned self. Her facebook page provided me with more pictures and yes she had a lovely body. All creamy-skinned, long-haired and ladylike.
But with a limp.
We began to correspond. She had married impetuously because she felt lucky to be asked. I allowed this to mean she’d never been fucked properly. I certainly hoped so. While I let her wait the prerequisite hour for a reply I emailed a fantasy scenario to the tutor of French film: We are browsing in an East Village bookshop . . . . Between the shelves you hold my gaze and provocatively lick your fingers but instead of turning the page your hand descends under your skirt . . . . The book tips forward . . . .”
If she replied even halfheartedly to such overt filth, sex would be agreed to before we even met.
“Monsieur, I love the idea of holding your . . . erm . . . gaze in a bookshop.”
But even so Jackie jostled the Francophile sideways with her limp.
Her approach was darker somehow and she required less lying to.
I walked over to the farm where I’d spent my summers as a laborer and even got misty-eyed at some of the memories I found there. Mons Hanarahan, so-called because he was a mountain of a man, able to achieve in a day what a crane would take a week to do. He drowned himself in the River Nore after his beloved greyhounds cannabalised each other while he walked them. He jumped between the frenzied dogs and ended up with a perforated eyelid. Even with his eyes closed one pupil was visible. But the barn we built was still standing. A Taj Mahal to wheat and potatoes.
The rest of the day passed unnoticed until late afternoon, when I couldn’t get the oven to work. Flashback to an ad agency in London. The crucial presentation is in two hours, the printer is jammed and the client is en route. I dusted off my mantra: Panic Beautifully. But back then it had only been my salary at risk. Now it was my entire way of life. If I couldn’t at least match Connor’s coping skills I was nothing more than a bad ad for AA. And having already invested twenty years of my life in its manifesto, failure was not an option. Mercifully, Brian called to say he’d been delayed at work, and this being one of the few acceptable reasons in mother’s mind for a delayed dinner, I used the precious time to refry the pork with a plate covering the pan, effectively creating an improvised oven. It was the equivalent of using the color copier instead of the printer.
But would it be done enough for her scorched palette?
Later as she shuffled back to the living room leaning more heavily than usual on her walking stick she managed to blame my cooking for her latest ailment.
“That shite went straight to me knee.”
My first task on awakening each morning was to remove any evidence of being there. Having stowed away my camper-bed, duvet, pillows and sheets in the good room, I cleaned and reset the fireplace; actual ignition required authorization.
Rummaging through the firebox for newspapers to bundle up and burn I found a familiar-looking handwritten letter that began, “Dear Ma . . . ”
I felt the thrill of reading someone’s private thoughts. Maybe it was from Connor. If so, I’d be exonerated for reading it since I needed to understand him better if I was going to help with his addiction. But as I looked for a postcode or an address I realized why it looked so familiar. I’d written it. A couple of years earlier while still in the process of breaking up with Marian, I put my thoughts down on paper. Nothing unusual about this ,since I kept a journal, but this was the only time I put those selfsame unedited thoughts in an envelope and mailed them to my mother. I blushed as I read a particularly sensitive passage. Embarrassment gave way to rage. Most mothers would treasure such a record of their son’s tribulations and preserve them in the unknowable compartment of a handbag. But not this one. Here it was with the rest of the discarded reading material waiting to be burned. More worrying was the fact that ordinarily Connor lit the fire. He’d probably already memorized the juicier bits. I might well have supplied him with enough material for an uproarious comedy routine.
It would have been the last straw if I hadn’t already given up on the place.
Instead it confirmed my decision to treat my remaining time there as service. An activity-holiday. Like working on a farm or volunteering a week of your time to help the less fortunate. I checked and rechecked the train times to Dublin like a miser counting cash. I was prepared to stay up all night rather than oversleep and miss the earliest train. I couldn’t believe it had all gotten as overt as it did. In the past I’d always managed to hide my disgust for the duration of my visit. In fact that was exactly what I’d done for the first week but I just couldn’t withstand the accumulation. My pipes burst. Disgust was too weak a word for it. Pure undistilled vitriol surged inside me looking for an outlet and Connor instinctively knew how to provide it. As my older cooler brother he had as much influence in my creation as my parents, if not more.
He had been the one I emulated.
I taught myself to play drums because of him. I went to art school to impress him. I yearned to be him. I saw how effortlessly popular he was and, yes, if I’m honest, how good-looking. Better looking than me. Better looking than any of us. And most of all I saw how mother worshipped him. All he had to do was appear in a doorway and the sound of her happy laughter filled the room. It was as if they were having an affair while the rest of us pretended not to notice.
And it didn’t help that I was told on more than one occasion that I was unintentional.
There was a suspicious gap of seven years between Grainne and I while they were all born within a year of each other. Should I even be here? And yet here I was all these years later still competing for a turn at the wizened maternal nipple. Instinctively, I shoved the letter into my pocket when I heard the sickening phump in the hallway and my name pronounced with obvious annoyance by the enfeebled little shithead already halfway down the stairs.
“Why’re you so grim?”
There had been an actual smile on her face when I first appeared because a quick survey of her realm from the upstairs window confirmed that the precious rubbish sacks were correctly placed outside the castle walls. She was probably about to praise me for having done something right but I couldn’t take the credit since it was almost certainly Brian’s doing. I could have used the good PR but I couldn’t risk the scandal. I looked at her standing there half-dead. Was I just a thin-skinned alcoholic seeking new reasons to feel sorry for myself or was this in fact a gnomish little cunt?
Six more dinners to cook and five more fires to light before being released back into the world. What was I thinking? Why was I even doing this? I began to blame my AA sponsor for the needlessly long duration of my visit. I would never have stayed so long had it not been for his suggestion.
“It’ll be good for your mom to see her son . . . and not just for a few days.”
But that was before I knew Connor would be home. I had no doubt that it would have been a more kindly remembered visit if I had left after the first week. Maybe it was a good thing that it all came out into the open. And mom could have cared less who was there as long as she was taken care of. As long as she wasn’t put in a home. I needed another meeting.
Meanwhile mother soiled herself again.
Thankfully I was in the middle of my meeting when it happened. Brian tried to help but had apparently made the situation worse by complaining about the stink. So much so that mother was in tears when I got back. I tried to console her but even as she leaned against me for what might have been the beginnings of a hug I detected the bittersweet scent of piss and shit slicing at my nostrils.
I couldn’t see Connor mopping up shit.
A life lived in Ireland consists of being passed from the publican to the priest and the priest to the publican until such time as they both handed you off to the undertaker. Sheila revealed, as she drove me in her green car to the chemist to pick up mother’s weekly supply of pills, that her late husband had been a Funeral Director. It was understood that his funeral would be an advertisement for her taking over the business. The idea had a certain gothic elegance to it and while I fretted about how best to work this into my woe-torn Irish play it took a few moments for me to realise that my eighty-six-year old mother’s best friend was an undertaker.
Did she make similar visits to numerous other octogenarians? On one level it was selflessness cheerfully volunteered, but on another it was classic salesmanship. A decent funeral would cost at least eight thousand Euros. Not to be sniffed at in any economy. Did it matter? If you were going to be buried and someone had to be paid to do it then why not let your best friend have the gig? But how long had Shiela been my mother’s best friend? Only recently as far as I could tell. Did she have any younger friends? She dropped me off at our house and I watched her drive away, a vulture in a headscarf.
And I couldn’t help noticing two large bottles of Valium on mother’s list of otherwise unpronounceable drugs for which Connor would no doubt find a use when the hangovers got to be too much. I handed over the bag and she took an uncharacteristic moment out of her busy schedule as cunt-in-residence to thank me for everything I’d done since I’d been home.
“Thanks pet you’ve been a brick.”
Either I had shown it was possible for someone to achieve the impossible standards Connor had set or, like a war criminal sensing armistice, she was making terms.
Meanwhile the girl with the limp continued to enthuse.
Having read my books she knew how much importance I attached to a shapely ass and she fretted now that I wouldn’t like hers. I already knew it would pass muster since I’d looked up her Facebook page and found a photo of her wearing shorts. I bowed my head the better to inspect it. Tabernacle and supplicant.
And through no fault of her own Madmoiselle Julie began to behave like my girlfriend. I confessed that I had a desire to have children that spoke French. The language, already beautiful, became even more musical to me emitting from the tiniest of throats. But when she replied that she absolutely loved this idea, I immediately felt married. This was when I agreed to allow Jackie, her ass and her limp to meet me at the airport the next day.
It was a good time to talk to mother about how best to handle Connor. I helped her feel better about the fact that the house wasn’t worth quite so much in the present economy and that this meant he had less incentive to carve it up into a bed-and-breakfast.
“Why? D’ya think he’d . . . ?”
“All I’m saying is, you should make sure you know where your check book is, OK?”
“That’s what Brian said . . . ahh no he’s not like that. He’s jealous of you, you know?”
She was playing me.
But I was able to look more kindly on her now that I felt grateful to be leaving.
It was becoming obvious that caring for someone else’s mother was a simpler proposition than caring for your own. Maybe Connor would get sober. That would solve everything And then it occurred to me almost as quickly that this was the last thing I wanted to happen. If he got sober I’d no longer have the moral high ground. I’d just be the mistake who visited every few years and he would once again be the golden boy. As it was he effectively shamed himself every time he drank and I was the last person to want that to stop.
I had actually begun to enjoy lighting the fire and preparing the food and even cleaning the house. These chores acted like stabilizers in my day, correcting the wobble. Did we have enough tomatoes? What about the fire? Was there enough coal in? Eggs? More Ambrosia rice? She likes her Ambrosia rice. Tea bags? What was I missing? Lettuce. Was there lettuce? Did she have enough sweets? How were we for potatoes? Had I butter enough for the following day? Sheila was due for another grocery trip . . . but hang on . . . an understocked kitchen would make Connor’s return all the more awkward. Mother now talked about getting rid of him. She even sanctioned my brilliant idea of anonymously calling the social services to condemn him as an alcoholic. This would immediately render him ineligible. A devastating coup de grâce dealt from the comfort of a Bus Eireann window seat and all in the name of protecting my defenceless mother from her manipulative son.
But which one?
I had spent one week in Connor’s shoes and only just managed it. Why shouldn’t he come home and take care of his mother? And why shouldn’t he get some money for it? Who was I to decide how someone lived? Or died, for that matter. Better an imperfect son than a hospice full of strangers. My motives were much more murky than I wanted to admit. I have the kind of mind that would kill me if it didn’t need me for transportation.
In this case to New York.
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