Every night as I lay in the scut of my Montague House bed, I tried to picture my mother’s face. Not as I had seen it last, soggy with tears the day she gave into my father’s demands and left me here alone. Or even white with terror up on the shul balcony the day of my bar mitzvah—the day I stopped speaking and this whole mess began. But just Ima, smiling, fresh from the shower so that her lovely blond hair was free from its headscarf, her skin mottled a pinky hue from the water’s heat.
Each night I savored the image, the single thing that kept me going these days. Only, the longer I stared at it the less it looked like my Ima at all, the face distorted with time and doubt and fear until, really, it was nothing more than an approximation, an estimate. Like a thesaurus for people, abstracted so many times ’til the original just doesn’t make sense.
I love you.
I strongly like you.
I, strongly similar to you.
I, with large muscles . . .
So close to being lost altogether.
From outside the window I could hear Tourette’s Tony shrieking at the Scrabble board.
“SCROTUM! SCROTUM! SCROTUM!”
It would be a decent eleven pointer, in fairness to the lad; could even change the O for an E and do “RECTUMS” instead, better and cruder yet. But I suspected Tony didn’t actually have the letters for either word, or even the blanks.
It was four o’clock on an anemic-looking Tuesday afternoon, which at Montague House meant games hour, the weekly bit of craic amid the gloom. The sessions were closely supervised to ensure no one tried to shove a dice up their arse, or slit their wrists with an ace of hearts—better again, a joker, if they were feeling particularly ironic—but while the rest of them acted the bollocks with counters and boards, I was down on my knees and hands in the muck, crawling beneath the protrusion of the common room bay window, praying to God I wouldn’t be seen.
I had never really been the outdoorsy type—my hands much too far away to coordinate with my eyes—so the sweat of the crawl alone was a killer. But with the added terror of being caught, my chest was relentless—needed a few blanks of my own to calm the bloody thing down.
I paused to pant. The stones were digging into my kneecaps, a vicious impale like a gnashy set of teeth. But I carried on despite myself, dragging my body under the ledge, my face so close to the dirt my nose might scrape a rut that looked like the trail of a snail. Or no, I spurred myself now, why not like the trail of an IRA officer penetrating a British base? Or an Israeli soldier invading Sinai back in ’56? Or like an un-bar mitzvah-ed mute off to meet an old Jewish cripple for Tuesday afternoon story time?
I rolled my eyes but they saw only mud. I remembered Alf once told me it was better to be buried on your front, to make sure you were a gonner, like.
Of course, Alf himself never seemed to bother with any of this cloak-and-dagger shite; always just wheeled into our meetings from round the front of the house, casual as you like, as if the whole thing were above board. To be honest, I half suspected Sister Frances just sneaked him out, then covered up his tracks, the pretty nun still caught on some daft bit of softness for the grouch.
We had managed a couple of get-togethers a week out here in a forgotten part of the garden—about all that was feasible, given the constant vigilance of the place. Apart from games hour there were the ongoing sessions with Doctor Lally (“Maybe your voice box is in a sort of a coma, lad?”); the priest’s visit (an obese prick named Father Dwyer who wouldn’t so much as acknowledge my existence); the weekly shower hour (“’Scuse me, but why is your knob missing a bit at the top?”); the nits check (a new one they had chucked in as an excuse to shave off our skulls so we all looked the same). And apart from the hectic schedule, there was the added restriction that Alf refused to meet on Friday evenings or Saturdays, always surprisingly strict in that regard. “It’s the Sabbath, you gobshite. Thou shalt not create—didn’t you pay attention in cheder at all?”
Even though I wanted to point out that, actually, I didn’t create a thing out here, only transcribed the words exactly as I heard them—my side of the unlikely bargain.
The secret garden was most likely the remains of the Montagues’ old potting shed. When I arrived I wiped the clumps off my knees and began to yank at the rocks in the corner until, finally, I had uncovered the thing I needed.
The jotter was the same as the ones we had had at school. A dull, piss-yellow color; a sketch of a Martello Tower on the front, as if to encourage every gobshite in the country to become the next James bloody Joyce. And actually, I thought, didn’t he once have a wank over a retard himself?
I opened the book and took out the pen that had been wedged in against the spine. The ink was already running low—Alf would have to nick us another one soon. Or how about getting one of those quills like that Rabbi Loew lad we learned about in cheder? Apparently he would just dip the nib of it in ink, close his eyes, and let the words come down from above; scrawl out predictions about the massacre of the Jews until, unbelievably, the things came true.
And maybe if I had that quill I could do the opposite now—write down what I saw and somehow make it untrue again, and then speak.
And get out of here.
And see my Ima.
“Jaysus, Shmendrick, you look more like a convict every day with that bleedin’ hairdo!” Alf rolled himself in with a growl and a spit. “Fucker of a day, isn’t it?”
I looked at him and nodded. Charmed.
His regulation shirt had been buttoned the wrong way up, his slacks at least two sizes too big so that his leg stumps were absolutely swimming in them. Or maybe it should have been drowning. From what I could gauge the flesh ran out just at the knee, which was kind of ironic given my own slacks had been lopped off exactly there, my shins permanently exposed to the world.
“But come here to me, like,” he said now, straight to the business of the thing. “This can’t be a long one, all right? Apparently Monica the Mutt is on the warpath today, so we’d better leave a clatter of time for getting back to tea.”
Dutifully, I began to flick through the jotter’s pages, looking for the next blank.
“Come on, come on.” Alf had wheeled himself in so close I could feel his breath on my forearm, drying the mud into cracks. “Where were we?”
Until it appeared, the last line I had written. I tilted the Martello Tower so he could see:
From the first time I saw her I plied her with questions, needing to know every bit.
It had been four days ago, that smear of poetry. Four days and how many years? How many lifetimes?
But Alf wasn’t waiting to find out. “Yeah, that’s right, Shmendrick, absolutely plied her with questions. I just wanted . . . well Jaysus, I just felt this need, like, to know her; to have every last piece.”
With one palm beneath the jotter I clenched my fingers round the pen. Muck dropped from my nails, little pips like a fall of extra punctuation. Or, really, like a dot dot dot for everything I knew was about to come.
The story itself was just a love story, once you got to grips with it, though that was easier said than done. At first Alf ’s memories had come out arseways, a gnarly mess almost impossible to follow, but by now I had found the shape of the thing at least; the bones.
It had all started on Clanbrassil Street in 1941. As he put it, “an unlikely place for love.” But a woman had been standing there—middle-aged like himself—handing out flyers to recruit people to come and dig turf from a bog. Apparently the country had been absolutely ravaged by fuel shortages courtesy of the war going on in Europe. Or the “Emergency” as the locals preferred to call it—happy to ignore the thing as best they could.
Until they needed fuel; needed volunteers to come and dig turf from a bog.
“I was bloody raging when she handed me the leaflet,” Alf had told me, a force in his voice that left little doubt. “As if I gave a shite about an empty coal bucket when there were already these rumors coming from beyond—nasty stuff, like, we didn’t know whether to believe. But there was something . . . Ach, I don’t know, Shmendrick, there was something about her that made me feel I should go. Made me feel . . .”
So off he had gone, down to County Offaly. And this time round, he had taken me with him.
He had told me about the bus full of volunteers that traveled that day, a hotchpotch of do-gooders and low-lifers alike; told me about the black stretch of bog where they were set to work, the air rich with the iron stench of the earth’s innards. And he told me about how they had clicked instantly, himself and herself, working side by side in the trenches of peat.
“She dug while I stacked, one after the other. And she had a fine way with the spade, let me tell you, Shmendrick. Not exactly spring chickens the pair of us, but we made decent progress so we did, going deeper and deeper into the dirt.”
While Alf went deeper and deeper too, losing himself in the telling of the tale.
“The fold of her shoulder blades was something else. Like a pair of wings tucked in . . .”
“The frizz off her hair was only gorgeous, wiring skewways out of her skull . . .”
I wrote it as it came, though in the beginning I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing; couldn’t believe the way this fucker changed when he spoke of her—the wet in his eye, the child in his face—a different man entirely from the one I spent my time inside the house avoiding.
“Still I bombarded her with me questions, gagging for more and more . . .”
And then after a while I realized it wasn’t just the teller I didn’t recognize, but also the words themselves. Because to be honest, I had never heard love quite like it; never known it could exist between a man and a woman. No, I thought that kind of infatuation was reserved only for mothers and sons; for Imas and Shems.
“And you know, Shmendrick, she had gorgeous eyes, but they were different colors?”
At this, I looked up from my page.
The day was already fading around us, a decent gust getting up that set the weeds to dance. It looked a bit like Alf ’s hands, the flickering that wouldn’t go away.
“I had never heard of it before,” Alf went on, elaborating the unexpected image. “Never even known it was possible, but it’s true—she had one green eye and one brown one. Smashing stuff, like.”
For a moment I wished I had two different-colored pens, to make the writing match.
By the end of each session Alf tended to be knackered, his memory a muscle overused, but before we headed back he would shut his own eyes and hold out his hands for the book. I would pass it over, then watch as he clasped it to his chest and rocked from side to side.
I stared at the ground. It almost felt as if I was intruding on a moment.
And when he handed it back the jotter would still be warm as I stashed it beneath the bricks of the ruined shed, piling them high before I moved away, slowly. Though I always went in reverse; always careful not to turn my back; a reverence and a respect for the words.
Once inside Montague House again, it was business as usual. As merciless. To be honest, if anything Alf had become even more cruel than before, using the humiliation to cover up any whiff of our cahoots:
“Ugly little squirt never known a bit of skirt.”
“You know he pisses the bed every night?”
While Sister Monica smiled on in sinister approval. “Would you look at that—the kike turning on the kike.”
But by now I could understand, just about, that Alf ’s bullying was only for show—a default bitterness he played to the crowd—whereas back in the safety of our bedroom he left me alone, barely even said a word, both of us still buzzing on the latest batch of the tale.
In the comfort of that silence I could have sworn something different had begun to form between us, a fresh reek on the pantry air.
So for a while, the new bond was almost enough—the unfurl of the story and the secret routine brightening the dull of the days.
“We slept on the shit straw of the farmer’s barn . . .”
“Me nails were stuffed fat with the dirt . . .”
“Did you know the phrase ‘left-footer’ comes from a type of spade?”
Every installment was a new distraction, a bit of unlikely warmth to keep me going, like the fuzz that had started growing back on the top of my slappy little head. Only, in the end it didn’t seem to matter, because no matter how hard I tried I still couldn’t manage to stop thinking about her. My Ima. Or more precisely, I could almost trick my mind into other things—divert it down to other bogs—whereas my body refused to have any of it, the separation turning physical now as well.
My bowels were in bits, a rainbow of squirts every time I grazed the toilet bowl. My appetite was annihilated. Not that I wasn’t hungry—my gut would growl something ferocious all day—but by the time dinner came I couldn’t seem to do it; couldn’t bring myself to lift the spoon and gorge on the gray. So instead I would find myself just sitting there in the canteen, hunching over my plate, remembering.
I knew you were special from the moment I was pregnant . . .
The echo of her voice would fill me, the gorgeous countryside lilt. I knew she had grown up on a farm, though she never really liked to talk about it.
The other women all craved cheese when they were expecting, or sometimes even pickles. Or Mary O’Kelly making sandwiches out of coal, the dirty little biddy . . .
I remembered it now word for word, one of her favorite boasts, massaging both our egos with her spindly little hands.
But me, oh no, I was different—I was after getting language cravings! Word pangs! Every time I heard one I would have to find a rhyme. Time. Crime. Mime. Craving. Raving. Misbehaving. And I knew then, pet, that you would be a different kind of baby. A very special kind.
Back in Montague House I stared down at my dinner.
I stirred my soup. The skin on the top puckered like an elbow.
Other times I would remember the year I had gone through a strict phase of only eating my food in alphabetical order:
Or sometimes only in an order that meant something:
Spelled out on a plate that only she and I understood. We would giggle like gobshites, gone on it for hours, until Abba would bang his fist down on the table and scream at us to stop.
“Kike!” Sister Monica bellowed now across the canteen. “Eat your fecking grub.”
Or there was this one time, a year after my bar mitzvah, when I caught my mother crying in the kitchen. She was doubled over the counter halfway between the dairy utensil cupboard and the meat utensil cupboard (because of course, the two aren’t supposed to mix—something about the life force between an Ima and a child). I was right beside her before she even realized, and then she got all flustered, blaming her tears on the onions, so to be funny I took out a flashcard and wrote: THANKS SHALLOT, to try and make her smile. But it only seemed to make her blub even harder, the joke somehow lost in the telling.
I think that was the first time I realized just how much I had given up.
Ruth Gilligan is a novelist, journalist, and academic from Ireland, currently living in London. A graduate of Cambridge, Yale, East Anglia, and Exeter Universities, she contributes regular literary reviews to the Guardian, LA Review of Books, Irish Independent, and Times Literary Supplement. Her latest novel is Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, published in January 2017 by Tin House.