Going, a short story by Belinda McKeon
A holiday read - 12 Days of Stories, Day 7: A daughter copes with bad news
‘It’s probably going to take a long time, you know,” Michael says. “That’s what the doctor told you, isn’t it?”
It can be a long old road: those were the doctor’s words. A long auld road, actually. The doctor grew up in my mother’s part of the country, and he seemed, this morning, almost excited to drop into the conversation (which was not a conversation) occasional reminders of this fact, tripping, at intervals, from his golf club grandiloquence – at the present moment, Mrs Cahill, the matter we must most urgently consider is this – into the kind of colloquialism that might have had him at the mart, elbows on a mucky railing, bid nodded out towards a stumbling animal. Take it handy, that was another of his counsels, and my mother nodded, the way you’d nod if you were called into the boss’s office, and were told that your hours were being cut, that it was nothing to do with your performance, that it was just the way things had to go.
“I don’t like that doctor,” I say to Michael again, and he leans in closer to me, and he puts his lips to my shoulder. We are in our sitting room in Cabra, and my mother, by now, should be back in her own sitting room in Cloghan – that is, if she has remembered how to get to Cloghan; if she has remembered how, at a certain point, to stop sitting on a train, to stand up from your seat on a train and gather your things, to recognise the name of the town on the outskirts of which you have lived for the last forty-two years. To get off the train. She got on the train. I saw to it that she got on the train. But –
I look at my watch; Michael’s lips stay pressed to my shoulder as it lifts a little, as it drops again.
Sugar ho, is what it sounds like he says.
I shrug him off. “What?”
He sits up. “She got home,” he says, and he lets go of my hand. “Your dad will have been waiting for her at the station.” And – and I don’t let on that I have noticed this – he burps slightly, immediately turning it into a cough. We had Indian for dinner this evening, picked up from Namaste down the road, because a day like this does nothing if not to take you off the hook for cooking. The debris is glaring back at us from the coffee table now – a day like this also allows you to eat your dinner sitting on the couch – and I know that Michael wants to have the poppadoms I didn’t finish; I know he is looking at them, and thinking about them, while trying very hard only to look at me and think about me. And not just about me; about my mother, and about the news my mother has received today, the news that, for maybe already a year now, her mind has been taking a nail scissors to its own seams, and that it will be a long auld road.
I should just pass him over the poppadoms. I could just shove the plate to his side of the table; I could use my foot.
My mother has, for a while, suspected that something is not right. I visit my parents once a month, sometimes more often, driving down to Cloghan on a Friday or a Saturday and staying for a couple of days, so you might imagine that I would, for a while, also have suspected something, but no. I have a talent for denial in the face of the unpalatable, and, given that I have inherited this talent from my mother, this morning’s visit to the doctor was an interesting one for us both. She, of course, was further along the road, the auld, etc, of realisation than was I; there had been an earlier visit to this doctor, during which the shared place of ancestry and the imminent dissolution of identity had been established and mooted, respectively –
Topics discussed by my mother and I during our phone call of October 5th, the night after that first visit: Room to Improve (“Flooding the space with light again!” my mother said. “How the hell are they meant to get children to sleep in a space that’s flooded with light?”); the length of time you can drive a car with an out-of-date NCT disc; the question of whether we are, by now, too far into the camel-coat trend for it to make sense to buy a decent one. Also, a murder which was in the papers all that week. Awful. Now that I think of it, my mother, that night, mentioned something about that murder which was news to me, and which I was impressed at her knowing, given that I thought I had devoured everything about the case that was to be found online; now I wonder, did she just make that up? Did she just imagine that detail, or impose it; is that part of it? Embroidering already unbelievable things with still more grotesquerie, still more incongruity?
But no. She must have heard it somewhere, from some of the girls – the girls! – at work. They gossip. They bring rumours and discoveries to each other’s desks like buttered scones. And so when will that be taken from her? When will she no longer be able, listening to a story, to widen her eyes and shake her head and store it up for the next evening I phone?
My mother is fifty-eight years old. She bought that camel coat, actually, and it looks amazing on her. She has skin of the kind that I’d quite like to have now, actually; now, at the age of thirty-six. I’m serious. My mother is also – as though this means anything, except that it does, doesn’t it? – on Facebook. Properly on Facebook, too, with a proper, witty Facebook persona, not in the way that most people’s parents are on there: either lurking wordlessly as at the door of a room containing their incomprehensible teenagers, or running off at the mouth in all rowdy caps, with the punctuation skills of a fly. No, my mother is not like that. My mother posts links, and I almost always pounce on to them; they are almost always that interesting, that much the kind of thing that I want to know, want to see. My mother tags people, the way I imagine her, in her office, joking with people, and calling out to them, and making them laugh, getting them more smoothly through their days; my mother has always been the kind of person to get other people more smoothly through their days.
What I mean is: this cannot be possible.
“That doctor,” I say to Michael. “I don’t know about him. I mean, it’s just his opinion.”
Michael hesitates. “Well,” he says, sounding very unhappy about having to say it.
“I mean, I know, obviously there were tests, or whatever, but it’s just his opinion. It’s just his opinion of how far this is going to go.”
“But he did talk to other doctors.”
“Well, who knows anything about them?” I say, and this time I do push, with a toe, at one of the poppadoms. And Michael looks at it; I see him. He looks at it as though it is a tiny drowning creature to which he might still be able to toss a buoy.
“Do you want it?” I say, toeing it again. “I just got these socks. I only put them on for the first time this evening. They haven’t even been inside my shoes.”
“No, no,” says Michael, and he smiles at me, and he reaches a hand to my cheek, and he strokes me there. God, it strikes me. He thinks I’m being nice. He’s thinking how lovely I am, at a time like this, to think about whether he wants a poppadom.
I crush the poppadom to pieces with my heel; I do the same to its neighbour. It makes such a good sound; it makes for such a good breaking.
“You definitely didn’t want that?” I say to Michael.
He shakes his head. “I definitely did not.”
Michael: I got him at a party. I took him for myself; he’d come there with my friend, who was then no longer my friend for a while, but needless to say we’re Facebook friends now, all these years later, so it’s as if nothing ever happened. Something did happen, though, and it happened at that party. I was in the yard, where the smokers and the hanging lights and the barbecue smells were, and I glanced into the house, and he was taller than anyone else in the kitchen, and he was handsome; properly handsome, not just cute the way most boys of my acquaintance were at that stage – which was to say good-looking for as long as the good looks of their twenties would stick around. Michael’s looks were carved into him; I understood that when I met his father and his brothers, months later. Many months later; we took our time with all that business, all that bureaucracy. We are still, many years later, taking our time. She won’t know her grandchildren, I want to say to Michael now, but it does not seem quite the moment, what with my sitting here, my foot in a plate of crushed poppadoms, shards of the things clinging on, jiggling in tiny tantrums, to the wool of my polka-dot socks; I do not look like the child-bearing type just now, it strikes me, and perhaps it is as well not to bring Michael’s attention to bear on this fact too fully.
They would look like him, I think; the children. His look to me like the kind of genes that would stride their way into a room and hammer their certificates up all over the walls; mine seem more like woodworm. There is my mother’s skin, of course, but I did not get my mother’s skin, as I have mentioned, and nor did I get her cheekbones, or her reason, wherever it is going, wherever it has gone. Most things I got from my father, including his charm, which is what I put to work on Michael that night at the party. Charisma: people have it wrong, I think, when they talk about charisma, about that business of being able to convince someone, in the moment when you’re speaking to them, that they’re the only person in the world. It’s not that. It’s not about focus, or intensity, or about effort. It’s about a kind of shape-shifting; it’s the ability to turn yourself, for those two minutes or ten minutes or two hours or twelve years, into precisely the kind of person your interlocutor is seeking, even – especially – if your interlocutor does not know that they are seeking just this kind of person in this kind of way. It’s about reading cues at such a deep and such a constant level, and so unthinkingly, that you’re doing something which must, surely, be meant for a marsh or a mountain forest, not for a pub or a party or a funeral meal, or wherever it is that my father and I are to be found in our natural habitats.
And then sometimes, we forget for a moment, and we charm one another, my father and I. We let a bug get into the system. And these are the dangerous moments; these are the moments when the air in a room feels made out of tiny points of fire. Once upon a time, when I was new to him, and when my having a mind of my own must only have been a source of darling comedy, this alignment of the mirrors must not have been a problem, but it is now, and Michael knows how to get me out of it; Michael knows how to catch my eye and remind me that over there is the door. And so Michael knows, too – of course he does – what is getting to me most about all of this.
“Look, your father will manage,” he said to me this evening in the car.
And, “that’s a long way off,” he said.
And, “you’ll manage,” he said. “You’ll manage him. It’ll be fine.”
“Well, not fine,” he said then, because I had not said anything in response. “But – you know. It’ll be how it is. It’ll be doable.”
My mother is waiting until next weekend to tell my father her news. Her “news”: as though she is pregnant. He thinks she was in Dublin for a hair appointment. She got her hair done, obviously, so that this story would work; it looks good. Sleek, a sort of Emma Thompson look. Emma Thompson – she can’t be much younger than my mother? She must be in and around her age?
And yet none of this for her. None of this for Emma bloody Thompson. Oh no.
What I am thinking about, what I have been thinking about all day, is the expression on my mother’s face, and the way it will change; I am thinking of how her way of inhabiting her face, of living out her thoughts and her reactions and her habits within the canvas and the permutations of her face – how all of that will go. Change? Go. How it will be her face, the face which will look at me a year from now, or three years from now, but it will not be filled with her; it will not spark with her, dart with her, the way her face does. But then, that road, and the length of it – so her face will have parts of her, lording it over the not-parts of her, or maybe just staying on once the lease is up. Squatting, the way it sometimes feels – I look at our bockety couch now, and at the scratched legs of our coffee table – as though Michael and I are just squatting in this house where we have lived for nearly a decade now, this house the forms and the stamps and the signatures have declared that we can call our own. Room to Improve. My mother has always told me we should apply to have our house on that programme; she has always told me that she would love to see what they could do. But what could they do? What is there to improve on once you’ve done flooding all the spaces with light?
I think – it’s almost ten – that Michael would like to watch television, and so would I, but there is a thickness to our silence at the moment – it has a heartbeat – and I do not want, yet, to be without it. I pick at a piece of rice lodged between my teeth, and Michael sighs; maybe he thinks I am biting my nails. He takes my hand again. He is waiting, I realise, for me to cry. Which would certainly make things – well, not easier, exactly, but clearer. The moment would become the kind of moment with which we would both know precisely what to do. I would cry, and he would do things with his arms, his arms he has been taking to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night.
In other words, he has been in training for this moment for years: am I not going to give it to him? Cry it out, cry it flat, this thing; this broiling. But I can no more cry right now than I can sit down at a piano and play a concerto, or a symphony, or whatever it is that people play; whatever it is that they decide to play, I suppose.
What is actually worrying me is that I almost feel I could laugh. At what? But there it is, yes, there I can feel it again, coming up in me like carsickness, or like the aura before a fit of hiccups – and I do not mean gateway laughter, either; I do not mean the kind of laughter that will, within moments, dissolve poignantly and pitifully into a vale of tears. I mean the giggles. I mean something very undignified and very wrong. I mean something appalling – I can picture Michael’s face now, and I just think that honestly, I have put him through enough – and so now I am acting the way I do when I am carsick: I am pressing alternate thumbs to alternate wrists, and breathing in slowly and deeply, and keeping my eyes closed. And turning towards the sitting-room window behind me as though it is the window of a taxi, and as though I am leaning into it, counting down the streets to home.
Belinda McKeon is the author of Solace and Tender (Picador)