Hennessy New Irish Writing winner, May 2017: The Summer of Wasps
Maeve McGowan’s short story
Illustration: Brendon Deacy
Ravelling, they call it. A person on their deathbed will start to pull and pick at their blanket and their clothes close to the end. When my mother started plucking at her white sheets the respectful silence in the room intensified. I thought she just looked confused at her bed of white. White bedding had seemed more appropriate than her usual pink and yellow floral designs. I regret it now. Why shouldn’t she have what she likes around her? I should change it. But how to suggest such a whimsical detail to these Death Maidens.
I do not mean Death Maidens in an unkind way. Old friends, aunts and carers who had a right to be there at the end, they looked after her during her last months, so they were entitled to a piece of the most intimate moment of all. I am a visitor and as such there is nothing for me to do. Why should there be? I was used to her leavings. When I was five she left in spirit, at 13 she left in body. In my twenties she turned up on my doorstep in Munich wanting to reconnect. Then there was no sign of her except for that shadow at Dad’s funeral.
A phone-call at work one day from the elder aunt told me mother had been in a nursing home for a while, but she was close to the end and I should come home to see her. Ambiguous at best, total lockdown at worst, Aunt Pat held the keys to the family fortress. Cerberus in a housecoat. There was no point in asking the obvious question of why I had not been told she had been back on the family radar. Or maybe she had never left. Either way, the hereditary tribal guilt began just as I boarded the plane home.
My mother was the only one of the three sisters to marry. Aunt Pat was the eldest and Aunt Joan followed in age and body. Pat led the way and Joan watched her back. If anything in the town needed to be interfered with, they were there. Martyrs to the cause, they objected to council improvements, the drama society’s choice of play and the hotel’s New Year celebrations. First their ardent letters of protest were handwritten by Joan, as Pat hovered and dictated. I remember mother talking about the day the typewriter arrived. The town knew a month of respite. Joan’s laboured two-fingered typing and the drama of the ribbon change landed her in an evening typing course. She returned to the task like an old master playing Rachmaninoff. Later I introduced her to the world of emails and Bonnie and Clyde, as they called themselves, went international with their complaints.
I have a memory of you in a yellow two-piece swimsuit. We splashed on the edge of the Atlantic sea, the sharp sun above the cliff shuttered with your dancing head. You were in the moment, carefree and joyous. I was happy because I was in your moment too, part of it. Then you would tell me of plucking cockles ripe from rocks and eating them, fishing in rock-pools and catching buckets of crabs with a stick and string from the pier. The faraway look in your eyes would appear and you would be gone. Your past was a foreign land which I could never visit. And that’s how it should be. How deep into each other’s skin do mothers and daughters need to be?
Here we are now, though, in your past. Your old room and your old bed amongst your sisters. You were never caught in Pat’s orbit like Joan. Veering off on your own trajectory, you brought Dad home where his easy charm won the sisters round. That and his descent into the well to rescue Sheba the dog. Orpheus they called him after that. I would be told that story over the years. With other tales which I came to realise were attempts at generating a family feel to my childhood memories, tribal legends to give me roots.
I paid no heed when you left at first. You swayed in and out of my consciousness as it was. It wasn’t until I saw how sad Dad was that first Christmas without you, I realised something was missing. The years moved on, Dad remarried and settled down with a new family. I could have gone with him but I chose to stay with my Aunts. Perhaps there I felt I would be closer to a reason why you ceded your role as mother.
You always said I was an anxious child. While you were pregnant you said you worried about the sense of bringing a child into a world with the dark brooding cloud of the atom bomb hovering above. The bomb became a presage of a new world unfurling and you, young and pregnant, were filled with a bitter dread. You claimed this sense of foreboding somehow leaked into your womb, creating an angst-ridden child. The implication being it was not quite your fault. In fact, I was somehow in my embryonic state complicit in my emotional formation.
A corona gleamed around the curtains’ borders. The droning and random tap at the glass emphasised the sense of closing the window despite the heat. The wasp population thrived that year. They swarmed on bonnets of parked cars and wheelie bins. Quivering black and yellow bodies thronged around every heat-retaining surface. One would fly indoors, almost staggering in its flight, drunk with sunlight. The room was stuffy and heavy. The susurration of the rosary and the tap-tap of the wasps started to lean on me.
The deathwatch beetle got its rather doomed name from a time when silence was more normal. The quietest time even then was also during a vigil over someone’s ending. The woodborer would set up deep in a rafter and tap out its existence, and so availability for love. But these beetles did not live close to each other so sometimes they got a response. Sometimes their tapping echoed out into an uncaring universe.
From the moment she stood on my German doorstep, she seemed on the verge of trying to explain something about herself, her life. It would begin with a generalised overview, accompanied by hints of personal experience, then followed up by air. I really didn’t care, I was so used to her absence her presence was burdensome. Although, there was one evening with her and some friends, walking back to my apartment after balmy beers in a luscious beer-garden, we talked of funerals. It started off with anecdotes of hilarious moments during serious and sombre occasions. Then we got to what song would you most like at your own funeral. Maybe because she was the oldest in the group or because her choice was the best, we all remembered it.
I had to get out of the room. I stood, then with a dignified lurch I arrived in the hall. I made for the stairs and my room. I closed the door and sat by the window opening it wide. Wasps or no wasps, I needed air. As I sat there contemplating the lack of imprint my use of the room had, my gaze settled with an epiphany on the yellow flowers of my sheets. I remember lying in bed sick and you donned the role of attentive mother like a new dress. It was lovely. You were lovely, but by day three I could tell the performance was wearing on you, so I speeded up my recovery. I had a warm glow for days after, and you seemed a bit happier in yourself for a while too. That splurge of love and understanding sustained me for a long time. And that is all there is. We are planets meandering in our own orbits, coming close enough to propel each other off again to our solitary promenade amongst the stars.
In all my years living in another country, I never felt homesick. It was like my past belonged to someone else, a story written by a stranger. I wasn’t there at the beginning and I certainly didn’t know how it would end. I have brooded over the withering expectations of mothers and daughters. And like a jilted lover I peeled back layers, hoping to find the moment where it went wrong. Then I stopped picking at the scab and let it heal over.
I took the sheet off my bed and folded it, then downloaded her song on my phone. I would don a new dress now. Down the stairs I went, getting into character. In the kitchen I plucked a bottle of wine from the fridge, and swiped two glasses. There it is then, the daughter is as mad as the mother. As I approached the door of the room, it opened. Aunt Pat led the way, as the others half carried Aunt Joan out. She had fainted, and I was to go stay with my mother. I closed the door behind me, savouring my good luck. She lay there, awake but quiet. She had not, could not, speak a word since I arrived. She heard me turn the key in the lock, though. She limply turned her head towards me. Her eyes moved towards the bundle under my arm, the bottle in my hand and then returned to mine.
She couldn’t drink but we poured her a glass anyway. She stroked the flowery sheet I had laid about her, and then I played her song. She looked at me then with pure love. Not the unconditional gaze of a mother for a daughter, but the realisation of finding someone who truly understands you. And there that person was under her nose all along. At least that is what it seemed to me. Who cares? We held hands and stared into each other’s eyes for the first time. Syzygy occurs when the sun and moon are in conjunction. She died then as we listened to Peggy Lee.
“If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.
Let’s break out the booze, and have a ball.”
- Maeve McGowan was longlisted twice in the Fish Publishing Short Story Contest. She is currently working towards her first collection